aya of yop city

May 7, 2009


Another complete gem from that unique Montreal-based comic book publishers, Drawn and Quarterly. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen any comic books set in an African country before. Marguerite Abouet’s main aim was to tell a different African story, one that did not involve war or famine. Her resulting books on Aya, in collaboration with her illustrator husband Clément Oubrerie, is the funnest, and funniest, trip back to 1970s Ivory Coast I have (n)ever taken.

I won’t spoil the fun by giving too much away, but Aya and her girlfriends, like teenagers all over the world, are occupied with homework, chores at home, clothes, plans for university, gossiping, and of course… boys! All against a backdrop of a regular Abidjan neighbourhood, which, again like the rest of the world, appears not to have been immune to the delights of disco music and bell-bottomed trousers.

I raced my way through Aya, and its sequel Aya of Yop City (go here and here to read full-colour excerpts of both) and am now awaiting with bated breath the newest book in the series, due for publication in September 2009, Aya: The Secrets Come Out. Ms. Super-G is in the same state after her May Day visit last weekend, and Mr. Snow is ¾ the way there, having finished 1½  Aya books as of last night. Maybe you will be too?


December 12, 2008


(A different) Steve McQueen won the Golden Camera at Cannes this year for his film Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikers at the Maze Prison outside Belfast during the 1980s. Sadly one I missed at the Oslo Film Festival this year, but I got to read and learn more about the story behind it from men who had been there themselves, in this article in the Guardian.

From it,

In 1976, the British government had decided to phase out special category status for convicted terrorists as part of a bigger process known as ‘criminalisation’. The protest began on 14 September 1976, when Kieran Nugent, the first IRA man to be convicted for terrorist offences under the new policy, reputedly said to a prison guard: ‘If you want me to wear that uniform, you’re going to have to nail it to my back.’ He was given a blanket and escorted to his cell.

Other IRA prisoners followed his example, and in 1978 the mass blanket protest turned into the dirty protest when IRA prisoners refused to leave their cells following another violent dispute, this time over a demand for extra towels in the communal washrooms. The prisoners’ policy of non-cooperation meant that they were often confined for days on end in their tiny concrete cells with just a blanket, a mattress and a Bible. Refusing to wash or slop out, they began emptying their urine out over the floor and smearing their excrement on the walls.

Freddie Toal was one of the prisoners, and said:

‘For a long time, when I was on the blanket, I had no real idea what I looked like. The only time I ever saw my face was this one time when the screws were sweeping piss into our cells. The sun suddenly shone through the window and, for a few seconds, I saw my reflection in a pool of piss. It sounds funny but it took me a while to register it was me. I looked like a wild man.’

Go to the article to read more about how and why men find themselves in such a situation, and the Northern Ireland story in general.

a journey on a london bus

November 30, 2008

This film is from a tip-off by Time Out, especially for Ms. D when she moves to London. It was made in 1950, showing newly arrived visitors from Africa and the Carribean how to catch a London bus. Truly amazing quotes include:

‘Try and catch a bus that is going to the place you want to reach.’

‘They know that buses run to carefully prepared timetables and are always punctual. People never have long to wait.’

‘The conductor controls everything in a cheerful way.’

What I want to know is, did people in 1950 laugh sarcastically too when they saw the film?

Go here to see Time Out’s complete list of 20 greatest London YouTube clips. Paul McCartney’s ‘music video’ on the Central Line is priceless, as is AC/DC with tiny shorts and a banana.

I think every country with an aboriginal population has struggled and continues to struggle with reconciling their existence and way of life with that of mainstream society. Canada today apologized for forcing more than 100,000 children to attend Christian boarding schools from the 19th century until the 1970s. A similar story was told in the 2002 Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

I don’t know how much such a apology helps in practical terms but certainly the awareness – of separated families and widespread abuse – does. The picture above shows ‘aboriginal students and families at a schoolhouse in the prairies area’, date unknown. More in this heartbreaking series of photos on BBC News tells the story of just a handful of these children pictorially.

lsd’s father dies

May 21, 2008

I have never tried any but this obituary shows that the Swiss man who created LSD could not have been further from a psychedelic hippie in lifestyle, instead advocating getting high on life.

May 8th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Albert Hofmann, chemist, died on April 29th, aged 102

HIS first experience was “rather agreeable”. As he worked in the Sandoz research laboratory in Basel in Switzerland on April 16th 1943, isolating and synthesising the unstable alkaloids of the ergot fungus, Albert Hofmann began to feel a slight lightheadedness. He could not think why. His lab was shared with two other chemists; frugality and company had taught him careful habits. And this was a man whose doctoral thesis had revolved around the gastrointestinal juices of the vineyard snail.

Perhaps, he supposed, he had inhaled the fumes of the solvent he was using. In any event, he took himself home and lay down on the sofa. There the world exploded, dissolving into a kaleidoscope of colours, shapes, spirals and light. It seemed to have something to do with lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD-25, the substance he had been working on. He had synthesised it five years before, but had found it “uninteresting” and stopped. Now, like some prince in faery, he had got the stuff on his fingertips, rubbed it into his eyes and seen the secrets of the universe.

Read the rest of this entry »

oracle bones

April 15, 2008

Oracle Bones is Peter Hessler’s second book on China. His first, the wonderful River Town, won the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for non-fiction, and was an unassuming poignant account of the two years he spent teaching English at the Fuling Teacher Training College in Sichuan. By the end of his stay he had gotten a good taste of local life and language, down to the worst names you can call a person, bafflingly in Fuling, yashua, or a toothbrush.

His new book is a curious hybrid of casual academic and anecdotal writing. The former addresses the tenuous idea of China as a single unified historical and cultural entity, as seen from the apparent linear development of Chinese character writing from its origins to today. The interviews and events he conducts and describes are scattered throughout the book in sections he calls ‘artefacts’, a device I found a little affected.

Hessler’s new life as a freelance reported in Beijing forms the chronological backbone of this book. Evenings spent drinking beer with his Uighur mate, hiking in the countryside and corresponding with and meeting his former students are all innocuous enough pastimes, but these grant him a direct line to the personal side of the big issues of China’s political landscape such as (local) democracy, religion and the Falun Gong movement, and the social paradoxes of the booming Chinese economy.

A more challenging but ultimately more rewarding second book that tackles the big issues such as Chinese identity without losing sight of the little person living in China today.

getting graphic

February 29, 2008

graph.jpgStill drawing on the Economist’s great Christmas issue, but I am also still finding stories in there I haven’t read! Numbers and graphs form a big part of my work, and this article shows some of the very earliest examples. Florence Nightingale turns out to have been a respected epidemiologist at the time, applying statistical methods to nursing. Personally I found her pie chart harder to read than the ones we use now, but considering she pretty much came up with it, I don’t think I can be picky! Minard’s chart on Napoleon’s Russian campaign was also fascinating, with the undeniable flow of its shocking black streams.

Finally, the beautifully decorated histogram by William Playfair puts the Excel graphs we churn out with the click of a mouse completely to shame. Not only that, but drawing a chart like that when people didn’t even believe geometry could be used to represent time or money must surely be the mark of a true genius.

Worth a thousand words

From The Economist print edition, Dec 19th 2007

A good graphic can tell a story, bring a lump to the throat, even change policies. Here are three of history’s best.

IT WAS at a dinner party in 1856 that Florence Nightingale met William Farr. The Lady of the Lamp was already famous for nursing British soldiers wounded in the Crimea; Farr, the Compiler of Abstracts in the General Registry Office, was widely recognised as an innovative statistician. Both cared deeply about improving the world through sanitation; both understood the importance of meticulous records in providing the evidence needed to bring about change. Read the rest of this entry »

life, death and shopping

February 8, 2008


Of course, the thing to do in America (especially when you’re travelling from the strong Eurozone) is to Consume. I was planning to do my fair share… although I can’t really think of anything to buy (except this, and anyway Inspector Gadget has already beaten me to it). So I think I’ll just soak it all in, and I’ve been curious about this place ever since I read about it in the Economist. Below, I’m appending their great Christmas story on the history of shopping malls, those places we love to hate, and hate to love. So, anyone been shopping lately?

From The Economist print edition, Dec 19th 2007

The rise and fall of the shopping mall

THE Southdale shopping centre in Minnesota has an atrium, a food court, fountains and acres of parking. Its shops include a Dairy Queen, a Victoria’s Secret and a purveyor of comic T-shirts. It may not seem like a landmark, as important to architectural history as the Louvre or New York’s Woolworth Building. But it is. “Ohmigod!” chimes a group of teenage girls, on learning that they are standing in the world’s first true shopping mall. “That is the coolest thing anybody has said to us all day.”

In the past half century Southdale and its many imitators have transformed shopping habits, urban economies and teenage speech. America now has some 1,100 enclosed shopping malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres. Clones have appeared from Chennai to Martinique. Yet the mall’s story is far from triumphal. Invented by a European socialist who hated cars and came to deride his own creation, it has a murky future. While malls continue to multiply outside America, they are gradually dying in the country that pioneered them.

Read the rest of this entry »

LA, baby!

February 8, 2008


On Saturday I will be off to Los Angeles for the second time in two years for work. The world seems to be made up of two kinds of people, those who love LA and those who hate LA. I think I kind of love it!

The sprawl that we flew over after crossing the mountains to get to LAX was astonishing. Yet, on ground level, I found lots of things to love, including a rare glimpse into the California of cowboys and missions, a small but perfectly formed museum on Chinese Americans, a shiny, speedy subway system, and all the friendly, polite people who spoke to me in Spanish (I’m sorry I was so slow to answer, I just had to swap languages!). I even managed a very pleasant walk Downtown around the City Hall, Japantown, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, Chinatown, and Broadway with its great buzz and the amazing Grand Central Market.

I’m going this time armed with more tips from locals and friends who have visited before. I wonder what I’ll find?

Amma’s dry chicken curry

January 7, 2008


Saturday afternoon was spent in the kitchen cooking up a Sri Lankan storm for 6 dinner guests and ourselves. Happily, Friday evening’s wanderings around the Indian part of town garnered all the ingredients I needed, including fresh curry leaves, spices, coffee accompaniments from Royal Sweet and a few extra goodies. On the menu were pappadums, roti pratha/canai, carrot raita, tomato chutney, steamed white rice, and my attempt at my grandmother’s legendary dry chicken curry. Add great company (and lots of ski talk!) for a wonderful evening.

My Grandmother Amma is in the photo above from the 1920’s, in her Girl Guide uniform. In the photo below from the 40’s, she is carrying my dad and looking much more like the Amma I knew, loving, dignified and always neatly dressed in a white cotton sari. I like the top photo so much more, as it gives me a sneak view of the girl she had been.. and I never knew.

Do let me know if you try the recipe out!

Amma’s Dry Chicken Curry

A Main Ingredients

½ a chicken chopped into bite sizes
6 shallots, sliced
1 red onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb ginger, minced
2 medium sized potatoes, in ½ inch cubes
3 tbsp cooking oil
½ cup water
½ tbsp tumeric powder
3 tbsp curry powder for meat
salt to taste

B The Spices

2 inches cinnamon sticks
6 petals star aniseed
4 cloves
4 cardomom pods
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves

Saute the spices in oil till fragrant, add chopped shallots, garlic and ginger. Slide the drained chicken pieces in and fry till slightly browned, stirring gently. Sprinkle the golden tumeric powder and mix into chicken. Fry for 1 – 2 mins.

Add water, potatoes, red onion and curry powder and simmer till chicken is tender and the potatoes not too mushy. Add more water if necessary and simmer till chicken is cooked. Add salt last so that the chicken does not get tough. Let the cooking continue till the curry is dry, but sticky.

Serve with steamed white rice.