Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This year's vampires

There are approximately 260 references to angels in the Bible, but only 6 of them mention wings.

This, and other fascinating factlets, cropped up on a recent radio interview given by Professor Peter Marshall of Warwick University, co-author of Angels In The Early Modern World.

Marshall was on mini-panel discussing the durability of these messengers of the divine, who seem set for a pop-culture resurgence in twenty ten.

Now, you might have expected them to have been first against the wall when the Reformation came, but it appears that there are just so many textual accounts of their activities in the scriptures that they proved rather difficult to expunge from the theological record.

Part of the explanation for this resilience may be the fact that angels pre-date the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and as representatives of a more ancient lineage of near-eastern superstition, which has been co-opted yet not contained by the church hierarchies, they appear to have genuine populist appeal.

In early Christian times the standard iconography presented angels as bearded males. But then came the Middle Ages and a whole load of hang-ups about sex. Pope Gregory VII and his fellow reformers insisted on a celibate lay clergy in order to ensure that church property held firm against the nascent nation state's inheritance laws; and so the de-carnalisation of angels ensued as a natural consequence of spurious retro-fitted ideas about purity.

I tend to equate angels with Tolkein's elves. Immortal yet somehow, not bored, they are a far more easy-to-comprehend embodiment of humanity's better self than God could ever be.

As Jeremy Rifkin puts it in The Empathic Civilisation, there's paradoxically no place for the more exalted human emotional responses such as empathy in Heaven or the Marxist utopia, because in such perfect environments there can be no suffering — which means there's nothing to get all empathic about. That an utterly perfect, omniscient being could take a real interest in the trivia of our miniscule existences is something only the vainest of believers can hold to be certain. Angels however, are just like us, without all those sinful tendencies.

Indeed, medieval thinkers started to relate angels to the formally chaste condition of human souls reawakening on the Day of Judgement, and pictorially angels duly shed their whiskers and assumed a decidedly androgynous look in medieval art.

An abiding characteristic of unregulated popular belief in the Middle Ages was the notion that animals and children were somehow closer to the supernatural than everyone else and could perceive beings on the edge of crossing over, so to speak. It's therefore hardly surprising that angels have developed a special bond with the immature and that one of the most attested loci for the summoning one of God's messengers has been the fingernail of a child. One doesn't have to be a qualified psychologist to detect a deep-seated fear of adulthood in western culture (And is it all that surprising given what priests — if not angels — have been getting up to with the children that they've taken a special interest in?)

Angeology, the hot new thriller by Danielle Trussoni (pictured above) — a recent addition to my Kindle 'pile' — is clearly pitched at a readership somewhere between those of Dan Brown and Umberto Eco. I'll probably get round to finishing it during my May odyssey.

The title is suggestive of another contributing factor to the unlikely durability of angels since science started to suppress superstition: they lend themselves to the empiricist's soft underbelly: pseudoscientific, occultic, taxonomic obessesiveness.

Anyway, so long bloodsuckers and hidehi super-seraphs. If Legion is anything to go by, this year's crop come with added testosterone. (No beards so far though.)

A Rake's Progress (7)


By now Tom has been incarcerated in the notorious Fleet prison for debtors and still leaking money, as both his jailer and the beer boy are shown attempting to rake off his last few pennies.

Both his old wife and his young discarded lover are showing signs of distress at their inability to help him out this time (though the former might well be carping on at him directly into his left ear) and incipient madness is suggested by the telescope set up to poke through the bars and the alchemy experiment going on in the background.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Rake's Progress (6)


Tom has now definitively mislaid his fortune (and his wig) in a gambling den.

Here he is in the foreground pleading for divine intervention. Unfortunately, this is the cue for someone at the rear to set fire to the joint. 



Domingo de Ramos (28th March)


San Bartolo Alfombras etc. (21st March)


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Suffer little children to come unto me

Pope Benedict XVI has been getting the full Bill Clinton treatment this week, following the Vatican's failure to ring-fence (as my former colleagues in the PR industry like to say) the sordid revelations emanating from the Irish branch of the universal church. 

Actually, one could say that the former Archbishop Ratzinger's level of personal guilt here amounts to even less of a clear-cut sackable offence than Ronald's Reagan's definitive deniability in the Iran-Contra scandal. God knows I never read every memo I was CC'd in on! 

But this hasn't stopped regular cassock-baiter Christopher Hitchens from going on the Bill Maher show in order to call for the Pontiff's arrest under US law. (26 States currently include members of the clergy among those professionals specifically mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect.)

Perhaps the only man in the whole world who would dare to indict the Pope, has himself been suffering some serious reputation damage this week, with a real possibility of career-threatening legal consequences.

Spain's super-juez Baltasar Garzón has been accused of wantonly acting outside his jurisdiction. When I heard this my first thought was, why has it taken the Spanish authorities so long to react to something that us anglophones cottoned onto the moment Garzón started issuing arrest warrants for the likes of Osama Bin Laden and a large part of Latin America's class of retired dictators.? (Starting most notoriously of course, with Pinochet.)
 

The irony here is that the judge has been pulled over now for abusing his authority in the one area you'd think could actually be said to fall within his remit: a probe into atrocities carried out during Spain's own civil war. 

In other news, the government of El Salvador officially apologised to the rest of the world this week for murdering their own Archbishop back in 1980, and I spotted a big poster for Gerardi, La Película on the way into the capital. Does any one know which version of the events surrounding the bishop's bludgeoning (if any) this new film alludes to? (i.e. Goldman's or  Vargas Llosa's.) 


Musical interlude



Friday, March 26, 2010

Panuchos del Valle

V's brother O very kindly came round with a generous ration of delicious, locally-produced quesillo — so we thought it would be nice to include it in a simple, but very yummy lunchtime recipe.

Guatemalan tortillas have two sides, a hard espalda and the softer cara. We put one inch squares of the cheese between two caras and then fried these little sandwiches until their filling started to melt. We then poured a beaten egg over our panuchos to seal them. (It's worth adding a little milk to the egg so that it doesn't turn out too scragilly revuelto in texture.)

Meanwhile we fried some thin pieces of bistec in tequila and honey, adding a few drops of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar towards the end.

Then, as a final touch, we sprinkled scissor-cut yaki nori (Japanese roasted seaweed) over our dish. It adds an unusual and delectable maritime tang, but can easily be substituted with baby-leaf cilantro or lemon basil.

Spoonfulls of tomato or habanero-based sauces can then be deployed to taste:

A Rake's Progress (5)


With pauperism seemingly imminent, Tom seeks a drastic solution: fast track courtship and marriage to a lady of means who would appear to be, might we say, no spring chicken.

The nuptials are interrupted — unsuccessfully — by the arrival of Sarah, her pushy mother and Tom's bastard child.

Rakewell's eyes are seen to drift towards his sugar mumma's maidservant. Meanwhile his bride's eyes drift in divergent directions.

First Words (26)

"Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker somber and sympathetic about it when I'm with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I'm alone. I've always thought the secret with dealing with death was to keep it at arm's length. That's the rule. Don't let it breathe in your face."

Michael Connelly, The Poet.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Rake's Progress (4)


By now Tom has some new characters following in his wake: Welsh bailiffs with leeks in their hats. Coincidentally it's St David's Day and Tom was on his way (in this early-modern version of the tuctuc) to St James's Palace to celebrate Queen Caroline's birthday. Ironies abound on this occasion, as it discarded ex-novia Sarah who intervenes here to save no-wallet Rakewell from public embarrassment. Meanwhile a young street urchin is relieving Tom of his cane.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

80 days to go



A Rake's Progress (3)

Leaving behind his posse of chupasangres, Tom heads down to the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden, a house of considerable ill-repute, where the local hos wear black 'beauty' spots to hide their syphilitic sores, and are not above relieving our hero of his watch during a moment of orgiastic reverie.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Legion (2010)

God is 'fed up with all the bullshit*' and decides that it's time for another extinction event. That's what He wants, but what does He need?

Archangel Michael decides to risk his celestial paycheck on this tricky theological distinction, and in spite of being ordered to Earth to make sure one particular human baby doesn't make it, he changes sides, slices off his wings, loads up with automatic rifles and heads out to the Mojave desert, where a pregnant waitress and a few good folk are holed up in a diner resisting the assaults of a diabolic host...except that these neck-munching, ceiling crawling, black-eyed fiends aren't demons at all, but the Holy Trinity's angelic "only obeyink orderz" army, led by the more unquestioning Archangel Gabriel.

By now I have no doubt that you will either have been completely sold or turned off by this B-movie caper from Scott Stewart. The film knowingly helps itself to tropes from the Terminator and Tremors franchises plus countless zombie and apocalypse movies, which results in a mix of deadening cliché and entertaining pastiche.

Grade: B


* The Vatican's response to the Irish clergy's kiddlyfiddling shame was probably the last straw.


A Rake's Progress (2)


Tom has arrived in the big city and duly acquired a full set of hangers on — including music, fencing and dancing instructors, a jockey (complete with trophy), a landscape architect and an old soldier applying for the position of bodyguard. Hogarth has done the dancing and fencing masters in the much disdained 'French' style. (i.e. poncey.)

An alfombra of dry stone construction


The Sandoval family, proprietors of Antigua's one and only authentic Peruvian eatery — Inca* —- created this eye-catching ceremonial alfombra for the San Bartolo procession last Sunday. I've not come across one before which makes such clever use of the underlying texture of the empedrado.

* If you like your ceviche with added camote and lots of chile, then this is the place to go. They also offer a range of interesting platos típicos from the land of the Inca.


Monday, March 22, 2010

A Rake's Progress (1)


Tom Rakewell has come into a fortune upon the death of his father. His first act of largesse? To pay off his pregnant fiancee Sarah Young, seen on the left holding his ring despondantly as her mother remonstrates with the young master whose new strides are being fitted. A starving cat investigates a chest full of silver.

(Canvasses by William Hogarth 1732-3, Sir John Soane's Museum, London.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mysterious motorcade

This afternoon, seeking refuge from the calor insoportable, I decided to stand on the front balcony for a while in the hope of catching a passing zephyr.

Suddenly a strange whirring siren (rather like the politer sort of car alarm) announced the arrival at the nearby intersection of one of those deadly serious motorcades we see round here from time to time. First to cross were two cops on low Easy Rider-style bikes dressed, I fancied, a bit like the stars of that 70s show CHIPs.

The next section consisted of four enormous black, blindados Suburban-style SUVs. The process is always the same: the first and third cross the intersection slowly, checking for any approaching threats. Their back windows are open and yet completely blocked by armed and armoured men facing out. Once they have satisfied themselves of the integrity of this particular T-junction, they move on, closely followed by the second and fourth vehicles in the line — the ones carrying 'the packages' — which then zip across as fast as they can.

After these come an assortment of back-up vehicles which varies from motorcade to motorcade. This time there was a plain white pick-up and a PNC van. On one previous occasion there was a light truck in the train, fitted with a huge pedestal-mounted machine gun, a set-up reminiscent of the 'technicals' favoured by Saddam's Fedayeen in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

Today the men staring out of the last goonmobile quickly made me on my balcony, so I was glad not to be holding anything that might even vaguely have resembled an RPG.

So, who could it have been? Colom is in Moscow. Perhaps, we later speculated, it was J-Lo and Marc Anthony popping in for a spot of pre-concert afternoon tea with Ex-Prez?

Ever since the time he was out riding with his wife and his ever-keen presidential guard (the dreaded EMP) accidentally executed a milk delivery man, Ex-Prez has appeared to prefer more low key security. Indeed, we often see him zooming around the neighbourhood at the helm of his Mule with only one bodyguard (hanging on for dear life).

Once he even came visiting alone. Well, in fact he tapped on the door belonging to the house of V's below-radar brother R, and duly asked if she was around. R must have thought 'WTF??'. Along with his motorcycle crash helmet, Ex-Prez was wearing a thick kevlar vest with an antenna sticking out the chest pocket. V also relates that he had a big button on his left cuff, as if all he had to do was press it and the SWAT team would start descending on ropes from above.

Anyway, the substantial PNC presence here in Panorama means that one has had to get used to men with AK-47s on their backs wandering slowly up the road ruminatively munching their Tortrix.

None of this really fazes V. Back in the 80s and early 90s she had her run ins with the much dastardlier (and now thankfully defunct) Guardianes de la Hacienda. She remains thoroughly freaked out however by the occasion that she came across a nuclear submarine passing our Thameside balcony around 2am one morning.

Substantial vessels of one sort or another are regular visitors to the Pool of London and the naval variety, passing sigilosamente under cover of darkness, sending a fleeting wraithlike shadow across our bedroom window, tended to steam up-river at speed — completely blacked out — with only their red and green navigation lights illuminated. No doubt a precaution against canon fire from disgruntled members of the East End Bangladeshi community.




Oveja Perdida



Long-bearded Rene fabricates a mechanical alfombra every year outside his home in San Luquitas. Felipe and the boys were out there helping to construct the 2010 version from around 9pm last night.

This year's was perhaps a little less ambitious than some of his previous contraptions...and the same must be said of the San Bartolo anda. And what's with those shiny new centurion outfits? They all look a bit Carry on Cleo dressed like that.




Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jalea de Café


We've just had an unexpected visitor — V's friend Don Willy, who came by to drop off a sample of his latest creation, coffee jam. Don Willy is our local entrepreneur, churning out delicious jaleas from his home-factory in Panorama.

His Valle de Panchoy jams are almost without exception delicious (I say almost, because the jalea de mango is a bit too sickly sweet for our tastes, but Don Willy says it's a kiddies' favourite) and this latest addition is no exception...even though I have so far only run my finger around the inside of the lid.

Guatemalans tend to like their coffee ralito with copious quantities of sugar, but Willy doesn't seem to have stinted on the beans here.

My father sounded sceptical when I told him about this novel Chapin delicacy, but then remembered that he likes tiramisu. He certainly loved the marmalade I took him on my visit last summer, and quickly identified the secret ingredient in all of Don Willy's jaleas: lemon juice.

Update: The more I try it, the more I love it. We're starting to think of dishes we can concoct with this wonder-jam as the base. (As well as lemon juice, Willy has blended in papaya with the coffee paste.)

Saturday morning musings

One thing that V discourages me from doing is wandering around outside the front gate with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, as this is exactly the kind of behaviour she has come to expect from her brothers. We don't so much live in a neighbourhood as a gene pool.

R, the low-flyer of the family, has taken to dressing as if he's retired early to Biarritz. One would almost expect him to shout out "hang ten" one morning when we pass on the banqueta...except that he hasn't spoken to either of us for nearly a decade.

It was worth getting up early — not for Aston Villa v Wolves — but for the diaphanous start to the morning, which has since tended towards the hazy. No free copy of the Prensa Libre though today. (One of the week's great mysteries were the newspapers shoved under our garage door for three days in succession. Our anonymous donor could not have been the usual delivery man as he passes by later on.)

Now that it's the weekend I'm finding the spare moments to peruse the Readers' Opinions pages, and have noted the sudden upsurge in complaints about the PNC. That Mixco mordida hotspot is certainly heating up in the familiar fashion in the lead up to Semana Santa. It must be a little off-putting for the brave contributors to this part of the Prensa to have to include along with their stories, a full set of personal info, details of their private email address, a current signature and a photocopy of their cédula!

I made the mistake of watching a bit of Fantasy Homes By the Sea on BBC Entertainment. If not actually the worst channel in SKY's selection, it must be close to it. Only the very stinkiest of Beeb's programmes seem to make the cut. The Graham Norton Show, with special guest....Patsy Kensit. I'm not sure that many Brits now know or care who she is ...or was. When you compare the fine quality stuff available via iPlayer (or even EZTV.IT) its frankly embarrassing that license payers are shovelling this parochial shit at the Central Americans.

Fantasy Homes...leaves an agridulce aftertaste. On the one hand there's the pleasing knowledge that these smug 50-something couples have seen a third of the value knocked off these sodden seaside pads since the series was made. On the other hand they belong to the very generation which takes greatest responsibility for the mess, having re-engineered Britain's economy (and society) to fit their fantasy lifestyles, thereby throwing almost every other demographic into the deepest of debt. No wonder they suspect that they might need all the extra bedrooms, because those children who previously left home will all soon be returning for good.

Another depressing statistic surged out of the Prensa this morning as I browsed it. (Maybe Wednesday's copy.) The total death toll from the Haiti earthquake now stands at 222,570. This is very close to half of the UK's total death toll, military and civilian, from WWII: 449,800. (The USA lost 418,500.)

Comparing casualty stats can be (perhaps deceptively) insightful. For example, 600,000 died during the American Civil War, 300-500,000 in the Spanish Civil War. It comes as a surprise (for me at least) to discover that upwards of 800,000 perished as a result of the supposedly less modern conflicts we refer to as The English Civil War. By far the greatest number of these fatalities occured however in Ireland, which experienced a Black Death-equivalent population loss of 41%, thanks largely to the activities of Cromwell's 'Godly' hosts.

The 'English Civil War' was undoubtedly very violent however, taking proportionately more British lives than the First World War. (In England there was a 3.7% loss of population, while Scotland suffered a loss of 6%.) 1 in 4 Englishmen served in the armies of either side, which essentially means that more or less every able-bodied man of the time took up arms. Soft-tipped lead bullets were widely used, resulting in horrific wounds. It's a wonder that little more than a century later Edmund Burke could point the finger at the French and describe their way of going about regime change as distinctly un-British!

Anyway, I have resolved to make a proper study of this period and the ideas that set off this conflict across the British Isles as it has always fascinated me. Burke's ideas seem to reflect the collective amnesia that my compatriots suffer from when it comes to the day we decapitated our King. We got our revolution in early, when political and religious radicalism were still rather confusingly intertwined, and so we tend to dismiss it. But those later upheavals in America and then France might never have happened in the same way without it. And what if Charles had won? An empire helmed by an absolutist might have made the modern world a rather different place.

From a young age most English boys know which side they would have picked, and I have always been a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead. Even with a mature appreciation of just how provocative and idiotic Charles's policies were (there are few other revolutions so clearly the work of a single man), the monarchy as an institution represents a large part of the continuity of England's contribution to consensual government. And the Puritans have likeability issues.

And there's always something so gloriously, tenaciously wrongheaded about the losing side in these civil wars, which is why I can also briefly set aside the prickly political-economic issues, and state my sneaking admiration for the Confederate forces of the Old South and the anarchist factory-workers of Catalunya.

Back to Guatemala. I suppose the local highlight this weekend will be the San Barcholo procession. The whole area has been filling up with fustilarians since mid-afternoon yesterday. The carpets are worth getting up early for, especially those in the narrow streets of San Luquitas.

Elsewhere the main event will be the mega-concert tomorrow evening at the Mateo Flores, featuring J-Lo, her Skeletor-lookalike bloke Marc Anthony, Tito el Bambino, Carlos Baute & Marta Sanchez, Pitbull, Paulina Rubio, Viento en Contra, Hombres G, and local favourites Malacates Trebol Shop. Cheapest tickets are Q500 for a space on the not-so-hallowed turf.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Aruitemo Aruitemo / Still Walking (2008)

There's almost always a subtle interplay of foreground and background, verbal and visual, in this gentle, perceptive and slightly unsettling family drama from Kore-Eda Hirokazu.

After the rather camera-aware performances in Hush, we were beguiled by the sense of watching this gathering in Yokosuka from behind a two-way mirror, invisible to its members and yet somehow sharing their experience of this summer's day and the night that follows, affected as they are by its geniality, its painful undercurrents, its longeurs.

Ryo, self-styled 'second eldest son' is taking his new wife (a widow) and her son to the annual gathering where his parents mark the death of the heir they really wanted.

Part of the ritual is for Ryo's father — a retired doctor — to make his son feel inadequate compared to the talented sibling who died saving a child from drowning. But the real passive-aggressive cruelty is directed at the fat kid that child has become (also required to attend), so that once a year he too can experience the ugly emotions of Junpei's realtives. Ryo senses that the resentments they feel vis-a-vis this survivor are actually compounding the collective anguish, but is unable to persuade his mother against persisting with this additional invitation.

The cleverness of Kore-Eda's film likes in the careful progression (and containment) of this scenario, achieved in part by subtle shifts in camera location and the juxtaposition of different gender and generational perspectives on the import of it all (often by setting up those aforementioned verbal and visual intersections).

One scene particularly resonated: where Ryo's mother was looking inside a chest of drawers for stuff to give her somewhat unwanted new daughter-in-law (she's observed earlier to Ryo's congenial sister that it's better to marry a divorced woman than a widow, because at least the divorcee chose to leave her husband) — an act of ungenerous generosity, which is ultimately voided by her failure to leave out a pair of pijamas for Ryo's adopted son.

"Next time let's not stay the night," is pretty much the first thing Ryo's wife says after waving goodbye to the in-laws through the windows of the bus.

Grade: A(--)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Factura?


We need wonder no more who's been paying for the multifarious improvements around our neck of the woods over the past twelve months or so.

Just under 1% was stumped up by our vecinos (760), yet not a great deal more came from the sale of marbetes around Antigua (an activity which is reaching fever pitch as Easter draws closer).

Instead, the political ties which exist here between local and central government would appear to have been crucial.

So we were wrong to suppose that our local seignueur, the other Don Álvaro, might have put his hand in his pocket in order to assist the prospects of his son, apparently one of the key investors behind the latest substantial urbanisation project in the area.


First Words (25)

"I. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, citizen and Regidor of the most loyal city of Santiago de Guatemala, one of the first discoverers and conquerors of New Spain and its provinces, and the Cape of Honduras and all that lies within that land, a Native of the very noble and distinguished town of Medina del Campo, and the son of its former Regidor, Francisco Díaz del Castillo, also known as the Courteous, and his legal wife Maria Diez Rejon (may their souls rest in glory), tell you the story of myself and my comrades; all true conquerors, who served His Majesty in the discovery, conquest, pacification and settlement of the provinces of New Spain; one of the finest countries yet discovered in the New World, this expedition being undertaken by our own efforts, without His Majesty's knowledge."

Bernal Díaz de Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain (Begun in 1568)

Díaz died on his encomienda in the environs of La Antigua Guatemala in 1585 aged 93, the last survivor of the assault on Tenochtitlán, slightly embittered with Cortes that he had little more wealth and status to bequeathe than that already in his possession when he departed Spain.

Nevertheless, Rudy tells me that his estates in Antigua included the land upon which now sit V's old junior school Santa Familia and the ruins of the old Jesuit HQ (La Compañia de Jesus).

A friend and neighbour of ours is a bearer of the illustrious Castillo surname, now most closely associated with the brewing of nuestra cerveza...hence the little castillos on the neck of every bottle of Gallo.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First Words (24)

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And thus with victorie and with melodye

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Knight's Tale (Late fourteenth century)


Hachiko: A Dog's Story (2009)


Terco el chucho.

Sob.

Grade: B+


First Words (23)

"How Uther Pendragon sent for the duke of Cornwall and Igraine his wife, and of their departing suddenly again.

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine."


Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte D'Arthur Book 1 (Published 1485 by William Caxton)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hush (2009)


Hush is a competent and interesting UK thriller, consistently exciting and quite challenging in the way it jiggles the clichés it trots out, though just a little lacking in terms of plot (a few loose ends) and performance.

A couple are bickering over their stalled relationship on the M1. A lorry overtakes — a little wildly — and the rear shutter briefly opens revealing a naked, screaming female. Is it enough to call the police and drive on? The couple duly bicker about this too, but soon enough it's moot...and yet replaced by a new conundrum: would you risk your life to save a novia who's betrayed you with a man who wears his mobile phone on his belt?

Grade: B(+)

Here's the trailer...




Monday, March 15, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Could this be step one in the resucitation of Guy Ritchie's post-Revolver/post-Madonna career? Apparently, as well as the as yet unnamed sequel to Sherlock Holmes, he's now signed on to make a movie based on Mallory's Morte D'Arthur....Excalibur.

Now, when Jamie Oliver was lately traversing the United States looking for its signature dishes, we both found it a little galling that he couldn't just leave a traditional, tried-and-tested recipe alone, so you'd probably imagine I'll be siding with the Arthur Conan Doyalists in dismissing this attempt to fit a much-loved character from gentler times into the action hero mould. Well, you'd be wrong.

Ritchie only took this job after insisting the famous cap and 'elementary my dear Watson" would have to go. He's come up with a fun revisionist Holmes caper which succeeds in spite of itself: specifically in spite of Robert Downey's bizarre Victorian diction — based apparently on Sir Anthony Hopkins and Patrick McGoohan, but sounding more like the Prince of Wales...or at least the Prince of Wales as done by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder— in spite of the casting of Jude Law as Watson (which resulted in Sienna Miller pulling out), in spite of its loopy plot (in part an hommage to Alan Moore's From Hell, surely?)...and in spite of the fact that it's all been helmed by Ritchie himself.

Canadian actress Rachel McAdams is one of the movie's most winning elements. According to the trivia section of the IMDB she tried to escape wearing a tight corset every morning, by pushing her stomach out or eating a big breakfast of oatmeal before being laced up by costumiers...but they were soon onto her.

I suppose the movie will also come as a special pleasure for Londoners with its slightly ropey CGI representations of the late Victorian capital, including a half-built Tower Bridge, scene of the final showdown between Sherlock Holmes and the evil Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Ritchie wasn't above blending in some street scenes from Liverpool and Manchester and referencing a pub with the same name as the one he owns in Mayfair!

Other than all that, we can only recommend that he continues to make films using other people's scripts and Hans Zimmer's soundtracks.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 14, 2010

First Words (22)

"London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest."

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852/3)

You heard it here first

Last Wednesday I submitted a contribution to the Commetric blog referring to the still simmering story of Jim Sikes and his runaway Prius, which hinted at my fears that there might be something a bit Jimmy Hill about this incident...if you get the drift of my hot air balloon.

Now it seems that Federal investigators are concerned about "a particular pattern of wear on the car's brakes that raises questions about the driver's version of the event."

Scam or not, at least they should book him for using a mobile phone while driving on the freeway. But maybe that's not illegal in California?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Short of the Day (6)

Part 2 of Logorama...



Pepys 1660 (1)

The year kicks off for Sam with an atmosphere of desperate political uncertainty and re-heated turkey. (Except that the year didn't begin legally in England until March 25th — a procedure which was not to be adjusted until 1752 — which means for adminstrative purposes at least, it's still 1659.)

"My own private condition very handsome, and esteemed rich, but indeed very poor, besides my goods of my house [in Axe Yard], and my office, which at present is somewhat uncertain," he writes on January 1st.

Perhaps a sense of the potential significance of his own personal uncertainty within the universal uncertainty across the land, prompted Sam to commence his secret shorthand diary that wintry January.

He is what we'd call a white collar worker, but tied by lines of patronage to an older social system, which was very much in flux at that time, there being neither a King nor a Parliament, and all the big players in this post-Cromwellian instant jostling noisily for position.

Whenever he has a spare moment (seemingly quite often) Sam heads across to Westminster Hall or checks out the posts on Fleet Street, where the twitterers of the day serve up the latest rumours about the movements of Monk, Fairfax, Lambert et al. Mass personal publishing is not entirely a novelty of the Internet age.

"Great talk that many places have declared for a free Parliament," he wrote on January 2nd, an indication that many were yet willing to persevere with England's brief experiment in republican government. (Two days later Sam is reporting how MPs have locked themselves away in a state of fasting and prayer.)

Sam works as a clerk for George Downing, one of the four tellers of the Receipt of the Exchequer, and his principal responsibility in that office is to deliver pay to the soldiers of the standing army which may yet play a crucial role.

The rest of the time he wanders around town rather like I used to in Cambridge, looking for acquaintances to interact with. Once tacked onto suitable company, Sam likes to participate in the pastimes of the era, such as cribbage and playing the viol, as well as the consumption of turkey-pie, 'brave cake' and sack (vino).

Breakfast for a Londoner in 1659/60 consisted of a swift pint at a local tavern, it being ill-advisable to drink the local water and just a couple of years before the big coffee shop craze gets going.

Although at this moment Sam apparently considers himself to be in good health, he informs us on the 4th of January that "It snowed hard all this morning, and was very cold, and my nose was much swelled with cold." The next day he consults with a certain Mr Page about his nasal discomfort, who tells him it's just a case of the common sniffles. And so they move on to discuss current affairs.

We know that, especially for a member of the Pepys family, Sam will live to a comparatively ripe old age, but a close attention to every niggling ache and pain will be an abiding characteristic of his night-time notes, until the end of the decade when an unspecified eye problem will put him out of the diary-writing business altogether.

TBC


De compras (addendum)

Of the San Martin baguettes it must be said that they are essentially pan frances in baguette form...as the bakery would appear not to have access to the specialist flour which gives that distinct texture to both the crust and innards of what the French themselves call French bread.

Guatemala has an extraordinary abundance of natural produce, but when it comes to 'ethnic' cuisine, there's usually one or two missing ingredients which ultimately have quite a telling effect en ausencia.

Italian is probably the easiest to reproduce, but the absence of real parmesan can be disheartening. With Thai and other south-east Asian foods it's the fish sauce, with Indian it's basmati rice. There's also a certain insufficiency of technique when it comes to preparing spices and ghee, and any Indian restaurant without a tandoor and the cooks skilled in its use, is a bit like a pizza without cheese.

De compras

Perhaps the thing which most annoys me about shopping in Central America is the way you can barely get a foot over the threshold of any given retail outlet before the personnel within have homed in on you and are offering assistance, which no amount of "no thank yous" or "I'm just lookings" can shake off.

At Wal Mart in Mexico recently, I was astounded to find the face-masked staff behind the embutidos counter calling out to me like the hawkers around the exit of Cancún's international airport.

The thing that most annoys V about shopping in Central America is that no matter how completely empty a shop at first appears to be, she only has to start browsing in one small part of it and she's quickly being shoulder-barged by other punters seemingly intent on investigating what she source of her interest had been.

Anyway, we both discovered a new not-so-annoying place to shop in Guatemala yesterday: the San Martin Bakery. When the theatrically-attired muchacha popped up at our side offering us a little basket and some assistance in filling it, we were charmed rather than put upon.

Their pan integral is not quite as good as Doña Luisa's (and at Q22, almost double the price) but they also sell excellent baguettes (and baguettios), pan de pasa, pan de papa, and mushy little panes de agua, favoured by discerning younger/older customers with fewer teef...or so we were told.

On the website these feature as a graphical device to help visitors navigate the menu bar, and are very delicious, we later discovered, filled with pechugas of Pollo Tejano (from Hiper Paiz), chopped tomatoes, a slice of kiwi fruit, a dollop of fresh cream and a little bit of cilantro.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Short of the Day (5)

Nick Park suffered a rare defeat at the Academy Awards this year. But this post-watershed short, Logorama, was surely a deserving winner.




First Words (21)

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well — let it get worse!"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From The Underground (1864)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hedgepads and iFoxes

"There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’."

Thus begins Isaiah Berlin's (OP) famous essay about what may well be the fundamental bisect affecting the way that thinking people do their thing. He continued...

"For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes selfcontradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes."

...and the iPad is a fox while the Kindle is a hedgehog.

Indeed, the moment I discovered that my Kindle wasn't even prepared to tell me the time was dramatically revelatory. There are technological reasons behind this, such as the fact that it only draws on its battery power when the user presses Next Page, but there's also a certain abstract loftiness about the Amazon device's determination to be very good at one thing, only.

I think of myself as a fox, but the hedgehogginess of the Kindle profoundly appeals to me; I wonder how common this is. In contrast, a device like the iPad, which might be almost ideal in multiple circumstances is a bit of a turn off. (The remainder of the Berlin essay focuses on the historical theories of Tolstoy who, while clearly being a fox, believed quite utterly in the need for hedgehog posturing and therefore set about throwing up a smokescreen around his 'real' beliefs. More on this another day...)

On another tack...America's culture wars are essentially a confrontation between that nation's hedgehogs and foxes. While these make for a rather playground-like political discourse, they are generally less deleterious in their effects than head on clashes by different forms of state-sponsored hedgehog-isms, as Europe learned to its cost in the twentieth century.

Should we be more worried now that the world's dominant civilisation is being stalked by the giant, mutant and militant hedgehog that is Islamism? Well, if we take the view that confrontations between foxes and hedgehogs create more noise than actual noxious consequences, then perhaps not. The Islamists appear to understand this, which is why their underlying strategy appears to be to bring out the hedgehog in the western politician — for the more like them we become, the more 'Biblical' the conflict is likely to become; which is just how they want it.

Some commentators up in el norte seem to think that the separation of church and state espoused by many of the founding fathers of the United States was intended to foster a prototype secular society....a project which has clearly gone spectacularly wrong.

In fact, the underlying foxy idea had a definite hedgehoggy current within it. You might even say that the Constitution was construed as the portal to a prickly arcadia — for if no one type of hedgehog can ever assume control of the state, the American citizen is left with a wonderfully diverse set of well-honed insectivorous lifestyles to choose from. Even atheism (Dawkins or Dennett-style) becomes just another little slow-moving and quite stupid spiny mammal amongst many.

One can have so much choice, so much freedom, that one can almost imagine that one lives in a genuinely pluralistic society.

Back to my Kindle.


Short of the Day (3)



Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Short of the Day (2)



El Secreto De Sus Ojos (2009)

Just how perverse was the decision of the Academy to award the Oscar for Best Foreign Film to Juan José Campanella's crowd-pleaser and not to either of the critics' favourites, Haneke's The White Ribbon or Audiard's Un Prophète, a duo repeatedly heralded as modern classics since Cannes last Spring?

The answer turns out to be...not quite as perverse as one might originally have suspected.

For a start, few of the dissenting critics have actually seen this movie. Plenty of Argies have however, as it has become the biggest box office hit down there since the early 70s ( a period in which much of its action takes place).

This is hardly surprising, because El Secreto...ticks plenty of those bums-on-seats boxes. It's a canny mix of crime genre procedural with character and observational comedy, plus strong currents of romance, thriller and melodrama. Throw in references to Argentina's atrocious history of state-sponsored violence and bureaucracy, and you potentially have something for everyone.

It's unmistakeably Argentinian, in the way that Epitafios was (and say CSI Miami isn't). I've yet to see a film produced by that nation which, — however wonderful — wasn't still in significant ways open to the charge of being a load of pretentious bollocks...or pelotas hinchadas, as the Argies themselves might say.

The opening segment here, with its marked ambiente de mamadas, is indeed unpromising. Boy do they love narrators' voiceovers in Argie cinema, and this one is duly delivered in what V has come to refer to as the 'ultratumba' tone. (And as in a Paul Auster novel, that the lead character is some sort of writer, is practically a given. )

But, if like so many Argie movies, El Secreto possesses certain literary pretentions, we ended up largely satisfied that it had lived up to them. Its source was Eduardo Sacheri's novel La Pregunta De Sus Ojos (2005) and the re-jigging of the title is interesting, because Campanella has thereby expanded its thematic portential. I also detected evidence of an essentially successful struggle with the difficulties posed by any cinematic adaptation of fictional narrative; in particular how to show subjective memories — memories which might actually be memories of memories, or in this case, memories restructured by a would-be author.

So while it may not have been the outstanding subtitled film of 2009 for cinema purists, it has some stuff to offer a writer or student of literature that those other foreign contenders might be said to lack.

Many of us are by now aware how cripplingly awful the script of Avatar is, even as we thrill to the ride it offers (a contributor to the Kermayo show a fortnight ago coined the neulogism WOSH, being a combination of wow and tosh) and The Hurt Locker was made by a lady who trained as a painter and can talk knowledgeably about semoitics. So can we really fault the Academy in this year of the visually stunning feature, for remembering to reward one which was, by contrast, verbally impressive?

At the core of the movie's multi-dimensionality is the character of Pablo Sandoval. A day-drinking time server in the judge's department, he's played by Guillermo Francella as a subtly heroic Wally from the Dilbert cartoons, and from this one personage, bathetic and pathetic in fairly equal measure, emanates much of El Secreto's highly unusual mix of wry humour and noirish thrill.

Campanella also makes excellent thematic (and comedic) uses of devices such as an office door and a typewriter with a faulty 'A' key throughout the movie.

Ok, ok, so what's it about, you might be about to ask. Well, it concerns two matters, a public official in 90s Argentina called Benjamin Esposito, who's drafting a novel about a murder-rape he tried to solve twenty-five years earlier, and about how the events and emotions of that time interplayed with the suppressed romantic urges which existed between Benjamin and his dazzling and intocable boss Irene Menéndez Hastings.

Middle-brow fare it may ultimately be, but on balance I think a deserved second Oscar for Campanella, in spite of what I may have tweeted on the night. One has to remember that the Academy voters, watching these foreign flicks from the sofas of their palatial LA homes, are possibly less likely to warm to works which set about unsettling their world views...or indeed those which are attempting to unsettle world views they're not sure they even recognise.

Anyway, at the Goyas it was seen off by another prison drama, Celda 211.


Grade: A-



Monday, March 08, 2010

Short of the Day (1)



As my fellow pedant notes in the comments, this is a little film about octopuses not octopi...or perhaps that should be oktapodes, the plural of the Greek word oktapodi. While some say the island represented here is Santorini, I'd have to agree with the commenter who confidently states "It's Mykonos".


The hand not so invisible

For all those of us who are generally too busy to read The Wealth of Nations before deploying Adam Smith in public discussion, here's a handy bulleted list of the areas of public life (hat tip to Economist's View) in which this otherwise laissez-faire thinker thought it appropriate for governments to get involved:
  • Sterling marks on plate and stamps on linen and woollen cloth
  • Enforcement of contracts by a system of justice
  • Wages to be paid in money, not goods;
  • Regulations of paper money in banking
  • Obligations to build party walls to prevent the spread of fire
  • The Navigation Acts, blessed by Smith under the assertion that ‘defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence’
  • Rights of farmers to send farm produce to the best market (except ‘only in the most urgent necessity’)
  • ‘Premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen and woollen industries’
  • ‘Police’, or preservation of the ‘cleanliness of roads, streets, and to prevent the bad effects of corruption and putrifying substances’;
  • Ensuring the ‘cheapness or plenty [of provisions]’
  • Patrols by town guards and fire fighters to watch for hazardous accidents
  • erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions intended to facilitate commerce (roads, bridges, canals and harbours)
  • Coinage and the mint
  • The Post office
  • Regulation of institutions, such as company structures (joint- stock companies, co-partneries, regulated companies and so on)
  • Temporary monopolies, including copyright and patents, of fixed duration
  • Education of youth (‘village schools’, curriculum design and so on)
  • Education of people of all ages (tythes or land tax)
  • Encouragement of ‘the frequency and gaiety of publick diversions’
  • The prevention of ‘leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease’ from spreading among the population
  • Encouragement of martial exercises
  • Registration of mortgages for land, houses and boats over two tons
  • Government restrictions on interest for borrowing (usury laws) to overcome investor ‘stupidity’
  • Laws against banks issuing low-denomination promissory notes
  • Natural liberty may be breached if individuals ‘endanger the security of the whole society’
  • Limiting ‘free exportation of corn’ only ‘in cases of the most urgent necessity’ (‘dearth’ turning into ‘famine’)
  • Moderate export taxes on wool exports for government revenue.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

A report from forensics

While I was in the UK in January I had lunch with a geologist who did his best to persuade me that the notion that the dinosaurs were seriously compromised by a meteor strike is one of those paradigms which emerges and quickly ossifies into an orthodoxy which nobody (but him apparently) is willing to challenge. He'd been to the Yucatán on a field trip and reported finding no conclusive evidence of a large crater there either.

Well this week the consensus against his renegade opinion took a firmer hold on the subject when, at 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the US, a panel of 41 international experts reviewed 20 years' worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, and concluded that the prime suspect has to remain a massive asteroid or comet smashing into Earth at Chicxulub on the Yucatán peninsula 65m years ago. You can read the BBC's report here...

Francophillic Horn

No AA Gill in The Sunday Times this morning, but last week he was at the French Horn in Sonning, a venue of fond childhood memory for me, and observed how important it is for foodies to find the appropriate mate:

"It isn’t necessary for a bank manager’s wife to know about money; a soldier’s better half doesn’t need to know how to kill foreigners with a bayonet; nobody insists that a footballer’s missus can kick a ball (though being able to use a knee or a fist is sometimes advisable). But a food critic’s significant entrée needs not just to eat, but be aggressively omnivorous. It would be too depressing to do this job with someone who only ever wanted a green salad — “Hold the dressing” — and thought that restaurants were gastric brothels of evil temptation."


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Isla Presidencial



Here's the trailer for the drole animation created by some young Venezuelans and showcased last night on the Bayly show. If that has whetted your appetite, and you are already fretting about the imminent winding up of Lost, here's the first full installment of Isla Presidencial:




Daybreakers (2009)


It's 2019, ten years after an 'outbreak' resulted in the mass turning of humanity into vampires. Now the population of un-turned humans is running critically low and the nocturnal successor civilisation is starting to suffer the consequences of blood deprivation.

Ethan Hawke plays Ed, a vampire with a conscience, whose night job involves leading a team of hematologists at Bromsley Marks tasked with developing a blood substitute. Ed doesn't take blood in his coffee however, and deep down would rather find a cure and it is this possibility which soon presents itself in the person of turned-again mechanic Lionel 'Elvis' Cormac, played by Willem Dafoe.

The only other time I recall seeing the conceit of bloodsucker cultural mores explored this cleverly was in the Cuban animation Vampiros en la Habana (incidentally one of my favourite movies of all time.) Here too the premise has great potential for political and sociological satire, but Daybreakers, in spite of its strong cast and production design remains essentially a B movie sci-fi shocker. The excitement doesn't waver, but there's a noted drift towards mediocrity in the second half.

Perhaps this is more the fault of restricted budget than any natural constraints in the imagination of the Spierig twins. Still, the question of whether the undead lifestyle is somehow preferable to being actually dead is just one of the deeper implications of this narrative which are ultimately given the shallow treatment.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 05, 2010

D-Day by Anthony Beevor (4)

The Brits might have had Vicount Weymouth, liaison officer of XIX Corps — who was wont to wander around the battlefield leading two ducks around on a leash — but the French could count on General Phillipe de Hautecloque, instantly recognisable atop his tank, because of the malacca cane he waved around and the goggles he wore around his kepi.

Better known by his nomme de guerre 'Leclerc', de Hautecloque led the French 2nd Armoured Division in Normandy, famed in his homeland as the Deuxième Division Blindée (2ème DB).

Something of a Catholic nutjob, Leclerc recruited a dozen members of the White Fathers — a nineteenth century order established to take the true faith to the Tuaregs — as his divisional chaplains. They must have looked a bit like Gaulish druids with their white habits and flowing white beards.

Beevor ticks off the brave general for his Francocentric outlook, not entirely unlike that of his commander-in-chief:

"Like de Gaulle, he felt bitter that, since the disaster of 1940, the British had accumulated so much power while France had declined drastically. Both were inclined to suspect that the British took every opportunity to exploit this. In their resentment, they could not see that Britain, despite her apparent strength, had bankrupted herself, physically and economically, during five years of war."

The resistance were extremely sceptical about other French officers who donned their uniforms in order to greet the newcomers. "Mothballs" was the nickname soon applied to these former enthusiasts for the Vichy regime.

Many of the resistance fighters had communist sympathies but had apparently received almost no assistance from Stalin, who remained sore about the speed of the French collapse in 1940, which had left the USSR exposed to a Nazi double-cross sooner than he might have anticipated.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Jamie's American Roadtrip (2)


This is Jamie Oliver's viejahijue face.

His trademark cockney chirpiness was noticeably absent in the kitchen of Leah Chase, proprietor of New Orleans's famous Dooky Chase restaurant. When the 86-year-old veteran suggested that he might not know how to chop an onion, he went about demonstrating his skills with such unbuttoned release that he was lucky to escape from her kitchen with all ten digits intact.

Blighty's most famous Essex boy was in there to learn how to prepare a gumbo, but when Ms Chase finally served up her preeminant version, he repaid her for the patronising jabs he'd been repeatedly subjected to by damning it with faint praise ("a thick broth...quite meaty.")...and later added that she'd given him the 'cheat's' gumbo, and that he'd have to read up elsewhere to really get a handle on this dish.

Leah Chase had to shut down for two years after Katrina until she'd raised the $500k required to repair her diner. Jamie made a poor job of looking interested as she related the painful recovery process, but did make hurricanes the theme of this fourth episode, declaring that he was on a quest to discover how food could make people want to carry on living in a place subjected to regular natural disasters. "I'd be well out of there..."

Having moved on into the Cajun countryside — where he was invited to deliver the coup-de-grace to an alligator destined for his pan — Jamie reflected that this part of the Union is "intimate, small, special and quaint", not "the machine" with which many people (in Essex?) associate America.

He got to grips with a 'Cajun microwave' and prepared a lomito of pork coated in ground bay leaves and stuffed with spicy Louisiana sausage. (This one doesn't seem to have made it into the recipe book, but the Cajun alligator with sweet potato and salsa did. Well useful.)

The programme was dedicated to the late, great Keith Floyd, inventor of the alcohol-fuelled gastro-odyssey on British screens. The essential difference between Keith and Jamie would seem to be that the latter gets mullered AFTER cooking and is thus more likely to be seen cooking with a hangover, than sploshing wine all over his glass and wok at the same time.


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Fresh Produce


V hates the market on market days and is usually content to place orders with our local retailer Doña I, who makes early morning expeditions on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and is happy to take along a list of requests from her regulars. There's a small mark-up of course, but she clearly knows how, when and where to find good produce.

Around lunchtime yesterday we were going to drift in the general direction of Domino's, but V tends to suffer quite badly from pizza remorse, so instead we decided to pick up a load of fresh ingredients for a more lastingly satisfying evening meal.

The market ought to have been a bit quieter yesterday, but what with all the quacks selling miracle cures, there was still quite a gentío gathered in the open-air section at the rear. It also appears that the premenstruals have taken full control now of the back road featuring Toreros and the Hermano Pedro hospital, so no more "bien cuidado seño?" but have those marbetes ready.

Amongst other things, we returned home with three big pieces of yuca (Q5) and a load of aubergines and large round avocados which V managed to pick up at Q1 each. As ever I kept well out of the way.

The woman selling the avos suggested to V that she ought to try adding some cilantro to her guacamol. It's something I recall experimenting with in London and is certainly not un-heard of in guacamoles north of the border, but here in Guatemala it's just not the done thing...but does anyway make an interesting alternative. (The coriander on our studio terrace is thriving, but we have yet to attempt to grow oregano.)

The regatonas were still insisting on Q4.50 or Q5 for a pound of tomatoes, so we drove around to the finca in San Barcholo, where they are happy to sell them to us for just Q1.50 a pound. (Salads rather than Plums however.)

For some reason onions have been comparatively expensive for the past couple of months. (Q4.50+ per pound.) and such is the enduring difficulty of getting hold of decent mushrooms at a decent price around here, that V has often suggested to me that if there's one business she'd like to start in Antigua it would be 'fungi-mart'.

On a separate note, on a matter only indirectly related to fresh produce, it strikes me that Q29.95 for an 8-pack of Carta Blanca at the Despensa Familiar represents an exceedingly good deal.

Why oh why does the Bodegona keep running out of GuateMaya habanero sauce?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

D-Day by Anthony Beevor (3)

Beevor reports that "Both Canadians and Americans were bemused by the British Army's apparent inability to complete a task without a tea break."

"When in doubt... brew up"
was indeed the motto of my uncle's unit. Brewing up was also how they referred to what happened to the occupants of tanks which took a direct hit.

The Cromwell tank that my uncle commanded was incapable of taking out a German Tiger tank even at point-blank range, and wasn't able to compensate for this with some handy acceleration in reverse gear.

"After four years of preparation for the invasion, why are our machines inferior?," griped one of the officers of the 22nd Armoured commanded by Brigadier 'Loony' Hinde.

American equipment had its failings too, as the men storming Omaha were to note when their rifles, radios and scaling ropes were rendered useless by seawater. Their tank ammunition was also inferior and gave off more smoke, a disadvantage in the fighting amongst the high hedges of Normandy.

German small arms, especially the MG 42, were demonstrably superior to anything the Allies had.

Recently a former Guards officer told me how he'd been impressed by the words of a former Afghan princeling, who has written that the British have been the very worst nation in the world for making adequate preparations for anything but also, as a consequence, the very best to have around in a crisis.

The combination of characteristic British ingenuity combined with insufficient forethought is perhaps best illustrated by Major General Percy Hobart's floating tanks, deployed with mixed results on the choppy seas of June 6, 1944.

Jamie's American Roadtrip (1)


Last night we caught up with the first three episodes of this recent channel four series, recommended to me by the accompanying recipe book which I picked up from Amazon in January.

The cheeky mockney's first stop was LA, where he promised us his culinary education would be more gangland than glam. He visited the kitchens of Homeboy Industries, an enterprise for lapsed gangbangers and chilled out with former 'blood' Rigo who now cooks the breakfast at the Four Seasons. Together they went to Redondo Beach where Jamie borrowed the mackerel some Chinese men were using as bait to prepare what looked like first class fish tacos.

Oliver had earlier remarked that while Mexican food in the UK is all stodge, starch and cheese, but added that he was expecting to find something more interesting and authentic in the parts of LA he'd never before dared to venture into. Sure enough, he was soon initiated into mole and was reworking these flavours into an indulgent chocolate mole tart with cloves, chillies, cinammon, toffee fudge and dulce de leche. Jamie's Spanish is actually a form of pidgin Italian which he no doubt picked up off his old mentor Gennaro.

Then in the next episode, he was off to Wisconsin to hang out with colourful characters such as 'Hip' and Tucker Zing who introduced him to rodeo, Dutch ovens, calf castration and eating slabs of cow cooked by sticking them onto pitchforks before dunking them (unseasoned) into huge cauldrons of boiling fat. The scenery was majestic and the cowboys as enigmatic as characters in a Mccarthy novel.

We were intrigued by the way folk up there use coffee to keep meat moist and add an extra note of flavour to their roasts.

In part three Oliver rented a flat in Queens where he could sit on the bed with his Macbook Pro looking, for a change, like someone we might have to take seriously, because of all the intellectual books on the shelves around him. In the neighbourhood of Astoria he helped a wonderful Egyptian chef prepare flatbreads and secured an invitation to an unregistered Peruvian eatery down in Jackson Heights.

For his own Peruvian ceviche he combines the juice of three lemons with a pair of chopped chiles and a teaspoon of salt and allows his cubes of fresh fish to cook in this mixture for around two and a half minutes. He then adds chopped spring onions and capiscums, mint, coriander and maybe also mustard cress and fennel tops. It wouldn't be a Jamie Oliver recipe if he didn't also drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over it as well. (Here's a slightly less oily and salty recipe with camote and corn.)

Jamie's Big Apple adventure concluded with a supper party where he prepared the "shavishe" (rhymes with Italian mobsters' "capishe?") described above, and donated the funds thus obtained to a Colombian called Jorge who every night feeds 80+ illegals on New York's streets for free.