Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Illustrated Ape is here!

(photos a bit rubbishy cos I took them with my BlackBerry, but you get the idea; latest issue is North vs South. They put my story in with the Southerners! Me? A soft southerner? Eeee...)

Christian Pattison and I go way back to our first day at St Catz, when I was 18. I think I may even have met Christian before I met my husband, which happened on day 3.

He hasn't changed much; still madly enthusiastic for art and culture in all its forms, still has the looks of a Panzer Fuhrer or a Nordic god, and the build of a muscle-bound, black-belt martial arts dude...which he actually is. By day he takes care of a severely disabled man, by night (and on his days off) he writes his novel on his iPaq and edits and co-runs The Illustrated Ape, one of the world's leading fringe arts/literary magazine.

(website still under construction as I write, a big Ape party planned for when it launches)
Christian may not know it, but he had a big influence in inspiring me to write. He was in the Very Cool Arty Crowd at college, which you had to be studying English to be in, more or less. As a (northern) biochemist, I should have been beyond the pale but Christian always talked to me about art and literature as though I might actually have a clue (I didn't and still don't but he's nice enough to act as though I do). He carried on talking to me years after we left college, both still living in Oxford. When he and a friend started Ape years ago, we bumped into each other and Christian enthused about getting me to write some graphic novel-style Blake's 7 stories for Ape (which I did until the copyright holders had a stuff word after 3 issues...)
Anyway, I'm a big fan of Christian's, can't wait to read his finished novel and I hope he finds a publisher, and I hope The Illustrated Ape goes from strength to strength. It's sold in over 150 outlets, and in 30 countries.

I've a short story published in the latest version. My first short story published under my own name! It's illustrated by two guys from the Black Convoy urban graffiti guys. (Black Convoy are a a UK based multi-disciplined art/design collective.) The image at the top is from their brilliantly funky work on my story.
Buy The Illustrated Ape! It's way, way cool.
P.S .At breakfast today Christian told me that he met Joseph Heller when Heller spent some time at St Catz, before he died. Heller told Christian that he never wrote more than 300 words a day. I've been trying to match Graham Greene's manageable 500-words daily target. Now I feel like an overachiever. A smug one, at that.

Big Brother Is Back

For the love of God, let me not be tempted by Big Brother this year. It's wicked and venial and I know I shouldn't participate. It's bad for me and wastes hours of my time.

I'd love to join those smug people who don't watch it and go around being very lofty about their non-participation.

Arggghhhh...but I'd rather not...I wanna be one of the people who are having fun, especially on eviction night!

It's not easy being a Catholic and a hedonist. More or less constant temptation! I must ask my brother-in-law for advice - he's really good on loopholes in canon law.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

When You Just Have To Go To Bali

On the phone today to my brother-in-law in Perth, Western Australia, I found myself once again being drawn into one of his hedonistic schemes.

It's my family's turn to make the trip across the planet so that we can all spend some quality time together. But Paul has a better idea. It seems that there's been a distinct shortfall in his family's experience of sumptuous luxury this year. They've been slumming it in their suburban house in Perth, where they don't even have a swimming pool, poor things, watching goanas try to find cover in what used to be a wild back yard, as builders put up the cheapest possible (I'm assured) extension known to Western Australia. My sister has had to do all the decorating, whilst Paul is kept busy by his nascent biotech firm.

There's been a serious lack of pampering, of decadence, of perfumed air, gentle gamelan music and serenading musicians as you eat lightly steamed fish with flavours like lemongrass, saffron and mango. There's been a shortage of surfing in conditions that Paul explained to me (in detail) were nigh on perfect between March and December.

"You want us to meet you in Bali," I guessed.

"The Hilton," he said, "wasn't quite luxurious enough last time."

Last time, I remember arriving at what looked like a modern-day temple of extravagance, being met from the airport limo by gorgeous young women in sarongs who placed frangipani flowers in our hands and gave us warm, lemon-scented towels to soothe our fevered brows as we endured the hotel's checking-in process, pressing chilled glasses with tropical fruit mocktails into our weary hands.

Paul continued, "Since then, it's been taken over by someone else and they've turned the decadence up a few notches."

"I don't think we can quite run to the Hilton," I said. "The Melia?"

Paul checked with my sister. The answer was no. They'd been to the Melia. It's not up to the job. But if we choose to slum it, they'll be down the beach at Nusa Dua, where we can visit them. In a proper hotel.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Cup Final Day...and I Have Writer's Block

Oh I am in such big trouble. Meant to be going to Brighton today for a wedding. (Yes! I won't be able to watch the FA Cup Final...gaaaahhhhh!) So I'm trying to hit my 500 word daily target on Jaguar but can I write? NO!

I'm stuck in some loop of memory, thinking about my aunty who died recently, and the university where she used to work, and how from the first moment I saw St Catherine's College, Oxford, where I did my undergrad degree, it brought back powerful memories of a place which had meant so much to my family, before it was destroyed by an earthquake.

Compare and contrast...

St Catz (top) vs the late, lamented, earthquake-clobbered Universidad Iberoamericana (bottom).

...and...that's it! Out of time, have to go. Come on you Reds.

Friday, 18 May 2007

My Mate Noam

There's a guy on my street who has two boys. We've all been friends for years and we've watched his boys grow up, he's watched our girls grow up - even saw our youngest the day she was born. We're all fans of Man United so we got together for all those big games in 1999, when we won the treble. As one, we lept into the air like crazed loons when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winning goal against Bayern Munich.

The oldest boy's name is Noam, because his parents are friends and admirers of Chomsky. (So we can't hold that against Noam...)

Noam and I chatted today on MSN - he's in Edinburgh studying biomedical sciences right now. Like many guys his age he doesn't stay in this country for long - it's one long world-wide trip punctuated by the odd few weeks taking classes in Uni. He showed me his Youtube page, which has two of the most innovative videos I've seen.

Check this one out. It's a video-meta-email! He calls it a facetube.
I love it - so clever, it works on several levels. (Goes long though - Noam, cut the end!)

This next one crack whore made me roar with laughter.
It plays with the notion of bilinguality. If you don't speak Spanish, all you need to know is that the conversation between Noam, his Mum and his gran is actually about the gran being cross that Mum has put Gran up in her own bed. Not about being a crack whore at all. If you speak Spanish you'll get the joke even more.

I've known Noam since he was about 11. Watching children you know well grow up really IS wonderful. A great comfort to those of us this far along the aging process...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Non-Stop Solemn Salsa

I have worked out...that from now to September, I'll be attending a salsa event OR going on holiday every single week.


That should keep me very cheerful, all summer long! I'm a firm believer in the milestones-of-happiness approach.

I've dropped my writing target to a manageable 500 words per day. The plan is all done, in mega detail, so barring illness or other setbacks, I am aiming to finish a draft of 'Jaguar's Realm' in time for my birthday at the end of August. That way I can have a joint celebration at...where else but Floridita. Yay!

Ah, the best laid plans...

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Septeto Santiaguero

This one's for motorpilot from Litopia.

Septeto Santiaguero
Forget Buena Vista Social Club - founding members Compay, Ruben, Pio and Ibrahim have all passed away. The best son band in the world is Septeto Santiaguero. Contemporary son compositions played in a upbeat, energised way, hugely danceable. We saw these guys on our last night in Santiago, in the famous Casa de la Trova.
Here's a video from their latest CD 'Los Mangos Bajitos'. It's a wonderful guaracha called 'El Culpable'.
('I get the blame for everything; I get the blame for my own stuff, I get the blame for everyone's stuff, caramba - I get the blame for EVERYTHING!
They say I'm vain, cos I dress like a lad, they say I'm capricious, a drunk...
They say I'm a low-life, stuck me with it, cos I fancy my mate's woman...
Someone loses a wallet, they mutter that I took it, without noticing that the wallet has an owner - me!')

Pie Season

There are fresh raspberries in the shops, and they're not bad at all. Meanwhile, in the fields around Oxford, berries are ripening. The pick-your-owns will get going in about a month.

All of which signals the start of pie season. Thank goodness I had a fresh-baked apple and raspberry pie this weekend. We had an unexpected guest, a rather senior cleric, who was rightly put out at the misunderstanding that led to him arriving to an unprepared house. The pie, however, put a smile back on his face.

Mmm, mm. Yet another excuse for socialising. Yet another excuse not to write. Especially teenagers - they love apple pie. Whenever I bake for my daughter and her friends, it's the pie they gobble first.

Pie...inevitably triggers a Seinfeld reference or three. There's the episode 'The Pie' in which Jerry's girlfriend refuses to share Jerry's pie, and there's 'The Calzone' where Kramer bakes a huckleberry pie (and so can't use his oven to dry his pants)...and there's 'The Bubble Boy' where they drive through what Kramer describes as 'pie country'.

R1x really has me concerned with that whole Spidey 3 thing. Yes it was daft but I was SO entertained...which I can't discount. I'm going through the story with a fine toothcomb trying to spot hideous errors that I missed due to chuckling and eating chocolate.

God help me, this blog has finally degenerated into a full-blown displacement activity.

But you know what? I've decided to think of it as 'morning pages'.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Living Like Bloody Millionaires...

This was my mother-in-law's favourite response when my then boyfriend and I would go off together as students, to exotic places like Spain and Italy, (other people we knew went to Tibet and Thailand, but, yanno...) or eat out more than twice a month.

We love the phrase and use it all the time now. "Going out to breakfast? Oooh...yer living like bloody millionaires...!"

Reading Fortune magazine over coffee this morning, I noticed that they had a special section which might as well have been entitled 'How To Live Like A Bloody Millionaire.'

(I don't know why we get Fortune magazine. Neither of us remembers subscribing, but there it is every month, along with the Speccie and Time.)

They actually called it 'Life At The Top'. It is a guide to how you can spend eye-popping amounts of money on bags, cars, golf clubs, wine, and featured a brief interview with Cartier's North America boss Federic de Narp, improbably handsome and sleek, giving tips about shoes, shirts, briefcase, coffee, watch (mai, bien sur...), where to have lunch, what brand of umbrella...

I notice that they didn't ask him about his exercise regime. US businessmen have to be all about the daily workout regime (like Haim Saban, featured elsewhere in the issue) and 'visionary futurist' Ray Kurzweil who reckons that exercise, diet and 230 daily supplement pills has slowed his aging process. I'd like to think that the European alpha male can still put style, elegance and culture before a slavish devotion to the gym. But I doubt it. You don't keep a figure like de Narp's or Antonio Baravalle's, the molto sexy head of Alfa Romeo, without some work. European businessmen probably keep that sort of thing quiet.

My poor father wouldn't have enjoyed this brave new world of sushi and pilates. He revelled in the three-course, boozy working lunch that finished with brandy and a packet of cigarettes, where exercise meant the distance you had to walk from your chauffeur-driven car to your next meeting. Which may have contributed to his death aged 46.

I must have something of an Electra complex though, because the sight of a handsome businessman in well-tailored, dark blue pinstripe suit, white shirt and tie makes me weak at the knees...

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Pupy y Los Que Son Son

A small break from thinking about superhero films. (Hint: there are only three different comic books in the final 5 - getting the order right, that's the thing.)

To reminisce about Cuba (again) and about how great Pupy y Los Que Son Son are. I've been listening to their terrific CD Mi Timba 'Cerra'. It's so amazing, really hot salsa/timba, infectiously danceable. Almost as good as Los Van Van's Chapeando.
Here's the video for the delicious De La Timba A Pogolotti.
Pupy (Cesar Pedroso) is the greatest. This is what I love about salsa; some of the biggest stars are in their 60s. My daughter and I saw Celia Cruz on stage in London when she was in her 70s. She danced all the way through the show!

Like any of you care. I have to get some fellow salseros reading this blog.
Meanwhile, here's a photo of one of their three soneros (improvisational lead singers) - my favourite, Pepito. He's like a fiery, red-haired gypsy from Andalucia. This is actually taken in Casa de La Musica, Galiano, where my teenage daughter and I danced the night away with two Cuban hotties. While my lovely husband babysat. What a star!

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Top Ten Superhero Films Part 1

Let's count down.

10. The Shadow (1994)
I like that The Shadow isn't a victim of a horrible accident or scientific experiment gone wrong. I don't quite understand where his powers come from and the film doesn't really explain properly, which is all to the good - leaves some ambiguity. Is he some reincarnated warrior, or an immortal? Why does he change from handsome Lamont into ugly-mug Shadow? But the psychic aspect is really intriguing. The 30s-art-deco thing is done perfectly here, not overstated but consistently elegant. Alec Baldwin when he was still very hot, is deliciously inaccessible to the feisty blond sidekick who wants to get her paws on him. This movie is under-rated as far as I'm concerned. A certain amount of cheesiness is called for in superhero movies.

9. Batman Returns (1992)
Utterly classic! For Batman fans, this has it all - the scenes of Arkham Asylum - the lunatic, disfigured baddie (Penguin), the introduction of the sublime Catwoman (Michell Pfeiffer giving Julie Newmark a run for her money), and Batman before he became, as he is wont to do, a self-parody.

What is about The Bat that makes him eventually descend into bad self-parody? The new incarnation of Batman was allegedly influenced by Frank Miller, great reinventor of Brucie as a tough, angsty crusader. But by the third movie all that was forgotten and we were lurching back into Adam West territory. So now, with Batman Begins, we're back with the Miller-esque Batman. Let's hope it sticks. But 1992 was still a heyday for long-time Bruce Wayne fans like me.

8. Batman Begins
Comic books films grow up! said the critics. hey! Who said we wanted them to? This explores not just the origins of Batman and his early years, allegedly based on Frank Miller's Batman Year One (and presumably Year Two, not written by Miller, but which introduces Ras Al Guhl to the early-Batman lore). Quasi serious and quite violent action movie. Brilliantly explores the psychological dimension of Bruce Wayne's incarnation as the Batman, in a similar way to the best Batman comics.

7. X-Men (2000)
Now I'll confess to never having read X-Men comics. I don't like multi-protagonist comic books; there I've said it. With the exception of the brilliant Watchmen. This is my beef with Marvel. If one hero is good then two is better, seems to be the prevailing thinking. I always worry when I pick up a Daredevil that shows MM battling a few demons with the help of Spidey et al. Oh, boo, demons v the Marvel crowd, I go. So I don't read JLA or XMen or Fantastic Four.

I prefer my superheroes to fly solo and preferably to be in big trouble, suffering. (Which is why Miller's Daredevil is my favourite stretch of comic books stories ever)

This meant that I didn't expect the movie of X-Men to be so damn great! Who knew?! It's awesome. If I had time I'd go back and read the comics. But I don't. And now I'm probably too old to properly enjoy them.

Part of the movie's brilliance are the performances of Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, amongst others. But the writing and effects are also terrific.

6. Superman (1978)
People forget how amazing this was. It was fabulous! Christopher Reeve made it look simple to be goofy Clark Kent and Superman too, but it was a genius performance. And Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the whole Krypton thing, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. This is where great superhero movies all began.

A Guilt-Free Pastime

Watching an Almodovar movie late last night, I dimly remember hearing a terrific line before sleep overwhelmed me. It was something like "A real Chanel? Babe, how am I going to justify spending money on a real Chanel with all the suffering that there is in the world."

It's a hilarious line, intentionally so. But I know people who actually think like that - for real. Well, one person at least (and she's Spanish too). imagine living your entire life with that kind of anxiety. Obviously, you can't GO to the movies. That would mean spending a shocking amount of money for something that you've already paid for, if you own a TV.

Which is why I've decided to spend the afternoon giving some serious thought to the Top Ten Superhero Films. As a pastime, it's almost guilt-free - I don't even have to hunt for a carbon-offsetting website onto which to download my guilt. If I decide I want to watch one of these movies, I can download one or walk to the local video rental place. Somehow I'll have to live with the guilt of the electricity that I use to play the DVD, or the computer I'm using to write this blog.

I mean, it's not even solar-powered. Just shocking.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Spidey 3 - Best Comic Book Movie Ever?

Spiderman 3 starts with such sunshine and happiness in the eyes of young Peter Parker that you just know things are going to get real, real bad.

But what a movie! It has romance, massive action including Green Goblin (2) on his board, two laugh-out-loud-for-ages-funny comedy scenes, pathos; heck, it's got it all!

In the tradition of Marvel superhero comics, the climactic scenes feature a titanic battle between the improbably-abled, unfortunate victims of scientific-experiments-gone-horribly wrong. In this case, that would be Green Goblin (2), Spidey, Venom and Sandman (not Neil Gaiman's...the Marvel one).

Those clashes-of-titans can be a a bore to read for the 'mature' comic book reader, but heck, they look good onscreen. What makes it much, much better here is that, true to the recent vogue in some comic books - since the early days of Frank Miller and Alan Moore - the superheroes are motivated solely by human tragedies and personal demons. The whole story is constructed on the relationships between the characters.

And no sign of a Pinky-and-the-Brain plot, whatsoever.

(Pinky: " Gee Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"
The Brain: "The same thing we do every night, Pinky - Try to take over the world!")

PS. I've just remembered Superman 2. (Old-skool Superman, the one when Supe gives up his superpowers so that he can ahem! Lois Lane). Is Spidey 3 better...? Hmm, tough call.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Bank Holiday In The Telly Zone

I've never been comfortable with the English obsession for fresh air and walks but my English stepfather did a good enough job impressing these as ideals for the family weekend that I still feel guilty if we haven't put the time in on one such activity.

"I don't want to go for a walk," our little five year-old says. "I want to watch TV."
"You're not expected to enjoy it," we tell her, tersely. "It's just the rules. At weekends you have to go for a walk."

Rain, of course, is the big saviour in such a situation.

I looked at the sky hopefully this morning, for any sign of being rained in. But no. Then I thought, heck, why can't I watch TV all blessed day, if I want to? I'm grown-up now!

So I did. Ahh, bliss. Three episodes of Doctor Who season three - which I'd been saving up, and the final two episodes of Stargate SG1. Yes, that's how far behind I was on my TV viewing, on account of Cuba and writing and even reading.

I like the new Doctor Who assistant, Martha. I like that she's allowed to be smart and ask technical questions and actually understand the explanations. I loved "As far as I'm concerned you have to earn the title 'Doctor'" Too right, Martha; ask to see his MD/PhD certificate!

"Smith and Jones" was a good new-assistant introduction episode. Hospital teleported to the moon because it's beyond the Earth-bound jurisdiction - pretteh, pretteh good. Haven't seen that before.

"The Shakespeare Code"...hmmm. Liked the Harry Potter references and the witchy magick as another manifestation of alien power, but the ending... "You're dead clever, Shakespeare, you'll think of the right thing to say!" The problem is that it's a strategy that can only disappoint in execution. What would the writer of Shakespeare's plays say in such an event? We can never know...we can only guess and that just can't be good enough.

"Gridlock". Brilliantly original concept, or at least I've never come across its like. Stuck in traffic for years...the obvious solution would be to walk, but as we understand at the end, walking ain't an option. That Face of Boe...he's such a tease. "You are not alone..." Could that mean that the Master is still around? The Black Guardian? White Guardian? Rassilon? All of the above?

I don't get why the Doctor can't go to Gallifrey in the past. Maybe I'm missing out on some bit of DW lore here, not that the RTD version is necessarily sticking to old DW canon (and that's fine with me), but is there some reason why if Gallifrey is destroyed in the year, lets say, 1 billion, it can't exist in the past? Did the Time War erase Gallifrey from the space-time continuum for all time? If so how can the Daleks come to exist in the first place? The Doctor was present at the Genesis of the Daleks and if I remember correctly he was sent there by the Gallifreyans.

I'm painfully aware that all of the above will be discussed at length on some DW discussion board. But I'm not going to look. I'm NOT.

The Stargate-SG1 finale was inspired. Wow, Sam Carter has to take a realistic amount of time to work out a solution to a fiendishly difficult problem! What's wrong with you, woman? Ten seasons of performing scientific miracles, coming up with solutions of pure genius with nothing more than "Major Carter, we need that fix right now... ten seconds before the galaxy explodes..." to spur her on. But finally, finally, finally, she goes "Hmm...tricky one...gonna have to think about that." Fifty years later, she figures it out.

Yes, you see that IS how long scientific advancement actually takes.

Luckily, Rodney McKay of Stargate Atlantis can still be relied upon for the just-in-time Nobel-prize-worthy fix. Wait until he hears how long it took Carter to solve that problem. His ego will finally rest easy - he IS smarter than her! It may be all that's needed for him to finally be able to woo her - an excuse to drop all his insecure posturing when he's around her.

I can still get a couple of episodes of "Life on Mars" in before bed, to make today a day in which I've watched as much TV as in the last month.

I didn't do my chores. And we ate a whole bag of Thorntons peanut brittle.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Bridge to Terabithia - I cried AGAIN!

If you are reading this blog post when 'Bridge to Terabithia' is still playing in the cinema, and you haven't seen it, may I make a suggestion?

Move AWAY from the computer. Get your purse/jacket/wallet and head out to see it. Right now.

This is the best children's movie I've seen for years and not only made me cry but is beautifully adapted for the screen, and captures perfectly what it is like to be a child who lives in a make-believe world. It wasn't just the storyline that made me cry, it was being reminded so sharply of what it feels like, as a child, to lead a younger sibling into a magical world you've created just for them.

Ah, but you're writing children's books now, you may say. You'll be doing that for your readers.

It isn't the same. Writing is hard, technical work. But as a kid I once led my baby brother into an old, overgrown and walled orchard at sunset and convinced him that the apples were enchanted, that we had to cross the orchard without looking back ONCE. I we crept across, my brother trembling with excitement, in the corner of my eye I saw those trees move.


Ah how sweet it is to win the Premiership by beating Man City and to have it presented to us at Stamford Bridge. In yer face, Mourinho.

Sir Alex is right when he comments that winning the Premiership is now perhaps tougher than winning the Champions League. Well, I'd say it takes a more accomplished overall performance, because of the knockout stage of the Champions League. There's no doubting that Milan were the better side on the day, but could they measure up over a grueling 40 games, including FOUR of Europe's absolute top teams?

It's nice for Milan to have the chance to avenge the shocker they suffered against Liverpool. Apart from that though, it's sad. My husband bought me three red gifts in hopeful anticipation of Man United winning the treble...a red iPod nano, a red Samsung laptop and a red astronaut pen (for writing ideas down upside down in the middle of the night).

Still have to battle for the FA Cup...

Orishas Dancing at Buena Vista Club in Oxford

Not the Buena Vista Social Club of massive Cuban-band-fame, but a monthly Oxford Cuban salsa event organised by local Cuban dance fans who arranged for us to have our very own locally-based professional Cuban dance teacher, Ariel.

I've been chatting to Ariel quite a bit since we happened to coincide in Havana when we were over there. I'd mentioned to him about seeing Yoannis and partner doing an improvised Afro-cuban dance in Santiago de Cuba. Maybe he remembered that, because at the end of the afternoon workshop in which he taught us the dance of Eleggua, one of the orishas, or Santeria deities, Ariel offered to dance to the song "Y Que Tu Quiere Que Te Den?" (And What Do You Want Them To Give You?) and show us the dances of all the orishas who are sung to in that song.

Which was a major bonus for me, because of something I'm planning for an important scene in my latest project codenamed 'Jaguar'. No more info for fear of spoilers... Perry, one of the organisers of Buena Vista in Oxford, is going to put up a video on Youtube.

Another one of those weird coincidences - I saw a British woman dancing reggaeton and recognised her from the world-famous dance hall, Casa de La Musica, Havana, a few weeks ago. She was pretty unmistakeable - I've rarely seen a white woman, let alone British, move like that! When my daughter and I went to Casa de La Musica, the Cuban guys we were with were amazed and said about this woman - "She moves like a Cuban." I went over to talk to her and her friend, and they were indeed the two women we'd watched dancing with two quite well-known dance teachers from Havana.

She told me that just over a year ago she went to Cuba to learn to dance for the first time - as a beginner! I was staggered!

That does it. I must practice reggaeton at least half an hour a day from now on.

The Painted Veil - I cried!

I love Deborah Ross's movie reviews in The Spectator. The poor woman mostly seems doomed to have to see films that disappoint, and when she says to stay away I usually do. Conversely, when she gives something a really big huzzah...hey, I'm there.

So I had to dash out to see "The Painted Veil", which made our Deborah weep, apparently. I was one of the only people aged under 50 in the cinema, so I could tell right away that it was a Serious Proper Film for Grown-Ups and not like the usual eye-candy I usually go to see. (Art cinema, moi?)

Actually it wasn't very arty at all, which explains the multiplex distribution. Instead it was a good-old-fashioned emotional drama told really well, with no fancy footwork. I loved the screenplay, which ticked all the boxes I can remember reading in Robert McKee's 'Story' as well as a pretty strong Hero's Journey for the Naomi Watts character, Kitty. I read somewhere that in the Extreme Love Story genre the lovers actually fall into the roles of Protagonist and Antagonist. I can't remember seeing this technique better and more subtly executed than in this film. You can keep your histrionics and your 'Frankly-my-dear-I-don't-give-a-damn's; what could be more touching than two people accepting each other's minor failings as human beings, learning who they really are and falling deeply in love?

I thought I'd get away without crying...until they played that song À la claire fontaine. Nostalgia overwhelmed me; I remembered singing that song at school in French class.

I was warned once about the soppiness of middle-age by my father. He used to stream tears at sad movies and Italian opera. As a teenager I'd watch him, all crisply dry-eyed and make some cutting remark. "Wait until you're in your forties," he'd say, "and there's nothing more beautiful than crying at Italian opera."

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Mestizo - Haven for Mexicans in London

NB - This is not a proper restaurant review - this is the personal experience of a Mexican writer visiting with on a day when she had a tummy-ache and a newly-developed meat intolerance. For a review, see here:

When the publishers of "The Joshua Files" offered to throw the launch party (early in 2008) in a 'top London Mexican restaurant' I had my doubts. I mean - was there such a thing? Cheesy-soaked nachos, soggy enchiladas and margaritas, I don't call a Mexican restaurant; no matter how much papel picado they string around and how much mariachi music they play. So I had a look - had London changed since last time I'd ventured out to eat 'Mexican'? (Which was around ten years ago...)

Turns out it had. We found this place, Mestizo, which is run by a Mexican woman, Marysol Alvarado, where they really seem to care about catering to we few England-based Mexicans who are fed up of not being able to get decent tortillas, having to cook our own frijoles refritos (refried beans) and not being able to go out to a proper Sunday brunch where you can eat hot spicy food and sweet buns for two hours.

Agent Cox, the Editor and I rolled up one quiet lunchtime last week to test the waters. The decor is minimalist-cosmopolitan rather than gaudy-Mexican. I suppose that fits in better with London. Me, I like the colonial style, but it does go best in the right setting, which isn't London. A plasma screen in the corner shows a looped video of Mexican folkloric dancing, including the jarocho, a sort of Irish-dancing style dance which Joshua sees in a scene in the first book. Watching it, I started to get a little nostalgic, especially when they showed the voladores de Papantla...oh , why, that's a long story... The music playing softly in the background was just right - not mariachi but popular Latinoamerican songs played on marimbas, with a bit of a tropical rhythm.

The menu looked very promising, sadly I was nursing a bit of a tummy ache as a result from departing from what was meant to be a temporary, Lenten vegan diet, but which has since made it impossible for me to to eat dairy without suffering for the next two days.

(Two days previously, in honour of a bi-annual visit from our former neighbour and great pal, the Chilean tenor Rodrigo del Pozo, I'd eaten spaghetti sorrentina at our local Italian in Summertown - Cibo - which has lots of melted mozzarella, and had even dared to have ice-cream for dessert. Hey, you have to try to get back on the horse! I was still doubled up by Tuesday...)

Anyway, I picked a big selection of things for Editor and I to try, including meat and dairy. Marysol offered to make the militantly vegan Agent Cox something off the menu, a mushroom-based mixiote. He also tucked into guacamole and nachos, which are safe.

I noticed that they had tamales. Brave, to try making tamales! They don't even get those right everywhere in Mexico. I asked Marysol to be straight with me - how were they? "They're good," she said. "Not exactly what you'd get in Mexico, of course, because it's tough to get the ingredients. But tasty."

So Editor and I started with a mixed dish of antojitos - like tapas, which included a little deep fried quesadilla, a jalada (jalapeno pepper with fresh cheese), a flauta (deep fried chicken taco) and a tamale (with mole sauce and chicken). It was all yummy, even the tamale which was a little drier than you might get on the streets of Mexico, but tasted good. Especially the flauta, small and crunchy with sour cream, salsa verde, lettuce and cheese - just right.

We also tried a gordita, filled with cochinita pibil (marinated, shredded pork). This was my first indication that the vegan diet had spoiled me for meat - at least red meat. It had been weeks since I tried it, and although it tasted really authentic, I had difficulty eating it.

We moved on to our 'main' - tacos al pastor and tacos of carnitas - shredded spicy beef.

The tacos al pastor looked and smelt delicious. Sometimes I wonder if I go to Mexico as much to eat tacos al pastor and chicken-with-mole, as I do to see my family. That's how much I love those tacos. In Mexico each taco place has their own secret recipe for the marinade. It must have orange juice, lime juice, oil, achiote and cumin, but whatever else can be the X-factor. My Uncle Agustin used to cook for a living and he reckons that you add a splash of Coca-Cola. You marinade thinly sliced pork loin and then mount them on a doner-type skewer, which must be flamed as it turns. In a busy taqueria in Mexico, the pastorero cuts slices from this doner-type thing with a sharp knife, dipping in and out between the bursts of flame. Then you eat the meat on corn tortillas with fresh onion, coriander and pineapple. My Aunty Tere used to own a taco restaurant in Tuxtla Gutierrez and told me that a good pastorero can command a relatively high wage for a restaurant worker - they are rare.

Anyway, at Mestizo I don't know if they have a pastorero, but the meat tasted great and they'd even slightly grilled the pineapple for extra yumminess. But after two mouthfuls I knew that I wasn't going to be able to eat it - however delicious. Agent Cox writes in his polemical tome "You Don't Need Meat" that when you stop eating meat, your system gets retrained so that you stop craving it, even liking it. Well, it's true. You don't even need to try very just happens.

A keen omnivore, the Editor tucked into everything with gusto...hurray for her!...while she told us all about her forthcoming wedding and honeymoon plans. (Bali! Lucky her - she'll have a lovely time and food is heaven!)

Meanwhile Agent Cox demolished the steamed contents of a maguey leaf stuffed with the mushroom mixiote, as well as a dish of frijoles (black beans) and a small pile of tortillas, loading them with salsa macho, which is one of those sauces I rarely eat - I stay away from the evil-looking blood-red ones cos they tend to hurt, as he was to discover! Then...still hungry, he tried to order another mixiote, to Marysol's impressed amazement...and doubt. Well, I was a bit concerned at what double helpings of all those different chiles might do to his system, so I vetoed that and told Marysol to bring frijoles refritos, pico de gallo (a raw tomato sauce with lime, chillies and coriander) and more tortillas, which won't do anything worse than make you fat.

We also shared a pitcher of margaritas - slightly frozen, which seemed to be churned in a machine like those which make 'slushies'. It wasn't bad at all, but made with orange juice rather than fresh lime. So I asked Marysol to bring us three margaritas made fresh with lime. "Oh, you want the real thing?" she said, and went off to rustle up the cocktails.

We tried bottles of Pacifico beer. It's from Mazatlan, and actually very good. A bit like Carta Blanca, but sweeter. They also have Corona and Negro Modelo, which I know is good but I wanted a nice mild lager.

All the lunchtime beer and cocktails were making me drowsy. Editor and Agent Cox both had meetings later that afternoon, which amazed me. I knew I'd pretty soon be good for nothing.

Ah, the idle life of a writer. It's not all bad.

Mind you next week won't be so relaxed. Many heavy, serious meetings at the school where I'm a governor...

In summary - Mestizo is just the place to get your fix of real Mexican food in London. Marysol told us that they even do a proper Mexican buffet-brunch on Sundays and showed us the menu - a selection of dishes that would do the Camino Real Hotel proud. I hope they add hot cakes with cajeta and chilaquiles with green tomato sauce. Mmmmmm.

Luckily I can just about eat eggs - although only a few bites, and the odd bit of chicken.

(Agent Cox will be cross with me if he ever reads this. Okay Peter! Don't eat meat - it's cruel to animals. Eggs and dairy are horrible for your cholesterol levels - and animals don't have the best time providing them either! Being vegan is healthier!)