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High life

High life

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

Gstaad

The Alps are aglow as never before. A record snowfall and an abundance of sun have turned the region into a postcard of long ago. From afar, that is. Up close the cranes are ever-present, although during the season building is verboten. For the past few years I’ve been meeting three Greek childhood friends once a week for lunch in a nearby inn. We drink Swiss white wine, eat trout straight out of the tiny pool they’re kept in, and talk. They are Aleko Goulandris, my oldest friend — we met in 1945 — Karolos Fix, a German Greek who arrived in that tortured land along with my ancestors back in the 1830s, with the first King Otto, from Bavaria, and Leonida Goulandris, who is the youngest at 52 years of age and whose parents were my friends long before he was born. When the King of Greece is in Gstaad, he is the fifth Hellene at the table. It is a male lunch that is transferred to Porto Heli during the summer months. It takes place every Tuesday — two days of recovery time — because weekends at the Palace tend to be rather crazy and confused. (Last Friday was the worst, 6 a.m. and counting.)

Basically, it is an exercise in nostalgia. The state of our country is ever-present, needless to say. The timeless beauty of the land we grew up in is now gone. Athens is a stink hole. The marble-topped tables in the squares, the sweet, haunting, romantic music of Attik — he starved to death during the German occupation — the white-jacketed, impeccably polite waiters at the cafés, the graceful manners of ladies and gentlemen of society, the white-suited young men paying court to young ladies in ballrooms by the sea, all gone with the wind, and pardon the pun. It is as if I were talking about the American South, except we had no slaves. Beauty, of course, has largely vanished from our civilisation in general. There is no courtesy, no manners, no degree of distance and respect. One checks into a hotel for the first time and the concièrge calls you by your Christian name. Travel is now an exercise in being among slobs. Tracksuits, trainers, loud dirty children, fat people drinking out of bottles with wires hanging from their ears, they are the best excuse I know of for paying through the nose and flying private.

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Manners and the courteous treatment of others, in fact, have been replaced by political correctness and its strident policies of equality, an equality that is selective and as oppressive as any policy was under an apartheid regime. (By this time we are on our third bottle of wine and just starting the main course.) The rot in Greece began with Andreas Papandreou and that other bum, Karamanlis, the two conmen who preceded Blair and Brown in enlarging the public sector to the extent that more than half the country was on the public payroll and voted for the party in power in turn. Now the Ponzi scheme has collapsed but the same old names are in power. Not that Obama and Osborne are any different. Redistributing wealth is a sucker’s game, but it’s good for the short run. Depriving the rich is a vote- getter — envy is as big among Greeks as it is among French and Brits — but it’s the road to national perdition.

By now, after five bottles and some grappa to settle our stomachs, I begin to ululate against the Islamic takeover of our cities. I’ll never forget my taxi-driver telling me to lay low as we drove from rue de Merode to the Gare du Midi in Brussels, through an Islamic neighbourhood that doesn’t take kindly to white people. I had been given a Vlaams Belang flag — it is a nationalist party that wants militant Islam out of Belgium — after I won gold in the judo world championships. The driver had spotted it and told me in no uncertain terms that I would be lynched if the mob saw it. I had to stick it inside my suitcase. Not that certain London areas are any better. No alcohol rules may be good for Saudi Arabia, but London in 2013?

King Constantine, of course, is a calming influence. He does not participate in our political discussions and when he’s present even I lower the rhetoric. He is very interesting when he talks about the heads of state he knew as a young monarch, especially de Gaulle and Eisenhower. He does not like President Nixon, my favourite, whom I shall write about next week, so be prepared.

And so it goes, another week, another great lunch filled with nostalgia and the flickering memories of long ago. And a few laughs, too. Last week the mother of my children had some cousins over for dinner. They were all Chernins and Lichtensteins and Schoenburgs, and they all went by their first names with friendly smiles and impeccable manners. That’s when John Preston’s review of Rupert Loewenstein’s book on the Rolling Stones came to mind. ‘There are some people with titles who don’t make much of a song and dance about it, and some people who do,’ writes Preston. Boy, oh boy, does Rupert baby make a fuss about his. The great Confucian philosopher Taki said long ago that ‘he or she who talks non-stop about their title has dubious handle’.

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