Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Review #103 Les Babines, Paris

December 6, 2016

Having missed out on Les Babines the day before we made our way back after some morning’s shopping (shout out to Billards Jean Marty, the best alternative to Sports Direct I’m aware of) for a cold collation lunch. Les Babs is a wine shop that does food which seems to me the best shopping of all, even better than snooker.

It seemed as though we’d crashed a family get together but they didn’t seem to mind and set us up in the corner of the room with a view of some Mike Gatting sized bottles that were tempting as train booze.

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Mike Gatting wrestles with a Rickety Bridge

So we went for two planches again, this time with the little wrinkle of a fish planche followed by a duck planche. Various textures of each tastefully arranged with a scattering of veg, all good. We asked our host to recommend some wine to go with the fish and he slipped over a generous amount of Chablis. Very good. And with the duck? He gave us a cheeky grin and fired out some French about something that was as good as a Crozes Hermitage without being a Crozes Hermitage. We were sold and we took a glass of that followed by another one as we started to ease ourself into the afternoon.

All this for about 20 euros a head?! Best value of the weekend, and if we’d a had Gatt with us we would’ve got a carryout.

9/10

#Food #Paris

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

Review #102 West Country Girl, Paris

December 6, 2016

West Country Girl is a tricky one. We’d chosen it purely on the basis of the fact that it was named after a very good Nick Cave song about Polly Harvey.* So it was definitely ticking a lot of good taste boxes. But we hadn’t researched anything else about it.

It was a Friday night so we booked WCG on our way to La Fine Mousse*** for a couple of halves to warm up. The waitress seemed surprised that we wanted to book and when we came back about 9 we could see why – the room was pretty empty. It’s a crêperie (to two graduates of Mrs Nelson’s Ferryhill Comp French A-Level group a guaranteed provocateur of some hoary old jokes, along with piscine, frigorifique and any other number of lameties now lost in the mists of time), something of which we were unaware.

The crêpes and service were great but after a long day of boulevardying I could have done with something more substantial. So it’s our bad for not knowing what we were getting ourselves into.

7/10

#Paris #Food

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

*To save any confusion the headline shot is not of Miss Harvey but of Plymouth Argyle superfan Sue Pollard.** Who I believe is also a West Country Girl but who is definitely not the subject of Mr Cave’s song.

**Not to be confused with the 1980s sitcom star of the same name.

***LFM is highly recommended for beer lovers.

Francis West at Megan Piper

September 18, 2016

Following on from a great evening at Vigo I was fortunate enough to be invited to another art show just around the corner from the library in Jermyn Street. Within Harris Lindsay Works of Art lies the Megan Piper Gallery and it was Megan herself who introduced me to the work of Francis West, an artist recently passed away whose work deserves wider renown.

West grew up in Scotland before coming to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. The exhibition is concerned with showing his late works which I could broadly divide into two broad categories – day and night. Or those largely grounded on black and those whose blue speaks of the ocean near where West stayed when visiting France.

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One of West’s sea/dreamscapes

Once you know the connection to Menton and the South of France then all sorts of reference points spring to mind (Picasso, Dufy, Matisse, Mirò … ) but as we were discussing while walking from painting to painting this business of referencing can be insidious. Certain elements or motifs of a style may be reminiscent of other artists but if the work is strong (and in West’s case I believe it is very strong) one overcomes the references to concentrate on the artist’s individuality, the elements of the painting that convey their personality, their way of seeing the world. And so once I’d gabbled about what the canvases reminded me of I tried to slow my mind down and let the art speak for itself.

Because these are complicated pictures. This is not minimalist art. There is a proliferation of life depicted in the paintings. People, dancers, lovers, bathers, gamblers, drinkers. Creatures, birds (lots of birds, fantastically depicted), creepy crawlies and in the illustration above a wonderful crab (I was told that West’s wife is a Cancerian) holding a note with ‘W’ inscribed up on it. Each painting is a richly complicated composition that your eye can pore over and enjoy because as much as the life teems thickly across the surface so does the colour grab you and make you like life. Which is what I want from art.

It’s worth pushing the button on the door and getting inside. I’m told that during Frieze week that Piper, like a cuckoo, will take over the whole of Harris Lindsay’s nest and bring West’s work to the shop window.

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In passing Megan told me about another project she works on that was equally interesting called The LineTo my shame I’d never heard of it but it concerns a series of outdoor works by leading contemporary artists strung along a walking route from the Olympic Park to the Greenwich Peninsula. It seems a boon for guides and I can’t wait to visit.

 

Review #56 Le Florentin, Aubagne

June 22, 2016

In town to see the Foreign Legion (more of which anon) we had an hour to kill in Aubagne on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. We strolled around the main square – the temptation to shop in the market and picnic by the river was strong – and chose Le Florentin on the strength of its wood-fired oven.

With squalls threatening the terrace wasn’t entirely open to the air but our table gave a view of Sunday strollers and local urchins buggering about in the place. We supped a beer while we perused the menu which features pizza but also has a good selection of grilled stuff and salads.

I went for a goat’s cheese and ham pizza. The pizza was just about me-sized although the final slice was a bit of a struggle. The cheese was yum, thick slices of round goaty goodness  contrasting well with the smoky ham. The slather of chilli oil gave a decent burst of heat without blowing the doors off. Greg complained that his ham and mushroom had too much cheese!!! The heathen. They made us a green salad to order on the side and with a couple more beers the whole thing came to less than €40 – a bargain.

With friendly service Le F was a very pleasant place to spend an hour away from the Marseille madness of boozed up football fans and tired of that locals.

8/10

Review #54 La Table à Deniz, Marseille

June 20, 2016

Restaurants, like horses, should really not be chosen on the basis of their name (especially if that name is J***e O****r) but given that this one was across from our hotel in a quiet street in Marseille how could I resist La Table à Deniz?

The room is compact and homely. Deniz herself is running the show front of house (with charm and a relatively firm grasp of the English language, though she was also happy to speak French) and someone of talent is pumping out the goods from a kitchen at the back. The menu is chock full of French standards with added specials of fresh fish. The lunchtime menu offered mains at €10-15 with a €4 surcharge for a dessert and coffee.

The fish was tempting but I can never resist rabbit and got a ballotined rodent with a generous helping of spuds/veg and a very good sauce. Magret de canard – juicy and pink – was despatched without mercy across the table, as was a cold Heineken (for the boy) and a spicy lash of local red (for me). I hankered for dessert but he needed a siesta and we called it a day.

It may be an unprepossessing building from the exterior but don’t let this put you off –  this lunch was a calm high spot of an otherwise noisy day of football. You should always back Deniz.

8/10

Critique #7 – La Cage Aux Fioles, Lille

January 17, 2016

Alors, le petit-déj à Londres était une déception, comment vont les choses à Lille? Mike à réserver La Cage Aux Fioles, un Resto dans la vieille ville. Mike a bien choisi. La salle (en fait deux ou trois salles) est énorme mais sympa. Il semble d’être une grande maison autour une cour couvert.

Bonne cuisine et bonne service, le meilleur étant un Parmentier de bœuf avec un goût profonde et satisfaisant. Avec une rouge j’ai quitté la chambre beaucoup plus content que quand je me suis arrivé. Et ça, c’est le signe d’une bonne adresse.

9/10

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

La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

December 18, 2015

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.


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