Sunday, June 16, 2019

High Life (2018)

A first English language feature from Claire Denis, and yet oh so very French. 

As French as chugging along a motorway at 60mph in a 2CV sitting next to someone chain-smoking Gauloises with the windows shut. And for maybe the first 30 minutes or so, about as pleasant.

We both agreed that this was a strong candidate for most annoying film of the year. And gave up.

It was failing to do the basic job of any movie set in space: convince viewers that it is actually set in space. It’s as if Denis went out of her way to show that this was the least of her concerns.

And yet, I kept it on my iPad and during a recent trip to San José, forced myself to see it through. That Portillo Malbec helped.

It isn’t completely redeemed by its second half, but those lingering genital close-ups of a baby girl (such a ferk you to the mainstream sci-fi audience) are supplanted by a growing then diminishing cast of characters capped off with the de-rigueur ambiguous conclusion.

It contains this handy piece of advice...

“Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hollow Crowns

Pay attention to any of our contemporary political commentators for long enough and they will eventually start ruing the divided state of the nation before expressing a desire for some sort of curative coming together, which they will probably add, is the more natural state of affairs. (Even some of the Tory leadership candidates are not entirely averse to this.) And it is, to a large extent, nonsense. Any serious look at our history reveals that division is the more natural and probably more productive state. There are nearly always at least two available camps to sit in. In the fifteenth century for example, the English were split along dynastic lines, York and Lancaster. The following century saw this conflict morph rather suddenly into an argument over faith, which in turn, one hundred years later, segued into a dispute between King and Parliament. Thesis, antithesis, Synthesis. Hegel called this dialectic. Yet what we see is that the terms shift, so that synthesis remains perpetually elusive - an interminable teleology in which those who speak of achieving a final end to the prevailing controversy and its unpleasant consequences should of necessity be treated with scorn. (The young Henry VIII rather amusingly imagined that his accession marked a sort of ‘end of history’ moment.) So, Brexit appears to be firmly in this tradition, and yet it reveals an interesting truth about the pattern. Not all theses and antitheses are of equal weight. It’s not hard to see for example that from an intellectual perspective the argument between Monarch and Parliament was more meaningful than the fracas between the red and white roses. And so now, we can examine the current reconfiguration of our political animus and conclude that the great confrontation of the last century, between Left and Right, between liberal and totalitarian systems, which some imagined would resolve rather conveniently into a worldwide Scandinavian-style social democratic group hug, has instead kicked off anew into a national schism over the EU. And it is SO empty. One only has to listen for the briefest of moments to the extreme ideologues of Leave or Remain to comprehend the void at the heart of this altercation, how lacking in genuine intellectual content it therefore tends to be. Most of them end up trying to spice things up by shamelessly borrowing the terminology from last century’s polarities:‘Nazi!’ In the first part of the twentieth century I do believe it really mattered to which side one was adopted. In the Spanish Civil War for example, we didn’t see an absolute confrontation between right and wrong, but the choices made were meaningful and had real ethical underpinnings. So it was in the Reformation and then in the English Revolution. Brexit, in comparison, invites its protagonists to adopt positions that are obviously hollow from the outset and from almost any perspective.

No, not for me...

It occurred to me today that there are certain establishments in this part of the world that I have in effect chosen to avoid after seeing their Instagram feeds. I won't name them. One was the sort of place I might otherwise have been expected to try out, but one look at their pictorial posts and it's like 'no, not for me'.

This might seem a bit churlish of me, but I have been exposed to the Ogilvy school of brand communication in which advertising and marketing are not primarily about the generation of sales but rather the generation of meanings - meanings that end up as an integral part of the product that is consumed. 

And bad meanings leave an aftertaste, or actually in this case an ante-taste: the sort you can almost detect before the victual itself.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Us (2019)

Every bit as funny and sucker-punch disturbing as Jordan Peele's first feature Get Out, with the added bonus of an absolutely stunning performance from Mexican-born Lupita Nyong'o.

There are some rather obvious flaws (literally) in its subterranean subtextual underpinnings. An uncompromising (twisted) European arthouse director of the Haneke or von Trier sort, might have done something more with that, but Peele has the pop cultural creds for a more mainstream hit.

And for a film which, unlike the previous one, has no direct references to the matter of race (other than the fact that leaving a key hidden beneath a rock beside the front door is 'white shit'), there is hardly anything in this movie that is NOT about race. That's something masterful.

And at the risk of releasing a tiny spoiler, the ending struck me as an invitation to reflect on the of complications of mestizaje.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Picking a favourite beach...

Which is the best beach in Central America? 

This used to be a no-brainer. The twenty or so kilometres of wind-swept, white sand south of the ruins at Tulum had no parallel in the region. 

When I first went there there was no town to speak of, no hotels either, just a handful of cabañas and under-palm hammocks. Yet this was arguably not the very best moment to visit the location, which I think occurred later in the late nineties and early noughties: the period when the ‘Mayan Riviera’ briefly deserved its sobriquet. 

There was one very special spot on this stretch called Las Ranitas, that was for me an unparalleled and irreplaceable vision of paradise, now lost, for the property was sold and comprehensively ruined by its crass new owners. Meanwhile, the whole beach has been diminished by concrete constructions, sargassum in-flows and an all-too-prevalent faux-Asian, chichi, yoga-retreat vibe. 

These days I’d rather spend my time at Mahahual, at least when the cruise ship dock is empty. It has the advantage of forming a handy double-bill with Bacalar, which features beaches of sorts, plus crystalline waters the likes of which have vanished from the rest of the Yucatán. 

One can also partake of a somewhat poor facsimile of the 'primordial' peninsula by heading across to the Gulf side. The seafood at least, is truly wonderful. 

Further south there’s Belize’s Placencia, a place I also knew in the 80s, but which today serves up less of a distracting sense of personal loss than Tulum. The beach itself is not in the same league, but provides access to some scrumptious coral atols, such as Lauging Bird Caye. 

Then there's Hopkins. A rather narrow stretch of beach, upon which sandflies swarm - a disappointing state of affairs defrayed to some extent by the local Garifuna cuisine. 

Certainly deserving of a mention are the Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica’s Limón province. Like so many other sandy spots, Cahuita is not what it was a decade or so ago, but the ruination of the bay itself has been tempered by being wholly contained within a national park, with gorgeous tropical almond trees (occasionally packed with screaming capuchins) marking the boundary between sand and forest.  

Further south Puerto Viejo’s beaches probably hold greater appeal for surfers, but around twenty minutes drive south of the town, one comes across the delightful Punta Uva, which might now provide the answer to the original question above. 

The Pacific side of the Isthmus? Let's not go there...

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

My 10 Best Excursion Experiences in Central America

Over nearly four decades in Central America I've amassed a sizeable quantity of (excursion) experiences, mainly very positive. This would be my list of the top ten on the plus side, in no particular order. Items marked with an asterisk are sadly no longer possible (usually). Visit to Lamanai, Belize Sitting atop Temple I, Tikal* Lounging on beach beside the Castillo at the ruins of Tulum* Boat trip along the Sumidero canyon Swimming at Semuc Champey Snorkelling at Laughing Bird Caye, Belize Descending to tomb of Pacal, inside Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque* Swimming in cenote at Telchaquillo near Mayapán Visiting church of San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula A dip at the Blue Hole, Belize (The inland one!) There have been a couple of negatives which were also kind of thrilling, like being briefly held at gunpoint by adolescent guerrillas with AKs in the Petén* in '88 and my first visit to San Salvador a year later when everyone was shooting each other.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Game of Thrones?

The Battle of Towton, with 28,000 reported deaths, was the bloodiest battle ever on British soil. Yet I'd wager that only a tiny minority of Britons have heard of it or could place it in context. 

It took place on Palm Sunday 1461, in a shallow Yorkshire valley during a fierce blizzard and it lasted ten hours. The local rivers and marshlands were said to have run red with blood for days afterwards. 

The end result was a new government. 

It was perhaps the most pivotal as well as the most brutal moment of the conflict that has come to be known as the Wars of the Roses. In recent years this lenghthy squabble between rival family factions for the English throne has been repeatedly cited as an inspiration for Game of Thrones, yet (dragons aside) there's a whole book to be written on the subtle yet significant differences between them.

I remember when I first tried to explain the Wars of the Roses to V and her take-out was that it was seemed a bit like a family Christmas row turned epic...and so essentially rather silly. Another valid comparison might be with a fight to the last man between rival drug cartels, somewhere between turf war and nihilistic death-match. 

Yet neither of these analogies quite captures the circumstances behind this particular encounter where two vast hosts - two complete, alternative versions of the English state and its power-structures - met with the intention of utterly annihilating the other. 

Before Towton, the conflict had involved a series of skirmishes, ambushes and a couple of urban rampages around St Albans. The stakes had been gradually mounting. This was like a chess match where the board itself is the most prominent maker of moves and taker of pieces. 

How had the country reached this point of mutual extermination? In Game of Thrones the whole shit show kicks off when the Hand of Robert Baratheon dies. An assassination, but one that is mis-attributed by the powerful figures around the Iron Throne. 

In 1422, the most illustrious English monarch Henry V passed away from dysentery. The initial problem posed by this unscheduled exit appeared to be that his son Henry VI was an infant. It soon became clear however that Henry was not actually capable of carrying out the functions of head of state. 

Being the King of England in the later middle ages was a very hands-on role grounded in a complex and varied skill-set. Most sitting monarchs had been trained into the job from a young age. For just occupying the throne with an evil smirk like Cersei (or the Oval Office like Donald, for that matter) was not going to cut it. The king had to be knowledgeable, competent and involved at all levels or things could start to unravel very quickly. 

So, the Wars of the Roses didn't originate essentially as a dynastic spat. They developed more slowly out of the realisation that the king was a void at the centre of the nation. Not so much a dead king as a dead man walking. In fact, during a crucial phase of his reign Henry was utterly prostate. 

The powerful figures around this vacuum tried a lot of different systems for overcoming the problem. When Henry was still a minor, they ruled through a council in his name. Unexpected, non-violent deaths in the family reduced the effectiveness of this approach over time. Then one powerful individual - Suffolk - tried to rule alone through Henry, but despite the domestic policies of this government, the backdrop to which was a catastrophic series of defeats in France leading to unprecedented disorder mid-century back home. Royal finances were also tipping into a disastrous state. 

Unlike the conflict portrayed in GOT, the role of urban society - London in particular - combined with popular revolts out in the provinces, proved crucial to the escalation of aristocratic strife. Suffolk was offed at sea by a group of civvies and the country lapsed into deeper chaos.  

Parliament would be a key player in all this. The Earl of Warwick is often referred to as the Kingmaker, but it was these fellows in Westminster that perhaps made a greater difference, a bottom-up impetus to regime change that contrasts sharply with the top-down feud driven largely by unfettered elite ambition which we habitually see on the HBO series. The plebs were a bit more than dragon fodder. 

Thus, when the Duke of York, Henry's Plantagenet cousin, returned from a foreign posting, he came with a plan to re-establish the established order as a sort of Protector of the Realm with civic society behind him, but his motives raised suspicions in the King's close circle, and he soon made an enemy in Henry's somewhat troublesome French wife Margaret. 

The breakdown in order had seen leading families like the Nevilles and the Percys slugging it out in the North. York was more closely allied with the Nevilles, but did genuinely try to restore a semblance of peace up there. (Though for some reason the best mate of the first Edmund Blackadder is called Percy!) 

In the end the hostility of Queen Margaret resulted in open, armed confrontation and a ‘nationalisation’ of these more localised family conflicts. The Nevilles were a key part of the Yorkist faction, the Percys were aligned behind the Lancastrians. 

At some point York decided that the best thing to do would be for him to stake his own claim to the throne. Henry and Margaret had produced an heir, but this was yet another untutored, un-trusted child, and at that moment the country needed nothing else than a strong and capable grown-up on the throne.  

York saw himself as the only available candidate, but critically, this view was not universal and he lacked the comprehensive support that would have made his golpe viable. (Venezuelans please note.) 

Then at Wakefield he was caught unawares by a sneaky Lancastrian expeditionary force and ended up with his severed head on display above Mickelgate Bar in the city of York. 

Towton presented a clear opportunity for revenge to his second son Edward, the Earl of March, and his victory in this version of 'Medieval Total War' would signal the end for hapless Henry, famed now only for establishing Eton College and its 'finishing school' King's in Cambridge. (Margaret herself did Queen's.) 

It would have marked the end of the fundamental conflict and preserved the Plantagenet dynasty as well, had Edward not been such a cojelón and debauched himself to any early death - a state of affairs which would allow his brother to usurp the throne and murder his kids in the Tower. 

Henry being Henry, he was not present at Towton. Edward was, and made a decisive intervention when one of his army's flanks was being harried by Lancastrian cavalry. 

At the outset the incumbent's generals appeared to have chosen the ground well, but the weather was beyond their control. And so, when the snow started to fall at dawn the Yorkist longbowmen discovered that the wind was behind them, gifting them an advantage of range and the white blanket of the ensuing blizzard permitted them to advance undetected and to launch salvo after salvo of arrows, which decimated the Lancastrian lines, leaving them no choice but to pile forward into a general melée. 

No genteel chivalric joust this. No prisoners was the order on both sides. As the two armies hacked into each other, they slowly swivelled 90 degrees and eventually the Lancastrians found themselves less favourably situated, their retreat blocked by wetlands on one side, a steep muddy hill on the other, plus a bridge they themselves had demolished prior to the battle. 

The rout, once it commenced, became both a natural disaster and a massacre, with those that weren't cut to pieces, drowning in the marshes. This documentary details some fascinating findings from a mass grave that was detected a mile or so from the battlefield in the 1990s. 

One of the reasons we tend to see the Wars of the Roses in terms of fateful aristocratic intrigue is that is how the Tudors, Welsh upstarts who were their eventual beneficiaries, wanted us to see them. 

The roses themselves were largely a Tudor concoction, for although the House of York did use a white rose amongst its emblems, the red rose was not especially important to the House of Lancaster. The 'Tudor Rose', a fusion of the red and the white, nevertheless became an important visual communication device for the new dynasty whose legitimacy was squishy. 

Today it sits prominently on the badge of the England football team, alongside the three lions of the displaced Plantagenets. Meanwhile our rugby team sports a red rose, ironically then, something of a Welsh contrivance. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Chapinoso V2.0

EUUUUGH, this alternative version of the Guatemalan Buddy Bear really is a mamaracho.

It's as if I had decided to decorate the British oso with kitschy images of Stonehenge, robins, Big Ben and Morris dancers.


Sunday, May 05, 2019


Which, as every good chileno knows, means street, more than a hint of la cocina cobanera in the name. 

(Just how many chapines of the fufu persuasion would indulge themselves uninhibitedly inside a restaurant called 'Chucho'?!)

This is the latest risible addition to Antigua's increasingly burlesque dining scene. 
Spot the ribs. Maybe the leaf is there to prevent diners probing whether the costillas actually once belonged to an unfortunate quiltro.
Looks like they went to Cemuco and bought some nice bowls, but forgot to invest in a chef.

Roads most Lawless

As a veteran of visits to over 50 countries, I have consistently listed Russia, Japan and Mexico as the three most deeply satisfying of this private collection. Yet all three also have their flaws, some of which also run pretty deep. 

As Graham Greene put it: "History in Mexico has to be very ancient before you feel safe from its influence."

One of the great pleasures of reading Greene's The Lawless Roads, the thoroughly ill-tempered account of his trip to Mexico in 1937, is the dawning realisation that this sort of travelogue could never find a publisher today. 

Now, I love Mexico, yet recognise that  a certain amount of controlled xenophobia is as much a part of the travel experience as is watching the World Cup every four years. 

Contemporary travellers appear obliged to be nice about the places they visit. And along the way show themselves in the best possible light as well. Selfie, selfie, selfie. Graham Greene did neither of these things. 

It would be fair to say that the dislike he developed for this destination quickly became mutual. I laughed out loud at his account of his recollection of how he would sit alone in the Parque Central at San Cristóbal de las Casas as passers-by took turns to strafe him with insults. “It was like being the one unpopular boy at school.” 

Even the wildlife seemed out to get him. His account of a mule trip (with dysentery) to Palenque - by which of course he was thoroughly unimpressed  - is hilarious. 

It is also worth remembering that the end result of all this discomfort was a masterpiece: The Power and the Glory. 

Herewith some of the choicest sound-bites from this book...

“Some emanation from the evil Aztec soil seems suddenly to seize the brain like drunkenness, then the pistol comes out.”

“The appalling strangeness of a land which should have been over the world’s edge.”

“All the monuments in Mexico are to violent deaths.”

“Hideous peasant pottery in the shops.”

“And seventy per cent of these people are real savages, quite as much as they were three hundred years ago. The Spanish-Mexican population just rots on top of the black savage mass.”

“I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate...cynicism, a distrust of men’s motives, is the accepted ideology.”

“How one begins to hate these people – the intense slowness of that monolithic black-clothed old woman with the grey straggly hair – removing a tick–blowing her nose – trying to put up a blind or open a lemonade bottle, mooing with her mouth wide, fixing her eyes on people meaninglessly for minutes at a time, slowly revolving her black bulk all of a piece like a mule. And that middle-class child in the black velvet shorts, the striped jersey, and the bright-coloured jockey cap. The hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes. People never seem to help each other in small ways, removing a parcel from a seat, making room with their legs. They just sit about. If Spain is like this, I can understand the temptation to massacre.”

“One did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country."

"There was nothing in this country so beautiful as an English village.”

“There was nothing to do all day but drink warm expensive beer in the only cantina.”

“A land where you grow weary of black and oily hair and brown sentimental eyes.”

“It is true what their admirers write of the Mexicans, that they are always cheerful whatever their circumstances; but there is something horribly immature in their cheeriness: no sense of human responsibility; it is all one with the pistol-shot violence.”

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie–the embrace, the spar, the joke – with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and treachery of their life."

On the capital: "The shops full of tourist junk, silver filigree and gourds and rugs and dead fleas dressed up as little people inside walnuts, all the fake smartness and gaiety, El Retiro and the Cucaracha Bar and the Palace of Art, the Avenida Juárez smelling of sweets, and all the hidden hate."

On the Cops: “The dirty whitewashed walls, the greasy hammocks, and the animal faces of the men – it wasn’t like law and order so much as banditry.”

On Mexican food: “It is all a hideous red and yellow, green and brown, like art needlework and the sort of cushions popular among decayed gentlewomen in Cotswold teashops.”

On Tequila: “The spirit made from agave, a rather inferior schnapps.”

Saturday, April 27, 2019

My 10 Favourite Restaurants in Central America - The Top 5

Been thinking that it was high time that I updated my top 10 list as there has been a fair bit of churn lately. 

Playa del Carmen has shed its last entry, having joined the mad scramble for overpriced mediocrity, in much the same way Antigua did some time ago. 

1. Bangcook, San Cristóbal de las Casas

As I think I’ve mentioned before, this place could open up in London’s Soho tomorrow and would soon have a largish queue outside every lunchtime. The Mexicans seem to do upmarket Asian ‘streetfood’ especially well, though why this one landed here of all places is anyone’s guess. 

2. Oliva Enoteca, Mérida

Part of a family of 'Oliva' restaurants in the capital of Yucatán, this is the best of the bunch. A truly stylish blend of Mexican and Italian cuisine. The 'industrial chic' interior that their website righty boasts of makes for a great wine bar as well. 

3. Rumfish & Vino, Placencia

Another gastro-bar, this one in the heart of Belize's preeminent mainland beach community. A previous winner of the Belize Tourism Board's Restaurant of the Year award. The menu is interesting, the grub generally excellent. Patrons tend to look as if they have been kitted out by Tommy Hilfiger, having just parked their yacht outside. 

4. La Esquina de Buenos Aires, San José

There’s no shortage of so-so surrogates for the keyed-up Porteño carnivore experience in these parts - think Antigua’s own NiFu NiFa etc. - but none comes as close to authenticity as this restaurant in Chepe. It really does feel like a little corner of Buenos Aires. 

5. La Playita, Bacalar

In a superb location beside the 7-coloured laguna (which works equally well, though differently, as a venue for either lunch or dinner, indoors or outside),  La Playita specialises in high quality finger-food, but the menu stretches to more ambitious 'Latin Fusion' dishes. 

The next five to follow soon...

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Joie Maligne

However genuinely miffed at the sight of Notre-Dame burning the other day, my dark subconscious alter-ego decided this morning that it was time to have another read of Stephen Clarke's 1000 Years of Annoying the French.

I've been quite surprised at the levels of schadenfreude Monday's events have generated, even amongst fellow medievalists.

I'll admit to a little sniggeur myself when I saw Macron turn up on site with his studiously sombre demeanour.

Five years he says - that's rather conveniently around one year more than it will be his problem.

'Nigel Farage livid after learning that Stonehenge was built by Turkish'

The kick off points in these DNA tests are clearly a little arbitrary.

Mine informed me that my paternal ancestors took the wetter Atlantic route up to Blighty some time before the first Latin speakers showed up - so-called Celt-Iberians from what today is northern Spain.

Yet they'd undoubtedly arrived there from somewhere else at some stage. There is not a single person in modern Britain (currently*) unable to claim African ancestry, yet this is a fact which probably pisses off both those who do this most vocally - having more to do with more recent history - and those who think Nigel is a good bloke with their best interests at heart.

How long do one's ancestors have to have hung around in one particular geography for it to count as their place of origin? (St Patrick's Day suggests not long or not at all.)

*However....It might make Nigel even more cross to learn that this week an article in the New Scientist references the hypothesis of an academic at the University of Toronto who thinks he has evidence that ALL hominids might actually have evolved in the Balkans after all!

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Cool Hunting in La Antigua

Some destinations in this region are briefly cool. It never really lasts. 

In the early noughties, Playa del Carmen was ickily cool. Back then I needed the digits of more than one hand to list the bars in that town which were hip in that familiar, incontrovertible way. 

Nowadays, I can’t think of one even. And I noticed on my most recent visit that the last truly deserving of the category - the Almirante Pech is no more.

Antigua has never been especially cool. This stems from the somewhat unusual disposition of this city in that it is at once markedly cosmopolitan and shoddily unsophisticated. 

There have always been places where you could bank on a banging night out such as El Afro (now known as La Sala), and then there’s La Casbah, which is never going to transcend its innate naffness. 

But cool, cool? 

There have been a handful of joints that deserve honourable mentions I suppose. When I first came here there was only one bar targeting a young, affluent crowd — Mio Cid — and it did have a certain grooviness to it. Chic? Not really. Anyway, in much the same way I am a bit too old for that sort of thing now, back then I was a little too young. 

Then in the late 90s, there were two more bars that were almost chilled enough. Onys — at least when it first opened — the place where we partied like it’s 1999; because it was. Plus Dog and Fox, which wasn’t around for very long, but will be remembered fondly. More convivial than cool perhaps, but the clientele were the real deal. 

But there was also one bar in town, actually quite hard to find, set inside a grotto which I'd have to admit was ACHINGLY cool. So cool in fact that you’d imagine that one of those hardened, professional cool hunters would cream in his pants before even making it to the counter to order a drink. Indeed, most of the people in it looked like professional cool-hunters, or cast-members out of high budget advertisement for premium booze. I’d never seen a crowd like it in Antigua, then, or indeed since. Where did they all come from? Where did they go? 

It hasn’t existed for nearly twenty years yet it somehow feels wrong to say out loud what it was called or where it was located. It was such a small, exclusive little space. We found it almost by accident and sometimes I wonder whether I simply dreamt it. But here goes...MojitosIt was a Cuban bar serving actual Cuban beers, which was a bit of a big deal back then as everywhere served Gallo and pretty much nothing else. 

Being grotto-located, it was a sort of smaller cousin of Disco Ayala in Trinidad on that Caribbean island, which is set in a much larger and deeper cave system and is a fabulous place to spend an evening, though perhaps not cool, because I suspect capitalism might well be an inescapable ingredient of coolness.

The grotto is still out there, but is now a high end space for romantic dinners, which is a little bit of a shame.

The city with the highest density of cool I've come across in the last year or so is Medellín. There's really nothing to compare with it in Central America, except possibly Panamá City. 

In Mexico both Mérida and rapidly-inflating Querétaro with its tech industry are moving in that direction. 

And in spite of what I just said a couple of paragraphs earlier, Havana is irrefutably cool. But it's an effect of the sum of the delights of that great city, rather than particular venues. 

Meanwhile, there appears to be a new contender in La Antigua: Mystic Bar, which used to be called Ocelot. Readers of this blog from almost a decade ago will recall that said establishment was a highlight in the portfolio of crooked, right-wing investor Jeff Cassman, alias Mark Francis, who left these shores to spend some time in a federal lock-up on an embezzlement rap. Later on it became rather more mundane and Welsh. 

Mystic Bar may or may not become cool. But it will need to overcome a slightly inauspicious start. First the decor, which seems to be the work of the same folk that did this weekend's velación at San Bartolo. 

And then there's the fact that it has only just opened its doors and already has 1000+ followers on Instagram, most of whom appear to reside in India and Pakistan. Now, while it's possible that all these people are guilty of the same innocent mistake, there's a chance that these are paid-up followers — and buying your mates is the very definition of un-cool. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Roma II: La Mal-Criada

Some bizarre goings on, not a million miles away from my abode - into which I have unfortunately been repeatedly drawn - have given me the outline of an idea for a screenplay. 

It would be a sort of distorted mirror image of Alfonso Cuarón's much-lauded Roma, which depicts a year in the life of Cleo, a domestic servant of Mixtec origin in 70s CDMX. 

Somehow I doubt whether this alternative, more downbeat treatment would curry much favour with the wannabe-woke types who apparently pick all the gong-winners these days. So, B movie it is. 

Sadly though, the Cleo of my tale - AntiCleo if you like - is far more of a Latin American archetype than Cuarón's. To get an idea of her essential character fault, you’d just have to insert the letters p and t into into her name. 

Yet beyond being a pathological filcher, she’s also a malevolent schemer, a lengua larga, a lazy, useless, illiterate, green-eyed, two-faced, louse-headed, bile-filled bag of detached morals. 

And most of all, the LAST person you would ever want to leave alone with children. In Roma Cleo throws herself into the oncoming waves in order to save two of her charges from drowning even though she herself cannot swim. AntiCleo would sit on the sand, sniggering. (I’d make sure to write up the scenes where she drags toddlers around by the hair, consumes the food and drink that she’s been left to serve them and then dopes them so she can take a nap on the job.) 

She has a festering love-hate relationship with her female employer, bearing some comparison with Yolanda Saldívar, the woman who shot Selena. She likes to put on her clothes, her wigs, her sunglasses and sit in her car pretending to have the same kept-woman lifestyle. 

Said lady of the house has in turn become somewhat dependent on her, because she’s hardly an award-winning parent and the mal-criada knows, in a metaphorical sense, where the bodies are buried. 

And while she is not the only contractor to have used the household as her private motel, she has been carrying on for some time with a neighbour - a man with a young family - and thinks nothing of staging their trysts on the very same bed where her employers will later sleep the sleep of the innocent. 

Picture the scene. Every day as she hurries into work - usually ten to fifteen minutes late - her lover’s wife comes out of her main gate and shouts insults at her. Sometimes she even follows her down the road on her scooter doing the same. 

AntiCleo's employers are seemingly oblivious to all this. OK, they are a tad suspicious, though not to the extent that any astute and resourceful person might be. Things have gone walkies. She tends to deflect in the tried and tested way: ‘How could you possibly imagine...? Come to my house and see for yourself.’  

They should. But they actually don’t really need to. They only have to check the pictures on her phone, or her children’s phones, their Instagram accounts etc. For whenever her employers are away it’s paaaarty time and their pool and garden are packed with her friends and family. 

But she's generally rather good at pointing the finger elsewhere, fostering rifts between her employers and anyone who might give the game away. They once partnered her with another employee. She had her fired. 

I suppose a nanny-cam would do the trick, once and for all. But I am not yet certain how the last act will play out. 

But I am working on it. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Brexit: where we are at....

Opposition to the process of a negotiated withdrawal from the EU has been varied, but in simple terms there have been four main tendencies in Parliament. The first three are quite easy to identify: the no-dealers, the no-Brexiters and the DUP. 

The fourth isn’t quite as obvious, but it is essentially a less intelligible, and certainly less principled, tribal tendency. 

Both the main parties have an eye on future electability, while being aware of an awkward disconnect between their base and many of their MPs. The Labour Party for example is grounded in a Remain-leaning membership, but dependent on less woke folks in the working class constituencies they will have to win to return to power. Hence their pie-in-the-sky, supposedly ‘jobs friendly’, non-policy after the referendum. 

Meanwhile, on the government benches, fundamental disagreement over the European project has long been a critical weakness, threatening to sunder the Tory Party, which is ironically why Cameron originally came up with the cunning plan of promising a referendum he didn’t think he’d actually need to hold.

In such circumstances one could say that neither party can respond to the Brexit referendum result coherently without compromising internal unity and/or their next manifesto.  

The big mistake of the no-dealers in all this has been to imagine that their best interests were being served by tagging along with the other recusants, including the DUP, who care a lot about one issue, but not so much about Brexit at all. Rees Mogg and co have perhaps stumbled on their ‘half a loaf better than no bread at all’ analogy a little too late. 

The no-Brexiters on the other hand, appear to have been tactically-astute thus far, though they were handed a critical lifeline by May’s own mega-gaffe - calling an election and losing her majority - since which EU negotiators been able to exploit her single-issue, DUP weakness pretty effectively. 

To have ‘her’ deal pass now, she will need to get both the no-dealers and DUP to capitulate fairly comprehensively in the next few days. She also needs to induce a sense of weariness in a significant number of opposition MPs. 

The no-dealers are almost certainly the only grouping in Parliament who care enough about Brexit to cave under this pressure. If the deal, and its backstop, remain un-altered, the DUP are likely to remain non-compliant. 

Still, a more general sense of exhaustion could yet get the PM over the line. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Two Tribes Go To War

Our two party parliamentary system has always been notably more tribal, - adversarial even - than numerous European counterparts, but until the combined effects of globalisation and its reaction (populism), started to hollow out the centre, this hadn’t led to the sort of intractable, conspicuously brainless ideological positioning in the legislature that has become all too familiar in the US.

People's Votes

The trouble with referendums is that they feed the illusion that politics is all about binary choices that lead to fixed political destinations. Yet one of the reasons we have a Parliament is that political decision-taking is to a very large extent a never-ending negotiation, where the goal posts are in constant motion. ('The People' too, is ever in flux.)

It is perhaps also worth reminding ourselves of the obsevation made by Prof. Niall Ferguson that ‘The law of unintended consequences is the only real law of history’ and plebiscites, along with assorted other mechanisms for sudden, drastic historical changes of direction, are very much an open invitation to unintended consequences.

Brexit was presented as one of those issues that could be farmed out to ‘The People’ for a simple YES/NO answer, but if we have learned anything since 2016 it was that this was deeply misguided.

A second stab at this would suffer from many of the same fundamental flaws. I find myself, like many MPs perhaps, torn between what I would want to see happen now (viz that petition) and what is actually in the national interest.
In the Sunday Times today Gisela Stewart, former Chair of the Leave campaign, argues that it’s a myth that ‘the people’ made their decision in an uninformed manner. 

For me, this particular issue is fairly irrelevant. Even if every one of the 17m+ who voted to leave had a comprehensive grasp of the options and issues behind that decision, can one really say anybody had a proper sense of their own and the nation’s stake in the matter? This has only - and could only - become manifest in the intervening period, and then in a not entirely transparent manner.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

'You the public have had enough...I'm on your side'

Theresa May might not generally walk or talk like a Trump, but today she quacked like one.

Appealing directly to ‘the people’ (plebs) over the heads of their elected representatives might help her get around the current crisis, but it paves the way for further populist deteriorations in our democracy.

Looking 'Presidential' is increasingly not a very good look at all.

And I suppose from a purely selfish, ex-patty perspective, I have been rather enjoying all the 'arcane procedural rows', more than I know I would all the blather about knife crime and the stream of NHS pieties.

Not that these will get much of a look in when we leave the EU in a frenzy anyway.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Triple Frontier (2019)

This movie stars two half-Guatemalans. So, that's like one whole Guatemalan! 

The title led me suspect that it was set in one of my favourite destinations in all of South America - the point where Perú, Colombia and Brazil meet on the Amazon river. 

But no, it's actually located in a mashed-up, geographically-discombobulated version of that continent, much of it actually shot in Hawaii. 

It has a fairly ludicrous premise which is part Ocean's 11 and part Sicario. As it progressed I had cause to recall other flicks like The Wild Geese and even Alive

So, basically pretty silly, but quite entertaining. 

As with Velvet Buzzsaw I ended up wondering how Netflix is able to sign up so many big name actors to this sort of dross.


Recent events up at the lake have reminded me of two works that sit at pivotal moments in the development of budget long-haul travel.

First there’s Alex Garland’s The Beach which presciently pinpoints the era when the molotera of young backpackers stopped being explorers and morphed into something more akin to colonists, or at least semi-resident populations with a damaging impact on local communities and the environment. The fate of the beach used in the 2000 movie version of the novel is further testament to this phenomenon.

Then there was a documentary I saw in the early 90s about a wealthy old German with a substantial lakeside property on Atitlán who was quite aggressively resisting the efforts of the inhabitants of a nearby indigenous village to construct their own road which would connect them to the main highway and thus to the rest of the world. The film exposed the multi-dimensional nature of developmental issues.

One wonders if those villagers now realise that they should have been more careful what they wished for.

Brexit Pathways

Even the most committed, foaming at the mouth, no-deal Leaver surely has to admit now that the hardest form of Brexit that could ever get the nod from this Parliament is the arrangement negotiated by May’s government with the EU. So they’re all going to get behind it now, right? 

Some may well flip next week, but the fact that others won’t tells us something important about the mentality of modern politicians. 

Put yourself in their little heads and at least three pathways appear to remain...

1) Out is out. Take the deal on the table and leave sooner rather than later. See what can be done down the road to harden things up a bit.

2) Wallow in factional bloodymindedness. The DUP, the ERG and (at least part of) the Labour Party are demonstrating how ideology likes to shoulder barge reality. 

Corbyn rather optimistically assumes that a failure to deliver Brexit will be taken by the country as a containably Tory debacle and that May’s personal disaster will become the springboard for his own ascendancy. Good luck with that. 

Meanwhile, unconsciously at least, many euro-sceptic MPs will be aware of just how politically-irrelevant any sort of Brexit is likely to make them, while a full on ‘betrayal of the British people’ might grant them a salience in the medium term that they’d otherwise never achieve. 

3) Find a way to get around the problem of ‘this’ Parliament and this particularly inept PM. The trouble with the latter is that Tory rebels called for a confidence vote way too soon and lost. However, they might still be able to get May to leave before the UK’s own leave process is finalised. 

A general election remains the nuclear option likely to blow up in the face of both main parties.

Saturday, March 09, 2019


Many years ago when I was an undergraduate, long before such things as Twitter mobs existed, the anthropology department at my university was teaching students that the human incest taboo was entirely a social construct.

This being the same university where DNA was discovered - indeed some of the conversations I had regarding this bit of claptrap were held in the very same PUB where DNA was discovered - it didn’t seem unreasonable to approach the matter with a modicum of scientific scepticism.

Yet when I did so, even those young anthropologists, who otherwise appeared politically unengaged, reacted with cultish hostility - in much the same way their modern equivalents today responded online to the female academic who dared to suggest that any skeletons unearthed by archaeologists are either male or female and that a ‘trans’ set of bones would be pinpointed according to the original sex of the individual. 'Gender' being invisible to archaeologists.

Meanwhile over in my own department historians had only just stopped giving any credence to the notion that the Black Death killed almost nobody given that the massive social changes that occurred in the century after 1348 could not possibly have occurred as a result of a pathogen....because Marxism says so.

If history does present one clear and obvious lesson it is that dogma tends to poison almost everything. This is largely because it starts by being factually-selective and gradually becomes more and more hostile to evidence that won’t prop up its key tenets.

I’m not so sure about that incest taboo hooey, but a good deal of dogma undoubtedly starts with the best of intentions.

Many of those who were around at the start of French and Russian revolutions were moved by the spirit of what today we would call ‘social justice’. And of course many of these same people were soon not around at all.

The anti-semitism that festers beneath the hard-left’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is there because of the venomous influence of dogma. An individual has a personal, emotional response to reported events - empathy for the plight of the Palestinians - but that individual acknowledgment is soon subsumed within a collective dogmatic position. Uncomfortable truths that don’t add to the sense of righteousness are deemed conspiratorial, absurdities that do, are cherished.

It’s truly hard to hold a sensible discourse with someone in the grip of dogma, because they will always refer you back to the echo of the original individual impulse, rather than the calcified set of convictions that now drive them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Velvet Buzzsaw

Dan Gilroy wrote and directed the generally excellent Nightcrawler and here he has reunited Jake Gylenhaal and Renee Russo for a considerably less biting satire on the art world. 

Is Netflix the problem? It didn’t seem to creatively hamper Alfonso Cuarón. 

Yet as with Soderbergh’s Unsane - which I think worked better - the immediate question seems to be what are so many famous actors doing in something so televisual? 

The problem is compounded by the fact that they are playing characters that reminded me of people I used to rub up against in London’s media industry, many of whom were considerably less A-list and fascinating than they imagined themselves to be - and the trouble with making a movie about such folk is that it can end up having the same set of defects as its protagonists. 

While Velvet Buzzsaw' was essaying satire I think I must have had the demeanour borne by John Malkovich throughout: somewhere between terminal ennui and self-disgust for simply being there. 

As for the horror elements which kick in later on - a predictable sequence of grisly denouements - these are barely above Doctor Who level in terms of visual effects, scariness and mildly comic set-up.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

No Idea

This was shared by a friend on FB yesterday. 

Given that almost no statement in the above text is true, the essential lesson to be picked up here is surely about the ways that ‘fake news’ tends to override our instinct to fact-check before sharing by presenting us with carefully-calibrated untruths that some would actually like to be true. 

It would not be all that harsh to describe this particular set of untruths as a form of Islamist propaganda which targets both modern Muslims and western liberals, with an aim to sow doubts about the foundations of western ‘arrogance’, whilst at the same time suggesting that the Islamic cultural tradition in Europe is somehow more indigenous and authentic. 

Yet let’s not forget however that Islam was the third and last of the great monotheistic misapprehensions to emerge out of the middle east. As such it has its own very pressing authenticity problem which, in effect, requires constant glossing over. 

It is like an MS Windows to Judaism’s Mac OS, a fact that shows how much easier it is to be hostile than admit being derivative. 

In the seventh century Muslim armies started sweeping out of the Arabian Peninsula into the Med, overrunning territories we know today as Spain, Egypt, Turkey and Palestine - all firmly Christian at the time. This uncomfortable fact is glossed over more than most. (Though of course that faith had been largely imposed by the Rome and its successor states.) 

Once Jerusalem was theirs, the Caliphate built its mosque on top of the ruins of the second Jewish temple (complete with fairy tale about Mohammed and his horse) in much the same way that Spanish Catholics would later build their cathedral on top of the what was left of the central acropolis of the Aztec capital, or indeed try to convert the Great Mosque in Cordoba into a Christian place of worship — by carrying out an aggressive act of suppression and replacement. 

Today they would insist that the Dome of the Rock is at least equally Holy as the sites venerated by other faiths, which I suppose is fair enough, even if this penchant at times seems to suggest that it somehow got there first. 

These arguments for primacy between the 'great' religions are perhaps the oldest extant form of culture war in modern civilisation. 

(For the record. The medical school at Salerno was founded in the 9th century by Christian monks. It was later famed for 'Islamic influence', but as a result of the crusades and so hardly in the way suggested above. Bologna is in fact the oldest university in Europe. Academic dress at the time of its foundation was rather different to that today. The cap and gown are said to have originated in Oxford and Cambridge around the thirteenth century as warm-weather variants of clerical dress common around the region then. Western European clerical dress has complex origins in both late-Roman secular clothing and eastern, pre-Islamic attire.) 

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Big Stink

Whoever is (repeatedly) using an unmarked tanker to dump their sewage in this drainage outlet in El Panorama, please cease, or face the consequences. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CCTV Nation

Turns out that once you have security cameras in this country, it suddenly becomes hard to imagine life without them.

They do however engender a certain sort of paranoia about the nature of one’s fellow citizens. 

For example, some individuals in this village appear to wander around on some sort of loop, rather like in The Truman Show. You can practically set your watch by them. Indeed, a worrying number of the people in the catchment zone of our cameras tend to resemble in their motions certain non-human characters in computer games. Or what I used to refer to as ‘bots’, before the term acquired a Russian connotation. (V has specifically compared them to some of the walking figures in Grand Theft Auto, Vice City.) 

One easily-recognisable character used to pass at more or less the same time every morning at an almost absurdly fast walking pace, sporting an oversize black wig and a thick grey sweater (no matter the season). We nicknamed him ‘Sinibaldi’. 

About once a month something truly bizarre is captured:  e.g. a few days ago someone drove round the corner at full speed and tossed a tiny kitten out of the window. 

In previous months we’ve seen a woman, possibly a working girl, defecating before consuming her own faeces, closely observed by the man at the wheel of the car she’d just got down from. 

Another time there was an all-night orgy going on inside a PNC patrol car parked right in front of our house. 

I've uploaded the footage of all the above-mentioned incidents to Youtube: unlisted of course! 

Anyway, it’s always kind of amusing to scrutinise certain known dodgy characters taking the kind of evasive action that reflects an ignorance of both wide angle lenses and night vision technology. 

Our newest neighbour opposite has recently installed a set of cameras along the length of his wall, which are obviously rather more fancy and sophisticated than ours. 

So now pretty much everyone in the immediate area has security of this sort except, rather ironically, the one household that could most do with it. 

Another nearby household is taking it to a whole different level with a drone, which has repeatedly invaded our airspace. 

As for the kitten, we’ve adopted him. He’s an extraordinarily sweet and sociable little thing.