Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In Bruges

I had to see this movie; when it comes to Bruges I'm a total fanboy.

Whenever V and I go on one of our continental roadtrips, there's really no other decent place to have an overnight within an hour of the channel tunnel. If any readers from Dublin would like to experience a full-on 'shithole', try Calais!

Farrel and Gleeson play Ray and Ken, two hitmen sent by their paymaster to lie low and chill out in Bruges after Ray's first hit (on a priest) has had unexpectedly terrible consequences.

Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh writes and directs. His script has a life of its own, delivering entertainment and belly laughs where none would otherwise seem available. This works especially well in the 'gentler' first half, where Ken and Ray traipse around the sights, playing off each other like coarser, more lethal versions of Fathers Ted and Maguire. Farrel in particular adds pathos and depth even as he constantly scores cheap jokes at the expense of this lovely medieval town.

Later on however, when the action picks up pace, the persistent zip of the dialogue generates a degree of jarring awkwardness (Yuri isn't the best character in the movie!) and left me with the sense that some of the possibilities of character that McDonagh had opened up had ended up being overrun by the rush to a climax.

And as a Bruges-lover, I'd also add that the film focuses almost exclusively its oldy-worldy aspects which, as the screenplay notes, may not be your 'thing'. But in fact it has a smart and swanky shopping scene to rival our own Kings Road and the streets that spike away from Seven Dials in Covent Garden.

Those quibbles aside, this is superb. Best film of the year so far, by a long way.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I had one of these for lunch today. It didn't look quite so resplendent on my plate: the wings had gone and garlic and croutons had been added. I feel a bit bad now...

Soho's Cafe Boheme has had a bit of a refit recently. The menu has reverted to brasserie standards but although the dishes now sound less enticingly yummy in print, the quality of the cooking overall seems to have improved.

Into the Wild

Prior to seeing this I guess I had been harbouring suspicions that any sort of Hollywood celebration of Christopher McCandless's vagabond ethos would feel bogus. But Sean Penn's treatment of the story is deeper and more poignant than I imagined it would be.

Following his graduation, McCandless donated the $24,000 left in his college fund to Oxfam and disappeared from the lives of his parents and sister. He adopted the name Alexander Supertramp as he wandered around America's west espousing a radical rejection of society that he had apparently derived from literary heroes such as Thoreau, Tolstoy and Jack London.

McCandless was fleeing an overtly disfunctional family unit, yet was himself the very model of social disfunctionality. The saddest part of the trajectory that leads him to entrapment within the Alaskan landscape is his final realisation that his philosophy of detachment has ushered in the loneliest of deaths.

He seems capable of intimacy only in short bursts, but the various people with whom he comes into close contact along the way all seem to benefit from the light he brings into their lives (McCandless appears to foster the very emotions he himself appears most incapable of) only to end up desolated when he picks up his backpack and moves onward and northward.

Penn hasn't set up 'Alex' as an example to follow, but McCandless's uncompromising flight from civilisation is one of those extreme cases that will stir up the latent 'supertramp' in anyone who perhaps once flirted intellectually with this lifestyle somewhere in between university and 'real life', or who have nurtured nostalgic longings for totalist escape in the years since.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

ZVUK Bazaar (3)

This snippet is from a piece which was the closest the band got in their first set to the Hot Club style of Django and co:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

ZVUK Bazaar (2)


The view from my 'office' this morning. There are obvious advantages to the country life. But then, the way everyone out here is so territorial and so obsessed with their little routines is starting to do my head in!

ZVUK Bazaar (1)

"A truly awesome evening is guaranteed," advised the blurb on The Crooked Billet website and they weren't kidding. As you will see from my clips, we were well positioned on Monday night for listening, if not for Daily Motioning.

Still, I think I managed to capture most of the atmosphere and a good deal of the virtuosity of this quartet of musicians playing a foot tapping mix of former Soviet and New European 'gypsy jazz' and folk.

The accordionist whose back features so prominently in my videos was the Ukrainian Bodan Chomenko. He was supported by the excellent Polish violinist Piotr Jorden, plus Jez Cook on his Maccaferri guitar and Andy Crowdy, the backbone of almost every band appearing at the CB, on double bass.

More to follow...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


A pic taken last night in the muddy overspill car park of The Crooked Billet. It has a certain You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave quality to it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Global Warming in action

30,000 lbs of meat and a lot of smoke!

"Aqui llega el colmo"

V reports this morning that someone stole one of the Police pick-ups from right outside the station on our road last night!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sightseeing in Sofia

When I mentioned to one of the developers that I would have the best part of a day to do some sightseeing in Sofia, a look of concern passed across his face before he replied: "One day? It is too much..."

I did have one obvious target to aim for: the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski, whose gilded domes had glinted invitingly up at my from amongst the stacks of more monolithic buildings as I passed over Sofia in the Airbus. It features a Byzantine-style basilica layout complete with heavy duty chandeliers hanging down from all the main concavities. Interestingly, it also has a couple of high niches in the Ojo de Buey form typical of Iberian baroque.

Around the cathedral there are some pleasant grassy areas and a street market specialising in Soviet and National Socialist memorabilia. You can also get an old brass telescope if you want one, and some Bulgarian tipicos, some of which are reassuringly similar to native American designs. I purchased a couple of small squares of cloth to take with me to Guatemala and a rare, polished egg-shaped stone intended for adding to V's miscellaneous rock collection.

Behind the cathedral lies the National Gallery for Foreign Art, housed in a gleaming white neoclassical building which used to be the Royal Printing Office. More on that later..

There are a couple of other interesting religious spaces. There's the church of St Nikolai the Miracle Maker built contemporaneously with the cathedral on the orders of a senior Russian 'diplomat' who suspected that the local Bulgarian flavour of Orthodoxy was schismatic. On entering I had to carefully dodge men and women backing out whilst crossing themselves.

There's also the fourth century rotunda or church of St George the Martyr, a delicate round building that at some point in the last century became entirely surrounded by a rather unbecoming rectangular one.

Sofia has to be one of the most unashamedly tatty urban spaces I have ever visited. I guess it is a bit like Zona 1 in Guatemala City, lacking both the out and out manginess of Zone 16 ('the body dumping zone'), and the smart elegance - and even pavements - of Zones 9 and 10. I haven't seen this much rust and grime fronting onto busy streets anywhere else.

Here the most visible cadavers on the streets are the rickety skeletons of a defunct planned economy. Guatemala, it has to be said, never really had this kind of heavy industry lodged within its more populous cities.

Stefan tells me that in the fairly recent era when Sofia was a tenth of its current size, before it was "invaded by barbarians" from the sticks he adds, it was a city noted for its fine roads and all round spotlessness. Today some of the the least bedraggled parts of the centre are the numerous and almost unnecessarily chic Lavazza coffee joints. No Starbucks in evidence yet, but the Golden Arches flaunt themselves pervasively in the consumer heartland like a luxury brand.

Another unusual feature of the city are the almost pavement level kiosk windows that seem to have been designed for servicing nicotiene addicted hobbits.

At the end of our first evening we were washing down some fine dishes from the Krim with a beer at Pizza Palace on Vitosha Blvd. An Englishman with east-enderish inflections politely asked for an entry into our rambling conversation, introducing himself as a 'tradesman' with business interests in China and Thailand, but resident for some time in Bulgaria. Why Bulgaria? we asked. "You can't knock the girls," he replied, conveying quite the opposite meaning with a lascivious grin.

Pizzas in Sofia have wonderfully expressive names like The Grandfather's Glove (a calzone??) and The Capricious Boss.

On the Saturday night up in Bansko I went to a small local venue near the hotel where Kiril Marichkov was to appear. "The Bulgarian Paul McCartney," I was informed. The set that he and his group performed was truly exhilarating because all the young BGs around were responding to their anthemic rock tunes exactly as their Chapin counterparts would, by jumping up and down and by screaming out the chorus lines with joyous enthusiasm. (Group of Londoners in bars never seem to break through into such universalist pleasures.) Marichkov was followed by the resident band whose performance of Hotel California (including phonetically sung lyrics) I'd give anything right now to re-live.

I picked up on one other pleasing similarity with Guatemala: the fugacious presence of humble-looking street dogs, eléctricos and semi-eléctricos, the friendliest of all patrolling outside the doomed Elektronika building. We wondered what would happen to him when the demolition men move in later this year.

American Gangster

An enjoyable period piece. Russel Crowe is more interesting to watch than Denzel Washington, in part because his character contains the more unusual flaw: as his wife puts it in the divorce court, he uses his flawless probity on the job to give himself permission for all kinds of other domestic dishonesties.

However, I personally found it hard to swallow the idea that I should have more sympathy for a man who we first see pouring petrol over and setting fire to a fellow mobster than the legions of bent cops in the 70s NYPD, simply because having proud and sophisticated men of colour running the drugs trade rather than greasy Sicilians, is a sure sign of social progress.

Income v Life-satisfaction

Hard to believe that the miserable Argies scored 6.4 for life satisfaction! They do have the largest per capita concentration of shrinks of any nation in the world. Still, Guatemala is still a relatively upbeat kind of place by this measure.

What about Chiapas?

Gay scientists isolate Christian gene

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Full Servis' Ilia

I'd allowed what I considered a comfortable two and a half hours for my return trip to Sofia airport, but when I went down to the reception to ask them to call me a cab they duly informed me that this would not be possible right now because "it is raining".

It was suggested that I might like to experience this inclement weather more directly by wheeling my cases up to the main road in order to hunt down one of the rare passing taxis for myself. In the end the bell boy went out with an umbrella and after about twenty minutes returned with Ilia, a driver who on Friday night we'd witnessed patrolling Vitosha Blvd on foot propositioning visitors with fast access penetration of the local demi monde.

"What time is your flight?" he asked me once I had settled in. I could see in the reflected disappointment in his eyes via the rear-view mirror that my answer to this question had left little room for a quick detour to a strip joint, and my lack of manipulable chumminess was repaid with what seemed like an alternative tour of Sofia's most congested highways.

Thanks to Ilia I discovered that Sofia Airport has two terminals. There is an old one and a new one, he explained, and flights to the UK leave from the latter. I quickly responded that the dog-eared building with stucco stars on the ceilings that I had passed through four days earlier hadn't struck me as especially recent - they didn't look especially like EU stars for example - but he took me to the wrong one anyway.

Of course there was no meter and on our subsequent arrival at Terminal 1 he proposed a charge of precisely three times what I had paid the driver who had taken me into town on Thursday morning, an unexpected reversal of the usual business travel rule that it is the cab from the airport that tends to attract a premium rate.

I didn't have anything like what he was asking for, so I gave him my remaining local currency and a five pound note and scuttled off before he could go all Balkan on my backside, having promised to return "very soon" for the erotic tour of a lifetime.

During my stay in Bulgaria the Interior Minister Roumen Petkov resigned/was sacked following pressure from the EU (and the threat of withheld funds). Petkov is now sueing a German hack for libel, after claims that he was the mastermind behind an incident back in 2006 on Trakiya Highway which involved a controlled collision and a certain amount of gun-waving, and that much of the blame for the country's late 90s financial crises can be laid at his door.

I noticed that black RAV 4s rather like the one down here on the farm are the chosen mode of transport for Sofia's organised heavies. Here at least it seems to have shed its reputation as a 'hairdresser's car'. There are quite a few Mitsubishi 'Wankers' on the roads too.

You are the last!

Te-te-te metiste conmigo pajarito...

Quaking again

Around the time I was clambering into bed at the farm last night after my Balkan trip (4am-ish) V was standing outside in the cold in Panorama with most of the vecinos, quite badly shaken up after a quake off the Pacific coast that had a preliminary reported magnitude of 6.1 and which lasted 32 seconds.

The epicentre was near Puerto Quetzal and the severity of it was enough to bring the Vice-President onto national TV. V said it was a truly terrifying experience as the fundamental movement was more up and down than the usual side to side swaying, and the noises made by the water in our cistern beneath the garage were particularly unnerving as she struggled to get the keys in the lock. The dogs didn't seem to detect this one before it hit.

Along with most of the other residents of our street she spent an hour and half outside wary of after-shocks which never came. The last biggie was the 6.7 on June 13 last year.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chapin nosh

A new Flickr group for pics of Guatemalan grub.

Sofia - day one

Spotted this great retro-living combo in a shop window in Sofia last night.

This followed a delicious meal at Krim, formerly the Russian Officers' Club. (Krim stands for Crimea I was told.)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Maybe not...

And then I pushed open the window this morning...


The view from my bedroom yesterday morning as the first day of my month-long stay at the farm commenced.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Quantum of Solace = $690?

V passed on a great story last night about the mayor of a small town in northern Chile called Sierra Gorda who discovered that the crew for the new Bond movie were filming on his patch and trying to pass it off as Bolivia. He gathered a posse of two hundred men and drove out to the location at Baquedano in a big truck and proceeded to disrupt the shoot for several hours.

Things got even worse when the production team tried to make him go away for $690.

The mineral-rich Antofagasta region has been in dispute since Chile snatched it after warring with Bolivia between 1879-83 and the two countries have yet to restore diplomatic relations it seems.

Mayor Carlos López was later quoted as saying: "I also disagree with national territory being used as locations to represent other countries...even in a fictional film, unfortunately friendly, neighbouring countries use decisions like this to make unjustified claims."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

From Russia

Surfer and I recently went along to see this exhibition at the Royal Academy which features old master paintings from France and Russia borrowed from the great collections of Moscow and St Petersburg...some of which I think I remember seeing on my gallery tours there in '84 and '85.

Amongst the headline canvasses were Picasso's Dryad (1908) Matisse's The Dance (1910) and Kandinsky's Composition VII (1913), but Surfer and I were both particularly taken aback by Pyotr Miturich's rather timeless portrait (see here) of the composer Arthur Lourié (1915) which could be of any more modern self-regarding Chelsea fogey.