When we consider poets who perished before their day, thoughts turn to the Romantics or the war victims: Burns, Keats, Shelley: Owen, Keith Douglas. (Had both lived, Douglas would have ended up a greater poet than Owen: discuss.) But 16th-century poets had an even higher casualty rate: Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney, Southwell, Marlowe, Mark Alexander Boyd. Amidst a few immortal lines, we strain in sadness to think what might have been.
In two respects, Sidney can be bracketed with Yeats. First, he really was a soldier, scholar, horseman. Second, he too coined an immortal political aperçu. Yeats was the supremely perceptive political poet — ‘Great hatred: little room’; ‘The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity’ — much the most brilliant short account of the 20th century — and ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.’ But Sidney runs him close: ‘That sweet enemy, France,’ which summarises Anglo-French relations from Shakespeare’s Henry V until today. We have so much history in common; we have shed so much blood on the same allied battlefields: we have many tastes in common. Yet the rivalry is endemic.
Once, during the war, Churchill and De Gaulle had a private bilateral. Harold Macmillan was one of the ADCs. As soon as the door was closed on the great ones, the raised voices started. Then Churchill’s face appeared round the door. ‘Harold, quickly, tell me. What is the French for the opposite of Vive la France?’ It is a question which many Brits have often asked.
Vive la différence leads on to Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the most important sexual indiscretion since Paris stole Helen: in personal terms, one of the most catastrophic of all time. Had it not been for his misadventure in New York, Strauss-Kahn would have become president of France, and the most successful holder of that office since Pompidou: indeed, the only successful holder of that office since Pompidou. It should be easier for someone nominally on the left to reform the sclerotic state. DSK would have had the self-confidence and the impatience to try. Moreover, he is not an Anglophobe. David Cameron could have done business with him, and he would have commanded Angela Merkel’s respect. French and European history would have been different, and better. If only he had committed his indiscretion in Paris, where le cover-up would have been automatic.
In all the confusion over who did what to whom, one point is clear. He is priapic. The cinq à septs would have been energetic, though it is hard to imagine him arriving on a scooter. If his activities had become known, it is hard to believe that the French would have minded. Some argue that French attitudes are changing, and such things do happen. Who would have thought that the Irish authorities could ban smoking in pubs? But I suspect that la France profonde is still imbued with cynical tolerance — and that even if he had subjected a couple of tarts to le vice Anglais, most French voters would not have given a bugger.
They have more important reasons for anxiety. There is a fine boutique Margaux, le Clos de Quatre Vents. I tasted the ’04 the other evening, and very good it was too. It needed opening at least two hours before drinking, and will last for some years yet. The whole property is only 7 hectares, of which Quatre Vents is only 1.2; they harvest in an afternoon, But the proprietor has six children. The problem of estate duties was insuperable. So he sold it to a Chinese businessman.
There is no reason to fear the new owner. Drawing on the resources of an ancient culture to respect the traditions of French viniculture, he seems committed to his vineyards. But French taxation is now a significant threat to French wine-making. Someone needs to get a grip, which brings us back to DSK: by all accounts, a good gripper.