Magazine article The Spectator

Drink: Bruce Anderson

Magazine article The Spectator

Drink: Bruce Anderson

Article excerpt

Housman had a point. If men could be drunk for ever, the human condition would be tolerable. But thought always forces its way on to the agenda. 'And when men think, they fasten/ Their hands upon their hearts.' This occurred to me in the context of Lebanon. That is a country designed to be a paradise where the nymphs dance to Pan's pipes. An Arabic-French cultural coalition, modern Lebanon should be an entrancing amalgam of sophistication, religious influences and sensuous delights. Lapped by the Mediterranean, it could draw on 5,000 years of that great sea's civilisation. There is also the landscape and the climate. For much of the year, you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon. All Lebanon needs is peace. 'Give us peace in our time' -- but God seems deaf to entreaty.

Before the troubles started, Lebanon's charms had a significant influence on British foreign policy. The Israelis and their friends have often accused the Foreign Office of being the Camel Corps: instinctively pro-Arab. Camels had little to do with it. Lebanon did. In the Fifties and Sixties, aspirant Arabist diplomats studied at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, in Beirut. Coming from austere post-war Britain and the sexual deprivation of overwhelmingly male Oxbridge, they discovered girls, dry martinis and all other ingredients of that delicious Lebanese cocktail, douceur de vie . In later years, struggling with the sterility of peace plans and the inevitability of intransigence, is it any wonder that truant thoughts would sometimes escape back to the days of youth? Remembrance of joys past could be a potent source of bias.

In 1989, I was on a three-day visit to Lebanon that suddenly went pear-shaped. My host, General Michel Aoun, a leader of the Maronite Christians, had decided to eradicate his principal opponent, a fellow called Samir Geagea. On the face of it, that was a good idea. I have never met anyone more deserving of eradication. But it was a nuisance for the general's guests -- three days became two weeks -- and his planning was deficient. He believed that he could win simply by lobbing shells at Geagea's positions. The Aounites merely inflicted further architectural destruction in a city that had already been bashed about, further political damage on Maronite Lebanon, also already bashed about, and further blows against the enfeebled structures of the Lebanese state.

On the first night, we had a banquet. Lebanese cuisine is best enjoyed in country, where atmosphere lends enchantment, for it rarely rises above the level of good peasant cooking. I am not persuaded by raw lamb's liver; it needs at least 45 seconds under the grill. Equally, lambs' testicles have little flavour: not a patch on bulls' balls. Lambs' balls belong minced in a kebab. But at a table heaped with mezze and bottles, criticism would have been carping. It was also possible to overlook the increasing signs of political tension and military manoeuvrings.

There was one amusing incident. One of our number, wholly Anglo-centric in his culinary tastes, approached the native dishes with trepidation. Then he found something that he liked because it was bland. 'This is OK: what is it?' I told him: 'A cold sheep's brain in olive oil. …

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