All posts by Roger Terry

Oldie with a young family, retired from business and teaching/coaching/writing in English

A confession of sorts

One of the worst things about getting older (or being old) is no the stiff back or dodgy knee, not the lack of energy or the insomnia, it is, for me, the inability to drink alcohol in anything other than in semi abstemious quantities. Not that I have ever been what might be termed, a serious drinker. I have known some who could enthusiastically consume eight pints of beer in a couple of hours, others who could drink the entire night away on a few of bottles of vodka or gin at least, but for me, at maximum, two bottles of wine spread over a dinner party was the high point of my drinking career which I reached in my early ‘30’s. Since reaching 65 it has been, as they say, “downhill all the way”. Last night is a case in point. A warm, early summer, evening after a hot and sunny day. Time to relax and have a drink. An Aperol with dry white wine, some ice, topped up some sparking water. Excellent. One hour later I am unconscious on the sofa only to return to semi consciousness two hours later with a heavy head and a feeling of regret, not for the heavy head but for the fact that I didn’t manage at least two drinks.

The problem is you see that I like to drink, though for the taste more than the feeling. That glass of English bitter, the Aperol spritzer, the Campari orange, the Cointreau frappe, a glass of Port, a whisky Mac, a cold Gewürztraminer with strawberries, Cote de Rhone with lamb (you see, no wine snob me) a Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, a bitter sweet Ice Wine, the list is almost endless, fully inclusive save Champaign, which for me is grossly over rated. My drinking style was not that of the patient sipper, delicately dipping a tongue or moistening the lips, no, I had always been a quaffer, enthusiastically gulping whatever is in my glass, very low class. Now I have to sip with the rest, delicately ensuring that a solitary glass lasts, at the least, the main course of a meal. Let us hope that the next glass is, at least, a large one.

 

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Bluff, double bluff and counter bluff. The real truth behind the Brexit story.

A very bad exit from Europe, with a hard Irish border and many job losses, would probably cost the Tories the next election. However,  if they could cast the EU as a villains and if they were believed, their chances of re-gaining power would be much improved. The danger for the remainers, would be the accusation that they were thwarting “The will of the people”.

And what a magnificent slogan that is. Right up there with “torches of freedom“, “Go to work on an egg“, “Arbeit Macht frei”, “A Reich to last 1000 years,” and “superfast broadband”; phrases to warm the heart of Dr Goebbels and strike fear into the hearts of competent psychologists.  The fact that many thousands of people did actually have an egg for breakfast (until the British food and agriculture minister publicly announce that all eggs contain salmonella) and that many more really did believe that the Hitler’s Reich would last 1000 years, just illustrates the power that slogans have. Let’s face it, we are all pretty dumb when it comes to a catchy slogan. But just how dumb the British people really are remains to be seen.

One of the strangest facts about the Brexit vote was that the people most benefiting from the EU, that is to say the not so well-paid workers and consumers in general, who need state protection against unbridled capitalism, voted for  it. It now seems that in general they treated the vote as a typical protest against the government, a traditional action for a midterm election. “What-ever it is, I’m against it.” What has subsequently become clear is that they did not actually believe that the vote would go against the EU and were told so by most political pundits in the media. Whatever the reasons, here we are with barely a year before Britain exits EU membership and still no real idea what it means. So if the European Union can protect the rights of workers and consumers in general against the machinations of big business who, you might ask, could be against it?

Clearly like most things in life, there are degrees of “against” and it’s worth considering just what those degrees are since the EU is many things. One might suppose that a significant proportion of the “against” would be against the idea of a super-state and fear that that is the direction the EU is headed. They would prefer the EU to be a glorified customer union. Of course, history tells us that what starts as a customer union soon becomes a state. The 26 independent “nations” of Germany in 1834 had, following the establishment of the “zollverein”,  by 1871 become an Empire. Nevertheless, apart from the very very right wing, most, and certainly the business community which is a major source of finance for the Tories, want a customs union of some sort.

Given this, just who are those advocating a hard exit from the European Union. By “hard” of course we mean an exit without a beneficial trading relationship with European Union. Who could possibly want such an outcome? I think I may know the answer. Generally, they are called the hard right of the Tory party. A common thread among this group seems to be education in the private sector, the stronghold of privilege and class distinction within the UK. As has been quoted elsewhere, “Private education in the UK is so good that even the stupid and lazy can succeed”.  And what could be more stupid than Boris Johnson, the poster boy of Brexit, who actually asked rhetorically “can you see the United States joining such a union as the EU?” without realising that in fact the United States is a union of states just like the EU, The United States of Europe (EU), the United States of America. One has to ask if the many thousands of pounds spent on Boris’ education was not wasted but clearly it was not since it seems to have fitted him perfectly for life as a Tory member of Parliament. Similarly with Donald Trump, whose expensive private education in America enabled him to become the President yet seemed unable to overcome the deeply disturbing traumas of his parenting, traumas which he carries with him into his ethical philosophy. A perfect example of the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem, “This be the Verse”

But let’s return to the main point. Who are the people who want the UK to leave the European Union. Names seem to be scarce in the popular press and numbers seem to vary between 40 and 60. As far as I can see there are clear economic benefits gained from membership of the EU the alternative entails serious financial risk. To take such a risk there must be a considerable upside. But the upside is hard to find. The notion of “taking back control of one’s destiny” (another key phrase of the Breixteers) is spurious since most pf the population have no control at all apart from the ability to vote in elections which they are able to do within the EU. Destiny is mostly in the hands of the banks and major companies. On an individual level the rules and regulations forced upon Britain are beneficial and not only through the stimulation of trade, itself a path to prosperity. In particular the rules concerning compensation for passengers of airlines, the fact that medical treatment is available throughout the Union, the fact that my mobile phone works seamlessly everywhere and that hormone laden beef from the USA is banned, are just a few of the benefits. Does anybody really believe that a Tory lead, independent British government is on the side of the workers?

For me I think it’s clear that when companies are bigger than states then a bigger state is necessary to ensure, if not justice, then at least a slightly more even playing field. So what are the upsides which Brexit will bring? Here, again, we have to turn to history. I fear the hard right have developed a pseudo fascist mentality in which the nation will be motivated only through suffering. “The worse the better” may have been a key phrase from the Russian revolution in which the pain of poverty finally brings about radical change, but it was a significant factor in the rise of Hitler and German fascism, the direct result of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the depredation of the resulting economic chaos.

The next American Revolution

The cult of personality is strong everywhere so it should have been no surprise that Donal Trump was elected President of the USA. But the lessons from that election have yet to be learnt. The problem is not that Trump is President, but the power that this gives him. America needs a figurehead, somebody to rally around in time of crisis but that doesn’t have to be the leader of the government. So, time for a new constitution for the USA. Time to split the job. One to represent the nation and another to run the government. Not that Trump actually runs anything himself. He relies on a team (a pretty poor one it is true) to handle things. Nobody voted for them, they voted instead for a man that they believed had the ability to “do a deal” and would know the best people to pick. And of course as high priest of Mammon, he know all the best people, all the people wedded to the idea of a lucrative deal. You don’t know the origin of the world “lucrative”? Stop now and look it up!

 

All this make the possibility of Oprah Winfrey as President a rather more attractive proposition. She certainly has the “chops” for it if not the inclination. She is clearly intelligent, clearly rich and self-made, which is something Mr Trump cannot be accused of. And more, she seems to have the right tone, unifying rather than dividing, conciliatory rather than condemnatory. With the right team behind her she could make a first-class job of leading a new revolution in American thinking. Clearly it is needed.

Wanted, a European city willing to embrace the future.

As countless newspaper stories will tell you, including this one from the FT https://www.ft.com/content/981379a8-f58f-11e7-88f7-5465a6ce1a00 the world is moving to English. Like it or not (and many do not) it is certain. Now is the time to for a European city to become officially bilingual . Of course English is widely spoken in many European counties and in any city it is possible to get by without a word of the local tongue but still, English is not “official” anywhere but Dublin or Valletta. So how about it Bratislava, or Prague? Your young people are great in English so why not make it official and embrace the future before somebody else gets with the program and pips you to the finish, scooping up all the businesses that want to work there but can’t because of the language barrier (particularly true of Vienna). Remember, it is not the strong that survive (despite the pop song that tells you it is), it is the adaptable!

One reason that smaller countries are better at English than the big ones is of course TV. The big ones, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, take International programmes, American mostly, and  actually dub the programmes into the local language thereby ensuring that English language will not get a dangerous foothold into the national psyche. The smaller countries and just add subtitles thereby ensuring that the general population (at least those who can read) are at least used to the sound of English, often from a very young age

The trend towards gender neutrality in language probably marks the end of German as we know it today. With no Der, Die, Das the grammar will collapse leaving it with, yes you’ve guess it, English, which is itself a German dialect made simple for all the Anglo Saxons and Norman French forced to live together!

Some have predicted that with Britain out of the EU and the US retreating globally, English will diminish in acceptance. In fact, the contrary is the case. English can now be considered neutral, giving no country the edge in language. Take the case of the world’s latest state, South Sudan. With over 120million people and 100 languages the official language is, yes, you have guessed it again, English.

It’s a long time since I wrote this blog and as I do so it I remember my long time friend and accountant Steve Baldwin. He always gave me feedback on my writings and his recent death, following a short illness is a tragedy.

Letter to a German politician

Dear Jens Spahn,
First let me apologies for writing to you in English. I fully understand your concerns regarding the use of English. In my defence I can only say that, as a 71 year old resident of Vienna I find that every time I attempt to speak German I am responded to in English. Even when I asked “Haben Sie Kohlsprossen” the response from the Gemüsehändler was, in English ” I think it is too early in the season”.

The problem, which, as a well educated German mother tongue speaker you have, is that you just don’t recognise the complexity of your native language. You also fail to realise that English is fundamentally a German dialect, as is Dutch and other derivatives including local forms where, in spoken form, all nouns take the masculine.

Languages are not prisons, they are a method of communication and the easier that is, the better for everybody. People adopt words which they find useful, hence the appearance of “Zeitgeist” and “Schadenfreude” in English. These German words are better than the English equivalent, shorter and more precise and so the language adapts and incorporates them.

I could write more and in fact have done so within my blog but may I close with this. It is not the strong which survive, but the most adaptable. That goes for languages just as with species.
ps. Why is so much of the worlds economy in the hands of the USA? One market, 350million people, one language. That is a great place to start a business.

A new form of warfare.

Asymmetric Warfare is the name given to a military conflict in which one side is big and the other side is small. Rather like the David and Goliath fight which features in the Bible. I have a new spin on this which came to mind when reading a BBC story about Israel using a $3.2 million missile to shoot down a $500 dollar drone. Pursued to its logical conclusion, a poor country could soon bankrupt a rich one, a real example of “asymmetry”.  But this story has made me reconsider the whole concept of modern warfare. For a very long time now “stealth” has been a buzz word in military circles. Stealth fighters, stealth bombers and even stealth ships (in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies) seem to have become an essential component of every new aerial vehicle, manned or unmanned. Clearly, evading enemy radar is a good thing since invisibility is a kind of superpower which give a very big advantage. But encouraging the enemy to use up all its missiles before your planes arrive could be, I would suggest, a much better plan. How can this be achieved, you ask? The answer is simple. Take a look at the latest FURY drone from Lockheed Martin. It looks like a miniature fighter jet and of course Lockheed sell it as being stealthy, with a minimal visual signature, which of course means it is hard to see. Now with all the surveillance bits added, this is not going to be cheap, but actually, the only electronic bit it really needs as an “image enhancer”, a device which will make it look huge on a radar, in fact make it look like a real fighter. Then the enemy under attack can fire all its missiles at a swarm of these “targets” leaving it defenceless against the wave of stealth machines which will follow along soon after.

Actually the plan is a bit like the “doodlebug” VI flying bombs used by German in the later stages of World War II which was an unmanned flying machine with a very simple jet engine and basic navigation controls. Modern production techniques would make the thing a cheaper to produce. Even with a basic “pulse jet” engine it would probably cost less than $10,000, and that includes an auto-pilot. Now $10,000 might seem like a lot, but up against a $3.5 million it is clearly just a drop in the ocean. Now that is really asymmetrical!

Memories of Wine

Last week we were in the UK and visited an old friend. 17 years ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, I had given him a bottle of quite expensive vintage port and this year, on the basis that we might not have another dinner together, he decided to drink it. Opening it was a struggle. Despite storage on its side, the cork had hardened and broke upon attempted extraction. This was not really a problem as we had a muslin filter to hand as part of the decanting process though it proved vexatious to my friend who had become somewhat irascible in his later years. On sampling the wine, I can say it was good, but how good, and what defines good in this context? Thinking about this cast me into a pool of wine reminiscence.

I can remember at some time in the late 1970’s, taking a woman to a well reputed restaurant and, in order to impress, ordering a bottle of expensive Pouilly Fuissé. Frankly it blew me away. My drinking habits had, until that time, been confined to the lower end of red wine spectrum with a penchant for those from the Rhone valley, though my wine drinking experience had been initiated by the Sunday consumption of a “cheap” white from communist Yugoslavia, from a region now know as Slovenia, the first region of that country to gain independence after the fall of communism in 1991. At that time I would have been about 20 years old, the price of a bottle was 11 UK shillings (55pence in today’s currency) and its name was Lutomer Riesling. 20 years later it went on to become the UK’s most popular wine though I suspect it was more to do with the price than the quality as was the case with its later rival, Blue Nunn , a semi sweet white wine from the Mosel region of Germany which has a very low alcohol content, a significant factor keeping the price low as the tax on wine was directly related to its alcoholic content.

As time passed my wine drinking became more diverse. For a time I favoured a Christian Brothers Zinfandel from Northern California which was reasonably priced in the local Safeways. Subsequently I discovered that an almost direct comparison of Californian wines with those from Chile gave the prize to Chile both in terms of quality and price. From this I learned the significance of phylloxera a disease affecting the vines of which Chile is free.

My earliest wine experience came in 1963 when I found myself in Hungary on a visit to a pen friend. At that time, Hungary was in the very tight grip of communists and there was little of excitement to be found. We went to a summer vacation spot on the South Eastern shore of Lake Balaton and there was introduced to wine made illegally in bathrooms. It was white, tasted pretty good to me, a mere novice, and got me drunk. At 17 years old, that was I that was required. Lake Balaton remains a significant wine producing area with excellent wines found particularly in the Tihany peninsular.

I remember a day, some time in the 1990’s when I found myself together with my friend Guy, in a “booze” warehouse in Calais, which was, (an probably still is) an essential stopover for UK citizens returning the UK from the continent, given that the importation of alcohol for personal consumption incurs no additional UK taxes. We were both attracted to a Fitou which I recall, was popular at that time and both bought a case. Upon sampling the next day, I had another “socks blown off” moment and immediately telephoned to Guy who answered with “have you tried the wine?” With both of us so enthused is became obligatory for one of us to immediately return to Calais and purchase all that was available. The task fell to Guy who set of immediately. Five hours later he called. It had all been sold. Actually Fitou comes from the Languedoc, a region of the South of France bordering the Pyrenees and running towards the Riviera. it was the target of a Roman Catholic Crusade against the heretics of the region which continued for over 100 years.

At some time in the 1990’s I again found myself in Hungary though this time I was staying at the Hilton Hotel. I had dinner with another Hungarian friend, Balazs, at a restaurant within the Budapest Castle area. Again, a truly memorable wine from within the country though the only memory I actually have is of saying to myself, “this red is great!”

And so it goes on. In Shanghai I met an Australian who was trying to launch a wine brand in partnership with an Aussi producer. I can’t remember the name, but I managed to drink a bottle so it must have been reasonable. During the early 1980’s I went annually to Munich and whilst there always visited a Swiss restaurant to drink a Swiss red of outstanding quality. Switzerland? Red? Outstanding Quality? Yes, all true, though again, of name or specific origin I have no memory.

One wine always sticks in my memory, Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace, that German speaking part of France. Tending to sweetness, it is, for me, the quintessential summer wine. I call it liquid sunshine.

Given my extensive, though amateur, wine drinking history it is perhaps no coincidence that I now find myself living in one of the most wine aware countries in the world, Austria, the son-in-law of a wine producer and brother in law of Leo, one of that country’s most famous wine makers. Austria is a very good example of bad things ultimately producing good results. In 1985 a lot of Austrian wine was found to be adulterated with a sweetener and as a result, 90% of the country’s exports were wiped out. With purity laws introduced and an emphasis on quality over volume, the result has been remarkable. I would venture that it is hard to find a bad Austrian wine and much is really excellent. This could well be a precedent for the situation in the USA where Donald Trump is so unpopular, it could well produce a backlash which will end the Republican dominance and in the EU where Brexit looks to be such a disaster for the UK that the rest of the EU will realise just how lucky they are to be in such a Union, despite the populist campaign against it.

My father-in-law produced about 5000 litres of annually, mostly of the Gruener Vietliner variety but with some Riesling also. As a member of the wine co-operative he sold the bulk to them retaining about 500 litres for family consumption. One day I was there with Leo, the real expert, and sampled his family production. Turning to my brother-in-law I said, “this is brilliant, how can it be so good?” He didn’t know but speculated that it was the comparatively slow and low temperature fermentation.  Another possible explanation lies in the position of the vineyards. Set in terraces below forests, the sun of summer is mitigated by the nightly decent of cool air from the trees. Not being an expert of course, I am unable to speculate.

On another occasion Leo offered me a red to try and asked me if I knew the provenance. I had the strongest feeling it was from New Zealand but declined to guess. It was from New Zealand and I lost a lot of brownie points for not saying it.

We drink wine almost every day, moderately, with food. With red meat or strong flavours is it always red, with chicken or fish, white. This is pretty conservative I will admit but it works for me. And the choice? Our every day red is the blend know as Flat Lake, produced by my brother in law (without his name) for one of Europe’s biggest chain of grocers. At €4.49 it is outstanding value. For a more upmarket experience we might take the other iterations of the brand though on those Sundays when I cook roast lamb in the traditional UK Sunday Lunch style, I will reach out to a French red which I purchase from a specialist local importer.

For white wines we push the boat out to €9.90 for a local Riesling though last week I had an interesting wine experience. My next door neighbour has a wine garden with 350 vines. The “heavy” work is undertaken by a local farmer whist my neighbour is responsible for pruning and harvesting, which is usually undertaken on a co-operative basis with friends of which I am occasionally one. The 2016 seems to have been particularly good not only in terms of quantity, 1050 litres, but also quality. It is an excellent Chardonnay vintage and one which I look forward to drinking.

So, what makes a great wine? One thing is clear. The difference between good and bad is readily apparent but to really get to grips with the shades of difference, blind tasting from a selection is vital. I discovered this one day when drinking Scotch. Looking into the cupboard I saw five different kinds and decided to do my own blind tasting test. The clear winner to me was Bell’s so, on the basis that year of production is of no consequence, it is my Scotch of choice. But of course the same thing does not apply to wine which, in comparison to Scotch, is subject to grape, soil, climate, producer and blend and, sorry to say, fashion. Todays “outstanding” can easily become tomorrow’s “indifferent” yet when I am at a restaurant I invariably leave it to the waiter to choose. Frankly I can drink almost anything but sometime the proffered wine is great, and all the better for it being a surprise. I like surprises!