Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Barcelona.

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?

Castello 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.”

Liberal family

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.”

Julian Assange

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…

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