Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Fight

We’ve been celebrating this date for 28 years. This cake, which we prepared together last night, is a solid improvement on the soggy ‘Borracho’ I purchased at La Cenicienta in ‘89. I had to walk it uphill to the house in which I was lodging on Chipilapa (now the ITE), and it didn’t arrive in peak condition. 

Waiting in the fridge was a bottle of champagne that I’d had to go all the way to the capital to acquire in a small specialist shop under the Géminis 10 towers. Back then you could not buy champagne in La Antigua for love or money, at least not the authentically Froggy kind with actual grapes involved. It cost me Q125, which sounds cheap enough at today’s rates, but in those days your dollar only bought you just over two quetzales. V was mortified as this was then about half the monthly salary of an office worker. So it’s also the anniversary of our first fight!

Sunday, December 03, 2017


Nietzsche famously said of the French Revolution that it had become thoroughly submerged in its own discourse —  that the underlying ‘text’ had, in effect, become buried beneath all the contemporary critical interpretation.

One of the many unfortunate side effects of the rise of digital media in the past couple of decades is that we appear to have many more French Revolution-type mass chatter-events unfolding around us all the time; the kind where human action is somehow both constrained and amplified by the gabfest.

I seem to recall being straightforwardly opposed to things like BREXIT and the Trump presidency when they first impinged themselves upon my consciousness, yet nowadays have a definite urge to put my fingers in my ears whenever they are mentioned. This, I have to admit, cannot be a good thing.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

What Britain is...

It might be true that there is no longer an agreed narrative, but the one being peddled by this article is neither especially insightful nor that sophisticated.

First off, anyone who can in all seriousness include the phrase 'that other great Anglo-Saxon nation' in an article for the non-gutter press, hardly deserves to see their name in print.

And the disappointment expressed here actually tells you more about America and American attitudes to Britain and its history than it does about the modern UK. (Spare me this nonsense about the once great Royal Navy no longer being able to defend our coast.)

There are indeed a number of systemic sources of instability across the developed world, and if one takes a broader view, the UK is not such an outlier in this respect, no matter how agonising the Brexit bellyache has become.
As in the 30s the trigger for much of the problem was the over-reach of American greed which led to a financial crash with global repercussions - many of these ultimately stemming from longer-term, endemic instabilities in local situations. (e.g. Catalan separatism.)

There is also the matter of partisan intransigency and alternative truths currently being cultivated by social media platforms.

That said, Britain’s reluctance to be a part of closer European political integration has been obvious for all four decades of its involvement with the block. While, at the same time, the need for such integration has been growing more and more acute over the past decade or so.

Brexit was made possible by the sort of mobs and snobs rapprochement that has occurred on several occasions in our history, even though the present one is largely being blamed on the very contemporary phenomenon of globalisation.

This extremely loose 'alliance' of ultra-liberal (in the British sense) and ultra-illiberal (in the American) perspectives has perhaps been our eccentric island's particular contribution to the contemporary kerfuffle, and may be one reason why outsiders are finding it hard to fathom.

The media are not helping by persistent use of only partially relevant metaphors such as 'divorce' and 'club membership'.

No deal would probably be bad for all parties, but as negotiations continue, factions across the spectrum are raising this supposed worst case scenario for markedly different ends. e.g. there are those on the side of the 27 who clearly still suspect that the UK might have its arm twisted to prefer No Brexit to No Deal.

It's not so far fetched and remains, ironically, more likely to happen with May in power than with Corbyn. A leftist Labour Party returning to government as a result of Tory divisions is surely unlikely to risk making more permanent its rift with its traditional base by ignoring the referendum result.

Yet whatever the ideological Brexiteers on the Conservative party's right-wing imagine the risks posed to the 'fabric' of British democracy by such a decision, my suspicion is that the Tories could yet just sever the Gordian Knot and rebuild themselves around a a more coherent position.

The hazards to party and to country might not in the end be as great as many are touting. The fabric of British democracy is parliamentary after all, and the sooner those delusions of more direct decision-making fostered both by social media and unnecessary referendums are put in their place, the better.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Belko Experiment

A seminal study of the actions of a group of left-leaning German cops despatched to Ukraine to take part in the Nazi genocide of its Jewish population revealed something both significant and consistent about human nature: in any reasonably well-defined peer group of ten individuals asked to do something morally repugnant, one will refuse, eight will go along with it, and one will not only go along with it, but instead try to enhance the levels of repugnance as much as possible. This finding has been repeated numerous times in more experimental situations. 

Each of us would like to imagine that in the most telling of circumstances we’d turn out to be the one positive exception, but sadly in my experience of the white collar life, the signs have been that most of us have the potential to be that other one too. The pattern remains unchanged, but the make-up of the individuals corresponding to it can be more flexible. 

In The Belko Experiment the set-up is slightly different: when a group of roughly eighty American office workers is shut inside a Bogotá tower block and encouraged to commence compulsory redundancies in the most brutal of fashions, we find that there is one conscientious objector, one open-minded free-thinker, several stoners, a small group of homicidal maniacs and roughly sixty sheep. Plus one girl who’s just clumsy enough to kill another person by accident given this precise scenario. 

As Robbie Collin pointed out in his 5 Live review, the experimental nature of the methodology is compromised by the fact that the sample all have mini-bombs in their heads which can be exploded as punishment for non-compliance. 

And other than a COO who declares an intention to 'circle back', the designated office perv and the aforementioned spliff-heads, the possibilities for stereotyping are seriously under-explored here. 

Battle Royale for example, might be said to have adequately addressed the various types and tensions that exist in the Japanese education system, satirising to the nth degree the relentless competition therein. 

Here we get a COO stating than he will 'circle back' and someone being clubbed to death with a sellotape holder — the executive equivalent of the staple gun in one of those DIY warehouse melées — but few other nods to the environment and its archetypes. In fact, the people charged with doing the posters seemed to have a bit more fun with the concept. (See below.) 

I was rooting for the open-minded character, especially as she was played by the daughter of the world's most famous Guatemalan, Adria Arjona, but sadly the last hurdle proved tricky for her...though I'd say she met her fate more uncompromised than the eventual 'winner'.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Day I Met El Chapo (2017)

Somewhat coincidentally we've seen a series of movies recently about someone doing something transparently — almost suicidally — dumb and then spending the rest of the running time attempting to survive the consequences. 

There's the aforementioned Jungle and 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain in which Josh Hartnett's character takes a load of class A drugs and then goes snowboarding in the middle of a monster storm. 

Netflix's new three part documentary The Day I Met El Chapo is cut from similar cloth. 

By the end of it Kate del Castillo has played the gender card, the oppressed Mexican citizen card and just about any other card available to her in this quest for 'closure', but viewers are left none the wiser really WTF she actually thought she was going to achieve in meeting Guzmán Loera face-to-face. 

Her friends express their consternation that 'Say-Anne' Penn came equipped with get-out-of-jail letters from Rolling Stone magazine for himself and the other males with him, but not for poor Kate. The trouble is that the previous episode had made it clear that the actress had no idea of Penn's private agenda (an interview) until they were all sitting around the table with the capo and his cronies. If her own intentions had been journalistic, she'd have thought about this, wouldn't she?

Penn clearly concluded that it was already too obvious what a dick he is, so there was no real need for the big Netflix exposé treatment. Without his participation, or that of any of the other men present, this film becomes something of a smokescreen for Del Castillo's already non-transparent decision-making process. A retired DEA-agent called Hector Berrellez (otherwise famed for revealing the role of the CIA in the murder of Kiki Camarena) becomes the loan voice of unqualified censure. 

I warmed to the concluding contribution of producer Epigmenio Ibarra who observed how important it is that this story should be told by Hispanics and not gringos, Kate's version, not the stereotypical Hollywood one, for only that way would all the nuances remain. 

And nuances there are a-plenty. A notable one for me is that Del Castillo seems blissfully unaware just how much she herself is as much an emblem of everything that's cockeyed in Mexican culture as El Chapo himself — the dynastic nature of celebrity, Televisa and its dubious relationship with truth and the consistent casting of hijas de papi from the elite as downtrodden, mixed-race characters from the underclass e.g. La Reina del Sur.

The stand-out character in this tale turned out to be the kingpin's legal counsel Andrés Granados. Now, I am aware of an abogado here in these parts I tend to refer to as the 'Gunboat Lawyer'. 

Not the sort one would retain for everyday tramites, but rather for those slightly more serious litigious niggles where another party is being a bit obstreperous / brincón and could do with the legal equivalent of the Royal Navy showing up just off their shoreline. Like Granados, this man has that ex-cuque, seasoned perpetrator of atrocities aura about him. 

El Chapo's abogado appears arguably scarier in person than his most notorious client. Yet your standard Hollywood mobster-lawyer is usually a bit of a venal slimebag. Consider for example Pablo Escobar's man, Fernando Duque, as portrayed in Narcos

Jungle (2017)

This one belongs to both the not-so-bright thrill-seeker and Amazonian mis-adventure sub-genres.

Far superior examples of the latter being 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent and further back, Werner Herzog’s masterful Fitzcaraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

As for the former category, we saw recently with 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain just how difficult it can be to become fully invested in the survival prospects of an individual that so clearly has himself entirely to blame for his predicament.

I’m also consistently peeved with films supposedly set in South America which have not actually been shot anywhere near their stated locations. (The worst offender of recent times? Snatched.) Jungle for example, was largely filmed in Queensland with a few additional short scenes shot in towns just outside Bogotá i.e. not darkest Bolivia.

The movie opens with the promise of ‘This is a true story’; preferred to the more fingers-crossed-behind-back alternative of ‘Based on true events’. And the thing is that major elements of the story as presented have indeed been fictionalised, or at least carefully, though not always skillfully, distorted.

Radcliffe’s Ghinsberg is depicted as the hapless victim of a scam artist in La Paz, yet according to his Wikipedia bio he was obsessed with Henri Charrière’s Papillon long before arriving in South America and was actively seeking the ‘rainforest immersion experience’.

Still, the film has some poignant moments, mostly courtesy of Joel Jackson as Marcus and in particular of Alex Russell as Kevin. Not Daniel Radcliffe though, whose presence and cod Israeli accent I could generally have done without.

There were some nostalgia-inducing reminders of my own formative rainforest immersion experiences in the late 80s — such as the sense of being in a bit over one’s head and the constant overlay of the actual environment with one’s own fantastical interpretation of it. 

I also recalled that in these sort of expeditions it is very easy to become both manipulated by and manipulative of one's fellow travellers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

American Made

There's definitely a distinctive new genre in Hollywood, 'based on a true story'-type capers featuring loveable all-American rogues who are really not all that loveable, but as played by one of those adorable A-list men, we are given to understand that it is kind of hard to hate on them completely...

First we had Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, then in short order, Di Caprio as Jordan Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells. Now we have Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in American Made. 

These men have their black souls cloaked in black comedy, which distracts us from the glaring absence of a moral compass, both personal and systemic.

In this film all the action is shot in a sort of nostalgic vintage instagram filter, suggesting period authenticity, but also disguising Cruise's puffy and wrinkled features (and thus the 25 or so year age gap with his leading lady.)

Anyway, here's one of the gags that may or may not be meta. Seal voices over a map-based explanation of his double-dealing of the cartels and contras and then admits he's mis-identified Nicaragua. 'No, wait a minute...that's El Salvador'. Except it isn't.

Movie Melancholy

We've watched a pair of flicks lately that immersed us in the movie melancholy of might-have-beens. 

First up, Blood Money, a modern B-movie retelling of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set amidst the forests and 'gnarly' rapids of the State of Georgia. 

This one has an unusual, fairly nasty gender edge to it, that is under-explored, despite some last minute ramping up. 

And only John Cusack seems to sense the potential for dark humour here. The other male characters are weak. Perhaps that's part of the point, but I sense that the makers ducked out of delivering something with real bite. 

Then there's Atomic Blonde, one of those bad movies that contains enough fragments of goodness to set you wondering what a more competent director/screenwriter could have made of such material, not to mention the performance of Charlize Theron. (The presence of James McAvoy however is becoming a token of projects that have gone somewhat awry.) 

The failure to take full advantage of Berlin, a location that is just made for this sort of thing, was especially treasonous.

Misdirected Desire

One of Gregory Norminton's aphorisms goes 'There are few things less desirable than misdirected desire'. 

This is true of both genders I think, but for a host of different reasons it is more likely to be a man doing the misdirecting, at least in modern western society. 

However, the story that is seeping through the cracks of the Weinstein scandal is that of the numerous women who might have elected to sign up for Harvey's Faustian pact, presumably to advance their careers. One of the victims has even been dropping hints on twitter about her fellow actresses. 

Certain individuals take misdirected desire more as opportunity than threat. This is true of both genders, yet for a host of different reasons, I'd offer in this instance that it is more likely to be a woman doing the taking, at least in modern western society.

Both ends of this analysis can of course be explained in part by the prevailing inequalities between the sexes. 

But you have to ask yourself whether the phenomenon itself  and the unevenness I have pinpointed —  would vanish completely if this were removed? 

Personally I think more women would tend to abuse this more even spread of power, just not quite to the same extent that men have done their less even share of it up to now. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anti-semitic bias on the Left

Back in the 80s I’d have to try to talk down some seriously self-righteous European lefty types who’d adopted such an absurdly high and mighty position on the situation in Ulster that they seemed in danger of getting a nosebleed. 

These same individuals tended to have a perspective on Palestine casted from the same mold. (Jeremy Corbyn’s career has taken in both forms of partisan jaundice, and the Labour leader apparently remains committed to the second it would seem.)

No matter that more people were displaced  and indeed brutally murdered  amidst the formation of nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Israel is invariably regarded as ground zero for historic injustice by a certain kind of self-consciously progressive person. 

If one steps back however, taking a broader view of the last century and those moments when new states were formed or borders shifted, the fate of the Palestinians — which fell short of an actual genocide (of which there were many in the period) — is not what one might refer to as an outlier. 

So there is a unmistakeable bias  a disproportionate concern for one set of unfortunate circumstances  that any historian would surely want to explain. 

And in my view it will be hard to provide such an explanation for this without addressing the likelihood of anti-semitic prejudice. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Men Apart

These zealots of self-determination always seem to be possessed of a certain nerdishness veering towards creepiness. 

Farage and Salmond had some of it, but Puigdemont is a true poster boy of the phenomenon. 

And in the past, so too the likes of José Martí and Ho Chi Minh.

Ghandi? Let's not go there...

Social Media, The Enemy Within?

Professor Niall Ferguson is rather obviously working this Spectator article into a promo piece for the conceit of his new book — an age-old historical see-sawing between networks and hierarches, the market and the tower.  

Strictly speaking however this particular modern predicament is more about how the ways people are connected online, knowingly and unknowingly, present a threat to the shared fictions that organise their lives when they believe themselves to be 'offline': e.g a variety of inter-network contention. 

A couple of days ago I wrote a post here about the ostensibly Janus-faced nature of 'Brand USA'. Patriotism, combined with the world's greatest military capability, makes the USA an insuperable power in the external, internationally arena. 

Yet the internal divisions or sections that have always existed within American society mean that internally at least, patriotism acts as a rather shrill voice of social control, papering over the cracks. 

And it has been largely successful up to now. But when the Internet was first developed by the country's finest military minds, few would have imagined that it would provide America's enemies with the almost perfect tool for attacking it on the inside

For this is where the true vulnerabilities in the American edifice lie, where the underlying disconnect between the ideal and the actual really matters and is currently only masked by the flimsiest of credos. These divisions were there long before the arrival of more empowered digital networks. 

This is a nation that is peculiarly tribal at the formative level, as anyone who has watched a High School movie can attest. The Internet only facilitates the extension of this playground mentality into the adult sphere. 

I'd suggest that this is one reason why Americans tend to articulate their most cherished positions in such a shrieky fashion  because they intuitively realise that without such a turbo-boost, few of these ideologies can really cope with the reasoned voice of reality. Radicalisation does not require persecution, unless one finds truth oppressive in itself. 

On a slightly separate note I think Ferguson over-eggs the left-leaning tendency of 'Big Tech', which actually tends to lean libertarian. As a historian he should be well aware that the contemporary American association between liberal ideas and socialist ones is largely factitious as almost none of the monolithic socialist regimes of the twentieth century were liberal in any meaningful sense.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oxymorons in Washington

Most of us who are not-American can intuitively grasp that the USA is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of place. 

Sometimes the doc is in charge, sometimes the plain old mister, but this internal conflict and resulting pattern of periodic political alternation has never really been a permanent put-off. 

For we understand that this nation is rather obviously a hybrid: between Old World and New World conditions and values, not quite a proper First World country like Japan or Germany, nor yet a full-on Third World clusterfuck either. 

In contrast with other notable hybrids — Italy or indeed China, say   to the casual visitor the United States can come across as somewhat neither here nor there, for it lacks the profounder allure of a deeper history. 

It all began rather more recently and oxymoronically as the 'Empire of Liberty', a phrase coined by slave-owning Jefferson, and has continued in much the same vein ever since. 

There are always so many things for outsiders to admire, yet while Americans might think their 'brand' is the ideal, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the manner with which the self-image is often out of step with the actual has always been very much part of the package.  

And this, somewhat counter-intuitively, makes global brand USA relatively immune to the sort of permanent trashing one could imagine it might now be receiving at the hands of the moron in the White House. (Even though it has to be noted that the paired down ideal, as currently expressed by the GOP in particular, is becoming less and less uplifting in the international arena.) 

However, extend what you mean by 'other people' to your internal audience - non-white people for instance  and therein you do have a bit of a problem, for Brand USA is much less able to cope with flagrant off-message hypocrisy when it comes to its own citizens, which is why it imposes the signs, symbols and platitudes of patriotism so rigorously at home. 

Kneeling NFL players do seem have found just the right contemporary spot in this old wound to insert and wriggle the finger. Nevertheless their protest is a mild one compared to some of the stuff witnessed in ante-bellum America: such as the public burning of the Constitution (a 'covenant with death') on July 4 by William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. 

One has to wonder what Vice President Pence would have made of THAT. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

De-centralisation, aka Anarchy

Post-2008 populist insurgencies have been piggy-backing onto a pre-existing bent in European politics: separatist, anti-establishment sentiment along with the compulsion to push back against globalisation by re-isolating.

In recent times the referendum in Scotland and then in the wider UK when the Conservatives offered a plebiscite over EU membership, the turbo-charging effect of populism has been clear - especially as this form of decision making appears both more popular and more democratic than it actually is.

But England and Scotland were both fully-formed nation states at the start of the modern era. Spain was always going to present a thornier set of problems to an established order confronted by devolving and decentralising tendencies.

This nation has always been more of an amalgamation: of kingdoms, of cultures, of peoples, of languages and dialects, of antiquated legitimacies. Even the modern monarchy sits on a mesh of mutually-reinforcing regional tiles, each with its own form of sovereignty.

The Inquisition and, more recently, the Franco dictatorship provide testimony to just how hard 'conservatives' have had to work to contain Spain's inner contradictions.

Mariano Rajoy was only (barely) able to form a government in Madrid after a second popular consultation. In the form of Podemos the populists are undermining the old status quo from within as well.

I guess I've found Rajoy unpalatable as a politician ever since his abortive attempt to pin the blame for the 2004 atrocities on the Basques - which cost him the premiership and condemned him to looking surly for seven years. In his own mind he is probably a Lincoln-like figure, standing up for the union and the rule of constitutional law, perhaps comforting himself that Abe used a lot more than boots, batons and pepper spray on the secessionist scumbags. If he wins, he might be reckoning, history will give him the same sort of uncomplicated thumbs up, while the would-be breakaways will be remembered as traitors.

For now other EU leaders will support his take on the letter of the Spanish constitution  that sovereignty belong to all — because it rather obviously suits them. But with any further escalation, who knows?

It strikes me that the genre of science fiction reveals that many liberal westerners tend to imagine our collective political future as one of ever larger structures, one of federations, if not empires. For deep down we surely recognise that nationalism is a rather base instinct, and thus anticipate that it will eventually be dissipated by the sort of diversity we witness on the bridge of the starship Enterprise — with only the Klingons literally clinging on to the urges embodied by the likes of Nigel Farage.

Yet let us not forget that Catalunya was the wellspring of the anarchist disposition on the Iberian peninsula prior to the Civil War, and thus one should remember that the alternative utopian path to one big happy human family has always been one of radical de-centralisation.

(A snap I took in Euskadi, 2004)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Vietnam War (Part 1)

Some initial reflections on the introductory episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary. 

I suppose few nations are truly adept at looking at themselves in the mirror, but the USA does seem especially bad at it. 

Last month I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which has an entire building devoted to explaining the course of the war in the Pacific, but the section covering the detonation of two atomic weapons over major urban areas is so tiny as to be completely miss-able.

Having watched just this opener, it does immediately strike to me that the USA is still not ready, culturally, for a no-punches-pulled interpretation of this conflict. The origins bit at least.

Many of the facts here were new to me, and interesting, but the underlying tone of much of the analysis rankled. It was essentially apologetic, at times seemingly determined to deflect as much of the blame from the US as an intelligent audience might bear.

So, we witnessed some archetypally arrogant and perfidious Froggy behaviour (followed by the inevitable capitulation), as well as that of duplicitous native political actors that the Americans ‘didn’t understand’

The French and Japanese presence was put down to a naked compulsion to exploit, whereas the Yanks apparently just wanted to protect freedom and stem the red tide - yet were slowly drawn into conflict against their better, anti-colonial, instincts.

Crucially, we are expected to believe that Eisenhower and his CIA underlings in Indochina were at their most ingenuous in 1954-5, precisely the moment Guatemalans were learning just how cynical and ruthless they could be.

This ‘all men are created equal’ business is the foundational doublethink at the heart of the American project and has led to some extraordinary bouts of hypocrisy over two and a half centuries or so. The irony that it is something Americans broadly share with the French is apparently lost on these film-makers. 

It permits its users an enhanced perception of the failings of others vis-a-vis such a precept, whilst making them almost oblivious to their own.

Before watching episode two I think I shall need to have another go at The Quiet American...

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Plot and Perspective

If I were young again and heading to Film School I think I’d like to write a dissertation on the difference between narrative and camera perspective and why some directors seem a bit oblivious to it. 

Certainly one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, set in 18th century New York. For most of the text I was thinking how long it would take for the story to be adapted for TV or even the big screen; there are plenty of very ‘cinematic’ moments in the drama. But then at the end Spufford delivers something of an apple-cart upsetting reveal, a well-disguised transformation of narrative perspective that ought to make the reader immediately re-consider everything that has occurred before if not actually start to re-read the whole novel from scratch. 

This is one of those ruses of intelligent literature that should, by rights, make this one of those unfilmable books, yet somehow I still think the temptation to tell this tale anyway (and with lavish costumes) will remain. 

Narrative perspective is often crucial to other aspects of a story, such as plot. 

What a lot of otherwise talented directors don’t quite seem to appreciate is that swapping a first or even third person narrative for the apparently more objective showing rather than telling of the camera’s-eye-view can render an effective plot somehow less so. 

Case in point an otherwise excellent Argentinian film we watched this week - El Otro Hermano - based on Carlos Busqued’s novel Bajo Éste Sol Tremendo. The performances, the grotty rural mise-en-scène ...all top notch. But about 80% of the way in the conclusion turned into one of those utterly predictable yet not completely necessary third acts that writers should try to avoid. 

Now, I’ve not read the novel, but I strongly suspect that the narrative perspective was more firmly cinched to Cetarti, the outsider in this contemptible environment. 

The film however established right from the first moment a sense of symmetry between the goings on around Cetarti and those around local would-be capo Duarte. As the last few minutes approached at least one more interesting and appropriate way of concluding the story was suggested to us. 

Now I have to read the bloody book - if only out of curiosity about how the author managed to marry plot and perspective. 

Revolutions in disguise

For me a ‘revolution’ can be said to have occurred when one group or class hijacks the state along with all its usual mechanisms for mediating between competing interests within that society. In this sense the accession of Trump is as much as revolution in the US as that of Chavez was in Venezuela, even Castro in Cuba. What it suppose it currently lacks is the clear sense that either he or those behind him will openly attempt to make more permanent this direct corporate power grab at the expense of America’s traditional political intermediaries. But it is clear that last November the choice was qualitatively different to the usual formulation at an American general election: a vote for the Donald was not really a straightforward vote against Hilary or even Barack, and it was hardly an endorsement of the GOP. If the citizens of the USA are not too careful they may end up stuck with the consequences of this 'revolution' in disguise for longer than their constitution normally allows. The groundwork for this was rather transparently laid by suggesting to the less sophisticated parts of the electorate that 'liberals' had been slowly effecting an unconstitutional revolution of their own.

A Tale of Two Cyclones

Harvey. This one was being widely reported in Mexican and Central American media from August 18, but the US was simply too distracted by falling statues and resurgent Neo-Nazis and was in effect caught completely unawares. When I left Houston on the 24th I had mentioned the incoming storm to several locals who seemed neither to know or care that much about it. 

Irma. Almost from the moment this one started to swirl in the mid-Atlantic the story was all about the threat it would ultimately pose to Florida - even as it laid waste to several small islands in the Caribbean and then the biggest one. The victims out there in the archipelago face a lose-lose situation in terms of the news cycle now. If the sunshine state does succumb to Irmageddon, this news will dominate for days unless the Donald sets off Armageddon proper. And if the story turns out to be a massive collective ‘phew’ in the southern states, this will have much the same effect, leaving the daminificados of Barbuda etc. largely forgotten. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

'What the fuck just happened here?'

I had a series of affectingly positive experiences on my recent trip to the American south. I have reflected however that if I were to try to somehow visualise them graphically, they’d all turn up disconcertingly proximate on the spectrum to some of my more negative experiences. As I think David Lynch has been at pains to suggest in his now-concluded Twin Peaks revival, there is a marked Jekyll and Hyde quality to many aspects of ‘Americana’. 

In the past I have tended to divide the places I have visited into those that are merely ‘interesting’ and those that can somehow be elevated into the premium category of 'deeply or even disturbingly interesting', to which nations such as Russia (the USSSR when I was present), Japan and Mexico belong in my notes. 

I’d add the USA, but as Lynch has demonstrated time and again, ‘interesting’ is far from being the most applicable adjective for an experience that more than occasionally teeters on the dreamlike, hangs the hyper on reality and which seems both so self-contained and yet at once full of worm-holes. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Dummy's Guide

A handy guide to many-sided conflicts for the likes of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. 
When should one check oneself before suggesting that both sides in a ruckus are equally violent and generally looking for trouble? 
a) When one side is a bunch of Nazis
b) When one side is the state and has an army and has just flushed the constitution down the toilet.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Freeing ourselves from Freedumb...

There really is no 'free' thing that is an endless good in itself.

To some extent the West is constantly struggling these days to free itself from the strident American misconception of freedom, free markets etc. Put simply this is the notion that the application of freedom to anything improves it and any negative consequences are somehow being imagined by people with jaundiced mentalities.

In the English tradition we get our base conception of freedom from Thomas Hobbes. And as Quentin Skinner puts it: 'The desperate paradox on which Hobbes’s political theory is grounded is that the greatest enemy of human nature is human nature itself'.

Hobbes got it. Freedom is in our nature, he insisted - our birthright - but it comes with negative consequences as well as positive ones.

The trouble is that in making this point Hobbes famously emphasised a worst case scenario: the nasty, brutish and short lifestyle that results from everyone exercising their right to freedom at the same time.

In practice it is more of a slow-burn or layered kind of apocalypse that tends to occur. We get many good things from the Internet, open borders, free markets, the Uber economy and so on. In many cases the good far outweighs the bad, depending in part on one's historical perspective.

Whilst this is undeniable, so too is the fact that freedom amplifies good and evil at the same time. And some of those amplified evils manifest themselves as NEW evils and thus have a transformative effect that belies their minority status in the whole package.

Viz Douglas Murray today on the issues posed by 'free' migration into Southern Europe...

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

British Ancestry and Diversity

This over-heated debate about diversity in Roman Britain is skirting around one of the more interesting aspects of the nation's genetic heritage.

If Romans of African descent have left almost no trace in the British gene pool, Mary Beard is quite right to point out that neither have the Normans. (Or for that matter, any other kind of Romans.)

But more to the point, there is a notable (and for many, surprising) dearth of Anglo-Saxon ancestry in the English gene pool as well.

DNA studies tend to reveal that most 'native' Britons can trace their ancestors back in an unbroken line to the people that occupied the island long before the Romans even turned up, and that is this component of their DNA that tends to predominate. 

This should not be all that surprising. After the ice age Britain was effectively an empty space that was suddenly repopulated both by people coming up the Atlantic coast from the Iberian peninsula and people crossing the North Sea from what is now Germany and Scandinavia. (My own paternal ancestors belonged to the former group, according to an analysis I had done a decade ago.) 

Everyone who came later, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans etc etc. represented little more than a top-up. 

Though from the political perspective the locals experienced this more as a top-down phenomenon!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Corbyn condemns 'all violence' in Venezuela...

Oh snore. 

Back in the 80s when many different Latin American countries were enduring US-supported tyrannies, a public condemnation of 'all the violence' was shorthand for downplaying the oppressive conduct of the state, as well as an attempt to establish moral equivalence between the authorities and their armed forces and anyone brave enough to stand-up to them with anything other than a placard. 

In other words, casuistry Jeremy, pure and simple. 

Ex-pat or Migrant?

That old controversy about the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant resurfaced on the newly re-branded Ex-Pats Living in Guatemala page yesterday (now redacted).

The literature on this one is quite extensive and politically gnarly. In the UK we have non-doms as well, just to add to all the fun.

But in Guatemala, although these categories are necessarily fluid, I think it is clear that in the main an ex-pat is someone who is...

A) Wanted by the FBI, or..
B) On a 90-day tourist visa either working illegally or running a small business 'bajo agua', as they say here. 

On a somewhat separate note, I recently crossed the border between Corozal and Chetumal and the process at Mexican customs was so utterly interminable that one Belizean wag was heard to quip 'We're not here to ask for asylum you know man!' 

A typical Q&A session...

...on the Facebook page formerly known as 'Guatemala Ex-pats'..
Q: Has anyone used Uber to get to the airport?
A1: Well, I once got an Uber in Kuala Lumpur and it was fine...
A2: No, but that sure is an interesting question.

A3: What's an Uber?


There's a choice of scrambled eggs or strawberry cheesecake for breakfast. I deliberate.

According to seventeenth century English thinker Thomas Hobbes, that's exactly what I am doing: de-liberating.

For in Hobbes's view we are only truly free at the moment of choice, not in the making of it. 

As Keanu Reeves said in a recent BBC interview, 'It's quantum baby'.

This take on freedom mingles well with my own notion that one should try to juggle one's worldviews. In other words, as far as possible, one's political cats should remain both dead and alive, for that is the only way that they are also going to be free.

So, while one might think that taking up a firm and radical position out on the ideological fringe makes one look handily both conspicuous and coherent  to follow the analogy  instead the tendency is to de-cohere.

Sunday, August 06, 2017



This operation is freely available on the streets of Guatemala...

15 minutes from Antigua...

By hang glider?

One has to wonder just how above board it can be to flog off parcels of land three quarters of the way up the volcano for almost $200,000. 

These are 40 little eco-cabins we'd rather not be looking up at. 

Let's hope that 'off the grid' doesn't actually mean lack of proper planning oversight. 

Greetings, my German friends...

When I first came to Guatemala in the late 80s there was a local man of my acquaintance who was wont to greet any German national he encountered with a well-practiced yet amiable Nazi salute, often adding an ardent 'Heil Hitler' for good measure. Whilst he reported being a little disappointed with some of the responses he received ('maleducados'), there were still quite a few Teutons around town back then who might be said to have had more than a passing familiarity with this gesture...and must have had to consciously restrain themselves from responding in kind!

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Wrong Battlefield?

Back in November I was given some brief exposure to the gameplay of Battlefield 1 by a friend in London. 

Now it would be fair to say that I've been finding computer games less and less engaging as I grow older, but there was a lot more to this experience than incurious indifference. 

Back in the day I dabbled with other murderous first person scenarios which were surely conceived in at least as much poor taste (Carmageddon, Wolfenstein etc.), but given a couple of days reflection I realised that I have never felt as profoundly offended by any game as I was by this one. 

This might be a very subjective response by a lapsed historian like myself, but I suspect there are some more objective cultural triggers behind this which are worth exploring. 

The Second World War has become our primary meta-narrative of warring worldviews, the ultimate triumph of good vs evil, life over the cult of death etc.  As such, it kind of lends itself to gameplay. 

The Great War on the other hand has a very different place in our collective imagination. As we roll through the various centenaries we Brits have commemorated the conflict with a bloody moat of poppies around the Tower of London and, just recently, a melting soldier of mud in Trafalgar Square.

It has become the modern western world’s Memento Mori, a politically acceptable cult of death. Which is why I think re-spawning avatars a la Doom seem somehow especially inappropriate. 

The western front is not just any battlefield, it’s where something in our civilisation died and as with any death of personal significance, it marks a painfully irretrievable loss. 

A similar if more subdued form of vexation took hold of me during the recent and otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman movie. 

I gather the comics were set originally in WWII, but the decision was taken to place the emergence of Diana's somewhat aggressive brand of pacifism during the earlier conflagration. Along the way the First World War was given a bit of a makeover such that it took on many of the characteristics of the next one. 

This piece of chicanery was only just legitimised by the proposition of the movie's basic mythology that the warlike Amazons are somehow against all war, and it is certainly true that the no-nonsense pacifist position encounters less resistance from WWI than it does from WWII. 

Anyway, unlike many people in modern discourse, I do understand the important difference between being offended myself and believing that everyone should be offended. 

Press 1 for English?

Dear new, possibly soon-to-be-old, fuckface at the White House podium, 

Before accusing the cosmopolitan-biased Mr Acosta of Fake News Inc. of ignorance, consider the following not-so-stupid questions. 

What proportion of the names of US states derive from the English language?

What proportion of the territory of the United States was until fairly recently part of Mexico? And in the broader sense, what portion of the continent of North America has in general strong historical ties to a non-anglophone cultural tradition? 

As Felipe Fernández-Armesto said in Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

‘Citizens of the United States have always learned the history of their country as if it unfolded exclusively from east to west. In consequence, most of them think their past has created a community essentially—even necessarily—anglophone, with a culture heavily indebted to the heritage of radical Protestantism and English laws and values...even well-educated, amiable, open-minded people in the United States do not realize that their country has a Hispanic past, as well as a Hispanic future—or, at least, that if people do realize this fact, they commonly assign it no contemporary relevance or cultural significance.’ 

An immigration policy which makes speaking English a requirement for work permits isn’t racist per se so much as genuinely fascist, in as much as the last century’s biggest fan of linguistic discrimination was one Francisco Franco. 

Just imagine that the UK refused a work permit to a Patagonian Welsh-speaker that wanted to come and work in Cardiff but only spoke Welsh fluently. Just how ignorant would that be?