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Christmas cheer from The Economist

December 29, 2010

AS I survey the detritus of Christmas and Boxing Day in our house in Devizes where too many people ate and imbibed far too much, I find something to cheer me up in the holiday issue of The Economist.

A consistently excellent publication, the Economist has been indispensable reading for me over the years. But it saves the best for the last issue of the year when, apart from its usual crisp reporting and analysis of a wide range of subjects, the editors include several articles that have nothing to do with current affairs, but that touch on more lasting matters. Some are contemplative, others whimsical, but they all make the reader think, and very often, smile.

In this issue we learn, for example, that on average, people get happier as they age. An article called “The u-bend of life” measures the correlation between age and happiness, and concludes, on the basis of statistical evidence, that we grow increasingly unhappy until our late forties, and then start enjoying life until the end.

The author cites experiments in which happier people were infected with cold and flu viruses, and were found to be more resistant to the illnesses; and even when they did catch them, they tended to shrug them off quicker than unhappy subjects. All the more reason, then, to whistle a happy tune…

As an antidote to this optimistic piece is an article, aptly written by the obituaries editor, about the demise of the British pub. Titled “Time, gentlemen”, the article details the steady decline of the pub, and the implications of the imminent end of this purely British institution. I learned, much to my sorrow, that over the last five years, some 6,000 pubs have closed. Many are derelict, while others have been converted into houses or restaurants. The reasons for this decline range from the high taxes on beer sold in pubs to the ban on smoking in public places. In addition, Brits are now drinking less: alcohol consumption fell by 6 per cent, the fourth drop in five years.

Many pub owners have broadened their menus beyond the bangers and mash and steak and kidney pies that were once the mainstay of pub food. An entirely new genre of eating establishment known as gastro-pubs has swept across Britain, with varying success and quality. Many have introduced Wi-Fi in a bid to entice the younger generation. Our local favourite just outside Devizes is the George and Dragon, and it serves excellent seafood sourced from Cornwall. But given the powerful economic and social factors that are working against this beloved institution, I fear the end is nigh. “Time, gentlemen” concludes with these evocative words: “No single magic formula will save pubs. At present, the strongest current in their favour is the passion they still provoke. Britons are not similarly passionate about restaurants, cafes or shops. But by favourite pubs, they measure their own lives, and Britain’s condition. They see reflected there, as in a glass, the present blights of social isolation, forgetfulness of history, cultural confusion; but they also see the forces of change somehow made to pause. Time slows; company gathers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when every social and economic indicator is running hard against them.”

For a foodie like me, “Fire in the hole” has a special resonance. This article celebrates the barbecue style of southern America, and likens its appeal to that of jazz in pulling together African and European influences. The opening is admirably eloquent: “It is a noun, not a verb. You do not barbecue meat; you smoke it until it becomes barbecue. And it is not a meal so much as a meditative process, perched somewhere between science and art, dependent on reserves of judgment.”

The author informs us of a process in which a fire is built “that will smoulder steadily without flaring”, and obtaining a vessel that will “bathe the meat in smoke without subjecting it to too much heat”, where it can take up to 24 hours to cook the meat. Pakistani readers are aware, of course, that our style of barbecuing meat relies on high heat lightly scorching the outside of the meat. The idea of smoking meat over hours flies in the face of everything I have learned about barbecuing over the years. I suspect one reason for our fast-food approach is the real risk of meat going off in our high temperatures. So for us, barbecuing is very much a verb.

While we usually use charcoal in our barbecues, Americans use hard woods that, apart from burning slowly, impart a woody scent to the meat. Sauces, marinades and the combination of the woods that fuel the fire are often kept secret as local competitions are popular events. A European parallel for this American tradition is the Slow Food Movement that began in Italy and now spans the continent. The philosophy driving this movement is that food is too important a part of our lives to rush, either in its preparation or its consumption. Food fairs are held regularly, and local growers and restaurateurs honoured for their commitment to authenticity.

By sheer serendipity, this issue of The Economist also carries an article on the current art exhibition at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace. I wrote about “The Rising Tide: New Directions in the art from Pakistan 1990-2010” a couple of months ago when it opened, and was delighted to see such a positive review in the Economist.

Finally, where else but in The Economist would I have learned about the preferences of Chinese tourists now beginning to explore Europe? In “A new Grand Tour”, the writer informs us about the nouveaux riches of China who scoop up designer clothes and expensive wines to take back with them, but are reluctant to sample European cuisine.

The eclectic nature of the articles this issue of The Economist contains – as it does every Christmas – reminds us that not all is doom and gloom, and that there is much to savour in life. So as this year comes to a close, I wish my readers a very Happy New Year, and begin my wait for next Christmas’s Economist treats.