If only toasts and good wishes were weapons of war. At every serious repast I have attended since the invasion began, someone has raised a glass to the heroes – and heroines – of Ukraine. The rest of us have responded with a blend of solemnity and moist-eyed emotion.
One’s emotions are strange. I can read about the deaths of warriors on the battlefield, now riding with the Valkyries on their way to Valhalla, and merely respond with a dry-eyed salutation. But hearing of some old girl who had been living in hunger and squalor and terror in a cellar for days and indeed weeks, with the regular crump of shellfire threatening death at any moment, and now weeping with joy not only because she had been evacuated but because she had been able to bring her cat with her; that is tear-duct time. The brutalities of war inflict their full horror on the vulnerable. Homo homini lupus.
Yet there is more to war than savagery. It brings out the best in the human condition, as well as the worst. On the one hand, brutality and slaughter; in the opposing camp, bravery and sacrifice. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ Horace’s words are moving. But so are Wilfred Owen’s. Himself moved by the butchery of the Western Front, he added a brief preface to Horace: ‘The old lie.’ Yet most soldiers would prefer Horace’s version of the truth. That preux chevalier Robert E. Lee once expressed a sentiment which would have been understood down the ages by many of those apprenticed to the profession of arms: ‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.’
The other evening, I expressed the view that more than anything else I could think of, servitude et grandeur militaires embodies the ambivalence of the human condition. Someone offered an alternative – wine – and gave his reasons. Whether you believe it to be Gospel or merely literature, there is no more profoundly moving statement than ‘This is my blood of the New Testament’ – and no more profoundly moving music than Bach’s setting. The Eucharist appeared to promise peace and salvation. Yet think what happened subsequently.
While Jesus was breaking the bread and pouring the wine, evil was well represented in the person of Judas, who ensured that the first blood of the New Testament would soon be shed. In Revelations, the Word of God appears in a robe dipped in blood. In the version that led to burnings and massacres, that would have seemed appropriate to the Albigensians and to 16th-century Protestants. Those who disputed the Roman Church’s teachings on transubstantiation risked their own transubstantiation, via the flames and the stake. To them, the ‘Eu’ in the Roman Eucharist must have sounded like a hideous perversion.
There was one obvious route to consensus. We agreed that the well-known two-word summary of the human condition was as appropriate as ever: original sin. Attention then switched to wine, with no Eucharistic reference. The emphasis was on St Julien, with an excellent ’09 Chateau Beychevelle. The word comes from baisse-vaille: lower sails. In the 16th century, the property was owned by an admiral of France, hence the name.
When he was ambassador in Paris, the late Ewen Fergusson treated his guests to delights from his excellent cellar. Beychevelle often appeared, as did its second wine, Amiral de Beychevelle. A naughty female once drew attention to the Amiral’s reduced status. Ewen was imperturbable: ‘Yes, but that means we can drink a lot more of it.’ So we did, and the experiment was repeated the other evening. Though not quite as good as its elder brother, the ’09 Amiral drank extremely well. We raised a glass to Ewen’s shade, and to the people of Ukraine. May their courage earn its just reward.