An Iberian haven
Keats had for many years taken an informed interest in the visual arts and, at length, he began to paint occasional landscapes in oils. He had too much intellectual honesty to harbour any illusions about the quality of his work but he found that the process of painting was an excellent means of relaxation – especially during those regular but brief intervals when writer's block interrupted his literary endeavours.
It was during one such episode that he arranged to rent a fishing lodge in a remote part of the west, with the intention of spending a few weeks trying to capture the beauty of the surrounding mountains and lakes on canvas. Since the lodge was much too large for one person, and desiring the presence of a congenial dinner companion, he invited Chapman to join him. The latter was working on an annotated edition of Thucydides and, feeling that progress might be accelerated by a period of rural isolation free from the distractions of city life, he was happy to accept.
So it was that the friends set out in a Ford Prefect borrowed from Chapman's Aunt Maude on a cold and drizzly Monday morning at the beginning of March.
The weather worsened steadily as the pair drove west at forty miles an hour, the fastest speed that could be safely coaxed from their elderly vehicle. By mid-afternoon the travellers were only ten miles from their destination but the drizzle had turned to heavy sleet and a combination of gale-force headwinds and a cratered road surface had slowed their progress to little more than twenty miles an hour. The jolting and jarring of the Ford Prefect suddenly worsened. Unaccustomed though they were to motoring, Keats and Chapman realised at once that a tyre was punctured.
There was no alternative but to brave the elements, and both men fumbled with the unfamiliar jack and spanners of the borrowed car as they struggled, first to loosen nuts that had not been removed for years, then to lift off the affected wheel, replace it with a none-too-firm spare, and then to retighten the nuts. After half an hour the work was done, but when Keats and Chapman sat into the car again they were wet to the skin and shivering with cold.
Within a few minutes, as the car rounded a bend in a particularly desolate stretch of road, the friends were surprised and cheered to see a white-washed pub. Light from the windows pierced the gloom of the overcast afternoon and the thick clouds of smoke billowing from the chimney testified to the presence of a substantial fire within.
'Stop the car!' exclaimed Chapman – quite superfluously as Keats was already easing the Prefect to a halt on the strip of gravel outside the unexpected oasis of warmth and light.
Spirits reviving, the men vied to be first through the door but Chapman won the race to the large wooden bar within.
'So Keats', he asked, 'what will it be?'
'I think I rather fancy a hot port' replied the poet.
'An excellent idea – just what the doctor ordered!' agreed Chapman. 'Two hot Cockburns please' he called in a louder voice to the elderly publican who was approaching from the far end of the bar where he had been deep in conversation with the only customer in the house.
'Cockburns?' repeated the publican in a puzzled tone, his right hand rising to tug an earlobe.
'Yes. Cockburns port – you do have it?'
'Of course, of course', said the publican, 'well, that is to say, no. We're, ah, out of the Cockburns right now ...'
'Not to worry', said Chapman graciously, 'two hot Crofts will do just as well'.
'Well I'm afraid now, actually, we're a bit short on the Crofts right now too ...' said the publican, shifting from foot to foot.
'Oh very well, a Sandeman will do. You do have Sandeman surely? Give us two hot Sandemans then – and make them large!' exclaimed Chapman, a note of testiness entering his voice.
'Well now, would you believe it sir', said the publican, brightening suddenly, 'we did have a half bottle of the Sandeman there for a while all right but wasn't it all finished off around Christmas time, or was it maybe the New Year, I'm not sure if I remember...'
'Good God man!' snapped Chapman, 'do you or do you not have a bottle of port on the premises at this moment?'
'Oh I do indeed sir, I do indeed. Just a minute now sir and I'll take a look.' At this, the publican knelt down behind the bar and started to rummage through a collection of bottles beneath the counter.
'Isn't this simply incredible?' said Chapman in a low voice to Keats, whose teeth were still chattering from the cold. Before the latter could reply their host reappeared. Holding a dusty bottle in one hand, he wiped it with the sleeve of his other arm.
'Yes indeed sir, here it is now' said the publican in mixed tones of satisfaction and triumph. 'A nearly full bottle of MV Ruby Port sir – will that fit the bill?'
'MV Ruby Port?' repeated Chapman in a tone of incredulity, 'MV Ruby Port – what on earth is that?'
'Well sir, it's a port – a red port – isn't that what you wanted, sir?'
A reddish-purple colour not unlike that of port spread across Chapman's face as he struggled to control his temper but Keats recognised the warning signs of an imminent explosion and moved at once to defuse the situation. Placing a hand on his friend's shoulder he whispered urgently in his ear: 'do remember what they say old chap – any port in a storm!'