The people's choice: inhale and imbibe at the Beer Museum in Bruges. Photo: William Craig Moyes
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If Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy mixed his drinks, so can you

Philip moved his court frequently and I believe his reasons had to do with drink: half of his lands produced wine, the other half beer. 

If you wish to know how long it takes to walk from Dijon to Bruges, the internet is a marvellous invention. However, for some reason, Google Maps doesn’t give journey times for travelling on horseback, which makes me wonder if we are quite as superior to the ancients as we like to think. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419-67, would have known that trip’s exact duration, as he owned both cities and was fond of travel. But all I can do is calculate that if walking takes 102 hours and Philip’s mode of transport, though faster, required resting and feeding (to say nothing of the delays caused by a 15th-century lord’s entourage), it would have been at least a three-day commute.

Why bother? Many medieval lords owned territories they didn’t see that often: turning up in your far-flung lands was what you did when someone else was trying to filch them, but, to be fair, that was pretty common. Philip moved his court frequently and I believe his reasons had to do with drink.

Even when winemaking techniques were in their infancy and production was the province of monks who may well have considered too great an emphasis on the Blood of Christ’s actual content inappropriate, owning Dijon would have been a licence to drink well – and tax the purveyors of your pleasure at the same time. Bruges, on the other hand, though a great trading port, would have been more of a place for beer. The tussle among brewers over using gruit, a haphazard selection of herbs (including heather, rosemary, mugwort) that was enthusiastically taxed, versus hops – which weren’t – would not have affected a duke. We know who won: I’d never heard of gruitbier until I visited Bruges’s new beer museum, but I’ve never heard of any adult who has never heard of hops. (Apparently gruitbier is dark and smoky and tastes a little like vermouth, thanks to all those botanicals.)

My theory, entirely unsupported by history, is that Philip loved both wine and beer, and that this fondness for the drink of two different regions made of this great landowner a permanent exile. He had reason to drink, having handed Joan of Arc over to the English. Even in a murderous age, sending to her doom a young woman who might have a direct line to God was surely a stressful activity. I picture Philip in thriving, beautiful Bruges, sipping his dark beer and dreaming of vineyards, or back in Dijon, his palace strewn with travel-weary courtiers, swirling a goblet of red wine and inhaling a tantalising fume of mugwort or rosemary.

There’s information on gruit in the Bruges Beer Museum, but to read it you must point a tablet in the right direction: paper labels presumably being too medieval. The present passion for interactivity would doubtless have displeased Philip and his cohorts, in an era when claiming the right to speak directly to God (much less receive an answer) could get you roasted. Again, I suspect our modern devices are overrated: the real interactivity in this frankly disappointing museum comes at the bar, where your entrance fee gets you three generous tasters of beers including Oude Lambiek De Cam, a juicy flat beer with an orange-grapefruit tang; the slightly barbecued-sausage Steenbrugge Blond; and Rodenbach Grand Cru, a red-brown beer matured in oak casks for two years, which has a malty nose and a sweet, almost liquorice kick atop an odd sourness that I’m convinced would work well with rabbit.

Scent and flavour are the last refuge of the exile, who can assuage his homesickness with something that tastes like home, just as the deskbound traveller can inhale, sip and be magically elsewhere. Time of travel: the blink of an eye. Beat that, Google Maps . . . 

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2014 and the Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year 2014

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 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage