Inept Library Trainees, Subversive Tea Breaks and Redemptive Manzanilla

It’s 2004. Brexit, President Trump and Coronavirus are all inconceivable, and I — with a freshly laundered English degree flapping uselessly around my ankles — am the worst Library Assistant Oxford has ever seen.

Alegria Manzanilla Sherry

I’m still not sure how I fluked my way onto what is actually a pretty competitive and respected graduate traineeship, given I had no intention of becoming a librarian — or, indeed, doing anything more than pissing around in Oxford for another year toying self-indulgently with a truly awful idea for a novel. But fluke my way onto it I somehow did. Looking back, it was a bloody great gig: nothing more taxing than shelving unreasonably bulky Biochemistry textbooks (ye Gods, why so big?), scanning barcodes, and awkwardly flirting with Junior Research Fellows.

I was obviously terrible at all these things.

The best two elements of that job (that job that was, in retrospect, far far better than I either deserved or would appreciate for many years) were libatory. The first was the tea breaks. These were joyous affairs in which the Librarian, Assistant Librarian and I clustered on our gently squeaking office chairs behind the Issue Desk and shared gossip of the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the Senior Common Room, the bungled trysts of students attempting to circumvent single-sex College rules, and the booze-fuelled verbal jousts of High Table. Sometimes these tea breaks would last a good hour or more. The sign of a good innings was either one of my senior colleagues suggesting (with appropriate coyness) we have a second cup. They were also hilarious. Bemused students would bring their books to the desk and I’d often be laughing so much that I’d be unable to speak to them — merely stamping and scanning with mirth-shaken hands.

I think my colleagues sometimes felt some guilt for the conspicuous excesses (both of laughter and of time) of these tea breaks. I, 22-year-old idler and miscreant desperate for any diversion from shelving, felt no such qualms.

The second outstanding perk was the vicinity of my workplace to a tapas restaurant called Kazbar. It’s still there, nestled in the elbow of Cowley Road and St Clements, and when this pandemic nonsense is over I hope they’ll again be flinging open their windows to the summer sunlight and noxious exhaust fumes of central Oxford in summer.

On many an evening as the clock hit 5pm (Jesus, those were the days), I’d hurl aside my barcode scanner, thrust that pile of periodicals to the back of a cupboard and hightail it down the road to Kazbar. And I would order a glass of Manzanilla. They had (and doubtless still have) bottles of the stuff on ice under the counter and would bring one out, beaded with condensation. With that first mouthful of cold, crisp sherry, I’d be free from the world of duties, of spreadsheets, of ludicrously named databases. And whenever I drink Manzanilla now, some vestigal Library Assistant within me is transported back to those Oxford evenings.

The latest to invoke such nostalgia was Alegria Manzanilla (£8.50, The Wine Society, though currently only available as a half case for £51 because of Coronavirus limitations). ‘Pungent yet delicate’ says TWS, and I’ll go with that. If you haven’t had Manzanilla, you damn well ought to — whether or not you’re fleeing a day of shushing and shelving. It’s a fantastic alternative to a pre-dinner cocktail, combining mouth-watering nutty dryness with a subtle salty tang of the sea. Few drinks but an excellent Martini can rival its appetising, tastebud-rousing effect, and it’s phenomenal to drink with nuts, olives or, as Amy and I did this weekend, a starter of shellfish.

A bowl of garlic prawns

The Wine Society isn’t the only place, natch, to get an excellent Manzanilla. And as you’ll know if you’ve read any other booze writers waffle tediously on about sherry, this is one of the goddamn best value wines you can buy. Since only discerning wine writers and pretentious Library Assistants buy the stuff, it’s fabulously well priced. And if you spot a bottle of Manzanilla on sale in pretty much any UK booze emporium, I reckon it’s extremely unlikely to be less than good, and may well be excellent.

So if a case of six seems excessive, you could whet your lockdown appetite with Waitrose’s delicious Manzanilla Fina, for instance. I mean, it’s £7.69, by the Devil’s trousers! £2.31 cheaper than a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc at Tesco’s. And about 231 times nicer.

Or Hidalgo’s excellent Manzanilla La Gitana. It’s £11.19 a bottle at Waitrose, but they very considerately also do a 50cl bottle, which costs just £7.99 at Majestic and will nestle very nicely inside the door of your fridge, ready for emergencies (such as a Wednesday evening).

In retrospect, if I have a regret that transcends my lack of gratitude for a job with excellent hours, lovely colleagues, a tapas bar within walking distance and a complete absence of responsibility, it’s that I never brought together the twin joys of that year by smuggling a bottle of Manzanilla into the library and treating my colleagues to an impromptu sherry in place of their 11 o’clock cups of tea. I’m pretty sure none of the faculty staff would’ve noticed or complained: most were already well into their second bottle.

One thought on “Inept Library Trainees, Subversive Tea Breaks and Redemptive Manzanilla”

  1. Now living in Brussels, it’s nigh on impossible to get hold of a decent bottle. And I crave a decent bottle – always had a penchant for La Gitana.
    Many years ago a friend was buying a rather lovely house in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and asked us to go and have a look with him. Yay! I was going to be able to seek out Hildago’s bodega.
    Which turned out to be next door to the hotel we were staying in.
    Sometimes the world works out just fine.

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