Melvyn Bragg. Photo: Getty
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Radio: In Our Time; The Essay

Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades.

In Our Time; The Essay
BBC Radio 4; BBC Radio 3

 Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades. On BBC Radio 4, In Our Time (13 February, 9am) had the presenter, Melvyn Bragg, not merely sitting behind what sounded like a mountain of paper but sifting through it with a stapler, Wikipedia weighing heavily on his eyelids, reaching out occasionally with a skeletal hand to grasp a glass of water. Never had the rustling of cross-referencing been so blatant. The reading list for In Our Time often reaches ten books but this was a 14-tome week – unlike the breeze that was the recent show on the Phoenicians, which recommended a paltry six.

The moment one of his guests referred to the Carolingians, Bragg poked his head around his stack and interrupted, “We’re talking about Emperor Charlemagne here, yes? Crowned on Christmas Day, AD 800?” His interlocutor confirmed, “Yes, that’s the one,” and continued more nervously, anticipating the next insistent clarification.

But the guest Miri Rubin, a mellifluously transatlantic-accented professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, instinctively knew how to deal with the slightly frazzled Bragg (who at one point apologised for “rambling”): praise and affirm. “Great question,” she said, now and again. And: “That’s very true … You’re absolutely right.” Bragg, who rarely fails to respond to this kind of thing, was soon flirting, research forgotten, begging her to translate epigrams. “Can you say it in Latin? Oh, go on!”

Turning from epigrams to hyperbole: on BBC Radio 3, the 18th episode of a 20-part series of The Essay on the “Islamic golden age” (10.45pm) considered the Crusader-slaying sultan Saladin (1138-1193). He was a “tireless holy warrior … easy-going and willing to take requests … a passionate polo player … happy to vigorously dispute matters of faith with Christians”. The historian Jonathan Phillips paused to concede, “All heroes have their flaws airbrushed out.” Yet the show was still rather panting for one about a leader invoked admiringly by Bin Laden for his dogged recovery of Jerusalem in 1187 and compared on account of his piety and sharing of his hardships with his men to Bin Laden by the CIA. One agent’s heavy is an academic’s leading man.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Why serving wine at room temperature is a myth

There is no such thing as room temperature: there are simply different rooms. 

As a child, I loved Aesop’s Fables – all except one. Like most children, I had an aggrieved sense of adults’ perceived superiority, and enjoyed seeing them outwitted or outthought, in fiction at least, by fellow inferior beings: children, ideally, but animals would do.

Voltaire thought that fables were invented by the first conquered race, because free men have no need to dress up truth in allegory, and maybe he was right: Aesop, after all, was a slave. But children have been shackled by dependence and freed by imagination since time began, so who knows? Perhaps the form was created by them.

The fable I disliked involved a Satyr and a Man. The latter blew on his fingers to warm them, then on his porridge to cool it; the former, appalled, refused to fraternise further with a creature who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. Even to my immature self, this seemed unjust. The Man was adaptable, not dishonest; the ambient temperature had changed, and his actions with it. And who is a Satyr – half man, half goat – to accuse others of being neither one thing nor the other?

It turns out that most modern wine waiters are Satyrs of a sort. If I had a pound for every bewildered burbling about “room temperature” when I’ve asked for a wine, often red, to be cooled, I would buy myself a Eurocave. (Actually, I already have one, and it stores all my wine at a beautifully consistent 12 degrees. But it is full, so I would buy another.)

There is no such thing, Satyrs, as room temperature: there are simply different rooms, and just as I despise a wine chilled beyond all flavour perception to a degree that could be termed English Stately Home, so I desire never again to sit in a breezeless interior in midsummer while someone serves red wine that practically steams in the glass.

The vine is an exceptionally adaptable plant, stubbornly digging its roots into chalk or sand or clay, and the eventual result is a liquid that contains, when well made, something of both the land that nourished it and the hand that made it.

Humanity, too, is malleable, often to a fault. We shuck off cardigans or pull on thick coats, and sometimes we do the one while wishing heartily that we were doing the other, and we drink something that briefly transports us to the place we yearn for. It is only Satyrs who lack imagination, although adults sometimes need theirs refreshed.

Voltaire agreed. “The Man was absolutely right,” he wrote scornfully of this fable, “and the Satyr was an idiot.” I suspect he and I would also have concurred on the question of wine temperature, although, if so, Voltaire had a problem. He was in the habit of serving his guests wine from Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, which is made with the Gamay grape. If there is one red wine that needs to be served chilled, to about 11 degrees, it is this one. But for his own enjoyment, the great philosopher cravenly reserved fine Burgundy, and the aromatic complexity of that wine would have needed a couple of degrees more for its perfumes and flavours to evaporate sensuously into his hovering nostrils.

I picture him chilling the wines uniformly, then warming the contents of his own glass with a discreet exhalation of breath. Moral failings, as every Aesop reader knows, come in many forms. That is what separates us from the animals.


Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear