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Category - "‘Two Cultures’":

A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread, and Thou (and Thou, and Thou)

To paraphrase Edward Fitzgerald‘s paraphrase of Omar Khayyam:

‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, and thou and thou
Just add some brie, and we shall have a paradise enow’

In the 1970s I, like many others, lived a relatively bohemian life (it was, after all, the decade after we went to San Francisco, being sure to wear some flowers in our hair – see bch1_Ep5M1s – even if only in our imagination). One of the best aspects of life in that period is that hospitality was much simpler. People would drop in after work for a drink, perhaps bringing friends (and a bottle if you were lucky), and stay for a pot luck supper, sitting on floor cushions. Not that there was a pot. I used to buy a whole Brie, which looked impressive and fed an elastic number of people, and a couple of sticks of French bread. I don’t recall having plates or table napkins (probably we had paper ones) – certainly I don’t remember having to do any washing-up except glasses.

Fast-forward forty years. A few days ago, Robert and I had lunch with old friends, just the four of us. She is an excellent cook, and had prepared a delicious and elaborate meal, exquisitely served. However, it meant that she spent most of the meal in the kitchen ensuring that the food met her very high standards. Her husband spilt a glass of red wine, which meant that he spent most of the meal on his hands and knees under the table trying to mop it up and applying various home remedies to avoid a stain. My husband and I perforce made small talk to each other across the table. Everyone gritted their teeth not to show the irritation or discomfiture they felt, and we all kept smiling through. But we had gone to their house in the hope of enjoying a relaxed and convivial interlude – and we presume they had invited us for the same reason.

Social norms dictate that, after a short interval, we will return the invitation and we will all go through a similar exercise, the main difference being that it is in our house and not theirs. And so on and so on ad infinitum and ad , well not nauseam but perhaps to the point of exhaustion. It was even worse in the 1980s, when there was magazine after magazine urging people on to ever greater efforts to produce food that looked almost too beautiful to eat. In retrospect, it was all ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’:

To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Now, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the next couple of years/decade/foreseeable future are going to be years of austerity in the West. While I of course feel for those who will genuinely suffer as a result, I have spent much of my life living in countries and cities, notably Calcutta, where many people lived a life of extreme simplicity, forced on them by circumstance. You might think that they were miserable? Well, I have good news for you. If you compared their facial expressions en masse with those of a rush-hour queue at a London bus-stop, it was the Londoners who looked miserable.

‘Faites simple!’, cried Escoffier.

Simplicity is relative – he was trying only to get away from the excesses of Carème, and would no doubt be horrified by what I am proposing. But, for at least some of the time, let us use the more austere times that apparently lie ahead to simplify the way we entertain each other.  If you want to recapture the simple joy of fellowship as you break bread with your friends, may I suggest a return to a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (and a crumb or two of cheese) as the only necessary fuel?






The illustration is a still life by Vincent Van Gogh, made available under a creative commons licence by Wikimedia.



Rioting And The Herd Instinct

‘Why?’ ‘Why are people doing this?’ These are the questions being asked in bewilderment over and over again, in the press and on television, on twitter, facebook and the blogosphere.

I don’t know the answer, of course I don’t.

But I have an idea for a way of looking at the question which may just help us understand something of what is going on.

It has been an extraordinary couple of days, of lows but also of highs. There is universal wonderment at the fact that ‘pray for London’ and ‘riot clean-up’ were the top subjects on twitter for several hours, now replaced by ‘operation cup of tea’. What does this mean? Well, I think it may be easier to understand the violence and looting if we first look at these extraordinarily positive reactions. It is a very practical solution to turn up at Clapham Junction with gloves and a broom. But if you had been the only person to do so, you would have felt a bit of an idiot. A self-righteous idiot perhaps, but an idiot nonetheless. The people who responded to the #riotcleanup tweets must have wondered at first if  they would be a tiny group who responded. In contrast, can you imagine the life-affirming feeling of being in the crowd below, waving their brooms together in the air? That must have been an exhilarating moment! Heavens, it’s exhilarating  just looking at the photograph. What  might have been regarded as a well-intentioned, but slightly dotty, reaction to the violence if carried out by one person becomes instead a heroic feat if carried out by a multitude, who have universally, if unconsciously, responded to Robert Lowell’s poem:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied…

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.


So this is the good, the uplifting side of the events of the last few days. But if we turn to look at the looting and violence,  can an analysis of those who came to wield their brooms shed any light on the actions of the rioters? Well, to begin with, I wonder whether those who set fire to cars and buses, and threw stones at the police before smashing shop windows and helping themselves to the contents would have done any of these things if they had been alone? I suggest not. I think they too felt that being amongst a crowd who were doing these things as one was an exhilarating and life-affirming experience.

I expect you, like me, studied Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at some point in your education. Do you remember how easily the crowd were swayed by Mark Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honourable man‘, so that by the end of the speech he had turned the crowd 180°? Have you ever had the experience of standing in a crowd and being swayed by the emotion of the moment? I have, and it was a salutary lesson. In 1977 Indira Gandhi had been prime minister of India for 11 years, but in that election she lost not only the leadership but her own seat. My friends and I joined what felt like millions of people congregating in front of the newspaper offices to hear the result. When it came, complete strangers were hugging each other with joy. I too felt swept up in the elation, my blood tingling, my pulse racing. In a calmer moment the next day, I wondered what I would have been capable of doing if a demagogue had called on us to act.

It is thus that apartheid, Stalinism and Nazism take root. Look at the Nuremberg rallies. Look at Kristallnacht. What one man or woman on his or her own knows perfectly well is an outrage to human decency becomes acceptable, the norm even, when you are one of a herd.




The main photograph is by Peter Galbraith via fotolia. The second is from Lawcol888 via yfrog

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