Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Therefore to dream of walking the towpath of the Limehouse Cut to Bow Cemetery cannot ever be considered a comforting journey. This is especially true when you are walking at night, the cemetery displaying not its modern park aspect, but the fierce terror the boneyard forest. Once there, I was called before a parliament of crows, questioned on what I knew about plots by the conspiracy of ravens at the Tower of London.
After that part of the dream, the signal to noise problem with memory cuts in. I can no longer tell clearly what is remembered and what is imagined. However, I will happily take a third-rate blast of Poe in my nocturnal visions over the usual shouting and cordite fare of my nightmares.
Monday, January 29, 2007
As for the store itself, I have to suppress a mild gag reflex every time I first walk in and traverse the bit of it that serves as some sort of café. The food looks good, so I can only assume the stench comes from the patrons, especially as it always seems worse on a day when it has been raining. I personally find aroma of damp hippy is as unpleasant a stench as fresh cow excrement.
As part of my telling off, it was pointed out to me that I look a bit like a “filthy hippy or Michael Caine in Children of Men” in my publicity photo. In the usual way of all harsh truth, this hurt. It might have even had a slight influence my decision to pick up a Generation X CD for a £1 from Fopp. However, I think it was the Kir Royales that influenced me spending a portion of Saturday night dancing in the front room like the aged madman I am to GenX’s version of Gimme Some Truth. As Mr. Idol would say:
‘If I had the chance
I’d ask the world to dance…’
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Friday night may not be the time to see a movie in Bayswater, but Sunday afternoon works. Today the film was The Last King of Scotland. My anticipation level was high. Not only had I read Giles Foden’s original novel a few years back, I knew a little of Amin’s real story thanks to my studies of seventies terrorism and MI6 in Africa as well as enduring having had a Ugandan war criminal as a driver.
If for nothing else, The Last King of Scotland will be remembered as Forrest Whitaker’s finest two hours. Whitaker gives us Amin the charmer; Amin the casually, caustically violent; Amin the victim of his own paranoia; Amin the man trying to project modernity and calm whilst ruling with a heart of darkness. At points, despite his annoying failure to use the thick African syntax of the General, Whitaker is so convincing that when the film credits role and pictures and film of the real Amin appears, there is almost no dissonance between the two.
Last King of Scotland will also be seen as the film in which James McAvoy emerged as one of the talents of his generation. He is profoundly convincing as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan – the callow public schoolboy with the additional character blights of the arrogance of youth and the misplaced superiority of a white man in Africa. It is not the easiest of roles to play as he has to try making the audience care about a middle class prick who as Amin says: “Is like every other white man in Africa who comes to fuck and take away.”
The dance of their two characters is a car crash in slow motion – an obvious theme right from the start as it is an automobile accident that conspires to bring them together – but Whitaker and McAvoy make sure you never lose interest in increasingly bleak spiral of events.
Although Whitaker has to be the most obvious Oscar contender this year, the true star of the movie is Uganda itself. Shot on location with a City of God –hue, when director Kevin MacDonald lets a sense of place infuse the film, it really comes alive. It is at these points you can feel just far from his home, safety and his European certainties Garrigan has come. However, Uganda is not used enough and that is emblematic of one of the film’s biggest flaws – there is just not enough of an African context.
Given the films themes, it is too lazy to allow its implied suggestion that despotism and violence are the accepted way of Africa without any examination of why. There is not enough Ugandan political or geo-political background. From the film you would never understand why the British Secret Intelligence Service wanted Amin dead or why he was so paranoid that he would be overthrown – a great failing when those two facts are used a key drivers of its narrative.
The actual history of Amin and Uganda during his rule is even more complex than hinted at in Foden’s original story. While MacDonald has made a relatively subtle film, its typically Hollywood brevity of character and linear narrative constrains any real attempt to look at many of the issues it raises. The atrocities committed against the Ugandan people, the 300,000-500,000 victims killed during Amin’s rule – these often seem peripheral as does the eviction of the Indian population which only gets a tepid nod.
There is never any sense of why Amin, who began his reign as a recognised force for good, descended into barbaric horror. There is not even a stab at explaining why Amin went from being described by the British Foreign Office as: “A splendid type and a good footballer” to him giving himself the title of ‘Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’. That failure to touch on real life intricacies means despite the undeniable power of Whitaker’s performance, Amin often seems either a creature of pure vicious instinct or merely idiotic. Whatever else Amin was, he was not an idiot. You do not hold power in Africa for eight years when the superpowers are trying to destabilise you unless you have some smarts.
The film features some nice support from Gillian Anderson who manages to sound convincingly English and Simon McBurney as an odious little shit of British spook. However, one of the problems with such a strong two-hander is the compression of the secondary characters. There are good acting performances on display amongst the supporting ranks, but there is clearly not enough for them to work with. This problem is compounded by the fact that the cast of characters surrounding Amin is so poorly drawn. Too many of the Ugandan characters ended up as ciphers or mere plot movers-on of plot, which again seems to stem both from a failure to risk complexity and give the movie its African head.
The failure to let Africa come through and be more a central element of the story and the visuals is incredibly frustrating One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Gillian Anderson’s character is driving Dr. Garrigan down red dust roads at night, occasionally dodging people on foot who loom up like anaemic ghosts in her truck’s headlights. It is brief, but with great economy that image, strange spirits of death walking the roads under cover of darkness, resonates with the fever dream of Africa and of Amin’s dark reign more than anything else in the film. However, elsewhere such trite, tired clichés as a ‘witch doctor’ shaking a rattle and a close-up of a mosquito sucking blood are trotted out, MacDonald trying to pass them off as significant African symbols. Rarely did Last King of Scotland hit an African truth, though a line delivered by Amin ought to go on the box as a warning for a lot of African adventures: “You came to Africa to play the white man. But we aren't a game. We’re real. This room is real. And when you die, it will be the first real thing you have done.”
One of the films few clear triumphs is its soundscape. It is veers from unrelentingly brutal – the cries of grief echoing up hospital stairwells, bottles smashing, flesh being punctured, the staccato punch of gunshots and blind panic of a car in reverse – to a joyous, expansive pleasure in Ugandan traffic noise, reflecting the perspective of a country at the time where progress was symbolised by a city having enough motor vehicles to suffer a traffic jam. As the lead character becomes engulfed in the Amin’s paranoia and the horror it brings to pass, the soundscape of the film becomes increasingly tight and claustrophobic. The relief you feel when the jet engines scream on take off at end of the film is corporeal. You have heard so much for the last two hours, all you want to do is close your eyes and drift into the oblivion of sleep, lulled by the constant drone of an aircraft in flight.
The actual soundtrack of the film is more mixed. I would be almost be tempted to buy the album of it for the most insane interpretation of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond I have ever heard and Angela Kalule’s wonderful version of Me and Bobby McGee. At its best, there are tracks used which approach the insane genius of African psychedelic classics such as Love Is A Real Thing. However, there is also a lot of dull, twee nonsense that you would normally only ever encounter on the most boring anthropological field recording from the 1930s left in the forgetfulness of a university library. The original Alex Heffes pieces would also stand a listen stripped of the movie context. Although surprisingly traditional film score given the other musical styles they often rise from and fall back into, his contributions helped focus the tourniquet atmosphere and added emotional depth at key moments.
The film’s surprises – its use of humour during the first hour when Garrigan is being seduced into the heart of Amin’s world, its bursts of hallucinatory colour and the sheer convincing power of the lead performances – won me over long before my irritations at its shortcomings became too naked. As a vehicle for demonstrating Whitaker and McAvoy’s ability to act, there is no doubt that Last King of Scotland is perfect. However, the movie never escaped from a decision to frame it as thriller, leaving us with something that is taut, but painfully predictable. This is shame. I wanted so much more than a 'how will the idiot white boy escape from the dangerous dictator' story.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
During the writing of my last two books, I worked 16 hours a day, six days per week for ten weeks apiece to ensure that I hit my submission deadlines. That type of schedule does not favour casual television watching or any other type of time vampire. However, there were three escapist programmes I stopped the grinding routine for: Doctor Who, The Mighty Boosh and MasterChef Goes Large.
The last counts as my most deliciously guilty trash TV pleasure. It may be total tosh, but I adore the show. When working flat out on Secrets & Lies and Global Gangland, I would stop religiously at 6pm to eat dinner and watch amateur chefs cooking. It allowed me 30 minutes during the working day where I was not dwelling on the CIA, Cosa Nostra or threats by Scotland Yard to prosecute me for perverting the course of justice.
Now it is back for a third series and even without an ongoing book project, I am still a huge fan of the show. It is definitely more than X-Factor or American Idol for wannabe chefs, not least because it actually gives something of a food education across the whole run. Of course, that is not my prime reason for watching.
I enjoy seeing the chutzpah of people who cannot even make a decent mash believing they can win MasterChef – it always leads to a fantastic crash and burn. I delight in seeing working class oiks like myself thrash the pants of people who think that because they can afford to eat at some poncey London restaurants they have a good palette. Most of all I love seeing some of the contestants absolute passion and joy for food. It is infectious and occasionally may actually constitute an apparent oxymoron, moments of the genuine on reality TV.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Not leaving the bed till gone noon felt decadent enough, but this was just a prelude to some proper doing-nothing-much-and-feeling-wonderful-about-it. After papers had been bought, I persuaded Surreal Girl to come and read them with me in the pub at the end of the street. We were soon encamped in comfy corner seats by the fire, waiting for a roast dinner with pints of strawberry beer in our hands, enjoying a controlled mess of supplements, magazines and pages spread out on a huge wooden table in front of us.
Despite the table number marker being the Death card as envisaged by Gilbert and George, the roast when it arrived was worth making a clearing in the papers for. Without doubt, I can say it featured the best vegetarian sausages I have ever tasted. While the carrots and roast potatoes were not a touch on what I would cook at home, the Yorkshire pudding, mash, gravy and rest of the veg was a treat.
After a proper Sunday lunch, we followed the English tradition of enjoying an afternoon walk whatever the weather. Wrapped in scarves and equipped with a massive bag of stale bread, we headed along the canal, drifting in the direction of London’s finest necropolis. Ducks, geese, swans and moorhens were fed; fowl fights inadvertently started and the wondrous sight of a cormorant diving amongst the wreckage of storms and litter to re-emerge with a fish was observed.
Back home before dark fell, I rustled up the best Lemoness I have made for several months and enjoyed it while curled up on the sofa watching Quatermass IV. I know some people like to read about me ‘slashing my wrists in public’, but recounting my quiet, little stab of happiness says just as much about the truth of who I am. To dream of the lux aeterna, you have to have stand on firm earth.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Walking passed drug dealers in a fetid side road, with a black rucksack hitched to your shoulder as the wind whips your leather overcoat might sound good in an eighties, Rutger Hauer, straight-to-video kind of way, but it does not qualify as my idea of Friday fun. I am not sure what the correct, street smart strategy is in this kind of situation; I got by evoking my best South London scowl and plodding along with a feigned air of deliberate nonchalance.
My evening did not get better when I got to Bayswater. Seeing a movie by yourself can either be a glorious experience or reduce you to feeling like the saddest sack to have ever walked into the Odeon at Whitelys. Tonight, shuffling into the LED twilight of Screen 8, I felt particularly abysmal and lonely. Being surrounded by the inane chatter of dating twenty-somethings only heightened these feelings. I was at least thankful for the fact that the couples closest to me were cooing over each other in Polish and Russian, their language allowing me almost total alienation, sparing me unwanted overhearing of hormonal banter and therefore further reflections on my lonesomeness. Friday night is definitely not the time to see a movie alone.
I could not wait for the lights to fade down and the trailers to roll. I needed so badly to be taken out of myself, to vanish into a narrative, immersed in another’s vision of the world. Even if it was set to be a ridiculous, brutal and predictable story, I wanted to be lost in fiction.
Nearly three hours later, the lights flared back to life and people began to scramble for spilt coats and bags. I found myself heading out into the night again remind of another drawback of seeing a film alone – there is no-one to talk to about what you have just seen. Bad movies deserve a post-mortem and as Clarence says in True Romance: ‘After I see a good movie I like to go out and get some pie and coffee and talk about it. It’s a sort of tradition.’*
However, Bayswater at approaching 11pm on a Friday is not the place for solo pie and coffee, so I began to walk towards home. I think my earlier Notting Hill experience had left me somewhat nerved. Despite the comforting and familiar smell of apple tobacco smoke still hovering over the now closed corner café, I began to feel nervous as I took my first alley.
Paranoia tends to awaken your senses to all the small details of surrounding ignored in the oblivious sleepwalk of the everyday. For the first time, I noticed that the street lighting in the area was not the sodium orange I am familiar with from the suburbs of my childhood, but a harsh, white light. Although this means less shadow, it is far from reassuring to know you would clearly see the face of anyone attacking you. The ridiculously heavy rucksack of hardback books on architecture and military history began to feel like a danger itself. It was too heavy run with and there was also the fact that you never want to look like a tourist when walking under the Westway.
After 10 minutes of loose fear, I made the pub at the end of my street, safe in amongst the crowd of actors drunk on applause and numerous gin and tonics. I caught a glimpse of myself in the polished chrome of the beer pumps already echoing the glow from the red-beaded chandeliers that help give the place a tart’s boudoir appearance. I looked dark-eyed, exhausted and grumpy. Hollowed.
Eventually the self-congratulatory talk of money and property from the acting mob drove me from the bar. I wandered outside with my pint of strawberry beer. The night was unfeasibly warm for January and I sat and watched the same white light dance itself to fracture on the choppy water of the canal. At last, here in my little enclave, I felt totally safe.
*With apologies to Tarantino who is not the easiest of writers to quote from memory.
Monday, January 08, 2007
The bone-deep tiredness that came crashing over me in increasing waves meant I was beginning to drift away to another planet. I had started the Sunday teary, emotionally raw and vulnerable. The encroaching exhaustion made it hard to connect to underlying hurts and fears. I began losing time in bouts of unbidden, uncontrollable contemplation. Of course, by the time I could actually get to bed, I had crashed through the wall of drowsiness and spent the early hours of the morning in a state of jungle-wired alertness hearing every creak of the house as it settled and the continuous low drone of the Westway traffic.
By the time Today came on the radio, it was clear I desperately needed to spend the next few hours recharging. This was achieved by gentle dozing and meditation till about 11; a late breakfast at my favourite Spanish café in Bayswater who do their own spin on arroz a la cubana with fried banana and eggs; some geek reading and then a walk for a few of miles along the canal. As the drizzle began to turn into hard, cold bouts of rain, I found I had long stretches of both my outward and return journeys free from the usual fuckwit cyclists and more aggressive bench drinkers you sometimes encounter when heading towards Kensal Town. I stayed out of drift mode and drew energy from the landscape, the weather, and the echoes of history crackling in the psychic static of the places I moved through.
Sheltering under a bridge during the most antagonistic phase of the downpour, I drank in every sensation: the sound of water hitting water; the bass rumble vibrations transmitted through Victorian brickwork as lorries and double-deckers passed overhead; the smell of damp newspapers; the soothing trace as beads of rain travelled down my forehead; the pull as wind played with my leather overcoat. I was awake, alive; back from the frontline of fatigue with words to write and a glint back in eye.
Monday, January 01, 2007
The theme began in the afternoon when friends dragged me to the Golborne Road to initiate me into the pleasures of to Patisserie Lisboa. Renowned in London’s Lisboa for offering cakes as good as you would find in Lisboa itself, our visit was obviously blessed by one of the Portuguese speaking saints, as you can usually only get a seat if you are willing to queue in the doorway a glacial age. Inside the simple café, your eyes cannot help but gaze in awe at the counter filled with exuberant Portuguese wedding and baptism cakes, sugar sculptures and a glorious assortment of pastries.
Normally picking something to try would have been an incredible child-in-a-sweetshop dilemma. However, with Surreal Girl – a recent returnee from Lisbon – extolling the virtues of Pastel De Nata, the choice was easy and the right one. My giddy aunt! It was good. To call the Pastel De Nata I ate a custard tart would invite prosecution under the Trades Description Act 1968. To call it heavenly would be massively underselling it. Combined with a decent coffee and the good-natured buzz of the manly Angolan and Portuguese crowd, it was nothing short of a peak experience. When you are sick, being able to enjoy food becomes a life-affirming treasure.
After spoiling my taste buds, we flowed towards Ladbroke Grove to pick up provisions at a small Spanish shop called Fuente. There was something charming about struggling to orientate in an establishment that made no concession to the English language. Tins of smoked paprika adorned with the images of obscure saints, dozens of different jars of white asparagus, more types of chorizo than I ever knew existed and wall of olive oils as complex in the choices it offered any wine list made browsing the shelves a joy in itself.
By early evening a feast of olives, anchovy fillets and cuttlefish in their own ink, sweet potato tortilla and assorted treats was laid out on the table to be followed by fabulous paella. Given everything was being cooked by a Franco-Spanish gourmand, it was possibly fitting that the drink of the evening was Kir Royale made with a decent Penedès cava.
As the midnight fireworks went up from the millionaire mansions across the water, exploding in glorious storms of white stars and emerald fire, I knew I was lucky.
Last year I greeted the chimes of the New Year with such pain I honestly did not care whether I lived or died in the coming 12 months. Now, I raise a glass to the future with a mayfly rage and passion in my soul.