in vodka veritas

My Mum could never pronounce the word ‘menstruation’.

It always came out as ‘menu-stration’. (Can you tell echoes here of an attempt at a bird-and-bees talk? “I’ll have to tell you, because he won’t”. ‘He’ being my father, a quiet, taciturn Hebridean who doubtless thought that these were things that a boy should learn when he reached the age of about seventy.) The thing is, by the age of fifteen, I already knew about all this stuff. Or as much as a fifteen-year-old thinks he knows about girls and the way of the world. I didn’t want to tell her that we schoolboys knew all about ‘jam rag week’, though in truth it was all theory and second-hand knowledge to us, however sophisticated we thought ourselves to be in 3A Boys.

That said, I’ve always thought her pronunciation, ‘menu-stration’, so be so much more euphonic, so much the way it should have been pronounced, that even yet, I have to mentally correct myself on those odd and rare occasions when I need to invoke it, lest I appear like an unschooled fifteen-year-old again.

How did I get here? Ah yes, it was looking at the rain this morning. What is a chap to do when it’s peeing rain hard enough to keep you indoors? Why, go for a walk, that’s what. So I put on my waterproofs, packed a water bottle and a banana in my backpack, and I was off for a seven mile hike through the miserable November grayness and downpouring. And as I walked, can you guess who popped into my mind?

It was Auntie Penny again. For reasons that are absolutely nothing to do with my innocent and delightful maiden great-aunt, she reminded me of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Pismronunciation, founded by the late and great Ronnie Barker, and thence to the story, recently told, of Calum’s wife Pam, in Italy, how she meant to order ‘Penne Arabiatta’, and instead instructed the waiter to bring her ‘an angry penis’.

It’s a story I’d occasion to relate a few years ago, and it was that telling that came back to mind as I strode through the gray drizzle this afternoon.

It was my old Russian friend and fellow fencer, Kirill Turbanov, who taught me how to drink vodka. “There are three things for wodka,” he said, “good people, good words, and good wodka”. Vodka is to be drunk sociably, with good friends, good words (those almost interminably long Russian toasts that have to take place before every quaffing), and good vodka. I was fortunate. Each time Kirill returned to his native St Petersburg, he’d bring me back some of the finest Russian vodka available anywhere in the world. Then he introduced me to The Ritual. You don’t just knock back a shot of vodka. Oh no. “Two more things also,” continued Kirill, “good bread, and good peekle, cucumber peekle.”

First, the vodka had to be chilled. Really chilled. In the freezer overnight chilled. Then there had to be freshly made bread. Home made bread. And cucumber pickle. “Feerst, with the good friends, we say the good worrrds. This take long time. Then, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle.”

That was the order. You don’t eat the bread, you just inhale it. This is to neutralise any slight tendency to bitterness in the throat. And once the ferocious warmth suddlenly comes back up the throat from the ice-cold vodka, you immediately eat the cucumber pickle. Don’t ask. It just works. ┬áThe combination of pickle and vodka flavours is fantastic. And so many a night was spent in Kirill’s company ; “Good friends, good words, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle!”

I introduced the Vodka Ritual to our dear friends, Ian and Claire, one evening. It seems to have made an impression, for a couple of weeks later, Frances had a phone call from Claire, inviting themselves round to dinner. (That’s the kind of friends you really want.) Appended to the self-invitation was the remark “Ian’s hoping Alex has some of his vodka left.”

I can’t remember what Frances cooked that evening, but just as Ian and Claire were leaving to come round, there was another phone call, from Claire. “We’re on our way. We’ve just met Father Chris, so we’ve invited him along too. Is that OK?”

Of course it was OK. We liked Fr Chris, a newly-ordained curate, intelligent, witty, a good conversationalist, who liked a dram (there is no Catholic priest worth a damn who does not take to a good dram), and who loved Bach. What’s not to like about such a man?

I should mention that there is no need to reveal Fr Chris’s surname here. For reasons that should become apparent, there is likewise no need to reveal his identity to the Bishop, just in case the Bishop happens to have the Parish of Google in his Diocese.

Ian, Claire, and Fr Chris, arrived about 8 pm that night. Quite possibly (= absolute dead cert) they brought with them some bottles of wine. And though I can’t recall now what Frances had made (she made an effort, as Ian is an accomplished chef), I do recall the collective putting-away of a lot of red wine. Then someone said, “Is it time for the Vodka Ritual?” You do not get a prize for guessing that this was Ian. Naturally, I had vodka — Kirill’s vodka — in the freezer. There was also home made bread. And there was cucumber pickle.

Quite surprisingly, we managed a fair few “good words” before downing the frozen St Petersburg vodka. And less surprisingly, the vodka bottle went down and down and down. I can’t remember all the conversation, but I do remember it included discussion about the occasional difficulties of making yourself understood in a foreign language. And there was the story of Calum, terrifying the girl at a petrol station kiosk by asking her to hand over the takings, when he thought he was just asking for a receipt, and the ‘angry penis’ demands of Pam.

But it’s not only in the living languages that such pismronunciations can occur. Oh no, said Fr Chris, it can happen in the dead language too.

As a seminarian, Fr Chris had to spend some time in Rome, with a number of fellow seminarians from all over Europe, preparing for ordination to the priesthood. At the college in Rome, however, all conversation had to be, not in Italian, but in Latin. Classical Latin. Dead Latin. The Latin of Cicero, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (oh, how I remember it well : “gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”!) Not only had all conversation to be in Latin, each seminarian had to prepare a sermon, to be delivered in Latin, before the whole assembly of seminarians and senior priests, and the Bishop.

Fr Chris knew what he had to do, and worked assiduously on his sermon, checking and correcting his Latin grammar, making sure that all noun declensions had been properly declined, and all verb conjugations properly conjugated.

He stepped up to the pulpit. And then, in front of the entire assembly of Latin-fluent seminarians and priests, and the Bishop, began his sermon.

It went well. Right up until the point where, as Fr Chris said, a slight and unexpected hush came across the congregation. It was slight, but it was definite. However, he picked up his thread and continued, right to the end.

A little later, during coffee and biscuits with the Bishop afterwards, and keen to have pointers on his assessment, Fr Chris approached the subject of his sermon. “I couldn’t help feeling,” he said, “that at one point, there was a momentary pause in the flow, as if something was not quite right.”

“Ah,” said the Bishop, with only the merest hint of a trace of a wry smile, “we all knew what you meant to say, but what you actually said was, ‘And then Mary and Joseph arose, and took the little fucker to Jerusalem.'”

I have decided, since then, that we probably over-dosed on cucumber pickle. But any priest who tells you that he does not take a good dram, or a good vodka, is probably not worth listening to anyway.

‘in vodka veritas’, as the old Romans would say.