As good conversation should, the talk meandered from the serious to the playful. One of the serious topics was overseas aid. A generation ago, Peter Bauer, as fine a scholar as ever, addressing himself to that subject, produced a lapidary dictum: ‘Much overseas aid is a subsidy from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.’
Recent DFID ministers such as Alan Duncan and Andrew Mitchell insist that there have been improvements. Others are sceptical. Announcing that we will spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid can create a moral hazard. There is pressure to spend the money: less pressure to ensure that it is wisely spent.
A few years ago, someone in London decided that Kenyan schoolchildren did not have enough textbooks and that something ought to be done. Everyone agreed. It would require a Scrooge dosage of anti--sentimental fortitude to resist such a plea. So £80 million was allocated and all those involved felt good about themselves. No doubt the Kenyan ministers and officials who took the money also felt good, as did the bankers who accepted the deposits. There is no evidence that a single Kenyan child ever received a single textbook. Much of the aid money — paid for by British taxpayers — ended up in Switzerland. Switzerland does not need foreign aid.
Apropos of feeling good, my friend David Lloyd, a visitor from Australia who has devoted his life to medical research, was able to report on a recent research mission. That Hamleys for grown-ups, Messrs Berry Bros & Rudd, has reorganised its shopping facilities. I expressed scepticism. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Why try to improve on perfection?
David disagreed. He gave a lyrical description of a row of armagnacs from the beginning of the 20th century: a perfect fusion of aesthetics and oenophilia — a life-enhancing declaration of war on financial prudence.
But there were more modest bottles, including lesser products from Haut-Bailly and Lynch-Bages. Although they could not be mistaken for the masterworks, they were worthy of those great chateaux. This was serious claret. It had been preceded by Berry’s house champagne: a Mailly grand cru. This is not just a wine. It is a signature tune and those in charge devote a lot of effort to ensuring that the melody never falters.
David Lloyd specialises in heart disease and diabetes; subjects that no one wants to think about, while remaining grateful to those who do. I made a point which has often occurred to me. When will the medics invent a proper fat pill? At the end of a busy day, involving some inevitable culinary indulgence, a chap might calculate that he had taken care of, say, 5,000 calories. As he really ought to be losing some tummy, he would reach for a fat-busting pill and get rid of it all in the morning.
David had no immediate good news. He could not see an early end to the need for self-discipline. He also said that I was wrong to accuse the medical profession of negligence. All the large pharmaceutical firms know that a successful anti-obesity pill would make them tens of billions: more than the GDP of several poor countries. He mused on the difference between the undernourished world, where people struggle to find enough to eat, and the overnourished one, where people struggle with the consequences of overeating.
Playfulness was restored by a drop or two of Yquem from a great year, even by Yquem standards. Although delicious, the 2001 was at least ten years away from maturity and could well outlast the century which it helped to welcome. This is a wine to welcome, or palliate, the vicissitudes of the decades to come.