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As all schoolboys ought to know, Parnassus has two summits: one is sacred to Apollo, the other to Dionysos. This column about wine and literature is devoted to this little detail of Greek mythological geography. But a great predecessor in those devotions was the man whose name your columnist has had the effrontery to pilfer, namely George Saintsbury.

Saintsbury was born in 1845, the son of the superintendent of Southampton docks, who instilled in him "some knowledge of good wine and an unlimited horror of bad". In 1863 he went up to Merton College to read Greats, where his education in wine continued. Perhaps — he would, after all, not be the first to have done so — Saintsbury failed to strike the most prudent balance between the various competing kinds of education on offer in Oxford. A first in Mods was followed, sadly, by only a second in Schools, and so the fellowship on which he had set his heart was denied him. Faced with the need to earn his living, Saintsbury turned first to schoolteaching, briefly in Manchester, and then for six years in Guernsey. Here Saintsbury's knowledge of drink advanced briskly, for it was a place where "not only was liquor cheap, but it was not nasty". Throughout his life Saintsbury was an unrelenting foe of prohibition — indeed, his Notes on a Cellar-Book, which for the most part is bathed in a mood of rapturous reminiscence, has at moments a polemical edge when Saintsbury attacks what he called "that Blatant Beast (by Tyranny out of Folly)". His residence on Guernsey taught him two things about cheap, good drink. Firstly, that access to plentiful and inexpensive good liquor did not lead to displays of mass public drunkenness. Secondly, that — perhaps unexpectedly — cheapness "was a remarkable preservative of quality": 

The genuine article was so moderate in cost, and the possible profit on selling it was so limited, that adulteration was hardly at all tempting.

From schoolmastering Saintsbury turned to journalism, before becoming in 1895 the Regius Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh. During the 20 years he held that post Saintsbury was formidably productive, writing a series of literary histories (of literary criticism, of prosody, of prose rhythm, of the English novel) and editing, selecting, contributing to, or introducing a further — can it really be true? — 450 volumes. And all that time he was deepening, if not always extending, his knowledge of wine.

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