Château de Bouesse, part 2

Never go back. As me and the wife presented ourselves at the Château de Bouesse last Saturday evening those words were running through my mind with a steadily increasing insistence. My last visit had been so perfect in every way that I knew there was no prospect of the second having the slightest chance of equalling it. That might have been bearable if I’d been on my own, but having bigged the place up so much to my wife I knew that anything short of a stunning meal and a wonderfully romantic, and fully mediaeval, room would be a disaster. Just as when, after weeks of practice (I was never good at anything requiring even a modicum of coordination) I announced, “Mummy, I can ride my bike!” micro-seconds before coming an arm-flailing and knee-scraping cropper at the foot of the apple tree, things have a habit of coming right off the rails when you decide to show something to someone else. Especially if it’s a someone else you’re trying to impress.

But I dismissed the demons with a curt reminder to myself that there was no reason to suppose that childhood biking mishaps would reappear as adult château embarrassments, and that what was required was a positive attitude and none of this defeatist nonsense. And so by the time I approached the check-in desk equanimity had returned and confidence was on the up. That lasted fully as long as had my maiden bicycle ride, and with a similarly crushing finale. For whilst sir had most certainly reserved a chambre classique, it was soon apparent that sir had failed to reserve a table for dinner. With the kind of matter-of-fact hauteur that only the poshest of French hotel maîtres-d can deliver, Madame was désolée to report that the restaurant was complet ce soir and that was that. No, they could not squeeze us in, and no, it was not their problem. If we cared to hang around until 8pm, perhaps an existing guest might cancel. But then they might not. In the meantime, perhaps sir would like to inspect the room.

At that moment there was frankly very little that sir wanted to do that did not involve a nervous breakdown or a large hole opening up in the floor. We wandered upstairs, I in despair and disbelief, my wife in supportive defiance and what seemed to me to be a touching faith in the indecision of the average French diner. When we got to the room, as if to rub salt in my wounds, it was every bit as wonderful, romantic, and mediaeval as one could have wished. But its charms were ashes in my mouth. Disconsolately I began to unpack a few bits and pieces, but my heart was not in it. I went downstairs to receive the inevitable news that every diner was present and correct.

But unbeknown to me, Madame had had a personality transplant in the 15 minutes I’d been away. The frosty hauteur was banished, to be replaced by something almost jolly. She had spoken to the chef de cuisine. The chef de cuisine had declared his enthusiasm for cooking for us so long as we didn’t mind waiting until perhaps half past nine. Furthermore, Madame assured me with a conspiratorial sweeping gesture, she was even at that moment poised to usher two hapless existing diners out with unseemly haste if they did not vacate their table after the two generous hours they would have enjoyed by 9.30. We were to have our meal after all.

And damned fine it was too. My starter was a positively orgasmic trio of foie gras prepared with first a merely tepid and entirely liquid egg, and served in its shell, along with a seemingly disgusting, but in fact utterly delicious, foie gras crème brûlée complete with sugar crust, and finally a thick slab of the unadulterated liver. My wife enjoyed the perfection of the langoustines that I’d had at my original visit. I won’t detain you with the details of everything we gorged ourselves on, since that would be cruel. Just two small criticisms. The rack of lamb, although perfectly cooked, was encased in what looked like startlingly green marzipan and which included cheese for no apparent reason, and to no benefit of the dish. And last visit’s wonderful and generous cheeseboard had been ditched in favour of three desultory slices of mountain cheeses already lying on a pre-prepared and sad-looking plate. Doubtless this is a cost-cutting move, and one which seems increasingly common in otherwise blameless restaurants. It’s an economy which good restaurants should resist since it damages the diner’s pleasure much more than it saves the hotel money.

But all-in-all, after that morale-sapping beginning, my second visit to the Château de Bouesse was just about as good as it could have been, and I needed have had no fear about “never going back”. Plus I got to sleep in this superb room

and hang out of the top left of this tower’s windows like some princess waiting to be rescued.

It doesn’t come much better than this.

Attack of the killer clones

Whenever I think about how much I hate the Daily Mail and all its works, I force myself to remember that, alone amongst the populist press, it was the Mail that fought most consistently and vehemently to keep the appalling miscarriage of justice surrounding the Stephen Lawrence case in front of the British public. And so the fact that the Mail was last week doing its not inconsiderable bit to stoke up hysteria and misinformation on the great cloning scandal is no reason in itself to suppose that there is nothing amiss here.

First things first. In case any of my scientifically literate followers should fear that I’ve gone completely off the rails, let’s make it clear that eating the flesh, or drinking the milk, of the offspring of cloned parents is about as likely to harm you as a mosquito landing on your car is likely to dent it. So no, there is no connection between cloning and zombies, nor are cloned animals in some way an artificial life form, nor is your sleep at any great risk of being disturbed by demented cows with cloned parents squirting you with radioactive milk. There is no need to have nightmares, unless you enjoy them.

That is not what’s wrong with agricultural cloning. What is wrong with agricultural cloning is that, apart from being utterly unnecessary, it contributes yet more to our already dangerous reliance on a very narrow genetic base for our food. It is the livestock equivalent of monoculture. Should some disease develop that devastates our food plants and animals – and that is not exactly an unlikely prospect since it’s happened many times before – it will be genetic variability that we’ll rely on to deal with it. Identical genotypes will have identical fallibilities. And that’s not scaremongering, it’s science.

For reasons that entirely escape me, and that certainly escape scientific logic, many of those who have been mocking the clone-scare are then going on to say that people who believe that cloning is the work of the devil are the same people that believe genetic modification is wrong, and they in turn are the same people that have no scientific understanding, and are simply romantic Luddites determined to prevent scientific advance from saving the world. Well, some of those opposed to direct genetic modification may take that position simply because they believe everything the Daily Mail publishes, and because they lack any technical knowledge. If so, please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

I spent some part of my youth enquiring into the genetics of the wintergreen. I shouldn’t need to offer that sort of justification by association, but I probably do if I want any scientist to bother reading any further. I am sure that my knowledge of genetics is in advance of that of Mr and Mrs Joe Public. But I’m still very opposed to GM. Let me offer a few reasons from a variety of perspectives.

First, political and economic. GM is more about patents and selling technology than it is about saving the human race from starvation. Genetically modifying an organism to be resistant to a herbicide manufactured by the same company locks farmers into that company’s products. It makes 3rd world farmers dependent on 1st world technology companies. And it narrows the genetic pool still further as I’ve touched on already.

Second, ecological. GM proponents are constantly saying that novel genes are not capable of spreading into wild populations, or even into non-GM crops. We heard last week that every sample of wild canola in the US has GM markers from the GM canola grown ubiquitously in that country. It matters not whether this particular transference has any deleterious effects, but it is surely not over-imaginative to wonder about the transference of herbicide or pest resistance into wild populations. That is not the impossible scenario that the GM-mongers have constantly insisted that it is.

Third, general ignorance. I will cheerfully cut the throat of the next person who tells me that since we’ve been genetically modifying organisms since time immemorial via selective breeding, GM is just more of the same. That’s like saying that because we’ve been dying naturally since the beginning of time, my new technique of killing people with a sub-machine gun is merely a more technically advanced way of continuing the same old process. When plants or animals are bred traditionally, the kind of ensuing genetic change is strictly circumscribed. If I smear elephant sperm on the styles of wheat flowers, I’ll have to do it for a rather long time, like eternity, before wheat starts growing big flappy ears. I use an analogy from computing. I’ve spent a lot of time designing database interfaces for front-line staff. The point of them is to ensure the integrity of the data held in the system. The user interface prevents access to some bits of data, controls what kind of new data can be added, makes sure that it’s complete, prevents people randomly deleting stuff by mistake, amongst other similar control activities. DNA is like the data. The species barrier is like the interface. There is no genetic free-for-all. A database that consists of “naked” data in a spreadsheet is not going to stay fit for purpose for long. This is my fundamental concern about GM, and it’s not based on ignorance, nor on a phobia of technology, nor on being seduced by Daily Mail hysteria.

It’s very worrying how easily led up the garden path many of our fellow citizens are when the topic turns to science. But greater scientific literacy might not have the consequences that the GM and cloning vested interests expect. It might just make their special pleading more obvious.

After blue-sky thinking, a bit of red sky

Cameron Direct. What a deliciously apposite name for the Prime Minister’s roadshows, conjuring as it does images of cut-price insurance salesmen and ambulance-chasing “real” lawyers. Well, the “real” politician decided yesterday to divest himself of some blue-sky thinking on social housing. And the bluest and most skyward of this thinking was all about revoking the security of tenure (not for existing tenants, but for new tenants of new provision) that council and housing association tenants currently enjoy.

One of the most tedious aspects of political debate in this country is the immediate, knee-jerk, ideological response that political opponents are always dishing out to one another. So it wasn’t many minutes before the end of civilisation as we know it was being trumpeted from the bastions of the left, just as similar dire warnings about the end of civilisation as we then knew it were immediately given by the right when the minimum wage was introduced. Last time I checked, that didn’t seem to have happened, and I doubt it will if security of tenure were to be abandoned. Grant Shapps is right to point to the 1.8 million people in dire need of housing that are currently unable to get onto the social housing ladder, and unless we do something to loosen the relationships between tenants and their social housing home most of those 1.8 million will never step onto that first rung. It is breathtaking complacence for the left simply to say, “OK, just build 1.8 million new homes, and the problem’s sorted.” Even if that were a likely or possible solution, it is not going to deal with the problem in the lifetime of a good number of those 1.8 million on housing waiting lists, and in the meantime they are suffering appalling conditions, and we are damaging the life chances of countless thousands of our children. So I for one welcome the airing of this problem, even if I do not agree that ending security of tenure is necessarily the best or right solution.

Mr Cameron said he recognised that his idea was going to generate a “big argument”, and he’s not wrong there. But arguments are never universal, and what Cameron meant was that there’d be a big argument with Guardian readers, left-leaning liberals, and red-blooded socialists. That of course is the problem with big arguments set off by the Tories – they are always around ideas that seem to be derived from an analysis that locates social problems in the lives and communities of poorer, rather than richer, people.

But no problem. Mr Shapps told us on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that his boss was only “opening up a debate”, and this wasn’t policy, at least not yet. So let me open up a different debate, this time one that’s going to cause a big argument, not with Guardian readers (although lots of them won’t like it either, since they’re nearly all middle-class, property-owning sorts with bigger consciences than are perhaps reflected in their generosity when it comes to wealth) but with Mail readers.

So, here goes. The biggest problem with housing in this country, apart from the hopeless imbalance between supply and demand, is that there are two pretty much hermetically sealed housing streams. In the private market we have, over the long term, ever-increasing inflation, and a bottom rung ever more inaccessible to new entrants. Those already in the market are insulated of course, because they can sell their properties for huge sums, and thus are able to afford the even huger sums required for their upgrade. This market is being disturbed by the massive difficulty in the first-time buyer segment, but this is being overcome by what is in effect a new class of hereditary wealth. Children of property-rich parents are being given a slice of their parents’ accumulated wealth to use as deposits, and so in a way first-time buyers are increasingly using recycled receipts from within the market. And then there is the social housing sector that Mr Cameron was waxing eloquent about yesterday. Mostly, right-to-buy apart, never will the twain of these housing streams meet.

So rather than look at the social housing stream, I’m going to look at the private stream. If we don’t do something, I can see no end to the long-term upward spiral of prices, never mind the short-term crises that assault the market from time to time. The underlying logic of supply and demand will have its way. OK. Take a deep breath. Daily Mail readers, prepare your shrillest hysteria. I propose that capital gains tax be imposed on all property, yes, including main or only residences. And I propose that it be fiercely tapered so that as capital gains escalate, the proportion taxed becomes steeply higher. It always used to be broadly accepted that unearned income be taxed more severely than earned income. And if buying a house at age 25 for £50,000, doing bugger all but routine maintenance, and then selling at age 45 for £500,000 isn’t unearned wealth, what the fuck is? A big tax bill at that point would surely concentrate minds. It would have a sharp downward pressure on prices since it would no longer be a simple case of buying an even more expensive house with a massive deposit “earned” from the inflation on the previous property. And it would be better to accept a lower price in order to avoid the steep taper that I’ve proposed.

Of course, I realise that this will be the end of civilisation as we know it. I’m sure that there would be consequences that I don’t intend, and haven’t thought of. But there would also be the consequences I do intend and have thought of. If we bring the two streams of housing closer together, then the Tories’ beloved mobility might just be possible as people move more easily from the social housing stream to the private stream. We will stop turbo-charging the private market that surely needs no such added inflation when the supply and demand position is already stoking it up quite enough.

But before apoplexy takes you over completely, don’t forget that I’m just opening up a debate. It just happens to be a debate that has consequences for rich people, rather than the usual Tory kind that only has consequences for the poor.

Sticks and stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Just about the least true snippet of folk wisdom that one can imagine. If ever there were a prize for wishful thinking, then this would be the outright, all-time winner.

This weekend Clare Balding lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission over AA Gill’s description of her as “a dyke on a bike”. And it’s probably this category of hurtful words that to our modern sensibilities most often gives the lie to the proverb’s complacent notion that hurts are physical rather than rhetorical. The category in question is that of the use of taboo words to describe groups of people that have historically frequently been abused (and by no means only verbally) but which, in enlightened minds anyway, are now to be protected from continued exposure to such vilification. Despite the knee-jerk response from tabloid thinkers to complaints like Clare Balding’s that this is political correctness gone mad, such sensitivities to language are not simply hypersensitivity on the part of those on the receiving end.

In fact, ironically, the objections have little or nothing to do with the words themselves. The PC gone mad brigade often point to the use of the very same words on their own account by members of the groups concerned. But this is to misunderstand entirely. Yes, it is true that lesbians may frequently use the word “dyke” to describe one another; that Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans routinely talk about “niggas”; that “poof” is very likely to be part of male gay discourse; and that “cunt” is now almost a de rigueur word for everyone seeking to demonstrate their escape from linguistic straitjackets of all kinds.

These facts are not an indication that words have lost their power to hurt and intimidate, and that we can all now relax and call a spade a spade. On the contrary. Taking over the words that your most virulent opponents and persecutors use to describe you has always been a potent way of demonstrating that the power of those words is not total, and that in that sense words are only words, after all. Gay men deciding to call their musical group “7 Poofs and a Piano” is not the same thing at all as a virulent homophobe screeching, “Poofs!” across the street at two men holding hands.

And here we come to the most profound way in which the sticks and stones proverb misses the point. It posits verbal hurt as the alternative to physical hurt, as if there’s a choice being exercised by the perpetrators. That if they only insult you verbally, they are restraining themselves from the more serious insult of imposing physical damage. The truth is less pretty. Verbal insult leads to, and legitimises, physical insult. They are not two alternatives: one is the escalation of the other. In the area of sexuality this point is beautifully and ironically brought out by The Pansy Project. Maybe “pansy” is no longer the insult of choice for the homophobe, but Paul Harfleet’s work of planting actual pansies at the site of homophobic violence takes the reclamation of the language of oppression to a whole new and symbolic level.

So Clare Balding is right to object, and to complain. This is not about being over-sensitive or needing to grow a thicker skin. This is about refusing to allow language to continue to be the harbinger of violence and discrimination.