The British have gone to far now

The perfidious British media
Jeremy Gordin
03 July 2009

They have finally gone too far, Jeremy Gordin writes, and slandered our wine


One man’s burnt rubber may be another’s sun-dried tomatoes

Despite my youthful good looks, svelte figure, and an energy level that even Lady Gaga might envy, chronologically I am somewhere in the middle of my sixth decade.

As the late, great Tom Lehrer might have said: when Michael Jackson reaches my age, he will have been dead for half a decade or so.

What this means, inter alia, is that I am of a generation that grew up with an exaggerated respect for the English media, especially the BBC.

You can’t really blame me and other similarly inclined members of my age group.

Notwithstanding having had Afrikaans ladled down our throats, military cadet training once a week, endless iterations of Van Jaarsveld on the Great Trek, and so on, the school system in which we found ourselves was essentially “English” because it was left over from the years before 1948.

I am referring to the common or garden variety of “government school” of the 1960s – the kind to which those of us whiteys who were too poor or too stupid (I was both) to attend a “good” (read: private) school were sent.

At these government schools, the system was a local version of the English public school (as imagined by generations of colonists): absurd uniforms given the African climate (blazers, grey woollen trousers and ties), Latin, and the classic English textbooks (Shakespeare’s simpler plays).

We were also, of course, taught to be good sports and real men. When we gouged someone’s eyes or dislocated someone’s shoulder on the rugby field, we did it so that no one on the touch line could see. And when we went to ballet lessons, we didn’t brag about it.

We were also taught to be “gentlemen”. I recall now – and it is a pertinent memory given certain recent unfortunate publicity – that I went to Johannesburg’s Parktown Boys for one term in form one.

One day I was caught by the headmaster riding home on my bicycle sans my blazer. (It was high summer, mind.) The next day he caned me mercilessly – four of the best (or worst). I was 13 years’ old. But here’s the point: he insisted that I shake hands with him afterwards. He explained that it showed there were no hard feelings on my part and that he had merely been doing his job.

No wonder then – to return to what I began by saying – that I believed the font of all intelligent, fair and balanced reporting was to be found on the little island up there to the left of France.

And, now that I think about it, even my father – whose mother tongue was not English, though he was born here – fell under the sway of empire. I, for example, came mewling and puking into this world at the Moedersbond maternity hospital in Pretoria on the day of the first national elections after the notorious 1948 ones (i.e., 6 September 1952).

My father was on that day, and the ones preceding, deeply involved in working for the United Party against the Nats. It’s embarrassing, I know: “a United Party father”. I have to hang my head in shame in the presence of my friends from Operation Vula. But de troof is de troof, as Roelf Meyer or Naas Botha might have put it. What can I say?

Anyway, my father was so distracted by the political struggle that he paid my poor mama scant attention and left her all alone to get on with dropping me, so to speak, into the world. So much so that, when she plaintively asked him at least to bring her a gripping thriller to help while away the time and to take her mind off the hard labour of child birth, he brought her Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.

You see my point, don’t you? My father could have brought my mother the selected works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the short stories of Isaac Babel or a new collection by Nadine Gordimer. But he brought her an English classic.

Huddled close to the radio at 8.45pm on a Monday night in the sixties, listening to the Goon Show (not Cliff Saunders – I mean the real Goon Show) did provide a small counter balance to my adulation. Peter Sellers, as Bluebottle, announcing, “This is the BBC – YEE HEE”, did suggest that maybe even the mighty Beeb could be made fun of.

Then came the Israeli-Arab war of 1973, for the opening few days of which I was visiting South Africa from (of all places) Israel. The news, as relayed by the BBC, was grim (if you weren’t Egyptian or Syrian).

“Hmm,” my father muttered, “this time the BBC has messed it up. How can it be true that the Egyptians have crossed the channel and advanced into Sinai?”

But, as it turned out, the BBC was spot on – as were the other organs of the British media about other issues in the years and decades that followed.

Then came the great ANC conference of Polokwane in December 2007. And what did the mighty Daily Mail of London do? On 19 December, the day after our esteemed Leader, J G Zuma, won the ANC presidency, it ran a story headlined: “Machine-gun man takes over the ANC – God help the Rainbow Nation”.

The newspaper said that “Zuma had made pre-Polokwane sacrifices of goats and chickens to his ancestors, as well as holding a session with a witch doctor, before ousting Thabo Mbeki as ANC leader.”

Now this might have been partially true – except that the witch doctor was Blade Nzimande, now the minister of higher education – but the tone was insulting.

And, as you will recall, the British media continued their vilification of our Leader right up until our recent general election.

One Peter Hitchens – the lesser-known brother of a notorious atheist – repeated the calumnies of December 2007; and some old soutie toffee, more famous for his articles on stately homes than anything else, writing in the Guardian, labeled our Leader a “rapist”, notwithstanding the finding of Judge Van der Merwe in 2006.

The Guardian apologised and blamed a sub-editor, but “subs are always responsible for every balls-up and who gives a shit about apologies anyway”, as I remarked over the morning muesli to my gorgeous wife, a sub-editor who never apologises for anything.

But (and I apologise for taking so long to come to the point) unbeknown to me, the real evil done to us all by the perfidious British media started in late 2007 – interestingly, around about the time of Polokwane.

One Jane MacQuitty of The Times of London, an alleged wine writer, wrote that South Africa’s flagship reds were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber” odour, and later she added for good measure that our best-rated reds were “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.”

The full story of MacQuitty’s assault on our national integrity – and our attempts to rebut it – was fully laid out in a recent article (28 June) in The New York Times by Barry Bearak.

I must say this article filled me with shame – shame at my blinkered existence and interests.

While most of us were bothering our tiny minds with balderdash and poppycock such as the aforementioned Polokwane conference, the alleged ANC assault on the judiciary, Judge John Hlophe’s gyrations, the dropping of corruption charges against our Leader, the general election, the world-wide recession, the new cabinet, our income tax returns, the British & Irish Lions rugby tour, the Confederations Cup, and so on, this huge, do-or-die battle was, as I have said, being waged for and against our red wine.

As Andre van Rensburg, the celebrated winemaker at Vergelegen, said: “All of us were slandered by a very general statement.”

Some wine aficionados, Bearak tells us, began taking sides and said that there was definitely a telltale rubbery odour and dismissed those who dismissed the criticism as “burnt rubber denialists”. The denialists were also accused of “cellar palate” – being so accustomed to tainted wine that their taste buds now welcomed it.

At any rate, to cut a long story a little shorter, experts were called in from the department of viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University – a “burnt rubber team” including sensory scientists and analytical chemists.

They have tasted, sniffed and scratched their heads, looking, as Bearak writes, for the golden thread that ties together a single taste that was born in multiple locations. “Is the problem with the root stock, the soils, the storage, the bottling, or the techniques of fermentation? Gas chromatography was used to separate wines into their chemical compounds, searching for a culprit among the molecular units.”

“We were not even sure what smell we were looking for. This research is a response to an ill-defined description in a newspaper,” said the professor in charge.

Precisely. The fault lies with the British media and this MacQuitty dame who thought that by being nasty to us and our wine, she could command the attention that goes to that JK Rowling woman who writes those long, mind-numbing books about that painfully righteous boy, Potter.

In the end, however, the burnt rubber taste has all apparently come down to bad winemaking.

“This is not typically a South African problem, and it annoys me when people say it is,” said Van Rensburg of Vergelegen.

“But you don’t find an easier dog to beat up on than South Africa. Because of the past, because of apartheid, people are always willing to believe the worst.”

And – Van Rensburg told Bearak – do not listen to critics.

“At tastings, they talk each other into a frenzy. It’s like the Nuremberg rallies of Hitler. If one of them picks up the taste of apple, the other guy says, ‘Yes, yes, and I taste cinnamon too.'”

MacQuitty (again, according to Bearak) disagrees of course. “Unless the South Africans track down this burnt rubber taste, they will never be a real New World player in wine.”

Well, that does it. No more BBC, Guardian, Times or Charles Dickens for me.

From now on, it’s going to be the SABC and the local media. And, if I need to know where a burnt rubber smell emanates from, I’m going to check whether Julius Malema has been making speeches, rugby coach Peter de Villiers has been addressing any press conferences, or the Eskom chief has been explaining why the electricity supplier needs more boodle.

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While most of us were bothering our tiny minds with balderdash and poppycock such as the aforementioned Polokwane conference, the alleged ANC assault on the judiciary, Judge John Hlophe’s gyrations, the dropping of corruption charges against our Leader, the general election, the world-wide recession, the new cabinet, our income tax returns, the British & Irish Lions rugby tour, the Confederations Cup, and so on, this huge, do-or-die battle was, as I have said, being waged for and against our red wine.”Jeremy Gordin

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