Brilliant anti drink-driving ad targets danger to cyclists

I’m more likely to die cycling my bike on the road than I am flying. I do a lot of cycling, too, and although I cycle on mountainous roads that are often empty, I still understand the risks of what I do. This compelling anti drink-driving ad from Fiat brilliantly and simply reminds us of one of ways in which we can reduce the danger to cyclists: alcohol and roads do not mix. The beer can says it all.

Despite being in Portuguese, its message is clear in any language: stay safe and keep those safe around you – don’t drink and drive.

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.


That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…


Making opera accessible: the Metropolitan’s ‘Live in HD’ at the cinema

I doubt if I would have visited an opera if I hadn’t found an accessible way of visiting. Opera, at least in the UK, is still inextricably linked to the social elite and I imagine – perhaps incorrectly – that the opera house is stuffy and pompous. The cinema, on the other hand… well, I’ve seen some of my favourite films there, and one of my favourite things to do is watch films.

New York’s Metropolitan’s ‘Live in HD’ opera shows, where they transmit operas and other musical performances live to dozens of different countries, offers just that – an easy and familiar way to see some of the best opera performed anywhere. I went recently to see Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Rex in Geneva and I really enjoyed it. I’ve started listening to operas outside of the theatre, too.

Interestingly, it’s typical for people to dress up, wearing outfits that wouldn’t look out of place in the Met’s theatre itself. It was quite something to people in their Sunday best, in furs and diamonds, at the cinema. In some cinemas you can bring food, too – there is often a long interval (we were given free champagne at this recent event). Now this is my kind of viewing: some of the best performances, screening in HD with excellent sound, in a deep comfortable seat and the promise of something good to eat.

Get the tongue wagging – wine tasting at St Martin at Peissy

Every year of living in France we’ve visited nearby Peissy, in the Genevois basin, to taste the wines as part of the St Martin’s Day celebration of new wines. It’s a fun day – the people are friendly, the wines (especially the whites) are excellent and there is some good food, too. I’m certainly no connoisseur, just an enthusiastic amateur but it’s a great chance to find out what the local Swiss wines are like.

Autumn is here. This barn is by Peissy, in the Geneva basin, where we went wine tasting.

It occurred to me while we were there that the tongue is at the root of wine tasting. Not only does it taste the wines, of course – but you get to talk about them. After a couple of ‘tastes’ (I drink, not pour) it gives you the confidence to speak freely about the flavours you find in the wines – I think it frees the palette, too.

The lunch of champions. The sausage is called an longeole, a long sausage made of beef and pork. Marvellous.

This freedom of the tongue stops short of declaring that the wines taste like ‘sweaty gym shoes on hot tarmac’ but it does mean you get to think about what you drink, which has to be a good thing. You might even find yourself saying things like ‘high tones’ or ‘long oaky finish’ if you’ve tasted enough. That said, no one appears to be drunk, of course – and young adults drink them, too. What an education. It helps understand why people are said to have a healthier attitude to drinking.

View from Peissy over to Geneva. The vines are changing colour.

A wine tasting event like this – which is informal, and run by the people who make the wines, so it’s an enthusiastic encounter, is perfect for tasting different wines all together, one after the other, so you get to compare. This is invaluable, I think – when you taste several together you can really understand some of the differences between them.

What a beauty… kept an eye on me the whole time. Lovely furry coat he's wearing, ready for the snow

Another pleasure is to take the camera. It’s autumn and despite some high temperatures for this time of year, the leaves have begun to fall and vines change colour. So, there’s some good opportunities to capture that my camera. Something for the eye and the tongue, then.


Soaked in spirit, buried in the earth: tomme au marc cheese

It’s hard not to like cheese and wine in France and Francophile-Switzerland. (And not just Francophile Switzerland of course, but the German, Romansh and Italian influenced cantons. Which reminds me: over here they occasionally express the difference between the French- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland as the ‘rosti divide’ – the German Swiss eat it, the French don’t. It’s not completely true, of course, but it’s a useful shorthand for the divisions between the two sometimes very different cultures.)

Food is an ideal of which cheese and wine are a reality. We went to a fête dedicated entirely to local cheeses this year. A small affair you might think: but no, it was huge and ran over a long weekend, rather like a Glastonbury of cheeses. I tasted many of the cheese on offer there but none like I was to encounter this weekend.

Vineyards at Peissy, wine-tasting at St Martin

Vineyards at Peissy, wine-tasting at St Martin

We visited the wine tasting at Peissy for St Martin, a festival celebrating the end of the hard farming work of summer and autumn and a time to drink the new and old wines of local vines. Peissy is one of a series of picturesque villages that sit within the flatter lands of the Genevois bassin, surrounded by the mountain ranges of Salève and the Jura. The wines were superb as usual. (It is said to be a big secret of Switzerland that they produce some excellent wines, particularly whites, and exclusively gameret I understand – an idea supported by the fact that the Swiss export very little, preferring to keep it to themselves.) As I tasted I couldn’t help but notice a stream of clear plastic bags help by like-minded tasters which seemed to contain a lump of earth. Another charming idiosyncrasy, I thought. I must learn more…

It wasn’t just a clod of earth at all, or at least not all of it. It was a tomme au marc. Marc, I knew, is a local spirit, akin to grappa – but that didn’t explain the earthy crust.

Tomme au marc: steeped in spirit, buried in the earth

Asking around, we discovered that the thick cake of berries, twigs, and so on that covers the cheese are a result of it being buried in the ground for two months with some fruit. Tasting a cheese that has been is the ground is, as far as I know, new to me. I have to say it was marvellous: nutty, firm, full of a wine-spirit, light but wholesome. The cake added texture as well as flavour – you eat it all, crust ‘n’ all. Is it a cheese tasting of wine, or a wine tasting of cheese? It doesn’t matter: but this cheese brings together those two inimitable French loves, cheese and wine, wine and cheese.