Sunday, August 14, 2022

Imaginary Balance

US media such as NBC were referring to Rushdie last night as "the controversial author" — controversial, like someone whose views are outside the mainstream...rather dodgy. 

Controversial, perhaps then to the same extent as the American "stand up" comedian who has just had his show cancelled at The Edinburgh Fringe. 

You can read the report on the BBC News website and end up none the wiser about the severity of dodginess involved. It's beyond the pale, yet they won't, for example, tell you that he flashed his dick at the audience or that he referred to Rishi Sunak as a Paki

And in between the shock factor of the intermittent stabby, shooty attacks, this is one of the main problems that free speech faces today: a self-censoring panic about causing offence, even in the business of reporting the offensive. 

Salman meanwhile, is an apostate, a committed atheist with long-standing firm convictions. And JK Rowling is a children's author who advocates for fact over ideology. Yet both can end up in mortal danger, at the very least culturally-tagged as "controversial", because we are afraid of pissing off the organised dickheads. 

As Slavoj Žižek explains in his new book, all would-be 'free' speech is now emitted into a space patrolled by a new kind of listener...

“The basic characteristic of today’s subjectivity is the weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as ultimately responsible for his fate and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control... The notion of subject as a victim involves the extreme narcissistic perspective: every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance."


Friday, August 12, 2022

Prey (2022)


Even before we sat down to watch this I could hear the tap tap tap of a  zombified franchise banging its head against the window. What was this exactly — prequel, sequel, reboot..?

And during the first twenty minutes or so my misgivings were accumulating: I know how this extraterrestrial beastie looks and behaves, so spare me the piecemeal reveal lark. Why do the northern great plains indigenes emit at most a single phrase in Comanche before collapsing into modern highschooler English? And are they really going with the whole high tech bully roughs up the Native Americans vibe? 

And then a horde — an 'orde? — of expendable, unreconstructed Frogs arrives, and from that point onwards, things start to get rather good. 

Other iconic alien nasties have been subjected to 'updates' which haven't quite worked, or stuck (viz Daleks) but this one has been conducted with both smarts and sensitivity. 

The movie sheds its early televisual quality to become one of the better Predator outings and one that works as a standalone, and almost certainly as a career stepping stone for Amber Midthunder. 

And at the end I found myself doing something I would never have imagined myself doing during those early scenes — looking up books on the history of the Comanche Nation on Amazon. 

Saturday, August 06, 2022

No soy codo, pero...

I've been suffering somewhat from tennis elbow for the past couple of months. All the more disappointing given the fact that I haven't played tennis, proper, for years. 

V and I often turned out on our local hard courts three or four times a week during the shortish British summers. 

But then just over a decade ago she suffered a fall from a reasonable altitude, landing very hard on her shoulder, and although we did try to go back out with our racquets, it was soon clear that her service was but a shadow of its former self and the competitive element of our matches was gone for good. 

This was especially traumatic for her as she had always been extremely sporty — Guatemalan national fencing champion and so on — and had worked her way back from an ugly knee injury which occurred just before we met, but as we all now know, unresolve-able chronic conditions begin at 40. 

And La Antigua has some lovely clay courts comparable with those we enjoyed playing on over on the mucky red continent in the late 90s. 

In my youth I never seemed to get how easily athletes come a-cropper. Years and years of football, rugby, cricket, tennis, badminton, soft ball, squash, real-tennis, swimming, diving and not a niggle. (Though V and I are on the same page on the unnecessary wrist pain of volleyball.)

But then in my thirties I made a lunge on the tennis court at Cascades against an awkward Aussie opponent and landed clumsily on an outstretched leg, which left me with a form of sciatica for weeks. 

I recall that my father suffered quite alarmingly from tennis elbow for an extended period of my childhood — in his case more properly golf elbow — and had it treated with hydrocortisone injections, but that is not my way.

Luckily I have discovered a handy Argie-manufuactured med called Reversal Flex here in Guatemala, which is extremely effective at targeting this sort of discomfort. Over the counter, but ought not to be, of course. 

Albañiles in LAG tend to rave about Vitaflenaco for back pain and other forms of inflammation, and I have experimented, but this is a painkiller one should avoid if at all possible. 

In my case the garden shears can take the lion's share of the blame for my codo condition — there are times of year when I insist on manually mowing the lawn, and last June was one of those. 

About eight years ago I had some fairly serious knee ligament trouble myself, which was settled almost overnight by a dose of electronic acupuncture in Pangbourne, but I doubt similar miracles can easily be accessed here in LAG. 

In the last couple of years in London we used to play badminton regularly at the weekends with some friends near Stamford Bridge (Chelsea FC i.e. deepest Fulham) and we still occasionally indulge in the same in our garden, as it seems feasible, even for the decrepit, and always generates some amusing canine mayhem. 

Perhaps the best part of our tennis championships in Wapping were the pints at the Prospect of Whitby afterwards. The lesson here is that one's compound experiences may start to fall apart as the years go by, but one is not necessarily left with the spotty bananas at the bottom of the bowl. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Not Okay (2022)

Zoey Deutch is so very good in this just-about-okay film, I ended up vicariously regretting her choice of being in it. 

We've only recently seen her in The Outfit, an obvious step up (and coincidentally, there too paired against a dickwad love interest played by Dylan O'Brien). Maybe she signed both dotted lines around the same time? 

The trouble is that she makes a character set up to be unlikeable, vaguely likeable. Writer-director Quinn Shepherd has tried to offset this problem by introducing a woke paragon in the form of school shooting victim Rowan, but this then breaks what I see as the golden rule of satire — nobody in the story can be excused from ridicule. 

The screenplay makes some questionable choices in terms of believability and good taste. It ought to have danced in step with the zeitgeist, yet often felt clumsily off beat. 

The more revealing dramas about social media tend to be projections — e.g. Black Mirror — rather than attempts to whack the highly mobile mole in the moment. 

The characters that share the office with Danni at 'Depravity' are perhaps the movie's biggest fail, especially a young man with South-Asian roots and a couple of unnecessarily nasty LGBT roles. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

All dressed up and nowhere to go...

In a surrender—nobody’s sure why—the loser is always more elegant than the victor, to obtain better conditions, maybe, or maybe when you have nothing left you realize that appearances are at least something > Gianfranco Calligarich, Last Summer In the City

This phenomenon was possibly never more apparent than at the end of the American Civil War. That even an Italian should be aware of the overdressing tendencies of losers is possibly significant. I've noticed something similar amongst the obviously guilty at the Juzgado in La Antigua lately. 

This brings me on to a parallel topic. A Quora query-poster recently asked what things to look for that immediately identify us as British tourists? I shared this with my Brazilian friend TC and she had her own substantial, well-observed list, which nevertheless concluded "mostly the Panama hat (the female version being the ill-fitting, oversized, flowers-print summer dress paired with havaianas)."

The funny thing is that these sartorial items are no longer quite the British, middle-class peculiarities they once were. I tend to blame Instagram. Millennials on tour the world over no longer seem to dress for the climate or topography, but for the photo. 

Those ludicrous summer dresses or long, heavy skirts, even the Panama, have become considerably more universal. In the sweltering heat of Cartagena last March I was a little bemused by some of the outfits sported by couples that were either Cololmbian or regional in origin. 

Social media has been engendering far narrower idioms and contexts across our culture and fashion is not immune to this condensation.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Sherwood (BBC)

I really enjoyed this series. Though if truth be told, my enjoyment probably peaked someway between the middle of the third of six episodes and the same part of the next one.

The best British detective shows tend to have a great sense of place and an earnest kind of soapiness, but this was almost next level, aiming at a sort of national therapy session and catharsis. 

The plotting at first seemed intricate and then perhaps a little messy, but now that a second season has been commissioned some of this unresolved stuff can perhaps be threaded into the new pattern. 

I was left wanting to know a bit more about what had pissed off Andy so much, so suddenly.  Though this reaction was apparently a reworking of the seemingly motiveless (or motive undiscoverable) 2004 murder of Chanel Taylor by her father Terry Rodgers, who had walked her down the aisle just seven week earlier. 

Terry found himself hiding in Sherwood Forest alongside former UDM miner Robert Boyer, guilty of killing and chopping up former NUM miner Keith "Froggy" Frogson with a sword. 

Investigators initially believed the crime had something to do with the two men having taken opposing positions during the miners' strike twenty years earlier, but it turned out to be a bit more random. 

Writer James Graham, decided to add the missing layer of meaning to these events in the neighbourhood of his own youth, serving us up with something more engaging than a mere procedural. 

He has taken this story of the country's largest manhunt and added some ready-to-hand evocations of the Robin Hood myth, a hidden state-level conspiracy and a proper squall of emotionally-resonant dramatic tensions via a plethora of well-drawn characters — plus the real and perceived connections between them, both now and during the death throws of the local mining industry. 

One's enjoyment will tend to peak as this slightly improbable concoction comes to the boil. As I mentioned at the start, around an episode and a half from the end. 

The atmosphere is superb throughout though, and the characters feel real — due in no small part from the excellent performances — yet many of the situations they are placed in feel contrived. (The stand out amongst these being Lindsay Duncan's expositional cameo at Lord Byron's ancestral pad.) 

I'm certain that Brits over 45 will get more out of this than almost any other audience members. Like Live Aid the following year, the unburied hatchets here are one of the key landmarks in our lived historical experience. 

I picked up on a remark made right at the end, that Nottinghamshire is a kind of county in limbo, neither southern nor properly of the north. It made me reflect on how the English tend to comprehend their own geography, social and physical, and it occurs to me that while we are liable to absorb our impressions of rural England through literature, it is football that places the pins on the urban map. 

In the lead up to 1984, when the miners were on strike (or indeed weren't), Nottingham possessed not only one of the more successful teams in the country, but also in Europe, yet ever since the fate of this club has reflected the relatively forgotten status of the city and its environs. So alongside this tale of hesitant coincidences we can slot the fact of the re-arrival this very year of "Notts Forest" in the Premier League.*

I won't discuss the aforementioned state-level conspiracy too much as this would involve spoilers, except to say that spy cops were real, though I was previously only aware of their insertion into more marginal insurgent communities like animal rights activists and Greenpeace-style eco-warriors. 

I found Lindsay Duncan's analysis of the underlying role of Thatcher's government in all this was rather childishly condensed — made to sound serious because it came out of the mouth of a posh lawyer rather than a chippy old union comrade. 

* Graham took some serious flak for this usage, out of the mouth of old-timer Gary no less. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Heat Apocalypse

 This is possibly how London sees itself right now...

(James Francis Danby, The Houses of Parliament from the River, 1864)

There is a persistent note of hysteria in the collective British response to rising temperatures these days. When it is excessively cold, anyone who moans is reminded not to confuse weather with climate. This is unlikely to happen in summertime ever again. 

The news item on SKY which most struck me today was the closure of a recreational boating service on the Thames, owing to 'dangerous' levels of heat. 

Yet these same people too afraid to frolick on the water will happily fly over here and frolick away down at sea level where 38 degrees is about average for many months of the year. 

And the airport runways don't melt. 

It's hard not to conclude that we Brits fear climate change as somehow particularly threatening to our national character — as if a few more degrees of heat will turn us into Italians, Spaniards or, God forbid, Greeks. Ater all, we have some quite ingrained prejudices about people who live in hot countries. 

The Spanish of course are no lazier than us, and have evolved a pattern of life that suits their summer climate. It may well suit us to do the same. It could be done more easily and quickly than reaching Net zero, but it seems we will still prefer to moan about the changing climate rather than adapt to it in any practical manner.

Previous generations tended to respond to collective crises with individual solutions (buy an ice lolly, jump in the fountain etc.). But millennials appear far more likely to relentlessly convert collective difficulties into cosmic calamities. "Phew, what a scorcha!" has become "Behold, the heat apocalypse". 

The pandemic hasn't helped. We might as well rename the House of Commons the House of Cobra.

That said, the tendency for the entire country to fall apart every time some unusual conditions emerge is hardly something which has developed overnight. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

During his retirement years, which would amass to 24, my father embarked on a process of subtraction of stuff, activities, people etc. This was initially unsettling for me, but later on, as I moved deeper into middle age, I began to appreciate how our interactions with depletion tend to become ever more mindful, as the promise of progress that we moderns all tend to grow up with is debased by those progressively gusty draughts of decay. 

And then there have been these past few years when, even without the deep personal losses — I have been prompted to contemplate just how much of the world it is possible to live without. I offer these reflections as an introduction to Yoko Ogawa's extraordinary early fable, about an island where things — along with their emotional associations — are steadily vanishing, and the subsequent requirement to fully delete them from memory is being ruthlessly enforced by the authoritarian body of the title.

There is a disconcerting ambiguity to the phenomenon. Nature is at least partially complicit (birds just fly away), yet so too are the population when they burn all their own novels. Early in the story there are some stunning set piece open air vanishings, but later on the author shifts the perspective to circumstances that are more cramped and personal, with an emphasis on the withering of whatever it is that each of us possesses as an essence. 

Disappearances are at first sudden, then start arriving in the wake of disquieting premonitions. 

Magical Realism — rather like Woke — is a term that can be deployed in both a complimentary and a derogatory fashion, and for broadly the same reasons: its practitioners can go about their business in an authentic manner with both flair and intellectual rigour or the espousal of the position can in itself signal a descent into phoniness and flummery. 

Japanese literature generally takes the right path at this intersection, and I suspect that this is because the Japanese themselves have certain fairly stringent notions about the ways in which the everyday and the fantastical must interact. 

Ogawa's speculative island regime with its conspiracy of both conscious and semi-conscious deletion of concrete things and their meanings served up a significant memory of my own — of a standout example of the cinematic expression of Magical Realism from Argentina: Eliseo Subiela's Últimas Imágenes del Naufragio (1989), in which we encounter a reclusive character named Claudio, dedicated to removing a single word from his personal lexicon with each dawning day. 

Claudio was played by the late Hugo Soto who had previously been paired up with the more recently late Lorenzo Quinteros in the same director's Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste, a concept which was shamelessly ripped off by Hollywood without the merest credit as K-Pax, surely now even more forgettable, as Soto's role was re-enacted by Kevin Spacey. 

Former resident of La Antigua Gore Vidal suggested that Magical Realism is something we have 'done', like a place one turns up once and gets the t-shirt, while Vikas Swarup has made it known how he has no time for an unrealistic realism where birds talk. 

In this novel the birds talk with their feet, and depart, no small problem for the narrator's father, an ornithologist. 

I suppose writing fantastical literature is a bit like preparing a soufflé — do it well, or not at all, and back in '94 Ogawa did it rather well. I can also recommend her dark, interlinked story collection, Revenge.

Where will the deficit fall, this time?

In the first televised Tory leadership debate Kemi Badenoch noted — admirably, and yet for such a junior minister, a little patronisingly — that all decisions made by government involve trade offs, such that every gain is achieved at the cost of a deficit somewhere else.

Something similar occurs of course with the decisions made by those tasked with choosing the representatives by whom they wish to be governed. 

The context in which Badenoch brought this to our attention is illuminating, for every member of the audience — and perhaps more importantly the actual electorate of Tory MPs and then members — will have been pondering how to settle on another pair of proportions, that between the aspirations and the capabilities of each of the candidates. 

Some sound better than the others, some seem more capable. This same electorate erred rather drastically on the side of hot air last time and may be liable to compromise somewhere closer to the other end of the spectrum now.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Peaks and Troughs

My reading of this new research is that we are doomed to a pattern of recurring covid waves because our current preventative behaviours — strict during the peaks and then lax during the troughs — is in effect part of the impetus behind the pattern.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but we have to be at our most vigilant and regulation-heavy when the pandemic appears to be idling.

The pandemic is definitely no longer idling here in Guatemala as the BA.5 variant breezes through a population that had only recently relaxed its guard. 

There seems to be no clear consensus as to how pathogenic these new sepas are likely to be. They are clearly no respecters of vaccination or even fairly recent infection with earlier versions of Omicron. Vaccination levels in Guatemala are lower than in the developed world, so any sort of compound immunity in the population will be less pronounced. 

There was a fairly recent research report suggested that Omicron does not in fact produce less severe disease than Alpha or Delta, it only appears to do so because of the growing prevalence of antibodies, but even in countries like the US and the UK, take-up of jab number 4 has been lowish, leading to a possible waning of overall protection. 

My own (anecdotal) experience is that these latest airborne nasties are liable to cause really quite serious disease in individuals that have been triple or quadruple-vaxed, even those with recent prior brushes with Omicron, yet are less likely to result in fatal outcomes. 

Before we celebrate, the symptoms brought by each new variant appear to be worsening again. Around one in ten people are likely to end up with chronic issues lasting a long time, both physical and cognitive. 

The gap between infections is narrowing and it is now being reported that those that are infected on multiple occasions are more likely to experience longer-term health issues. 

Covid can damage the lungs, heart, brain, liver and kidneys and any infection is said to increase the risk of heart attack (by 72%), stroke (by 52%) and diabetes (by 40%). 

Let's face it, Guatemala is a nation relatively resigned to cases of premature death. Yet what must be most troubling the authorities here now is the prospect of debilitated thousands in the workforce requiring long-term treatment and/or management of complaints which could then feature as co-morbidities in any future waves.

And this in a country where underlying chronic conditions like hypertension is already poorly managed.

Even though the collective will almost everywhere for lockdowns and curfews appears to have evaporated, some sort of severe economic impact, nationally and globally is almost unavoidable.

Developed world governments may have over-responded in 2020 to the initial economic challenges and are now comparatively indebted and moving in the opposite direction to fiscal easing. The assumption that inflation was largely a temporary glitch generated by a surge in "post-pandemic" demand has ceded to the realisation that supply-side disruptions could be around for far longer than anticipated, potentially leading to stagflation. 

"Team zero covid", China in particular, seem set for a very difficult twelve months or so and that will exacerbate existing supply chain snafus.

The war in Ukraine shows little sign of abating any time soon.

With our defences now appearing redundant and BA.2.75 aka 'Centaurus' on its way, we can expect covid to render many workspaces temporarily inert, with governments regulating in a patchier fashion to control the numbers gathering in indoor environments. 

Arch pessimist Nouriel Roubini believes central banks will "wimp out' of their determination to control inflation with rate rises as evidence of a slowdown emerges, adding that...

The next crisis will not be like its predecessors. In the 1970s, we had stagflation but no massive debt crises, because debt levels were low. After 2008, we had a debt crisis followed by low inflation or deflation, because the credit crunch had generated a negative demand shock.

Today, we face supply shocks in a context of much higher debt levels, implying that we are heading for a combination of 1970s-style stagflation and 2008-style debt crises—that is, a stagflationary debt crisis







Monday, July 04, 2022

Men (2022)

Fans of horror and thriller genres will be familiar with the split narrative problem: movies with two distinct parts separated by a clear reveal. "What's going on?" driving the entertainment value for the first period, followed by an all-too-frequent "Oh, so that was it" in the run up to the end credits. 

Here instead, we get "what's going on?" followed — after the blowing of some seeds — by "what the actual fuck is going on?"

In fairness, this trumps disappointment, yet one still feels vaguely let down, as if the two halves of the process are both somehow incomplete. 

Why is every bloke in the village being played by the same actor (Rory Kinnear) — a sort of one-man patriarchy — other than as a result of this appearing like a very practical format during covid lockdown? 

It's like when we ask why Catholic priests are supposed to be celibate. Is it because the medieval church made a lasting move to protect itself from secular inheritance law, or because of all the other bells and smells stuff?

Your guess is as good as mine, suggests Alex Garland, and that seems to be the underlying ruse — or creative conceit — here. 

Provided one doesn't have too many issues with icky body horror this is a very enjoyable visual experience. In Buckley and Kinnear, two fine actors, a gorgeous Gloucestershire gaff and plentiful reminders why there are few more beautiful and mysterious places in the world than the English countryside in spring. 

There's an allegory at work somewhere. Garland's determination not to be explicit will surely appeal to fans of Lynch and Cronenberg, yet his strikingly unusual film can also be enjoyed as an exercise in dark, very British cinematic mythicism, with echoes of Hammer. 

Friday, July 01, 2022

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)

The multiverse a big thing that we extrapolate from observations of the weird behaviours of the smallest things — a single photon of light passing through two slits at the same time. 

How big, how complex, how messy, (how much of a threat to narrative) it becomes is in a sense up to us. You can, for example presume that every photon passes through every possible slit, and who am I to disagree, but anyway, I am still inclined to. 

For me the big things that make up material reality are a the result of an interaction between the potential and the actual, always a process, rather like life. Possibilities take shape, while others are left behind. So even when the possibilities are close to infinite as a starting condition, actualities may form into a far more limited set of clusters. 

Anyway, part of the trouble with this film is that it refuses to make up its mind which version of the theoretical multiverse lies behind the drama. The characters even squabble about whether they are going too far or not far enough, and that is precisely the problem. 

There are some good visual gags — such as a outlier universe where everyone has hotdogs for hands — but these only drag the scenario towards the messy side of the complexity spectrum as they undermine any attempt the viewer might be making to ground themselves in the underlying concepts. 

This may of course be deliberate: a ploy to distract us with an impressive swirl, because hardly anyone has ever made a movie about the multiverse (or indeed time travel) that isn't to some extent weighed down by its contradictions. Whereas in EEAAT, there's not much to have an argument with. 

It occurred to me that 'Daniels' may be aiming for the effect of one of those dreams that seem awfully profound in real time and then kind of evaporate from one's mental workspace the moment they conclude. 

Overall, there is simply too much going on for the viewer to really care about any of the characters. And there were moments when it felt a bit of a chore to digest. 

The antagonist character voices a commonly-perceived problem with reality as explained by physicists: "Everything is just a random rearrangement of particles vibrating in a random superimposition". The screenplay seems to want to push back against this apparent hazard — that the big picture is inherently, depressingly, infinitely dull  — but it doesn't have much to offer as an alternative other than "be nice". 

My attention was first drawn to the real possibility of mutiple universes by OU's famed theoretician David Deutsch. He still appears to harbour a preference for a deeper, more intellectual form of optimism in the face of it. 

Our every action need not get washed away by a pitiless ocean consisting of infinite other possibilities, because our very existence as a sentient form of matter is perhaps atypical, at least from the perspective of the possible, and thus the multiverse may be set up to foster the exceptional rather than the mediocre after all. 

This movie does seem to want to lead us to the place that matters beyond "all this noise", but we never really get anywhere near it.  

The soundtrack is superb and some of the memorable comic turns had me wondering what happened to the directorial career of Stephen Chow. Turns out that Kung Fu Hustle 2 is in the pipeline and he has agreed with Netflix to produce an animated version of The Monkey King

I think I will skip Dr Strange's outing into Marvel's extended multiverse. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Spiderhead (2022)

Almost every short story by George Saunders is a masterclass in careful amalgamation and equilibrium of tone in precisely the manner that this adaptation of one of them is not. 

We can add this to the subset of movies where producers failed to take note that almost everything that was genuinely interesting about the story in the source text was contained within the first person narration. (Voice, it turns out, is an ideal way to define and constrain ambiguities of mood, which are in a sense the essence of the subject matter here.) 

The end result makes one think how crap Black Mirror might be without Charlie Brooker at the helm (or indeed how much of a bust Killing Eve eventually became post-Phoebe Waller-Bridge). 

Blending light and darkness, comedy and tension, seemingly requires real skill, especially when the perspective is that of a camera. 

There are some obvious points of clumsy failure here in Spiderhead, and then, throughout, there is the unfocused performance of Chris Hemsworth, hardly the actor’s own fault. He’s been made to repeat some of Abnesti’s better comic lines from the story, but they don’t really work in this format. 

Moans aside, it's not made for cinemas (was probably another pandemic-era production) and is still kind of fun. 

Monday, June 27, 2022

Suppressed sophistication...

In recognition of its perhaps belated timeliness, the New Yorker has been re-seeding this 2018 article on America's abiding discomfort with unbelief. 

A former business partner of mine from Scandinavia memorably used to pronounce that the USA is the sort of country where almost everyone would rob banks if there were no cops around to stop them. I suppose I'd be inclined to finesse this observation by pointing out that it is the fear of punishment, earthly and Divine, which seems to underpin American moral thinking. 

No matter how many new faiths and traditions have been added to the mix, this is a nation with an essentially absolutist, Puritan take on right and wrong. Indeed, there is an overbearing personal righteousness across the political discourse, on all sides. 

We can see this right now in the exchanges over the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe vs Wade. Neither side appears capable of recognising the ethical complexities behind the underlying issue, with the majority Justices themselves copping out completely by sententiously repeating the unhelpful truism that a document fabricated by a small group of men in the eighteenth century makes no specific mention of abortion. 

This absence of ethical sophistication in the USA is both real and wilful. As Casey Cep observes in her piece, there remains a widespread fear and distrust of people who might reach conclusions on ethical matters without reference to authority. Better to regard the sceptical as irredeemably immoral. 

This is of course no way to run a modern democratic state, where an appreciation of nuance in argument and in belief is more important than ever. 

As Denis Diderot, an enlightened contemporary of those founding fathers observed: 

"The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers."

The Marquis de Custine and Russia in 1839.

Lasting Western European perceptions of imperial Russia and its intentions were firmly established by the middle of the nineteenth century. 

A profound suspicion of Russian motives had been pumped up by Polish emigrés in London and Paris in particular after the Tsarist suppression of the nationalist November uprising in Warsaw in 1830. 

Then, as now, Poland was seen as a last line of defence against the Bear and provided us Brits with one of our customary opportunities to posture as the continent's leading proponent of the 'little chap' in his fight against the big bullies.  

Tsarist determination to forcibly convert Polish catholics to Orthodox Christianity was deemed especially appalling by the French. 

The Russians were also busy suppressing liberal nationalist ventures in Moldavia and Wallachia, and would soon act against Hungarian autonomy as well. 

This was the era when liberal democracy started to take a wider hold in Europe and Russian despotism was perceived as the principal reactionary threat. 

In the following century when Russia seemingly switched to a superficially less counter-revolutionary form of imperialism, its influence continued to be understood as tyrannically anti-liberal. (When Karl Marx came to London as a political exile in 1849, he actively campaigned against Russia as the principal enemy of liberty.) 

A travel journal by the Marquis de Custine, La Russie en 1839, is seen by many as a highly influential text in the lead up to east-west conflict. 

In Russia, the French aristocrat noted...

“An ambition inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could find nourishment only in the miseries of an entire nation, ferments in the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive, greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other nations: the glory, the riches, which are the objects of its hopes, console it for the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, sunk to his knees, dreams of world domination.”

(And maybe a washing machine or two.) 

“To have a feeling for the liberty enjoyed in the other European countries one must have sojourned in that solitude without repose, in that prison without leisure, that is called Russia. If ever your sons should be discontented with France, try my recipe: tell them to go to Russia. It is a journey useful to every foreigner; whoever has well examined that country will be content to live anywhere else."

In The Crimean War, Orlando Figes describes some of the impressions feeding into this diabribe, which do appear to remain relevant today...

“Everything about it filled the Frenchman with contempt and dread: the despotism of the Tsar; the servility of the aristocracy, who were themselves no more than slaves; their pretentious European manners, a thin veneer of civilization to hide their Asiatic barbarism from the West; the lack of individual liberty and dignity; the pretence and contempt for truth that seemed to pervade society”


Monday, June 13, 2022

Dead Cat Bounce

There's no small irony in the fact that it is the western nations which overtly prioritised their wealth over public health in 2021 — and which could be said to have gone a bit over-the-top with all the free money the previous year — are the ones whose economies are now being throttled by inflation. 

I was in New York this time last year as the first reports of worrying price hikes reached the mainstream news channels. 

Just "a blip" said the Fed. Not "hold your horses" or indeed "all those savings you have accumulated during lockdown, you might need them in the medium term." The bounce back was seemingly just too thrilling for many economic commentators. 

I suppose the creeping geopolitical pressures were then less obvious, but Biden said yesterday that he always knew Putin intended to invade Ukraine, while Zelensky was long in denial. 

And Boris, as we know, got all the big calls right...

Friday, June 10, 2022

Ancient and Modern

Pretty much the entire history of humanity before 'modern times' was one of conquest, land grabs and enslavement. 

These days it is fashionable among the uninformed to suggest that Europeans have been largely responsible for most of the reprehensible behaviour of our species in the past. 

Perhaps what they are really saying though is that Europeans — without question largely responsible for most of the values now underpinning so-called modern times — were guilty of acting like ancients when seemingly already thinking like moderns. 

The sin thus being greater because we should have known better. 

The specific problem with Russia, as many informed Europeans today so seem to be aware, has long been that it is a nation with a superficially modern body playing host to a markedly ancient soul. 

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Taste and Texture Indeterminacy

There are certain local products I would no longer ever purchase in a supermarket in the UK, in much the same way that it is an utter waste of time (and money) trying to buy salmon — of any kind — here in Guatemala. 

Foremost amongst these would be bananas and avocados. The task of getting them to the shelves in Blighty involves a process that appears to almost completely compromise taste and texture. 

This might not be obvious until one has eaten the 'real thing'. Mark Kermode has been vocally dissing avocados lately, primarily on the grounds that it is a foodstuff that cannot make its mind up about its texture. Right, supermarket avocado — spot on. 

Premium Bollocks

These neither here no there fruit descend from the  "avocado pears" my parents used to consume in the 70s, which were necessarily rubbery in texture as their main role was as a receptacle for vinaigrette. 

Oddly enough we found that it was possible to buy authentic avos in London — from the little Asian grocers around Mile End — though how they got there remained mysterious. 

The problem may be slightly less severe in the US as they are largely feeding off relatively local, mass-produced avocados from Mexico, but there are some environmental issues involved in that trade. 

One difference with the bananas is that the 'white' Cavendish is usually pretty insipid even when it appears on sale here. 

So unlike the Haas avo, another made-for-export product, it's not just the long haul journey and artificial ripening that makes it a dud. 

There's no such thing as an "organic" avocado.

Sadly, British consumers are assaulted with faux-ethical marketing piffle that many are unlikely to be able to bat away with relevant knowledge. Take "rainforest friendly" coffee. Just think where coffee originated. You could not profitably cultivate coffee in a tropical forest for love or money. 

Brat Pits

Roughly ten years before The Duke of Cambridge was born, this woman, his and Harry's nanny Olga Powell, was my nanny. 

Not for quite such a long stretch, but I have vivid memories of a particularly gruelling potty-training session. 

And sufficient recollection of her character to know that she would have been rolling around in her grave this weekend should she have been able to see the manner with which William's youngest treated his wife during the pageant

It is never "adorable" to hit someone's face with an open palm. Ask Will Smith. 

The past is a foreign theory...

If historians have any equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath it is the commitment to not sitting in righteous judgment on the past. 

For we know that any attempt to cherry pick the bits of history to reject or even suppress leads onto a fairly classic slippery slope. 

Today it is Washington or Churchill, tomorrow it could well be Queen Elizabeth. 

The first thing I internalised as an undergrad was the fact that the past is fundamentally ideologically unsound, so the only correct response to that is to not apply ideology to the past. 

Nothing that could result from doing so deserves the name of history. 

And now for a paragraph from Douglas Murray's The War On The West...

"It seemed in that moment as though American history in the round was being erased. Statues of Confederates were coming down, but so were those of Union leaders. People who had owned slaves were coming down, as were those who had never owned a slave. Statues of those who were in favor of slavery were coming down but so were those of people such as George Washington, who came to oppose slavery and freed his slaves. And it wasn’t just the founders, but almost everybody who came after them who was being treated in this way."

Of course it was. The process is inevitable. There is no natural barrier between the worst of us and the rest of us. 

Monday, June 06, 2022

The annexation of Crimea...


"They also declared their formal recognition of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. But in reality they never fully accepted its loss and waited for revenge."


The 'they' in this passage in The Crimean War by Orlando Figes, were the Ottoman Turks, following Russia's previous annexation of the Crimea in 1783, a tale that makes for some fairly depressing reading today.

As now, the Russians were not content to merely pinch the peninsula, but were determined to colonise the whole of the northern coast of the Black Sea.

Catherine the Great put her chief sidekick Potemkin (he of village and battleship fame) in charge of this project which Figes says the Russians understood as a necessary precursor to recapturing Constantinople and perhaps thereafter bringing the Holy Land into their sacred, restored 'Roman' empire of Orthodox Christian peoples. 

Potemkin got busy in 'New Russia'...less Not Russia than Novorossiia.

New cities were established there – Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa – many of them built in the French and Italian rococo style...30,000 Christians were moved to Taganrog, Mariupol and other towns on the Black Sea coast, where most of them became homeless.

Meanwhile in the Crimea a certain amount of what we now tend to characterise as 'ethnic cleansing' was occurring...

Russian policy towards the Tatar peasants was more brutal. Serfdom was unknown in the Crimea, unlike most of Russia. The freedom of the Tatar peasants was recognized by the new imperial government, which made them into state peasants (a separate legal category from the serfs). But the continued allegiance of the Tatars to the Ottoman caliph, to whom they appealed in their Friday prayers, was a constant provocation to the Russians.*
By 1800 nearly one-third of the Crimean Tatar population, about 100,000 people, had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire with another 10,000 leaving in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806–12.

Figes pinpoints why the Crimea was (and perhaps continues to be) such a flashpoint, seemingly always in contention in both modern and pre-modern history...

The Crimea has a long and complex religious history. For the Russians, it was a sacred place. According to their chronicles, it was in Khersonesos, the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of the Crimea, just outside modern Sevastopol, that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’. But it was also home to Scythians, Romans, Greeks, Goths, Genoese, Jews, Armenians, Mongols and Tatars. Located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world of the Ottomans and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Crimea was continuously in contention, the site of many wars.

This somewhat forgotten conflict which began in 1853 — the first total war — represented a watershed moment in the nineteenth century, when the leading European powers decided that they were more afraid of Russian despotism and loopy imperial ambition across Eurasia than they were of the old Islamic civilisational foe. 

At Sevastopol 150m gunshots and 5m bombs and shells were exchanged by the two sides. The Black Sea port has a trio of military cemeteries in which an estimated 250,000 Russian soldiers, sailors and civilians are buried. 127,000 died in the defence of that city alone. 

This is a part of the world where the Russians are used to bleeding...

*And next to humiliating the Russians, provoking them is definitely something to be avoided, or so we are told. 

Friday, June 03, 2022


Below, some key soundbites from the audio featuring Amber Heard, a nurse and the fabulously-named Dr Kipper shortly after she had allegedly launched a bottle of vodka at Johnny, thereby amputating the top part of one of his fingers. 

In the moment, she was sorry.  She didn't mean it. But on the witness stand, less so. She said she didn't do it. The injury had zilch to do with her. 

Yet the jury had access to the full audio during their deliberations. 

One just cannot do this sort of thing in a court of law and hope to get away with it. It's perjury, an actual crime, in this instance to add to the earlier crime of assault causing GBH. 

This is why the American legal system needs to throw a blanket right away over Heard's victim cosplay. From her current position she can do serious harm to victims' rights across the developed world and there are powerful voices in the media that right now seem willing to facilitate this. 

It's possible — perhaps even likely — that there was mutual abuse in this relationship, but the trial was primarily about Heard's later attempts to establish herself as a figurehead using a number of pretty underhand techniques. 

There are many women who are far less able to escape from a pernicious domestic (or near-domestic) situation* than Amber Heard was, and it is time that she stops trying to be their Saint Joan. 

Perjury charges might help her focus right now.

* Take one of our near-neighbours to the west, a woman we have both known for over 30 years, whose consistently alcoholic, violent and abusive husband has been the subject of several police visitations, yet because their combined domestic situation is based on looking after someone else's home — plus the fact that they have several dependents — it is hard to see how she could possibly break away. 

Meanwhile, her husband openly and shamelessly conducts an affair with the cleaner employed by another neighbour — an Aussie of some repute on these pages — delivering her in his red picop on the days of her employment to the house right next door, and occasionally collaborating with his lover's contributions to the aggressions we have faced from within that seriously twisted household. 

And yet more shamefully he has repeatedly used the home of her employers as a kind of private motel, when convenient. 

She apparently creates phoney power cuts to disguise these trysts by turning off the electricity at the fuse box in order to disable the security cams, but is serially kippered after she turns it back on as they depart and the doorbell rings.