Archive for November, 2016

James Ensor at the RA

November 30, 2016

A neglected show in London at the moment, being somewhat overshadowed by the Abstract Expressionists in the same venue, is Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans. I deliberately spell out the name in full since this show is much more than a retrospective of the career of Ensor. In fact the title itself doesn’t do full justice to the range of art on offer since it misses out another artist whose work is on display, Léon Spillaert.

And it was Spillaert who really grabbed me on the first walk around. His self-portrait is obviously Munch-ish but also has its own weird loneliness that looks forward to Edward Hopper. While his portrait of Andrew Carnegie is one of the most chilling I’ve ever seen. An eyeless and soulless Carnegie stares from the canvas in a picture of utter malevolence that no amount of philanthropy could subvert.

But Ensor is the star. Ensor who starts out like an Anglo-Belgian Sickert, all still brown interiors, and then explodes into colourful surreal genius. This is symbolised for me by his own self portrait.

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A pretty straightforward depiction save for the at-the-extreme-end-of-dandyism hat. Calm eyes offer a challenge. Do you take this seriously? Well, do you? I think you should. The question I kept asking myself was, who was he making these images for? What market was there for skeletons eyeing chinoiserie? Or for a pair of skulls fighting over the carcass of a herring?

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One of them sporting a bearskin. It has the horrific absurdity of a Goya witch.

And Tuymans is no passive curator. He has inserted works of his own which echo and talk to those of his compatriot, such as his ‘Gilles de Bindes’ which refers back to a beautifully plued real life carnival hat displayed in the opening room and whose ancestor Ensor included in his own picture of carnival.

But the work which I enjoyed the most was the opening film. Rarely do I have the patience for video art but this film, a fake of Welles-ian genius, depicts a party on the beach at Oostende. Despite the inclement weather it made me want to visit Belgium as soon as possible.

But for a month or so more you can see Belgium in all its quirky unexpectedness in just a few rooms at the Royal Academy. Much more interesting and surprising than the overblown yanks below, who seem the most humourless bunch of po-faced canvas wasters set against the deftly humorous savagery of Ensor and his confrères.

#Art #London #Ensor

Review #100 Diwana, Drummond Street

November 28, 2016

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At the end of a fun day of Movember walking (and it’s not too late to donate should you wish to do that thing) a bunch of us made our weary way back to Drummond Street from Kings Cross at the insistence of a vegan friend. Something I was happy to comply with but not entirely to the gruntlement of the more carnivorous amongst us (‘Where’s the chicken?!’ went a querulous cry.).

We were a convivial group though and once we’d negotiated our way to a big table up top of Diwana with carry outs from Sainsbury’s (they’re happy for you to bring your own as long as you put a bit of corkage on top of the bill) we settled in nicely. Diwana doesn’t go big on luxurious furnishings. In fact I suspect the room has little changed since it opened but don’t let that put you off. The food is very good, in fact the best of the South Indian bunch as far as I’m concerned.

First up for me were a few samosas which I despatched tout de suite. The main event was a Raza (sp?) Dhosa which was a big old crêpe wrapped around some tastymushy vegetables. The service was slightly chaotic but I’d say that was more due to the nine folks in various stages of booze on our side of the relationship rather than any slackness on the Diwana staff’s part.

7/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #99 Pasta Remoli, Finsbury Park

November 27, 2016

On a Friday night we were looking for quick, simple food and Pasta Remoli pretty much fitted the bill. Their angle is handmade fresh pasta and good Italian ingredients. Celebrating one of the spawn’s achievements we kicked off with a good bottle of Prosecco while munching on a range of antipasti. Tasty dainty arancini and a range of cold bits were all very good.

We each went for a different pasta for main and I have to say that I drew the short straw. A circle of dry ravioli around a sticky dark, sweet sauce with gorgonzola and walnuts was not really to my taste. The other plates looked better and made me wish I’d stuck to something familiar. The house red was better than expected for the price which is always a good thing.

The room was nice and busy with a good atmosphere of theatre-goers and hungry locals. Helped along by excellent service Pasta Remoli seems to be a good value option if you can’t be arsed to walk the extra mile to the Stroud Green Italian Quarter.

7/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #98 Gitane, Fitzrovia

November 19, 2016

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Having scuttled from the execrable Vapiano we fell back on a reliable old friend, Gitane on Great Titchfield Street. The coffee is excellent in Gitane – as good as Kaffeine up the road but with a more relaxed, less twattish vibe in the room. The food is veggie friendly and entirely scoffable. I went for a green herby quiche with a beetroot salad. The quiche was juicy and the salad packed with flavour. We had a seat in the window and spent a very pleasant half an hour watching the world go by and gossiping.

8/10

#London #Food

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #97 Vapiano, Great Portland Street

November 18, 2016

Looking for a quick healthy lunch we made the mistake of stepping into Vapiano. Inches inside the door we were confronted with an unsmiling host.

‘Have you been to Vapiano before?’ she demanded in a tone reminiscent of a particularly hostile border guard. We replied that we hadn’t. At which we were informed at great speed (too speedy for me to pick up)  of the means of getting food. She then handed us a card. We stumbled, dazed by this charmless welcome, towards queueing customers.

The food looked okay, being cooked before your very eyes by a succession of pan-tossing geezers (all geezers). We waited patiently in a queue of three people. And waited. The queue did not advance. We transferred to another queue. Neither did it advance us towards food.

The decision to return the cards to our host and leave was met with rancorous indifference.

It mystifies me why anyone would ever go back.

0/10

Review #96 MI+ME, St Pancras

November 16, 2016

Scouting out a walk for Belgian clients I arrived at St Pancras ravenous. Options in St P are becoming fairly limited towards the end of the year so I gave MI+ME a go. Given its name I was half expecting some Marcel Marceau action from the waiting staff. Alas, no. The name remains irritating without the mitigation of Baptiste on duty.*

A short café-style menu but a grand view of WH Barlow’s magnificently restored roof is worth the price of entry alone. Especially if you can sit with your back to Paul Day’s execrable Meeting Place.** So the ambiance is good. The service was also swift and friendly.

A tomato soup was rich and peppery with a generous hunk of break and butter. A Rioja on the side helped to keep the chill at bay. And while I was eating an unexpected tableau took place at the platform entrance to the Booking Office.The pleasure to be taken in observing a succession of people negotiating their way through an awkward door is not to be underestimated.

7/10

*That’s a little in-joke for the Carné fans.

**This man was also responsible for the Queen Mother Memorial in St James’s Park (which to be fair is the only public statue in Westminster that provides genuine, if unintentional, belly laughs) and the even worse Bomber Command piece next to Green Park. Frankly the man is an artistic menace with a mysteriously well-connected client list. When Anthony Gormley said of public art, ‘There’s a lot of crap out there’ I think he was speaking almost solely of Day’s output.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #95 Amphitheatre Restaurant, Covent Garden

November 13, 2016

Eating at the opéra, in my limited experience, is always expensive and often a bit of a shot in the dark. And I mean that whether you’re getting some sandwiches and a glass of wine or going for the full gut-busting blow out with gallons of booze on the side. This time we strayed more towards the latter option but hoped to lock in value and convenience by choosing our menu in advance of arrival at the Amphitheatre Restaurant at Covent Garden.

We’d booked the table from 5 o’clock and with show time at 6.30 I thought we’d have ample time to get in the first couple of courses before heading to our seats. The room was buzzy with a good cross-section of your average Covent Garden crowd. The solid suburban middle class who would be hurrying for the train when the show ran late, the rich but not super-rich (they get their own rooms), tourists of various ages and origins (some unlikely couplings amongst them), and the odd normals out for a treat (like us).

Service was super friendly and super quick. Champagne was delivered almost instantaneously and swiftly followed by the starters; obviously it helped that they were both cold. Crab was dressed in its own shell. One was tempted to ask them to wash it out and let us take it home it was so decorous but then again no one wants a jacket stinking of crab. I had a sea bass ceviche which delivered on the heat and tang. A good start.

Next up was red wine. Now I’d ordered a wine from Oregon simply on the basis that I didn’t know that wine was even made in Oregon. This one was a pale red, almost towards the rosé end of the spectrum (although rosé – good rosé – as I once learnt in Quag’s, has an enormous variety of thing going on), and very refreshing. So not exactly perfect to go with the steaks that we’d ordered but in and of itself a dose of pure joy.

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The steaks, frankly, took an age being delivered about half an hour before kick off. And as the waiter began to unload sides of salad, chips, kale and celeriac I realised that I’d over-ordered on a vast scale. Although I tried to relax about facing this kind of stuffing with the bell imminent I found it hard to forget that we were against the clock. But the steak was perfectly cooked and sides all good so I’ve no complaints about the food. But it was with a guilty conscience that I rose to go to the auditorium leaving acres of uneaten veg behind me.

I’d seen Les Contes d’Hoffmann at ENO a few years ago in a spectrally sinister modern production (as I remember it, any memory of opera that I have is filtered through a fair amount of booze) but this one was a straight meat and potatoes, feel the quality of these sets and cossies style thing. Which I was quite happy to roll along with. Of course it helps when all of the singers are outstanding and although no expert I can confidently predict that I’m unlikely to see a better acting-singing tenor than Vittorio Grigolò in my lifetime. He was good.

At the first interval we had autumn fruit and a Beaumes de Venise. Now, dear reader, when you order autumn fruits what do you expect? I’m thinking berries, apples and pears with possibly grapes at a stretch though by November that would be very late. Well, the ROH has other ideas. Autumn in the UK is pineapple, mango and pomegranate. Slight category error there though all tasty. And I wish I’d gottle a bottle of Beaume because one glass wasn’t enough.

Back to Offenbach for Act 2, which came in at a brisk 30 minutes. Poor old Hoffmann gets blown out yet again and it’s back on the sauce for him. As it was for us with cheese, good generous lumps of it in four varieties with a bit of the red held back to wrap it up. I have to admit that the final act of an opera is often a bridge too far for me but not this time, I was eager for more.

So would I recommend the opera? Undoubtedly. Would I recommend the restaurant? Yes, but not unreservedly. It’s great to have your own space to retire to between acts although you do miss out on the people watching to be had if you’re perching with a glass in the Floral Hall. The food is very good for a mass catering experience and the lateness of our steaks may have just been a glitch. It’s not a cheap night out but why should it be when you’re seeing a collection of the best singers of their generation in one of the finest theatres in the world?

8/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

 

Review #93 Ragam, Fitzrovia

November 7, 2016

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Another Friday another north London curry, this time in the company of departmental colleagues. Ragam was new to me and they do things a bit differently here. So as well as poppadoms for a starter (with one of our party making a bold gambit of a four per head order! (We quickly scaled it back to a more modest three.)) we had some puri style cashew nuts which were curious but not especially an improvement on your bare naked nut.

Beer comes in the variety of Kingfisher, Cobra and another one whose name escapes me. Possibly because I had two of it. It was from a bottle and tasted better than either of the others so I’d recommend it if only I wasn’t suffering in the memory department. Did we have starters? No, we didn’t, I was already running late and so we went straight into the mains. With no jalfrezi available I was thoroughly confused so plumped for a chicken dansak. It was yum. Also good was the kerala paratha which was crispy and munchable. The culinary appeal of ladies fingers divided the table but I scoffed a great deal of them.

The service was excellent and on the whole Ragam gives as good product as Gaylord round the corner but without the expense.

7/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #94 The Old Dairy, Stroud Green

November 7, 2016

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I must have been to The Old Dairy a hundred times or more for a drink but I don’t recall ever having eaten there. Fresh from a refurb and with options in Stroud Green thinning out (Gustavo’s, I notice, has bitten the dust) we took a table in the Dairy of a Saturday night.

Well, that makes it sound easier than the process of getting a table actually turned out to be. Could we have a table for 5? The guy said he’d check. I could see at least five empty tables immediately in front of me and I was pretty sure there were more next door but hey, it was a Saturday right so maybe they had a lot of bookings. Our man had disappeared and was next seen taking a payment from a customer having, goldfish-like, completely forgotten what he was supposed to be doing.

Another server strolled past – were we waiting for something? Table for 5 please … oh, I’ll just have a look. Hmm, been told that before but on this occasion we did get a table, a nice big one. Everybody gruntled again.

The menu is pretty extensive and has a lot of tempting things on it. I opted for chicken livers to start and then venison for a main. Would we like drinks? You betcha – wine for the adults and a beer for the teenager. ‘How old is he?’ ‘Seventeen, is that a problem?’ ‘I’ll check with the manager.’ Well, the manager said no but we protested that if he was eating he should be allowed to have a drink. A concession was made. Everybody happy again. The wine, a white Rioja, was very good and our waitress charm itself in the face of disintegrating gruntlement.

Four starters arrived but where were the chicken livers? Somewhere else, obviously. Somewhere else for long enough that I asked the others to start without me while I looked for the livers. Eventually they arrived and were okay but seemed to have come from very large chickens. The livers I liked but the sauce had too much raw heat and some pointless cold cherry tomatoes in it. Squid on the other hand looked good.

More drinks? Sure, same again please. Ah but no, you see the boy could have one pint but not another. ‘Are you sure?! I mean that seems a little inconsistent.’ ‘I’ll check with the manager.’ Nope, it’s a one drink policy. We took it philosophically. Mains taking a fair while to arrive it was clear that the kitchen was having a slow night. Or that hungry bar customers were taking precedent over those in the restaurant. But when it arrived the venison was decent, if a little undercarbed with potatoes of the straw variety making a meagre contribution. But I snaffled some (good) chips from the chicken muncher across the way. Crunchy cabbage was a good thing. Did we want dessert? Hmm, I don’t think so.

The waitress could see that we weren’t entirely happy about the way things had gone and did a good job of emollience but it really should have occurred to the manager that a personal visit to the table might have been wise. I don’t like it when managers leave their staff to face the music, it’s happened too often at work to me in the past. It might just have been an off night for the resto but for over forty quid a head I expect a bit better. Oh, and I forgot to mention the health and safety testing floor chip.

To end on a brighter note the highlight of the evening were the plates! Hand turned pieces of lovely crockery that showed off the food very well, I coveted them.

5/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Sarko, fascos and jihadis

November 6, 2016

This is a repost of a piece I wrote for the French History Network on Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien cleaned up and retooled for my own site.

Two things prompted me to write this post in appreciation of Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. The first was a mundane training exercise for a new teaching job. The other was a two page spread in Le Monde discussing Olivier Roy’s new book on jihadism, Le Djihad et la Mort.[1] Roy’s book arrives at an opportune moment, with the Paris and Nice atrocities (among many others) still painfully recent, and the ongoing military campaign against Islamic State in the Middle East appearing in the news daily.

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It also arrives during the primary campaign for the candidature of the right for the French presidential election of 2017; a campaign that has hinged on a debate between Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy (as well as the other candidates) about the causes of radicalisation among a small section of young men and women, and the nature of national identity in France.[2] This debate will only get more extreme whether it is François Hollande, the consensus-seeking Juppé, or the more divisive Sarkozy who goes on to face the Front National leader Marine Le Pen if, as predicted, she makes it to the final round of voting in April 2017.

And the training? I’m sure I’m not the only VL who’s had to do a bit of online training regarding the government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’, aimed at flagging up the signs of radicalisation in students. The various scenarios enacted in the videos I watched seemed occasionally comically self-parodying of the scrupulous even-handedness of all university administration-derived material. However, being a parent of two university age boys, and remembering the angst of being such a thing myself at one time, I did my best to take it seriously. Flippancy isn’t really appropriate for such an important subject, even if it’s tempting at times.

The recollection of troubled teenagerdom is what reminded me of Lacombe, Lucien. In the opening scene of the film the central character, Lucien, who is a cleaner in a hospice, callously kills a songbird with a slingshot in between his cleaning duties.[3] At the time that I saw it for the first time I really wish I’d had a more intellectual response but I think my thoughts were more along the lines of, ‘What the dick has he done that for?!’ Of course Malle and Modiano are laying a foreshadowing motif of further cruelty to come. But on a personal level it also brought back one of those involuntary memories that are especially painful because they’re buried so deep. Of being a young boy in a crappy provincial town who threw stones for no good reason at an older but entirely innocent school fellow. If only those madeleine moments were always sweet. Why would I have done that?

And this is the question that has most troubled critics of Malle’s film. Both those who see it as a defining film about the Occupation in France, and those who see it as ‘sidestepping the issues of political choice, morality and guilt’ by representing Lucien’s journey from casually cruel peasant to torture indifferent Milicien as merely a piece of chance.[4] Mulling over why I might not have turned from stone cold rock thrower to gun-toting radical (it’s not entirely improbably, most of the examples in the Prevent training, for obvious reasons in the Westminster context, were of the radicalised right. The North East of England where I grew up was, and continues to be in my experience, a significant source of National Front style agitation) I saw structural reasons that Malle and Modiano give for Lucien’s actions that also go some way, and I emphasise some way, to contextualizing current radicalisation in Western Europe.

The most trenchant critic of the film accuses the protagonist of being ‘a cipher’, merely attracted by the symbols of power – a gun, a Milice identity card, bigwig friends – rather than having any ‘social causes for collaboration.’[5] More subtle readings, however, have dominated writing on the film since the 1970s, with Leah D. Hewitt, to my mind, putting her finger on Malle and Modiano’s explanation for the supposedly mindless way in which Lucien is induced to join what to modern eyes seems is a grotesque troupe of collaborators.[6]

Malle, in interviews contemporary to the film’s release, said that his first instinct had either been to set the film in Algeria or in Mexico. Algeria during the War of Independence – a common feature of Malle’s films even if he never used the war as a main subject – or Mexico during the violent put-down of a student protest by bussed in peasant workers in the 1960s. Thus one can see that Malle’s finished film was primarily prompted by an interest in how one group of young people could be attracted or induced into violently oppressing another group with whom they had varying degrees of common culture and not by the specific circumstances of the Occupation. He said he wanted to ‘scrutinise a kind of behaviour that is very hard to understand and was certainly contemptible.’[7]

So how might we understand Lucien’s own contemptible behaviour? Here is a young man, already habituated to the petty violence of rural life, who is rejected on three occasions in the opening scenes of the film. First, a forced rejection by his father, who is carted off to Germany to labour with the Service du Travail Obligatoire. Secondly, his mother and her lover, who let out the family home without telling Lucien and set up house together. And then when the local maquis leader, a teacher, rejects him for being too young and potentially ill disciplined. In the next scene he falls in with the Milice and the film proper begins.

In these rejections, and in Lucien’s response, Kedward sees ‘an agonised expression of generational conflict’ with Lucien’s youth being central to the film.[8] This brings us to some of the ways that we can explain the current radicalization of young people in France and Western Europe that doesn’t rely on Sarkozy’s or Le Pen’s boneheaded (to a purpose, it’s all about the them and us) characterisation of Islam as un-French and more prone to violence than any other faith. As Olivier Roy points out violence in the name of Islam, as inspired by IS has more in common with the Red Brigade or the Baader Meinhof Faction than with Islam, being essentially nihilist. It is a very extreme and foul way of expressing dislocation from society but it has to be explicable, it doesn’t happen by chance.

Just as Lucien is dislocated by the lack of a reliable father figure in his community and in the end picks the worst such men of all so might young men and women who are continually characterised as a group as not belonging to the society in which they live, often at the margin and with family ties stretched taut by the experience of migration, end up rejecting that society. Throwing a stone at a classmate didn’t lead to anything but a guilty conscience in my case but then I had little genuine reason to feel like an outsider in my town and little temptation or opportunity to express my sense of rejection in a more systematic and violent way.

Lucien does. The fascist political structure, even if Lucien is not motivated by its ideology, is on hand to direct his energies. He hears its anti-semitic views on the radio and amongst his comrades and it attracts his loyalty through the glamour of the gun and of the aristocrat, the starlet and the cyclist who make up the fascist gangsters and who encourage him to feel as though he belongs with them. So too does IS use the glamour of violence and power via the media to give its own adherents, however distant they may be from the purveyors of the message, to feel as though they belong to a separate group from the society in which they live. Which I hope does not overstate the analogy between the two examples. Rather, I hope to show that Lacombe, Lucien, which can be justifiably used as a piece of historical interpretation about a specific time and place, can also be used as a parable to explore a much more universal experience.

To see a trailer for the film go here.

[1] Le Monde, 13th October 2013. Olivier Roy, Le Djihad et la Mort (Paris: Seuil, 2016)

[2] Gilles Finchelstein, ‘Identité: le piège se referme sur la droite’, Le Monde, 26th October 2016

[3] Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano, Lacombe, Lucien: Texte Intégrale (Paris: Folio Plus Classiques, 2008), 8

[4] A view ascribed to the reading of the film by Cahiers du Cinéma at the film’s release in 1974 in H.R. Kedward, ‘The Anti-Carnival of Collaboration: Louis Malle’s ‘Lacombe, Lucien (1974), 227-239 in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, French Film: Texts and Contexts (Routledge: London), 228

[5] Lenny Rubinstein, ‘The Fascism of Banality’, 10-12 in Cinéaste 6:4 (1975), 10

[6] Leah D. Hewitt, ‘Salubrious Scandals/Effective Provocations: Identity Politics Surrounding ‘Lacombe, Lucien’, 71-87 in South Central Review, 17:3 (2003)

[7] Malle, quoted in Hewitt, ‘Salubrious Scandals’, 73

[8] Kedward, ‘The Anti-Carnival of Collaboration’, 232


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