Saturday, December 31, 2011

Relative homicide rates

This year Guatemala had, with the exception of Mexico, a lower relative homicide rate than all its neighbours. Yes, that includes Belize. Honduras, meanwhile, is practically off the scale.

Yet when it comes to media stories about the wave of 'drug-related' violence that threatens to overwhelm civil society south of the border, Mexico and Guatemala are invariably the usual suspects. I don't seem to recall reading any articles in the past 12 months describing the ecotourism destination next door as "ungovernable", with the implication that it is rapidly degenerating into some sort of failed state".

It is also interesting to note that Colombia, which has done a sterling job of PRing its recovery from the maelstrom of lethal violence that swept across it in the 80s (and markets itself to foreigners with the strapline "The only danger is that you want to stay"), is still essentially as dangerous as South Africa.

Friday, December 30, 2011

New year, new novel idea

For the past year or so I have been working on a schema for a novel which has as its central conceit the notion that in the 'not-too-distant-future' Chinese scientists have developed a gene therapy which allows them to selectively offer a significant lifespan extension to individuals deemed valuable to the state.

Now whenever one starts with a high metaphyical concept and then attempts to graft on some sort of story, one finds oneself in a bind. This year, a not-disimilar concept came to my attention in the form of a movie called In Time, and from the critical response, I have gathered that Andrew Niccol has failed to disguise the fact that the underlying idea disappointingly denies any precedence to either plot or character. (Anyway, I hope to be catching that flick early in 2012.)

I was planning to locate my own narrative in Guatemala, a choice which would permit me some geographical and cultural distance from the hard technological core of my MacGuffin, and encourage me, the author, to focus on the familiar and the intimate.

A Chapin location would have also allowed me to explore another key theme: what would happen if the Chinese 'solution' would have negligible (or at least unforseen) consequences for individuals of WASPish ethnicity but, owing to the known affinities between the Mayan and Chinese chromosomes, gave a sudden advantage to one of the western hemisphere's ethnic have-not groups?

I still think this is a story worth writing, but I have struggled to find a way to set it in a fictional universe that is essentially more interesting than expressing it as a mere thought experiment.

Yet, almost inevitably when one considers how human beings would respond to extraordinary longevity, one starts to ponder what will happen once they realise that it wasn't really what they were after in the first place. And so, a parallel narrative idea has sprung to mind: how might we behave if given the chance to live out all of the possibilities that our individual lives offer us? The attraction of this premise (which, you guessed it, would also be tied down to Guatemala via an as yet undisclosable tie-in to Antigua's parque central) is that it would permit me to gratuitously meditate on my own philosophical notions relating to the nature of quantum phenomena and free will, as well as verbalising my gathering apprehensions about ageing and the gradual withering of personal possibility.

I would also be allowed the chance to signal my intellectual debt to the likes of Asturias, Rulfo and Borges and, something I have always wanted to do, couch an otherwise explicitly science fiction tale within the idiom and mood of magical (or to butcher Arthur C. Clarke's famous observation) suficiently technological-realism. It's also a much harder story to write. But then that is what New Year's resolutions are for, isn't it?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dawkins plays Santa

Richard Dawkins has been honoured with the post of guest editor for the Christmas edition of the New Statesman and has been out there this week plugging the magazine via Sam Harris's essay on free will, the essence of which is encapsulated by a sentence one comes across about half way through:

"All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge."

It bothers me that some rationalists (amongst whose numbers I generally like to consider myself) are unable to perceive the obvious holes in their arguments. Dawkins himself wrote an entire book that affected to dismiss the probability of God by comparing the creator to some giant spaghetti monster in space, a line of argument that completely failed to acknowledge that when men speak of God, as opposed to giant spaghetti monsters, they are talking about first causes, and that when they do so, the whole category of probability becomes moot anyway.

None of Harris's arguments are especially new, but given the nature of the publication, he has attempted to demonstrate how they can be deployed to trump prevailing political discourse, presumably in order to make new enemies as one munches on the Christmas turkey.

It's as if he is saying that we scientists, at least those of us who can face up to unpalatable truths, have a deeper fundamental grasp of the big issues than either liberals or conservatives (in the American sense). Not quite what his chum Dawkins meant when he coined the phrase
Holistier than thou, but certainly a variety of smug superiority that does this little clique of science-led dogmatists few favours.

Harris believes he can dispense entirely with the notion of free will because human consciousness is little more than a package of illusions of acting in the moment, when in fact it is a
"a totality of impersonal events merely propagating their influence." From this premise, he goes on to reach the following conclusion: "If I had been born with the brain, body and experience of Ted Bundy, I would have been Ted Bundy - a serial killer put to death for his crimes. There is no extra part of me that could have resisted taking his path in life."

But hold on, doesn't that word "
experience" muddy things up a bit? What if he had just been born with the brain and body of Bundy? There's no question that there is something innate in this type of psychosis, but the dodgy genetic hand dealt to Bundy had to interact for many years with society via his inherently plastic human mind before he went out to make his first kill.

Minds are never wholly impersonal. Harris has deliberately tied the notion of free will to consciousness, a stream we now know is always playing catch-up with the actual decision-making processes of the human brain, but our on-going mental worlds encompass the past and the future as well as the present, and our behaviour and overall personality is surely forming and re-forming as a result of a feedback loop between our illusion of executive control and those hidden committees of brain function. So while I may not be able to directly influence what I decided to do a millisecond ago, what I do next week must potentially differ depending on how deeply I think about it. Surely the 'totality' must include some more personal events when one steps back a bit from the conscious moment?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed by Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Shriver's novel (which, by the way, I haven't read). It is certainly fascinating, if not entirely gripping, especially after the narrative slips into a groove after the first thirty minutes or so.

Ramsay is using sound and visual imagery in a consciously masterful way here, but at times both can seem a bit meddlesome. The Hillbilly background tracks and the persistent intrusion of redness started to become more salient than my interest in the underlying emotional drama.

There's no question that the latter is inherently more likely to have greater traction with parents than non-parents such as myself, but the notion that a child can take shape as a living embodiment of one's own existential compromises —
and a vengeful one at that — is still an intriguing one, and the trajectory of an author like Michel Houellebecq suggests that there's surely something in it.

Yet I've seen enough kids come off the rails here in Guatemala to have formalised the view that it is almost always the fault of the father, however useless the mother might otherwise appear to be. John C Reilly's doomed alcahuete dad Franklin makes a series of near comic interventions, but the character is inevitably underdeveloped, because Ramsay is trying to fashion a first person narrative from inside his wife's troubled consciousness, something which never seems to quite work in the inevitably third person medium of film.

It's a brave effort, but Tilda Swinton and her various haircuts are a less convincing presence than Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell, who play Kevin between the ages of 6 and 18 in the movie. And while I could see why she might be living in a hell of self-recrimination, it bothered me that apart from one or two suggestions regarding Kevin's line of defence at trial, Ramsay is less specific as to why the community around Eva should choose to project back onto her this sense of inner culpability so forcibly. (And could she not have moved away?) For while troubled teens and even adults may well emerge from misshapen domestic environments, I think we all know that deeper psychoses such as this are both more intrinsic and indwelling.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Cuba Travel Diary - Buena Siesta Social Club

No trouble loading this one, even though the flag behind might have been a bit of a give-away. Perhaps it's because these particular well-ripended socialists seem to lack a certain rica cha in their general demeanour.

The lead singer (maracas) must have something of a sideline going as a ventriloquist...can you spot his lips moving?? And the guy using the green box as percussion is the very picture of punctuated inertia. My own inclusion in the conjunto did little to pep things up.

I was to hear several similarly close to flatlining renditions of Vacilón on my Cuba travels. In the municipal museum in Trinidad there is a small gift shop at each level of the tower. I was amused to observe how the staff turned on a recording of this tune every time a group of tourists emerged from below, and then immediately turned it off as soon as they had passed on upwards.

One Cuban song I must have heard umpteen times on this trip and, unlike several others I could mention, never grew sick of, was Dos Gardenias Para Ti. Many will have heard the Buena Vista Social Club version, but Diego's is still my favourite.

Several non indigenous ditties were also given the Cuban twist on numerous occasions. Besame Mucho of course, but one also came across bolero-isations of tracks like I Just Called To Say I Love You and, more successfully, that super éxito of Italian pop, La Tua Storia Tra Le Dita.

Cuba Travel Diary - No smiling commies please...

After several failed attempts, I realised that I would not be able to upload any of my clips to YouTube with the words Havana or Cuba in the title or tags. This is presumably because placing in the public domain any evidence that socialism can be fun is clearly tantamount to trading with the enemy. Beyond pathetic really.

This would not have been a problem back in the USSR; I am yet to visit a place packed full of more miserable so-and-sos than the Moscow of 1984. But the Cubans are undoubtedly a jolly bunch and this city throbs every night to the sound of their music-making.

Even officialdom can be fun here. As I passed through the final security checks at Jose Martí International, several smiling X-Ray machine operators pointed out a colleague of theirs sitting at a nearby wooden desk and told me that the oil painting I was carrying in a cardboard tube would needed to be reviewed by this representative of 'La Policía del Patrimonio'. As soon as I made my way over to this nonplussed-looking individual, they all cracked up laughing. (Try telling Homeland Security to lighten up a bit and you are just asking for the full cavity search.)

Whatever 'Papa' Hemingway's well known preferences, my favourite watering hole in La Habana Vieja ended up being this one: La Lluvia de Oro on Obispo. And, let's face it, the Floridita, birthplace of the daiquirí, is a pink-walled establishment serving what Anthony Bourdain sagely describes as a girly cocktail so one has to wonder what Ernest saw in it. In short it is not the kind of place any self respecting repressed puritan would normally select for starting a bar fight.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Cuba Photo Essay - Carritos

Cuba is something of a walled garden, a state of affairs which no Mac enthusiast should carp on about too much.

Parts of this garden are well tended, pristine even. Others appear to have gone to seed.

And if you needed a handy visual emblem of this bifurcated condition, you really need look no further than the streets of Havana and the island's other major towns.

I was told that there's a local club for the owners of 'originals'...classic American vehicles with all their own bits still in the right place. Many of these vehicles were treated to Soviet-era refurbs however. My ride up to Guardalavaca from Holguín came courtesy of a 1952 American Jeep, with a Russian-made engine, a BMW steering wheel, no seatbelts and no wing mirrors.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Echando el Bullitre

We've been torturing ourselves by watching back-to-back episodes of No Reservations for the last few days, with the occasional Andrew Zimmern outing in between.

Most recently we watched as Bourdain floated up the Amazon in search of "the last frontier of modern gastronomy" increasingly aware that the idea for this trek might well have been a bit of a practical joke conceived by Ferran Adrià and his mates. In an obvious perma-filth from pain in his lower back, he did rather pointedly encounter a cluster of wild geese at the end of this Herzogian quest. ("Canadian ducks" observed his guide.)

Bourdain had spent most of his time at Adrià's fabled three-star eatery in a fanboi daze. At the end of the meal José Andrés was red in the face and blubbering, but by then they'd consumed a number of solid state cocktails, wine, champagne and some gin and tonics, the latter surprisingly standard-looking in their preparation. The best moment of this paean to El Bulli occurred when a little plate of baby octopuses was placed in front of the intrepid chef and he announced a need to take a picture of it "so I can look at it later and touch myself".

His long overdue trip to the Philippines turned into an extended disquisition on why these islands and their gastronomic treats are not more well known on the international scene. I've never been (too complex from a cartographic point of view?) but I did try a delicious Adobo in Costa Rica last year, at San José's commendable Tin Jo. I have to say I do like the idea of these dampas that Tony visited in Manila; part market, part open-plan restaurants, where you buy the ingredients for a meal over on one side, and then watch as they are fried up in front of you on the other.

Colombian grub appears to be no great shakes meanwhile. Think of the stuff on the typical Guatemalan menu with the largest quantity of saturated fat...and add more grease. Even on the coast, where you's think you can hardly go wrong with lobster and red snapper etc., there's an awful lot of deep frying going on. That said, Bourdain did get led up to one little culinary Xanadu in the hills above Medellín called Quearepaenamorarte, where the resident chef concocted a dreamy little cornless tamal, filled with fish and shrimp embedded in a masa made from plantain, milk and coconut.

Bourdain's exploration of Cuban restaurant food was not altogether encouraging either. OK, it's not going to be like the USSR in the eighties, but some ingredients are scarce and the food culture seems to be as rigid and conservative as it (mostly) is here in Guatemala. The biggest issue is one of mood and morals however. As Bourdain put it: either you are subsidising the locals' dining via the semi-private paladares or you are gorging yourself in state-run restaurants which very few Cubans could ever afford.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention the excellent Dubai episode, which was a superb exercise in presenting the viewer with the opportunity to read between the lines.

Over the years I've had plenty of opportunities to note that there's hardly anything creepier on this planet than the wealthy, Western-educated Arab. Beyond a condescending manner, many are self-involved and seem to have some nasty atavistic switch at the back of their inner selves. But as well as unearthing some fine examples of the type, Bourdain located and dined with an even slimier individual, a British banker patsy, duly coaxed into making grotesquely amoral statements about the virtual slavery which has underpinned Dubai's growth. He only had to set him up with a few carefully couched questions and off he went. Jeremy Paxman should have a go some time.

Much of the early section was led by a more sympathetic Indian finance bod who'd clearly signed up to a rather distasteful Faustian pact, but was making the most of it. Then there was time for deliberately mixed messages about Ski Dubai. "There's an aesthetic sensibility going on here," Tony conceded (as Milton might have noted of Satan's Pandemonium in Paradise Lost), having just observed that the venture must be the most eco-hostile in a city already dishing out an on-going environmental disaster.

There was irony to prised out of another scene in which Bourdain visited the owner of a stable of racing camels who informed him somewhat pompously that 'our race' could not have survived without these animals. Bourdain, taking race in this context to mean human race, duly lectured him on the role of the international trade routes to the Italian Rennaissance, while the Arab, for whom it obviously meant 'Arab', looked on with a blank, me pela expression.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Euro party, ja!

Angela's the kind of square, frumpy girl at college who only throws parties to appear cool as well as rich. And to rub shoulders with local lothario Silvio — a self-styled adorable reprobate who likes to think he wouldn't be seen dead with her in any other context.

Her money and connections have permitted her to hook up with a suave yet stunted other-half called Nick. He gives the impression that he's the one with both the trousers and the wallet in their relationship, but in fact he's neither. He's maxed out all his cards and he hasn't told her he had a rather worrying financial misunderstanding with the folks back home last week.

George and his mates got on the invitation list by telling a load of tall tales about how ludicrously loaded they are. Shipping and all that. Then they showed up empty handed, made a B-line for the drinks table, grabbed anything unopened, and have since been getting generally rowdy over in a corner.

Ideally they'd like to vacate somewhere else to hold their own little after party, but George's attempt to put it to a vote ended in a fracas. Now the booze has run dry, George has passed out and Angela has her beady eyes on their group from across the room.

Yes, she's on to them, and wants them to leave and never come back, but is frightened of making a scene which would kill the whole party stone dead.

And what a mess they've made. She's crying on Nick's shoulder as she takes in all the splintered furniture and the vomit on the couch. Surely they can't expect her to pay for all this?

Meanwhile, Silvio has decided that his style was being cramped and has left the building.

The remaining members of his overgroomed 'Club Med' clique are standing around in a huddle looking a bit confused. Is the party over yet? They can see why Angela has gone a bit ape about all the puke and stuff, but Silvio has been paying for most of the alcohol since Angela's party scene started...even if it did kind of fall off the back of a lorry.

Monday, November 14, 2011

2012, here we come.... (#37)

Spotted this chart within a post on FT Alphaville this morning. The headline was "Eurozone, why did we bother?"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The English abroad No2

Freya Stark...

"We English rely almost desperately on the breaking of rules, and it will be a poor day when we forget to do so, for this idiosyncrasy may rescue us in a deluge of the second rate. It incidentally gives us an advantage in the understanding of traditions other than our own, which more logical nations find difficult to master "

2012, here we come.... (#36)

Later has arrived...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2012, here we come.... (#35)

Danny Gabay and Yiannis Koutelidakis, a pair from Fathom Consulting, passed the Guardian a note this week which couched its observations on Italy's insolvency within a rather clever metaphor of literary provenance:

"Italy is more akin to a once rich and famous Count who has been using the family heirlooms for firewood for years now and is facing some pretty cold winters ahead."

And, rather like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa back in the day, this count has been shivering away in his ancestral pad for many years now. For monetary union did no favours to the Eurozone's third largest economy, which was growing at a slow pace of 1% even in the 'boom' years before the 2008 crisis, and suffered a 5% plunge after it, comparatively more severe than the slide elsewhere in the EU. And relative to the Germans, the Italians have experienced a greater loss of competitiveness than the Greeks since joining the €.

Daniel Gros (Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies), has analysed all the factors that normally foster an increase in economic activity and has found that in all but one case, these have improved in Italy since it adopted the euro. The odd one out? Governance.

If political failure can so easily trump the potential for economic success, it is the very collection of individuals today voting for the new austerity package who pose the greatest threat to the future of European integration. For with a debt to GDP ratio of 120%, an Italy which doesn't grow at faster rate than 1% over the next few years represents a permanent systemic threat.

2012, here we come.... (#34)

In much the same way that the stench of corruption and a trail of floozies couldn't bring down Silvio Berlusconi, but the collective agitation of the bond market could, the spectre of international terrorism turns out to be a less effective tool for dismantling democracy than that of major financial disorder.

That the plutocrats fear poverty as much as death (and certainly more than the deaths of their fellow citizens somewhere lower down the scale) is something that eventually occurred to the IRA in the latter stages of their campaign when they switched from targeting random civilians and the occasional politician, to attempting to raze large parts of London's financial districts to the ground.

So we can slot financial crisis somewhere in between nuclear meltdown and army of suicide bombers on the scale of international fear catalysts. And we can see from the repeated use of the word 'contagion' over the past few months that this particular panic considers itself almost equivalent in overall scariness to a global pandemic of the biological sort.

We can also understand why those in a position to define public information have been so keen on the notion of the dirty bomb, which combines the unmatchable horror of seeping radioactivity with the similarly unseen threat of the enemy within. Then all one has to do is suggest that Wall Street would be high on the list of potential targets for such a device...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

2012, here we come.... (#33)

Watching Greece change its PM has become a spectacle akin to watching Yahoo! appointing a new CEO...something that won't have gone unnoticed amongst those who still consider themselves the Greek electorate.

Yesterday, while the Greek political elite struggled to find a functionary who was dull and compromised enough to suit all their interests, Italian bond yields poked their noses above 7.5%, perilously close to that all important 8%, goodbye Italy and goodbye Eurozone as we know it, cut-off point. The financial talking heads all say that what the markets want right now is certainty, but what yesterday's stampede for the exits demonstrates is that they don't really want to face up to the certainty that Europe is about to go down the plughole.

Anyway, things appear to have settled a bit today. Italy's 10-year bond yields dipped below 7% again and Spain's are not that far behind at 5.75%. As we can see from the chart below, it's difficult to see how a default in Spain would not be triggered by a worsening of the crisis in Greece and Italy. The latter nation owes €1.4 trillion, so the sucker is basically unbailoutable, however generous/stupid the Chinese happen to be feeling at the time.

For those who comfort themselves that the problem will go away once the northern members of the Eurozone have divested themselves of all those Club Med deadbeats, take a look at French 10-year bond yields today: 3.45% and rising. Merkozy may be joined at the hip, but the gap between the cost of state borrowing in France and Germany hasn't been this wide since '92 and it seems almost certain now that France will struggle to keep its own AAA rating, the loss of which will trigger another selling spree.

Cuba Travel Diary - Anticipations (2)

There's nothing under heaven so blue,
That's fairly worth the traveling to.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Dr Johnson famously said of the Giant Causeway, that while it was worth seeing, it probably wasn't worth going to see. I think that in the end I felt something similar about Machu Picchu and my journey to it. Stevenson had also observed that tourism is the art of disappointment, and while there was nothing the least bit disappointing about my experience of being in Machu Picchu, it's hard not to reflect back on the getting there as a trail of not quite satifying experiences.

I suppose this may be because I undertook that journey in August at the rather late-in-the-day suggestion of V, who had suddenly blurted out that I ought to go and see Machu Picchu. Thus, the going to Peru and the being in Peru presented themselves as collateral concerns.

The biggest psychological hurdle turned out to be my arrival and departure point; Lima.

Since the last cholera epidemic it has acquired something of a reputation as a trendy gastronomic destination, but no amount of yummy food can compensate for the relentlessly doom-laden aspect of the Peruvian capital.

It's a desert city perched on a bluff above the kind of sea that makes you want to make a B-line for the high ground. And when I say desert, I don't mean some eye-catching variation on aridity, the likes of which one comes across in parts of Central Mexico. Here the outlying terrain looks like the rest of the planet will when we've finally finished murdering it.

As for the cloying coastal fog la garúa it prompted Melville to describe Lima as "the saddest, strangest city thou can'st see" and native writers such as Vargas Llosa and others have since described the prevailing ambience as leaden, ashen, cold and tenacious, "a floating powder" (Salazar Bondy) and like being inside "the belly of a dead whale" (Alfredo Bryce Echenique).

Why are Central America's problem-laden capitals less dismaying? I think it's because they're in the tropics. There's hardly a grisly indoor domestic space in the world which cannot be improved by the judicious deployment of a pot plant or two, and so it is with our own concrete jungles here: that they often seem on the verge of being reclaimed by the real thing can only really be totted up on the merit side.

It's fitting that the most diverting site I came across in Lima was the Convento de San Francico (pic below) with its underground bone dump. These catacombs became the final resting ground for 25,000 Limeños up until 1851, when the practice of mass burials beneath major churches was deemed insalubrious. Upstairs, the former monastery's library, with its 25,000 crumbly tomes, would make the perfect setting for a thought piece on the death of the book.

Cuzco was lovely, but I was out of breath even in my sleep.

Arequipa was also pleasant enough, but not as deeply interesting as nearer equivalents such as Oaxaca. With its three looming volcanoes it presented itself as an odd amalgam of places already digested, Antigua itself, Mexico's various 'colonial gems' and even Tapachula. It wasn't until the third day that it started to reveal its underlying selfhood, and by then I'd seen nearly all I wanted to see and could think of little else to do other than sit around and drink coffee.

Across this land, the juxtaposition of the strikingly familiar and the strikingly strange was always to be a tad disconcerting.

For the trip to Havana I shall be back on COPA in part because I would rather collect their miles than TACA's, and in part because the cheapness and shortness of the flight from Cancún was offset by the cost and hassle of getting up there. I also had no desire to reacquaint myself with Soviet-built airliners.

Still, Guatemala to La Habana via Panama City is hardly the most carbon-conscious route. I was tempted to take advantage once again of COPA's ongoing invitation to its passengers to indulge in a night or two in the Panamanian capital at no extra charge, but decided against it as I want to get stuck in to Cuba as quickly as possible.

I wonder what kind of fellow travellers I will encounter there. Well, as I will be sauntering towards to my nephew's wedding on the beach at Guardalavaca ('Keep the Cow') at some point I'm going to have to scrub up for an encounter with a chunk of my own family.

One supposes that, across the island, there will be fewer Yanks, more Canucks, and, horror of horrors, a load of Brits. They were thick on the ground in Peru too, where one comes across more of the socks and sandals sort of traveller than one does here in Guatemala. But it was August, so the Frogs outnumbered them all.

One of the real downsides to being a tourist in Peru is that the relevant authorities seem to want to make it the most regimented experience possible. When I came across a museum in Cuzco where photography was actually permitted and I didn't have to spend fifteen minutes talking myself out of the company of a fetching female student guide, I was frankly flaberghasted. I very much doubt whether the average sightseer has to jump through quite so many hoops in communist Cuba as one does in Peru.

Perhaps the aforementioned French tour parties have to share some of the blame on the demand side. For Peru seems to attract a lot of visitors who are not what you would tend to regard as natural travellers (or even tourists for that matter.) Specifically middle-aged French couples who one suspects have rarely partaken of a vacance outside their own borders, and seem to be on the verge of some sort of unseemly outburst at any given moment. They certainly seem to look as if they might need regimenting, and may even crave it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

2012, here we come.... (#32)

With the PMs of both Greece and Italy circling the drain, and both nations attempting to demonstrate that their preferred response to outside interference would be the no government approach, it wasn't going to be long before the financial markets wised up to the fact that this was not a particularly positive news story.

On a separate note, us gibberish speakers in Latino-land are all Greeks. For Gringo apparently derives from Griego, the favourite term of abuse in eighteenth century Málaga for anyone who spoke Spanish badly. (In Madrid this agravio was reserved for the Irish.)

The English abroad No1

We export two chief kinds of Englishmen, who in foreign parts divide themselves into two opposed classes. Some feel deeply the influence of the native people, and try to adjust themselves to its atmosphere and spirit: To fit themselves modestly into the picture and suppress all in them that would be discordant with local habits and colours. They imitate the native as far as possible, and so avoid friction in their daily life. However, they cannot avoid the consequences of imitation, a hollow, worthless thing. They are like the people but not of the people, and their half-perceptible differences give them a sham influence often greater than their merit. They urge people among whom they live into strange unnatural courses by imitating them so well that they are imitated back again.

The other class of Englishmen is the larger class. In the same circumstances of exile they reinforce their character by memories of the life they have left. In reaction against their foreign surroundings they take refuge in the England that was theirs. They assert their aloofness, their impassivity, the more vividly for their loneliness and weakness. They impress the people among whom they live by reaction, by giving them an example of the complete Englishman, the foreigner intact.

T.E. Lawrence, introduction to Doughty's Arabia Deserta.

2012, here we come.... (#31)

...But probably too late.

Anyone who saw The Walking Dead this week will know what V was on about when she compared the situation of the zombie in the well to the crisis embedded in the Eurozone.

She reckons that any attempt to extricate said zombie now will have results similar to the one we witnessed on Sunday's show...

(It does look a bit like Silvio Berlusconi as well...)

2012, here we come.... (#30)

Il faut changer les traité was true last year, and it's even truer now...

(Thanks to Frode for the video link.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

2012, here we come.... (#29)

Misha Glenny, an acknowledged expert on Russia's 'crime of the century', when state assets were sold off at ganga prices to salivating, semi-criminal, would-be oligarchs, now believes the same thing is about to happen in Greece.

Writing in the FT about the moves made by Greece's high-earning, tax-evading, super-rich, he notes the surge in Greek interest this year in London's property market, and adds that these groups have an even bigger eye on the assets that the government may soon be forced to sell off...

"The oligarch conglomerates are waiting to scoop them up at anything up to less than a fifth of their real value – a poor financial return for the state but in 5-10 years time a bonanza for the purchasers. Some have been even banking on Greece exiting the euro so that they can then use the billions of euros squirrelled away outside the country to purchase the assets for knock-down drachma prices... If the crises in Greece and Italy tell us anything, it is that the European Union has tolerated widespread corruption, criminality and malign governance not just in supplicants from eastern Europe but in some of its core western European members....If anything is to come from the catastrophe facing Europe it is essential these patterns of corruption are broken. Otherwise neither Greece nor Italy will ever be free of the institutional sclerosis that allows these practices to prosper."

Monday, November 07, 2011

The year so far in movies

Aware that I have had neither the time nor the inclination to review on this blog all the movies we've watched this year, here's how the scoring has gone at least, up to November 5. October was a good month. This one has started off less encouragingly...

Can't decide whether to risk sending this month's average to dangerously low levels by watching Miranda July's The Future. Will I want to chew my own nuts off or will I be charmed by the ickle kitty?


El Infierno (Mexico, 2010) A-

True Grit (2010) A-

Crank: High Voltage (2009) C++

Black Swan (2010) A (-)

127 Hours (2010) A--

The King's Speech (UK, 2010) A--

The Kids Are All Right (2010) A-


Due Date (2010) B

Winter's Bone (2010) A (-)

The Weather Man (2005) B (+)

Tamara Drewe (UK, 2010) B (+)

The Resident (2011) B--

A Serious Man (2010) A (-)

Never Let Me Go (UK, 2010) A-

Borderland (2007) B (-)

Crank (2006) B (-)

The Bank Job (2008) B+

The Illusionist (France, 2010) A (-)

The Mechanic (2011) B

The American (2010) B (+)

Despicable Me (2010) B++


Tron Legacy (2010) B (+)

Little Big Soldier (China, 2010) B+

Season of The Witch (2010) C+

Hereafter (2010) B (+)

La Nana (Chile, 2009) A-

Presunto Culpable (Mexico, 2008) A-

Norwegian Wood (Japan, 2011) B

The Wolfman (2010) B

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (2010) C

Megamind (2010) B+


Battle Los Angeles (2011) B-

Restrepo (2010) B (+)

The Town (2010) B (+)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (France/Germany, 2010) B+


13 Assassins (Japan, 2010) A--

Animal Kingdom (Australia, 2010) B++

United (UK, 2011) B+

Surrogates (2009) B

Limitless (2011) B+

Matando Cabos (Mexico, 2004) B (+)

Los Ojos de Julia (Spain, 2010) B (+)


The Dark Knight (2008) A-

Unknown (2011) B+

Hanna (2011) C+

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) B+

Sucker Punch (2011) B

Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) A--

Sunshine (UK/USA, 2007) A--

Paul (2011) B+

Match Point (UK, 2005) B+


Source Code (2011) A-

Chico & Rita (Spain, 2010) A--

Trust (2010) B (+)

Au Bout Portant (France, 2010) B++

My Kidnapper (2010) B -

Countdown To Zero (2010) A-

Legend Of The Fist (China, 2010) B (+)

Let The Shrink In (2001) C


Bad Teacher (2011) B

Brighton Rock (UK, 1947) A--

Brighton Rock (UK, 2010) B (+)

Fast Five (2011) B+

Fast and Furious 4 (2009) B

Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides (2011) B


Bridesmaids (2011) C

Thor (2011) B+

The Guard (Eire, 2011) A-

Friends With Benefits (2011) C

Triangle (Australia 2009) A--

Confessions/Kokuhaku (2010) A-

Aqui Me Quedo (Guatemala, 2010) C--

Horrible Bosses (2011) B (+)

Trollhunter (Norway, 2011) B+

Drive (2011) A-

Blitz (2011) B+

Confessions/Kokuhaku (Japan, 2010) A--


Pour Elle (France, 2008) B++

Attack The Block (UK, 2011) B++

The Borrower Arrietty (Japan, 2010) A-

Colombiana (France, 2011) B

Midnight in Paris (2011) A (-)

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (2011) B+

The Yellow Sea (South Korea, 2010) A-

I Saw The Devil (South Korea, 2010) B (+)

The Housemaid/Hanyo (South Korea, 2010) A--

Retreat (UK, 2011) A--

Bedevilled (South Korea, 2010) A-

Scream 4 (2010) B++

Rio (2011) A--

Villain (Japan, 2011) B++


Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004) B

Perras (Mexico, 2011) B (+)

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) B (-)

Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011) C

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Cuba Travel Diary - Preparations (1)

It seems that the train journey I had planned to take from Havana to Santa Clara is not to be. It was one of only two reasons I could muster for making the journey, the other being a visit to the mausoleum of el comandante, but it seems that El Che doesn't open for business on Mondays.

My itineraries are usually distinguished by their flexibility, but over in Cuba they like to see a firm committment to location for at least the first three days and so, after booking my flight and making reservations for the three evenings that I plan to spend in the capital, Monday it was really going to have to be unless I was prepared to sacrifice one of my stops en route to the east of the island.

Sadly the evening rattler to Santa Clara is said to be the only reliable train service these days in Cuba, a society which once proudly boasted the first railway system in all of Latin America. It will have to wait for another day, and I will have to depend on the buses of Viazul to get around.

If any of the train journeys I made between Reading and London Paddington last April were at all memorable, I'm sure I'd remember at least one of them. I do however recall having to traverse the Thames valley that way four times in forty-eight hours around the time of the Royal Wedding.

So this year's only unforgetable ride on the rails was the return leg from Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) to Ollantaytambo on IncaRail. On the way out I'd been packed in knee-to-knee with the French tourists, but on the return leg the only seat avaialble was in First Class, where I was to share a delightfully robed table with a well-to-do Peruvian mother and her somewhat high-maintenance, coppertopped ten-year-old. The meal was served in little ceramic pots: there was a tomato confit and quinoa salad, queso paria, a veggie lasagne, and sacred valley fruit infused with mint for dessert. The wine was local, a Tacama Gran Tinto from the oasis of Ica (south of Lima), and appeared first in a steaming mulled form one might say the last hike of the day, and very welcome as the cold closes in at 3300m.

First Great Western commuter services aside, I can readily agree with Paul Theroux's notion that, alone of all forms of transportation, a train is just as much a place as a vehicle. Of course the most famous train in Santa Clara is indeed now a place (of pilgrimage), as it was famously derailed by el Che himself at the wheel of a bulldozer as it attempted to deliver government reinforcements to the critical final battle raging in that city. (Viz Stephen Soderbergh's Che Part 1)

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

If I hadn't sat through 2/3 of Aqui Me Quedo, I would have no hesitation in describing Sleeping Beauty as the worst movie I've seen so far this year. And relative to budget and intellectual aspirations it almost certainly is.

Before I really get stuck in however, let's just cast our minds back to the source material such as House of The Sleeping Beauties by Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. From a nation that has staked a realistic claim to being the mecca of all things outrageously pervy, there's perhaps a surprisingly elegaic subtlety to his esoteric tale of lost potency. It has twice inspired Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez to explore similar scenarios, most notably in his last novel Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes, but also in the short story in which he locates himself next to a beautiful sleeping girl on a long haul flight. (The debt to Kawabata is directly acknowledged when Gabo remarks that House of Sleeping Beauties is his chosen reading material for the journey.)

Non-Nobel Prize winning author and first time film director Julia Leigh obviously thought it would be illuminating to view this conceit from the sleeper's perspective. Its origins are acknowledged obliquely via a load of bonsai trees in the background and other Japanese interior touches, yet it is movies like Kubrick's last masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut and the guilty pleasure that is Hostel, that more openly spring to mind as influences.

The result is some sort of boorish Australian pastiche of European art house cinema from the mid part of the last century. Leigh appears to have scripted her characters so that they act just short of what we would expect of human beings made of flesh and blood. All the excrutiating underlying emotional currents present in the novella have been purged, because for this director the concept and its ramifications are far more important than the individuals encapsulated by it. During the scene in which one of the old geezers delivers a po-faced monologue about a short story by Julio Cortázar before climbing into bed with 'Sara', the fourth wall broke down, and so did we, into fits of hysterics. Who needs soporific drugs when you have these guys around?

Now Eyes Wide Shut also divided critics, attracted accusation of art porn, and is not without its flaws (most notably Kidman and Cruise). But other than the changes in time and location, Kubrick was far more faithful to Schnitzler's vision than he was to say Stephen King's in The Shining. Might one suggest that this was because Kubrick knew himself to be a superior artist to King, but perhaps not to Schnitzler?

Anyway, my own view on this matter would be that whilst it is perfectly OK to add flesh-eating zombies to Jane Austen classics, it would not be a recommended career move for any budding female author to re-write the works of Hemingway as a critique of masculine power relations. In short, if there's any chance that an author might have been better than you are, resist the temptation to steal his or her basic idea and rejig it to suit your own concerns.

There's really nothing more unedifying to behold in art than mediocrity affecting a painstaking pose of profundity.


2012, here we come.... (#28)

Let's pause to calibrate our sense of doom and gloom by checking out some of the latest thinking from the pessimist platoon's point man. It seems that Dr Death likes to invite people back to his pad for wine, canapés and talk of creeping cataclysm.

It's a funny old thing this 'slow motion train wreck'. It looks a bit more to me like a set of nested train wrecks all playing out at slightly different frame rates. Indeed, some of them are periodically on freeze frame, almost tempting one to imagine that they might stay that way for long enough for most of the passengers to exit unharmed, or somehow even snap into reverse.

Greek politics seem resistant to all efforts at containment. If the Greeks themselves should have been offered the chance to vote on their own rescue package, then there are surely quite a few non-Greeks who probably feel they should have had in on the Papandreou confidence vote. The Greek PM managed to survive that process, albeit with a large knife in the back courtesy of his Finance Minister, but his plan of forming a coalition government of 'national unity' looks unpromising this weekend, given the continuing absence of the main opposition party.

Yet perhaps the more intriguing train wreck right now is Italy. The Euro denominated BTP/bund spread separating Italy from Germany is at a record high. The Italian Central Bank claims that Italy is solvent so long as it doesn't have to pay more than 8%. We're at 6.6% and counting. Last week, at a joint press conference, when Merkozy was asked if Berlusconi had been able to reassure them, they looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Meanwhile, the Italian PM has been bragging that Italy turned down the option of a low interest loan from the IMF.