Today we drove the ninety minutes or so down to the Cahors wine region in order to have lunch with good friends Carol and Hugh – or hue and cry as they tend to call themselves. My wife and I call ourselves Victor and Sybil, richly deserved in my case but not in Jan’s – that was just my casual revenge for her thinking me a curmudgeon from time to time. That, and her tendency for saying “Do you really think it wise to go out in that hat?” (I’ve developed a passion for hip-hop trendy trilbies).
The Cahors is one of those areas that makes any writer want to explore like mad, interview mayors, visit growers for degustations, take shots of the tectonically crushed strata blasted through by roads, or just look and look and look at the Lot river ambling and turning lazily through its wooded slopes. On the flat, alluvial flood plains below are row upon row of incredibly neatly clipped vines producing the grapes that go to make what (I still think) are among the most enjoyable and underrated wines in the world. Just near to where our friends live is Chateau de Nozieres, where the owner will sell you 10 litres of en vrac (unpackaged) red for 18 euros. You can pay 100 euros a bottle for good Bordeaux appellation wines in smart Parisien or London restaurants, and it won’t drink with the depth and character of this stuff. For Chateau de Nozieres, you don’t need an educated palate so much as a commonsense one. Devoid of pretension, it’s like sipping at something that would have Jilly Goulden guessing everywhere from California to Bulgaria, while ‘getting’ every soft fruit in turn before simply lying under the cask tap to catch the drips. It truly is the business. And naturally – still being knocked out with a rational 12.5% abv – it is a dark red you can quaff without getting 5pm post Rioja and tapas headache-and-droopy-eyelids syndrome.
Being situated so close to this place for twenty-odd years, it is a tribute to Hugh and Carol’s willpower that they didn’t become hopeless drunks years ago. But for much of that time, they’ve been converting a near 150 year-old merchant’s house on a dizzying number of levels. They bought a complex of houses and barns all those two decades ago with friends Geoff and Bronwyn, with whom – by some miracle – they are still good mates. And these partners in crime – down for a brief visit from their London base – happened to be the other guests for lunch. Carol is a classic and imaginative cook, and so a meal there is always a joy; but in the context of a world going more than slightly mad (see my earlier post of today) it was fascinating to have half a dozen people – who’ve been round the block a few times in various professions – sitting at a table and finding it incredibly easy to separate the beauty from the beast….or, as I would say, the bollocks from the brilliant.
The youngest person there was probably fifty and the oldest seventy-five, but I’d defy anyone to describe the conversation as Old Fart in nature. The decision that the euro was doomed took about ninety seconds to reach, leaving only the issue of what the Franco-German agenda might be (just over five minutes) before getting down to the more difficult stuff like “Where did it all go wrong?”
All of us had benefited from the two greatest UK legislative ideas of the Twentieth Century – the Butler Education Act (1944) and the NHS (1947). Of these, the first was driven through a wartime House of Commons by a patrician Tory, and the second by a self-made working class, solid Labour Welshman. We all agreed that without these amazing ideas, none of us would have either the health or the cosmopolitan outlook we enjoy. Two of us wouldn’t have been alive, nor would two of our children. And none of us would own houses in France, enabling us to quietly enjoy, in retirement, what we’d worked so hard to get between us over eight decades.
It may well be significant that both these ideas were developed at a time when Britain was emerging from its greatest ever hour of peril: a time, in fact, when Party difference had been put aside in favour of national aspirations.
Why – we all asked without exception – had Butler’s great social mobility idea been killed? Why indeed had Bevan’s community clinic concept been first perverted, and then choked by jargon-constipated meetings addicts? Bearing in mind that there was every shade of political, private sector and public sector opinion round the table, it truly was astonishing how quickly this eclectic gathering was able to agree on what the big, rhetorical questions are.
Why had mutuality of savings been abandoned? How would retired people manage on zero-rates policy between now and 2015? Why had anyone in government been surprised by rioting looters who thought themselves entitled to steal desirable objects? What could we do to stop the banks holding society to ransom forever and a day?
Unsurprisingly, it was at this point (after Carol’s wonderfully intense mises en bouches had been devoured) that the debate became far more spirited; and tutting, head-shaking agreement was replaced by raised voices or passionate beliefs. Yes the bankers were bastards, but we had to think of the consequences of suddenly empty ATM machines. Yes coke-snorting was a pathetic thing for our leaders to be doing, but how was one to make them more discreet? Yes people looted, but how long would it take to reconstruct family, community and educational values in order to make such activity unacceptable again? If you legalised all drugs, made them free, and thus made the dealers redundant, how would you stop the resultant space cadets doing anti-social things that meant innocent suffering? And yes, of course free-market globalism had been shown largely to be drivel, but who had the power to change the blinkered mindsets of everyone from Gordon Brown to Lloyd Blankfein?
Yet the thing is, agreement about the problems (with debate about the solutions) I can deal with. That’s what we used to call politics when I was a student. But what do you do about denial of the empirical facts? What do you do about a Left that won’t accept the dangers of headlong cultural mixture, criticism of which it insists on calling racism? And what do you do about the globalist Right dedicated to saying the only way to happiness is for 3% of the citizens to own 57% of the wealth?
This is denial on a par with, say, refusing to accept that as August continues, it will be dark later in the mornings and earlier in the evenings. It is in fact a form of collective madness, a conjoining of extremes in which all rational argument is pushed out in favour of yelled certainties. It is, dare I say, the situation that pertained in the German Weimar Republic just prior to the Nazi takeover of 1933.
Earlier in the week, BBC2 aired a marvellous drama, The Man who Crossed Hitler. It was the story of radical Berlin Jewish lawyer Hans Litten who, in 1931, prosecuted two Nazi SA thugs clearly identified as having taken part in a homicidal attack on opponents. By this time, the ambitious Adolf Hitler had begun his careful cuddling up to the German Establishment: he had ‘renounced’ violence as a political weapon – a tactic which reached its logical conclusion in 1934 with the mass murder of those very SA men under Ernst Roehm who had helped the Fuhrer bully his way to power…in favour of the Nazi leader becoming supreme commander of the German military machine.
Hitler’s renunciation was an obvious sham. Violent, often murderous attacks by the SA continued against Communist clubs and Jewish shops: but the impoverished German middle classes – desperate for a solution to global economic mismanagement and raging inflation – were in complete denial about the continuing violence. Denial, you see, gave them permission to accept an odious philosophy in return for material safety. There is a real parallel here – and it becomes more profound the more you look at it.
Litten called Hitler as a hostile witness, and for much of the ensuing trial he made the Fuhrer look asinine. But as often happened with our Adolf, Hans underestimated the man’s ability to sway an audience. Using emotional arguments based on thin air, Hitler left the Court a hero. Afterwards, Litten’s friends begged him to leave Germany, but he refused: determined to face the same fate as others less privileged than him, he predictably wound up in a concentration camp. He hanged himself in 1938.
Out there in our ‘global village’ (itself a similar sort of fantasy based on nothing much) there are people of varying political hues refusing to deny the realities and the dangers. And beating them off with consummate ease are mini dictators spouting pseudo-scientific ideas every bit as idiotic as Nazi’s measuring noses and foreheads for signs of racial impurity.
Thus, Bob Diamond believes a Barclays investment bank totally independent of citizen deposits is a great idea. Angela Merkel wants us all to accept the principle that a cultural oil-and-water superstate will work just fine if she and Nicolas Sarkozy are in charge. Theodore Levitt put forward the entirely bonkers (but still widely believed) concept of a XVth arondissement Frenchman having more in common with a Manhattan American than a Frenchman from Bordeaux. Wall Street opinion leaders insist that just one more heave of QE will get the show back on the road. Lloyd Blankfein insists that mercantile globalism (in which every country must be in concert in terms of needs and exports all the time) is the only feasible economic alternative on offer. Herman Van Rompuy passionately offers the unhinged view that a little breathing space is all that Greece requires, but what has been given to Greece in terms of help will not be available to the equally crippled Ireland and Portugal. Germany’s Schauble says the EFSF can keep Spain and Italy afloat when there isn’t enough money in it to bail out Bradford. Barack Obama blithely asserts that a $13 trillion annual deficit can be blown away by a new age of American growth. And most alarming of all, Harriet Harman remains convinced – as the Deputy Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition – that unfair gender quotas in industry and government are infinitely more important than an epidemic of banking and sovereign insolvency.
It’s dark here now, but I’ll tell what I mainly draw from a thoroughly enjoyable day. I think respect for wisdom could open a lot of younger, often closed, minds. I think on-the-ground experience – and the tempered views it generates – to be worth infinitely more than the theoretising tramlines of pompous polemics. But equally, I think the application of sound ideals, creative ideas and uncomfortable facts to the surreal invention of the madmen is the way to drive them from the Temple.
Putting that into the current context, I believe some form of utilitarian radicalism can give a new energy to responsible capitalism: if – and only if – there is an acceptance among the Pharisees of Globalist laissez-faire commerce that their version of Nirvana is just as illusory as the command economics of the unlamented USSR.