31 Dec 2010

New Year's bike resolution

My resolution for 2011 is to finish, thanks to Frank Chatokhine, my Norton Commando improvement project.This is what the bike looks like now, classic and pretty much original, apart from the large Interstate tank.

Atelier Chatokhine, near Chartres in France, are excellent specialists in the repairing and modification of classic British bikes:


And this is something like what it might look like when finished. I am not a purist about keeping bikes "original". The main aspect will not change much but I do expect to ride the thing as much as I already have done when I owned it in the past, and have it brake properly, be a bit more comfortable, start more easily, and so on...

Some details will be different, for sure, as things tend to evolve during the course of a project. Some changes will be internal as well. Wish us well!

30 Dec 2010

The Ashes: England vs Australia 2010

The game of cricket is virtually impossible to explain to those who have never learnt to play it. And learning to play it reasonably well can take quite a bit of time. One could therefore surmise that this strange game is only played by a highly-educated elite in a few rich countries. Not so! Cricket is probably the world's second most played sport, after soccer, largely on account of its huge popularity throughout the Indian sub-continent.

Cricket was invented in England and is played at the highest international level in about 8 countries, with another 8 also competing in world-cup type events. Over the past 120 or so years, the two oldest international rivals have been England and their former colony, Australia. When Australia beat England for the first time in the mother-land of cricket, the Sporting Times newspaper was so disgusted that it published an obituary notice of English cricket, saying that the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The next time an English team travelled out to play in Australia, the tour was decribed as the quest to regain The Ashes. Since then, the series of games played between the two countries, alternately in England and in Australia, at roughly 2 year intervals, have been known simply as "The Ashes". Each series consists, usually, of five separate five-day matches, played on five different grounds in the receiving country. The winner gains temporary (and symbolic) ownership of the urn containing "The Ashes". If the series is drawn, the current owner retains The Ashes.

England won the 2009 series played at home and so are current holders of The Ashes, even more so since they have just retained them in Australia after winning the 4th test match of the 2010/2011 series which is under way (one should remember that cricket is played in the summer months, and so the intervals between series played in the two hemispheres vary by 6 months). Only 4 of the 5 games have been completed at the date of writing, but, by winning 2 against Australia's 1, the other one being a draw, England are now sure to keep The Ashes, whatever happens in the last game which will start in Sydney on January 2nd. Taken overall, since the 2 countries started to compete, it is Australia who hold the lead over England in terms of victories, both in games (123 vs 99, with 87 draws) and in series (31 vs 29, with the current series still to be determined). In fact one can say that Australia has been, historically, cricket's strongest nation, albeit with fluctuations through time.

The 2009 series in England was full of suspense, with both teams winning games, and this one is holding its share of surprises and heart-stopping reversals, with amazing fluctuations in the results. England clearly have dominated the 2010/2011 series so far. The first test was a draw, but a moral victory for England, who went on to easly win the second test and then totally and strangely collapse in the third. In the fourth test which has just finished in the 90,000 capacity Melbourne cricket ground, Australia were again soundly defeated, with the defeat somehow compounded by some chidlishly anti-sporting behaviour by the Australian captain, Ponting, who seems unable to accept an umpire's decision when it goes against his team, even when proven to be right by electronic means. Its fine and necessary to be a competitor, but rules are rules for everyone in a game, and the captain should show an example.

I am looking forward to the 5th test, although goodness knows it is hard to catch any of it here in France!

Happy New Year to all

England vs France via Eurostar

I am sorry to disappoint rugby lovers who may land here by chance, but this is not a proposal to go and see the coming 6 Nations rugby game which will be played this year at Twickenham on February 26th, although I am personally hoping to be there. In fact this article may actually help them if they are travelling from Paris to London by Eurostar. As you can see, this entry is in the wine section, and is about the strangely different ways in which wine is treated in each of these two European nations, one of which is the world's largest producer of the stuff.

I recently went to England to spend Christmas holidays with part of my family, and, to do so, travelled by Eurostar via London. The British have, most diplomatically, finally taken mercy on the French and, instead of making them arrive in Waterloo station, have gone to the huge expense of digging a tunnel under the Thames so that the train now arrives in St. Pancras station, thereby sparing them unpleasant Napoleonic memories. St. Pancras is a huge Victorian brick pile with impressively high iron roof structures that has beeen very successfully renovated with smooth tropical wood floors, stainless-steel and glass fittings galore, and whose waiting area ressembles a shopping mall. But the main subject of this article is neither history not architecture, but wine.

Leaving the Gare du Nord, which is the Paris terminal for the Eurostar cross-channel train, one can, by trying a bit, find a very ordinary wine list in one of the cafés near the check-in zone on the first floor. The least one can say is that it lacks interest, and the wines are not stored or served with any particular care. Over in London, at the St.Pancras terminal, there is a wine bar called desVins (yes, the name is in French http://www.desvins.co.uk/) which serves 37 wines by the glass, not to mention a short but very tempting list of top level wines proposed by the bottle at reduced prices in a "bin-end" sale. The latter includes a 2005 Riesling from the top Alsace producer, Domaine Weinbach, at £40, Ducru-Beaucaillou 2001 at £110, or the excellent English sparkling Nyetimber Premiere Cuvée 1997 at £45. Now back to the by-the-glass list for a closer look. All wines are proposed in two quantities: 12,5cl and 17,5 cl. There is one sparkling, 4 rosés, 15 white and 17 reds. Prices ranges from £4 to £13,60 for a 12,5 cl glass, but the vast majority are under £6. For those in the money, there is also a Champagne list which includes Krug. And what is the wine selection like? Very eclectic in terms of the countries of origin, as well as the grape varieties. The producers, who are mentioned on the list, are mostly of good repute. For those uncertain of the styles that go with the names, both whites and reds are organised in sub-groups: dry, crisp and refreshing; richer and fuller-bodied, aromatic; or, for the reds: light and fruity; medium-bodied, juicy and supple; full-flavoured and intense. This is helpful and intelligent. The glassware is adequate and the temperature of the wine perfect, thanks to two Enomatic machines, plus cold cupboards. I tried an delicate, off-dry German Riesling and a Rioja Crianza from Saigoba. Both were excellent. The food is adequate although nothing special, but this wine selection alone is well worth getting to St. Pancras an hour or two early for your train and taking a seat at desVins.

When are we going to find something like this in a French railway station? Or, for that matter, something equivalent to the Frescobaldi wine bars in Rome's airport in a French airport? Is it too much to ask that a country which earns more money from its wine exports than from anything else except for planes and nuclear power stations should make an effort to showcase and sell decent wines by the glass to travellers? There are duty-free wine shops galore in Charles de Gaulle airport, but try and find a decent glass of wine served by the glass in pleasant surroundings! This is no problem in Copenhagen, for example. And, to get back to trains, who on earth wants to spend two hours waiting in the Gare du Nord?

And the score of this specific match? France 0 - England 14 (two converted tries)

27 Dec 2010

The painting of Hammershoi

Perhaps Hammershoi, a Danish painter of the late 19th and early 20th century, is not as well-kown as many French painters of this period. Yet in my opinion he should be. He is of course a star in his own country, and is known to amateurs elsewhere. The painting above is actually in one of the French national collections but of course, if you want to really get to grips with his work, you should go to Copenhagen.

Hammeshoi is one of the subtlest observers of light, and how light shapes and affects form, that I know. Mich of his painting was done indoors, so it can bear some resemblance to the work of Vermeer, minus the colours. Because he is almost a monochromatic painter. The soft and illuminating effect of light, and the calm, austere atmospheres, are very similar however.

I will return to Hammershoi in a future post. I love him for many reasons, and in all seasons.

26 Dec 2010

Steve McQueen and motorcycles

Dear Readers

It is the Christmas season, so I have decided to give you a present. I have noticed that by far the most popular of my posts so far has been the one devoted to Steve McQueen, an actor that I liked and a man I admired. The fact that he was a true motorcycle nut (and a very good rider) definitely helps here!

What follows is a copy of the entry on the man by the AMA (American Motorcycle Association) in their hall of fame, to which he was elected, postumously, in 1999. I have also added a couple of pictures, just for good measure. One for the girls, and one for the boys (the one on the left, with his favourite bike, a Metisse with, I think, a Triumph engine)

(the following is entirely taken from the AMA site)

Steve McQueen was one of the leading movie actors of the 1960s and ‘70s, but he was also an avid motorcyclist and supporter of the sport. Among McQueen’s many contributions to motorcycling include financing the influential motorcycle movie, "On Any Sunday," in which he rode with buddies Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill. McQueen also supported a team of off-road riders that included himself and Bud and Dave Ekins, who competed in the 1964 International Six Day Trial in Germany. McQueen’s unabashed enthusiasm for motorcycling did wonders for the image of the sport during a time when the general public often looked at motorcyclists with disdain.

McQueen was born in the Indianapolis suburb of Beech Grove, Indiana, on March 24, 1930. He had a troubled youth and for a time was raised by a great uncle on a farm in Missouri. When he was 12, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother. There, he became involved in gangs and ended up in reform school. Later in life he credited the California Junior Boys Republic for helping him get on the right track. After becoming a successful movie star, McQueen made generous donations to the institution.

McQueen joined the Marines and early on spent a good amount of time in the brig for various offenses. He later redeemed himself by diving in and helping rescue five servicemen who had fallen into the frigid Arctic Sea after their ship hit a sand bar. McQueen was promoted to honor guard and was honorably discharged in 1950.

After his stint in the service, McQueen drifted around the country supporting himself with menial jobs. It was during this time that he took up motorcycling. His first motorcycle was a 1946 Indian Chief. In a 1971 interview in Sports Illustrated, McQueen recalls that he was smitten by motorcycling from the start.

"I was so proud of that Indian that I rode it over to see a girl I was dating," he recalled. "She said, 'You don’t expect me to ride around with you on that, do you?' I surely did. The girl went and the bike stayed."

By the mid-1950s McQueen’s acting career began to take off and a decade later he had become the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. He was famous for portraying gritty characters in popular movies such as "The Magnificent Seven," "Hell is for Heroes," "Bullitt" and others. Despite his success as an actor, McQueen didn’t shy away from motorcycling. Instead, he became even more active. In the late 1950s, McQueen and a group of friends took a risky motorcycle trip across revolutionary Cuba.

"Batista and Castro were shooting it out across the countryside. There were uniforms everywhere, but we had a great adventure, which is one of the things that make motorcycling so great because it never fails to give you a feeling of freedom and adventure," he said.

In the early 1960s, he and another actor, Dennis Hopper, were riding their street bikes around Hollywood when they came across some off-road cyclists riding in the hills. They pulled over to watch and McQueen was awestruck by the skill of the riders motoring up incredibly steep hills. The very next day, he purchased a Triumph 500cc off-road bike from Bud Ekins. Ekins helped McQueen learn the ropes, and before long McQueen began competing in off-road events around Southern California. Later, his contracts with movie studios prohibited him from racing motorcycles. He got around that technicality by racing under the pseudonym of Harvey Mushman.

McQueen raced in many of the top off-road races on the West Coast during the ‘60s and early-1970s, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. According to Bud Ekins, McQueen became quite a respectable racer.

"He never could race enough, because of his movie commitments, to earn enough points for his expert license," Ekins explained. "He always raced as an amateur, but that was crazy since he usually finished ahead of the other amateurs and most of the experts."

McQueen and Ekins dreamed up perhaps the most famous motorcycle jump ever filmed when shooting the movie "The Great Escape" in Germany. He called good friend Ekins over to be his stunt double to shoot the climactic motorcycle jump in which McQueen’s character was trying to escape German soldiers by motorcycle during World War II.

While shooting that movie, McQueen and Ekins took a break to watch the International Six Days Trial in Germany. The two would return two years later, along with Dave Ekins, to compete in the ISDT.

McQueen became so closely associated with motorcycling that Popular Science had him write a series of motorcycle reviews for that magazine in the mid-1960s.

In the early 1970s, movie producer Bruce Brown approached McQueen about helping him finance a documentary movie on motorcycling. McQueen, fully knowing that he would probably never profit from this type of film, nevertheless agreed to back Brown. The movie he financed turned out to be the classic, "On Any Sunday," not only the best motorcycle movie of its time, but also a commercial success.

In 1971, a shirtless McQueen was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated jumping a Husqvarna off-road bike. Inside that issue was an extensive interview with McQueen on his love for the sport.

McQueen also became interested in collecting classic motorcycles. By the late-1970s, his collection included well over 100 machines and was valued in the millions of dollars.

McQueen died from lung cancer on November 7, 1980. He was just 50 years old. His contribution to motorcycling helped the sport overcome its outlaw image and helped set the stage for the popularity of the sport during the 1990s.

25 Dec 2010

24 Dec 2010

Vouvray, its commercial foibles, and how the wine lasts

In the hamlet of Rochecorbon, which is part of the Vouvray vineyard, with the river Loire behind us, one can see the calcareous rock structure of these crumbling cliffs, in which people used to (and sometimes still do) live. Most of the caves are now wine cellars.

Vouvray is the name of a rather sad little town just upstream from Tours, on the river Loire. The vineyards that surround it, and which take on its name, produce only white wines, but a very wide variety of them, albeit from a single grape variety, the chenin blanc. Like most French appellations, this fact (the grape variety) is not even mentioned on the labels of Vouvray, which I suppose is one way of missing out on some potential sales. Not that chenin blanc is as famous as, say, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, but even so, if someone wants a chenin blanc they should be able to spot it easily. Vouvray apparently thinks it is above such vile commercial considerations.

Nonetheless, Vouvray produces some very decent wines and the occasional great one. Harvest conditions in this northern (for Europe) region can vary quite a lot, especially with the influence of the moisture-bearing Atlantic Ocean which lies about 200 kilometres to the west. Storms around harvest time can make or break quality, at least determining what the dominant type of the wine will be. In terms of harvest dates we start with sparkling wines, moving on to dry white, then semi-sweet and,  if the weather holds, finally lusciously sweet late-harvested types that may or may not have been affected by noble rot.  One of the features of this grape/climate combination is the high levels of acidity that it tends to produce in a wine. It is quite reminiscent of some rieslings, and is also one of the reasons for their considerable longevity, as we will see later.

I recently visited the region briefly, having been given the opportunity to taste wines not only from the last vintage being sold (the excellent 2009), but also a few wines going back to 1919. This was a very interesting experience, and here is a selection of the wines I liked best.

from the 2009 vintage.

Clearly an excellent vintage for all wines in Vouvray, particularly the sweeter ones.

Domaine du Margalleau 2009 Vouvray sec (dry)

Tender and seductive aromas of white fruit. Similar feeling on the palate with more zip from the acidity. Fine and delicate, slightly rounded on the finish by the faintest touch of sweetness. Very pleasant.

Domaine de la Poultière, cuvée Emotion 2009, Vouvray demi-sec (off-dry)
The nose reminded me of exotic fruit. Quite intense and rich on the palate, yet dynamic and still very youthful. Very fine.

Domaine Vincent Carême 2009, Vouvray moelleux (sweet)
A beautiful nose, fine and pure, still a little closed-in. Lovely freshness to the palate, with an almost chalky texture that is given vibrancy by the acidity. Full of fine flavours. Will develop slowly and harmoniously I expect.

Domaine des Lauriers, Privilège 2009, Vouvray moelleux (sweet)
The very rich and complexe nose is the result of a mixture between grapes sun-dried on the vine and others affected by noble rot. Makes this wine very aromatic, something close to lychees. Nice balance between acidity, sweetness and fruit, the latter being full-bodied, concentrated, and almost marmelade-like.

Clos Naudin, Moelleux Réserve 2009, Vouvray moelleux (sweet)
Again a hugely complex nose, even more expressive than the previous wine, including aromas of spices and gingerbread. This wine is illuminated from inside by its splendid acidity. The finish lingers for ages, and the balance shows intesnsity without anything seeming cloying. The most impressive wine of a fine series.

The best of the older vintages: oldies but goldies

Clos Naudin, Moelleux Réserve 1989, Vouvray moelleux (sweet)
The aromas are quite extraordinary, covereing a broad spectrum from mushrooms to spices, all on a fresh sea breeze. On the palate this wine is as fine as it is intense. Great complexity and length. A superb wine !

Domaine Huet, Le Haut Lieu Premier Tri 1959, Vouvray moelleux

The colour has moved to amber with the years, and the nose shows marvellloussly deep notes of slow oxydation. In the glass it evolves slowly, showed layers of preserved fruit and spices. Very suave in its texture, as intense and taught as an old Palo Cortado sherry, since its initial sugar has mostly been absorbed by its acidity. In fact one has the impression of tasting a delisec. Very fine.

Marc Brédif 1929, Vouvray

The nose is beautiful, reminiscent of caramel, soft spices and prunes. It must have been very sweet in its youth as it has retained considerable sweetness, just over-running the acidity. Rather like a taste of toffe with lemon. Delicious and still well alive.

Marc Brédif 1919, Vouvray
Harvest this year must have been carried out mainly by women and old man, as the First World War massacre had decimated the population of younger men. Still has good flavour, but shorter and much less intense than the previous wine. Tasting a wine like this is like travelling back in time. Always a moving experience.

(photographs by David Cobbold and Egmont Labadie)

22 Dec 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

Occasionally, one comes across a book that seems very important. Important to whom? Well, in this case probably to a lot of people and even to our society as a whole. I owe the discovery of this book to VonSontag, author of the excellent (mainly in French) blog Le Dépassionné, whose subtitle reads "the blog for real men, who cannot piss on their own".


As so often when titles of films or books are translated, they get badly distorted. This was no exception, since the French edition's title, Eloge du Carburettor bears little relationship to the spirit of this book. So I went out and bought an English language edition.

For those of you not brought up in the USofA, it is worth knowing that Shop Class signifies the teaching of manual skills in schools. Matthew Crawford is unusual in that he is not only a fully trained university teacher, with a PhD in political philosophy, but he also works as a motorcycle mechanic, specialised in the repairing and rebuilding of old bikes. This book, which mixes quite a bit of theory and some practice based on his own experiences, is a not only a testimony to the fact that one can be several "things" in one's lifetime, it is also a very strong and well-argued critique of modern society in its more blatant consumerist aspects and where these lead us, as well as of the failure of our educational systems to place the value of work, and manual work in particular, in its rightful and most useful place.

Crawford does not make any attempt at romanticising manual trades: "I want to avoid the precious images that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a "simpler" life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being "working class". I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of those fraught cultural ideals."

He also investigates the field and human value of individual responsibility, as against anonymous "teamwork", which has "opened the way for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists or life coaches." He is naturally critical of the excesses of consumerism and the state of dependance that these engender: "This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom (the capitals are his) and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realisation and freedom always entails buying something new, never conserving something old". Crawford obviously acts on this observation in his own life by specialising in the repairing of old motorcycles.

He is unconvinced by marxist analysis of the alienating effect of work in the case of craftsman, and emphasises the "social" role of manual work in communities: "work is improved through the relationships with others". Through his varied experience (community life as a child and adolescent, university studies partly financed by manual work, professorship and consultancy, and now back to the workshop), Crawford is able to make links and jump bridges that I do not often notice in this kind of book. For instance : "The practitioner of a stochastic art, such as motorcycle repair, experiences failure on a daily basis. Just today, before sitting down to write, I was faced with a mangled screw frozen in a cylinder head (and he goes on to relate how he botched up the job of removing this screw)." He continues, a little later, by relating a maxim attributed to Lyndon Johnson's press secretary "No one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life".

Of course, having followed an equally chequered path in terms both of interests and of earning my living, I tend to lean naturally towards Crawford's thesis (I was, for several years, a professional woodworker before falling into a wine barrel). But I really think that this book has some serious things to tell us about education and work. Let's hope many of the powers-that-be will take a good look too.

Read on...

21 Dec 2010

Painting, the human body, and time

Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1492

George Baselitz 1973
Albrecht Durer 1505

Eric Fischl 1980
Pierre Bonnard 1900

Ryan McGinley (photo) c.2009
Balthus 1952

20 Dec 2010

My fourth bike was a 750cc WLA Harley-Davidson

Dear reader,

I must admit here to have strayed a little from the straight and narrow, and indeed for the second time (already!) in this two-wheeled confession! But we are nearing Christmas and the end of year's reckonings and taking of stock and all. So, having admitted to having owned a Japanese bike (and  it won't be the last, cringe cringe), I now have to admit to having owned a Harley (well, actually two or three, that is if you count my conversion of the first one into something a bit different). I only wish that I had kept real photos of the machines  that I owned, since they appear in my memory so much better that the pictures I have managed to grub off the net to try to give some idea of what they were like.

But, after all, did Marcel Proust show pictures of the madeleine his Aunt Leonie gave him? So here goes anyway...

a 1945 Harley-Davidson WLC750cc (known as a '45, for 45 cubic inches, in the US)

Mine was actually pale blue, but it had the same three-speed, hand-change gear box with a double foot and handlebar controlled clutch, footboards, buddy seat and saddle bags that you can see on this one. The engine is a long-lasting, slow revving side-valve that was used for ages by Harley, and especially in the WLA war version of this bike, as well as dirt-track versions. It had a windshield as well, which came in really handy on the 5000 mile trip that I made with it around large stretches of Europe in the summer of 1969. This thing was a tractor. It was much slower than the Triumph 500 whose engine I had exploded, sending oil all over the place, but it was such fun sitting on that big seat, sticking it into first gear with the hand lever on the left side of the tank, and pressing my left toe on the clutch (which has a rocking pedal) with no hands on the bars and watching people's faces as this thing chugged away from traffic lights. On the bends in the Alps the footboards would scrape all the time round the bends to the point that I sometimes felt I was riding one of those kiddy bikes with little side wheels, and you has to literally stand up on the brakes to make it stop (just look at the size of that front drum and match it to the weight of the ensemble loaded up!). Despite the rigid frame, it was remarkably confortable as the seat was mounted on a long tube that floated up and down a central sloping column in the frame (I hate to think how those people who ride chopped versions of these rigid-framed bikes without spring seats can fare on anything other than billiard-smooth roads). The front forks were of the "springer" type and would very quickly find their limit on bends or bumps, bottoming out fast on the bumps with a clang and engendering mind-boggling tank-slappers from the wide handlebars coming out of bends, even with the friction steering damper tightened to the maximum. I suppose it wasn't supposed to be ridden that way, as it was at its sedate best just cruising down a Tuscan road with a cigar in my mouth (those Toscanis!).

I do not like Harleys any more (slow, heavy, no brakes, no handling and usually pig ugly), but I have to admit that I saw their crowd-pulling capacities on this trip. Once, having parked it outside a café somewhere in Italy, some guy offered me just about everything he had as a swap: the Lambretta, plus the wife, plus I don't know what else. I wisely declined and went my way. It was a great trip.  I returned with it to the UK and converted it into what would now be called a "bobber", but it was a kind of chop in those days.

Get ready for digital Christmas


Burgundy under snow

I was in Burgundy very recently, and it struck me how much easier it is to read the subtle nuances in the topography of the vineyards when they are under a lie of fresh snow. "Climats" are what the Burgundians call their various tiny plots of land, often walled, which have apparently minute variations of slope and orientation, as well as small differences in the textures of their soil compositions (the latter hidden by the snow, of course). These are the bricks that go to build the shimmering wall of Burgundy's wines in their infinite themed variations.

(all photographs by David Cobbold)

19 Dec 2010

A.A.Gill and Previous Convictions

Adrian Anthony Gill is a British writer, of Scottish origin, who signs his articles and books as A.A.Gill. He writes regularly for the Sunday Times newspaper and magazine as restaurant and television critic, but also on a far-ranging set of subjects. He is the exact opposite of “politically correct” (thank goodness) and his bold, often scathing and satirical style, has earned him all kinds of trouble with some of those to whom he has caused offense, including various ethnic and sexual groups. Well, you don't make omelettes without breaking a few eggs.

I recently read a collection of his articles in a cleverly titled book called “Previous Convictions”, and was very impressed not only by his renowned and sometimes feared humour, but also by his style, his sense of a formula, his descriptive capacity, and, more surprisingly, his considerable ability for empathy with subjects that truly deserve it, such as the sufferings of Sudan, or the horrors of Haiti. He has no time for those he considers to be fools, and unmasks pretention with a whip of the pen. This book regularly had me rolling on the floor with laughter and occasionally crying as well, as in his piece called Father, or that on the Sudan. Gill also apparently has the courage to go places and put himself in situations that would scare the rest of us shitless. How many of us would, for example, accept to put themselves in the window of an Amsterdam whoreshop and see what happens, or ride a tank into Baghdad during the war?

Here are a few extracts form a couple of the chapters to give you some idea.

1). Golf
"Golf is a game invented by the Scots to prove to the world what the English are really like. It seems almost unnecessary, de trop, to have to list all that is repellent about golf. It's like having to explain why eating people is wrong.....It ruins tracts of pefectly nice land and small country hotels. It is, by its very nature, the bottom line benchmark of tastelessness and naff. It is also overtly racist and class-ridden, groundlessly snobbish and humiliatingly sexist. Golf is the standard-bearer and pimp for the worst types of gratuitously wasteful capitalism and conspicuous consumption. Golf is wrist-gnawingly tedious to watch and disembowelling to listen to. It makes widows of decent women and de facto orphans of blameless children. And it fucks up baggage carousels. Golf is a fundamentally stupid game."
Yet Gill goes out and takes golf lessons to find out more, and this leads to further insight

2). Dog
"When you fall over and break your hip and can't reach the phone, your dog will try his damnedest to help. He'll bark and whine and wag. But when no one comes, have no doubts, he'll eat you. He's a dog....Dogs are bigger and better monsters than we can ever be. They've found the weakness in our huge brains: we're slaves to our sentiment and emotions. For dogs, we're just a ressource. We're prey."
What this extract does not tell you, but the piece does, is that Gill has a dog.

3). New York
In this piece Gill checks out New York gyms to try to "discover, uncover, exorcise what on earth New Yorkers thought they were doing". At one point in his investigation we get this: "I do secretly envy men who can unselfconsciously sit cupping their testicles while discussing hedge-fund mangement or some awesome new streches for avoiding groin strain. But I have a rule: never talk to a damp man without underpants on."

Do read on.....

18 Dec 2010

wines of the week 4

Fleurie and Beaujolais Villages 2009, Villa Ponciago

There are two wines this week because I could not make up my mind which one to retain as they are both just delicious! I tasted both of them, for the second time, at a recent wine fair in Paris called Le Grand Tasting. They were just as impressive as when I first tasted them several months ago. Beaujolais is not a fashionable wine, but, if you want to read my opinion on fashion, take a look at my recent posting on the subject in this blog.

Villa Ponciago is in France, not in Italy, as its name (and this picture) might suggest. It is the name given to an estate in the village of Fleurie, which is in the Beaujolais region just north of Lyon, at the southern end of Burgundy. Whether or not Beaujolais is part of Burgundy is the subject of endless petty quarrels for which the French are famous. This estate, which had previously been called Château Poncié, was purchased in 2008 by the Henriot family who already own the eponymous champagne brand, plus two superb businesses with extensive vineyards in Burgundy: William Fèvre in Chablis, and Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune. This move is part of a wider pattern which has seen, in recent years, several major Burgundy actors acquire businesses and vineyards in the Beaujolais region. This tends to confirm my thesis that this region is indeed a part of Burgundy, even if the grape variety, gamay, is different from the pinot noir that prevails to the north, although probably one of its biological cousins.

The estate contains some 50 hectares of vines with various orientations and at various altitudes, as this is a beautifully hilly region that, at times, bears a distinct ressemblance to parts of Italy, hence I imagine the italianate name given to the property and which apparently it used to bear before being called a "château".  

The two wines I tasted, both 100% gamay as are all red Beaujolais wines, are quite delicious in a simple, fruit-orientated way. They have that fine-tuned crispness that contains the flavours of black fruit, making you feel that you are receiving a flow of crunchy explosions of acidulated juice. The alcohol is light and yet the wines are perfectly satisfying. I felt I could drink them easily at any time for their refreshing qualities. They could be set at table with a wide range of good simple food, covering the range of fish to poultry and including a wide range of vegetables and white meats And they are eminently accessible in terms of prices; the Beaujolais Villages being around 6 euros and the Fleurie around 10. Wine does NOT have to be complicated, nor expensive, to be very good!

Fashion is stupid

I consider fashion, and things "fashionable", to be bad news in most respects, and wine is no exception to this general rule. Fashion to me implies an absence of individual thought and personality, because it involves following, without much discrimination, what "others" deem to be the right thing to like at any one time. In terms of clothing, it is dictated by highly organised collusion between, obviously, producers of clothing, but also magazines and other hangers-on that make their living from the same business. Their combined manipulation of the public is like sending messages to a bunch of lemmings to urge them jump off little financial cliffs every year. This is clearly why the term "fashion victims" was coined. Nobody can possible need even 10% of the clothes that many people buy.

Wine is slightly different, but fashion can play an equally idiotic part in people's attitudes to wine. A couple of major consumer wine fairs, recently held in Paris, reminded me of this yet again. The largest and most popular annual wine fair in France is called the Salon des Caves Indépendants. When this event started some 25 years ago, most French consumers barely considered any wines outside of Bordeaux and Champagne to be worthy of their interest. Hence the organisers of the fair, which will show any producer provided that they are "independant", decided not to arrange the stands according to region, but to mix them all up. As a wine professional, this means that trying to work in such an environment (there are hundreds of stands) is totally impossible as one spends all one's time running all over the place to attempt to compare wines from a single region. As a result, I never bother to attend it. A more recent and up-market event is a fair called "Le Grand Tasting", which last for two days in an underground annexe to the Louvre, Paris' major museum. I went to this because there are fewer people who attend, the producers are selected on a quality basis, and, selfishly, because they cater for the press by making our work easier in a couple of ways. Howevere I was surpised this year to notice that this fair also refuses to arrange stands according to the regions of origin of the exhibitors. When I asked why this was so, I was told "if we did this, there would be nobody at the Bordeaux stands".

So the wheel has turned the full circle. The French public used to ignore any wine that was NOT from Bordeaux, now wine snobs in France will not even taste wines from Bordeaux!  How silly, and how ignorant, can you get? Wine should always be tasted with an open mind, and there are good wines, at different price levels, to be discovered in all regions. Down with fashion and lemmings!

17 Dec 2010

my third bike was a black Triumph Trophy 500

Was a black Triumph Trophy 500, very second-hand when I bought it in 1968/1969. It was quite a bit faster and definitely more exciting, noise-wise and otherwise, than the 175 Honda that had been bent double by a car (see "my second bike" entry). One had to be careful when braking very hard (actually it didn't brake that well, but this was always a lurking fear one had) not to get emasculated by the tank rack that I actually removed to cure my phobia of a fate worse than death. The single carburettor made it more flexible and economical than the faster Tiger 500 with its twin Amals that all the quick boys used...that is those that couldn't afford the more glamorous Bonneville 650 or its transformed Triton versions in Norton frames.

I loved this bike and it was actually a good graduation up the power/speed scale from the Honda. Would quite like to get one again, and probably use it a bit for off-road stuff. This recent special built in the USA and known as Hammerhead Jack Pine (not quite sure why), was shown a few months ago by the excellent site/blog Bike EXIF daily. I think it looks very nice. The engine looks modern (which is probably a good thing for reliability), but the lines are clean and it is pretty much how I would like my next Triumph to be, if I ever get around to it. Clearly a bit inspired by Mister McQueen, but one can do worse after all...

16 Dec 2010

the photographs of Bill Phelps

This is a blown-up version of a very low definition reproduction and it does not do justice to the incredibly dense texture and the subtle gradings of this highly contrasted image. One of the qualities of Bill Phelps' black and white photography is the incredible atmosphere he manages to pack into his images. They are brooding, mysterious, and haunt you for some time.

For example, who has managed to capture some of the feeling of riding a motorcycle in dark weather better than this?.....

And his pictures of women are just as fine and subtle...

If you want to see more, take a look here :

15 Dec 2010

Get away from winter

Just thought you might like these, especially if its cold and damp and snowy and all that, like it is here in northern Europe now. Take it as a kind of pre-Christmas present if you like.

14 Dec 2010

Message in a bottle?

Here are some bottles in the cellar of a hotel & restaurant in Vouvray, on the river Loire, where I had the privilege to taste some wines from the Vouvray appellation, some sweet and some dry, but all made with the chenin blanc grape and some going back to 1919. More about this soon....

(photograph by Egmont Labadie)

13 Dec 2010

The paintings of Barbara Schroeder

I always want to get in really close to the paintings of Barbara Schroeder. They are sometimes quite big, which makes it easy, but they are often also quite small, at least in her current work, and in multiple form, which confirms part of what I feel about them. But, in every case, they seem to get under the skins of not only the observer, but also of the subject matter, scratching into the quintessential core of whatever substances are involved, whether these be the ingredients of a landscape, a fruit, a vegetable, or even something not so easy to identify or isolate, like copper.

Colours, textures and line become almost unseparable in much of her work, drawing you in to the feel of the suject as matter, as a living and inconstant thing that is more felt than analysed. Schroeder's observations go well beyond the visual sense, apparently using touch, maybe smell, and something like a sixth sense which I can only decribe as the aura of matter, to apprehend her subject. The fact that much of her work uses themes that she works and reworks, turning around the material as in a vortex of sensations, shows to me that she knows that she can never really capture the essence of a substance, perhaps beacause there is no such thing as a quitessential vision of any object, only fleeting glimpses that can or cannot be captured by any one person, at any single moment.

Choux (cabbages)

As light, angle and memory flicker and fade, changing one's perception of the world, so the enterprise of fixing this in the form of a drawing or painting is of course illusory, but so totally necessary to an artist. To enable this vain attempt, the painter must step outside the subject while digging deeply into its intimacy. It is a balancing act of some daring that can only succeed, albeit partially, by persistence. Hence the interest of series of works on the same subject matter, as the work of many painters, Monet and Picasso for instance, have shown.

Of course the appreciation of any work of art (or wine, for that matter) is ultimately down to personal and necessarily subjective criteria. The only objective element being some form of comparison with other objects of the same category, whatever that category be made of (style, price, availability etc...). The fact that I own a painting by Barbara Schroeder  naturally makes me entirely unobjective, in theory at least, as I could perhaps dislike the painting and have bought it simply because I considered it to be a "good investment" (which is far from the case and is totally irrelevant to my way of thinking, but nobody knows that for sure). So what is it that makes one like a painting enough to make one buy one, even if the sum represents an unreasonable percentage of one's annual income?

Mystery! (and this is not the painting that I own by the way)

Another thing that should be said is that photographs of paintings rarely do them justice. At least two essential things are missing: scale and texture, not to mention colours than can be some way off reality. You have to see a painting in real life to be able to really appreciate it, even more so than a film in a cinema as compared with its reproduction on tv. And living with a painting is a different experience to just seeing it for a few minutes in a gallery or in the artist's studio. Time, as much one's own changing moods and the moments of the day, are factors not to be underestimated. Good painting stands the test of time.

Barbara Schroeder

12 Dec 2010

Andrzej Bobkowski and his journal

 En Guerre et en Paix, Journal 1940-1944

I was recently given this book, translated from Polish into French. It also exists in English, under various titles and in various forms. Pen Sketches is one of the English titles used. If you want to know who Andrzej Bobkowski was, various sources on the web will give you some facts, but there is nothing like reading what someone writes about their own lives and thoughts, and this book, which is his private journal for the period between 1940 and 1944, is not only the best account of occupied France that I have ever read, it is also one of the best diaries I know. 

Sadly, Bobkowski left few other writings, other than articles, but this is an unassuming masterpiece that shows an amazingly detached (and therefore acutely observant) view of various stages of the war seen from someone caught in France, having fled Poland. He recounts, in detail and with talent, first the pandemonium that reigned during the evacuation of Paris following the Nazi invasion, then a strangely exhilarating odyssey on a bicycle through much of southern France and back to Paris, wherein Bobkowski is a sort of athletic Don Quixote and his work colleague, Tadzio, an enduring Sancho Panza, to finish back in Paris with his wife, as from September 1940, where he spent the rest of the war. His irony on French behaviour during the debacle and the occupation is scathing, as well as his disdain for the Vichy regime, but he has little indulgence either for Polish romanticism, English cynicism, or, his pet hate, the Russians and communism. He is naturally totally hostile to Hitler and his thugs.

Bitterly disappointed by political behaviour in general and all forms of totalitarianism in particular, his tenderness is for individuals who are independant and courageous, and for the beauty that everyday life reveals from time to time. For example this passage, which follows a description of the landscape somewhere near Carcassone, when resting during his bicycle marathon:

"I contemplate and listen to the landscape. Beauty is sometimes as hard to stand as pain. One can stand it up a certain point, and one can feel it only to a certain depth. Beyond that, one faints inside."

Yet Bobkowski is no melancholy, self-indulgent intellectual. Mens sana in corpore sano is clearly his motto and he proves it by his achievements on the bicycle expedition, during which he never ceases to write either. His work throughout the war is (apart from surviving with his wife) to assist his fellow countrymen: a task which he clearly accomplishes with intelligence and courage, although he speaks sparingly of it in his journal. 

He reads extensively and is obviously well read: Conrad, Balzac and Flaubert come to the surface regularly. But above all it is his lucidity about current events, and their consequences, that impressed me. He knows from the outset that the war is going to be long, and he sees very soon what kind of Europe, divided in two, was being prepared by Stalin. In facts he fears, until the Americans enter the war, that Stalin will take over Europe. His comments on the petty behaviour of many people under the circumstances of war are another sign of his lucidity, but there is also a form of stoicism that runs through the book and his attitude. He is alternately admiring and deeply ironical about different aspects of the French character.

Andrzej Bobkowski never returned to Poland, and stayed in Paris for only a few years after the war. Disappointed with Europe he went to live in Guatemala, where he died (of cancer) in 1961. A man whom I would have liked to know.