Monday, January 25, 2021

Targeting the vaccine...


Just over half of Britain's c4000 patients in ICU as a result of covid-19 are aged between 50 and 69. 

Yet the first phase of the vaccine programme has targeted the oldest age-group, the 80+s, as these are the likeliest to die from the disease. 

Robert Peston suggested on Coffee House recently that this has been an essentially political decision as Boris, in spite of all the rhetoric about protecting the NHS, is most concerned about the top line stat of covid-related deaths. 

Here in Guatemala the calculus may eventually be slightly different. It would seem that people are dying younger (in part because they generally don't live so long) and, although I have no up-to-date stats on this, I suspect that hospitalisation is less effective here as a way of staving off pandemic mortality. 

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock spoke this morning of 'relentless' pressure on the NHS and one can only suspect that public healthcare here, even with proportionally fewer infections, is already under severe strain.

And so we shall have to see where the Guatemalan government chooses to direct the first limited batch of vaccines that they have ordered. 


As the ice sheet advanced and retreated over the north west of Europe, human beings repeatedly pushed up into the landmass that would become the British Isles. Yet there was no permanent settlement until around 15,000 BC. 

The so-called Jurassic Coast was not then a coast at all and what is now the North Sea became a hot and humid zone of woodlands and wetlands: Doggerland, a landscape and lifestyle opportunity described thus by Peter Ackroyd in Foundation...

Oak woods, marshes covered by reeds, and open grasslands covered the land. It was a warm and humid world. Red deer and voles inhabited the landscape; but they shared it with elephants and macaque monkeys. Among them wandered groups of humans, twenty-five or more in each group, pursuing their prey. They fired upon the animals with flint arrowheads, and used carved reindeer antlers as axes; they carried wooden spears. We do not know how they were organized but the discovery of ‘butchery sites’, where tools were manufactured and food prepared away from the main settlements, suggests a measure of social control.

Modern identities like 'Celt' and 'Anglo-Saxon' are to some extent a vestige of the nineteenth century nationalist posturings. Post-imperial migrations from what is now Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe were part of an older and deeper process. Ackroyd additionally notes how this prehistoric pedigree has persisted in the populations of England. 

In 1995 two palaeontologists discovered that the material from a male body, found in the caves of Cheddar Gorge and interred 9,000 years ago, was a close match with that of residents still living in the immediate area. 

My own paternal ancestors, these days designated as Celt-Iberians, arrived at some stage before the Roman legions, when the waters had risen and the archipelago was taking its familiar modern shape. 

I've long assumed they took the so called 'Atlantic route' in rudimentary boats, but this map suggests that they just as easily might have walked it. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Evilevers S01E02 'The Last Supper'

And thus, unaware of the semi-severed connection between Jason Lever and that other con man 'Don Marco', we took ownership of the property adjacent to his in 2013. 

Our first face to face encounter was not long in coming. We were walking our dogs on the road close to the old Spa, a few hundred yards from our main entrance, when Lever suddenly appeared from around the corner on his scooter and was duly chased by three of the dogs that reside at the Santiago de los Caballeros school there. 

He stopped, apparently to introduce himself, but his opening remarks concerned his canine escort. When they follow me this way, he said, I like to stop and kick them. 

Then, perhaps sensing our gathering dismay at this carefully packaged first impression, he continued: "But, if they continue to bother me, I'll give them some food..."

A moment of relief. Was he extricating himself? No. 

"This will be their last meal..."

He described the crowning morsel thus: a big juicy steak packed with aspirin, "so they bleed out on the inside..."

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this was that there had been no question for either of us, at least at first, that Lever was trying to impress us, yet as the violent fantasy he projected grew darker, the insinuated threat that it betokened became ever less equivocal. 

To all those that bother me, he seemed to be saying, I might start off with some reflex and fairly mindless aggression, but thereafter, if they don't back off, I will come up with something altogether more premeditated and vicious. 

Several years later I would hear Lever boasting of how he lacks empathy, as if this were some sort of Australian superpower. But by that time we did not require any verbal confirmation. 

Animal cruelty is a behavioural marker of delinquency, and worse. 

That very first exchange with a man who thought this was an appropriate way to present himself to a couple out walking their three dogs, has remained vivid in my mind, increasingly leavened with hindsight. 

At the time we were still resident in our original property in the village, a three storey town house, but the more extensive garden at the new place acted as a constant lure, and while we employed a builder called Edwin to establish basic level of habitability through 2014, we would show up with our dogs most afternoons just to enjoy the open space. 

On one such occasion Edwin shared with us a short video he had made with his mobile phone. He had been working on some stairs and a narrow terrace along the inside of the front wall, which would provide our German Shepherd Jin with a zone of his own to patrol. From this position Edwin had a partial view into Lever's front garden as our neighbour was already being quite obstinate in his refusal to build his own wall. 

Lever had appeared carrying a small black puppy that he had recently taken in and had started to repeatedly punch it in the belly. He then bent over and pushed the puppy's snout into one of the cactuses that were clustered there, rubbing it repeatedly back and forth, seemingly oblivious to the dog's wails. 

This was one of the most disturbing things I have ever been made to contemplate, and I've seen some messed up shit. 

And it was not an isolated incident. On numerous other occasions we could hear the abuse of this poor little puppy taking place next door and our own dog Mochi always used to go crazy with alarm and, dare I suggest, empathy. 

Eventually Mochi would start to react frantically at the mere scent of our lurking neighbour. (She died last year from a mysterious internal bleeding that our vet tried unsuccessfully to treat with antibiotics.)

For us both it is a matter of profoundest regret that we did nothing about it at the time. This was what we have come to see as 'the period of appeasement' (the subject of a future episode), the span of two whole years where we repeatedly witnessed disturbing examples of unhinged behaviour, yet took no action because we ourselves were not the direct objects of it. The path of least resistance was to look away. 

Though in the specific case of the animal cruelty our options were then fairly limited, as Guatemala had yet to pass its Ley de Bienestar Animal (2017). 

Lever, apparently aware that we had become inconvenient witnesses to his callousness, made a ham-fisted attempt to apologise to me one afternoon in the village, when I bumped into him walking the puppy with his then girlfriend. 

The problem, he explained, was that he had grown up with female dogs and was just not used to males. 

Shortly afterwards the little black puppy disappeared and was replaced with two bitches. 

PS: Edwin has gone on to become a witness to Lever's constant moronic and brutish harassment of my wife. 

In this still taken from a security cam video (2018) he is standing in our entrance along with a colleague, conversing with V about another project when Lever whizzes by again insulting her both verbally and with an obscene gesture.

Previous episode 


This graph illustrates why the increased mortality associated with the so-called 'British' strain may in fact be a consequence of its contagiousness. 

In other words, if a mutation of the novel coronavirus ups infectiousness while another increases the likelihood of dying, with a roughly proportional increment, it is really the speed and extent of the spread of the former which will tend to do the greatest harm in the population in the medium term.  

Either way I think we Brits have got this covered! 


Friday, January 22, 2021


We took in a classic movie this week, starring Karlheinz Böhm, son of the legendary Austrian conductor.  You'll have to wait a day or so to find out which one. 

Karl's grandiose Eroica, with its purposefully ponderous funeral march, was part of the soundtrack to my fresher year at Cambridge. Klemperer's was even more leisurely. 

(If you want to hear how this symphony supposedly ought to sound, try Harnoncourt.) 

Böhm senior also scored many a long car journey with my father — specifically his interpretations of the Brahms symphonies.

This symphony is perhaps a lasting testament to the dangers of idolising someone too early in life. Beethoven was certainly one of my totems as a student. He was in fact one of the first men to ever be commemorated by a statue. These days however, that's not such a good look. 

In The Spectator last month Jonathan Biss declared the German composer his man of the year...
Aside from its greatness — which hardly needs to be explained, by me or anyone else — the reason Beethoven’s music has had such special significance for me these past nine months is that it is the product of a person who was profoundly alone, and who found remarkable power and possibility in aloneness.

Nevertheless, a week or so later James Wood wrote in the LRB of how, as a child, he conspicuously failed to pick up his father's obsession with the music...

I disliked Beethoven’s bombast: the melodramatic dynamic contrasts that seemed like huge arguments followed by wheedling tears; the endless endings of the symphonies, as the brassy orchestra wumps from tonic to dominant to tonic, over and over again. The beer-cellar heroism in major keys – the aspect of Beethoven that sometimes offended even Adorno as ‘ham-acting’, ‘a mere “boom boom”’. Even the beauties of the famous slow movements – the Pathétique or Appassionata, say – seemed stiflingly ‘noble’ on a dull Northern English Sunday afternoon. The string quartets with their polite rustle.

I still stand amazed, especially with the stuff scribbled down by the 'deaf old bear', and yet as I grow older, the music and my prevailing moods seem further apart than they did thirty odd years ago in a corner room at Girton. 

Perhaps old Ludwig was just a little too humourless for 2020, though he was nevertheless fond of a drink. Indeed, it has been suggested that he died as a result of the lead in his vino tinto.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Evilevers: S01E01 'Pilot'

Over the past eight years I have accumulated enough material to write quite a juicy piece of fiction about the escalating incidents of encroachment and violent harassment that we have suffered at the hands of an Australian citizen named Jason Wade Lever. 

It's really such a long and complicated story that I have fretted over how to share it, as I feel I now must. In narrative form, as protocol dictates, names and details would be altered, but here on this medium I shall be open and factual. And episodic. 

Our first encounter with this individual in 2013 began with a description of torture and concluded with a thinly veiled threat (...of poisoning). 

Veiled threats led to not-so-veiled threats, and to repeated acts of aggression in the streets of our village, with no care for who might get caught up in them: friends, family, children. Trespass, both digital and physical. 

But in particular there has been a pattern of vile, misogynistic and frankly pervy abuse directed against my wife.  

And then there is the stuff at which most well-balanced teenagers would turn up their noses: an intense and utterly infantile, six-week cyber-bullying campaign and behaviour like this — giving the finger to our security cameras while he wizzes by on a douche-ati. 


panza verde professional that came to hear of our plight and who, whilst not personally acquainted with Lever, occasionally mingles amidst the same ex-pat cliques, decided to conduct an investigation into this individual, entirely off his own bat.

When he presented his report to me in his office, it was a tale of alcohol and substance abuse plus mental problems, yet he added that Lever was pretty well liked within his own milieux, considered to be non-violent and widely believed to have put many of his past problems behind him by marrying a nice local girl. 

That, however, is not the story I am going to tell. 

But to begin with, like all good tales, it has a bit of a backstory...  

Longer-termers around here will no doubt recall this rather sordid character, Jeffrey L. Cassman, who went by the name of Mark Francis whilst on the lam here in Antigua. 

At the time this snap was taken at a gasolinera in Ciudad Vieja in 2010, Cassman had been wanted by the FBI for a couple of years, as he'd made a career of swindling a bunch of people back in his native Tennessee and nearby states. 

It was a punter from Arkansas who eventually rang the bell on one of the 'fool proof' investment schemes touted by Cassman Financial, forcing the eponymous 'advisor' to flee south over the Tropic of Cancer with his spouse and then nine children. (Oh, and in excess of $350,000 that didn't really belong to him). 

Ensconced in Antigua as 'Don Marco' he was soon up to his old tricks, not exactly full ponzi, but a friend of mine once shared with me a prospectus for a 'fool proof' tuctuc fleet start-up that JC had circulated, which insisted it would pay double digit returns from the first year onwards.

Eventually some of his ill-gotten gains from both here and stateside went into a local operation called El Ocelote SA, the name of which is still proudly displayed right inside the entrance to the business that now meets the world under the umbrella brand El Barrio. (It is also a company whose utility bills I discovered had been registered to my own private address, but more on that nonsense in future episodes.) 

I have no reason to conclude that this estafador has ceased to be a sleeping partner of sorts there. He was certainly back in Antigua a couple of years ago, having announced proudly on the interwebs that he needed to check out his various business interests. 

Before he was marched off in handcuffs, one Jason Lever, occasional miner, had also reportedly been Cassman's employee. And with Don Marco off to spend a four year sentence in federal lock-up (he pleaded guilty), Lever soon re-styled his image from employee to co-proprietor; the new alpha. 

At the time we acquired this property next door to this still-single Western Australian larrikin, I had no notion of any connection between this pair, but its significance cannot now be discounted, because readers might remember how Mark Francis, auteur of GuateLiving, became my wholly uninvited digital snooper and stalker. 

His blog is long gone, but not before I harvested it in its entirety. 

Using his alter-ego, Cassman presented himself as a Latin mass exclusive, Catholic fanatic (years behind bars have not prevented him adding four more offspring to his tally), as a right-wing extremist (and one that has lately segued effortlessly into support for the insurrectionist-in-chief) and as an unrepentant xenophobe. 

I generally hesitate to bandy about the R word, but the level of respect he showed to this country and its inhabitants whilst he skulked around here as an unwanted guest was almost certainly deserving of it. 

Above all, a hypocrite, for the word on the streets after his arrest was that his extra-marital indiscretions had contributed to his downfall. Yet somehow his wife has stuck by him, even though he scammed her close family as well and had left her in a run down house with their now ten kids when he was carted off back to Nashville. 

I never met him and it remains a mystery to me what I could have done to merit those flourishings of attention that began to appear like a morbid infatuation. This is the first time I have in a sense responded personally and proportionately to the drip drip of caustic abuse I had for almost two years. 

Yet this experience was but a tiny part of this 'ripping yarn' recounted at some length elsewhere...

Even if the connection I intuit here is coincidental, the undeniable commonality for me is that men who are pretty much all facade and who derive pleasure from preying on others, also tend to suffer from simmering resentments. 

And vendettas often have deeper, more twisted roots than one may at first be able to grasp.  

Stay tuned...

The Endless (2017)


Let's suppose that on New Year's Eve last year some unfortunate event occurred (probably also rather unpleasant) and you found yourself shunted back to the beginning of the month. And then again, and again. 

It would only take a moment's reflection to comprehend what that would entail on both a personal and more inter-personal scale. There would be the matter of Donald Trump as a bitter and twisted, lame duck President, forever. And depending on one's geographical location there would be restrictions to endure, endlessly, like not being able to get mullered with one's mates at the pub or hug (and thus possibly euthanise) granny. 

This scenario is, if I may be so bold, marginally more interesting than the one at the heart of The Endless which asks how much '...and repeat' could be deemed preferable to the finitude of what vampires dread as the True Death

Infinite temporal loops have become more usually a trope of movie comedies, with Groundhog Day as the generic term. In last year's Palm Springs we witnessed the standard set-up with some of the characters aware that they are loopy, but almost everybody else not. 

Part of the trouble here is that we see characters temporally re-setting with what appears to be at best partial awareness, and this adds an element of that sort ambiguity that goes by the name of befuddlement. For we do kind of need to know what the cost is in terms of freedom of action.

I suppose the screenplay for this film began with the thought 'Say there was this UFO death cult, and...' yet the trouble is that the scenario imposes constraints on the central conundrum that are, in the main, unhelpful. 

And the two main protagonists (played by the writer-directors themselves) indulge in a debate about whether to accept the terms of the loop that sounds like a pair of corporate bean counters debating whether it is time to shut down the Manchester office. 

We watched this almost like consuming the starter after the main course that was Synchronic, the newest output from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. For that film they'd presumably been given more money and some better known actors as surrogates for their own double-act, yet the fundamental deficiencies were repeated. 

Both stories need bigger characters; a bigger situation. And both address one of life's greatest metaphysical mysteries in a way that feels under-accomplished, like a B+ essay.  That we exist in what could be an infinite reality full of finite material stuff is a thought that deserves just a bit better than this. 

(If this had been pitched to me, I'd have said 'TV show'.) 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Last Day(s)


The eventual outline of 2020 and the one that 2021 also appears to be adopting, inexorably

As the players took to the knee before yesterday's Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle, the commentator spoke of a year defined by an increase in social consciousness. 

Given the inherently ‘half empty’ handicap applied to any retrospective on the past twelve months, this apparently cheery note jarred just a little. It would not be so hard to make the opposite case. 

I suppose on a personal level, 2020 had its isolated pluses. There were Mila’s kittens, my investment in Tesla, the discovery of the work of Lawrence Osborne...

Trump’s denouement too, though this has yet to feel fully cathartic. 

I'll be off later to acquire a bottle of champagne. As Dan Rather noted on Twitter today, it feels a bit like Christmas Eve. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Grand Armée

The Minard Map, touted by Tufte as the greatest statistical graphic of all time, shows the direction and (declining) human mass of Napoleon's Grand Armée on its path in and out of Russia.
Sadly, it should be possible to knock up something similar for Honduran 'migrant caravans'.

Druk / Another Round (2020)

Druk joins the greats of Thomas Vinterberg's back catalogue (The Hunt, Festen...) in the 'don't hold your breath for an American remake' bucket.

In this delightful film, four male, middle-aged, teachers at a gymnasium in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen decide to test the theory of Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, that we are all born with a blood alcohol content that is just a glass or two of vino too low — and that if we can attain and maintain a suitably elevated level during the daytime, our personal and professional lives will become so much more satisfying.
Each member of this quartet is experiencing an urgent desire for a form of re-flourishing, particularly Martin, a history teacher whose students are in open revolt with their parents against his bafflingly anaesthetic classroom style. For this role Mads Michelson rejoins Vinterberg. Has he ever been in a truly bad movie?
PS: I thought Druk (rendered as Another Round for the anglophone market) probably means drunk, but Google thinks binge drinking might be a better translation.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Synchronic (2019)

The past, present and future are 'local' not global phenomena. Modern science owes this revelation to Albert Einstein.

One month before his own death the physicist wrote a letter to the sister of his recently departed friend Michele Besso, in which he noted that the fact that one person passes before another 'means nothing' and that all our experience of time is in a sense, illusory.
Nevertheless, Italian pointy-head Carlo Rovelli has warned us against treating this memetic soundbite out of context, as something vocalised by an oracle. Einstein, he notes, was grieving and attempting to offer a shared comfort.

Nevertheless, a sentence within that letter forms the basis of the premise of Synchronic, which has the potential to be profound, yet limits itself to the shallowest of implementations — there's a new designer drug which messes with our pineal gland, apparently the part of our brain responsible for the conscious experience of the very personal, if not illusory, present. Younger people, whose pineal glands have yet to calcify, not only experience potentially dangerous temporal commingling, but actually travel back in time physically...for seven minutes.
From this point onwards, the more I try to explain this premise, the more arbitrary and generally silly it is going to sound. If chronology is an illusion established inside our minds, why would the physical body itself hop between times, for if the disappearing human form can be seen and filmed, then there is inherently a shared, objective element to all this. Exit Einstein.
The protagonist is at one point left trying to explain why his dog's lead, minus the actual dog, has returned to his original present, and says something remarkably similar to 'It's quantum, baby'. This is just lazy.
Still, as B movies go, and there do seem to be a lot of them around right now, this one is fairly engaging. On some levels it works better as horror than sci-fi. One is left with the impression that there is no point in the history of New Orleans that was anything other than a nightmarish ordeal. Even contemporary NOLA, garden district and all, is presented as a penumbral mind-trip.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Zoila Urízar Soto, aka La Canche; RIP

The passing of 'La Canche', so soon after her shrine-like shop beside La Merced, had us traipsing back down memory lane this afternoon.

We were trying to recall how many of the businesses which existed when we first met are still with us, and then proceeded to delve yet deeper into the era of my wife's childhood.
Bakeries have fared better than most. The San Antonio (Cuchi-Cuchi) and others were all up and running. Stationery shops were also doing quite well, at least until the pandemic. The Mariposa was there on the corner of the park, with an earlier incarnation of the Azmitia print shop a block or so away.
The vast majority of the long surviving restaurants tend to be Chinese, most prominently La Gran Muralla.
On the Calle del Arco the Fonda had long assumed its station but, believe it or not, there was no Pollo Campero to be found.
Cafe Ana was there on its own corner, decades before its near neighbourhood came to be dominated by the 'Panzón Verde'.
Helados Sarita sat roughly where one finds Café Condesa today, the latter one of those contemporary establishments like Doña Luisa, El Viejo Café and so on, whose job, like much of the rest of the city, is to look like they have been around forever, when they haven't.
Gilda Jolas's dance school was nestled into the arch and the Casa Troccoli was long established, though the present store is more of a reincarnation than a continuation.
As for Doña Maria Gordillo's traditional sweet shop, but of course.
What have we missed?

(La Canche, born in the same year as my mother, may have to be notched up as yet another victim of a local phenomenon which can be put down to the inadequate pension provision in Guatemala. I fear many of the over 65s here are continuing to run small retail businesses with unavoidable customer contact at a time when they really ought to be comparatively sheltered.)

Shadow In The Cloud (2020)

This movie is basically one big WTF from beginning to end. I guarantee you that if I were to start fully describing the premise and how it pans out, you would soon start facepalming.

The 'absolute blast' described by the poster comes afterwards when one learns that this feminist WWII caper with lashings of misogyny and suggested gaslighting was co-written by a man accused of abuse in Hollywood by eight different women.

The action is set on an American bomber dubbed The Fool's Errand en route to Samoan islands from Auckland and there are some very strange individuals on board. Describing two of them would involve unnecessary spoilers, but there is also a grisly Scotsman and a gremlin.

The latter can be rather unfavourably contrasted with members of the rampaging reptilian mob in Joe Dante's 1984 classic, which were comfortable as both actual and metaphorical presences in the plot. This larger, more bat-like cousin is seemingly disconnected from all the other unfathomable stuff going on around it, including an apparently impossible attack by Japanese zeros.

It's true that the term Gremlin originated in the RAF during the 1920s, but these little beasties were always supposed to be mischievous rather than downright malevolent.

Anyway, the sense of foreboding I was left with was the realisation that low budget genre movies made in New Zealand may soon end up representing a greater proportion of our overall feature length viewing options.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Dangerous President vs Dangerous Precedent 'debate'...

Watching the impeachment debate in the House this morning has left me slightly underwhelmed with what one speaker referred to as this 'tabernacle of democracy'. 

I'm not a regular viewer of this soap opera, so I suppose I will have to allow that this particular episode might not be typical. 

Yet, just as Brexit tended to expose what is both good and bad about the UK's parliamentary system, #POTUS45 has been a sort of flesh and blood bug test of the US Constitution for the past four years. 

Some of the problems I perceived today can be attributed to personalities. Nancy Pelosi's own uninspiring contribution was along the lines of "Lincoln, bla, bla, Kennedy, bla bla, last best hope...etc." 

She's not the only American politician who seems to think history exists in order to be recited like passages from the Bible. 

There's a deeper issue. Westminster-style oratory is famously adversarial. The way different speakers pop up and tussle verbally during the course of a debate allows for a process akin to thesis+antithesis=synthesis. It may be rare, but you sense that opinions can fluctuate in the collective during the time allocated. 

Instead, inside this recently-violated tabernacle, the members of congress pop up and deliver, from notes, the opinions they all must have already possessed when they woke up in the morning. That's really not how democracy is supposed to work. it's certainly not how the Athenians did it.

The Serpent


A eight part British TV drama with only one British speaking part I can recall (a consular official who looks a bit like Lord Lucan after some disappointing plastic surgery and does little more than grunt), and thus an opportunity for a range of my nation's upcoming thesps to show off their knack for accents. 

Tim McInnerny, perhaps the least upcoming of them, abandons all pretence of being authentically Belgian after his first appearance, reverting to and remaining at loud, blustering generic foreigner for the duration. Billy Howle and Ellie Bamber seem a bit more up for it, however. 

And poor old Jenna Coleman has to speak actual French, though as a Québecoise not in a manner that is recognisably such. (She's perhaps a bit too relentlessly stylish here throughout, I eventually concluded. If there was some cognitive dissonance on offer on my fairly recent trip to Montreal, it was that here is a city where the population speak French and dress, well, like Canadians.)

All of this may be helping to disguise one piece of casting with the potential for some real controversy: Tahar Rabim, playing a man of mixed European and East Asian parentage.

There's a handful of as-cast foreigners in the show too. Mathilde Warnier almost certainly hired as Nadine for her conspicuous ability to deliver oblique, intensely-apprehensive glances worthy of a Mexican telenovela. And the first couple of episodes feature two objectionable Aussies, played of course by actual Antipodeans, so as not to offend. 

Yet all this confabulated exoticism, combined with a timeline that behaves like a Mexican jumping bean, undoubtedly contributes to the charm of this thriller, for the most part set in Bangkok and in the 70s. It tracks the career of a chillingly chippy psycho who preys upon 'young intrepids with big dreams', or those seemingly known to embassy personnel  in Thailand as 'long hairs'. 

The fundamental clash of worldviews is teased and yet not fully developed. It all ends up a bit in the wind, rather like (spoiler alert) my favourite character Ajay, played by relative newcomer Amesh Edireweera. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Idle Curiosity

When we Brits observe a mob like the one that stormed the US Capitol last week, the question 'how many of these people have passports?' springs readily to mind.

Of course many of these patriots might have been abroad as part of the US’s bloated armed forces. What we really mean is how many have travelled beyond the borders of their nation out of sheer idle curiosity. Yet this is essentially a very British anxiety.

It was us who seemingly invented travel undertaken for the purpose of secular self-improvement, more for the mind than the soul, and modern tourism essentially began as an offshoot of our empire.

Sometimes, as was the case with Egypt, we sent our tourists (along with Thomas Cook and his infrastructure, travellers cheques etc.) before even the gunboats.

For citizens of the self-styled ‘greatest nation on Earth’ it is hard to get around the fact that the most self-improving thing any human being is supposed to be able to do is travel to the USA and simply remain there.

It's supposed to be enough. The entire culture is based around approximating a degree of satisfaction which could never be fully transcended by any experience of otherness. And a fairly large proportion of that small proportion of Americans with passports apparently prefer to travel to places which reproduce as much of their familiar home environment and concomitant consumer satisfactions as is feasible for mere foreigners.

A society so relentlessly dedicated to chasing satisfaction will of course experience phases of renunciation. Many Americans and other westerners of the boomer generation took to the world’s then lesser-trodden trails in the latter stages of the twentieth century in a quest for the authentic that significantly contributed to the elimination of anything worthy of the name from the surface of the Earth.

And for most of the last century there was a steady flow of more educated and affluent Americans towards European cities like Paris and Florence in an echo of the eighteenth century Grand Tour — though for the most part missing out on some of the more earthy fun (and risk) formative English gentlemen had experienced in places like Venice a couple of centuries earlier.

Today, much much of modern travel seems to have become self-improving in a sadly more limited sense — that of improving the image that others have of one’s self. Such experiences are undertaken not so much for themselves, as for their value as fodder for visual presentation on social media.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Ayatollah Time?

Donald Trump Jr > “Free speech is dead and controlled by leftist overlords.”
I'm no friend of cancel culture, but this is no time to compare the silencing of the insurgent-in-chief with the no-platforming of a controversial speaker at some University campus.
Unlike the BBC, Twitter has no charter committing it to a variety of rose-tinted neutrality. In as much that Trump would find it hard to be employed as a columnist at the New Statesman, Twitter has concluded some seemingly tough editorial demarcation, reportedly aided by employee sentiment.
There are few enemies of western democracy/common decency that have an automatic right to this platform.
Trump can keep blathering. Amnesty International need not sweat. It's just that he will end up like that bloke in the corner of the pub...

Happy 158th Birthday


To the London Underground. 

The Enigma of Room 622

During the course of a short sojourn on the Mayan Riviera a couple of years ago I discovered that the key I had been given opened every room in the hotel. This immediately struck me as good material for a short story. The circumstances of my discovery would provide the impulse for the narrative. 

I've probably mentioned here before that I have a particular affinity with stories set in hotels, the older and grander the better, so this particular title did rather jump out at me. 

In truth the room in question here, and the hotel which contains it, are not quite as central as Dicker's title might suggest, or rather they are, but as the drain around which the rest of the plot eddies and circles. Slowly and rather over-elaborately. 

Still, this is good clean Eurotrashy fun, an enjoyably middlebrow mystery set amidst Geneva’s banking community. 

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Venality and Social Awkwardness

“This day was left at my house a very neat silver watch, by one Briggs, a scrivener and sollicitor, at which I was angry with my wife for receiving, or, at least, for opening the box wherein it was, and so far witnessing our receipt of it, as to give the messenger 5s. for bringing it; but it can't be helped, and I will endeavour to do the man a kindnesse, he being a friend of my uncle Wight's.”

Samuel Pepys, April 17, 1665. 

A case of watch where you open that box. 

I once had some clients in government institutions during the nineties who would go to near extraordinary lengths not to be seen to be receiving any sort of tribute, even a bottle of plonk at Christmas. 

Friday, January 08, 2021

Dark Web Donald

There's a new mute-ation in the USA and it is of Trump's Twitter stream.

Permanent social media silencing is political death for T(-12), though he has arguably been flatlining for some time already today.

Even right wing politicians hoping to stand on his shoulders in four or eight years time, presenting themselves as continuity candidates for at least part of his agenda, must surely now be calculating that their interests would be better served by....

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Daylight Robbery

 A favourite phrase of my mother's.

The house I grew up in had a couple of these. It was constructed in 1812, 38 years before the tax was finally repealed.
Adam Smith rather grudgingly admired the measure because government bean (...window) counters could do what they had to do without entering one's residence.

Death to 2020

Charlie Brooker's scathing annual review got the big budget update just in time for the bad news mega-event that has just concluded.

That included a stellar cast. Hugh Grant (I had some flak from V for not immediately recognising him) and Cristin Milioti were particularly superb. And then there was Samuel L. Jackson comparing the order of the US mail vote count to watching Jaws backwards: a load of panicky white people being spat out by a shark...
Strangely enough, I found myself laughing loudest at the gags made at Biden's expense.
This is basically British humour with an LA pricetag, and so may not work for all subscribers.

Soul (2020)

I guess there are several ways to appraise this movie, but most obviously in terms of its animation and storytelling versus its metaphysical payload. 

I know I can all too easily be sucked into the latter, so I am going to largely avoid the temptation. I'm grown up enough to enjoy a good ghost movie without believing in spirits, and I don't think one has to be heavily invested in mind-body dualism in order to get a kick out of the humour and imagination that went into the making of Pixar's latest film. (Actually, one doesn't even need to hold jazz in particularly high regard, for that matter.) 

I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end and although it used to be the default that each new animated feature that came out of this studio was incrementally better than the last one, it's been a while since I have genuinely felt that to be the case, yet Soul really could be described as their best yet, on some levels, if not all. 

There was a part around the mid-point where I did start to feel I perhaps wasn't entirely on board. Bertrand Russell said we mistake the struggle for life with the struggle for success and the film itself seemed on course for making this mistake, until suddenly, upliftingly, it wasn't.

And anyway that part featured a particularly wicked calico cat, so I was cool with it! 

The scenes located in the Great Before and the Zone reminded me of rather trippy dreams I had as a young child. This colourful overworld didn't quite hang together and one supposes that attempts had been made to offend as few true believers as possible and the end result was a sort of cake and eat it ontology. 

It did make me ponder what would happen if we were to suddenly suffer from a collective religious amnesia, misplacing the over-bashed texts we have accumulated from decidedly less informed times, and had to come up with an entirely new and modern existential rationale for the next generation, starting entirely from scratch. 

Soul starts off down that road, but it's an American product at heart, addressing American audiences before all others, so it pulls up before the whimsy can fully present as doctrine. 

Overall rather glad it was this movie we chose to watch on New Year's Eve (2020) and not the one from the night before. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Nest (2020)

There's something weirdly wonderful about this BBC/Canadian-funded flick, written and directed by Sean Durkin (He of Martha, Marcy and so on).

It could have been scripted from the outset with Jude Law in mind, though it seems we watched it just a bit too soon after The Third Day such that that besmirched white linen jacket was hard to dispel from the mind. If Jude was cast almost by default, Carrie Coon's inclusion was a little more inspired.
The main action is located in a permanently autumnal England of the mid-eighties, roughly between my last year at school and the end of my first at university, a setting that is both rousingly recognisable, whilst amusingly filtered through transatlantic goggles.
There's a similar duality to plot and script as well, in parts very much on the nose with admirable precision, in others almost excruciatingly off target. (The less said about a horse disposal sub-plot the better.)
There are not many films these days where I can say around the midpoint that I have no idea where it is heading, and that is generally a positive, especially when accompanied by the sensation of being gripped.
As the conclusion loomed I started to wonder if Durkin was planning on ending it every which way he could, but he drew back from the near simultaneous calamities he'd apparently been lining up, leaving his protagonists, rather like 2020, significantly battered and largely bereft of either the means or the disposition to carry on, and yet intact and importantly, still together.
How this became listed under 'Romance' on the IMDB is a minor mystery. Someone must have seen the poster and not the film. The original score by Richard Reed Parry might also have provided a few early clues as to how much of a feel good experience was to be anticipated...