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I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

I’m a big fan of Richard Osman’s ‘House Of Games’ – a delightfully fun quiz on BBC2 that never takes itself too seriously. One of my favourite rounds is ‘Highbrow/Lowbrow’, where the answer to the question is the same to both clues – one a ‘highbrow’, possibly obscure reference of cultural importance, and the other ‘lowbrow’ – referring to something from popular culture. I mention this because some of you may be familiar with the title line of this post originating in Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ – a classic of American literature. Many more of you however (myself included) will have first encountered this line in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ called ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’.

This train of thought occurred to me after an incident prompted by a throwaway remark on social media, specifically Twitter. Received wisdom these days is that social media in general is something of a cesspit, with individual platforms each displaying their own peculiarly obnoxious traits – Instagram, shallow vacuity; Facebook, conspiracy theory craziness and Twitter, toxic trolling and bullying. I sometimes wonder how much of this is a reflection of the natural pessimism often found in the human condition. In Tony Orlando & Dawn’s 1973 uber-smash hit, ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree’, our protagonist displays little hope that he will be remembered by his sweetheart, let alone anyone else, asking the bus driver to look for the eponymous yellow ribbon for him. Indeed, he has already planned his exit strategy, in anticipation of no ribbon being visible:

I’ll stay on the bus,

Forget about us,

Put the blame on me…

In the Simpsons version of our literary work, the ‘strangers’ line is subsequently set to song, with the final declaration of “a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met”. That’s also an experience many of us may recognise from social media. We have Facebook friends & Twitter followers to whom we sometimes tell our most intimate thoughts, fears and desires, but how well do we really know each other?

I belong to a Twitter community called #ukwinehour, which meets online on most Thursdays. Occasionally we meet at trade events, although employment in the wine trade is not a pre-requisite for joining, it’s a love of wine that binds us. We shared a memorable dinner at one of the marvellous Hawksmoor restaurants in London last May, full of fun, laughter & fabulous wines, but living all over both the UK and Ireland, opportunities to meet in real life are limited, so the majority of the interaction is online. Friendly and warm it almost universally is, too, which is probably more common than the perceived wisdom would have us believe.

The throwaway remark in question was actually a reply in a Twitter conversation that didn’t initially involve any of this community. The discussion mentioned enthusiasts running out of wine during the Coronavirus lockdown and I happened to mention that due to previous circumstances, financial pressure & the lockdown, I had very little wine and little prospect of buying any. A couple of expressions of sympathy came back & I thought no more of it until one of the #ukwinehour community offered to send a bottle. At this point, like many of us, I became terribly British – “Oh, I couldn’t possibly…” “If it’s no trouble…” “I wouldn’t want to leave you short…” but eventually acquiesced. Another member of the community got in touch to make the same offer, and I was less reluctant. If there’s one thing to be learned from the whole Coronavirus episode, it’s that we should accept kindnesses with less fuss!

I thought little more about it until a few days later, when parcels began to arrive. From the two people who had offered, but also from other people I’d met only once or twice. And bottles also turned up from people I’d never met physically, but had enjoyed the briefest of interactions with online. The common theme was the message – ‘From me to you - wanted you to have something that I enjoy’. The generosity of these people is humbling, especially when you read between the lines that they have been furloughed themselves, or worse, as fellow freelancers, have seen their income disappear entirely.

A day or so later, it occurred to me that on top of this physical generosity, I had simultaneously been given a series of gifts on another theme. At Christmas & birthdays, I’ve rarely been gifted wine from friends & family, being specifically told “We don’t know what to get you & we’re scared to get it wrong.” I suspect fellow wine lovers and professionals can relate to this. Gifting wine among the wine community has no such inhibition, so with these bottles arriving from around the country, I could enjoy a window into the tastes of these friends & what they thought I would enjoy – bright, young Beaujolais from one person, classic steely Greek Assyrtiko from another (that brought back fond memories of working for Oddbins in its prime, feeling like a pioneer just by selling Greek wine), and a plethora of delicious English wines – all bottles that I would have hesitated to buy for myself in better circumstances, partly due to a concern for cost and partly because we all fall into patterns of regular buying behaviour. The imagination of these friends and their generosity also provides a liberation from regular habits and patterns and an opportunity to re-visit wine styles that had often become more theoretical in my experience than tactile.

As I work my way through these bottles, I’ll raise my glass to each individual friend who sent me each special bottle and give thanks to the generosity of the human spirit. It’s an object lesson that we often need to be reminded that, despite our pessimism, we’re regularly presented with incidences of how people we really don’t know that well at all both individually and collectively will display great kindness towards us. In fact, our Tony Orlando-inspired hero experiences that exact sensation in the last verse:

Now the whole damned bus is cheerin’,

And I can’t believe I see…

A hundred yellow ribbons,

‘Round the ole oak tree!

Bottles of wine and yellow ribbons. I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor for our current times. Happy Easter 2020, everyone.


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