Friday, 9 October 2015

An Evening Out

If your spouse came home and told you, "Tonight, we have been invited by someone from the Faro Islands to an evening of readings by Faroese, Estonian, Norwegian, Israeli, Hungarian, and Polish poets", imagine your feelings.


But you would be completely wrong. I know this for a fact, because last night that is exactly what my spouse came home and told me, and in the event it turned out to be one of the best evenings we have had in years.

Ronny Someck kicked things off with a story about a mouse being chased by a cat.  Eventually, the mouse finds a good hiding place and waits there, cowering and listening for any sign that the cat has given up the hunt and gone away. Eventually the mouse hears a dog barking just outside his hiding place. "If a dog is barking nearby", the mouse reasons, "that must mean the cat has gone, because a cat wouldn't stick around while a dog was in the vicinity." Confidently, the mouse emerges into the open. To its horror, the first thing it sees as it comes out is the cat, still waiting. "All right," the mouse says, "I give up, you win. I know you're going to eat me, but first tell me how come you are still here, when I distinctly heard the sound of a dog barking right where you are sitting?" The cat looked at the mouse, with an expression of self-congratulation. "Oh, well," it replied, "nowadays everyone needs to be fluent in at least two languages, you know."

What a perfect joke to tell in Belgium.

Having scored such an excellent diplomatic coup, Ronny then read several of his own poems, including Algeria, Revenge of the Stuttering Child and Third Kiss Blues, as well as this one, in preparation for which he rather generously handed round little cups of arak to the members of the audience.

After Ronny, Veronika Kivisilla from Estonia appeared. She read a very touching poem about an encounter with a drunk, and another about a bedroom showroom. I wish I'd known her work is not available in English - I'd have photographed the parallel texts that were projected on the wall. She sang an Estonian song and was about to leave the stage, when the organiser reminded her that she had promised to play her "archaic" instrument. "Are you sure I haven't taken up too much time already?" Veronika asked, but the organiser insisted that she hadn't and that an archaic Estonian instrument was what was now required. Dutifully, Veronika went to the side of the stage and picked up something that looked rather like an Appalachian dulcimer, but was apparently something specifically Estonian. "I have made one of these" Veronika told us, "but this one was made by my friend." With that, she settled down to play:

At this point, possibly partly thanks to the arak supplied by Ronnie, I was thinking soppy thoughts about what a great place the world would be if all of humanity's energies could be channelled into poetry and archaic Estonian musical instrument making.

A young Polish poet who, we were told, had decided to "consecrate" her life to poetry, rather broke this idyll by tottering onto the stage in a very short black lace dress and very high stiletto-heeled shoes and reading a lot of "poems" - more than any other writer during the evening - each of which was about her travails with love, sex and "weed". Self-obsessed was the description that came to mind, but perhaps that too was the arak talking. So that others can judge for themselves, unprejudiced by my sour reflections, here are a couple of random lines, which struck me as giving an accurate flavour of her work:

"Kiss me, without melting the lipstick
in the back pocket of my trousers"


A Hungarian named Daniel Varro followed, full of apologies for the fact that he still uses metre and rhyme. Because of some resentful remarks I heard John Burnside make a couple of years ago in Melbourne about people who insist on traditional form, I was vaguely aware there was some kind of debate about these things going on among poets,but have we really come to the point where it is necessary to apologise for using  pentameter?  Can you be cold-shouldered for the shape you give to your work?

Anyway, Daniel was followed by a Faroan called Sissal Kampmann. She alone of the evening's performers had had the foresight to bring along some printed copies of her poems, together with translations. I can't give you the wonderful rich sound of her spoken Faronese, but I can reproduce one at least of her texts:

Sissal's brother made this painting to illustrate her poems
When Sissal finished, to our surprise no-one got up to replace her on the stage. Instead, from behind us came a melancholy blast of some kind of music. Everyone turned, and there was a figure who looked more like an elf than a human, blowing into a goat's horn, (from which the goat it had once belonged to had long since been detached, it should be noted).

This turned out to be a Norwegian poet and musician called Karl Seglem. He strolled down through the auditorium, stopping here and there to beguile individual audience members with his goat by-product instrument, encouraging them to mimic the sounds he was making.

He was followed by a young man who, when Karl climbed onto the stage, climbed on after him and sat down at the piano which was over on the left hand side. Karl proceeded to play his goat's horn in various ways:

interspersing his efforts with attempts at audience participation. We ended up, at his behest, hissing and click-clocking and making various other silly sounds. So far he had said not one word. Everything had been achieved with gestures only.

Eventually, Karl picked up his text and appeared to be on the point of sharing some of his poetry with us. First though, there seemed to be some mysterious process going on where he had to attune himself to the music:

At last he was ready and the words flowed:

Sadly, once again, I didn't have the presence of mind to record what the words meant in English, but luckily one of the poems Karl read is available in translation on the web. I was somewhat mesmerised (if there are degrees of mesmerisation) by his performance and the way in which he made the boundaries between words and music blur.

After Karl the performance ended. But, hurray - the Faroese dried fish and Estonian apple wine (14% alcohol) instantly began to flow. 

Sassil, the Faroan, explained to me that dried fish is pure protein and very good if you need to heal a wound. 

I suggested to Veronika, the Estonian, that in many ways what we had just experienced was the kind of evening the old comrades of the Soviet system would have approved of, and yet it was precisely the kind of thing that could not really have happened under their aegis. She told me that actually there had been similar things under the old regime but all the work of the poets participating had had to be enigmatic or at the very least ambiguous - a sort of Tarkovsky obscurity had had to be adopted as the means of approaching writing, which, of course, like all restrictions, actually provided quite exciting challenges to creativity. 

The Hungarian who still works with rhyme and metre agreed that formal structural restrictions were often creatively stimulating, even oddly liberating. 

The Norwegian explained that the ideal horn for his kind of music needs to have a slightly oblong central cavity, rather than a round one. He said that people had played goats' horns in this way in his country in earlier times wherever there were shepherds, to create frightening, scary sounds. At first I thought he meant people were trying to scare the Norwegian shepherds of the past, but eventually we clarified the situation - it was the shepherds who blew the horns, in order to frighten off wolves et cetera. 

This misunderstanding suggested to me that perhaps 14% alcohol, however sweet and delicious, is not immensely good for one's intelligence and that possibly it was time to go home.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Árpád Göncz

Today brings the very sad news that Árpád Göncz has died. He was Hungary's first post-Soviet president. Some people describe him as Hungary's Vaclav Havel, which is probably not far off the truth. For an account of his life and achievements, there will be many obituaries, such as this one, and so I will only tell the story I find most memorable about him. It concerns something that happened when he was in Australia on a state visit as Hungary's President. 

I was lucky enough to travel around the country with him and his wife on that trip, and they were both completely without airs or pomposity and always, unfailingly, goodnatured. I knew already that they were popular among Hungarians, but I only realised how much they were a genuine part of what you might call the Hungarian family, how they had really been taken to people's hearts, when we arrived one day at Bondi Beach. 

As the bus we were travelling in drew up, I saw through the window a couple of blokes in tattered straw hats, brightly patterned Hawaian shirts, baggy shorts and flip flops, standing at the curb. Each had a stubby of beer in his hand. They were about to cross the street in front of us, but then they saw the bus door open and President Göncz emerge. The two men's faces lit up in the way children's faces light up when they see the presents under the tree at Christmas.

"Uncle Arpi", they yelled, in Hungarian, and threw their arms around the old man. A genial conversation ensued. It turned out that, for all their gone-native attire, they were merely on vacation from Budapest. The affection they clearly felt for their president would be the envy of any other politician - especially these days. I think it was an affection shared by most of their countrymen. A good, wise man has left the world. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hearty Breakfast

I have written quite a few posts about meals that I have liked the sound of in literature - examples include this and this and this and this. While this post also deals with a meal in literature, I don't think I could really say it is a meal that I like the sound of. Nevertheless, I suppose it belongs with the others, to a small extent.

The meal in question is striking, to put it mildly.  It is perhaps not inappropriate that I stumbled across it so soon after attending my first ever rugby match. There is something of its wild strangeness observable in the antics that take place on the rugby field, I think.

The meal is contained in a poem by Stephen Crane, which I found it in a collection of short poems called Short and Sweet edited by Simon Armitage.

Short and Sweet is a nice little collection but it has one fault, which is that it does not include any biographical details about the authors whose works are included within its pages. Therefore, when I saw the name Stephen Crane beside this poem, I was unable immediately to tell if this was the same Stephen Crane whose book Red Badge of Courage had rather bored me when I'd had to study it as a fourteen-year-old in an all girls boarding school near Mittagong in New South Wales. The style of this poem was so much more arresting than the style of the novel had been - mind you, I'm being unfair on the novel, which came to me in the wrong circumstances. At fourteen, in a peaceful bush setting, I found it difficult to get really interested in the doings of Crane's mainly - possibly entirely - male cast, or in their drily naturalistic Civil War setting. It all seemed impossibly remote - and, frankly, at that age, not terribly gripping.

They might have been wiser to set us Crane's poems, judging by this one. In your teens, you're always up for a bit of ghoulish weirdness, but no-one mentioned that he'd even written any. Perhaps this is not surprising as, according to the poetry foundation page dedicated to Crane  his poems are not widely known, even though they "foreshadowed the work of the Imagist poets."

What a boon the internet must be to teachers. If our teachers had started us off with poems like this one, we might have taken to Red Badge of Courage with shrieks of horrified glee, instead of our usual sullen apathy:

In the Desert by Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

I Think I've Got It

I spent yesterday watching rugby. I must confess, I have never watched rugby before. I've glimpsed it, I've heard about it, but I've never watched it closely. Until yesterday, I thought it was just an excuse to mud wrestle while running.

I know better now.

Rugby is, it turns out, a game of high refinement and complexity. It obeys laws that would baffle many of the world's finest minds. I don't claim to have grasped more than the most basic elements of the thing but this is what I did manage to work out.

The main aim is to hurl yourself at the people on the team opposing yours, despite the fact that they are almost all built like gnarled old trees and colliding with them is likely to do you an injury, (if you are sensible, you will also be built along similar lines, making the impact greater between the two masses as they meet, but possibly making the effect less devastating than it might be, were you of a less sturdy size and shape).  I should add that, ideally, you should be holding the ball while using your body as a battering ram against these extraordinary physical specimens. If you fall under their onslaught, you must try to pass the ball to someone behind you, which makes things tricky as you have to keep an eye not only on the hulks ahead of you but also on the team mates who may or may not be behind you, ready to catch your throw.

Supposing you, or one of the people dexterous enough to have received your pass - after running the gauntlet of your alarming opponents and the thorough battering that that entailed -  somehow manage to get near the end of the pitch still holding the ball, you must be prepared to be set upon by another hundred weight or so of brawn and - vitally - still holding the ball, (which, incidentally, is not spherical, but shaped like a lemon, who knows why), it is then incumbent upon you to slide across the touchline, scraping the skin of your knees and any other exposed parts of your body, your weighty opponents piling on top of you, as if hitching a ride on your graceful - or more probably simply desperate - dive.

Of course, this makes it all sound so simple. In fact, many things can go wrong along the way. One of your opponents may grab your arm and hurl you through the air like a tiny pre-dinner snack tossed playfully across the tundra by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Or they may wrap their arms around your upper thigh and thrash you about on the grass for twenty or thirty seconds. If either of these things happen, a five-metre scrum is called for, apparently. A scrum - five-metre or of any dimension - is quite a spectacle. Both teams bend towards each other with outstretched arms and huddle into a crablike embrace. They wander about the field in this strange bent bondage until the ball emerges from their midst, and then the whole wild turmoil of running and hurling and grabbing and pushing begins all over again.

Perhaps to add variety to proceedings - and certainly randomly, so far as I could tell - from time to time a team member will break things up by suddenly deciding to simply kick the ball. This comes as quite a surprise given that for the bulk of a match, a) kicking isn't allowed and b) the ball must only go backwards when not in someone's arms. That is, during general play, it is only in a player's embrace that the ball is permitted to be carried forward, but on rare occasions a kick can be taken that sends it straight forward. Why this is allowed sometimes I do not know, and in fact the question I want an answer to is not that one anyway. To my mind, the real question that arises is: why isn't kicking allowed all the time? Surely kicking the ball forward would be a more sensible way to play the game? You wouldn't need to bang into each other or risk having your bones broken. Surely it would be a lot more pleasant for everyone if the players could simply run and kick, without all this whacking into each other business? Or could it be that I am missing the point somehow?

Anyway, when the ball is kicked, a man who is not a player, but is in possession of a flag, goes along the sidelines and waves his flag at a point that does not exactly tally with where the ball came down, but presumably is decided by combining some arcane rule of geometry with a calculation about implied velocity - or something. When he has done this, both teams roar down to the point where he stands and queue, surprisingly meekly, in two lines, (it almost looks like Madeline -

but not quite) in front of him. A member of one or other team, depending on something to do with the way the thing bounced - or something - stands beside the man with the flag and throws the ball at the two queues of players. Pandemonium instantly ensues: they roar off once more, snatching and colliding and struggling as energetically as ever, breaking off only when one or two collapse writhing on the ground, which is a signal that everyone else can have a drink of water.

It doesn't LOOK very enjoyable, but I suppose it must be. The players presumably imagine they're having fun, which makes you wonder how dreadful the rest of their lives must be. People tell me it is all a great escape valve for pent up feelings. Personally, if you want a release valve for emotions, aggression and general tension, I'd recommend question time in the Australian Parliament as an alternative. If you like your release valve with added mud though, I guess rugby will have to do.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Dreadful Precedent

In doing some research about Per Anger, the person at the Swedish delegation in Budapest who first began trying to save Budapest's Jews from the Germans in the Second World War - he was joined later by Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on 9 July, 1944 - I discovered that, following bombing by the Russians and Americans of the Hungarian railway lines, which made it impossible for the Germans to deport Jews to Auschwitz by train, Adolf Eichmann decided to force Budapest's Jews to march to Hegyeshalom, the border town with Austria - the same route taken, willingly, by more recent refugees, eager to reach Germany.

Per Anger, who was helped by the Hungarian police in saving Jewish Hungarians from earlier attempts to take them out of the country, later described seeing one of the forced marches to Hegyeshalom:

"One of the first days in December 1944, Wallenberg and I took a car ride along the road the Jews [were] marching on. We passed these crowds of miserable people, more dead than alive. With grey faces, they staggered forward, under blows and hits from soldiers' rifles. The road was lined with dead bodies. We had our car filled with food that we managed to distribute in spite of prohibitions, but it didn't last very long. At Hegyeshalom, we saw how the ones who arrived were handed over to a German SS commando under Eichmann, who counted them like cattle: '489-correct ('vierhundertneunundachtzig-stimmt gut!'). The Hungarian officer received a receipt that everything was in order.

Before this handing over, we managed to save some hundreds of Jews. Some had Swedish protective passes, others were gotten out by pure bluffing. Wallenberg didn't give up and made renewed journeys when he in similar ways managed to reunite some additional Jews with Budapest."

The marches to Hegyeshalom stopped on 10 December, 1944. By that time, 37,000 Jews had been put on the march from Budapest. Only 27,000 arrived at the border station.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Losing One's Head

In the 21 May edition of the LRB there is a review of a book by Laure Murat called The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Towards a Political History of Madness. The whole thing sounds extremely interesting but one anecdote struck me particularly.

The reviewer explains that in the period of the Terror in France a very common form of madness became a fear of being guillotined. This doesn't actually sound totally mad in the circumstances, now I come to think of it, but anyway the case that appealed to me was this one:

"Another celebrated case was that of the clockmaker, convinced that he had already been guillotined. Somehow the verdict had been reversed, but his head had become confused with others in the basket and he had been given back someone else's."

The oddest thing about this delusion is that I would have thought that you would think that you had been given back someone else's body, rather than someone else's head.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Art Gallery Zen

Catching up with weekend papers, I came across this extraordinary challenge in Oliver Burkeman's column in the Guardian magazine of 22 August 2015:

"When you take a class with the Harvard University art historian Jennifer Roberts, your first task is always to choose a work of art then go and look at it, wherever it's displayed, for three full hours. Three hours! If that notion doesn't horrify you at least a little, I suspect you're atypical: in our impatient, accelerated age, the mere thought of it is sufficient to trigger an irritable jumpiness. (Stick me in front of a painting for three hours and I'd soon be swiping my thumb on it downwards, to see if there had been any updates.) Roberts knows this: the whole point, she writes, is that it's 'a painfully long time'. She doesn't expect her students to spend it all in rapt attention; rather, the goal is to experience that jumpiness, tolerate it, and get through it - whereupon they see things in the artwork they'd never have imagined were there."

Leaving aside the slight doubt that last sentence raises - do you simply start hallucinating, or do you actually see things you might not otherwise have seen - I find the idea intriguing. I think I would need to help the time pass by trying to draw the painting. In my experience, there is no better way of seeing than trying to capture an image of what is before you, regardless of whether what you produce is any good. The image you are producing is not the point - it can be really terrible (always is, when I try). The point is that you pay a special kind of attention to what you see when you try to draw it.

Three hours just standing there looking, doing nothing, though - I think that is completely beyond me. And then there's the fascinating question of which painting would be the one to choose.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unusual Museums - The House of Alijn, Ghent

The House of Alijn describes itself as a "museum with a passion for daily life in the twentieth century." It goes on to explain that it is a "museum with a wealth of stories to tell about the minutiae of life and life’s major events in the early twentieth century and in the post-war years." Oddly, its stories seem to be entirely told through the medium of exhibits and pictures, rather than words. 

Which, actually, I rather liked. So much was left to the imagination. Take these uncaptioned pictures as examples:

With no verbal clue whatsoever provided by the museum curators, the visitor's mind is left to happily boggle. As my brother observed, after a quick glance, they make David Cameron and the Bullingdon Club look positively tame.

As well as a lack of captions, the museum also startles you somewhat by kicking off with a couple of rooms devoted to death - or at least how death was marked - in earlier decades of the twentieth century. 

It turns out that even when you were gone, man or boy, you could not escape class:

Mind you, whatever vehicle they transported your body in, the personnel in charge of proceedings remained the same throughout:
A finer looking pair of gentleman you couldn't wish for really.

This appears to be the hearse fetishist's answer to a Pirelli calendar:

But let's talk about happy things.

Moving briskly along, the museum offers artefacts from earlier days related to childbirth:

More shudder - mind you the rubber hoses used in Marienbad (see earlier post, wittily entitled, "Bad Trip"), looked more appalling than this, (well slightly more)
and childcare:
How to deal with that extremely rare problem - the baby that won't wake up?
Things cheer up a bit when you get to the toys of earlier generations:

What a gormless looking creature - I remember trying rather hopelessly to generate enthusiasm for a doll not unlike this one

I reckon there's a picture book to be written about that trio up the back

These two are hilarious, I think

This has great big spades for hands and I think is one of the scariest toys I've ever seen - but would be good in a horror movie

There's a touch of the Blanche du Bois about that doll, don't you think

Tokenism is always with us

A lovely thing

There is something poignant about abandoned toys

Forlorn even
 Then there was the paraphernalia of parenthood, if you can call it that: birth announcements, christening cards and so forth - and in amongst them probably one of the most nauseating pictures I've ever been asked to look at:

Clothing came next, all pretty standard, but I did like these ladies in their hats:

The educational section was largely taken up with a beautiful if rather utilitarian - if that's the right word; what I mean is it is conceived entirely from the perspective of those exploiting the country and its natural resources - map of the Congo:

After that we were whisked off to another part of the building, which included this alarming but mysterious exhibit:
 as well as photographs that I found tantalisingly clear, so that you felt you were really looking through a window into the past:

There was quite a lot on the local archers, who seemed bizarrely to have chosen Saint Sebastian as their emblem:
 This man was a champion:
 This man was too -  unless it's the same man at an earlier stage in his life:

Diplomas used to be so much more beautiful. It just shows how important it is to use illustrators more, (by the way have you heard of this one, who is awfully good, [while we're on the subject, should you be thinking of reviving the art of beautiful diploma making, or, indeed, producing any kind of printed matter with pictures?])

Actually this one is a bit odd

Speaking of odd, I have no idea what is going on here or in the next picture

To win this lovely thing or the next one, I think I might even have tried my hand at bird fancying

Another blast from the past - I presume the Grote Pot is no longer there, but I ought to check on it. It doesn't look enormously enticing, to be honest - at least not to me.

A natty gent and prototype hipster

I love a good menu. Do you think they chose between the items or ate everything on there?

Oddly, there was suddenly a recreated barber's shop, which included this rather beautiful object: 

After that the modern era beckoned and, for me, all sorts of memories were awakened.

This seemed to be the backdrop to my childhood, or designs very like it:

This section brought home to me how much design evokes an epoch:

There were some lovely hoola hoopers, who I will upload to my Instagram

There were a couple of old radios next, their dials full of Eastern promise. I found similar ones so enticing in my younger days:

And then, right at the end, there was a personal blast from the past - the box for a toy I had until that moment completely and totally forgotten about but one that gave me huge pleasure, so much so that it was a delight just to be reminded of it again:

All in all, a treasure trove of a museum, with virtually no rhyme or reason - which means it becomes an individual voyage of discovery for each visitor. No one tells you anything, least of all what you should think or like there, and so you can potter about, enjoying yourself and seeing all sorts of weird and wonderful things. One might even argue that it not only exhibits 20th century things but embodies an early 20th century ethos: its approach seems to be a cheerfully haphazard one, dating from before management theory took over the organisation of museums. 

I loved it.