Sunday, 20 November 2011


John Martin, The great day of His wrath (Tate Britain)

As I had to be at the Tate Britain gallery yesterday (isn't it great to have to be in a museum?), I took advantage of it to see an exhibition that had piqued my curiosity, about the early 19th century British artist John Martin. I go to quite a few art exhibitions every year, some memorable, and some less so; for a few of the latter, I even struggle to remember any of the works on display. But I don't feel this is going to be the case with this exhibition: would you forget easily a series of painting depicting such subjects as the Apocalypse, the destruction of Pompei, the fall of Babylon, the Deluge, Satan presiding at the infernal council, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, all in a style just as dramatic as the piece above?

You would expect a painter who created such works to be one of those stereotypical doomed artists, a tortured soul rejecting the conventions of society and whose depiction of endless catastrophes are just an expression of his inner turmoil. Quite the opposite: John Martin was a conformist, yearning for artistic and social recognition, who deliberately created those dramatic pieces because he knew that the public would respond to them. In fact, he was one of the first artists who understood how to play to a budding mass audience and exploit their taste of the "sublime" (read: the terrible and the awesome) for fame and financial gain. The Salvador Dali or the Tracy Emin of his time!

Interestingly, John's brother Jonathan was a tortured soul, and was even committed after setting fire to York Minster. But if the one drawing of his featured in the exhibition is anything to judge by, Jonathan had nothing like the talent of his brother. Apparently, being unbalanced is not enough to be an artist...

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Sunday, 6 November 2011


Four hundred and six years ago yesterday, one Guy Fawkes was arrested and brought in front of the then king of England, James I, for his participation in a plot to blow up the Westminster Parliament. A few months later, he and his accomplices were found guilty of high treason and duly hanged, drawn and quartered. Sounds a bit unpleasant as a punishment, doesn't it? Don't worry, it's only an expression. The people thus sentenced were in fact tied behind horses who drew them to their place of execution, hanged almost to the point of death, emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and then only quartered, which is as you would imagine chopped into four pieces. So they did not really suffer during that last bit (it's bad for the meat).

You'd think that after all that, Guy Fawkes had been punished enough. But every year since then, on November 5th, adults and children all over the UK have celebrated the "happy ending" by burning him in effigy, as well as organising fireworks displays, and of course lighting lots of firecrackers. There used to be a part about going around in the neighbourhood with the effigy, asking for "a penny for the Guy", but I guess Hallowe'en has now taken over as far as groups of begging children are concerned.

Maybe it's the gruesome execution, maybe it's the fact that a few historians have questioned the reality of the plot, maybe it's because of all the noise made by the revellers, but I had never been too keen on Bonfire Night celebrations. Isn't it a bit inconsistent to celebrate with so many explosions the thwarting of an attempt to blow up parliament? Not to mention that November is a strange time to have so many fireworks, especially in a place where it rains so often...

Recently though, the symbolism of Guy Fawkes has been turned on its head. Ever since the release of the comic book V for Vendetta, where a man disguised as Fawkes fights almost single-handedly a fascist government in the UK and succeeds in blowing up the Palace of Westminster, people have started to identify with Guy Fawkes rather than celebrate his death. Masks like the one above have become anti-greed symbols, and they are selling like hotcakes (yes, there is a bit of irony in that). As a Frenchman, I am bound to feel more sympathy with that point of view: we like to celebrate the toppling of kings and the storming of their fortresses, not their victories.

Monday, 31 October 2011


Are you afraid of things that go bump in the night? No, of course. I am sure you are all rational people for whom Hallowe'en is just a bit of fun, and you don't feel the slightest bit of apprehension about what might happen on this most frightful night of the year. Well, I was like you once. But this year, I am shaking in my shoes: I am hosting a Hallowe'en party tonight - or rather g-hosting, as it said on the invitations. Ahem... - and I expect more than twenty children to come, not to mention the many trick-or-treaters who are going to ring my doorbell all through the evening. Believe me, Satan and all his minions are nothing to that!

I have put a lot of work into the whole thing. The house looks suitably creepy, with its creaking garden gate (okay, I didn't have to do much for that one), its hanging skeletons, its carved pumkins, and its cobwebs in every corner (believe it or not, I had to add those). And my guests will be able to feast on maggots (small brown shrimps; shelled, they really look the part), worms (gummi ones, and frankfurters split lengthways), brain cupcakes (the buttercream icing looks quite realistic), a very bloody-looking rasperry jelly (as a Frenchman, I am convinced you have to be an actual demon to ingest such a thing as jelly...), and a hellish punch complete with swarming (gummi) snakes and floating icy hands. Ironic that you have to make your house so uninviting to host a good party!

I am a bit disappointed about my costume, though. I had my eye on that lovely number in red above, but apparently I left it too late, and I couldn't get it in time. Granted, it is not what you would call a handsome devil, but he has some presence, don't you think? It looks like I'm going to dress as a werewolf instead. I'm afraid (again) it's bound to cause some friction with the few vampires among my guests...

Saturday, 29 October 2011


© The Daily Telegraph

The last post I published here before I vanished was about rugby, and I thought on my return that if I was to have any claim to entertaining and informing you, I had to mention the most important event on the face of the earth, the Rugby World Cup. For those of my readers who live outside the solar system, the world cup started 6 weeks ago in New Zealand, and finished last Sunday with a victory of the home team, the dreaded All Blacks, over my beloved Bleus (the real ones, France), who happened to be playing in white that day.

Now, it has to be said that the All Blacks had easily been the best team since the beginning of the tournament. Or since the end of the last one 4 years ago. Or since World War I... Not so for France, who up to the final, had probably had their worst world cup ever. It would be difficult for me then to claim that New Zealand lifting the Webb Ellis trophy on Sunday is a huge injustice. And yet...

Inexplicably, but all too familiarily, the French team proceeded on the day to confound every expectations by playing with an intensity, a passion that they had not shown in a long time. My hopes were starting to raise, and even neutrals were saying that the mighty All Blacks had a fight on their hands. Unfortunately, that last category did not seem to include Craig Joubert, who was refereeing the match, and whose patience apparently only extended to New Zealand infringements. In a match so evenly poised, the slightest bias was bound to have an impact on the scoresheet, and it did. In the end, France lost by just 1 point, the smallest losing margin ever in a world cup final.

Incidentally, France also hold the record of the biggest losing margin ever: 23 points in 1999, just after they beat the same All Blacks in a semi-final that is considered by many the best ever match in world cup history. I am telling you, supporting France is not for the faint of heart!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Rembrandt, The prodigal son (Эрмитаж)

The obvious paradox of blogs, is that if you're somebody to whom lots of fascinating things happen, you probably don't have the time to write about it every day. Conversely, if nothing ever happens to you, you have plenty of time to write, but about what? So, does this mean to say, or at least to suggest, that if you haven't heard about me for 2 years, 6 months and 14 days, it's because my life finally got interesting? And consequently, now that it has become boring again, I can't wait to share it with you?

Well, not quite. Certainly, a lot has happened during my time in the wilderness (I might tell you about it some day), but it shouldn't have been enough to keep me off the keyboard so consistently. And paradoxically, I am now busier than I've been in years (I might tell you about that too), and yet I feel the need, and most importantly the energy, to start posting again.

Dear reader, I know all cannot be forgiven in an instant. After all, I left you to live the wild life far from the internet, and I can only imagine how much you have suffered, waiting day after day for a new post. Maybe, Heaven forbid, you have started reading some other blog. I shudder at the thought; how can you be so fickle? But hey, let's not quarrel, today is a day for celebration. Bring out the fatted calf, Abraham is back!

Sunday, 12 April 2009


Today was rugby day, hurrah! And not just on TV: I went with a few friends to the Twickenham Stoop to watch one of the quarter-final of the European Cup (on these shores, it takes the name of a sponsor, a huge brewing company from a country where they have never heard of rugby. Sigh!).

The loyalties in the group were divided: I was supporting the Irish province of Leinster, and everybody else was supporting the local team of the Harlequins. That latter preference was mostly based on reasons only distantly related to sport: namely, the good looks, or rather shape, of some players. In contrast, my own criteria for supporting Leinster are highly rational: I like their attacking game, I have always had a weakness for Ireland, which has grown stronger over the years... Oh, and I just discovered that the usual jersey of their team being blue, the Leinster fans often encourage their favourites by chanting: "Allez les bleus! Allez les bleus!". What is a (French)man to do?

I must regretfully report that being handsome and shapely does not always ensure victory. In a hard-fought match, where brawl and resilience were more decisive than skills, Leinster, despite being better known for the latter than the former, held on to a 6-5 lead in the face of some rather unsportsmanly conduct by Harlequins.

And that was not the only happy event that day. One of our party couldn't come to the match as his wife was about to give birth. The baby is not born as I write these lines, but I certainly hope he will be named Rocky, in honour of man of the match Rocky Elsom. Then again, it could be a girl...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


© Hugues Léglise

Don't you hate these expats who move to a country because the weather there is more lenient, but never bother to learn the local language, never make any effort to integrate into their local community, and keep bitching to other expats how backwards and deficient their new adoptive country is compared to "back home"? Well, I do.

I have always thought that unless you have been kidnapped from the verdant valleys of your home country, and brought bound and gagged to the unhospitable shores of some hostile nation, not making the most of living under different skies is more than a lost opportunity: it's a crime. You might think that ending up here is merely the result of a quirk of fate, and that your home is somewhere else. The truth is, somewhere in your family tree, there's a similar quirk which resulted in your being born in your native country, or indeed your being born at all. While you may understandably remain attached to the place where you spent your formative years, home is really where you are living at the moment.

Of course, I may bitch from time to time about my adoptive country. You should have heard me criticise France when I lived there! It is something we French do quite easily: we have what is known there as "l'esprit critique". Believe it or not, it's a good thing...

In any case, let me say today loud and clear: I love it in London! I live in a house, which would be next to impossible in Paris, I have friends from all over the world, I can taste, or cook, food from around the world, the cultural life is second to none... And maybe best of all, Paris is only a little over 2 hours away. Que demande le peuple?

Saturday, 4 April 2009


Today was a sad day for Britain, and for OK! Magazine: Jade Goody has just been taken to her final resting place, and the world is weeping. You probably think that I am goimg to be all sarcastic and disparaging about this heroine of our times? I must admit the thought crossed my mind. It would be easy, and tempting, to make fun of somebody so obviously stupid, vulgar and narrow-minded. But that would be forgetting who put her in the eye of the media in the first place.

Who can blame Jade Goody for having taken advantage of everything that came her way? Coming from a difficult background, completely devoid of any talent or marketable ability, she must have been thrilled to realise that the very qualities that made her an object of loathing and ridicule on TV, and probably off it, could also make her famous and wealthy. Of course, she is not the only flawed celebrity around. But while others have become famous in spite of their flaws, Goody's exposure came because of hers.

It is not difficult to guess why the producers of Big Brother selected her: somebody with such a big mouth, such poor judgement and such limited intellectual ability would at the very least provide comic relief, and hopefully (for the producers) be involved in some conflict or some cringe-inducing antics. In other words, give the audience something to talk about around the water-cooler. Was she ever happy to oblige!

What is more difficult to understand is how she managed to sustain her appeal enough to earn year in, year out a multi-million pound income, and be voted the 25th most influential person in the world... Yes, she was still willing to make a fool of herself on just about every reality show on the face of the earth. Yes, the same tabloids that had initially vilified her and campaigned for her early exit from the Big Brother house, couldn't get enough of her afterwards. Yes, the Prime Minister himself led the tributes on her death, and she was nearly made a saint for giving more exposure to cervical cancer (as if that was the reason why she had called on TV to film her last moments!).

The thing is, Jade Goody was ideally suited to an age where people aspire more than ever to fame, and at the same time are fed up with beautiful, politically correct, unattainable role models. With her around, the most untalented wannabes can imagine that fame and wealth are within their grasp. Better still, they can sense some kind of connection, and even feel a bit smug, when they see the celebrity struggle with the same handicaps as them, and come out rather worse than they would.

So, rest in peace, Jade Goody, and have no fear about your legacy. In all likelyhood, TV scouts are scouring the pubs and hair salons of Essex as I write.

Friday, 27 March 2009


One of the advantages of a blog over a regular journal, or an autobiography, is that you can say just as much or as little as you want about yourself. And what you say might not even be true: I did warn when I started this one that I made no claim to candidness. Will you believe me if I tell you that I have yet to take advantage of that latitude?

But even though I have so far never lied to my dear readers, they don't know all that much about me: I am French, I like food (I know, it's implied in the previous one, but at least you know some of the food I particularly like), I have a knack for insulting people from other countries (I know, implied), my social life relies heavily on a set of German foldable boxes... Quite sketchy, isn't it? If you have a fertile imagination, you might be thinking that such scant information has to hide some dramatic secret. Maybe I am some serial killer taunting the police with, in each of my posts, some cleverly disguised clues to my next vilainy - in which case I am probably playing it quite safe: how many of Scotland Yard's best are reading this blog?... Or maybe I am someone famous who has chosen the cover of anonymity to say at last what he really thinks. Not that my posts are hugely controversial, but between us, would you like people to know you wrote them?

Anyway, at the risk of disappointing the thrill-seekers, I am not a murderer. Too bad: it would make my posts so much easier to write! And probably so much more exciting to read... But does this mean I have to be famous, then? Indeed it does. Of sorts. Do you remember that I told you I had  appeared on TV quite a few times, and in different countries? Well, you may even have seen me; that is, if you like quiz shows. After all, if you read this, you must have a lot of free time. No, I am not Gail Trimble, and you are not about to see some photos of me, however tasteful. But I have appreared to this day in about a dozen individual shows, not counting repeats. I even won a few, and I have a small glass pyramid to prove it (the cash is long gone unfortunately).

Even apart from that invaluable addition to the decoration of my house (actually, it's in a box somewhere), this interest of mine has brought me countless fringe benefits. I have been offered a behind-the-scene glimpse of how TV shows are recorded, I have been able to talk with game show hosts who are household names, and to realise that however difficult the questions they ask, a monumental intellect is not necessarily a criteria for their selection... I even had the priviledge to stand in a public urinal next to a very famous French director!

One side effect that it did not bring me is instant recognition. In fact, nobody has ever told me: "Don't I know you from that show?". Of course, they may have recognised me, and not said a word to avoid being outed as a dork who watches quiz shows... Whatever the reason, I should be thankful. Nothing would make me more uncomfortable than to have complete strangers stopping me in the street because they have seen my face on their TV screen, and think they know me because of that. Still, you can't help wondering if you are that unremarkable. Ah, to be a serial killer...

Sunday, 22 March 2009


© The Guardian

The VI Nations tournament is now over, and I must say it ended with a bang: the final week-end was by far the most interesting, and the most dramatic we've had this year. France have gone to Rome, where they always seem to do well, and have managed to restore a small part of their bruised and battered honour, beating Italy 50-8. Still, the previous week's humiliation at the hands of an unremarkable English team will not be easily forgotten. Not by me anyway.

England have gone on to beat Scotland, still without impressing, and pip the French to the 2nd place of the tournament, thanks in no small part to Sunday's thumping.

More importantly, Ireland beat Wales in Cardiff in a thrilling game, and won the second Grand Slam of their history, and their first since 1948. As much as I would have liked to see France in their place, I cannot begrudge Ireland their triumph. They are the stongest Irish team in years, they have the best supporters, the few surviving heroes of the first Grand Slam were so gentleman-like, and looked so happy, and it was St Patrick's Day this week anyway. So, without the slightest hint of a reservation: hearty congratulations to the winners, and Sláinte!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009



Do you know University Challenge? If you hail from the UK, and you have a television, there is no doubt you do. For those who haven't lived here, University Challenge is THE best quiz show ever to grace our TV screen. It was launched in 1962, and has been running ever since with only a few years' interruption in the late eighties.

The principle of the game is very simple: it pits two teams of four competitors from the best universities in the UK, to whom are asked very diverse questions of general knowledge. But the quality of the questions, as well as that of the contestants makes all the difference, and this is probably why the program has lasted so long. By most measures in fact, it is as famous here as Who wants to be a Millionaire: it has its catchphrase that found its way into everyday language ("Starter for ten"), and that catchphrase is also the title of a novel based on the quiz show, as well as of the film derived from it. Granted, the film did not win 8 oscars, and all you get for winning the four rounds of the competition is just a book-shaped piece of glass. But no game show on the planet has had so many contestants go on to become famous: actors Stephen Fry and Myriam Margoyles, writers Sebastian Faulks and Julian Fellowes, politician Malcolm Rifkind and David Mellor, journalist Jon Simpson, historian David Starkey or TV presentor Clive James all appeared on the program as students. I wonder how many The price is right alumni have known a similar fate...

In any case, there was a controversy two weeks ago, a bit of a storm in a tea-cup, as you often get in the UK. It was revealed that Sam Kay, a member of the winning team (Corpus Christi, one of the colleges of Oxford University) was not a student any more when the last rounds were recorded. After it was made public, the BBC decided to disqualify the winning team, and award their prize to the runners-up, Manchester University, who seemed less than pleased with the accolade.

The fact is, stripping Corpus Christi of their title was the wrong decision on many levels. First, without belittling Kay's contribution, he was part of a very good team with a truly exceptional captain. Gail Trimble, dubbed since "the human Google", scored personally a record 800 points over the whole of competitions, which is two thirds of her team's points. She has so impressed the UK public that men's magazine Nuts apparently tried to contact her to arrange a "tasteful" photoshoot. Yeah, right! Even the Independent, reputed to be a serious newspaper, was wondering in an article who could win Gail's heart. Can you imagine that if the team's captain had been a man? Of course, they would be thinking of his career prospects...

But what makes the BBC's decision even more unfair is that for reasons only known to them, they record the program in two stages: one in March, and the other one in November, or in other words, in two different academic years. Sam Kay, who was still studying when the first recordings were made, failed to get funding for his planned PhD, and had to start work in September, and so became ineligible. So, the BBC did stick by their rules, but those were made absurd by the corporation's own lack of common sense. In fact, it looks like Corpus Christi is being made to pay for a couple of recent, more high-profile, scandals that have involved the Beeb recently, and where they had been criticised for their lack of a quick reaction.

I personally remain unmoved, and still consider University Challenge to be one of the best programs on British television. All that it lacked was a (moderately) juicy scandal to while away the weeks until the next series: what more can we ask for?
Maybe some tasteful photos...

Friday, 13 March 2009


Today is Red Nose Day. For those who don't live in the UK, Red Nose Day is a hugely popular charity event that takes place every other year in the spring. On that day, people are encouraged to don a red nose, and generally raise money for charitable causes by making fools of themselves. Since it is something that I do quite naturally, and for free, I can't help but find this an excellent idea. At last a national event that plays to my strengths!

This year however, although I gave to the charity, I haven't done anything really foolish (I think...), so I thought I would just remedy that situation here. Maybe I went a bit over the top, though. I mean, the round glasses make me look a bit geeky...

Thursday, 12 March 2009


© Punkbirder

Although I live in West London, I had never been to Westfield, a new shopping centre which opened at the end of last year. A grevious oversight for more than one reason: non only is it impossible to retain my claim to coolness without having visited "the largest in-town shopping and leisure destination in Europe", but in these days of credit crunch, it is my civic duty to spend my hard-earned cash to stimulate the British economy.

So, having some purchases to make besides my usual food shopping, and being reluctant to travel into central London, I decided to head to the fabled shopping and leisure destination. The location is quite surprising for a place that boasts such a high-end image: it is located between Shepherd's Bush and White City, which is to say between a run-down residential area, a giant housing estate and an industrial area. Not really where you're most likely to find customers for the Prada, De Beers and Armani shops inside the centre.

Now, maybe it is testimony to the plebeian kind of shopping centres I had patroned so far, but when I arrived there, I was surprised to see a valet parking desk, where two people were expectantly waiting for customers. The parking being quite empty, and finding a place next to the elevators being no problem at all, I am guessing they had not had a very busy day so far. But they were very helpful, and gave me ample directions to the toilet. That is, the one one the ground flour of the centre two levels above, not the one located on the same level, which was reserved to their hypothetical customers. For a moment, I felt like asking them to re-park my car, just to be able to see those undoubtedly sumptuous lavatories, but I thought better of it.

As I went on to start my shopping, I soon had the impression I was being observed. I even imagined that one of the sales assistants in the department store where I was browsing was speaking about me to a security guard, but I tried to dismiss it as a bout of paranoia. Well, no sooner had I stepped outside the department store that two other security guards (the first one must have transmitted my coordinates through walkie-talkie) converged upon me. I thought my cover as an international terrorist and spy was finally blown, but as it turned out, the trolley that I had found at the local supermarket and taken along, expecting to have a lot to carry, was not allowed outside of the confines of said supermarket. When I asked why such a ban was in place, all they could say was that it was the centre's policy (they repeated it quite a few time, as if the number of iterations could somehow make up for the lack of details...). I briefly weighed my odds in a trolley chase through the arcades (I watch too many movies, and after all these gym sessions, I tend to over-estimate my athletic abilities), but I had to relinquish my treasured vehicle, luckily still empty at that point, and was left to speculate for the reasons behind the iniquitous edict. Maybe they want to promote their "handsfree shopping" service, where for a fee, a member of the concierge team (I know!) will collect your purchases after you. Maybe they think that the trolley would hide the labels on the beautiful designer carrier bags, and deprive them of a well-deserved source of advertising. Or maybe they have access to some recent study which has discovered that the World Trade Center towers were in fact brought down by supermarket trolleys, and the planes were only a clever decoy.

Be it as it may, I must say I was not overwhelmed by that first visit. As slick as they try to be, they don't seem to have got it just right yet, and I probably won't go back there in a hurry. Of course, having the nagging suspicion that I have been judged too white trash to be a valued patron doesn't help...

EDIT: I actually went back to Westfield two days later (a long story - even for me), and spent like a drunken sailor. I have no shame!

Sunday, 8 March 2009


© Associated Content

Today is International Women's Day, and although I like to think I support women, and everything that this day represents (apparently, it is also the day for women's rights, AND International Peace...), as a man, I can't help feeling a bit left out. You can probably argue that each one of the remaining 364 days in the year is in effect an International Men's Day, but it's not the same, and I would like something more official.

Luckily, there is no shortage of official, international days. When you go to the United Nations' website, as I am sure you often do, you can see that there is an International Mother Language Day, a World Post Day, an International Civil Aviation Day, and an International Mountain Day, among more than 50 others.

Still haven't found your dream day? Many other organisations also declare days of celebration. You have World Bread day on the October 16th (launched, rather unsurprisingly, by the International Union of Bakers and Bakers-Confectioners), National Pig Day in the States on March 1st, International stop-snoring week in April (please don't ask me how I know), and World Crochet Day on September 12th, to cite but a few.

All these are worthy causes, I am sure, but not ones that I feel overly concerned with. When is the day where we celebrate everything that is Abraham Septimus? Well, I have scoured the web extensively, and it seems my day is yet to come. But I am keeping faith! And anyway, Friday is Red Nose Day...

Saturday, 7 March 2009


© Royal Academy

Have I told you yet that I was a museum fiend? In fact, I have been known to time a trip to France so that I could go to a particularly interesting exhibition in the Louvre. So today, I decided to be greedy and I went to the Royal Academy of Arts, to see not just one exhibition, but two. You can never have too much of a good thing!...

Well, the day kept its promise. To be perfectly honest, I kind of knew what to expect, at least as far as one of the exhibition was concerned: I had seen Byzantium 330-1453 a few months ago when it opened, and I had been bowled over. The splendors of Byzantium, at a time when the Western world was plunged into what is dubbed "the dark ages", are legendary, but I had failed so far to realise the width and breadth of their achievements, especially from an artistic standpoint, and how much Christianity, and in particular the Great Schism, had changed that part of the world. The wealth of exhibits on display is quite staggering, from monumental doors to jewelry and paintings, from marble and ivory to enamels and fabric, from everyday objects to ceremonial garb fit for a queen. Leaving the exhibition, I felt (again) very much like Yeats, whose poem Sailing for Byzantium is quoted in the first room:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Incidentally, these beautiful words have inspired a song to the artist Lisa Gerrard, and I feel that she too has managed to capture the majesty and melancholy of these Lords of the Christian Orient, standing guard over the edge of the civilised world...

© Runmode

The Andrea Palladio: his life and legacy exhibition was focusing not quite so far away in the East, but it was steeped in the same Greek and Roman roots. What was impressive there, was to see that the harmonious lines of Palladio's buildings, so pure, so simple, were the result of a very conscious and methodically researched effort to modernise architecture. Ironic, since he drew his inspiration from the works of antiquity, but how visionary! In fact, two centuries later, English architects would copy Palladio's works for the benefit of wealthy patrons who had seen Italy during their Grand Tour.

As you look at those majestic "villas", and let your mind be carried away to the Venitian countryside where they can be found, you may dream of wealth and drowsiness again, of the elegant "far niente" of a priviledged few. In fact, Palladio's buildings were designed to save the somptuary costs of their predecessors, replacing for instance most of the marble with stucco-covered bricks. And some of them were originally very busy farms, whose elegant wings were hiding very prosaic storage rooms. A very modern approach...

I think you've guessed that it was a very good day, and that I heartily recommend either, or preferably both, of these exhibitions (be quick though, the Byzantium one closes in a couple of weeks). The only disappointment was tea in the cafeteria of the Royal Academy: dry scone, tiny amount of indifferent clotted cream and jam. They also had cucumber sandwiches, but the waitress advised against ordering one of those... Luckily, with Fortnum & Mason on the other side of the road, chances are you won't have to make the same mistake.

Saturday, 28 February 2009


After a brave defeat in Dublin, and a very unconvincing home victory against the Scots, France has at last produced a display more in line with their ambitions, and my hopes. On Friday night, the first time ever that a VI Nations match was played on that day, they beat the Welsh, the reigning champions whom every pundit was expecting to win a second grand slam in a row. Not only that, but France outplayed them, and if anything, the final score of 21-16 is flattering for the title holders.

A good result then, and since France's two remaining matches are with England and Italy, two teams struggling to get back in their game, they should beat those quite easily, and maybe win the tournament should Ireland lose in Cardiff. Well, you would think that, wouldn't you? That is, if you are not familiar with the ups and downs of French teams in just about any sport. But supporting France is full of surprises, and not for the faint-hearted. While their game is usually very entertaining and they can on their day beat any team (the All Blacks will certainly agree), they have an irritating knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. You will rarely see a French team beating another major team by a wide margin. No, the French like to give their audience their money's worth in drama, and they'll make sure that any confortable lead melts away, so that the last minutes of a match are a breathless, edge-of-your-seat, swear-at-the-TV affair. Then, depending on their mood, they'll amaze you with a fantastic display of skills that will save the match, or they'll give victory away in a fit of abysmal stupidity. And it could be the same player! English journalists, who tend to admire a consistent, dogged, if slightly uninspiring game, like to call the French mercurial, and some French players' name has become a byword for that: I understand that in some quarters, the former french fly-half Frédéric Michalak is dubbed "Freddy Mercurial"...

So, although the French back row was for once dominant, although the whole team showed a hunger that seems to evade them usually, we have no guarantee their next match in Twickenham will see a repeat of that performance. In fact, one gets the impression that coach Marc Lièvremont stumbled upon the winning formula rather than reached it through a rigourous approach. Anyway, if in a fortnight, this blog remains conspicuously silent about the tournament, you'll know it didn't happen. Or of course, you could read the papers.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


Can I take back everything nice I said about British food? Marks and Spencer launched a few weeks ago a range of snacks and sandwiches dubbed Nation's favourites, and as you can see, they went a bit crazy with the Union Jack. Now, there is nothing wrong with being proud of your country's food. But wrapping yourself - or your products in that instance - in the national flag, just to sell a few extra sandwiches, is just ridiculous. And seriously, what is so quintessentially British in a small bottle of apple juice? Are the Brits going to claim they invented the apple? Clearly, it is just a way to re-package their most boring sandwiches and give them, apparently, a new appeal. Well, not to this particular customer. I think I'll have a quiche lorraine...

On the subject of British food again, I was doing my shopping this evening, in a different supermarket (Marks and Spencer are probably reeling from my boycott...), and I noticed the unusual content of the caddy that the man in front of me at the checkout was unloading: 8 family-size bottles of salad cream, 3 double-size haggis (each feeding about 4-6 people), and an impressive quantity of alcool. Either he lost a bet, or he has a very strange recipe and a huge appetite. Or maybe there are tonight in West London a bunch of Scottish rabbits holding a belated Burns Night celebration...

Monday, 23 February 2009


I have to apologise for not posting last week. Oh, come on! Tell me at least that you've noticed it! Better still, tell me that you have been coming every day, your little heart beating fast as the page was loading, hoping to see some new words of wisdom, and then unable to hold back a sigh of disappointment when the same Valentine post was immuably displayed. Of course, it was a very good post, but you must have started to worry, wondering if some disaster had not occured. Maybe I had finally decided to have a date on Valentine's day, and one week later, we were still at it like little bunnies? (Wait, that one is hardly a disaster...) Or maybe some irate representative of the card or velvet chocolate box industry decided to get rid of a trouble-maker before his message reached too wide an audience. Or maybe the poor performance of France in the VI nations tournament finally got to me, and I had decided to leave this valley of tears before they embarrass themselves irredeemably (by far the most likely scenario; as it happens however, France did beat Scotland last week-end - but only just).

Well, it is my sad duty to announce that disaster did indeed strike, a disaster much more terrible than any of these scenarios could foresee. Last Sunday, I lost my closest companion, my confident, my constant support, my friend of every moment, prematurely taken from me in the midst of a blissful relationship. In short, I have lost my PDA-phone. You may scoff, but that just shows you are not the proud owner of one of these jewels of modern technology. Otherwise, you would measure how life-changing such gadgets are; in fact, they are about as much of an improvement over a regular mobile phone, as the mobile phone itself was over the fixed version.

Indeed, not only did I have there all my contacts (not just their phone number, but their address, their spouse's name, and even in some case their photo, should I forget what they look like...), my appointments, my notes, my to-do list, my messages, but that phone was doubling up as an MP3 player; a video player for those long plane trips; a notepad (an actual one, where you can scribble handwritten notes, or even sketches); a wallet with photos of loved ones as well as all my passwords and confidential information; a dictaphone; a calculator; a converter (not just currency: seriously, who can be deranged enough to measure weight in stones and pounds?); loads of dictionnaries and other books, including the complete works of Jane Austen and a searchable King James Bible (I actually had to use the latter recently...); plenty of games, most of them coming with a willing and gifted playmate; a GPS navigation system usable in-car or on foot anywhere in Western Europe, a camera/camcorder, a backup remote for my TV, and of course an Internet access should I get bored. Now, if I had to carry all of that in my pocket, my slim and elegant figure may somewhat suffer, not to mention my back.

Can you see now why I have been in mourning for the past week? I am inconsolable. Or I would be if I hadn't found already a worthy replacement for my departed friend. That one has all of the above, or will when I transfer all the documents back from my PC, and it is slimmer, more elegant, has a larger screen and an integrated FM radio. Call me fickle, but I think I am in love again...

Friday, 13 February 2009


Here comes again the dreaded day when single people are made to feel bad for not having someone in their life, or worse still, to scramble madly for a date so that people don't know they feel bad. And they are the lucky ones. If you are in a relationship, chances are you will receive a box of poor-quality chocolates in a red heart-shaped box, as well as an awful soppy card or worse, an allegedly humourous one (British cards can be incredibly gross: how on earth do they manage to work "fart" into a Valentine's day card?). In any case, expect to be sick by this time tomorrow: if the box doesn't induce nausea, the chocolates will do the trick, and the card will finish you off. Of course, you can always hope not to get presents, but then, you'll spend the whole day wondering if your loved one still cares for you...

Don't get me wrong. I am actually quite a romantic person. I have even been known to celebrate Valentine's day, although no heart-shaped box and no fart-related card has ever gone through my hands. I also recognise that it can be actually a good thing for a couple, especially one living together and at risk of being swallowed by the demands of daily life, to stand back and re-discover why they wanted to be together in the first place. But why does this have to take place on some universal pre-ordered day, and why should it materialise in a shower of tacky gifts and confectionery, and a reward for those tasteless enough to manufacture them?

My advice to you, dear reader, is to ignore the calendar, or even thumb your nose at it. Be nice to your loved one, by all means, but do it tonight, or Sunday. And by all that is holy and sacred, please stay clear of red velvet boxes! As for those who don't have a special somebody to spoil on that day, you have my blessing to treat yourself. Why should we have to wait for someone to do it anyway?

Thursday, 12 February 2009


© Sports Supplements Unlimited

Going to the gym would be a tedious affair if they did not provide some entertainment to keep your mind off the repetitiveness of exercises. In mine, there are half a dozen big screens so you can watch TV (some machines even have their own small screen with more channels), and you can always make a pause and read the papers or surf the internet in the lounge. Having said that, those who have had the misfortune to experience daytime TV, especially around noon, will know that it is more likely to send you asleep than to give you the energy boost you so dearly need.

So, you often have to switch to a slightly more engaging spectacle, like watching the other gym members. Purely from a sociological standpoint, of course. Far be it from me to ogle the aforementioned obscenely athletic ones while they perform lunges in impossibly close-fitting shorts... Actually, you might not believe me but I genuinely try to avoid watching them, as it is only too clear that being watched is their main goal when coming to the gym (of course, getting a superbly sculpted body has now been crossed from their to-do list). It just makes me cringe to see them looking around after each series of exercises to make sure of the impression they made, or strut in gym gear specifically designed to show strategic parts of their body: shoulders and pecs for men, abs and legs for women.

They are also the ones who like to parade in the dressing-room in their birthday suit (well, I can only vouch for the men, because I am not welcome in the women's changing rooms). But I wish they were the only ones! There is a grossly overweight, very hairy and quite ugly man who comes regularly and seems to enjoy walking around naked while other people are getting dressed. In fact, I'm starting to have a suspicion that's the only reason he comes: I have never seen him on any of the machines or in the swimming-pool and he certainly doesn't seem to lose any weight. Yet I swear he drops all his clothes as soon as he passes the door, and is still there contemplating his flabby behind when I leave the gym. Maybe he only comes for the foggy mirror?

And there are more, of course, in fact, a range of personalities that Big Brother would be proud of. There is the grunter, who makes all kinds of noise when he's lifting iron, some closer to a yelp, some remarkably close to articulate speech. There's the disciple of Charlie Chaplin who tries to catch his falling towel on the treadmill, loses his steps, seems to go into bionic mode in order to restore his balance, manages to do it and looks around as if to say: "how did you like that one?". There's the machine hog who comes to you as you sit down to do your crunches, asks you how much time it's going to take, stays standing next to you the whole time, and as you give up your place, tunes leisurely his iPod for 10 minutes before starting his exercises. And of course, there's the aspiring writer who stares blankly at people, trying to imagine what he's going to write about them in his blog... A psychologist's paradise, I am telling you!