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Posts from the ‘France’ Category


The Uncertainties of Contingency: What if Franz Ferdinand didn’t die in 1914?

I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),

None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more »


Odds and ends: some random book reviews on China, Marriage… and Auschwitz

So, there’s been seriously long radio-silence from Q in recent weeks. But this is not the result of inactivity. Far from it. Regulars will be pleased to hear that my book is seriously under way – with 5 out of 10 chapters now completed in draft. Phew!! There’s going to be lots to blog on when it’s done – but I don’t have the energy or brain to do both at the same time! Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping up reading and stuff. Here are a few reviews of recent freebies I got on the Amazon Vine programme. There might be something of interest to someone… Read more »


Friday Fun 45: Exposing an enemy’s deception with some wartime humour

Operation Fortitude was a crucial, bold, almost insane, factor in the success of D-Day in 1944. It was a hugely elaborate hoax, to make the enemy believe that the Allies’ continental invasion would happen across the straits of Calais (Fortitude South) and from Scotland into Norway (Fortitude North). Read more »


The first time visiting a place I’ve grown up in: Monet’s home at Giverny

Thanks to the generosity of some friends, Rachel & I were able to have a few days in their Paris flat last week (and were even able to cover most of our Eurostar tickets with Nectar points). All in all: a result. But the highlight for both of us was actually 80km north-west of Paris in the little Normandy village of Giverny. Neither of us had ever been before. But I felt was as if I’d been going there all my life. In fact, every nook and cranny felt so familiar it was as if it was a childhood home. For this was the home of Claude Monet, and the subject of decades of paintings. Read more »


Friday Fun 29: Winston takes his stand on foreign place names

A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.

Read more »


Houellebecq’s ATOMISED: a crude & brutal exposure of the ‘suicide of Europe’

I hated this book. I can’t even remember who suggested  it or exactly why (it must have been something to do with the work I’m doing on our culture of suspicion and alienation) – but that’s probably just as well! Michel Houellebecq’s ATOMISED came out in France in 1999, and then in English translation in 2000: and caused uproar, scorn and derision, as well as some literary plaudits and admirers. Read more »


A few days in Paris

Having taken my son Joshua to Rome for 3 nights when he was 10, my daughter decided she wanted to go to Paris for her 10th year Dad & Daughter time. So off we toddled last week for a few days to see the sights. And a fab time was had by all. Read more »


Clarinet Dreams: Lucy Downer’s debut album Conversations

Lucy Downer, Clarinet
Claire Howard Race, Piano

Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Clarinet & Piano Sonata Op. 167

Allegro animato
Molto Allegro

Debussy (1862-1918): Première Rhapsodie

Planas (1959- ): Spanish Rhapsody for solo bass clarinet

Müller (1786-1854) / Rossini (1792-1868): Fantasia on Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Patterson (1947- ): Conversations Op.25,

Allegro deciso

One challenge any performer faces is the programme question. Each will come up with different solutions, but commonly, people go for a particular period, or a retrospective of a composer’s life, or perhaps trace a theme across different styles. Whatever decisions are made, though, it is always fascinating to see what juxtapositions are offered.

A superb clarinettist at All Souls, Lucy Downer, has just produced her debut album Conversations, accompanied by a fellow Royal Academy graduate Claire Howard Race. And it is a triumph – and I’m not just saying that because she’s a friend! Crisply recorded and beautifully produced, this is a wonderful collection. And the programme is as intriguing as it is captivating. These pieces enable her to show off the breadth and depth of her instrument while introducing some less well known works.

She opens with a repertoire standard: the utterly beguiling sonata by Saint-Saëns. It is beautifully, almost effortlessly, played – and evokes a huge range of emotions over the course of its 4 movements. Energy, frustration, effort, exuberance, reverie, nostalgia, and even regret. One of my favourite sonatas ever, it is a remarkable legacy, almost a last will and testament of a man who (unbeknownst to him) had only months left to live. Lucy’s rendition captures it all – the only thing missing to my mind was a glass of crisp, chilled white while overlooking the Dordogne. Perhaps this can be arranged…

The Debussy Rhapsodie seems to function as the programme’s bridge to modernity. Even though the composer died before Saint-Saëns, they inhabited utterly different musical worlds, with Debussy painting musical impressions without the constraints of classical structure. We can hear the seeds of the 20th Century in Debussy, in a way that we simply don’t in Saint-Saëns. Nevertheless, the pieces do have common characteristics – they are both lyrical, French reveries. And they sit very well together on this disc – Lucy and Claire give a sense of musical development while sustaining the emotional intensity.

Nick Planas is a contemporary composer and Spanish Rhapsody is a piece especially composed for Lucy. It is worth quoting his own sleeve notes:

Having seen Lucy performing a variety of different pieces on the bass clarinet, I was inspired to compose this short piece especially for her to add to her repertoire.

My intention with this Spanish rhapsody was to create a piece which would offer some technical challenges for the player, whilst providing the opportunity for great tonal variety across almost the complete range of the bass clarinet, one of my favourite instruments. At the same time I wanted to maintain a clear tonal melodic outline, and having just completed another work which contained several notably Spanish songs and dances, I decided to pay homage to the Spanish style which has influenced quite a lot of my music to date, perhaps because of my Spanish ancestral roots (Nick Planas, 2009)

I really enjoyed this. I’m not aware of much repertoire for the bass clarinet at all – but it has the most wonderfully mellow and rich tone, as well as an amazingly huge range. The piece is at times haunting, melancholic and reflective, but interspersed suddenly bursts of frenetic energy. It definitely has a Spanish lilt to it (evoking the similarly titled works by Liszt, Bizet and Ravel). It perhaps won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, initially. But its strangeness is itself a reason to give it time.

Lucy & (a rather obscured) Claire in action in a house concert at our home last year

No sooner has this Iberian reverie trailed away, than we are transported to a classical era soiree, with Müller‘s arrangement of a Rossini aria. I knew nothing about him before – but it seems that he was an instrument inventor of note who made substantial improvements to the clarinet. The Fantasia is played with a great joie de vivre. But again, there is another sudden departure. Before we’ve had time to acclimatise to the somewhat refined atmosphere of a central European music room, we’re rudely awakened by the album’s title piece – Paul Patterson‘s Conversations, written in 1974. It explodes into life, vigorous, alarming even. It’s title is revealing and indicates an equal importance between the piano and clarinet. They constantly respond to each other’s statements, in fact they almost vie with each other. The final Presto is jazzy, dazzling, and demanding – providing a wonderfully energetic climax to the whole performance (with perhaps the slightest nod to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the end?).

But the section I particularly liked was the middle slow movement. This too is a dream – and it was as I was listening to this that the album’s programme clicked into place. It is an anthology of dreams, nostalgias, rhapsodies. Even Saint-Saëns sonata falls into this category, despite following all the old strict rules of classical sonata form (which, in the wrong hands, can be stultifyingly academic and earth-bound). The clarinet has such unique power to transport. My son Joshua, who has recently done is Clarinet Grade 5, recently said that the clarinet was obviously the best instrument to play – and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree (probably because it’s not my instrument!), it does have the ability to lift one out of the everyday and mundane. Of course the danger of dreams is that they are divorced from reality. But at their best, they can help us make sense of life, even make it more liveable.

Lucy’s playing is a wonderful example of this – it expresses so many of life’s emotional realities – and so hers is a disc that I cannot but recommend (even to those who are not classically inclined). Get it either as a download or CD.


Photographic lights and shadows

It’s a bit of an in-joke in my family – but when i visit places, I tend to take more photographs of places than of people. It’s not that I don’t find people interesting. Quite the reverse in fact! It’s more that I often only take photos when I’ve a couple of hours off to wander around on my own with a camera. One of the things that I’m always intrigued by is the contrast between light and shadow – and playing around with the exposure settings to see what happens. Normally am completely hampered by lack of a steady hand and tripod at the right moments, but every now and then things come out ok.

So here are a few from a new Flickr compilation I’ve put together to bring various light and shadow moments together in one place. The first couple are from Lund in Sweden last week. I especially love it when the shadows create strange new shapes or juxtapositions – and so particularly enjoyed the way that the eves of this Swedish building (in the first picture) evoked statues’ heads, a bit like the famous Easter Island heads…


European Shouting Maps – international prejudices galore

Strange Maps has done it again. This is great – maps full of prejudices, stereotypes and cross-cultural offence. But could there not be some truth to some of them!? No smoke without fire etc. Although some are definitely weird…

Check out the others and the fuller explanations.

Below are maps of Europe from: Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 25 (October 2010)

Rather a bumper list this time…

Sacred Treasure

Sacred/Secular (?) Treasure

Meanwhile there’s been a lot of comings and goings on the Sacred/Secular divide in the western world – so here’s a new little sub theme with are one or two extra related links on that front:

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • 100 years ago, the only alternative to Google was this (HT 22 Words) – A cross-section of New York Public Library in 1911


Some spectacular panoramic Dordogne views

I got a bit carried away with my panorama pics this year (made by stitching lots of individual snaps together). Thought I’d post one or two… Click on each image to get the full effect

Here is the view from the wonderful Gardens of Marqueyssac, on a long escarpment overlooking the Dordogne as it meanders past Roque Gageac (on the left) towards Beynac and Castelnaud. A truly heavenly place.

Here is Roque-Gageac itself:

The river flowing through Montignac (the location of a real surprise: an annual Bee festival, during which the whole town gets covered in bizarre oversized flowers made of plastic bags – check it out).

Finally here is the spectacular view from the Chateau de Castelnaud


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 21 (June 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

  • The Web of Debt: amazing infographic from the New York Times:

Quirky Treasure


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 13 (October 2009)

EN72damngoodworkswebSacred Treasure

Quentin Blake Cambridge

Topical Treasure

  • 70 years on from the start of the 2WW – here are some remarkable photos of Normandy then and now.
  • Interesting effect of photo-editing: NYTimes & Cheney in the kitchen.
  • The irrepressible and ingenious Quentin Blake has done a panoramic cartoon history of Cambridge University, in celebration of its 800th anniversary; and it’s now on display at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Click the image and watch the slideshow…

Quirky Treasure

  • This is scary: a map of every McDonalds in the USA:

  • Love this: Inflatable street art from New York (inevitably)

Summer 09: Natural Abstracts Captured

Well, we’re back – and my brain is positively bulging with potential posts. I can sense the excitement you’re feeling from here.

Anyway, before getting onto some more worthy stuff, I’ve been photographically struck by a wide range of natural wonders this summer. And so reproduce a few here for your viewing pleasure.

West Dale Beach, Pembrokeshire

St Didier, Provence

Ancient Caves, Le Thon, Provence

To put this all into perspective, each stalactite takes 100 years to grow just 1 cm.

Norfolk Bonfires

And of course, last but not least…

The U2 gig at Wembley

Ok, not natural as such, but certainly (thanks to Willie Williams incredible light show) lots of abstracts… A breathtaking experience…