Water torture

Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

King George V's dying words were reportedly, "Bugger Bognor". Not very regal, perhaps, but they were the last words of a monarch who had been sent one too many times to this rather gloomy seaside resort to recuperate.

The idea of a rest cure - often taken after the season of indulgence, quite possibly in the month of February, once the festive season starts to fade from memory - is not a new one. We call it detoxing now, but it has taken many and varied forms over the years and in different parts of the world.

Victorians would go to Budapest to take the waters. Sulphurous hot pools inspired the insidious appearance of the spa, and hotels are now judged against this feature, rather than against the more traditional room-service Champagne in bed or dry Martinis in the bath. (The latter is a hot-and-cold thing. Very refreshing.) Let's not even mention the matter of juice-fasting and fad veganism which have led to half the population of New York City simply fading away. I'm afraid the point is lost on me.

I sometimes wonder if people today simply have too much time to spend thinking about themselves. Historically, this was a pursuit restricted to the leisure classes. I am not completely immune to this sort of self-reflection, mind you. In an extreme example, I found myself a bit apprehensive before going into an operation which was to involve the insertion of wires directly into my brain to treat my Parkinson's disease. But having pondered for a moment the quantities of smoke and wine some of us take on board, the imposition of their going into my head didn't seem quite so daunting.

The body is an extraordinary thing, a machine of sometimes stunning resilience. I'm reminded here of Homage to Catalonia. George Orwell, who had gone to Spain to fight with the militia against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, describes some instances in battle that make it seem strangely difficult to kill a person outright: the kicking-in of automatic systems, of the body sending blood to clot within moments of a wound appearing. Then again, I'm sure the professional hitmen of the world can offer plenty of evidence for the frailty of our organism.

Let us turn back from such morbid thoughts to the question of the detox. It seems to me that for many people it's an excuse to indulge with more vigour once they get to the retox side of the coin. Dry July, No Booze November and the like position drink and good food as though they're an ebb and flow of good and bad to be carefully managed rather than simply taken with a grain of good sense. "A little bit of everything can't do any harm" is the leaf I take from my great-granny's Welsh almanac. Having said that, I don't think crystal meth was available in Wales at the time.

Me, I believe in the importance of rituals and the rhythms of the day. Mine, for instance, typically begins with a bracing measure of Fernet-Branca with breakfast. It gets the heart started and should, with a bit of luck, see you through to your slice of seed cake and glass of Madeira at elevenses. That's an uplifting moment, akin to a fireworks display, blazing and then gone, fortifying one to get back to work for another two hours before lunch.

Ah, lunch! The apéritif before lunch is a pivotal moment in any day. Lunch itself, of course, is liberty hall but beforehand may I recommend a Campari and white wine to hone the appetite and get the juices going? The late afternoon, meanwhile, calls for one dry gin Martini with a twist. Just one, mind you, lest the ritual begin to collapse in on itself. Supper is again liberty hall, but a wee dram to bring in the Zs before bedtime is a must. My Welsh great-grandmother is vindicated.

Another wise soul, Michael Caine, once pointed out that the trick is to never do anything to the point where you have to give it up. After all, what would oysters be without white wine? Game birds without pinot noir? And cheese with no wine is unthinkable, as is digestion without eau-de-vie. What is life, after all, without joie de vivre?

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