There are several questions which, even at the ripe old age of 104, I have yet to find answers. As they are of the kind of question a child might ask a parent, I am quite happy to be puzzled, and I can feel the years falling off just pondering them. Here’s one of the questions.
I eat a lot of olives. I love olives. So I recently googled olives to find out what health benefits they have, and I discovered they have rather a lot. But I also discovered that they have to be cured first before they can be eaten, because the fruit on the tree is incredibly bitter and not at all edible because of a substance called oleuropin. Fair enough, with you so far, but here is my question: how on earth did we, several thousand if not several tens of thousands of years ago make the connection between 1) picking an olive and eating it and thinking ‘Jesus, that’s awful, it’s so bitter!’ and 2) well, I still want to eat this incredibly nasty fruit and – who knows? – I might even want to squeeze it to see if I can’t get some oil out of it. I know, I’ll cure it by either soaking in oil, brine or water, or dry packing in salt.
See what I mean? Doesn’t make a great deal of sense, does it. I mean did the same thought process also take place with the bark of trees, with some bright spark thinking: ‘Well, it worked with olives, so although if I eat the bark of this tree it tastes bloody awful, if I do something to it, possibly by soaking in oil, brine or water, or dry packing in salt, I might find that it becomes edible after all’?
Then there’s coffee. It seems you can do bugger all with the bean as grown. So at some point, some bright spark, quite possibly the same bright spark who found how to make olives edible (you must remember that there weren’t half as many people around tens of thousands of years ago, so it could well be the same guy) thought to himself: ‘Well, this fruit isn’t very useful, is it? I know, I’ll extract the green bean in the centre, drop it into a fire to roast it, then, when it’s roasted, I’ll fish it out, grind it up, then mix it with water just off the boil and see what that produces. Who knows, it might well produce a stimulating drink and in time, I could sell beakers of that drink from a chain of shops all over the world.’
I won’t go on, as it is bad form to labour a point, but I’m sure you know what I’m getting at.
. . .
I can’t remember what I was doing yesterday, but the thought suddenly struck me that in years to come folk might remember the past 60 years as an era of peace and prosperity. Perhaps I’ve spend too many years working as a hack disseminating doom and gloom (it’s sells a treat) and am guilty of the cardinal sin of believing my own bullshit, but if things are to go very wrong for the world, the conditions could not be riper.
I have now remembered what I was doing when the thought struck me - I was reading about how the Germans, who seem to have shrugged off the recent ‘economic and banking crisis’ a lot faster than many, were said to be growing wearing at bailing out what they regard as feckless southern European types who lied and cheated their way into membership of the euro. I have possibly caricatured them rather, but if that is the essence of what they are thinking, they have very short memories. Wasn’t it the Germans who were all in favour of the European project and its badge of honour, the euro? And didn’t they turn a blind eye to what some countries were doing just to get everyone involved? Why, yes they did. Still, I can’t but have some sympathy for the dilemma the German government now faces over the EU bailout fund. It might still be in favour of helping out member states, but are Germany’s voters? And exactly who does the government need to keep sweet if it wants to stay in power? But what has all this to do with a stormier ride ahead for the world?
In two words: oil prices. Because of all the trouble in Libya, the price of oil has shot up and looks like rising even further. Barely two years ago, I was paying just over 90p for a litre of petrol and cursing the cost. Yesterday, that litre cost me £1.33. All other things being equal, the West might well be able to tighten its belt and ride out the storm, but there’s the little matter of the huge debts everyone is facing and the very nasty cutbacks all governments are obliged to make. A sustained period of widespread unemployment and widespread immigration could see rather a lot of trouble on the streets. For example, in May all migrants arriving in Britain from other parts of the EU will be as entitled to full welfare benefits as though they were British-born, and the danger is it could utterly scupper the Tories attempts at reforming the welfare system. For however ungenerous our welfare payments are, they are still more generous than those paid in other parts of the EU, and who can blame people living in those other parts from moving to Britain to get a piece of the action as, under EU law, they are entitled to do?
. . .
We were rather spoiled by the comparatively peaceful progress of what we hacks refer to the ‘Arab spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, although it seems it most certainly isn’t all done and dusted in those countries and there is a lot of trouble bubbling under. But the situation in Libya is far more immediate in that ol’ Muammar Gaddaffi is most certainly not going quietly. There is talk of civil war developing there, Egyptian migrant workers in Libya trying to escape the troubles by fleeing westward are not too welcome in Tunisia, and the West has united against our very own David Cameron to slap him down over his suggestion that it should do something militarily to put an end to Gaddaffi’s regime. The White House is utterly aghast at the suggestion, which rather begs the question as to why the U.S. didn’t have such delicate feelings about chuntering into Iraq a few years ago. Ah, that was different, they will say.
But if the trouble does spread - and no one does repression quite as well as the Saudis, Americans’ best pals in the area - that will mean even higher oil prices, even higher food prices, even higher inflation, greater unemployment, an even higher danger of civil dissent on the meaner European streets and, generally, a lot of nostalgic looking back to that peaceful and prosperous second half of the 20th century. Oh, and the Belgians still don’t have a government. You couldn’t blame them for thinking that if the country can function rather well without one, as it has done for the past ten years - or thereabouts - why do we even bother with one?