Sunday, February 28, 2010

Luxury, Tax-free Castle with Moat

This week the United States revealed the winning $1bn design for its new mission in London, which will be the most expensive embassy ever constructed. (The one in Baghdad was a bargain at $600m.)

The price does not include the 17.5% VAT that all UK constructors have to pay the Treasury, but from which the USA considers itself exempt. American diplomats also owe the Treasury £32m in unpaid congestion charge fees and other fines, a state of affairs which led London's former Mayor Ken Livingston to refer to the then US Ambassador Robert Tuttle as a “chiselling little crook”. (Perhaps it is no coincicence that the new site is outside the congestion charge zone.)

Grosvenor Square has featured a little piece of the USA since John Adams first established the new nation's mission to the Court of St James's in 1785. But in 2016 or thereabouts, 23o+ years of continued American presence in Mayfair will come to an end, thanks in part to a protracted protest by local residents against the security measures enacted there...or indeed not enacted there, since 9-11. Instead of ugly concrete blast barriers, the new design by Kieran Timberlake features a 100ft moat and some rolling parkland between it and the badlands of Wandsworth.

The statues (such as the one of Eisenhower in the foreground below) are staying put, which is appropriate given the role Grosvenor Square played in America's contribution to WWII. Nicknamed Eisenhower Platz, my father remembers how the square was gravelled over so it could serve as a massive military car lot outside Ike's HQ at No20, with the railings all removed, presumably to make more Sherman tanks. (We didn't get our iron railings back in Eaton Square until the mid 70s.) One wonders if the residents back then (probably actual British passport holders in the main) were quite so vociferous in their whingeing when these changes were imposed.

The square was also famously the scene of a massive anti-Vietnam war protest on March 3, 1968. Vanessa Redgrave (now a regular on Nip/Tuck and newly elected BAFTA fellow) was there that day leading the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party and was permitted, along with three supporters, to enter the embassy and deliver a protest. Later things turned ugly and 200 people were arrested and 86 treated for injuries received during the 'battle'.

With their new moat American diplomats will now be able to fart in the general direction of English discontent much like John Cleese's French castellan in Mony Python and the Holy Grail.

The present, soon-to-be-discharged building was put up in 1960 (while the previous one was handed over as MacDonald House to the Canadian High Commission) and is expected to be re-purposed by the Qatari Diar investment group as a hotel.

Given that it was granted Grade II listed status in 2009, the former embassy's new Arab owners will have to put up with the massive gilded eagle that perches atop the facade. Back in the late 80s my friend Thom — whose mother was in fact American (Georgian 'aristocracy') — suggested to me that he'd like to pick it up with a helicopter and the drop it right back on top of Eero Saarinen's modernist fortress. These days that sort of casually anti-yanqui remark can earn one a trip to the Caribbean.

The Qatari's will no doubt feel at home here, as one suspects that many of the properties around the central park are owned or rented by middle-easterners: which may explain why the embassy's American occupants have been feeling a bit edgy of late.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bollywood on ice

Did you watch these guys the other night?

Here's an earlier, slightly less polished version of the original dance offering from the American pair Meryl Davis and Charie White, performed in Tokyo last year. If you listen hard enough you'll spot the Japanese for "well coordinated".

Tell us what we don't know...

One abiding characteristic of the modern digital media is the way it seemingly encourages people to spend a lot of time and money on 'studies' that end up telling us stuff we basically already knew.

And so today news reaches us of the work of Professor Satoshi Kanazawa, Economics Management Professor at the London School of Economics, who has 'discovered' that liberals and atheists tend to be more intelligent.

Kanazawa argues that humans are designed by evolution to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends. Being liberal — caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers one may never meet or interact with — is, in contrast, evolutionarily novel and therefore more likely to be the position of clever offspring. Kanazawa doesn't exactly say why, but appears to assume that kids with smarts will reach out beyond innate behaviours and attitudes.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) nevertheless supports this hypothesis: Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as "very liberal" have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence, while those identifying themselves as "very conservative" have an average IQ of 95 during the spotty phase.

In case we didn't already know that members of the God Squad are constitutionally paranoid, Kanazawa spells it out for us: "Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid."

This served the species well enough when self-preservation and protection of the clan depended upon vigilance to the point of excess, but these days "more intelligent children are likely to...go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists."

Do these facts get right up your conservative nose? Well, there's a study for that too.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School has published research which shows that people react in a closed-minded way to information that threatens their core values, and are much more likely to believe information delivered by a messenger who looks as if he might believe the same things as they do.

They conducted an experiment in which participants were asked to describe their cultural beliefs. Those claiming to embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise were labeled the 'individualistic' group. Those suspicious of authority or of commerce were referred to as 'communitarians.' When queried about nanotechnology, the groups began to polarise sharply around the potential benefits and harms. With the same information to hand, the individualists thought nanotechnology was exciting while the communitarians dismissed it as dangerous."It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information," reports social scientist Don Braman of the CCP.

Handy guide to regional leadership

The 'Unity' summit in Mexico failed to live up to its name yesterday when a full on pelea threatened to break out between the leaders of Venezuela and Colombia. It all kicked off when Chávez accused Uribe of sending sicarios over the border to have him whacked. Uribe responded by puffing out his chest and demanding that they settle this like men.

Jaime Bayly reported last night that Evo Morales had hidden beneath a table during the 'desmadre', but the Bolivian President later appeared before gathered reporters in order to deliver further jibes at his Colombian counterpart's expense...from a safe distance: "Uribe sólo llega a la foto y al almuerzo."

In case you hadn't noticed, the quality of leadership across Latin America is patchy at best, and while activities such as setting up regional clubs which exclude the gringos or standing firm beside Argentina against Britain's imperialist Queen, do indeed deliver telegenic moments of apparent camaraderie, the truth is that they are usually so glad to get away from issues of legitimacy back home, that the release of tension will often manifest itself as fraternal strife at these kind of diplomatic junkets.

Anyway, here's my handy guide to the region's Presidents and Prime Ministers, which reflects my subjective opinion on their qualities as both politicians and human beings:

Brazil Lula Good Bloke
Peru Gárcia Baboso
Chile Bachelet / Piñera Good Blokette / Jury’s out
Argentina Fernández Babosa
Ecuador Correa Good Bloke
Colombia Uribe Baboso
Uruguay Vázquez /Mujica
Good Bloke, but looks like a plastic surgeon / Good Bloke
Paraguay Lugo Baboso - aka "El cura braguetero"
Bolivia Morales Baboso
Venezuela Chávez Extra Baboso
Guyana Jagdeo Good Bloke
Suriname Venitiaan A saaaber
F. Guiana Sarkozy...en effet
Bon Oeuf
Panama Martinelli Baboso
Costa Rica Chinchilla Potential Good Blokette
Nicaragua Ortega Once a Baboso, always..?
El Salvador Funes Potential Baboso
Guatemala Colom Good Bloke
Honduras Lobo Baboso
Belize Barrow Not sure
Dom. Republic Fernández Borderline Baboso

Update: Attentive readers may have spotted that I accidentally left Raul Castro and Felipe Calderón out of this table, class-act babosos both. (Most of Mexico is in North America however.) Meanwhile Guatemala's former patán-in-chief Alfonso Portillo has elected to pull a sickie in order to avoid extradition to the US.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

This wonderful novel defies easy description.

It's less a narrative of plot or character than one of voice; unsurprising perhaps given Lorrie Moore's track record as a miniaturist.

And what a voice. Tassie Keltjin is a student in Troy, a liberal outpost within an imagined mid-western state where she grew up on a farm, daughter to an eccentric producer of boutique potato varieties and a Jewish mother.

Tassie speaks to us of formative experiences — first job, first love, first death — which took place in the twelve months following the late autumn of 2001. Sometimes we hear her using the sassy yet sophomore tones of the period, but more often her words are inflected with the wisdom of a middle-aged woman addressing us from a future yet beyond the time of contemporary readers. (And if the technique can be faulted, you might say that there are several occasions when Tassie's ostentatious wit appears to come to us directly from the author's mouth.)

Tassie's wordplay is put to great effect as she pokes fun gently at the attitudes of both progressives and regressives in her state, while all around topics perhaps less worthy of levity encroach on her young life: racism, 9-11 and its aftermath, insensitve bureaucracy and inconsiderate, ill-considered deception.

As well as being a very funny novel, Moore has cleverly crafted an extremely sad undercurrent within it, strikingly evident during the novel's most plot-like sections: the ludicrous-amusing story of Tassie's employers the Thornwood-Brinks and their belated quest for redemption through adoption.

Best read of the year so far.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity (2009)

As noted by Guateliving this morning, at around ten last night there occurred a very strange rumbling sound, which I equated with that of a Tube train passing beneath my house...except that it lasted almost half a minute.

The unfortunate thing was that this phenomenon — which had been preceded by spooky tapping noises on the wall behind our bed — came about while we were watching Paranornal Activity, a 'scary' movie of the kind which, under other circumstances, wouldn't really have had the power to unsettle me.

We too were surprised that none of our animals reacted to this subterranean groan. But our cat Bali was clearly petrified every time the action in the movie switched to Micah and Katie's bedroom, where the camera on its tripod was filming their sleeping forms on the bed.

My conclusion is that the wide-eyed look of terror on Bali's face as he stared intensely at the TV (having already jumped on the bed and snuggled up to me) was the product of a subliminal effect produced by the sound engineers to mark the arrival of the demonic presence in this San Diego household.

If this had been the first mainstream movie presented to us as disturbing found footage I might have been a little more impressed. But tired formula or not, this has emerged as the most profitable Hollywood production of all time.

Grade: B

The Seven Ages of Britain

Watch out Simon Schama and Andrew Mars, another BBC stalwart is after a piece of your vanity history programme action!

We're four ages into David Dimbleby's (public) schoolboy history of the British Isles, and so far I can't remember him having mentioned Scotland once.

The concept is simple: Tell the story of English (er British) history by visiting the key national treasures which can be plotted against a narrative familiar to readers of 1066 And All That.

This way people who had big jewels (such as Alfred the Great and Francis Drake) or big gaffs (Romans, Henry VIII) can come to the forefront and all those toiling plebs can be discounted. Indeed, the revolting peasants didn't even merit a mention during Dimbleby's extended paean to the magnificent lifestyle of Richard II. (That's his Queen's crown being contemplated in the pic above.)

In this week's episode we were astounded to see Dimbleby finally donning a pair of protective gloves before handling a volume in the Pepys Library. Up until then he's apparently had no qualms about whipping through the pages of priceless manuscripts with uncovered mitts, poking his ballpoint at delicate Sutton Hoo trinkets, or stomping all over Roman mosaic flooring.

All in all, the best thing currently on the, the BBC.

"Reina de Inglaterra, a ti te hablo"

Latin America's heads of state are meeting today - in Cancún of all places - to discuss how they can reduce the influence of the USA in the hemisphere. It seems that the basic idea is to create a new playgroup from which the Yanks and Canucks can be excluded, thereby reproducing the gratifying sensation of hurting their feelings.

Meanwhile Chávez made one of his little speeches yesterday directed at H.M. the Queen no less, tuteandola and insisting that las cosas han cambiado, such that this time Argentina won't stand alone. He was of course referring to the possibility of a retro-style war between the UK and the Argies, who might just be tempted into another ill-considered act of aggression against the English-speaking, right-hand driving Falkland islanders, now that a British firm has commenced drilling for oil in the waters around Las Malvinas.

No matter that Argentina's claim over the islands is as credible as Guatemala's over Belize.

King Juan Carlos and his missus Sofia were also treated to a bit of ad hoc disrespect this weekend just before the start of the basketball Copa del Rey when spectators in the Bizkaia Arena in Bilbao chanted 'fuera! fuera!' at them during the singing of the Spanish national anthem.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Food, Inc. (2009)

This fascinating documentary kicks off with the assertion that the way we produce our food has changed more in the past 50 years than in the 10,000 years before that.

At the same time a 'veil' has been lifted between us and the system of centralised industrial agriculture, such that food marketing today widely perpetuates a pastoral fantasy completely out of step with modern farming methods.

This is clearly very much an American 'we', but Robert Kenner's Oscar-nominated film did get me thinking about the current flux in European attitudes towards food provenance.

Indeed, it was interesting to hear that the people that once had the audacity to call us Brits a nation of shopkeepers are reverting to local and specialist food retailers in their droves...or at least that is the prevailing explanation for the 70% drop in profits announced today by the world's second largest retailer Carrefour.

In part because I grew up in the very centre of London, it was not really until I left home to go up to Cambridge that I became properly exposed to the big supermarket chains. Big stores were already appearing around the edges of Britain's towns, but in Kensington and Chelsea the only significant examples of this retail phenomenon were two rather grim branches of Safeway.

As a result, our meat came from traditional local butchers (Lidstones in Lower Belgrave Street and Portwine in Earlham Street), our bread from a local bakery and our vegetables from local greengrocers. My father's company owned a building in Neal's Yard (Covent Garden) and in the early 80s the only other commercial activity going on there was a wholesale fruit and veg dealer called Asher & Son. It was a sad day for us when Asher junior closed his wooden gates for the last time, an event which marked the beginning of the takeover of Neal's Yard by the purveyors of counter-cultural comestibles, or what my father used to call 'the nuts and berries gang'.

So food generally didn't come shrink-wrapped or in boxes, unless one went to M&S, whose St Michael-branded grub then had an aura of unconventional quality. But in 1992 the first Tesco Metro appeared in Covent Garden, marking the intention of the big chains to capture the profitable West End trade too.

One of the reasons I love living in Central America is the blend of first and third world conditions and the choices that facilitates. I'm not one of those people who can live entirely without supermarkets, fast food or indeed capitalism — but I do like to have a choice over how much control such things hold over my life. Here in Antigua I can get a chicken burger meal from Pollo Campero for Q20 or I can drive up to the finca and choose a hen sitting in a tree and handed over to me patas first.

Even slightly less stark versions of this choice are seemingly no longer available in Britain — in the Thames Valley where my father now lives most of the stuff people eat has been provided by the likes of Waitrose, Somerfield, Tesco, Sainsbury's, ASDA and Morrison's. The village of Pangbourne has a Bentley shop, but no butcher, baker, greengrocer etc.

Kenner would have everyone choosing to eat locally-sourced, in-season produce instead of the stuff oozing out of the centralised industrial agricultural system, but this is surely not such an uncomplicated decision for inhabitants of sprawling conurbations such as Greater London. For any attempt to live in a globalised metropolis whilst acting as if one lives in a small rural community seems to require a whole set of often quite ridiculous affectations.

And the branding bunch are already onto you, especially if you are the sort of person who uses consumption as a way of standing out from the hoi polloi. They can easily spot eating habits morphing into lifestyle choices and have a whole batch of new ways for you to give the same old industrial food complex your money: Freetrade, organic, shade-grown...

As V once put it, "it's just another jail following you around". Younger, more affluent people in the big Western cities seem keener than ever to escape the confines of the industrial food system bequeathed to them by the baby boomers, but while I can agree with Kenner that the marketers have constructed a semiotic barrier between the consumer and the reality of modern agricultural practices, there's surely something in the very nature of modern urban culture that feeds the system.

Food, Inc. does make the point that even those Americans who studiously avoid the likes of the golden arches, are likely to be filling themselves up with calories prepared in a way that suits the fast food industry. The top four meat-packers now control 85% of the market, operating just thirteen slaughterhouses across the States, which means that any given burger could potentially contain meat from thousands of cows.

In the UK last month I noticed just how difficult it is not only to avoid eating stuff that comes out of plastic tubs or cardboard boxes, but also to reign in one's tendency to over-indulge.

Food, Inc.
reports that up in el norte people eat on average 200 lbs of meat per person per year and, as if that wasn't unhealthy enough, that the threat of E.Coli has emerged as a direct consequence of feeding cattle corn — and this at a time when regulatory bodies up there are toothless thanks to the 'revolving door' between them and the food companies, giving the latter effective control over public policy.

There's certainly no shortage of meat here in Central America, but the local diet has assigned a more proportional role to protein. It's also true that chicken here, whether it comes in the form of camperitos or is yanked off a branch, tastes a lot better than the bland, rubbery stuff on Britain's supermarket shelves.

The poor and un-educated — amongst whom one presumes the stupid feature disproportionately in a land of freedom and opportunity like the USA — are particularly vulnerable to bad calories, Kenner points out in this film, because bad calories are also cheap calories, thanks to America's farm subsidy policy. What seems like a good price to someone on a budget is thus often a 'dishonest' price (much like the price of oil and gas in Chávez's Venezuela.)

Minorities are also suffering: it is estimated that 1 in 2 people born after 2000 into a minority group in the USA will develop early-onset diabetes. They are also getting a raw deal on the labour side of the equation. Both the poultry and meat industries depend on poor blacks and Hispanics (many of the latter indocumentados) to carry out work like chicken catching, pig slaughtering or meat packing.

One of the central investigations of Kenner's documentary concerns the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant, the world's biggest slaughterhouse. The Migra is a constant visitor picking up around 15 workers a day, but somehow never putting together a full-on raid with the potential to disrupt the plant's output.

When NAFTA came into effect many Mexican corn farmers found themselves unable to compete with the gringos' subsidised product, but the Smithfield company was on hand to actively recruit from this labour glut, often via highly visible advertising campaigns on the other side of the border. As ever, it is the Mexicans fleeing destitution in their own land who suffer the consequences of poorly-conceived and enforced American laws, as noone from the Smithfield management has ever been prosecuted.

Grade: B++

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Troy Kennedy Martin, who died last year, wrote the original TV scripts for Edge of Darkness and, incidentally, the screenplay of The Italian Job (1969)...but not the notoriously literal cliffhanger ending which was shot after the project ran out of money.

Now it's over twenty years since I watched the 1985 series, so there's a predominance of fond memory over detailed recollection in my mind when I consider what for many of us was the seminal BBC drama of the decade.

In shrinking the famous complexities of the plot to feature length, this Gibson vehicle has lost more than extension. The premature climax in which Craven and Jedburgh infiltrate the nuclear plant has gone, so here, as Mel is himself sucked into the darkness that swallowed his on-screen daughter, faceless institutional evil turns out to have the more manageable face of one dodgy Senator, one amoral CEO and two blokes in a black SUV.

Ray Winstone certainly chews up his scenes, but his Jedburgh is now detached from the system (or at least attached in ways we cannot fathom), so that his fate is ultimately less affecting than that of the rogue CIA agent played by Jo Don Baker.

It's clear that in the past couple of decades we have shifted from being afraid of radiation to being afraid of being afraid, and the plot adjustments that this has required, reveal quite starkly the less concrete nature of our current forebodings: conscienceless corporations, manipulative government, dirty bombs and home-grown terror threats. And as a result there's something not quite substantive about this particular Edge of Darkness.

Grade: B

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Winter Olympics

It's another lovely cloudless morning here in Antigua, but the temperature has dipped noticeably, perhaps so that we might get ourselves more in the mood for watching coverage of Vancouver 2010 this afternoon.

No Central or South American nation has ever won a medal at the Winter Games, though you'd think the Argies were overdue one. Consequently, the interest on local terrestrial TV is rather more limited than say during the Mundial. (Come June we can expect the whole country to come to a virtual standstill for a month.)

We tracked the parade of nations on Saturday, hoping (against all hope) to spot a Guatemalan delegation. "No llegaron, ni para vender granizadas," noted V acerbically once we'd hit the Hs.

Mexico has sent a lone athlete however: Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, at 51 the oldest competitor in Vancouver. He's the son of Prince Alfonso, legendary founder of the Marbella Club, and has been known to release pop albums in Mexico under the pseudonym of Andy Himalaya.

Although here representing Mexico, the blue-blooded alpine skier resides in Liechtenstein, a tiny place that doesn't seem to need his help in winning medals at the Winter Olympics. From the stats displayed by NBC I gathered that you could fit the entire populations of Liechtenstein, Monaco and Antigua Guatemala into Wembley Stadium and still have room left over for everyone who's read the novels of last year's Nobel prize-winner Herta Müller.

Poor Georgia. They've acquired the knack of earning themselves the greatest sympathy applause the last couple of times that the Olympians have paraded.

The Innuit put in an appearance too, along with other indigenous contingents which collectively danced a joyous welcome to the world around the strangely zombie-like totems pictured above. Oddly enough, in spite of choosing to live in the frozen northern wastes, the Innuit's greatest contribution to the Olympic movement would appear to have been the kayak, more likely to be seen in competition at the Summer Games, though I imagine you could get down a mountain quite fast in one.

While I enjoy the Downhill (though I don't know why. I think it has to do with childhood memories of Franz Klammer's wild rides) V enjoys the skating. China's married pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo deservedly claimed Gold in an event where the line between mediocrity and sublimity is starker than the scoring suggests.

I'll be in Vancouver for a couple of days in May, my maiden visit to Canada, by which time it will have warmed up a hopes.

This week we've also tuned into TV Globo's extensive coverage of the Rio Carnival. How can so much fun make such tedious viewing? It would be more entertaining to spend several hours watching English people tossing pancakes (...or cross country skiing for that matter.)

Anyway, a Lenten afternoon on the sofa beckons. Speaking of which, something I read earlier reminded me of the famous put-down delivered by the late, great Alan Clark, Minister in Thatcher's last government, who dismissed her nemesis Michael Heseltine as the sort of man who "bought his own furniture".

It is true that if there is one thing that is sadly lacking in La Antigua it's an IKEA superstore. But for anyone willing to venture into the badlands of Guatemala City there's plenty of mass-produced, but 'designer' furniture to be had at the likes of Sears and Siman.

A friend bought me a copy of Stuff White People Like for Christmas, the dead tree version of the hilarious blog by Christian Landers. It's had me chuckling self-consciously on numerous occasions over the past few days, not least with No54: Kitchen Gadgets. Plenty of those at Siman too. I'm glad it's over 30 minutes away really.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Starting the day well

Breakfast is one of the better reasons for hanging out in Central America...from grease-soaked fry jacks in Belize to the action packed treat that is Huevos Motuleños in Mexico.

Guatemalan desayunos also feature generous quantities of eggs and fruit of course. The pic above shows the breakfast I was recently served on the Trans Galgos (Greyhound) first class service to Tapachula. Its centrepiece was a little round plate of pancakes and syrup, which was complemented by a salad of papaya, watermelon and pineapple, rice pudding, banana bread and an actual banana.

One of our own favourite breakfast delights over here is an infusion made from plantain. First you chop up your plantain into roughly six segements of equal size, leaving the skin on. Then you boil (and simmer) these in water, adding honey and a few drops of vanilla essence. (Though cinammon and LOADS of sugar are the commoner local additives.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Education (2009)

Last year the Sunday Times journalist Lynn Barber wrote of the relationship she formed with a much older man back in 1961 when she was a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl:

"What did I get from Simon? An education -- the thing my parents always wanted me to have... I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank."

Nick Hornby has taken Barber's short memoir and worked it into a screenplay which examines the nature of the schoolgirl's dangerous pact with sophistication. For it to work we have to be taken by Jenny (the fictional Lynn Barber) and not completely repelled by the sly skirt chaser whose most cruel seduction is the surely one he practices on her parents. Although a victim of withheld information, Jenny is also very much a willing participant in the enchantment David profers, and is crucially permitted to see quite early on that almost every other aspect of his existence involves dishonesty and deception.

This is a very watchable movie and the buzz surrounding Carey Mulligan's performance is entirely justified. Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike and Olivia Williams are also outstanding. In fact, the whole cast is superb.

My one reservation is the sense I had that Hornby has used the source material in order to serve us up instances of set piece dialogue that are never far from light-hearted comedy, and that some of the darker truths of this tale have thereby been sacrificed. An Education has a fondness for its characters and its period that, rather like Jenny's fondness for Paris, is just a little bit naïve.

Grade: A--

Friday, February 12, 2010

Harry Brown (2009)

I noted last week that Eden Lake has finally made it to Central America as El Silencio del Lago. The equally oikophobic British revenge thriller Harry Brown is also sure to entertain audiences who don't mind seeing the complex social problems of the UK's sink estates being sorted out by the simple device of an old codger with an automatic pistol.

Some critics have of course found this mix of social realism and social cleansing a bit unsettling. But Caine delivers such a measured charismatic performance that I hardly sensed the disjoint whenever this vulnerable old man switched into merciless vigilante mode.

Grade: B+

El niño terrible para Presidente

One small but significant change that occurred in this household during my absence was a re-jigging of the evening TV viewing schedules around the 9pm Bayly show on NTN24.

V has always been drawn to public figures with starkly unconventional outlooks on the world. That the Hispanic media consistently refer to this bisexual, right-of-centre novelist* and political commentator as "strange" was good enough for her in this instance.

These days Bayly is using his current affairs celebrity to launch his candidature for the Presidency of Peru next year. Last night's show was dedicated to an interview he conducted with his novia, Silvia Nuñez del Arco Vidal, a would-be writer just out of college, now being offered up to the nation as their future first lady.

Golden-haired, fair skinned Silvia is "una delicia" who has cured him of his impotence, the 45-year-old Bayly admitted during their discussion. It struck me that the whole thing had been staged primarily in order to cause her father the most exquisite form of paternal pain.

When the couple recently went to Miami on holiday to catch a Ricardo Arjona concert, Bayly was briefly held by police after their hotel manager reported that he'd checked in with an under-age girl.

Silvia has a book in the oven and has therefore resisted Bayly's plea that she should have a bun in it. "Writing a novel is like giving birth..." Hers is due in April, but I suspect Vargas Loser needn't lose any sleep over the impending competition. Nor perhaps need he fret about this other upper-class hack achieving the political milestone he fell just short of, as Bayly is the sort of character who tends to get up the noses of dirt poor indios and the Miraflores set in equal measure.

He is at his funniest when he deconstructs the speeches of Hugo Chávez. The other night the arch-clown announced a series of measures to limit the use of electricity in Venezuela, which he blamed on el Niño! (...but not el niño terrible! ). These were encased in so many layers of bureaucratic conditionals that even Chávez faltered as he tried to explain them and had to keep re-reading from his notes. The people of Venezuela are going to be thrown into a permanent state of domestic paranoia over their utility bills, the Bolivarian leader's regular tormentor suggested.

Bayly is a bit like a Latin American Charlie Brooker, but he could learn a thing or two from the latter about brevity and not over-labouring his best gags. V and I have agreed you could improve his nightly show immensely simply by giving him a slot half the size at 30 minutes.

Here's Bayly on Hugo's performance in Copenhagen:

And here's Charlie Brooker on US News Networks:

* Jaime Bayly wrote La Mujer de mi Hermano and other works with homsexual/bisexual themes, such as the semi-autobiographical No Se Lo Digas a Nadie.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


This is what it looked like a couple of days ago outside the home of our friends Betty and Scott, not far from Washington DC. Until today they hadn't managed to get out at all. Supplies of food were holding up, but the Zacapa Centenario was reportedly running low.*

In comparison my recent dip into the northern winter seems comparatively un-testing.

I'm certainly glad to be home now. Back in the UK I had been starting to feel a bit like a fish out of water — or perhaps like one of those parrots in Greenwich Park.

And on the several trips I made up to London I'd been beset by a sudden panic as I recognised the sense of heaviness brought on by the gravitational pull of the metropolis. For two years now I've wallowed in the very bearable lightness of being that comes with having escaped it, but I now realise that it only takes a ride or two on the tube before one's features start assuming the careworn grimace worn by the majority of one's fellow passengers down there.

Narrowly escaping 'snowmageddon' in New York, I flew down into the Yucatán and then bused myself into Chiapas. By this time the combined weight of my two cases (let alone the mochila with the tequila reposado and laptop in it and the plastic bag bearing the catalogue from the Van Gogh exhibition) was close to 65kg.

The big case had to be hoisted onto the roof of the shuttle in San Cristóbal using a heavy strap with a hook on the end of it. When the driver pulled up some 150m short of the Immigration building at the border I felt like a mula in all senses of the term.

Still, V was very pleased with most of the little luxuries I'd lugged from Heathrow to Huehuetenango, especially the edible ones. To celebrate we cooked ourselves something of a fusion dish last night: genuine Italian farfalle with tuna and peas, in a Indonesian shrimpy sambal sauce.

The Cuchumatanes are impressive and the road through them is much improved. Note to self: must return here with car, wife and dogs and explore a bit during the Guatemalan verano.

I'm beginning to think that as with the Cylons, there are only eight different types of traveller one is likely to meet on the shuttle between Antigua and San C de las C. How many times will I have to do this trip before I am confronted with my own facsimile?

A quick glance around the minibus revealed the middle-aged Mexican couple visiting Guatemala for the first time, the know-it-all European girl with blonde dreads and tats who's practically a resident now and would rather not mix with her fellow foreigners etc.** Different DNA for sure, but typologically almost identical.

One last observation about the state of the British economy as it pops a periscope up out of recession. No matter what it is you want to buy over there, they're determined to sell you something else with it.

A new pair of iPhone earbuds? Want insurance for them? A birthday card. How about some half price Cadbury's chocolate? A ticket to see Avatar? Have you tried the VIP seats?

Everyone's into upselling. There's hardly a product that doesn't come with a side-order of figurative fries. And it's not hard to see why, because it's a tried and tested way of spotting the people who think the bad times are over and don't mind being a bit discretionary with their income again.

* Their Chapin neighbours have been shoveling the white stuff out of their drive and into the main road in a manner not dissimilar to our own, whose technique for ridding themselves of piles of dust in front of their portones usually involves relocating said polvío to an area in front of someone else's house.

** In fact the unsmiling European blonde (they travel alone or in pairs) who acts as if Mexico is presenting itself to her as one big inconvenience, is also a rather common sight on the first class buses of OCC and ADO.

The White Ribbon (2009)

I can see why some critics have described Haneke's Palm D'Or winner as a film one you can greatly admire if not exactly love.

And yet It is so unquestionably superior to anything the Academy could possibly nominate for Best Film (and that with the category expanded to 10) that it rather makes the whole Oscars a bit of an irrelevance this year...unless of course Das Weisse Band makes it in there.

It is narrated from a presumably post-fascist future by an old man who was once the school teacher in a patriachal German village on the eve of the Great War.

Unpleasant things start occurring, first to the Doctor and then to the Baron's son and cabbage patch. A barn burns, a mentally handicapped boy is kidnapped and tortured. The teacher ultimately suspects a group of the village children seemingly led by the Pastor's eldest son and daughter, but as in the extradordinary Caché — widely considered the best film of the noughties — Haneke stops short of a full reveal. One finds oneself not so much tracking the surface narrative as constantly gazing inward at its disquieting deeper implications, while the stunning cinematography is ever suggestive of a chain of discreet black and white masterpieces.

Grade: A(-)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

I'm a bit up in the air myself when it comes to assessing the merits of this movie.

Jason Reitman is the director who gave us Juno and has once again elected to score his protagonist's arc with irritating indie tracks, but which in this instance are manifestly disconnected from both character and plot.

The movie appears to start off as a mordant satire on executive lifestyles and loyalty schemes, with a rather of-the-moment treatment of the intimacies of corporate downsizing.

It looks as if it is going to have something interesting to say about the emotional impact of spending too much time in the 'dead' spaces of airports and business hotels, a theme which, whatever its various failings, Lost in Translation had handled well. But then it drifts away from the general towards the specific, and in the manner of an Alexander Payne movie focuses on the faultlines in Ryan Bingham's fast-tracked life that will bring out his inner loser.

The script is generally very good, but similarly disjointed, with a one or two bizarre, apropos of nothing gags ("Do you want the cancer?")

Clooney comes with his likeability, along with some of his Michael Clayton emotional edge, rather than the goofiness which has occasionally characterised his comic roles. (viz. Burn After Reading.) He works hard to make us feel Ryan's developing existential angst, but the character is ultimately shallow and when not complemented by the two women in his life, superbly played by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, is neither particularly engaging nor sympathetic.

Grade: B+

Monday, February 08, 2010

Take me drunk I'm home

I've been coming to Playa since I was at the impressionable age when wearing a T-shirt with the Corona logo on it seemed like a cool thing to do. There are still plenty of Corona t-shirts to be had here, but the more discerning holiday-maker will typically equip himself with one bearing a slogan not dissimilar to the title of this post.

The 'Quinta' is the main thoroughfare for the acquisition and display of such apparel. Or indeed more upmarket and authentic gear. Just this afternoon I spotted a little notice under a fetching pair of canvas shorts in the window of the Squalo store, which informed interested customers that "If the inhabitants of ancient Mexico had surfed we are sure they used this broadshort."

Seated or standing at the edges of this bidirectional torrent of tourism are dozens of wily modern Mexicans hoping to snag onto something. Some insert themselves into the flow, drifting amongst the dollars for a while. I watched a lone mariachi separated from the rest of his band quietly strolling up and down within the compass of a block, scratching Yesterday on his fiddle.

Most however just call out into the unheeding throng. "Hey buddy!", "Whassup amigo?".

My favourite of these lines is nevertheless "Right here!" I've toyed with the idea of writing a sort of suspense novel set in Playa and this just might have to be the title of it.

I also toyed with the idea of getting a little pied-a-terre here back in 2003. I'm glad I didn't follow up on this, though I gather the real estate prices have since surged considerably.

One condo advertises itself with the tagline "Live Among Life's Pleasures", and therein lies the problem for me. One can certainly gawp at all the gratification taking place all around, but opportunities to partake for the not-so-young-and-trim are apparently limited. Unless of course you fancy asking the Right Here! man what he has to offer.

In 2005 Hurricane Wilma took something away from Playa and I doubt whether it will ever be getting it back* I fancy this was the kernel of its old self, which had somehow survived the dramatic expansion of the 90s. You come across fragments of it still, like scattered shards of a broken mirror, but the pervading mood is now what the late J.D. Salinger's best-known character would probably have dismissed as "phony".

The plane down from Atlanta was a steep-banking 757 packed with the kind of witless vacationers who have to press the button for the stewardess each time it dawns on them that they can't fill out the next box on the immigration form, and who clap like performing sea-lions when the aircraft touches down. This lot are the storm-troopers of the relentless Vegas-isation of the Yucatán.**

They have now almost completely displaced the comparatively sophisticated European crowd, — Frogs and Italians in the main — who, in the years before the town's growth became completely freakish, delivered its unpretentious Saint-Tropez vibe. Such chic beach Bohemians as now remain tend to be the commoditised New Yorky sort. (I've started calling them the OM-lettes.)

Meanwhile those most determined of ersatz Europeans — the Argies — are still here in force. (See pic above.) They appear not to be so turned off by the ghastly Mayan Eco-Disneyland that is Xcaret, just to the south and other paradigms of inauthenticity.

I did find myself sitting opposite a bona-fide Hispanic celebrity in Starbucks the other day. She was on a sofa, staring dreary-eyed at the screen of her Acer laptop. For a quarter of an hour not being able to place her face was completely killing me. I systematically did a mental roll call of former colleagues, clients, people I know in Antigua etc. And then it came....surely it was the lovely Isabel Cristina Estrada who'd played sweet-natured Lizeth in the Colombian telenovela Nuevo Rico, Nuevo Pobre? (V has picked up some lasting verbal tics from the ludicrous Fernanda in that show.)

* I've been reading Maragaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake on this trip and in it Crake expresses the worrying thought that this civilisation we have here right now is the only one we are ever going to get because all the surface metals have pretty much been mined. So anyone harbouring thoughts of an apocalyptic reboot should take heed.

** There's no denying that they were in jolly good cheer however. Which is more than can be said of the doleful bunch of passengers on my earlier flight out of JFK. There had to be something more to such expressive grimness than the mere fact that we'd all had to turn up for a 6am flight and that the plane had to be practically dug out of the snow. (I can count myself very lucky I didn't have to make this connection a couple of days later when 'snowmagaddon' had really got under way up there.)

No, southerners generally seem more upbeat. Whatever else you can say about Atlanta (and there isn't much else to say) its inhabitants tend to smile a lot more than New Yorkers.

And when I got on a Continental flight to Cancún out of Houston three years ago, I was sitting next to a charming young college girl whose first remark to me was "Are you psyched? I'm psyched...."