Thinking man's tipple

Who brought wine and philosophy to Gascony? Roger Scruton raises a glass to the Greeks

Concerning August, the advice from Scrutopia has been consistent down the years: don't go trashing the planet and tanning your body. The first can still be rescued and the second is past all hope. So stay at home with your bottles, and explore the world in your thoughts. And for the person at home on a cold, wet day in an English summer, there is no place to visit more inspiring than Gascony - that corner of south-west France that has exported its wine to England since Chaucer's day.

Gascony is the home of Armagnac, and a great many other "acs", testimony to the pleasure the Romans took in this countryside and its aquae. But the vine was planted before the Roman settlements when the Greeks brought to Gascony the two commodities for which they were renowned, and which suffice for a life lived in fullness and truth, namely wine and philosophy.

Wine, like philosophy, suffered a setback in the Dark Ages; but both are always on the lookout for their new protectors, and found them when the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Mont was founded in 1050. The abbey has bestowed its name on the regional red, a vin de qualité délimitée supérieure that, like the adjacent Madiran, makes use of the dark Tannat grape, lightening it, however, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer.

No producer of this wine is a more worthy successor of the Benedictines than the Plaimont co-operative, a singularly creative establishment and a long-time partner of Corney & Barrow. Plaimont's Côtes de Saint-Mont is a clean, fragrant wine, with firm mineral backing and a full flavour of the grape. It will improve with keeping, but is already a suave accompaniment to roast beef or lamb.

The whites of Gascony use grapes such as Arrufiac, Corbu and Manseng - names that can hardly be uttered except in the regional accent, and which bring with them a real taste of the Gascon villages. The Petite Gasconne from the Plaimont co-operative is a charming, fresh aperitif, not at all too dry or strong, and bursting with flower and fruit. This is the wine to cheer your summer days, and a glass or two before supper will tell you many a charming tale of Gascony.

The two wines from Italy have their own tales to tell, and those who like exploring localities without trampling on them will be particularly interested in the Trullari Primitivo del Tarantino, from the Puglia district - the heel of Italy's boot. Trulli are the ancient whitewashed, conical-roofed houses still found in this area, and the trullari are the people who build them and produce this heady wine (a bargain at the price) from the local Primitivo grape, ancestor of the Zinfandel.

Drink this at home, and you will be encouraging people to live in their local manner, while laughing off the burden of living in yours.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis