Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Scripts involving sets of cleverly intersecting personal narratives − we're talking stuff like Crash and Magnolia here− are amongst the most admired and studied at filmschools. And yet I've always imagined that these kind of stories would actually be easier to write, because they surely save you from having to tackle the hard part of any one of the separate narrative threads. Ghostwritten, David Mitchell's first novel, has served to re-confirm this little prejudice of mine.

There are nine nearly-stories told in ten chapters. There's a theme that doesn't quite over-arch enough, and some of the connections are very arch indeed. And there are loads of good bits.

In the early chapters set in Asia I had to remind myself a couple of times that I wasn't reading translated literature − one of the Japanese characters makes a pun that would only work in English. The first clear sign that the many dazzling passages are going to be offset by clumps of deadening mediocrity occurs in the chapter set around the Hermitage in St Petersburg. I visited the museum in '84 and '85 and was expecting Mitchell to capture something of the mood of this singular space, but the action he describes could be taking place in any major art gallery around the world. The narrator does keep looking out the window in order to describe the weather and visible rooftops outside, but this is generally rather clumsy stuff. (She also produces this cringeworthy metaphor: "The minutes are hauling themselves by like a shot Hollywood gangster crawling down a corridor.")

Nevertheless, I will remember this book mostly for its self-contained gobbets, and have here reproduced a representative selection:

"The most malicious God is the God of the counted chicken."

"Memories are their own descendents masquerading as the ancestors of the present. "

"The world runs on strangers coping."

"Lunatics are writers whose works write them."

"London's middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay."

"Money is another one of those inner's a way to measure yourself."


"If you're in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside , like a book you're reading, it's fate all the way," important observation, and I will return to it later when I post my comments on John Carey's relativist polemic What good are the arts?


Yet another gratuitous Tudela fiesta pic. This time of V getting swept along by an unharmonious little Basque orchestra in the narrow streets of the old part of town...streets that were for the most part deserted, but we could hear the band moving around noisily somewhere in the maze for a while before we eventually ran into it.

V recalled chasing around Antigua's more spacious grid looking for slow-moving Lenten processions wrapped in a swirling mist of incense. And similarly, the groups of instrumentalists that follow the andas in Antigua are usually not musicians in the strictest sense of the word. Each has carefully mastered the particular notes they have to play on the day, and in aggregate something like a (rather doleful) tune emerges. England's World Cup band are a comparable phenomenon.

(Which rather bizarrely reminds me of the controversy surrounding Searle's famous Chinese Room thought experiment and the issue of whether syntax can ever explain semantics. )

Mundial (4)

I've come to the conclusion that at every World Cup game there's a FIFA agent positioned high up in the stadium holding a device with a big red button marked "Turbo".

When pressed the match ball temporarily goes into anti-grav mode. It seems that Lampard can't get anywhere near it before the button gets pressed...and Bravo's missed penalty for Mexico this afternoon showed all the signs.

Twice daily I walk down Mercer street in Covent Garden. One of the doorways has a permanent resident, whose own front door (pictured) suggests that even the metropolis's least favoured citizens are getting into the spirit of things.

Surf's Up

Today might be the longest day here in London, but tomorrow will surely feel longer: 5452 airmiles await.

I had sworn I'd never take the AA route via Miami again after the engine fire in 2000, but the Iberia return leg on the 8th of June would involve missing the World Cup Final the next day and the Houston route is prohibitively expensive at this time of year.

There's always one thing on the list of things V gives me to take over that proves to be a bit of a challenge. I have now found and purchased a suitable lemon squeezer, but the canine nail-cutter is still eluding me! One final schlep to Selfridges at lunchtime...

It's the wet season right now in Guatemala, and so far it has been very wet. It was reported yesterday that a storm 2000 miles away has been pulsing 15 foot waves towards Central America's Pacific littoral. In Guatemala dozens of homes have been destroyed by these surges and in Sipacate the waves wrecked the 10-room Rancho Carrillo the 2-room Rancho Carrillo hotel. "The sea took away eight rooms and part of the restaurant, which was made of wood," manager Brigido de Paz was quoted as saying.

Weather experts have warned that Guatemala could face an on-going battering this year from natural phenomena. The current season has a scheduled line-up of 18 storms. Hugo Hernandez, executive secretary of the National Disaster Reduction Coordination (CONRED), thinks hurricanes could be lo peor....followed by quakes, volcanoes, freezing temperatures and drought. He reckons that 25,000 people reside in high risk areas: 3,000-6,000 in mudslide zones and up to 400,000 in flood-risk areas.

Water Pistol

Another image from Tudela's fiesta patronal in 2004 - I didn't really have one to accompany this post.

Stefan told me a great story on the boat this morning. His former colleague Assen has become a very successful businessman back home in Bulgaria, setting up one of Sofia's most prominent insurance companies (persistently rumoured to be linked to Russian Military Intelligence, though of course Assen denies this.)

Recently Assen was in London and decided to pop into Hamleys to get something for his young son. Being London's most prestigious toy store of course they sell rockets, but Assen made the mistake (easily done) of requesting just a bit too much solid rocket fuel to go with his purchase, and staff were concerned enough to call in the police. Marched off and interrogated, Assen asserted his status as one of Eastern Europe's leading entrepreneurs and was eventually released with his rocket. He was not however allowed to take any of the fuel home with him. In compensation Hamleys gave him a free water pistol.

Stefan wonders if the Regent Street store sells mini-Stinger missiles that you can attach to your radio-controlled airplane!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


In fact not.

The balcony of the Plaza de los Fueros in Tudela was decked out this way, not in eager anticipation of an imminent Wayne Rooney unleashing, but instead to mark the Navarran town's annual week-long debauch, la Fiesta de Santa Ana, essentially a smaller-scale version of that more famous fiesta up in Pamplona (and one thankfully free of Americans clutching their copies of Hemingway.)

We drove into town − without any notion of what to expect when we got there − around this time a couple of years ago on our way back from old Castile. It was the morning after the night before, the big first night of excess, and there were not many Tudelanas on the streets, and many of those that were, were often quite literally on the street.

Prone or standing, everyone was wearing the only outfit to be seen in that week: white tunic and trousers, red belt, red scarf and a red Carlist beret. We passed a couple of small fashion boutiques and were left with the impression that this was the only get-up that you were actually able to buy in Tudela that weekend.

This year the fiesta will kick off next Saturday (June 24th) at midday with the chupinazo. Over the course of the following six days there will be music, fireworks, religious processions, gigantes and cabezudos and the usual range of trauma injuries resulting from the encierro of the bulls. They also have an equivalent of Guatemala's torito, the toro de fuego essentially a sociopath encased in a bull-shaped frame armed with rockets pointing outwards at all angles, whose effect on boozed-up crowds is rather like that of an armoured police truck with water cannon.

Incidentally, when Terry Gilliam was supposedly Lost in La Mancha, he was in fact lost in Navarra, shooting his unfinished Don Quixote in the then storm-sodden Las Bardenas Reales national park, which is just to the north of Tudela.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Mundial (3)

When Fernando Torres scored the fourth last week against the hapless Ukranians, the Spanish commentator started singing Football's Coming English. Today we shall see if they can keep up the momentum.

A mixed bag of games over the weekend. The Americans launched an assault on the Italians with their customary unshakeable optimism (coupled with some African-style defending) and their nine remaining men got − at least − the result they deserved. The Italians responded with the sort of play that saw them eliminated in South Korea.

Ronaldo and the Brazilians appear to have forgotten to drink their guaraná before coming out to play. The Aussies were very close to embarrassing them more. I could have used some guaraná myself during the Japan v Croatia game earlier. Contrast the Ghanaian overrunning of the Czechs, one of the best matches of the tournament so far.

On the BBC last night Ian Wright had a fit of the giggles after France conceded to South Korea and fellow panelist Marcel Desailly ne s'etait pas amusé.

Reuters' big screen at Canary Wharf was the scene of an outbreak of class war during England's first match against Paraguay - members of what my Bulgarian chum refers to as the "so-called" local community took exception to some Champagne-swilling bankers watching from a VIP terrace above them and started tossing bottles in their direction. With open-air viewing now halted until the return of more genteel sports, Wharf businesses such as Barclays and HSBC have offered employees a "meal deal" − they can watch the games in the staff canteen as long as they buy some food. Not such a bad idea as the local Waitrose reportedly ran out of beer prior to the fixture in Frankfurt.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Windows Live Session 2

A few weeks ago I went along to the second Windows Live blogger session at Westminster Kingsway College, hidden away in the grottiest part of Soho.

The average age of the group has gone down a bit since the first gathering back in January. This time it looked like the majority of attendees were budding young developers and the show was definitely pitched at their interest and experience level.

Along with Phil Holden came Koji Kato, Group Program Manager for Windows Live. Koji gave a presentation on the latest gadgets and did some 'live' development, which reminded of the heady days when I used to sit beside to Christofer as he coded away in Visual Basic.

Koji wants to take development to the masses. He showed us how easy it will be to set up a 'bot' as a Messenger contact − so for example, you could ask a question of Encarta ("what is up with Ronaldo?!") and get the answer back as part of the Messenger session rather than having to do a more formal Web search. He also quickly coded-up and demonstrated a search tool that could recognise handwritten content and in which the keyword priorities could be managed by dragging text around the screen. Would seem to work best on a tablet PC.

Koji also showed the group how you can use to associate your digital photos with particular geographical locations (using maps), and reflected that it would be great if a future generation of cameras were able to automatically encode the images with GPS data.

These meet-ups have been organised by a French online marketing agency (with a blog-form website) called Heaven.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Mundial (2)

Yellow shirts everywhere in Soho last night − what Motty once famously described as "a kaleidoscope of colour". The queue outside Salsa! began at 5:30 and tailed back along Charing Cross Road to Borders. Their team won on the night, but look beatable. They play a one man defence (Lucio) and when the others do get back to defend corners and set pieces they look vulnerable. Ronaldo barely had the energy to come back on the pitch for the second half and Adriano didn't make much of an impression. Flashes of individual flair...but none of the symphonic movement that made Brazilian teams of old such a thrilling experience.

From what Kovac has been saying, it seems that marking Ronaldo was rather like standing guard outside Buckingham Palace. An important duty, but not one that requires much running around.

The demeanor of the Croats as their national anthem was played could best be described as un-dead. Compared to this lot Wayne Rooney looks positively metrosexual. The lettering on the back of their shirts hints at an ancient historical pogrom against vowels and, as Surfer pointed out (we hadn't yet eaten), when they hit the ground the opposite side looks like the perfect platform for a few glasses, a candle and a pizza.

The fancied teams continue to win, but the unfancied teams continue to go down fighting. Only the US has been comprehensively thrashed and only the French have been comprehensively unwatchable. No penalties so far − they are saving them up for the knock-out stages.

I was starting to fret this morning that I might have to support the Germans tonight, as a second defeat for Poland would almost guarantee either Ecuador or Costa Rica passage through to the next phase. Yet I know that the heart will win over the head and that I'll still find myself willing on the Poles. Maybe a defeat for the Krouts coupled with a win for the Ticos tomorrow will set the group up nicely for a sudden death finale − all four teams would have three points going into the last game.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bombón El Perro

Many of the Argie films I've seen have been about city folk and their daily quest to be taken seriously as people of the exterior. This one is very much about the people of the interior.

Perhaps what appealed to me most here was the way that almost every character that Villegas runs into on his road to renewal is immediately engaging. It's as if the tale of this man and his dogo is just one patch in a larger quilt of personal truths populated by appealing Patagonians with their own unique stories: the widow that gives Villegas Bombón/Lechien as a reward for fixing the fan-belt on her Mercedes, the beaming young girl in the service station that hands him a winning promotional ticket, the woman that sings Arabian songs phonetically, the teenage couple at the end heading north for a better life in Buenos Aires - none are incidental. I felt at once that I wanted to know more about each of them.

Juan 'Coco' Villegas is a man who appears to have used up his store of options. Laid off at 52 after two decades of labour as a light mechanic at a service station, he's a barely welcome guest at his daughter's home and is having little luck selling hand-crafted knives. The unexpected acquisition of a new companion, an Argentine dogo sired by a great champion, immediately cures him of his ingrained invisibility. Of course at first it's really the dog that people are noticing, but some of this canine value soon starts to rub off on the owner. An apparently doomed spectator is transformed once more into a player.

The inhabitants of trenchant landscapes like Patagonia are often contrastingly soft at heart. The moment in the movie which most touching captures the truth of these good-natured interior folk comes when Juan drives off from the petrol station wearing his new Men in Black specs; "como en la televisión," he later tells his daughter.

This film will move most sensitive sorts, but not in a heavy-handed Hollywood sort of way. Sorin's neo-realist documentary-style storytelling is based on using non-professional actors, and as I noted above, the effect is attention-grabbing. Juan Villegas is played by a man of the same name, himself a twenty-year veteran of garage attendance − so perhaps the expression on his face when everyone claps him at the dog show reflects a genuine surge of self-esteem. Sorin also insists on shooting his films in chronological order.

Lanier revisited

It has been interesting to track the hurly-burly stirred up by Jaron Lanier's Digital Maoism essay, which I reported on a couple of weeks ago. Time for some deeper reflections on its context and impact.

You might say that Lanier's apparent crowd-anxiety is very much in the American political tradition. James Madison himself outlined his concerns about un-governed collective activity at the Constitional Convention, declaring that the masses − and hence Democracy − need constant checking because a) they are dumb and b) they generally behave more like a mob than rational individuals.

Indeed, in stark contrast to the more optimistic proponents of "smart chaos", Lanier is probably one of those thinkers that believe the "hive mind" might indeed be a good idea, if only it consisted entitrely of people with individual minds like his own. Peer-production in the more elitist sense then. Some people simply don't trust the dumb to become clever in the aggregate.

Of course one huge weakness of Lanier's argument is that not all mobs are Maoist. And in the specific case of Wikipedia, although the effect is collective, the cause is surely individual.

Individualism has been the West's key differentiator for centuries. Until about a hundred years ago it was backed up by a scientific world-view founded on a model of reality conceived as the product of the activity of distinct particles. This mechanistic paradigm has steadily lost its grip since quantum phenomena were first detected, and "web" and "system" had become the dominant metaphors within our scientific thinking long before the Internet became a mainstream communications medium.

It's hardly surprising then that all this has tipped the balance in favour of thinking about "webs" of human creativity. This shift is significant and looks like it is here to stay. Perhaps Lanier is right however to suggest that we ought to be giving some consideration at least to what we are losing along the way.

"The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women
to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod
of snippets. So, booksellers...keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges.
For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."
(John Updike)

Now Updike might prefer content with edges, but the edges have been shifting right the way across our culture for some time now. Many would regard his defence of the non-electronic book as Conservative − such things, they would argue, increasingly have legacy cultural value in excess of their use-value. However, it would surely be wrong to dismiss him as a dinosaur. There may be a "new modality" out there, but it is not necessarily a better one. For the time being at least, it would be best to consider it as a useful alternative.

Personally, I'm less concerned about changes to our cultural forms (like books) than changes to the psychological make-up of the individuals that make up our culture. In the end though, I suppose it's up to all of us to decide how mashed-up we'd like our society to become. It's all part of the phenomenon that non-geeks know as Postmodernism...which is not necessarily an improvement on Modernism and everything else before that.

Many Tech-minded thinkers are often far too quick to designate all change as progress. In some of the worst cases they seem to be in the grip of an alternative religious revelation, faith in which entails that it is the destiny of mankind to be relieved of its painful individuality and to fill up the cosmos with a great hive intelligence that will transcend the personal mortality of its components - us. If anything, such ideas are more Buddhist than Maoist.

There are many different ways of looking at the relationship between individual and collective, the centre and the de-centre. Two axes on a graph, two quadrants in a Boston matrix (what would the other two be?!)...a continuum. In his response to Lanier, Clay Shirky characterised the polarity as a "tension". ("Social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation.") The human mind is obviously an interesting mix of individual/serial and collective/parallel process, but unlike other aspects of biology where the dynamic is more obviously "tense"and competitive, here perhaps the two exist in a kind of symbiotic balance.

In spite of the increasing "webbiness" of our contemporary ways of thinking and acting, the market and the theories which drive it, remain resolutely individualistic. So I'd agree with those that regard much of the community activity on the Web as part of an on-going collective defence mechanism against its rigours.


Somehow manages to out-stupid the Hollywood action franchises (Die Hard etc.) from which it derives.

Whilst you can nearly 100% certain that the all-American action hero will be alive and all the bad guys systematically dead at the conclusion of such bullet-fests, his Asian equivalent is just as likely to have earned himself an honourable grave.

The train-hijacking villain here is an impassive former government assassin with a knack for mowing down entire SWAT teams from a standing, uncovered position; a feat he achieves twice in this nonsensical Korean movie. It is offset by an apparent inability to put a bullet into the hero's girlfriend/stalker on several occasions when he has both motive and opportunity.

Monday, June 12, 2006


The suicides of 3 inmates at Gitmo have revealed the apparent interchangeability of two hitherto unrelated (or so I thought) concepts:

"PR exercise" and "Act of asymmetrical warfare."

Nul Points

In all of 2005 AA Gill only gave one "no stars" rating in the Sunday Times. The first unlucky recipient this year is The Bell in Gloucestershire, in what is an amusing demolition job on rural hospitality:

"It’s pretentious, twee and seemingly run for the convenience of the management. The food we ate was risibly bad, the atmosphere smilingly inhospitable, the décor a sordid cliché of rural nostalgia, puppy porn and green-welly fascism."


"The place was full of whispering old folk, the itinerant retired who traipse the B roads of Britain, eking out the unforgiving days and squatting in places like the Bell, because they have nothing else to do. The food is the sort of careless English fare that owes more to daytime TV and women’s magazines than any particular county, and for which Gary Rhodes has much to answer."

My father's place in Berkshire is literally surrounded by these sort of fine dining establishments. And yes, they all seem to have those stupid cartoons in the gents'. Utterly awful.

Mundial (1)

For my World Cup balcony barbecue on Saturday I made this Guatemalan ceviche. (Shrimp, juice of three limes, chopped onion, garlic and chillies, fresh coriander, dried oregano and plum tomatoes.) I skipped on the salsa inglesa (Worcestershire sauce) and you can't get chiltepes in the UK. Almost up to the standard of the one pictured here and all these in this Flickr slideshow.

The whole city went eerily quiet at 2pm. There didn't even seem to be any boats on the river when the game in Frankfurt kicked off.

Over in Guatemala V let off a faja of cuetes outside our house when England scored! She was elated with the win, although she did nominate Roque Santa Cruz mangazo of the match.

All of Guatemala's terrestrial channels show the games at the same time − the polite British notion that some people might want to watch something else just hasn't occurred to them. I shall be out there for the knock-out stages and am looking forward to the general silliness of it. There's a bloke with a substantial crib in our neighbourhood in Antigua who flies the flag of St George from a tall flagpole on his roof year-round.

The Argie commentators on the ESPN feed greeted the Paraguayan own-goal with their customary "Goooooooooooooooooooooooooo...ooooooooooooool". On the BBC Motty was rabitting on about some factlet his computer had just served him and was caught out when Beckham's free kick went straight in. (Earlier, he'd referred to the opposition as 'Uruguay' before a ball had been kicked. Even my father asked me whereabout exactly Paraguay can be found...and he used to live in Argentina!)

Mexico − my dark horses − got off to a great start, with two excellent goals in the second half against Iran. Portugal, rather like England, just wanted to break with recent history and actually win their first match, even if it meant grinding out a 1-0. The Argies looked annoyingly competent against the Ivorians, especially in the first half, but the Africans made a game of it late on. Shame about the Ticos on Friday, but they're not out of it yet.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

One Hour Photo

Entertaining pyscho-thriller, and actually quite unusual in that Sy the Photo Guy has almost become something of an anti-hero at the end....and is still alive, if castigated.

Normally any sympathy the central wacko builds up at the start is thrown away in a third act esclation of violent weirdness that terminates with his or her own personal termination.

Not here though. An abused-child himself, Sy yearns to be part of an 'ideal' American family, and although there is undoubtedly something creepy about the form this yearning takes, he is allowed to expose the normality he is excluded from as both bogus and unpleasant in its own way. Great performance by Robin Williams and eye-catching scene-setting throughout.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Invasion and Lost

It's a great shame that ABC decided to cancel Invasion, especially after that cliffhanger conclusion. By showing the two shows consecutively the network had banked that the people that liked Lost would take to its new little brother, but it didn't work out that way.

When Lost first kicked-off in the UK I gave up after part three (actually at the end of the first night's showing on C4/E4). The first hour was paced like a feature film, but then suddenly all the braking-techniques were deployed at once, and I feared an endless rolling out of pointless flashbacks.

Invasion on the other hand seemed to have much more likeable (and attractive) characters in all the lead roles. Perhaps that was the problem - they had to bring on some deranged Brit towards the end of the series to give audiences a clear sense of who the bad guys were. The idea of creating real ambiguity in the ontological issue of human vs alien nature actually required a bit more moral ambiguity from all those nice folks down in the Everglades. (Would these hybrids have voted for Bush or Gore? They mostly behaved like Bush voters towards the end.)

According to the New Scientist this week an IED is not just something in the dead sheep parked next to your Humvee, it's also an "intermittent explosive disorder", to which more that 7% of Americans are prone according to new research by the Harvard Medical School. This explains much about the character interaction on the island in Lost...though it's that Australian girl Claire that you really want to slap into her senses!

The characters in Lost each have a recurring flaw. Sawyer is duplicitous, Sayid tortures people, Ana Lucia has Hispanic anger-management issues, Jack is, as my friend Katy puts it, a wet cabbage. Lock was my personal favourite for a long time but, at the stage I have now reached (Episode 17 of Series 2) has turned into a kind of neurotic Big Brother housemate down in that hatch, squabbling over the washing up rota with the aforementioned sodden vegetable. So Mr Eko has had to assume the mantle of purveyor of esoteric jungle wisdom to the group. However, it does look like episode 18 will finally reveal how Lock got into that wheelchair though.

Importantly, you get the impression with Lost that they sat down at the outset and worked out the overall synopsis of the story and the main character biographies before they started shooting series one. While both series are soapish in conception, Invasion appeared to have a few of the short-term structural aberrations and exasperating dead-ends familiar from the worst sort of telenovela. Lost is far more even in its fits and spurts!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

United 93

Having participated in three declared mid-air emergencies and at least two undeclared ones, this was always going to be about facing my demons. Yet for most people on this 6/6/06 evening at the West India Quay Cinemania, facing their demons involved seeing The Omen.(The 9:15 performance was a sell-out.)

I reflected that even if the Beast was born today, by time he reaches adulthood we will surely have completed the trashing of our planet without any of His help. Anyway, we already have a date when things took a definite turn for the worse − and it really wasn't long before the full consequences started to be felt.

The tension in the first hour is almost unbearable; suffocating. The nasty smell of burning normality is in the air. It's odd though that this choking tension levels off a bit (enough in any case for me to get my heart rate down) just as the hijackers pounce and the plane itself loses altitude. Perhaps it's because the director has, up to that moment, wanted us to feel like just another one of the passengers, but then changes tack, opening up a bit of distance for us to observe as these desperate un-named individuals make their bid to dodge the bullet they know is coming their way. (Though some have argued that they effectively decided to take it...for the President!)

I have to admit that I always thought they shot this flight down and have just told the story differently to perpetuate a myth of heroic but doomed resistance: another Alamo or an American Thermopylae. But before the credits roll you are told that the whilst the President had indeed authorised the military to shoot down civilian planes that weren't "squawking" to controllers, they were not informed that United 93 had been hijacked until 4 minutes after it had hit the ground in Pennsylvania. We are also told that collectively they had decided not to fire on suspect airliners for fear of false positives. Hmmm, doesn't sound much like the US military to me.

Koran-bashing terrorism is the hidden demon we all fear now, but this film is at its most effective when it's a full-on play on the fear of flying: At Newark the main cabin door to flight 93 clunks shut as ominously as any dungeon door in Hollywood history.

This is also docu-style, context-free "storytelling" at its most affecting. Although I certainly don't subscribe to the various conspiracy theories, there's still enough that we don't know about the events of 9-11 to make me wary of any attempt to fill in the blanks with cinematic narrative. And while the director has taken pains to show us the multinational make-up of the passengers before the hijacking, when the going gets's only the yanks that get going. Indeed, there's a German character that makes it clear that it would be better to wait and do nothing, which turns the final 'action' sequence into a rather unfortunate metaphor for the American experience in Iraq.

Incidentally, Lewis Alsamari, one of the actors playing a terrorist in United 93 was denied access to the US by their embassy in London, proving that he sure looked the part. He did eventually make it to the premiere.

Having been a regular cinema-goer of late, I now dread my reacquaintance with certain ads on the programme. "Peroni Nastro Azzurro: I...taly." The creative for this one obviously derived from the same sort of brief as the San Miguel Spanish passion series: epitomise the nation. Except in this case, they've managed to epitomise the thing that most repels me about Italy: infantile narcissism. Even the Jack Daniels spots leave me with warmer feelings for those banjo-twanging hayseeds in Tennessee.


Only two more days to 'ere we go...

By way of an advent calendar I have discovered a new blog called Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo. Monday's offering was a great pic of a veggie stall in the main market. A friend from HR asked me yesterday afternoon what the food is like in Guatemala. Well, the local cuisine as such may not be up to Basque standards, but the range of fresh ingredients is phenomenal.

Neopolitan TV chef and former jailbird Gino d'Acampo has just got back from Mexico and was on Saturday Kitchen last week teaching fatboy Worrall-Thompson how to cook albondigas with 'red rice'. (Gino actually says salsa, not "sulsa" like that dreadful Delia woman.) I just had to have a go myself. I didn't have any fresh breadcrumbs so I obliterated some Viktoria toasted rolls from IKEA using a mallet and that seemed to work well enough. Nor could I be bothered to go out and find some explosive chiles habaneros, so I used some pale green Californian chillies in a jar, yet somehow still managed to blow my head off.


Park in Queensgate and check voicemail: just my mother letting me know that I don't love her any more because I hadn't called since Friday. While I'm appeasing her, a pair of bleeps indicate that Surfer is trying to reach me. I assume he's made it to the front steps of the V&A and is awaiting me there, but no, in fact he has broken down behind the Lycée. Sheepishly, he tells me he might have run out of gas. I wander down and find him wedged diagonally into a corner on Harrington Road. Together we shove the car until it's less of an obstacle and then I set off to get some petrol from the TOTAL garage on Sloane Avenue.

Even after tipping half the tub into the BMW using a refashioned Starbucks paper cup, and the other half onto the tarmac or over ourselves, we appear to be out of luck, but three students from the Lycée wander over and seem quite knowledgeable about the "pompe" and "gazole", and eventually help to give Surfer a push start. Such is the uncommon helpfulness of these Frenchies that we both vow to support them in the World Cup. Well, for the first week at least.

Up the red-carpeted steps and into what turns out to be a surprisngly swanky event. Not just a private view of Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon, but also a Miss Selfridge Fashion in the 60s show. Trust the V&A to pander to both the yin and the yang of that era, La Dolce Vita and La Bandera Roja. A quick scan of glittering and chattering crowd in the main lobby under that strange bauble thing (pictured) reveals that most of them have surely come here to celebrate the icon rather than the revolutionary.

The DJ has a hey hey we're the Monkeys hairdo and is spinning a set of sixties hits (of which You Only Live Twice etches itself most successfuly onto my consciousness). I wonder whether el Che is also spinning in his grave at 45 rpm.

As we mingle we fret that a careless fashionista might flick a fag in our direction and we'll all end up looking like the extras in Poseidon. ("Flash fire...lungs burn like rice paper.")

I have in mind to pour some Cava down my shirtfront to head off those eye-watering petrol-head vapours, but soon start to relax, waving my Chocolate Phone around to signal my sense of belonging. It's also the only way I have of recording this moment for (my own) posterity. It has to be said that most of the objectsofdesire on dispay have luscious eyelashes and are serving platters of sushi, though there are a few other delicate morsels posed around the circular bar that tonight is sponsored by Stolichnaya. "The history of Stolichnaya is deeply intertwined with Russian history and the Revolutionary spirit", boasts the drinks menu.

To "awaken my revolutionary spirit" I down a Martini and a 'Raspberry Beret': "As you sip this delicate mix of Stolichnaya Red vodka, Chambord and honey, let your thoughts return to those chants in 1967 Latin America "We won't let him be forgotten." No, but nor are we remembering him quite as he would have wished!

To my untutored eyes the 60s room looks like a bunch of spotty miniskirts − Portobello road behind glass cases − but the Che collection is certainly eye-catching and very well-balanced. The curators have worked out how to be both playful and informative without being blatantly irreverent to the aura of a man many still worship as a modern-day santo. The variety of images on display is fascinating (and all this and much else they achieved without Photoshop.)

A few years ago I came across some prints of the iconically iconic pic of the commandante by Korda in a gallery in Greenwich. They weren't that expensive and I guess I ought to have invested − especially now that there's one in this exhibition! I recall that at the time I pissed off the gallery owner a bit by pointing out that the massive blown-up colour print he was selling as "Havana Cuba" was in fact the Tanque de la Union in Antigua Guatemala.

As I get back to the Island I have a text from Surfer − he's broken down again, a few hundred yards from home, right outside Olympia. A copper helped push him out of the way then left him waiting for the RAC. Looks like we really did pour more petrol over ourselves than into the Beemer.

Full set of pics.

Frode's 38th

Had a great time on Friday night at Frode's birthday barbecue. Ted was on excellent form:

"The Web is a dumbed-down version of something I came up with in 1968."

(Hey, I'm also a dumbed-down version of something someone came up with in 1967! )

He then gave a demo of his latest alternative hypertext environment- Floating World.

Earlier he told me that he knows Jaron Lanier from his Sausalito days and that the dreadlocked demagogue is generally known as "Mr Virtual Reality; though freely admits that the phrase was originally coined by a French film director (not however mentioned in this entry.)

The next morning I learned that news of The Crouch had reached Guatemala!

Monday, June 05, 2006

The New World

It might have taken me a while to get used to the impressionistic storytelling style, but once I settled, I was also deeply moved. As with Terrence Malick's earlier film The Thin Red Line, quizzical inner voices decorate the dreamily disconnected action, itself a backdrop to a hauntingly revealed natural world. (Set to Wagner's prelude to Das Rheingold and tweeting birdies.) It's essentially a re-telling of the Pocahontas myth, though as far as I could tell the name itself only appears on the end titles.

"There's something that I know when I'm with you that I forget when I am away" Colin Farrell (as Smith) murmurs to her, perhaps the most touchingly poetic line in the whole film.

Amazingly, Q'Orianka Kilcher, the actress that plays Pocahontas, was just 15 when this movie was made - she was spotted a year earlier playing her guitar in Santa Monica. She is half Quechua-Huachipaeri and she has the striking flat features common to Peruvian indígenas. Pocahontas was only 13 when she 'saved' Smith and is said to have called him "Father" when they met again in London in 1617. Smith himself observed at this awkward re-encounter that "without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented".

Smith's ships Discovery, Godspeed and Susan Constant sailed in 1607 to Virginia with 105 people from Blackwall Stairs, quite close to my apartment. I remember being told the fanciful tale once that Pocahontas' ghost still haunts the abandoned galleries of Tobacco Dock, but I can't find a connection to Wapping and she is known to have died at Gravesend. Her earrings were exhibited at the Museum in Docklands at West India Quay.

Surfer also told me last night that there's a village in Cornwall called Indian Queens in reference to the fact that she and Rolfe supposedly made landfall at Sennen Cove before making their way overland to London, but her Wikipedia entry insists that they disembarked at Plymouth.

Thanks to a recommendation by the Professor I have started to collect the Latin American baroque recordings by Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore. (Appearing on June 16 at the Stour festival.) The first CD is entitled New World Symphonies and features a rich mix of plainchant and polyphonic choral pieces from sixteenth and early seventeenth century America. My personal favourite is the opener, Hanaq pachap Kusikuynin (1631), an anonymous piece. Also sung in Quechua is Qhapaq eterno Dios (1598), and there's a beguiling lullaby in Nahuatl by Gaspar Fernandes (1570-1629) called Xicochi Conetzintle. (Street kids in Mexico are sometimes called Escuintles, so that word that must also be of Mexica/Aztec origin.) Moon, Sun and all Things should arrive later this week.


Bigger, noisier and in a way, nastier than the original. Few films can have wallowed quite so much in human destruction. The big set-piece effects will be worth the price of the ticket for most, but I found that the inner environment of the overturned ship gets a bit samey as the various stock situations are ticked-off.

Whereas The Poseidon Adventure built up the characters along the way, Wolfgang das Boot Peterson's re-make shows signs at the outset of wanting to take some time to establish the key players before the "rogue wave" hits. This early promise is entirely squandered however, and amongst the survivors at the end are some entirely pointless characters that have barely said or done anything since disaster struck to merit either our interest or concern. (e.g. Maggie.)

How the heck does Richard Dreyfus get to survive? In the absence of any African Americans to provide obvious clues as to who might not make it, we supposed this gay "divorcee" was there to fly the flag for minority interest. Oddly, he also seems to be the only 'old' person on the cruise ship!

Early on there appeared to be an opportunity to add some edge to his relationship with Elena (played by argie Mía Maestro) as he had just shaken her boyfriend off the end of his leg, but when the subject comes up she doesn't seem even vaguely interested in whether poor old Valentino is still alive. Elena was however the one (female) character it was possible to take an interest in, and both Surfer and I admitted to diminished attention after her sad demise. As for Kevin Dillon's Lucky Larry, he practically had "count me down..." written on his forehead.

The scene that has always stuck with me from Christmas re-runs of The Poseidon Adventure is the one where the group encounters a line of survivors shuffling "the wrong way" along the capsized liner. This updated bunch pass many a charred corpse, but there's not a peep out of any of them!

One of the previews was for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, scheduled for release once all the football finishes. It looks much more Disneyfied than the first film and oddly, Orlando Bloom hardly features in the trailer. Looks like it's going to be the Captain Jack show.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Jean Baudrillard worries that the man of the future "will be a corrected, rectified human. He will be from the outset what he should have been ideally. He will never, therefore become what he is." Yet what for Baudrillard is clearly a problem is for Michel Houellebecq nothing less than the solution: "The revolution will not be mental, but genetic." Mental it certainly is!

For the first hundred or so pages I was thinking that Atomised was a better, funnier novel than Platform, but then I started to get the impression that the plot and characters had become totally subservient to the author's delusional masterplan for the human race - a kind of porno Paolo Coelho if you like.

Still, I found much to enjoy here...unlike the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani who wrote:
"The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy -- over the book's right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages -- accounts for the novel's high profile. As a piece of writing, 'The Elementary Particles' feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read."

Many standing outside of continental Europe's intellectual culture just don't get why its glass is permanently (at least) half empty - what Houellebecq describes here as "a general mood of depression bordering on masochism." After Nietzsche there are those that accepted the passing of the Deity, those that didn't, and those that never even heard the news. It is the blessing/curse of the Anglo-Saxon that he is usually blind to the void.

At the very least we British tend to look at tragedy with a sense of irony. Houellebecq scoffs at this: "Irony won't save you from the end life always breaks your heart...Some people live to be 70, sometimes 80 years old, believing that there is always something new just around the corner, as they say; in the end they practically have to be killed or at least reduced to a state of serious incapacity to get them to see reason."

Houellebecq specifically reminds me of my pal Baksheesh, who has the same knack for packaging cynicism as idealism. In my friend's case the charm of it derives from the fact that its clearly not rooted in either small-mindedness or hatred. You can't be so sure with Houellebecq. All of his pet hates are present here, such as the "sex and shopping society" where "the seasons were all commercial ones" and features "the ideals of the entertainment industry, individual freedom, the supremacy of youth over age and the destruction of Judaeo-Christian values." It marshals our desire so that "people have to want more until it fills their lives completely and finally devours them" and "a world in which the young have no respect eventually devours everyone."

Then there is his parents' generation: "Liberated from the constraints of ordinary morality [we] turn our attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty. The serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the sixties."

And how he loves to be rude about other countries. You can't even say indirectly, as his characters are such poorly-disguised ciphers for his own personal issues. Norway and Japan are "those sinister countries where middle-aged people commit suicide en mass", while Brazil is "a shitheap full of morons obsessed with football and formula one. It was the ne plus ultra of violence, corruption and misery. If ever a country were loathsome, that country, specifically, was Brazil."

Houellebecq sees the half-empty side of TV Nature documentaries too: "Graceful animals like gazelles and the antelopes spent their days in abject terror while lions and panthers lived out their lives in listless imbecility punctuated by explosive bursts of cruelty...All in all, Nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust and Man's mission on Earth was probably to do just that."

The title itself signals the author's willingness, like many Postmodern French thinkers (Baudrillard included), to couch his metaphors in the concepts of contemporary Science: "Now particle, now wave - so Bruno could be seen as an individual or as passively caught up in the sweep of history."

And quantum physics, Houellebecq suggests, has instigated the "suicide of the West" by undermining the materialism that had itself put paid to traditional religious faith in Europe. As Baudrillard puts it, God was the "first barrier", and after that had been breached, Man "no longer needed God, nor even the idea of underlying reality."

Noting the words of St Paul, that "if Christ did not rise from the dead then our faith is vain" Houellebecq insists that the apparent unavailability of an afterlife will thwart all efforts to fashion an upbeat society, at least while we remain in our present biological state: "Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality."

Kakutani summarises: "The remedy for suffering, this book implies, does not lie in anything as old-fashioned as human love, kindness or faith -- emotions Mr. Houellebecq discounts as being purely illusory -- but in the evolution of humanity into a superior, rational species: clones devoid of individuality, a race of ''gods'' carefully engineered by scientists to lack the egotistical and quarrelsome qualities of human beings."

Over the final few pages one of Houellebecq's monads is summarising the state of its own post-human society, and comes up with a line that I found ironic, but perhaps the author himself didn't:
"Without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken on a less urgent aspect."

Friday, June 02, 2006

Digital Maoism

Jaron Lanier's provocative essay in Edge this week (Digital Maoism: the hazards of the new online collectivism) has reinforced some of my present discomforts with the state of online media. In particular I have voiced concerns on this blog about:

- the results of algorithms being presented as "intelligence", blurring the distinction between qual and quant information
- my sense that the Net as a whole is losing some of its flavour, rather like those supermarket chickens

Lanier is worried about the wikification of content: "When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia." This problem is exacerbated by the fact that search engines are more likely to point users to wikified versions of pages.

For Lanier this isn't just an issue of accountability and authentication, it's also one of personality. This "gives language it's full meaning. "Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the Bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure."

This resurgent belief in the near-infallible wisdom of the collective has a growing appeal to large organisations because it helps to shield individuals from having to assume personal risks and responsibilities. Yet overall it fosters "a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for nuances of considered opinions and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organisation." It's also "safer to be an aggregator of the collective. You get to include all sorts of material without committing to anything. You can be superficially interesting without having to worry about the possibility of being wrong."

Lanier reckons that inappropriate uses of the collective in the corporate world demonstrate that "bad old ideas look confusingly fresh" when packaged as technology. As for blogging..."it's easy to be loved as a blogger - all you have to do is play the crowd. Real writing involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation."

There's no doubt that media-collectivisation is everywhere today, affecting the way we interact with the news, and the way that media products are themselves formulated. The winners of reality TV competitions may be (almost by definition) likeable, but "something is lost," Lanier argues, "when American Idol becomes a leader instead of a follower of pop music." Would the likes of Jimmy Hendrix or John Lennon have thrived on this kind of show? I myself have recently noted a rather serious decline in the quality of BBC news-programming (especially Breakfast) as a result of this phenomenon.

Lanier is concerned too that many appear to believe that whatever problems exist will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds, responding that "sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don't."

I'd have to admit that I was one of those individuals whose own thinking about technology was influenced in the mid-90s by the concept of organised complexity popularised by the likes of Kevin Kelly and Stuart Kauffman. Yet even then I recoiled from a certain lack of judgement and all-round over-enthusiasm for collective intelligence that was emerging in the wider techy culture at the time.

Lanier perceives a sort of race to be the "most meta" top-level aggregator in the online world, citing Kelly's enthusiasm for consensus Web filters such as popurls: "We now are reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously."

There may be, as Kelly asserts, "no better way to watch the hive mind" but, claims Lanier "the hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring" so why give it our attention? He believes that we are actively making idiots of ourselves by imagining that the Net is itself an entity with something unique of its own to say: "In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as it it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle."

The essay concludes that calming mechanisms that worked "tolerably-well" in the pre-Internet world could now be applied to restore some order online - such as feedback loops between the individual and the collective. (Markets work this way.) However, "the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself...History has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot."

Happy Easter

"The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."

When the Europeans arrived on Easter Island this was the most inflammatory local taunt, reflecting a change in diet forced upon the natives by deforestation. No trees meant no birds and no seagoing canoes to seek out porpoise and tuna. Yet rats, a pest that humans themselves had introduced, persisted. They too had done much to damage the native flora.

In Collapse Jared Diamond identifies 8 factors which made the natural environment on Easter particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation. Yet the hypothetical question of what the islanders were saying to each other as they cut down the last tree remains. Diamond offers some suggestions:

"Jobs not trees"

"Technology will solve our problems...never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood."

"We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on the Easter...we need more research...your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering."

The problem must have accelerated towards the end as urgent appeals to ancestors meant that more statues had to be carved and transported, requiring more wood and more food for the labourers. The islanders' practice of cremating the dead was also fuel-intensive.

One of the trees that didn't make it is said to have been even taller relative of the 65ft high, 5ft wide Chilean Wine Palm which oozes a sweet sap which can be drunk as 'wine' or boiled down to make honey or sugar.

In 1862-3 Peruvian ships visited the island and abducted 1500 people to work in their guano mines. International pressure eventually forced them to repatriate some of the survivors, who returned with a smallpox epidemic that killed off many of those that had remained.

A globalised world where all resources are shared is as alone in space as Easter's Polynesians were in the vast Pacific. Diamond ends his chapter on this lonely island's environmental meltdown by asking how worried we ought to be about the parallels.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Sunday at the pool in Kigali

I'm far less prone to misanthropic flare-ups in Guatemala than in London. Somehow, the more messed-up the environment the easier it is for me to feel the human truth all around me, often quite literally in the gut.

Whilst I have no first-hand experience of 90s Rwanda, the topic has in a sense reached out to me off the printed page, recommending itself as one of the most far-fetchedly messed-up environments the twentieth century had to offer. Here truly was a place and time in history where hardly anyone was prepared to give their fellow man the benefit of the doubt.

My previous second-hand experiences of this murderous moment were two works of non-fiction, one by young American journalist called Philip Gourevitch and the other by Poland's great roving reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. Then there was Terry George's film Hotel Rwanda. Each offered a slightly different perspective on the origins of the genocide of 1994 which swept away over a million lives in just over a month.

Only a full-time misanthrope could dismiss Gil Courtemanche's first novel. (No doubt a number of critics will have deployed the adjective "urgent" to capture its message.) The pool in the title is the one at the Milles Collines, the Sabena-owned establishment at the heart of Hotel Rwanda, but here shown to be a far more tainted location than the civilised bourgeois sanctuary from the barbarism of Africa managed by Don Cheadle's character in the film. (It reminded me of a similar hotel and pool in Oliver Stone's Salvador.)

Courtemanche, a renowned French-Canadian journalist and award-winning film-maker, decided to fictionalise his experiences in Kigali when he came across this description of the poolside area in his notes: "All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely thank you." At the beginning of the story hotel guests and visitors can here the sounds of escalating violence outside the compound, "just far enough from the pool for it to be somewhere else." Soon however, there will be no somewhere else.

The key protagonist is a Canadian TV journalist named Bernard Valcourt, a man waiting in Central Africa "for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings." His scrap turns out to be Gentille, a beautiful young waitress in the hotel who will become his wife on the eve of the cataclysm. Touchingly, both appear to sense that their relationship is somehow too good to be true, and frankly they may have been on to something - Courtemanche's Rwanda is such a dark place that the pure light of their love struck me as a tad artificial.

I found myself identifying strongly with one aspect of Valcourt's predicament- his recognition that while this land he has ended up in has a full house of intractable Third World problems and nurtures great evil, of both the malicious and the misguided sort, he can't help but feel that be belongs there. Crucially, he renounces the opportunity to leave when he can, making plans to put down roots just when it seems most unwise to do so. This decision, he insists, "does not imply acceptance of the idiocy and inhumanity that the country nurtures." And yet, he seems to have no ready answer to the Rwandan who bluntly asks him "Don't you get a feeling sometimes that you're living off our death?"

When all the other journalistic accounts have gone out of print or been absorbed into historical theses, this one may well remain freely available in our mainstream bookshops − the lasting public memory of these events outside of Africa. From a literary standpoint there is nothing wrong with this at all − the novel is a stunning achievement in that respect.

Yet to my mind, from an interpretational perspective, Courtemanche has a better overall grip of the build-up − as much about the scourge of AIDS as it is about deadly identity politics − than the climax, where his observations appear to drift from complexity towards inconclusiveness; confusion even. If you come to this book knowing nothing of the background to the bloodshed you will not necessarily come away from it with any lasting insights. Whilst Courtemanche suggests that "primitive nature" can suddenly take the form of a tornado, mass murder requires the intervention of men who "create the conditions that send it over the top." And, as I mentioned in the previous post, he also seems to endorse the view expressed by one character that the Rwandan genocide is just a poor-man's version of the Holocaust: they used machetes because they couldn't afford gas chambers.

Every account of Rwanda '94 that I have read has played down the physical differences between Hutu and Tutsi. For Kapuscinski the idea that real differences of ancestry existed between what he calls two 'castes' in the same tribe, was a nonsense invented by venomous Rwandan academics associated with the Hutu government. In Hotel Rwanda there is a scene where a barman tells Joaquin Phoenix's character that the distinction was made up by the Belgians and we are shown how the two girls sitting at the bar next to him, one Hutu, one Tutsi "could be sisters." Courtemanche however, suggests that the key traits could be read on the faces of most Rwandans. Gentille has a Hutu ID card, but her great great grandfather aspired to marrying his family into the then dominant group and as a result she has the tall, thin frame and the café-au-lait skin that would mark her out as a Tutsi at any of the roadblocks manned by machete waving interhamwe.

I also felt that Valcourt's reactions on his return to Kigali once the storm has abated seem unnaturally phlegmatic. On the last page are told that he has remained in Rwanda and works for the rights of Hutu's accused of genocide. All very noble, but somehow not that plausible. Perhaps when he sat down to write this novel Courtemanche was torn between what his head and his heart were telling him about the events it gives testimony to.

As ever though, the French come out of this very badly. Courtemanche's footnotes reveal how they evacuated only their non-African Embassy staff, leaving the remainder to be massacred.