Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Things must be bad...

When even the Guanacos are worried about coming to Guatemala. It has been reported today that emails are circulating in El Salvador advising its citizens to steer clear of their neighbour, owing to the present state of criminalidad. Given that the murder rate can reach 20 on a bad day, Guatemala City is looking as attractive a tourist destination as Baghdad right now.

Meanwhile Manuel Antonio Recinos, director and Bladimiro López, alcaide of El Boquerón maximum security jail, plus 22 of their staff have been collared for the murders of the four senior police officers, themselves arrested just a few days ago for the assassinations of the three Salvadorean parliamentarians and their driver. Eye witnesses say prison staff openly allowed a group of armed men into the facility to carry out the killings.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Abandon all hope, you who enter here

A brand new gateway to hell opened up rather unexpectedly in the middle of Guatemala City this weekend. Three people died, apparently drowned in an underground river of sewage.

It seems that residents in the neighbourhood had been reporting strange tremors for some time and these have not abated since the sinkhole appeared. 'Illegal drains' have been mentioned in connection with the phenomenon. The story has been covered (with video) here by Polish TV news.

Update: I chuckled yesterday when V referred to this as "el culo de Judas". Appropriately enough, Telediario is referring to the affected citizens as damnificados. 40 families from el barrio san Antonio have had to be temporarily sheltered and Oscar Berger has been around to promise government assistance and ask for patience.

A developing story...

Now the four senior police suspects in the case of the murdered Salvadorean politicians have themselves been shot dead inside the maximum security El Boquerón prison and a riot is reportedly in progress at the jail with several officers taken hostage. It was of course a great idea to put them in a prison more or less controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha with its strong links to San Salvador.

The policemen had been linked to the crime because the vehicle they were using had a GPS unit which apparently placed them at the remote farm where the Guanacos were first held captive then executed and torched. No need for Horatio Caine on that one, but now we will probably never learn if the ultimate authors of the crime reside outside Guatemala.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

That time of year again

This wonderful image of the jacarandas in bloom in Antigua's parque central was taken this week by Revue mag's ever vigilant Rudy Girón. (Presumably from the Ayuntamiento?)

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, kick-off point for Cuaresma (Lent) the season when Guatemala's pious citizens don the colour of their most resplendent trees.

I'm growing a little jacarandita here in London in our sitting room. It shares a pot with a substantial palm and I am too chicken to transplant it for the time being.

In 2007, after 18 years of visits to Central America, I am finally to experience Semana Santa (V's pics) in Antigua.

A few weeks ago Chanel 4's The Search saw contestants running around La Merced and having to destroy a multi-coloured sawdust Easter carpet in order to locate their next clue. The programme-makers then delberately confused the Agua and Pacaya volcanoes before taking the team to Yaxhá, Petén.

When I passed through the forest last December my driver offered to take me to Yaxhá but I declined because I really wanted to make a certain bus in Santa Elena and was anyway resistant to extra charges. I now regret this decision because these ruins are clearly some of the most spectacular in Guatemala. There's a part of me that wants to grind out the trek to El Mirador too.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Boken April

It’s clear to me now that with his Abril Despedaçado Walter Salles revealed himself as yet another director guilty of adapting a source in such a way that dispenses with the central kernel of meaning, leaving us with a disappointingly hollow bit of cinema.

On screen we see a rather pointless feud between two families of farmers in the ‘badlands’ of Brazil. Yet what Ismail Kadare had given us in his first-rate novel was something far more thought-provoking.

He takes us up to the Rrafsh, his native Albania’s mountain plain. There we find Gjorg lying in wait for Zef of the Kryeqyqe, the young man that had taken his own brother’s life, thereby becoming one of a long line of black armband-wearing justicers that occupy the choice burial plots of their feuding clans.

The murder that Gjorg is about to commit is sanctioned by the Kanun, the mountain folks’ uncompromising law covering everyday matters of honour, hospitality and bloody vengeance. He is driven by orders from a distant place “the place of generations long gone” and by the desire to avoid the shame of his kin having their coffee cups passed to them under the leg.

After each murder in the chain it is possible for the family of the deceased to grant the killer a thirty day truce or bessa. Gjorg obtains this from the Kryeqyqes and immediately sets off to get a taste for life beyond his village in his few remaining days of what the yanks call normalcy. There are roads within the mountain province that are themselves protected by a bessa, exempt from the blood payment in much the same way that Park Lane is now exempt from Mayor Ken's Congestion Charge.

In this land newborns are welcomed with the prayer “May he have a long life and die by the rifle” and the strength of the Kanun can be assessed at any one time by noting the ratio of cultivated fields to fallow ones, for families that owe a debt of blood tend to abandon their farms and seek refuge in one of the dark, windowless towers of refuge that stand like sentinels in the midst of each village in the Rrafsh.

This is thus “the shadow land…the place where the laws of death prevail over the laws of life,” as wastefully murderous as contemporary Guatemala, yet perhaps somehow more heroic and virtuous for the way that death has been codified.

Indeed Kadare wants us to consider whether this blood-spattered civility is in some way beyond good and evil, beyond moral censure. To help answer this question for us he sends a pair of city-dwelling honeymooners up into this epicly violent land. They are the writer Bessian and his wife Diana, the kind of disconcerting female that one mountain man ruefully observes, is capable of "stirring up a lust for life – even without honour.”

Bessian wants his bride to experience the grandeur of this strange land beyond the aegis of the state, but what she in fact experiences forms a nice little parable about the dangers of serendipitous travel for all relationships, however strongly-rooted they may be in their home environment. Diana’s very brief intersection with Gjorg is enough to re-shape both their destinies, though Kadare is careful to keep the various strands of his narrative as separate as coherence will allow.

The author doesn’t neglect to show us the absurd, the petty and the downright base sides to Albania's Kanun. He introduces us to the Steward of the Blood Mark Ukacierra, bailiff for the Prince of Orosh, the sole beneficiary of the blood tax paid by each of the justicers. Unlike his more conventionally agricultural colleagues, Ukacierra must manage invisible fields irrigated by blood, and has of late been beset by premonitions of a drought. Only Gjorg’s murder of Zef had prevented March 17 from being the first blood-free date in the whole history of the Kanun.

Ukacierra’s husbandry of the blood-feud is one aspect of its distortion by brute economics that Kadare presents us with. He also has a character describe a man that makes a living from the fees paid for his wounds. We also see how incapable of making their own judgments the mountain people have become, deferring all important decisions to celebrity interpreters of the Kanun, such as the near-comical itinerant Solomon known as Ali Binak, who admits that much of his great wisdom is founded on quite simple adjudications.

The feud between Gjorg’s family and the unpronounceable Kryeqyqes had begun generations before when an unknown outsider had been gunned down in their village after spending the night as a guest of the Berishas. According to the Kanun the guest is akin to a semi-divine being, guaranteed the protection (and vengeance) of his hosts just as long as he doesn’t lift the lid of the cooking pot during his stay. (This part I strongly agree with. Dinner guests that make a nuisance of themselves in our kitchen are unlikely to be invited back!)

Whilst it has been especially hard this week to appreciate the compensating virtue and grandeur of life out in Guatemala, blood steward Ukacierra’s disdain for flatlanders is surely a more extreme version of the reaction I have against my fellow Londoners whenever I return from Central America. And when considering the complicated mess that he has quite literally grown up with, Gjorg asks himself if he has become more messed up because of it. “He tried to recall families that were not involved in the blood feud and found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that sheltered from that danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that.”

Eugene Onegin

An interesting experience all round. I haven't before sat watching a screen next to people with blankets over their legs anywhere that wasn't at least 35,000 feet up in the air.

But this was The Metropolitan Opera, live via satellite in HD at the Greenwich Picture House. Such moviecasts are "a new art form," according to the LA Times.

Tchaikovsky's opera derives of course from Pushkin's verse novel, for me the definitive work of Russian literature, and one of those books that made a very great impression on me back in my school days. It's sadder than all of Shakespeare's tragedies put together.

Essentially it tells the story of a puffed up and dissipated trustifarian type that turns up in Hicksville on the Steppes and coldly tells an ingenuous young admirer to get a grip, only to later lose it himself when he spots her transformed into a dazzling trophy wife at court. The country girl can now match him in worldliness, but unlike other great heroines of nineteenth century literature, she shies away from adultery.

It was in the front row too that I saw Ralph Fiennes' uninspired cinematic version of the story with Christofer; he would never sit anywhere else. This time it was not a matter of choice but I had a plush reclining seat with plenty of legroom, so I wasn't looking or feeling as awkward and cantankerous as some of the people around me. We complain a lot about our teenagers in this country but it strikes me that our wrinklies are as quick to assume and profer offense as any hoodie on the highstreet. The amount of pushing and shoving that went on in front of the entrance to screen #1 reminded me of boarding an aeroplane with a bunch of Guatemalans. These are the people that keep me out of museums on Sunday afternoons.

The close up camerawork amplified a couple of the weaknesses of this production, uncluttered (i.e. sparse) sets and over-ripened cast members. Elena Zaremba as Olga in particular, is no spring chicken. "Good, but old" pronounced one of the whittering blue-rinse brigade behind me when she came to do her curtain call.

The conductor was the wayward-haired Russian Valery Gergiev who looks like he might have studied at the Chernobyl conservatory. His compatriot Dmitri Hvorostovsky makes an eminent Evgeny, though this time I noticed how little Tchaikovsky sets up the character in the first act. In truth this opera really ought to have been called Tatiana. I've also always felt that the real tragic hero of the piece is Lenski, and the Russian composer certainly gives mediocre man of verse the choice of the tunes, a beautiful duet with Olga and then a plaintive swansong before the duel. Ramón Vargas, a Mexican bel-canto specialist, worked his culito off to master Russian, and was a revelation in the role. Larisa Shevchenko is also superb as Tanya's nanny.

I was last at the Met for real in January 1989 with my then (American) girlfriend for the The Marriage of Figaro, which turned out to be a bit of a snore. I last saw Eugene Onegin live with Thomas Allen at Covent Garden a couple of years before that, and much appreciated the stageing of the duel scene, which included gently falling snowflakes.

When I arrived tonight my front row seat afforded me an excellent position for soaking up the singing of three young sopranos standing in front of the screen with their stiff dresses and flabby upper arms. They frumped their way through primary school classics of the English folk tradition as "Oh no, John no John no".

I later made my way to the exit reflecting on whether today's teens could be capable of evolving to replenish the ranks of the crabby sophisticates I left shouting "bravo" at the 2D screen. They probably do the same thing whenever Des O'Connor appears on their tellies.

A History of Violence

Joël recommended this one to me and I'm glad he did.

Based on a graphic novel, the action takes place against a knowingly-familiar tableau. (Which reminded me a bit of those made -for-TV movies that play on Living on weekday afternoons) A nice town with self-consciously nice inhabitants is suddently visited upon by some pretty pestilential east coast villains.

Tom Stall, a man seemingly gifted with the luckiest of lifestyles in all Indiana, is thrown into the media spotlight after defending his friendly diner against a pair of transient mass murderers. Shortly afterwards some mobsters from Philly come to Millbrook to look him up, claiming that Tom is really Joey Cusack, a misplaced member of their social circle.

Viggo Mortensen plays Stall with just the right amount of impassivity. It's a bit of a tightrope act because he has to preserve our compassion as the body count around him mounts. Mortensen is perfect in the role because he combines a air of disarming boyish innocence with the ability to look worryingly malignant with the flick of his smile. He does hollow-eyed pretty well too.

Overall it's a very well cast movie. William Hurt and Maria Bello are both excellent. So is Ashton Holmes as Jack.

I liked the way that David Cronenberg appeared to be establishing the two guys we see outside a motel at the start as key members of his narrative, only to dispense with them fairly sharpish shortly afterwards. The director makes us sit back and enjoy the way certain kinds of dispute are best settled with violence, whilst he encourages us to reflect on why this is so. "I am a complete Darwinian," he has commented.

The story does have its shortcomings. One has to wonder what prevented Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris in Men in Black mode) from being a bit more direct in his approach. His exchanges with Stall somehow don't ring true. Fogarty doesn't seem to behave as if Stall were really Cusack and Stall doesn't act as if he might have had some (serious) previous with Fogarty. Based on what I was seeing, at times I did find it hard to really believe that Stall might himself have come to believe his own story so completely.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Departed

Fans of Infernal Affairs will inevitably have some misgivings about Martin Scorcese's remake.

Yet it pulls you along like one of those permanently enthusiastic friends that goads you into turning up at a party you never really wanted to go to...and you end up having a good time in spite of yourself.

The script fizzes. That and the development of character are Scorcese's main developments of his Asian source, but these aren't exclusively enlargements of it. Nicholson is often out of control and the rendering of DiCaprio and Damon's roles actually detracts from what I personally take to be the meaning of the story. The police mole is a bit too likeable and the gangster mole is a bit too un-likeable; The interesting symmetries between the police inspector and the gang-leader are also lost, as well as the sense that we are witnessing a conflict between two competing codes of honour.

There was a pathos about the inverted situations of the two men in the Hong Kong thriller that Scorcese simply doesn't capture. In spite of all of DiCaprio's best efforts I never really felt especially sorry for Costigan and Sullivan's actions are blandly self-serving. You never have the sense that he subconsciously yearns to become one of the good guys.

Infernal Affairs had a certain epic quality, underscored by the Buddhist ruminations on the torments of the betrayer which flash on the screen at the beginning and the end. It's one reason why the underlying structure of the story was able to support a trilogy. Scorcese on the other hand needs to wrap things up in 150 minutes, so he is forced to tell us everything we need to know about his two leads in the first twenty minutes or so, and then to insert a rather artificial ending, courtesy of a new main character of William Monahan's creation. (Mark Wahlberg's Dignam, otherwise there to gas up the dialogue.)

Alec Baldwin's hammy performance (something of a reprise of his movie star from Notting Hill) is actually more amusing than Jack's. And the film actually ends on a strange note of comedy as we see a rat making its way across Boston's rooftops from the window of Sullivan's overstretched ambitions.

It was a nice touch to have the pair share the same shrink, and to suggest that Sullivan was altogether less cocky in the bedroom.

Anyway, give the man his Oscar I say!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Not just in the movies

Sergio had just come out of the bank when he was shot. Almost as soon as he was back in his car a man appeared at his window and asked for the money. "Que dinero?" he responded. That can't have helped, but who can tell if things would have worked out differently if he had chosen to comply. The man with the gun pulled open the door and commenced shooting.

Sergio had a passenger. That she lived can be put down to one of those lucky breaks that tend to sit in the armoury of the the more shameless sort of screenwriter. The gunman had an accomplice, luckily not as trigger-happy as his mate. He pulled open the door and fired twice at the passenger's abdomen. One bullet missed and the other hit the mobile phone on her belt. She played dead and today has a small bruise on her belly. She was fortunate also that the man on the other side, who wouldn't stop until he had let off fourteen rounds, was concentrating all his fire on poor Sergio.

Gettin' medeeval on ya

Various incidents this week have combined to make me happy that I still reside in a land where the leader of the opposition can imagine that tax-breaks might get the instiution of marriage back on its feet.

I'm quite sure there are plenty of folk in Guatemala who would like their own government to deal out the kind of punishments currently favoured by the Saudis. This week al-Riyadh has reported that four Sri Lankans were executed in a busy market square on Monday and their headless bodies were afterwards tied to wooden beams or 'crucified' and put on public display ,"as a deterrent".

This is way too medieval for my taste. However, reading up this week on the Anglo-Saxons and their menu-based bloodfeud/weregeld system, it has occurred to me that something similar might just slow down the escalation of violence over there. The power of the state was similarly un-dependable in the Dark Age kingdoms. If there were serious financial disincentives to causing murder and mayhem perhaps people would think twice before shooting someone 14 times. Maybe David Cameron is on to something. Or maybe not. Tax-breaks wouldn't really work in Guatemala anyway.

For the past day or so all of Guatemala's crime-solving capabilities have been directed at the headline difficulty of the three dead Guanacos. They had even asked for FBI assistance. But now four suspects are in custody: two high-ranking police officials and two police investigators. All four, according to Radio Sonora, were assigned to a special unit to combat youth gangs.

The Menchurian Candidate

IGSS de puta! Look who is going to stand for President.

The race needed a little help anyway. According to the Angus Reid Global Monitor, the current state of the candidates is as follows:

Álvaro Colom (UNE) 43%
Otto Pérez Molina (PP) 18%
Alejandro Giammatei (GANA) 5%
Fritz García Gallont (PU) 4%

Daylight robbery

A day in the life of a Guatemalan highwayman...filmed by the robbers themselves. Looks like the full version had a jolly marimba soundtrack, removed for this edit!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

River of blood

"But fix your gaze on the valley because we near the river of blood in which those who injure others by violence are boiled." (Virgil, in Dante's Inferno)

"The scene is Dante-esque," observed Julio Rank, spokesman for Salvadorean President Tony Saca, on viewing the charred remains of his lately deceased countrymen. (It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that George Bush, the King of Spain and 11 other regional heads of state are visiting Guatemala at different times over the next month.)

Just before catching the clipper tonight I had a call from V. Her earlier telephone bulletin and my own reporting of it had some inaccuracies. It was not Sergio's teenage son that perished last night, but Sergio himself, shot 14 times in his car.

And so for the second time in a month I found myself heading down river on the boat with my eyes leaking for a dead Guatemalan that in truth I hardly knew. Yet this I do know: Sergio was completely harmless, and he was the number one cuatazo (best mate) of V's brother Felipe. I wept for the pain this will have caused his wife, his young family, and of course Felipe. And for the extravagant senselessness of this murder.

It was in fact Sergio's father that stood as V's padrino, and his younger brother Juan Carlos that met his end in that aviodable industrial misadventure back in 1994 (which provided me with my first experience of a Latin American velorio).

Between ourselves V and I had often derided Sergio, por tacaño, por capitalino. Our last face to face meeting occurred a couple of Christmases ago at Felipe's bountiful table at which he had arrived with a large group brandishing a couple of bottles of Gallo between them. We exchanged glances as others spoke, two parts curiosity and three parts mistrust. But harmless he certainly was. Having been made redundant by a bank a few years back, he set himself up as a freelance money-changer, a career-change which must ultimately have exposed him to the blistering savagery of Guatemala City.

Possible reputation damage

Oscar Berger's government today opined that the murders of three dodgy Salvadorean politicians over the weekend could damage Guatemala's international image. This would presumably be its well-established reputation as the place to live if you want to knock off a Bishop or torture your girlfriend...with impunity. The elimination of individuals that are themselves representative of, shall we say, a dubious track record on human rights, will only serve to confuse foreign observers as to where the country actually stands on the slaughter of innocents!

Another day, another death

This time V's godfather's teenage son, gunned down yesterday in a robbery incident in Guate. This is the closest that the current storm of mindless violence has got to us. The teenager's elder brother also died a few years ago in the kind of stupid industrial accident that Guatemala specialises in.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Game over pronounced at 1100 hrs

Surgeons that spend their spare time running around killing people are likely to perform better in the operating theatre.

(Talking of which this new Swedish metro looks like the sort of place you might pick up some fragging practice. )

End of the road

Some unsavoury politicians from El Salvador picked the wrong neighbouring country for their weekend break.

Bots #2 (More Kentish lawgiving)

Hlothhære and Eadric's (673-686) code provides early evidence of the need for something akin to the Bluewater shopping centre on the Kentish border, as Dark Age shopping in Greater London(-wic) seems to have required filling your ox-cart full of "true men" (metrosexuals not being permissable) to act as human receipts:

"If any Kentish-man buy a chattel in Lundenwic, let him then have two or three true men to witness, or the king's wic-reeve. If it be afterwards claimed of the man in Kent, let him then vouch the man who sold it to him to warranty, in the wic at the king's hall, if he know him, and can bring him to the warranty; if he can not do that, let him prove at the altar, with one of his witnesses or with the king's wic-reeve, that he bought the chattel openly in the wic, with his own property, and then let him be paid its worth; but if he can not prove that by lawful averment, let him give it up, and let the owner take possession of it. "

There must have been a queue at every altar in Kent of ceorlish men attempting to attest to all kinds of things. Consequently, Wihtræd (690-725) proclaimed: "Let the word of a bishop and of the king be, without an oath, incontrovertible." Blair could use a similar piece of legislation today.

Next steps for the music industry?

Blogmaverick has some suggestions for what the music industry should do next. These involve creating a music search engine monopoly and a comprehensive mp3 portal with what he describes as a "holistic variable pricing algorithm". He suspects that the most significant inhibitor of such a plan would be industry egotism, but put another way, it seems to involve making the web less webby, which can't be a very good idea, can it?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Instant Coffee?

V tried to convince me this afternoon that a pair of Guatemalans invented instant coffee. They went to France with their idea and the French got all the credit, she explained ruefully.

Well not all, because according to Wikipedia the inventor of instant coffee was one Satori Kato, a Japanese scientist working in Chicago. It was not however marketed commercially for another 37 years until Nescafé was launched in 1938.

Guatemalans have made significant contributions to coffee-making though. In 1872, Jose Guardiola (actually a Spaniard educated here in England) patented a machine designed to artificially dry coffee: the beans are placed in a large, compartmentalised, rotating drum. A constant flow of hot air is evenly distributed though perforated pipes, and the steady movement and the constant heat combine to make the drying uniform. The Guardiola dryer is apparently still the most popular in use today.

Julio Smout (properly Jules Smout, a Prussian-born Belgian of Scottish descent) also transformed the dry mill phase of the process. His hulling (decorticador) machine replaced the primitive mortar and pestle technique previously used to remove the outer casing of the bean. His design featured a spiral-shaped cylinder that gradually rotates the beans around a casing. As they are caught between the side of the cylinder and the casing the beans are stripped of their husks. Patented in 1881, Smout's invention was originally manufactured by John Gordon in London and has been referred to ever since as the “Smout type of huller.”

Roberto Okrassa, a finquero from Antigua, added a polisher so that both procedures could be accomplished as part of a single operation. He also added some blowers to get rid of dust and parchment, and a more efficient cooling system that reduces the heat the beans are exposed to during milling. Okrassa’s huller and polisher was patented in 1912.

(The slightly loopy bloke that runs the Finca Macadamia just outside Antigua has developed a similar revolving contraption for separating and removing the hard casings of his Macadamia nuts.)

Not sure where V's perfidious French story came from. Anyone have any ideas?

Bots #1 (Aethelbert of Kent)

My present immersement in Albania's Kanun has rekindled my interest in the codification of the blood-feud and other aspects of Anglo-Saxon good manners. Take the laws of Aethelbert, King of Kent (560-616), which set out clear penalties for humping female members of the royal household:

If a man lie with the King's maiden, let him pay a bot [compensation] of fifty shillings. If she be a grinding slave [?!], let him pay a bot of twenty-five shillings. The third class, twelve shillings."

The mid-section of Aethelbert's code deals with the prices to be paid for inflicting various wounds. A struck-off ear cost 12s, a merely pierced one 3s, though if it were also mutilated the perpetrator would have to cough up 6s.

"Let him who breaks the chin-bone pay for it with twenty shillings...for every nail, a shilling..."

The premium-end of GBH was covered by clause 64: "If anyone destroy (another's) organ of generation, let him pay with three leud-geld; if he pierce it through, let him make a bot with six shillings; if it be pierced within, let him make a bot with six shillings."

Three leud-gelds were in effect 3 x the wergeld for ordinary manslaughter, a clear deterrent against low-blows!


This pic shows Guatemalans queueing up on Friday morning to apply for a gun license. The day before 12 people had died in various shooting incidents around the country.

I spent the weekend in the comparatively tranquil setting of the Thames Valley, drinking Good Old Boy ale at the Bull in Stanford Dingley. To get there you have to pass the even more quaintly-named village of Tutts Clump.

We then had a swish and tasty Indian-Bangladeshi meal at a country pub in Lower Basildon that has had an incongruously uptown make-over as The Tamarind Tree. My father couldn't figure out the taps in the Men's room.

A Scanner Darkly

"The most dangerous kind of person is the one who is afraid of his own shadow."

"What is that supposed to meeeeean?"

That little snippet of dialogue more or less sums up the tenor of this movie, which in spite of its tendency to babble and drool, managed to get under my skin (to much the same extent that Waking Life got up my nose.) And it's worth seeing for the scramble suit effect alone.

Close attention to either the plot, the dialogue or the dazzling digital-rotoscope animation is likely to leave your brain as frazzled as the Substance D dependents depicted here.

If Philip K. Dick's original story was about anything, it was probably a representation of his own state of mind. He was after all so convinced that he was under surveillance that he started keeping tabs on himself.

Woody Harrelson's character Ernie Luckman is granted some of the more lucidly comic bits of the script, including a monologue about a world-famous imposter who turned out to be simply posing as such, which includes a great line about Leonardo de Caprio before he "hit his Elvis stage."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Tristan und Isolde

If there is one opera responsible for the phrase "it's not over until the fat lady sings" this would be it. Pretty much the whole score is a long, lyrical build-up to Isolde's final heart-rending transfiguration.

Harmonic suspension is the technical term for the musical form that Wagner show-boats here. You won't be nearly as moved by the Liebestod if you hear it as a stand-alone aria. You really do have to soak up the whole magnificent three act opera.

Ever since I first saw Plácido Domingo dressed up like a dickhead and sitting on a swan on the cover of Solti's Decca recording of Lohengrin, I have wanted to hear the Spanish tenor in one of the preeminent German roles, but it wasn't until I recently downloaded Sinopoli's recording of Tannhäuser (which features a similar wardrobe malfunction on the box) that I was reminded of the unique blend of extraordinary power and emotional subtlety he brings to every role.

It's amazing how young Domingo sounds in this recording with the Covent Garden orchestra and chorus. He has never sung Tristan live as it might have had terminal consequences for his ageing voice. (The tenor that Wagner originally composed the part for went bonkers during rehearsals.) This recording was made in the studio over a period of time and will apparently be the very last studio-recorded opera that EMI releases.

As an adolescent I was fascinated by the Grail legends. By the time I finally sat down, headphones on, to experience Wagner's masterpiece, I had already devoured most of the extant medieval cycles, plus of course Thomas Mallory and Tennysson's Idylls of the King.

Tristan certainly has more going for it in terms of plot than Parsifal, which I would up to now have cited as my 'favourite opera'. (Not that I'd want to sit through that many live performances of it, compared to say my second favourite opera, Così fan tutte.) I had a recording made by Leonard Bernstein on tape which I hadn't listened to for about 20 years, but now after hearing this one, I might have to elevate Tristan to the top of the pile.

I first had a tip-off that Tristan und Isolde might well be the summit of musical achievement by a crabby retail ad designer to whom I had been assigned as part of my internship at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1986. I already had acquired a taste for opera because my social circle then included a pair of twins sired by an established opera singer and a ballet dancer, and one of my mother's closest friends was married to the director of the now-defunct Sadlers Wells opera company. These relationships provided useful opportunities for free samples, and with the twins Baksheesh and I used to get complimentary seats in the stalls at the Royal Opera House, where we drank wine from the bottle and generally narked off the hardened, well-to-do enthusiasts around us. Having said that we did our best to be the most overdressed members of the audience.

Personally I think there is no excuse whatsoever for opera in today's world unless it has something useful to say about the human condition. For that reason Puccini (and much of the earlier bel canto tradition) is mostly complete tosh, hardly better than your average West-End musical, though considerably more pompous and expensive. In fact, other than the scene in La Bohème where Mimi first enters the garret, Puccini is really best avoided altogether. With the exception of Verdi's expansions of Shakespeare, the best Italian opera was composed by an Austrian.

Not to be confused with Tristan + Isolde.


Just been listening to an official from Bogotá describing our very own Mayor Ken as an international political hero...for having established the world's first congestion charge system.

Bogota's new Transmilenio is apparently known to local residents as the Transmuylleno, a gag that was messed up by the Newsnight reporter's inept Spanish pronunciation.

Pots and kettles in Soho Square

Protestors outside our building in Soho Square this week. I now feel encouraged to stage my own little vigil outside the Gwatemalean embassy.

The group that threw together this particular bit of counter-PR reported that “Positive comments were given to the protestors by people from neighbouring offices who said [H& K] deserve the protest for being so greedy”.

Interesting. H&K's neighbours in the square include the Catholic Church and the Football Association, not to mention 21st Century Fox and other UK representatives of the global film and entertainment industy.

Lost, Series 3, Episode 8

When it comes to deciding whether this series is of lasting metaphysical interest or a load of bollocks, this episode in particular will have to be given special consideration.

What we saw was the pivotal character of Desmond in a loop between two realities with the writers cleverly exploring weird parallels within weird parallels. (We also saw a number of badly-faked London exteriors and then learned that the background to the picture of Des and Penny in a marina was itself an amateurish phoney.)

Now hokum is just plain hokum when supernatural events are deployed will-nilly within a storyline, but they can serve a useful creative function when used to encourage us to consider what might happen if certain individuals should have privileged access to the otherwise unknowable aspects of human experience (yet in such a way that preserves the unknowability of transcendent reality for the rest of us).

The writing team don't have to provide fixed and final explanations for everything that happens in Lost, anymore than they are obliged to explain the meaning of life, but they do have to leave us with a sense that they have been systematic (and sincere) in spinning their metaphysical web, and that the end result has somehow connected with our subconscious intuitions about those aspects of existence that necessarily remain off-limits to scientific reason.

Personally I was impressed with this episode until Desmond asked the lady in the jewelery shop if she was his subconscious. But it did open up the possibility that everything we see on Lost is some sort of representation of the collective subconscious of the islanders.

With his special relationship to chronological time, Desmond is bound to have some affinities with Hurley that will doubtless be expanded upon later.

We're clearly reaching the point where an episode such as this can only be fully appreciated by someone that has seen pretty much every other one, which marks a clear point of differentiation between this series and your run-of-the-mill soap.

Saint Valentines Day Massacre

Yesterday when I mentioned to Scott that Guatemala's marriage rate doubles on February 14, he speculated on what might happen to the murder rate.

Sure enough, it has been reported today that six men ended up dead outside the same nightspot in Guatemala City on Wednesday night (a brothel located on 13 avenida, between 9ª, y 10ª calles), including a young recently-graduated publicista. Hundreds of expended cartridges lay on the pavement around the bodies.

I watched the very first episode of CSI:Miami last night. Horatio Caine had yet to acquire the mannerism of talking to people with his head listing 45 degrees to starboard, but he did manage to take off and replace his sunglasses twice during one conversation in the Florida Everglades. In the background someone shouted "we've got a floater!"

Overcoming the Monster

Is how Christopher Booker refers to the first of the The Seven Basic Plots seemingly common to all stories told in all cultures, across all periods of history.

It's a fascinating chapter. The monster in question can be literally so (Grendel, Jaws) or figuratively so (Bond baddies, The Nazis) and usually has three main characteristics, beyond being self-seeking by nature and utterly heartless.

- Predator: preys on communities, usually one community in particular.

- Holdfast: has a lair, usually underground, in which it likes to keep all its stuff, and quite often a beautiful female or substantial treasure that will require extraction.

- Avenger: when provoked it becomes especially demented.

However, the monster usually has a blind spot or some other crucial vulnerability which the hero is ultimately able to exploit, but not before experiencing a great deal of hazard. Across world literature the hero's struggle against the monster tends to follow a familiar five stage pattern:

1) The call - a period of anticipation, where the full extent of the threat that the monster poses may be underestimated.

2) The dream phase - a period of initial success (such as Bond's triumph over Goldfinger at cards at the Fontainbleu), when things seem to be going according to plan from the hero's perspective.

3) Confrontation - a period of frustration as the hero starts to get closer to the monster in its well-defended den. Whether the hero is James Bond or Perseus, he tends to enter this phase equipped with 'magic' weapons.

4) The nightmare phase - the final ordeal in which the hero will face failure and extinction: a spot so tight that release from it seems most unlikely.

5) The miraculous escape - sometimes, as in War of the Worlds, the hero can only watch as the monster's flaw is exposed with little input from himself. In High Noon however, Gary Cooper's miraculous escape is provided for by his quaker wife returning to take down one of the baddies from a window overlooking the enactment of his nightmare phase.

In general the hero and/or the community being terrorised is seen to begin the tale in a state of constriction. There follows a period of relative liberation (such as the arrival of the Magnificent Seven in the Mexican village), which culiminates in the final ordeal which proposes an altogether more terminal form of the restriction. There is ordinarily a sense that the death of the monster at the end of the story has lead to some sort of deeper liberation in the lives of the hero and the wider community.

Booker makes the point that although World War II is a recent historical event, the way we tell stories about it tends to conform to a pattern as old as literature itself.

Now all this is interesting in terms of how Cormac McCarthy handles his representation of evil (and particularly Judge Holden) in Blood Meridian. In constructing his alternative western mythology, he doesn't so much subvert the form as completely ignore it.

In places it reads like a non-fiction account of the activities of the Glanton Gang, albeit written in highly poeticised prose. Holden, himself an historical figure with known characteristics, has some of the physical abnormalities that human instances of the monster usually need to have in traditional narrative. McCarthy's judge also appears ageless and able to pop up all over the place. However, his heartlessness is perhaps less clear-cut than your average Gestapo agent, and he demonstrates an intellectual curiosity that we normally associate with a more humanist mentality (though this turns out to be an aspect of his control-freakishness).

Some have called McCarthy's presentation of evil gnostic. I'm not so sure about this. He certainly seems to believe that evil is inevitable, as I do myself, but that is not gnosticism per se. This quotation from one of his rare interviews is revealing:

"There is no such thing as life without bloodshed...I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

So, we might have to add him to the list of intellectual figures that could well have been influenced by Schopenhauer − good is only conceivable within the context of existence within the world of phenomena. Beyond this existence, in the transcendental world of noumena, there is only the heartless Will, which for its very objectivity (and unlike Buddhism's Brahman) is more likely to be the source of evil consequences down here than good ones. Gnosticism on the other hand, posits two equally-weighted deities, one good, one evil, both in the transcendental plane, with the material world itself unquestionably the work of the nastier one.

It's also worth noting that McCarthy's mouthpieces of evil all seem to believe in a crude form of determinism.

Tommy Lee Jones owns the film rights to Blood Meridian, but one wonders how successful a Hollywood take on this could be. So much of its power is locked up in the language. Holden's dual nature as flesh-and-blood man and incarnation of a mythic malignancy would be hard to capture on screen. The way that 'The Kid' disappears from direct view within the gang during the mid-section of the story would also prove problematical I suspect.

Yet one senses that McCarthy's way of handling sudden acts of violence would appeal to certain directors. What makes them most shocking is the way they rarely appear to have any function within the plot. Under Holden's tutelage the scalp-hunters become agents of the most senseless, indiscriminate form of savagery.

In No Country for Old Men I was also struck by the way that the principle of evil, impersonated by Anton Chigurh, exists on its own narrative plane within the story. Few of the individuals that interact with Chigurh survive to tell the tale and crucially, Sheriff Bell and Chigurh never connect before the deluge of violence at the heart of this novel has finally abated.

I bought The Road last night and will report on it in due course.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I was skim-reading a biography of Paul Bowles the other day in Foyles.

He and his wife Jane were in Guatemala in the spring of 1938. They'd acquired an omniverous parrot that they'd named Budapple, which formed the subject for an essay that the author wrote in April during their stay in Antigua. Apparently Budupple ate his way out of his cage.

Jane Bowles narrowly avoided an unfortunate incident earlier in Guatemala City. Left by her husband with a group of friends in a cafe, she suggested that they pay a visit to a brothel as a lark. Unfortunately, once inside, she herself was asked by Jorge Ubico's senior bodyguard to join him in a private room. Forbearance wasn't this man's forte, but Jane Bowles somehow managed to talk her way out of the situation.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rio Sol

Waitrose has started stocking a Brazilian wine called Rio Sol (Cabernet Shiraz) produced in the city of Petrolina, which is in the middle of the sertão (drylands) of the northeastern state of Pernambuco. The label on the bottle celebrates it as the first example of a wine produced in the challenging latitudes of 8 degrees south.

It's very delicious, and whilst Brazilmag enthuses that Rio Sol is "now greatly appreciated by the guests at the Burj Al Arab, the most starred hotel in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates," here in London it is going for a **** price: £4.99.

It's also nicely alcoholic thanks to the tropical sun that blazes over the vines down there. (The Telegraph had a piece last month about the vineyard.)

Waitrose also stocks a fairly decent Mexican wine (from Baja California) produced by the L.A. Cetto company.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Brokeback to Murderer, do you copy, over?

"Everybody's very fat, everybody's very stupid and everybody's very rude. It's not the holiday programme, it's the truth....I really believe that in certain parts of America now people have started to mate with vegetables."

Such were the stand-out passing remarks made by Jeremy Clarkson on this week's Top Gear, which chronicled his and his two mates' road trip from Florida to Louisiana, which began with them attempting to buy a car in Miami for $1000 − in other words for less than the average fly-drive rental deal.

Had Clarkson chosen to visit and offend the local population of a more sensitive, less individualistic nation than the United States ,we might now be facing yet another major international diplomatic incident, and he himself would be surely be helping police with their enquiries much like Jade Goody was last month.

The trio did manage to rub up against some geographically-localised sensitivities in Alabama. Stopping for gas with their vehicles festooned with provocative slogans like NASCAR sucks, Hillary Clinton for President and Man-love rules (in lurid pink paint), they were treated to some deeply-felt southern dialect by the lady in charge of the service station, who then spun round and stomped off having threatened to "call the boys". Moments later a pick-up bearing the said young men arrived. They duly alighted and proceeded to hurl rocks at the BBC presenters and their crew who were by then frantically trying to jump-start James May's $1000 '88 Cadilllac.

If the rednecks don't sue, the vegetarians might. At one stage the team were set the challenge of limiting their diet to anything they found (dead) beside the road. Hammond was just about to barbecue a − mostly-intact − squirrel when Clarkson turned up with an enormous dead cow draped across the roof (windscreen and bonnet) of his Chevy Camaro.

It all made for hilarious television and can be downloaded here at TvTorrents. There was ample evidence that there's plenty of room for Clarkson in the documentary niche currently occupied by Borat and Michael Moore.

His insistence that Miami is a township of murderers encouraged me to check the facts online. There are in fact some 70 homicides a year in Miami, a city of roughly 350,000 people, compared to around 150 in London, a city of roughly 10 million. So London has 30 times the population, but only twice the number of murders.

A single season of CSI:Miami seems to account for most of the 70 murders allocated to the swankiest town in 'God's waiting room'. That show also seems to indicate that the majority of the violently-deceased are affluent, under-30 and unencumbered by close friends and family.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I'm teetering on the brink of giving up on Enrique de Hériz's Lies (Mentira) I'm about 50 pages in and nobody is dead yet, which may be a large part of the problem after my month-long immersation in the rather more visceral prose of Cormac McCarthy.

At this stage however, everyone believes the first narrator, Isabel, is deceased. But for reasons best known to herself, and which are yet to be of the slightest concern to me, she has decided to hole up in an empty eco-shack on the shores of lake Petexbatún in Guatemala, leaving her family to think that a soggy cadaver dredged up out of the river was hers. The other narrator is her daughter Serena, a meteorologist who is extremely interested in finding our the full truth behind her grandfather's biography. Unfortunately I'm not.

I think I will switch to Ismail Kadare's Broken April, which was the source for the so-so Brazilian film Abril Despedaçado, directed by Walter Salles. Guaranteed a few stiffs in that.

Meanwhile, in Petexbatún, I have discovered a new spot in Guate that sounds worth visiting, though it is rather off the beaten track in the south western corner of the Petén.

"Times have changed. We now have blogs"

There's an excellent academic spat going on between Dan Dennett and H. Allen Orr which Dennett would clearly like to be more public than it has been:
"As I write this message, I am reminded of your earlier trashing, more than ten years ago, of my book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, first in Evolution, which does not permit rebuttals from authors, and then, slightly enlarged, in the Boston Review, which does. You leveled very serious charges of error and incomprehension in that review, and when I challenged them, you responded with a haughty dismissal of my objections (in an exchange in the Boston Review). Quoting an example, dealing with the speed of evolution: "Now I've been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it's hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he's talking about either." (1996, p37) Now that was rude-even ruder than your reply this time. When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was-but of course you never chose to recant your criticism in print, so your uncorrected accusation stands to this day. Such a gentleman and a scholar you are! But times have changed. We now have blogs, so this time you can readily respond in public to my open letter. "

Beth Rowley live at Cirque

On the Monday before the LG Shine launch event last week, Beth also did a live gig at Fopp in Tottenham Court Road. She has a fine blues voice. Shame about the editing here, but Revver only accepts 100 megs.

Dead metaphors stretching their legs

Professor Harold Bloom's rant about J K Rowling and her lucrative 'literary' creation is worth quoting in full:

"I went to the Yale University bookstore and bought and read a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character "stretched his legs." I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.

But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now read only J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn't, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn't that a good thing?

It is not. "Harry Potter" will not lead our children on to Kipling's "Just So Stories" or his "Jungle Book." It will not lead them to Thurber's "Thirteen Clocks" or Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" or Lewis Carroll's "Alice."

Later I read a lavish, loving review of Harry Potter by the same Stephen King. He wrote something to the effect of, "If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King." And he was quite right. He was not being ironic. When you read "Harry Potter" you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King."

Rico Suave

Back in '91 V and I went along (with about half a dozen other people) to the UK launch of that single at the HMV store in Oxford Street. In the months before it had dominated the Billboard Chart and Gerardo's minders mistakenly believed that he should seize the opportunity to cross-over to the British market. There must have been fewer Ecuadorians in London back then than there are now. He looked like a pez out of agua in our capital and seemed relieved to chat to V and sign her copy of his single.

VH1 voted Rico Suave one of the 'Top 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs, Ever' and Weird Al' Yankovic parodied it as Taco Grande.

Gerardo la Pelota Mejía carried on recording throughout the 90s and then transformed himself into one of the people that he seemed so under the thumb of that afternoon in London: a record company exec. It was he who brought the work of Enrique Iglesias to the anglophone market and discovered rapper Bubba Sparxxx. He would also feature in a dozen movies, including such straight-to-video classics as Pauly Shore is Dead and Sundown: The vampire in retreat.

His most recent comeback album is called 180°, a title which reflected the existential flip the artist claims to have experienced.

"I'm turning my back to a world that has given me everything; wealth and women. I've done just about everything but I slipped in a major way. Now I realize one thing: what matters most are the simple things in life, love, the invisible things, faith, truth and all that comes from the heart".

And in spite of those admirable sentiments, the album really very good, especially the reggeton version of Sueña.

Incidentally, I noticed last year in Guatemala that merengue has lost its monopoly as the music of the street to reggeton. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing, as there is something a bit more brutal (and less inclusive) about the insistent new beats coming out of the Hispanic Caribbean. If merengue is at heart "saucy", the lyrics of grammy-winning reggeton bands like Calle 13 are pushing the envelope of machista innuendo.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

McCarthyisms #7

When Blood Meridian was published Caryn James wrote in the NYT that "While it is hard to get through it, it is hard to ignore it."

For the first eighty pages or so I was inclined to agree with fellow Harry Potter-hater Harold Bloom's opinion that McCarthy's novel stands as one of the greatest literary achievements of our age, but then I started to get a bit bogged down. Up until then I had been enthusiastically telling people that here at last was an author writing in English that I could unequivocally admire, but at around the half-way stage I started to empathise with the critics that had ruled this book more pretentious than portentous. McCarthy does however heave up the drama of his epic in the final third...only to deliver an ending that is on the half-empty side of ambiguous.

More on that in a later post. Meanwhile, it is worth saying outright that, faults and all, Blood Meridian is still a whole lot better than the best novels written on this side of the world in the past 25 years (such as Coetzee's Disgrace.) "Hit and miss verbiage" it may be, but the hits outnumber the misses significantly.

These then are the things that McCarthy is VERY good at representing:

1) Animals, especially canines

"By evening they had acquired a retinue of half a dozen wolves of varying size and color that trotted behind them singlefile and watched over their own shoulders to see that each should follow in his own place."

"Now wolves had come to follow them, great pale lobos with yellow eyes that trotted neat of foot or squatted in the shimmering heat to watch them where they made their noon halt."

2) Lunge /parry/riposte-style dialogue, always without quotation marks

"Kindly fell on hard times aint ye son? he said.
I Just aint fell on no good ones."

3) Dialect

"Aint that the drizzlin shits, he said."

4) All manner of unpleasantnesses

"The idiot was small and misshapen and his face was smeared with faeces and he sat peering at them with dull hostility silently chewing a turd."

"Later when the lamps were lit the heads in the soft glare of the uplight assumed the look of tragic masks and within a few days they would become mottled white and altogether leprous with the droppings of the birds that roosted upon them."

"They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung grey and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they'd been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes."

5) Distant electrical storms and other atmospheric effects

"All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear."

"Tandem storms were blowing down-country from the north and the thunder trundled away in the distance and the air was cold and smelled of wet stone."

"About him lay only the strange coral shapes of fulgurite in their scorched furrows fused out of the sand where ball lightning had run upon the ground in the night hissing and stinking of sulphur."

"That night they could see the fire of the Mexicans reflected in the sky to the east beyond the curve of the earth."

6) Serendipitous first impressions of new townships

"Already it is twilight down in the Laredito. Bats fly forth from their roostings in courthouse and tower and circle the quarter. The air is full of the smell of burning charcoal. Children and dogs squat by the mud stoops and gamecocks flap and settle in the branches of the fruit trees. They go afoot, these comrades, down along the bare adobe wall. Band music carries dimly from the square. They pass a watercart in the street and they pass a hole in the wall where by the light of a small forgefire an old man beats out shapes of metal. They pass in a doorway a young girl whose beauty becomes the flowers about."

"They passed old alms-seekers by the church door with their seamy palms outheld and maimed beggars sad-eyed in rags and children asleep in the shadows with flies walking thei dreamless faces. Dark coppers in a clackdish, the shrivelled eyes of the blind. Scribes crouched by the steps with their quills and inkpots and bowls of sand and lepers moaning through the streets and naked dogs that seemed composed of bone entirely and vendors of tamales and old women with faces dark and harrowed as the land squatting in the gutters over charcoal fires where blackened strips of anonymous meat sizzled and spat. Small orphans were abroad like irate dwarfs and fools and sots drooling and flailing about in the small markets of the metropolis and the prisoners road past the carnage in the meatstalls and the waxy smell where racks of guts hung black with flies and flayings of meat in great red sheets now darkened with the advancing day and the flensed and naked skulls of cows and sheep with their dull blue eyes glaring wildly and the stiff bodies of deer and javelina and ducks and quail and parrots, all wild things from the country round hanging head downward from hooks."

7) Rural parishes

"He woke in the nave of a ruinous church, blinking up at the vaulted ceiling and the tall swagged walls with their faded frescoes. The floor of the church was deep in dried guano and the droppings of cattle and sheep. Pigeons flapped through the piers of dusty light and three buzzards hobbled about on the picked bone carcass of some animal dead in the chancel."

8) Characterful local drinking places

"The cantina was a single room and there was a hole in the ceiling where a trunk of sunlight fell through onto the the mud floor and figures crossing the room steered with care past the edge of this column of light as if it might be hot to the touch."

9) Evil

The subject perhaps, of a future post...

Humble Pie

Andrew Flintoff will be arriving at Sydney's Kingsford Smith international airport with a seriously unlovely piece of Antipodean silverware. If our cricketers are coming back on BA it will cost them an extra two hundred and forty pounds to check it in.

Humble pie is back on the menu down under.

"Scattered Shias, Sunni spells"

It worries me that tonight's lead story surrounding the US revelation that "a growing body of evidence" points to Iran supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, fails to acknowlege the obvious fact that the Shia militias that Iran is most likely to support, have proven far less deadly to the invaders than the Sunni ones. 170 coalition deaths are cited. This is really a small percentage of the total. Where are the Sunnis getting their roadside bombs from then? (Answers on a postcard)

BAFTAs: "I donnaspeaka english, gracias"

Strangely the BAFTAs are all going where they deserve to. The production design and cinematography of Children of Men were recognised, Eva Green took the Rising Star gong, and Pan's Labyrinth, in truth the best movie of 2006, was chosen for best foreign-language film.

Great acceptance speech from Guillermo del Toro: "I'm far too fat for this excitement..I always love England because I can get very drunk and be very repressed."

The Mexicans are doing well so far. Let's see if they carry this success through to the Kodak Theatre next month.

I can see why it annoys Mark Kermode that they all refer to Babel as "bab-EL". At least Jonathan Woss says it wight.

I hadn't realised that The Departed was a remake of Infernal Affairs!

Isn't Forest Whitaker such a nice bloke? (He almost forgot to thank his wife!)

Well Limey...

When my father was just 15 he was evacuated to the United States, making an unusually northerly convoy crossing of the Atlantic which took a full ten days. On arrival at the docks in New York he found himself a taxi to take him to the hotel where he would be met. As soon as he had settlled in the rear seat the driver turned around and addressed him cheerily:

"Well limey, how's it feel to be a refugee?"

The Feeling

Live at Cirque last Wednesday night.

Blaine on stage, kind of

Blaine at the LG Shine Launch

I had a great night out on Wednesday with my colleagues at Cirque, the nightclub formerly known as the London Hippodrome back in its 80s prime (which I once attended back in my own 80s prime: one of Eddie Davenport's Gatecrasher Balls.)

The occasion this time was the launch of LG's Shine, the second mobile phone in their Black Label Series.

David Blaine appeared in person during his public walkabout, and more sharp-edgedly as a projected holgram on stage.

Music-wise Indie group The Feeling were top of the bill.

Aside from the laid-back American man of magic and a few of our indigenous attention-seekers, Mohammed Al Fayed was there with his son Omar. I will post some short video clips I took over the next couple of days. (Meanwhile there are already some pics up on the LG Shine blog and the MoBlog.)

We were looking after a few bloggers that we had invited along. SMS Text News kept us informed and amused throughout the day (and in the aftermath) with his blow-by-blow coverage, including an exclusive interview with Cirque's backroom staff.

Everyone I spoke to seemed to be having a good time, but one of the invited guests in particular bad-mouthed the party the next day in the press. I know that the whole idea of these events is 'coverage' but I still think that if you have accepted someone's hospitality it remains very impolite to rubbish it in public afterwards. It would be a bit like me going to dinner at someone's home and then blogging about how crap their cooking is the next day! Personally I only slag off food and drink I have paid for! Media people are just a bit too spoiled these days.

Anyway, the main selling point of the Shine is it's mirror-like LCD display. I wonder whether we will soon see flat screen TVs using this technology on a larger scale. (Perhaps too reflective...)

McCarthyisms #6

It's been said that McCarthy has a set of crutch words: preterite, anchorite etc. and that he picks words for their cadence rather than their contribution to the overall sense of a sentence. Myers groused that "like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit and miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words."

I wonder what McCarthy sounds like translated into Spanish. Certainly when García Márquez is translated into English some of his recurring pet words are translated in different ways each time they occur on the page, and even though Gabo graciously suggested that Gregory Rabassa's translation of El Otoño del Patriarca represented an improvement on his original text, you get a far clearer sense of the aesthetic effect the author was trying to achieve with sound and rhythm from the version en castellano. (A load of critics have had a good gripe about McCarthy's use of untranslated Spanish!)

Unlike lefties like Gabo and Saramago, McCarthy appears to be a radical conservative, and this means that however private and reclusive he may wish to remain, polite, educated society as a whole is probably less interested in what he has to say; in public at least. Though one would glean very little evidence from the published works of those other supposedly progressive-minded writers that they are any less pessimistic about the human condition than he is.

Duel with the Devil

Is the name of a fairly sensationalist Canadian documentary about CSI in Guatemala City.

The film-makers' headline statistic is the 15 or so homicides that occur in the chapin capital every 24 hours. On a particularly bad night this can rise to as many as 30, the total for a whole year in Vancouver. (There are approximately 150 murders annually here in London, around a third of which can be tied to organised criminal groups.)

Whilst watching CSI: Miami the other evening I did a little research and found some surprising information. Florida's most famous city was little more than an isolated village on the banks of the Miami river from its foundation in the 1840s until the arrival of the railroad on April 7, 1896. At the turn of the century there were still only 1,167 people living there. This number had increased to 110,637 in 1930 and now stands at 362,470 − still pretty tiny compared to the 2m+ inhabitants of Guatemala City.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

McCarthyisms #5

The criticisms Myers has levelled at McCarthy remind me of derogatory remarks once made by Timothy Mo about the "verbosity" of Gabriel García Márquez.

Yet in spite of his at times very dense style it would be difficult to position the Colombian Nobel-winning author within a snooty intellectual elite. Perhaps he's helped himself by penning two genuine crowd-pleasers: Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Snooty intellectuals on the other hand, are more likely to cherish The Autumn of the Patriarch, whilst Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a bit of a writer's book. (I'm sure Myers would agree that it is one piece of fiction where a complex narrative style and dramatic tension can be seen to be complementing each other rather nicely.)

Anyway, there are parts of McCarthy's Blood Meridian where the debt to magical realism seemed particularly apparent. One of these is the comma-lite Comanche attack on Captain White's party, for me the most memorable passage in the novel:

"A legion of horribles; hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armour of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many width their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in Regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools."


Friday, February 09, 2007

David Allahnborough

Allah's Artistry is the name of a Friday night feature on the Islam Channel. Tonight they showed some leaf-cutter ants doing their thing in the rainforest whilst the narrator asked "how come one thousand ants can behave as if they had the same purpose?" The answer broadcast to the devout was of course that this provides "clear evidence" of Allah's micro-management of the natural world. Yet of course the answer is the same as that to the quite similar question of how come all the cells in our body behave as if they have the same purpose. Because they all have the same genes.

Only religion seems to retain this freedom to misrepresent fact on our TV screens; there really ought to be a way to safeguard our citizens from this kind of nonsense. What is intolerable on traditional terrestrial TV should be equally so on niche digital channels.


Earlier this week I had a demonstration of a web-based media relations application called Gorkana, which sounds a bit like the name of somewhere (or someone) connected with Borat's loss of innocence.

Anyway, the general idea is that it allows PRs to keep tabs on all the key journalists whose views hold sway with their clients' customers and other stakeholders. The users can output lists of names and email addresses for easier one-to-many communications, and within their own organisations they can view, add and amend information about individual media contacts. There's also a search application, which would be vastly improved by a connection with a proper electronic media database (like Factiva) where the body as well as the title of articles can be queried, and perhaps certain other data sources that would permit influence and impact to be assessed in greater depth.

Overall the system has the look of something that was developed without a great deal of hands-on involvement from end-users or the journalists themselves, though there is a survey built in that allows the latter to express an interest in opera or tennis in the hope that Glyndebourne or Wimbledon tickets might form an integral part of the awareness-generation process. (And anyone can tell you how hard it is to get people in the comms industry to think of themselves as users. )

When pressed, the Gorkana reps forecast the imminent inclusion of bloggers in their system. I'd love to know how much serious thought is being given to that particular challenge. The underlying peer-to-peer dynamics of the medium would make it that much harder.

I know that some of my colleagues have given some thought to what a social / collaborative version of such a contacts system might look like. But if it had to be a good old-fashioned piece of centralised data, then at the very least it will have to demonstrate some recognition that categories like "relationship" are going to be harder to define at the global level. And even more so than MSM listings, blogger contact entries will only really work if they are integrated into tools that can monitor (and critique) conversations in the blogosphere.

McCarthyisms #4

McCarthy's novels were amongst those dissed by Brian Myers in his Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose.

Summing up why he felt that a resurgence of good-old American scorn for pretention was long overdue, Myers griped that:

"Any accessible fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to
be 'genre fiction' - at best an excellent 'read' or 'page turner' but never
literature with a capital L...Even the most obvious triteness is acceptable
provided it comes with a postmodern wink...What is not tolerated is a strong
element of action - unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep
suspense to a minimum."
In truth, these aren't criticisms that will easily stick to McCarthy's writing. No Country for Old Men for instance may be stylistically lighter than some of the earlier books, but it remains recognisably a McCarthy novel and it has action aplenty.

From the scene at the very start where a Sherrif's deputy is strangled with a pair of handcuffs, the body count starts to mount almost exponentially, a phenomenon I hadn't previously encountered in serious literature. In some ways it might be the most "trite" of McCarthy's novels, but that is really a side-effect of the way McCarthy has worked his elaborate, allusive way with a plot outline straight out of the Hollywood thriller genre: man finds suitcase full of cash surrounded by dead narcos. Man decides to pick it up and leave. Dead narcos' associates decide to follow him and so on.

Chapinismo: Chilero


Hence re-chilero: well cool, rad, awesome, book, killer, off the 'ook, the cat's pijamas etc.

Boom time

Guatemala's professional assassins normally have to content themselves with picking off journalists and corrupt local alcaldes, but next month sees an almost unprecedented gaggle of opportunities opening up for them.

First up the main draw himself, George Dubya Bush, who will be passing through on a tour of the region (Taking in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay as well as Guate.)

Then there's the annual conference of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), to be held March 16 thru 20, which will be attended by 11 different Latin American presidents, including Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Felipe Calderon (Mexico), Alvaro Uribe (Colombia) and Evo Morales (Bolivia).

Finally on March 29, their majesties King Juan Carlos of Spain and his wife Queen Sofia are scheduled to drop by.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Everything's on the beach

LOST returned last night after its 13 week winter hiatus. Another roughly hour-shaped chunk out of my spare time each week.

The city of Miami featured (mysteriousy) as it does of course in CSI:Miami, the show I became hooked on whilst flying across the Atlantic. If there's a more involvingly ludicrous character on TV than Lieutenant Horatio Cain I've yet to find him. Caruso's performance wouldn't be worth spoofing because he seems to be already playing it as a piss-take...rather like some of the great TV detectives of the 1970s.

Looks like I will never be crossing the pond on BA again. I'd rather pay Continental $5 for a miniature bottle of Merlot than BA 240 quid for my second bag. (I don't think I have ever made the journey carrying less than 30 kgs.)

Chapinismo: Pistear

To grease someone's palm; literally to dosh them up. From pisto, chapin slang for dosh.

The most recent accounts I have heard about the death of our friend in Guatemala last weekend are taking the regretably rather everyday story of the accidental death of a motorcyclist and turning it into a proper chapin folk-tale.

The woman that got down from the car to kick him (having just run him over) turns out to have been a judge. There were other people in the car and they promptly joined in. The judge has no doubt since had to pistear the local cops, as our friend was one of many hundreds of bikers on the road that morning in Chiquimula, and several of his comrades on the Caravana del Zorro took photos of the incident.