Thursday, December 30, 2010

America (2)


This was the early seventies...

Despedida del año 2,010

The Muni et al. have helpfully provided this handy guide to the goings on here tomorrow afternoon.



Poor Surrender Monkeys

Two of the books in yesterday's top five repeatedly reference the French experience of WWII and the apparent debt owed by France to the Allies and the US in particular.

You will hardly be surprised to learn that one of these is Anthony Beevor's D-Day. But the other Anthony, whose grandparents with the Bourdain surname were what he on several occasions refers to as "surrender monkeys", is worried how the debt he and his colleagues owe to the French for their culinary tradition stacks up against the 'big one' of Omaha beach.

Beevor helpfully provides some context. During the first 24 hours of the Normandy invasion almost twice as many French civilians died as American soldiers. Overall, across the war, more surrender monkeys died as a result of Allied bombing raids than plucky Brits died as a result of German ones. That's 70,000 people.

In the liberation of Paris, a comparative non-battle, in which Leclerc's Free French-led division forced the capitulation of the scattered remnants of Choltitz's garrison, more than 2000 citizens of the French capital et environs perished; an equivalent of American sacrifice on Omaha beach.

The casual waste of life in this conflict is one of the most striking and chastening aspects of Beevor's book. 19,890 French civilians were killed as a result of the battle of Normandy (with a similar number seriously injured). If one includes the months leading up to Overlord, the figure gets closer to 35,000.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review of 2010: Non-fiction

For the second year in a row, I read less non-fiction than has been my wont, and am actually struggling to even come up with a top five for 2010. Part of the problem is that I took on several weighty tomes, one apiece on the English and American civil wars and Jon Lee Anderson's bio of Che Guevara, with which I have yet to make enough progress for them to feature here. The order isn't all that important here, as I enjoyed all these books to a roughly equal extent.

Kitchen Confidential was a fortuitous find at the Aware bookshop attached to Revue magazine. Mezrich's highly readable account of the founding of Facebook (review in the pipeline) was fascinating, not least for its occasional divergences from the version filmed as The Social Network.

I took on Out of Captivity, Surviving 1967 Days in the Colombian Jungle largely because I'd heard it has plenty of unflattering things to say about Ingrid Betancourt, possibly our least favourite Latin American of the 2009-10 season. I was soon however in the grip of a hefty loathing of these oafish gringos metiches and couldn't wait for the FARC to start making their lives a total misery. In the end, all three, even the seemingly unreconstructable Keith Stansell earned more than a grudging respect and a good deal of compassion. There were even moments when I felt for Betancourt. However, their FARC captors, jungle carpentry skills aside, don't come out of this too well. One can certainly learn almost as much about human psychology under duress from this book as one can from spending an entire summer glued to Big Brother ...which isn't an option any more.

Douglas Preston's The Monster of Florence was this year's Mr Whicher, a gripping investigation into an unsolved series of brutal 80s killings in the Tuscan countryside, an insight not just into the twisted mind of a murderer, but also that of a fairly loopy prosecutor from Perugia, who would later be let loose on poor Amanda Knox.

I've had plenty to say already about Beevor's latest; in many ways a solid example of his best and worst work, pockets of incredible detail and narrative incisiveness, followed by pages of drift with ill-selected (and occasionally oddly withheld) information.

1. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
2. The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
3. Out of Captivity, Surviving... by Howes, Gonsalves and Stansell
4. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston
5. D-Day, The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Juror (1996)

While we're on the subject of trials...

We know it's the mid-nineties, not so much because the phones are huge and laptop screens aren't as big as their lids, but because Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin dutifully thump their Snapple bottles before opening them.

Still, some of the trends have outworn the star quality of the film's leads, notably those embodied by the wardrobe of Mr Baldwin, which clearly points the way to the high-waited strides still regularly shown off by Simon Cowell.

There are three kinds of mafioso here. The pretentious, slightly podgy psycho-lothario as played by the man in the aforementioned trousers, the utterly ludicrous comedy-camp, badda-bi version of Sonny Corleone played by Michael Rispoli and then there's James Gandolfini honing his act as the conflicted 'family' man.

I was going through my '99 diary recently and came across the entry recording my last viewing of The Juror. I'd forgotten a lot about it, except of course the heinous misrepresentation of life in the Guatemalan highlands (filmed in Morelos, Mexico) which occurs in its final section...complete with the kind of root-clad faux-Zapotec temple that you'd expect to come across in an episode of Lost. Fourteen years have passed and thankfully the world has become too small to get away with this sort of nonsense any more.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No plea bargain for Mark

Regular reader 'Begonia' has tipped me off that our old friend 'Mark Francis' aka Jeff Cassman, has entered a plea of guilty with U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger, on the day that his trial for running a Ponzi scheme was due to start.

There were no conditions — in other words there was no plea bargain involved. Sentencing will take place on Monday March 28th.

Santa en Panorama


This being Santa's last visit before the 2011 election, he pulled out all the stops for his good friend Dr Vivar.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

America (1)

When I was about six I was given a set of little red books in the 'Starters' series published by Macdonald, costing just 35 new pence each.

The most memorable of these was America, which was packed with arresting images and statements about that strange and wonderful place across the ocean that I was yet to visit.

Over the next week or so I'll reproduce some of these, with the expectation that readers might be able to see how my impressionable young mind might have been led to acquire certain prejudices vis-a-vis the transatlantic lifestyle.

But let's kick off with this one, which kind of speaks for itself....



Monday, December 20, 2010

Stephens and Catherwood (6): Mico Mountain

The next section of their journey into the Guatemalan interior was a white-knuckle mule trail up a steep and forested incline, where the pair had to dodge mud-holes, projecting tree roots and sudden torrents. "Withal, I felt that our inglorious epitaph might be, 'tossed over the head of a mule, brained by the trunk of a mahogany tree, and buried in the mud of the Mico Mountain,'" Stephens writes, recalling the dark premonitions which accompanied their expedition at this stage.

Nearing the summit of this most ferocious of glorified hills, they then had a most unexpected encounter...

"When, at a sudden turn, we met a solitary traveller. He was a tall, dark-complexioned man, with a broad-brimmed Panama hat, rolled up at the sides; a striped woolen Guatemala jacket, with a fringe at the bottom; plaid pantaloons, leather spatterdashes, spurs, and saddle, and the butts of a pair of horseman's pistols peeped out of the holsters. His face was covered with sweat and mud; his breast and legs were spattered and his right side was a complete incrustation; altogether, his appearance was fearful.

"It seemed strange to meet anyone on such a road; and, to our surprise, he accosted us in English. He has set out with muleteers and Indians, but had lost them in some of the winding of the woods, and he was seeking his way alone. He had crossed the mountain twice before, but had never known it so bad; he had been thrown twice; once his mule rolled over him, and nearly crushed him; and now she was so frightened that he could hardly urge her along. He dismounted and the trembling beast and his own exhausted state confirmed all that he had said.

"He asked us for brandy, wine or water, anything to revive him; but, unfortunately, our stores were ahead, and for him to go back one step was out of the question. Imagine our surprise, when, with his feet buried in the mud, he told he had been two years in Guatemala 'negotiating' for a bank charter. Fresh as I was from the world of banks, I almost thought he intended a fling at me; but he did not look like one in a humour for jesting; and, for the benefit of those who will regard it as an evidence of incipient improvement, I am able to state that he had the charter secured when he rolled over in the mud, and was then on his way to England to sell the stock."


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pepys 1660 (7)

So into London by water, and in Fish Street my wife and I bought a bit of salmon for 8d. and went to the Sun Tavern and ate it, where I did promise to give her all that I have in the world but my books, in case I should die at sea.

(Thursday, March 15, 1660)

En caso que me truene...

I warm to this idea of being able to buy fresh fish and then take it along to the local gastro-pub for preparation and consumption.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Food Porn (4)

Regular visitors will know that Monday is usually shark day in our household. It comes to us via one of those itinerant indigenes from Quiche with only the most basic grasp of Spanish.

I tried to make some vaguely British conversation about the chilly state of the morning weather with 'Pedro' today, and he nodded in nervous near-comprehension and muttered something like "si, much friiie".

Today we steamed the fish with lime leaves, yaki nori and herbs and then served it with chopped radishes and spaghetti doused in a mee goreng sauce, which I picked up in a packet in Singapore earlier in the year.

We've been eating a few too many radishes over the past few days in truth. And the sauce was just a bit too oily — yet should be easy enough to reproduce according to our own taste, galangals aside, as it is based on tomato, tamarind and chile.

Looking around for recipes online there really seems to be no definitive way to prepare this spicy noodle dish, common to both Malysia and Indonesia and quite similar to Japanese yakisoba.

At the end of last week we discovered an underexploited local plantation of lemongrass, which is bound to come in useful over the course of next year.



Monday, December 13, 2010

Stephens and Catherwood (5)

Noting that Yzabal was a sickly place where one ran the gauntlet for life "even to pass through it", Stephens undertook to visit the grave site there of one Mr Shannon, his predecessor as US chargé to Central America. He was accompanied in this "sacred duty" by a compatriot, or at least...

"...a man who called himself my countryman, a mulatto from Baltimore, and his name was Philip. He had been eight years in the country, and said that he had once thought of returning home as a servant by way of New Orleans, but he has left home in such a hurry that he forgot to bring with him his 'Christian Papers;' from which I inferred that he was what he would be called in Maryland a runaway slave. He was a man of considerable standing, being fireman on board the steamboat at $23 a month; besides which, he did odd jobs at carpentering, and was, in fact, the principal architect in Yzabal, having then on his hands a contract for $3500 for building the new house of Messrs. Ampudia and Purroy. In other things, I am sorry to say, Philip was not quite so respectable; and I can only hope that it was not his American education that led him into some irregularities, in which he seemed to think there was no harm. He asked me to go to his house and see his wife, but on the way I learned from him that he was not married; and he said, what I hope is a slander upon the good people of Yzabal, that he only did as the rest did."

Stephens duly tried to persuade the said Philip to take full advantage of the padre's presence, to set a fine example to the erring non-Americans within the community, but met with only "obstinance" on the part of the handy man, who..

"...said he did not like to be trammelled, and that he might go elsewhere and see another girl whom he liked better."


Guatemalan Architectural Innovations No7b : Siguen los chapuces



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Devil (2010)

This supernatural thriller about five people trapped in a Philadelphia elevator, one of whom is the devil incarnate, is perfectly serviceable, unlike its key prop.

The writing credit for M. Night Shyalaman guarantees a degree of unintended comedy, which is this instance at least, did not detract from the overall enjoyability of the film.

Grade: B (+-)

Pepys 1660 (6)

In the morning went to my father's, whom I took in his cutting house, and there I told him my resolution to go to sea with my Lord, and consulted with him how to dispose of my wife.

(Friday, March 10, 1660)

Some of the idiomatic differences between contemporary English and Pepys's English just spring off the page!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Aplastadita

They just keep coming today...

This one was all the rage back in the late 80s and we heard it performed live at the Manhattan, now, for better or worse, the front end of La Bodegona.



Four Lions (2010)

Chris Morris's debut feature is fine tuned to be both shocking and hilarious. Sometimes your sense of outrage — this is after all a light-hearted entertainment about committed British-born suicide bombers — is stifled by the urge to guffaw, and at other times there's a delay to the laughter because you have to shut your wide-gaping gob first.

V couldn't quite believe how "brave" this film was; an American equivalent (and certainly one with the same degree of basic sympathy for its hapless Islamist protagonists) is almost unthinkable. In other words, don't hang around for the Hollywood remake.

Five men from Yorkshire — oddly enough given the title — come together to bring Jihad to the Kafir. Three of them represent various blends of resentment, stupidity and naivety. Leadership of the group swings between the other two, nihilistic cockney convert Barry aka Bazza al Britani and security guard and family man Omar, who seems equally disaffected with the quiescent yet prejudiced piety of his (soon to be rendered) brother, as with the corrupt, Paki-bashing world he appears to have more than a toe-hold in.

There are several scenes (and gobbets of dialogue) which are achingly funny. The cruelties of the screenplay are directed at politicians and police just as much as they are at Doncaster's mujahideen, who, in all their different motivations, remain freakily sympathetic. The sniper sequence, occurring as the remnants of the terror cell attempt to bring carnage and mayhem to the London Marathon, is a classic piece of British comedy-satire.

If it has a weakness, it is in the character of Omar, played by Riz Ahmed, aka Riz MC (Check out his Blade Runner-inspired music video below.), which shifts between competence and clutziness, and whose family life takes the comedy into a surreal zone, which detracts from both the bite and the empathy which Morris otherwise achieves with this faux/farce-documentary-style approach to extremist conspiracy.


Grade: A-



Somos Antologia...

It's obviously bad music day here on the Innerdiablog. This excruciating cover version was the opening gambit of Antigua regulars Antologia on Tuesday night, shortly after the bomberos had departed.



Milking La Tetita

Just when we thought Justin Bieber was the most annoying thing to emerge from the 'yutubeh', along came this...



Wendy followed up her breakthrough Huayno smash with Cerveza, both clips viewed by over 3m people, though judging by the comments beneath them, not universally well received.

Undeterred, the Peruvian teen has taken her rechinazos folclóricos around the globe, appearing live with Calle 13 and Jiggy Drama. The invite to WOMAD might take a while yet.

Personally I think the arpista in the backing group ought to consider a solo career, though he might need a stage name as he currently answers to that of Hugo Chávez.

The Spanish media in particular has been taking the Miguel, the hosts of Sé Lo Que Hicisteis going so far as to compose their own traditional Iberian ditty in response to Sulca's threat to show up in the old imperial heartland:



I'm quite partial to this dark beer trance remix of Cerveza:



Wednesday, December 08, 2010

El Churrasquito del Diablo (2)



The Devil's final moments in Antigua last night. As the flames licked the frame of his bike and the air filled with the aroma of burning rubber, someone tossed a last paquetillo of explosives onto the bonfire, just before the bomberos moved in.

Let's call the whole thing off...


I might have inadvertently given the impression the other day that Chapines care little for matters of health and safety, so it's only fair that I should set this right by bringing it to your attention that Antigua's traditional (well, since 1999) Festival of the Calle del Arco on New Year's Eve has been called off today by its own organising committee — whose members have reportedly been collectively suffering sleepless nights over the idea that the ever growing number of participants in recent years points to the near inevitability of future fatal accidents.

During the other 364 days of the year the public issue which most seems to engage — literally keep awake — this august body of neighbours, is their own peace and quiet, but we'll just have to accept their word that they really are genuinely worried about the possibility of a Duisberg or Phnom Penh-style crush occurring on their turf, and not just narked off that their quaint little spectacle of frolicking inditos has been steadily overrun by rowdy elements from across the region and beyond.

By the way, what were those evangelical Jeremy Hunts doing at La Concepción tonight for the Burning of the Devil? Doesn't this tradition mark the commencement of the Feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception...an unequivocally Catholic tradition? Forgive us our trespasses indeed.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

El Churrasquito del Diablo



We couldn't wait to burn our own devil today, so we made use of dry twigs and leaves lying around the patio to get things going at lunchtime, which then produced enough carbón to power a barbecue, onto which went slices of shark, halved onions and aubergines, and whole tomatoes and red peppers.



Modernisation of La Sexta



Tracing the evolution of recent refurbishments carried out in Guatemala City's Sixth Avenue.

Monday, December 06, 2010

La Vaquerita



It's rodeo time in Guatemala, where animal rights take a back-seat to the exploitation of minors.

Oddly enough this kind of authentic local spectacle rarely makes into Revue magazine's Datebook, where December's list of exciting outdoor activities is dominated by exiled gringo carol singers and similarly anodyne seasonal fayre.

Close to midday yesterday we turned up at a terrace bar overlooking the makeshift arena, just in time to witness the junior bull riding competition. Participants lined up and prayed to Santiago before testing themselves against their hot and bothered bovine adversaries.



First out was the five-year-old girl, who managed around two and a half out of eight seconds and was visibly sobbing from the moment the gate opened.

Duly recovered from where she had deposited her face in the dust, the stricken child was passed over the railings and attended to by paramedics who soon gave her the thumbs up. Her mother (smoking and drinking) and father (bien bolo) then got the gun-toting master of ceremonies to announce a collection on behalf of their brave daughter, whereby they acquired a cap-full of coins and billetes with which to continue their excesses.

As soon as she was able to walk again, the little cowgirl was despatched to crawl around under the seating stands, just in case additional lucre was to be discovered there.


Friday, December 03, 2010

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003)

Can't decide if my glass is half full or half empty with this one. It's an epic, moving, character-driven tale of conflicting Samurai codes and loyalties during the twilight years of the Shogunate. It's also overlong, excruciatingly sentimental — especially across its final third — which means one is perhaps less likely to be well disposed towards it as it ends.

Based on a novel by Jiro Asada, in a sense it's a Japanese Doctor Zhivago, with added comic intent. There's a plethora of vivid characters (many of them, such as the lively courtesan, more hit than miss), yet this variety ultimately detracts from the central opposition between Saitô-san, the would-be prowling wolf, and comparatively bumpkinish and stray dog-like Samurai, Yoshimura-san.

A greater focus on the interplay of these men and their impact on each other's response to the historical events around them would surely have resulted in a more interesting drama.

The movie was shown just over a month ago as part of the Japanese season at the Cooperación Española in Antigua, and forms part of a triumvirate of inward glimpses at old ways on the way out, shot by Japanese directors at roughly the same time Tom Cruise was galavanting around in the somewhat less nuanced period adventure, The Last Samurai. I'm yet to see the last of the three, The Hidden Blade (2004), but 2002's The Twilight Samurai was one of the best Japanese movies of the noughties.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hans Rosling's 'The West and the Rest'



From BBC4's The Joy of Stats (Thanks again to Scott).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Guatemalan Architectural Innovations No7 'el chapuz'


One doesn't need to be much of an expert to start counting the ways this little project could go horribly wrong both now and in the future.

Not big, not a bang...



...and now possibly also not the beginning.

Sir Roger Penrose fessing up to Stephen Sackur that he might have found evidence that the Big Bang might not have been such a singular singularity.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Premenstruals' finest in action



The comments reflect some disagreement over which party was more acting more prepotente in this situation. (Thanks to Scott for the link.)

UPDATE: Listen carefully with headphones and you'll hear the wife of the man with the camera telling her spouse to pipe down, because she thinks the PMT will hit them with another fine and they don't actually have any money!

Enter the Void (2009)

Equal parts fascinating and downright annoying, Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void felt a bit like watching someone apathetically exploring Second Life, zooming around at roof level, occasionally plonking themselves down in bizarre environments in order to catch the middle of half-grasped dialogue, before hitting Page Up again and floating off.

V compared it to the closing sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had the advantage of being the back end of an otherwise narratively-conventional movie. She'd completely tuned out of its trippy visuals after about thirty minutes, though she told me to wake her up for the bit inside the vagina.

I'd been looking forward to this — the whole movie, not just the womb-cam sequence — because Tokyo is one of those places that has engendered a certain existential malestar in me, and a film located there and bearing such a title, indeed looked like a promising way of experiencing those same goose-bumps again.

Many of the resident foreigners I met in the Japanese capital last May were in a sense addicts, Japan-addicts, some of them aware that this addiction was potentially harmful on several levels, spiritual as well as physical.

The vices that Noé's characters embed themselves in are of course not in the least adventitious in this city, yet nor are they location-specific enough to have really piqued my interest. I can get a stronger fix from the photographs in Tokyo Clash, a half-sized coffee table book I keep in the downstairs loo, and although I've never been a cheer-leader for Lost in Translation it does provide an eerily detached, through-the-glass window perspective on the unsettling arousal that emanates from this metropolis. It might not be a place which offers to take the visitor's soul — the locals are polite but not very reachable — yet somehow seems able to implant the suggestion at the back of his or her mind that they free to go out and misplace it.

Do go see Irréversible before you see Enter the Void. The danger of slumber is significantly less, and you won't be carrying memories of carried over techniques, such as the throbby-whirry score, which Noé has deployed again here.

Grade: B(+-)

"Sun, sea and severed heads"

It would be no small irony should this week's Cancún jolly organised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change be comprehensively incinerated by a methane-related explosion.

Spontaneously-combusting resort hotels
are just the latest challenge facing Mexico's tourism industry. "Sun, sea and severed heads: Mexico is not a holiday destination for the faint-hearted," wrote one of the Economist's notoriously un-bylined hacks this week.

Yet after the premature dubbing of swine flu as Mexican flu brought the 2009 season to an abrupt close, it would seem that visitor numbers have returned to the 2008 level of 22.6m, though this has been achieved in part by discounting (5% on average).

The Yucatán had the advantage of being quite a long drive from the most violent states (Guerrero for example has twenty times the number of murders) but much of the development along its coast over the past couple of decades has involves reclaiming swamp, hence the rather disconcerting new phenomenon of the exploding lobby.

Which is why I get pained looks from my father every time I mention taking a short trip over the border. As if living in Guatemala wasn't bad enough, he's now discovered that there really is a Guatepeor.

Of course the really bad stuff is mostly going closer to the northern border, Ciudad Juárez in particular. Last weekend saw the winding up of an exhibition at Shoreditch Town Hall entitled 400 Women, which was conceived in the following manner by Tamsyn Challenger, who went on to commission works from 175 fellow artists, men and women:

“This project began in 2005 when I was commissioned to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman's Hour. I travelled to Mexico and met with some of the families and was struck by their need to hand me postcards that had been generated as another aid to finding their loved ones. These images were black, white and pink and poorly produced but they started the concept in my mind and on the long flight home I had a half formed idea for what has become the project 400 Women. The concept relies heavily on a large-scale collaboration and, for me, each participating artist represents one of the murdered women, in some way invoking her, so that she can challenge humanity. Each image produced will stand as a statement against gender violence.”

Watching how The Review Show covered the exhibition's opening left me with mixed feelings. One doesn't have to be in the PR industry for very long to realise how different awareness is from comprehension.

Anyway, nobody is quite sure whether this rampant case of gynocide is an offshoot of the generally murderous conditions in the border city, or whether it reflects something more sinister, such as an entire masculine culture turned serial killer, or even sexual violence tourism. (Mexico welcomes 50m day trippers annually.)

Penguin has published a good backgrounder to the present turmoil in our northern neighbour: The Last Narco: Hunting El Chapo, The World's Most Wanted Drug Lord by Malcolm Beith, summarised nicely by Mark Ford in the LRB. (21/10/10)

Beith explains how America's regulation of the use of opiates from 1914 onwards didn't create tensions with Mexico until Nixon declared the first 'war on drugs'. Nixon told his chief-of-staff that the real problem was 'the blacks' at home — he just needed a system which took care of this without actually appearing to do so — so it wasn't until the arrival of Ronald Reagan that narcotics were formally recognised as a matter of national security and this onetime asunto of domestic law enforcement mutated into a key platform of US foreign policy.

During the late 80s Mexico's governing PRI led by American-educated Carlos Salinas fell under the spell of neoliberalism. And so, to some extent, did the then senior capo Gallardo, who broke up his plazas (routes pa'l norte), just as Salinas was breaking up public companies.

The lieutenants inheriting these delegated power structures were the original cartel bosses, and their lives became that much easier as Salinas deregulated the banks (making it easier to stash the loot) and the US administration tightened border controls, thereby improving the environment for organised smugglers.

Then Mexico joined NAFTA in '94, and the cartels started frantically buying up trucking companies and factories along the border, anticipating the good times to come. The immediate news for the agrarian economy was less positive however, as an influx of cheap American corn quickly deprived several million people of their livelihoods. New Presidente Vicente Fox duly suggested that Mexico's displaced peasants ought to welcome the opportunity to transform themselves into 'true businessmen', and of course, many did.

A consequence of the long-overdue conclusion of PRI rule at the start of the new century was that the old patronage relationships were immediately inverted. Police and politicos now largely worked for the traffickers, no longer vice versa.

In 2006 Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa was elected in circumstances not unlike those of the younger Bush, with (just over) half the population thinking 'what a swizz!' And there's nothing like a good war to take people's minds off legitimacy issues, is there?

Calderón had barely finished pinning the Presidential sash onto himself, when he dispatched 45,000 troops north of the capital, and wherever the army has turned up — even in those areas where the murder rate had been declining before 2006 — the violence has escalated dramatically. Close to 30,000 deaths were recorded for the first four years of Calderón's administration, though he has put it about that 90% of these were cartel members — a stat which, if unfudged, provides an indication of the enthusiasm with which his predecessor's call to private enterprise had been received.

Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields suggests that allowing the military to investigate its own abuses may have contributed to the levels of unsolved murder torture and rape in that most deadly place to live, where 'armed commandos' has become a catch-all phrase for them that done it. "If you see dust," Calderón nevertheless observed last August"it's because we are cleaning the house."

31 reporters have been killed or disappeared since 2006.

Sinaloa-raised El Chapo Guzmán is the classic would-be narco-emperor, turning the hostility of the Federal government into a force for consolidation (less than 15% of narcs arrested since the army arrived have been Guzmán's boys) and stepping into the space left by an uncaring formal economy, funding infrastructure projects like schools, hospitals and churches, even private homes. Business remains good. More contraband is making it over the border and last year the Mexican authorities seized less cocaine than it had back in 1991.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has offered to extend the Merida Initiative (a $1.6bn bribe set up in 2008), and continues to use misleading terminology such as 'insurgency' in reference to the highly profitable capitalist enterprises flourishing south of the border. Murder keeps the prices up, it seems. Over on the (apparently) legal wing of this boom trade, Mexico's financial institutions and America's arms dealers and military contractors also have little to complain about.

Le Spectacle?

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was last night interviewed on La Noche by Claudia Gurisatti. Still visibly throbbing with satisfaction deriving from the San José mine rescue, Piñera dismissed the remarks of Miguel Bosé, who just the other day claimed to be profoundly irritated, not in fact by Gurisatti, though she is humongously irritatting, but by the way the miners' predicament had been converted into a reality TV show.

Huh? So it's OK for musicians to use contrived spectacle to achieve political ends, but not actual politicians? Piñera rightly went on to point out that it would have been much harder for him to drum up support for the significant changes, improvements perhaps, to Chile's laws affecting labour conditions and mine safety in general, had there not been a degree of stage management in his government's response to the emergency.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pics from the Archive (28)


Moscow 1985, Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy Gory), with the Olympic Stadium from five years earlier prominent in the background.

Here Baksheesh and the then Hon. Eddie Vaizey — now the Rt Hon, Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, and lesser of the two Old Paulines in David Cameron's coalition government — simulate corrupt western activities then considered criminal by the men in the Kremlin.

On September 24 this year Eddie's name appeared at No10 in the 2010 Guardian Film P0wer 100, much to the bemusement of Simon Mayo, whose regular sidekick finally shows up close to the relegation zone. (75th). In fairness, Eddie had just abolished the UK Film Council.

At this historic moment in Soviet history, Konstantin Chernenko had 'a cold' and Gorby was waiting in the wings.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Facebook heads south...

Little more than a year ago, I was being forced to operate two social networks, one for my friends, family and former colleagues outside Guatemala (Facebook), and one for all the Chapines (Hi5). Now the local migration to the more prim and proper pages of Mark Zuckerberg's platform is almost complete.

Following the link trail from friends to friends of friends, I recently found myself in the bizarre Facebook ghetto that is Yepocapa. I've never actually been up there, but the impression one gets from "The Face" is a community packed with vain, materialistic, cousin-shagging servidores de Cristo, who like to moped around the place in Oscar de la Renta sunglasses, not entirely unlike southern Italians. (Mondragone was particularly memorable as far as this peculiar raza of poseurs goes.)

Those not listing 'La Biblia' — or even particular psalms — under their Favourite Books [Bibliaphiles?], leave no doubt about their cultural aspirations with remarks such as "Yo no leo" or even "Déjenme pensar...no, ninguno."

Just how far south we've come from the virtual hang-out of the Harvard elite, becomes clear the moment one lets one's curiosity assume control of the mouse. One pre-teen friend of a family member lists as her only interest Money. Her brother meanwhile has but one activity: Xbox 360, while another mate of his keeps himself busy with McDonalds and nothing else. One girl in this neck of the virtual woods seems almost offended by the question of 'Interests', having typed in her answer as Yo no soy interesada!

It's not all grim reading for anyone who cares about the future of civilisation in this part of the world, however. One of V's nephews is a biochemist and his circle of university friends quaff from a quite enviable pool of shared cultural interests: "Learn to live...free thinking...Ernesto Sabato, Nietzsche, Rayuela, Roberto Bolaño, Milan Kundera etc etc."

For some reason the movie version of Perfume seems to have gained a lot of traction with the junior chattering classes here in Guatemala. Perhaps the book isn't so freely available in translation.

Pics from the Archive (27)


Britain was in the grips of a very minor political scandal this week when Tory peer Howard Flight used the verb form of breed in reference to the procreational activities of the less affluent.

"We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."

Conservatives usually mean something else entirely when they speak of breeding, especially good breeding.

Here in Guatemala we're OK with the idea that human beings rut like beasts, or indeed that the close to thirty different ethnic groups in the country can be categorised like show dogs. (This particular sign adorns the highway leading down to San Antonio Aguas Calientes.)

Food Porn (3)


Something of an experiment this, codos with octopus and yaki nori, accompanied by tomatoes, fried aubergine (eggplant), papas and huicoyitos.

The main news is that we have started to make our own picante, even re-filling some of our little plastic habanero empties.

The basic salsa is made from red peppers, miltomate and chiltepe. Some versions have a Thai-twist: usually fish sauce, coconut and perhaps even a trace of red curry paste. Here it was deployed as a dipping sauce.

Pics from the Archive (26)


A view of Dubai, from way back in August 2005, when the cranes were really starting to go up in earnest. (Taken shortly after take-off from the Dubai International/Sheikh Rashid Terminal.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Deferred crunch?

From the Reagan era onwards successive US administrations created the conditions in which around $1.5 trillion anti-gravitated upwards to the richest 1% of the population. This being more capital than the fuckoff rich could actually handle by themselves, they duly sent about $1 trillion back down the wealth pyramid in the form of highly suspect loans, largely targeting the very people who'd been missing out on the party (and boy had they been made to know what a friggin' cool fiesta this was).

We all know what happened next. An unthinkably large and very black hole opened up beneath the global financial system. Like Wile-e Coyote, the banks didn't realise that they had been running in mid-air until the late summer of 2008.

Such was the magnitude of the problem and the interconnectedness of its constituent parts, that even the party representing the interests of the richest 1% under a cloak of populism and jubilant ignorance, had no choice but to step in and transfer much of the risk from the private to the state sector, from bankers to taxpayers (and bondholders, lest we forget) — or from capitalism to socialism, according to the Republican Party's kool-aid quaffers.

Socialism doesn't usually involve building levees around storm-threatened capital, but in the US the bail-outs were accompanied by a change of administration and a 'stimulus' package involving increased largesse from central purses...and that's like, socialism, right?

Anyway, this urge to borrow and spend yet more came about partly because the new guys at the helm had a long-standing commitment to bringing America's treatment of the sick up to civilised norms, brooded over long before the Crunch. That the inefficient structures being replaced actually cost more (and thus implied bigger government) than the full-coverage systems of 'socialised' medicine operated by several European countries, wasn't something that the ideologues wished to ponder much at this point.

Whether or not one is oddly predisposed to see the transfer of risk from the corporate sphere to the state and its system of public debt in strictly Marxist terms (Capitalism v Socialism), the truth is that the sickness itself is essentially unchanged: a cancer within the global credit market.

Stimulus in the States and austerity in the EU appeared for a while to have kept it in remission, but over the past fortnight or so we've been seeing how the Eurozone could become the weakest link in the ongoing therapy package.

Suddenly you had a single currency with multiple attitudes and responses to the sudden surge of government debt as a proportion of GDP. Some of the member countries were caught with their pants down. In fact the Irish had yanked their own trousers down with gay abandon in 2006, an uninhibited display of fiscal self-endangerment which tempted the likes of WPP to pack up and move to Dublin. (Even a canny number-cruncher like Sir Martin Sorrel was unable to ask the obvious question of this deal which looked too good to be true.) While the Greeks are by nature inclined to take a narrow bend on a mountain road at full speed, the Irish simply thought they'd chance it in order to make a few extra Euros.

Who's next in the line of dominos? Spanish banks appeared to have dodged the sub-prime bullet, but GDP in Spain had been overreaching itself, so when the local construction boom turned to bust, they got caught holding the gruesome negative equity baby anyway. They are also carrying considerable exposure to Portuguese debt and Portugal is on most people's list as European sovereign state 'Most Likely to Go Tits-up Next'. (Though some have their money on Belgium with its disfunctional political system.)

Furthermore, as a member of the Eurozone, Spain has limited defences against a concerted speculative attack. If the bond market considers it a default-risk, the cost of government borrowing (and in 2011 it will need to conduct a substantial new round) will soar which will make the upping of Spain's tits something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The question is, Is Spain TBTF? And what of France, where the political will to impose austerity is likely to waver in the face of the sort of social commotion they just adore over there.

The tumour is still there, largely in remission, and nobody really thinks that the patient (even if its just the European single currency we're talking about) can be allowed to die. But can it really be 'austerised' out of the European body politic, and hasn't this crisis revealed that the Euro has a genetic predisposition towards ailing from this kind of credit cancer?

Stephens and Catherwood (4): La Dolce Vita

"The coast assumed an appearance of grandeur and beauty that realized my ideas of tropical regions. There was dense forest to the water's edge. Beyond were lofty mountains, covered to their tops with perpetual green, some isolated, and others running off in ranges, higher and higher, till they were lost in the clouds."

I wish I'd had access to this passage back in the days when Mr Parfitt used to oppress his fifth year English class at Colet Court with his stringently-held view that there is no such word in the language as "till".

Anyway, Stephens was already getting into the whole tropical adventure thing as the pair skirted around the Bay of Amatique. After PG, the next stop was a small settlement located at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, now quite widely-known to visitors to these parts, though not for the reasons anticipated at the start of that century:

"It was called by the familiar name of Livingston, in honour of the distinguished citizen of Louisiana whose criminal code was at that time introduced into Guatemala; and it was supposed, so advantageous was its position, that it would become the port of entry of Central America; but these expectations were not realized."

In 1839 one didn't have to drop into Puerto Barrios to get one's passport stamped*, so Stephens was able to press right on with Guatemala's most scenic entrada, recording the first time experience in a manner that will no doubt kindle recollections of the awe experienced by those of us who have since followed in his backwash.

"A narrow opening in a rampart of mountains wooed us on, and in a few moments we entered the Rio Dolce. On each side rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew up from the water's edge, with dense, unbroken foilage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dolce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur..."

The pair had been led to expect a degree of "gambolling" of monkeys and parrots, but instead found the steep gorge strangely quiescent during their up-river excursion to the harbour of 'Yzabal'.

"The pelican, the stillest of birds, was the only living thing we saw [wot no herons?], and the only sound was the unnatural bluster of our steam engine. The wild defile that leads to the excavated city of Petra is not more noiseless or more extraordinary, but strangely contrasting in its sterile desolation, while here all is luxuriant, romantic and beautiful."

It would seem that they passed up on the opportunity to try some of the local delicacies, such as these freshly harvested jutes:


* The customs post was then located beside Lake Isabal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Buried (2010)

Rodrigo Cortés's Buried, set in its entirety inside a wooden box buried beneath Iraqi soil (though not so deep as to muffle a mobile signal*), was always going to be a pretty intense experience for claustrophobes.

Not being a member of the latter category I was always going to need something more than the situation itself to maintain the suspense. The director clearly gave some thought to this (hence the snake interlude for the alternatively phobic) but the deployment of the chosen ideas is somewhat haphazard. I suppose one can also enjoy the film as a dark satire on the American way of telephony with particular emphasis on customer and employee relations.

The trouble is that all this focus on the cellphone and the strange and pointed conversations that it faciliates with the world outside and above the casket, ultimately detracts from the verisimilitude of the scenario.

Grade: B (+-)

* I suppose this deserves some credit as one of the few modern horror movies where mobile phones don't require plot-excision and where the audience isn't treated to the seemingly obligatory 'no signal' shot!

Historic peace accord?



Pics from the Archive (25)


Back in 2005 we drove down to Rome for a friend's wedding, stopping here on day four in Genoa for supplies — at this highly unusual supermarket-sur-mer whose car-park backed onto a black sand beach. (On our roadtrips we often used to cut some eucalyptus leaves and store them in the back to maintain the pleasantness of the in-car aromas.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pepys 1660 (5)

We went to the Sun Tavern in expectation of a dinner, where we had sent us only two trenchers-full of meat, at which we were very merry, while in came Mr. Wade and his friend Capt. Moyse (who told us of his hopes to get an estate merely for his name’s sake), and here we staid till seven at night, I winning a quart of sack of Shaw that one trencherfull that was sent us was all lamb and he that it was veal. I by having but 3d. in my pocket made shift to spend no more, whereas if I had had more I had spent more as the rest did, so that I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket.

(Thursday February 16, 1660)

This little piece of wisdom occurred to Sam before he started conducting himself in ways which require a gentelman to carry a certain amount of efectivo around with him in the evenings.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wall Street Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Money might however be advised to down a demitasse or two before sitting through Oliver Stone's Wall Street refresher.

As you'd expect Shia LaSnooze is present in a number of the scenes which feel like attending a late afternoon business meeting on Friday.

Cast as a sensitive version of the dealing room greed-merchant, his underpowered aura works quite nicely in the (almost) affecting scenes with Carey Mulligan — and Gordon Gekko is surely tailor-made to play off well against an impressionable straight guy — but it's completely out of place the moment he's required to swing his dick with the really big players in the boardroom.

To some extent the strand of the story through which Michael Douglas struts maliciously is predominantly engaging, though Gekko does seem to have been given an awful lot of exposition to be getting on with (Tulipmania etc.), such that his character sometimes comes across suspiciously as Oliver Stone in a rubber suit. The old sheep in wolf's clothing ploy.

Stone does actually show up in a brief cameo. And one of the biggest jolts of the evening came with the sudden uncredited appearance of Charlie Sheen, briefly reprising the role of Bud Fox from the original Wall Street. (Well, in truth he was reprising the role of Charlie Harper, the only one he seems capable of in either art or life these days. )

The whole thing smacks of an exercise the director conceived of having read and more or less understood* a series of well-researched articles about the crash of 2008. So what you have is a kind of dramatisation of those events with some pretty sketchy protagonists, who only really come into their own in the final third once Gekko — who up until then is like a stand-alone dramatic personage loosely attached to this chapuz of a tale — flares out a bit, and the rest of the cast are left with the part of the story where character takes precedence over the rather didactic plot.

Bizarrely Stone seems to think that this rather limp emotional surge entitles him to shoot a concluding, credit-overlaid scene that had me wondering whether I'd just finished watching some sort of romantic comedy.

Grade: B

* Stone can't help showing off the buzzword he's picked up from all this reading: moral hazard. Several characters use it in circumstances you just know nobody really would, until finally Stone decides to fill in the less erudite members of his audience by setting up a meet cute at a book signing between Gekko and a little old lady for whom this term is a bit of a mystery.

Michael Douglas keeps mentioning cancer as well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Behold, the acoustic dumbphone

I was catching up with Digital Planet the other day and came across a feature about one of the most ludicrous technologies to emerge from closeted academia in recent years.

Some Cambridge University boffins have written a piece of software that purports to transform an ordinary cellphone into a highly-desirable touch-screen smartphone.

Text-based entry is replaced by some little icons. and when the user pushes these in imitation of standard iPhone use, the handset's microphone listens in for the resulting noise and can (apparently) accurately determine which part of the screen was touched. Instant swankiness?

But hold on, you can't just gently tap these icons with the fleshy tip of your finger, you'll quite often need some sort of stylus or at least fingernails like our favourite teller at BAC.

Steve Jobs must be chuckling. After a few days of using one of these enhanced Nokias the first thing you're likely to do is go out and buy an iPhone. He should fund these guys.

The possibilities are extensive, the BBC guys suggested enthusiastically. OK we may just be talking about the market for impecunious, thick-fingered folk with accessibility issues, but let's not put a premature damper on another great British invention.

Still not underwhelmed? You can catch a full demo here.


Stephens and Catherwood (3) - Punta Gorda

Having quickly exhausted the possibilities of Belize City, Stephens and his limey sidekick embark on a short steamboat ride down the coast to Punta Gorda. This vessel...

"...was the last remnant of the stock in trade of a great Central American agricultural association, formed for building cities, raising the price of land, accommodating emigrants, and improvement generally. On the rich plains of the province of Vera Paz they had established the site of New Liverpool, which only wanted houses and a population to become a city." *

One of the tag-alongs on board was a man of the cloth, who duly asked permission to inflict some rites of passage on the local inhabitants, then predominantly Carib indians. The latter were initially suspicious of this padre, for he was unable to speak a word of Spanish, for them the one true badge of orthodoxy, but in due course "when they saw in him his gown and surplice, with the burning incense, all distrust vanished." More fool them.

The opportunities for holy wedlock were thin on the ground because most of PG's menfolk were out and about engaged in fishing and other bread-winning activities, so the main custom of the day presented itself as a long line of women with babes in arms. Stephens ruminates on his own roping-in that day:

"I became godfather to a Carib child; fortunately, its mother was an honest woman, and the father stood by at the time. In all probability I shall never have much to do with its training; and I can only hope that in due season it will multiply the name and make it respectable amongst the Caribs."


* This detail reminded me of a passage I read earlier this week in Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara. The soon-to-be-born revolutionary's mother had just eloped with Guevara Lynch to the rather leafy frontier district of Misiones, funding her new husband's dream of owning a Yerba Mate plantation out of her inheritance. There they got about on the Ibera, "a Victorian paddle-wheel steamer that had done prior service carrying British colonials up the Nile." Are you thinking what I'm thinking? How the heck did it get across the pond?


Room in Rome (2010)

I have sought out and enjoyed almost every one of Julio Medem's films, and have been wont to consider him one of my favourite contemporary directors of arthouse movies. Until now that is.

In his first major release for some years (2001's Sex and Lucia was his last really memorable movie), a Spanish woman — perhaps a wealthy man's fugitive wife — persuades an openly straight Russian girl to spend the night with her in her hotel room: a set concocted with the sort of icky grandiloquence you'd normally expect to find in the flicks of less subtle film-makers.

I can't really say much more because after about 30 minutes we decided we simply couldn't live with such elevated levels of ambient pretentiousness.

In a sense this is a kind of sapphic Before Sunrise, and I am sure there will be people prepared to go the distance, who will perhaps encounter in it depth and sensitivity, as well as a measure of eroticism (where we saw only the glibness of art porn).

But this is a movie which lost me before it had even revealed its basic intentions. For having given us only the barest, at-a-distance intro to his female protagonists Medem lays it on way too thick and way too early with Jocelyn Pook's In The Mood For Love-style score, and the drama and portent of this tune served only to remind me how little I was engaged with the characters at this point.

Grade: B- (for the first 33% at least.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pepys 1660 (4)

"This morning I lay long abed, and then to my office, where I read all the morning my Spanish book of Rome."

(Saturday, February 11, 1660)

Ok, it was a Saturday, but life never seemed to be all that stressful in the London office of the 1660s. If that was how his weekend started, this was how it was to conclude:

"So to bed, where my wife and I had some high words upon my telling her that I would fling the dog which her brother gave her out of window if he [dirtied] the house any more."

(Sunday, February 12, 1660)

Perhaps we need to bear in mind here that Elizabeth's brother was a sponger and a wastrel.




Monday, November 15, 2010

A quiet spot



A lovely pair of pics V took in Cherry's favourite spot in Antigua recently.

November is our own favourite month in Guatemala, breezy and florid, with enough mositure still in the ground to put a damper on those swirling clouds of dust.

Stephens and Catherwood (2) "The last place made"

It was full moonlight when the boy mounted the deck and gave us the pilot's welcome. I could not distinguish his featurs, but I could see that he was not white; and his voice was as soft as a woman's.

After eighteen days of "boisterous weather" the Mary Ann passed alongside Lighthouse Caye and approached 'Balize', at which point her captain invited on board a lad of about sixteen, described above by Stephens. He was the son of a professional pilot engaged by a large, mahogany-laden brig in St George's Bay.

The next morning the passengers would disembark at a warehouse owned by the evocatively-named Mr Coffin, and shortly thereafter John Lloyd Stephens himself was partaking of what was locally known as the 'second breakfast' at the home of a merchant.

The gentleman sat on one side of the table and his lady on the other. At the head was a British officer, and opposite him a mulatto; on his left was another officer, and opposite him also a mulatto. By chance a place was made for me between the two coloured gentlemen. Some of my countrymen, perhaps, would have hesitated about taking it, but I did not; both were well dressed, well educated, and polite. They talked of their mahogany works, of England, hunting, horses, ladies, and wine; and before I had been an hour in Balize I learned that the great work of practical amalgamation, the subject of so much angry controversy in the States, had been going on quietly for generations ; that colour was considered mere matter of taste ; and that some of the most respectable inhabitants had black wives and mongrel children, whom they educated with as much care, and made money for with as much zeal, as if their skins were perfectly white.

I hardly knew whether to be shocked or amused at this condition of society; and, in the meantime, joined Mr. Catherwood, to visit the house offered by Mr. Coffin. It was situated on the opposite side of the river, and the road to it was ankle-deep in mud. At the gate was a large puddle, which we cleared by a jump; the house was built on piles about two feet high, and underneath was water nearly a foot deep. We ascended on a plank to the sill of the door, and entered a large room occupying the whole of the first floor, and perfectly empty. The upper story was tenanted by a family of negroes; in the yard was a house swarming with negroes; and all over, in the yard and in front, were picturesque groups of little negroes of both sexes, and naked as they were born. We directed the room to be swept and our luggage brought there; and, as we left the house, we remembered Captain Hampton’s description before our arrival, and felt the point of his concluding remark, that Balize was the last place made.


John Lloyd Stephens was nothing less than what we English refer to as a 'good bloke'. But he was also a bloke of his times, and although he would — famously — go on to accommodate into his worldview the notion that the great Mayan ruins he and Catherwood catalogued had been constructed by the rather tattered indigenous communities living nearby, he was playing to his less enlightened stateside readers a bit when he reported that the brightest and most improving pupils at the negro schools behind Government House were "those who had in them the most white blood."

Belize, not to become a British crown colony until 1862, was very much ahead of the curve when it came to emancipation. Only a couple of months before the Mary Ann's arrival, the condition of the black portion of the portion of the population (4000/6000) had been improved, legally at least. It had anyway, Stephens notes, always been...

...better than that of plantation slaves; even before the act for the general abolition of slavery throughout the British dominions, they were actually free; and on the 31st of August, 1839, a year before the time appointed by the act, by a general meeting and agreement of proprietors, even the nominal yoke of bondage was removed. The event was celebrated, says the Honduras Almanac, by religious ceremonies, processions, bands of music, and banners with devices: “The sons of Ham respect the memory of Wilberforce,” - ” The Queen, God bless her,” – ” M*Donald for ever,” – ” Civil and religious liberty all over the world.” Nelson Schaw, ” a snowdrop of the first water,” continues the Almanac, ” advanced to his Excellency, Colonel M*Donald and spoke as follows: ‘ On the part of my emancipated brothers and sisters, I venture to approach your Excellency, to entreat you to thank our most gracious Queen for all that she has done for us. We will pray for her ; we will fight for her ; and, if it be necessary, we will die for her. We thank your Excellency for all you have done for us. God bless your Excellency 1 God bless her Excellency, Mrs. McDonald, and all the Royal family! Come, my countrymen, hurrah ! Dance, ye black rascals ! the flag of England flies over your heads, and every rustle of its folds knocks the fetters off the limbs of the poor slave . Hubbabboo Cochalorum Gee ! ”


The President's special emissary also pays a visit to the barracks where he finds a regiment of black soldiers, many of whom form the remnant of an old Jamaica unit which had BEEN enlisted at the English recruiting stations in West Africa. "They carry themselves proudly, call themselves the 'Queen's Gentle-men,' and look down upon the 'niggers'."

Stephens, himself a lawyer, was to find men and women of mixed race amongst the judges and jurors at the Grand Court. It would be interesting to know whether the racial categories he uses in his report — sambo, mulatto etc. — were imported by the visitors, or whether they were still formal and socially-significant distinctions in the Belize City of 1839. The terminology employed by the warlike red-coats at the barracks suggests that it was still some way from complete harmony amongst the various demographics and their skin tones, as indeed it is today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pepys 1660 (3)

"And about 9 o’clock I went away homewards, and in Fleet Street, received a great jostle from a man that had a mind to take the wall, which I could not help?"

(Wednesday February 8, 1660)

In Britain we may drive on the left, but we stand on the right. On escalators it has become such a habit of mine that I was bemused by the trouble it caused me on my round-the-world trip this year.

Chaotic encounters on London's streets, such as the one Sam relates above (with that delightful self-examining addition of a question mark) were soon to be a thing of the past, as the convention was established that rather than asserting the wall if one could, one should always endeavour to pass on the right.

Here in Antigua Guatemala taking the wall often results in a face full of wrought iron balcony. The one piece of unstated local etiquette for pedestrian traffic that I am aware of, is that the male member of a couple should always walk on the street side of the banqueta, presumably so that he might assume the risk posed by Guatemala's drivers and wet season puddles...though it also probably spares him a few bumps on the forehead.

South of the Border (2009)

In this documentary, written by Tariq Ali, but essentially presented as the work of Oliver Stone, the renegade film director meets the bane of Fox News and NTN24 and attempts to get beyond the big American warning sign saying 'dictator'.

Chávez is shown as the leader of a popular rebellion in South America which has chosen as its targets American IMF-led imperialism and predatory capitalism in general.

The most exposition-heavy parts of the movie look at the 2002 coup-attempt in Venezuela and the US role in this. The failed golpe is held up as a credible explanation for Chávez's subsequent bolshiness and authoritarian tendencies.

Stone then goes on to meet several other South American leaders including (poignantly) the Kirchners, as well as Evo, Correa, Lula, Lugo and the younger Castro, all of which are presented as the support crew for Venezuelan-led Bolivarianism. Strength in numbers is the new circumstance of South America's new anti-elite, Stone suggests.

Now, standing up to US bulleying is probably a good thing. But the makers of this film have clearly fallen into the trap of suggesting that many of the significant issues facing the region — poverty, development, impunity, drugs, political freedom — are all somehow just the effluent from a misguided US foreign policy. This smacks of American exceptionalism in its reversed-out, leftist guise.

The end result is a movie which isn't really interested in the particular local narratives and their considerable variation across the spectrum of Bolivarianist indignation. The target market for the film is clearly the mass of open-minded but ignorant Americans who might otherwise be wondering if Evo's breakfast habits mean they can get a real high from their morning cocoa. It's a shame that it presents an essentially fair, but still rather partial view of the 'revolution' taking shape in the bottom half of the hemisphere.

That said, fans of larger-than-life Hugo — especially those like myself who are more inclined to question his political achievements on the ground — will enjoy this unbalanced movie primarily for the portrait it provides of this sincere if occasionally oafish Presidente.

I particularly loved the part where Stone encourages him to ride a kid's bicycle around the site of his childhood 'mud hut', and when said bike duly crumbles depositing his large frame into said mud, Chávez jumps up with a nervous laugh and exclaims "oh no, I'll have to pay for that!".

Grade: B (+-)


Tikal Futura shoot-out update

As predicted on this blog, a full investigation of the balacera last September in the car park of the Gran Tikal Futura has unearthed a version of events significantly at variance with the account provided by the PNC in the immediate aftermath.

Specifically it is now known that there was no actual exchange of fire between the police and the narcs, and that all three fatalities — two cops and an evangelical pastor — died from bullets fired from PNC weapons. Basically two independent police units ran into the car park and opened up on each other. The god squadie was apparently caught in this cross-fire.