24 Mar 2012

Ducati unreliability and a Guzzi to dream of ?

It's been a while since I posted on bikes.

Probably something to do with my current extreme feelings of frustration with the appallingly unreliable mechanics of my Ducati Multistrada, and my anger at the protracted wrangling with some totally unhelpful people at Ducati France. To cut a long story short, this bike, a 2005 1000 SDS model with just under 30,000 kms on the clock has so far had (apart from standard useable parts and servicing which all cost an arm and a leg anyway) its two cylinder heads changed because of faulty metal in the valve guides, a clutch change, a speedo / rev-counter sensor changed and now the petrol tank has deformed by itself and is leaking. This last effort will cost me 2000 euros to have it changed as the material is plastic and cannot be repared.

Ducati France have offered zilch in the way of help, or even apologies ! And this bike has been fully maintained at all times by their official agents and lives in a garage. Anyway, enough about this for the moment, but please tell everyone that Ducati's bad reputation for reliability is quite justified!

I take a look occasionally at the Bike Exif site that daily sends out good pictures of a necessarily variable selection of customized and collectors bikes of all kinds. The one that came through my mail box yesterday really caught me eye! This has to be one of the most beautiful things I have seen (in the way of bikes) for a while.

Based on the Moto Guzzi Griso 1200 (which I quite like as a standard bike, apart from its massively ugly silencer), this is a special put together by an Italian outfit called Officine Rossopuro. I have shown one of their more classic Guzzi specials before, but that was based on a older model (T7, I think, or maybe Le Mans). They apparently plan to do a small production series of this and it looks just great to me. Wonder how much it costs, but I know I couldn't afford it.

More pics....

Just a look at the detail work on this machine tells me that it is way out of my league, price-wise. But dreams keep you going, right? I am relieved to see that it has grown a rear tyre-skimmer type mudguard since the first picture on top, as I hate to think how fast the air filter would get clogged otherwise (not to mention the wear on the rear suspesion unit). Don't expect that exhaust system meets many sound requirements but I bet it sounds pretty good. Raaaah!

If you want to check out their website and make an enquiry, here is the link

Otherwise just send me a cheque....

Ride safely, its finally warming up here in Europe

22 Mar 2012

6 Nations Rugby 2012: some conclusions

I know. I'm a bit late in producing this article, given that this year's 6-nation rugby tournament for the major European nations finished last Saturday, and we are now the following Thursday. Forgive me dear reader but this is NOT a newspaper and I am NOT being paid a cent for producing these occasional epistles. I also have to work occasionally.

So what about this year's major rugby event in the northern hemisphere? Well, my main prediction has come true: namely that Wales would win the contest. Overall, they had looked the best European team in the World Cup, and they clearly maintained this impression by winning all their 5 games in this year's European tournament.

The Welsh team celebrate their grand slam victory after their game against France

Of course, support like this can help a bit

Apart from that, we have had a couple of surprises, with France, who are after all the reigning World Rugby vice-champions, showing poorly, and a new-look England team, whose previous version had looked pretty dismal in the World Cup event last September/October, finishing strongly and looking quite impressive in their last three games. Both the Welsh and the English teams have a lot of young players and this is to me the major lesson to be retaiened from this tournament: coaches need to look to the future and give younger players, who have everything to prove, their chances. There were quite a few of these who came to the fore during this tournament and I have spoken about most of them in previous articles. Enthusiasm and energy both count for quite a lot in this game. Experience is not all.

Jamie Roberts, for Wales, breaks through the French defense

This failure of France, one of the tournament's favourite's and recent finalist in the World Cup, needs some explanations. The aftermath of their surprising and somewhat chaotic effort in reaching that final is probably one of them. I can remember the dismal 6-nations campaign of England just after their World Cup victory in 2003. FRance have also changed coaches since then, and the new coach was over-cautious in his introduction of new and younger players. The French rugby season is long and hard and these players have been on the front, with the build-up to the World Cup, non-stop since early July. As a contrast, the equally new English trainer, Stuart Lancaster, opted for radical changes, giving the capataincy to a young player hardly ever previously capped, and introducing a massive injection of new blood. This approach, together with the new team spirit that he manged to conjure up, clearly worked well. The English rugby powers would be crazy not to give him the role of manager up to the next World Cup (the decision is still pending a the time of writing).

Tom Croft, the English flanker, makes  a break in the Irish defense

One of the suprises to me was the strength of the English scrum. We all know that scrums are key phases of European rugby and the French, in particular, were touted as being top dogs in this department. Yet the English scrum dominated the French and totally destroyed the Irish 8, getting a well-deserved penalty try for their pains during their 30-9 victory last Saturday. Rugby is very much a collective game and, although individualities can be important in key moments, it is nearly always the collective spirit and energy that comes through. Wales and England showed this, but also, to some extent, less favoured teams (through lack of ressouces) like Italy and Scotland. France has the individual talent at most posts, but their new coach, Philippe Saint André, needs to try more younger players and give them greater urge to win. The scores were very close on the whole, so one could say that there is probably less between the teams than in previous editions.

The English team hold together

17 Mar 2012

From reality to fiction and back: reading Herling and Nesbo

I often read several books at one time. I need to read non-fiction often for the purpose of my work, but it can also be for pleasure and the pursuit of other interests. Reading several books at one time may happen because I find one of them hard going, or boring (same thing?). It can also be because books have different modes, subjects, styles and functions, operate at various levels and that I need and enjoy that complementarity.

At the moment I have two on the go and I am struck by the parallels between them, as much as by their differences. One is a frighteningly realistic account of a period in a man's life when he was imprisoned for 2 years in a work camp in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The author was Polish: Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski. He died in the year 2000, but survived the camp, unlike most of his fellow inmates.

Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski

The other is a recent crime fiction work by the contemporary Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, who is sometimes described as a successor to Hanning Mankell, the Swedish author who has now moved away from his very successful crime vein.  

Jo Nesbo

I had not previously read anything by Herling. The book I am reading, in its French translation, is called Un monde à part. Initially translated from Polish to English, it came out in England long before the French edition was first published. Astonishingly this French edition only happened in 1985. For this delay, we have to "thank" the appallingly stubborn dishonesty of French intellectuals such as Sartre and their blind communist allegiance, as they prevented or delayed publication of so many works that spoke of what really went on under the Stalinist regime, despite attempts made, especially by Camus, to bring these texts to the public eye. Yet another reason to prefer Camus to Sartre! Herling's book is a sober, precise and utterly relentless description of day-to-day life in the camp of Yertchevo, and of the system that surrounded it. As you may guess, it is not easy reading, despite the quality of the writing, which is remarkable.

It is sometimes said that fact is stranger than fiction. It is certainly more deeply horrific as one is constantly aware that this really happened. These camps were not extermination camps, and so do not have that level of horror. Yet so many died in them, and the system was designed to degrade and debase the individual to the point when he became just an under fed  and desparate machine, just about able to work sufficiently to fulfill the quotas of trees to be cut down (or whatever) that were then imposed by the Stalinist system. People found themselves in these camps mostly for totally ficticious and arbitrary reasons, and escape, in the middle of Siberia, was impossible, or only to find certain death. I am reminded of Primo Levi when reading this book.

So what is in common between this and a work of contemporary fiction such as Nesbo's The Leopard ?  

On the face of things, not a lot, although both deal with horror and imminent death in a sense. Reality against fiction, and extreme collectivity against extreme individuality comprise the polarities between which the two books navigate. Yet there is a humanity in the writing and attitude of both authors that unites them. One unrolls the suite of the events that comprised his prison-camp experience, yet constantly draws conclusions that bring one back to what good, as well as bad, can be found in human beings under extreme conditions. The other invents, of course, but his central characters, those who try to solve the crimes, are essentially motivated by their humanity in the sense that they cannot stand by and let these things happen, even if they have themselves been damaged by them in the past.

One of these books is hard to pick up, the other is hard to put down. That's the way it goes with fiction and its share of escapism I guess. But I will finish them both and, maybe, tell you more.

Read on

16 Mar 2012

Top of the pops this week

Just remember what a 19th century British Prime Minister one purportedly said. "There are three kinds of lies: lies, bloody lies and statistics, and the worst of the three is the last kind". Well anyway, this is the hit parade (top ten) of the posts that you people out there have been looking at the most over the past week.
Also means I'm travelling and have no time to write anything more interesting right now.  Some things change, others not so much. Painting beats bikes overall. Where is wine? Other thing is that it takes a while for word to get around.
22 oct. 2011
11 janv. 2011
7 janv. 2011
8 déc. 2010
28 déc. 2011
16 févr. 2011
6 juin 2011
8 juin 2011

14 Mar 2012

Why the film "The Artist" wins so many awards

The extraordinary critical success of the recent French film The Artist has come as a surprise to some. The explanation is quite simple. Can you name another occasion at which the French remain silent for over one hour?

12 Mar 2012

Rugby 6 nations, one game to go

With just one game left to be played (next weekend) we can hasard a guess as to the winners of this year's European 6 nations tournament. Although mathematically France, Ireland and England could all also just about win the tournament, it has to be Wales, who are the only team to have won all their 4 games so far, and, with their fifth game to be at home against a French team that have looked a bit tired and lost so far, they must be clear favourites to win all their games, thus producing their third grand slam since the beginning of the six nation contest in 2000.

Wales will have the added advantage of playing at home in their Millennium stadium of Cardiff (above). And, to give them additional energy against France, they will also be fuelled by the memory of their close loss (playing at 14 for almost all of the game and 13 for some of it) in the World Cup semi-finals against France: a game that they probably deserved to win. They are a very strong team and they have good collective experience and an excellent leader in their young captain, Warburton (below).

It would be a brave man who would predict Wales losing to France, but history has proved that the French are capable, at times, of overturning mountains, as some of their past performances against the All Blacks have shown. They certainly have found a very good young and incisive centre/winger in Wesley Fofana, who has scored a try in each of his 4 games so far. What they now need is to stabilise their scrum/fly half pair as they keep messing about with this key partnership.

Fofana breaks through the Irish defense to score

English players congratulate Tom Croft for his key try in their close win over France

The English team are quite young and many of the players are new to top-level international rugby. That doesn't seem to have held them back however (in fact probably the opposite as these guys are keen to make their mark) and, after a difficult start against Scotland, and despite a close-fought battle lost to Wales, they looked pretty good against France this weekend, scoring three tries against one and winning 24-22, just holding on to victory in the closing stages on France's home ground. The new fly-half, Owen Farrell, has played very surely, calmly varying his game, defending and kicking just as well as he has led the attack. At just 20 years old, he has great potential and could be a future star of the game if he keeps up this level of play.

The English defense looked better than the French on Sunday

Italy have lost most of their games by lesser margins that usual, but just do not have the depth of players to be able to substitute when needed. Scotland have playen with fire and spirit and have probably made more passes than any other team on the tournament. But they have trouble in scoring at key moments. They will probably win their last game, against Italy. Ireland lost a very close game to Wales in the opening match, but they drew with France in Paris. They now have to face England in London and this could also be a very close game, with a lot of needle involved as usual. The Irish pack looks very impressive, including some new players, and could provide a serious challenge for England.

What I have most enjoyed about the games I have watched so fay is seeing the emergence of younger players who hold the future. I have mentioned a few already. Another good example is Allister Hogg, the 18 year-old Scottish full-back, who has also made his mark in this tournament, just like the lock forward Richie Gray did last year (and has confirmed in 2012).

Allister Hogg for Scotland

Richie Gray, very nimble with the ball for a lock forward

We shall see next weekend, but it has been an interesting tournament so far with some suprises.


10 Mar 2012

Women in Wine

I guess it is appropriate to slot this one in here soon after (March 8th) what is known as International Women's day took place.

In a western world that tends get a little over-obsessed with equality (can everybody really be "equal"?), but coming from a much longer period during which men seem to have dominated almost all professions to a totally absurd extent, the slow acceptance of women as being men’s equals in many fields is clearly on the way. The world of wine is no exception to this tendency, even if we are yet some way off achieving full equality here!

look closely...yes, Schwarzy is holding a glass of wine!

A statistic caught my eye the other day. It would appear that 27% of wine estates in France are now managed by women. This figure may seem quite low to some, but one has to remember where we are coming from. About 20 years ago, the figure was half of that. If the trends continues, another 20 years will see equality and more!

If one goes back another generation or two, in many wine-growing areas of France it was considered to be dangerous for the wine to allow a woman into the cellar during her menstrual period, as the wine might “turn”! Such stupid superstitions are thankfully disappearing fast. They did not obtain in every traditional region however. For example, I can remember Claude Papin, of Château Pierre Bise (who makes superb wines from the Anjou, Savennières and Layon appellations) telling me that it was his grandmother who used to carry out many of the key wine-making activities back in his grandparents time, simply because his father, who was a part-time boatman ferrying goods on the river Loire, was not at home for long periods and so there was no other solution: when the wine needed to be de-vatted, his grandmother handled the process. The first world war also boosted the arrival of women in various aspects of wine production, in France for example, simply because the majority of able-bodied men had been killed in the trenches.

And women certainly found their way into cellars as well

But what has placed women firmly into the management and scientific echelons of wine production and selling has been higher education. An increasing proportion of graduates from agricultural and oenological university programmes are now women, and quite often they are majors in their particular graduate years. I was speaking to a student at the Faculty of Oenology in Bordeaux this week and he told me that there were currently more female than male students in the current promotion.

Whilst the profession of sommelier remains very much male dominated, probably on account of its working hours that make things very difficult for married women, that of journalism, for example, welcomes more and more women.  Based in Great Britain, but applicable anywhere in the world, the very arduous Masters of Wine examination, which includes a written thesis as well as examinations and tasting tests, has a rising proportion of women amongst its elite members: they are currently 87 out of a total to date of 299.

Jayne Boyce MW

In order to boost the proportion of women holding jobs and credibility in the world of wine, various “positive action” initiatives have been created in recent years. Amongst these, the international Wine Women Awards, held every two years in France, or a couple of wine competitions for which all the tasters must be women are examples. In as far as this encourages more women to come to the fore and acquire self-confidence in tasting, talking and writing about wine these are good things.

On the other hand, those worn-out theories that are regularly bandied about in various magazines about “feminine” wines or “ a woman’s taste in wine” are of no help whatsoever in improving women’s’ place in the world of wine! In fact just the opposite, since they apparently consider taste to be sexually determined in some way, which it is not. For a specialist wine magazine for which I write regularly, we recently tried an experiment, giving identical sets of wines to male and female juries who were isolated from each other. There was no specifically “male” or “female” style of wine that emerged from this. Tannic wines are usually considered to be "masculine", yet the most tannic wine in one of the series was the one preferred by the female group, whilst the male group did not rate it highly!

So we can cut the crap about "feminine " wines, or "feminine" taste, and just let the ladies who want to get into all aspects of wine on their own merits.

6 Mar 2012

Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

I used to go regularly to Aix-en-Provence and its surrounding area, back in the 1960's and 1970's. At that time I found Aix to be a beautiful and even inspiring city, sometimes a bit frayed around the edges, but full of light and joy. Going back there now is bit of a let-down, with one notable exception which is the main subject of this article. Of course Aix, as a city linked to art, is strongly linked to one of its natives and former residents, Paul Cézanne. Also, in a way, to Picasso, one of whose many houses was on the more gently sloping side of the Mont St. Victoire (see below: the painting being by Cézanne).

Aix comes over to me today as a bit of a let-down on account of its horribly encroaching urban sprawl, which has totally swamped the old town, turning it into a walkabout zone for thousands of people whose sole interest seems to be clothing shops. A huge surge in local population is behind this, but also, I supect, some poor local political management. Of course the old buildings are still there and have their charm. The light has not changed. But it is now surrounded by motorways and thousands of nasty suburban "villas", even nastier "commercial zones" and all the visual crap that goes with this. But let's not get bogged-down in stupid nosatlgia however because there is at least one very good thing about comtemporary Aix-en-Provence: the Granet museum (musée Granet).

This, believe it or not, I remember as harbouring a dingy and dark little collection up a dingy and dark little back street. After what must have been considerable work the Musée Granet is now a delightful, airy place, with not too many people in it (and least on the day I went there, which was a Saturday in February) and a fantastic collection of work to admire. For the next 15 years it will be harbouring the Planque collection from Switzerland, whose range of impressionist and post-impressionist work includes paintings by Picasso, Klee, de Staël, Bissière, Dubuffet, Braque, Dufy and many others.

It also has a few Cézannes (Aix was his home town) although many of these are often away on loan to various places around the world, and a very good set of work loaned by the French National collections, many of them from a donation made by the Meyer family. These include a wonderful series of both sculptures and paintings by Giacometti.

a Cézanne that you may or may not see at Granet

One of the joys of this museum is that its rooms are not too big, yet big enough to hang a good group of paintings that make sense together.

François-Marius Granet, who gave his name to the museum, was a local 18/19th century painter of modest but honest talent, as this landscape below shows.

He was, as many, portrayed by Ingres, which I guess shows that he had some fame in his day (see below). He certaonly manged to acquire a large house in the 18th century part of Aix.

Another work by Ingres is the one below, of Jupiter and Thetis, in which I find that Thetis looks like she is made of marshmallow and Jupiter is, well, very jupitorial (just tickle my beard).

If you think that you might just not go out of your way to see a couple of paintings by Ingres, rest assured, there is much more, including a wonderful small self-portrait by Rembrandt from about 1659 (see below) and other interesting stuff including some rather strange pictures of goats by another local painter called Loubet.

The Planque collection alone makes a visit to Aix worthwhile, but there are things in the Musée Granet for all tastes. I left the scupture and archaeological section for another time, and found the temporary exhibition  by an illustrator named Philippe Favier uninterestingly obsessional. 2 hours is about all I can usually take in any museum, and these were well filled here.

4 Mar 2012

A clear run for Wales in the 6 nations?

The captains of the six nations teams for 2012

Now that the stupidly delayed game between France and Ireland has been finally played in Paris and resulted in a draw (17-17), the final result, whilst still uncertain, looks much clearer now.

Wales have won all three of their games so far, although their victory againt England last week was perhaps a tad lucky. They now have to play Italy, the weakest team, and then France, their closest rivals. But this last game they will be playing at home, and with the added incentive of taking their revenge on a world cup semi-final that they should not have lost. So they must be clear favourites, and have looked the best team in the tournament in all their games so far.

Strettle the English winger, just prevented from scoring against Wales

Of course rugby is an unpredictable game and no team is less predictable than France, who could just upset the Welsh plans by winning aginst the odds 2 weeks from now. But I wouldn't bet on that!

England and Ireland have both lost a game and are not really in the running for victory in this tournament, especially Ireland who have lost one game and drawn another. England's only chance is to beat what must now be a doubting French team in Paris next weekend. They have a young team that has shown guts and some promise, but they will probably lack the experience for this one.

Ireland played well in their game against France, with Bowe scoring 2 tries, but their scrum and line-out did not look like world-beaters, apart from the back row who were excellent.

Tommy Bowe, the Irish winger and scorer of 2 tries against France today

3 Mar 2012

Fashion is plain stupid

I suppose that, at some point of my life, I have been a "victim" of fashion. In other words, that I have been persuaded to adopt clothing or whatever that happened to be a "trend" at that moment.

I feel less and less inclined in this direction. In fact I find myself increasingly appalled by and disgusted with the whole world that gravitates around what is now a major business that occupies a lot of written press and huge spaces in our towns.

 How many clothes do we really need? And who could possibly require or even use the increasing numbers of shops selling them. Walking around city centres almost anywhere in the world tody, it seems as if people have given up eating, or reading, or indulging in any other activities apart from looking at cloths, maybe trying them on oaccasionally, and, presumably, buying more and more. Otherwise I simply cannot figure out the proliferation of these shops, most of which sell look-alike garments anyway. It all seems totally futile and vacuous.

I felt this once again on a recent visit to what used to be a pleasant old Provençal city, Aix-en-Provence. And today I picked up a so-called serious French daily newspaper (Le Monde) only to read, on the front page, this lead to a full page article on the inside (my translation from French):

"Ladies, vinyl and sequins are the fashion of 2013 
.......Creators have chosen elegant, striking and sexy materials for this year's autumn/winter ladies fashion: vinyl, Lurex, sequins and gilded embroidery."

I hate the ubiquitous use of the term "creator" for almost anyone able to cut and paste. I also find it pretty hard to imagine who, apart from a few weird fetishists, could possibly find that either vinyl or Lurex or sequins are elegant or "sexy". They are more trashy than anything else to me. Whenever I see eminent people in the fashion world, I tend to think that they are, on the whole, a pretty strange lot and usually living in a world of their own that has little or nothing to do with everyday life for most of us. Maybe I am wrong, but take a look at Galliano and Lagerfeld, just for a start. Unfair? Maybe. One could possible call some of them "amusers", or "court jesters" (not Galliano, I agree, the guy is a nutcase). But "creators" ?

What is certain is the economic drive behind all this twaddle. That a major and usually serious daily like Le Monde should treat this rubbish in a sycophantic way just shows how dependant they are these days on advertising from the fashion world. Their weekly magazine, which used to be readable, has turned into a sort of fashion catalogue recently.

I decided to take a look at what Ambose Bierce the excellent author of the cynic's bible, The Devil's Dictionary (1911) had to say under his entry for Fashion. As usual, his definition is subtle and just a tad ambiguous:

FASHION, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.

A king there was who lost an eye
In some excess of passion;
And straight his courtiers all did try
To follow the new fashion.

Each dropped one eyelid when before
The throne he ventured, thinking
'Twould please the king. That monarch swore
He'd slay them all for winking.

What should they do? They were not hot
To hazard such disaster;
They dared not close an eye — dared not
See better than their master.

Seeing them lacrymose and glum,
A leech consoled the weepers:
He spread small rags with liquid gum
And covered half their peepers.

The court all wore the stuff, the flame
Of royal anger dying.
That's how court-plaster got its name
Unless I'm greatly lying.

—Naramy Oof