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…


A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

There is a pithy old joke, told again and again, perhaps most famously by Woody Allen at the beginning of his film Manhattan, that summarises my view of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It goes something like this: two women walk into a restaurant. One says – the food was terrible; to which the other replies – yeah, and such small portions, too.

Well, following Allen’s gag: Ulyssses is both difficult and, at over 900 pages in my edition, there’s a lot of it.

So, how do you approach reading it for the first time? That phrase ‘first time’ is deliberate because I think it’s likely that it will need more than one reading. I hope, because I think it merits it, that you’ll want to do that – I do, having just finished it. Here was my approach, along with one or two ideas, on how you might undertake a reading of Ulysses. I chose 11 points of guidance because it seemed to follow Ulysses’ perverse and contrary spirit. I hope you find them all useful.

1. Ulysses is a work of art to be enjoyed, not an obstacle to be overcome. I say this because it’s not always how I felt. I had to remind myself that in the most difficult and obtuse passages, I was reading this to be enlightened, moved, amazed, awed. If you can keep this in mind, it will help motivate you and keep your mind open its delights.

2. You’ll need other books to help you. Ideally, you should have read Homer’s Odyssey (and remember it). In my view – and this is not shared by others – you’ll also need a commentary. I used Harry Blamires book, which is a line-by-line discussion, written in continuous, clear and concise prose.

I would also strongly recommend reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’, along with notes that explain it. This gives an idea of the flavour of the much grander enterprise of reading Ulysses: both are Modernist masterpieces, so you’ll learn something about context; both are difficult and display a variety of style and allusions; both will introduce you to the idea of reading a primary text (the poem and novel), alongside notes on it.

3. You’ll need lots of structured time. As I’ve said, the novel runs in at over 900 pages in my Penguin edition. I read much of the novel in very small chunks, around 20-30 pages at a time. If I had more time, or the inclination, I would read more. For every sitting I would read the Blamires’ commentary, too, so it’s quite an undertaking. Moreover, I would recommend structuring your time a little: say, devote the next month to reading 20 or so pages per day.

4. Embrace the idea of a second reading. In a sense, this is a cop-out. It means those thorny issues can be postponed until the next time. But it also means that you won’t get so demotivated by the difficulty because you know you can return to it later.

5. Read with a pencil in your hand. This is another way of saying ‘be an active reader’. Make notes on things you need to look up. But – importantly – not too many. You might need to leave some things alone for now. Since Ulysses condenses deep reflection on the most mysterious and sophisticated questions of life, you can’t expect to cover it all. Just note those things that will aide your reading or take your interest.

6. If you’re not confused, you haven’t ‘got’ it. Get used to the idea that not all of Ulysses’ ‘problems’ will be solved in either one or several readings. The reading is extremely difficult in some sections and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re reading it all. Some of the problems of the novel will remain mysteries. That’s ok.

7. Absorb and believe that reading Ulysses is unlike anything you’ve read before. When reading, as with many things, we often use our past experiences to get to grips with a new idea or format. This is unlikely to be the case with Ulysses. It’s not quite like anything else, which is one of the reasons it’s so highly praised. Reading ‘The Waste Land’ (see Point 2, above) will help in at least introducing the process of reading.

8. If you can’t get past a difficult part, skim read it and read the commentary… But don’t read the commentary instead of reading the novel. Although everything in me says this is bad advice, if it’s the difference between giving up and going on, then read what you can, how you can and the commentary be your guiding light. For example, Part 1, Episode Three (‘Proteus’) appears early in the novel [note that your version may not be divided into these named sections – Blamires and others do so, however]. It’s a notoriously difficult read and had me completely puzzled and demotivated. So, I read it, absorbed what I could without becoming anxious about the finer points of interpretation, I read the commentary – then moved on. I think many people stop here, when the novel really becomes difficult. Don’t be one of them.

9. Preview your reading by learning more before you start. I knew quite a bit about Ulysses already and it had coloured my reading. I have done this for other books and it has worked well. Since Ulysses is not plotted in the conventional sense – that is, you’re unlikely to find most satisfaction in how it resolves itself at the end – then I think it’s fine to learn more about it. It’s the telling, not the tale (on the whole), so previewing the structure and learning more about it online might help ‘position’ it as you read. The wikipedia entry is useful in this respect, offering short summaries of the sections.

10. Augment your reading with an unabridged audiobook. There are unabridged versions and so you’ll get the full text. Perhaps these are most useful when supplementing your own reading of the text, for which there is no replacement in my view. Perhaps listening to a difficult section again, in the car on the way to work, might help.

11. Don’t give up! Reading Ulysses is probably one of the most difficult enterprises we can start when reading. But the rewards are immense. Other books will seem easy, you’ll be more popular with your friends and you’ll find life’s slings and arrows bounce off you harmlessly. Well, not quite. But you will have achieved something that many claim and far fewer actually have and what’s more – you will have engaged with a work every bit as good as people say it is.

Good luck with your reading and do share your thoughts and experiences here below.

Reuters: best photos of the year 2011

Given the turbulent times in which we live, a ‘best photos’ gallery online runs the risk of being dangerously premature – who knows what will happen tomorrow? Still, this collection from Reuters captures in pictures – and words, since the commentaries are often excellent – some of this year’s stories from around the world. Some of these photos are immensely powerful and moving, including some with graphic content or nudity.

Thanks to all those photographers and reporters whose photos such as these remind us what it has meant to live in 2011.

What I like about France, what I miss about England: leaving the UK, one year on

It’s been a year since Jennie and I left England to move to Geneva Switzerland, and later to nearby France where we live now. I won’t go into the sentimental details of the ‘anniversary’ – suffice to say that there was a little reminiscing over a glass of champers last night, thinking about the year that has passed – so instead here’s a list of how French life is great and the things I miss about the UK. In no particular order…

Why I love France

Weather. It’s hotter here in the summer than the UK, there are more days filled with sunshine, and it’s relatively consistent and predictable too. Summer last year was like the feted one in 1976 in the UK, the one we think all summers should be like. Since is particular to my specific area, the forecast seems always to get it right. There are some indifferent days, of course, but generally it is less damp than England, less gloomy. The barbie gets more use. Conversely, when it snows, it is colder than the UK, colder but a dry cold. What this means is there is a greater range of…

Outdoor activity. In the summer you can plan days out because it’s likely you’ll get decent weather. Since we live in the countryside, more or less, we have some excellent hiking, golf, cycling, climbing, swimming… the list goes on. We have a tennis court and football ground at the end of the road. The key thing is, as the winter comes the sports only get better: when it’s snowing, we go snowboarding or snowshoeing. It’s this kind of year-round activity that is one of my most favourite things about this place.

The mountains and the water. We live in the Rhône-Alpes region, so as you might expect there are lots of mountains and there is lots of water. We live around an hour or so from some of the best Alpine locations anywhere and I can see the Salève and Jura mountain ranges from my window. We have Lakes Geneva and Annecy, which we plan to boat on soon. What’s more, we have Geneva on our doorstep, so we get to do all the city things, too – and there are the all-important opportunities for work.

Food and wine. I’ve done some independent studies* on this and, in short, food is better in my part of France than in the UK. Much better. Even local stores have local produce, lovingly laid out and presented. (There is one exception, as you’ll see.) Even the small fact that France loves whisky, as do I, seems as if it is just the right place. The aisles dedicated to cured meat and cheese found in the hypermarché should be enough to convince you of its culinary superiority; if it doesn’t, try some of the local wines from Satigny, or the Rhône, or…

Secular, liberal, republic. So far, I’ve counted the physical things, like weather and mountains. But there are political or philosophical things, too. One of the latter is the fact that France is a modern, democratic secular, liberal, republic. This generally coincides with my approach, my politics. It doesn’t mean that France is without its issues. But nor does it mean that these high ideals are completely detached from public life either. You’ll find them in bars and restaurants and in the fabric of life out here. I even found a copy of Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ at the local supermarket.

People work to live, not live to work. Shops are closed on Sunday here (some large supermarkets are open in the morning) and often closed on Monday, too. Many more close for a long lunch, between 12.00 and 14.00. It’s annoying sometimes and takes getting used to, but it illustrates how the French try to put living before working. It’s not perfect, and we’ve been affected by strikes and so on, but it’s something I can believe in (and not just because I’m lazy, either).

Before you get on the plane (or not, as the case might be) to leave it all behind, there are some downsides, at least as far as I’m concerned…

What I miss about England

Family and friends. You have to leave your family and friends behind. That is, unless you can take them with you. I’m working on the latter. You get more popular when you live in a nice place and I try to convert every member of my family who comes through the door to move out here. France isn’t a million miles away, either, and it’s only a short plane flight to go to the UK. We all do a lot of social networking stuff, too.

Newspapers. The quality of newspapers here is very high. Le Monde, Le Figaro and even the free or cheap newspapers like 20 Minutes focus on more on news, not just gossip. But since I’m still learning French, I can’t read them effortlessly, which is how I like to read a newspaper, especially at weekends. The French Paper is quite good but it doesn’t have the frequency or sheer heft of a good old weekend broadsheet, stuffed with magazines and reviews.

Marks and Spencer. There’s plenty of good shopping out here, but there’s nothing like a Marks and Sparks. It’s the corduroy, you see – the cardigan. There is one in Geneva but it sells only clothes for women and food. However, I can order online, and it’s fairly cheap at around £5 to ship to France, so all is not lost.

Curry. Despite an ongoing fervent search, I still haven’t found a convincing curry house. The curry in Geneva, even in what appear ‘authentic’ places, is adapted (read ‘made innocuously bland’) to a Swiss and French taste in the places I’ve been. It’s just as well my wife Jennie is a great cook. On a related note, you can get Marmite and baked beans (other staples) but they are often horribly expensive.

Language. It’s hard sometimes to know that everyone around you doesn’t understand what you might want to say, that you are divided by a language, even if you might share common interests and beliefs. The answer is to learn French. If you’re like me, you might find this tough. But when you get a moment of breakthrough – perhaps you listen to the radio, and understand what is being said, at least in part – it is completely rewarding and worthwhile.

I can’t say I miss UK culture – music, tv, movies – because we get them all here. Without them it would be difficult, I think. And I can’t say we’re completely immersed in French culture, either. Some of it, especially some of the pop music and comedy shows, I’m happy to leave aside for now.

If you think these lists amount to my succumbing to the temptation (common in other ex-pats, I’ve found) to criticize their home country when they leave it, then think again: I love the UK and always will. A move away from home can mean that you love it just the same, not less. I’ll be supporting England in the football World Cup. It’s just that I now have another couple of teams to shout for, too – France and Switzerland. Addition doesn’t mean dilution.

But the biggest thing I’ll take, though, is not necessarily to be found in either the UK or France and is this: we feel good because we took ourselves from our relative comfort zones and tried something new and challenging; that we developed a new confidence and broader outlook that comes with the huge upheaval of moving to a country with a different language and culture; that we’ve not just sat and thought it would be nice to move, but actually gone and done it.

It’s not that people don’t do this kind of thing every day, or that it’s particularly unusual or daring or brave. We’re none of those things. It’s just that it is unusual for us, a challenge, something that has allowed us to be different from ourselves and one we’re lucky to say has worked out wonderfully. And who could not love an area like Haute-savoie when it has the motto: ‘In tartiflette we trust!‘ This is a place I’m happy to call ‘home’.

*I mean I’ve eaten in both France and England quite a lot.