Bill Baker – the eulogy

Here’s the address given at Bill’s funeral in Well Cathedral last Thursday by his longstanding Cambridge friend Ian Doherty:
Since the terrible news reached us 10 days ago, many, many people from diverse backgrounds and from literally all over the world have been talking to each other about Bill.
Amid the tears, and there have been plenty of those, we have shared joyful reminiscences, comforting each other by phone, by email and on the web.
I hope to speak today not just for myself but for all of us here and for those who can’t be here who loved Bill Baker simply for what he was and for what he brought to our lives.
This may sound obvious but Bill was, first and foremost, a true and proud Englishman – proud of his country, of its heritage and traditions, of its architecture and culture, of its values and standards – and yes angry and unhappy where he saw these standards in decline. For me, he epitomised much of what is best in England and in Englishness. (Of course, he frequently reminded me, an Irish Nationalist living in Northern Ireland that I was a British citizen whether I liked it or not and should be jolly well grateful for the privilege)
But Bill was the opposite of a Little Englander. He was a seasoned and discerning traveller in Europe and more latterly as far afield as Australia, South Africa and the United States. He had a lifelong love of Italy. He spent a gap year in Venice prior to going up to Cambridge and accumulated over the years an extensive knowledge of Italy’s art, architecture (both secular and ecclesiastical), its history, culture and lifestyle. I understand he also popped into the odd restaurant and had the occasional bottle of wine. France, too, was a favourite destination for Bill particularly, though by no means exclusively, in connection with the wine business. Bill was a man of exceptional intellectual curiosity and thoroughness in everything he did and those of us fortunate enough to travel with him abroad were the grateful beneficiaries of his knowledge and erudition as well as his wonderful and frequently hilarious company.
Bill was best known as a wine merchant – the term hardly begins to describe him. I asked Jancis to sum up for us his standing in the trade and I quote:
“His skill at blind tasting; his knowledge of fine and rare vintages; his general appetite and energy; the loudness of his voice and opinions and his colourful language were greater than anyone else’s. He is, quite simply, irreplaceable.” “Most of all” Jancis reminds us “everyone loved him, even if he was being extremely rude to them. The room lit up when Bill came into a tasting.”
The many comments on the Decanter website reflect not only the respect but also the great affection in which Bill was held by leading professionals and ordinary customers or ‘punters’ as he liked to call us. Read, in particular, Paul Henderson’s beautiful tribute.
But, of course, there as so much more to Bill. He was, in many ways, the “Renaissance Man” he so much admired. He was remarkable in that he knew so much about both food and wine as well as being an outstanding chef and, along with Kate, the most generous, considerate and entertaining host that, I dare say, any of us has ever encountered. Bill was enormously well read and he could converse with real authority on architecture, art, history, music and culture generally. I always enjoyed dipping into the treasure house of his extensive library at The Mill. There were, naturally, some areas of life which held no interest for him and with which he disdained to engage. These included: Political Correctness of all kinds, Fitness Centres, Health Spas, Personal Trainers and Image Consultants.
For such a big man, he was enormously energetic. As a regular guest at The Mill, I had frequent occasion to upbraid him for disturbing my early morning slumber as he went out to chop down trees, cut logs, walk the dogs or sort out cases of wine. His comments in reply can not be repeated in a Cathedral.
There is a body of opinion (for which Bill himself is largely responsible) that he didn’t work hard at Cambridge. This is inaccurate. He worked assiduously at supporting the areas finest restaurants and pubs. (David Shortt at the Queen’s Head in Newton has never looked back) He ran the Peterhouse bar with aplomb, organised May Balls and chauffeured his mates around in his legendary Volkswagen camper van. He was also a keen rower, training for which also allowed him to indulge his passion for getting up at ungodly hours of the morning. In any case, whatever his academic outcome he was one of the most intellectually gifted people I ever knew. I think that anyone who knew Bill well would agree. He was a perfectionist who worked very hard at the pursuits which mattered to him. He had no time for superficiality, hypocrisy or insincerity and yes he tended to make his opinions known – whoever the offender- and that is why we loved him.
Bill could, on occasion, be a trifle irascible when things did not meet entirely his rather exacting standards. What Kate indulgently referred to as ‘Baker’s Sense of Humour Failures’ were wondrous to behold. They were frequently over important matters such as the consistency of a sauce, the temperature of the wine or the appropriate hanging of various stuffed animal heads. One of the greatest examples was the New Year’s Eve when the Aga at The Mill broke down with a houseful of discerning guests ready to sit down to dinner in a few hours. Simon Hopkinson is actually bringing out a book on this event, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that it was all Hoppy’s fault, though we never found out why and that we had a great laugh about if afterwards. I will never forget Simon withdrawing from the cauldron of the lower kitchen muttering plaintively ‘I have to get on with my Apple Hat’. Bill’s reply is again unrepeatable.
But these were exceptions. For most of the time Bill was fantastic fun to be with, genial and generous, a sparkling conversationalist with a spontaneous, if often mordant, wit. He loved a joke and could take a joke. Wouldn’t we all have loved to see his face when he scrutinised his bill at Gidleigh Park, where Kate was working some 20 years ago, to see that Paul Henderson had included among the extras – “Kissing the Manager £10”. Paul, I think that perhaps he got the tenner back from you over the years.
On a happier day two summers ago, I observed that one of Bill’s greatest gifts was his gift for friendship. He was the most loyal of friends, a superb judge of character and someone who brought friends together. I personally treasure the many wonderful friends I have made through Bill. Many people go through their business or professional lives respected and admired by those they work with. Very, very few are also loved in the way Bill was by those of you engaged in the wine, hotel and restaurant trades. These are sentiments that I know will be felt by David and Claire at Reid Wines – by the Bulgers, Conrans, Hendersons, Hoppy, Landers, Markwicks, Steins, Taruschios and many, many others.
We will all have our own personal memories of Bill which we will share over the next few hours and in the months and years to come. Peter Norris, his oldest friend , remembers their first encounter at Charterhouse when he was 12 and Bill 13. Bill hailed him from a first floor window holding a glass of something in his hand which later turned out to be a Mint Julep. On another occasion Peter was 17 and staying in rather grim accommodation in Turin. He arrived back to be told by an excited landlady that an important English army officer was waiting for him upstairs. It was, of course, Bill with long hair wearing an army greatcoat.
For myself, I picture him holding forth in princely splendour in the coveted corner table of Harry’s Bar in Venice; in Moran’s oyster cottage in Galway, sleeves rolled up and guzzling oysters and Guinness with equal relish; roaring at errant drivers (how did he know their political affiliations?); enlightening and entertaining us at Gidleigh wine weekends.
Most of all I think of him at home at the Mill among his family and friends. In this congregation today are friends like Stephen Jedburgh, Neil Munro, David Shortt and I who have known Bill for 34 years – since Cambridge, Penny Elliot for nearly as long and Peter Norris even longer – since Charterhouse; we would all agree that Bill found the greatest joy and fulfilment of his life in his family. He was devoted to Kate, Polly and George and so very proud of them. The three of you made him very, very happy indeed.
Nick Lander wisely advised me that we mustn’t be sad today. Not only is that the last thing Bill would have wanted – sadness was not really part of his vocabulary – but all of us have to feel extremely grateful, lucky and indeed honoured to have known him.
So thanks Bill, for all the fun. We will never forget you.
7 February 2008