Saturday, October 29, 2022

Colourful Histories

Proceeding with Thursday's topic of 'rulers of Britain' in danger of cancellation by certain members of the US Republican fringe...

Our last ruler 'of colour' was Septimus Severus (above)*, an Emperor who died in the city of Eboracum (York) in 211 AD, having just embarked on an invasion of Caledonia (Scotland), which he'd hoped would indeed give him control of the whole of Britain. 

He was born in what is now Libya and seized power shortly after the events depicted in Gladiator, though between Commodus and Severus, things had become a little messy. 

Of course, several thousand years before Julius Caesar showed up, all of us Britons were 'of colour' — the gene for paler skin not having yet emerged — though it is unlikely that we were then able to agree upon a capo di capi. 

Charles II was said to be a bit "swarthy". 

The first de facto 'ruler of Britain' was probably the English monarch Edward the Elder (899-924), son of Alfred, whose sovereignty was (sort of) recognised by Constantine II of Scotland — at least according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle — but shortly afterwards Edward died in battle and we would have to wait a further 800 years for the United Kingdom, just after Scotland had bankrupted itself by attempting to colonise Panama. 

The takeover was a little more friendly than Elon Musk's at Twitter HQ yesterday.

* Undoubtedly also a pagan, though most likely in that more open-minded Roman sort of way.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Ticket to Paradise (2022)

There were times when I almost laughed and others where I almost barfed. 

British film-maker Ol Parker has delivered this squirm-inducing kind sort of white sahibs encounter the tropics vibe before with his Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise — but at least those films were shot on location on Jaipur, whereas here we have a version of Bali largely realised in Australia with frequently painted-on CGI backdrops, and so all the just-so-adorable natives have had to be imported, but at least this has allowed Parker to show us a developing world with perfect hospitals. 

Parker's retired Britishers undoubtedly had a measure of emotional depth and wit about them. Here though I'd be hard picked to choose which of these characters is the most annoying. I would admit however that I might have been on the whole less inclined to see it through to its inevitable conclusion if the role played by Clooney had been handed to a dimmer star. 

Yet I suspect that a large part of the entertainment I experienced came via simultaneously daydreaming my own version of this story set here in Guatemala, with much less effort spent papering over the cracks in 'paradise', thus opening up the possibility of offending as many viewers as possible. 

Barbarian (2022)

If there is one movie you find yourself drawn towards this horror season, let it be this one. 

This was our second Airbnb-gone-horribly-wrong treatment, and by far the more satisfying of the two. 

I won't say much more and whatever you do, avoid the trailer — in part because Barbarian has two very enjoyable sections that in a sense sit outside the gruesome genre action, and which require the viewer to closely observe the words and actions of a bloke — and any foreknowledge of the other stuff could spoil these. 

The scenes that take up the first half hour or so before the the genre tropes are laid on far thicker are essentially a tense two-hander between the inexplicably double-booked Tess (Georgina Campbell) and Keith (Bill Skarsgård). 

Direct Zak Cregger explained his inspiration in a recent interview...

"I had read a book called The Gift of Fear by the security consultant Gavin de Becker. There was a chapter in the book that was really primarily directed towards women, and he was encouraging women to pay attention to these little minor red flags that men can give off in day-to-day situations. They can be very innocuous things that you might not notice. Things like complimenting you when it's not necessarily appropriate or doing you a favour that you didn't ask for, or touching in a nonsexual way that's not initiated by you...All these little things that seemingly don't matter, but he was basically saying the gift of fear, it's important to pay attention to these little red flags because you're equipped with that to identify potential threats. As I was reading it, I just kind of had this epiphany that I don't ever have to think about that kind of a thing because I'm a man and because I have this level of privilege where I just don't have to consider that half the population might be somebody that means to do me harm for no reason. I just realized I occupy a completely different psychic landscape than most women do. It was kind of a big moment for me."

Looking for Spinoza

On my second visit to La Antigua towards the end of ‘89, I came across a child apparently trapped in a state of permanent, unadulterated joy. This little boy with his own room in the Hermano Pedro hospital was living a life that approximated that promised by the Church in the next one, yet had been incarcerated as a non-person there by priests. 

Renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is the go-to guy for such aberrations, as he’s made a career of revealing how small defects in or injuries to the brain’s architecture can lead to quite dramatic personality changes, and how the selective application of electrical currents can induce happiness or indeed dark depression in the absence of other mood stimuli. In this book he declares a perhaps unlikely alliance with Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch Jewish metaphysical disrupter (1632-77), who wanted us to understand that the whole Cartesian mind-body dichotomy was hooey, for all of cognition necessarily encompasses the entire animal organism, which can claim no transcendent passenger. 

That Love is as much a feeling as it is a thought is the thought-feeling that Damasio runs with here, linking modern biological orthodoxy with a venerable heterodoxy. 

My own encounters with Spinoza began long ago when he seemed to offer an antidote to the neo-platonic model which had carried out a reverse takeover of Hebrew thought in the early Christian era. Not only did that leave us with bodies and souls, it left us with a contingent reality separate from, or subsumed within, something perfect and absolute to which we have given the name of God. 

Spinoza’s rejection of this form of Divinity came with the insistence that the cosmos we can detect is all there is, and anything meaningful therein is immanent, taking shape within time and space not beyond it. Today his pantheism is taking some grazing impacts from western cosmology, which struggles to entirely shake off the thought-feeling that perception will only ever provide us with a partial take on reality. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022


After encountering an distasteful Tweet from 'across the pond yesterday, denouncing Rishi Sunak as the first pagan ruler of Britain for a thousand years — to which I replied that Charles III had the top job last time I checked — this morning I gave some thought to the question thus raised of which practicing pagan could indeed be said to be the last polytheist in charge of our island. 

There were some early Anglo-Saxon kings that clung on to Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frig (Tuesday, Wednesday...), but none of them could claim sovereignty over more than a small portion of the land, many of whose occupants had some legacy of attachment to Romano-British monotheism. 

So, the last pagan ruler of Britain has to be Constantine the Great himself, proclaimed Emperor here in the city of York, some time before his conversion to Christianity, at which point he then became the first Christian ruler of Britain. (The SNP may beg to differ.)

As for any atheist rulers of Britain, one has to delve a little below public performance and into private belief. 

The only monarch ever to be (almost) open about their unbelief was William II Rufus, son of the Conqueror. Yet on her deathbed someone informed Queen Victoria that she was about to be reunited with her dearest Albert..and was duly told to take a hike. 

Bad King John was excommunicated by the Pope and didn't seem to care all that much, and perhaps even more tellingly, when all the churches in England were consequently shut as a result and no masses were held for several years, hardly any of his subjects seemed to care that much either.

And if one allows for the fact that the PM is a 'ruler' rather than a mere public employee with some executive power (when permitted such by the more openly designated civil servants), one can point to the avowed atheism of Clement Attlee, the last godless occupant of No10, and Sir Keir Starmer, almost certainly the next one.

Nick Clegg was close enough. He now works for Meta and must be even more worried about job security than Rishi.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Cuatro Horsemen

A new joint has just opened up (very) locally.

I'm thinking the Cuatro refers to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, also known around here as Pizza*, Nachos, Burgers and Wings. 

It would appear to presage a perfect storm of the sort of mundane multilateral dross that has inundated Antigua in the past few years. 

The other day I ran into an old chum in town, a resident hailing from the States, who pined for the Antigua of old and suggested that he'd be gone within five years if the current trends persist.

"This used to be the Palm Springs of Guatemala for the wealthy elite," he freely exaggerated. More like a corrupt and crumbly version of the Cotswolds perhaps. 

I have lately been blaming the pandemic for an acceleration of the downmarket trajectory, but after this exchange I started to wonder whether other factors have been equally crucial, such as the capital finally getting its act together in terms of offering genuinely sophisticated places to eat and drink and the sheer aggravation involved in making the journey by road nowadays. 

Though in this country much that would be taken for sophisticated is in fact merely pretentious. 

* My views on pizza are similar to my views on superhero movies — avoid unless one is certain of not suffering from buyer's regret.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Runners and Riders

The currently rudderless UK government faces a severe political problem and a severe economic problem. There is some overlap, yet there are also areas where they are in a sense incompatible from a policy perspective — addressing one exacerbates the other. 

In as much as Penny has said she will keep Jeremy Hunt in the Treasury, as PM she would be like late-stage Liz with a nice voice and some communication skills. 

Economic problem? Rishi is your man, but he's not without some noted political naivety. 

Most of the time neither political nor economic problems are felt evenly through the electorate and — outside all the media prattle —  the Tories can usually count on enough of the painful stuff being someone else's problem. Yet now the country is at a juncture where both the politics and economics are widely excruciating and one has to wonder how Sunak would juggle this. 

A triumphantly returning Boris is less far likely to leave Hunt be, and the markets would be observing closely who he installs next door. And politically Boris is always a problem waiting to happen. In short he may deal with part of the existing mess, yet is bound to add to it. 

Anyway, I still see the most likely scenario as being Rishi hailed as PM on Monday*.  He's already passed the 100 supporter threshold and may end up being the only one to do so. 

Boris won't want to enter the contest unless assured of victory and I think there are enough sitting MPs wary of extending the psychodrama to make the result uncertain. 

Penny and Boris will already be considering stepping back to permit the coronation, and will have a price in mind.  

* An online vote later in the week seems incredibly undesirable in itself, given that the Russians and the Chinese will have had seven days to figure out how to dick around with this. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Above the fray...

Nice aerial view of Larry's pad today. 100 rooms for him to hide in. No doubt some tunnels too. 

No10 began in 1530 as a private crib known as "The House at the Back". Like the Palace, it came into the hands of the Duke of Buckingham prior to nationalisation. 

In the 1680s, a decade or so after Pepys's final diary entry, and following the second Duke's retirement in 1676, Sir George Downing employed Sir Christopher Wren to develop the mansion into a row of town houses. 
When the property(ies) reverted to the crown c1720, George II soon decided to give it to Sir Robert Walpole, who said he could only accept the kickback if No10 would henceforth belong to the office of First Lord of the Treasury (usually, though not always, the Prime Minister). 

During the 19th century Downing Street became the scene of much insalubrious activity...and there was also a problem with crime and prostitution in the neighbourhood. 

Since Tony Blair it has been more usual for the PM to reside on the upper level of No11. Rishi Sunak was the last cabinet member to actually live inside No10. 

Boris must be hoping he can finally take advantage of that expensive refit of the residence in No11.

However, if there is one lesson above all others that ought to have been learned lately by the British political elite, it is that letting the ’grass roots’ choose the leader is a really bad idea. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Hear no Evil

This is Steve.

Steve understands acoustics. 

Steve has a big wall behind him which redirects his racket in the other direction.

Steve is not a bellend.  

Be like Steve. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Watcher (Netflix)

Rather like Murder On The Orient Express in a parallel universe in which Poirot misses the train. 

Extraordinary to think that it's the product of the same team that brought us Dahmer. I guess they had been feeling the need to express a certain dark sense of humour that they had necessarily needed to contain in that earlier series. 

There's definitely a growing trend for silly mysteries, which whilst bereft of anything resembling real tension are nevertheless enormous fun to watch. (I've been meaning to write about The Resort for a while.) 

Stifler's mom is superb here. I'm so glad she will be back for S2 of The White Lotus. 

It's a tradition that the deceased pet marks the transition point from unease to full-on jeopardy, usually around the midpoint of Act 2, but here we have two of them which are so fast-tracked from first appearance we barely have time to note how predictable these demises are. 

If that trope has been turbo-charged, elsewhere things are a bit blurry. I do think that it is an important part of any thriller that the 'victim' has to respond to the threat in a manner that we can all identify with, taking appropriate actions at the appropriate moments and considering the situation 'in the round' from the outset. The Brannocks don't mention the G word* until long after it should have occurred to almost every viewer and only fortuitously discover the tunnel several episodes after another character suggests that one might be worth looking for in the basement. 

That they can seemingly only hold one idea in their heads at a time has allowed the makers to dissect the story into seven chunks but seriously detracted from our willingness to engage emotionally and intellectually with their plight. 

The home I grew up in had a dumbwaiter, though we don't call them that in the UK. I immediately dubbed the one inside 647 Boulevard 'Chekhov's dumbwaiter' yet it took until the final episode for that potential to be properly realised.

We got through all seven episodes in three days. At a slower pace we might have given up. 


Sunday, October 16, 2022

Luckiest Girl Alive (2022)

Young girl attends unsupervised party, gets fall over drunk, and is then gang-abused and raped by a group of boys who exploit the circumstances and a position of relative privilege in an attempt to dodge any repercussions. I have come across several versions of this sorry tale, more than one from real life. 

This one has two additional layers behind it, a true account and a novel. Perhaps director Mike Barker recognised the familiarity of the narrative and rather than looking for ways to transcend it, instead decided to take it to the max, with visual clichés laid on heavily at almost every location — such that what we have here is a sort of Cruel Intentions/Great Gatsby mélange with the addition of a a gang rape and a high school shooting. 

To make a film featuring a mass casualty incident that is largely incidental to the main story is, in a sense, some achievement. The shooting and the making of a documentary about it appear to have been depicted in a particularly unrealistic manner in recognition of their potential to be more interesting lead elements in the narrative — and nothing is going to be allowed to trump one individual's personal trauma here. 

I had seen pleas in the media for this film to feature a 'trigger warning' for teenage girls not expecting a depiction of rape, which led me to anticipate something truly hard to watch like the tunnel scene in Irréversible, but have to conclude that Barker handled this part quite sensitively, cleverly even, as the  abuse is shown as the victim herself might have recollected it vaguely and disjointedly afterwards.

At the start I thought the main action had been set in 2015 because the mis-en-scène would be partly political, but we are sent back seven years not because this is the pre-Trump moment, but because it is the pre-#Metoo moment. 

I haven't read the novel by Jessica Knoll, but I have a hunch that it handles the balance of the key elements more thoughtfully than the movie. One of the abusers, the sole survivor of the massacre in fact, is permitted to articulate all the reasons he should not be submitted to his victim's personal truth in  major national newspaper: I was drunk, young and ignorant, I have a wife and daughters, my blameless family have suffered immensely and I have already paid a heavy price — plus, I have visibly atoned for what happened by devoting my life to a cause. 

Ani listens, and takes some of this on board, yet has concluded that she has an obligation to be honest in perhaps the most brutal of ways, for reasons that are as rooted in what has happened since, than the specific long-standing grievance which sits between them. This to me is the essence of the story, yet almost every decision taken by the film-makers has diluted it. 

And when we are just trying to get our heads around this unresolve-able confrontation of self-justifications, the plot then immediately tells us that we don't need to worry if Ani is wholly right, because what matters is not her own validation, but the other long-suppressed agonies that her op-ed will help to assuage. Her vindication is necessarily part of a collective. 

At this stage older Ani is a barely sympathetic character, partly because Chiara Aurelia's younger version should have been our way into the story, and partly because all the jeopardy in her life seems to relate to only half-heartedly satirised personal and professional privilege, and she never quite shakes off the aura of the status-seeker. 

She hits rock-bottom for me in terms of her personal appeal when, right at the end, she tells a journalist who basically re-articulates the presumably by then defunct Dean Barton's position to go fuck herself, a burst of anger she perhaps might have more daringly directed at her abuser himself. 

But Mila Kunis is box office and so, even though there were perhaps better ways to make this movie, this is the one that will reach the widest possible audience. 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

When No10 is really No11

It does look like the current cunning plan is an in office but not in power constitutional PM, perhaps with a more formal, less cataclysmic leadership exchange closer to the election. 

Truss may be permitted to opine and even decide on matters unrelated to fiscal policy and the economy. But have no doubt, he of the mispronouncable surname is our de facto leader, proposing a policy direction diametrically opposed to that which that Truss herself tried to sell in the hustings. 

Hunt has been anointed in a truly clandestine manner. Rather than turning to the pair that came in behind Truss, or indeed attempting the even riskier and unsavoury Boris restoration, they have turned to the 2019 runner-up instead.

On Monday the City of London will have a say and if the price of Gilts rises significantly, then it’s all over. The markets will decide the fate of this subterfuge. 

Beyond that there is the matter that the entire country is in crisis and a powerless, duck with a zimmer frame executive is a situation that can find all sorts of ways not to work.

We have not really had a state of affairs / affair of state like this since John of Gaunt and Richard II. (Did not end well.)

RIP Robbie Coltrane

Back in '88 I attended a rather glam 21st birthday party at the now defunct Café de Paris just off Leicester Square and my keenest memory of the event is Robbie dominating the venue's petite dancefloor, surrounded by a bevvy of Cambridge beauties...and of Jack Nicholson, wearing very dark sunglasses, repeatedly trying to get in on his action.

One would not wish him to be primarily remembered as a cast member in the Harry Potter series...

Friday, October 14, 2022

Worry Stones

Here’s the thing about WWIII and nuclear Armageddon…

Is it me or do these trees look a bit too much like mushroom clouds?

Teachable Moment

If Liz Truss PM is ever seen to have been useful it will be as an important historical learning opportunity. 

Not perhaps quite so much in the UK, where Cassandra Sunak told everyone what was going to happen and was duly ignored. But elsewhere in the world — for example here in Guatemala, where Gloria Álvarez has been the most visible exponent of the libertarian posture, one which assumes that the invisible hand will always give the thumbs up to ‘anti-statist’ policies. 

But now we not only know, but can see, that the market does not generally yearn to be liberated from sound government.

Imagine that when the country is in the midst of a cost of living crisis, when 12% of the population features on the NHS waiting list, and everyone is trying to deal with crippling energy price rises, you enter No10 and in week one implement policies which add hundreds of pounds to average monthly mortgage payments, all because the kooky ideas that have been groomed into your head are preventing you from appreciating the nature of the actual, critical situation to hand. 

(And, OMG, that press conference earlier is definitely going to be a teachable moment in the PR industry.) 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Things are on the move…

We are approaching one of the key transition moments in the calendar. 

When the rains start to ease, the breeze comes up and many of the flowers come back into full bloom.

It's also that time of the year when the local social media feeds start to be dominated less by the people who don't seem to know Oktoberfest is celebrated in September and more by the Halloween obsessives. 

October 14, 2022 could also mark an important turning point for the UK, as the Bank of England leaves HM's Government to suffocate in the airless vacuum it has created around itself.

As the King himself let slip almost involuntarily today at the start of his second face to face with Liz Truss: "Dear oh dear..." 



Tuesday, October 11, 2022

God's Country (2022)


One thing you won't catch Clint Eastwood doing in any of his films is attempting de-escalation. 

This quietly wonderful movie, which has been rattling around inside my head since we watched it, is based on the short story Winter Light by James Lee Burke, one of my favourite contemporary American genre novelists. 

I have not read this little tale, but I gather that it features, like many set in the American wilderness, a seclusive mature man who has been suppressing the violence within him until some inexorable provocation comes along. 

This is not a trope limited to Westerns of course. We find it in John Wick for example, a movie God's Country comes to echo in one significant and utterly predictable fashion. 

Here though the withdrawn white male has been replaced by a woman of mixed heritage in what is far from a lazy woke twist. It unquestionably adds significant layers to the tragedy (...of John Wick?) that unfolds, and even so, the important thing here is not what sort of person interacts with the predicament, but the fact that the role is undertaken by Thandiwe Newton so magnificently. 

She plays Sandra, a university professor, living an isolated life in a vast snow-clad valley in Montana. For reasons that we come to feel more than fully understand, she acts a little heavy-handedly with two hunters that park outside her home without asking nicely first. 

This sets off the chain of reciprocal affronts, yet there are moments when Sandra seems to be putting out feelers, attempting an accommodation with the ways of her new community. The trouble is, they appear far less able to cross over to her POV. 

Captain Ahab famously got over-personal with the whale. For Sandra, the reverse happens, she loses sight of the individuals she has been working to flesh out and instead comes to intuit that she is up against an entire de-personalised system — or at least one made up of individuals that are exemplars of everything she can no longer just live with. 

I have felt this ambiguity of motive in my own life over the past few years and I think this conflation of the personal and the collective, more than anything, is what makes God's Country an extraordinary movie for our present moment. 

President declares 30 days of....

 ....national venality. 

Seems that Julia knew what he had in mind and hot-footed it to Tapachula faster than one of those old Transgalgos buses. 

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Bullet Train (2022)


For the first half hour or so this promised to be the most horrendous kind of Guy Ritche/Quentin Tarantino mashup. David Leitch has directed much better stuff than this I kept thinking: John Wick, Nobody, even Atomic Blonde. 

Then it sort of settles, after that it drags, and I couldn’t say it finished up utterly awful, though there’s a case to be made for watching it in a language you don’t understand i.e it could have done with being a bit more unfathomable, like a Japanese ATM or indeed, smart toilet. 
Ultimately more watchable than listenable.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Chinese Walls


Behind this little gag, there is some interesting history. 

In the early Middle Ages the reformed Papacy of the Catholic Church found that it needed to prevent priests marrying, because the rapid development of legal systems across Europe meant that inheritance situations were working to reduce church property holdings alarmingly. 

Meanwhile, Islam was finding that one of the costs of Jihad was a smaller number of men relative to women, so in effect they needed an 'occasional' mechanism for dealing with widows and orphans. 

Religion is nothing if not a spiritual solution to a material problem. 

In Christendom unattached women — not just because of battle casualties, but also because of priests acting all celibate — led to an apparent witch problem. 

One can also detect that beneath all the practicalities, one of these religions regards all lustful unions as sinful, while the other sees them as a path to spiritual development. 

The reverse applies to wine, apparently.

Enough already...

It's time for us all to take a stand. If we don't, Antigua will turn into one big pizzeria. 

A while ago we elected to boycott all local restaurants using pizza as a cheap trick to get bums on seats*. Maybe not actual, shamelessly fast-food pizzerias — like Domino's — just the ones who should know better. 

To some extent this is a phenomenon that has been stoked by the pandemic. And like inflation, it needs to be stamped out before it becomes fully entrenched. 

In that social-distanced environment where demand was seriously pinched, restauranteurs perhaps found it necessary to emphasise a proposition encompassing the unsophisticated, lowest common denominator tastes of both locals and visitors. 

This rather unfortunate revenue 'sweet spot' has been facilitated by the fact that interesting foreign food is often outside the comfort zone of chapines and interesting Guatemalan food sometimes similarly outside the comfort zone of gringos. The seemingly ubiquitous 

When I first came here none of the leading restaurants in Antigua were indulging in this unimaginative nonsense. In fact the only place you could find a pizza was probably Quesos y Vino, and even there it wasn't the main item on the menu, as the name itself suggests. 

It's not special, it's not gourmet, it's just bollocks. 

And there is no other major city in the entire region where anything like it has occurred. 

* I had a minor panic the other day when these thoughts were buzzing around my head, as it occurred to me that I could be found guilty of serious hypocrisy if any of my 'Top 10 fave places to eat in Central America had a large section entitled PIZZA on their menus. After some frantic checking, I was like, pheeeew. All clear. 

The current chart...

1. Oliva Enoteca, Mérida

2. Primo, Playa del Carmen

3. La Esquina de Buenos Aires, San José

4. Bangcook, San Cristóbal de las Casas

5. Rumfish y Vino, Placencia

6. Catrín, Mérida

7. Mezzanine, Tulum

8. Makoto, Panama City

9. La Palapa del Tio Fito, Campeche

10. El Cau, San Cristóbal de las Casas

Subs' bench...

Patanegra, Playa del Carmen

Tin Jo, San José

Coctelería Cajún, Ciudad del Carmen