Thursday, May 28, 2009


The case of the encarcerated twitterador Jean Ramsés Anleu Fernández, and the debate about freedom of expression it had engendered, reminds me of a gag that V exchanged recently with her nephew Marco Vinicio:

Que hace Dracula a la media noche en una siembra?
Sembrando el pánico...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Body of Lies

Not sure whether it wants to be a plot-driven or a character-driven movie, though it's much better at the latter.

Mark Strong's dodgy Arab vanquishes the performances from Ridley Scott's perennial chums Crowe and Di Caprio.

Crowe plays a vainglorious CIA operations man who appears to run the war on terror from his kids' little league pitch. "There are no innocents" and "there's nothing to like" about the Middle East are his watchwords. Meanwhile Di Caprio plays his favourite on-the-scene operative as a man who is sorely tempted to go native.

Plot absurdities aside it's not a bad movie. I watched half on the Virgin Airbus and then downloaded the rest to watch at home. The plaintive Arabian score is now a cliché, albeit one that Scott himself probably invented.

Grade: B (+)


So this is what I missed on Saturday, having fled the scene before the orgy of light classical entertainment commenced. Baksheesh had backstabbed and I didn't fancy it on my own. (Note how Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins can't help but propose marriage to a Pauline...any Pauline!)

The occasion, dubbed the Q Festival (Q for Quincentenary) was a kind of premium open day event designed to mark the 500th anniversay of the founding of S.P.S. (Yes, the school is actually older than 'Antigua' Guatemala....)

Many of the buildings in which I myself toiled, constructed rather hastily in the late 60s when the school shifted itself across Hammersmith Bridge to Barnes, are now awaiting demolition. The maqueta for the planned new school was on display in the Montgommery Room...surrounded by flyers asking for donations. So maybe this would have been my last chance to take this little nostalgic trip back to my formative years. Frankly the place looks rather tired and tatty. Roll on the bulldozers.

Speaking of Montgommery, a brief perusal of the boards highlighting memoral old boys from each of the five centuries revealed to me that there were in fact two OPs at the heart of the glorious cock-up known as Operation Market Garden in 1944 - for Major General Roy Urquart (a part played by Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far) had also attended the school. He was to spend most of the battle for Arnhem Bridge holed up in a Dutch town house as the 1st Airborne Division was wiped out around him.

Eisenhower apparently thought Monty's problem was that he was a bit chippy because he didn't go to either Eton or Harrow. The Yank-in-chief obviously hadn't met many Paulines before. The military tradition has been strong there over the centuries, with John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and occupant of Blenheim Palace, being the stand-out example.

On Saturday I couldn't help chuckle when I spotted small hordes of men, not that much older than myself, dressed as if they had spent the middle part of the last century shooting down Messerschmitts, what.

My favourite OP will always be Samuel Pepys, with John Milton a close second. Surprisingly there was space on the twentieth century display for G.K. Chesterton (Catholic) but none for Sir Isaiah Berlin (not so Catholic). Rampant atheist Dr Jonathan Miller wasn't on there either, but they did name the theatre after him!

When I left I had to swim against the flow of boaters, panamas, picnic baskets and all kinds of perpetual public schoolboy totems, as the whole sub-Glyndbourne summer shindig got under way.

"Mentes Perversas"

I think Colom shouldset up a competition for international crime writers with a substantial cash prize for the one who can come up with the finest conspiracy scenario which a) exonerates the President and b) is convincingly murky, enredado and Guatemalan.

I've given the matter a little thought myself. There are a couple of rather obvious solutions to the puzzle which don't depend on Rosenberg having been a crazed suicidal maniac.

The first (which borrows from Harlan Coben's Tell No One) is that the body the cops picked up beside the stricken bike and subsequently buried wasn't Lic. Rosenberg after all and that the latter has been spirited out the country with a new identity. A bit too obvious that one, and Rosenberg had a family.

A second possibility is that Rosenberg genuinely believed that his life was in danger and went to the newspaper in good faith, but the hack who made the video subsequently tipped off some shady right-wing conspirator types that he knew where to find a man who believed he was about to be the victim of a political murder and said tipos thought this was too good an opportunity to pass up. The trouble with this one, for Colom at least, is that while it clears him of the assassination, it leaves open the possibility that everything Rosenberg alleges in the video is factual.

On the other hand, suppose Rosenberg had misconstrued the deaths of Musa and his daughter and went to consult Mario David García with his suspicions. The allegations in the video are intriguingly non-specific. ("Todos los Guatemaltecos lo sabemos" wouldn't stand up in court, even in Guatemala.) The conservative journalist, said to have supported pronunciamientos in his day, could then have imagined a certain scenario and persuaded a panicky and impressionable Rosenberg to participate...

Suggestions welcomed...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

Chris Pine plays Kirk as everyone's least favourite Yank and with every knowing sideways glance I half-expected Zachary Quinto's Spock to commence cranial surgery with his right index finger. Bana's Nero was also little more than a walking, talking plot contrivance, but in spite of these apparently significant defects (and some rather overblown effects - the sort where you're sure that something impressive is happening but you can't quite see what) I can't really say that I didn't find this an entertaining way to forget that I was in Reading for a couple of hours...

Grade: B+

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Sólo muerto me sacarán del palacio"

Trust Guatemala to go into political meltdown the moment my back is turned!

I've been generally a bit too busy to pay too much attention to the gathering crisis, but the first inkling I had that something was amiss came last week when we were channel surfing the local terrestrials and came across President Colom (pictured) addressing the nation with his entire cabinet standing behind him like a sombre Greek chorus.

It appeared that someone had accused him of complicity in the death of a lawyer called Rodrigo Rosenberg, and this was no mere case of a panic-spreading tweeter. No, Rosenberg himself had employed a decidedly old-media technique, leaving behind the sort of "If you are watching this then I am dead"-type production last seen in The Italian Job.

Colom's performance was a touch bizarre, scrunching his features into the sincerest of demeanors and waving his hands out in front of him whilst his colleagues behind looked as if they just might be about to whip out their daggers.

I haven't followed the details of the case, but I have been left to ponder the possible motive behind this crime. Other than the fact that Rosenberg might have won a competion for having the name the President was least likely to be able to enunciate properly in a televised address such as this, I can't see why the chief exec would have wanted to do away with him, ...though Colom might just have got a little complacent given the general state of impunity that prevails. (In his 18 minute posthumous YouTube statement, Rosenberg suggests that he expected to be whacked at any minute for having refused to take part in various complex financial porquerías at Banrural associated with the narcos and a number of non-existent projects set-up by Mrs Colom.)

A J'accuse from a dead man is bound to be a powerful stain on any politician's record, particularly in a nation inclined to superstitions of all sorts. Meanwhile, the social and racial fault-line that runs down the centre of the country has clearly been reactivated in somewhat spectacular fashion.

Sacar el pisto del Banrural

Guatemalan cops arrested this chap (Jean Ramsés Anleu Fernández) last week and have since charged him with spreading 'financial panic' from his Twitter account. (Jeanfer)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Empedrado (3)

Right behind our house, a team of workers are making, as my friend Joel would have it, another medieval road! So far that ciprés is preserving its place within the new urban layout.

Unlike the Muni's road resurfacing project at the front of our home, this one a private job, paid for by the investors in the new residential zone taking shape in what, until just a couple of weeks ago, was a small finca specialising in the production of oranges and chuchos callejeros.

There's a better mix of volcanic stones being used here, V assures me, with far fewer of the bofos which were the primary raw material of our own empedrado. (I doubt whether these ones will largely disappear under a thin coating of concrete either.)

Periodically a smart new Range Rover turns up and offloads a group of what Felipe is wont to call fufurufos, who then proceed to stride around importantly. There's clearly a significant amount of money behind this development.

It has been interesting for me to observe the various patterns of work which prevail across the various projects now in motion. The main Muni team, paid on a project basis, have moved pretty fast and have generally worked very hard, starting at 7am each morning and often only finishing at dusk. They are far less prone to the kind of haraganeando that characterises the comparatively sluggish progress of the smaller, day-rate team tasked with completing the pavements alongside the cobbles. Both groups have occasionally suffered from shortages of material which have slowed up a project otherwise been undertaken with a mood of urgency.

It seems I will miss the grand inauguration of Panorama's new streets which Antigua's mayor Dr Vivar has planned as the culmination of the process he instigated back in 2007, when he first started knocking on doors round here promising a nice new cobbled road in return for votes. The street parallel to ours was done first and has been finished for almost a month. Yet it is as yet blocked off to traffic, and will remain so until the Mayor has had his chance to wallow in the gratitude of Panoramtecos.

There are rumours that the smaller plots in the new lotificación will be going for around $45,000, roughly equivalent to what the terrenos in Bosques de Antigua cost just over a decade ago. V is intrigued to know what it is going to be called ('Naranjales de Antigua'??), but my main curiosity surrounds the issue of whether it will be an open area like Jardines or a closed, gated community like Bosques. Remax Colonial would appear to be the construction firm in overall charge, which also leads me to wonder whether any pre-built homes will be marketed here or whether this will be a lots only affair.

I'm not sure what to make of the efficiency of the massive team of construction workers now deployed there. The heavy machinery was impressive...for a while at least. But during the last few days they appeared to be indulging in temporising tactics such as flattening and then re-ploughing up the recently-laid white sand surface, indicating perhaps that they had somewhat over-estimated the time needed to get things ready for the albañiles scheduled to start yesterday.

The switch from mechanised to manual labour saw a return to more familiar Guatemalan working practices. A lorry offloaded a stack of obviously heavy concrete blocks (the basis of the new kerb) which were then carried individually up the other end of the track by a small sub-group entrusted with this back-breaking task. With a wheelbarrow (which they do have because I've seen them using a couple today - look at the picture!) several blocks might have been transported at once and at greater speed...

Meanwhile Doña T, who had been providing free refreshments to Dr Vivar's cohorts has since enterprisingly lauched a small tortilla cafe, thus setting herself up to recuperate some of her earlier, socially-spirited investment from the pockets of the private army of labourers likely to be floating around these parts for many weeks to come.

The cobbles pictured above will be laid to around the halfway mark of the road. Such is the bend in it that anyone driving past on the main highway will probably not notice that the rest will, for the time being at least, remain a bumpy, rough-earth track. This is after all an exercise in cosmetics, designed to provide an attractive colonial driveway outside the main entrance of 'Naranjales' or whatever it is to be called.

Pantalla Azul de la Muerte

My blogging activities have been seriously curtailed of late by a series of intermittent faults on my laptop. It does appear more or less stable now, but the sound card is still screwed so it will have to go back to the tecnico later this afternoon.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Berlin Diaries of Marie 'Missie' Vasiltchikov (2)

There's a new book out about the Nazis' relationship with Germany's blue-blood elite: High Society in the Third Reich by Fabrice d'Almeida. 

This review of it by Christopher Clark would seem to indicate that d'Almeida's argument potentially debunks one of my biggest take-outs so far from Missie's diary - that upper class Germans generally regarded the Nazis as creepy and rather preposterous parvenus.

For it appears that by 1938 nearly a fifth of all senior SS officers were titled noblemen and after physicians (43% were party members in '37), aristocrats were in fact the most Nazified sector of German society. Berlin's nightclubs reportedly  'heaved' with members of the minor rural nobility in black SS uniforms. 

d'Almeida explains how the regime co-opted the elites, buying off senior army officers with lavish gifts and associating themselves heavily with toff pastimes such as horse racing (the use of selective breeding here appealed strongly) and bash throwing. 

Missie on the other hand gives the impression that the refined circles she moved in were practically an opposition in waiting. There has to be some truth in this because many in her immediate circle were key participants in the failed July 20 plot. (see Tom Cruise in Valkyrie...or rather don't.) and in reading her diaries I was genuinely surprised at how much of pre-1918 European high society continued to function within what was clearly a far completely totalitarian regime than that of Stalin's Soviet least prior to 1942 when Goebbels was to declare that "the bourgeois era with its false and misleading notion of humaneness is over." (One is perhaps led to re-consider the controversial — and clearly distorted — view recently expressed by Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke, that the course of the early years of the war contributed to making Nazi Germany a more single-mindedly murderous place. ) 

A week or so ago I listened to Jason Isaacs being interviewed by Simon Mayo on R5 prior to the release of Good. Mayo expressed the opinion that he found it hard to believe that Viggo Mortensen's character John Halder wasn't on some level aware that SS membership would make him an accessory to the crime of the century. Isaacs response was fairly credible I thought: that in the early 30s at least, German citizens could have had only a limited notion of what the regime was capable of in the context of 'total war', and that many people tend to compartmentalise their political likes and dislikes. 

Missie's diary makes it pretty clear that 30s Germany was a very different kind of political society. Resistance to the fascist programme was far less likely to come in this instance from a mass of informed citzens whose views were tempered by an uncensored media. (Isaacs made the point too that when the film was shown in Eastern Europe people there had much less trouble understanding the absence of conserted protest.)  

Two groups might have put up more of a fight, but were inherently more likely to take to the salon than to the street. The bourgeoisie (rather like the Chinese middle classes today) had anyway largely sold their souls to authoritarianism in return for economic prosperity, and the upper classes meanwhile were rather too committed to the dream of a German military resurgence. 

The diaries do give a tantalising glimpse of what a lone, high-born individual might have achieved. On Tuesday January 25th 1944 Missie learned of the death in aerial combat of her friend Major Prince Heinrich von Sayn-Wittgenstein (pictured), Germany's leading night-fighter ace at the time with 83 victories to his name. 

"Only a few days ago Heinrich had rung me up at the office. He had been to Hitler's HQ to receive from the hands of  'the Almighty' the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross. He said on the phone "Ich war bei unseren Liebling" ['I have been to see our Darling'] and added that, to his surprise, his hand gun had not been removed before he entered 'the Presence' (as is customary nowadays) so that it might have been possible to 'bump him off' right then and there. He went on to elaborate on the subject until I remarked that it might be preferable to continue the conversation elsewhere. When we met a little later, he started to speculate about the possibility of blowing himself up with Hitler when they shook hands. Poor boy, little did he suspect that he had only a few more days to live! And yet he seemed so fragile that I always worried about him. He had become Germany's most successful night fighter, was constantly in action and was clearly worn out. He often spoke of the agony he felt about having to kill people and how, whenever possible, he tried to hit the enemy plane in such a way that the crew could bail out."

And on Sunday February 6: 

"Melanie [Bismark] brought back some earth and odd bits of his plane, such as the windshield and parts of the motor. She thought his parents in Switzerland might wants some relics. I hardly think so. It only makes things worse. If only they had not sent the three boys back to Germany when the war started! What with their Russian and French ancestors they were barely German in the first place. It is thought that Heinrich was unconscious when he hit the ground, as his parachute never opened and he was found, shoeless, quite some distance from the plane. He usually wore light pumps, with just a coat thrown over his civilian clothes. I remember him going up once in a raincoat thrown over a dinner jacket. He had become such an ace that he did whatever he pleased. The rest of his crew survived, as he made them jump when the plane was hit. Either he injured his head jumping out last or else he was wounded and could not pull open his parachute. Melanie gave me some scraps of metal as a keepsake. Maybe this will make me realise at last that we have lost him."

Monday, May 04, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Mexican Wave 2.0?

Now that the first wave of fajita flu has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib they are prepping us for a bit of a late summer panic when a second wave might — just might — take hold.

Still no confirmed cases here in Guatemala, but 18 suspected ones have been thrown out. Anyway, it's harder to spook people in a land where nearly 20 people die each day from the violence virus.

Up in Mexico they've had to admit that many of the people they thought had died from influenza porcina did in fact expire as a result of something completely different. Meanwhile they've waved goodbye to their economy.

A better reason to be scared turned up in Guatemala this earthquake registering 6.1 on the Richter scale. It was certainly the strongest of the year so far and perhaps the most powerful I have experienced whilst sitting at my desk up in the studio. (3rd Floor)

We both felt a little seasick afterwards. Nothing fell off the shelves though and the quake was obviously not significant enough to make it onto CNN, the BBC or even the front page of today's El Periódico.

The Daily Mail is of course way too busy trying to generate panic amongst its high-minded readership, though unlike its conservative counterparts in the US, has yet to find a way to clearly link the deadly plague of microbes with that of migrant workers.

Workers' Holiday

The albañiles working on the road outside had their on Mayday celebration on Saturday 2nd. Building sites all around the neighbourhood were decorated with crosses, balloons and ribbons and their resident trabjadores gathered to have a little tipple and let off some fireworks.

There wasn't a May Bank Holiday in the UK until the early 70s as this date was up to then generally associated with revolting plebs and missile launchers trundling through Red Square.

For this very reason the High Master decided that his boys were too posh to partake in such proletarian merrymaking, and for the first few annual instances of the new holiday insisted that we all come into school as usual.

This didn't go down at all well with many of the parents who — employed in the main by less august and discriminating institutions — tended to resent having to spend a summer bank holiday without their children. For others of course, this must have been a bit of a godsend...

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

The Berlin Diaries of Marie "Missie" Vasiltchikov (1)

Missie's diary takes one back immediately to an era when people could put up with quite a lot in terms of chaos and destruction, not to mention insane and incompetent politicians. 

Our generation in comparison is a bit pathetic. A couple of banks go tits up and we lose the will to live. Bomber Harris might have saved himself the hassle of months of day and night bombing raids (which ultimately seemed to have had little impact on German morale) and just parachuted a sneezing Mexican into the Third Reich's capital. 

Sunday Feb. 6, 1944: "Much of the Kufürstendamm is now destroyed. Tried to look up Sigrid Görtz who lived just behind it. Her house was the only one still standing. I went up the stairs but they stopped in mid-air and her flat at the top was gone; nobody knew where she was."

Casa Tomada

Read by Cortázar himself. Sounds a bit like a misa at first!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Another one from access-all-areas cucurucho Felipe. 

Friday, May 01, 2009


The Guardian has a fine selection of customised fajita flu face masks. 

The Fajita Flu!

Semana Santa Pic of the Day

This one was taken by my cuñado Felipe, who likes to get into potentially tricky spots to get the perfect Easter pic!

Semana Santa: Pic of the Day

Swine Flu

Around 36,000 people die each year in the USA from flu-related causes, averaging about 3000 a month.

Mexico has a population of 109m, roughly a third of that of the States, so you might expect normal flu mortality rates there in the region of 1000 pcm. (Though of course a greater proportion of the gringo population has easier access to basic medicine.)

So the 200 or so fatalities from swine flu since March look a bit insignificant...especially when you consider that most of these deaths resulted from pneumonia, a bacterial complication following the original viral infection (and that roughly five times that number of Mexicans will have died as a result of so-called ordinary flu in the same period.)

Many of these deaths could also have been avoided if the patients had presented earlier at their local clinic.

Conclusion - it's all bollocks.

[Though it's still kind of handy that most of our northern frontier is covered in dense jungle!]