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  • Julia Harding MW
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  • Julia Harding MW
3 Nov 2011

Of all the anachronisms of British life, paying the Poet Laureate in the currency of sherry seems one of the finest. Poets Laureate, although not unique to Britain, have a long history here, and from 1619 the holder of this post was given a butt of sherry (720 bottles) by the Crown for his or her labours. I say 'his or her' but the current (22nd) Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is the first woman to be given this honour. The custom of payment by sack, as Shakespeare called it, fell by the wayside from 1790 until it was revived in 1972 for the then Laureate Sir John Betjeman.

Carol Ann Duffy apparently chose manzanilla and fino styles when she visited Jerez to make her selection and receives a certain number of bottles of each at the beginning of every year of her 10-year tenure, so that the wines are always fresh. The picture above shows Duffy signing her chosen sherry butt. On her second visit, she wrote this coolly evocative and charming poem, which is also printed on the back label of her bottles (pictured below).

It seemed particularly appropriate, in the week when Jancis tells of her hand in the blending of González Byass' latest en rama sherries, to reproduce the poem here.

At Jerez

Who wouldn't feel favoured,
at the end of a week's labour,
to receive as part-wages
a pale wine
that puts the mouth in mind of the sea ...

and not gladly be kissed
by gentle William Shakespeare's lips,
the dark, raisiny taste of his song;
bequeathed to his thousand daughters and sons,
the stolen wines of the Spanish sun...

or walk the cool bodegas' aisles -
where flor and oxygen
grow talented in fragrances and flavours ­
to sniff, sip, spit, swallow, savour...

Carol Ann Duffy

At the recent launch in London of her latest collection of poems, The Bee, the fortunate guests were served with the Laureate's personal sherries.