28 Nov 2011

More postcards from Beirut

And this crazy city, with its often useless opulence that lies side by side with squalor, and some oases of beauty like this top level of the hotel Le Gray where my colleagues and I have spent three days tasting virtually all the wines of Lebanon, and the people whose enthusiasm and resilience is just amazing (and quite contagious). You walk down the street and see Lamborghinis and Ferraris and there are no roads where you can drive without meeting a pothole or a radical change of surface and level every 100 meters. And all kinds of crazy stuff like that: bling-bling and Flash Harrys meet and surf along the waves of violent and archaic divisions of the region, its past and its present colliding permanently.

And she wrote:

par la soif,
et se cogne
contre la vitre,
car elle a oublié
de fermer les yeux
en essayant
de traverser ce qu'elle ne voit pas
pour tomber

(verse 49 from Je te regarde by Maram al-Masri)

27 Nov 2011

A mysterious journey to Beirut

I am currently on a mission in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon (I have been told after a previous article that one should not say "the" Lebanon. Not quite sure why though).

No, I won't say what this mission is just yet, but these pictures might provide a few clues. Then again they might just make you want to come here. Beirut is an amazing city, ever-changing, always on the move. Avoid driving here if you can! The wines are better and better. And the hotels can be exceptional, such as the one where I am staying.

This is another world, quite magical, quite strange too. Come and see for yourselves.

From grey Paris to Beirut by night

Are we tasting wines under water here?

25 Nov 2011

An incredible game of rugby, and 2 sides to a penny

Last weekend in Europe were played a series of rugby games counting for the European Cup between club teams playing in the 6 major rugby nations of Europe. This is not, by the way a "latest news" story, as the results have been known for 5 days now. I just wanted to focus on one of these games as it illustrated several things that makes rugby such a magnificent sport to me: the ultimate and defining unpredictability of its results, and the role of courage and determination and not "giving up".

The game between the "other" Paris team, Racing-Metro (I happen to be a long-time supporter of Stade Français Paris) and Edinburgh was played on the ground of the home team, Edinburgh. On the paper, Racing were favourites, despite playing away. Their budget must be at least 3 or 4 times that of Edinburgh, and they are loaded with international stars, such as the famed Sebastien Chabal, alias "caveman" (see left).

Despite the odds being clearly against it, Edinburgh, whose team it should be said contains quite a few Scottish Internationals and has often produced good games in this competition, were leading by an impressive 17-3 after a mere 8 minutes of play. Then Racing got into their game, and, before half-time, scored 28 points to 3 for their opponents. So we have a score of 20-31 in favour of the visitors at the mid-term of the game. The second half saw Edinbugh score another 28 points to 16 for Racing, beating them at the post by a single point on the final score of 48-47.

The hard-to stop Edinburgh winger, Tom Visser

I unhappily did not see this game as no French TV crew saw fit to go and film it, but by all accounts it is likely to remain in the memories of the lucky few who were there as the heart-stopper of the season. And a perfect lesson of the old adage: a game of rugby is never finished until the final whistle is blown.

23 Nov 2011

Back to Eton and the pottery of Gordon Baldwin

Ambiguity about one's past, or some aspects of it, are probably our lot in this life. In other words, we cannot possibly choose where we come from and, when we make decisions to push our lives in other directions than those seemingly pre-determined for us by our social background, we sometimes have a problem dealing with some aspects of our history. And yet why should we be so reticent about, or even ashamed of, what has made us? Diversity is the salt of the earth and everyone keeps harking on about "roots". So we should in any case be capable of assuming what we are, and all or most of it, warts and all. And, goodness knows, there are some warts attached to the education I had, as well as a lot of very good things and some inspirational teachers.

For personal family reasons, and in order to see one of those teachers again, I recently decided, for what must have been the first (or maybe second) time in the 47 years since I left this school, to return to Eton College, where I spent the years 1959 to 1964.

The chapel of Eton College (my photo, taken in 2011), built in the 15th century and started when Henry VI founded the school. Like some other schoolboys who had a voice before it broke, I sang in the choir here (I do not think that I am in the picture below, but it gives you an idea of the thing)

 A mid-18th century painting of the same chapel, from across the River Thames

There is something both magical and rather lugubrious about this Eton, as I felt again on returning there, just for one late summer's evening in September 2011. Of course things have changed a lot since I left the place in the mid-sixties. And very probably for the better. But atmosphere has a way of hanging around, sliding down the ancient buildings and seeping into and through our memory, even when much of this has been shuttered up for nigh on 50 years.

We had to dress up like penguins for most of the time (see above). Black tail coats, hard collars with studs and so-on. Even though I can respect some aspects of "tradition" today, you can maybe understand why this "T" word also can also annoy me a little. Fortunately there was also sport, and lots of it, and the Art School, of which more below.

The Eton rugby team

cricket at Eton

I should add that the buildings are often beautiful. I was struck with their calm perserverance on that evening in September, when I returned there to participate in the inauguration of an exhibition area for works of art, especially ceramics.

Lower School, on the opposite side of School Yard to the College Chapel, shown above (photo DC)

The tower of College Hall (photo DC)

and the dinner table inside the above building (my pic, and thanks to i-phone). The food was far better that what I remember from school days, but then times have changed and the occasion was perhaps special

One of the main reasons for my going back to Eton was to meet again, after a long interval, someone who had been a truly inspirational teacher for me. Not in the academic field (there were a few of those too) but in that of the so-called arts, and hence, to a large extent, a vocational inspiration, albeit not a very successful one in my case. The man's name is Gordon Baldwin and he is still making pots every day and is about to have a major retrospective exhibition in the UK. Here is one of his pieces shown in this tiny but well conceived exhibition room that lies just to the left of the tower shown above.
a Gordon Baldwin pot (my photo)

I find that this piece has that kind of broken tranquillity that attracts me to the best modern ceramics. As if the calm of ages and perfect shape, reaching back to the Song dynasty, had come though the horrors of modern "civilisation" and out on the other side, inevitably scathed, but still kicking and showing the layers of experience and diligent craftsmanship.

So yes, it was worth going back. And the man has not really changed. His sincerity and love of his work is intact. He goes to his studio and works there every day. A lesson to us all. Here is another work of Baldwin's and a picture of the man himself, showing all his enthusiasm which was totally contagious to his students. And, as you can see, his work is as as scuptural as it is about the medium of ceramics.

If you want to take a look at more of Gordon Baldwin's work, try this link:

21 Nov 2011

Good value sparkling wines: try Crémant de Jura

With prices often rising from already considerable levels for top Champagnes (although it should be said that Champagne is far more accessible than it was 100 years ago, and the price gap with the most expensive wines from Bordeaux is even greater, in favour of Champagne of course), one often needs to look around for alternatives for sparklers.

Due to the progress in quality wine-making overall, which naturally includes the production of sparkling wines, such alternatives are becoming easier and easier to find.

On several occasions recently I have been particularly impressed with the sparking wines from the Jura region on France's eastern border, between Switzerland and Burgundy. Called Crémant de Jura, and produced using the same grapes and techniques as those applicable in Champagne (with the occasional minor variation on the grape side), these reasonable sparklers now account for about 25% of this small region's wine production. I think that this shows that they have something here, and certainly I have found that these crémants tend to show more character than those from many other parts of France. One should remember here that most regions of this country can produce sparking wines, either using the Champagne double-fermentation method, or various other techniques. But on the whole it is the coolest regions that produce the best results : Alsace, Jura, Burgundy and Loire. I would recommend that you look for those from the least well-known of these four, on account of their distinctive style, both lively and quite full on the palate, with just the gentlest hint of something resembling bitterness that kind of brings all the other flavours into tighter focus.

Crémant de Jura, Blanc Brut 2007, Domaine Rolet Père et Fils

Here is a particularly good example that I tried last night with a couple of friends. It comes from the excellent Jura producer called Rolet. This vintage crémant costs a very reasonable 10 euros per bottle (or even less from some retailers). Its flavours are delicious and its texture is fine and creamy. It probably shows slightly lower acidity than a Champagne, but has quite enought to be very refreshing. It made for a perfect aperitif and held up well when nibbling stuff that one nibbles before a meal.

My rather poor photograph of the empty bottle (it didn't take long to reach that stage, which is a very good sign!) could be construed to suggest that I consider this wine to be a work of art, if one regards the title of the book in the background. That is just bad framing and laziness on my behalf. No wines are "works of art", they are just drinks, some of them enjoyable ones, and some of them telling interesting stories. They are a produce of craftsmen or industrials, and are produced in multiple examples, hence not eligeable for "unique" status. And, even more important, one has to destroy them in order to enjoy them!


15 Nov 2011

Bjorn Berge can play (and sing)

I had heard of this (multiple) guitar and other stringed instrument player from Norway some time ago, but had not listened to any of his stuff until recently, when I bought one of his records. He is very good and can also sing, in a cigarette-husky kind of way.

He can play at being a bit heavy (just look at those tatoos), but he is a fantastic instrumentalist. I find that he is often at his best in the more delicate stuff that he does, although the fast ones can really rock.

Here is a clip that shows the side I think I like most of Berge, although he is indeed quite multiple. The song is called Louise. The clip acts like a promotion for all of his albums to date. Good stuff anyway.

14 Nov 2011

Gascony for ever

As I am about to leave this place once again (always a wrench, every time), here are a few pictures from this area, around the house where I stay and work for some (but not enough) of the year. I suppose this is more for my own pleasure than anything else, so let's just indulge ourselves a bit here while I try to keep a stiff upper lip on the long drive back to Paris.  

But not all is contemplation here. Sometimes (in fact quite often) we work too, like getting in wood for the winter and a few other things like building walls, making and fixing in general. Here is a load of old vines that had been ripped out locally and will be used for firewood. The old van comes in handy...

Sometimes we take a little exercise too...

And then sometimes we just go and play in the dirt....

Meanwhile the owl watches over us

all photos by David Cobbold

13 Nov 2011

A full moon?

Sometimes an image is worth as much as many words. Last night the moon was full, or almost so, and golden over the village nearby.

12 Nov 2011

British bikes in Lomagne

Looking through some photographs I realise how mant of them are just sitting there not being put to any use. Here is an example.

At the end of last summer, when I was having trouble staring my Norton Commando (a problem since sorted by refraining from flooding the carbs before kicking and also using less choke and no throttle), I contacted a member of the Norton owners club who lives nearby where I spend my summer, near Lectoure. He kindly said he would ride over and take a look at the problem, helped by a few mates who also ride old British machines. Here is a record of their visit, for which I am very grateful.

The leader of the pack, so to speak

and his bike, a Fastback that matches his T-shirt (or is it the other way round?)

Four of the five machines that showed up that day at my place : left to right a Norton 88 (I think), a Royal Enfield of recent (and hence Indian) origin, a BSA 250 single, and the red Commando in the background.  

Further to the right of the previous shot there was also this Velocette

One could say it was a Velo-cette for travel

The chief mechanic of the group seemed to be Triton man here below, a former policeman who, by the sound of things, has quite a collection of bikes, including a Laverda he was working on at the moment. The afternoon was fine, as you can see, and the local beer (Oc'Ale) very good.

The lady of the group was rightly worried about whether her BSA would start. Indeed her boyfrend had to kick it about 20 times before the thing fired up.

Thanks to all concerned for coming over and helping out. I hope to ride some with you next summer, or before then.

10 Nov 2011

David Hockney and his painting (2)

The man has been so prolific that it is hard to know where to start. In my previous 2 posts on Hockney's visual work, I first showed some of his work around the theme of water and swimming pools, when talking about the remarkable book of interviews with him, recently published: http://morethanjustwine.blogspot.com/2011/10/david-hockney-sees.html

In the second post, I showed both some very early paintings and, at the other end of the time scale, a couple of recent ones:

So maybe it is time to start to fill the gap. Here is a double portait of the writer Christopher Isherwood (left) and the portrait artist Don Bachardy. It was painted in 1968 and so is part of the long "Californian" period of Hockney's life.

When reading what Hockney has to say about looking and painting (or, to use his more exact expression, "making marks") I am struck by the intensity of the pleasure he takes from looking and, then again, of making images. On the topic of the power of images he quotes David Freedberg who wrote a book called just that (The Power of Images): "People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear". Hockney goes on to make this comment: "And the point is, all these things didn't just happen in the past: it's still true today....and if the "art world" retreats from them, it becomes a minor activity."

Hockney is very open about his infuences and in fact works directly with them. Above is a painting from 1970 which is still in the precise, "realistic" style of the previous work. Yet, by showing a Picasso mural drawing in the backgound, it seems to me to announce a later period when Hockney would investigate closely the work of Picasso and use Picasso's way of looking, and some of his ways of painting. This shows in the treatment of both perspective and colours, as well as the apparent rapidity of the execution. The work below, from 1985, is an example among many.

Hockney has also regularly worked in several media (painting, engraving, drawing, theatre, computer media) and using different subject matter and approaches to his painting and graphic work. And this seemingly can occur during the same periods. His eccelecticism, in this respect, echos that of Picasso whom he greatly admires. The "realistic" style continued to be much used by Hockney through the 1970's, but not exclusively...

Contre jour, 1974

Divine, 1979

The above swimming pool painting, for example, from 1978, is made of compressed paper.

Speaking of influences, in the large (and often double) portraits, the presence of Edward Hopper can clearly be felt, in the atmosphere and the attitudes of the poses, even if Hockney's style and frequent toungue-in-cheek humour is always unique, as in the above (Shirley Goldfarb and Gregory Masurofsky) from 1974. Acrylics were often the medium for these.

Speaking of portaits, and to illustrate the openness of Hockey to a wide range of techniques, media and "styles", I will finish this article with another work from 1985 (the same year as the Picasso-like chair a few paintings above), this amazing portait of his mother using multiple Polaroid shots. Then of course, I suppose that we can also detect the presence of a certain Pablo P and the cubist movement here.

There will be more to come....