Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beneath Us (2019)

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this is that - unlike say 1983's El Norte- you could imagine MAGA-cap wearing Trump supporters finding some soothing confirmation of their worldview here. In the main they are hardly what you would call knowledgable consumers of irony. At a stretch it could even be used south of the border as a propaganda film for ICE, a sort of soft alternative to the wall. Nevertheless, for liberals at least, this is a satirical, 'social' horror about undocumented migrants being used as captive slaves by members of the wealthy white elite in America. Yet I suspect it could just as easily have been set right here in Antigua within the milieu of a certain kind of gringo household complete with casual, grey economy servants. Such a switch would work primarily because director Max Pachman stresses two rather interesting points - that the view of the 'dream' of abundance from beneath is inherently corrupt and conjoined with noxious attitudes, and that said prosperity is ultimately also a travesty — for the affluence of those above is shown to be entirely based on the aggressive exploitation of an over-needy underclass operating in a more authentic economy and thus largely undeserved. And this is why, when (slightly unflattering) comparisons will inevitably be made with Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), the movie I was most reminded of was the excellent La Zona (2007).

Monday, July 08, 2019

Birds of Passage (2018)

An essentially ethnographic proposition, which has been cleverly blended for added accessibility with a familiar pop cultural narrative, but then made subtly more weighty and mysterious by being framed as an ancient epic of the oral tradition. Think Nat Geo meets Narcos, meets the Godfather meets Homer. 
And it generally works pretty well. The end result is that, despite its appearance here as a windswept, post-apocalytic wasteland, I ended up wanting to visit the Guajira peninsula and its Wayuu occupants and Gallego and Guerra's film joins Burning and Shoplifters in consideration for my favourite flick of 2019. 
Quibbles. It makes the standard 'based on true events' claim at the start, but apparently there is no evidence that either the Wayuu or the Peace Corps had a significant role in Colombia's Bonanza Marimbera. 
And if one is paying attention here, they might just as well have been dealing in coffee rather than weed, because most of the unfortunate events derive from character faults and social fault-lines that were there anyway. And on a couple of occasions I found myself thinking 'he really didn't need to do that', which would be a serious failing in any epic of the old school. 
Rapayet's kingpin crib in the desert has to be one of the best stylised locations in recent cinema.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)

The adaptation suggested by this poster is the one I'd perhaps have rather seen. 

Something between zombie pet apocalypse and Wicker Man

Unfortunately, like a lot of Stephen King tales, this one has a bit too much back and side story going on and the potential for cat and dog-based creepiness ultimately gets a bit lost. 

Not a bad movie, just not really doing what it says on the tin.

Disrespecting the details...

'You can be in Timbuctoo or New York City, I don't care where you are. There's no worse trade for inefficiency than a builder's'  > Harry Pendel, The Tailor of Panama
In any complex project in any part of the world there is a danger that what at the planning stage at least looks like the final 5% can end up taking upwards of 50% of the total time. But here in Guatemala the danger seems especially acute. 

My former business partner used to have a handy analogy for this - the bowl of bananas. When it is first put out people rush in and grab the nice yellow ones, but the darker, spottier ones take longer to shift. 

Most of the Guatemalan contractors I’ve come across tend to assess any project in terms of the part they like best and do at the fastest pace - for example, the builders love lifting block walls, a task which comes with the pleasing routine of a production line. The details that follow barely register until the painful completion phase is upon them. 

Fake Foodie News

Another day, another slightly irritating, cliché-ridden piece in the US media about this place. 

If you saw the home of El Pulpo's Wilson Popenhoe in Antigua you’d realise that the origins of the Haas avocado were far from ‘humble’. Ah, but it’s grotty old Guatemala so they must be, right? 

And where did Lucy Sherriff acquire that canard about the birthplace of chocolate? San Juan del Effing Obispo? 

I suppose it’s rather like the whole ‘birthplace of tango’ thing, all very ‘don’t go there’. 

But the facts as currently known involve the detection of the chemical signature of this liquid on Mesoamerican vessels belonging to the pre-Olmec period in Tabasco, Veracruz and maybe even Chiapas. So, not Guatemala. Especially not Mixco. 

And there are a few fruits and vegetables I can imagine not growing here. I've been particular unsuccessful with olive trees for example. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Dumbo (2019)

Tim Burton's Dumbo is a big stinking pile of elephant caca.

This notion that the classics of the past need to be 'updated' to show off modern CGI and smooth away all the non-pc stuff, so that developing snowflakes are not exposed to anything that might 'trigger' them surely REEKS.

It's a given it seems that they will grow up immune to the agonies of mediocrity.

Soon we'll have a rebooted version of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? where there's really no lifestyle choice one's offspring can make that might be the least bit bothersome.

The Hummingbird Project (2018)

At last a role for Salma Hayek where being a forever-glamorous, middle-aged Mexican woman who’s lived for years in the US, but never really learned how to speak English properly is not the absolute essence of it. Here she sports some specs and grey-painted hair and clearly has a lot of fun. 

The film owes a massive (unacknowledged) debt to The Flash Boys by Michael Lewis and I am sure I enjoyed it the more for having read that - as many of the plot devices that would have otherwise smacked of desperation on the part of the writer-director are in fact loosely based on fact.

The Beach Bum (2019)

‘Fun is the fucking gun’, proclaims the titular character in Harmony Korine’s new movie. This stoner non-comedy closely replicates the experience of enforced proximity to an individual who pitches him or herself as the living epitome of the good time. 

The trouble is that while it’s one thing to lead a studiously unconventional lifestyle, it’s another to rub it in everyone else’s faces, whether one is St Francis of Assisi or Moondog here. This is a phenomenon I am all too familiar with. I even knew someone called Moondog back in Belize in the 80s. 

Individuals determined to demonstrate that they have a free pass to live outside everyone else’s mores tend to act with eye-watering entitlement. There are even a few of their sort dotted around Antigua and I tend to feel the same way about them as I did about Matthew McConaughey’s on screen consummation of the type: a form of discomfort that is inevitably boosted by a developing world perspective. 

There’s another quite simple conceit going on here, rather like that of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus — the jarring notion that great art can emerge from intense dickishness. Yet Korine appears to lack the screenwriting skills to place enough utterances of sufficient profundity into the mouth of his protagonist to carry this off. In fact there is one prize-winning poem set in Havana recited twice in the film by McConaughey, that suggests rather half-heartedly that satire was instead the aim here. 

At the outset one is led to believe that the audience will be placed within the framework of that familiar narrative featuring an essentially bad person forced to go on a journey of personal growth through which, in an altogether unlikely manner, they are transformed into a better sort of human being. (Think Central Station). 

Yet round the mid-point — when Zac Efron shows up in a brave attempt to drag his career below the low it touched in Dirty Grandpa — you realise that Moondog is never going to pull out of this dive, and that anyone he meets on the way down are simply there to emphasise the pull of gravity. 

More’s the pity as I really enjoyed Korine’s previous feature  — Spring Breakers — which was grounded in another OTT performance from a somewhat Marmite male performer (James Franco). 

Saturday, June 22, 2019


What does someone have to do to deserve the name ‘pirate’? What does a dish have to look like to deserve the name ‘ceviche’? Two of the questions I was mulling here at El Ranchito on Naos Island. 

It always used to irk me a bit how the locals around these parts referred to Drake as a pirate. Gabo was a repeat offender. Surely, I thought, the men who packed those galleons with gold were just as deserving of the title? 
St Augustine reported the opinion of a corsair captain that when it comes to maritime plunder, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply one of scale. Drake, like many, was awash in the flexible middle. 

The man who sacked and destroyed the original settlement at Panama City, Welsh privateer Henry Morgan, did so after the Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain in 1671. As a result he was taken back to London to answer for his ‘crime’, but successfully argued that news of the peace hadn’t reached the Caribbean and therefore it could not be enforced from the moment it was agreed. Instead of being hanged as a pirate, he was made Governor of Jamaica. 
Like many of his kind, it turned out he was just one step away from respectability. The same could not be said of that ceviche.

Friday, June 21, 2019

'Menos Pior'. But for us, not you..

The issue I have with the selection process that will place Boris in No10 is this: he said on the Beeb the other night that it's not as reprehensible of the way Gordon Brown was installed because there's a national crisis afoot. In fact that makes it WORSE. 
The manner of these Tory hustings and TV interrogations, where a very narrow range of views on the national predicament have come to the fore, combined with Labour's absurd absence of a position, give the false impression that this Tory discourse, in which Rory Stewart's fairly common sense objections are tagged as 'maverick' or 'insurgent', is the NATIONAL discourse. 
Both traditional parties are now in effect addressing Farage rather than the country as a whole.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

I Am Mother (2019)


This medium-budget Aussie sci-fi (which was picked up by Netflix after Sundance) is plainly derivative, yet has a claim to be more than the sum of other movies’ parts based on the way its premise contains an important thrust of novelty. 

This being the (clearly dubious) notion, familiar to totalitarian systems in the last century and before, that all that is bad in human nature can be nurtured out of us. 

So this time an over-reaching super-AI, having decided that humanity represents if not a threat to it, at least a bloody nuisance, presses the re-set button and starts again with a single (kind of) first woman with the plan of carefully educating this ‘daughter’ within a bunker-like Eden in such a manner that humanity 2.0 is primed to value the claims of the many over the few. 

Why would a supposedly well-informed machine intelligence come to believe that this plan, attempted unsuccessfully (and brutally) in an albeit less pure form by various human societies, work better under its tutelage? Surely it would have swatted up and found out that we ourselves have figured out that the perfectability of man plan has been discredited?

Only the ability to keep trying over and over again until it gets it right seems to justify the programme  that and the fact that compromised humanity appears to have contributed to its own demise. Yet the essential problem remains: how to stop fundamental human nature re-asserting itself. 

The movie has other problems, such as a third female character that ultimately makes only partial sense. Meanwhile, although young Irish-Danish actress Clara Rugaard is at the heart of much that is good about the movie  as are the voice acting skills of Rose Byrne as the personality of her robot ‘Mother’ — we both couldn’t help feeling that a lone human child brought up in this way would be noticeably stranger than the script ultimately allows ‘Daughter’ to be. 

I suppose the director felt he needed to give his film a relate-able YA vibe, but this has the effect of dampening the deeper and darker stuff that might have made it a better. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

Higginbotham makes it clear that the RBMK-1000s (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy) had rather obvious design - and manufacture - flaws from the outset. One of these was the sheer size of the reactors, a product of a Soviet penchant for the colossal.

“The RBMK was so large that reactivity in one area of the core often had only a loose relationship to that in another. The operators had to control it as if it were not a single unit but several separate reactors in one. One specialist compared it to a huge apartment building, where a family in one flat might be celebrating a raucous wedding, while next door another was observing a funeral wake. Isolated hot spots of reactivity might build deep inside the core, where they could prove hard to detect.”

This inherent instability made life in the reactor control room exhausting and stressful as engineers were constantly pushing buttons on the panels in the hope of evening out reactivity. When one former nuclear submarine officer first took his seat at the desk in Chernobyl’s Unit One, he was horrified by the colossal size of the reactor and how antiquated the instrumentation was. “How can you possibly control this hulking piece of shit?” he asked. “And what is it doing in civilian use?"

This preference for quantity over quality in the USSR is something I pinpointed in an essay in 1985 following my second visit. The point was illustrated with an anecdote about our guide to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, who joyfully rattled off statistics relating to the number of works of art in each of the massive rooms we passed through. That the space might include two of three great masterpieces which were being crowded out by odds and ends of lesser significance was a suggestion that brought a puzzled frown to his face.

Shoddy workmanship was another endemic problem in the USSR. One of my travelling companions in 1984 quickly acquired a reputation for being able to accidentally break almost anything of Soviet manufacture that he came into contact with.

Higginbotham writes: ‘The valves and flow meters in other RBMKs, used to regulate the crucial supply of water to each of the more than 1,600 uranium-filled channels, proved so unreliable that the operators in the control room often had no idea to what extent the reactors were being cooled, or if they were being cooled at all. Accidents were inevitable...the serpentine plumbing of the reactor was riddled with faults: the water-steam coolant pipes were corroded, the zirconium-steel joints on the fuel channels had come loose, and the designers had failed to build any safety system to protect the reactor against a failure of its feed-water supply—eventually, the Chernobyl engineers had to design and fabricate their own.’ (Chapuz, chapuz, chapuz...)

Meanwhile, Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature film set in the above-mentioned museum - Russian Ark (2002) - is indeed a masterpiece that I would recommend to all.


If a number of the candidates in the UK's over-subscribed race to No10 entered primarily in order to raise their profile and earn a post in the eventual winner's cabinet, certain candidates in Guatemala's own somewhat crowded and chaotic general election appear to have entered in order to be able to have a better shot at it in four or perhaps even eight years time.

One might suggest that Donald Trump was placed in the White House by people who valued his richness, his whiteness and his masculinity over any other qualities he might have. Aristotle's most significant contribution to western ethics was the observation that virtues are not the opposite of vices - rather a fudge somewhere between two of them - so, electing poor, female, non-white people is not necessarily the answer to the aforementioned voting 'vice' - given that membership of a particular demographic is never on its own going to make an individual best qualified to be head of state.

Thelma Cabrera does indeed seem somewhat under-qualified to be Guatemalan president, but given the nature of the incumbent, these things are relative.
She has benefitted this time round from the slightly rudderless nature of the anti-corruption movement, following the exclusion of Thelma Aldana, but along the way has massively enhanced her profile and improved the possibilities for indigenous candidates, while simultaneously (and amusingly) diminishing those of characters like Roberto Arzú.

If Sandra Torres now goes on to win, in four years time she will depart the political scene and UNE's rural power base may well be up for grabs.

Meanwhile the other Thelma may yet get her chance and at some point Neto Bran is bound to become a (national) problem.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

High Life (2018)

A first English language feature from Claire Denis, and yet oh so very French. 

As French as chugging along a motorway at 60mph in a 2CV sitting next to someone chain-smoking Gauloises with the windows shut. And for maybe the first 30 minutes or so, about as pleasant.

We both agreed that this was a strong candidate for most annoying film of the year. And gave up.

It was failing to do the basic job of any movie set in space: convince viewers that it is actually set in space. It’s as if Denis went out of her way to show that this was the least of her concerns.

And yet, I kept it on my iPad and during a recent trip to San José, forced myself to see it through. That Portillo Malbec helped.

It isn’t completely redeemed by its second half, but those lingering genital close-ups of a baby girl (such a ferk you to the mainstream sci-fi audience) are supplanted by a growing then diminishing cast of characters capped off with the de-rigueur ambiguous conclusion.

It contains this handy piece of advice...

“Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hollow Crowns

Pay attention to any of our contemporary political commentators for long enough and they will eventually start ruing the divided state of the nation before expressing a desire for some sort of curative coming together, which they will probably add, is the more natural state of affairs. (Even some of the Tory leadership candidates are not entirely averse to this.) And it is, to a large extent, nonsense. Any serious look at our history reveals that division is the more natural and probably more productive state. There are nearly always at least two available camps to sit in. In the fifteenth century for example, the English were split along dynastic lines, York and Lancaster. The following century saw this conflict morph rather suddenly into an argument over faith, which in turn, one hundred years later, segued into a dispute between King and Parliament. Thesis, antithesis, Synthesis. Hegel called this dialectic. Yet what we see is that the terms shift, so that synthesis remains perpetually elusive - an interminable teleology in which those who speak of achieving a final end to the prevailing controversy and its unpleasant consequences should of necessity be treated with scorn. (The young Henry VIII rather amusingly imagined that his accession marked a sort of ‘end of history’ moment.) So, Brexit appears to be firmly in this tradition, and yet it reveals an interesting truth about the pattern. Not all theses and antitheses are of equal weight. It’s not hard to see for example that from an intellectual perspective the argument between Monarch and Parliament was more meaningful than the fracas between the red and white roses. And so now, we can examine the current reconfiguration of our political animus and conclude that the great confrontation of the last century, between Left and Right, between liberal and totalitarian systems, which some imagined would resolve rather conveniently into a worldwide Scandinavian-style social democratic group hug, has instead kicked off anew into a national schism over the EU. And it is SO empty. One only has to listen for the briefest of moments to the extreme ideologues of Leave or Remain to comprehend the void at the heart of this altercation, how lacking in genuine intellectual content it therefore tends to be. Most of them end up trying to spice things up by shamelessly borrowing the terminology from last century’s polarities:‘Nazi!’ In the first part of the twentieth century I do believe it really mattered to which side one was adopted. In the Spanish Civil War for example, we didn’t see an absolute confrontation between right and wrong, but the choices made were meaningful and had real ethical underpinnings. So it was in the Reformation and then in the English Revolution. Brexit, in comparison, invites its protagonists to adopt positions that are obviously hollow from the outset and from almost any perspective.

No, not for me...

It occurred to me today that there are certain establishments in this part of the world that I have in effect chosen to avoid after seeing their Instagram feeds. I won't name them. One was the sort of place I might otherwise have been expected to try out, but one look at their pictorial posts and it's like 'no, not for me'.

This might seem a bit churlish of me, but I have been exposed to the Ogilvy school of brand communication in which advertising and marketing are not primarily about the generation of sales but rather the generation of meanings - meanings that end up as an integral part of the product that is consumed. 

And bad meanings leave an aftertaste, or actually in this case an ante-taste: the sort you can almost detect before the victual itself.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Us (2019)

Every bit as funny and sucker-punch disturbing as Jordan Peele's first feature Get Out, with the added bonus of an absolutely stunning performance from Mexican-born Lupita Nyong'o.

There are some rather obvious flaws (literally) in its subterranean subtextual underpinnings. An uncompromising (twisted) European arthouse director of the Haneke or von Trier sort, might have done something more with that, but Peele has the pop cultural creds for a more mainstream hit.

And for a film which, unlike the previous one, has no direct references to the matter of race (other than the fact that leaving a key hidden beneath a rock beside the front door is 'white shit'), there is hardly anything in this movie that is NOT about race. That's something masterful.

And at the risk of releasing a tiny spoiler, the ending struck me as an invitation to reflect on the of complications of mestizaje.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Picking a favourite beach...

Which is the best beach in Central America? 

This used to be a no-brainer. The twenty or so kilometres of wind-swept, white sand south of the ruins at Tulum had no parallel in the region. 

When I first went there there was no town to speak of, no hotels either, just a handful of cabañas and under-palm hammocks. Yet this was arguably not the very best moment to visit the location, which I think occurred later in the late nineties and early noughties: the period when the ‘Mayan Riviera’ briefly deserved its sobriquet. 

There was one very special spot on this stretch called Las Ranitas, that was for me an unparalleled and irreplaceable vision of paradise, now lost, for the property was sold and comprehensively ruined by its crass new owners. Meanwhile, the whole beach has been diminished by concrete constructions, sargassum in-flows and an all-too-prevalent faux-Asian, chichi, yoga-retreat vibe. 

These days I’d rather spend my time at Mahahual, at least when the cruise ship dock is empty. It has the advantage of forming a handy double-bill with Bacalar, which features beaches of sorts, plus crystalline waters the likes of which have vanished from the rest of the Yucatán. 

One can also partake of a somewhat poor facsimile of the 'primordial' peninsula by heading across to the Gulf side. The seafood at least, is truly wonderful. 

Further south there’s Belize’s Placencia, a place I also knew in the 80s, but which today serves up less of a distracting sense of personal loss than Tulum. The beach itself is not in the same league, but provides access to some scrumptious coral atols, such as Lauging Bird Caye. 

Then there's Hopkins. A rather narrow stretch of beach, upon which sandflies swarm - a disappointing state of affairs defrayed to some extent by the local Garifuna cuisine. 

Certainly deserving of a mention are the Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica’s Limón province. Like so many other sandy spots, Cahuita is not what it was a decade or so ago, but the ruination of the bay itself has been tempered by being wholly contained within a national park, with gorgeous tropical almond trees (occasionally packed with screaming capuchins) marking the boundary between sand and forest.  

Further south Puerto Viejo’s beaches probably hold greater appeal for surfers, but around twenty minutes drive south of the town, one comes across the delightful Punta Uva, which might now provide the answer to the original question above. 

The Pacific side of the Isthmus? Let's not go there...

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

My 10 Best Excursion Experiences in Central America

Over nearly four decades in Central America I've amassed a sizeable quantity of (excursion) experiences, mainly very positive. This would be my list of the top ten on the plus side, in no particular order. Items marked with an asterisk are sadly no longer possible (usually). Visit to Lamanai, Belize Sitting atop Temple I, Tikal* Lounging on beach beside the Castillo at the ruins of Tulum* Boat trip along the Sumidero canyon Swimming at Semuc Champey Snorkelling at Laughing Bird Caye, Belize Descending to tomb of Pacal, inside Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque* Swimming in cenote at Telchaquillo near Mayapán Visiting church of San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula A dip at the Blue Hole, Belize (The inland one!) There have been a couple of negatives which were also kind of thrilling, like being briefly held at gunpoint by adolescent guerrillas with AKs in the Petén* in '88 and my first visit to San Salvador a year later when everyone was shooting each other.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Game of Thrones?

The Battle of Towton, with 28,000 reported deaths, was the bloodiest battle ever on British soil. Yet I'd wager that only a tiny minority of Britons have heard of it or could place it in context. 

It took place on Palm Sunday 1461, in a shallow Yorkshire valley during a fierce blizzard and it lasted ten hours. The local rivers and marshlands were said to have run red with blood for days afterwards. 

The end result was a new government. 

It was perhaps the most pivotal as well as the most brutal moment of the conflict that has come to be known as the Wars of the Roses. In recent years this lenghthy squabble between rival family factions for the English throne has been repeatedly cited as an inspiration for Game of Thrones, yet (dragons aside) there's a whole book to be written on the subtle yet significant differences between them.

I remember when I first tried to explain the Wars of the Roses to V and her take-out was that it was seemed a bit like a family Christmas row turned epic...and so essentially rather silly. Another valid comparison might be with a fight to the last man between rival drug cartels, somewhere between turf war and nihilistic death-match. 

Yet neither of these analogies quite captures the circumstances behind this particular encounter where two vast hosts - two complete, alternative versions of the English state and its power-structures - met with the intention of utterly annihilating the other. 

Before Towton, the conflict had involved a series of skirmishes, ambushes and a couple of urban rampages around St Albans. The stakes had been gradually mounting. This was like a chess match where the board itself is the most prominent maker of moves and taker of pieces. 

How had the country reached this point of mutual extermination? In Game of Thrones the whole shit show kicks off when the Hand of Robert Baratheon dies. An assassination, but one that is mis-attributed by the powerful figures around the Iron Throne. 

In 1422, the most illustrious English monarch Henry V passed away from dysentery. The initial problem posed by this unscheduled exit appeared to be that his son Henry VI was an infant. It soon became clear however that Henry was not actually capable of carrying out the functions of head of state. 

Being the King of England in the later middle ages was a very hands-on role grounded in a complex and varied skill-set. Most sitting monarchs had been trained into the job from a young age. For just occupying the throne with an evil smirk like Cersei (or the Oval Office like Donald, for that matter) was not going to cut it. The king had to be knowledgeable, competent and involved at all levels or things could start to unravel very quickly. 

So, the Wars of the Roses didn't originate essentially as a dynastic spat. They developed more slowly out of the realisation that the king was a void at the centre of the nation. Not so much a dead king as a dead man walking. In fact, during a crucial phase of his reign Henry was utterly prostate. 

The powerful figures around this vacuum tried a lot of different systems for overcoming the problem. When Henry was still a minor, they ruled through a council in his name. Unexpected, non-violent deaths in the family reduced the effectiveness of this approach over time. Then one powerful individual - Suffolk - tried to rule alone through Henry, but despite the domestic policies of this government, the backdrop to which was a catastrophic series of defeats in France leading to unprecedented disorder mid-century back home. Royal finances were also tipping into a disastrous state. 

Unlike the conflict portrayed in GOT, the role of urban society - London in particular - combined with popular revolts out in the provinces, proved crucial to the escalation of aristocratic strife. Suffolk was offed at sea by a group of civvies and the country lapsed into deeper chaos.  

Parliament would be a key player in all this. The Earl of Warwick is often referred to as the Kingmaker, but it was these fellows in Westminster that perhaps made a greater difference, a bottom-up impetus to regime change that contrasts sharply with the top-down feud driven largely by unfettered elite ambition which we habitually see on the HBO series. The plebs were a bit more than dragon fodder. 

Thus, when the Duke of York, Henry's Plantagenet cousin, returned from a foreign posting, he came with a plan to re-establish the established order as a sort of Protector of the Realm with civic society behind him, but his motives raised suspicions in the King's close circle, and he soon made an enemy in Henry's somewhat troublesome French wife Margaret. 

The breakdown in order had seen leading families like the Nevilles and the Percys slugging it out in the North. York was more closely allied with the Nevilles, but did genuinely try to restore a semblance of peace up there. (Though for some reason the best mate of the first Edmund Blackadder is called Percy!) 

In the end the hostility of Queen Margaret resulted in open, armed confrontation and a ‘nationalisation’ of these more localised family conflicts. The Nevilles were a key part of the Yorkist faction, the Percys were aligned behind the Lancastrians. 

At some point York decided that the best thing to do would be for him to stake his own claim to the throne. Henry and Margaret had produced an heir, but this was yet another untutored, un-trusted child, and at that moment the country needed nothing else than a strong and capable grown-up on the throne.  

York saw himself as the only available candidate, but critically, this view was not universal and he lacked the comprehensive support that would have made his golpe viable. (Venezuelans please note.) 

Then at Wakefield he was caught unawares by a sneaky Lancastrian expeditionary force and ended up with his severed head on display above Mickelgate Bar in the city of York. 

Towton presented a clear opportunity for revenge to his second son Edward, the Earl of March, and his victory in this version of 'Medieval Total War' would signal the end for hapless Henry, famed now only for establishing Eton College and its 'finishing school' King's in Cambridge. (Margaret herself did Queen's.) 

It would have marked the end of the fundamental conflict and preserved the Plantagenet dynasty as well, had Edward not been such a cojelón and debauched himself to any early death - a state of affairs which would allow his brother to usurp the throne and murder his kids in the Tower. 

Henry being Henry, he was not present at Towton. Edward was, and made a decisive intervention when one of his army's flanks was being harried by Lancastrian cavalry. 

At the outset the incumbent's generals appeared to have chosen the ground well, but the weather was beyond their control. And so, when the snow started to fall at dawn the Yorkist longbowmen discovered that the wind was behind them, gifting them an advantage of range and the white blanket of the ensuing blizzard permitted them to advance undetected and to launch salvo after salvo of arrows, which decimated the Lancastrian lines, leaving them no choice but to pile forward into a general melée. 

No genteel chivalric joust this. No prisoners was the order on both sides. As the two armies hacked into each other, they slowly swivelled 90 degrees and eventually the Lancastrians found themselves less favourably situated, their retreat blocked by wetlands on one side, a steep muddy hill on the other, plus a bridge they themselves had demolished prior to the battle. 

The rout, once it commenced, became both a natural disaster and a massacre, with those that weren't cut to pieces, drowning in the marshes. This documentary details some fascinating findings from a mass grave that was detected a mile or so from the battlefield in the 1990s. 

One of the reasons we tend to see the Wars of the Roses in terms of fateful aristocratic intrigue is that is how the Tudors, Welsh upstarts who were their eventual beneficiaries, wanted us to see them. 

The roses themselves were largely a Tudor concoction, for although the House of York did use a white rose amongst its emblems, the red rose was not especially important to the House of Lancaster. The 'Tudor Rose', a fusion of the red and the white, nevertheless became an important visual communication device for the new dynasty whose legitimacy was squishy. 

Today it sits prominently on the badge of the England football team, alongside the three lions of the displaced Plantagenets. Meanwhile our rugby team sports a red rose, ironically then, something of a Welsh contrivance. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Chapinoso V2.0

EUUUUGH, this alternative version of the Guatemalan Buddy Bear really is a mamaracho.

It's as if I had decided to decorate the British oso with kitschy images of Stonehenge, robins, Big Ben and Morris dancers.


Sunday, May 05, 2019


Which, as every good chileno knows, means street, more than a hint of la cocina cobanera in the name. 

(Just how many chapines of the fufu persuasion would indulge themselves uninhibitedly inside a restaurant called 'Chucho'?!)

This is the latest risible addition to Antigua's increasingly burlesque dining scene. 
Spot the ribs. Maybe the leaf is there to prevent diners probing whether the costillas actually once belonged to an unfortunate quiltro.
Looks like they went to Cemuco and bought some nice bowls, but forgot to invest in a chef.

Roads most Lawless

As a veteran of visits to over 50 countries, I have consistently listed Russia, Japan and Mexico as the three most deeply satisfying of this private collection. Yet all three also have their flaws, some of which also run pretty deep. 

As Graham Greene put it: "History in Mexico has to be very ancient before you feel safe from its influence."

One of the great pleasures of reading Greene's The Lawless Roads, the thoroughly ill-tempered account of his trip to Mexico in 1937, is the dawning realisation that this sort of travelogue could never find a publisher today. 

Now, I love Mexico, yet recognise that  a certain amount of controlled xenophobia is as much a part of the travel experience as is watching the World Cup every four years. 

Contemporary travellers appear obliged to be nice about the places they visit. And along the way show themselves in the best possible light as well. Selfie, selfie, selfie. Graham Greene did neither of these things. 

It would be fair to say that the dislike he developed for this destination quickly became mutual. I laughed out loud at his account of his recollection of how he would sit alone in the Parque Central at San Cristóbal de las Casas as passers-by took turns to strafe him with insults. “It was like being the one unpopular boy at school.” 

Even the wildlife seemed out to get him. His account of a mule trip (with dysentery) to Palenque - by which of course he was thoroughly unimpressed  - is hilarious. 

It is also worth remembering that the end result of all this discomfort was a masterpiece: The Power and the Glory. 

Herewith some of the choicest sound-bites from this book...

“Some emanation from the evil Aztec soil seems suddenly to seize the brain like drunkenness, then the pistol comes out.”

“The appalling strangeness of a land which should have been over the world’s edge.”

“All the monuments in Mexico are to violent deaths.”

“Hideous peasant pottery in the shops.”

“And seventy per cent of these people are real savages, quite as much as they were three hundred years ago. The Spanish-Mexican population just rots on top of the black savage mass.”

“I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate...cynicism, a distrust of men’s motives, is the accepted ideology.”

“How one begins to hate these people – the intense slowness of that monolithic black-clothed old woman with the grey straggly hair – removing a tick–blowing her nose – trying to put up a blind or open a lemonade bottle, mooing with her mouth wide, fixing her eyes on people meaninglessly for minutes at a time, slowly revolving her black bulk all of a piece like a mule. And that middle-class child in the black velvet shorts, the striped jersey, and the bright-coloured jockey cap. The hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes. People never seem to help each other in small ways, removing a parcel from a seat, making room with their legs. They just sit about. If Spain is like this, I can understand the temptation to massacre.”

“One did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country."

"There was nothing in this country so beautiful as an English village.”

“There was nothing to do all day but drink warm expensive beer in the only cantina.”

“A land where you grow weary of black and oily hair and brown sentimental eyes.”

“It is true what their admirers write of the Mexicans, that they are always cheerful whatever their circumstances; but there is something horribly immature in their cheeriness: no sense of human responsibility; it is all one with the pistol-shot violence.”

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie–the embrace, the spar, the joke – with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and treachery of their life."

On the capital: "The shops full of tourist junk, silver filigree and gourds and rugs and dead fleas dressed up as little people inside walnuts, all the fake smartness and gaiety, El Retiro and the Cucaracha Bar and the Palace of Art, the Avenida Juárez smelling of sweets, and all the hidden hate."

On the Cops: “The dirty whitewashed walls, the greasy hammocks, and the animal faces of the men – it wasn’t like law and order so much as banditry.”

On Mexican food: “It is all a hideous red and yellow, green and brown, like art needlework and the sort of cushions popular among decayed gentlewomen in Cotswold teashops.”

On Tequila: “The spirit made from agave, a rather inferior schnapps.”

Saturday, April 27, 2019

My 10 Favourite Restaurants in Central America - The Top 5

Been thinking that it was high time that I updated my top 10 list as there has been a fair bit of churn lately. 

Playa del Carmen has shed its last entry, having joined the mad scramble for overpriced mediocrity, in much the same way Antigua did some time ago. 

1. Bangcook, San Cristóbal de las Casas

As I think I’ve mentioned before, this place could open up in London’s Soho tomorrow and would soon have a largish queue outside every lunchtime. The Mexicans seem to do upmarket Asian ‘streetfood’ especially well, though why this one landed here of all places is anyone’s guess. 

2. Oliva Enoteca, Mérida

Part of a family of 'Oliva' restaurants in the capital of Yucatán, this is the best of the bunch. A truly stylish blend of Mexican and Italian cuisine. The 'industrial chic' interior that their website righty boasts of makes for a great wine bar as well. 

3. Rumfish & Vino, Placencia

Another gastro-bar, this one in the heart of Belize's preeminent mainland beach community. A previous winner of the Belize Tourism Board's Restaurant of the Year award. The menu is interesting, the grub generally excellent. Patrons tend to look as if they have been kitted out by Tommy Hilfiger, having just parked their yacht outside. 

4. La Esquina de Buenos Aires, San José

There’s no shortage of so-so surrogates for the keyed-up Porteño carnivore experience in these parts - think Antigua’s own NiFu NiFa etc. - but none comes as close to authenticity as this restaurant in Chepe. It really does feel like a little corner of Buenos Aires. 

5. La Playita, Bacalar

In a superb location beside the 7-coloured laguna (which works equally well, though differently, as a venue for either lunch or dinner, indoors or outside),  La Playita specialises in high quality finger-food, but the menu stretches to more ambitious 'Latin Fusion' dishes. 

The next five to follow soon...

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Joie Maligne

However genuinely miffed at the sight of Notre-Dame burning the other day, my dark subconscious alter-ego decided this morning that it was time to have another read of Stephen Clarke's 1000 Years of Annoying the French.

I've been quite surprised at the levels of schadenfreude Monday's events have generated, even amongst fellow medievalists.

I'll admit to a little sniggeur myself when I saw Macron turn up on site with his studiously sombre demeanour.

Five years he says - that's rather conveniently around one year more than it will be his problem.

'Nigel Farage livid after learning that Stonehenge was built by Turkish'

The kick off points in these DNA tests are clearly a little arbitrary.

Mine informed me that my paternal ancestors took the wetter Atlantic route up to Blighty some time before the first Latin speakers showed up - so-called Celt-Iberians from what today is northern Spain.

Yet they'd undoubtedly arrived there from somewhere else at some stage. There is not a single person in modern Britain (currently*) unable to claim African ancestry, yet this is a fact which probably pisses off both those who do this most vocally - having more to do with more recent history - and those who think Nigel is a good bloke with their best interests at heart.

How long do one's ancestors have to have hung around in one particular geography for it to count as their place of origin? (St Patrick's Day suggests not long or not at all.)

*However....It might make Nigel even more cross to learn that this week an article in the New Scientist references the hypothesis of an academic at the University of Toronto who thinks he has evidence that ALL hominids might actually have evolved in the Balkans after all!

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Cool Hunting in La Antigua

Some destinations in this region are briefly cool. It never really lasts. 

In the early noughties, Playa del Carmen was ickily cool. Back then I needed the digits of more than one hand to list the bars in that town which were hip in that familiar, incontrovertible way. 

Nowadays, I can’t think of one even. And I noticed on my most recent visit that the last truly deserving of the category - the Almirante Pech is no more.

Antigua has never been especially cool. This stems from the somewhat unusual disposition of this city in that it is at once markedly cosmopolitan and shoddily unsophisticated. 

There have always been places where you could bank on a banging night out such as El Afro (now known as La Sala), and then there’s La Casbah, which is never going to transcend its innate naffness. 

But cool, cool? 

There have been a handful of joints that deserve honourable mentions I suppose. When I first came here there was only one bar targeting a young, affluent crowd — Mio Cid — and it did have a certain grooviness to it. Chic? Not really. Anyway, in much the same way I am a bit too old for that sort of thing now, back then I was a little too young. 

Then in the late 90s, there were two more bars that were almost chilled enough. Onys — at least when it first opened — the place where we partied like it’s 1999; because it was. Plus Dog and Fox, which wasn’t around for very long, but will be remembered fondly. More convivial than cool perhaps, but the clientele were the real deal. 

But there was also one bar in town, actually quite hard to find, set inside a grotto which I'd have to admit was ACHINGLY cool. So cool in fact that you’d imagine that one of those hardened, professional cool hunters would cream in his pants before even making it to the counter to order a drink. Indeed, most of the people in it looked like professional cool-hunters, or cast-members out of high budget advertisement for premium booze. I’d never seen a crowd like it in Antigua, then, or indeed since. Where did they all come from? Where did they go? 

It hasn’t existed for nearly twenty years yet it somehow feels wrong to say out loud what it was called or where it was located. It was such a small, exclusive little space. We found it almost by accident and sometimes I wonder whether I simply dreamt it. But here goes...MojitosIt was a Cuban bar serving actual Cuban beers, which was a bit of a big deal back then as everywhere served Gallo and pretty much nothing else. 

Being grotto-located, it was a sort of smaller cousin of Disco Ayala in Trinidad on that Caribbean island, which is set in a much larger and deeper cave system and is a fabulous place to spend an evening, though perhaps not cool, because I suspect capitalism might well be an inescapable ingredient of coolness.

The grotto is still out there, but is now a high end space for romantic dinners, which is a little bit of a shame.

The city with the highest density of cool I've come across in the last year or so is Medellín. There's really nothing to compare with it in Central America, except possibly Panamá City. 

In Mexico both Mérida and rapidly-inflating Querétaro with its tech industry are moving in that direction. 

And in spite of what I just said a couple of paragraphs earlier, Havana is irrefutably cool. But it's an effect of the sum of the delights of that great city, rather than particular venues. 

Meanwhile, there appears to be a new contender in La Antigua: Mystic Bar, which used to be called Ocelot. Readers of this blog from almost a decade ago will recall that said establishment was a highlight in the portfolio of crooked, right-wing investor Jeff Cassman, alias Mark Francis, who left these shores to spend some time in a federal lock-up on an embezzlement rap. Later on it became rather more mundane and Welsh. 

Mystic Bar may or may not become cool. But it will need to overcome a slightly inauspicious start. First the decor, which seems to be the work of the same folk that did this weekend's velación at San Bartolo. 

And then there's the fact that it has only just opened its doors and already has 1000+ followers on Instagram, most of whom appear to reside in India and Pakistan. Now, while it's possible that all these people are guilty of the same innocent mistake, there's a chance that these are paid-up followers — and buying your mates is the very definition of un-cool.