I’ve never bought into the oft-quoted adage that ‘everyone has a book in them’. Evenings spent listening to my mates struggling to narrate a funny story down the pub put an end to that theory. And even though I’ve made a career out of writing, I’ve never considered the longer format. Just finding the time to read a book is difficult enough, let alone write one.
Yet during lockdown, I’ve done just that. Well, OK, not exactly a novel with a beginning, middle and end, but over the last two months I can proudly claim to have put together over 50,000 words. Not necessarily good ones, or even in the right order, but enough to fill a book nonetheless.
The website I run – The.Buyer.net – caters for the drinks and hospitality industries. Just before lockdown, I came up with the idea of putting together a daily round-up of news, views and insights on how the respective sectors were coping with, tackling and now, hopefully, recovering from the COVID-19 crisis.
It has, to be honest, been a bit like painting the proverbial Forth Bridge. But it has also been the most uplifting and inspiring experience of my career. An opportunity to share the response of individuals and businesses right across the drinks, retail and on-trade sectors to a unique challenge. Every day brings another stream of innovations, ideas and insights from people about whom, as a journalist, you just feel compelled to write.
I have also felt rejuvenated as a writer. And I have re-introduced myself to my phone. Not just to trawl through tweets or share daft videos on WhatsApp, but to actually make calls and talk to people. And when I’m not on my phone, I’m online, taking part in, or watching a debate on Zoom. The equivalent of a live press conference beamed into your bedroom every day of the week – without having to contend with the Northern Line.
(Foolishly, I have left all the virtual tastings to my business partner, so he gets to merrily open up boxes of wine and sip his way through the day. Then again, listening to a winemaker go deep into his or her subject matter, with nowhere to escape to, is not always the cakewalk it seems.)
A debate on Zoom is the equivalent of a live press conference beamed into your bedroom every day – without having to contend with the Northern Line
For a journalist, the beauty of lockdown is you can more easily track down anyone you want to talk to. All those chief execs who usually hide behind their PAs are suddenly cornered, exposed – and available. What excuse can they have when you ask for a quick chat?
But it’s not just CEOs who are being taken out of their comfort zone. The last couple of months have forced me to get online and do video interviews. I have long envied the radio or TV journalist who asks questions and simply records or films the answers – job done. Us print guys, meanwhile, painstakingly write down every word, dredging up a lapsed shorthand technique before having to decipher it all, type it up and turn it into some sort of story. So many interviews have simply died and gone to the great notebook in the sky. In lockdown, I’ve been able to press the record button, chat away for 20 or 30 minutes to someone far more knowledgeable than myself, and then stick it up on YouTube or share it on Twitter, and turn to more pressing matters – like what to drink that evening.
Despite the day job, I am no wine connoisseur. But writing about booze all day long does, it has to be said, leaves you a little parched. That’s when you can pretend to be still working by taking a picture of a bottle, rephrase the tasting note on the back label, make a lame attempt at a witticism, whack it up on Instagram and see how many ‘likes’ it gets.
At least that’s what the average wine writer does, all day, for a living, isn’t it? OK, some of them might make up their own tasting note, but they’re still drinking (probably too much) of the same stuff – wine – as you and me.
My drinking highlights of lockdown have actually not involved wine, but instead, learning to make the perfect cocktail. Yes, it turns out all those cocktail books I’ve been using to embellish the coffee table are actually really useful if you open them. Particularly if your partner got a cocktail shaker for Christmas. So whereas I spent the first few days of lockdown chucking some ice in a glass at 6pm, along with an over-generous splash of gin, some tonic and a crudely hacked-off piece of lemon, she would appear with a beautifully created martini, straight out of the Great Gatsby – chilled to a fraction of its life with a couple of olives sinking slowly, enticingly, to the bottom of the glass.
Technically I have not discovered how to make cocktails at all. But I have worked out how to stand and watch, in awe, as my partner will diligently blend and mix the sugar syrups she has made with vermouth, rye whisky and a couple of Maraschino cherries, to craft the best Manhattan I have ever tasted. And all in my own kitchen. A couple of those, mixed with the occasional Instagrammable wine and Narcos on Netflix, and I’m ready to get back to painting the COVID-19 Forth Bridge the next day.