Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Beach

Without trying all that hard I can make Alex Garland's cult novel serve as a metaphor for my own experience of finding and then losing the dotcom Eden: A small band of us with a set of broadly compatible ideals discovered − by luck really − an unspoiled niche in the otherwise bespoiled business world that would allow people like us to strive (and thrive) in apparently protective isolation.

We were committed to our commercial idyll and to each other, and for approximately eighteen months it felt rather like employment paradise. But beyond the founding group, each new arrival − whatever their various personal qualities as individuals − somehow represented a degradation of this utopia, until 1998 when Johnny-come-latelies with an entirely different outlook and agenda were arriving by the boatload.

The Canadian authors of The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became the Consumer Culture see The Beach as illustrative of the delusion at the heart of countercultural philosophy: "Travellers, especially those who are most in search of the exotic, notoriously spend a great deal of time with each other, not interacting with the locals...the pleasures of apparently exotic travel are sullied by the realisation that the ongoing search for authentic connection by escaping modernity is not a solution to the problem, but its cause."

As a critique of backpacker culture it works better than the Hostel movies, but not that much better really. Both are stand-out examples of plots best remembered for their set-up rather than their payload. And when it came to adapting the book for the screen John Hodge took Garland's less than satisfying second half pickle and made one of his own, re-jigging some of the central relationships and easing up on the final apocalypse, but still not really finding a narrative course capable of amplifying the messages one can readily deduce from the story outline alone.

And as a literary experience I found it uneven. If in places it seems that Garland has a solid knack for dialogue, for characterisation, for imaginative and evocative writing, in others it seems to have deserted him completely. The scene where Richard and his cherms swim the gap between two islands is one of the most bizarrely non-descriptive in the novel.

Yet it does have plenty of ideas and incidents that take me back to my own backpacking days: crazy long-haired yanks, sordid wooden hotels, Vietnam fantasies in the rainforest, unrequited love, well signposted moral grey-areas and thrown-together, multinational groups seeking affirmation in the flames of a beach bonfire. But can I believe that a bunch of Thai marijuana farmers would risk mass-culling western travellers in order to protect their secret plantations. Not really. And where are the Sloanes?

For me the most resonant moment was more exquistely realised in the film than in the book. For on Caye Caulker in Belize, late into the evening of my twenty-first birthday, an English volunteer teacher that I found charming on all sorts of levels suggested that we leave the Black Coral bar and go for a swim. I concurred and she led me to a miniature bay on the east-facing side of the atol where soon found ourselves swishing our arms through a phosphorescent sopa de mariscos.

My forty-year-old self now looks back with utter dismay on the reticence of my twenty-one year old self, who through a combination of moral rectitude, loyalty to a companion and overall inexperience, let slip a romantic opportunity that had really been served up to him on a plate. (Perhaps the plankton bath had also unnerved me.) Needless to say Leonardo de Caprio's Richard tucks straight in, but in the novel the character fails to have his way with either Françoise or its altogether more sinister version of Sal. Indeed Garland's Françoise is but a placeholder for every young Englishman's idealised French teenage nymphette and Hodge went some way to rectifying this with the part he crafted for Virginie Ledoyen.

Monday, July 30, 2007


V and a group of her nephews on a mound at the sacred Maya site of Iximche last month.

This was some time after it had been cleansed by priests following the spiritual defilement occasioned by the visit of George Dubya Bush in March.


My brother-in-law Felipe has been out and about taking snaps of La Antigua's distinctive door knockers.

See his Flickr set here.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Scary summer

Anthony Gormley's sentinel-like sculptures situated atop several buildings on both sides of the Thames between Waterloo and Westminster bridges are continuing to freak me out, especially on the rare radiant mornings we have had this July. See also...

It's that time of year when the media start pushing out their summer killjoy scare-stories, though this year they have had to seek out an alternative to their perennial favourite: skin cancer. It looks like it's a toss-up between pyschosis-inducing spliffs and 'mindless' yobs urinating into rising flood waters. (At least we now know what's up with half of our politicians.)

Jin and Cherry (Dad and daughter)

If two cats and two dogs weren't enough, V has added yet another creature to her collection: a little blue and green parakeet that yesterday just plopped out of the sky and landed at her feet. She quickly ran to tie up the dogs (both were too busy sniffing around elsewhere) and went back to pick up the bird. It appears to like eating tortillas. (Only one of the cats has so far acquired a taste for fried plantain.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Prom 15: Macbetto

"La vita... che importa?...E' il racconto d'un povero idiota;Vento e suono che nulla dinota!"

"If we'd seen that at Glyndebourne we'd have been very angry," said one dodderer to another as they shuffled their way out through the G Stalls bottleneck. I'm not sure why they'd reached that conclusion, but maybe it had something to do with the kilts and cardboard boxes.

The Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the London Philharmonic (conducted by Vladimir Jurowski) had just performed a semi-staged version of Verdi's 1865 opera, which switched to the discarded 1847 ending for Macbeth's death scene. It was the first of this season's Proms that I have attended that was close to a sell-out.

As ever the audience was generally close to (and in some cases well past) their sell-by date. During the interval they hovvered around like unpredictable human obstacles looking for things to fiddle with.

I'd not seen (or heard) this opera before, and whilst Otello has in a way added to my appreciation of Shakespeare's story, I'm not so sure in this case. Macbeth is probably my favourite of the tragedies, but it is very dark − there's not a single moment of unadulterated joy − and for the first couple of acts it seemed to me that Verdi had struggled to compose the appropriate soundtrack for the malignant turmoil inside the heads of the usurper and his wife. The balletic third act nevertheless provides an original twist on the source scenes.

Most of the cast and chorus were in dayglo tartan, the kind that you'd expect to come across as the uniform of a new Scottish no-frills carrier. The witches and assassins meanwhile were got up like the folk with whom I shared a bus-shelter in Paisley last month.

(Andrzej Dobber − pictured − sang the lead.)

TC tells me that in the original Glyndebourne production "the choir is inside a caravan, that arrives from nowhere (and with no recognizable purpose) and keeps coming in and out in order to sing." A caravan full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. They'd certainly have been angry about that.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hostel Part II

Random Fact: there's a pub in Knightsbridge called Paxton's Head.

It seems that I have seriously alienated the Route66 lobby with my recent post on Cars. Anyway, there are essentially two main reasons for going off the beaten track in American movies: to have either your priorities or your body parts rearranged.

Whilst there's as yet little sign in recent Hollywood output of Yanks coming over to our side of the pond to refocus their view of the big picture (other than Michael Moore of course) Eli Roth's backpacker torture porn flicks are an indication that America's surplus fictional youngsters are increasingly comfortable with getting themselves diced up in Europe's backwoods, rather than in their own fly-over states.

I think I'm in a small minority of right-minded people that find these films quite entertaining. There's nothing particularly scary about them − I doubt very much whether anybody would be put off their inter-railing plans by watching them. But there is a degree of wit in the concept and the way it has been realised. (In this one I particularly enjoyed those unreconstructed New Europeans who interacted so charmingly with the girls on their train. )

Unlike the boys in Hostel, all guilty of lust, the girls of Part II are dreamier types, if anything only culpable of the (on paper at least) less deadly sin of willful self-pampering (as it is a legendary natural spa rather than an easy lay that lures them eastwards).

As well as switching to female victims Roth has panned out to reveal more about both the men behind Elite Hunting and those that choose to come on these homicide-holidays to Bratislava. Trouble is that in doing so he has managed to make both a lot less sinister than they could have been.

Anyway, at least we have now cleared up the issue of when Slovakia was last racked by war.

The Cooler

Alec Baldwin's performance is captivating. He plays Shelly Kaplow, an old school Casino boss with whom we are permitted to build up some sympathy before we get to see his darkest side.

Part of his traditional approach is the in-house deployment of an infectious loser called Bernie Lootz (William H. Macey), a man whose cooling presence at the tables almost inevitably forestalls the luck of the patrons around him.

The story shows us Kaplow and Lootz at a moment of transition. The Casino boss is beset with Harvard-educated suits with modernisation in mind and Lootz has formed a seemingly unlikely bond with a waitress and failed showgirl called Natalie (Maria Bello). The beaming smile that love brings Lootz, also reverses his cooling powers and the Casino starts to bleed millions.

I found out about Wayne Kramer's debut movie when I learned what the censors wanted to do to it in This Film is Not Yet Rated. It's main selling point for me was the way it manages to be engrossingly gritty and dark and yet at the same time so good-humoured and sentimental.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Prom 7: Pärt, Rachmaninov and Glière

Confusion over our seat allocation saw me negotiating with the press officer for one more ticket and I ended up at the end of row 8 in area G, practically in the percussion section of the BBC Philharmonic. And this was really the place to be for a unique perspective on Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. The man with the gong was practically standing next to me!

Argie-born Nelson Goerner was at the piano with Vassily Sinaisky conducting. Like his orchestra he was in a white tux and looked a bit like a Maitre D in a grand French hotel. The Philharmonic are Manchester based and most of them were outside puffing away during the interval.

The second half was taken up with Reinhold Glière's bloated third symphony, Ilya Muromets. Oh God...Eighty minutes! I heard someone writing it off as 'unstructured' when we were leaving the Royal Albert Hall, but in fact it has a very clear dramatic line. This is myth-making music imagined in the last years before the arrival of cinema.

The highlight of the evening was Arvo Pärt's Cantus en memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), an ethereal piece which descends along on an A minor spiral, apparently a seminal example of what the composer calls his tintinnabuli technique:


The trouble here is twofold. Firstly, the formula. Lasseter says the inspiration reached him when he met the guy that wrote Route 66, The Mother Road, but it's really just a straightforward steal from Doc Hollywood...and umpteen other Hollywood movies inspired by the mid-life crises (and hometown nostalgia) of overpaid baby-boomers in LA who have started to wonder rather belatedly whether life is really about the journey rather than the destination. The jokes, such as they are, are tilted at this age-group rather than the under 15s.

Secondly, un-selfish Lightning McQueen is really no more likeable than his egotistical former self.

And for me there was a third parachute deployed out the back of my decelerating enjoyment this Pixar movie. This other world run by machines, where even the insects are little VW Beatles, is frankly just a little bit creepy.

Saints and Soldiers

What would happen if a bunch of Mormons decided to shoot a sort of remake of Saving Private Ryan? This would...unfortunately.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Prom 5: Hayden, Bernstein and Ives

The original venue for the Proms, The Queen's Hall on Langham Place, was taken out by a single incendiary bomb in 1941. It was considered to have exemplary acoustics, unlike the Royal Albert Hall where they resumed for the latter years of the war.

When my father returned in 1943 after his evacuation to Kansas City, he spent a couple of summers watching the concerts from high up in the gallery until he turned 18 and had to sign-up.

These days the audio experience at the RAH has been slightly improved by the large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs (AKA "mushrooms" or "flying saucers") which were installed in 1969 - pictured.

This Prom was mostly American-themed and attracted a sparser yet slightly less sandalled audience.

It began with the world premiere of Sam Hayden's Substratum. Of it the post-minimalist/newly complex composer says, "I try and find a metaphor that says something meaningful about the structure of the piece itself … In Substratum there's a sense of there being an underlying layer of material, on top of which everything else is generated, and is related to, in some fundamental sense". A complex din.

This was followed by Bernstein's Symphony No 2, The Age Of Anxiety, which apart from one or two flourishes from the piano soloist sounded rather dated. I know this is a criticism that could be levelled at all 'Classical' music, but somehow this piece just didn't seem to have any of the requisite timeless relevance.

Then there was Charles Ives's Fourth symphony, which I think I might have enjoyed more with my eyes shut as the rather awkward stageing it seems to require was constantly grabbing my attention during the performance. (Two pianos, two conductors and a 'distant' ensemble of harps and violins.) It evokes both the transcendental grandeur of many of the great symphonies that came before it and the reduced accessibility of those that were to follow during the rest of the twentieth century. Its final movement is especially compelling.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Prom 4: Berio and Rossini

It was Italian night at the RAH. Which means gladly tapping your foot to a jolly tenor aria with lyrics like Christ above in torment hangs.

But those that essentially came for Rossini's sing-song sacred piece Stabat Mater had of course to endure 35 minutes of Luciano Berio's unusual Sinfonia from 1968 which is, in modern parlance, a mash-up.

Members of the BBC freeloaders club around me were none too pleased with the postmodern pre-interval entertainment. "It puts people off," one lady suggested. "I prefer something with a tune." Another piped up to say that she did in fact recognise the tune in the fourth movement of the Sinfonia...but then that's because it's been lifted from Mahler's second.

I would refer them all to The Modern World's review, which involves a bit of a metaphoric mash-up itself: "The syllables float above a layer of shimmering music, piling up like clouds of incense, with frequent spikes of brass and piano shooting through the haze like needles."

Antonio Pappano
(great fun to watch) conducted the Academy of Santa Cecilia from Rome, an Italian orchestra, which meant there were a few lookers in the string section, but most of the blokes resembled either Umberto Eco or Umberto Eco with great hair. No Mexican waves from the chorus this time.

Years ago when I worked in the sheet music department at Foyles I had a conversation with an author who had produced an odd little book detailing the medical conditions of all the great composers. They were generally not a healthy bunch, with Chopin deserving a special mention for even making it out of childhood. But the one with the most known chronic illnesses at his time of death was in fact Gioachino Rossini.

As I was leaving I overheard a German visitor describing the Proms as "wery pricey koncertz for the dinosauer set." I'm rejoining the promosauruses tonight for the American-themed programme including Bernstein and Ives.

Berio's Sinfonia for 8 voices and orchestra:

Prom 3: Campra and Rameau

No gain without pain seems to be the abiding principle behind the BBC's PROM programmes. The piece or pieces you really came to hear are rarely given the pre-interval slot.

And so this generally white and occasionally sandal-wearing middle-aged crowd had to endure the muted melancholy of Campra's Requiem before they could begin to roar their approval for the underprivileged kids from South Africa's townships that joined John Elliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists in their hour-long celebration of the music of Jean Phillipe Rameau. (A passing mention here for the HIP − historically influenced performance − of the Compagnie Roussat-Lubek, a dance troupe consisting mainly of young French girls of the gamine variety.)

Noting the absence of Rameau's catchy Danse des Sauvages, I nevertheless suspected the potential here for the kind of uncomfortable spectacle reminiscent of the Jesuits teaching the Guaraní indians to play European stringed instruments in the great South American missions (as seen in Roland Joffé's 1986 film The Mission), but in fact something very interesting occured: when the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble and Dance for All (many in full warrior garb) merged with the main orchestra and Mexican-waving Monterverdi choir for the finale, their own artistic 'liberation' was less at the forefront than the liberating effect they seemed to have on the usually more confined configuration of classical performance.

And Rameau has proved to be the catalyst for such a revelation. There is surely no composer before Beethoven (and perhaps indeed after) whose compositions reward such enthusiastic physicality in their rendition. My first exposure to Rameau's music was back in 1987 when I went to see Aria, a collaboration between Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford and several other fairly experimental directors. Each had made a short film around their favourite operatic aria. Derek Jarman memorably chose Depuis le jour from Charpentier's Louise. Altman himself selected a segment from Rameau's final opera Les Boréades and I found the rhthymic innovation utterly captivating.

It seems that when Rosemary Nalden turned up in Soweto with her violins the musically-inclined kids she gathered there at first tended to find classical composers like Mozart and Haydn a bit of a struggle. Only when works by Rameau were introduced into their repertoire did the programme really take off. Go and listen...

Exeedos, movement of Jah people

Has the great corporate exodus out of Second Life begun?

DeliFaks reports that between May and June, the population of active avatars declined 2.5%, and the volume of U.S. money exchanged within the world fell from a high of $7.3 million in March to $6.8 million in June. It also seems that there are only about 40,000 people roaming around in there at any one time.

Techcrunch's Duncan Riley has done some basic commercial arithmetic: The visitor rate to corporate-constructed locations in SL (0.8-2%) might represent an improvement on the standard online advertisement rate of 0.5-1%, but the CPM varies from around $21 to $180 which makes SL marketing a comparatively risky strategy.

Monday, July 16, 2007

No more choo-choos

Guatemala is already producing ethanol in such quantities that could cover 10% of its fuel requirements and thereby reduce its dependence on fossil fuel imports by up to $70m per annum. Legislation that would make this a practical reality has been stuck in congress for two years now, but may well get passed before the year is out.

Meanwhile, there has been a fair bit of coverage surrounding the decision by a Pittsburg company to wind up Guatemala's only functioning railway service, Ferrovias, which has been transporting cargo between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios since it was restored in 1998 by American millionaire railway-buff Henry Posner III and his partners.

Enough is enough," Posner has griped. "It's clear that at every level of Guatemalan society there is, at best, a lack of respect and, at worst, an outright hostility to everything that we have been trying to accomplish."

The gringos had a 50-year concession, but ended up trying to sue the government for $65m in 2005 for not doing things they had apparently promised to do, such as improving the track and removing 'squatters'. This may not be such a bad thing, as the railroad had been out of service for decades in a part of the country where much of the available agricultural land had been kept uncultivated by the United Fruit Company. One can imagine that fairly large communities must have rushed in to exploit this terrain before the turn of the millennium.

"The implications for foreign investors are not good," claims Carlisle Johnson, host of a radio program called Good Morning Guatemala. "Who is going to come in after this fiasco?"

Answer: The Taiwanese. Ever since Costa Rica broke off diplomatic relations and cosied up to the People's Republic, Guatemala's govermenment has been lamiendo culo fairly energetically in Taipei and last Thursday it was announced that Taiwan's petrochemical conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group have expressed an interest in helping build an oil refinery in a new, purpose-built industrial zone the country.


I had a delightful evening beside a willow-draped section of the Thames on Saturday when I joined Joel and Che-Yok at Stein's Bavarian Beergarden in Richmond.

Joel had plugged it to me as quite possibly London's only authentic German eatery, though later when we were sitting down, he admitted that the time you have to spend waiting in line there is perhaps more authentically British.

First you queue to make your food order, then you have to join another line at the side of the shack for your beer and any other drinks, and finally you inevitably end up queueing yet again at the back for the bog, as there is only one for each sex.

One other moan. They call last orders at the ridiculously early time of 10:10. They must have some fairly militant local residents. Still, the food is excellent and drinking a stein of lager on a summer(-ish) evening feels pleasingly decadent.

"Cachetazo Duro"

So the Argie team that should have won the World Cup becomes the Argie team that should have won the Copa America. My heart bleeds.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


After Mark Kermode saw this at Cannes, he came back with the view that Michael Moore is utterly convincing...until he starts talking about something you actually know something about...like the NHS.

OK, we know that there are problems with the NHS (not least perhaps its recently-detected policy of recruiting foreign fanatics that have been rejected down under), but these are nothing compared to say having to pick which of your severed digits to have surgically reattached.

Yet Moore does appear to move rather too effortlessly from his America is crap argument to his alarm bells should start ringing France is paradise contrast.

There are parts, especially in the first and last quarters of an hour that are very moving, but the pathos is nicely balanced with Moore's good natured humour, especially when he is acting up the American ingenu abroad.

Although ostensibly about the horrors of the healthcare system in the states, Moore's real target would appear to be the US political system − what is it about his nation's democracy that stifles the incipient 'we first' culture he detects in the lives of many ordinary Americans?

It ends with a flurry of the kind of striking gestures that Moore specialises in. You can but admire his hutspa: having discovered that free, state-provided healthcare is in fact available somewhere on American soil − at Camp X-Ray in Guatanamo Bay − he sets off with a small flotilla of boats from Miami and thus announces their arrival at Gitmo with a megaphone: "I'm here with some 9-11 rescue workers. They just want some medical attention...the same kind that Al Qaeda is getting."

Following a recent "dust up" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Moore has dedicated the rest of the past week to attempting to squeeze an apology out of the news station.

Pakistani Daleks

Spike Milligan's ever so slightly random dalek sketch. "Put him in the curry..."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Slowpoke Rodriguez

Continuing our Mexican theme...

The full cartoon can be viewed here.

Frijoleros 0 Pelotudos 3

Messi's goal was very classy, but El Tri had their chances. If Guardado had scored first...

Anyway, I have given a lot of thought recently to the question of which of Luis Miguel's many classic hits can be optimally appreciated after un chingo de tequilas.

Que Séas Feliz, Tengo Todo Excepto a Ti, Júrame and La Incondicional all made my top five,but the winner has to be Sabes una Cosa:

I'm not alone on this...

Sir Salman

David Blunkett was on SKY News this morning and made two observations:

- Threatening violence just because someone has received an award is "quite outrageous"
- Salman Rushdie DID NOT deserve his knighthood on merit grounds.

This mirrors my own views on the matter. Additionally, a knighthood is a more explicitly political award than the usual merit-based gongs. So you would think that those who dish them out would have a keen sense of the political consequences, such as the impact on our national interest. You'd think...

Meanwhile German writer Günter Wallraff is chasing a Darwin award with his plan to read The Satanic Verses out loud in Cologne's new mosque. He thinks it will provide a "litmus test" of the Turkish-Muslim community's desire for dialog:

"If this reading takes place, and I am doing my best to see that it does, it will surely have an extremely liberating effect. Just imagine the scene in the mosque: The reading takes place, some find what they hear to be not bad at all, and some even laugh. That would open a lot of doors."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tell No One

"Champagne flutes tinkled in harmony with the Mozart sonata. A harp underscored the subdued pitch of the party chatter. Griffin Scope moved serprentine through the black tuxedos and shimmering gowns."

I don't normally read the sort of books whose chapters might start like that. Coben must have been imagining the Hollywood adaptation of his novel as he penned that awful triplet of sentences.

In the pages that follow, we witness of one many scenes pilfered from the American cinematic tradition. For example, 'serpentine' billionaire Scope is surprised to see one of his shady henchmen turn up at this clichéd society bash and quickly ushers him into one of those private studies that rich, bad men always seem to have.

In the end it was the French that adapted Coben's novel, and I read it out of a desire to see how Guillaume Canet had gone about it. For a start Canet junked Coben's pointless last page twist: that it was Dr Beck and not his wife (or her father) that killed the billionaire's son. Not only is it undramatic, it undermines much of what went on before.

I detected at least three narrative voices in play here: a third person narrator that relates every scene in which Beck himself is absent and two separate streams of Beck's first person narrative, one with hindsight and one without.

Whilst Coben starts to unravel his plot slowly from about the halfway line, Canet saves a lot up for a big reveal in the scene where Beck confronts his father-in-law. In the novel you have a sense that you know more than the doc does a little sooner, but then Coben has that silly twist and a rather ludicrous final act up his sleave which the French director has correctly dispensed with.

Coben does suggest an angle that, if developed further, could have made for a slightly more thought-provoking story: Scope reflects how his dead son was "magic", the kind of person whose very presence lit up people's lives. A fine charismatic character with perhaps one evil foible might have set up an interesting contrast with the Becks' own rather leaky ethics.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


With Lost, Heroes, CSI Miami and now Doctor Who all in hiatus and Rome at an end, I needed a new series to keep me away from Big Brother this summer.

So far Dexter seems to be doing the trick. "A kind of CSI meets Patricia Highsmith" said Martha Kearney, presenter of Newsnight Review. The combination is fascinating because, thanks to Dexter's day job as a blood splatter expert with Miami Dade PD, there's always a traditional forensics manhunt going on in parallel. This is one of the many tactics the writers are using to displace our standard ethical reflexes.

I was less then 100% convinced after episode one, which felt just a bit too nasty. Could they really keep up the level of dry, black humour required to preserve our sympthy with 'the serial killer's serial killer'? The answer, after episode two at least, seems to be yes. The character is becoming genuinely fascinating. I like the way Dexter, unable since some mysterious childhood trauma to feel emotions, nevertheless somehow gets them, perhaps more than most. And I loved it when his 'damaged' girlfriend hugs him and says "I must have found the last decent man around' after he refuses to push her for sex.

Perhaps the unpleasant joke at the heart of Showtime's drama will wear off eventually, but for now at least, enough slow-burn mysteries and on-going character-based situations have now been established to keep me coming back.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Curtain

Milan Kundera is a master of the deftly delivered broad generalisation. His own novels are full of eye-catching propositions which clearly aspire to the status of universal truth.

In this essay in seven parts − a personal take on the history of the novel that of course demands to be taken as the history of the novel − the levels of presumption are occasionally breathtaking. For instance, mediocre scribblers will find that not only is their talent under question, but their moral fibre too:

"A novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral."

Art, which generally serves the collective life of pre-modern people, has for us moderns become the (clearly morally superior) discipline of saying the never before said. In order to get into the soul of things, generations of novelists have had to suppress their own souls, Kundera argues, for their role in life is not to show us their own life, but to show readers theirs. In comparison, he argues, the typically self-fascinated lyric poet is immature.

For Kundera the novel is "the last observatory from which we can observe human nature as a whole." He tracks what he sees as the most important phases in its development, such as the switch from pyschological to existential storytelling. "When the problematic is existential the obligation to give the user a plausible world no longer comes into play. Kafka opened the door to the impossible." (This is perhaps why the implausibility of Lost is that much more intellectually satisfying than that of Heroes!)

Post-modernism has meant a tendency for the arts to "come closer" to their particular nature. So while painters strive to be everything the photographer isn't, novelists carefully refuse to illustrate historical eras or defend ideologies...at least the morally-upright sort of novelists that Kundera takes into consideration.

You can tell from the earlier quoted remarks that Kundera probably doesn't think much of genre writers. It's clear too that he hasn't much time for people that adapt novels into screenplays, because turning a novel into a film involves a decompositon, a renunciation of form. I can however think of several examples where the screenwriter has added form where none previously existed. Re-composition might have been a little fairer.

"The young imitate the young, but the old do not imitate the old," he explains, which is why greats like Picasso and Beethoven challenged the prevailing artistic forms as part of a band or movement when young, but then went down a different, very idiosyncratic route as middle-age set in.

Kundera takes us back to the pages of the Iliad, where the participants in a clearly very silly war nevertheless behave in a way that was unquestionably driven primarily by personal motives and can opt in and opt out of the silliness as they see fit. Compare, he then asks, later societies which relentlessly impose their own moral principles on their members. And the trouble confronting would-be novelists in such societies, he argues, is the velvety-thick "curtain of preinterpretation" that has been draped across the stage of everyday existence.

There's one sentence in this little book I particularly took to. In a way it neatly summarises Kundera's own personal technique for making artistic observations just as much as it provides the rest of us with a format for escaping relativism in our everyday value judgements:

"Each aesthetic judgement is a personal wager, but a wager that does not close off into its own subjectivity; that faces up to other judgements, seeks to be acknowledged, aspires to objectivity."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Divergence (San cha kou)

I flicked quickly from the main menu to the extras hoping to find the WTF was that all about? option. On the IMDB its says This plot synopsis is empty. Add a synopsis, but nobody has felt up to it.

There's some sort of not especially heinous white collar crime at the centre of this slick Hong Kong caper, around which a cop, a lawyer and an assassin buzz, while bodies twitch and fall relentlessly.

It's all very easy on the eye in a post-Infernal Affairs kind of way, especially Angelica Lee, the very picture of Asian super-cuteness.

Here she plays two mysteriously identical women who we are led to believe are the same person only to have that morsel of sense cruelly snatched from us at the end.

The gaps between the set-piece sequences are filled with icky sentimentality straight out of a pop video. At any moment I was expecting Aaron Kwok to clutch onto a wire fence in the pouring rain and start crooning.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Salzburg eliminated

Am watching the live webcast from the Westin Camino Real (Izabal room) in Guatemala City as the host city for the 2014 Winter Games is elected.

An Italian IOC member is complaining that his voting machine is on the blink. He is asked to swap seats with a non-voting (Russian) member of the committee. It's between Sochi and PyeongChang and the winner will be announced shortly.

Yesterday my sister-in-law reported watching Vladimir Putin's motorcade passing in front of her office block with near batallion strength police escort, front and back.

Update: Have switched to watching the announcement on Russia Today. Glum-looking Koreans. The anchorman says that he expects they will all soon be "patting the Russian delegation on the back"!

Further update: someone left a box with three puppies (electricos) outside our house the other day. V has decided to keep one (temporarily she says) and has named the little bitch Sochi !

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Terror alert at critical, Brazilians nervous

My Brazilian friend TC tells me that many of her compatriots in London are currently weighing up whether to go to work on the Underground with their rucksacks! (...or stethoscopes.)

Better worlds

Who hasn't imagined living in a place that better suited their own worldview?

For some this means projecting themselves into a society where everyone agrees with them on the fundamental matters. For others it's enough to hope that everyone in this world will turn out to be the sort of people that they could consider as their friend − in spite of any disagreements over lifestyle matters that crop up in practice.

Historically, the persistence of belief in an abstracted better world has been one of the main drivers for the improvement of this one. Yet in its most extreme expression, it is surely a form of childishness, and a dangerous one at that.

Wherever there are people whose main coping mechanism in this life is the hope that the next one will be close to perfect (for the better-behaved at least), you will find individuals that believe that a more immediately perfect state of affairs can or indeed will be brought about on this Earth. (See yesterday's post on the Maya Apocalypse.)

Recently people have used computer technologies to seek an approximate form of utopia through their interactions with like-minded avatars in virtual worlds, though it does seem that these sanctuaries tend to downgrade rather rapidly into hyper-imperfect simulcra of real life. Low-lifes seeking the conditions for a worse life are usually to be found travelling in the wagon dust of the self-selected elite because your average promised land is generally as amenable to evil as it is to good.

Personally I believe that in any open society the existence of people whose main objective in life is a closed society is a necessary element of the pluralistic mix. Yet inevitable as they may be, theirs is a worldview that needs constant monitoring and occasionally some pro-active suppression. In the words of Gordon Brown, we must be vigilant.

Take the Fascist strain of the new world order mentality. It took democratic societies a while to realise the extent of the threat that it posed. Once they did however, they responded with all the force they could muster. The trouble is that this fight to the death has left us with some unfortunate legacies. One of these is the tendancy to view all modern conflict through the prism of WWII with its implied Good v Evil plot structure. The second is a renewed complacency.

After the war what remained of the fascism meme (to shamelessly pilfer one of Richard Dawkins's half-baked ideas) continued to evolve, as you would expect, in directions that would make it harder for liberal societies to cull.

From Franco through to Rios Montt it repeatedly bonded quite successfully with religious conservatism (both Catholic and Protestant) but generally only at the margins of the Western world. And where nationalism faltered, it duly became more universalist.

Its present symbiosis with radical Islam − on the margins within our society − is particularly alarming, because it has thereby managed to culturally reposition itself within a context in which secular, liberal westerners find it harder to summon up the requisite intolerance.

Prior to the Enlightenment Christianity looked an awful lot more murderous than Islam, particularly if you take note of the standard response to heretical belief (at least in the West. Orthodox Christianity was usually more tolerant). But perhaps the main reason that we had a Renaissance and then an Enlightenment in Western Europe is that Christian dogma contains a number of contradictions that the tradition of Hellenic rationalism was ultimately able to exploit in order to gain the upper hand.

However, it's worth remembering that if it hadn't been for the work of Muslim scholars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it is unlikely that we would ever have regained access to that tradition of Hellenic rationalism, and we might still be setting fire to people that we collectively disagree with.

To a large extent we got where we are today by suppressing the Christian in favour of the Classical. Islamic civilisation certainly also achieved a kind of unrepeated apogee when it drew closest to the Classical tradition of the Eastern mediterranean.

Yet the fundamental division of the open pluralistic life versus the monolithic existence existed in the Classical world too in the social/political models embodied by Athens and Sparta. Plato's Republic is the most memorable attempt by an ancient thinker to imagine a society ordered in such a way as to minimise the social and political relevance of the kind of people the philosopher didn't much care for.

He rather fancied living in a place where everyone else thought much the same way as he did on all the really important matters and where the rules were interpreted and enforced by clever people and not by the mass ranks of the numbskulls. Who can blame him?

It's the infantile people that pick up books like this and try to put their fancies into effect that we need to keep an eye on.

Utopia means both perfect place and no place. To quote Second Life's cultural commentator in residence 'Errol Misterio': "When we try to override that impossibility, when we try to create heaven, we can't help but also create hell."

Monday, July 02, 2007

Apocalypse 2012

Yesterday's New York Times magazine had an interesting piece on the assorted crazies that have combined the ancient ur-myth of Armageddon with the slightly less ancient Maya long count calendar in order to fixate on December 21, 2012 as the likely date for the end of the world. ( in Maya notation.)

Polls apparently indicate that up to half of all Americans believe in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, which fosters credence in the notion that a select few will survive a conflagration which will serve to usher in a flawless (i.e. not especially diverse and pluralistic) society.

Except that this Maya-inflected Armageddon is more in touch with its feminine side. More of a semi-colon than a full stop, it will signal, the New Age nutjobs tell us, a reconcilliation of infinity and finitude, time and eternity, a sudden downpour of new revelations, and a universal synchronisation with the wave harmonic of history.

Leading 2012 prophet John Major Jenkins insists that the end of the current world-age cycle is all about renewal through galactic alignment. "It's certainly nothing as simplistic [or as easy to disprove just by waiting and seeing through unsynchronised] as the end of the world," he adds.

Yet according to José Arguelles (a.k.a. Vultan Votan, Closer of the Cycle), organiser of the Harmonic Convergence event back in 1987, there will be a lot fewer of us post-2012,"with simpler lifestyles, solar technology, garden culture and lots of telepathic communication". The planet will be freed from the dissonance of Western scientific thinking. And those billions of people that don't get with the programme will be taken away in silver ships.

The connections between the thinking of the religious right and the spiritual, multi-dimensional left are obvious and fairly scary.

Perhaps the much-maligned London 2012 logo has some glyphic resonance that Lord Coe has neglected to tell us about?

The IOC in Guatemala

Olympic bigwigs (and desperate statesmen) are arriving in Guatemala City for the 119th session of the IOC on Wednesday when they will announce the city chosen for the 2014 Winter Games. The candidates are Sochi (Russia), Salzburg (Austria), and PyeongChang (South Korea).

"We count on the competition in Guatemala being honest," Putin has observed rather optimistically. (He's due to arrive in the country later today.)

Salzburg has been massively outspent by its rivals, so Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (already in situe) played the passion card in an interview yesterday with the AP:

"Is the vote for the sake of Olympic ideals or is it for geopolitics? We do not need to have the Olympic Games for a special purpose for us. We think we can offer something special — more emotion and more passion. This is what the Olympics so desperately needs."

The Sochi team have brought in 120 tons of equipment aboard a giant Antonov An-124 aircraft, considered the world's biggest cargo plane. Nobody had told them about the short runway with the big drop at the end!

The banner above uses INGUAT's logo: Guatemala, soul of the earth. I first spotted it on an invitation sent to me by the embassy for a cultural evening tonight which I will report back on tomorrow. It's been around since 2005 though.


Mucho Gallego.

Taken yesterday at the Sardiñada do Centro Galego de Londres in Portobello Road: "The London Spanish event of the year."

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Innovator's Dilemma

It's that time of the year when the farm starts to fill up with very interesting international guests. Ross Perot and the Loro Piana family have repeat-visited, though they've yet to overlap with my own rather intermittent weekend stays. (I have however managed to meet another regular summer arrival, Nada, the disconcertingly self-assured teenage daughter of the Kuwaiti PM. )

Last night at dinner we were joined by Melinda Merino editor of the Harvard Business School Press. I asked her what her 'greatest hit' has been and she replied that it was unquestionably Clayten M. Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. which had begun life as its author's thesis at HBS. I read it a decade ago and it remains one of the few business books whose ideas remain startlingly vivid and relevant to me today.

Unlike other publishing houses, Melinda explained, HBS Press has an organisational objective over an above profit maximisation: improving management practices worldwide. The money they make is fed back into the business school to fund the research done there. She sees her job as facilitating the uptake of important new commercial ideas which take shape in brilliant, though not necessarily particularly commercial, minds at Harvard.

We went on to discuss how Andrew Keen has been cold-shouldered by the retail trade in the UK (though he has now had one positive American review) and how widespread publicity is no guarantee of strong sales. Melinda cited Off-ramps and On-ramps by Sylvia Ann Hewlett as an example of how the pre-publication hype can be rather deceptive.

At the head of the table we'd seated Fanny, a strikingly poised fourteen-year-old Italian girl, with curly dark-blonde hair and near-perfect English learned at an English school in her home town of Milan. We were coaxing her through her first Yorkshire puddings.

Other than that the main topic of conversation was the way the reassuring competence of our new Prime Minister is being thrown into sharp relief by the recent activities of some of the world's least competent Jihadists.