A new year, new opportunities. 17 years ago, Charlotte Horton left the UK for Italy, where she’s devoted her time to restoring Potentino castle. We meet to discuss the ecological attitude to life, local traditions, democracy and micro-politics.
Visiting great castles in Italy isn’t exactly an everyday affair for Modern Times. So why travel all the way to Tuscany, with a cameraman in tow, to interview the woman who’s restored the Castella di Potentino?
We’re seated in the private wing of the castle, where at least five metres separates the ceiling above us from the enormous stone floor under our feet. Our conversation is accompanied by the snoring of a giant dog lying on the neighbouring couch. I try to get an understanding of what prompted Charlotte Horton to take on the restoration of what, 17 years ago, was a complete ruin, rather than continuing her modern life in London. She had worked at Vogue Magazine and at Warburg Publishing House; she was, in other words, a well-established figure on London’s cultural scene.
By way of an answer, Horton cites her background as a roaming journalist. She bought the 3000-years old ruins of the castle by persuading the 20 families who collectively made up the heirs. “Nobody really knew what I was up to, especially because I was a woman, and so they couldn’t stop me.”
Horton wanted to create a winery. “I was already making wines that were winning awards. There are many creative, dynamic women involved in winemaking, but only up to a certain level; over this you’ll find the men controlling the market. But surely the wine that was drunk by the wine god Bacchus was made by a woman? Many seem to think that the concept of being a strong woman is a modern one. And unfortunately, too many women are still worrying too much about getting married. It’s something that both Meryl Streep and I’ve had enough of.”
With the help of countless volunteers, Horton has now rebuilt Potentino castle; its hundred-year old rows of vines and ancient olive trees are similarly well looked after. Documents trace the castle’s history back to 1042, but the evidence points to the existence of Etruscan settlements here in pre-Roman times. The castle has at various times been in the possession of aristocratic families like the Tolomei, Bonsignori and Salimbeni; it subsequently housed a charitable foundation in the 16th century before it was finally bought by a German in 1906. Wandering through the grounds one is inevitably filled with awe at the sight nature’s endless bounty. As the castle’s owner puts it: “Man has always managed to make a living, and winemaking has been practiced in Mediterranean cultures for a very long time. In this area they’ve been producing olive oil for the past 4000-5000 years.”
Horton grew up surrounded by liberal-minded people in London, and subsequently travelled the world in order to learn about cultural differences. Her cultivated, free-spirited family background has left her critical of today’s entertainment-obsessed media reality; she fondly recalls a time when “people would still ask: ‘What are you thinking? Let’s have a discussion about it.’” In a similar vein, she laments the present-day erosion of democracy: “Democracy requires that you educate people, otherwise they can’t vote or make independent decisions. The current trend in lots of countries, however, is to cut back on education and health care, which leaves people sick and ignorant. They’re manipulated into casting their votes in what’s effectively a simulated democracy. As a result of today’s irrational, sycophantic mass media, we barely have real political debates anymore.”
Potentino stages a number of cultural events every year and also accommodates paying guests. Horton’s half-brother Alexander Greene worked in publishing before becoming the full-time administrator of the castle, whereas their father/stepfather Graham Greene was a liberal intellectual publisher and chairman of the British Museum. The castle offers grand rooms adorned by fireplaces, paintings and books, and I often found myself sitting in the Greene family’s enormous library during my week-long sojourn there. Horton explains: “I’ve been enormously inspired by books. An enduring interest of mine has been how people are led to believe in things, like in the religious and judicial structures that regulate societies. Another is how religion gradually moved into the realm of politics, while magic similarly morphed into science. My travels, too, were all about looking for old patterns of thought that have gradually disappeared.”
Horton relates that her extended family includes Vaughan Smith, who’s known for having protected Julian Assange in the Frontline Club, the London-based journalist club that the former war correspondent headed along with Charlotte’s brother. Assange also spent some time in hiding at Smith’s ecological farm: «I think my cousin and I have a similar way of always asking questions. But I don’t think that neither Assange nor Edward Snowden are fully aware of the game, the political situation, they’re involved in. A game where both the authorities and their critics are engaged in acts of political manipulation.”
Somewhat taken aback, I ask Horton if she really thinks that Snowdon and Assange were driven by dishonest intentions. “Well, look back at the Cold War and what it tells us about the human egos of the spy world. It’s incredibly easy to manipulate people into thinking and acting in certain ways. They may think that they’re doing something important when they reveal international secret operations. Disaffected, egotistic people are easily manipulated.”
How much does Horton really know about this? Rumour has it that her journalist father was a spy, something she doesn’t deny when I ask her. Whatever the case may be, she shares Assange’s concerns about artificial intelligence and big data as well as his fears of mass surveillance: “What scares me the most now are the new algorithms and what they can be used for.”
The dining table
Every night at the castle, the classic dining table is set for a communal dinner for 16 guests. These British aristocrats naturally master the art of entertaining the guests around the table with their ironic, quick-witted conversation. The woman with the ghostly white hair seated at the table’s end is their mother Sally, formerly a ballerina and photographer. But old age has clearly taken its toll, and she no longer seems to know quite where she is. I was therefore agreeably surprised when, during the dessert, she suddenly stood up and asked me for a dance…
I ask Horton, who had lunch with the previous American ambassador to Italy this week, about her views on the US. “The country is built on lies, it’s the most dishonest country in the world. I’m thinking especially of their treatment of the indigenous population – after all, they stole their country. Those deep, dark, rotten roots influence America’s behaviour in the world elsewhere, too. Traditional colonialism at least imposed a new structure in the colonies, but the US only murders and steals.”
«Did Horton and her brother Alexander choose to withdraw completely from the modern, globalized existence?»
Chaos, then. I can’t help asking if she was able to discuss such topics during the ambassador’s visit. “No, he was far too busy telling me how horrified he was at Trump, so I never got the chance.” Horton goes on to describe the former ambassador, an Obama-appointee, as “a very interesting man, very liberal, the kind of American you wish was still in power”.
Normally, half the dinner table is taken up by volunteers from all over the world, as the castle offers a range of educational programmes for young people. They come for a few weeks at a time to learn how to make wine, cheese and ecological food. The work here takes place among vine rows and wine barrels. Horton has hosted some 4000 volunteers in her fertile Italian oasis: “On a yearly basis we host some 200-300 young people here.” I ask if she ever hosts refugees. “There are some refugees in the area, but we mostly host middle class youths from the West. It’s difficult to mix these with people who’re in a very difficult situation, like the Syrians. In fact, I’m not sure if the training we provide here would be of much use to the refugees. The ecological concepts we teach our mostly middle-class students are alien to most people from developing countries.”
Ecology and food
What, then, does the ecological philosophy promoted by Horton in these beautiful surroundings really boil down to? “Italy gave this area a degree of local self-rule in the 1980s. The people here planted their own fields and had an almost sensual attachment to the land. Many grew their own food, made their own olive oil and cheese and slaughtered their own animals for use in sausages. They knew that sheep eating a certain type of grass in a certain field at a certain time of the year would produce a really good cheese.” Seeing me smile, Horton continues: “Don’t underestimate the importance of our sense of taste! It’s what helps us distinguish good from bad quality. People who only use supermarkets become distant consumers. The consumer culture is having an effect on people’s intelligence. To exercise your taste buds is important to the brain!”
This brings us somewhat beyond my area of expertise; as a city boy, I never experienced first-hand either slaughtering or winemaking. “You know, one of our first experiences on leaving the womb is tasting mothers milk, so we immediately learn to discriminate what is and what isn’t good nutrition. And that in turn strengthens our ability to make judgements. The more we exercise that ability, the better we get at living our lives. Mass-produced food unfortunately creates a homogenized, mass-produced culture. To me, cultivation means doing both agriculture and poetry. Shopping malls and industrialized farming, on the other hand, leads to alienation and stupidity, and is only driven forward by the profit motive. Ecology is about regaining a state of mind, an equilibrium, the ability to use your own intelligence. There’s a metaphysical, or philosophical, quality to our senses. If you’re conscious of what you eat from your environment you feel better – many of us react to chemical additives that aren’t good for us. Unfortunately, people in the modern world aren’t eating nutritious food, and as a result the body no longer knows when it’s had enough, but keeps saying ‘I need food, I need food.’ I see people having an addictive, unhappy relationship with food, instead of having good food that makes them happy.”
«Notice how many so-called hipsters drink ‘natural wine’ to save the world.»
Horton’s commitment to ecological agriculture expresses itself through the determined look in her eyes. “The use of GM results in overproduction, which in turn destroys the soil. In the future, companies like Monsanto will probably be sued for genocide because they’re destroying whole ecosystems. Traditionally people here in Italy enjoyed a symbiotic, responsible relationship with the places they inhabited. Their immediate surroundings covered their daily needs. Today such environments are laid to waste, and shopping malls are taking their place.”
In restoring the castle, Horton herself has used both recycled and traditional materials – terracotta, peperino (a local volcanic stone), chestnut and colour pigments from the soil. Old wood, old screws and rusty hinges have all been put to good use, while cobwebs, aged paint and antiquarian carpets have been employed in order to retain the patina.
Withdrawal and democracy
As a decidedly urban person who would normally much rather visit Europe’s big cities than its rural areas, I’m intrigued by Horton’s decision to settle in Potentino Castle. Did Horton and her brother choose to withdraw completely from the modern, globalized existence? “No, I’m very attentive to everything that’s going on in the world. I speak at international food and ecology conferences. We travel around and share our ideas in places like Oslo, New York, London and Tokyo. At the Tokyo conference, for example, I held a lecture about the local environment’s importance. We’re proactive. There’s also a global dimension to our commitment to teaching volunteers. I’m developing a close relationship with these young people and try to make them understand the importance of being close to earth and to life. It’s no longer about bringing the food to the people, but about bringing the people back to the food.”
My own interest in eco-anarchism, with its emphasis on withdrawing from the hustle and bustle of consumer society, prompts me to ask Horton about her own political beliefs. “I’m not really attached to any specific political parties or opinions. I don’t think conventional politics is the answer, but micro-politics. The ruralism that I’m advocating is fundamentally based on how people lived and survived in the past. But notice how many so-called hipsters drink “natural wine” to save the world. The problem is that they’ve no idea how the wine is made, nor are they familiar with the plants or the soil. I learnt from the locals how they’ve always made wine – natural wine is nothing new.” To a remark I make about the importance of finding local solutions, Horton responds: “I like the term micro-life, with its emphasis on individual choice. It doesn’t have to be exactly what we’re doing here, but it entails appreciating local skills and local crafts. Interestingly, we have a couple of literature students here whose parents were shepherds, and who’re now learning sheep farming from us.”
Our discussion on politics returns to the topic of anarchism, a topic Horton is familiar with: “I’ve read a lot about anarchism and the emergence of the regulated society – it goes back to antiquity and to the writing down of the first laws. Anarchism is a really interesting concept, but it can only exist within a certain structure. I think a good society allows people to be anarchists, in the sense of not being part of the normal, or normalizing, society. The original idea of democracy is to allow and even encourage differences of opinion, which means that you essentially support people with deviating viewpoints. Today’s democracies don’t necessarily tolerate genuine criticism, and plutocracies and oligarchies are on the rise. Freedom can only develop in times of plenty, where there’s enough to share and enough food, where things are working and where people are able to live together without having to compete incessantly. Democracy originated in the Mediterranean because living here was easy.”
«Neither Assange nor Edward Snowden are fully aware of the game, the political situation, they’re involved in.»
While writing this text my thoughts turn to my previous Modern Times-interview with Johan Galtung in Spain, and to his concept of commune-ism: Communities consisting of 20-30 000 inhabitants, in which everyone knows each other and each other’s needs. In Horton’s world, however, local, eco-based communities would ideally consist of a few hundred people. I round off our conversation by asking her to describe this imagined community: “Our community here resembles that of a village – it’s not governed by rules and regulations, but exists in harmony with our surroundings. That’s my vision. Rural movements and small communities only work when people get along.”