Thursday, 12 July 2018

A Real Ladies’ Man

Around the corner from my place in Budapest there is a statue of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, a man to whom all women should be grateful. Semmelweis was the man who realised something that now seems obvious - that the death rate of women who had recently given birth could be reduced hugely if the women's doctors, when performing examinations, washed their hands between patients.

Sadly, Semmelweis's theory was rejected by his fellow practitioners, who demanded an explanation for his theory, rather than mere statistics - despite the fact that Semmelweis's results showed that, with his hand washing regime, the death rate among women who had recently given birth dropped to almost nothing. You would think they might have at least given it a try.

Poor Semmelweis. He actually cared about women. According to his Wikipedia entry, he said that their high death rate from puerperal fever "made me so miserable that life seemed worthless." Extraordinarily, rather than raising any questions in his colleagues' minds about how they did things, this intense concern of his made him so unpopular with the medical establishment that he was ridiculed, dismissed from his post and harassed by the Vienna medical community.

After his dismissal, Semmelweis moved back to Budapest where, outraged by the indifference of the medical profession, he began writing furious letters to prominent obstetricians. In social situations, according to Wikipedia "He turned every conversation to the topic of childbed fever". Eventually, he was committed to a mental asylum, where he was horribly treated. On 13 August, 1865, two weeks after being admitted, aged only 47, he died at the asylum on Lazarettengasse in Vienna, from a gangrenous wound. This wound was very likely caused by the beating he had received when, after realising that he had been tricked into entering an asylum, he tried to leave.

Wikipedia reports that theories about his mental condition suggest a form of Alzheimer's or third-degree syphilis, (many obstetricians, the Wikipedia article states, caught syphilis from their patients - perhaps if Semmelweis had appealed to his colleagues' self-interest by pointing out that they could avoid this danger to themselves, he might have had more success at persuading them of the merits of good hygiene). I don't think one has to look for anything so complicated to explain his mental decline. It seems to me that Semmelweis was a good, kind man who was driven mad by the stupidity and indifference of his colleagues and the knowledge that many, many deaths were very easily preventable if only he could persuade people to do one very simple thing. Semmelweis cared very much about women, and for that I admire him and wish he had not been made to suffer. I also wish that women had not gone on losing their lives in great numbers, entirely preventably, for years after his discovery, simply because the scientific establishment was too stubborn to accept a simple and sensible idea.




Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Battered Penguins - The Three Hostages by John Buchan

I first read The Three Hostages when I was about 11 years old, during an Easter holiday at Trebetherick in Cornwall, beside a warm fire, while eating Cornish splits and jam and clotted cream. I think it must have been the trappings of the experience that made me recall the book with such fondness as, having just read it again, I cannot imagine that I can have followed the text with any real understanding at that age.

That being said, provided you are able to overlook the routine casual xenophobia - "I suppose he's some sort of a Dago", asks one character cheerfully, for example - and anti-semitism that seems to have been regarded as normal before World War Two, plus the unquestioned belief in British superiority that runs through the text - and I do realise that for many, many people none of these things can be overlooked - it is still a very enjoyable book.

The story is the third in the series Buchan wrote about Richard (Dick) Hannay. At the start, the reader is introduced to Hannay, happily retired, enjoying country life with his wife and young son, his social life peopled with men with names like Archie, whose idea of a good time is spending a fortnight in Scotland watching "a pair of nesting greenshanks". Before very long however poor Hannay is forced to leave his rural idyll and return to the fray, to defend the weak and the innocent from encroaching evil - and even to enlist Archie, among others, persuading him to abandon the pleasures of bird watching for a time.

The challenge Hannay and his friends face comes in the form of a man called Medina who, despite Hannay noticing, bizarrely, (presumably some kind of reference to phrenology?) that he has "the roundest head I have ever seen except in a Kaffir'', fascinates him "as a man is fascinated by a pretty woman" (make of this - and of the other homoerotic elements attached to the Hannay-Medina relationship - what you will).

I assume that Buchan chose his villain's name, which is also that of one of Islam's most important sites, very deliberately, with the intention of conjuring up an immediate hostility in his reader toward the Oriental "other". However, although East and West and their lack of shared vision are mentioned from time to time, the struggle that evolves seems more to be one of collective psychology. While Hannay's wife observes that she doesn't "believe that Dick has any subconscious self", his creator appears to have been reading a lot of Freud before writing this novel. An early chapter is even titled "Researches in the Subconscious", and the reader is left in very little doubt that the real danger facing British society at the start of the story arises from the psychological hangover of the First World War*. The balanced healthy communal psyche in existence before the war needs to be reestablished, replacing the unbalance of the psychologically concussed state of post-war society.

The threat posed by post-war mental confusion is first articulated by Dick's friend Dr Greenslade:

"Have you ever realised, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?” … Greenslade's face had become serious. “I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I'm fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn't got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years. With most people it's rather a pleasant kink – they're less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it's pukka madness, and that means crime ... It's a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of screws. Oddly enough, in spite of parrot-talk about shell-shock, the men who fought suffer less from it on the whole than other people. The classes that shirked the War are the worst ... The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted. Something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it … The civilised is far simpler than the primeval”


This characterisation of the world is then reiterated by a figure called MacGillivray, who I think is the head of something like MI5: 

“He began by saying very much what Dr Greenslade had said the night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man, could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric – a hideous, untameable breed had been engendered … moral imbeciles, who can be swept into any movement by those who understand them. They are the neophytes and hierophants of crime, and it is as criminals that I have to do with them. Well, all this desperate degenerate stuff is being used by a few clever men who are not degenerates or anything of the sort, but only evil. There has never been such a chance for a rogue since the world began.”

MacGillivray goes on to expound on Lenin:

:Take Lenin for instance … He appeals to the normal … to the perfectly sane. He offers reason, not visions – in any case his visions are reasonable. In ordinary times he will not be heard, because, as I say, his world is not our world. But let there come a time of great suffering or discontent, when the mind of the ordinary man is in desperation, and the rational fanatic will come into his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.”

He also appears to be quite prescient in his prediction of a Hitler-esque leader rising up and taking charge of a nation's collective soul:

Your fanatic of course must be a man of genius … And genius of that kind is happily rare. When it exists, its possessor is the modern wizard … the true wizard is the man who works by spirit on spirit. We are only beginning to realise the strange crannies of the human soul. The real magician, if he turned up today, would … dabble in … the compulsion of a fiery nature over the limp things that men call their minds … the great offensives of the future would be psychological … the most deadly weapon in the world is the power of mass-persuasion.”

There is something sadly absurd and comical, (I suppose some may say offensive) about MacGillivray's arrogant comments on developments in British foreign policy:

"Lord' he cried, 'how I loathe our new manners in foreign policy. The old English way was to regard all foreigners as slightly childish and rather idiotic and ourselves as the only grown-ups in a kindergarten world. That mean that we had a cool detached view and did even-handed unsympathetic justice. But now we have got into the nursery ourselves and are bear-fighting on the floor. We take violent sides, and make pets, and of course, if you are -phil something or other you have got to be -phobe something else. It is all wrong."

If these quotations create the impression that the book is unexciting and preachy, that is actually far from the truth.  Dick, having no subconscious, listens to all this theorising and then plunges into the excitement of a typical Hannay adventure. There is much dashing about. There are many close shaves in tight places. There is  general mystery and derring do. 

The result is very entertaining and not unenlightening, as Buchan sprinkles insights, original turns of phrase and aphorisms through the text:

"England ... demands wholeheartedness in her public men. She will folow blindly the second-rate, if he is in earnest, and reject the first-rate if he is not.”

"The civilised is far simpler than the primeval”

"the limp things that men call their minds 

"The most deadly weapon in the world is the power of mass persuasion" 

and, my favourite, 

"We are all, even the best of us, egotists and self-deceivers, and without a little comfortable make-believe to clothe us we should freeze in the outer winds"

If you doubt the depth of Medina's evil nature, I assume his wickedly sexist suggestion that female suffrage meant a rise in the number of right wing voters will persuade you:

"There is a might Tory revival in sight, and it will want leading. The newly enfranchised classes, especially the women, will bring it about. The suffragists didn't know what a tremendous force of conservatism they were releasing when they won the vote for their sex.”

And, should you wish for relevance then I present you with Hannay's words, near the end of the drama, when he finds himself in a very tight fix indeed:

"I had chosen to set the course, and the game must be played out here and now. But I confess I was pretty well in despair and could see no plan"

If that isn't an exact parallel for the position Britain finds herself in today with regard to Brexit, I don't know what is. 

SPOILER ALERT: And, don't worry, there is hope, for Hannay emerges from his dangerous moment, (although, I have to admit, not entirely unscathed. 



*the book being written only in the 1920s, the First World War is referred to merely as the War, which adds a kind of poignance to things






Saturday, 7 July 2018

In Search of Chandeliers

Not many people realise that Budapest has almost totally reliable hot and sunny summer weather, blue skies, et cetera, to rival the Costa del Sol:



So much so that I get ideas above my station and start taking what I longingly wish might be artistic photographs of shadow, but are actually just pictures of the rather nasty flooring someone put on our balcony while we were away once, with Ikea furniture and balustrading shadows superimposed:

To stop me wasting my time, my husband has developed a new game for us - it is called Hunt the Chandelier. 

He actually began the game one day last year when we went to Nancy and I got flu and he discovered a flea market and bought a beautiful brass 19th century chandelier for 30 euros and some hours later came crashing into our hotel room with it, soaking wet and panting, as it weighed a ton and he had had to walk a mile and a half with it. 

Who needs a gym membership when you are playing Hunt the Chandelier?

Despite this fine opening gambit, there is still much to play for. In fact, my husband explained that day that we still needed another 8 chandeliers (by the most magnificent good fortune, the flat next to ours came up for sale and we bought it and we are now renovating that one and joining it onto the one we have had since 1998, so that is why we are in need of so many, not for any perverse reason).

As a consequence, Hunt the Chandelier has led to numerous outings since then. 

Out of the two of us, my husband is the better player of the game, because he is single minded. I invariably get sidetracked. For instance, the other day, as as we wandered through Budapest playing the game, I got distracted by:

a pretty china dog with eyes like Elizabeth Taylor, the actress:






a painting of an unpeopled interior that reminded me slightly of one I was fond of that got stolen when we were burgled in Brussels last year:

A painting that is quite breathtakingly outside of my price range but that I still can't help looking at (price tag: 66,000 Australian dollars - twice what I paid for our entire flat in 1998!)


A trophy statue, entitled, "Sportsmen", awarded to some longlost Hungarian sports team


Some enormous china owls, which I would have liked to give to my aunt, as she used to collect owls of various kinds, but there is no point now, since she is dead:
An exquisitely made trunk, with a hanging space on one side and its very own internal chest of drawers:

My husband won that round of the game, scoring with this magnificent object:

Which took us down to seven more needed, I think - or possibly six.

Instead of renewing my efforts, I once again got distracted by seeing a borzoi, one of my favourite kinds of dog:

and by a glimpse into a cool interior courtyard - these glimpses off hot and noisy streets are one of the things I love about Budapest:


I got further distracted by a pair of brass dogs that were once somebody's wedding present, symbols of faithfulness:


I got not merely distracted but horrified and infuriated by what the local council has given permission for in a street round the corner - worse even than mere façadism, they are allowing some horrible developer/so-called architect to take a really beautiful old building, gut it, knock the top off and then just plonk on some upper stories that are not merely charmless but downright ugly - and all just across the road from the house where Miklos Banffy, author of The Transylvanian Trilogy (if you haven't read it, it is glorious) used to live:

I cheered myself up by wandering in off one of central Budapest's most traffic-riven streets to the peaceful inner courtyard of an elegant building that I hadn't visited before - another of those oases I mentioned above:






Meanwhile my husband was planning another serious round of Hunt the Chandelier, this time at a place just outside the city that billed itself as a big antique centre, with countless chandeliers.

Out we went and no sooner had I entered the place than my mind wandered.

I saw:

this dear little mini-wedding chest:
This large one, which made me wonder who Anna Schmied had been and what became of her:
Lots of old stoves:




Toys from a bygone era:


Ranks of old weighing machines that made me think they could be used by the BBC as the next villain in Dr Who - imagine them coming to life, row upon row of them, marching implacably (or more sort of spookily gliding) towards Parliament Square:


They could possibly be joined by all those stoves and maybe even those strangely out-of-date toys. Really any slightly out-of-date inanimate object made animate would have a kind of original Avengers weirdness that I think I could find suitably blood-chilling.

After some effort, I persuaded myself that I did not in fact need an ancient Hungarian postal service letter box:
I also eventually decided that I did not need a forest of hatstands as a talking point in my front hall:
I was completely untempted by heap upon heap of metal washing basins:
ditto the rows of abandoned wheelbarrows, forlorn though they looked:
I was interested to see that glass light shades can almost become a decorative end in themselves when grouped together:
I had to chastise myself when I began stupidly humming "And did those feet in ancient times"; I think I was just trying to avoid wondering where all the owners of these boots are now:
I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to start a peasant uprising, I knew where to come for the necessary props:
I thought about how, much as I love old things, I would never want a retro baby bath:
or even probably an ancient, rejected perambulator, despite the excellent sprung suspension they usually have, (actually I could be persuaded on this, if I had a fractious infant, as you can get babies to sleep well by rocking them in one of these):
I considered the way that I am strangely attracted to new pieces of technology, even though I know that the thrill of the new almost always gives way with the passage of time to the shock of realising the things have become dated and slightly absurd:

In this vein, I then wondered if my mother, who has just invested a large sum of money in a magnificent and brand new tractor, might not have been better off sticking with older technologies:




I went off on flights of fancy about who the people were who had owned hats made by Prinssen of Harlem or Weldon Massarley of Bennet Street London, or Wilhelm Christen of the Josefstadt in Vienna - or, indeed, been dashing enough to invest in mechanical hats (I think they were top hats that flattened and then popped up) perfected in Paris:




I thought that the world of shopping was nicer when the cash registers were as decorative as this one:
(although possibly not this one, even though it had curiosity value, with its forints and fillér - a now extinct Hungarian coinage - display):
I found it hard to believe anybody would be tempted to buy this weedspraying device:
I thought this bottle holder was more attractive than something made of plastic, but would be pretty tough to lug around:
I admired the various packages for things that now come in rather more nondescript coverings:






I found it almost impossible to imagine how anyone other than Professor Branestawm could have come up with this contraption that supposedly was designed to grind coffee beans:


Luckily on this occasion, chandelierwise I wasn't outplayed. Emerging from the shop I discovered that my husband had found no chandeliers worth mentioning. We agreed that the game was a draw that day and retired to a nearby town called Vác for lunch.

As so often in this part of the world, we found the town was a charming place:
If you should want to move there, I noticed this house, which an optimistic estate agent might describe as a "doer-upper":
This is the view looking in through the window from outside:
We strolled around, admiring the place:












including an arch built in 1764 in honour of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa:
next to which the local authorities have more recently decided to build a large prison:


While chandelier-wise we came home empty-handed, the entire experience was a very happy one. We saw a pretty place we might never otherwise have gone to, I had a bowl of delicious chicken and tarragon soup, and we both ate ice cream. Normally, just after I've bought ice cream, I remember that I don't like ice cream. This time though I chose a red currant version, speciality of the shop; it was one of the nicest things I've ever eaten. It is these kinds of little tangential experiences that inevariably result from Hunt the Chandelier that make me enjoy the game so much.