Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Nervous German

This is a time of year that often finds us lugging Christmas across the Yucatán. Last year, almost immediately after the bus pulled out of the terminal in Playa del Carmen we were interrogated by a foul-breathed and palpably frightened German backpacker, who had decided that he might want to explore the lands south of Mexico but knew only enough about them to set his pulse racing.

Obviously what we had to say was far from reassuring because he was soon scrambling up to the front of the bus to ask the driver to stop and allow him to get off in the middle of the peninsula's toasted (and largely uninhabited) scrub. This would have frightened me!

Resigned to reaching the border at Chetumal he went back to his seat behind us, but periodically leaned over my head to voice his trepidations and shower us with cold sweat.

He was visibly afraid of many things, but the thing that ultimately seemed to spook him more than anything else was the sheer quantity of luggage we were transporting with us. Providing him with deliberately vague explanations for this seemed like good sport at the time.

On arrival in Chetumal V negotiated a deal with a mini-van driver who would take us (and all our bags) as far as the Belize-Guatemala border for a remarkably reasonable fee − provided that we recruited a small group of fellow travellers to come with us as far as Belize City. This proved no major challenge for V and within the hour we had assembled a young Dutch law student, an Anglo-Indian solicitor (both bound for scuba adventures on the cayes), a deranged and loudly Islamophobic old Frenchman heading for Dandriga and our permanently cold-footed Kroutish friend.

Granted it wasn't the sturdiest of vehicles, yet all but he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of the adventure ahead. I was the last to board and as I opened the door and slung in my heaviest bag there was a screech and the German disembarked in the instant, as if afraid that the door might shut again. We last saw him scuttling back towards the terminal, presumably to catch the next bus back to Cancun.

He might have been reassured by the landscape of northern Belize − undoubtedly one of the most well-manicured in all of Central America. The solictor had planned to fly to Caye Caulker from Corozal, but one look at the aeroplane awaiting him on the grass strip there and he cheerfully rejoined our company for the rest of the ride.

When we left smeggy old Belize City behind us and started to drive towards a sanguine sun setting behind the Maya Mountains, there was just the two of us: the driver and rather of lot of luggage left onboard. Although a card-carrying Mexican now, he had once been a chapin (Guatemalan) he reassured us. Soon he was questioning the logic of us stopping overnight in San Ignacio before crossing into Guatemala the next day: he himself had to carry on to Flores on Lake Petén Itzá − why didn't we come along with him and connect with one of the "first class" overnight services from Flores down to Guatemala City?

Prior to this one, the scariest roadtrip I had ever experienced was on that very same road through the dusky rainforest back in 1988. Much younger and with only two weeks' experience of the developing world behind me (and absolutely none of war zones), this solo jaunt into Guatemala really was a ride into the unknown. The first serious novelty was having an AK-47 pointed at me by a jittery-looking teenager as everybody on the bus was made to get down and present their papers. To this day I'm not sure if this rude interuption was staged by the army or the guerrillas, but as a foreigner I was ultimately of little interest to either.

V on the other hand, had never done this particular ride. Her working (and quite incorrect) assumption was that the road on the Guatemalan side of the border would be much the same as the British-made one on the Belizean side. And the idea of saving a whole day appealed to her. So I was overruled, but allowed to stop at a Chinese supermarket in San Ignacio to get some Durley's Parrot aged rum. The driver even loaned us some local currency for this.

Darkness enveloped us as the mini-van shuddered slowly along this deeply rutted highway. Occasionally you could see the light of a candle glowing amidst the trees on either side of us. In terms of palour and general agitation V now resembled our German chum, whose earlier nervousness looked in hindsight like an well-honed instinct for self-preservation.

V decided to make cheerful conversation with the driver. He clearly had a gun stashed away under the passenger-side dashboard, and repeatedly reached out to touch it. Suddenly the glare of fast-approaching headlights appeared in his mirror. "Don't worry," he said, "It's probably just my boss. He's angry because I'm late."

V shot me an "I'm so sorry!" look and prepared for the worst. We were overtaken by a big white SUV, possibly a Chevy Blazer. It pulled in front of us and stopped and our own driver followed suit. A stocky, lighter-skinned man with a pistol at his waist got down from the SUV and climbed into our mini-van pushing the driver over to the passenger side. At no stage did he acknowledge our presence. The two men started to argue noisily as the newcomer took over at the wheel and started to follow the other vehicle. V still looked like the German, but he had never quite lost the power of speech.

Lacking in basic social skills he might have been, but el jefe turned out to be the same sort of unusually obliging and unencroaching sort of individual as his now chastised employee, and his earlier anger appeared to derive from the latter's inability to keep up with him (time had been wasted in the Belizean "duty-free" zone) which had undermined their habitual convoy approach to the jungle crossing. We were driven to Santa Elena (near the causeway across to Flores) and we had one last moment of uncertainty when they drove us into a compound with a corrugated iron gate which was slammed shut and locked behind us by two men that had clearly been warned of our arrival. This turned out to be just another measure for our own security.

We and our bags were then transfered to another, smaller bus and taken to the muddy thoroughfare from where the overnight coaches set off for the capital. Sadly there were no "first class" services left at this hour. As we had used up the last of our cash settling up with 'shotgun tours' I had to wander off in search of an ATM. The first one I found was actually just a collection of wires sticking out of a hole in the ground: the entire machine had been wrenched from its location in a small booth off the street. Fortunately the next one was still hanging in there.

As is normal on these "second class" services the ayudante had sold a number of numbered tickets himself, so departure was delayed whilst passengers that had bona fide tickets bought at the office (ourselves included) squabbled with the interlopers. In the end I finished up right at the front in the ayudante's own seat (the guy from the office insisted), with V a few rows behind surroudned by tropical snorers. All the losers in the seat war were positioned on white plastic stools along the aisle. I drifted in and out of sleep listening to the amusing chatter between the driver and the ayudante, who bantered hard to keep themselves conscious for the next six hours.

Later, having safely arrived in Antigua with all our gear, we learned that V's brother Oscar had been in a mini-van in Petén the week before which had been sprayed with bullets as it tried to flee a roadblock set up by forest bandits.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Decision Support

I read in the New Scientist last week how the makers of mass cinema entertainment now have a new software "decision aid" that seems remarkably capable of predicting which movies will bust blocks and which ones will bust studios and careers. All you have to do is feed an artificial neural net with information relating to the following seven parameters:

  • The star value of the cast
  • The age rating of the film
  • The time of release relative to competing features
  • The quantity of special effects
  • Whether or not the film is a sequel
  • And the number of screens it will open in.
Sadly (for screenwriters at least) it is very accurate. It has been correct to one category either side 75% of the time. (It has a 35% success rate in predicting a specific category result.)

Panzita Verde

The English climate has not deterred V from experimenting with the cultivation of aguacates (avocado plants).

This can be achieved by spearing the upper dome of the stone with halved cocktail sticks and then suspending it, flat side down, in a tumbler of water. We now have a little row of these rather alien-looking contrivances on our bedroon window sill. The first couple of weeks' immersement were unpromising, but now each of the stones has stretched a thick white root (rather like a mouse tail) down towards the base of the glass and one even has a fragile green shoot emerging from the widening vertical crack down its middle.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


An adjective that is likely to crop up in connection with blogs sometime soon, if it hasn't already.

Assortative networks are those where similar nodes are more well-connected to each other than dissimilar ones − and one aspect of this similarity may itself be well-connectedness.

Nature published an article this week which threw some light on the peculiar professional ties between rap artists. Although a milieux noted for its collaborative nature, there are fewer collaborations between the most connected artists compared to other musical genres (and other celebrity subcultures such as Hollywood). This is perhaps a sign of intense commercial rivalry tinted with gangland mores.

That one creative group within our culture is more or less assortative than another is possibly not that interesting in itself, but combine this metric with others and a whole field of interesting investigations opens up:
  • Are more assortative artists creatively and commercially more successful?
  • How much of their creative ouput derives from connectivity as opposed to what they could have achieved on their own?

Maya Mural

Another major find from the dig at San Bartolo (Petén) − a 9m x 1m mural said to date back to 100BC which depicts the establishment of the physical world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Count of Monte Cristo

There have been an awful lot of movie adaptations of the novels of Alexandre Dumas, and this is certainly not the most awful of them all.

It cares as much − or possibly even less − for historical realism as Pirates of the Caribbean. That director Kevin Reynolds had a hand in movies like Red Dawn, Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves should remind us that he isn't accustomed to adding much depth to his material.

James Caveziel returns to his stock role as charismatic otherworldly innocent, but this time learns the eighteenth century equivalent of Kung Fu from the Abbé Faria (Richard Harris) whose head appears one day through the tiles in the floor of Edmond's cell in the Chateau d'If.

In terms of pacing and structure it's rather like an Italian opera − except without the music to amplify your emotional responses. As a boy I used to watch a cartoon version of this yarn, but had forgotten enough of the synopsis to make this an entertaining enough way of becoming reacquainted with it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

World Mayor

Our neighbour Álvaro Arzú, ('el canche') has come third in the World Mayor contest, behind the first citizens of Athens and Toronto − a feat which may entitle him to claim the title of Latin America's premier city boss. Mayor before he was Guatemala's President from '96-2000, Arzú stood again for his old job in 2004.

The task he faces in Guate may appear immense, but he's likely to have less of that running up the down escalator sensation than his former political ally President Oscar Berger.

75% of the norteamericanos' marching powder may pass through Guatemala, but 10% of all cocaine that arrives there stays: the narcos are keen to sow local usage by paying their contacts in Guatemala in drugs rather than cash.

High-level lawlessness became the norm under Berger's now fugitive predecessor Alfonso Portillo, and organised criminals have now not only penetrated almost every institution, they have set up a parallel state similar to the one that emerged in Colombia back in the '80s: traffickers offer loans, host parties and help with funeral expenses.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

In a very brief visit to Kigali in 1998 (which did not extend beyond the airport) President Clinton described the mass killings in Rwanda four years earlier as "the most intensive slaughter in this blood-filled century we are about to leave." (Philip Gourevitch has estimated that Tutsis were dying at an average rate of 333 an hour during the summer months of massacre back in 1994. )

"In such countries genocide is not too important", Francois Mitterand had earlier observed; his government had consistently supported the Hutu Power dictatorship. Yet for those of us at a safe distance from it, the lasting importance of this most intensive of slaughters remains the set of lessons that it can teach us about individual (and international) accountability and blame.

The first challenge is to understand how this particularly virulent variety of identity politics evolved in the first place. In Terry George's Hotel Rwanda there's a bar conversation in which a local man informs a foreign journalist that the Belgians purposefully engineered two distinct tribes in the colony based on prvailing notions of racial morphology. This is at best a radical simplification of the historical background.

Before reading Phillip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families the best account I had read was Kapuscinski's. The Polish journalist's take on the context could be summarised thus:

  • Unlike every other African state there is hardly any genuine ethnic diversity in Rwanda. In fact, there is just one tribe, the Banyarwanda, which is split into two social castes, known historically as the Hutu and the Tutsi
  • After independence the Belgians sponsored a regime which to them looked progressive because it overturned the old Tutsi-dominated feudal system, but was in fact a wobbly and paranoid Hutu-dominated dictatorship that eventually sought a final solution to its post-colonial difficulties.

Gourevitch's version is similar but more complete in terms of detail during each key period:

  • There were once two separate peoples in pre-colonial Rwanda: a stocky Bantu people from the south (Hutu) and a lanky Nilotic people from the north (Tutsi). The original inhabitants of this mountainous little country were cave-dwelling pigmies called the Twa that now account for just 1% of the population
  • Whatever ethnic distinctions that originally existed were soon diluted to the point of meaninglessness as Hutu and Tutsi intermarried and came to share the same language
  • The distinction evolved into a largely sociological one: identifying the place of each individual in the feudal state
  • When Africa was carved up in Berlin in 1885 the borders of Rwanda, unlike many of the other colonies, essentially preserved the pre-colonial socio-political realities
  • European racial science incorporated a body of ideas known as the Hamitic myth (based on the story of Noah's son Ham) which appeared to justify the enslavement of darker Sub-Saharan peoples and in this instance the right of the Tutsis to lord it over the Hutus
  • When the Belgians introduced ethnic identity cards in 1933 mobility between the two groups effectively ceased
  • By then many of the colonists had started to favour the Hutus whose political subjugation to the minority Tutsis seemed to echo the fate of the Flemish in Belgium
  • Ethnic animus began to surge in the second half of the twentieth century, especially when rogue intellectuals allied to President Habyarimana's Hutu dictatorship systematically fostered the idea of Hutu supremacy, carefully inverting the Hamitic myth to this end.

As the Tutsi were traditionally herdsmen while the Hutu were poorer cultivators, Gourevitch draws on the biblical myth of Cain and Abel to throw light on this particular fratricide. Yet throughout the book he appears to struggle with the issue of blame; as an American Jew he is acutely aware of the precedents, but clearly finds this instance of mass inhumanity rather harder to pin down.

For a start there's no obvious prime instigator in the Hitler or Pol Pot mould. Into that gap step aggregate culprits - Hutu supremecist broadcasters, cynical neocolonialists, and slightly more tenuously, the 'international community' and of course, the French. Then there are all the local structural features of Rwandan society: impunity, cronyism, ethncity, feudalism, Hamitism etc. However, cultural factors such as the rise of art and technology have an solid alibi here which might lead us to question the extent of their role leading up to the Nazi Holocaust.

Gourevitch also describes how the rural populations in Rwanda run a kind of swarm-attack neighbourhood watch system (something similar operates in Alotenango near our home in Guatemala) and speculates whether the unthinking communal response to the order to "do your work" was in some senses an inversion of this social mechanism.

"If everybody is implicated, then implication becomes meaningless" Gourevitch admits, whilst insisting that those that planned the genocide intended it to appear planless − a spontaneous popular response to the President's assassination − and worked hard in the months afterwards to further desensitise those outside observers already inclined to view it as indistinguishable from the general messiness of African tribal history.

Hotel Rwanda shows us the actions of one man who joined the ranks of the righteous by dent of denying the imperative so many other Hutus chose to obey. Like Oscar Schindler Paul Rusesabagina carried an admission card to the camp of the perpetrators, and was in his professional life a similar wheeler-dealer that stored up favours with a nexus of petty bribes.

In the end Rusesabagina gave sanctuary to around 1000 Tutsis in the Hotel Mille Collines, some of them wives and family members of the Hutus Power politicians that were leading the killings outside. The hotel manager's bourgeois ordinariness belied what Gourevitch praises as a "rare conscience." It seems that many who participated in the genocide also protected some Tutsis, as if to exonerate themselves for the killings. Survivors have been inclined to blame these individuals more as their actions appear to betray an awareness of the difference between right and wrong that others claim to have lost amidst the pressure to conform.

Rusesabagina's story is made-to-measure for a cinematic narrative about these almost incomprehensible events as it takes place in comparatively civilised isolation from the worst of the carnage, yet clearly imparts the ethical choices available. His character and actions make for an interesting contrast with those of humanitarian groups who flocked to Central Africa in the aftermath and ended up being, in Gourevitch's words, "exploited as caterers to the single largest society of fugitive criminals against humanity ever assembled". $1bn was spent on the Hutu refugee camps in Zaire, a "rump genocidal state" whose occupants (many still terrorised and militarised by Hutu Power thugs) thus enjoyed an equivalent average income of twice that of the remaining occupants of the ravaged country they left behind. Many of the Hutus did eventually return, thus posing a problem that the Germans and the Jews never really had to face on a large scale - post-traumatic cohabitation.

One key piece of luck that Paul Rusesabagina and his dependants benefitted from was the government's oversight in not disconnecting his fax line. In the film we see him calling the head office of his Belgian employers, Sabena, but in fact he made calls direct to the French government, the military outfitters of the Hutu génocidaires. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is Paul's speech to the hotel's guests where he advises them to call up all their foreign friends: "You must tell them what will happen to us... say goodbye. But when you say goodbye, say it as if you are reaching through the phone and holding their hand. Let them know that if they let go of that hand, you will die. We must shame them into sending help."

Sin City

The ciphers of the Western I understand well enough, but the same can't be said for pulp-noir mythology: What exactly are these pastiche retro-futures trying to tell us about contemporary America? It bothered me when I watched Batman Begins and it did so again when I turned to Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

Bizarrely I felt I'd come a step closer to breaking the code when I watched Brian Sewell touring the Senate rooms of Siena last night. The frescoes on the walls depict two alternative visions of civil society: one governed by manifestations of all the virtues, the other presided over by their wicked inversions.

So perhaps these dark modern fantasies betray a pre-modern fear of evil ruling in parallel. They certainly flaunt a very medieval carelessness with anachronism and chronological time.

Sin City grabs your attention and holds it in a powerful grip for about an hour. Thereafter interest steadily slackens. The movie's on-screen style is exhilarating, but ultimately no substitute for good dialogue and storytelling.

In order to give artist Frank Miller co-director status Rodriguez had to resign from the Directors' Guild. He then worked hard to recreate the edits and textures of Miller's graphic novel taking the comic-book physics he explored in the Mariachi series to their logical conclusion. He has also borrowed some of the visual techniques his buddy Quentin Tarantino explored in Kill Bill. (Tarantino guest directed a sequence here with Benicio del Toro and Clive Owen.) It's a film you should see if you are interested in the latest blue-screen wizardry.

As for the pulp-noir dystopia - my own preference is for those that are more obviously shunted into the future such as Blade Runner or the graphic novels of Enki Bilal.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Everything Happens for a Reason

If that little platitude is part of your cosmological outlook then calamitous events like the Boxing Day tsunami should force you to scrutinise it quite closely.

Last night BBC1 aired a stunning documentary by Kevin Sim on the great wave and its aftermath: Tsunami:7 Hours on Boxing Day. Sim gently pushed a rather interesting notion: that animists encode the behaviour of Nature rather better than monotheists.

The last hundred or so indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands were expected to have been wiped out by the wave, but in the end not a single one perished. Spotting the sudden retreat of the tide and interpreting it as a tilt in the relationship between land and sea, they immediately anticipated a violent return of the wet element and headed inland for cover. Less 'primitive' settlers on the islands were less fortunate. Indeed across the region observant Hindus, Muslims and Christians all struggled to comprehend the enormity of the disaster as it occurred and tended to internalise its meaning afterwards as part of a narrative of moral castigation.

One of the most striking images in the whole film was a little dog sitting, gaze-down, in a pile of debris. The animal was so obviously depressed that it made you wonder how canine consciousness deals with such devastation and loss.

For me one of the big lessons from 9-11, 7-7 and the tsunami is that if your morning starts with something unusually bad happening, always assume that things are going to get a lot worse: don't be one of the people that get taken out by the second plane/wave or hop on the bus to get away from the Tube bombers.

It was a bit of an accident that prevented us from going to Thailand last Christmas. I had found what I thought was a good deal on a last minute flight to Bangkok, but V insisted that I allow her to spend a morning calling up some of the agencies she'd used in the past in order to see if she could better it. One of these was Journey Latin America, who duly informed her that they only handle westbound flights. Rather than acknowledging the error and hanging up, V decided to check what it would cost us to go back to Guatemala for Christmas, something that until that moment she had vehemently opposed. That's how we ended up spending Boxing Day in Antigua and not somewhere in the path of the tsunami.

It killed 227, 000 people - roughly a quarter of the death-toll of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which will be the topic of a future post.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Without a Trace

Sin Dejar Huella (2000) is a watchable Mexican road movie about two young women with very different backgrounds driving south away from testosterone trouble up in Chihuahua. (Comparisons with both Thelma and Louise and the vastly better Y Tu Mamá Tambien are inevitable.)

There's more tension in their relationship than in any of the scenes of flight and pursuit. The more unlikely member of the duo is a con-woman played by fey Spanish-Italian beauty Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, who at the time was President of the Spanish Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The movie won the Latin American Cinema award at the Sundance festival in 2001, but the principal pleasure of viewing this feminist non-thriller comes from the moving Mexican scenery and three spectacular locations: a colonial hotel in Ticul, a grand old Yucatecan hacienda and a perfectly formed cenote.

Friday, December 02, 2005


Last weekend V and I chatted about how technology has become increasingly embedded in the lives of children. Whilst we still think of most of the gizmos in our own lives as tools – to be used and discarded according to need – it seems to us that for many teens and pre-teens they are becoming more like clothes: something it's hard to imagine carrying on daily life without.

Kurzweil and others speak of the coming singularity, the moment when human-computer interface has become so intimate that tool and user are in a sense one super organism. This pre-destined merger of human and machine intelligence is tending towards a point of transcendence that Kurzweil forecasts for the middle of the twenty-first century. Along the way he might speak of a cure for global poverty, but what he is really on about is a cure for the human condition – and the particular human in question is clearly Ray Kurzweil.

This notion of transhumanity is dangerously detached from humanism and exposes the key fault lines in futurist thinking. Alarm bells ring every time I hear someone naively express the view that technology in itself is neutral: "It's the uses it's put to that determine the ethical implications.." (Even Richard Dawkins prefers to argue that it's Science that is neutral, whilst technology begins once the Science is applied.) If it was, it would be one of the few areas of our culture that could be thus kept so neatly separate from the minds of those that imagined it.

V and I have both grown up with computers and other technological tools and she in particular has a knack for rapidly scouting out the new possibilities offered by each as it emerges. But she also has a keen sense of what is lost (as I learned when she wholeheartedly rejected the concept of in-car sat nav) and that is something that younger people who have never fully experienced the 'problem' without the technological solution will increasingly find it hard to form an objective view on.

As today's parents rush to bring up lots of little transhumans (because intimacy with technology is seen as a marker of potential), they might give some thought to nurturing that part of their children's imagination you might call their inner luddite. Not to the point of actual gizmophobia, just suitably sceptical about Kurzweil-style techno-narcisistic over-enthusiasm.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Content Hydraulics

The most positive thing Lynne Truss says about digitial media in Eats, Shoots & Leaves is that the key virtues of the Internet is that it is "not controlled by anyone, cannot be used as an instrument of oppression and is endlessly inclusive."

Doc Searls has served up a far less optimistic vision of the Net's future his long essay for the Linux Journal: there's a battle on between those that think of the Net as a place and those that think of it as a latticework of pipes - the latter largely the pipe-owners themselves: the telcos. Thanks to them broadband already tends to mean a band that is rarely equally broad at both ends, favouring download over upload. Of course, the noisy arrival of blogs seems to herald a new wave of democratisation, but Searls predicts that pricing structures will favour the kind of CGM that allows consumers to convince others to buy stuff: "The Net will remain two-way to the extent that it fuels the market."

In such an environment non-consumerist use of the pipes would be regarded as vaguely deviant - like amateur short-wave radio according to Ben Vershbow on If:Book. He reproduces a fascinating gobbet of thought from Bertolt Brecht from back in 1932:

"The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. "

A commenter on that post points out however that Brecht's two-way radio might have been a non-starter because, as Marshall McLuhan later noted, users of voice-centric channels end up paying too much attention to picking up the incoming information and not enough to digesting it through thought. (Participatory Radio also has a questionable record politically - such as during the Rwandan genocide.)

With blogs the time involved in both the supply and demand sides of the experience are fairly comparable. The same can't really be said of podcasts, which are inherently less linky and easy to annotate. In spite of their low-load nature, blogs probably remain the best way to keep open the upload aperture at our end of the pipe.

Da Vinci De-Coded

FIVE aired an entertainingly trashy documentary about The Da Vinci Code last night, created primarily it would seem, to give viewers the cathartic pleasure of watching Brian Sewell say "apoplectic" just before the end credits.

I wonder how apoplectic he was when the Italianate frescoes he painted on the ceiling of Manzi's restaurant in the Docklands were painted over by vulgar tradesmen when the joint became a Spanish tapas bar?

Another high point in last night's programme was watching Sewell explain why Leonardo made the figure of St John (at Jesus' right in The Last Supper) so feminine that Dan Brown has been able to suggest that it is in fact Mary Magdalene.

"Because he was queer."

Aside from Sewell the other experts interviewed were a bogus bunch. One "historian" looked so much like a dot com Sales Director from '99 that he had to be filmed in the library of some kind of Gentlemen's club in order to paste on the missing aura of authority.

There was a power cut on the island last night, just as I was approaching the pier. I turned to look out of the boat's window and discovered that the north bank of the Thames had vanished. For a moment I suspected some sort of rogue fog bank, but then I detected the sharp outline of my own block and then the flicker of candle-light in one or two of the windows below. By the time I had disembarked the lights on the river walkway were on again, and the narrow lanes and driveways behind it echoed to the eerie call of almost all the household burglar alarms in E14.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Old Plonk

"Freshness is...a critical factor of wine quality, particularly in white," asserts the Stormhoek blog.

So my tongue was cowering at the back of my mouth when V opened a 30-year-old bottle of Navarra last Saturday, a mere cosecha - Señorio de Sarria, 1975. (Viña del Perdon)

I had picked up the bottle in a musty old wine merchant in the Huertas district of Madrid some three years ago, mainly as a curiosity, but also because the label sported the name of one of our favourite old towns in the north: Puente la Reina. I did however exchange emails with the vineyard afterwards, and was duly reassured that it would still be quoffable once uncorked.

Screwtops were unheard of back then. Ditto synthetic corks - which is a pity because this one had no intention of coming out in one tug.

Freshness was certainly not one of this wine's main attributes. In colour it was almost port-like; unusually for a tempranillo. Yet it was nowhere near as unpalatable as it had appeared when first decanted. After a few minutes with its surface exposed to air molecules it began to unfurl some of its antique complexities. The ideal accompaniment in fact for that dish of left-overs forgotten at the back of the fridge.

Alternatively a nice bottle of ripe LiDL's Navarra costs just £2.99, but offers no Alhambra-like prism for those meditations on mortality and the inevitable decrepitude of bliss.


Amongst the other fast-eroding buffer zones in the Internet age are those between white and blue collar, literati and illiterati and the skilled and unskilled in the workforce.

Indeed the government tells us that quite soon there won't be any employment opportunities available for unskilled individuals. As our education system is unlikely to improve at the same pace as technology, we can look forward to a era of mass-fudging.

People that went to grammar schools appear to find the intrusion by patently incompetent writers into the world of written communication particularly irritating, hinting at the end of civilisation as we know it. In days gone by the verbally-untalented were out of sight and out of mind (and importantly, out of print). Today of course many are proud PC owners with jobs to do and opinions to share. We should not however assume that their collective impact on our culture will be one of decadence. Conventions and formal styles do decay, but often enough new forms emerge to suit the new conditions, thereby forestalling chaos.

Thanks to the Real Academia and a half-century of fascist dictatorship, Castellano has been standadised as right proper Spanish. The broadcast media have had the same effect across the old world - standardisation. The new media on the other hand are allowing regional (or niche) variation to get some traction again. In Spain spelling is an aspect of identity politics, so the kind of abbreviations used in text messaging or chat rooms reflect not only the need to minimise the intricate finger gymnastics, but also the desire to express local sensibility and 'accent' through the medium of electronic text.

In contrast the anglophonic are unusually obsessed with correct form, something that may even be holding us back culturally. Peter Carey may have won the Booker prize a few years ago with a minimally-punctuated novel, but I'd wager that most of this year's entries were written and proofed according to accepted usage in this country. Yet pick up the last-translated works of Nobel Prize winners José Saramago and Gabriel García Márquez (The Double and Memories of my Melancholy Whores) and you will quickly have a sense of what we might be missing out on.

How very British Adam Mars Jones was in his criticism of The Double:

"The sentences may not always be long, but the paragraphs certainly are. A large minority of pages contain no paragraph breaks. Any visual relief that might be provided by dialogue is denied by the device of embedding it in the prose, with only a capital letter to denote shift of speaker. The reader hungers for the piquancy of a single inverted comma...The accelerated pace of speech within the prose format make the eye stumble. Overall, the physical experience of reading The Double is of living in a house without windows."


Monday, November 28, 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The buffer zone between the cultures of print and spoken language is contracting fast, and for me that's more of a good thing than a bad one.

An obvious consequence of this development is that any zero tolerance approach to punctuation is going to have a torrid time of it trying to sort out digital media that show little respect for the geographical boundaries of convention. (Maybe half of the copy that I read on-screen places the full stop inside the closing pair of double quotes, whilst the other half insists on locating it just outside. Yet I'm damned if I ever notice as there's usually little danger of miscontruing the meaning of the text. )

Lynne Truss explains that apostrophe means "turning away" in ancient Greek, and that was to have been my response to her book, left unread on my bookshelf since its arrival on Santa's sleigh a couple of years ago. Then I found out what an excellent job she has done of winding up the transatlantic sticklers - especially the staff of the New Yorker.

"An English woman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces", whined Louis Menand in that most punctilious of publications.

What really bugs him though is that Truss's little book made it unchanged to the top of the US best-sellers list, "a typesetting convenience that makes the book virtually useless for American readers", in the instructive sense at least.

They may know how and when to season their printed text with semicolons, but how many Americans of your acquaintance can do proper joined-up handwriting?

Most of my Guatemalan correspondents have yet to discover the joys of punctuation, but caligraphy is something that is drilled into them at school. Many of a certain age have also learned to type - on typewriters - so when they send emails they judiciously indent their paragraphs out of habit.

I'm halfway through Truss's polemic and have unexpectedly warmed to her waspish sticklerishness. I may even entertain the hope that this year's stocking includes her latest rant in full charicature, Talk to the Hand. Misanthropy is clearly an ideal way for the middle-aged to keep the fires of youthful rebellion alive.

Land Grab

One under-reported aspect of the aftermath of Hurricane Stan is that Guatemala has become a little bit bigger at the expense of Mexico thanks to the re-routing by floods of the Suchiate river.

Ok, we're talking about a couple of hectares here and there, but for farmers in Chiapas who now find that half of their terrenos lie on the other side of the border, this looks like major grounds for a gripe. Still, chapines will snigger a bit, then recall that the Mexicans relieved them of the entire state of Chiapas in three separate land grabs perpetrated in the 19th century.

Batman Begins

Read any review of the new Harry Potter film and you'll pick up on the notion that "darkness" has the power to confer dignity on adolescent fantasy, thereby making it more worthy of adult attention.

Christofer Nolan (Memento, Insomia) took on the task of re-setting and re-darkening the Batman franchise and the result is very successful. There's quite a mish-mash of often unnerving American politics bubbling away under the surface, but it's best just to ignore them and enjoy the ride.

Nolan has successfully re-overcast the Batman myth here in more ways than one - there are enough famous thesps (and material ) to populate two or three films. The director has narrowly avoided biting off more than he can chew.

Bale has bulked up considerably since The Machinist, and delivers a good performance with echoes of his rendition of the self-loathing yuppy Patrick Bateman in American Pyscho. The influence of Zhang Yimou and his new wave Chinese martial arts movies is also apparent.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Silly, but somehow not quite silly enough − you keep getting tantalising glimpses of a better, might-have-been movie peaking through; along with mouth-watering vistas of desert dryness, worthy of the Michael Palin televised trek of the same name.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment in Sahara's most Bond-like moments that the baddies are going to wreck the planet more out of incompetence than because they have some secret master plan for a new world order. Good to see that Lambert Wilson isn't afraid of typecasting, as the Americans seem to like their villains French these days.

Peter Bradshaw obviously isn't a huge fan of the film's star: "Once again, Matthew McConaughey proves that he is modern cinema's Mr Zero Charisma. He is the celluloid equivalent of Rohypnol: a deadening whiff of pure boredom that deprives you of the power to think, speak or move your limbs. It wears off after a few hours, leaving you face-down in a stagnant pool of vanilla Diet Coke."

Penelope Cruz is slight in every respect here. Her days as a Hollywood starlet must surely be numbered, especially now that her little niche has been invaded by compatriot Paz Vega who will star alongside Antonio Banderas in the forthcoming Emperor Hadrian biopic.

Anyway, I found it all quite entertaining. Not one for the DVD library though.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Guatemala has been getting quite a mixed bag of coverage for the past couple of months. It attracted a lot of sympathy as a victim of Hurrican Stan and aid agencies have warned that some rural communities lost all their crops and are in danger of starvation this winter. (And Amnesty continues to bang on about the femicides.)

On the other hand the presence in the Petén of yanqui television in the form of Survivor has been used as a platform for a PR story by INGUAT (the local tourism authority) that advises potential (and gullible) visitors that "Guatemala has shed its bloodstained reputation."

But this week the term "mini-Colombia" has cropped up, referring to the Castillo arrest and the belief amongst DEA officials that Guatemala lacks the necessary legal framework for combatting the country's drugs syndicates that collectively handle 75% of the cocaine that ends up in the United States.

V once told me how the manager of el Sindal, the Nestlé plant we pass driving into Antigua, was caught trying to smuggle Bolivian marching powder in the baby milk formula! But the unique challenge for the DEA in this country is the role of the military. Whereas in other Latin American states their role as a supporter of the traffickers is well-established, in Guatemala army officers and former army officers actually appear to be running the show themselves.

It's hard to feel that sorry for the gringos because to a great extent they engineered this long-term problem for themselves from the moment they sponsored the coup that brought down the legitimate government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in June 1954. When the thirty-year civil war this sparked finally burned itself out, many of the generals associated with genocide were pensioned off in a bid to make the military look a bit cleaner.

Two of these, Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas and Francisco Ortega Menaldo, are former intelligence chiefs with very bloody hands that once out in civvy street set up "la cofradía" ("the brotherhood") an elite club that manages the interface between organised crime and the serving military. This might explain why 30 or so of the massacre-prone paratroopers known as the Kaibiles recently headed pa'l norte in order to link up with Mexico's renegade commandos the Zetas.

The connections of these entrepreneurial soldiers are not limited to Central American political institutions. Jerry Weller III, current vice-chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee (Rep, Illinois) is married to Zury Ríos Sosa, daughter of one time coup-leader General Efrain Ríos Montt. He was the power behind the regime of fugitive former President Alfonso Portillo, which introduced legislation removing civilian oversight of the military in matters of criminal justice. The Portillo government was struck off the list of US anti-narcotics allies. (Oscar Berger has since managed to get them reinstated.)

For some time the DEA has shown signs that it has largely given up hope of fighting the traffickers in situ. The Adan Castillo arrest was achieved only after he was lured to the US on for a DEA training exercise. In other cases containment has been the rule - a former air force commander, Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio had his US visa revoked by the Clinton adminstration.

When a huge stash of incriminating police records covering a diverse range of matters from parking violations to spy logs and interrogation records turned up in a munitions depot last summer, ten years after the end of the civil war, there was widespread surprise that nobody had bothered to destroy them. Heriberto Cifuentes, a Guatemalan historian explained the oversight: "Whether there are documents or not, people responsible for crimes do not expect to pay for them."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Underground London

I always wanted to know what went on in that disused tram tunnel in Kingsway...

That and many other facts are are the stuffing of Stephen Smith's Underground London, a book that has left me feeling that I spend my days patrolling the capital's mezzanine floor. It has been written in the ephemeral style of the newspaper journalist, with amiable, self-deprecating humour, rather like a soft-pedalling Tim Moore.

Like myself, Smith can trace his childhood ambivalence towards subterranean spaces to the Moorgate tube crash of 1975 in which 43 people died.

He also recalls the Hole in the Wall pub on the platform at Sloane Square (last orders in 1985) which features in Vile Bodies and mentions the big metal pipe which still traverses the station above the platforms - the long lost river Westbourne.

He visits the silver market and vaults in Chancery Lane, beneath a building in which my company's accounts department were briefly exiled in the 90s. He finds that the people that try to brighten their lives with "costly, shiny, pointless stuff" are more obviously melancholic than the cheery-cheeked folk down in the cellars of Berry Brothers & Rudd, who regularly participate in the "drawing room farce of wine appreciation."

He hangs out with some corpse lifters at the church of St Andrew's located next to the glass-house fronting of the Sainsbury's HQ close to Holborn Viaduct which spans the valley of the hidden river Fleet. This house of God once sat proud and alone atop 'Heavy Hill', down which early modern ASBO types used to roll old ladies in barrels.

He joins the monomathematical society known as Subterranea Britannica and at one of their gatherings listens to a keynote speech by Duncan Campbell, the journalist who one evening back in 1980 managed to get himself (and a bicycle) through a manhole cover near Bishopsgate and proceeded to tour the hushest of the hush - the 20+ miles of tunnels that link up the ministeries with other underground government control centres. Smith discovers that the biggest barrier to composing a guide to this secret complex is that there are basically two types of people: "Those who enter the government labyrinth and don't write about it, and those who write about it but don't enter it".

He warns us that the Thames Barrier is being raised in anger ever more frequently these days, and that there are forty effluent overspills from the sewers into the river each year. He recounts how a major flood back in 1236 resulted in the use of rowing boats inside Westminster Hall.

There are plenty of other fascinating facts to soak up here. Here's my own annotated list of the more memorable:

  • Oysters were a poor man's dinner up to and including Dickensian times.
  • Battersea park can get seriously whiffy because there's a major sewer directly beneath it.
  • If you step on a dead rat it "goes off like a Chicken Kiev". Dead bodies also tend to explode in their coffins.
  • Nelson's body was preserved in brandy. Some explosion that would have been.
  • Calls for Inspector Sands on the PA system are London Transport's way of announcing an emergency to station staff without creating passenger panic in the tunnels.
  • The gunpowder laid down by Guy Fawkes would have blown up the Palace of Westminster 25 times over. It would also have taken out the Abbey and most of Whitehall.
  • Mount Pleasant was given it's name by someone with a sarcastic bent- unlike Guatemala's El Progreso and France's Nice where the irony was clearly unintentional.
  • Houndsditch meanwhile was the place all the dead doggies ended up. Kentish Town? Let's not go there.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Isola: Multiple Personality Girl

During V's first year in the UK back in 1990 she met a number of Japanese students of English. One of these was a stiffly polite young man who told us that it was his ambition to become one of his country's leading film directors. We're not sure what became of him and his dream, but if he's found his way into the psychological horror genre, he's sure to be making movies with some of the following ingredients:

  • An absurdly pretty female lead investigating some sort of curse
  • Plenty of schoolgirls in uniform with short, pleated skirts
  • Heavy rain
  • Muji-coloured muted interiors
  • A spook having a bad hair day from hell

Isola has something uniquely its own, the Kobe earthquake, but then it also has all of the other elements thrown in too, as if it was seeking to attain originality through a species of meta-cribbing.

Here the absurdly pretty lead is Yukari, an aid worker in Kobe after the quake that has some personal identity issues and is able to read the minds of others. But her mystery quickly fuses with that of troubled adolescent Chihiro, a schoolgirl alt-tabbing through 13 personalities, the last of which, Isola, is over-sensitive to say the least.

Looks like the result of the great quake jumbling together a lot of pages from different putative Japanese pyscho-horror scripts.

Open Water

This is rather like a slow-dawning version of the buried-alive situation Rex finds himself in at the end of The Vanishing (Spoorloos) - just as primal and fucked, but deceptively panoramic.

Even so it takes this pair of unlucky divers a remarkably long time to panic. Seven hours pass before they decide that it might be a good idea to drop their weights. "This can't be normal", observes Susan some time after that as dorsal fins start to break the surface around them.

When they do realise that they are dealing with something a lot more unpropitious than mere grounds for litigation, they talk themselves into a domestic which sounds a note of black humour.

The director Chris Kentis, himself an avid scuba-diver, has opted for the detached yet ultra-realist Dogme-style film-making. It cost less to make than half of the budget of a typical Hollywood blockbuster's sound effects budget.

The subject matter is based on "real events", the 1998 disappearance off Queensland of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, the result of a run-of-the-mill kind of cock-up on their dive boat. (Bit of a spoiler that link - sorry!)

Kentis deserves credit for the way that the pacing, structure and characterisation have been treated in light of the outcome.

Guaranteed to leave you feeling chilled for some time after viewing - and more deeply than standard-format 'horror' movies like Jaws or Blair Witch Project with which it has been compared.

Ebert puts it very well: "The movie is about what a slender thread supports our conviction that our lives have importance and make sense. We need that conviction in order to live at all, and when it is irreversibly taken away from us, what a terrible fate to be left alive to know it."

Friday, November 18, 2005

Time Capsules

What is it with Londoners and defunct tube stations? What makes many of us want to squint through the windows of a Central Line train to see if we can catch a glimpse of the tiled platform of long abandonned British Museum Station or perhaps even its disorientated Egyptian spectre in loincloths.

Surfer even went to a rave in the then recently mothballed Aldwych station. There's said to be a ghost there too - an actress from the theatre demolished to make way for the station that apparently missed her last curtain call.

I guess it's the frisson of the time capsule effect we're seeking in this skin-shedding postmodern world. I found an unusually well-preserved pocket of old time a few years ago when V and I visited my childhood home in Eaton Square. When we moved out at the end of 1985 the Grosvenor estate already had plans to eviscerate the building which had never fully recovered from the German bomb which landed only a few yards away in Hobart Place on top of the poor vicar of St Peter's. They were waiting for each of the remaining tenants to leave, or die. Our neighbour, Lord Boothby, had taken one last swig of gin and climbed in the cab to the great upper chamber in the sky. He was survived by his wife Wanda and her two shitzus, and they weren't budging.

In the end something like twelve years passed. Aware that the door to our flat had hardly been re-opened since the day we locked it behind us I contacted the Estate and asked if I could visit the flat one last time with V before the wreckers and the modernisers moved in.

It turned out to be a bizarre experience. A poster of an astronaut that I had brought back from the Soviet Union had peeled away from the back of my bedroom door exposing the hide-out it had found the day I packed up the rest of my cachivaches. Outside in the corridor we had to step over one of my school plimsoles lying there accusingly, underside-up. All the wallpaper and fittings were the same as when we left, dating back to our last major redecoration at the end of the 70s. There was even a cupboard in the kitchen full of old cans of food.

It's all gone now, gutted and re-filled from the inside with some of the most plushly espensive des-rezzes in the Duke's portfolio. They even built over the old garden (well, yard really) at the rear.

Putting on the Blitz

If a whispy, ethereal being materialised in your living room and offered you an all-expenses-paid return trip to the summer of 1940 in order to experience the Blitz first-hand, would you take it up on its offer?

The Blitz spirit is of course a pivotal part of our national mythology. We've all seen those black and white images of cheerful cockneys sipping tea on the Piccadilly Line platforms whilst 'orrible Fritz did his worst up above.

Yet in Underground London Stephen Smith reminds us that at the start of the German bombing campaign London Transport put up notices expressly forbidding Londoners from using the network as a shelter, and later on still insisted that patrons needed to buy a ticket before descending to relative safety!

At first anyone seen rushing for the nearest station when the sirens rang was braded a Tube Cuthbert. "We are happy to say that majority of offenders are members of alien races" reported the Railway Gazette.

Sanitary conditions in the tunnels were often akin to those in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was whooshing outside - which is why the better off sought shelter at a more exclusive tunnel complex beneath The Savoy.

Cecile Beaton's description of the goings on amongst the regulars down there makes it sound rather like Hitler's bunker in Berlin at the time of the Nazi Götterdämmerung . This debauched little circle ("airmen off duty, tarts on duty") was penetrated on September 15, 1940 when Phil Piratin, a communist and a leading figure in the Stepney Tenants Defence League, led a group of one hundred East Enders into the Savoy shelter.

Of the several disasters that befell the crowds huddled on the platforms during the summer nights of 1940, the worst was caused by a German bomb which bounced down an escalator at Bank, killing 117 people.

It seems that the Tube system has a long history of dubious PR. Colonel John Bell, General Manager of the original Metropolitan line had the unenviable task of putting a positive spin on the world's first underground steam railway. He claimed the acid gas had cured his tonsilitis and that such was the health-enhancing nature of the fumes that Great Portland Street station was being used as a sanitorium for sufferers from asthma and other bronchial complaints.

It's now over four months since I went cold-turkey on the Tube. The other morning I had a look in Victoria Embankment Gardens for the ventilation shafts Sir Joseph Bazalgette constructed to allow the District Line passing below to exhale at intervals. Stephen Smith says they are now disguised as plinths, but none of the those I examined were obviously dissembling.

There's a new book out by Gavin Mortimer - The Longest Night, which explores what it was like to experience the particularly heavy night of bombing on May 10-11, 1940. I've been giving it the eye in Foyles.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Are niches navels?

I snagged on this remark by novelist Paul Auster recently:

"We're not interested in others any more. It's hurt us politically and it's hurt us culturally. We've lost our taste for what I would call 'the exotic'."

Whilst this trend is obvious, especially across the pond, is it not strange that our culture should be becoming more hermetic at precisely the time the Web is said to be stretching our collective tail, a phenomenon John Husband refers to as the "mass customisation of life"?

Perhaps this atomisation of interest is also an inward contraction that impedes the kind of macro-level exchange between civilisations that we've been used to.

In my post on Monday I noted how hard the French have found it very difficult in the information age to construct and propagate meaningful political structures around the idea of Frenchness (or Europeanness), and one reason for this surely has to be the cultural balkanisation that the Internet is fostering.

Where are all the Arabists today to balance out the Islamophobes? Otherness no longer fascinates us, it puts the willies up us - and its more violent exponents of know this and continue to exploit it to our disadvantage.

Is it cos I is Kazakh?

Feeling a little left out of the political correctness loop, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry has threatened legal action against Sascha Baron Cohen who recently presented the MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon as the cow-punching Kazakh link-man Borat. It would be a shame if the courts were to deprive us of such an excellent charicature and one that has served to expose Madonna as "a genuine transvestite" and uncover some of the more unreconstructed attitudes prevalent in our own elite institutions.

Thankfully political correctness is not something the Spanish appear to know too much about. Last night's Ankawa was an old classic, featuring a Chihuahua that suckled on its owner's breasts and sang operatic arias, and a magnificent Andalucian horse that can dance to the beat of a Sevillana.

"To escape and to help others escape"

That was John Fowles' answer to one of those what are your goals in life interrogations.

Escape for Fowles meant isolating himself in Lyme Regis from the "chase-after-success", a fate that didn't entirely suit his first wife Elizabeth. On December 18, 1965 he wrote:

"Living here has become rather like climbing a mountain with a corpse on one's back. Every so often there are compensations: views, moments of happiness. But then the corpse starts complaining, raging ..."

Yet in the soon-to-be-published second volume of his diaries he himself raged against the "sadness, smallness, dampness of England...I am split between writing out of my Englishness and against it."

Fowles seemed to enjoy wading through all the reviews of his novels: "It seems healthier, in a sick culture, to be rejected than approved." and "even the harshest reviewer is never the real enemy."

The real enemies it seems congregated at celebrity parties: "Quite what is so these filmbiz people I don't know; it isn't just their egocentricity, their assumption that one must be successful, that today's and tomorrow's fame must be synonymous - the Egyptian quality in show business. Perhaps it is the constant misuse of language; a treachery both conscious (the eagerness to establish links, relationships, futures at the cost of real personal feelings) and unconscious (a pinchbeck vocabulary) that gives a kind of seething, serpentine quality to such congregations: that of a nest or swarm of beings self-adulatory, warming to one another, and yet fanged in every external reality."


I reported last week how Adan Castillo, Guatemala's leading anti-drugs investigator had tendered his resignation, leaving the fight against the cartels "in God's hands". Poor old Castillo claimed his government post involved a soul-destroying amount of pissing into the wind, and listed enviously the fancy kit available to the individuals he had been tasked to frustrate.

Well guess what? Along with two other officers, Castillo was arrested yesterday in North Virginia and subsequently charged with criminal conspiracy and cocaine smuggling.

Monday, November 14, 2005


The Internet has been the source of a great deal of moral panic since I first started working in the field a decade ago. Up to now I've scoffed at each of the alarmist tocsins as they have sounded, but suddenly find an new one starting to ring in my ears.

Throughout most of Western history possibly the most significant divide in our culture (and especially our political culture) has been that typified by the ancient opposition of Athens and Sparta: the archetypal open and closed societies, the individualist plurality and the enforced collective.

The twentieth century in Europe saw one of the most overt confrontations between the two systems, but in much of history the duel between them has created schismatic antagonisms inside many of our core institutions, such as the Christian church. Studies of bacterial behaviour have shown that some degree of oscillation between the two extremes is fundamental to the way many organic systems respond to changing circumstances.

Now at the start of the twenty-first century the Internet is interfering with this age-old polarity in ways that are already destabilising to the societies we live in.

Many have compared the structure of Al Qaeda to the virtual corporation of the modern globalised economy, observing how well Islamic terror groups have adapted to the wired world. Fewer though have commented on how a networked culture helps to shape the mentality of Al Qaeda's alienated human bombs.

"In an institutional world that lays excessive emphasis on the personal, particular and concrete the abstract finds expression in occasional, extreme eruptions", wrote Andrew Calcutt last week in Spiked. He casts the cultural dispute underlying our current predicament as that between me-centered mainstream society and networked groups of willful outsiders, of a sort we have seen many times before, but given a new anti-Western, anti-imperialist twist by the teachings of radical Islam.

Our so-called scholars of today are content with their Toyotas and semi- detached houses” mocked Mohammad Sidique Khan, the late ringleader of the July 7 attacks. Noting this mood of disenchantment with secular rewards Calcutt is prompted to suggest that "Islam exists in Britain today as a timely form of British popular culture. Indeed, I have observed young British people crossing over from Muslim culture to its Bling-Bling counterpart, and vice versa." He compares our home-grown suicide bombers with Colin MacInnes' Absolute Beginners - they are the absolutist beginners of July 7, comprehensively rejecting the personal in favour of an impersonal ideal, and in the process willingly "un-becoming the non-descript individual they might otherwise be."

Is this really just another, more deadly form of counter-culture?

On the ride home on Friday I chatted with Stefan about La Haine burning brightly every evening just across the channel. I related how when we drove down through France in September the sense of national exhaustion was almost palpable. Stefan confided his own suspicion that the UK is in many ways equally disfunctional, but we just don't know it yet.

Both nations have punched above their weight for a half century. Thanks in part to the "special relationship", Britain is still jabbing away, but France is clearly tiring and has been outscored in the last few rounds. No doubt you could write a monster essay explaining all the causes of this tip into decline, but as this particular post is about the Internet, so I will stick to that line of investigation.

In the case of Spain going online has re-opened the country up to the wider Spanish-speaking world. Unfortunately for the French it has simply revealed to them the sad truth that there isn't much of a global Francophone culture to belong to. For much of the nineties the French political elite banked pretty much everything on the EU, but the technocratic rump of this ideal no longer excites anyone. There's little else for them to do except protect the vieux fort of Frenchness from creeping multicultural mongrelisation - which has meant banishing the supermarkets, furniture stores, Buffalo Grills and African immigrants to the margins behind the ring roads.

Yet it's not just French politicians that have been left without a big project with share-eable values, the problem is clearly more widespread in the West. The response from politcians has generally been to jump on the bandwagon of me-centrism in the hope that home improvement and digital lifestyles might together refine into a new opium for the masses.

Meanwhile the Net continues to short-circuit many of our traditional modes of association. Most commercial enterprises have come to see this as an opportunity. But on a political and cultural level the effects are perhaps more worrying. It allows users to be virtual individuals within any number of different virtual collectives and the old rigid dichotomy of open-closed/individual-collective no longer reigns supreme over our political selfhood. (You might say that the dominant state of mind is neither Me nor Not-I, it's Net-I.)

The suicide terrorist is perhaps the ultimate prophet of this phenomenon, committed to an abstract self-negating collective ideal that rejects the evils of modern consumerism, yet at the same time aspiring to the VIP rewards of martyrdom.

Olivier Roy argued in Gloablised Islam that second or third generation Muslims in Europe tend have a more personal, alienated kind of faith owing to the absence of the social framework typical of a traditional Islamic society. Such a lack (or leakage) of the grounding of shared territorial citizenship is a feature of the netizen mentality that has helped to delegitimise traditional political elites and their agendas. Old-fashioned institutions (whether they are open or closed by inclination) may find it increasingly hard to get any traction with individuals whose minds have formed within the network, and the more disenfranchised in the real world they are, the more likely they are to blur into abstracted rebellion against it.

OBL's nihilistic footsoldiers may represent a long-term weakness for his Jihadist enterprise. After all alienated youth is not the best ingredient for an all-conquering horde or any other kind of mass movement - imagine an army of Pete Doherty's! Still, they have the power to be very destructive, especially whilst the self-consciously trashy world order they oppose remains so convinced that the problem can be fixed in the old-fashioned way.

The Descent

I'm glad I didn't see this in the cinema - I think I may even have screamed at one point!

The premise is as crumbly and hollow as the beastie-infested cave system, but you don't really care. Writer-Director Neil Marshall has gone one better than his Dog Soldiers, which had a lot of promise. This is very much the British horror classic that Creep might have been. For sheer terror it's nearly up there with a first viewing of Alien, though the cast of would-be cadavers were better defined in Ridley Scott's classic.

Marshall has described the movie as "Deliverance goes underground". Amongst other references there's a borrowing of Kubrik's famous helicopter tracking shot from The Shining and the use of a camcorder that reminded me of the The Blair Witch Project.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Another one of Bryan Appleyard's targets last weekend was Horizon.

"This was once a co- production with public television in America, but, as a result of a BBC deal with the Discovery Channel, it has had to go more “mainstream”. Mainstream, in this context, means worse. Americans like action — such as pointless dramatisations — and they like to see what you are talking about, hence more pointless dramatisations. If you don’t lose the will to live and do make it to the end, you will have learnt precisely nothing."

Last week's programme set about telling us how prevailing theories of inheritance have been turned on their head by recent discoveries. There was indeed a fair deal of septic-stirring sensationalism, perhaps not all merited by the starting revelation - an interesting discovery made by Dr Marcus Pembrey of the Gt Ormond Street hospital that children with exactly the same deletion on one of their chromosomes showed the charateristic signs of two entirely different syndromes (Angelman and Prader-Villi)

Yet the key point here is indeed startling - our genetic inheritance is more than the sequenced chemical code of DNA; there's also a supplementary system of meta information that imprints our genes with information about their origins. This extra layer of complexity may explain why we have around 30,000 genes in total, not much more than a house plant. What matters isn't just the map, but which parts of it are tagged as on or off and why.

In the case of Pembrey's children the genome knows whether the deletion came from the mother or the father. The programme further suggested environmental or lifestyle factors that affect us during our own lifetimes can influence the imprinting of the genes of our children: in effect a watered-down version of the inheritance of acquired traits.

I wonder what Richard Dawkins makes of all this. Any kind of meta-genome would certainly shove a major spanner into Selfish Gene theory, at least in its purist form. Other Neo-Darwinists like Daniel Dennet might also sneer at the suggestion that the formulae of evolution operate on multiple, not necessarily complementary levels. Darwin on the other hand would probably have welcomed this partial reconciliation with the discredited Lamarckian model.

In this context The Human Genome Project now looks rather like Deep Thought's first outing - instead of revealing coming up with the answer to end all answers , it revealed a hitherto unanticipated, deeper problem.

The science of epigenetics clearly has a long way to go and this Horizon documentary ended up posing a lot of questions that it didn't even attempt to tackle. Here are a couple:

  • Is the system of imprinting an adaptation, or is as fundamental as DNA itself?
  • Whilst we may keep the same sequence of genes throughout our lives their activity varies greatly during the lifecycle with many changes occuring late on, long after we have had our best chance to pass them on. Does the meta-genome exist to support individual survival or is it also part of another system operating at group level?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

John Fowles

John Fowles' death at 79 was reported yesterday, more copiously across the pond than in his native land.

He was the only English writer on my informal list of the world's most-readable living authors:

Milan Kundera (Czech Republic/France)
Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
Ryszard Kapuściński (Poland)
José Saramago (Portugal)
Haruki Murakami (Japan)
Patrick Süsskind (Germany)
Paul Auster (USA)
Javier Marías (Spain)

Judging from certain other literary lists compiled of late, many would have stretched to find a place for either AS Byatt or Ian McEwan. But I've never read Byatt's Possession and my suspicion is that she is a key member of the literary establishment that Fowles so admirably secluded himself from. As for McEwan, all I have to go by is Atonement, and that over-rated pot-boiler alone wouldn't earn him consideration. Don't get me started on Salman Rushdie.

Kapuściński, a journalist and essayist, is the odd man out, but his literary genius has been recognised at home and abroad.

Atonement is certainly a good read, but in that respect was surely outclassed by Fowles' great trio The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, some of the most rivetting and widely-appealing English novels of the last century, yet also stylistically interesting. Auster is perhaps not such a great prose artist, but his novels have the same sense of stylistic fun and storytelling verve that works by Haruki Murakami and (the early) Vargas Llosa have, and certainly the late lamented John Fowles had.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Somewhat Spainful

The Middle Ages arrived indolently late in Spain and ended up having to pull a bit of an all-nighter. The history of Al-Andalus played a significant role in this peculiar shift, yet a newcomer to the topic would only have been partially enlightened by Channel 4's When the Moors Ruled Europe last Saturday: an odd mix of well-researched, insightful TV history overlaid with a Jackanory narrative.

Presenter Bettany Hughes' recent quest for Helen of Troy was the target of a Sunday rant by Bryan Appleyard: "Television, in common with, if I am to be honest, the rest of the media, is currently making a huge mistake. This mistake is to think that, because large parts of the British population are demonstrably stupid, it is therefore safest to assume that everybody is stupid. This assumption leads genres such as TV history to pursue stupid people with the sort of devices stupid people seem to like. But, of course, stupid people are not going to watch a show on Helen of Troy or the second world war. As a result, non-stupid people are just irritated and baffled to find themselves being shown people getting on trains or blowing things up."

Here there was at least an attempt to try to cram two programmes into one - one for the dummies that enjoy the sense of cleverness they can get from the easy-revisionist approach and one for the sort of people that are comfortable with paradox, juxtaposition and unresolved contradiction. Hughes consistently qualified some of her more simplistic assertions, but hardly ever immediately after making them. She began with the Alhambra, Moorish Spain's signature site, and then shunted backwards and as a result the programme lacked shape and dragged a bit.

Anyway, the more interesting facts that cropped up were these: That the capture of Arab singing girls at Barbastro in 1064 by the father of William IX of Aquitaine, acknowledged as the first troubador, may indicate a major Islamic influence on the Western tradition of romantic love. And that the Duchess of Medina-Sidonia claims to have discovered that her original ancestor, Guzman el Bueno, a hero of the Reconquista was himself a Moor. (Though this one is likely to prove shaky.)

To some extent Hughes was attempting to do for the Moors what Peter Addyman did for the Vikings at Jorvik and what the British Museum is currently trying to do for the Persians - setting the record straight about a particular group who may or may not have had a bad historical press or simply been overlooked. But setting up a stereotype as a piñata to bash is a dangerous business. It's rather like starting your expositon with a premise such as "not all black men are muggers". Consequently the programme had to carefully avoid making any mention of Moorish behaviour that might have conformed to the original boiler plate. So the Caliphate "collapsed in chaos", an event more like a natural catastrophe than the result of the politics of a court that made Byzantium look comparatively genteel.

Spanish Muslims were slipped into a replacement template- "sensuous and intellectually curious"- just the sort of people you can imagine wandering around the proportionally perfect moonlit courtyards of the Alhambra - except that in truth they were a unruly lot that conducted their internal affairs with a mafioso mentality. The record reveals that an early and violent death was very much part of the job description for most of the Nasrid rulers in Granada.

Sometimes we were told that the population of Al Andalus consisted of Iberians that just happened to be Muslims, yet on other occasions they were referred to as Arab. Muslim, Moor and Arab were anyway used pretty interchangeably. Ferdinand and Isabella's eventual expulsion of the remaining practitioners of Islam was described as an "act of ethnic cleansing" yet no mention at all was made of the similarly-exiled Sefardi Jews whose own contribution to the cultural exchange and mini-Renaissance in Toledo was surely also important.

Back in 2003 I suggested that "Al-Andalus had an eclectic culture, not because a tolerant, reasonable, non-purist alternative is embedded in Islam (and waiting to be woken up again) but because medieval Spanish Muslims were sucked up by Aristotle and the Greek intellectual legacy."

Prior to this period the peoples of the Iberian peninsula had managed to maintain the cultural levels of the Roman empire for far long than any other region in the West. Yet as Hughes' points out, the Visigothic kingdom was already wobbly when the Moors ventured across the straights in the eighth century. Their ascendency provided a further opportunity to keep the classical world ticking over, not just culturally, but also economically, based on Mediterranean commerce.

But for better or for worse it was the emerging nations of Northern Europe that eventually won the battle for the legacy of the ancients, perhaps in part because they had appreciated far earlier that it was a legacy and because their civilisation was part of a new global model.

In that earlier blog post I concluded that "in the end the open society of Al-Andalus was not simply the victim of simple minded spear-wielding Latins from the north. It was squeezed to death from both sides, as much a victim of Almohad Quran-bashing righteousness before the Castillians were even within striking range."

The makers of this programme wanted to ensure that the Islamophobes amongst were forced to confront the fact that the history of Moorish Iberia demonstrates fairly conclusively that Muslims too can be culturally sophisticated and innovative , given half a chance. Yet in setting out this argument they unnecessarily belittled both Christian Spain and the West's later transcendence of classical achievement. If you offer one side the chance to step out of their monolithic block you really have to extend the favour to everyone else.

Who's the American Idiot?

John Tierney's editorial in today's New York Times (subscription only) takes issue with Diego Maradonna, the man that for him would most epitomise the perfect 'Latin American idiot' if it wasn't for that Chavez bloke.

"Maradona, born in a shantytown near Buenos Aires, became the world's most famous soccer player in the 1980's after he left Argentina to play for teams in Spain and Italy. Besides collecting his $5 million salary in Europe, he played exhibition games in Arab countries at $325,000 per appearance and made $10 million annually in endorsement contracts with corporations based in at least four continents...And what did he learn from this international rags-to-riches tale? During Bush's visit to Argentina, Maradona took time out from his busy schedule to help rally tens of thousands of people against that horrible modern scourge: free trade. "

Yet Tierney seems utterly oblivious to the delicious irony he unleashes when he quotes the line "Maradona embodies the wonderful possibilities of globalization". Does he know anything at all about the biography of this iconic beneficiary of globalised free trade? Next we'll be proclaiming Kate Moss a role model for the world's poor and debt-ridden!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Forgotten Empire

Christmas has been getting a head start on Autumn these past few years. Most of the leaves used to be down by bonfire night, but last week the plain trees in Soho Square were still obstinately well-clad with predominantly green leaves.

This year we watched the fireworks from the bank of the Thames opposite Woolwich Arsenal (having elected not to venture over to the uncivilised side of the river). The big display there kicked off at 7:30pm unhindered by the downpours forecast earlier. We made it back to the balcony by nine and had another couple of hours of drinking and dancing to a loud reggeton beat before our private panorama of starry skies kindled and re-kindled by exploding bulbs of coloured phosphor.

It certainly felt autumnal when we set off on Sunday to see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia at the British Museum. A few pics here of some of the treasures on show.

Does it deliver on its stated objective to "set the record straight"? Not really. There's not enough insight into the daily life and mentality of the inhabitants of Achaemenid Persia. This was then the largest empire the world had then known - which means that all Alexander of Macedon really had to do to enter the Guinness tablet of records was to append his own comparatively titchy patrimony to it.

To those of us schooled on such matters before the Iranian Revolution there wasn't that much need to set the record straight anyway; we had always appreciated the sophistication of this civilisation, but these days the West feels the need to constantly remind itself of the alternatives it might have trampled on.

I'd forgotten my own misgivings about these Sunday afternoon pastimes. The museum would be well advised to establish a special visiting time just for the buggy brigade, who could then have their own demolition derby in the confined pathways between the exhibits without having to inflict their recent parenthood on the rest of the paying public. Ditto the audioguide zombies, the deodorant-challenged and those old biddies that drag their withered noses along the glass and chatter away as if they were window shopping outside Peter Jones.

Cash Crops

Guatemala's leading anti-narcotics investigator Adan Castillo has announced that he plans to step down in December after just six months in his post, leaving the fight against the 4000 or so traffickers in the country "in God's hands".

Part of the problem is that the narcos aren't keeping their own numbers in check any more by killing each other. As a unified force they have access to resources way in excess of those at the disposal of your typical Central American state. "They have speedboats with up to four motors, modern technology, the most modern communication systems and contacts all over the American Isthmus," Adan moans. "It's easy for them."

Perhaps someone could persuade the Colombians to switch to growing star anise, the price of which has soared tenfold in recent months.

As well as being used in traditional Chinese cooking and in the distilling of pastis these spice trees provide the base ingredient for the production of Tamiflu - shikimic acid. In a notoriously complex, multi-step process this is then turned into expoxide molecule which is then engineered into the bird flu medicine using an explosive chemical called sodium azide, which is also used to inflate vehicle air bags. The difficulty and dangers of manufacture, coupled with the fact that the Chinese have a finite amount of star anise are amongst the reasons that supplies of Tamiflu may never meet potential demand. Roche says that it takes 13 grams of star anise to make 1/3 grams of shikimic acide, which can then be converted into the 10 Tamiflu capsules needed to treat one person.

Quinic acid from the bark of the cinchona tree is a possible alternative, but its main source is the perennially destabilised Congo region of Africa. There's also a Professor Frost who reckons he can ferment the acid artificially using vats of genetically-modified microbes. Meanwhile Tamiflu's inventors Gilead Sciences are attempting to regain control of their little monster from Roche, claiming that not enough is being done to produce and market the antidote to global hysteria.

Napoleon Dynamite

A mostly charming vignette of high school life from Retardsville Idaho. Whilst there are plenty of little jokes we did appreciate, there's an underlying meta-joke that consistently eluded us. ("The phantom joke", according to V.)

You feel you ought to able to describe this film as original and different, but you can't really because all the characters are grounded in cliché and the overall scenario is too stylised. Compare for example Alexander Payne's Election, whose dramatis personae remain believable in all their kookiness.

Market Gardening

The MD of Garage Technology Ventures Guy Kawasaki has outlined what he thinks is the best approach to hooking up with consumer evanglists:

"To a large degree, evangelists find you. First, you have to "let a hundred flowers blossom" by sowing fields, not window boxes. Sure, you may think you have figured out exactly who your target audience is, but then get your stuff out. See where it takes root and flowers. Second, evangelists will emerge from these flowers. You just have to have an open mind to work with them."

This seems like sound advice, but I was less sure about his counsel for 'traditional' businesses:

"They should pretend that they are two guys or gals in a garage, in their senior year of college, broke, and with an idea to create a product that they themselves want to use. Furthermore, they should consider that to these types of people their own company is a big, fat, stinkingly rich cow. The question to answer is, "How can we kill that cow?" Because if companies don't kill themselves, then two guys/gals in a garage will. "

Yet he goes on to cite a list of companies with a great product which include several (Harley Davidson, Apple) that clearly thrive in opposition to a big fat cow. Kill the cow and they would lose a great deal of their brand differentiation.

Kawasaki is licking his lips at the prospect of Bubble 2.0: "I heard Barry Diller say...that if you get enough eyeballs, you can somehow find a business model. Deja vu. Bubble II. I need just one more bubble in my life -- this time I know what to do. I sure hope Barry is right."