Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Eating out in Antigua, Guatemala: Part 2

For transients, resident ex-pats and those (few) locals with gastronomically adventurous souls, Antigua hosts a catholic muddle of international eateries, but finding the right place on the right night often involves a fair amount of legwork. The city has an outward charm that is easy enough to appreciate just by strolling around its cobbled streets, but the parts that are most worth finding are more tucked away, restaurants included. In terms of bums on seats only a few ever reach critical mass, especially on weeknights, and the very best are usually the ones that look as if they have no real need of customers.

Central America's best hotel, Casa Santo Domingo not surprisingly boasts a fine dining room. It hasn't been too snooty to jump on the Bill woz here bandwagon, yet you might say that this beautifully-restored Dominican convent was where Clinton should have stayed during his well-remembered visit back in 1999. (In fact, as their website proudly confirms, the President kipped at the lovely 5-suite guesthouse La Posada del Angel.)

Now in an exquisite hidden garden setting comparable to the grounds of the old religious house, El Sereno (4a Ave Norte) serves probably the most expensive sit down meal available in Antigua. A few years ago, when this property housed a smart asador, there was a bizarre little Cuban bar in the grotto called Mojitos, populated by unlikely stylish specimens posing like extras from a Bacardi ad. (You would never see their like anywhere else in town.) Then and now the highlight of this establishment is the terrace bar which affords fine, elevated views of nearby patio gardens and the spinach-green northern flanks of the Panchoy valley.

In our opinion the best restaurant in Antigua is the Mesón Panza Verde (5a Ave Sur) − affectionately the 'Panzón Verde' − whose resident chef Christophe Pache (a shy Swiss married to a local girl) has conceived a menu that re-imagines classic European dishes with unique local ingredients. (I have enjoyed the sopa de chipilín.) Every month the gallery holds a semi-porous private view of their current exhibition, attracting a regular crowd of eccentric ex-pats, foreign diplomats and upper-end gringos. Highly-quoffable Undurraga cabernet from Chile is uncorked and Christophe sets up his raclette kit. Sunday brunch is also excellent and there's live jazz in the vaulted sala on Thursday and Friday evenings.

The quirkiest of our four top picks is Welten (4a Ave Oriente), run almost as a personal folly by its owner, a Swiss millionairess. It's certainly not one of those joints with an "hola amigo" type standing outside blocking the footpath whilst handing out leaflets.

V and I used to come here on our pre-historic dates to drink piña coladas in the compact yet intensely-ornate bar area with its walls of arabesque blue tiles and rows of mahoganny high chairs. We were often the only visible guests − rarely are there more customers floating around than alarmingly attentive staff. (The worryingly aged Germans that used to gather here on Sunday afternoons during the 80s have long since moved on up to the National Socialist Valhalla.)

On arrival you have to knock a couple of times on the big wooden portón before a face appears in a tiny inset door at what for the locals equates to head height. If they like the look of you the bolts are unfastened and you can walk through the conservatory-style dining room to the cushioned sofa-style seats at the tables around the pool, its surface invisible beneath a carpet of multicoloured rose petals. The food is savoury yet delicate; this time local recipes with a continental twist.

Part 3 will cover the well-patronised restaurants of middling quality clustered around the main square and along the Calle del Arco.

To be long the tail must be linear

It's significant that the ideas that best exemplify the culture of Wired these days are not those of co-founder and inspiring organicist Kevin Kelly, but long-tailed Chris Anderson, whose thinking has a strong analytical bias. And the likely long-term impact of the phenomenon he's pinned his name to is exactly that, a bias, because culture does not consist exclusively of objects on display on a virtual shelf. An atomistic view of culture can only ever deliver approximate predictions, because it ignores the non-linear ways that meanings are constructed.

A decade ago a golden age of vertnetztes denken (network thinking) seemed imminent but regretably, mechanical, linear, information processing models are if anything, stronger than ever.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Invasion of the Plot Snatchers

Lost lost me after three episodes and Invasion almost did after five, but last night's installment promised something of a mini-recovery. The ETs have splashed down to help solve the Everglades' in-breeding problem.

My enthusiasm for Rome was more or less bell-curve shaped. Only the writers and directors charged with the mid-section episodes seemed relaxed enough with the characters and key events to give the story proper shape.

These limited run not-so-mini series pose particular challenges to screenwriters...and to viewers. It's being reported that several US networks are experimenting with English-language telenovelas which, south of the border, tend to run five days a week for around six months.

Eddie Cibrian knows a thing or two about distended plotting from Sunset Beach.The trick is to set in motion a set of nested negative feedback loops. Every time a storyline moves forward towards its expected resolution, an equal and opposite force has to kick-in, returning the characters to their default location: the edge of absurdity.

Eating out in Antigua, Guatemala: Part 1

As in that other rather ill-fated urban grid laid up close to a bulging volcanic blemish, the homes of rich and the poor are fairly evenly spread across Antigua. Wherever a private residence has neglected to take up a whole manzana the spare square metres of the block have tended to be filled by humbler homes. The nearest thing to a des res district here is an avenue in the north eastern sector with lawn-fronted mansions and a long line of jacaranda trees resplendant around Easter-time: the Alameda Santa Rosa.

Many of these are second homes for capitalinos, encharged during their often extended absences to the care of paid guardians who − we have often reflected − enjoy quite an enviable life. One such is Doña Tona, a dark, abundantly fleshy mestiza that has established one of the most successful small-scale catering businesses in town, doing very nicely indeed for several decades out of the Antigueños' fondness for reassuringly familar, everyday things you could literally partake of almost everyday if you wanted to.

Emerging from an imposing set of wooden garage gates six nights a week around 7pm, Tona sets up a rectangle of benches on the path beside the lawn − covered by an awning in the wet season − and then sits down beside it surrounded by a buffet of covered earthenware pots, carried out and positioned by her young helpers. Soon smart SUVs with polarised windows are parking on the avenue and their occupants greet each other tentatively ("...no-ches") before squeezing onto free space on the benches. Neighbours often appear with plates and jugs in order to carry back Doña Tona's goodies to their own dining tables.

It's a smorgsgabord of chucherias tipicas. rellenitos (plantain filled with frijoles: sweet refried black beans), chuchos (a thick, meat-filled corn dumpling wrapped in tusa: fibrous cob leaves.), tostadas (a large circular corn tortilla covered with guacamol or frijoles, chopped cabbage and a red or green chilli sauce) tacos (potato-filled crispy tortilla cylinders) and dobladas (softer, folded tortilla semi-circles most often filled with chicharrones: pork crackling).

And there's a choice of different atoles to drink each day: atol blanco with a dollop of black beans and chilli, atol de ava (broad beans) atol de elote (sweetcorn) and my own personal favourite, arroz con leche: like a viscous rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon.

Her huge, antique clay pots keep the food hot for hours after she prepares it. Sunday is usually the busiest day, when Tona appears with more elaborate dishes such as chiles rellenos (stuffed piquant peppers) pepian, revolcado, hilachas and tamales, both for the locals and visiting well-to-do that pass through the Alameda before hitting the road back to Guatemala City.

On most evenings a few people gather in the pools of dusk beneath the jacarandas waiting for the sign: if the light above the garage door illuminates after the sun has dipped behind the conjoined peaks of Fuego and Acatenango, they know that Doña Tona will be coming out again that night.

Antigua guards its secrets pretty well, but it seems that almost everyone is in on this one, except perhaps the transients.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Evo-lution not Revolution?

Still wearing that sweater, Evo Morales was sworn in as Bolivia's new President last Sunday and immediately proclaimed the start of a 500 year Reich of indigenous rule. I'm still wondering if he will have to stand down after one term like the Presidentes of Guatemala.

Serial non-stander-downer Hugo Chávez was there in La Paz to watch the inauguration of his soul-mate en vivo and the next day took the opportunity of publicising his views on America's likely future role in the region: "The empire has entered the phase of desperation, like a vampire who sees dawn approaching and realizes that he still has not sucked enough blood."

Eschewing burgundy and blue in favour of his tried-and-tested balaclava and pipe look, Sub-Commandante Marcos was out preaching to a large crowd yesterday, in Cancún of all places. It's the first time I've actually heard his speaking voice and was suitably impressed with the way he manages to imitate the peculiar Spanish diction of the indigenous peoples.

The Hair Shirt of Analytical Thought

Scientific revolutionaries (and believers) like Galileo, Descartes and Newton established the pragmatically very useful separation of facts and values, mind and matter, which in technological terms allowed the West to kick-away from the rest, but also left us with a legacy of analytical thinking habits that are often quite shy about their limitations.

Hair-shirted atheists like Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett aside, many intelligent people find a mechanistic explanation of life, the universe and everything somewhat unsatisfactory - which is why notions of non-physical interference (Vitalism, Deism, Spiritualism etc.) have continued to appeal. Indeed vitalism is the flip-side of atomism, both deriving from the original Cartesian sin of mind-matter dualism.

Vitalists add something to the laws of Nature to explain the missing bit they typically intuit, but in fact this isn't strictly necessary if you just stop thinking about the cosmos as a collection of parts. The missing ingredient could instead be the context, or as Fritjof Capra puts it, "an understanding of the organising relations"; as such requiring nothing outside of Nature other than an appreciation that the form and function of its parts are ultimately determined by the dynamics of the whole system.


When I first spent an extended period of time in Central America during the late eighties I got to know a retired engineer from Dundee in Antigua who used to get the bus to the capital every few days just to pick up the British newspapers at the Embassy.

After my return there was a period between 1989 and 1994 during which we didn't go back to Guatemala and our only way of keeping in touch with events over there was by subscribing to the current affairs magazine Crónica which tended to reach the UK about a fortnight late each time.

In the Autumn of 1991 a friend of mine from the same apartment block in London came over and installed MS Mail for DOS on our PC so we could keep in touch via email. On New Year's Eve of that same year I had my first exposure to Compuserve and I can clearly remember the visceral sense of excitement at the possibilities that opened up that night.

By 1994 I was making my living as a sort of email consultant and it amuses me now to think how in those days we had to organise emergency meetings to figure out how to encourage the employees of the firm where I now work to use their email more!

On a personal level email was already our preferred way for keeping in regular touch with people we'd rather not see all that regularly on a face-to-face basis, but it would be a couple more years before we could begin exchanging asynchronous communications with friends and family in Guatemala (and one or two virtual-only chums too, a 90s social must-have.) Meanwhile, the news problem was had been comprehensively resolved by the Web.

This morning I posted a piece on my company blog about a session I attended last night in the offices of MSN in London. Windows Live Director Phil Holden had flown in to tell a select audience of denim and corduroy-clad geeks about upcoming updates to the platform and to formally initiate a process of ongoing engagement with key social media influencers.

I can however confide here that it worries me a bit that these days new features hardly ever give me the same sort of gastric flutters as that alcohol-fuelled Compuserve initiation.

Instead, for the past couple of years V and I have actually been trying to develop a more stealthy online presence, in part because when it comes to the goings on in Guate, being "always-on" is quite often undesirable. (It reached a stage where we had more blocked buddies on our Messenger clients than un-blocked ones: people over there would keep trying to get us involved in the most trivial of incidents with no appreciation of how the vast geographical distance between us would prove a source of great frustration.)

Perhaps synchronised complexity just no longer appeals in quite the same way. I've also drifted away from the line of work where these tools are endemic in the majority of colleagues' personal and professional lives (like iPods!).

I can't help feeling that the current crop of online portals create as many needs and anxieties as they once appeared to satisty. And that more often than not the best buddies you can find are actually the ones that are outside − or at least on the margins of − the system.

Of course technology has enriched my life over the past decade, but there's no doubt that it has also impoverished it on other, often unexpected levels , and as I get older and wiser I've had to start making a few compensatory adjustments.

V increasingly talks of simplifying things, cutting away all the stuff we don't really need, usually holding up to me the chilling example of my mother, whose latterday lifestyle has become almost exclusively stuff-focussed.

Individualisation, especially as facilitated by technology, can be like a stimulant. The more you have the more you need because eventually each new shot delivers a smaller and smaller hit. And the more you actively pursue your goals and self-image through the commodity culture, the higher the risk of long-term passivity.


Being a long-standing book lover with a collection that I like to stand and stare at proudly, I have mixed feelings about e-books and electronic ink.

Would I rather have all the books in my collection available on a device like SONY's Libri? No. But as well as having all the physical tomes on my bookshelf, I would appreciate having digital versions of the text that I could search etc. (The etc. part could be more than adequately covered by a tool like Frode's Hyperwords.)

I wonder whether we will one day get an access code with each book we buy allowing us to download a personal digital copy of the text?

Not Completely True

One last follow-up to Scott Adams's proof that Evolution isn't completely true: next time he burns himself, Scott should remember that in the same way that Evolution isn't true for photons, temperature is a property that looks pretty meaningless to atoms. And if as a result of that unfortunate scalding he jumps up and bangs his head on a solid object, it would perhaps be equally consoling to reflect that solidity is not something subatomic particles know a great deal about either.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Scott Adams has been winding-up the Neo-Darwinists again with some cunning logic: Evolution can't be completely true because relativity theory precludes the existence of an objective frame of temporal reference in which species could "evolve over time". So, "if something is not true for all observers, it is only a point of view."

Indeed you might say that Evolution forms the point of view of molecules. For Neo-Darwinists, there's not much more to it than that, but amongst the more expansive (and more poetic) alternative descriptions is that which sees Evolution as a thread through the web of life connecting up the various molecular perspectives that (could) exist in relative spacetime. Borges might have called it a pathway through the labyrinth.

Einstein's theories of Relativity and the other major paradigm shifts in twentieth century physics could all be said to pose fundamental philosophical challenges to the bottom-up, mechanistic outlook − not just as it expresses itself as the reductionist neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolutionary theory. Yet whether your perspective on it is deep or shallow, Natural Selection remains the only reputable explanation for the existence of sentient observers in the first place.

From a photon's speed-of-light perspective it would be hard to observe evolution in action, but that frame of reference is as close as you would ever get to stepping outside the labyrinth, a likely point of rendezvous for both objectivity and subjectivity.

Bad Theology

Justin E. H. Smith is suspicious of theologians that seek a partial rapprochement with Evolution. The result he says, is not only bad science, but bad theology too.

In general Protestants are more inclined than Catholics to neo-occasionalism, the view that God is behind just about every single thing that happens in the universe. High Church theology on the other hand is less comfortable with the notion of Nature as a kind of permanent miracle. Liebniz for example, wholeheartedly rejected the idea of God as micro-manager, because he felt that it undermines the imporance of what the Church sees as the really big miracular distubances in the natural order − such as the incarnation and the resurrection.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn recently observed in the NYT that Evolution in "the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense − an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection − is not.”

The trouble with this view, Smith concludes, is that it a Divinely-planned version of the process would require God not only to mess with the genetic mutations that lead to the variable traits within each population necessary for Natural Selection to work properly, but also to rig all of the environmental conditions that determine the relative fitness of each organism.

Spell Breaking

Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins's Neo-Darwinist co-conspirator in the US appears a lot less worried that he might be perceived as a bit of a killjoy. Out to plug his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, last Sunday he came up against Deborah Solomon and her "the church gave us Bach" argument.

"Belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can...nerve cells are very complicated systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul."

When the Tufts phiosopher suggested that love too could be subjected to his reductionist methodology, Solomon reacted indignantly: "But what's the point of that? Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Take Care of my Cat

This touching, low-concept Korean movie was shown last night on BBC4 as part of their Asian season. I've seen it before, or at least as much of it as I could take before nodding off, and I had a job staying awake again this time.

The cat in question is an undeniably cute stray kitten that is passed between five post-adolescent girlfriends all struggling in their own way to make the transition into their adult destinies. The film reveals how the intimacy of schoolgirl friendship is superceded by awkward group get-togethers and almost frantic texting and calling in between.

Not a lot actually happens, but one of the girls eventually manages to find her own path by coming to the assistance of the most vulnerable member of the group.

It's not as beautiful to look at as other Korean films I've seen, but the text messages the girls exchange are shown projected onto walls and buildings between scenes, which is as far as it goes in terms of artiness.

The Woodsman

Miseryguts once told me how a pupil in his ancient history class stood up and asked a fairly familiar question: "Sir, weren't all ancient Greek men gay?" "Well, actually," he replied "they were paedophiles". I suppose he really ought to have said "pederasts", but this would have decreased his immediate chances of being understood, and might ultimately have contributed to another incident like the one in South Wales a few years ago where a paediatrician was molested by a mob of concerned citizens.

The practice in question was most fully institutionalised in Ancient Sparta where every boy of twelve was required to take an older hoplite as a lover. These days however, it seems that all the fear and loathing formerly levelled at witches, Jews, heretics, homosexuals etc. in the Western world is now firmly concentrated on the men (in particular, though efforts are being made by the media to curb this discrimination) who show a sexual interest in minors.

It's the closest thing our modern society has to thought crime, leading us to doubt the usual liberal distinction between morality and law − that the former encompasses our thoughts and the latter our actions. It's also one of those taboos that's worth talking about openly, if only to wrest the topic away from the torch and pitchfork waving tabloid readers.

When The Woodsman was released many hailed it as sensitive, non-judgmental treatment of the subject; a welcome alternative to hysteria. But sympathetic and insightful are not always the same thing, and whilst there's no doubt that it is a well made film with good central performances, Nicole Kassel's everyone is damaged scenario doesn't accumulate sufficient credibility and succedes only by muddling its audience's tendency to outrage. (I seem to recall that V quipped that "only a woman could make a movie like that about a paedophile".)

Walter, played by Kevin Bacon, locates the origins of his transgressions in a formative fascination for the smell of his sister's hair: weaker still perhaps than Humbert's self-exculpation in Lolita, where we informed early on that an interrupted adolescent love for a young girl called Annabel fostered his adult obsession with girls of roughly the same sort of age. (Though Humbert also reports having bribed a nurse to show him his psychiatric files, and discovered he was labeled "homosexual" there.)

However, I recently reacquainted myself with Eric Rohmer's Pauline à la Plage (Pauline at the Beach) a film I had first watched shortly after its release in 1983. At the time I was a near contemporary of the teenage star Amanda Langlet and I remember taking a bit of a shine to her. Many years have passed and I've move on a generation but, on this piece of celuloid at least, Langlet has remained the same precocious young French nymph of around fifteen. So on seeing the film again and remembering how it had tweaked my own adolescent libido, it was hard not to be reminded of that now distant desire. As a result I have conceived the following scenario: suppose a pair of adolescents create a homemade erotic movie using a camcorder and then, decades later, the male of the pair periodically still digs it out and gets off over it. In every other respect he's a 'normal' heterosexual, but how would society judge him if they knew about his favourite home movie?

Rohmer uses Pauline's freshness as a foil for exposing the hypocrisy of the adults around her on her beach break. Nevertheless, the script adopts an essentially masculine perspective on relationships and although Pauline leaves the beach uncorrupted at the end, the possibility of fast-tracking her into adulthood has been thoroughly explored by several of the thirty-somethings, and frankly, the camera too. There's no question that the French are much keener on Autumn-Spring pair-ups than most modern European cultures and this suggestive sexualising of very young girls is a recurring motif in their cinema. (The tummy-rubbing scene in Leon etc.)

Perhaps one day a brave documentary programme-maker will attempt to convince us that paedophilia has animal equivalents. Perhaps not. It may well be the result of a distortion of our symbolic consciouness, a uniquely human melange of memory, ideas and desire. The other day tranvestite potter Grayson Perry was interviewed on the BBC World Service and argued that fetishes and other forms of "kinky sex" emerge in adulthood as responses to the childhood environment. This seems to confirm the tale once told to V by a foot fetishist she interrogated, who explained that his mother used to rub her slippers against him as a child.

We've come across an apparently nympholeptic individual in Guatemala called N; a personable, well-educated young man in his mid-20s with strong protestant religious beliefs and the vocation to one day serve as a pastor. He rejects the idea of sex before marriage and is himself, he openly professes, a virgin. However, when he was seven he was sexually-abused by a teacher and has since had trouble forming normal relationships with girls of his own age because, he says, every kiss or caress serves only to remind him of that first, forced awakening. Unsurprisingly, he's been repeatedly dumped for getting stuck at first base.

N also appears all too obviously excited in the prescence of pretty, pre-pubescent girls. Perhaps men like him (Michael Jackson, etc.) are damaged personalities seeking sanctuary in innocence. Yet as they move physically further from childhood their obsession with it can turn predatory, and in today's world an affinity for virgins becomes more and more distasteful as wrinkles deepen and flesh sags.

Like N, Lord Byron was abused as a child, by his nurse. During and shortly after his time as a student Byron's sexual preferences were predominantly of the pederastic sort, indulged either as a sexual tourist in the Balkans or on a more romantic level by worshipping the choir boys of Cambridge. This odd combination of hands-off platonic yearning combined with spurts of more aggressive seduction would seem to be fairly typical.

Perhaps a damaged woman will chance into N's life and 'save' him, like Walter is apparently saved by Mary-Kay in The Woodsman. The only woman capable of saving Byron was his half-sister Augusta, which of course made his adult sex-life even less conventional.

It's not unlikely that any adolescent lover that N might take in Guatemala would be less innocent than him, and crucially less awkward about reproductive issues. Yet after all, he may not be the sort to act on his apparent inclinations. How many of the individuals recently entrapped by the Police were just paedi-curious, people whose inclinations would have gone unexposed before the advent of digital footprinting?

It's clear that our whole sense of rational moral responsibility, founded as it is on the notion of free will, is particularly threatend by this one form of deviant sexual desire and by the wider access to pornographic browsing in our comprehensively wired world. Child-pornography in particular is regarded as a pernicious cancer threatening the young and vulnerable in our society which, like the international narcotics trade, has both a demand and a supply side in urgent need of shaming and suppression.

At the age of seven V narrowly avoided being molested by a middle-aged Catholic priest. If there's one place we should focus our outrage it is on the individuals who systematically groom and abuse pre-adolescents, especially where a culture of impunity exists. However, in the UK the media response is increasingly informed by a swollen, ill-defined paranoia which lacks understanding of the spectrum of possible behaviours, attitudes and situations, not all of which are utterly beyond the ken of progressive, liberal tolerance. If an adult teacher has a relationship with a fifteen year-old pupil they should probably be fired, but not necessarily tarred and feathered for life with the sex register.

Anyway, back to the movie. The deleted scenes on DVDs often expand our understanding of the director or scriptwriter's intentions by revealing to us significant dialogue and character interactions that were removed, perhaps only for reasons of balance or flow. The Woodsman has one cringey yet quite central scene where Walter sits alone on a park bench with a young girl he has followed. The unedited version of this scene is so much more retchworthy that it calls into question Fechter and Kassel's artistic vision and argument as a whole.


This Sunday the panel discussed the issue of qualia - how physical stimuli result in indentical electronic signals which upon arrival in the mind become the smells, colours, tastes etc. of everyday experience. One of the scientists provocatively asked his colleague what kind of an explanation for this he thought would satisfy humanity, and would it be of any practical use?

Thinkers in the western tradition have tended to separate out the problem of existence into two quite distinct grand mysteries: Objectivity and Subjectivity.

As the latter was always assumed to be part of our Divine nature for most of history Science has historically concentrated on the former:
  • Why does stuff exist and what are the rules that determine how it behaves?
  • How did the material universe get so big and what will happen to it in the future?
  • What is the significance of the size of our cosmos and the proportions of stuff and non-stuff within it?
  • Is matter an unlikely occupant of a tiny part of a void or are stuff and non-stuff both part of a bigger material system? etc.

Materialists have cut their teeth on these questions and have more recently turned their attentions to our brains and the subjective experience of consciousness: indeed a complex matter, but one where the subject to be studied at least seemed much closer to hand. Yet their efforts to expel the ghost from inside the machine have met with only partial success, falling short of a complete material explanation for consciousness. (Even if we are more likely to see the importance of incarnation to cognition than in the days of fully-detachable immortal souls.)

Objectivity remains a partially-resolved riddle, largely because the majority of the stuff in the cosmos is observable by us only in as much as it interacts with light. And once matter is studied at the micro-level as well as the macro-level it becomes less easy to achieve a clean separation from the mystery of Subjectivity.

So in both instances western scientists often find themselves scraping their skulls along a philosophical glass ceiling, which they are mostly reluctant to push through because in so doing their methodology is likely to become re-mudded with the kind of metaphysical speculations (and certainties) that their predecessors spent centuries defining themself in opposition to.

I suspect however that neither of the grand mysteries is wholly solveable in isolation and that they will have to be re-compounded along the lines of traditional Eastern thought before we can get any closer to satifying, big picture conclusions.

Monday, January 23, 2006


The no-budget black and white film that Christopher Nolan made before Memento. The premise surely had a cleverer, more satisfying plot in it: a dole-bound scruff called Bill follows strangers to pass the time and to build material for a novel he one day plans to write. One of his subjects, Cobb, turns the tables on Bill, introducing himself as a public-school burglar who breaks and enters for the sheer pleasure of the violation, for the opportunity to experience the stuff of peoples lives. "Everyone has a box", he tells Bill, undoubtedly the film's most memorable line. Soon Bill is tagging along with Cobb and rummaging through other people's boxes.

Faced with the chronological fragmentation of 21 Grams, Ebert asked "Is this approach better than telling the same story from beginning to end?", and there's also something rather pointless about the flash-forwards with which Nolan interupts the flow of the first half of Following. That and a smothering noirish style combine to make this the sort of film that seems determined to give viewers a bit of a headache. Nolan was to do much better with the reverse chronology of Leonard Shelby's quest.

Clogged and Un-clogged

Plans to expand and improve Aurora international airport have clogged up now that current President and former city mayor Oscar Berger has told current city mayor and former President (and former political ally) Alvaro Arzú that he lacks the necessary requisitos (paperwork and permissions) to start work on the project. Or was it the other way round?

On the other hand Guatemala's three big mobile phone networks Comcel, PCS y Telefónica will finally permit the passage of SMS messages across their borders. This may mean that we will now be able to communicate with family members via text from the UK.

It was also reported today that 8 Guatemalan UN peacekeepers have been killed in a confrontation with Ugandan rebels in DR Congo.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Pixar Goodies

Quite possibly my worst investment decision so far in the 21st century was selling the bulk of my PIXAR stock − then around $30, now closer to $60 and going up fast on takeover speculation. (A sale to Disney for a rumoured $6.8bn would make Steve Jobs a director and major shareholder in the Magic Kingdom.)

Owning those shares was fun, not just because of the steady capital gains, but because every year they sent their shareholders a little gift of Pixar goodies, such as limited edition Toy Story posters!

We recently watched two Pixar animations on DVD for the first time. Monsters Inc. may not have quite the same level of voice talent as Finding Nemo, but it is on balance I think the more enjoyable of the pair; for adults at least. The old fashioned fishy quest (based on John Ford's The Searchers) has a more detailed and beautiful animated setting, but Monsters has more of the daring originality of conception that characterises Pixar's most outstanding animations: The Incredibles and the Toy Story series.

Toy Story 3 is due out in 2008: Buzz Lightyear gets sent back to Taiwan for repair!

The Observer 's Philip French sees Monsters Inc. as an allegory about modern America whose blue collar heroes help shady capitalists accumulate profit from the affliction of outsiders, people for whom they in turn have come to harbour an irrational fear!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí

The situation at the start of this prize-winning Spanish novel is an attention-grabber. The narrator Victor Francés is a divorcee having dinner with a married woman of very recent acquaintance whose husband is away on business in London. They move to the bedroom where an unexpected angle to Victor's adventure transpires; she dies in his arms.

V and I started reading it together, but she was quickly put off by Marías' highly digressive narrative style (aka "mamadas"). The trouble is that Victor is the sort of narrator that is not only telling his story, he's also telling the story of his story. Yet in spite of the rambles, there was a strong enough thread of mystery and suspense to keep pulling me along, though this perhaps also set up some false expectations about where the story was actually going.

I came to enjoy the way the author's prose manifests Victor's habit of entertaining himself with his own thoughts and his sensitivity to life's might-dos and would-haves, revealed as a tendency to pan out of his immediate perceptions to speculate on ambient possibility - things that may or may not have happended or be happening: "Pensar en lo que no sucedió ha de ser parte de mí".

At first, some of these speculations do appear to be "mamadas" but the longer you read on the more you realise that these apparent imaginings often reflect experience of actual events that Victor will later relate to us. There are two desgracias, two sudden, ridiculous deaths, in this tale, one at each extremity, and Victor (only) knows about both of them from page one.

Marías has created a clever and very rich weave of themes and references. One of the most pivotal is that of haunting, a word that he (mysteriously) claims has no Spanish equivalent. (He does offer encantamiento, which is perhaps closer to our enchantment, but over in Guatemala they use the verb espantar to describe these rather territorial phantasmal behaviours.) Victor himself is a ghost ("un negro fantasma") in the real sense that he ghosts speeches for others. Yet even before he was left in a state of enchantment by the events of that night, he was leading the solitary, near invisible existence he himself associates with Volkswagen Golf drivers, and it's a state of isolation that appears to impact on his ethical choices.

Victor jokes that people like himself tend to turn on the TV when they walk into their apartments to check what has happened in the world during their absence, when in fact their absence from it is "perpetual". In this story it is the living that behave like shades with unfinished business.

There are parts which are less than fully satisfactory (such as the mid-section digression in which Victor can't make up his mind whether the streetwalker he has in his car is his ex-wife Celia) but I ended up with a strong sense of goodwill to the work as a whole. It is a fascinating exploration of deception: how we deceive and are deceived in turn, and one which characterises the world of the actual as fundamentally unstable and inexplicable on all temporal levels − past, present and future.

Incidentally, although Marías has a solid reputation as an anglophile, the London of this novel is a routine place of red Routemasters and black cabs, drizzle and downpours, business hotels with shared toilets and concierges that make a mess of Spanish names.

Hecho en Mexico

In the middle ages the Catholic Church constantly had to decide how to handle grassroots devotion that claimed a greater authenticity than its own. Some of these off-message brand evangelists were barbecued, whilst others (the Franciscans for example) were skillfully co-opted into the service of re-authenticating corporate orthodoxy.

According to the WSJ Coca-Cola faces a similar challenge now. Many consumers down south are willing to pay the premium price of $0.25 a bottle for Mexican Coke, a regional variant perceived to have retained many of the nostalgic, hometown cultural references surrendered by the much-diminished Classic Coke brand. (It is also made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup.)

With market share at an 8-year low, there may well be executives in Atlanta that strongly favour co-opting this devotion, but the company is leaning towards the barbecue option largely because of the highly territorial nature of the bottling and distribution network.


I enjoyed Ben Vershbow's post on If:Book yesterday, which exposed the political culture of the Metapedians.

Their starkly polarised positions are reminiscent of the principal doctrinal factions of early Christianity that would eventually evolve into the fan-bases of the Blue (Venetii) and Green (Prasinoi) chariot racing teams in the hippodrome at Constantinople.

Deletionists chant garbage out, garbage out, whilst their ideological foes the Inclusionists preach that Wikipedia should be changed "only when no knowledge would be lost as a result".

Caught in the middle are the Mergists, dedicated to the kind of information housekeeping that would merge texts deemed not notable and encyclopedic enough for their own record.

There's talk of Wiki law, but no strong-armed executive figure like Emperor Constantine to organise the Wiki equivalent of the First Council of Nicea.

The clash between Immediatists and Eventualists is an important sub-dispute over whether the immediate or the long-term value of the encyclopedia should form the underlying principle of its expanding architecture (and external appearance).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lunch in Guatemala

More avocados, when available.

The one given though is a basket of freshly prepared tortillas, wrapped in cotton cloth.

There's an old indígena that looks after a small sávila (aloe vera) plantation near our house who each day at midmorning prepares tortillas for sale on her comal, usually helped out by younger members of her family. There's always a queue.

The comal de barro is a large disk of baked clay which is usually placed on three stones above a wood fire. After they have been patted into shape the moist corn tortillas are grilled on it. My favourites are tortillas negras (above) made with black corn, which are usually reserved for special occasions and quite difficult to find in Antigua (though V's brother Felipe, resident in the capital, manages to consume them daily).

The issue then becomes what to eat with your tortillas. The most famous local recipe (and one that V hates with a passion) is Pepián. This is a dark, gungey cacerole dish usually made with chicken with coriander, cinammon, sesame seeds, various types of chilli, onion, garlic, and both red tomatoes and the little green ones known as miltomates aka tomatillos (which are next to impossible to find in the UK).

The fish I have most often found myself being served at lunchtime is tiburón (shark). Another frequently-downed seafood snack is Ceviche, possibly my personal favourite of all Central American delicacies. The principal is to 'cook' prawns, conch or even white fish in a potage of lime juice flavoured with parsely, tomatoes, onion and garlic. It is served with salty wafer-like biscuits.

In the area around Antigua the best ceviches are to be found in a small seafood restaurant on a backstreet of Jocotenango called La Naranja Pelada. The dining room is wood-panelled and decorated with specimens of local 'game' such as snakes, turtles and armadilloes.

Yet the best ceviche I ever had was in Mexico, at a beachside cafe called Los Pelícanos in the fuss-free Yucatán port Puerto Morelos. (Which sadly may not have been treated very kindly by Hurricane Wilma.)

I was once witness to an altercation a particular friend of mind had with the staff of a Mexican restaurant in Swallow Street when the dish advertised as ceviche on the menu appeared on delivery to be something altogether less acid-bathed.

Eventually the chef came out from the kitchen to defend his creation from the imminent threat posed by the Trades Descriptions Act. Hyperventilating even more than normal for a Venezuelan, he explained how he had discovered the recipe in a tiny fishing village in Ecuador, and whilst he agreed that it didn't look much like what most people would call a ceviche, he felt sure we would allow him some artistic license. He then explained the etymology of the word ceviche and how it really means "salad". He was soon back in the kitchen preparing prawns in citric soup for my particular friend.

Part of the problem was that you don't go somewhere called Down Mexico Way to eat Ecuadorian fisherfolk food. Shortly afterwards the joint was renamed Destino and continued to serve unusual and often original dishes from across Latin America until it closed last month. A pity because the building was the site of the first Spanish restaurant outside of Iberia (opened 1926) and the stunning internal decoration work was commissioned by the soon-to-be-crownless King of Spain.

The PKD Android

I found out about the Philip K. Dick android yesterday. It reclines on a sofa in a specially-created 70s-style apartment. Its memory has been packed with every word the author ever spoke in interview, allowing the droid to mimic his habit of giving 5-minute-long responses to questions. People are reported to respond on an emotional level to its frubber features - one visitor ended up holding its hand!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dark Enlightenment

Richard Dawkins would surely not agree that Science is a point of view in need of balancing, but someone at Channel 4 obviously felt the need to offset The Root of all Evil last night with a follow-up factual programme with more positive spin on the bells and smells.

Inviting a frothing evangelist to celebrate the order, structure and moral purpose provided by religious belief would have been a bit flagrant, so instead they got an historian to do it. (And then hid him on More4)

Michael Burleigh's Dark Enlightenment argued that people have spiritual needs, and life needs to have transcendental meaning, otherwise society just falls apart (Cue images of bimbo binge drinkers flashing their tits.) Unlike that of Dawkins, Burleigh's argument didn't hang on whether religious belief is True; it's just the only way we have to "tell the banal from the intelligent," he insisted. (And on that basis, who cares?)

Burleigh's TV essay was shockingly partisan and would have had a certain appeal to former members of the Taliban. Empty consumerism − western society's endless quest for new varieties of novelty and sensation was traced back to the rationalism of free-thinking philosophes like of Voltaire, Diderot and the man Burleigh insisted on calling Immanuel Cunt. Little does it matter to him that these men lived long before Imperialism, post-Imperialism, Modernism and Postmodernism and that many humanist thinkers today are equally appalled by the Society of the Spectacle.

After the French Revolution, a process characterised by Burleigh as one of unmitigated barbarism, secular society made use of bogus versions of "the same mechanisms" to pervert true religious aspirations and practices in order to create "a new symbolic universe".

He didn't stop to ask whether the revolutionaries' suppression of revolt in the Vendée was qualitatively different from the Church-sponsored crusade against the Cathars or whether their surrogate secular belief system was inherently less true, as opposed to just less well-embedded in cultural tradition; designed rather than evolved. Isn't the whole business of moulding people suspect, whether it is done by church or state?

Burleigh bewailed the moral confusion of our age − what Durkheim called Effervescence − and the fact that liberals no longer seem able to provide a plausible account of what Western civilisation actually stands for. Yet can one really be so sure that Hitler was simply a product of Germany's "spiritual confusion" and that relativism is what all forms of rationalism inevitably degrade into?

Personally I wouldn't swap binge drinking for public executions, bear-baiting, witch-burning etc. whatever the order, structure and moral focus supposedly enjoyed by the people of the middle ages.

Autopsy: Life and Death

It was Chimp Week on the Beeb last week; this week it's Stiff Week on Channel 4.

As if himself recently ascended from the Underworld, Gunther von Hagens can hardly contain his enthusiasm for rummaging around inside someone else's exposed viscera. However strong your stomach there's something a quite disturbing about a man that looks like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Ivan Lendl doing live autopsies on telly.

Last night's 'specimen' was an 84-year-old woman that had, we learned, most probably expired as a result of circulatory decline. Tonight we have jumbo tumours to look forward to.

V and I maintain a fantasy list of interesting people we'd like to have round for dinner sometime. Last night she informed me that she's adding von Hagens to hers! Ghoulish goulash anyone?

The Root of all Evil: Part 2

The theme of this second and concluding part was religion as child abuse. Richard Dawkins argued that religion is a virus and that children tend to have very low immunity to it because natural selection has 'programmed' them to believe anything a grown-up tells them. Once infected many will thereafter remain in the permanent state of intellectual infancy we call Faith. (I had a fearsome Baptist nanny from Motherwell that used to read me Bible stories when I was very little and I recall my profound scepticism even then. But then I never even believed in Father Christmas.)

Dawkins concluded that religious miseducation (largely through faith-based schooling) is a "threat to progressive values and to the rule of law". Along the way he did less to alienate his own natural constituency than he had in part one, largely because the opponents he chose to engage with were less obviously certifiable, making these encounters appear less like a clash of intransigent absolutes.

However, the argument was still muddled in one important respect. On the one hand he wished to explain away all human spiritual urges as a natural extension of simian social ethics ("Chimps are DOS, humans are Windows 2000" was the rather insight-free analogy tossed into the mix by an LSE economist) and on the other it was clear that his specific targets were the systems of social control and religious oppression that have evolved around the three desert monotheisms tracing themselves back to Abraham.

Chimps don't conduct funerals yet our ancestors were conducting them for many thousands of years before Abraham and his one God. A programme that focussed specifically on the cultural distortions associated with widespread belief in a cosmos created and ruled by a single despotic lawmaker would have been more original and interesting.

Monday, January 16, 2006


What might you call a movie about a pair of teenagers transported into the hyper-emoting parallel universe of Mexican telenovelas? (Un-pleasantville?)

In this case the pair end up in the suburban sub-reality of sixties sitcom Pleasantville. This set-up gives writer-director Gary Ross (Big) some great opportunities for gentle comedy that throws light (actually colour) on the handicaps of wholesomeness. But it only works up to a point, because ultimately the satire (especially the political kind) isn't really penetrating enough to justify the accelerated dramatic intensity of the second half.

Main Street, Pleasantville loops back on itself and the whole notion of the 'outside' seems incomprehensible to the town's inhabitants: Just like our own cosmos, but smaller.

The gradual imposition of colour on this monochrome microcosm looks forward to the accomplished digital effects in Robert Rodriguez's more recent Sin City.


A good number of Guatemalans took to the streets on Friday to air their gripes on various matters, such as the privatisation-oriented package of reforms recently presented by the Ministry of Education and the USA's newly-vigorous anti-migrant policy. (A third of the population is said to live on remittances sent home by the 1.10 million+ Guatemalans already living in el norte.)

Meanwhile INGUAT announced that the country welcomed a record 1,312,199 tourists in 2005 who collectively spent $869.9m. (Guatemala's third biggest earner. Exports top the list at $3,644.8m)

It was announced today that competition from China forced the closure of 51 textile and garment factories ("maquilas") in Guatemala last year leaving around 38,000 jobless. Many hope that this decline in the rag trade can be reversed when CAFTA comes into effect later this year.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Breakfast in Guatemala

I was daydreaming about early morning chapin nosh as I walked along the river towards the pier today.

Desayuno (breakfast) really is the best meal of the day over there. It typically includes huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs, often with chopped onions and tomato), pan frances ('French bread', actually tasty little pastie-shaped white rolls), plátano frito (fried plantain) and frijoles volteados (a thick, dry, dough-like serving of black bean paste).

Guatemalans eat a lot of fruit at breakfast times (as well as most other times). In the market in Antigua the papayas on sale are the size of giant marrows. The fewer the pips, and the smaller the diameter of the core they reside in, the better the papaya. This fruit (along with mango) contains enzymes which are especially good for the digestion and can also aid weight reduction, though the altitude over there speeds up your metabolism anyway.

Where we live in Antigua you generally have to get up around 6am if you want to get hold of fresh franceses before they sell out.

Many heat up their huevos with chiltepes, little green turbo-chillies that are split open and sprinkled over the plate. Other common accompaniments are requesón (rather like ricotta) and thick sour crema (cream).

Aguacates (avocado) like frijoles, are likely to be eaten at any time of the day in Antigua. The locals are known by the rest of their compatriots as panza verde (green stomachs) as a result.

The best plate of frijoles volteados I ever experienced (there was more to it than just taste you see) was served to me by a grey-haired waiter wearing a starched white linen jerkin in the dining room of the wonderfully wooden Hotel del Norte in Puerto Barrios, the main port on Guatemala's concise Caribbean coast.

Visitors to Antigua that have to pay for their own breakfasts are best advised to try out either Doña Luisa Xicotencatl or Café Condesa on the main square. Both are situated in charming old colonial mansions.

Doña Luisa's is one of the most well-known and well-frequented hanging-out spots in Antigua. Café Condesa has never been one of V's favourites though- she objects to the headphones that the waiters wear and the the over-elaborate nature of the "delectables". But just beside the main entrance on the parque you'll find Condesa Express which serves gourmet coffee grown locally by Goya; possibly the best cup of espresso coffee you will drink anywhere in the world, and a suitable antidote to the kind of caffeinated beverage you are likely to drink in Guatemala if you are not one of those people that pays for their breakfasts!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


In part 1 of The Asian Invasion on BBC4 last night Jonathan Ross interviewed seminal anime director Mamoru Oshii, creator of the Ghost in the Shell films. They touched on the rather interesting concept of deriba, a storyline-static part of the action that Oshii locates at the centre of his films, which serves to stall the forward motion of the plot so that the world the characters inhabit can be better explored. You can't help thinking that Star Wars prequels might have benefitted from a bit of deriba. Since the arrival of Spielberg the relentless pace of Hollywood productions has been all too well established.


As one Tanzanian interviewee ruefully observed, several of the Gombe chimps are more internationally famous than any individual African President (and surely also more than a match for most of them in terms of poltical shiftiness).

Yes, it's Chimp Week this week on BBC1, which means a chance to catch up with all the amusing antics of those celebrity simians, whilst at the same time being sternly reminded that wild apes may vanish from the tropical forests in little more than a decade.

Unfortunately, the footage has been all but ruined for adult viewers by a Play School-style narration. You might think that if ever a bit of anthropomorphising was justified it is with our "nearest animal relatives" (with apologies to that deranged red state pastor that Richard Dawkins encountered the other night), but I'm not sure of the wisdom of pitching a prime time nature programme at the sort of little people that are already likely to harbour the suspicion that rabbits and even teletubbies are capable of complex cognition.

"What must he be thinking?", the narrator keeps asking of the domestically violent Frodo. And when her twin daughters get lost in the park, he observes of their mother Gremlin that "she must be going through what any mum goes through when her kids don't come home". Except of course that chimps don't appear to have a a very deep understanding of the concept of death.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Root of all Evil

Having more or less suggested at the outset that carol singing sits at the summit of a slippery slope leading to rucksack bombs on the tube, the Grand Inquisitor of Unbelief went on to confront some formidable spokesmen from the theo-fascist herd. You could practically see the steam coming out of his ears during these exchanges.

It's not hard to see why the Professor's adversaries insist on dealing with him as a rival truth rather than as an alternative way of looking at truth. Dawkins's own breed of absolutism seems to beg to be treated this way − it's as if he's bidding for his own patch of unhallowed turf in Jerusalem.

V admires his "extreme" position and the way he matches intolerance with intolerance. Yet when it comes to religion she is far less worried about the fundamentalists than she is about common-or-garden Roman Catholic hypocrites and the kind of routine acquiescence to handed-down ignorance that she grew up with in Central America.

For Dawkins there are no half-measures in irrationality. In a very interesting post from last December 3QuarksDaily pin-pointed some of the philosophical problems that arise from the notion that scientific enquiry addresses a background of fixed, absolute reality and how, for Dawkins, any hint of deviation from this is tantamount to stating that "snow is green".

At one point in the programme last night he let slip a telling comparison with fascism which reveals a weakness in the strict association between Faith and the evils he would eradicate. Didn't the secular totalitarianisms of the twentieth century demonstrate that a straight swap of Reason for Faith doesn't necessarily guarantee an end to collective delusion and violent oppression? Perhaps religion isn't so much the root of all evil as one of the better excuses for it.

Dawkins faces the same old dilemma that has afflicted rational westerners since Plato - ours is an elite ideal that yearns to be populist, and at the same time wants to forget the historical lessons which show how the realisation of that dream nearly always leads to trouble.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Life in the Undergrowth

Richard Dawkins returns to our screens tonight, once again vainly attempting to convince licence-payers that religion of all kinds is a pernicious waste of time.

Just before Christmas I came across a recent interview with Dawkins in which he made two interesting statements, both of which on the face of it bring our positions on the underlying mechanisms of nature just that little bit closer: "Mutation is random in the sense that it's not anticipatory of what's needed" and "Natural selection is a guided process".

Of course it would be bizarre (to us atheists at least) if genetic code at the species level had a specific end goal in mind, yet I have always suspected that immaculately random mutation is unlikely to be the only mechanism at work in evolution. Some sort of tentative teleological effect might instead occur as the result of a probabilistic bias within the whole ecosystem (or perhaps as a set of genetic tendencies which the organism's own genome adjusts according to environmental cues.)

Evolution might have begun 'randomly' (though still quite probably given the chemical conditions) but over time life may have acquired − through further evolution − the capacity to proactively manage its own gradient up what Dawkins refers to as Mount Improbable.

Of course I'm in no position to prove it. It just sits better with my wider belief that the universe is structured in such a way that the relationship of the wholes to parts is bi-directional.

Richard Dawkins typicaly presents the idea of intelligent design as just another one of the straw men he's used to hacking down with his characteristically nimble and sophisticated intellectual brutality. When it depends on the existence of a designer outside the system intelligent design theory has some rather obvious weaknesses, but what if the designer is the system?

Dawkins is a purist when it comes to beliefs; he strongly discourages adherence to any that are not backed up pretty conclusively by empirical evidence. Yet last year's EDGE World Questionwhat do you believe is true even though you can't prove it? − emphasised the importance of gut-feel and imagination to contemporary research as science and philosophy move ever closer.

Over the Christmas break the BBC repeated David Attenborough's extraordinary series of nature films Life in the Undergrowth. For me at least, the programmes (especially the one entitled Intimate Relations) served to reinforce my as-yet-unjustified belief in the existence of a web of mutual influences that complements and extends the processes that Dawkins popularised in The Selfish Gene.

We were most impressed by the night ants that spend the nocturnal hours blocking the entrances to their daytime rivals' nest with little pebbles so that the resulting inconvenience prevents them from polishing off all the available grub in the area while the sun is still up!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Voices of the Old Sea

There are many more ways of being pre-modern than there are of being modern, or postmodern even.

That important insight fed the literary imagination of Norman Lewis, perhaps the last century's greatest travel writer, yet it has seemingly slipped past Kwame Anthony Appiah who made The Case For Contamination in last Sunday's New York Times magazine: An article described by the Consumerist as "stellar". It is certainly thought provoking.

The Princeton philosopher's argument can be summarised as follows:

  • Yes, globalisation can increase worldwide homogeneity but it also has the potential for creating new cultural blends
  • It would be wrong to trap people(s) within islands of traditional homogeneity that they long to escape and which in many cases no longer make economic sense
  • Much of what we take to be authentic traditional culture is simply the result of earlier mixtures
  • There are two basic approaches to international culture today: cosmopolitanism and counter-cosmopolitanism, aka fundamentalism. (Though I'd say there's a case for recognising laissez-faire free market capitalism as a powerful third option.)
  • Fundamentalists are universalist without being tolerant. Cosmopolitans believe that there are many values worth living by and nobody can live by all of them. (Though it might be worth trying...)

I doubt that Norman Lewis would have been greatly enthused by this Rushdie-like call for accelerated intermingling and hybridity. An article he wrote in our own Sunday Times magazine in 1968 about Amazonian massacres led to the formation of Survival International, an organisation which seeks to protect tribal peoples and their often unique pre-modern lifestyles.

After several business careers involving cars and cameras, Lewis worked as an intelligence office for the British government before settling down as a man of letters. In all he wrote 13 novels and 14 travel books. He had a natural gift for going incognito: "I'm the only operson I know who can enter a room, stay there 5 minutes, and leave without anyone having noticed I was there." Colin Thubron once described him as "the most anonymous person in the room".

In Voices of the Old Sea his narrative presence on the page is characteristically elusive, which at first I took to be one of the many literay devices which distinguish this work from the less remarkable kind of travel journalism.

In 1948, citing obscure medical reasons Lewis sought to share the confined life of an isolated community and picked the fishing village of Farol on the Costa Brava, "drawn by its reputation of being the least accessible coastal village in north-east Spain." (I couldn't find it on a modern map of Catalunya. Perhaps Lewis changed the name to avoid furthering the contamination.)

Farol's inhabitants were "non materialistic, generous, poetic and superstitious in the extreme". Not religious in the usual sense however. The only time the local priest was ever likely to see the male members of his flock in church was when they arrived with a bride, and even then they would often mutter counter charms throughout the wedding ceremony. Anyone that attended confession was regarded with deep suspicion by the rest of the community.

Lewis spent three successive seasons in Farol and his account of the first, where incipient modernity was just a nagging itch, was for me the most enjoyable. The first to feel the logic of modern "economic sense" were the neighbouring peasants of the dying cork forest. Lewis paints a sad picture of their attempts to pick up basic fishing skills as their traditional livelihood vanished remorselessly.

The fishing community of Farol was run along largely matriarchal lines and inundated with cats. The peasants were stoutly patriarchal and supported a famished pack of man's best friends. Lewis affectionately nicknamed them the Cat People and the Dog People respectively. Both had long looked up to the family of Don Alonso, the local landowner. Now a marginalised figure, Lewis reports how the old don spends his days cutting out obituary notices attended by a stunted old crone who was once a celebrated beauty who sat for portraits in Madrid. He informs Lewis (Appiah please note) that his people want "strong leadership and limited horizons".

At the start of season two one of the largest of the abandoned cork mansions had recently been occupied by the corpulent and effective former black-marketeer Muga, who made no secret of his determination to turn Farol into a tourist destination. One of the first manifestations of the forthcoming makeover was a road along the beach, which the fishermen feared outsiders would use to stare out to sea, thereby bringing ill fortune to the catch.

Muga appreciated that visitors from the wider world "had to be protected from the unpleasant facts of life" which meant that many aspects of coastal life, starting with the food, had to be made gradually more tasteless. When Lewis first arrived in the village the returning fishermen would sit in small groups in the bar beside a massive carved figure of a mermaid and recount the day's adventures in blank verse (in Castellano, deemed more poetic than their native Catalan.) By the time he bid farewell to Farol for the last time the bar has fallen under Muga's management and the mermaid has been packed off into storage somewhere. Yet the fishermen were still hoping that the tourist 'plague' would follow the course of all epidemic diseases and die off leaving them to return to their pescas.

It's a wonderfully well-written account of localised social change charged with Lewis's disarming humour and plenty of strange Spanish customs - such the local vinicultural tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly-pressed grapes. It's hard to tell how much embelishment Lewis allowed himself; I would say a fair bit. (He wrote the book many years later from old notes.)

"I am looking for people who have always been there", he once observed, but ultimately it is the uniqueness and the taste of confined lives that Lewis appears to regret the loss of, not necessarily their unsullied authenticity. (However it's probably a good thing that the inhabitants of Villanueva are no longer burning out the brains of live bulls according to their own ancient customs!)

There are many values living by and you cannot live by all of them - such is Appiah's cosmopolitan creed for the globalised world. It's just a shame that the "many" might be becoming a few without the need for further intervention by the massed ranks of the intolerant.

Incidentally, during the 50s Lewis misplaced his first wife Ernestina in Guatemala when she commenced an affair with a relative of the then president. His (now sadly out of print) novel about indigenous insurgency in Guatemala The Volcanoes Above Us sold 6m copies in the USSR, for which he recived a country dacha in lieu of royalties.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Le Pacte des Loups

A big, brash French beastie that bites off more than it can chew. It is after all possible for a film to be too stylish for its own good − especially when the style isn't itself the main content (as in Kill Bill for example).

The starting point for Christophe Gans' gory eighteenth century mystery is the myth of La Bête du Gévaudan, which the French are wont to characterise as their history's greatest enigma.

Brotherhood of the Wolf makes no secret of its very mixed extraction - many will be able to trace its lineage to precursors as divergent as The Matrix, The Beast, Dangerous Liaisons, The Name of the Rose and the Hammer horror films. Period authenticity has been compromised by the ecclectic mix of styles which inflect many aspects of the production, from the martial arts sequences to the rather distracting soundtrack.

Gans loosely tracks the known historical events for the first half of the story before really letting go. By the end we have discovered (amongst other things) that Monica Bellucci's character Sylvia is an Italian prostitute working as a secret agent for the Papacy!

We were both left highly entertained, but also feeling that the whole spectacle could have been turned down a notch or two to good effect.

Early Scribbles

The extraordinary finds continue at San Bartolo up in the Petén jungle: 10 glyphs, painted on stucco which are said to be 2300 years old (300-200BC) making them the earliest known examples of the Maya script. (Too early in fact to be deciphered.) They were discovered by archaeologist Boris Beltran last April and were yesterday being catalogued in a laboratory in Antigua.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Evo and Zero

V and I have a bet on. She reckons that the next time Latin America's new celebrity Presidente Evo Morales returns to Europe on an official visit he will have acquired a suit, perhaps a first token of longer-term corruptibility. As for me, I like to think he'll still be wearing the burgundy, buff and blue stripey sweater (or similar) that he sported yesterday on arrival in Spain and which he kept on throughout subsequent visits to the Spanish Parliament and Royal Palace.

The Bolivian president-elect's first question to José Luis Zapatero was "is it really you?" referring to the prank played on him recently by wags at a Spanish channel who rang him up impersonating the Spanish PM and nearly caused a major diplomatic incident.

Later as he began his speech from a podium in front of a full gathering of Spain's lawmakers, Morales observed that he couldn't really believe that he was in the same place as so many important people and that the whole thing was a bit of a dream come true for him. He will no doubt find a kindred spirit in Zapatero, who still has the aura of a man who thinks he might wake up from his rather pleasurable political reverie any minute now.

Nationalisation without appropriation was the message Morales then delivered over lunch with a group of Spain's leading industrialists. Foreign companies operating in Bolivia must act with "respeto...mucho respeto". Concerns were generally assuaged. Zapatero agreed to write off $120m of Bolivia's debt which Evo says will now be spent on improving educational programmes. (Surely he could also buy himself a suit?)

Meanwhile the balaclava-clad rebel formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos has announced that he will undertake an awareness-raising tour of all 31 states of Mexico prior to the presidential elections, adopting the new moniker of Delegado Zero. According to Government spoilers, the real identity of the pipe-smoking Zapatista leader is Rafael Guillén, a middle-class university lecturer before the postmodern non-revolution in Chiapas.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bride and Prejudice

The other day V and I were waiting for a take-away pizza when a middle-aged Indian man approached the counter and placed his order. His final instructions to the man with the paper cap were: "Please tell the chef that I would like it well done."

In my experience second only to Argentinians in this respect, a good number of English-speaking Indians exhibit enormous comic potential when it comes to delusionary social pretensions. Llenos de mierdas as Guatemalans would say − not so much full of shit as full of shits. Many seem to feel that they have to constantly compensate for the fact that everybody else might not be able to intuitively detect their inner social status (especially when material circumstances are unable to offer any clear pointers).

Bride and Prejudice is not really a film for grown-ups. Gurinder Chadha has refined all the deeper, maturer and perhaps thornier matter out of Austen's scenario and to a great extent this has deprived the updated story of any adult thematic payload. Yet it strikes me that in some senses the medium is the message; what we have here is a celebration of well kept-up superficial appearances. (There's one scene in particular, set at a private residence in Windsor, where the gag reflex needs to be stifled quite forcefully.)

There's a buzz of xenophobia in the scene where Darcy introduces Lalitha to his battelaxe of a mother, but this coy, kissless film was never really going to explore the sociology of interracial union. And anyway the very striking Aishwarya Rai is just a bit too light-skinned for anyone to bother much about the ethnic angle to this singsong romcom. (Though at least she's not blonde and nose-jobbed like most of Mexico's adored feminine icons.)

You can almost hear the stammers when Roger Ebert delivers his plaudits on the lustrous beauty of Aishwarya Rai: "Never sweaty, never short of breath. What a smile."!

He also inadvertently reveals his dependence on the IMDB in his review, as he suggests that Rai is "not only the first but also the second most beautiful woman in the world", surely a reference to the error in her IMDB biography which appears to state she was both the winner and the runner-up in separate Miss World competitions. In fact she became Miss World in '94 after coming second in the Miss India pageant. She can certainly act, so let's hope she's offered a role or two beyond banal Bollywood kitsch.

La Bête

AKA The Beast, The Beast on Heat and Death's Ecstasy.

The first time you experience Walerian Borowczyk's horny horror classic from 1975 you may die of shock − that is if you don't die laughing. Should you survive through to the end you will certainly never look at bedsteads in country hotels in quite the same way ever again.

The kind of bestial bonding that goes on in the various versions of King Kong is remarkably tame in comparison; after all, the big furball just wants a blonde Barbie to play with.

Borowczyk's creature clearly has more lustful intentions, but the message of the film appears to be that even the most cachondo of canines is no match for the corsetted female libido − a fact which sends the usual ripples of terror through the cassocks of Catholicism. I could never understand why The Exorcist was banned for so many years, but in the case of The Beast I'm surprised that it was ever un-banned! The gist of it has been ably summarised by one user on IMDB: "It's the only film I have ever seen which attempts to mix a fairy tale, a sort of comedy of manners and faked explicit bestiality."

This was our second viewing and we were still fairly shocked and amused as the DVD version has plenty of extra moments that were deemed unsuitable even for viewers of Film Four Extreme a couple of years ago. Still, we were able to pay a bit more attention to the rich gothic symbolism, including a fetishistic approach to woodland molluscs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Carries the tagline No actual Europeans were harmed in the making of this film. I could stand only the first 20 minutes before appreciating the dangers posed to Europeans from the viewing of it. Let's just say that these half-witted American teens begin their tour of Yoorope by hitching a ride with Vinnie Jones, warlord of a tribe of cockney Man-United hooli-fans marauding across the continent in a red roadmaster bus bedecked with the Union Jack.

Dam them all to Hell

Guatemala's Vice Presidente Eduardo Stein has some strong views about the 'wall' that the gringos intend to build along their border with Mexico: “We take it as a total insult to all Latin America that a government calling itself a friend and partner in the region only wants our money and our goods, but sees our people as if they were an epidemic. They treat us as if we were a sub-hemisphere of criminals."

Noting that the border fence seems to have enjoyed a faster route through approval and implementation than CAFTA, Stein went on to say that Guatemala would look "for other latitudes where people are more respected," referring to a proposed link up with South America's Mercosur trading block.

Fuego (3,700m) has been erupting impressively again over the past weekend, sending ash columns up to 150m into the air above the valley and lava flows some 1.5km down the volcano's flanks.

The Butterfly Effect

What if you found a way to live through the consequences of all your significant what ifs?

An interesting premise, competently realised, with just a few of the inevitable logical snarl-ups. The 'Butterfly Effect' should properly refer to substantial, chaotic changes resulting from fairly unprepossessing starting conditions. Yet here the various turning points are both dramatic and singular and their consequences constrained and largely predictable. Not all that happens in each 'replay' is strictly unavoidable in plot terms which results in creeping dissatisfaction, and Ashton Kutcher is just a bit too bland throughout.