Wednesday 28 February 2018

Trickle down

Doctors are supposed to sign up to an old saw - Primum non nocere = above all do no harm. I'd like to hope that when I rock up for my final admission to hospital, they'll go easy on the interventions and Do Nothing. But until then, what is a good life? I don't think that doing nothing rather than risk doing harm is the answer. The parable of the talents in the bible tells us not to sit on our assets but get them out into circulation where they can do some good. But if we buy into the doing good schtick surely it's sensible to go with William MacAskill's book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference and do more good rather than minimal-good. The current justification for giving massive tax-breaks to the super-rich is that they can leverage the money more efficiently. If policy is the alternative of spreading the largesse more thinly then, the argument goes, there isn't enough extra to be noticeable. The benefit accrued by the Rich is supposed to trickle down to the rest of us in a rising tide that will float all boats. Lefty economists deny that the model works, maintaining that it just exaggerates to disparity between rich and poor.

On a few occasions in my life, a peculiar combination of circumstances has seen me masquerading as the first against the wall when the revolution comes The Rich. In 2001, an old friend of ours booked The Beloved and me a long weekend in La Frateria di Padre Eligio just outside of Cetona in Southern Tuscany. The Frateria had a rather peculiar business model. They charged a fabulous amount of money to stay in a 13th monastic site. The food local, authentic and perfectly cooked. You could get a decent bottle of local wine but you could also order up some seriously expensive Brunello di Montalcino. The staff at the hostelry were almost all recovered drug-addicts from the inner city ghettos of Italy.  They worked in an intentional community that was supported most directly by privileged people getting away from their busy business lives and buying some tranquility.

The site was perched near the top of a ridge of hills, with a chapel built by St Francis himself at the top of the complex - nearer to god, I guess. The lodgings a bit further down and a cascade of terraces lurching down to a small stream and a road at the bottom of the property. We had a breakfast each day in a room on the top storey with a view across a wide sweep of a valley to a range of blue hills in the distance. This view was framed and part hidden by floor length white linen curtains billowing in a cooling breeze. Coffee, fruit, bread and pastries. It would have been a gross impropriety to think about an Ulster Fry. If we wanted exercise, we could walk away from the gardens through a hanger of open woodland to visit a metal-working shop where some of the lads worked making sculptures and ornamental gates. There was a good choice of places to recover from the walk or just wait for lunch: lawns and loggias; metal-work benches (bring your own cushion); or low stone walls between pots of geraniums or thyme or rosemary; sun or shade. The gravel paths were always being swept or raked: it seemed to be part of The Practice: clear the path to see your way forward - because looking back to the city was not generally very happy in retrospect.

One evening we dressed up for the 7 course taster menu in the dining room. It was an amazing meal: a succession of bonnes bouches each so different, some challenging (roast quails like micro-chickens); each yummy; each complementing the previous course. We put ourselves in the hands of the sommelier who brought us glasses of this and that to suit the food. The only other people in the room was a middle-aged suit entertaining two significantly younger women. He, of course, wanted an expensive wine; it was brought; the label was inspected and approved; the bottle was taken away and opened; a jigger was poured; the man made a big fuss and then nodded decisively; three glasses were poured; everyone calmed down to eat. Then huge fuss, our friend the sommelier returned with elaborate and profuse apologies: the wine was corked, he'd thought it was okay earlier but now he was having second thoughts. He whisked away the three glasses of decisively approved wine and replaced them with new. I couldn't help but think that the whole charade was set up to humiliate the rich man.

As often on The Blob this story has come rushing back at me like a train full of madelaines because of something more recent that has caught my attention. This was another intentional community in Cleveland Ohio. On a corner of Shaker Square is a French restaurant called Edwins where almost all the workers in the kitchen and front of house have done time banged up in chokey and are now hard at work making a new life for themselves. It was the brain child of Brandon Chrostowski, himself a retired con. Since the place was set up in 2014, more than 200 ex-offenders have been through a gruelling training program to learn how to prep and serve haute cuisine so you can't see the join. The recidivism rate is about 1% - compared to about 40% for other rehabilitation schemes across the USA. They've made a movie called Knife Skills which you can watch if you are Stateside. The rest of us can make do with the trailer. Here's Chrostowski setting out his stall in 2013.

You know what they say "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and you can get rid of him for the entire weekend."

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