Cou nter poi nts difficult concept. Yet almost nobody who heaped scorn on Wilson for his outburst was capable of explaining why it’s unacceptable to shout “You lie!” on the floor of the House. It’s not unacceptable because it’s discourteous (though it is) or because the rules of the House forbid it (though they do). It’s unacceptable because attributions of bad faith have the inevitable effect of poisoning debate.
I suspect the meaning of incivility will be evacuated soon enough. It’s easy to envisage a time when “incivility” means nothing more than the expression of an opinion incompatible with left-liberal consensus. An “uncivil” expression will be one that threatens the equipoise of our progressive sensibilities, and a person given to making such expressions will have no right to make them. When that happens, “civility” will become just another tool, like “diversity”, used to achieve its opposite.
Friend to the end By Hugh Curtiss
It’s many years since I was a monk and thus a professional in the death business. Back then, I felt quite strongly, almost pictorially, that heaven awaited those souls whose bodies had expired. I remain inclined to think death is a blessed release for many and should be celebrated as such.
I still feel an obligation to my old community and spent last autumn helping out with the very old monks who now make up an awkward (though not resented) majority. For one old chap in particular, Brother Frank, I became an amicus mortis—“a friend in death”—and was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to speed him on his way in the way I thought I should.
In his early nineties, Frank lost his legs and so became unmanageable in the monastery. He was moved to a commercial nursing home and for several years thrived there as a sort of exclaustrated monk. The people who looked after him—perhaps especially the Poles, Zimbabweans and Filipinos—seemed very easy around his informal religiosity. I think he slipped into a relaxed secularity, with his TV getting as much attention as his icons.
In November, as death squirrelled away at Frank’s 95-year-old insides and mind, it was as though the whole of him was randomly on display. He would be, by turns, nine months old, and 19 and 90. The nursing staff mostly concerned themselves with his comfort and that involved lots of tranquillisers and painkillers. And yet the old boy kept rallying.
“Ah, it’s not his time yet,” a sister would say, as he recovered sufficiently to face more discomfort and distress, though not at all to the extremes he would have faced without her patches and injections. Still, the sister’s platitude irritated me.
This was a mark of how different my role was from theirs. Most of the home-grown senior staff at the home were secularists, yet they were using a fiction which is an overhang from a religious view. The name of Dr Harold Shipman is much invoked by nurses, who curse the cruelty occasionally imposed in the name of caution. But they are reluctant to play God, even if the law allows it. More than that, they need a narrative with which to go on cherishing their charges—and the life in them— until death declares itself the victor.
Contrary to the gloom of much media commentary about institutionalised care, and my own prejudices, I am inclined to think that Frank was in professional hands which my presence did not much improve. I was probably some comfort to him but I was most useful when my vigils meant I could alert his carers to his needs. When they came, they seemed sound judges of his need of comfort rather than longevity. They were pretty good friends in death in their own conscientious right.
Tale of two meals By David Womersley
Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Avignon. The hotel was excellent, the weather cold but clear and dry with an invigorating mistral, and the opportunities for cultural improvement as always tempting and prolific. But in respect of one of the pleasures of the trip to which I had been looking forward with some keenness, I came away with mixed and puzzled feelings. The food had been less good than I had hoped.
What had gone wrong? It is best captured by contrasting two meals. The first was a cheap lunch eaten outside at a modest restaurant directly opposite the Palais des Papes. It cost ¤25 for three courses. The main course was wonderful: braised pig cheek served on a bed of wet polenta. That cheap cut had been apotheosised in the kitchen, transformed into something full of flavour, and tender while still holding its shape. The comparative blandness of the polenta (perfectly cooked) offset the richness of the meat, and testified to the Northern Italian influence on Provençal cooking. It was impossible to imagine anything better of its kind. As I looked around me, every one was eating it, and every plate went back to the kitchen almost licked clean.
The second was an elaborate dinner at a restaurant with Michelin ambitions. It cost ¤70, and it was badly conceived. We were given a series of elaborate, small dishes, all of which seemed somehow to be a prelude to a main event which never arrived. The experience was like that of moving through a series of antechambers and then suddenly finding yourself back on the street holding a cup of coffee. The defining moment came when we were served what looked like a large triangular wafer in a cocktail glass. What could it be, we thought as it approached. It was a slice of cheese. Our French friends questioned the waiter. Why was the cheese being served like that and why was there no bread with it? The waiter was indignant. It was important to encourage the chef’s creativity, and unsympathetic comments such as ours would only wound him.
To which the right reply is, no, it’s not important to encourage the chef’s creativity, if encouragement leads him to confuse putting slices of cheese in Martini glasses with being creative. I had hoped that France might have resisted one of the absurdities of contemporary England, namely the elevation of the chef to the status of an auteur. I had thought that the long traditions of that country would have prevented the modern English style of cooking, in which unconventional presentation and perverse combinations of ingredients substitute for deep understanding, from taking root. But I was wrong.
As we left, our friends ruefully remarked that such experiences were becoming more common. Gastronomic illiteracy was as often to be found labouring mistakenly at the stoves of fashionable restaurants as in the fast-food outlets of the banlieue.
We have managed, it seems, to infect France with a modern English malady: that of conferring the wrong kind of importance on food, and on those who produce it.