The Riderless Horse
by John Lane
Wed 22nd Apr 2015
1951 was not an auspicious year for those who tended vineyards in Europe. Anyone foolish enough, today, to buy a bottle of Burgundy – red or white – or Bordeaux, or from any of the wine producing regions of Germany, made from grapes that struggled to reach maturity in that year would find little reward upon drawing the cork. No-one was able to make wine which would repay long term cellaring. Nowhere was the summer a memorable one.
Global warming will eventually make such a barren year no more than a memory. But it will push things too far; it threatens to over ripen crops in most of Europe’s vineyards, even as it coaxes the sparkling wines of the United Kingdom toward parity with the best of Champagne (a brief interlude, perhaps, as it proceeds to devastate the entire planet).
There were events in 1951 which helped shape the subsequent history of much of the world. Nuclear devices were exploded on a supposedly isolated atoll in one of the planet’s great oceans. Politicians would soon work hard to persuade people that this new way of destroying life, lethal for enemies, was something that could be defeated, if it came their way, by such technologically sophisticated procedures as taking refuge under a desk or a table. No such defensive manoeuvre was, alas, available to the people of the Marshall Islands.
In different countries, individuals who were remarkable in some way achieved – in the widest sense of the word – fame, notoriety or simply an entry in the balance sheet of human significance. When we scrutinise the inventory of things done or attempted, we may find ourselves noticing only the events, or the people, who we realize have subsequently shifted the trajectory of our own lives. Just so I register the publication in 1951 of The Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger (which was one of the first novels I read as a young man) and the receipt of political asylum in France by Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry I discovered when I was no longer young. I see too that the Festival of Britain prompted the construction of the Royal Festival Hall, where I was subsequently to watch a frail but imperious Otto Klemperer conduct the Philharmonia orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5thsymphony.
And yet the most formative event of my life in 1951 is framed by the incorrect memory of it having presented a warm and frequently sunlit summer.There were, of course, halcyon days (inaccuracy here, too, as the expression originally referred to moments of winter). And one of them provided what was to provide a connection – unknown to me at the time – between childhood and youth; a link to another year when no-one in Europe was able to make a half decent wine.
One weekend day in that year I went with my parents to visit some people – acquaintances, rather than friends, who lived in a house situated, with one or two others, in what seemed at the time to be remote countryside. I was allowed to wander in the lane that ran past the dwellings, and found, not far from the house, a five-barred gate that gave access to a field. Climbing it, I came across a patch of thistles in the corner of the field, and was mesmerised by what I saw: a collection of peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies feasting on the nectar of the plants. The peacock butterfly, in particular, is for any child a stunning sight when first encountered, and whatever part of my brain which acts as a depository for memories has perfectly preserved the component details of field, thistles and sunlit wings as clearly as if I had seen them yesterday.
There is something else, however, which is just as sharply etched into my memory. As I was gazing at the butterflies, a horse clattered past the gate and jumped over the adjacent hedge. Spurred on by the man who was riding it, it eventually disappeared after reaching what must have been a dip in the ground at the far end of the field. I returned, eventually, to the house and left it with my parents as we prepared to return home. As we began to cross the lane, the gate was swung open by one of two men who were leading the horse, without its rider, out of the field. Other people were in the field, and at first, my enquiries as to what was going on were met with evasive responses from my grim-faced parents. But conversations and shouts which were audible as we stood by the hedge that joined the gate revealed what they had tried to conceal from me: the horse had fallen at the far end of the field, and the man who had been riding it had broken his neck and died. A single loss of life, as inexplicable to me, then, as the insanity we would all later encounter during the cold war, so sharply paraded and ridiculed in the film Dr Strangelove.
Over the years, the memory of this day, with its two extremes of experience – how beautiful, or how awful, the world can seem to a child – has simply taken its place alongside all the other things that I have either chosen, or been forced, to notice. But one day, years later, brought it sharply back into focus. On November 24th 1963, the body of President Kennedy was carried to its resting place in the Arlington cemetery. Colour television had not yet been introduced in the UK, so the sombre funeral procession has stayed in my memory in the muted blacks, greys and whites of distant recall. Six horses, with seemingly motionless riders, led the procession, but it was the sight of another horse, following the caisson, which caught my eye. Like the one I had seen as a child, it was riderless, and in another echo of the past, a man was leading it, his gloved hand clearly using the halter which normally serves to enable the rider to control it. Boots, facing backwards, were lodged in the stirrups. This last detail, with its symbolic reversal of direction and fortune, brings to my mind now the often quoted last line of The Great Gatsby, another novel which I read as a young man, written, like the one I mentioned earlier, in a year – 1925 – that failed, as did 1963, to ripen vines all over Europe:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.
Wine vintages are subject to the vagaries of climate, over which we have no control, any more than we can revisit the past. But we can choose to generate patterns and connections which provide us with the idea – sometimes an illusion, sometimes a truth - that we can generate positive significance in the fortunes and vicissitudes of life. So it is that I can record that despite uneven results in the years of their births, Fitzgerald, who somehow found a kind of lyricism in the more extreme and pitiful aspirations of capitalism, Salinger, who made Holden Caulfield a hero because he had so many imperfections, and Milosz, whose dignified voice found a kind of beauty forged in the horror of the second world war, each came to the end of their lives in years that produced wines that were as fine as their books.
And finally, it has to be recorded that 1945, the last of six years of human suffering and cruelty, was a magnificent vintage, the best in Bordeaux for a very long time. But there were very few vineyard workers left on the estates to bring in the grapes.