Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

La Cumparsita of the Day #22

Cafe Society in Antigua...Part Deux

I had a sixteen year association with the world's oldest communication agency, founded in Ohio during the great depression, and now able to boast over 70 offices in over 40 countries, including this one. But none has a bigger head-count or indeed turnover than the London office, for the UK capital has few rivals when it comes to the ascendancy of style over content.

So I suppose one could trace the origins of my objection to the kind of processed chic embodied by Bistro Cinq to my having grown up in this most over-branded of cities. It's also one of the most over-priced, and one always has the suspicion that a substantial portion of what one is being asked to pay for is the cost of manufacturing and maintaining an image.

Looking around Antigua for further examples of ersatz eateries, one might quickly come to a halt outside a certain Mexican restaurant close to the Arco de Santa Catalina.

Superficially at least, Frida's in Antigua might appear to offer as frabricated an environment as the aforementioned purveyors of generic froggy nosh — with the additional defect that food served in there is truly undistinguished — but it has in fact put down substantial roots in the local soil — not least as one of the main hubs of the gay and lesbian scene — whilst maintaining its appeal to anyone in search of a soggy plate of nachos and a mediocre margarita. Which is why, on most friday nights, Frida's is packed while Bistro Cinq isn't.

Food quality aside, I think the problem I have with Frida's is that I can't look at it without being reminded of the most excutiating and largely incomprehensible monologue that I have ever been subjected to here in Guatemala — about the merits of Mexico's most mustachioed female artist.

Anyway, along with standardised fare such as enchiladas and fajitas, Mexican restaurants all over the world — even in Mexico — have this inclination to send out signals comprising both truths and falsehoods. The boilerplate might be pure kitsch, but it is usually open to a degree of co-creation with the culture it inhabits. One of the more self-confident examples I can recall is The Pink Taco in Phoenix, but even the tackier kind of joints one finds in the UK have come some way to meet the expectations of the people that I hope I can refer to as 'the natives', without sounding like Nick Griffin!

Similarly, Indian restaurants on UK high streets are as much a British phenomenon as they are an Indian one. With a soundtrack that sounds like a mosquito buzzing in your ear, and an attempt of variable ambition and meretriciousness to suggest another location halfway round the globe, smiling waiters help you pick dishes from an essentially syncretic menu, whilst pouring Cobra beer into tall glasses — an 'Indian' lager brewed exclusively in Fulham, London.

It would be churlish to describe these places as inauthentic. Not so, sadly, Antigua's very own Palacio de las Indias, which lacks the key ingredient of Indian management, as well as a regular clientele of lagered-up office workers. (See "It wouldn't be a Friday night if we didn't go for an English" below...)

There are certainly several more valid locations for enjoying 'ethnic' food in Antigua. Korea House for example, is not only run by Koreans, it is usually reassuringly replete with Koreans too. The Chinese restaurants (such as La Gran Muralla) may not be packed out with Chinese diners, but you do have a sense that the family behind the swing doors are tucking into the same stuff that they serve to their customers— and if there's a lantern hanging from the ceiling and a few faded prints depicting ancient Cantonese ways on the walls, you can rest assured they weren't put there by a chichi interior designer.

However, the 'small plate' formula belongs to a uniquely Iberian set of eating habits, so I suspect that tapas will always be that much harder to successfully transcribe, without more formal diners being left feeling short-changed. (V undoubtedly felt fully ripped off when she was served croquetas de pollo at La Cocina de Lola which were all papa and no pollo.)

One of the first, and still one of the best examples of authentic, locally-adapted, international cafe-restaurants in Antigua is Quesos y Vino, now in its third incarnation (fourth if you include the extra sucursal which briefly flourished beside Las Capuchinas). Its Italian owner was smart to eschew the word pizza in his choice of name, opting instead for two old-world delicacies which were then comparatively hard to find here. The result was a rustic, very personable place for a snack, which somehow felt properly situated in Antigua in spite of its foreign inspiration.

V was a little disappointed when she went without me last year to the new, larger version, in part she claimed because the service was slower and the food seemingly prepared with less loving care, but perhaps the real problem is the nostalgic glow adorning our memories of the original Quesos y Vino on the east side of the Calle del Arco — where, six days of the week, one could sit on a stool at the counter and enjoy a simple, unpretentious meal of made-to-order panini with a glass of wine. Cafe society? Almost.

I'll have the gammon steak...

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Friday, October 30, 2009

La Cumparsita of the Day #21

Musical interlude...

Fondly remembered from Temporada de Patos.

Cafe Society in Antigua...or the lack thereof

La Antigua can boast a French bistro — "bistro sink" according to some of the locals I've heard speak of it — but its only real resemblance to an authentic Parisian eatery of the Belle Epoque is that it caters for people who lack the facilities to cook for themselves — though in this case that means out-of-town visitors, rather than impoverished Bohemians living in sparse ateliers.

Picasso, without either gas or electricity in the Bateau Lavoir, found he could get a substantial meal of steak frites with tart aux pommes plus an espresso at Le Lapin Agile for just 90 centimes, but was often content with a chorizo and tomato plus an extra helping of artistic conversation.

Thanks to the relentless co-option of counterculture by consumer culture, modern French boulevards have witnessed the transformation of these places of gaiety for the intellectually-gifted but economically miserable, into the loci of the sophisticated loitering known as cafe society.

There might be something inauthentic about sipping a citron pressé outside Des Deux Magots whilst scribbling in your Moleskine norebook — Hemingway's favourite, they tell us — but it still beats the whiff of garlic and phonyness I've got every time I've walked past Bistro Cinq.

I have to say that I have always presumed that the food served in there is above-averagely good, but ersatz culinary environments are usually a big turn off for me.

Antigua itself is partly to blame for this dispiriting sense of sham. Compared to say Oaxaca or Campeche, there are no obvious spots for informal al fresco beverage-sipping: interior patios are simply not interchangeable with pavement tables, because the whole point is to be able to sit and watch the world stroll by.

There are cultured people here for sure, but those with budgetary constraints are more likely to favour the typical anglo-american drinking hole, whilst those leading what Picasso and his muckers would have regarded as the bourgeois lifestyle, tend to only show up for smart vernissages at the Santo Domingo or the piano recitals held at the neighbouring Casa de los Leones. In between there's an amorphous mob of ex-pats and perma-tourists who spontaneously rendezvous whenever they catch the scent of a freebie.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

La Cumparsita of the Day #20

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Vecinos rabiosos

Ground zero for the kind of grumpy, mis-fit ex-pat personalities I mentioned in an earlier post is surely Jardines de Antigua. It's a gated community without a gate...a state of affairs which seems to lead to a particularly twitchy kind of paranoia. This lot make the residents of La Zona look like frigging Tahitians.

With a certain type of north American one is used to the frontiersman mentality — where almost any form of otherness is interpreted as savagery. Through this daft spyglass, most locals tend to manifest themselves as so many injuns circling the wagon train. But in truth, the problem in Jardines is not with the wild westerners, it's with what Donald Rumsfeld calls the old Europeans. There's the Frenchman who rushes out to beat his beagles whenever they bark at us from behind his gate (surely what he put them there to do?) Then there's the unbalanced couple who have forced us to change the route of our AM and PM chucho promenades simply in order to avoid them.

'Herr Bunker-mentality' has a German Shepherd like ours, though his appears to be more of a penis extension than a pet, because when his 'Fritz' attacked Jin and lost, he went beserk and started kicking and throwing rocks at our dog. It didn't matter how much we screamed at him to behave like a normal human being, it was as if we weren't even there.

In my experience two large male dogs will nearly always have a short scrap the first time they meet, and it will only make matters worse if owners rush in to separate them...or indeed to join the fight. This initial altercation establishes the status situation for all future encounters, and this is clearly what proved intolerable for our mitteleuropean 'gent'. Jin has been put in his place by small furry pooches, but I've never felt the urge to drop a boulder on them afterwards.

Anyway, some weeks later we ran into his wife walking the same dog in Jardines in the late evening and she ran off screaming before either canine had come within sniffing distance. And my Norwegian friend in London is always telling me how many new friends he makes whilst out walking his cocker spaniel.

Most worrying of all was the incident when V had a machete waved at her by a notorious Italian perve. As far as Jardines goes this guy is more transient than resident, riding through the development on a bicycle dragging his husky along behind him on a fairly short leash.

Of course when his dog and ours become aware of each other's presence he finds it hard to keep going in a straight line. Any 'normal' person would realise that all they have to do is stop and wait for the dogs to interact and then carry on as before, but no, this was his cue for a frenzy. He ran over to where a gardener was pruning a hedge, snatched his machete and started bearing down on V.

She hadn't brought a gun to this particular machete-fight, but she is very adept at using words as penetrating weapons, and found the right way to bring up having recently spotted this man openly enjoying gay porn in a cyber-cafe with two young Indian boys seated beside him. He tossed the machete aside and fled the scene. The gardener stood petrified nearby as this played out.

Jin is not an aggressive dog at all, though he barks at lone males with alcohol on their breath or anyone with a history of shooing him away with pebbles. He keeps his distance though and hardly ever intrudes within leaping range.

But once, when V was ambling down the rough earth road on the edge of Jardines that we have dubbed 'Gringits' (the residents generally being both gringos and gits) Jin wandered over to smell some flowers outside the impressive colonial-style residence which then belonged to a deceptively dignified-looking Yank that we'd come across a few times on the Antigua culture circuit. This man duly appeared, reached inside his pocket for a can of MACE and shouted at V: "Take your dog away or I'll spray him ...and then I'll spray you!!!"

In this instance V had only her disarming sang froid to defend herself with (Never, EVER, show fear, she constantly counsels me), but most gringo aggressors are ultimately unprepared for the firm little lecture she can quickly deliver in her well-enunciated English proclaiming their lack of education. (This man later came over and apologised, claiming that he had mistaken Jin for one of Arzu's ferocious K50-trained Alsatians, widely-rumoured to have torn apart several pedestrians who have strayed into this itchy trigger-finger neighbourhood.)

Most of the Guatemalan residents of Jardines are paid to live there, while the real owners spend their time in cramped, over-furnished apartments in Guatemala City. Few of these guachimen are hostile, though there's one kid who once tried to scare us by appearing with a shotgun (which he cocked ostentatiously) as we walked past his employer's house.

Last weekend we were out again with the dogs when Cherry (notably smaller than Jin) made the mistake of snarling at an old chapin with a walking stick...which he was soon flailing around like a cavalry sabre. I rushed over to apologise on behalf of Cherry and explained that she is harmless and that he should just say her name rather than try to club her with his bastón, but it soon became clear to me that I was dealing with the ex-military type, whose last intimate interaction with a dog may well have been when he had to slit the throat of the puppy that newly-recruited cadets are given here in Guatemala.

You don't realise who you are dealing with,"
he screeched, "the last time a dog came and barked at me I pulled out my gun and shot it dead."

Dogs, I have discovered, really can detect a dickhead a mile away.

In a land where the majority of people suffer from one or another kind of powerlessness, 'Usted no sabe quien soy' is a much overused form of intimidation. I didn't know who he was, but he certainly looked like a silly old fossil terrified of a small dog, and he was soon scuttling off back in the direction from whence he had originally appeared.

Pets are not the only way to make new enemies around here, especially in the open-air sanctuary for demented retirees that is Jardines de Antigua and adjoining neighbourhoods. There have already been a couple of incidents relating to my right-hand drive vehicle which have led me to recall the time it was set upon by another bastón-wielding berserker back in Salamanca.

V was at the wheel and when we entered a fine plaza with a very fetching plateresque church at the end of it, I asked her to pull up and let me out so I could take a picture. As soon as I got out the car I heard a torrent of Spanish invective behind me and watched as an ostensibly feeble old guy started bashing my car with his stick. What had him fuming was the notion that any driver should have dared to blithely disembark there without bothering to park properly. Thanks to the polarised windows he hadn't at first spotted V at the timón, but as soon as he did he vamoosed pretty sharpish.

The other day here in Antigua V was parked outside a local shop when an agent of the PMT appeared at the passenger side window and shouted in overbearingly"Where's the driver?!!". "Here?" my wife offered in return, pointing at the wheel in front of her.

On a kind of related note, here's a little clip of my mother cerca 1953 getting into a car which, by today's standards at least, features a measure of unconventionality in its door layout which might, in the words of Peter Cook, "confuse a stupid person ".

(The car and cine camera belonged to my grandfather.)

The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard (2009)

We both suffered from laughers' remorse after watching this unapologetically crude comedy last night.

In format it's not unlike Employee of the Month, with a few nods back to Airplane....and perhaps even stuff like Stir Crazy.

At least with Judd Appatow's output one can console oneself with the idea that the gags are targeted at younger, less mature audiences, and there's always a padding of sentimentality to cushion the repeated blows of on-screen vulgarity.

Not so here. This is grown-up smut, delivered with the shamelessness of the car salesmen who tells you he's throwing in the dust mats for free.

There are plenty of chuckles though, most of which erupt spontaneously out of the moments of sheer, undirected ridiculousness.

Grade: B(+)

La Cumbia del Rio

The original version of the tune that became an Internet phenomenon...somehow. (Ok, it's pegable.)

Now the Pikadientes de Carborca have been signed by Sony, but I'd sure like to see them behind a procession here next Semana Santa!

Screensnaps #9

Another panther chameleon.

Neural decoding. Scary?

"In the last few years, patterns in brain activity have been used to successfully predict what pictures people are looking at, their location in a virtual environment or a decision they are poised to make. The most recent results show that researchers can now recreate moving images that volunteers are viewing - and even make educated guesses at which event they are remembering.

"Last week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Jack Gallant, a leading "neural decoder" at the University of California, Berkeley, presented one of the field's most impressive results yet. He and colleague Shinji Nishimoto showed that they could create a crude reproduction of a movie clip that someone was watching just by viewing their brain activity. Others at the same meeting claimed that such neural decoding could be used to read memories and future plans - and even to diagnose eating disorders."

Fron the New Scientist.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

La Cumparsita of the Day #19

Screensnaps #8

This little amphibian — a pebble toad - looks like something that might be jettisoned skywards out of Fuego's fervid crater!

Not all our cats enjoy watching TV, we have discovered. Bali does though; and so does his mother Wizzy, but we've never seen any real evidence that she is really seeing what we see.

But with Bali it's different. His eyes followed this toad's tumble down the side of a mountain and when he spotted the cause of this emergency maneuver — an enormous toad-eating tarantula — he turned to look at me to make a slightly distressed burble and then quickly re-focused on the progress of this eight-legged beasty.

We plan to watch the next episode of David Attenbrough's Life (mammals) with Bali in order to discover what else fascinates him.

His usual position is at the end of the bed right in front of the big screen. During the episode about reptiles a wave hit the camera and Bali looked down below the bed, as if expecting the floor to have been flooded by this sudden deluge!

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Dios Remero Jaguar.

Screensnaps #7

Panther chameleon.

Could confuse a stupid person...

"You can tell it's a good painting if the bottoms follow you around the room."

This classic Pete and Dud sketch sprang to mind yesterday when I was reading about Cezanne's use of multiple perspectives and thinking how well this technique translates into narrative (or indeed blog) voice.

La Cumparsita of the Day #18

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig(s) of the Day

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

A pair of American newlyweds played by Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich — bothersome from the get-go — set off on their dream honeymoon in Hawaii.

I'm going to have trouble here, I thought, because I wanted them to be dead long before any credible threat to their perfect getaway had presented itself.

But nothing is quite what it seems in this unusually smart and witty B-movie thriller. Soon there's enough irony, dark humour and deception around to make this a very enjoyable ride.

Our pair have embarked on the meandering, steep-contoured Kalalau trail leading to a perfect isolated beach, encountering along the way two other couples intent on reaching the same location.

Early on news reaches them that a pair of bodies minus teeth and fingertips has turned up on the neighbouring island, and that another couple was captured in the act of murder on CCTV...

The only glitch with this set-up — and there be spoilers this way — is that I figured out the twist here long before it was revealed.

There's a nice little exchange between screenwriter Cliff and Nick about 'red snappers' and 'red herrings' and frankly, the writers here have deployed a few too many of these rather fishy decoys in their own script not to create a bit of a stink. When you see that the signposts are pointing every which way, you tend to stop and consider the only alternative left which hasn't been suggested.

In spite of my anticipation when the 'prestige' is finally delivered, we both looked at each other as if to say ' did we just get cheated?' It took a few minutes of careful reflection for us to decide that the maneuver we'd been subjected to was legit in narrative terms.

Credit must go not only to the writers, but also the performers for smoothing the way for this clever switch which audience sympathies inevitably have to follow if it is to have been deemed a success. A special mention here for the Timothy Olyphant who is superb at building both the menace and the likeability of his character Nick.

Grade: A-

Twitter can be the game changer

Yesterday I experienced something of a lightbulb moment relating to the future role of Twitter in the production and consumption of media communications.

I love Twitter. I signed up early but it took a bit of peer pressure (thanks Frode) to turn me into the -114 follower twitterer I am today.

I've been immersed in the information revolution for as long as it has been possible for someone of my generation to be so — starting with a Computer Studies AO-level back in 1983 — but there's always been a fail-safe system of leery scepticism operating in parallel to any guileless, early-adopter enthusiasm: Is this technology truly indispensable? Does it complicate my life? What are the hidden costs? Is it for some people, not others?

I taught my 82-year-old father how to use email and he now uses it almost daily, revealing an ability to express himself with concise and witty prose messages that I'd been missing out on. But he doesn't really get blogging or microblogging, in the same way he doesn't really get modern advertising post-Ogilvy, with its emphasis on lifestyles over product benefits.

But yesterday it suddenly became clear to me how Twitter really does have the potential to change everything, at least for those of us that have grown up with the necessary information filtering skills (and inclinations).

My professional interests include the interpretation of the role of media in shaping the discourse of organisations, in particular through the identiification of patterns — or networks — of influence.

Up until now the starting point for the 'social' analysis of any piece of content would be a semantic one: algorithms made to carve up text into extractable entities such as the names of individuals — journalists, politicians, spokespeople — who could be assumed to participate within affective complexes of authority and influence.

These names and other keywords would then be fed through further software machines in order to identify and map out these associations and their amplification effects in meaningful ways.

Back in the day, the networks of influence were implicit, but essentially invisible until the majority of content assumed digital form, and even then further software number-crunching was required.

Then, when social networks appeared on the scene, some of the relationships started to become, in effect, hard coded, and so the would-be media analyst was about to get something at least for free.

Newspaper articles in online form have URLs which can now be shared via social media such as Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to the more private medium of email) and the open nature of the latter platform in particular means that it becomes comparatively straightforward to analyse / visualise the relationship between a particular piece of content and particular networks of 'friends'. Tweets thus appeared to be another important media phenomenon to be tracked, but as not all readers of content shared it with their 'friends', this was going to be another string to our bow rather than a whole new mode of combat.

Well, that's how it seemed to me until yesterday when I came across the New York Times's experimental Timespeople Twitter function. This is the game changer...

For if content itself becomes a node (or even a hub) within the social network, then all the relationships are finally joined up electronically. And in theory, any reader who has become a friend of the publisher will leave an electronic trace of the influence exerted by a particular article (plus a trail to their own social network) simply by reading it. No URL-sharing required.

La Cumparsita of the Day #17

Screensnaps #6

The new 10-part David Attenborough Life series is proving to be a spectacular demonstration of the virtues of 1080p resolution. This screensnap shows a pair of Brazilian caimanes conserving energy whilst hunting after a long period of being packed together in shrinking pools during the dry season. They line up in rows and basically wait for the fish to swim into their open jaws.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pontypool (2008)

A Canadian horror movie sportinng a self-conscious wordiness worthy of Miguel Ángel Asturias. Indeed its opening immediately reminded me of those first few lines of El Señor Presidente.

"Alumbra, lumbre de alumbre, Luzbel de piedralumbre!"

The premise is straightforward, but this genre-friendly set-up is soon being stressed by the script which starts to yank it in all kinds of strange directions.

A late night talkshow DJ and his female producer and assistant are in their basement studio in the provincial town of Pontypool, as news starts to break of crowds of people chanting odd phrases while they tuck into their fellow citizens.

It soon becomes clear (well, not really) that the vector for this particular zombie virus is the English language, transmitted via terms of endearment and other trigger words like "kill", and that French-Canadian troops are acting over-keenly in suppressing this 'uprising'.

No simple George Romero zombie allegory this, Pontypool seems to have something profound to say, but the babble is fast and the action is slow. (Too much jaw and not enough gore, quips The Mirror's critic Dave Edwards.) Yet even as it descended into incoherence we remained somehow gripped, as if sensing that these dips into and out of sense where in fact core to the very sense of the movie, even if we didn't quite get it.

Grade: B+

PS: I suspected that director Bruce McDonald must have fed something subliminally scary into the soundtrack supporting the opening sequence, because both cat and dog sat up here and looked around anxiously for a few moments during it.

Nick Griffin's 'PR coup'

A record 8m people tuned into this week's edition of Question Tme which featured the debut appearance of recently-elected MEP Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party.

Radio 4's Sue MacGregor has since accused the Beeb of setting the 'attack dogs' against Griffin, a tactic which could only have led, she suggests, to many viewers feeling increased sympthy for the BNP.

On the night senior politicians from the 'mainstream' parties did appear to be congratulating themselves on how they had run circles around this rather obviously stupid, yet nonetheless cunning and shifty derechista.

Bonny Greer even told us that we should regard the BNP's take on the 'indigenous' history of the British Isles as a work of comedy. (Though her characterisation of the Roman Empire as multicultural and tolerant and the Celts as recent African emigrés seemed almost equally potted....and she wasn't laughing when he desribed the Ku Klux Klan as 'non-violent'.)

Griffin's taunters on the panel collectively concluded that the British people had far too much nouse to take this nasty man and his nasty politics seriously. In fact, after the show a poll indicated that 22% of viewers would 'seriously' consider voting for the BNP. (Griffin currently represents roughly 1/60th of the UK electorate.)

This is the age-old problem of voters being unduly impressed by politicians who say in public the sort of things these voters only think in private....thereby disregarding the obvious truth that such politicians must also think things in private that they are reluctant to come out with in public.

Only the Conservatives appeared to have come with the intention of scoring some points against the government, and embarrassing the suddenly comparably shify Jack Straw on the issue of border controls. Indeed, the Tories' all too transparent ploy here was to place 'ethnic' party members on the panel and in the audience so as to snipe at Labour's record on immigration, without seeming to side with that odious creep sitting next to Ms Greer.

Earlier Straw had his own comedy moment when he said that, as Justice Minister, he could of course personally guarantee that Griffin would be able to speak in confidence on the BBC about his Holcaust doubts without fear of any long-range EU lawsuits.

It was a bizarre spectacle overall: the normally nerdy and clubbish arena of British politics suddenly beset by a name-calling, American-style culture war, where bug-eyed ideology overwhelms the traditional anglo-saxon virtues of common sense and a more sober, empirical 'fervour' for the facts.

Talking of Anglo-Saxons, nobody took the opportunity to point out to Griffin that they had perpetrated their own uncontrolled immigration a very long time after the end of the last Ice Age.

The most positive spin one could put on the whole thing is that by drawing Griffin and his party out of the shadows and into the discredited mainstream of British politics, they too will end up discredited by association!

La Cumparsita of the Day #15

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Year of the Flood

I've read a pile of top quality novels this year including two Booker Prize winners, a Pullitzer Prize winner and the odd classic, but if I hadn't also read Roberto Bolaño's unquibblable masterpiece Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives), this would probably have been the one that would have stood out above all the others.

It's certainly one of the most immersive stories I've ever had the pleasure of dipping myself into.

Which is odd on one level at least, because this speculative, — not sci-fi, Canada's greatest living author still demures— somewhere-down-the-track world is unapologetically contrived (as are, it has to be said, almost all the male characters living within it).

I suppose you might say it does for the future what Asterix does for the past.

But this ironic conjecture, both a projection of things that could happen and things which might already have happened, is but the background tier of this complex, multi-layered novel of ideas — and Atwood cleverly offsets against it her sympathetic depiction of the two central female characters, Toby and Ren, and the the themes of friendship and loyalty that she explores with them. All this lays down a base of empathetic glue that committed me almost unerringly to her imaginative vision as the narrative jumps from dystopia to apocalypse and back again.

Perhaps Atwood's greater achievement here was to locate within this somewhat cartoonish (or maybe graphic novel-ish) sci-fi scenario a far deeper creative achievement: a fully-realised religious sect calling themselves God's Gardeners, complete with their own hymn book (set to music on the audio version) and a theology which neatly splices Abrahamic faith with scientific doctrine on matters such as macro-level evolution. Could such a thing really happen? It's compelling, disconcerting even. My mind tells me that it's unlikely, but I have yet to reason my way out of it.

On the Mayo Book Review podcast, Boyd Hilton, another self-confessed atheist, had a similar finding. Everything they say is mumbo-jumbo, but there's a nevertheless an underlying right-headedness about their approach to the impending environmental catastrophe. And whilst the author pokes fun at the solemnity of sect-founder Adam One, she dextrously maintains our sympathy for the communitarian and vegetarian approach of this community through Ren and Toby, neither of whom is guided by the blinding faith of the convert. (I would myself liken the experience to watching Little House on the Prairie. You just can't help rooting for this hard-pressed bunch of believers!)

The starting point for both of the narrative strands is the 'waterless flood' that the Gardeners have long anticipated: a viral pandemic which sweeps away most of human kind...though is strangely ineffective against almost all the characters, primary and secondary, that Atwood is about to introduce us to. We are however given to understand that Toby and Ren owe their survival largely to their comparative isolation at the time of the outbreak.

Readers of Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake (I'm not one of them yet) will apparently be aware how this super bug got going. Atwood describes The Year of The Flood as a 'simultaneul' to her earlier work, borrowing some of its characters, but generally presenting events as occurring "meanwhile..."

It was slightly disappointing for me to learn that the deadly plague wasn't necessarily a direct consequence of all the bad stuff going on in the world beforehand. This amounts to very much a North American dystopia, where the logic of mass production has resulted in a melding of the state and he big corporations, and one has little inkling about what might be going on in those economies that will supposedly rule the roost not long from now, such as China and India.

And yet this is a late stage form of capitalism which in some important ways resembles the early-stage version Aravind Adiga sends up in The White Tiger, for here too the wealthy and the white-collared live enclosed within compounds while the rest of the population are consigned to the 'plebelands', Atwood's equivalent of 'the darkness'. Is Atwood suggesting that it is the inevitable course of the West to revert to the fundamental inequalities it experienced in an earlier stage of its development?

In anticipation that some of her readers, myself included, would be sad to leave this world after turning the final page, Atwood has been on tour delivering a fuller experience, including a full-featured website, hymn recitals and the promotion of 'shade-grown' coffee (Is it really that easy to grow without shade then?) The author has also promised to go and stay veggie for the duration of this multi-stop trip.

I have to say that I've been left a little confundido with the blend of commercialism and anti-commercialism, religion and anti-religion indicated by Margaret Atwood's promotional scheme for this book.

The corporate nasties in the novel include both the irredeemable Secret Burger Co. and a Starbucks clone which also seems to be making those familiar, very marketable token gestures for helping producers and the environment, so I rather gathered that Atwood was au fait with how companies (and sects) co-opt all that into their discourse without having any real impact on the deeper issues.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Alternative view of yesterday's thingamajig.

TV Viewing Diary: October

Having watched Sunday's decisive Brazilian GP from Interlagos on the (extremely biased) Fox Sports channel, I then downloaded the BBC's own (extremely biased) coverage via iPlayer.

This featured an amusing pit-lane encounter between Martin Brundle and a determined lady called Tania from She'd been waiting to interview Vettel but the wily old brummie got in first, though the hackette was in shot beside him mentandole la madre in krout as he asked a few pertinent pre-race questions.

V later quipped that this Tania had behaved as if she'd come down early to place her towel on the Red Bull driver!

Another funny moment came when Barrichello came on the team radio shortly after exiting the pits in order to screech "what the hell happened to the car?" His race engineer tersely replied "don't forget you're running heavy" possibly meaning "don't forget that 600m people just heard that".

Poor old Rubens makes Terry Gilliam look like a lucky bastard.

Other than that, I'd have to say that David Coulthard is yet to work out how to look relaxed on TV and the new presenter Jake Humphrey (who jumped across from the kiddies' CBBC) looks a bit like one of those freshly-intaken graduate trainees back at H&K.

I've been watching fewer movies this month thanks to the deluge of US serials either arriving or returning. Most notable amongst the newbies are Modern Family and Flash Forward (cast pictured). Meanwhile, Two and Half Men, Heroes, Nip/Tuck and Dexter are all back with new seasons.

Modern Family is about one part watchable to two parts unbearable (though I reckon V would probably say one part watchable to eight parts unbearable.) Its faux-liberal — but in reality quite conservative — laugh-at-everyone satirical format is hamstrung by its clichéd portrayal of gays and latins, and the whole thing is anyway painfully derivative of the mocumentary genius that was The Office of Ricky Gervais.

We're far more likely to stay the course with Flash Forward, the new sci-fi soap from HBO. (And it's likely to be a long course as Joseph Fiennes has signed on for five years.)

This series is an uncommon combination of both over-reaching ambition and a lack of it. In its key premise the writers seem to have bitten off a bit more than they can chew. America's finest minds may be sitting in a room dissecting this truly profound global event, but what we have here is essentially a police procedural in which it has become the FBI's problem to solve...and so far their best idea has been to set up a website.

If I'd been writing this I'd have taken a bit more time to brainstorm (or research) the full implications of every human being on the planet blacking out for 137 seconds. The team here have decided that the worst thing that could have happened is a bunch of aeroplanes streaming all over the place with nobody at the controls, and to emphasise the point, we hardly ever get to see a tall building in LA which doesn't have a big chunk missing from its flank. (And we had that ludicrous cut across to London with Big Ben blazing in the background!)

And where's the hysteria? We all remember how the American populace responded to 9-11, yet after the first ten minutes of episode one everyone seems to be acting more or less normally. The more the timeline moves away from the blackout — in which every human being who was still going to be alive in six months' time had a vision of what they would be up to then — the more you wish they'd keep flashing back to the flash forward, so to speak.

The big unresolved issue at the end of part four is whether these visions of the future are fixed. Within that, and particularly pertinent to Special Agent Noh, is the issue of whether those who experienced no flash forward are slated to expire, and there's really nothing they can do about it.

If I were running the FBI's 'Mosaic' website I'd be inclined to statistically examine this matter of the walking dead before all others, and if I were Agent Noh the thought of standing in front of a bus today to see if I could 'change' the future would at least have crossed my mind.

I know this has to be dragged out, but the believability of the show is being threatened by an apparent lack of determination to resolve the issue of determinism quickly enough.

As for the show's apparent under-ambition, the writers have tried to position it closer to the (dumb) mainstream than show's like Heroes and Lost. The latter is said to have two kinds of viewers: those who watch it to see Kate and Sawyer in minimal attire and those who will still be debating the metaphysical implications of it all some ten years after the final season. Flash Forward represents an attempt to carefully roll these two audiences together, but de-geeking inevitably means making the script that much less cerebral.

They also appear to have tried to limit the number of truly beautiful people in the foreground, which also contributes to the lower-key, soapy atmosphere and perhaps explains why it was snapped up in the UK by Five rather than Channel 4.

For all its faults, the show has both me (geek) and V (non-geek) hooked, so the innovative format appears to have been efficacious so far.

La Cumparsita of the Day #12

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day


We're into the transition season now: a bit of brrrr in the night requiring an extra blanket on the bed; a sweater worn on the evening stroll with the dogs; a day of constant precipitation is followed by one where all three volcanoes remain despejados into the late afternoon; a group of kids out on the cancha with their oversized kites.

On some recent evenings it has seemed to us that there were different weather systems operating over the east and west sides of the valley, and at times the last vestiges of invierno have appeared to have been thrashing around with an electric intensity as if unexpectedly trapped by the retreating sun in the U-shaped gap between Agua and Fuego.

It's often colder here around Christmas than it is in London; on the clearer nights at least. Once the cloud cover goes, January temperatures in Antigua tend to fall to near freezing. Winters adopt a rather desultory theme back home, but the Gulf Stream used to protect us from the worst of the continental chill.

I wonder whether the coming dry season will be as wet as the wet season was dry. For the first time this year the wooden doors around our patio didn't swell up with the ambient mositure to the point that they became harder to open and shut.

Having said that, the wet season has certainly concluded with a bit of a flourish, and I've found myself wiping the condensation off the kitchen windows several times in the past couple of weeks.

I have one of the tallest private houses in town with what — I like to tell myself — is surely the highest terrace of them all. I have to say that I can't provide any conclusive evidence to justify this, other than to praise its unobstructed view from San Juan to the Papelio.

From up there I can see people and things that appear not to realise that they are being seen, such as the Police Station interior and a man we have dubbed 'fake blind guy' or FBG for short. FBG wanders up and down our street regularly, sometimes right down the middle with his long white stick...intent, one might think, on bringing as many cars as possible to a standstill around him.

When he thinks nobody is watching, he twirls his stick like Gene Kelly (....or a batonista parading on September 15.) V has even spotted him surreptitiously lowering his dark specs to inspect the flow of water beside the kerb outside the front gate of one of our neighbours.

Liquid olives and other marvels

The name of José Andrés cropped up in a random conversation with Scott the other day, and V spent the rest of the morning watching clips of his cooking on her iPod Touch. The end result: a delicious tortilla española with frijoles colados for lunch.

It looks like José Andrés's agent has instructed him to play the clown for American audiences. This had unfortunate consequences for him on the douchey David Letterman show, but he was treated with a bit more respect by Craig Fergusson.

Those liquid olives look very yummy and easy enough to reproduce, but where are we going to find a reliable source of liquid nitrogen here in Antigua?

Countdown to Looking for Palladin

Just over a week to go...

It's been a long run, but this US-Guatemalan co-production set in La Antigua Guatemala finally gets a US release at the end of this month. V can't wait — she and her sister did their very best to appear in the background of many of the external shots!

Thanks to Scott for the link to this mini-documentary which shows how the folk from the Ministry of Culture and Sport trooped off to the Cannes 2008 jmovie unket in order to promote Looking for Palladin and Guatemala as a tourism and investment destination.

La Cumparsita of the Day #11

Shame about the cameraman...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Strain

As you might expect from a novel co-written by a highly imaginative film director in his spare time, The Strain is very cinematic.

This is both good and bad news. On the one hand the grammar of the scene-cuts and dialogue is reassuringly familiar and the story is packed with highly 'visual' set pieces.

On the other hand, I'm a slow reader, so taking on a novel which sounds a bit like someone describing the movie they are watching in their head, represents a time commitment of around ten times that of actually sitting in a darkened cinema for a couple of hours.

Philip Pullman famously observed that the thing that gets left out when Hollywood adapts a decent novel is literature. Here, it's what neither author has tried very hard to inject in the first place. Having said that, the core idea — and I suspect that one would have to credit Guillermo del Toro with this — has a certain thrill about it, and Chuck Hogan has executed it competently.

A 777 lands at JFK and then comes to a standstill on the taxiway, having apparently suffered a complete systems shutdown. On board everyone appears to be dead, though once the bodies have been collected and deposited at various morgues in the city, they reanimate as the virus-incarnate of vampirism.

Del Toro wanted to get back to the nasty vampires of old, consciously rejecting the fey romantic male leads of Twilight (and to a lesser extent True Blood). This lot have fast-zombie personality traits with long chameleon-like stingers under their tongues — rather like Ridley Scott's Alien — instead of sharp incisors. Their swarm leader is the freakishly tall Jusef Sardu aka 'the master', one of a group of ancient vampires who have in the past tended not to allow their victims to proliferate.

Yet now, a plutocrat whose wealth is a match for Buffett and Gates, but whose health is failing fast, has assisted the giant bloodsucker in his quest for a transatlantic which will most significantly break the age-old truce amongst the 'old ones'.

As the undeadly plague spreads throughout Manhattan, a small grass-roots team forms to prevent the 'turning' of all humanity: an infectious disease specialist, a rat catcher and a frail old Romanian professor who's had some previous with Sardu in the Nazi death camp at Treblinka.

This is the first part of a trilogy and Del Toro was a little ambiguous about future plans to film the story when interviewed by Simon Mayo on R5. On the one hand he said he was happy to try his hand at the authorial medium, but then later admitted that he'd earlier run the concept by some studio execs who'd been taken by the bizarre notion that it should be done as a TV comedy.

The Mexican director has introduced humour in the Hellboy series, but he is generally quite earnest about the struggle between good and evil, and here, as almost everywhere a thematic link with fascism is developed. The location also allows him to make repeated references to 9-11, with the vampires setting up their own ground zero HQ beneath the WTC site, and to generally stoke up the mood of apocalyptic gloom that makes the story feel rather like a prequel to Matheson's I Am Legend.

It seemed like an appropriate enough read in the lead up to Halloween and, if there's a vogue for vampires right now, there's also a whole load of books about future dystopias and apocalyptic scenarios appearing on bookshelves right now (Such as Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and Fay Wheldon's Chalcot Crescent.) which are no doubt telling us something interesting about the inverted-escapism of the economically depressed.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Beautiful alabaster vase from a site in Honduras.

La Cumparsita of the Day #10

Yiddish version.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Sunday, October 18, 2009


One can only suppose that these singularly chippy Mexicans are guilty of "blaming the man rather than accepting the responsibility" — for surely the pinche Leonardo di Caprio was only voicing rational anxieties about his own personal hygiene when he claimed that he'd rather kiss a pig than a Mexicana? La neta duele buey....

A full five minutes and five seconds into the longer version of the same clip, the Payaso Platanito tells one of the funniest chistes I've heard in Spanish:

Manolo Cardona would have done well to have used the Guerra de Chistes to brush up on his Mexican vernacular prior to the shooting of La Mujer de mi Hermano.

It's a great source of marranadas for all the family.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Root causes

"Even the starchy tuberous roots are also edible, but are more often fed to livestock"

This stark piece of misinformation cropped up in Victoria Stone's article about the guiskil in last month's Revue.

In fact the root, known here as echintal (or ichintal), is by far the best bit — a comparatively rare and pricey delicacy ideally disinterred after 2-3 years of production...y hecho con mucho cuidado.

In texture like a mix of potato and yuca, but with a nuttier, more intense flavour than either, echintal has become one of our favourite ingredients in the kitchen.

How many better places can there be than Guatemala for buying (or growing), and cooking your own food?

Yet over at Guate Living el termómetro en el trasero de la vida gringa en la Antigua — we have been shocked to find the suggestion that meticulous locals will take their ceviche with a prophylactic of antibiotics, and that manitas shucas (almost exlusively of the Guatemalan kind) are the root cause of the regular unscheduled trips to the crapper that appear to afflict the more delicate members of the ex-pat community.

Whilst the occasional intestinal storm is almost unavoidable for those of us bearing bacteria in our gut that — however friendly — have yet to master the local lingo, we have found that we rarely suffer from the runs when we prepare our own comida at home.

Failing that, we recommend that concerned readers kit out each of the maids preparing their gringo grub with PVC gloves, face masks and hair nets, if not indeed a sealed head-to-toe anti-microbial body suit. (NB: The mask is to prevent them from spitting in your soup.)


"The dark art of pretending to like people in order to advance one's self — even though that self has precisely nothing to offer the world barring an extraordinary aptitude for self-advancement."

From The Best of Is it Just Me Or is Everything Shit? Volumes 1 and 2 by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur.

La Cumparsita of the Day #8

Versión Uruguasho.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Late Classic incense carrier from Edzná probably utilised within rituals of ancestor worship.

La Cumparsita of the Day #7

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

People who knock on our door #1: Don Hilario

Don 'Latón' Hilario is the slightly worse-for-wear face of recycling in our neighbourhood. Every few weeks he helps prevent the area beneath our pila from becoming a dumping ground for empty beer cans.

The lack of adequate social support in Guatemala means that men well past retirement age still have to stumble over the cobbles to earn themselves a few Quetzales (while younger, fitter unemployed hombres prefer to vegetate at home).

It's a system that might just appeal as a form of indirect charity to sworn enemies of socialism, except that we are apparently the only people on our street who actually gift Don Hilario our surplus aluminium. Elsewhere he has to count up his booty and pay a fixed fee to each participating householder.

Empty bottles of Ron Botrán are the most prized find for these itinerants as they fetch a minimum bounty of 50 centavos each.

Time for a brief aside about a door to door vendedora who turned out not to be. This morning V spotted a woman outside her brother's house with a big basket of avocados and called her over in the hope of a tasty deal: "Ahorita le quito el peso completo..."

It turned out that the woman had in fact just bought them from my brother-in-law, which means that in all likelihood they were already our avocados, as he has built a house on his terreno to the south (which lies alongside ours) and had to clear all the aguacatales off the plot in order to do so. Such is life.

Moocho Macho

Barack Obama demonstrates here something that just about anyone in Antigua could testify to — that's there's no easier way for a non-Latino to make a complete 'macho' of himself than by showing off his salsa moves in public.

US tabloids have reported that Michelle Obama was 'pissed' at her husband for playing up to that embarrassing old scrubber and all-round gold-digger Thalia.

"My salsa makes all the pretty girls dance and take off their underpants" (Eminem in D-12's My Band)

Update: The saturday night DJ set at the Blue Parrot in Playa currently features back-projected dancing Obamas.

How do you like that?

Not a lot if you're of the tico persuasion.

Honduras booked themselves a place in South Africa on wednesday evening, thanks to that late and possibly unconstitutional gringo equaliser in the fifth minute of extra time.

Costa Rica will get one last bite at the guinda however, as they now face a play-off against the Uruguayan team who let everyone down by not putting the Argies out of their misery earlier the same day.

Maradonna then showed everyone what a class act he is by calling a Coke- sponsored press conference in which he asked the gathered press pack to keep sucking on the big one...

...and singling out one hack called Toti Pasman for some shaming comments, such as "“Vos también la tenés adentro."

(Update: Diego's remarks could earn him a five match ban, which would keep him out of everyone's hair until the semi-finals...should the Argies even progress that far.)

Guatemalan interest in next year's Mundial is likely to be even more consuming than it was back in Germany 2006, since there may well be two Central American teams involved, plus Mexico — for whom the chapines seem to acquire a grudging respect if not actual affection for a few weeks every four years.

Once all these have been knocked out, Hispanic allegiances will tend to switch to Brazil and Spain, handily the two teams with the greatest chance of actually winning the competition.

England will be somewhere in the chasing pack (and thanks to events in Montevideo consigned to the second tier of seeds) with the likes of France and Argentina straggling further back, unless they somehow manage to effect a change of manager before the tournament commences.

France of course still have to qualify through the European play-offs, but have been helped by UEFA's (run by a Frenchman) belated decision to change the format from a free draw to a seeded one, thereby giving the likes of Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo the best chance of actually appearing all kitted up in South the great delight of advertisers everywhere.

La Cumparsita of the Day #6

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The secret is out

This month Revue magazine has well and truly blown 'the best kept secret in Antigua'. Cheers mate! we poms say (apparently). Now those mountain-spring pools will feature rows of mochiludos soaking their callos. Well, for a while at least.

In truth we haven't been going to El Pilar as regularly as we used to when old Germán was in charge. His passing was preceded by that of the amazingly loquacious parrot he kept in the gatehouse. He did always seem to say that he'd love it if more people could come and witness the beauty of his finca, but I think he had locals in mind predominantly.

There's also an interview with ever-effervescent eco-crusader Vida Amor de Paz. I had a brief encounter with Guatemala's polar explorer last year and found her a little keener then than she was in her conversation with Laura McNamara to sprinkle her commentary with references to 2012 and the Mayan cosmovision.

I remember wondering at the time whether she really believes in that bollocks or whether in fact it has become a useful hook for a) getting funding for her trip and wider campaign and b) inspiring impressionable young people to become eco-crusaders.

Could it be similar to the great E.O. Wilson's appeal to religious delusionals on his lecture circuit? For Wilson insists — and even Richard Dawkins grudgingly admits — that the godly are far more likely to save the planet than us die-hard cynics and atheists. Anyway, more on that when I get round to reviewing Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood in the next few days.

Next month we are going to be battered with Roland Emmerich's 2012. Tuesday's Guardian had a great piece on the underlying 'tosh' which featured fun soundbites from both Mayan archaeologists and local elders:

"Mayan leaders consider the fuss a ridiculous western obsession. "I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this stuff," Apolinario Chile Pixtun, an elder from Guatemala, told the Associated Press."

Meanwhile, behind schedule, but still very scarily — there will be ice-free summers in the Arctic in 'as little as ten years time' — it was reported yesterday.