Towards the chimes at midnight, a few of us left a — respectable — establishment near Leicester Square. Eight or nine youngsters were brawling vigorously, boots and fists. 999 was dialled, and the response was admirably fast. The cops would no doubt have recorded it as just another trivial incident in the life of a British inner city. But how squalid.
That day, there was a story about undergraduettes moonlighting as lap-dancers or strippers, or worse. We have suffered a loss of civilisation since Newman: most of the ‘universities’ to which those girls were accredited should never have received that status. Until the day before yesterday, they would have been called the Haltemprice Mechanics’ Institute or somesuch, and done useful work. Today, the most that can be hoped for is that they do not offer degrees in pimping or whoring yet.
We had discussed Islam, expressing little sympathy. Suddenly, that changed. The attitudes of the repressive Muslim father seemed less reprehensible: his desire to protect girlhood more comprehensible. Is there a middle way between forced marriages on the one hand and Leicester Square after closing time on the other? Or is it time for cynicism and a paraphrase of Isaiah Berlin: the great bads cannot always live together?
Apropos of Islam, this is not the easiest period to discuss its early history, as it separated itself from Jewish and Christian influences. But in Jordan, there are Ummayad and Abbasid hunting lodges with frescoes. Chaps who have had a good day’s sport are being waited on by diaphanously clad girls; Haltemprice Mechanics’ Institute would have nothing to teach them. These houris are carrying trays of goblets. It seems unlikely they contained Diet Coke. In that early period, there might still have been an Arabic phrase, in regular use, for nunc est bibendum. What a tragedy that it was lost.
A couple of us returned to the topic over lunch and a wine from the edges of the former Islamic empire. I have already mentioned the white Viña Tondonia 1991, but it is worth renewed praise. When the latest bottle was opened, I was alarmed. The cork disintegrated and at first sniff, there was a musty, unwelcoming nose. Had it gone the way of most quarter-of-a-century-old whites? Then everything came right. At first nosing, aged wines can suffer from bottle stink; you are smelling air that has been trapped for decades. But it will quickly dissipate, as did any suggestion that our bottle was defective. Its structure, fruit, subtlety, harmony and length on the palate had us stretching for superlatives.
Inspired by this example of Spanish civilisation, we toasted the Reconquista and los Reyes Católicos. Over the centuries, there have been suggestions that they should be canonised for their valiant efforts against the pagans and for setting in motion the conversion of Spanish America. These days, that might be a problem. They would hardly qualify for the Order of the Beatitudes. But why not establish a chapter of military saints? Saint George could be its captain-general, Ferdinand and Isabella, obvious members. Once the controversy had subsided, it might be time for another Spanish warrior, also for service against paganism: Francisco Franco.
The next wine was a red Tondonia Reserva 2001. After its elder sister, we had high expectations, which were disappointed. It was tired. We agreed that it urgently needed drinking up, more as a matter of good housekeeping than in the expectation of vinous delight.
That said, I have been lucky enough to drink a number of ’01 clarets recently: no tiredness there. A Gazin was excellent; a Pontet-Canet, even better, justifying its growing reputation. A Grand-Puy Lacoste seemed uninspired, but it suddenly, maddeningly, came to life in the last sips. Enough time in the decanter, and it would be good enough to salute a warrior saint.
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