In the first part of the 21st century, when we could still go outside and Europeans hated us a bit less, a car manufacturer proclaimed that their corporate ethos was ‘the relentless pursuit of perfection’. They weren't alone either – the phrase has long been the darling of marketeers of sporting footwear, razors, consultants of every breed and even local councils. What, they seem to feel, is the point of doing anything if it is not to engage in the never-ending search for the apotheosis of achievement? Why should we be aiming for anything that would merely elicit a ‘that’s really very good’ or even a ‘by Jove, that’s rather splendid, what?’ they ask. Why do anything if it is not to do that which cannot be improved upon. Perfection, after all, would seem a worthy goal; the ultimate, the very outer reaches of what can be. For every organisation in the chase however, and particularly for our thrusting marketeers, there is an innate and unsolvable problem.
Before we consider what that problem is, however, we have to undertake some semantics to clarify which 'perfection' we are addressing here. In Delta within Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguishes three types of perfection. Firstly, there is that which is a description of something that is complete, and for want of a better description we could consider, on a very simple level, a perfect circle or on a more complex basis with more parts, someone in perfect health. All the bits are there and all the bits are working, perfectly. The second and third definitions Aristotle offers are: 2, something which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better and 3, something which has attained its purpose. In terms of the claims of our car manufacturer, sporting footwear suppliers, etc, it is number two that we are considering here – specifically, producing perfection. But as we seem to be in the right place to do so, let us consider the production of the perfect whisky.
Imagine one massive flat disc made up of a series of concentric spinning rings. Each flat ring shape represents smoke, peat, oak, fruit and so on – the ‘profile’ or characteristics of a whisky or however you want to couch it. A bit like the tasting wheel we considered in another article in fact, but because every single element of that flavour profile is evolving as the whisky is being distilled and aged, each of those discs is spinning at a different rate. And now imagine each disc has a groove in it and without all of these marks lining up, the taste will not be perfect – like getting the timing right in a very complex 'perfection engine'. Without everything lining up just-so the engine will not fire into to life.
This, of course, is already an impossible thing to achieve. One man’s Islay that tastes like antiseptic drunk from an unwashed toothbrush glass is another woman’s Islay that tastes like a sunny day in June with a new love, and the same issue of preferences arises for the glazing, footwear, razor and council marketing bods. You cannot please all of the people – which 'perfection' surely must. This is not the pursuit of 'excellence' remember, this is the pursuit of that which cannot be improved upon. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the Gods of Olympus decided to knock together a scotch and everything about it was indeed perfect to whomever sampled thereof. It transformed itself into the exact taste profile that the drinker was seeking. Just enough oak, just enough fruit, just enough smoke. No better whisky could ever be tasted and we might as well all pack up and go home. Perfection has been achieved and the job, as they probably didn't say on Olympus, is a good 'un. Except that it isn't. As a scotch drinker, and it being the perfect scotch, you would of course drink it often, probably every time you fancied a whisky. At which point it would become everyday and as you are a fickle human being, you'd want something different. The perfect whisky would have become a bit dull and therefore, imperfect. And therein lies the real problem with the pursuit of perfection for any marketing, producing or service-providing entity. Even if we stick a pin in the knotty problem of it being influenced by taste or preference, we must also consider that perfection is controlled by temporal forces and by its very nature, could only ever be achieved fleetingly before the consumers of it got bored. Not only can you not please all of the people, you cannot do it all of the time.
Hang on though, you may counter. It's the 'pursuit' of perfection, not the achievement of same that is the stated aim of our good and true marketeers. They are constantly striving to be better and that, surely, must be a most excellent thing, worthy of praise and a cheery thumbs up? To which I would counter your counter by pointing out that firstly, trying to produce the best thing you possibly can should be a given and secondly, they are therefore heralding that as – for the reasons outlined above – perfection is impossible to achieve, they have made it their mission in life to fail. Which when you look at it closely (alright, horribly pedantically, but it's lockdown and I've been bored) is hardly inspirational, is it? I would also note that such an argument is dangerously close to saying that the 'journey is more important than the destination', a statement so trite and fridge-magnety that it makes any right-minded individual consider self-immolation and further, one that is manifestly and unequivocally untrue if you have ever boarded a budget airline.
In short, any organisation pursuing perfection is doomed to failure and if it is their stated aim to do so, then they are just being silly. Which, naturally enough, leads me to the point of this week's bilge: the perfectly viable undertaking of the pursuit of perfection.
Yes, really, and here's why. As an entity that is producing something or providing a service, the pursuit is indeed futile outside of expressing an outwardly appropriate, albeit ultimately daft, level of ambition. But for an individual, the creation of perfection is something which can be achieved. In theory. To start with, whereas subjectivity renders perfection impossible in an entity hoping to offer it to others, so that subjectivity makes it easier to achieve on one's own – we only have our own tastes to concern ourselves with which takes care of the 'all of the people' issue. And if we allow that perfection can only be achieved momentarily, then for an individual, 'all of the time' is not anything like the deal breaker it is for Training Shoe Inc or Glazing4U – because we don't have the impossible task of achieving a long-lasting perfection to keep sales strong and the Director in new Bentleys. We just have to create and enjoy a single perfect moment and, particularly during the rather grim times such as those in which we now find ourselves, mentally wheel it out when we want to cheer ourselves up.
So, much easier then? Well, initially, I will admit, things do not look promising. If we go back to our Whisky Disc of Perfection (patent not pending) and look at the concentric rings, we must also consider that they are just one set of countless other rings encircling the taste elements of the whisky in the middle. This now enlarged disc is made up of all of the other factors that can influence the moment. Whether The Loved One or friends are there or not. Where you are when you taste the whisky. Whether your dog is quietly resting its head on your lap at the time or jumps up and starts scratching at the door to get out for a pee. Whether the fire is too hot or has just gone out at your feet. Whether the room is blissfully silent, music is swelling in the speakers or the window blind is squeaking annoyingly in the wind. What sort of a day you have had. And if such things are important to you, whether your football/rugby/baseball team won. No matter how good the whisky is, if these other things are off, perfection will not be achieved.
However, if you look back to your own moments of perfection, it is perhaps the coalescing of things that made the moment perfect. That stitch of time that created a sensation at the nape of your neck that spread, blissfully, across your scalp and made your eyes water and pulled your mouth into an irrepressible grin. Personally, I can remember some of my own and what I remember most is that it wasn't just one thing that made the moment perfect, it was everything that did. So, in other words, these multifarious factors were not the enemy in the creation of the perfect moment, they were all there to help.
In theory then, we should be able to harness various factors to the yoke of creating the perfect whisky moment because we know, in practice, that we have experienced moments of perfection. But can we actually create those moments? Not just a good moment like going for a picnic or a walk in the sunshine, a perfect moment – that which could not be better. As a public service to you all, clenched of jaw and gimlet of eye, that's what I determined to try and achieve.
And immediately came to the first stumbling block. All of my moments of perfection had, naturally, come at times when I was with other people. Their presence there was not just a key element, it was the deciding factor. Hmm. As this was during lockdown and I couldn't very well see any of these people, this could rather hole the idea below the waterline before I had even started. However, I considered that in essence, this pursuit was necessarily and inescapably a selfish one. I was trying to create my own whisky moment and while including the people I love or get on with extremely well was always going to add to any experience, if while attempting this I was concerned about the enjoyment of the other person or people (which any reasonable human being would be) I would be distracted, not concentrating on the whisky, the environment, etc and therefore the moment would be gone. On a more practical level, The Loved One doesn't like whisky and taking my daughter with me to drink alcohol didn't fall under the heading 'excellent parenting' so in the end, I figured that although going solo was something of an enforced choice, if you squinted a bit, it made perfect sense. I did, however, take The Dog as I had decided to make the attempt al fresco and as I was going to be drinking, I had to walk. Apart from the fact that he is unstintingly excellent company, previous experience has led me to an unshakeable confidence that as far as he is concerned, every single moment of every single walk is perfection.
Next up, venue. Every city, town or village dweller has a 'manor' – the bits you know inside out and consider yourself to be a part of beyond just being a resident. Mine is a bit along the Water of Leith, a tributary that rises in the Pentland Hills and flows into the Firth of Forth via various bits of Edinburgh, and specifically for our purposes here, passes St Bernard's Well in the Stockbridge area. This is an ornate structure (pictured below) designed by Scottish painter Alexander Nasmyth, and technically speaking, it's an absolute belter of a location (and provides excellent cover for smoking in school uniform). Doric columns, a dome and a statue of Hygieia (goddess of health) overlook the waters near the bridge of Stockbridge itself. Babbling brook to gaze upon, place for The Dog to run about and within easy reach from the homestead. Nice.
What about sounds then? On the one hand, the river is pretty musical and there is a fair amount of birds a-twittering but on the other, there is also traffic nearby so earphones and something suitably stirring seemed to be the order of the day and I figured I could easily take the earphones out if I fancied some natural sonic ambience. It also made me feel a bit more justified in this being a solo effort – 'I'm just going to pop my earphones in now' not rating in the top ten phrases leading to a lovely day out with a significant other. The music choice led to a few days of handwringing, indecision and the realisation that my taste in music is limited and distinctly of the dad-dancing genre. Suffice to say that I ended up at David Gray's Life in Slow Motion, with a particular focus on the almost-title tune Slow Motion. Not only did this have the prerequisite 'swell', it also seemed apposite given the current lockdown. Add that to the 'snowflakes are falling' lyric on a week where Edinburgh had seen several inches of snow and the music was in the bag.
It was at this point that I realised that lugging around an open bottle of scotch through the streets of lockdown Edinburgh wasn't going to be a great idea as being arrested was unlikely to coax the bluebird of happiness to alight atop the shoulder. Not an insurmountable problem given the employment of rucksack or similar but that would be cumbersome and more to the point, heavy (and if I was going to take a glass along too, clinky). This gave me the happy problem of having to buy a hip flask. After an enjoyable half hour of looking at some priced in the same bracket as a high mileage Volkswagen Polo, I went for a business-like but beautifully made number from a company famous for its windproof lighters. There was a chrome one on offer, but I reasoned that the OCD polishing of fingerprints out of it would hamper the occasion and went with the black leather-wrapped version which looks and feels considerably higher quality than the very reasonable 15 quid price tag suggests. Admittedly, not buying a funnel at the same time was a messy and expensive oversight but there's no use crying over spilt whisky.
Speaking of, it will perhaps not be very surprising that I went with Black Tartan 88. Shameless self-promotion aside, as every single review will tell you, it's a sublime (but not perfect, obviously) whisky and is, for many reasons beyond just taste alone, my current favourite thing to sip away at contentedly. Additionally, every experiment needs a control in order to see the effect of other variables and I was damned if I was going to use somebody else's.
An equal flurry of snow and work then intervened to stall the experiment. The snow passed only to be replaced by days of drizzle (the less successful Tom Cruise movie) and an east wind like a mortician's saw, neither of which seemed conducive to the attainment of a nirvanic trance while gazing fondly upon delicately proportioned statuary and savouring The Good Stuff. Which left some time to ponder on what day would be most suitable for the undertaking. This was not as simple as just waiting for a bit of sunshine (although it being February in Edinburgh I'm playing fast and loose with 'simple') and some time between jobs. The day had to have the right 'mood music'. Setting out with the Charlie Brown personal cloud above one's head wouldn't be a good start to proceedings. Monday to Wednesday were out immediately as they are usually fairly fraught and free from the niceties of addressing anything other than the picking up of the metaphorical sword and roaring forward towards the frontlines. Coloured by the honeying imminence of Friday as it is, Thursday evening after work was a possibility except that it would be dark (again, February in Edinburgh). Not necessarily a dealbreaker, but a streetlight sodium glow speaks of drinking to forget in a Phillip Marlowe sort of way rather than sipping and slipping into bliss. Besides, as it was nearly spring-ish, there was the possibility of snowdrops shyly peeking out to be considered and they are best considered when you can actually see them. Friday had much the same problem and as Saturday mostly involves 'catching up on work' (dossing of the sofa with book and beers), it too fell out of the running. Which left a suitably lazy Sunday afternoon as less of an informed decision and more the only choice, but one that felt right anyway.
I'm not going to lie; the first attempt did not go well. The weather had finally turned and with a glorious, sunny Sunday in prospect, I decided today was the day. Unfortunately, I had knackered The Dog with an extended morning wander along the local cycle path so when the lunchtime trip to the St Bernard's Well came around, the blighter simply cocked an eye at the proffered lead and pretended to be asleep. A shade perturbed by what can only be described as a shocking lack of loyalty to master and cause, I left for Stockbridge on my own and by the time I got there, it was clear that visiting the Well on a Sunday afternoon was not perhaps one of my more original ideas. I actually had to queue to take the snap of Hygieia you see on this page and as a result of being surrounded by fresh-faced healthy types looking dangerously young and fit, suddenly felt extremely conscious of the fact that I was a shabbily dressed middle-aged man standing with a hip flask in his pocket. After an extended internal struggle as to whether leaving immediately looked more or less shifty than hanging around and pretending to read the plaque about William Nelson (he restored the Well), I turned on my heel and went home for a rethink. And a second failed attempt of the day, this one involving manfully trying to ignore The Dog whose welcome home broke my resolve within seconds
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As it turned out, I didn't end up back at St Bernard's Well for 'the moment'. The following Sunday, I got up with the lark – four-fifths filled with vim and topped off with lashings of vigour after a responsible Saturday night – and aimed The Dog towards Cramond beach while it was still dark, spring in both step and the air. The wind had finally had the good grace to breathe in for a while and the day already offered a warmth one could not reasonably expect to receive of a late February Edinburgh morning. After an hour that past in one of those lost-in-thought periods where you don't really notice any effort expended or time passed, I arrived at the beach as the first stirrings of light crept above the horizon point to show a tide coming in and hardly another soul in attendance. Having reached The Dog's favoured ball-chucking territory, the dawn properly broke and the sky became a graduated tint from a blushing pink through a feint yellow to the palest of blues. Now, I hadn't set out on this walk to try and experience 'the moment' and although I had left the earphones and the flask in my coat all week, there was an obvious problem with grasping at the opportunity that had climbed so gracefully up into my field of view – it was 7 in the bleeding morning. At an airport on route to a lad's holiday (or, if I'm honest, any holiday) drinking at such an hour is entirely acceptable, but I wasn't going on holiday and I wasn't at the airport. Then again… the solitude which at that point was so attractive wasn't possible at any other time of day, I didn't have to drive anywhere or do anything, and it wasn't as if I was going to be getting bladdered, it was just a sip or two. Besides, there was a frisson of excitement about drinking at that time on just a normal Sunday and unlike at St Bernard's Well, there was nobody but The Dog there to see me do it anyway. And as he is unfailingly discreet in these matters, I slipped in the earphones and opened the flask.
So, was it perfection? Was it that which could not be better? For the first few minutes, I considered exactly that and realised that empirically speaking, it was of course impossible to judge – this being an experience that by its very nature harnessed the subjective. But after a while I stopped thinking about that and just stood there for half an hour, chucking the ball, sipping the scotch and watching the light change while David Gray gave it plenty… and felt better than I had in months. It might have been the sense of spring arriving. It might have been the fact that, like so many perfect moments, there was still some spontaneity involved in an otherwise 'planned' moment. Or watching The Dog in his element, covered in sand, streaking across the beach into the sea while an incomparably beautiful morning slowly revealed itself and the tops of the three bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. It might just have been the effect of the whisky so early in the day. But I don't think it was any of those things, I think it was all of them and while I don't know whether those brief moments truly reached a state of perfection, they were definitely unforgettable. And that, I decided as Now and Always drifted through my earphones and we wandered back along the promenade exchanging smiles and sniffs with our fellow early risers, was perfectly good enough for me.
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