Epitaph For An Epicure

Geoffrey Madan was a noted belletrist and collector of aphorisms. But he also beat Cys Asquith in a Benedictine drinking bout

Food Wine

Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947) led a life overtly charmed yet subtly blighted.  The son of Falconer Madan, Bodley’s Librarian and a fellow of Brasenose, he was cradled in literariness. His early years were a triumphal progress through the most exclusive realms of English education. Prep school at Summer Fields was followed by election to College at Eton, where (naturally) he was first on the roll. His years as a “tug” were festooned with medals and prizes — all harbingers of the greater triumphs of, first, election to Pop, and then a scholarship to Balliol to read Greats.

Madan went up to Oxford in 1913, and so his academic life was interrupted by the onset of war. In the summer of 1914 Madan had been staying with the Berensons in Settignano. When war was declared he cut short his holiday, returned to England and volunteered. He survived the war, despite serving in Salonika, France and Italy, seeing action at Gallipoli, and being wounded. But his mental constitution seems to have been no longer secure.
He resumed his studies in 1919, but quickly left Oxford without taking his degree. He went into the City, but abandoned that way of life after a bout of meningitis in 1924. Weakened in body and shaken in spirit, he retired from business at the age of 29. A satisfactory, although not opulent, private income allowed him to spend the remainder of his life in what his wife described alluringly as “an atmosphere of security, French cooking and gaiety”.
Released from the burdens of employment, Madan engaged in the activity which makes him interesting today. He seems to have acquired early the habit of recording in a series of notebooks anything that caught his attention in the way of anecdotes or phrases or aphorisms. Every Christmas from 1929 to 1933 Madan would send his friends as a present a selection of 52 items from his notebooks in a printed booklet entitled Livre sans Nom. In 1981 OUP published a selection from the Livre and the notebooks made by J. A. Gere and John Sparrow, and with an introduction by Harold Macmillan, who had been a year ahead of Madan at Eton. It seems very quickly to have gone out of print, and is now rarely found in second-hand bookshops. It is difficult in a small compass to give a representative flavour of these fragments.  They range from the straightforwardly funny, such as this correction observed in an American newspaper — Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, the Revd. James P. Wellman died unmarried four years ago — to the concentratedly wise, such as this remark by Jowett: Men get lazy, and substitute quantity of work for quality.

They include some wonderful sidelights on historical characters (for instance, the fact that the Duke of Wellington was displeased by cheering in the ranks as being “too nearly an expression of opinion”), as well as others, such as the following, which resonate mischievously with our present discontents:

Treasury in 1850 kept a half-wit to make a nominal field against the official candidates.  On one occasion he was successful.


There is also some good advice for the conduct of life, such as Chesterfield’s maxim that “Women who are either indisputably beautiful, or indisputably ugly, are best flattered upon the score of their understandings.” But the reason for recalling Madan in  this column is that a number of the entries in his notebooks concerned wine.
Madan was no foe to drink. He is recorded as engaging in a Benedictine drinking competition with Cys Asquith, managing to down a very creditable 12 glasses; and after his retirement from the City he developed an expertise in what Asquith described as “those great clarets which are ‘for advanced students only’.” In one sense this is hardly surprising. If one had to summarise Madan’s character one would call him an epicure.  The fragments and aphorisms he transcribed into his notebooks and then, after a careful triage, distributed among his friends, show him approaching literature and life precisely as a connoisseur approaches wines, as Shane Leslie observed: “He collected good talk and carefully bottled a good story — he loved the subtle, the bewildering, the academical, all that was like a rich distilled liqueur which he retained in infinitesimally small bottles for private use, leaving eventually the massed collections like a cellar to be tasted to his own memory.”
Madan’s entries on the subject of wine are of various kinds. Some of them are pithy definitions of semi-technical terms, such as Druitt’s useful remark that “Body […] means that the wine holds in solution a large quantity of matter capable of being tested by the nerves of taste.” Others might convey practical wisdom, such as the annotation on the wine list of the Lion d’Or at Bayeux, “Je ne fais pas chambrer les vins de Bourgogne.”  Another class of entry preserves for posterity unfashionable attitudes which might otherwise be lost, such as the advice a  clergyman gave to Sidgwick in 1847: “Don’t get drunk before dinner: you can’t really enjoy it.”
But Madan also carefully collected the bizarre beliefs and practices which attach themselves to wine, such as the three baffling warnings given to him over dinner by an aged clergyman: “1. Never drink claret in an East wind. 2. Take your pleasures singly, one by one. 3. Never sit on a hard chair after drinking port.” He was intrigued by the idiosyncrasies of the great, such as Queen Victoria “strengthening” (as Gladstone put it in a letter to his wife) claret with whisky. He might be charmed by the errors of the innocent, such as the shy woman holding out a Savoy brandy-glass and saying, “Only half-full, thank you.” And he particularly enjoyed the freedom of the expert to do what the amateur would have feared to do, thinking it a blunder. One of his favourite anecdotes was that of Amyas Warre, of the port house, putting a tiny piece of ice into a glass of port at a dinner in his honour.
Connoisseurship falls under suspicion today. It is liable to be disparaged as elitist, pompous, impressionistic and pointless, a kind of bogus expertise on subjects which will stubbornly remain matters of mere opinion, and where one man’s opinion is as good as any other’s. But the dégustations of life, wine and books contained in Madan’s notebooks remind us of different, and more positive, possibilities in connoisseurship, at least if pursued in Madan’s undogmatic and gentle spirit. Such connoisseurship seeks out and preserves the fugitive, the delicate, and fragile. It offers shelter and preservation to all those frail but precious things with which more downright and systematic dispositions are impatient, and which wilt or wither in their presence. Wine, which is both transient and to be relished — and relished partly because of its transience-encourages such mild and humane connoisseurship.