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A toast to unsung heroes, the god of battles and the infinite desert stars

To come to terms with Islam you have to gaze into the universe

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

We were talking about war, the desert and God. In the early Seventies, one of our number, Christopher James, had been involved in serious fighting in the struggles to stop Yemeni-backed communist insurgents from destabilising Oman. Christopher was happy to pay tribute to everyone else, but evasive about his own service in the SAS. That savage little war of peace witnessed much unsung gallantry, not least by one of the most under-decorated soldiers in military history: Sgt Talaiasi Labalaba, also SAS. In 1972, he won a battle by firing a 25 pounder as if it had been a rifle (it normally needs a crew of three or four). Hit repeatedly, he persevered as if he had struck a deal with the god of battles: do not take me until the day is won. It was a clear VC. Because of political constraints, he ended up with a posthumous mention in dispatches. Somehow, that seems to symbolise the Heath government.

Christopher spent many a night under the desert stars, hundreds of miles from artificial light. He said that it felt like looking into the universe and that it commanded faith: a bleak and fierce monotheistic faith, which could easily accommodate a God of battles, but would have no use for polychrome statuary or intercessionary saints. ‘Thou overmasters me, God!… I kiss my hand to the stars.’ In Christopher’s judgment, you had to experience the god of the great desert to come to terms with Islam. Only then would you understand the frustration and the sense of inadequacy gnawing at many modern Muslims. They know how their faith was shaped; in austerity. Many of them find it easy to conclude that it has been squandered in fleshpots and whorehouses — western whorehouses at that.


Although the desert has always spoken to a certain sort of British romantic, Christopher has spent his life wrestling with realpolitik. He knows that the two perspectives have to be harmonised. That is especially important in post-religious Britain, where there is an idle but widespread assumption that all grievances are either economic or incomprehensible. We could learn something from the brief history of modern Oman, where realpolitik was successfully deployed to ensure the survival of the monarchy, but where the Sultan commissioned a new mosque which is both magnificent and numinous. This was around the time that we celebrated two millennia of Christianity by building a hugely expensive dead insect: the Millennium Dumb. The contrast is rage-making.

As well as toasting Labalaba, we commemorated a soldier and a statesman, Tim Landon, who played a crucial part in ensuring that Oman’s victories in battle led to peacetime success. We had been given a bottle from his cellar. First, however, there were two contrasting Burgundies, both from the excellent Domaine de Montille. The first, a Volnay 1er Cru les Mitans 2010, was voluptuous and feminine, like a line of sinuous dancers performing under the heavens in an oasis. The second, a Pommard le Pezerolles 2009, also a 1er Cru, was massy and pugnacious, like a squadron of Challenger IIs accelerating into action. It got the early vote, but as the Volnay opened out, opinion was divided. Without losing subtlety, the Mitans expanded into depth. So which was the better? ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

But they both gave way to Tim’s bottle. An ’82 Latour, it was a wine which the Valkyries would have been proud to serve to the warriors on their saddlebags: a bottle worthy to have welcomed Labalaba on his arrival in Valhalla. Ready now, but only just, it should still be at its peak in 2072, to celebrate 100 years since his implacable defiance and glorious fall. I have had one finer wine: the Latour ’45. What a house, whose finest years are fully worthy of gods and heroes. The rest of us can forget unworthiness, in joy.

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