CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.
IN the interplanetary debris field between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid 46610 Bésixdouze. Discovered in 1993, its name was suggested by Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar in honour of The Little Prince. The title character of that singular cosmic fairytale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fell to Earth from a fictional asteroid designated B612, so this coding was rendered into phonetic French and hexadecimal notation for its real-life namesake. The author himself had drawn those specific figures from the registration of a plane he flew as an airmail pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s.
IT WAS the first confirmed sighting of Jason Bourne in almost eight years. A recently released photograph showed Matt Damon getting into character on the set of the new Bourne film, as yet untitled. He’s shirtless and conspicuously ripped, strapping up his knuckles like a prizefighter, gaunter and tougher-looking than in the original trilogy.
EDINBURGH smells of sea salt and brewer’s yeast. The Scottish capital is a touristy city, pretty as a snow globe and selling the most superficial brand of Scottishness at its romantic, historic center – toffee, whisky, tartan, bagpipes. Beyond the well-preserved world heritage sites of its gothic Old Town and neo-classical New Town, it is also a prosaic modern conurbation, ringed with affluent suburbs such as Craiglockhart, and comparatively deprived housing schemes in neighbourhoods like Niddrie and Craigmillar, which still suffer from some of the gang and drug problems that blighted them badly in the 1980s.
MADRID turns awfully cold in December. The city sits high and dry on the Meseta plateau, about half a mile above sea level but nowhere near the sea. As the temperature drops, the engine fumes rise into the still air to knit a winter cap of smog overhead that locals call “the beret”. Pollution is a major issue in the Spanish capital. Homelessness is another.
ON a freezing evening in March 2012, a sombre party of architects, planners, and local organisers met for dinner in the small Japanese port town of Ogatsu. Properly speaking, the town did not really exist any more, having been annihilated by the tsunami that struck the north-east coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, almost exactly one year earlier.
To win the Pritzker Prize for architecture is like winning a Nobel Prize for literature, they say. The chosen laureate ascends into the pantheon of their art, and critics of that art take to second-guessing the jury’s decision. Two years ago, when the relatively young and little-known Wang Shu became the first Chinese national to receive the Pritzker, his selection was widely read as a political statement, though the meaning of that statement was open to question.
I moved to Buenos Aires the weekend before the 30th anniversary of the first day of the Falklands War. I knew enough not to call it that in Argentina, where those islands are known as Las Malvinas. To refer to them by their British name is a political statement if deliberate, and a dead giveaway if accidental.
THE first I ever heard of Rodolfo Walsh was when I read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine in 2007. By that time, Walsh had been dead for 30 years, but Klein cited him as a posthumous source for her treatise on “disaster capitalism”, and introduced him in the most dynamic terms: “A gregarious Renaissance man, a writer of crime fiction and award-winning short stories … a super sleuth able to crack military codes and spy on the spies.”