Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ford vs Ferrari (2019)

As Chris Rock quipped at the Academy Awards last Sunday, this sounds like a no contest.

In the UK, where you can't easily include a brand name in the title of a film unless you own it (i.e. The Lego Movie) it has been doing the rounds as Le Mans '66. 

It's less the David and Goliath contest suggested by the original title than a drama driven by a cluster of familiar stereotypes; corporate Americans, up-themselves Italians, down-to-earth yet plucky provincial Brits and Matt Damon playing a version of himself that wears a stetson, intersown with some fabulously-edited, genuinely thrilling scenes of classic 60s sports cars going head-to-head, which somehow manages to celebrate both US triumphalism and heroic British failure. 

And the Italians in their Ferrari cockpits scowl like Japanese pilots about to offload torpedoes over Pearl Harbour. 

I was reminded of my visit to the Corvette museum in Kentucky a couple of years ago, though we are informed at the end that Ford GT40 is the only American-constructed car to win the 24-hour race.

The Lighthouse (2019)

Robert Eggers's follow up to The Witch would be a classic two-hander, except that there are a few other rather obtrusive cast members, most notably the cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, an intermittent mermaid, plus a team of specially-imported, British seagull thesps, one of whom possibly deserves an Academy Award for playing dead. 

I have to say that, as with his previous feature, I was left a little unconvinced, though the performances are undoubtedly very strong and the late Victorian sea-dog dialogue is consistently diverting. 

The trouble is that the more this film strives to be dark and delirious, the more it comes across as just a bit silly. 

In a recent BBC interview Dafoe described the set up as what happens when two grown men are forced to go and live alone in a building shaped like a phallus off the coast of Nova Scotia for a month. It features a descent into madness that both men appear to have commenced prior to this ill-fated posting on the rock. 

Eggers preserves a sense of ambiguity about the situation. Part or indeed all of it could be hallucinatory. There are moments when the characters appear to comprehend that they are living through a metaphor. 

Anyway, one big take-out from the movie (or from the above-mentioned interview at least) has been that Willem Dafoe is one of those rare super-talented, yet understated Hollywood actors that would make a fine guest at a dinner party populated with people he didn't already know, in precisely the same way that Joaquin Phoenix wouldn't. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tithe Barn

Herons Farm has a smart new website. 

In the medieval period growers had to pay a tithe (a 10% tax) to the church. Barns such as this were established to store payments sent in grain. Many surviving examples are attached to monastic runs. 


The other day day we closed our accounts at Banco Promerica

We hadn’t intended to, in fact we just wanted to reactivate one of them, but the process for doing so was made to sound so utterly painful  including, bizarrely, the official requirement to leave the bank and go for a walk outside for approximately an hour and half — that in the end closing out completely was (marginally) less hassle. Either way it was going to be worse than an afternoon at the SAT. 

Back in the late 90s, as Banco Uno, this was unquestionably the best bank in Antigua. Yet nowadays it has become everything you don’t want from a retail banking service, yet there still seem to be a few customers who, like us, have held on bravely/foolishly through the name and standard changes, first to Citi and then to Promerica. 

Whilst waiting in the barely-furnished limbo zone we exchanged nods of recognition with a former Vamos candidate for alcalde who cheerily greeted the cashiers as if they were his children's nannies, and later (much later it seemed) overheard someone identifying himself as the financial envoy of Antigua’s wealthiest family. 

These people will surely recall how the staff at Banco Uno used to greet their valued customers when they walked in instead of being made to palm a shred of paper with a queue number on it.

In London I bank with Coutts & Co, the Queen’s bank. My account there is possibly the one thing I have that is an out and out status symbol. When I signed up as a teenager I was immediately allocated a ‘private banker’ in a morning suit. These days I still have such a contact at the bank, but he’s less of a fusty old gent and does even more useful stuff for me like answer emails and is backed up by a team that can handle any issue I throw at them 24-7 via telephone. 

Such attention doesn't come cheap, but they have always been broadly tolerant of my foibles, and as for my mother, she was probably just about the worst customer any bank could hope for, yet they were always solicitous and diplomatic (almost to a point) with her. 

So, let’s just say that when it comes to banking I’ve been royally spoiled. Yet even measured against the lofty standards set by the aforementioned establishment, Banco Uno did tend to impress. When we were building our first house here in the late 90s they too gave us a personal banker, who would zoom out to us to deliver a chequebook at a moment’s notice. 

My business partner visited us here in 2000 and met Gustavo, our asesor at Banco Uno (over drinks at Dog and Fox), and was soon showing an interest in opening an account there himself, even though he had no intention of moving to Guatemala. This was because they had this rather nifty way of flushing clients' savings into offshore Panama accounts at what was then a truly impressive rate of interest. 

Promerica now occupies the site of what was Lloyd’s Bank when I first came to Guatemala. This was the only obvious foreign presence in the sector at the time. 

At some stage in the mid-noughties there was a bit of a rush on Central American banks with Citi picking up Banco Uno and almost immediately applying more American levels of service. 

But at least they still seemed to have a basic idea of what they were doing. The current batch of Promerica personnel are staggeringly devoid of initiative. They reminded us of the chronically under-trained waiters one occasionally comes across in Antigua: the ones that don’t seem to know which side of a plate is up. 

On the subject of By Royal Appointment, my dentist, from my first tooth until his retirement and knighthood about ten years ago, was also the Queen's dentist. I was rather proud of this, in part because he was my dentist first and because aside from being exceptionally good at his profession (I've never had so much as a filling), he was also extraordinarily simpatico. 

I believe that he also dealt with the oral necessities of Charles and Phillip, but recently, when media images of Pizza Express's most famous customer and his almost stereotypically British lower gnashers became commonplace, I thought...surely not him as well? 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Negative Statesmanship

At Cambridge my special subject was 'The Drafting and Ratification of the US Constitution', so it strikes me that our contemporary American pickle, as outlined by this article was there in outline at least right from the start e.g. 

"In the impeachment trial, the 48 Senators who voted to convict represent 18 million more people than the 52 who voted to acquit."

Trump reached the White House back in 2016 in a manner which clearly demonstrated just how all that horse trading between the founding fathers, the big and small states, the slave and free states and so on, has handed down a form of democracy that comes with no small amount of head scratching. 

Paloma Plaga

La Antigua is suffering from a surfeit of pigeons right now; some might even call it a plaga.

Victor Hugo should avail himself of a gavilán and train it to dispose of the undesirables in the parque, the feathered and perhaps also the less feathered. 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Masking the truth

I've started to see more and more ads for 'top selling' masks in Guatemala on social media...and let's just say that they are not of this sort. 

Just the other day the CDC announced, somewhat speciously I suspect, that hand washing of OCD levels is preferable to mask donning. This coincided with a news alert that 'virus-protective' masks are becoming scarce. (On Amazon supplies started to dry up some time ago.)

The best place to get the right kind of mask in Antigua, at least the type that would offer some real protection against detached DNA in droplet form is NOT a pharmacy. I won't be more specific for now, as there might be a sudden run on supplies, which would surely interfere with their intended quotidian uses here.

(The ones shown in the pic below would be basically useless anyway.) 

There is still not a single reported case of the coronavirus in Latin America, so it will be a while I suspect, before this might become an acceptable, risk-free look in the mercado...

Today reported deaths from the new coronavirus have surpassed the number that the Chinese eventually fessed up to during the SARS outbreak in 2003. (774).

Yet some 20,000 people have died as result of flu infection in the USA during the 2019-20 season, without stirring up a great deal of media interest. 

Isolating China every time their exotic dietary tendencies engender a new bug will probably not be, as anyone conscious of the problems resulting from low levels of antibodies in the general population (such as those with an understanding of this region's post-conquest history), the best approach in the long term. 


Wednesday, February 05, 2020


Double tap

The other day I came across this sentence in the preface to a book about Spinoza by the late Sir Roger Scruton...

“Chapter 3 must therefore be read twice if it is to be understood.”

Countless tomes I have read over the years, both fiction and non-fiction, might have benefited from a disarmingly honest admonition of comparable nature from their authors. (Sometimes in reference to the ENTIRE work.) 

1917 backlash?

The trench cultural warfare looks to have reached stalemate point when it comes to BAFTAs chosen flick of the year. When I hear that a movie like this is little more than a vehicle for the white male worldview I do kind of sigh.

Some of the other criticisms appear to refer to creative decisions that were made a little more deliberately, such as the everyman nature of the protagonists, the gameplay qualities of its single shot cinematography, its focus on individual redemption rather than the collective impotence and futile slaughter of the Flanders front etc. 

These gripes tend to indicate the disappointment of audience members who went in expecting to see a different movie altogether. I'd point them in the direction of Journey's End, also excellent, though arguably even more 'white'. 

The apparent lack of strict authenticity and the gameplay vibe did worry me just a little during the first half hour or so of 1917. I recalled my wet blanket objections to the WWI first person shooter Battlefield 1 a couple of years ago - that it seemed to dishonour and diminish the sacrifice of a generation. 

The plot here emerged from the stories told by the director's grandfather Alfred, the poet and novelist from Trinidad and Tobago, who was indeed a messenger repeatedly tasked with 'going over' with important bits of paper. Knowing this, I can see that Mendes is using no man's land in the way that Ad Astra and films of that ilk use outer space, as context for an oneiric, metaphysical, individual journey. 

I have to admit I did poke fun a bit at Ad Astra for its apparent lack of realism, but let's just say that (almost) nobody goes into Apocalypse Now expecting a traditional war movie. 

That 1917 has prospered in the US market, where the Great War has much shallower cultural roots, says something about Mendes's unusual take on this conflict. Schofield's perpendicular run across the ill-advised charge of the Devons will undoubtedly become its most iconic scene and one that is emblematic of the film's intrinsic vision. 

As an observation more on the zeitgeist than any single cultural artefact that it varnishes, we live in an era where we perhaps need to keep a closer eye on all art of the 'liberal' sort, because 'realism' is increasingly taken to mean presenting the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. There's always going to be a place in the market for this, but not as a virtual monopoly. 

It can become especially pernicious when it comes to dramas set in the past, for history is always a work in progress and thus susceptible to the mendacity of good intentions.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Horrendous Hiatus

I think I can tell what has happened here. 

'Tiger' Tm Henman used to keep this lot off the streets and out of politics. 

Unfortunately we've hit one of those hazardous hiatuses where we don't have a viable Wimbledon challenger and the next (‘significant’) Royal Wedding is likely to be at least two decades away. Yikes. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Scandal (1989) and The Trial of Christine Keeler (2)

Now that we’ve watched The Trial of Christine Keeler all the way through to the satisfying wrap up of episode six, there are a handful of additional conclusions to make.

We live in an era that would dearly like to paint Keeler as a victim, yet as the text before the end credits informed us, that’s not how she wanted it to be.

Amanda Coe has taken this as her cue to deliver carefully ambiguous characters across the board. It gets a bit cake and eat it at times, but her sympathetic approach to the likes of Profumo, Mandy Rice Davies and so on propels the drama even where the surrounding dialogue is a bit on the nose.

The only obvious villains here are the police, who are all rather ACAB. (Though the C in the acronym could also stand for cabinet ministers.)

Hypocrites make up a large-ish subset of the overall population of abusers. The Catholic church alone is a strong indicator of this. Yet what about self-styled non-hypocrites, such as Stephen Ward? One might take licentiousness to the point of righteousness, i.e. hypocrisy.

My father’s friendship with Ward has led to speculation within the family that perhaps we should have interrogated him a bit more about the girls living in Wimpole Mews. Now that I have watched this series (and simultaneously re-acquainted myself with John Hurt as the ‘not a real doctor’ in Scandal) I feel it is really about Ward that I should have shown greater interest.

One of the frustrations of both the new series and the 1989 feature film is that the tale of Jack Profumo’s adultery is quite tame by the standards of modern politicians. At the time the Cold War made it a tad more interesting, yet Ivanov is very much a secondary figure in both adaptations.

The truth is surely that the real scandal is going on in the background. We get one scene of debauchery at Cliveden and facts emerge in court which have apparently not deserved a scene of their own beforehand, which gets a little frustrating. I plan on reading one of the two books that concentrate on Ward and his ‘secret world’ to fill in some of these gaps.

The full story about the scapegoat of the incident will be stuck in the archives until 2046 apparently, when I could conceivably still be around to read about it. One presumes that the Duke of Edinburgh will almost certainly not be.

Keeler herself is perhaps not as interesting a character as the tabloids of the time would have had us believe. Many modern Latin Americans would certainly crack up at the fine distinction being made here between real pimps and tarts and the likes of Ward and his girlfriends. 

(Almost) lastly, there’s clearly only one café in the whole of early 60s London and it’s called The Regent. (The boards outside reminded V how much she used to like ‘scampi’ in London's pubs.)

2046 is a great movie.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Plague Year

Britons returning from Wuhan are set to be quarantined for two weeks at a military base. 

Back in 1665, even allowing for the fact that London was then a much smaller metropolis, the range of orders and provisions laid down by local government to limit the spread of infection are both fascinating and pretty extraordinary. 

One has to wonder if the modern equivalents of Mayor and aldermen are as capable of such concerted and thorough action. (I've marked in red some of the more interesting provisions.)

All this is on top of the requirement by the Lord Mayor that physicians should tend to the sick without charging as well as providing free medicines. 

It always used to freak me out a bit how, during the short journey between Knightsbridge and Hyde Park Corner, the Piccadilly Line on the London underground seems to laterally-undulate rather like a snake (though more noisily) as it circumnavigates various submerged plague pits.

Excerpt from Journal of the Plague Year, by Defoe...

'WHEREAS in the reign of our late Sovereign King James, of happy memory, an Act was made for the charitable relief and ordering of persons infected with the plague, whereby authority was given to justices of the peace, mayors, bailiffs, and other head-officers to appoint within their several limits examiners, searchers, watchmen, keepers, and buriers for the persons and places infected, and to minister unto them oaths for the performance of their offices. And the same statute did also authorise the giving of other directions, as unto them for the present necessity should seem good in their directions. It is now, upon special consideration, thought very expedient for preventing and avoiding of infection of sickness (if it shall so please Almighty God) that these officers following be appointed, and these orders hereafter duly observed.
Examiners to be appointed in every Parish.
'First, it is thought requisite, and so ordered, that in every parish there be one, two, or more persons of good sort and credit chosen and appointed by the alderman, his deputy, and common council of every ward, by the name of examiners, to continue in that office the space of two months at least. And if any fit person so appointed shall refuse to undertake the same, the said parties so refusing to be committed to prison until they shall conform themselves accordingly.
The Examiner's Office.
'That these examiners be sworn by the aldermen to inquire and learn from time to time what houses in every parish be visited, and what persons be sick, and of what diseases, as near as they can inform themselves; and upon doubt in that case, to command restraint of access until it appear what the disease shall prove. And if they find any person sick of the infection, to give order to the constable that the house be shut up; and if the constable shall be found remiss or negligent, to give present notice thereof to the alderman of the ward.
Watchmen. (Shutes
'That to every infected house there be appointed two watchmen, one for every day, and the other for the night; and that these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment. And the said watchmen to do such further offices as the sick house shall need and require: and if the watchman be sent upon any business, to lock up the house and take the key with him; and the watchman by day to attend until ten of the clock at night, and the watchman by night until six in the morning.
Searchers. (Female cannon fodder.)
'That there be a special care to appoint women searchers in every parish, such as are of honest reputation, and of the best sort as can be got in this kind; and these to be sworn to make due search and true report to the utmost of their knowledge whether the persons whose bodies they are appointed to search do die of the infection, or of what other diseases, as near as they can. And that the physicians who shall be appointed for cure and prevention of the infection do call before them the said searchers who are, or shall be, appointed for the several parishes under their respective cares, to the end they may consider whether they are fitly qualified for that employment, and charge them from time to time as they shall see cause, if they appear defective in their duties.
'That no searcher during this time of visitation be permitted to use any public work or employment, or keep any shop or stall, or be employed as a laundress, or in any other common employment whatsoever.
'For better assistance of the searchers, forasmuch as there hath been heretofore great abuse in misreporting the disease, to the further spreading of the infection, it is therefore ordered that there be chosen and appointed able and discreet chirurgeons, besides those that do already belong to the pest-house, amongst whom the city and Liberties to be quartered as the places lie most apt and convenient; and every of these to have one quarter for his limit; and the said chirurgeons in every of their limits to join with the searchers for the view of the body, to the end there may be a true report made of the disease.
'And further, that the said chirurgeons shall visit and search such-like persons as shall either send for them or be named and directed unto them by the examiners of every parish, and inform themselves of the disease of the said parties.
'And forasmuch as the said chirurgeons are to be sequestered from all other cures, and kept only to this disease of the infection, it is ordered that every of the said chirurgeons shall have twelve-pence a body searched by them, to be paid out of the goods of the party searched, if he be able, or otherwise by the parish.
'If any nurse-keeper shall remove herself out of any infected house before twenty-eight days after the decease of any person dying of the infection, the house to which the said nurse-keeper doth so remove herself shall be shut up until the said twenty-eight days be expired.'
Notice to be given of the Sickness.
'The master of every house, as soon as any one in his house complaineth, either of blotch or purple, or swelling in any part of his body, or falleth otherwise dangerously sick, without apparent cause of some other disease, shall give knowledge thereof to the examiner of health within two hours after the said sign shall appear.
Sequestration of the Sick.
'As soon as any man shall be found by this examiner, chirurgeon, or searcher to be sick of the plague, he shall the same night be sequestered in the same house; and in case he be so sequestered, then though he afterwards die not, the house wherein he sickened should be shut up for a month, after the use of the due preservatives taken by the rest.
Airing the Stuff.
'For sequestration of the goods and stuff of the infection, their bedding and apparel and hangings of chambers must be well aired with fire and such perfumes as are requisite within the infected house before they be taken again to use. This to be done by the appointment of an examiner.
Shutting up of the House.
'If any person shall have visited any man known to be infected of the plague, or entered willingly into any known infected house, being not allowed, the house wherein he inhabiteth shall be shut up for certain days by the examiner's direction.
None to be removed out of infected Houses
'Item, that none be removed out of the house where he falleth sick of the infection into any other house in the city (except it be to the pest-house or a tent, or unto some such house which the owner of the said visited house holdeth in his own hands and occupieth by his own servants); and so as security be given to the parish whither such remove is made, that the attendance and charge about the said visited persons shall be observed and charged in all the particularities before expressed, without any cost of that parish to which any such remove shall happen to be made, and this remove to be done by night. And it shall be lawful to any person that hath two houses to remove either his sound or his infected people to his spare house at his choice, so as, if he send away first his sound, he not after send thither his sick, nor again unto the sick the sound; and that the same which he sendeth be for one week at the least shut up and secluded from company, for fear of some infection at the first not appearing.
Burial of the Dead.
'That the burial of the dead by this visitation be at most convenient hours, always either before sun-rising or after sun-setting, with the privity of the churchwardens or constable, and not otherwise; and that no neighbours nor friends be suffered to accompany the corpse to church, or to enter the house visited, upon pain of having his house shut up or be imprisoned.
'And that no corpse dying of infection shall be buried, or remain in any church in time of common prayer, sermon, or lecture. And that no children be suffered at time of burial of any corpse in any church, churchyard, or burying-place to come near the corpse, coffin, or grave. And that all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.
'And further, all public assemblies at other burials are to be foreborne during the continuance of this visitation.
No infected Stuff to be uttered. (!?) 
'That no clothes, stuff, bedding, or garments be suffered to be carried or conveyed out of any infected houses, and that the criers and carriers abroad of bedding or old apparel to be sold or pawned be utterly prohibited and restrained, and no brokers of bedding or old apparel be permitted to make any outward show, or hang forth on their stalls, shop-boards, or windows, towards any street, lane, common way, or passage, any old bedding or apparel to be sold, upon pain of imprisonment. And if any broker or other person shall buy any bedding, apparel, or other stuff out of any infected house within two months after the infection hath been there, his house shall be shut up as infected, and so shall continue shut up twenty days at the least.
No Person to be conveyed out of any infected House.
'If any person visited do fortune, by negligent looking unto, or by any other means, to come or be conveyed from a place infected to any other place, the parish from whence such party hath come or been conveyed, upon notice thereof given, shall at their charge cause the said party so visited and escaped to be carried and brought back again by night, and the parties in this case offending to be punished at the direction of the alderman of the ward, and the house of the receiver of such visited person to be shut up for twenty days.
Every visited House to be marked.
'That every house visited be marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say, "Lord, have mercy upon us," to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house.
Every visited House to be watched.
'That the constables see every house shut up, and to be attended with watchmen, which may keep them in, and minister necessaries unto them at their own charges, if they be able, or at the common charge, if they are unable; the shutting up to be for the space of four weeks after all be whole.
'That precise order to be taken that the searchers, chirurgeons, keepers, and buriers are not to pass the streets without holding a red rod or wand of three feet in length in their hands, open and evident to be seen, and are not to go into any other house than into their own, or into that whereunto they are directed or sent for; but to forbear and abstain from company, especially when they have been lately used in any such business or attendance.
'That where several inmates are in one and the same house, and any person in that house happens to be infected, no other person or family of such house shall be suffered to remove him or themselves without a certificate from the examiners of health of that parish; or in default thereof, the house whither he or they so remove shall be shut up as in case of visitation.
Hackney-Coaches. (Taxis!) 
'That care be taken of hackney-coachmen, that they may not (as some of them have been observed to do after carrying of infected persons to the pest-house and other places) be admitted to common use till their coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six days after such service.'
The Streets to be kept Clean.
'First, it is thought necessary, and so ordered, that every householder do cause the street to be daily prepared before his door, and so to keep it clean swept all the week long.
That Rakers take it from out the Houses.
'That the sweeping and filth of houses be daily carried away by the rakers, and that the raker shall give notice of his coming by the blowing of a horn, as hitherto hath been done.
Laystalls to be made far off from the City.
'That the laystalls be removed as far as may be out of the city and common passages, and that no nightman or other be suffered to empty a vault into any garden near about the city.
Care to be had of unwholesome Fish or Flesh, and of musty Corn.
'That special care be taken that no stinking fish, or unwholesome flesh, or musty corn, or other corrupt fruits of what sort soever, be suffered to be sold about the city, or any part of the same.
'That the brewers and tippling-houses be looked into for musty and unwholesome casks.
'That no hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or ponies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the city, or any swine to be or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle or any other officer, and the owner punished according to Act of Common Council, and that the dogs be killed by the dog-killers appointed for that purpose.'
'Forasmuch as nothing is more complained of than the multitude of rogues and wandering beggars that swarm in every place about the city, being a great cause of the spreading of the infection, and will not be avoided, notwithstanding any orders that have been given to the contrary: It is therefore now ordered, that such constables, and others whom this matter may any way concern, take special care that no wandering beggars be suffered in the streets of this city in any fashion or manner whatsoever, upon the penalty provided by the law, to be duly and severely executed upon them.
'That all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.
Feasting prohibited.
'That all public feasting, and particularly by the companies of this city, and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.
'That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained in that behalf.
'And for the better execution of these orders, and such other rules and directions as, upon further consideration, shall be found needful: It is ordered and enjoined that the aldermen, deputies, and common councilmen shall meet together weekly, once, twice, thrice or oftener (as cause shall require), at some one general place accustomed in their respective wards (being clear from infection of the plague), to consult how the said orders may be duly put in execution; not intending that any dwelling in or near places infected shall come to the said meeting while their coming may be doubtful. And the said aldermen, and deputies, and common councilmen in their several wards may put in execution any other good orders that by them at their said meetings shall be conceived and devised for preservation of his Majesty's subjects from the infection.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Chechén and Chacá

Behind the cyathea here, you can just glimpse the trunks of our Chechén and Chacá saplings. 

There’s a ancient Mayan legend about these trees, always found together, one with a toxic black sap, the other with a brown bark that serves as the antidote. 

Kinic and Tizic were brave, warrior brothers, both of whom had a thing for the beautiful Nicté-Ha. Kind hearted Kinic’s motives were honourable. Tizic, let’s say, was a bit of a wrong’un. Their duel ended in a deadly draw. The Gods subsequently decided that they should be reborn as this forever affiliated dyad of the Mayan forest. 

I am not sure how they arrived in our garden, but I went through a phase a few years ago of collecting seeds during trips around the Yucatán. Poor Nicté-Ha came back as a species of white lily, which we have yet to acquire. The bamboo is irrepressible. 

In Theory...

Last Christmas (2019)

Last Christmas's big box-office hit was resoundingly declared a turkey by leading critics on both sides of the pond, but I honestly can't see what there is here to get all scroogey about. 

Many have bellyached about the 'twist'. Over at the Telegraph Robbie Collin says it 'lands on your head like a grand piano'. 

FFS, this movie is quoting sources like Fleabag and Sixth Sense in the way that Scary Movie parodied Scream. The payoff is not meant to be a twist at all. This is a Christmas movie, designed for repeat viewing, and its writers (Emma Thompson, her partner Greg Wise and Byrony Kimmings) are rather obviously aware that the majority of times it will be viewed, the audience will absolutely know what's going on. Anyway, if you don't twig within minutes of Henry Golding's first appearance, then there is something seriously wrong with you. 

Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian labelled it 'a grisly sub-Richard Curtis festive pudding'. Yet when it comes to Richard Curtis, the subber the better as far as I am concerned. Curtis's version of London, rather like Woody Allen's, is not one I recognise; in short, utterly irritating. 

Sure, Emma Thompson's London is more than a bit liberal elitey, but then so am I, and it is packed with little details that resonate. It feels real where it needs to be, and yet utterly absurd as the genre demands as well.

There are loads of cultural references that worked for me: those little, hidden spaces, the benches with memorials, red buses in Regent's Street, the Docklands, Inigo Jones's 'piazza' in Covent Garden, which I have seen transformed since I first walked around its boarded-up colonnades in '79, and which went on to become one of the key recreation zones of my adolescence. 

But most of all, that song, one of the saddest festive ditties ever composed, and which at the close of 1984, established itself as the lifelong soundtrack to my recollections of a particularly melancholic phase of my existence. 

Its title, borrowed by the film, refers to at least three things here. One of them, the passing of its writer on Christmas Day 2016 is implicit in the 2017 setting I would suggest. George himself had proposed the idea of a screenplay scored with his music and had given Thompson and co permission to go ahead before his untimely death. I don't think it's a stretch, given some of the content and the release date, that we are also being asked to contemplate the mood of the final British Chrimbo before Brexit. 

And I think that overall, the movie earns its finale where Emilia Clarke is allowed to perform a surprisingly upbeat cover version of Last Christmas. 

Yet Mark Kermode went on air to complain that the whole sorry spectacle is grounded in a misinterpretation of George Michael's lyrics, which is one of the more misplaced criticisms one could possibly lay down about this movie.

What is is definitely grounded in is gentle yet sophisticated British humour. so while I can see why American critics* might not appreciate this, it's a little bizarre that it fell so flat with our own.

Can one really imagine that Emma Thompson, MA hons Cantab, doesn't realise that Michelle Yeoh's shop in Covent Garden market, packed to the rafters with Christmas tat, all year round, is an essentially silly idea? It's a JOKE. As are the fact that Tom 'works nights' and Katarina's mother's quip that Brexit should be blamed on the Poles. 

My feeling is that this grinchiness possibly reveals something about the way critics consume their films, in sessions of three or four in one go. Back in the early noughties we used to do this at a cinema in east London. And we found that the mood of one movie could readily bleed into its successor, so that one could struggle to adapt to the quiet sensibility of a piece preceded by another with a high body count. 

If you've just sat through a whizz-bang episode of Star Wars some of the poignant details of London life captured here might just pass you by. In this respect the moment where the writing and performance peak in Last Christmas occurs where Kate and Tom converse, sitting on the floor of his flat. There's something just a little bit moving about that scene and that location, which transcends the colourful campness all around it.

This isn't a one star movie; it has merits enough to deserve three, and we gave it an extra half star, just because it touched us as it amused us. 

PS: One of the best ways to witness Covent Garden in its previous existence as a fruit and veg and flower market before the transformation into cultural centre by the GLC, is a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). 

* David Fear, Rolling Stone magazine > Last Christmas is bad. Incredibly, shockingly, monumentally bad. The kind of bad that falls somewhere between finding a lump of coal in your stocking and discovering one painfully lodged in your rectum.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tiempos Recios (2)

Readers may recall that I was struggling to see the elephant. Well, very soon afterwards it definitely manifested itself and turned out to be a bit of a mammoth. A very fine beast indeed. 

Some of my earlier reservations remain, such as the uncommon menagerie of styles, especially in the opening 150 pages or so. 

I went in blind with a sense that this would be a novel set around Guatemala's 1954 coup, notoriously cooked up by the CIA. We definitely get there in the end, though these passages were the most textbook-like and Vargas Llosa had meanwhile digressed in several directions around the timeline. 

At the heart of the novel is a kind of alternative history of the aftermath of the American intervention, specifically a take on the circumstances of the assassination of President Carlos Castillo Armas in July 1957, which is not the account you'll find on Wikipedia. 

He says the idea was suggested to him over a meal in the Dominican Republic three years ago by an old friend, the poet-journalist Tony Raful, to whom this book has been dedicated. One of those dinner parties, he adds, that one ought not to attend. 

Let's just bear in mind that Vargas Llosa gave public support to the least credible of the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder of Bishop Gerardi here in 1998 (the one peddled by Arzú), but the idea of Trujillista involvement in the magnicidio has been around for some time and Raful has written his own book on the subject. 

The conceit allows Vargas Llosa to re-animate a personage from La Fiesta del Chivo (2000), Trujillo's fix it and fix them man, Johnny Abbés García, a key player in what was arguably the Peruvian's last great novel. He's been phoning it in recently, but not here.

Abbés García is one of a handful of key protagonists in this book, none of whom, it must be said, are particularly nice people, yet are nevertheless treated fairly compassionately by the author.

In between their personalised trajectories we get chapters that read like a history book. As if Spielberg suddenly switched to a History Channel-style documentary midway through Saving Private Ryan

But on balance this doesn't bother me all that much, as I recognise that a non-fiction release about the fate of Castillo Armas would be read by almost nobody, while this first edition in Spanish of Tiempos Recios has a run of 180,000 copies. 

And it is interesting, with a writer who has worked hard to separate out his roles as Nobel Prize-winning purveyor of literature and as right-of-centre political hack, to see him consciously serve up a hybrid such as this. ('Investigo para mentir con conocimiento de causa'.

In the final chapters he switches into first person mode and describes an interview with one of the individuals he has fictionalised, Marta Borrero Parra, aka Miss Guatemala, who duly suggests a different version of some of the events in the earlier narrative. 

The last paragraph (above) summarises a heartfelt position that I am completely on board with — that the US sponsored 'liberationist' invasion of Guatemala in 1954 was the punto de inflexión, e.g. the moment the path forked in the 20th century history of Latin America. 

Thereafter the only ways forward were those of extreme left and extreme right and decades of debilitating conflict. And the template for US policy, on this continent and elsewhere, had been set. 

Vargas Llosa notes how Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was in Guatemala City at the time selling encyclopedias and had to take refuge in the Argie embassy. I myself recall the quotation on the side of El Comandante's tomb in Santa Clara, Cuba, which specifically identifies the fall of Árbenz as the moment which radicalised him. 

He goes on to assert that the Cuban revolution would not have taken the form it did, had not Fidel witnessed how the gringos behaved towards Guatemala's democratic, modernising government. 

This is all largely true, yet my reading of Guevara's biography is that he had already formed an opinion on American involvement in the region, specifically by comparing the reformist governments of Guatemala and Costa Rica, and anyone who has read The Motorcycle Diaries will know that his political formation stretched back even further. 

Nevertheless, not only is the Guatemala coup a precursor to later events in the Caribbean, it is more significant than the deposition and murder of Allende in Chile, for the latter really was a bit of a commie whose ideas of economic reform were not unlike those of Maduro in contemporary Venezuela. And Pinochet was not an outsider leading an invading army of foreign-funded mercenaries like Castillo Armas. 

No, the horror of what the Yanks did in 1954 is that it crushed a genuine if ultimately naïve attempt to lift Guatemala out of feudal torpor and lay the foundations of a modern social-democratic state. 

Árbenz tended to admire Taiwan over the People's Republic and yet fell victim to a concerted defamation campaign conceived in the offices of a New York PR company that sought to finger him as a Soviet stooge. And all so that United Fruit might continue occupying land it didn't use and avoid paying a centavo in taxes. 

Anyone with an interest in this country and the history of the region should give this novel a go.