Reasons to be cheerful: gardens, Ben Stokes and cold wine

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

‘The Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.’ Is there a more charming passage in the Bible? It makes God sound like an English gentleman, vastly superior to Baal or Ashtoreth or any other rival. But at the end of his stroll, Jehovah would condemn Adam and his descendants to the penalties of original sin. Gods are kittle cattle.

In the heat of the day, there is much to be said for gardens, as long as one has shade, a book and cold wine plus, perhaps, the temptation of a pool. I can unstintingly recommend one book. It might seem paradoxical to describe Tim Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler as enjoyable, for he is dealing with another fell episode in the history of original sin. But there is a sure command of narrative and judgment in faultlessly lucid prose, with subtexts of pathos. As late as August 1939, Neville Chamberlain fishes for salmon with the Duke of Westminster and still hopes to help the Duke of Buccleuch cull his grouse. Yet we are marching inexorably towards tragedy. Poor Chamberlain: he must be judged harshly, for he sank well below the level of events.

Even so, he displays attractive qualities, not least an enthusiasm for Chateau Margaux. Once, as the butler pours it, he declares: ‘The darkest hour is just before the lunch.’ Anticipating the PM’s return from Munich with the piece of paper, his wife Annie had urged him to imitate Disraeli after the Congress of Berlin and declare ‘peace with honour’ from a window in No. 10. Initially, he demurred: ‘I’ll do nothing of the sort. I’m not the least like Dizzy.’ That was true. Chamberlain was the better man. But he succumbed to excitement, rolled up a window, said the fatal words, and lived to see them bound into the scorpion-whips of mockery.

There is another parallel with Dizzy. Berlin was the highest point of his premiership; Munich was Chamberlain’s most popular hour. Yet within two years, both men were out of office and dying. But Disraeli also enjoyed the consolation of Margaux. During the 1880 election, Lord Salisbury entertained him at Hatfield. Salisbury decreed that at dinner, the 1870 Margaux should be served to his guest, though not to his teenage sons. Disraeli decided that the taste made up for any sympathy with thirsty youths.

Chums who have just arrived back from the South Seas swear that Dorset is hotter than Tahiti. So this is not the weather for red first growths, although Ben Stokes’s apotheosis merited a glorious libation. Thank goodness the law courts — and cricketing authorities — did not punish his unoriginal sins with lifelong banishment from Eden. For my last column, I hesitated before writing that the first Test had been a very great match. A banker friend once told me never to use ‘very’ unless ‘bloody’ could be substituted. Did you go for a bloody long walk, or just a long walk? Well, I decided it had been a bloody great match. So how can one find superlatives for the latest one? On one point, we can be certain. This will be a bloody great series, which should have a resplendent consequence. All the Twenty20 nonsense can be put back in the toy box.

To drink to that, I have been making do with whites — lots of Assyrtiko — and rosés. I once wrote that rosé should only be drunk south of Lyon. But Provençal heat means Provençal standards, especially as there are good reasons to be cheerful. This August will end better than the August of 80 years ago. Yet that gives rise to a melancholy reflection. We can enjoy the weather and the cricket, not because original sin has become less potent but because India and Pakistan both possess nuclear weapons. Without mutually assured destruction, the Indians would long since have struck at Pakistan, inflicting devastation and turning the country into al Qaeda-stan. Time to count a few blessings, and pour another drink.

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