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…


Biketour update, final day – ‘le petit tour’ is finished!

(I have collected some of the photos into a ‘photo story’ of the bike tour. You can find it on Flickr, here.)

The bike tour, like all good things, must come to an end. I made my way from Remoulins, where I stayed in a well-equipped campsite (with pool and restaurant, no less) to The Camargue and specifically to Grau-du-roi, where I found the beach and the Mediterranean, my final destination.

Once again I had a difficult night. The campsite was being used by workers to park their vehicles and stay overnight. So, at around midnight they turned up en masse, in vans, making a lot of noise. Duly at dawn, they took their vans and heavy equipment and left. I was wide awake – disturbed by the noise and now too tired to sleep again, excited by the day ahead.

The cycle went well. I travelled through a tiny village with cobbles which lead to a decent-sized col. Unlike climbing in the earlier part of the tour, this was bone dry and very hot. The landscape changing has been once of the most impressive elements of this trip and even within the 500kms or so I have travelled there has been a dramatic transformation.

Not least in Camargue, where the mountains disappeared and the flat, salt plains and etangs dominate the horizon. Despite being in Grau-du-roi, a coastal village and working fishing port, I had trouble finding the sea! At first it was barricaded by private hotels and villas which each divide and protect their portion. The destination of the sea proved as moving as I thought it might – I love the ocean (who doesn’t?) and seeing it spread before me was really quite something, even for this little trip.

But more urgent matter pressed me. I was hungry and as dry as the dust bowls that surrounded parts of the salt lakes. I bought a beer at a bar – no more food for the afternoon, though – and the barman filled my bidons with ice-cold water and some ice. Bliss. I drank deep. That was the best beer I have had for a long time.

So, ‘le petit tour’ is over. It wasn’t much of a tour but it was mine. The high and low points? The high points were the cycling itself, which I enjoyed even in the worse conditions; the camping at Ancône, right next to lake; and eating from my stove (and listening to the cricket). The low point came during the night, where the constant rain on the tent kept me awake and killed my spirits – and made my bottom lip wobble as I turned my bike into the heavy rain and rush-hour morning traffic in St. Laurent du pont.

The experience has given me some time to think about what makes a good short tour, what to take, some reviews on the equipment I used and all that so I’m going to collect my thoughts on that in the next blog post. Until the next one…

Made it! My trust Orbea on the beach at Le Grau-du-roi, France

‘Un petit tour’ – cycling from the Alps to the Mediterranean, via Ardèche and Provence

In an hour or so I will start cycling solo from the Alps region where I live to the Mediterranean. Along the way I will cycle through the contrasting landscape of Ardèche, through the red earth and tall plane trees of Provence, and end the trip at the wide flat salt plains and lagoons of The Camargue on the South coast. I’m carrying everything I need on a specially equipped touring bike, including my stove, tent and sleeping bag. It will take a few days and 400 or so kilometres.

It’s not an impressive trip especially: Googling ‘bicycle touring’ will quickly reveal the trials of those cross the globe on two fragile-looking wheels, perhaps circumnavigating more than once. One man quit his job, packed up and left home several years ago to embark upon a perpetual world tour, never to return (at least, not yet). Some people might cycle this distance in a couple of days. So, relatively speaking, it’s not ground-breaking. But it is for me. Besides, this trip is the beginning, not the end: I am certain there will be more to come. So I consider this a trial run of sorts: will I like it? Will it like me?

Which begs the question – why bicycle touring? In short, I might not get another chance like this. I have some free-time at the moment, so it’s opportune. I also want to get to know France, and in particular the places I am visiting, in the kind of depth that only the immersive, slow-paced approach a bicycle offers. I want to improve my French; and hopefully meet some interesting people, too – bicycle touring seems to dissolve social boundaries, it’s a good conversation starter. What’s more, I’m obsessed by cycling. It will be a pleasure to be on the road for so long in France, this ‘spiritual home’ of the bicycle (if I still think the latter after this tour I will judge it a success).

I am going to be blogging each evening and Tweeting along the way, technology permitting, with updates (although there will be no photos until the end of the trip since I don’t have the suitable doohickey at the moment). So, bye for now and I hope for a ‘bon voyage’.