Thursday, December 27, 2007

Silent Night revisited

Que alguien me explique...why Christmas in England is soooo boring. I've been reduced to nostalgic viewings of my videos from December 24th last year.(V's scream right at the end always makes me laugh.)

Que alguien me explique...


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Virgin birth

I'm with Hitchens on this one. I found the answers given by most of the believers depressing, but Ann Widdecombe's, revealing her inner sophist, made me smile.

Ten favourite non-fiction books of 2006/7

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
The Rebel Sell - Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker
What Good are the Arts? - John Carey
Terror and Liberalism - Paul Berman
The Islamist - Ed Husain
God Is Not Great - Christopher Hitchens
The Curtain - Milan Kundera
The Never Ending Days of Being Dead - Marcus Chown
Parallel Worlds - Michio Kaku

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mano Dura?

Fabio Capello, an Italian with a confessed admiration for the 'order' that Francisco Franco brought to Spain, has today been appointed as the next England manager. A bit of goose-stepping is so often the required medicine for chronic national humiliation.

Soho Square remains full of opportunistic hacks, plus a bloke in a John Bull get-up protesting the foreign appointment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Adoption law passed

It took a while, but Guatemala finally has a brand new law on adoptions which will come into effect with the new year. It was passed by the congress with 109 votes in favour and only one against. (He/she must be feeling a bit politically isolated right now.)

There will no longer be any adopciones notariales as the only lawyers that can get involved from now on have to be employed by the state. Article 12 of the new statute ensures that adopted chirices can retain dual nationality even after exportation. The Hague Convention is followed to the extent that birth mothers have to spend six weeks with their babies while the paperwork is sorted out.

Humans still evolving?

This pretty shameless story was covered by a number of leading UK broadsheets yesterday. So called 'journalists' at each of these publications had clearly all received the same press-release (or wire feed) and none apparently felt the need to question the agenda behind this research from the University of Wisconsin. You don't have to be a genius to figure it out though:

If human evolution is speeding up thanks to "the tendency to start families later in life" then you would have to presume that people in the small number of well-off nations where this is generally the case will somehow become more evolved than all those darkies in Africa.

Which should of course come as a surprise to anyone that knows the first thing about human evolution because a) Africa is and has always been the main factory of human evolution b) it has the most genetically-diverse human populations on Earth and c) there needs to be some fundamental agent of selection for evolution to work at all. Where in the world are you most likely to die before getting the chance to pass on your genes? Not in countries where women have children through artificial insemination at the age of 45 methinks.

"The study also suggests that human races in different parts of the world are becoming more genetically distinct", Ian Sample, scientific correspondent of the Guardian reports. Now this is a tricky one, because the consensus, like it or not, is that race is "biologically meaningless". (You'd have thought Sample might have mentioned this.)

To quote Wikipedia: "The 0.1% genetic difference that differentiates any two random humans is still the subject of much debate. The discovery that only 8% of this difference separates the major races led some scientists to proclaim that race is biologically meaningless. They argue that since genetic distance increases in a continuous manner any threshold or definitions would be arbitrary. Any two neighboring villages or towns will show some genetic differentiation from each other and thus could be defined as a race. Thus any attempt to classify races would be imposing an artificial discontinuity on what is otherwise a naturally occurring continuous phenomenon."

So at the very least the scientists at Wisconsin are 'bravely' trying to re-open this issue.

Having said all this, one thing I would add is that I have often paused on the platform of Leicester Square tube station to consider the near perfect colour match between the little mice that scurry around the tracks and the grimy concrete of their environment. What might the selection pressure be? Surely they don't have a substantial predator population down there?

'Carlos Peña para Presidente!'

Hay varios grupos de Facebook dedicados al Presidente-electo de Guatemala, Álvaro Colom!

Hugo Chávez ha dicho que tiene previsto viajar a Guatemala para asistir el próximo 14 de enero a la toma de posesión de Colom:

"El presidente (electo) de Guatemala me ha invitado. Me dijo: 'no puede usted faltar a mi toma de posesión'. Le dije: 'no, no no voy a faltar. Dios mediante yo voy a estar, yo quiero mucho a Guatemala'"

Bonito y Sabroso

Seeking out that golden oldie from Beny Moré I found this:


Off to hear Händel's Messiah in St Paul's tonight. Surfer and Baksheesh were in the Colet Court choir together and performed several times on nights like these in the cathedral. So, it will be a trip down memory lane for the pair of them. And a welcome bit of 'kultcha' as Surfer puts it. Miseryguts may also be coming, plus a gang of knee-slapping Germans that Surfer is responsible for.

Baksheesh has meanwhile been filling me in on the secret escape routes beneath Sr Paul's: "When we were in the choir, we used to go into a building nearly and practise and dump our coats etc. and then enter the cathedral through an underground tunnel and ascend through the crypt."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

UK suspends Guatemalan adoptions

Last Friday the UK officially suspended all adoptions from Guatemala. V told me this morning that she watched some colocha on local TV arguing that her adoption ring provided a kind of public service as many indigenous people were having too many children and would otherwise be dumping them in barrancos.

Announcing the ban, Kevin Brennan, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families, stated that:

"I am now introducing a suspension of adoptions in response to new evidence which demonstrates that: there are insufficient safeguards in the Guatemalan adoption system to prevent children being adopted without proper consents being given and improper financial gain being made by individuals in the adoption process. In particular that: there is a trade in babies being sold for overseas adoption; and mothers are being paid, or otherwise encouraged, to give up children for adoption."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ten favourite novels of 2007

This has been hard, but here in rough order of personal appreciation, are my favourite ten novels of the year:

Travesuras De La Niña Mala by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Broken April by Ismail Kadare
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Terrorist by John Updike
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Whatever by Michel Houllebecq

Overrated book of the year: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. (Thanks to Palindrome for telling me to re-read it.)

And because I didn't do this exercise twelve months ago, here's my 2006 list:

Sunday at the Pool at Kigali by Gil Coutemanche
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Platform by Michel Houellebecq
Mañana en La Batalla Piensa En Mi by Javier Marías
The Outsider by Albert Camus
Disgrace by JM Coetzee
The Eagle's Throne by Carlos Fuentes
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Overrated book of the year: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

The Producer Society

Diego Luna's advice to people starting in the film business as either thesps or directors is to start making their own stuff: "If you are an actor you to have to become a producer. Otherwise you are going to be leading a very shitty life."

What is interesting about this is the recognition that the barriers to entry to independent production have come down considerably over the past decade, and that for more and more people, even those a some considerable remove from the entertainment industry, the time spent producing homemade material (blogs, videos etc) has seriously started to eat away at their overall media consumption time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

La Quema de los Cachivaches

Today is the day Guatemalans are supposed to burn small effigies of the Devil in the road outside their homes, along with piles of household rubbish. (Recently piñatas representing Chupacabras have become a popular alternative.)

Now, as you can imagine, environmentalists can be a bit boring about all this acute indendiary activity, especially as modern Chapin trash includes a lot of stuff that gives off noxious fumes.

As V reported this morning, La Quema del Diablo has become something of a day of license, with households able to create monster pyres with their 'colchones viejos' and 'almohadas pulgientas', with flames often rising so high that it is not uncommon for telephone and electricity wires to melt. Many people choose to go about on foot this evening because of the danger that their vehicles might unexpectedly explode.

Meanwhile, with the second cachinflin-free Christmas beckoning, the grinchudos are out in force raiding factories in various townships around the capital with a view to stifling the last remaining local resistance to the ban on these hand-thrown fireworks that was ordered last year.

Pissing into the wind

The complex nature of Islam, at once both a religious and a political system (and in the UK at least, also a marker for a minority cultural identity) presents some serious challenges to its would-be critics.

Here in the West we have lately tendered a respect for other people's nutty religious opinions significantly in excess of that on offer for wayward political doctrines
especially those that appear to violate the tolerant, pluralistic principles at the heart of our democracy.

Unlike Islam, Christianity was far from fully theocratic at birth. It might have possessed a certain puffed-up righteousness, but it took the merger with the failing Roman state facilitated by Emperor Constantine to give it the monopoly of lethal power that Mohammed always intended for his seventh century upgrade.

Islamism, the world-view that most fully embraces this vision, has accelerated the flourishing of a newly self-assertive kind of atheism in the West, which clearly feels more comfortable about using Muslim fundamentalists as a punching bag than home-grown nutjobs like the Mormons (see below). In effect, the apparent obnxiousness of Islam's political and social pretensions to the liberal-minded, has driven them to overcome the taboo that has discouraged obnoxiousness on matters of private conviction.

And once they start having a go at Islam's obvious lack of consideration for Man's lawmaking capabilities, it has been deeply tempting for western infidels to widen their critique into the overall silliness of Islamic dogma, even that part of it with no obvious political ramifications. Like the hair-trigger defenders of the Prophet, they also often give the impression of being uncertain whether they are comfortable with the creeping racial overtones within this debate.

Islamophobia isn't racism
per se, but there can be no argument that it is often fed by an underlying racist sensibility. I'm personally acquainted with a couple of quite virulent Islamophobes, who I'd have to say show all the signs of this. (I know another who is perhaps more like Christopher Hitchens, the discriminatory type.)

However, it remains my view that it
should be permissable to stand up and criticise Islam − in effect to express a reasoned hostility to a particular flavour of otherness − without running the risk of being silenced as a bigot and a racist, simply because, as Ronan Bennet insists, Islam is not "only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white."

Racism as I understand it, and as it was understood by the architects of the Holocaust for sure, means despising someone for their biological nature, and thereby desiring their extermination (or at least removal from anywhere near your job, home etc.). There is a qualitative difference between having your identity dissed and being pushed into a gas chamber, and the recent readiness of some Muslims to draw facile comparisons between their current situation and that of Jews in Hitler's Germany is to be deplored.

You could argue that the majority of the Spaniards that turned up in Central America at the start of the sixteenth century were racists in the sense I have suggested (in spite of the fact that a good number immediately jumped into the sack with the natives). Importantly however, regardless of their views about the innate fitness of the indigenous people to participate in civilisation, their criticisms of the local religious practices − which involved ripping people's hearts out, eating their limbs and wearing their skins − remain valid on an ethical scale that we can and should keep up today.

So, it should also be permissable to draw distinctions based on cultural value-judgments. And we shouldn't forget that while some aliens come in peace, others want to tickle our earlobes with their forked tongues before biting our heads off. Respect for otherness should always be tempered with caution.

And so to the thought that originally prompted this post.

The God of most educated monotheistic believers is a combination of the deity described by their co-religionists across history and the personal one that they have, in a sense, discovered on their own. Religious texts and nutty dogmas are really not much more than the ultimately discardable scaffolding they have used to construct their own private set of consolations. So the ever proselytising Mssrs Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens are never likely to win a substantial number of educated converts to their brand of unbelief, whilst the uneducated are unlikely to even be aware of their polemics. They are, I'm afraid, pissing into the wind.

Anyway, for your viewing entertainment, a fine example of internecine, inter-nutjob in-fighting from the American presidential campaign:


Has featured regularly in the British papers this week, and the story of forgetful canoeist Mr Darwin has now found its way back to the Central American media.

Aside from that little number, the most southerly stop on the isthmus also makes me think of retired local musician El General, these days widely considered the father of reggaetón:

I wanted to post El Huehuecho which ends with a little Christmas ditty, but unfortunately couldn't find it on YouTube. Anyway, here's another:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Greaseball Rally

The Inter-American Development Bank sponsors an annual race called the Greaseball Challenge in which cars modified to run on biofuels set off southwards from Washington DC in the general direction of Costa Rica. I wonder how many make it all the way to San José? It probably helps that the vehicles are supposed to be a bit beaten up to start with.

The rules are clear about pit stops:

"Greaseballers will source their fuel from a number of greasestops on the road: biodiesel producers, diners, fast-food outlets, supermarkets, factories, and farms. The possibilities are endless, and rather daunting. It’s a challenge."

Here's an interview with one of this year's partcipants, Suzanne Ward.

There's a movie in here somewhere...

Marching powder

According to Siglo XXI today, one of the sons of Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela (capo of the now defunct Cártel de Cali) is alleging that his father entered into talks with Osama Bin Laden about the possibility of sending cocaine laced with anthrax to the US.

The irony is that the Cali cartel was the beneficiary of some US government laxity in the 80s and when selling arms to the Contras seemed like a neat idea and Daddeh Bush was trying to confuse everyone over the real agenda behind the 'war on drugs' by demonising Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the rival
Medellín cartel.

SF in SF

Thanks to the writers's trike Heroes suddenly sprung a load of cliffhangers and wound up 'volume two' prematurely on Monday night. Even creator Tim Kring has admitted that, barring one or two ey-catching incidents, the second season has underwhelmed. It has become a soap with superpowers. Some of the tricks of LOST's writers have been imported (allowing most of the key characters to drift towards moral ambiguity, chronological leapfrogging etc.) but not that show's ability to regularly tease viewers with the ineffable presence of profundity.

And so I turn to Journeyman, essentially an update on Quantum Leap with some of LOST's sense of grand conspiracy. It stars Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, last not seen dying as Lucius Vorenus at the conclusion of Rome (and now rumoured to have been cast as Thor.)

I've only watched the first two episodes, but so far so good. I'm not minding all that much that this sort of premise goes against everything that I personally believe about the nature of Time: that instead of being an objective linear pathway it is a subjective labyrinth; one reason I feel that Borges was probably the greatest Sci-Fi writer of the last century!

Maybe this is why the logic of plotlines based on linear time don't do my head in so much!

The show's hero Dan Vasser has a favoured method of tell whether he has shifted backwards in San Francisco time: checking his iPhone for a signal! This gives Apple two of three placements per episode. Dexter has been whipping out his iPhone quite a bit lately too. I still think that is the best of the US serials that I currently follow, for whilst it may lack some of the postmodern trickery of the others, it outpaces them in terms of characterisation and dialogue.

November eruption

Chapin traveller Aldo Bonilla has just published this great image of the Volcán de Fuego seen erupting last month from a high vantage point in Guatemala City. (La Antigua is behind the two-humped hill in the centre of the picture.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Las Cruces, Poblado Próximo

I'm still not sure if this was an attempt to dramatise real historical memories, perhaps someone can fill me in. It struck me as odd that the events depicted were set in 1986 when Guatemala was already a democracy of sorts under Vinicio Cerezo.

The model for this situation would seem to me to be the Ixcán massacres of 1982, so admirably reported by Ricardo Falla. This pitiless scorched earth campaign is usually attributed to Ríos Montt, I suppose because people both inside and outside the country feel the need to pin the blame on a Pinochet-equivalent, but the reality is that it started before his coup and experienced a rather interesting hiatus immediately after it.

Anyway, this isn't as bad a movie as I suspected it might be when it kicked off. With so many non and semi-professional actors and a shamefully idealised view of the guerrillas (whose jungle fatigues are annoyingly perma-clean) I had my doubts, but the scriptwriters ended up constructing a situation that was both tense and moving. They achieved this by representing the enemy, the Kaibiles, as an elementally unpleasant force, and by skillfully handling the dissent within both the Mayan village community and the supposedly tight-knit group of seven revolutionaries.

But as a fictional (?) statement it falls short of say The Magnificent Seven, because the destinies of those that elect to stay and fight for the 'innocent' villagers are resolved rather unsatisfactorily. Still, given that Rafael Rosal's (and Casa Comal's) film seemed to have a smaller budget than the poblado in question it is a more than valiant effort to represent the horror of this period in Guatemalan history. And it ended up moving me to tears.

Giacomo Buonafina
, who plays Comandante Camilo, was the sound engineer for both this movie and Looking for Palladin, the American independent production shot in La Antigua earlier this year.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A nutjob is a nutjob

One of the most infuriating arguments that have been deployed against the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens goes like this: OK, religion has been behind a great deal of murder and mayhem, but what about atheism, just look at Stalin...

Now lets get this one straight. A dialectical nutjob is really not much different from a religious one. Anyone that subscribes to an ism is part of the problem, not the solution. For the moment you start to believe that no matter how many individual destinies inhabit this planet there is only one true path, you are buying shares in mass murder regardless of your own personal affinity with deadly weapons.

Atheism worth the name is a state of mind that involves a default position of scepticism towards beliefs that position themselves outside the normal conditions for establishing proof.

It doesn't matter whether Stalin really believed the ideas in whose name he committed mass murder. The same applies to Osama.

'Worse than going to a funeral'

Diego Luna claims to suffer from watching himself on the silver screen:

It's a pity that I didn't stay too long at Gaucho that evening. I wanted to say to him that the ''commentary" on the DVD of Y tu Mamá También where he and his buddy Gael García Bernal chatter through the entire movie in character is, to some extent, even better than the original!

Incidentally, I should have mentioned before that all the proceeds from the Discovering Latin America Film Festival this year went to Task Brazil , the abandoned street kids of Brazil trust, who were represented at the screening of Soñar no Cuesta Nada by a nicely-brought up English girl with the delightfully Shakespearean name of Portia. (Here we see her gamely pledging a fiver to her own charity.)

One of the eyebrow-raising charitable activities depicted on their DVD was an agricultural camp in the rainforest where they have relocated a number of 'abandoned' teenage boys which offers accommodation to paying visitors!

Flight 438

The Consumerist reports discrepancies between a FAA report about what happened to this Southwest Airlines flight and the testimony of passengers:

"We all thought we were going to die! We said our goodbyes. There was an explosion and holes in the right engine with something sharp still sticking out of the engine. The plane started shaking so bad. The flight attendant was crying and one was getting oxygen because she was hyperventilating."

Interesting. A few years ago when I was on an American Airlines flight out of Miami which experienced an engine fire on take-off the stewardess started blubbing too. Stressful it certainly was, but you'd think they had been trained to be more useful in an emergency.

Just two kinds of people

...and those who haven't had much work since Waterworld!

They were right about the two kinds of people...but must have hoped for a better ratio.

The dog's expression says it all. Either you walk me or you ride your effing bike or you use your sodding Apple...make your mind up mate!

Mister Lonely

Diego Luna reckons his most challenging role to date was in this yet-to-be-released feature about a "shitty" Michael Jackson impersonator that hooks up with Marilyn Monroe's double in a Scottish lookalike commune.

More than my nutjob's worth

...did appear to be our Foreign Office's response to calls for them to show a bit more gumption in the Sudan, but behind the scenes at least they have been working tirelessly as they say, to achieve what is in the end a reasonable result.

Yesterday V was at the home of one of La Antigua's more upstanding citizens who was soon at pains to warn her that children born as a result of cloning, artificial insemination and other such abominable scientific practices have no soul or spirit, and as a result of the world filling up with such 'out of the game' beings, God would soon have no choice but to 'exterminate' us all.

This is of course just as moronic as having a hissy fit because someone decided to name a teddy Mohammed. And the irony of course is that it is today the religious nutjobs of the world that most closely resemble soul-stripped automata.

Whilst on face value it seems to me that devout, dogmatic Christian belief is a more barking mad state of mind than by-the-book Islam − Mohammed having stripped out a lot of the nonsense in his quest for a purer form of monotheistic piety − it is also the case that it currently presents far fewer dangers as a global political force. (George Bush notwithstanding).

This is because Christianity in the West had its theocratic sting taken out over three hundred years of major cultural reforms between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. You might not know it today, but when they drafted the US Constitution, men like James Madison were determined to establish a lasting separation of church and state in their piece of America, going so far as to suggest the banishment of chaplains from the military.

Reverses there have been (generations of over-heated revolutionary nutjob types have surely given atheism a bad name) but, extremist rhetoric aside, modern Christians are surely entirely less likely to take up the cross than many Muslims are to sign up for the lesser Jihad.

In Orhan Pamuk's Snow, the protagonist Ka visits the border city of Kars where there has recently been a sharp rise in the number of young women taking their own lives. Some clearly feel oppressed by their religion and the patriarchal society it underpins, but others are committing suicide because they can no wear their headscarves in Turkey's secular schools. Perhaps the important lesson from this is the poison doesn't so much ooze out from what many feel are our 'inherent' spiritual urges, so much as from the wounds occasioned by an unconstrained clash of values and its effect on impressionable minds.

Given the unlikelihood that we will find a new planet for the Islamicist nutjobs to re-locate to any time soon, we are going to have to find a way to neutralise them ideologically. A tough ask, given that most of the ways we have tried so far have served only to exacerbate their frenzy.

Part of the problem we face is that with the disarray experienced by the socialist opponents of capitalism since the early nineties, religious nutjobism has become the natural home of western society's malcontents. This, coupled with the impact of globalisation, means that the confrontation is also essentially one between modernity and archaic cultural forms, which has helped to breed virulent hybrids like Islamism.

So I would stop short of agreeing with Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she states that all Islamic observance inevitably tends towards Islamism, because recent historical contact with our own western currents of extremism does seem to have been a necessary factor in enabling the innately political tendencies within Islam to flourish to such deadly effect.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Directors are lonely superheroes

According to Diego Luna, who was speaking at the Gala opening of the DLA film festival on November 22.

Diego Luna on Guillermo Arriaga

Diego Luna explains the gestation of El Búfalo de la Noche, Mexican novelist Guillermo Arriaga's first film since his split with Alejandro González Iñárritu. Following the success of Babel, a letter addressed to Arriaga appeared in Chilango:

"It's a shame that in your unjustified obsession to claim sole responsibility for the film, you seem not to recognize that movies are an art of deep collaboration," it read, and was signed by, among others, González Iñárritu, Diego Luna's best mate Gael García Bernal and Gustavo Santaolalla.

Arriaga maintains that he is a noveslist and that screenwriting is just his day job.

The interviewer that evening in the Odeon Covent Garden looked quite keen to learn more about all his dirty stuff.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A well-deserved rebuke for the BBC

"A tabloid approach to an issue of public safety."

I blogged about it here back in May.

PapaRatzi turns to cheap immigrant labour

And while they're at it, the Cistine chapel could do with a new paint job.


Since my recent gripe about the state of Mexican grub in London, a great new place called Mexicali has opened a sucursal in Berwick Street, which more than adequately fills the gap left by the Beach Burrito Cafe. (Pictured)

This closure was collateral damage arising from the council's decision to shut down a particular row of 'businesses' down by the junction with Peter Street.

I guess it is more of a taquería than a restaurant per se, but the tacos, burritos and quesadillas are possibly the best I have tasted in the UK (and all cost £5.20 regardless of the key ingredient). Portions are practically Waco wobblebottom-sized.

What is your view on British cinema?

Flummoxed again. Well, nearly; Diego Luna seems to have a knack for skillfully uncornering himself just when you think he might be about to say something he'll regret. (Contains good gatecrasher tip.)

Un jaguarcito aprende a nadar

Where are all the brown people... Mexican films and TV?

This question appeared to flummox Diego Luna at first. In fairness the old guy at the back who posed it was having microphone issues and the star of El Búfalo de la Noche looked as if he hadn't quite heard . After several moments where his mouth was clearly playing catch-up with his thought processes, Luna opted for a two-pronged response.

The first prong, "I'm a mestizo, we are all mestizos" is one of the oldest chestnuts in Mexican identity politics. (Carlos Fuentes pulls it in The Buried Mirror too.) Luna's own mestizaje includes his late mother's English anscestry.

The second was to re-cast the question as one of indigenous rights and to show where he stood on this by letting us know that he had once attended an important congress on this very thorny issue.

The trouble is that I don't think the old guy had invisible indigenes foremost in mind when he asked his question. His point was more like, why on channels like Telehit, where Diego's novia Camila has her own show, are all the presenters (and assorted culitos) generally the kind of Latins that could easily pass themselves off as Europeans (or worst case scenario, Argies).

On classic Telehit shows like El Calabozo and Guate's own lamentable Con Buena Onda the ordinary Mexican "brown faces" the questioner referred to usually make up the audience and have to wait to be offered a share of the limelight.

Hate crime

This crime of "hatred incitement" certainly has the novelty of casting the slavering haters as the victims.

Whilst there's more than a whiff of intolerance and intellectual hauteur about the views of Mssrs Amis and Hitchens, it's largely thanks to the prevailing mood of fear provoked by predictable Islamic overreaction that we do still still need such voices. Othewise, we'd only be listening to our timid politicians and diplomats as they insist that it's all a terrible misunderstanding, and that poor Gillian Gibbons made an "innocent mistake".

Unbelievable. Even if it had been a cuddly pig and she'd done it on purpose, there's no way that such things should be a criminal offence in the modern world, anywhere. Punto y final.

I'm glad to see that Amnesty International has grown itself an extra set of balls recently, firstly by taking a stance against the bishops on abortion following rape, and now by naming the incarcerated teddy-namer as a "prisoner of conscience," albeit an unwitting one.

And by jailing the teacher this East African government has brought wider global attention to the barbaric state of their prison system and the conditions endured therein by women who will spend a lot longer than a fortnight in Sudanese state accommodation.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Headless chickens

Wilfredo Monzón Guillén, alias El Gallo, leader of the minor-league gang franchise in Zona 18 of Guatemala City known, appropriately enough, as Los Gallos, was arrested yesterday and charged with 34 separate counts of murder. 7 of his associates were also captured in an operation involving hundred of cops and some regular army troops as well.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shooter, 'seeing the elephant'

We all remember the speech made by Lt. Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:

"We go to liberate, not to conquer.We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

"There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

"Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there."

Somewhere nearby in Kuwait, Colonel Brian P. McCoy, Darkside Six, of the 3rd Batallion, 4th Marine Division was addressing his own troops, 'the Bull', thus:

"My idea of a fair fight is clubbing baby seals."

There in a nutshell, you might think, is the difference between the modern militaries of our two nations. Yet one of McCoy's subordinates was one Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin, and in this account of his experiences in the days that followed we witness a fascinating tension between a milico mentality glutted on "violent supremacy" and one that occasionally threatens to examine warrior existentialism a bit more critically.

So, at one stage we listen as Coughlin humanises an enemy that he has recently put a couple of bullets into, the only man to survive a shot from his rifle it seems, yet one he would not hesitate to shoot again "if ever we faced each other again on the battlefield."

"War sucks," Coughlin tells us whenever he witnesses its lack of proper discrimination and sense of universal justice. And yet his mood immediately after 9-11 is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the opportunity to ply his deadly trade in earnest. "During Operation Iraqi Freedom alone he recorded at least thirty-six kills, thirteen of them in a single twenty-four hour period," the blurb on the back cover enthuses.

"In the warrior's world, we called dramatic change 'seeing the elephant.' Once you saw it you never forgot it," Coughlin reveals, and there's no question that his memoir has some elephantine insights into the code of the modern western warrior.

Before the invasion Coughlin has spent months trying to persuade his superiors of the merits of a more mobile deployment of snipers. Circumstances on the ground in Iraq see his dreams realised, as he is able to waste countless armed Iraqi fools from the top of a fast-moving Humvee.

There's a certain voyeuristic pleasure in 'glassing' the world of the professional murderer through Coughlin's scope and this is no doubt what put this book on the New York Times bestsellers list. And so the book is full of his arresting descriptions of his one-to-one duels with men that never saw him coming: "I smoke-checked him, bam, and he was dead, his body twitching for a few more moments while his internal systems shut down," whilst another of his rounds "created a hole that is called the 'permanent cavity,' and then the bullet exploded, sending small, jagged fragments spinning off in erratic paths that shattered his organs."

And yet the key moment, one that had certain voices in the media calling for Colonel McCoy to be had up for war crimes, is one where the gunnery sergeant suffers a sudden attack of amnesia. Having secured the strategically vital Diyala bridge "gravity and the physics of momentum" conspire to lead carload after carload of desperate Iraqi citizens towards the itchy trigger fingers of the Bull's grunts, amongst whom Coughlin sits. "It did not come to a stop, because it could not, until our defensive perimeter was set. There was no way to separate the sheep from the wolves," he explains, before adding that he has "no recollection" of many of the bloody moments that ensued.

"Fortunately, no one fired a shot at us, for had they done so, we would have returned a thousand," he had noted earlier in the war as his unit passed through a small town on the highway to Baghdad. Here is a soldier that is all too conscious of his position as valuable asset, one worth defending with indiscriminate gunfire directed against even marginally suspect civilians.

Given Collins's remarks about flags above, it was fortunate that Coughlin was in the square beside Saddam's statue when one of his Marine Corps colleagues tried to wrap the stars and stripes around it's bronze head. His own immediate superior, one Lieutenant Casey had with him a pre-1990 version of the Iraqi flag, which was immediately donated to the angry crowd.

The only way I have ever found to justify the invasion of Iraq to myself is as a continuation of the intent to smother the original aggression unleashed by Saddam in 1990. Not only do none of the other justifications make any real sense, they violate the principle I internalised when I abandoned the pacifism of my childhood: that force should only be deployed as a response to force.

Coughlin's wife stopped writing to him as war broke out and divorced him the moment he returned to California.

Soñar no cuesta nada (A Ton of Luck)

Free tequila! Not sure why though, as this was the festival's Colombian gala night and that nation's embassy mob were out in force.

The narrative of Rodrigo Triana's film is grounded on a set of real, reported events: in 2003 a patrol of Colombian troops chasing FARC guerrillas around the more inaccessible parts of the local rainforest, stumbled upon an abandoned 'narco-terrorista' camp where $46m in cash (in various currencies and denominations) had been hastily buried by its former occupants.

The movie outperformed Pirates at the Colombian box office. It's at its most entertaining whilst it explores the immediate ethical and economic chaos that this discovery causes in the ranks.

Although one amongst them refuses his share of this 'dirty money', he accepts an order from the platoon lieutenant to keep his trap shut about their plan to pocket the hoard without reporting it. Stuck in the jungle until their commanders are finally persuaded to send in a chopper to extract them, the soldiers experience the angst of wealth without an outlet. Bog rolls sell for $500, exchange rates fluctuate wildly and they feast on roasted mico using greenbacks as firelighters.

The script has been careful to paint the elite 'destroyer' unit as a close-knit bunch of highly likeable rogues, from whose naivety much of the comedy springs. There's a somewhat unlikely generosity welling up out of their collective covetousness.

After a couple of hairy moments, they arrive back at the barracks with their rucksacks full of plata and are granted a day of leave, and thus the predictable conspicuous consumption commences, which of course leads to the unraveling of their little conspiracy.

Being essentially a true story, its value as a morality play is somewhat compromised. Yet rather than dwell on the fates of the rumbled soldiers, screenwriter Jorge Hiller has bookended the tale with a sentimental story that introduces the wife and child of the one man who appeared incorruptible, a stratagem which delivers a minor twist and a limited sense of conclusion.

One of the key rationalisations for appropriating this dinero de nadie that the soldiers deploy is that it will only be pocketed by even bigger thieves further up the food chain. I'd love to know what did actually happen to all that dosh once the military authorities had confiscated it. (My understanding is that 50 of the 150 men involved were eventually brought to trial, and have since been released when that trial collapsed.)

There was a Cuban short shown before the main feature: El año del Cerdo which cleverly traces two interlinked sets of coincidental events affecting a set of characters in an apartment block above a Chinese restaurant, which both unfolded during The Year of the Pig.

I love this guy...

I'd certainly agree that a society that gives up the right to be rude, whilst treating "insulting nonsense" with a respect it doesn't deserve, is asking for a whole lot of trouble. Freedom from other people's unproveable beliefs as a basic human right; now that's a dangerous idea!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beowulf (Trans. Seamus Heaney)

The melancholy murk of the dark ages closes in around me when I read Heaney's utterly compelling translation of our first native epic. There are but a few points of symbolic illumination: Hrothgar's hearth, the wyrm's breath, the hero's pyre.

I can't remember being this fascinated and entertained when I read the poem at school. It's packed with wonderful observations like "Foreign places yield more to one who is himself worth meeting," but the best of all I'll have to quote in full.

In a society where every death has a price, a were-geld, fratricidal murder is particularly destabilising:

That offence was beyond redress, a wrongfooting
of the heart's affections; for who could avenge
the prince's life or pay his death price?
It was like the misery endured by an old man
who has lived to see his son's body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall, now that his first-born
has entered death's dominion for ever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.

James Hart Dyke: The Royal Tours

James HD opened his winter exhibition last night with a private view at the John Mitchell gallery at 44 Old Bond Street.

I went along with Surfer and Zhoan before the concert.

I always knew that James was an excellent landscape artist, but this selection reveals his talents as a portraitist as well.

They come from his participation in four of Prince Charles's official overseas tours to places like Nepal, Sri Lanka, The Gulf States and Sierra Leone.

I was particularly keen on his drawing of the 'Over-keen PPO' and the African warriors (see image). Surfer is rather fond of James's painting of the Prince's helicopter shimmering into frame top left with wheels down.

Lang Lang at the RFH

Surfer had a wide-eyed look when we met up last night. "The biggest waves in half a century are going to hit the west coast this weekend...go check Magic Seaweed." I did, and the predicted fifty-year storm has already been downgraded somewhat, with 20ft not 50ft waves forecast for Whitsand Bay on Saturday.

Lang Lang's performance at RFH last night was a bit like one of those beachside days where a gentle morning swell has, by mid afternoon, become a relentless train of crashing rollers.

Before the interval he played Mozart's Piano Sonata in B flat (K333), Schumann's Fantasie in C and the Granados Goyescas with a poise that was seasoned with occasional moments of sparkle (matching his sequin-speckled shirt).

The second half began well enough with Lang Lang at the mike waggishly introducing five pieces of traditional Chinese folk music − The Dragon Songs. Surfer really enjoyed these and we discussed the musical similarities with Grieg's Lyric Pieces which derive in part I think from ancient Lap songs.

Then the pianistic triple salkos really got going. In Lang Lang's hands the arrangement of Isolde's Liebestod was all too Liberacestod and the Hungarian Rhapsody was marred by a whole load of OTT performance gestures.

Years ago V and I went to see Sviatoslav Richter in the old, unpolished version of the RFH. The auditorium was in complete darkness save for the little lamp that illuminated the sheet music which Richter squinted at as he played, as if discovering the notes for the first time. Now there was a showman.

Still, it was a pleasure to meet Surfer's charming friend Zhaoan ("Joanne with a Z") and her mates Richard and Charlie.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cross Keys, Pangbourne

We had lunch yesterday at the Cross Keys in Pangbourne, the positives of which include a two course menu for £13.95, a chef that used to work at Mike Robinson's Pot Kiln and a little garden at the rear that backs onto the river Pang.

Amongst the negatives were the Chilean Merlot which tasted like you could run your tractors on it. "An explosively fruity nose," noted the wine list!

I'll try anything once, but it was a mistake on my part to pick the pheasant as my main course, which was rather like the least appetising parts of a roast chicken, tough on the outside and un-appealingly flushed and fleshy within.

Quién mató a la llamita blanca?

My second outing to the DLA film festival was apparently a monster box-office hit back home in La Paz.

It's a chaotic comedy that follows a pair of Indian crims Jacinto y Domitila − the most-wanted cholos in the land − as they traverse it with 50Kgs of Bolivian marching powder destined for Brazil. Behind them, in front of them and occasionally even overlapping with them, are a pair of likeable miscreants from the anti-narcotics police.

Essentially this is a full-on satirical caricature of a nation which shares many of the fundamental structural (and cultural) difficulties endured by Guatemala, which I suppose made it that much more funny and interesting for me. (Bolivia isn't − as the script suggests − the only country suffering from collective amnesia at key moments like general elections!)

I sympathised with George and Paula sitting beside me as much of the humour had been stashed in the language and its pronunciation, but they came out with the view that Rodrigo Bellot's film was vastly better than Sleuth, which they had seen the night before.

Latin Americans are usually better at laughing at their defects than they are at correcting them. Indeed some of the best piss-takers that I have met in Guatemala are quite literally taking the piss when it comes to the daily conduct of their own lives.

Being British I personally would have tried a bit harder to distil some of the film's raucous cynicism into irony proper: it tends to penetrate more deeply than mere mockery. I'd also have advised the director to ease off a bit with the innovative cinematic trickery. Still, highly recommended.

The whole movie is available in parts on YouTube.

'La Sobrinísima'

Diego Luna turned up to the Gala opening of the DLA festival with his new girlfriend Camila Sodi, Thalia's niece. (Thalia's website is something else...)

Like Diego Camila was launched into local stardom at a young age; Mexicans are surely second only to the Japanese in the extent of their collective schoolgirl fantasy.

She has that slightly podgy prettiness that her aunt had in her telenovela glory days, and on Thursday she was wearing an attractive early-stage Shakira hippy-chick outfit which included a patterned bandana.

In El Búfalo de la Noche she features as the rather randomly-introduced third woman in Manuel's life. The pair were apparently not yet dating when they got naked together on set and later refused to promote the movie in Mexico when the producers published stills from that short scene on a website without their permission.

Commision Against Impecunity needed?

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) reported serious difficulties at the end of last week, because as of next year it will not have financial resources to function thanks largely to its portion of the 2008 State budget being reduced from $6.6 million to $1.3 million.

Casting for a director

Diego Luna told us last Thursday that the most difficult thing he'd ever had to deal with as an actor was "working with a shitty director." He didn't of course name names, but I'd bet one of these trauma-inducing directors in Luna's career would have be my namesake.

Luna has just made his own directorial debut, J.C. Chávez, about the life and career of the Mexican boxer who has also been lumbered with some namesake issues. This movie showed on Friday at the Ritzy as part of the DLA festival, but I didn't get to see it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sin ofender al presente

Back in 2003 Jürgen Habermas invited some of the world's A-list intellectuals (including the now departed Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty) to comment simultaneously and without deliberation on the future of the EU.

Umberto Eco chose to argue that an enlarged and yet more unified Europe should try to establish itself more formally as a third player between China and the US.

"Utopia? Well perhaps a utopia made necessary by the new global equilibrium. It's this way or no way. Europe, if you will, is condemned, in order to survive, to find common defence and foreign policy instruments. Otherwise, and I mean to offend no one, it will become Guatemala."

Friday, November 23, 2007

El Búfalo de la Noche

This year's pick for the opening gala of the Discovering Latin America film festival. Diego Luna attended and spoke for almost an hour between the end of the movie and the reception which followed at Gaucho in Swallow Street.

I gathered from the under-indulgent applause around me as the credits rolled that there were other members of the audience struggling to assess this first feature from Jorge Hernandez Aldana, a Venezualan-born Pole. It bears strongly the creative imprint of its writer and producer Guillermo Arriaga, whose novel it is an adaptation of and whose regular directorial collaborator was until recently Alejandro González Iñárritu. It has for example, both the languid electric guitar score of Amores Perros and the drying-paint pacing of Babel, with the grainy texture of both. There are also plenty of Arriaga's signature flashbacks, though here they handled in an apparently less tructured and meaningful way.

The film takes us in close into the lives of a group of university-aged individuals living in Mexico City. Luna plays Manuel, a young man at the centre of a nexus of disfunctional families, friendships and flings who, crucially to this story, has deflowered and staked obsessive ownership of Tania, girlfriend to his schizophrenic best buddy Gregorio. At the outset this pinche loco has just been released from an institution and the very next day blows his own brains out.

What this movie does achieve, it achieves by way of suggestion and through an intrusive intimacy with the pains and pleasures of its alienated young characters. (The pleasures, though indeed eroticised, are the sort where people start sniffling midway through them.) We are given only just the most minimal number of reasons to develop an interest in these people, and if you took away the nudity there really wouldn't be all that much left.

Diego Luna delivers some bare bottom work on a par with that in Y tu Mamá También. I was feeling my own rear end quite sharply by the time we reached the one hour mark, but things do quicken up a bit when the barest outline of a thriller plotline is introduced.

Anyway, here's the trailer and I hope to post some clips from Diego Luna's Q&A session over the weekend:

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All the Pretty Horses

'McCarthy-lite,' Scott had warned me.

There's a case for the sell-out I'm sure, but in truth I found it to be an odd synthesis of McCarthy styles , where passages of notable verbosity are followed by others in which sparseness predominates, in places deserving of its reputation as modern American classic, yet with an awful lot of riding around going on between them − a feature I recall from the author's other would-be masterpiece, Blood Meridian.

As for the so-called romance at the heart of the story, I guess one man's mythic western is another's telenovela. I know which genre bell is clanging in the wind when McCarthy first describes the hacendero's daughter with her wide-brimmed black hat and matching Arabian horse. ("Real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal.")

Here's one of the occasional outbreaks of McCathy-heavy, including the kind of complex metaphor that defies any sort of accurate imaginative reconstruction:

"In the grey twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed on the waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an Autumn pool."

There are also one or two nameless things dotted around this verbal landscape too, surely McCarthy's most over-used adjective of opportunity. ("Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night.")

Having dipped into works representing both his Tennessee and Western periods, my preference remains for his two most recent novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. I think it is largely to do with the way he handles dialogue in them (less decoratively), and how the richness of his style has also evolved into something altogether less obstructive to the narrative impetus.

I honestly can't remember having salivated with such enthusiasm over the prospect of seeing an upcoming movie than I have over the Coen brother's apparently faithful take on No Country for Old Men.

On the other hand I can't say that I will seek out the DVD of Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of this novel (with Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz) with anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. Hollywood cast a pair of fairly grown-up actors to play a pair of ill-fitted lovers who in the text were aged 16 and 17 respectively. Yet 'mojado reverso' John Grady Cole never really convinces as a fugitive adolescent in Mexico; the character is often little more than a cipher for an old man's wisdom and a senescent code.

There are certainly a number of very cinematic scenes in this book. The dance at the grange is a favourite of mine, and then there's the Mexican jail. The story also has one of those extended confrontations about two thirds of the way through where one character lectures another at length about how the world really is. This is the Hacienda's old maid aunty, who dresses with a "chilling" elegance and explains to Cole how the 'Spaniards' tend to pursue truth and honour in all their forms but not their substance, and how there are no control groups in history to reveal what might have been.

When Cole realises that Alejandra is determined to respect her aunt's wishes and dump him he reflects that "all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all." Yet like the majority of McCarthy's girls, she never approximates a fully-realised person, and it is therefore very hard to imagine what might have been in their relationship had her decision been different.

The friendship between Cole and Rawlins places McCarthy firmly back in his comfort zone though, and this little gem of cowboy wisdom from Rawlins was a salient moment in their always enjoyable dialogue:

"Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Celebrate/Hate the new media douchebag

Inherited mutation?

I've decided to re-read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in time to be disappointed by Mike Newell's movie. I'm also intrigued to discover whether the small but plot-significant translation cock-up in the English-language version is a) still there and b) about to make the transition into the screenplay.

Not the Daily Show

The studios respond...

Just when you were thinking...

It couldn't get any worse than Dubya:

Krouty nosh

AA Gill has a convincing argument for the the comparative lack of Germanic culinary slots on the global dining out scene:

"When we eat foreign food, we don't just consume meat and veg prepared in a different way, we feel that we are somehow taking on a taste of the joie de vivre of the host country. So, rightly there are millions of Italian restaurants, and loads of Frenchish ones, hundreds of Americans, and even the occasional Mexican is awarded a culinary embassy. But where are the German restaurants? Where, indeed. There used to be one in London called Schmidt's, but it got gotterdamerunged ages ago."

It's Austrian and usually called a Milanesa (probably for the reasons outlined above), but he has some issues with the Teutonic signature dish too:

"The best thing about Wiener Schnitzel is saying it. It sounds like a man with a handlebar moustache sneezing minestrone out of his nose... It is about as forgetably minimal as food can be and still be food. Bland is too emphatic a word for Wiener Schnitzel. If it doesn't come with a lemon, it doesn't really exist at all."

Haute Cuisine is nicht, but London does have one notable German eatery: Stein's, on the river at Richmond.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vintage Atkinson

The Web without an advisor?

A week ago today the FT's Michael Skapinker was indulging in a few belly laughs at the expense of the PR industry, whose pretensions to expand their invisible handiwork into social media he claimed to find quite amusing.

I shared my response to the article with Michael and he kindly offered to pass it on to the editor for consideration for publication, but as I am yet to see my name in print, I'll reproduce it here:

Dear Michael,

You have some interesting insights there, but I feel there's still a good deal more thinking to be done between observation and opinion on this topic.

Back in the days when online chatter was going on in places like Usenet and Listserv groups, it was perhaps more understandable if companies elected to put their hands over their ears and make out that it wasn't happening. But the thing about blogs is that they are providing a more reliable conduit between spontaneous popular discussion and the commercial media, and it's this hybrid nature of the humble blog post that makes it so relevant to the communications professional.

Listserv users probably had no reasonable expectation that the companies whose goods and services they purchased would be using that particular channel to improve their overall consumption experience. Yet as you rightly observe, the internet is "teeming with people complaining about companies,"and much of this griping can probably be isolated to the frustration sensed by those who would rather these companies did not continue to pass up the opportunity to both listen and speak to them using newer channels that we are all increasingly native to.

You could in fact argue that campaign-style activities that treat blogs and social sites as nichier versions of traditional media should indeed be rare, because you wouldn't really expect them to be that effective anyway.

But the fact that spontaneous networks of conversation are emerging which are far more joined up with our increasingly fragmented mainstream media, should be inspiring emotions beyond fear and hope, and there is certainly room for the informed counselor here.

I would not expect that sending out messages with the hope that the network will do the rest of the work will be the primary activity of the PR profesional for much longer. There is a more nuanced role in the offing which, amongst other things, involves grasping (and fostering) the conditions which permit 'social' communications to occur online within the context of values shared by the brand owner.



Discovering Latin America

The DLA Film Festival kicks off in London this week.

I'm hoping to go and see El Bufalo de la Noche (from the pen of Guillermo Arriaga) on Thursday with Miseryguts. Diego Luna from Y tu mamá también is attending.

A week later on the schedule there is a Guatemalan film called Las Cruces… Poblado Próximo, but it is showing at a rather awkward time in the afternoon.

Juanes churned out a song for Rosario Tijeras, which was for me the highlight of last year's festival.