Tuesday 31 January 2017

Obama begat Trump

People turn so quickly from weakness or the shadow of it. To get away from failure—even the mere suspicion of it— that seems to be a subconscious feeling with the average man and woman; we all avoid non-success as though we fear that it may prove contagious.

Theodore Dreiser – Jennie Gerhardt (1911)

Amid the outraged howling over Donald Trump’s presidential victory, it is worth reminding ourselves that Obama’s tenure led to Trump’s. If Trump is politically deplorable then this is how a large number of American voters have reacted to eight years of Obama. To explain Trump we first have to explain the divisive reign of Obama.

From this side of the Atlantic it is not easy to identify with political passions obviously stirred up by both men, but it is worth remembering that Obama began the stirring. He was there first, setting the agenda, crafting the narratives and the tone of his presidency which clearly riled so many Americans. He was the catalyst for Trump. He created the political vacuum which Trump spotted and exploited.

In which case, Obama must have been disliked and admired by the American electorate in approximately equal measure. In other words he was divisive. Trump is divisive too, but his election and his political tactics suggest he inherited a divisive political reality from Obama. He didn't create it because it was already there. Millions of words have been written about the election and no doubt they will be followed by millions more, but to my mind the core issue is as much Obama as Trump.

From this side of the pond Obama seemed weak, sequacious and too fond of virtue-signalling. He look down on half of the electorate and made his disdain far too obvious. Not from a position of strength, but from a somewhat messianic and politically correct pedestal he did nothing to earn from a host of absurdly uncritical followers.

Hillary Clinton gave the game away with her reference to ‘deplorables’ because she was speaking from the same bubble as Obama. Many educated middle class people in the developed world appear to see a world of deplorables beyond the narrow reach of their politically correct comfort zones. They look down on people who do not share their views. They also seem to fear them - the political atmosphere reeks of it.

If you do not share a politically correct outlook then you are an outsider, no better and no more welcome that barbarians at the gate. It isn’t a new situation - it arises from weakness and Obama was weak in ways Trump seems to understand. No doubt we’ll find out if he knows how to exploit his insights in the real world beyond the rhetoric. 

Now the deplorables have a leader who in spite of his reported deficiencies seems to understand well enough why he was elected. He was elected to be stronger than the poseur he replaces. Perhaps that is where the fear comes from - from a whiff of testosterone. How deplorable.

Monday 30 January 2017

Mass petulance

As we all know, over a million people have signed a petition urging the government to call off Donald Trump's state visit to the UK. A petition is a healthy way to thrash out political differences but this one reeks of petulance, that most unattractive of human responses.

Public petulance is not good and mass petulance even worse. It is there for the whole world to see. Even MPs will recognise it and draw their own conclusions.

Sunday 29 January 2017

All’s fair in footy

We have the same grossly insincere pretence that sport always encourages a sense of honour, when we know that it often ruins it.
G. K. Chesterton - What’s wrong with the world? (1910)

Many years ago, Son played for a local junior football team. I went along to help with various jobs which have to be done for each match including putting up the nets, running the line and on the whole I enjoyed it. It was an experience as they say, but what I also recall too well is the cheating. There was a lot of that. I’ll give one example, but there were many more.

Towards the end of one season Son’s team were due to play an away match against a much weaker team faced with the possibility of relegation. We arrived at the ground and hung around the changing hut waiting for it to be unlocked.

Members of the opposition team were also hanging around the changing hut, including four remarkably big lads who looked a little furtive. We didn’t remember them from the previous encounter and there had also been stories about this team playing over age players. Those big lads certainly looked over age.

After a while the referee turned up but fortunately he wasn’t just any referee, he was the League Secretary doing a spot check on ineligible players. Oh dear. The four big lads quietly legged it and Son’s team won as expected. All part of the rich tapestry that is junior football.

Saturday 28 January 2017

Swimming with the times

We took Grandson to the local swimming baths today. I'm not sure when we last visited, but we are talking decades rather than years. The place has certainly changed since we were there last. Mixed changing was the first surprise, although I don't know why it was a surprise because it seems perfectly sensible.

So some things have changed for the better, but others I'm not so sure about. We were able to keep an eye on Grandson through a vast glass wall while we sipped our coffee in comfort. All very civilised I thought. The coffee was okay too, in spite of disposable cups.

The whole environment was more tightly controlled and decorous than our day. Highly visible lifeguards, lots of staff, no diving boards and no kids hurtling around bombing each other. It was altogether more earnest. There were more tattoos on display too, especially among the women.

Behind us was another vast glass wall and behind that was gym full of huge fitness machines. Energetic folk pounded their way to nowhere on a row of walking machines. Conveyor belts with handles and lots of electronics, all of which looked hideously expensive. The whole place looked hideously expensive. The price of fitness I suppose. Yet nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves on their conveyor belts. Perhaps enjoyment isn't the idea. Indoor walking avoids outdoor uncertainties, avoids the wind, rain and sheep shit - perhaps that's the idea.

Ah well. On the whole I thought the place had improved. Controlled it may be, but even in the old days we had the attendant bellowing out the rules every now and then. Apart from the gym it was a pleasant experience. The gym was weird.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Stand up

An interesting piece in Quillette begins by addressing a mandatory orientation event at Princeton University.

"Stand up if you identify as Caucasian.”

The minister’s voice was solemn. I paused so that I wouldn’t be the first one standing, and then slowly rose to my feet. “Look at your community,” he said. I glanced around the auditorium obediently. The other students looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and as white. ¨Thank you,” the minister said finally. After we sat down, he went on to repeat the exercise for over an hour with different adjectives in place of “Caucasian”: black, wealthy, first-generation, socially conservative. Each time he introduced a new label, he paused so that a new group of students could stand and take note of one another. By the time he was finished, every member of Princeton University’s freshman class had been branded with a demographic.

This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity. The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don't risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.

Perhaps one should not generalise too much from such eccentric activities and the effect on students may not be the intended effect. As a theatrical introduction to the limits of Princeton's cultural life it comes across as remarkably unsubtle. 

However the whole piece is well worth reading. The paragraph below sums up both the malign aspects of Princeton culture and the wider problem it so singularly fails to resolve. Not for the first time, this observer is left wondering if universities have had their day.

My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

—and then

A man gets himself placed in life, all is settled, everything is going well, unpleasant things of the past are forgotten, the future is rosy—and then. What a man wants is to be let alone. If life would only flow straight on, like a river.

Sherwood Anderson - Dark Laughter (1925)

It is odd how being busy creeps up on one. I feel pretty busy these days, even though I’m retired and ought to have plenty of spare time. Unfortunately for many of us that isn’t how it works. If we have spare time it seems to attract another dose of busyness from a mysteriously infinite supply.

Working life is like that too. Those who know how to be busy seem to attract it. Those who don’t are immune and everyone knows who they are.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Political v Apolitical

Brexit and Trump seem to have stirred up a belated realisation that third-rate won’t do. Clinton was the answer to a question nobody asked, the EU is a mess and perhaps even Meryl Streep really is overrated.

One way or another we have to claw our way at least to second-rate. Trump and Brexit may not lead us there but business as usual was never a viable option. The great political illusion of a left/right spectrum has been criticised on numerous occasions, the trouble is it is just too convenient. Yet we need a far better handle on political realities than left versus right could ever muster.

It may be worthwhile to make a distinction between political and apolitical rather than flog the left/right illusion to death. That is to say our political death.

A political outlook includes traditional left and much of the modern right, both of which make a moral god of government, devalue cultural achievements and see change as the predictable consequence of decisions.

An apolitical outlook sees the power of government as limited, values cultural achievements, and accepts the evolutionary and unpredictable nature of change.

The UK has seen a steady decline in the apolitical outlook as the function of government has come to be dominated by politics over pragmatism, being more concerned with what is politically correct or politically expedient over what works. This trend seems to correlate well with a rise in the professional politician wedded to an entirely political outlook. For the apolitical pragmatist there is no natural place in UK government nor in any of the main political parties.

Yet reactions to Brexit and Trump seem to betray a covert horror that an apolitical dragon is out there and awake, hungry for soft bodies. Things may be changing. Second-rate here we come.

Monday 23 January 2017

Charlie and the Fruitcake Factory

As has been widely reported, Prince Charles has co-authored a Ladybird book promoting the climate catastrophe narrative. What should we make of it? After all, the guy is heir to the throne and ought to have easy access to good advice on any subject he cares to explore.

A natural and obvious reaction is to ridicule his lack of insight, but as the digital world evolves there is more to add. Charles is a man of his times and his weird political position. He is just as limited as the rest of us and just as likely to go astray whenever he is unwise enough to have a bash at thinking. Not only that, but he has probably been trained from birth to take advice from official sources.

A fascinating feature of our evolving digital world is how the limitations of human nature have become too obvious for mystique to survive. Yet the veils still fall and Charles' Ladybird book misadventure is one such veil. Yet again the guy is exposed as well-meaning but hopelessly shallow. Not his fault - we are all shallow but the shallowness of human nature has become more obvious and more obviously universal. Hierarchies are losing their mystique and Charles never had a strong grip on it in the first place.

We may be shallow but we also have the capacity to be creative and this seemed to be the core of our supposed intelligence. Yet in a cohesive and complex society not everyone has to be creative which implies that not everyone has to be creatively intelligent. In his position Charles is not required to be particularly intelligent at all and does not come across as sufficiently creative to breach that barrier. We all retain the potential but are not necessarily required to use it. That is what holds Charles down.

However the digital world seems to be breaching some of the barriers by enhancing our ability to be creatively intelligent. Thinking beyond the mystique has become easier and more widespread and not reserved for leaders. It is probably too late for Charles and the monarchy, but we’ll see.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Being a sensitive figure

Here's a remarkable quote I forgot to include in my recent post on JFK Miller's fascinating book Trickle-down Censorship. He had submitted a feature on Osama bin Laden already published by The Independent on Sunday, including a photo.  

The response from my censor was so remarkable that I asked my Chinese assistant to repeat herself. Still disbelieving, I looked at the email from my censor on her screen. No mistake, there it was in black and white: 

Being a sensitive figure, Osama bin Laden hasn’t been confirmed to exist. 

Friday 20 January 2017

When crime ceases

Let men learn that a legislature is not "our God upon earth," though, by the authority they ascribe to it and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is. Let them learn rather that it is an institution serving a purely temporary purpose, whose power, when not stolen, is, at the best, borrowed.

Nay, indeed, have we not seen that government is essentially immoral? Is it not the offspring of evil, bearing about it all the marks of its parentage? Does it not exist because crime exists? Is it not strong, or, as we say, despotic, when crime is great? Is there not more liberty—that is, less government—as crime diminishes? And must not government cease when crime ceases, for very lack of objects on which to perform its function?

Herbert Spencer - The Right To Ignore The State (1851)

Sometimes it is worth going back to period when the welfare state did not distort our view of government and how big it ought to be. Derby lad Herbert Spencer suggests here that bearing down on crime is what government is for. It has expanded mightily since his day, but it is worth noting that crime still looms large in what governments do.

In which case, as we become more law-abiding one might expect new crimes to be invented to keep this key function well fed. There is no need to point out that this is exactly what we see, but perhaps worth adding that if Spencer was right we will see it long into the future too. 

Thursday 19 January 2017

Trickle-down Censorship

As a personal account of the daily realities of censorship in China, JFK Miller’s book Trickle-down Censorship is an excellent read, although Amazon only seems to have it in Kindle format. This is not a book about the big censorship stories which gain worldwide attention, but the endless personal restraints all are required to abide by.

It is not a tale of hard-faced enforcers either. Miller's main censors were part-timers, educated and personable party members apparently willing to do the job with barely a hint of the iron fist behind their polite requirements.The blurb is a good summary.

A Westerner's inside look into the workings of Chinese society.

For six years, from 2005 to 2011, Australian JFK Miller worked in Shanghai for English-language publications censored by state publishers under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party. In this wry memoir, he offers a view of that regime, as he saw it, as an outsider from the bottom up.

'Trickle-Down Censorship' explores how censorship affected him, a Westerner who took free speech for granted. It is about how he learned censorship in a system where the rules are kept secret; it is about how he became his own Thought Police through self-censorship; it is about the peculiar relationship he developed with his censors, and the moral choices he made as a result of censorship and how, having made those choices, he viewed others.

Although censorship in China is extremely pervasive and thorough and far removed from our Western experience, the situation depicted in Miller's book does not feel entirely alien. It is not difficult to envisage how it has been made to work and if Miller's experiences are any guide, it is not about to break down anytime soon. The book is very quotable too. Here are a few.

Every word, every story, every photograph, every advertisement, every classified—indeed every square inch of column space in our magazine—will be pored over, not by one censor, but by a team of five, to ensure we adhere to Minitrue’s guidelines. Guidelines that are, at least officially, known only to Minitrue and our censors. This is part of the game, to keep us guessing and second-guessing as to the whereabouts of that forbidding red line.

It would be a little too dramatic to say that I betrayed my conscience or sold my soul by submitting to censorship. If I did then it wasn’t in a single transaction, but a series of tiny installments: my acquiescence to a word cut, a paragraph excised, a story deleted, a headline changed.

Every informed Chinese knows the state media is censored, the horrible truths redacted and the unpalatable facts sanitized. This doesn’t make them unpatriotic or anti-establishment, just discerning readers.

Guanxi is the oil that lubricates China. You cannot get anything significant achieved in the country without it. This is a country run by men, not law, as sundry others have observed. Guanxi has no Western equivalent; “relationships”, “connections”, “network” don’t quite cut it, and this tangled web of favors paid and repaid, of relationships cultivated and nurtured, is simply, wholly, exhausting to our linear Western minds.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Growing old with the web


Ours is the first generation to have grown old with the internet. In addition to losing illusions as the hormones subside, we now have the worldwide web stripping them away too. A double dose of disillusion. No wonder we are so curmudgeonly.

Admittedly we have always known politicians to be the kind of people one would not invite into one's own home. We have always known how newspapers love drama and hate analysis because drama rakes in the lucre where analysis doesn’t. Or rather it used to rake in the lucre. We have always known that the BBC is not populated with the decently clever people we one assumed it was designed for. We certainly know that celebrities are more appalling than appealing.

However, we did not know all this with the forcible certainty the web insists on. It seems to relish hosing the scales from our ageing eyes. The world is even more ghastly than we were ever supposed to know and the internet rams home the ghastliness with sadistic pleasure.

Yet from another perspective the world isn’t ghastly at all. In the developed world life is good. The web shows us that too. On the whole we are comfortable, well fed and healthy. On one level there is little to moan about as we sip our coffee and wonder how the world actually works, but like an overly informative valet the web persists in feeding us with interesting snippets. 

Sooner or later we may have to adapt - dread word. But we may have to adapt to life with fewer illusions. It is bound to be traumatic for some poor souls.  

Sunday 15 January 2017

Wiggia on Wine

Château Pichon Longueville

A post from Wiggia

Normally at the end of the year I write a piece on wine giving my opinions on wines tasted and consumed and recommendations for those who having read the piece believe what I have written has any value and might act on it or simply just enjoy their own choice of wine anyway. I will never know.

Last year that did not happen for two simple reasons. Firstly I was on a diet, much needed and overdue, and my consumption was curtailed to assist that end goal, and then in August/September I was hospitalised and drinking was verboten for a period. All adding up to a situation that meant I simply had not drunk or tasted enough wine during the year to be able to write an article about the merits of x against y.

Going back a little the previous year I had made a conscious decision to drink less, something my wife thought I couldn’t do! and drink better but less often. So really I have had two years of the same for different reasons. What all that has done is to give myself an opportunity to look at wine in the way I first did all those years ago when I first became fascinated with the whole process of wine as an agricultural product and what ends up in a bottle.

So this is not a buy now listing, but a look at the way wine has progressed as a product, or not, during my lifetime. One thing is for sure wine has progressed beyond anything one could imagine since the sixties where unless you lived next to the likes of Berry Bros & Rudd  or could afford one of few select restaurants, you would offered claret, hock, Bulls Blood or the then trendy Mateus Rosé. There really was little else other than the ubiquitous cream sherry.

But all started to change in the seventies with Bordeaux  beginning to use science in the wine making process and then combined with the string of good vintages in the eighties the climb in quality spread beyond those few top chateaux and spread elsewhere. And with global warming/climate change/hotter summers making its contribution in the Northern Hemisphere, even vintages that would or should have been written off became largely tamed by man and very acceptable wine has been produced in all but the very worst years, Germany being a shining example. Being so northern its vineyards rely on good long summers for Riesling to ripen, yet since 2000 there has hardly been a bad vintage. Which for me being a lover of good Riesling and its low comparative price for such outstanding wines because they are out of favour has been a positive boon, but I digress.

Bordeaux of course deserves a whole article or book on its own and there are many in circulation so I will not dwell there for this short piece.

What was happening on the other side of the world at the same time also had a profound effect on Europe, all those vineyards where quality was a by-product were jolted into action by the arrival of first Australian wines, a country that had no history of any premium products apart from Grange, being the producer of bulk “jug” wines. Science and technology were introduced big time and wines arrived here at the lower price end that eclipsed what the majority of Europe had been selling us. It was what Europe had needed, a proverbial kick up the bum. All the cheap blending wines from the Italian south and southern France for instance were no longer wanted. The wine lakes shriveled and disappeared and the surviving vineyards had to change or grub up their vines. Many did the latter but the remainder bit the bullet in the way they made wine and joined the technical revolution, in many cases calling in oenologists from Australia and New Zealand to help. The “flying wine makers” of the time.

All that is now history and the same principles have now been applied to other wine producing countries, in particular the Americas. Wines from California and other states join those from Chile and Argentina among others on the supermarket shelves, for it is the supermarkets that now dominate wine sales.

The supermarket phenomenon was initially a godsend for those who just wanted to take a bottle of Chardonnay from a shelf without having to become too cerebral about it all. The supermarkets in those heady early days of non-stop expansion in the area all tried to outdo each other and employed Masters of Wine in their buying teams alongside other experts to give them an edge over the opposition. Poaching staff to retain that edge was not unknown.

Sadly supermarkets having attained the position of total dominance began to jettison their early lofty ideals. In many cases the sheer volume that they shifted of any given wine meant that only the bigger producers and conglomerates could supply that volume, so that what you see today for sale in supermarkets means they mirror many of the major brands to a large extent. Thereby, despite  having aisles of bottles for sale actually reducing the choice to the public

That in no way means there is nothing of value to buy in supermarkets. There are plenty of good everyday drinking wines of all hues on those shelves, it is just evermore difficult to find those genuinely cheap winners. The driving down of prices by the same supermarkets is making it ever more difficult. Occasionally one can find wine that punches above its weight - buy again and you may wonder if you have purchased  something else. The vineyard in order to satisfy supermarket demand has had to bring in or use inferior grapes to make up that difference.

There was even one well known case that was brought before trading standards years ago when Sainsbury's award winning champagne subsequently lost its fizz in later batches. Someone complained this was not the same wine that won this award and investigation showed that the producer had indeed substituted an inferior wine as he had run out of the good stuff. For reasons no one was able to fathom the complaint was rejected and the champagne was allowed to carry on using its award sticker on the inferior bottles.  ??

The upshot of that is it is almost certain the same thing has happened since as a loophole was discovered and it is perfectly legal to present wine in this way. I have on several occasions had wines that have changed dramatically for the worse in later bottles but funnily enough never the other way round.

Which brings me to the tricky area of wine awards. Much revered by all and sundry when they started up as an easy indication of whether a wine had any merit and a good way to get lesser known names and grapes purchased by the general public.

Over the years the wine awards, the two biggest being the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter awards have grown into the behemoths of the wine awards business world wide. Huge numbers of wines are entered and all pay to have their wines appraised by the bottle. So this along with the labels for the successful entries that are also paid for is now a very profitable business for the organizers. Oh and just remember that when you see a wine bottle without an award it doesn’t mean it is a worthless drain-cleaning fluid but was almost certainly never entered for any competition in the first place. It is not obligatory.

There is no question about cheating as all wines are tasted blind by teams of experts and wine trade buyers etc, but what has happened is that the categories have become bloated with awards for everything and the sheer number of wines winning awards dilutes the value of those that do. A commended wine for instance - the lowest rated award in reality means it is drinkable, no more no less. Plenty of wines not entered into competition are drinkable so the commendation is on a dubious footing as to public value and thousands of wines receive this label - and indeed the higher value ones.

Is the wine awards concept a racket? Good question. Various wine writers and critics give opposing opinions. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but having to pay to attend the dinner where the awards are handed out at £250 a go smells of organisers greed and throws a dark light on the true reason for these competitions.

As far as I am concerned the only label worth pursuing is a Gold Medal, though because there are now so many of those they introduced a new Platinum award on top of which are trophies for best of all of everything. All to much methinks and certainly far too much for the general public to take in or want to take in. As an example I purchased a wine I had no knowledge of, a Spanish Tempranillo, the grape used in Rioja, with good reviews and a Silver medal. How this wine (there was nothing corked or faulty about it) won any award I have no idea, half went down the sink, and as before this is not isolated in its  occurrence.

Though to be fair that sort of sink moment is much much rarer now than twenty thirty years ago. Screw tops have made a big difference to keeping wines fresh and free from the ravages of air and oxidization. Corked wines are no longer the worry they were, the pros and cons of cork versus screw top and compound corks goes on unabated. All methods have merit in different situations, so there is no reason to bid one against the other and the demand for cork has lessened meaning the problems created by using under-age cork have now been eliminated to a large degree.

Along with the screw top the other plus for the occasional buyer was the grape/grapes variety on the label. Europe never has and still largely doesn’t do this with the noble exception of Germany, whose labels despite legislation some time ago to simplify them have become ever more indecipherable, proving if nothing else the Germans can’t do simple! Mind you, some of their Gothic script labels are the finest of all wine labels to view.

Trends and styles as with any consumable in this day and age are in constant change, not always for the better but at least it means wine is no longer stuck in a time warp of tastes and choice as it was to a degree in the past

In reds the New World has brought us fruit dominated wines, mainly because ripening grapes is not as difficult in say Australia as in northern Europe. Yet when the American wine writer and critic Robert M Parker started his influential magazine The Wine Advocate and became the most influential wine critic in the world, his preference especially for up-front fruit laden wines changed even the Bordeaux Chateaux direction especially in the right bank communes of Pomerol and surrounds because Parker points sold wines often at inflated prices, and who wasn’t going to have some of that?

Parker having stepped down from his tasting duties has meant that in 2015 the last great vintage being released there is an obvious though slow swing back to less fruit driven high alcohol wines and whilst many of these “fruit bombs” were exceptional in their own right many were not. Too much of everything made them unbalanced and so some good has come of Mr Parker leaving the scene whilst on the other hand he had a big part in raising standards as he was not afraid to slate bad wine, something the Chateaux were fully aware of hence bending their product to his tastes even if only marginally.

In everyday wines the move to introduce new wines and grape varieties has slowed along with supermarket profits. In red wines the only significant new additions in quantity are from South America with Malbecs from Argentina and Carmenere from Chile appearing in greater numbers. Malbecs in particular are great value for quality and value and the more expensive ones are every bit as good as anything else in the wine world at their price points. Carmenere is still not so easy to find but the better ones again are well worth seeking out. Other grapes from these countries will follow and especially Pinot Noir the red Burgundy grape, so difficult to grow. It is the reason why small growers and limited supply have made this wine so expensive in its native homeland Burgundy.

New Zealand now has large plantings of this grape and many are on sale in Europe, but in my experience the majority of the cheaper ones suffer from unripe fruit and are not worth the purchase. For the real thing you are looking at the 20 pound bracket and up which is why Chile could be the supplier of cheaper drinkable Pinot Noir. I have sampled many and apart from a couple of duds at least you know you are drinking that grape as the fruit is ripe, it should only improve from that source.

Other reds that have appeared are Italian Aglianico, the good ones are great the rest mediocre, and Mencia from Spain very trendy at the moment but little around to form much of an opinion. Though Spains other areas outside Rioja are appearing more readily and are top quality, especially Ribera del Douro and old vine Grenache wines from Priorat, and from Portugal Touriga Nacional the main red grape of the country is also making some very good wines.

None of these grapes and areas are “new” they are either resurgent areas that became in many cases forgotten backwaters or in the case of the grapes that went out of fashion revived. No doubt that trend will continue and with white wines there is no greater example than Chardonnay. The grape is one of the great white wine grapes responsible for white Burgundy, yet because it is relatively easy to grow was planted everywhere in the new world resulting in Chardonnay overload and the cliche “anything but Chardonnay”. Its place as number one white selling grape is Sauvignon Blanc providing everything from sublime to bland and the grape that made New Zealand the wine nation it is.

But if you fancy SB don’t forget that the Loire with its Sancerre and Pouilly Fume still makes lovely SB European style, not so fruity but, crisper more tangy and better with food in many cases. It’s a style that many have forgotten in the rush to purchase the fruit driven NZ Sauvignons. Pinot Grigio is another white that sells in large quantities. God knows why. Most is without any merit yet still it fills the shelves.

There is more obvious grape variety on offer in white wines on sale, many especially the Italian ones don't merit bothering with and the superior versions of wines like Soave are priced way above what they are worth. If you want to try something a bit different in white wine without breaking the bank, Spanish Godello, very trendy but worth sampling. Picpoul de Pinet from the South of France, and the better Verdicchios from Italy along with Greco de Tuffo and Arneis a wonderful grape in the right hands and a poor one elsewhere. There are literally hundreds of grape varieties that are used in blends  and remote areas and some can make very good wines in their own right, but most unless you know your stuff are indistinguishable to a large degree and not worth bothering with. The Italians again are very good at promoting wines in this category.

Italy by the way is still the biggest producer of wine in the world, a claim that can have good and negative connotations. Variety both red and white is Italy's strength but getting the quality out into the real world is another matter. I love Italian wines and their variety but balk at some of the rubbish they export. It is improving but still too slowly. Even their fine wine areas, Piedmont and Tuscany get away with overpriced mediocrity. I know I have purchased it. Sad, as a great Barolo is up there with any other of the worlds top wines.

Rosé has really taken off in its own right in wine terms those few odd bottles of “girly” wine found in the corner of off-licenses in the past have now grown to whole sections of display shelves, and the styles range from sweet to dry as in the red wine they are mostly based on it is only grape skin pigment that gives the colour and this can be adjusted by the method either of pressing the grapes straight away or leaving them for awhile and running the juice off early. It is still very much a fashion statement but no harm in that, and its current popularity is shown by the fact that vineyards throughout the world are now producing it.

And further proof of quality elsewhere is the Austrian Gruner Veltliners in the shops. Not long ago I would not have touched any Austrian wine on principle after their ethanol scandal, but these old vineyards are giving us some very good bottles of something a bit different. Along with Gewurztraminer from the Alsace, these are among the few new trends in supermarket wines. In overall terms the supermarkets are moribund, the bottom line dictating all.

Yet for all that the wine scene has never been rosier. Japanese wine has appeared on our shores. China is planting huge acreage with vines. Mexico, Brazil, India and here in England vines are increasingly being planted. We are restricted mainly to sparkling wine aka Champagne but the results have been staggeringly good with many giving Champagne a real run for its money. The proof of the quality being that several French Champagne house are either buying land in the South Downs or are making deals with British vineyards.

In fact Champagne with its total grip on the market is under pressure with Italian Prosecco  having for the first time overtaken Champagne sales in this country. A cheaper product and at the bottom end a worthy rival and better value than Champagne. Champagne has a problem, the cheap versions taste mainly very uninspiring and are not in monetary terms exactly cheap, Champagne has done a very good job of selling as a luxury product when much of it isn’t.

Will we grow other grapes successfully here? The Romans did and temperature rises if they happen will ensure other worthwhile grape varieties will be planted. Most of what is currently planted struggles to make anything you can’t buy better and cheaper from elsewhere, yet with well over a thousand vineyards up and running here and growing by the year in the long run why not? Add to that the Eastern European countries that have a long tradition in wine production.

The Crimea was the supplier of wines to the Czars, and you have another area, a sleeping giant where money is being invested and the results are being awaited. This a fascinating glimpse of the vineyards in the Crimea, the video is from the NYT.

Crimean Vineyards of Last Czar Withstand Time and Tumult

My own trip last year in May was to the Rhone valley, one of the oldest wine regions in France and even more revered than Bordeaux at one time and more expensive to buy. Everyone recognises the names Cote Du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape yet there is a lot more to Rhone wines than that. The latter have never been cheap and the great Northern Rhone wines like Hermitage ditto, but the southern Rhone in places like Gigondas and Vacqueyras supply increasingly good quality and sensible prices. The region is on the rise, the Cotes de Ventoux being a treasure trove of bargain wines with rising quality and I did my bit by bringing back a couple ! of cases.

Just a final note. Despite the situation with the supermarkets with the possible exception of Waitrose, all is not lost as the internet is supplying evermore more online retailers and even the high street has at least got Majestic plus a lot more independent wine merchants reappearing. The reality being the choice has never been better.

And whatever reviews experts awards tell you - only use them as a general guide. Never are they sacrosanct. Buy what you enjoy, enjoy what you buy. By all means go out of your comfort zone now and again - you will be pleasantly surprised. Remember wine was created to go with food to be shared at the table with friends and family as well as enjoyed for its own sake. Enjoy.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Car Wash

Although we haul out the hosepipe and wash the car every now and then, we usually use one of two local hand car-washes. Both are inexpensive and they do a good job. The guys who actually do the washing seem to come from eastern Europe. My language skills are miles away from being able to say exactly where.

Hardly unusual of course, immigrants doing jobs local people don’t want. Maybe other car washes are different, but in ours the guys work hard and do a good job. As I sit there in comfort while the car is washed and waxed I can’t help noticing how unlikely it is that British people would work so hard and be so thorough.

Traditionally one explains this via some kind of economic story as if to sterilise the situation and isolate it from the uncomfortable complexities of human behaviour. To my mind we should also focus on what it is to be British and take into account commonly observed British behaviour. ‘Idle’ is a word that springs to mind. There are others.

Yet the word ‘idle’ doesn’t grab hold of the whole issue. The British predilection for comfortable bumbling means few of us are able to wash cars for a living. It isn’t a job we won’t do, but a job we cannot do. Looking down on the job, peering at it sympathetically through streaming car windows, another story may be unfolding before our eyes.

Too many of us seem to have lost the habit of working hard and well. Not all and perhaps not even most, but too many. Perhaps we'll never have to relearn it at some point in the future, but that seems unlikely.

Friday 13 January 2017

Tristram in the links

Links are highlighted well by the internet and not only clicky links. When making sense of things, people tend to search for emotional links or causal links to explain the cascade of events in daily life. Emotional links are always popular and well suited to improvising unlikely but comforting explanations. There are many other links too. Tristram Hunt has decided to break some old ones while forging a few new ones.

Labour MP Tristram Hunt is quitting as an MP to become the director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, triggering a by-election.

Mr Hunt told the BBC that while he had "had differences" with party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the past "that wasn't the spur" for stepping down.

"The spur was the incredible opportunity of the job," he said.

So he has opted to sever his formal Parliamentary Labour party links and forge new links with the V&A. A move from one museum to another as some wag wrote in a link I’ve now lost. To forestall the obvious, he has linked his resignation to the fairly commonplace activity of changing career.

Nothing to do with glaringly obvious links to deselection or having to endure the worst party leader in Labour’s history. Linking his resignation to a mere career move is Tristram’s polite way of ducking embarrassing links to these far more likely and obvious causes. Crikey - maybe he is a gentleman.

Not that he thinks anyone will fail to make the obvious link between his resignation and the Corbyn disaster. It merely allows him to wave away links to sinking ship analogies. And deserting rats of course, but that link would be unkind.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Shrill Web


Is it me or is the internet particularly shrill at the moment? I suppose Brexit and Trump have rattled some comfortable cages but I never expected such a protracted bout of anguished screeching from the comfort zones. Presumably it is almost impossible for the web to go completely bonkers. Almost.

Monday 9 January 2017

AI reporting is mostly fake news


Interesting piece on artificial intelligence (AI) in The Register. It claims that -

Almost everything you read about AI is fake news. The AI coverage comes from a media willing itself into the mind of a three year old child, in order to be impressed.

For example, how many human jobs did AI replace in 2016? If you gave professional pundits a multiple choice question listing these three answers: 3 million, 300,000 and none, I suspect very few would choose the correct answer, which is of course “none”.

Similarly, if you asked tech experts which recent theoretical or technical breakthrough could account for the rise in coverage of AI, even fewer would be able to answer correctly that “there hasn’t been one”...

...Out in the real world, people want better service, not worse service; more human and less robotic exchanges with services, not more robotic "post-human" exchanges. But nobody inside the AI cult seems to worry about this. They think we’re as amazed as they are. We’re not.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Celebrity Beliefs

One of my minor hobbies is reading the social and political comments modern celebrities seem so addicted to. Sad isn’t it?

As everyone must know, the quality of celebrity opinion is extremely variable. Some are witty, a few are informed, but many celebrity opinions betray the most astounding ignorance.

Which brings us to the question of belief. If celebrity opinions are any guide then they suggest that belief can indeed be startlingly ignorant. Celebrities are not in the business of playing the intellectual clown. It may seem like that to some of us, but they know their audience better than we do.

It is almost as if ignorance rather than knowledge is the prime requisite for a wide range of human belief. In which case where does that take us? To my mind, belief is best seen as allegiance. It takes us further than the notion that people actually analyse their beliefs. Celebrities don’t have the time anyway.

One way to look at the issue is to remember that nothing in the natural world ever happens twice. Everything is at least slightly different to what went before, so it is always best to respond to ‘now’ via an improvised version of some overarching conception of what now ought to be. Not necessarily what ‘now’ is, but what it ought to be, what a commonly held belief says it is.

So we improvise our responses to ‘now’ by adapting what worked before. That is what the natural world selects from us. Belief seems to have evolved from this need to respond to ‘now’ while keeping hold of whatever worked in the past. That is to say, whatever worked socially. Truth has its uses, but it isn’t necessarily the bottom line darling.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Celebrity Failures

How many celebrities do you admire? None? Same here. The world seems full of the pests promoting themselves.

For example, the recent story about celebrity cook Jamie Oliver closing six of his Italian restaurants ought to attract a certain amount of sympathy, at least for the job losses it represents. Yet however much I rummage through my conscience I cannot find a single atom of sympathy. Nothing.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is closing six of his 42 UK Jamie's Italian restaurants.

The Aberdeen, Cheltenham, Exeter, Tunbridge Wells and in London, the Ludgate and Richmond outlets are all scheduled to close soon.

The move will affect 120 staff, whom the company said it would try to place in other parts of the chain.

The company said that the market was "tough" and the uncertainties caused by Brexit had intensified the pressures.

If anything I’m very mildly pleased to see a celebrity failure without being entirely sure why that might be. Perhaps there is a sense that celebrity success is so often undeserved, but for all I know it might be deserved in Jamie Oliver’s case. Yet somehow I feel it isn't. 

What grates is his willingness to mix with politics, to involve himself in official attempts to dictate what children ought to eat. These things ought to be worthy but in his hands they are not. Perhaps we have reached a stage where celebrity itself is a contaminant. The idea that famous people should be listened to because they are famous - it often doesn't work. And when that person also comes across as a bit of a git...

Thursday 5 January 2017

Midsomer Theremin

The late Celia Sheen plays the theme tune from ITV's drama series "Midsomer Murders" on the Theremin.

I find it fascinating to watch. When I first saw the clip I thought what a good idea it would have been to show Celia playing the theme tune before each episode. A shadowy image of her superimposed on seemingly innocent scenes of village life perhaps.

Of course one problem with the idea is that many of us might have found Celia playing the Theremin rather more mysterious than the programmes. 

Wednesday 4 January 2017

The Campaign For Real News


As we know, mainstream news brewers such as the BBC are deeply concerned about an internet trend towards real news. As yet they are resisting calls to brew real news themselves, insisting that their fizzy, pasteurised concoctions are what the market demands. This is due to their traditional reluctance to tell the hoi polloi what is going on plus an understandable reluctance to find out first.

It’s all down to cost you see. As with almost all other products, real news is expensive to produce and mainstream news brewers find it far more cost effective to satisfy their readers with the ersatz variety. Guardian readers have even been known to make a virtue of preferring ersatz news to the real thing, a kind of inverse snobbery like the glottal stop or pretending that yoghurt pots can be recycled.

It comes as no surprise when mainstream outlets for mass-produced news fight back against the Real News Campaign, claiming it isn’t news at all and certainly cannot be classed with that virtually unobtainable product, so-called “genuine news.”

Yet more sophisticated tastes are more demanding. We see that in so many areas of life and it isn’t about to go away. The trend towards a more demanding public has deep roots. One has only to recall the demise of Watneys Red Barrel, a pasteurised beer foisted on the public in the nineteen sixties and early seventies. Eventually beer drinkers tired of drinking fizzy brown aqueous alcohol and demanded something more genuine.

Now the wheel turns again and the Watneys Red Barrel phenomenon has morphed into a similar problem with ersatz news. Currently mainstream news is cheap to brew and entirely designed around mass production for an undiscerning market. Increasingly it won’t do but mainstream news brewers have not prepared themselves for the added costs and complications of a more sophisticated product such as real news.

For the discerning news consumer, real news is an altogether more satisfying product. Crafted from traditional values and often literate it is made with care and a degree of honesty entirely unknown to the behemoths of the news market. Will the big guys go the way of Watneys Red Barrel or will they come up with a real news product of their own? If they do come up with a real news product how will they report it? 

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Shallow Jem

What is Jeremy Corbyn’s great weakness as a political leader? It is easy enough to dismiss him as useless, doctrinaire or whatever, but the basic question remains. Why is he so useless? Outside the political bubble I imagine he manages his affairs and is personable enough even if he persists in wearing his virtue on his sleeve. So what goes wrong when he steps into the official party leader’s trousers every morning?

The first thing to be explained is that millions of voters would vote for him if there were to be a general election in the near future. Yet Corbyn obviously doesn’t know how to govern a country such as the UK. He doesn’t even know how it is governed now, let alone how it might be more effectively governed in the future. He doesn't know anyone who knows either, yet millions would still vote for him.

This says something vitally important about human nature – it says we are shallow in our political allegiances. It can't be restricted to Labour voters and it isn't. To my mind this is also Corbyn’s basic problem - he is shallow. What you see is what you get.

Not a shattering conclusion, but here’s the rub – we are all equally shallow. Theresa May is just as shallow as Corbyn. She has no idea how to manage Brexit and it is mainly Corbyn’s absurdly inept handling of political opposition that keeps her afloat. It may even allow her to manage what probably should be politically unmanageable.

We are all shallow but we expect the political classes to hide it and we moan like hell when they don’t. Ed Miliband is as shallow as they come. He had no idea that his meddling with the election process for Labour leader would be such a disaster because it is so easily subverted.

What Corbyn illustrates is uncomfortable for anyone who cares to cast a bleak eye over what his antics tell us about human behaviour. We cannot personally measure up to political expectations and we cannot find people who do measure up and vote for them. It is only by calling on a wide range of outside expertise and experience that politicians ever manage to maintain the facade of modest competence.

When too much reliance is placed on a political class which has never done anything else but play political games then the shallowness of human behaviour becomes more and more obvious. An old aristocracy had certain advantages in that some of its members were trained to rule, trained to use outside expertise as it should be used and trained to disguise their own shallowness more effectively than people such as Corbyn and May. More importantly they had lives outside politics and that is something we could learn from and emulate. 

Sunday 1 January 2017

The sum of the matter

A message about the corruption of language from twenty five centuries ago. Not a new problem, but unlike Confucius we have largely forgotten to resolve it before we make decisions. To my mind this is the time of year when we should remember how much damage politically correct celebrities do to our language. It isn't confined to the political classes and the media.  

Tsz-lu said to the Master, "As the prince of Wei, sir, has been waiting for you to act for him in his government, what is it your intention to take in hand first?"

"One thing of necessity," he answered—"the rectification of terms."

"That!" exclaimed Tsz-lu. "How far away you are, sir! Why such rectification?"

"What a rustic you are, Tsz-lu!" rejoined the Master. "A gentleman would be a little reserved and reticent in matters which he does not understand. If terms be incorrect, language will be incongruous; and if language be incongruous, deeds will be imperfect. So, again, when deeds are imperfect, propriety and harmony cannot prevail, and when this is the case laws relating to crime will fail in their aim; and if these last so fail, the people will not know where to set hand or foot. Hence, a man of superior mind, certain first of his terms, is fitted to speak; and being certain of what he says can proceed upon it. In the language of such a person there is nothing heedlessly irregular—and that is the sum of the matter."