Friday, May 14, 2021

Ideals, partially-applied

Bella Hadid and Gal Gadot both made the calculated choice/error of commenting on the Israel-Gaza conflict this week. 

Both of course can be said to have some sort of actual personal stake in it, unlike the hordes of zealous, armchair Middle East comentaristas who immediately and all very predictably pounced. 

Yet both were in a sense asking to be trolled for the biases they betrayed in their language. (Hang on...I am not really uggesting anyone actually asks to be trolled!) 

Hadid characterised Israel as a non-country packed with colonial oppressors. That's a bit like me observing that the British Museum is an imperialist storeroom full of looted objects. Sure, some folk would probably jump to agree with me, but most reasonable people would undoubtedly appreciate how partial a description that is. 

Another way of looking at the British Museum — doors opened in 1759 — is as one of the blue ribbon achievements of the Enlightenment in Britain: a temple to the light that knowledge and investigation can shine in the darkness. 

These ideals could be said to weakly-felt at best throughout the Middle East today. Even the keenest detractors of Israel (an actual modern democracy), many of whom vocally support issues like Trans and LGBTQ+ rights, would have to admit that their own liberal worldview is generally not highly regarded in most parts of that neighbourhood. 

Though it has something of a toe-hold in one small part at least, with the effect that certain, once-marginalised lifestyles are at least possible there. 

However, the thinkers of the Enlightenment — whose ideals can be said to have led inexorably to the modern notion of tolerance, and then onto the celebration of human diversity— also stood against false ideas, the dominance of religion, oppression and cruelty. 

And, Israelis please note — and not just Israelis — they also stood for human sympathy...for justice, freedom and the possibility of personal fulfilment in this life rather than the next. 

If the one place in that part of the world where reason is genuinely valued on some significant levels is being seen to behave un-reasonably, then it's a really bad look as far as our overall global discourse goes. 

Enlightened ideals are a form of prejudice. They have the potential for fostering human wellbeing, yet from the start they also had in-built defects, and these can metastasize quickly. 

There has never been a moment in human history when so-called progress arrives on the scene shorn of any potential for deleterious side effects.


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Current State of Guatemala's Economy

The national economy has remained perhaps surprisingly robust through the covid pandemic.

GDP contracted by 1.5% in 2020, the second smallest contraction in the Americas after Paraguay, and is expected to rebound by 3.9% in 2021. 

Exports and remittance growth have been key here. (The current account surplus increased to 5.5% of GDP in 2020, from 2.3% in 2019.) 

Average inflation in the first quarter of 2021 was 5.7%, a little over the central bank's target, but this has been fed by higher energy prices, which are expected to be short-lived. (Though inflation has taken a bit of lurch forward recently elsewhere too, e.g. up in the US.) 

The fiscal deficit expanded to 4.9% of GDP in 2020, as government expenditure increased by 17.2% while revenue fell by 3.8%.

The situation may be complicated by the failure to agree a budget for 2021 (and a falling back on the previous year's budget) with the result that government spending is now capped around 94.3bn quetzales and the previously agreed loans ($20m from the World Bank and $594m from the IMF) are no longer on the table, in congressionally-approved form that is. 

Yet this appears not to imminently threaten the government's ability to finance the deficit in 2021. International reserves reached $18.5 billion (23.8% of GDP) at the end of last year, equivalent to 10 months of the current external payments.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (1)



During my fresher year at Girton I was approached one evening in the Stanley Library by a super-sophisticated and sybaritic young lady of Hispanic origin, mature and materially well-appointed way beyond the level of just about everyone else in the intake, and frankly, a little terrifying. 

She spotted the book in my hand and duly cautioned me about pursuing my study of Schopenhauer. It tends to lead to suicide, she noted with a knowing smile. 

Back then and ever since, I've read Schopenhauer for laughs. 

Kierkegaard observed that "the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic" and there is really no reason for this not to also apply to the suffering deriving from morbid self-pity. 

There's a moment when Florent-Claude — the narrator in Serotonin — shortly after doing what many fans of classic British comedy would recognise as a 'Reggie Perrin', turns up at a doctor's surgery and explains his new situation: 

When I had finished summing up my recent life to him, he agreed, in fact, that I genuinely needed a course of treatment, and asked me if I had had thoughts of suicide. No, I replied, death doesn’t interest me.

We Brits seem to find embittered middle-aged men more entertaining than most: Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge, Alf Garnett, Mr Bean and so on. I guess this is why I find Rod Liddle's column in The Spectator such a guilty pleasure. 

I suppose that if Liddle were to take to the fictional form and become our most famous living novelist on the international stage, he'd be a near enough equivalent of Michel Houellebecq, minus all the stuff about gang bangs and blow jobs, one presumes. 

So here we are in the doldrums of 2020/21, and one keeps coming across recommendations for 'feel good' books to put the wind back in our sails. Yet there remains much to be said for the — perhaps counter-intuitively — uplifting effect of the sort of rancid, misanthropic rant that habitually forms the backbone of this particularly cantankerous Frenchman's novels. 

One might say that Houellebecq is a conservative with a capital D for doomed. Rather than hankering after the past (which for him means the 70s, and is thus horrid), he seems to live in an imagined near future that turns out to be disconcertingly prescient as he moves from novel to novel, each a kind of update on the ones that came before and each also more of a routine than a fictional narrative per se. 

One always finds oneself having to wade through clumps of mean-spirited and banal generalisations (often about women), before one comes across one of those surprisingly lucid and occasionally even soulful observations Houellebecq can suddenly serve up.   

When first published even the French author's detractors admitted grudgingly that in Serotonin he might have yet again demonstrated a form of foreknowledge, as the later, Normandy-based section of the novel is said to have anticipated France's gilets jaunes movement of 2018.

Earlier on he seems to be anti-EU and anti-anglais at the same time, with his spikiest barbs landing on the Dutch...

You’re never well received by the English – they are almost as racist as the Japanese, like a lite version of them), but also from the Dutch, who obviously didn’t reject me out of xenophobia (how could a Dutch person be xenophobic? That’s an oxymoron: right there: Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business at best).

Right now in 2021 the uncanny contemporary relevance of this book seems to be further suggested by its title, for this is a secretion that is vital to our sense of well-being, yet also linked to the self-esteem we derive from our group interactions. 

What then happens when we deny ourselves these activities, or are denied them by our government? 

Anyway, I am some way from the end of the novel and so will probably discover some reasons to return here with additional reflections on it later on...


Sunday, May 09, 2021

Jews Don't Count by David Baddiel

 



Rather like Promising Young Woman, if you immediately conclude that this is probably not for you, it almost certainly is. 

Particularly if you are the kind of 'progressive' inclined to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a person of colour yet at the same time disinclined to award the same status to any other member of his ethnic group. 
"The move to reclassify Jesus as non-white is good and historically accurate. The erasure at the same time of his Jewishness is neither."
I came to this thinking I had probably already had a basic understanding of the problem Baddiel is trying to throw some light on, but even so, this is a well-written, intelligently-presented polemic of serious quality and undoubtedly shocking in many places. 

How, he seems to be asking overall, does probably the most oppressed and persecuted ME in history find itself denied access to some fairly basic BAME protections today, and not just so-called micro-aggressions, but some really quite serious macro-aggressions too. 

He points to a key determinant: "The law of Schrödinger’s Whites, a brilliant conceit that I am not responsible for, in which Jews are white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer."

White supremacists are generally pretty clear on this. Jews are not white folk, rather they are 'Asiatic' types, secretly working behind the scenes with other dark races to replace them. 

Yet for many on the left, Jews are not only white, but in a sense more than white, a skin colour that manifests itself as kind of grey in a cultural sense or perhaps even invisible to the naked eye. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G (Baddiel regards him as more 'Israeli' than Jewish, apparently for his occasionally overbearing self-confidence) played on this when he asked an interviewee 'Is it because I is black?'. 

Cultural whiteness is not so much about skin colour, as about belonging to the group which doesn't have to worry too much about such things. And Jews have historically never been free not to worry. 

In one of his gentler turns Baddiel summarises the problem for Jews in a woke society...
The problem is that Jews occupy a socio-cultural grey area. Jews, although marginal, are not thought of as marginalised. Which means Jews can’t be seen as representative of a modern Britain that is intent on shifting marginalised experiences into the mainstream.
In its extreme form contemporary anti-semitic prejudice is grounded in the notion that Jews cannot be oppressed as they are secretly controlling the levers of oppression, specifically capitalist oppression. 

As Baddiel puts it: "Interestingly, a lot of those who believe in Lizard People also seem to be anti-Semites", whilst noting that the likes of David Icke use Rothschild Zionists as their preferred euphemism for Jews. 

There's a double standard at play here which is decidedly difficult to counter...
Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world. Jews are somehow both sub-human and humanity’s secret masters.
Again, Baddiel doesn't go into the history of this, but the association of Jews with money has its origins in medieval mentalités: Christians then, just like Muslims today, found themselves hog-tied by dogma when it came to matters of credit and interest. So they farmed the job out to a minority that they could then despise for it, in what can only be described as a thoroughly despicable manner. 

The underlying racist prejudice somehow solidified as Christians gradually allowed themselves a more hands-on role in the expansion of capitalism. 

The actor John Cusack once tweeted a noxious anti-semitic meme with the added imperative 'Follow the Money'. Yet in the USA if you do decide to embark upon that particular trail towards monied minorities, it is Hindus not Jews that you will find in greatest abundance: both the most remunerated and high net worthy of American sub-identities. Meanwhile more than half of the millionaires on a global level are Christian. 

And even then, Baddiel feels impelled to add...
This is very un-Marxist of me – fuck off about money. Because money doesn’t protect you from racism. As I say, some Jews are rich. My grandparents were: they were industrialists in East Prussia. They owned a brick factory. They had servants. By the time they were fleeing to England with my mother as a baby in 1939, however, that had all been robbed from them. And by the end of the war, most of their family – and therefore a large section of mine – had been murdered. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, because the racists will smash in the door of your big house that they know you don’t deserve anyway and only own because you’re Jews.
There's a lucid chapter on the way Israel is used by many on the left to silence any Jewish misgivings about the way their opinions tend to fare in British political discourse, and he pinpoints the way Godwin's Law is being used to slap down any Jew who might dare to mention ze vor. And this when there's really nobody else more inherently entitled to bring the Nazis into an argument. 

Baddiel highlights another telling omission that I spotted and was duly irked by recently in Jojo Rabbit...
Jews remains the only minority – and now we’re talking beyond ethnic, to include disabled, trans, autistic and many other categories – where you don’t have to cast the actor in line with the real thing. 
Later on he seems to be gently mocking former ITV sports presenter Jim Rosenthal and his son Tom for somewhat aggressively asserting their non-Jewishness. This did make me chuckle, because Marcus in Plebs is one of the most thoroughly Jewish characters in contemporary British comedy. 

On a separate note, it once bothered V that Jim Rosenthal always used to appear on ITV's Formula One show with his top button done up and eventually went so far as to dispatch an email to the channel about this rather pressing matter. 

Shortly afterwards, he stopped doing it. Nowadays if you google him, there's only one image returned that suggests this was ever a thing.





Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Voyagers (2021)

Lord of the Flies Lite, in space...with added girls. 




That would have been the elevator pitch I suppose. In a way it is also a less chin-scratchy version of High Life from Claire Denis, and on that level at least, contrastingly more entertaining. 

Both films utterly fail to convince the viewer that the action is actually taking place in deep space or provide any clues to the internal layout of their respective vessels. 

Here we get a lot of 70s Doctor Who-style running around in rather bland spaceship corridors. It's not just the setting (and production design) that are a bit flimsy, but the entire premise comes pre-perforated. 

And yet, as I said, it is kind of fun, not least as an introduction to a subset of the young stars of tomorrow, including the daughter of Vanessa Paradis, Lily-Rose Depp, plus there is fine turn from Fionn Whitehead as bad apple-in-chief. 

It's been compared to a GAP advert (there are more prime colours in the poster than ever we see on board), but overall this is no advertisement for genetic engineering. 



Sunday, May 02, 2021

Ghosted

There’s a story circulating today in which it is alleged that Guatemala does not appear on the official Russian register of countries it is assisting via distribution of Sputnik V and that a substantial amount of the monies apparently paid for that vaccine by the government here were transferred to a broker with a Russian name who is now not answering his calls. 

Instinct and experience tell me that this story is almost too juicy to be true. 

Yet they also tell me that this individual need not be Russian at all, and could well be in the employ of another state actor — of the sort that might have a vested interest in undermining Putin’s vaccine diplomacy in the region and might also not mind at all if the population of Guatemala were to remain un-protected in a manner that would make migration policy decisions politically more easy to enforce in the medium term. That's how I'd write it up as an espionage thriller anyway. 

In the same way there were those taking advantage of 9-11 or Brexit for reasons that had little much to do with the prevailing terror threat the UK’s relationship with the EU, there will be those with plans already in place to leverage the pandemic for purely political ends. 

In the UK for example, such people will know well that ‘protect the NHS’ is a mantra that will achieve a broad mandate for state action that might otherwise not appeal to the majority.


Things Heard & Seen (2021)

There's way too much sub-plot and sub-character in this story for a genre movie. 

The adaptors of the book by Shari Springer Berman (possibly including the novelist herself) had to be more ruthless — and then the producers needed to understand that the problem could not be solved just by hiring more familiar actors and extending the running time. It's a classic Netflix error really. 


This movie wants to be more than just a run-of-the-mill genre flick, but it just doesn't have the space to explore some of the metaphysical and artistic themes that are tossed in, nor do we ever really learn the relevance of one character's eating disorder etc. 

I have a more general issue with the use of coincidence in fictional narratives. It works well enough for example in works like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (the note under the door), but less well in supposedly taut thrillers. 

Here we are led into the last act by a close-linked sequence of three major coincidences: the first at a museum, followed by another at a dock and then a final example in a car park. 

The phenomenon of the supernatural horror flick that builds slowly, with considerable promise, only to nose-dive into disappointing nonsense in the last act is familiar and unfortunately this is a textbook case. 


Saturday, May 01, 2021

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Well, this was about the most existentially disturbing thing I've sat through in a long time.



I guess the question must be: how intentional was this? 

And then: Did it win the Oscar last Sunday for its hidden payload of metaphysical angst? 

Oh, and finally: What happens to male octopuses?

The title announces the didactic mood. Perhaps it ought to have been Your Octopus Teacher. 

There's a story here which acts as a payload for the environmental message. We meet Craig, a white South African in mid-life crisis, which is partly resolved via a partly-requited love affair with a female octopus living in a kelp forest den just beyond the southern tip of Africa. 

Craig's narrative is deeply moving even as it is superficially rather depthless, and occasionally drifts towards the ridiculous. It’s relationship to the underwater footage at times feels staged. 

The message on the surface is that contact with this sort of playful, yet short-lived alien consciousness distinguished by its tactile curiosity can make the younger generation recognise that they are a part of nature even if at the same time it whispers to old timers that they might wonder why they still want to be. 

Human consciousness is like a containment system (or user interface) for our vast nervous system. Are octopuses almost like autistic savants with a far less pinpoint awareness than your average human? I need to know more. 

I was left with an uneasy sensation for days after viewing this. It's now passing, yet I have resolved to read this now...





Thursday, April 29, 2021

New Horizons


I have no definitive memory of the first time I saw the sea. 

I suppose this must have occurred in the nebulous period before I turned two. And it would almost certainly have taken place at an English seaside resort in the south east. 

The one fixed mem-bite I do have from one of these weekend breaks is the night I was allowed to sleep in a proper bed for the first time. (And, judge me not, I still possess the soft toy that was placed on my pillow that evening by way of a companion through this transition.)

I would get to see the 'ocean' — and a good deal of it — on my maiden journey abroad, to the island of Madeira, somewhat isolated in the Atlantic west of Morocco and on the same parallel as Bermuda. 

These recollections centre on a trip taken around its vertical, rock-ribbed coast in a small boat with my father and the boatman, the sensation being not so much that of observing the sea as that of being an expendable part of a heaving mass, billowing around the crags and gushing into the many cave-like inlets. 

And so the first 'classic' memory I retain of the sea as a vast liminal space spread out before me was laid down perhaps a year or so later on the Costa del Sol, and from a raised vantage point. This was the Med, with its gentle swish at the shoreline — at least at that time of year — and thus my impressible, fledgling attention was drawn further out to a new and almost greater mystery…the horizon.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Traveller's Tree (1)

There's already a numerical notation in the title as I just know I am going to have SO much to say about this book, which was Patrick Leigh Fermor's first published travelogue.

Arriving by boat on a tropical French territory in 1948, the author comments that his impressions of the Central American mainland, Guatemala included, will have to wait for a subsequent volume — yet sadly it seems that this would turn out to be one of those sequels that never really got off the ground. 

Still, the impressions of our finest travel writer of the last century as he hopped from island to island in the Caribbean during the immediately post-war, post-imperial era, accompanied by his future partner and later wife, the Honourable Joan Elizabeth Rayner, plus Costa, a Greek mate who acted as his Catherwood, make for extraordinary reading today. 




The first thing they did off the boat was head to the market to the fruit: a soursop (anona), a paw paw (papaya) plus an avocado. 

I was immediately reminded how my parents used to refer to avos, which tended to arrive on their table in halved, semi-mature form, dolloped in vinaigrette. 

We each chose an avocado pear: dark green or violet globes the size of cricket balls, enclosed in a hard and warty carapace. The knives made a sharp tearing noise as we opened them. In the centre, loose in their hollows, lay big round stones, completely spherical and smooth and very heavy. I hated throwing them away, they seemed so perfect and neat, and somehow important, but except as embryonic avocado trees, they are useless … The pale green fruit clung to the shell with a consistency half-way between butter and plasticine.

The plasticine reference simply emphasises the connection to 70s sensibilities. 

This rather quaint unfamiliarity might seem something of the distant past, yet when V was studying in England in the early 90s one of her college friends, Aitor, a Basque from Vitoria-Gasteiz, confessed to her that he had never come across an avocado before landing in London. (He’d never even heard of them...)

Leigh Fermor's description of papaya trees made me chuckle out loud...

The fruit of the paw-paw clustered round the perpendicular trunks as thickly and symmetrically as the breasts of Diana of the Ephesians.

I've travelled with his like, excited, engaged public schoolboys whose worldview was formed and to some extend fixed, during the formal and undoubtedly durable process of 'classical eduction'.

Leigh Fermor was a lifelong Hellenist. The opening sequence of the last instalment (so far...) of Richard Linklater's Before... series was shot at his house, at his table, at Kardamyli in the Southern Peloponnese, just before he returned to the UK to die in June 2011. 

He had married Joan in 1968 and lived with her in Greece until her own death there in 2003, aged 91. They had no children. 

Before Midnight was released in 2013. I saw it in segments, during my lunchbreaks, by way of buying three separate tickets to the Odeon in Shaftesbury Avenue.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Muse of History

Saint Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott understood how tough it can be to draw simplistic poetic conclusions from the past...

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

If the muse of history is speaking to you, it should not be spouting platitudes, or easily digestible moral certainties. Rather it should sound almost annoyingly sarcastic.

Take a relatively local example. Bartolomé de las Casas, the first resident Bishop of Chiapas and first official ‘Protector of the Indians’. According to one biographer he came from a family of conversos, Jews encouraged under duress to adapt to Catholicism as the Reconquista was completed.

He ended up as a missionary to the Maya here in Guatemala. His defence of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region is often characterised as the beginning of the modern notion of human rights. Crucially, he participated in the Valladolid Debate of 1550, the first time a ‘moral’ enquiry had been held in Europe into the treatment of peoples encountered elsewhere — and was rather firmly on the ‘side of the angels’.

So far, so straightforward. But, whispers the muse, along the way poor Bartolomé made the fateful suggestion that it might be a better idea to import Africans to do all the work in the New World. And thus his very good intentions led in part to the institution that currently more than anything else seems to feed the sense of shame eating away at our civilisation.

Black Bear (2020)

I've been digesting this movie for several days now, wondering how, if at all, I can describe it. 



It has a central characteristic the mere description of which is something of a spoiler. There's almost no getting around that, so here goes. 

Two stories are told, linked by location and theme, by character too, though not so closely, and roles have shuffled. 

Reviewers will tend to mention two separate realities, uncertainly related, yet the whole only really makes any sense to me if one acknowledges a third, observable as a sort of interstitial. 

It seems that director Lawrence Michael Levine (and his wife Sophia Takal) like to write and direct movies about situations that occur in the lives of creative people such as themselves. This accounts for possibly the only aspect of Black Bear which I didn't lap up quite so enthusiastically — the focus on concerns that felt less than universal. 

In this sense the first of the pair of stories worked better for me as the situation is simpler, the dark humour of the dialogue more penetrating, and the mood and music frame the action almost as a classic psychological/wilderness thriller in ways that at least partially wash over and dilute the New York navel gazing inherent in the dense, almost play-like script.

Anyway, they kind of had me with Aubrey Plaza. I'm sure I'd watch her in almost anything. And although she undoubtedly delivers a powerful performance in the second section, it's her her naturally deadpan, 'unreadable' persona that really sets the film up in the first. 

There she plays Allison, actor turned Indie director, who is seeking creative replenishment in a log cabin beside an isolated Upstate lake. Said cabin sits beside the equally wooden home of Gabe and his pregnant girlfriend Blair, and Allison's arrangement here appears to involve more direct engagement with her hosts than is perhaps usual in most Airbnb stays. Her presence is, to say the least, destabilising. 

But Blair and Gabe are already primed with issues. Perhaps my favourite scene in the film is the one where the couple take turns to make statements about their lives and interests over dinner with their new guest, which the other immediately contradicts, feeding an atmosphere of palpable awkwardness. 

The second story is more explicitly about a film-makers' creative process, about manipulations, explicit and implicit, and the unstable trio of Allison, Blair and Gabe are back in partially switched positions. 

Plaza says Levine wrote Black Bear 'for' her, and sold the script to her as an exploration of discussions the pair had had earlier about their experience of working with partners in the movie industry. Plaza is in a long-term relationship with Jeff Baena, who directed her in The Little Hours. 


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Caucusians

The latest bit of delusional nonsense to have emerged on one of the two extremes of American politics forms the basis of the proposed new 'America First' caucus in Congress — the idea that the USA's political culture is historically (and profoundly) 'Anglo-Saxon' and that this is something that is now under threat. 

One has to wonder however exactly which part of America's political traditions are 'Anglo-Saxon'.

There was often undoubtedly a degree of chaos, uncertainty and backstabbiness at the key moments of transition between leaders, which contemporary Americans might recognise. 


Edmund 'Ironside'


Anglo-Saxons of the old school would of course be a little bemused by much of the US Constitution, especially the 'all men are created equal' part. 

If their political culture had any overriding characteristics, these would be a pronounced decentralisation of authority and a legal system based on compromise and amicable resolution rather than litigation à outrance — neither of which seem particularly current in the States. 

And yet, late stage Anglo-Saxon monarchs did have a tendency to make themselves seem that much grander by selectively pilfering from the iconography of imperial Rome. 

The Newsweek article here suggests that ‘only’ around 10-15% of US citizens  can claim Anglo-Saxon ancestry. This would be a high end figure even for the so-called native peoples of England outside the south and east, and so in terms of the US population, probably an absurd projection.


Monday, April 19, 2021

When Fubtol becomes Botful...


They speak for everyone...




 

Some considered thoughts on the so-called European 'super league'. 

This has been a potent possibility for some time, but the pandemic and the parlous state of the finances of certain continental super clubs, such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, plus the relative under-performance of others like self-styled giants Juventus, or even the above-averagely tall Arsenal, coupled with the absence of fans in stadiums, does seem to explain why this rupture happens to be occurring right now. 

When the news was announced yesterday, we were made to listen to a series of impassioned speeches from various familiar TV pundits — in the main over-remunerated former Premier League footballers— sitting comfortably behind a paywall and griping about greed.

In England, where history and local connections have always been close to paramount in the narrative swirling around our national game, it's not hard to see why the new league might immediately appear like an existential threat at 'grass roots' level. (79% of fans are said to oppose the ESL.)

Yet out here in Guatemala and in the wider world, it's not hard to imagine how a 'product' which involves regular encounters between elite teams, could be more attractive than current arrangements, which tend to involve fixtures involving clubs with almost no international cachet. 

Still, although Premier League clubs have seen their revenues decline during the pandemic, the vulgar lure of extra cash has greater appeal in Spain and Italy right now. 




So, the breakaway entity has seen the need to invite a total of six English clubs into the non-expendable founders club, presumably using the enticement of relative power rather than that of a crude financial leg up. 

Arsenal and Spurs are no doubt feeling gratified, but how will this play out in terms of the latter stages of the domestic league each year? Will they even be bothered if there is nothing really at stake? 

For me, this is perhaps the biggest problem. Either we have a super league or we have domestic leagues. If certain clubs pull free of their local histories and obligations, in a sense they immediately invalidate both the higher level competition they aspire to belong to AND their traditional ecosystem. 

And is it fair at all that six English clubs will be able to play every weekend on the basis of a buyers advantage acquired in a disconnected competition?

And as one wag has already asked, if all six are expelled from the Premier League, what will Everton have to do to ensure that they still come seventh?

French and German clubs, specifically last year's Champions' League finalists PSG and Bayern (two sides that relatively irked me until yesterday), are so far resisting the call up. 

This could be a flaw in the revolt that either grows or diminishes as the battle lines take shape. It has been reported that two of the revolting English clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea, were initially more reluctant than the other four to jump on board *

Are promotion and relegation — i.e. jeopardy — really so important? As a teen I used to enjoy watching NFL, franchise-based, where pretty much the same teams line up every year and local connections are all too easily sundered. 

Franchise-based leagues tend to be quite geographically dispersed, in spite of the looseness of those local underpinnings. And some teams really are fixed. I cannot imagine the New York Jets moving to Vermont, for example. 

If the super league attains its starting quotient of 20, 3 of these will be from London. And two of these are more than likely to end up as the bottom feeders of this limited elite. 

Who really imagines that UEFA or even FIFA are the defenders of the little guy anyway?

* Update: And...both City and Chelsea are set to jump ship. The ESL duly collapses. Good riddance. Maybe it will be a one club revolt, with Barca apparently very much still up for it.



Sunday, April 18, 2021

Eclipse Junkie


Nashville, 2017


The first eclipse that really got my attention was of the lunar variety, on August 16, 1989.

Accompanied by friends John, Josephine and Frances, I was visiting a dig at Colha — an ancient Mayan site in the north of Belize, just a shortish taxi-ride from Orange Walk — guests of two contrasting and occasionally antagonistic teams of young archaeologists from separate universities in Texas. 

We gathered in a clearing and duly gawped up at the phenomenon, which felt rather special and local at the time, yet in fact lunar eclipses occur once or twice a year and are visible over all of the darkened part of the planet. I suppose it felt so special because it was so beautiful. 

Suitably moved, we then retired to our hut, which we were sharing with a tarantula. 

Given the distance involved, the Earth's shadow covers the moon with plenty to spare and totality tends to last an hour or more. Our planet's penumbra will next cover the whole surface of the moon on May 26 this year, an effect that will be visible in Guatemala. 

I experienced my first total eclipse of the sun at Prussia Cove near Penzance in 1999. The next one visible in Britain will take place in 2090. 

So, eclipses turn out to be an excuse to travel. And often to places that don't normally feature on one's default, rolling bucket list. This is why I rocked up in Nashville Tennessee in 2017...



Nashville 2017, at c45 degrees


Unlike that Cornish eclipse 18 years previously, the appearance of 'the eye of God' was unmasked by pesky clouds. The moment was awe-inspiring on both occasions nevertheless. 

It comes at the end of a slow build up. That first appearance of a small 'dent' in the sun, followed by the formation of ever thinner crescents and a dimming of the light, leading inexorably to the so-called 360 degree sunset, accompanied by the noises emitted by bemused wildlife. 

The ensuing moment when the moon's shadow covers the whole circumference of the sun still comes as something of a shock. There's a swift and sudden turbulence and then that powerful and immediate sensation that the life force of the cosmos is feeling the irresistible yank of an open plughole in the sky.

This is the instant said to make poets of scientists and vice versa and there's no better way to appreciate what Nietzsche meant when he made his famous observation about gazing into the abyss. 

It is also provides a moment to ponder one of our local neighbourhood of the cosmos's great coincidences: the proportionality of size and distance.

These astronomical incidents of relatively short duration, lunar and solar, can be said to have had long-lasting historical consequences. I would possibly not be where I am now had not Colombus set out west across the pond rather optimistically based on some erroneous calculations made centuries earlier by Ptolemy, using a lunar eclipse. 

Pioneering ancient Greek historian Herodotus recounts one of the supposed feats of pioneering ancient Greek philosopher-scientist Thales of Miletus. 

The Ionians were lined up and ready to do battle with the Lydians and Medes in a conflict which had the definite potential to seriously adjust the course of human civilisation. Then...

The day suddenly turned into night. The Ionians received a prediction of this eclipse from Thales of Miletus, who had determined that this was the year in which an eclipse would occur. The Lydians and the Medes, however, were astonished when they saw the onset of night during the day. They stopped fighting, and both sides became eager to have peace.

There's a prevalent 'urban' myth that the death of Christ on the cross was accompanied by a total eclipse of the sun. 

Total solar eclipses are comparatively rare because they require the intersection of two cycles which provide the conditions: that of the new moon and that of the bi-annual alignment between the sun and the moon.*

The crucifixion, as reported in the Bible, took place at Passover i.e. during the period of a full moon, not a new one. 

It might be worth noting however, that on Friday April 3, 33 AD there was indeed a lunar eclipse. The moon rose 'blood red' that evening according to contemporary reports.

* A third cycle — that of global pandemics — denied me the chance to trek down to Patagonia last year to see the total eclipse in Chile. The next opportunity to witness one somewhere that isn't a frozen wasteland will occur on my birthday in 2024, probably in either northern Mexico or Texas as far as I am concerned. 






Self made man and...

Classic Harry Enfield. 



Struggling to think who this reminds me of...



Friday, April 16, 2021

Playa del Carmen, continuity and change...

2020 was the first year in over a decade that I hadn’t spent some time in Playa del Carmen. 

The reasons I keep coming back in spite of everything are perhaps complex. It’s the only place on earth that I have seen transformed from a tiny settlement into a city of over 300,000 inhabitants, with all the stages in between, rather like something in a simulation game. 

When I first came it was a small port and fishing community, caught between the more rapidly developing mass tourism hubs of Cancún (from Kan Kun — nest of snakes, appropriately enough) and Cozumel. There was a jetty and a Señor Frog’s with an entertaining macaw, plus a few handcraft stalls. The calamity of Hurricane Gilbert was just a few months away. 



Back in the Early Classic era it had been known as Xaman-Ha (waters of the north) and served the same basic purpose as a rest stop before the short trip across to ‘the island of the swallows’. 

I have used more recently it as a rest stop either side of my own transatlantic trips back to London or Paris and have always been a bit flabbergasted at the extent of change apparent after only a a few weeks' absence.

We had started to make more regular visits during the hippie chic era of the late 90s / early noughties, when Playa became the favoured spot on the peninsula for those young French and Italians of Bohemian bent. And it was this period that sealed in me that need to return and repeat. 



I suppose this was in part because it remains really the only place in the whole of Central America where I can hope to assuage my sense of European exile (and perhaps less credibly, Mediterranean exile). 

The Riviera label has become ever more fanciful over the past decade or so as the international brands and mass tourism offerings have metastasized, but some of the original euro-hippies appear to have stayed for good, and it is still possible to find excellent, no-nonsense mediterranean food around greater Playa, particularly Italian trattoria menus with delicious freshly made pasta. 




Yet one of the stand-outs and possibly my favourite place to dine here is Pata Negra, a kind of Spanish home-gourmet equivalent of the above.

I’m not really a dessert person, but a citrusy-cinnamony Crema Catalana is one I can almost never turn down, especially when served in an explicitly authentic ambiance such as this.


Drought (2020)

So, as mentioned in the previous post, this one also had all the potential to be little more than a box ticking exercise within a sub-genre — in this case that of the indie family roadtrip, incident packed thanks to young person on the spectrum. 


It's set in North Carolina, c1993. Surely someone is crunching the numbers already on this phenomenon — the recent surge in movies set in this crucial, immediately pre-gsm timeslot. 

Weather-obsessed teen Carl (played by autistic actor Owen Scheid) is provided with the circumstances that allow him to cajole his caring sister Sam and his more estranged sister Lilian into taking him on a storm chase across a parched southern summer landscape in a borrowed ice-cream van. Also along for the ride is Sam's non-romantic sidekick Lewis (played by Owen's real life brother Drew Scheid).  



With these sort of personal growth-inducing road trips, it is usually the journey not the destination that matters, yet in Drought much of the charm comes from the immediately, above-averagely agreeable presence of the characters, especially Sam, played by Hannah Black, who co-directed with Megan Petersen, playing sister Lilian.



Black has recounted how the local pair's production had certain innate advantages, such as a cast and crew hired from within North Carolina's pool of kind, hardworking and talented individuals and the fact that much of the area has a conveniently stuck-in-the-past patina. But then on day 12 of the 18 day shoot they were hit by a hurricane, which kind of messed with the location. 


Nobody (2021)

John Wick is officially a genre. The team that choreographed Keanu in that trilogy kick start Hutch Mansell's 'relapse' with a very memorable fight scene on a bus, which pretty much sets up the rest of the movie. 



If you enjoyed that scrap enough to want to watch it more than once, you are going to lap up all the rest of the violence here, hardcore gore and all. 

Wick's retirement had been centred on a nice crib, a puppy and a classic car. Hutch had sought a more tabulated, suburban ideal, which is only partially working for him, when along comes that same rather unfortunate encounter with the low order kindred of a Russian mobster and thus the body count starts rolling.

In fact for Hutch the initial trigger is a home invasion and a missing kitty kat bracelet, together precipitating a journey down memory lane — which it must be said, starts rather falteringly, but both Hutch and the film are soon up to speed.

 


The film is fun and Odenkirk's handling of Hutch's slightly sundered inclinations is spot on. Christopher Lloyd's portrayal of his father adds to the mood. Great to see Connie Nielsen again. Hope she gets more to do in the — inevitable — sequel. 




The next post here will concern another recent movie made up of almost all too familiar elements which, just like this one, exhilaratingly transcends them...


Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Marksman (2021)


 

Somebody had to have sat down with the thought 'how can we tell a story about the southern border which will satisfy both Democrats and Republicans?' I kid you not. 

Both worldviews are present here and somehow manage to avoid doing the whole matter/anti-matter thing for 108 minutes. 

So, another year, another Liam Neeson 'action' flick with slightly more constrained ambition and budgets. There was another one last year. I can barely remember it, except that it wasn't very good. 

Yet still there is something oddly compelling about Neeson coming out once again to do his schtick. The whole thing is utterly absurd, yet it isn't clear whether his presence makes it more so or just bearably so. 

And the movie also features the ever lovely Oaxaqueña Teresa Ruiz; briefly. (Spoiler). 


Frankly I might have preferred the experience overall if Miguel's journey had ended just beyond the border fence and Jim had instead had to transport his mother up to the Windy City. But...it was not to be.

There's another all very predictably done in dog, plus a fairly gratuitously negative outcome for a likeable gas station clerk. The highway patrolman had it coming. 


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Shared Solitude

 


Flashback to Tulum, September 2009, when I undoubtedly had my best time ever on this stretch of coast, as the so-called Mexican flu panic had nearly emptied the country of visitors (unlike the present, more authentic pandemic) and I could claim, almost without exaggeration, that I had the place to myself. 

Though not quite. Every morning on my post-daybreak dawdle down the sands, I'd stop to sit right here on a log outside a place then called Ocho and was soon joined by this friendly ginger tom. Having hopped up beside me, he'd cuddle up and follow my contented gaze across to the horizon. 

Ocho became the S&S Hip Hotel soon afterwards, a change that was apparently unwelcome to some. Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells wrote on Tripadvisor: "Notice that in addition to lower rates it is "clothing optional"? One more reason I won't be going back."



'Clothing Optional'

The lower rates problem soon sorted itself out of course. I had a decent ceviche at the restaurant — Hip Cuisine — in 2014 and the place did still feel by and large routinely chic and understated, yet has seemingly now become just another overcrowded beach hub, blaring out thumpingly loud deep house music into the troposphere in a vain effort to drown out the similarly ghastly rackets emitted by its neighbours. 



I suppose Om Tulum threw in the towel once the very notion of being able to 🧘‍♂️ on this beach became preposterous.