Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ian Fleming's Casino Royale

"Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas."

Just one of many little snippets from the world according to James Bond from this deliciously old fashioned book − by which I mean sexist, racist and snobbish − given a new lease of life here in 2006 by EON productions. Actually, the best of the lot has to be this: "The trouble is not how to get enough caviar, but how to get enough toast with it."

Bond doesn't do anything particularly heroic in his first outing; it's a wonder the whole 007 phenomenon got going at all after this. He wins a game of Baccarat but he doesn't, for instance, shoot anyone. His rear end requires saving twice, first by the Americans, and then, gawd help us, by the French. He trashes his Bentley before having his genitals worked over by a carpet beater, but still appears capable of thinking with them for the rest of the story, unable to spot all the obvious signs that his curvaceous assistant Vesper Lynd is a traitor working for "Redland". And but for the momentous incompetence of two Bulgarian bomb-chuckers he would have been blown to smithereens before the first card has been turned over. As mid-50s hedonistic, amoral anti-heroes went, my money would have been on Tom Ripley.

Yet the novel isn't without all merit. Perhaps its most interesting passage is the exchange where the British agent confesses to Mathis that Le Chiffre's taunt that he has all the while been playing a silly game of cowboys and indians has actually hit home. The problem, says Bond, is that he's no longer sure of who is really bad. "God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil, what does he look like? There's a good book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there's no Evil Book about evil and how to be bad. The Devil has no prophets to write his Ten Commandments and no team of authors to write his biography."

Fleming's Vesper starts off promisingly enough, drawing Bond in with her "composure" and what he takes to be ironical disinterest. But thereafter she becomes way too "oh darling" for my taste, represented to us through the confused sentimentality of a misogynist. As for the cocktail that Bond names after her - "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon peel, got it?" - its reappearance in the movie this month has had a dramatic impact on sales at Kina Lillet, one of the few highly visible brands that didn't have to pay for its placement.


The Sun Also Rises

It was funny to read Scott's comment on my earlier post today, because at the time I had considered adding a few words about The Sun also Rises.

It's the only novel I have read three times and it remains an enigma to me. My first reading was when I was in my teens and came as a strong recommendation from my father.

I do think that perhaps it's one of those books like The Catcher in the Rye that you need to read at a certain stage in your life. Anyway, I loved it, and perhaps more importantly I fell in love with Lady Brett Ashley. Perhaps no other novel has influenced my outlook on life so much at the time of reading.

But then I decided to re-read it sometime during the early 90s and I was shocked to find that I could no longer sympathise in the slightest with any of the main characters. They were just a bunch of boneheads going around from place to place getting plastered. And as for the former love of my life, she now repelled me. (I recently experienced this same disturbing disappointment upon a second reading once again with Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.)

Then in 2001 something else happened: I fell in love with the Basque country. Suddenly this strange land with its fiestas where entire townships would don white tunics and red berets and behave like a bunch of boneheads going around from place to place getting plastered for three whole days and nights every year, became my favourite spot on Earth; and so it was time to have another go at Hemingway's evocative little novel.

My third reading was like a third glass of wine. It becomes hard to tell how much of the overall experience derives from the previous two...but at least I did stop fretting about the insipidness that had spoilt the second serving.

Scott was right about another thing, The Old Man and the Sea is, on reflection, my least favourite Hemingway novel. Though I must have liked it once because I bought it for V in translation soon after we first met in '89.


Yesterday the Register reported that Polonium-210 is available to buy online for just $69 plus shipping and handling. Today the vendor has responded: "You would need about 15,000 of our Polonium-210 needle sources at a total cost of about $1 million - to have a toxic amount." Cheap as chips for your average Russian billionaire...

Best books ever?

I have run through this list of the Top 100 Books of all time provided by the Guardian and find that I have read 28 of them. So, not nearly as close to half-way through as I am personally on the lifecycle scale, but then I also found that there are only another 24 that I actually want to read!

No serious objections to the content of the list, though I'd add Victory to Conrad's tally and For Whom the Bell Tolls to Hemingway's. I have my reservations about Pedro Páramo and if Blindness is good enough to be on this list, so are The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Dostoevsky is perhaps a little over-represented, so I'd dock him one book and add Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rosario Tijeras

On leaving the auditorium last night we were encouraged to tear off the corner of the ballot paper we had been handed in order to rate the film. My vote said "Loved it!" and I did, on so many levels.

After a blood-soaked opening sequence, the action rewinds to a scene where two rich boys in a familiar extrovert-introvert pairing are hanging out in a swanky joint called el Acuario in Medellín.

It's 1989 and the nightclub is split onto two levels. While coke-snorting mangazo Emilio is in his element downstairs, a single staircase leads up − oddly enough− to the seedy underworld of Colombia's narcos and their hitmen. On this night Rosario Tijeras is dancing in a sexy-solipsistic manner on the lower level, but moments after meeting Emilio's enthusiastic gaze she tumbles into lust with him.

It's not long before he wants to know her story, but she reassures him that what they have is beyond words...while she slowly develops a more candid emotional relationship with his quiet sidekick Antonio, played by the (rather obviously) Basque actor Unax Ugalde.

The damaged and damaging persona of Rosario emerges out of series of cinematic Chinese boxes. There are nested flashbacks and multiple views of different key scenes, similar to those in Amores Perros, justified here not by the coming together of different story strands, but rather by the rendition of a cleverly layered portrait, which prevents us from forming early on some of the more obvious prejudices that might surround this sort of female character. (It's worth waiting to find out how she acquired her 'scissors' nickname.)

In my view one has to judge narrative trickery like this in terms of whether it improves upon a more straightforward structure, and here I think it does. And as if to drive home the relevance of unconventional time to the film's meaning, towards the end Rosario gives us a tearful little speech about how she would like to have had the freedom to add more moments to the time she has already lived, in much the same way that musicians can proliferate notes within the standard beat.

An 'independent' woman in a violent, chauvinistic world, Rosario is delimited by the compromises she has had to make and the reputation that she now has to inhabit, and neither Emilio nor Antonio immediately realises that she might be seeking to unbind herself − if only a little − through her relationship with them. Emilio says he would follow her to hell. She later tells Antonio that he just never got it: she wanted to follow him to heaven.

Religious themes are never far from the surface here. We watch as Rosario blesses the bullets her brother Johnefe will use in his drive-by shootings by touching each one against a statuette of the Virgin. Later we see the hundreds of candles lit by killers around the larger statue of Nuestra Señora de los sicarios, Our Lady of the hitmen. There's a great little section in the middle when the recently deceased Johnefe is taken out partying in an open-top car by his parses, a fag hanging from his greyed lips and a pair of Aviators hiding his dead eyes.

Mexican director Emilio Maillé explained after the screening that he had initiallty intended to cast a lead actress with darker, more mestiza features, but when he saw Flora Martínez's screentest he knew he had found his Rosario. Her performance is absolutely first rate. It's perhaps only in the scenes where she has to reveal the innermost box, the simple, vulnerable young girl from the barrio, that her background in telenovelas might easily be guessed.

Maillé's use of the secondary cast is superb: every one, even if on screen for a few seconds or lurking in the background, has clearly been primed to contribute through action and gesture their own personal story to the overall mix. (Compare the other poker players in Casino Royale, if you can even remember them!) The extraordinary topology of Medellín is also used to good effect.

My favourite moment was close to the end. Antonio enters the re-named nightclub and spots Rosario on the dance floor, clenched by her former lover Ferney. Forever reticent, he takes a few steps back and looks away awkwardly...

Last night's London premiere came as part of the Discovering Latin America Film Festival, this year donating to CREA, a UK-based charity which seeks to ease Panama's campesinos out of their traditional yet increasingly unsustainable slash and burn agricultural practices.

There will be another showing at the Odeon Covent Garden next Saturday (2/12) at 11:30pm, perhaps followed by another opportunity to have a complimentary bottle of Corona with the director.

If you ring up the voice-activated ticket booking line be sure to pronounce the name of the film as Rozario Tidgeras.


Alexander Litvinenko has joined the tally of bizarre foreign-conceived assassinations in London, along with the likes of Georgi Markov and Roberto Calvi.

Litvinenko is said to have believed that Vladimir Putin's henchmen blew up apartment blocks in Moscow in order to pin the blame on the Chechens. For all I know he might also have believed that the Russian President signed Princess Diana's death warrant. These days everything is believable...and deniable, which is why I suspect that there's a little office in Langley responsible for disseminating wild conspiracy theories so that the Agency's operatives can get away with just about anything they choose to!

Unlike Calvi, Litvinenko wasn't exactly silenced, was he? His killers chose an elaborate and slow form of termination which granted the ex-spook an intense two-week period of media noisiness, like the clamorous coda of a Beethoven symphony. And it's the possibility that this extra exposure was part of the plan that makes this particular murder most interesting, but our newspapers over here appear far are more interested in stoking up a diplomatic row with the Russian authorities.

Don't make Mary sad

The Islam Channel is running an amusing little ad in which an adult woman dubs the voice of a young girl wandering around a smart modern apartment dressed a bit like the Virgin Mary.

Hello, she says, my name is Maria, which is Mary. Little Mary tells us that she loves Jesus, "peace be upon him", in fact she "loves all the prophets of God...Jesus, Abraham and Mohammed", and it makes her "sad when anyone insults them or makes fun of them." Most of the meaning of this little propaganda piece lies in the deep-toned emphasis the actress places on the word "sad".

The same channel publicises its in-house magazine with the strapline Dare to Question, a rather flagrant pilfering of the invitation to doubt inherant in (parts of) the Christian message, but usually absent in the Muslim one.

Third World taster

I love the way Guatemala is placed ahead of the Congo in this post!

So, Republican Tom Tancredo thinks Miami is an outpost of the Third World. You certainly feel you have one foot in the chaos of Latin America when you pass through its airport. But when compared to the neo-fascist experience that is George Dubya Bush International in Houston, that's maybe not such a bad thing!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"I hate peanut butter. We all should"

Back in February I suggested that the old doublet of form and substance might be a useful way of laying out the differences between Yahoo and Google, and quoted Yahoo's Valla Vikili who had alluded to "death of meaning" in a presentation to some of my colleagues.

Well, meaning is definitely on its last legs in Brad Garlinghouse's now infamous Peanut Butter memo. With its dropped balls and short-term band-aids it represents such an apotheosis of the modern anti-style in Business, that I thought it might have been a pastiche when I first read it. But no, the Y he has shaved onto the back of his head really does stand for the old fashioned kind of yahoo.

Anyway, I wish them all the best of luck with focusing the vision and all the other rather violent sounding measures that the yellow and purple-blooded Garlinghouse proposes, like executing a radical reorganisation, killing redundancies and blowing up the matrix. (This last one can never be a bad thing.)

Yet more expedient information

Almost forgot...when purchasing flights from the likes of never accept the first price that is offered. I've noticed that these services like to drop a cookie and will sometimes award you with a cheaper price for the same flight the second time you search for it.

Shop! Shop! Shop!

Today has certainly been voucher day as my friend TC has emailed me discount vouchers for Selfridges, Borders and GAP, to add to the Threshers voucher I picked up over the weekend.

Here's another trick that's worth sharing. Towards the end of the day Waitrose often individually reduces items that are already offered on a £X off when you buy two type of discount. At check-out the two reductions are combined and last week they actually paid us 50p to buy two ready meals! I suspect that the game would immediately be up if one only bought those two items, as they surely wouldn't put their hands in the till and give you the 50p, but it can make a handy little freebie + discount on a larger shopping basket.

Heard on the RepVine

Speaking of which, there's a new service called Repvine, which describes itself as "a platform for people to collect and share references along with a means for their sphere of influence to collectively validate the references provided."

Collecting references linked to their providers also makes sure that this more managed part of your online reputation scores relatively highly on Google.

Webby's World notes that "the difference between ClaimID and RepVine is that instead of acting as a bookmark service, RepVine does things such as collect references. RepVine allows you to ask your online contacts for references, however, in order to provide them they must sign-up for RepVine. Your contacts then build up references, and it all turns into a nice little circle of trust system."


Such was my humour last night that I decided to sytematically Google the names of people I disliked at school. Unsurprisingly, many turn out to be senior figures in the Conservative Party: one leads the opposition in a west London borough and another is an MP and a member of Cameron's inner circle. But the one I detested most delivers a page with no results at all. (As you can imagine, anyone whose very name is incapable of squeezing out a single link out from Google is likely to be fairly odious to start with!)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Stuck with their own umbrella

After three decades the Bulgarians have finally been trumped by their former overlords − the discipline of spookacide has been taken to the next level by a radioactive hors d'ouevre designed to cause death over a matter of weeks while spreading PR fallout across the globe for months.

Ian Fleming was not particularly nice about the Bulgars in Casino Royale. A colleague of James Bond remarks that...

"We don't see many of those around. They're mostly used against the Turks and Yugoslavs. They're stupid but obedient. The Russians use them for simple killings or as fall guys for more complicated ones."

Sure enough two turn up outside the Casino primed to chuck a box of high explosives at 007, only to become unwitting suicide bombers.

Radical Transparency

My training as a historian means that I am often on the alert for discourse that pitches a view of the present based on a paradigmatic vision of the future. Chris Anderson's post In Praise of Radical Transparency is certainly informative and is supported by some interesting links, but as with much of this kind of material, you get sense that a fully-formed new set of "default modes" is assumed to have taken shape and emerged explosively from within the dried husk of the old. In practice however, history is rarely as discontinuous as its mouthpieces would have us believe. Personally, what interests me more are the rather jumbled pyschologies that are in fact the usual end product of rapid, self-conscious change.

Global Peace and Unity?

This weekend the Excel centre in Docklands played host to the Islam Channel's annual Global Peace and Unity event. Watching snippets of it served as a reminder that young Muslims in Britain don't have to hang out with dodgy old imams in order to become radicalised by a deliberate blurring of faith and politics.

Whatever the stated aims of the meeting, the message being touted by one group of snarling Koranic rappers that I flicked over to on Saturday afternoon was about as peaceful as a Katyusha rocket. It's hard to see the value in pressurising crusty old "community leaders" to out their "extremists", when such an aggressive identity-political stance is becoming an integral part of the continuity of popular youth culture within this particular community.

"In conclusion, Guatemala is impressive"

Over the weekend I found this link to an amusing page designed to promote Islamic tourism to Guatemala: "The city of Guatemala is one of the most beautiful cities in Latin America" (An unusually positive appraisal.)

Of Antigua it says "Old Guatemala, the country's main tourist city, is known as the city of eternal roses [?]. It is famous for its colonial style, paved with stone streets − not to mention the volcano. It is also famous for its Spanish language schools and its cosmopolitan residents."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Really pushing their luck

The French have their own version of Spain's Baltasar Garzón, judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, the man that brought Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) to justice, and also it seems, a pot that likes to call the kettle black.

This week he caused a breakdown in his country's relations with Rwanda by suggesting that President Kagame of Rwanda should face trial for the shooting-down on April 6, 1994, of a French plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, and a crew of seven French nationals. Charles Murigande, the Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister, responded thus: “We have ordered the French Ambassador to leave our country within 24 hours and given other French diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.”

Given that it is increasingly clear that the then French President François Mitterrand and his government played a significant role in aiding and abetting the genocide which immediately followed Habyarimana's demise, judge Bruguière would be best advised to ferme la bouche.

"Atheists: the new gays"

Scott Adams on the sudden prominence of atheists in US popular culture:
"I think the hidden benefit of Islamic extremism is that it freed the atheists from their closets. The old mindset in the United States was that almost any religion was good, and atheism was bad. But since 9/11, atheism has moved above Islam in the rankings, at least in the minds of Christians and Jews in the United States. Ask a deeply religious Christian if he’d rather live next to a bearded Muslim that may or may not be plotting a terror attack, or an atheist that may or may not show him how to set up a wireless network in his house. On the scale of prejudice, atheists don’t seem so bad lately."

User Generated Packaging

Penguin has released six classic works of fiction with blank, art-quality paper covers. The series is called My Penguin and has the tagline Books by the Greats, Covers by You. They have also set up a gallery and are encouraging readers to send in their cover designs.

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

Is the title of a new documentary by Heidi Specogna about the first American soldier killed in Iraq in 2003...ironically by other American soldiers.

Like some 30,000 of the US service members that participated in the invasion that March, José Antonio was still waiting for his green card. It was awarded posthumously.

He was a civil war orphan picked up by La Casa Alianza in Guatemala City that later, at the age of 22, travelled 4000 km overland to the US. Although detained by la migra he managed to convince them that he was just 17 and therefore entitled to asylum. He went to school, studied hard and enlisted in the Marine Corps after his graduation.

Con el coyote no hay aduana

The Mexicans might have serious reservations about the wall the gringos are erecting along a stretch of their shared frontier, but the Greeks have placed actual minefields between themselves and Turkey, which have so far claimed the lives of over 70 illegal immigrants.

Al Jazeera had a piece this morning about two Moroccans in Athens that had lost limbs attempting the crossing.

Most of the mines are decades old, and the Greeks, as signatories to relevant international conventions, have agreed to remove them. This will take them at least another five years and they are meanwhile replacing the anti-personnel mines with anti-tank mines, which apparently they are allowed to do.

Now is the winter of our discontent

The Ashes series has only just begun down under and already words like humiliation spring to mind. And we have weeks more of this to bear. In a way it's lucky England didn't win the World Cup in Berlin this summer as our soccer players would probably have immediately forgotten how to compete at the highest level in the same way our cricketers and rugby players did after their own deleriously celebrated triumphs.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)

The original 1960 screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley.

Alain Delon's Ripley is more overtly talented, and less overtly homosexual than Matt Damon's later incarnation. He wants everything Greenleaf has to offer, Marge included. He's a proper crook and cynical killer...and he gets rumbled.

Director René Clément skips the set-up scenes and takes us straight to the high point of Ripley's rapport with his debut victim. I wonder whether I would have properly understood the opening situation if I hadn't read the novel.

Clément has been very selective overall in terms of how much has been transposed into his own plot. Highsmith's invented location of Mongibello is preserved, but Dickie Greenleaf has become Phillipe Greenleaf − which contributes to the confusion over how American these Frenchies are supposed to be. (The actor playing Freddy Miles seems to be doing a comically-exaggerated gringo accent.)

Interestingly each version of the story has a different take on Ripley's prior relationship with Greenleaf. Highsmith is clear that Tom did know Dickie, if only distantly. Minghella has Ripley make up their acquaintance at Princeton. At the start of this film they speak of their childhood friendship and Tom relates some illustrative anecdotes to Marge on the boat, but later Phillipe confirms to her that he can't remember Tom and that it's all "fantasy".

The original contribution of this film to the Ripley genre are the games, real and psychological, that Tom and Phillipe play in the build up to the latter's murder. Phillipe still thinks it's a game when it no longer is, which adds a real edge to the boat scenes. It reminded me a bit of the interplay of Clifford and Sydney in Ira Levin's Deathtrap. Roger Ebert says he detects the sexual tension between the two men, whose only outlet becomes cruelty and cites Les Diaboliques as an influence.

For the audience the tension in the second half of Highsmith's novel comes from our awareness that Ripley's meticulous scheming is in constant danger of becoming tangled in its own web. Yet here there seems little danger of the killer being caught, until he actually is.

Delon himself is fascinating to watch, but the character's motivations remain a bit mysterious. He seems far less sensitive (and paranoid) than the character Damon inhabited. It's an abbreviation, albeit an attractive one, of Highsmith's conception of Tom Ripley. There's no denying though that the overall mood of Clément's film (with a special mention for the cinematography) is beguiling.

Memoirs of a Geisha

If not exactly escorts in the modern sense, Geishas must have been closer to what the Victorians used to refer to as actresses.

Human specimens hand-raised to become walking erotic artworks, their's was more of a destiny than a lifestyle, where the ideal outcome was to become a dazzling masculine trophy. For their side of the bargain they offered tea, dancing, sex (consensual) and a good deal of twanging on that instrument of theirs. The problem is, none of the men in this story appear to be worth all the trouble.

The movie drags even more than Arthur Golden's bestselling novel. The essential achievement of the book was to make the sentimental lives of these women accessible to the modern westerner by showing us the seething rivalry, and in the case of Siyuri, the Geisha with the memoirs, something that near enough approximates to romance (even if it does kick-off with a pre-pubescent girl fantasising over a middle-aged businessman.)

The effect of the cast woodenly reciting their lines in their imperfect English is to make the whole thing even more middlebrow than it would otherwise have been. The cataclysm of WWII has been skipped over, and a standard Hollywood ending has been fashioned.

Zang Ziyi's acting and dancing skills are once again there for all to see, but somehow her beauty doesn't quite shine through the limitations of the production as it has before. Michelle Yeoh is radiant though. Not being Japanese is less of a handicap for her.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Fire in La Terminal

The Christmas season has just begun and already lives are being lost in Guatemala to fireworks-related carelessness.

Yesterday's fire at La Terminal market in Guatemala City burned and suffocated 18 to death. The sense of the cachinflin ban in Antigua becomes clearer.

Awfully sorry...

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o earned himself a complimentary bottle of whiskey from the general manager of the Hotel Vitale in San Francisco after the he was embarrassed by an employee who refused to believe he could possibly be a guest and even tried to have him removed.

“This place is for guests of the hotel. You have to leave.”

Once they had gone to the front desk together and established that the Professor was indeed an honoured guest of the hotel, the employee apparently simply apologised and scarpered.

Miel de Palma

I still have half a bottle of this from our trip to La Gomera back in 2002. Yum! This post explains the process of extraction from the palm tree and suggests a recipe for Leche Asada (baked milk pudding).

Bogus Beans

Anacafe, Guatemala's coffee growers' association, is to produce a Coffee Atlas, which will use satellite mapping, soil analysis and weather records to establish stricter regional 'appellations'.

This may put an end to the practice of farmers from the high valleys between Acatenango and Fuego of selling their ripe green beans as 'gourmet' grade coffee from Antigua. Some 100,000 60-kg bags of coffee were sold as 'Antigua' last year, about double the 50,000 bags actually produced there. (Starbucks sells bags of 'Antigua' in the UK, so you have to wonder...)

Whatever the rights and wrongs of labelling, there's no particular reason that beans grown on the skirts of the Acatenango volcano should be inferior to those cultivated down in the Panchoy, although Antigua's coffee is justly famous for its chocolatey flavour.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Illustration Cupboard out of the closet

Went along to the opening of Surfer's new gallery in Bury Street last night. After a decade of seasonal shows and by appointment sales he finally has his own shack in London's fine art ghetto. Downed several of the Blue Lagoon cocktails which contained a bit of cure-a-cow, the server advised me. This time last year Surfer had a very good write-up in the FT, which summed up the nature of his niche pretty well.

Sniffing into a bag

Frode has sent me this abcnews article on the current state of oversensitivities on America's airlines:
"One passenger on a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was
arrested for leaving his seat to go to the lavatory less than 30 minutes before
landing (due to the incident, air marshals ordered all passengers to put their
hands on their heads for the rest of the flight)...In September, Seth Stein, a
London interior designer returning from his vacation in Turks and Caicos, was
put in a chokehold and physically pinned to his seat by another passenger on an American Airlines flight. Stein's crime: He used an iPod, went to the lavatory and his tan made him appear 'Arab.'"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Widow for One Year

A sound like a literary novelist trying not to sound like a literary novelist?

This novel is rather like a set of rolling, often interlocking anecdotes that naturally emerge like bubbles of different volumes from the very natures of the characters assembled. Most of them are either writers or readers of fiction, and the theme that runs throughout is the interplay of lived experience with the literary imagination.

It's not the kind of thing I'd usually pick off the shelf, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed reading it. It served to remind me how long it is since I read a loose, sprawling story on the nineteenth century model, where the action is driven by several different key protagonists at different times, all supported by a well-conceived secondary cast.

If this book has one central character it is Ruth Cole, but in the first part she is only eight and a not-so-knowing witness to the drama of her parents' marital end-game. It's a novel of three unequal sections, but essentially two stories, only the first of which would work as a standalone plot. It was indeed the movie adaptation of this, The Door in the Floor (starring Jeff Bridges), which prompted me to seek out the source.

The grown-up Ruth, a successful novelist herself, identifies Graham Greene as one of her favourite authors. He's certainly one that provides a striking contrast with Irving's own style, which has none of the tightness of prose composition or really any of the English modernist's attention to the aesthetic experience of reading. Add to that no end of contrivances, implausibilities, ludicrous coincidences and a rather obtrusive narrator telling us what to think and dropping in plot spoilers at will.

Yet it works. Irving may not be as significant an author as Dickens, but his clear preference for character and story over ideas and artistic impression has taught me a few important (indirect) lessons about the writer's craft. There's a superficial absence of intellectual complexity, which I think cloaks the cleverness of the novel's underlying architecture.

Blinkered travelers

Dr Eammon Butler of the Adam Smith Institute is challenging Paul Holmes for the title of blinkered airline passenger of the year. The various inconveniences he suffered on a recent trip to Guatemala prompted this unseemly upchucking of over-simplistic suggestions:

"If America did not have such generous welfare benefits, it would not have to spend so much effort (and cause so much grief) trying to keep people out. If US airports were privatized, they would find ways of letting people change planes without standing in immigration lines. If airlines managed their own security, it would be quicker and more sensible."

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

Job done, the bitch is dead. And the Bond franchise is alive and well. This is not only the best Bond movie for many years, it’s also the best action thriller I’ve seen in a very long time.

I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers. Craig was just awful in Enduring Love, but not only does he make the part seem real, he convinces us that that is how we always wanted it.

The really inspired casting however was Eva Green. A good deal of Craig’s roughness would have gone to waste without her smooth. We shall have to see how the new Bond fares when the love interest is well, less interesting.

Paul Haggis of Crash had a hand in a superb script, which presents itself with so many opportunities to trip over clichés only to dodge them as 007 dodges bullets. And poker game aside, I felt like I knew what was going on most of the time too.

David Arnold's score echoes some of the great Bond soundtracks of yesteryear, and unlike many, I thought the title song and credits were great too.

I can see why some might think that the baddies are little ill-defined in this film, but when you have the likes of Abu Hamza as the modern posterboys of international terrorism, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to focus on the bean-counters. Every organization has them and they are usually more nefarious, in a dull sort of way, than the high-profile leaders.

There was quite a troupe of under-8s in the cinema this morning. I remember not being allowed to see The Man with the Golden Gun in the cinema when it was released because of the violence (and snogging), but this refreshed, hard-edged sort of Bond film is far more adult in almost every sense − perhaps not the kind of movie to recruit a new generation of pre-teen fans?

That classic Aston Martin from the Bahamas scenes was parked at the rear of the Savoy a couple of weeks ago. It had 007 plates. As I walked past it the doorman came out of the hotel in a rush to make sure I wasn't about to run my keys down the side of it. It must have been his biggest responsibility of the day, and he had temporarily taken his eye off the ball. In one of the most-character defining moments of the movie Craig's swinish Bond causes willful criminal damage to a fellow guest's Range Rover outside their hotel on Paradise Island. It's ok, the owner was German.

Belize before Hattie

Norman Lewis also paid a visit to Belize City, then capital of British Honduras. There's no date on this article either, but the Fort George had recently opened and Hurricane Hattie was yet to come in and scatter all the wooden houses around it.

Ironically Lewis reassures his readers that "taken over the years, hurricanes are a very minor risk" and duly recommends the colony to all collectors of geographical curiosities, adding that he "cannot think of any better place for someone seiezed with a weariness of the world to retire to in a Gauguin fashion, than Belize."

Importantly for the world-weary of that era, he also notes that the winds blow "from a remarkably consistent direction...not one in which a cloud of radioactive particles is ever likely to originate."

On arrival Lewis found the aiport "negatively satisfying" owing to the absence of machines selling or playing anything. (I actually find it more negatively satisfying now that it is packed full of Duty Free shopping opportunities. It had greater charm when I first visited in 1988. With its runway lined by Harriers in jungle nettting it reminded me very much of that aiport in The Wild Geese. )

He speculates that the comparative freedoms enjoyed by people of African descent in British Honduras discouraged them from clinging to their colourful native traditions, leading to a "mysterious absence of anything that might come under the heading of Having a Good Time." The citizens of Belize "with their musketry drill, their smallholdings and their Sunday holidays, would have been encouraged to turn their backs on their African past and to struggle ever onwards and upwards towards the resplendent human ideal of the suburban Englishman."

Since Independence this apparent "ineptitude for self-entertainment" in the capital has been somewhat redressed through the influence of the exuberant, overtly African Garifuna culture from the south. Lewis never got to dance the punta!

He did however get to try the rum. "It costs thirty five cents a bottle , tastes of ether, and is seriously recommended by local people as an application for dogs suffering from the mange. It is drunk strictly within British licensing hours, which take no account of tropical thirst, and plays its essential part in the rhythm of sin and atonement in the lives of a people with a nonconformist tradition and too much time on their hands."

Dutch courage?

The government in the Netherlands is considering a ban on the burqa in public places, a move that will inconvenience no more than around 100 Dutch Muslim women, but no doubt seriously piss off a good deal more disaffected Muslim men.

In the Sunday Times today Ian Buruma urges caution on those that would roll back multiculturalism, at least when it comes to its outward symbols like dress codes:
"The women who choose to wear burqas, and most followers of Islamic neo-orthodoxy, do so in a spirit of defiance not just against the country in which they grew up, but also against their parents and their village ways. Far from being the products of some backward cultural community, the new believers are mostly loners who download their ideological extremism from the internet...Let people wear headscarves if they wish. Islam as such is not incompatible with citizenship of a liberal democracy. The violent imposition of a revolutionary faith is, but it will only be contained only if mainstream Muslims feel accepted as fellow citizens."
Over in Pakistan Blair and Musharraf are trying to popularise a new name for the broader problem, Talibanisation, by which they appear to mean the intent to use religion to close down society, or at least pockets within it. I'm not as convinced as Buruma that headscarves are entirely innocent parties in this, but it is clear that we need to address the ways people think more urgently than we need to constrain the ways they dress. Burqa bans won't bring us that much closer to an open, rational society.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Have apparently been banned in Antigua now because of the fire risk. New Year's Eve will certainly be dull without them.

V's nephew Marco tells us that you can still buy them in Guate and bring them over. Two years ago at Xmas time a rogue cachinflin set alight a sofa in his mother's house. Blackened springs were all they found when they returned from an evening of firing them into other people's homes. I once fired one through the entrance of a makeshift wooden evangelical church that stood on the land where our own house was to be built two years later. It was time for them to move on! (It didn't stop the tambourines clanging on that particular Yuletide evening however.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Talented Mr Ripley

Anthony Minghella got one thing right: Patricia Highsmith's story does seem to need another murder.

It's not because we miss Dickie Greenleaf as much as we do in the movie, it's just that the last third of the book becomes a kind of back-flipped procedural as we observe the intricacies of avoiding justice. Although the textual Ripley has to deal with the additional stress of the suspicions that come to surround his forged signatures, there is no escaping the fact that, even allowing for the forensic techniques of 1950s Italy, he should consider himself a very lucky double-murderer when, on the final page, he checks into a Greek hotel using Dickie's legacy.

There's hardly that much to miss anyway of Highsmith's Dickie. He's barely less obnoxious than Freddy Miles. The key relationship here turns out to be between Tom Ripley and Dickie's girlfriend of convenience, "gourdlike" Marge. By misreading Dickie's affection for the clinging writer and the influence this allows her to wield over him, Ripley is compelled to a life of capital crime. And unlike in Minghella's reworking, there is clear premeditation in his removal of Dickie the obstacle.

For by his own account, Tom Ripley doesn't murder for pleasure. He kills to preserve his status. From the moment Herbert Greenleaf pays him to take a trip to bring back his errant trustafarian son, Ripley knows that his train has come in and, after half a decade of drifting, his biography will finally have some oomph. Threats to that momentum are removed, with just a tinge of regret. "As people went, he was one of the most innocent and clear-minded he had ever known."

Despite Tom's rationalisations we observe that he is prone to envy, self-pity and paranoia, and that his sexuality is confused. Less overtly gay than Minghella would make him, Ripley is a sexual agnostic, that nevertheless finds the very idea of Marge's underwear draped across his furniture deeply disgusting. And "her letters repelled him, he disliked even touching them."

Aside from a greatly reduced concern for consequences, Ripley has the knack of "standing apart from himself and watching the scene" and is able to convince others with his stories "because he imagined them so intensely that he came to believe them."

Ripley's ultimate fantasy becomes "to see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf, with Dickie's money, Dickie's clothes, Dickie's way of behaving with strangers. " He makes sure he never learns the proper usage of the subjunctive in Italian so that he can even sound like Dickie, and as he leaves behind his profoundly un-gregarious birth identity, he even starts overtipping like his victim, a man who always had "a thousand francs for anyone who asked him."

The most compelling thing about this novel is how easy it is to identify with Ripley. Not only can I see myself in this mirror, but a number of my friends and acquaintances as well. Ripley embodies not just the pain of exclusion, but also the sheer torture of being left out, gradually, politely even.

Dickie's murder involves something of a merger between talent and money. Ripley has the discernment, while Greenleaf is answerable to nobody and has the aura of a somebody: "People made way for Dickie." Contrast what Marge says of Tom in a letter: "He may not be queer. He's just a nobody, which is worse." The irony is that in the end Ripley has convinced everyone that Dickie had elected to end his own life in recognition of "certain failures in himself".

There is of course a profound nastiness at work here, but Highsmith makes it very hard for us to locate it in the personality of her protagonist. It's as if it's really in the way his story is told. I'd recommend it to anyone!

Sectarian meltdown

Michio Kaku has been trying to calm nerves of fellow scientists as the entrenched sentiments surrounding the increasingly unravelled String Theory lurch towards an all-out cosmological civil war. I have amused myself below by replacing the word physics with Iraq, a ploy which demonstrates that Kaku's optimism is in need of further qualification:
"Both have a legitimate point of view. But far from signalling a collapse in
Iraq, this debate is actually rather healthy. It’s a sign of the vitality of
Iraq that people are so passionate about the outcome."
I never really warmed to String Theory myself. It struck me as more of a solution than an explanation.

A shaking of secondary importance

I went to a late-closing discount shopping event at The London Review Bookshop yesterday evening. I tried telling myself beforehand I was only going for the free wine, but to no avail. I still ended up buying a stack of books.

Anyway, one of these was an anthology of Norman Lewis travel essays, and in it I found his account of A Quiet Evening in Huehuetenango, written most probably a few years after the '54 coup against Arbenz:

"In the bleak depths of an interminable English winter , I was suddenly seized with an almost physical craving to write a novel having as its background the tropical jungles and volcanoes of Central America. Having succeeded in persuading my publishers that this would be a good thing from both our points of view, I boarded a plane at London Airport [I'm just old enough myself to remember the days that Heathrow went by this name] one morose evening in January, and two days later I was in Guatemala City. I chose Guatemala because I had been there before and knew something about it, but also because all one thinks of as typical of the Central American scene - primitive Indians, Mayan ruins, the wrecks of grandiose Spanish colonial cities - is found there in the purest concentration."
After three weeks in coastal towns "where bored men in big hats still occasionally pull guns on each other" Lewis headed for the Cuchumatanes and the town of Huehuetenango, the inhabitants of which he was informed,"are very peace loving, but when they become drunk they sometimes assassinate each other." (Plus ça change, c’est la même chose, as Alphonse Karr was fond of saying.)

In a bar Lewis is accosted by some tough-looking ladinos, "half-breeds who carried in their faces all the Indian's capacity for resentment but none of his fear", who require him to familiarise them with the "method of manipulating" the jukebox, a novelty in those parts back then. (What Lewis doesn't point out here is that jukebox is, strangely enough, one of the few English words of Mayan origin.)

The festivities (and the local electricity) are interrupted by an earthquake, which locals subsequently dismiss as "a shaking of secondary importance". It's a fun little article, and it's a shame that Lewis's Guatemalan novel is out of print, though I find him guilty of middle-English presumption when he describes the features of the first Indian woman he meets as "full of inherited tragedy".

I haven't, touch wood, experienced any serious tremors myself over there for 2-3 years. I do remember very clearly my inaugural step up onto the Richter scale in Guatemala. I was sitting at a long table tucking into some barbecued steak when the world started to wobble. Very gently, and for only a few seconds, but I was astounded; not least by the way everyone just carried on with lunch. My next few temblores mostly took place in the hours of darkness. I'd wake up to the canine chorus as the rattle of lamina roofing petered out and have to think back fast to the dream it has just intruded into.

The worst was the big El Salvador earthquake 0n Saturday Jan 13 2001. We were en route to Coban and had stopped at a McDonalds on the highway. I was sitting in the Chevy Blazer when it began to rock quite violently as if there were two big men on each side intent on simulating for my personal benfit the sort of roads we could expect on our way up to Semuc Champey.

Looking directly up through the windscreen I spotted the Golden Arches swaying high up on their pole, and realised that V hadn't exactly picked the safest parking spot in all Guatemala. Time to get out. Meanwhile she was in the toilet inside, oblivious to the danger. She says she actually thought someone was trying to force their way into her cubicle, and exited in a state of umbrage that inflated when she found the restaurant in darkness."What kind of a messed-up McDonalds is this?", she wondered. It was only when he reached the car park and saw the personnel of the sweat shop opposite pouring out of their workplace in a big noisy mass did she begin to realise what might have happened.

Guatemala's last monster quake was on February 4, 1976. More than 22,000 died and V had a narrow escape herself because falling furniture partly blocked her bedroom doorway that night.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


"No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts..."

The state of disgrace at the core of Coetzee's Booker-winning novel settles on the life of Cape Town academic David Lurie. At the time we join his story he believes that he has sex, parenthood and animal welfare all sorted, but this mid-life equilibrium soon crumbles around him and he is propelled on a difficult journey, taking in abasement and then self-abasement, before resigning himself to the fact that there will be no going back.

Lurie is at once likeable and loathable, but both in small measure. He achieves a rather mediocre sort of redemption by apparently accepting that the "higher life" might well have been an illusion of youth, fortune and comparative privilege. There's an overriding mood of pessimism in the novel, but no real sense of despair. The whole thing is rather too self-contained, too oblique. Whatever you think of Michel Houellebecq's depiction of the menopaused male's condition, I find its frankness thrilling compared to the layers of symbolism and suggestion with which Coetzee coats his meanings.

It might be an honest book, but honesty cloaked in this much artifice is somehow dishonest. You feel you know what Lurie is thinking on the very relevant issues of sex and race, but the narrator contrives ways of denying us direct access to these inner observations (even though we are told that the disgraced professor has "never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track").

I suppose some might argue that this is just the point. Lurie feels like an imposter in society, because his instincts are mediated through an aspiration to inhabit a world of more or less pure ideas. He's out of touch with himself. This comedown will bring him closer to both being and relating to"a certain type of person...with fewer complications".

Like Saturday Disgrace takes one man's situation and uses it to expansively touch on many different topics of local interest, yet fails to illuminate any of them in a strikingly original way. As this man is white, middle-aged and erudite, one has to suspect that the author elected not to stray too far from representing his own sensibilities. And as in McEwan's novel, none of the other characters are drawn in great detail. The psychology of Lurie's violated daughter Lucy seems especially sketchy.

This book was recently chosen by an illustrious literary panel as the best English-language novel to come out of Britain (and former colonies, US excepted) in the past 25 years. So I read it with high expectations, only to find that while I can like and admire it, it's not a book I can love.

Coetzee deploys some peculiar metaphors, such as when Lurie declares himself to be cold, as if a goose had trodden on his grave.

Incidentally, I learned last night that the Captain of the overturned ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise was called David Lewry. He too was disgraced and suspended after setting sail with the bow doors wide open.

12th IACC

There's an anti-corruption forum (the 12th IACC) taking place in Antigua Guatemala this week, attended by "1,500 practitioners in the field". Selected as a delegate by Transparency International, Belize City Mayor Zenaida Moya is there, and has told local media she's especially looking forward to the closing ceremony.


The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was moored between my home and Greenwich this week, a visit that marked the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. It seemed such a silly little war at the time, but by today's standards appears quite well-considered. Illustrious wasn't in the South Atlantic in '82, but the Invincible was mothballed until 2010 after its visit to the same spot on the Thames in 2005.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


One of those movies you need to see more than once to understand...and yet you really can't be arsed.

What did Clooney get his Oscar for? Growing a beard and buying his wardrobe at Wal Mart?

The format is Traffic meets Tom Clancy, and features an ensemble of macho, morally-blinkered types strutting their stuff in the knowing world of realpolitik. None are especially interesting from a pyschological point of view. Traffic had a central female figure, Syriana has none.

There are the usual scenes of groups of people getting in an out of darkened SUVs and walking briskly along corridors to a menacing Arabian drum beat.

Roger Ebert says that he enjoyed the feeling the movie gave of being located within a web − aware of the surrounding connections, some concrete, others half-formed or broken − and yet never quite lost.

"Since none of the characters understand the whole picture, why should we?" he enthuses; the convolution is itself a kind of explanation. I'd like to say I agree with him, but I can't. This labyrinth is rather one-dimensional.

His review did have this interesting definition though: "A recent blog item coined a term like "hyperlink movie" to describe plots like this. The term describes movies in which the characters inhabit separate stories, but we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another. "

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

100% English?

Although possibly related, the cricket test and the DNA test are not in fact identical twins, a state of affairs that was apparently lost on the makers of 100% English, which aired on Four last night.

The premise was to read out the results of 'expert' DNA tests to a bunch of people with fairly rigid idea of what it means to be English. Jane Phillips, a woman that petitions to have the English declared a proper ethnic group − endowed with the kind of highly woundable sensibilities that such a designation usually entails − was looking mortally wounded herself when told she might have Romany gypsies in her immediate ancestry. (She has since threatened to sue). Norman Tebbit meanwhile was informed that his ancestors were "boring". Thatcher's hatchet man duly confirmed that his mother never made it as far as Scotland.

Tebbit had clearly been targeted because he has always been openly critical of multiculturalism, though one's ancestry hardly seems 100% relevant to this debate. The current Archbishop of York John Sentamu would surely fail one Essex comic's definition of a true Englishman, yet this week expressed the rather wishful opinion that Mohammedans arriving on this island should behave like Christians entering a Mosque, "respectfully".

Cultural assimilation does at times proceed against the grain of expanding genetic diversity. My father's mother came from Russia, yet I know what he is driving at when he compares the state of Oxford Street between the wars with its current one, voicing the concern that it has become overrun with "foreigners". (He also has an old, thickly-accented Polish gardener who thinks the whole country has suffered a similar fate!)

There may be many native Spains, but in terms of contemporary dilutions, Iberia is one of the last remaining monocultures in Western Europe. It has experienced more immigration than most over the last half decade, yet much of this has come from their former colonies, and the effect of these Spanish-speakers on the host culture is more akin to that of the Aussies and South Africans in London than that of the harder-to-chew (and digest) foreigners from alternative civilisations that now parade around W1.

What has happened to Oxford Street happened in reverse to the area where I live, once London's port and most melting of pots, with place names like Cuba Street and Manilla Street. Clearly overrun by foreigners in Joseph Conrad's Chance, the Docklands later became the last redoubt of London's poor white working class, who still drape the flag of St George out of their pub windows in the same way that their equivalents in Alabama show off their "heritage" with the Confederate flag. In the 90s this monocultural sanctuary was finally penetrated when successive governments decided that it might make a useful social experiment to install two new communities on the Isle of Dogs along with the dockers' descendants: affluent young yuppies and assimilation-resistant, Koran-bashing Bangladeshis.

That bigoted Essex comedian on last night's programme who proclaimed that Ian Wright was at least twelve generations shy of gaining admittance to the gated community of "true" Englishness looked more than a bit sheepish to learn, like many, that he should look somewhere over the Urals for his own roots. Still, the programme might have interestingly offset this finding with an investigation into the DNA profile of Wright (or any other willing English sportsman with the more obvious lack of Anglo credentials). How many black people in the UK have European code on their chromosomes that they too might be less than 100% comfortable with?

"The Furthest Outpost"

David Powell does for Guatemala what Borat does for Kazakhstan in this piece on the decision to hold the modern pentathlon World Championships in Guatemala City this week. He does all but suggest they still run around with bone and feather necklaces over there!

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I haven't always been a massive fan of comedy of embarrassment, especially when those being embarrassed (or indeed humiliated) are just ordinary, unknowing people caught in the act of getting on with their lives. (It was this streak of presumptive, rather callous arrogance that used to turn me off Dom Jolly's set-ups.)

For me at least, Sascha Baron Cohen's funniest gags have always been those directed at loftier targets. Still, I do draw the sympathy line somewhere, and I suppose evangelical Christians and frat boys fall on the wrong side of it!

If you've never seen this character before then you will find this film as painfully hilarious as billed. I couldn't help remembering Borat's earlier, funnier fact-finding trip to Cambridge University though. And the film also reminded me how this Borat, like the later Ali G, benefits rather too obviously from judicious editing − some of these encounters appeared tellingly brief. It doesn't really hold together as a comedic road movie, even if many of the individual skits are side-splitters.

I found myself constantly trying to spot the seams between fictionalised action and risqué reality TV, and wanting to see certain things that the makers apparently didn't want me to see. For example, how did the scene in the Antique shop end? And who was holding the camera on the frat boys' camper van and what did he or she look like?

I met a few milder incarnations of Borat when I visited the Soviet Union in the mid eighties. There was our guide to the Hermitage in Leningrad, Yuri, who wore a kind of light blue shell suit and kept urging us on through the seemingly endless corridors of stockpiled masterworks with an enthusiastic "Let's boogie". And then there was the ruddy-faced pair that literally fell into our compartment on the Moscow train. One held out the rather uninviting business end of his bottle of vodka, while the other reached out with a crazed look for the copy of the Economist that a friend had disgarded on the seat beside me: "Aaah sex magaziiiin".

Such was their anticipation of the cultural baggage that we decadent young westerners were likely to have stashed in our holdalls. In that sense I think Baron Cohen missed a chance to play for deeper laughs (and maybe even a bit of real pathos) by bulking up Quixotic / holy fool aspect of his Kazakh newsman, apparent for example when he mistakes a garage sale for a gypsy market.

We do chuckle when the joke is on Borat, but perhaps not quite so much as when it's on one of his local informers. It has been altogether easier to feel basic compassion for previous instances of laughter-inducing Johnny Foreigner, such as Manuel from Fawlty Towers and Peter Sellars's Indian in The Party. Indeed, when the action is feature length, scriptwriters nearly always try to make all their leading characters sympathetic, even if they are amoral serial killers like Tom Ripley. Borat on the other hand, remains a rather hateful idiot throughout. My only sympathy lay with Baron Cohen himself, unquestionably a very brave man. How did he avoid doing hard time (or even getting himself shot) at some point on this American odyssey?

Breaking and Entering

Another mingin' Minghella script. Ok, it's gripping in places, but only those where nobody is saying anything. I felt I could see the paper these characters are printed on.

Faced with this sort of material Jude Law has chosen to reprise his largely unconvincing Dan character from Closer. Juliette Binoche bobs her head a lot. Not even she can smile away something this truly, madly, dreadful.

Jude Law was in the one Minghella movie I haven't completely hated, The Talented Mr Ripley, but I'm reading Patricia Highsmith's novel for the first time right now, and the situation is in flux!

Low Point: Ray Winstone, CID
High Point: Martin Freeman: "Lattes have been drunk".

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Mis chuchos, mis chuchos"

Rudy Girón has been running a series of posts on Guatemalan cuisine and yesterday's entry featured V's favourite local snack, chuchos.

She doesn't normally like paying anyone in advance for goods or services yet to be delivered, but makes an exception with an old lady who produces her own tamales and chuchos and comes to our street in Antigua once a week to serve them up to her subscribers. I remember one evening last July when the gathering gloom matched V's sinking spirits: her chuchos were late. To avoid pacing up and down indoors we took the dog for walk and on the return leg spotted the old lady with her basket in the distance as she approached from the main road. Much rejoicing ensued.


LiveLeak has posted this passenger video from a TACA flight in 1993 that overshot the end of the runway at Aurora International, Guatemala City in 1993.

In the early 90s this was quite a regular occurence. I remember the case of a Cuban cargo jet that disappeared over the end into the barranco and flattened some hardly-legal shacks below, killing several of their occupants.

Most of the incoming flights I have been on over the past few years have swung round the city and approached from the south: the north end of the runway doesn't feature the same sort of sheer drop.

I used to prefer KLM, a 747 service which flew from Amsterdam with a short stop in Mexico City. The runway at Aurora is technically too short for jumbos and the story goes that one Dutch pilot, new to the route, refused to land there when he spotted it on his final approach. He took his plane off to El Salvador and KLM never flew to Guatemala City again.

Work continues to upgrade Aurora International, due for completion next March. V got some great bargains from the shops in the departure area in July, which were literally being demolished around her.

As Guatemalans tend to board all scheduled flights as if there was some sort life-threatening emergency in progress, the chaos we see at the end of the TACA video would possibly not have seemed that phenomenal.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Arjona wins Grammy

For his album Adentro, Antigua-born Ricardo Arjona took the Latin Grammy for best male pop vocal album in New York last week.

Arjona has been the world's most famous Guatemalan (narrowly pipping both Efraín Ríos Montt and Rigoberta Menchú) for about a decade now. Before his highly successful career as a cantautor Arjona played in the national basketball team and still holds the Guatemalan record for the most points scored in one game.

Arjona moved to the capital aged three, where he later studied advertising at USAC. He then taught in some very run-down schools before emigrating to Mexico to pursue his music.

There's now a street in Jocoteshithole called Calle Arjona and the locals insist that he went to school in the colonia and played basketaball on the public court. Still, available online bios don't seem to back this story up.

Second Chance

It looks like former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has escaped the electoral curse of public support from Hugo Chávez and will indeed now return to power in Nicaragua after 16 years on the sidelines.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Personal Digital Landmarks

My recent experiences in Second Life − so nearly comparable with actual lived experiences − have had me thinking about those other times when the future has manifested itself in my life on specific, very memorable occasions.

1980 or thereabouts: My father's company moved to Neal's Yard in Covent Garden and got themselves a TELEX machine. One evening one of the secretaries took me down for a demo and we 'chatted' to someone in the Middle East.

Winter 1992: Installed MS Mail (DOS) at home. The possibilities of email immediately revealed themselves, but this was still a private network requiring a local 'post office'.

New Year's Eve 1992: Drunken first exploration of Compuserve. Had a look around the message boards and searched for airline ticket prices. Even allowing for my state of inebriation this was all very astounding. It was still a proprietary system though.

Summer 1994: my first private Internet account. Before this my experiences had been limited to watching others use it and flicking through the remarkably thin 'Internet Yellow Pages'.

One of my first experiments with this new medium was to ask a question in the Usenet group sci.archaeology.mesoamerican: How did the Mexica (Aztecs) make their famed chocolate drink? Within 24 hours I'd had several replies from fairly senior academics in the field.

It all came thick and fast after that. The one other landmark that stands out is the morning in 1997 when I noticed a little green flower in my system tray - ICQ.


I can't make my mind up about this one. V − only half watching from behind the Powerbook screen − described it as "depressing" at the end, and I was inclined to agree.

I was just five and had been watching my first Olympic games on the black and white TV in our kitchen when my father brought in that morning's Daily Express which featured the faces of the murdered Israelis. Perhaps for the first time in my life I was aware that something depressingly awful had just taken place in the world outside.

Spielberg delivers some great set-piece scenes, but the trouble is that much of the dialogue comes across as equally contrived. It's all rather didactic, more concerned with using history to deliver a point about the present, than providing entry into the mental world of its key characters.

Avner comes to intellectually question the strategy, but at the tactical level he has been unflinching. Bana was apparently picked to add "humanity" to a character that might otherwise have come over a bit just obeink orderz, but the actor's personal charisma is really all we are left to sympathise with. The device of giving Avner flashbacks to the Munich Olympics is rather suspect and the scenes with the big friendly amoral French family in their country pad are plain ridiculous.

The last Spielberg film to feature a powerful background image of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre was AI: Artifical Intelligence, but there the shock effect was unintentional, and better for it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Second Life

In my thirty-ninth year my attention has been drifting towards the next level of representation up, which may partly explain my lack of enthusiasm for spending huge amounts of time in a virtual world (almost) one whole level further down. And writers like myself are anyway more interested in the virtuality that is immanent in the real.

Nevertheless, I spent a few hours last night looking over V's shoulder as she made her maiden excursion into Second Life. We chatted for a while with the owner of a private island that hosts a chill-out lounge.

That was after we escaped from newbies island, where people kept wandering up and asking if we minded if they masturbated. V amused herself by telling one L-plated second-lifer a whole load of invented tosh that he took as useful information. Later on she also tried out some misbehaviour, for which she was briefly confined to a burning cage. It seems that there are consequences here too.

I've always preferred tourism in tandem, especially the serendipitous sort. Yet I suppose that once I know the lie of the virtual land I may be more inclined to make goal-orientated incursions on my own.

Finally undeadlocked

So it is Panama not the Dom Rep that will benefit from the unbreakable UN deadlock between Guatemala and Venezuela.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Wild Sheep Chase

To some extent it does exactly what it says on the tin. The sense of gathering pointlessness (or sheeplessness?) is palpable after what was a very engaging first hundred pages or so.

So, this third novel by Murakami falls a little way short of his later achievemements, but it is interesting nonetheless to observe the formation of the style that would distinguish them. There's plenty of enjoyable, dry comedy in the set-up scenes, but when it comes to the meatier underlying themes, there appears to be less behind the internal mythology of this novel compared to that of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for example.

I did however enyoy the many deadpan metaphysical musings of Murakami's unnamed Sheep chaser, a self-confessed mediocrity working in Tokyo's advertising industry. "There are symbolic dreams, dreams that symbolise some reality. Then there are symbolic realities, realities that symbolise a dream," he advises us.

This character takes a big step towards a bizarre symbolic reality far away from the mediocre realists and mediocre dreamers that populate his profession when his firm is visited one day by a man who "spoke as if running a white glove over a tabletop...a refined piece of bad news." This sinsister individual identifies himself as the right-hand man of the formerly sheep-inhabited "boss", a right-wing figure that controls the underside of Japan's communications industry, and quickly twists the narrator's arm, giving him little alternative but to go off in search of the boss's misplaced supernatural sheep.

Together with his girlfriend, a rather plain call-girl that becomes utterly ravishing whenever she 'unblocks' her ears, he follows the trail to Hokkaido and checks into the Dolphin Hotel, whose "undistinguishedness was metaphysical...most likely it was run down when it was built." And that's when things start to get very strange, starting with their encounter upstairs with the proprietor's father, an old man called The Sheep Professor, the very "personification of an unrewarded life" and "the hell of sheeplessness".

Below, a few more of the narrator's more arresting observations:

"We habitually cut out bits of time to suit us, so we tend to fool ourselves that time is our size, but it really goes on and on. "

"I lose track of where I stop and where my sex appeal begins."

"People start ageing from early, very early on. Gradually it spreads over their entire body like a stain that cannot be wiped away."

"Age certainly hasn't conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant, as one Russian writer put it. "

"There's that kind of money in the world, it aggravates you to have it, makes you miserable to spend it and you hate yourself when it's gone."

"I just can't get it through my head that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me. It doesn't quite hit home. It's always been this way. "

"The second whisky is always my favourite."

The Pink Panther

Oh dear. This was rather like watching a feature-length selection of deleted scenes....or at least scenes that ought to have been deleted.

The question is no longer just why isn't Steve Martin funny any more, but also what the hell has he done to his face? Even if Martin had managed to make the character his own, Kevin Kline's performance alone would have wrecked this movie.

The originals are not actually as hilarious as many of us remember, but they had great charm, and it was Sellars's absorbing persona and comic timing that had us all sniggering. You can learn a lot about America's changing attitude to all things French by comparing them with this update.

As for the panther that is pink, I am a complete fanboy. I have all the cartoons on DVD. (My father was Henry Mancini's agent too.)

Mala Pinta

I was well positioned to eavesdrop on a smartly-dressed Spanish family as they cast a (very) critical eye over the assorted cured meats on display at Fortnum's last weekend. They do know a thing or two about their embutidos over there. "Todo tiene mala pinta" (It all looks rather smeggy) the young man ventured to his frowning parents. That salami is a "fossil" his father replied.

When I was seven I had a pair of fish called Fortnum and Mason. The names were not my doing. Back then I guess there was a kind of lingering point to this venerable emporium, but today most of the stuff that graces the ground floor food hall is quite widely available elsewhere (and usually better quality /better prices).

Consuming quite ordinary stuff dolled up with a three hundred-year-old brand isn't usually the kind of thing that makes me feel better about myself. In fact I have to say that I find the whole Fortnum's experience more than a bit tacky these days. Yet we found ourselves obliged to pay this Piccadilly destination a visit on Sunday because the parent of one of V's friends in Guatemala craves a tin of their Earl Grey. (Members of Guatemala's elite with British roots that they occasionally choose to cultivate.) In truth the brand premium doesn't operate at its most aggressive on the tea shelf: the quality is sound, and the little green tins are certainly hoardable.

Coming home?

Looks like Portillo could be on his way back to Guate.