Tuesday, 31 July 2012


There was a lot of twittering recently about a man from America who'd been at the Wheeler Centre  in Melbourne pointing out that food corporations make disgusting food. He was advocating a return to purer food sources, I think. What I dislike about both Australia and England in this context is the fact that, to buy food that farmers haven't been paid tuppence for and that doesn't come in sealed plastic boxes and so forth, you have to turn to trendy 'alternative' stores or get up at some appalling time in the morning and go to a so-called farmers' market.

Here in Hungary I've barely seen a plastic box containing food for weeks. That makes a change, particularly from Sainsbury's, where I used to shop when I lived in London - but Australian supermarkets are also pretty keen on putting stuff onto polystyrene trays and wrapping it all up in yards of clingfilm. These things may come, of course, but for now, despite the fact that Tesco's is engaged in a creeping invasion of Hungary, it has not yet conquered all before it.

As a result, for the time being in Budapest my choice is not limited to chain stores or upmarket 'wholefood' places. Here, I either go round the corner to the greengrocer - a kindly man with a moustache who is on such good terms with some of his female customers that, after hearing all the ins and outs of their family's ailments et cetera, as he measures out apricots and potatoes, and then carrying their groaning bags out to the pavement and ensuring they've grasped them firmly enough to get back up the street to their apartments, he receives  warm goodbye kisses - or I go to one of the local markets.

There's nothing especially exciting about any of the stuff on offer - it's not exotic like Brunei. However, I love the sheer abundance and the faces of some of the people behind the counters:

Uh oh, plastic boxes - whatever happened to those wicker punnets of my childhood

My husband likes this lady because she calls him young man - and indeed, if I go to the market without him, she asks where the young man is (I suppose youth is a matter of perspective)

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Words and Phrases and Olympics Inspired Excrescences

I'd managed to forget 'medalled', such a loathsome usage, but, having just seen it on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's site, I'm shuddering all over again.

'We've medalled plenty of times in this blue-riband event ...' the ABC tells us, (something to do with rowing, in this instance, I think).

Blistering barnacles, to quote Captain Haddock - 'medalled'? Eeeergh, ugh, gneaeuu, yuk, triple yuk.

I don't know if this usage is confined to Australian commentators - if it is, I hope it does not escape our shores. Unfortunately though, our usages - eg 'uni' - have a disturbing habit of spreading. So, if 'medalling' heads your way, please, please, please, just stamp it firmly out.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

London II

All right, so London's feeling pretty spiffy today, after its night of nights. And, sure, it is full of diversity and hospital beds and people with drums and tellies - but in which city in the world can you get onto a tram and have a man and his falcon (or possibly his hawk - there is some debate in our household about that at the moment) as your fellow passengers? Eh? Eh?

Not London, that's for sure - they don't even have trams. Plus, even if they did and you managed to get on one, someone officious would come along pretty soon to tell you that falcons aren't allowed on trams - or, indeed, any public transport - because of Health and Safety, innit.

In Budapest on the other hand (that's the hand not carrying the falcon, [or hawk, whatever]), we have true diversity:

Friday, 27 July 2012


With the Olympics upon us, quite a lot is being written about London and its distinctive personality. In this context, here is the passage I've just reached in Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst:

"Where Dickens differed from ... other writers was in recognising that London was not only a celebration of sociability. It was also a place that magnified loneliness. Although many people feel isolated from time to time, London seemed especially adept at transforming such moods into a way of life, like that of the pinched man Boz observes walking mechanically up and down in St. James's Park, 'unheeding and unheeded; his spare, pale face looking as if it were incapable of bearing the expression of curiosity or interest' ('Thoughts about People'). This was not a new concern: as early as The Prelude (1805), Wordsworth had been 'baffled' by the thought of 'how men lived/Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still/Strangers, and knowing not each other's names.' Nor was it solved by a growing population. William Booth arrived in London from Nottingham in 1849, and when he came to write his autobiography the notes he made under the heading 'London' amounted to a solitary word: 'Loneliness!' 'There is no place,' James Grant observed in 1836, 'in which the injunction, "Mind your own business," is so scrupulously attended to as in London.' More optimistically, there is nobody who more scrupulously ignores this injunction than Dickens. Whether he is describing in The Old Curiosity Shop those 'who live solitarily in great cities as in the bucket of a human well,' or showing in Bleak House how Charley Neckett 'melted into the city's strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean,' his writing repeatedly zooms in on isolated individuals and keeps them company on the page."

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Widespread Cluckiness

Having endured, from certain friends and relatives, a measure of perplexity about my interest in poultry and the recent poultry show in Canberra, I was pleased to discover, via Whispering Gums, that greater minds than mine have turned their thoughts towards our feathery egg-laying friends.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Social Life

I've been given rather a lot of hospitality lately, and it's time I reciprocated. Which is why I was going through the various people I owe a meal to, talking aloud as I did so, trying to work out who would get on with whom.

Listening to me running through a kaleidoscopic set of combinations, attempting to find the ones where no guest would be likely to attack another, no feathers would be too drastically ruffled during the course of an evening and everyone might actually get on, my younger daughter said, "Oh this is just like that game we used to play at school where you had to work out how to get a cow and a fox and a lamb and a snake and a wolf across a river, without allowing any of the dangerous ones to be left unsupervised with any of the ones they might attack."

So which of my friends are snakes and which are wolves and which are gentle sheep and cattle? And what will be the most entertaining gathering of them all?

Monday, 23 July 2012


Australia is generally seen by foreigners as a pretty good place to live, although some think we, its inhabitants, are a bit brash and far too smug - but, then again, on the whole, we have a fair bit to be smug about.

Except in one area, that is - and it's a big one. Less an area than a stain, really: it is the situation of our contemporary indigenous population.  As I've mentioned before, looking at the statistics relating to Australian indigenous health and life expectancy, it would be easy to assume we are all uncaring racists, but things are much more complex than that - few people, in my experience, feel anything but a hopeless, helpless, hand-wringing goodwill toward the original peoples of our island. Vast sums have been spent trying to make things better. The outcomes have rarely been lasting or particularly good.

It would be easy to ignore quite how appalling things remain, but there is one journalist, Nicholas Rothwell, who, writing, (perhaps surprisingly, given the recent criticisms of all things Murdoch), for The Australian, a News Limited paper, reports regularly on the subject, describing with compelling clarity the social disasters in Central Australia and the Top End that most of Australia's population never see.

His latest report tells yet another dreadful story - or perhaps provides yet another dreadful episode in the one long grim story. Once again young Aborigines are ruining themselves through petrol and deodorant sniffing. This is a continuing tragedy. Money has no effect. Good intentions have no effect. What on earth can be done?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Battered Penguins - The Dancing Floor

Somewhat to my surprise, since it is not as well-known as other Buchan works, (at least not to me) , The Dancing Floor is as gripping a read as 39 Steps or Greenmantle. Like them, it is also a great example of how fiction can sometimes give an insight into how differently the inhabitants of times earlier than our own - even times as recent as Buchan's - viewed the world.

The story is told by a lawyer called Leithen, whose unnamed friend begins the book by telling us that Leithen told him the story in a smoking-room in a place where they were stranded together, due to blizzards, on their way back from a shooting holiday in northern Ontario. The unknown friend never appears again in the book, and I'm not really sure what purpose the framing device he provides serves.

The novel is about Leithen's chance meeting and subsequent relationship - an intense and, to modern eyes, somewhat odd (or perhaps the absolutely accurate word would be 'queer') one - with Vernon, a wealthy parentless young man who every year on the same date has a dream in which something unknown approaches the room he is in through a series of interconnecting rooms, drawing one room closer each time. When the book begins, the unnamed thing is twelve rooms away; by the end it is upon Vernon. The mysterious plot line of the dream is enhanced by and eventually interwoven with a second thread of narrative, involving a young woman who is besieged on a Greek island by locals in the grip of a murderous frenzy.

These two plots were intriguing and even exciting, but what added to the fascination of the book for me was its setting against the backdrop of the First World War and, most interestingly, its evocation of the period that came after:

"The war had altered everybody's sense of values," Leithen tells us, "You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working-man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature."

Another of the book's charms was the uninhibited nature of Buchan's passion for England. His lyrical admiration for traditional rural pursuits would be frowned on today, but I found it very appealing:

"I made time now for an occasional day's shooting or hunting, for I had fallen in love with the English country, and it is sport that takes you close to the heart of it. Is there anything in the world like the corner of a great pasture hemmed in with smoky-brown woods in an autumn twilight: or the jogging home after a good run when the moist air is quickening to frost and the wet ruts are lemon-coloured in the sunset; or a morning in November when, on some upland, the wind tosses the driven partridges like leaves over tall hedges, through the gaps of which the steel-blue horizons shine? It is the English winter that intoxicates me more even than the English May, for the noble bones of the land are bare, and you get the essential savour of earth and wood and water."

As you would expect from Buchan, the novel also contains terrific action scenes, and these are combined, again unfashionably, with the author's assumption that the reader regards, as he clearly does, a soldier as a noble being and duty as supreme.

As is also only to be expected from Buchan, the book is crammed full of other old-fashioned notions, expressed with earnestness and a very unmodern intensity:

"I remembered a phrase which Vernon had once used about 'the mailed virgin'. It fitted this girl, and I began to realise the meaning of virginity. True purity, I thought, whether in woman or man, was something far more than the narrow sex thing which was the common notion of it. It meant keeping oneself, as the Bible says, altogether unspotted from the world, free from all tyranny and stain, whether of flesh or spirit, defying the universe to touch even the outworks of the sanctuary which is one's soul. It must be defiant, not the inert fragile crystal, but the supple shining sword. Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed, and I wondered whether we were not coming to a better understanding of it. The modern girl, with all her harshness, had the gallantry of a free woman. She was a crude Artemis, but her feet were on the hills. Was the blushing sheltered maid of our grandmother's day no more than an untempted Aphrodite?"

The book is beautifully written, full of suspense and a very good way of passing the time if you find yourself stuck in Luton Airport for several hours (a fate that, sad to say, seems to be almost inevitable if you choose a Wizzair flight to Budapest just at the moment). Perhaps it did not become as popular as some of Buchan's other novels precisely because of its many references to the Great War. It seems to me, indeed, that the plot about the Greek island whose population goes mad may in fact be a metaphor for the war itself -and, so soon after such great losses, the suggestion, however subtle, that the whole enterprise of the war had been mere insanity may not have been entirely palatable. We, however,are far enough away from those events to be unphased by such an implication - in fact, it mirrors what we are usually taught to believe. To sum up, if you are looking for a satisfying piece of period escapism, I highly recommend The Dancing Floor.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Hungarian Singsong

Hungarians have more than their fair share of beautiful, melancholic sounding songs. Sometimes they will sing them for you, if you ask them nicely:
It turns out that Freddie Mercury decided to repay the favour, when he visited Budapest in 1986, by singing one of their own songs to the Hungarians. The result, I think, is one of the loveliest things he ever did:

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Is It Just Me

Sometimes - when I am lying on the sofa, reading, or sitting at my desk, trying to hammer Hungarian grammar into my memory, (or when I am doing almost anything, to be honest) -  my mind wanders and I decide that I feel hungry: well, perhaps hungry is not quite the right word; maybe 'peckish', to borrow a favourite usage of a former friend of mine, would be a more accurate description.

On such occasions, I put down my book and stare at the ceiling, running through an inventory in my head of all the possible things to eat I might find, should I go into the kitchen.

Usually there are quite a few perfectly adequate possibilities that won't even need cooking - fresh bread; good cheese; ham; sometimes (although rarely) salami; olives; leftovers (the best food in the world, except for the bits of roast lamb the cook is allowed to eat while carving); crisps (the equal best food in the world).

If sweet treats are more the way my thoughts are running, I know I will almost always find dried figs and dates in the cupboard, and more often than not there's a mini-Magnum snaffled away somewhere in the freezer, plus a few slices of cake or some biscuits - generally not quite at the peak of freshness, it has to be acknowledged - lurking in the cake tin.

But these things - and even more exotic possibilities, involving cooking, such as steak and a rocket and tomato salad or a fresh piece of salmon, with a dash of soy and balsamic, plus fresh spinach - are not, on these occasions, quite what I'm looking for. Indeed, nothing at all in existence fits the bill of what I'm after at these moments, unless somehow the potential embodied in the smell of coffee or of grilling bacon can actually be captured and eaten.

In the same way, occasionally, as I'm faffing about aimlessly on the Internet, I realise that once again I'm hunting for something I can't define - not a particular piece of information or a response to an email, but some indefinable essence of something, some evaporating wisp of an idea that I can't even visualise, let alone put a name to.

Am I alone in this? Is this just my own individual madness, or is it a common syndrome I suffer from? Perhaps it even has a name, this odd, ineffable sense of longing for something that can never be defined, let alone attained.

(Postscript: I just read this on the lovely First Known When Lost blog. It seems strangely apposite.)

Monday, 16 July 2012

Nothing is New

My good friend @deniswright alerted me this morning to a Guardian  report about New York's passion for a Hungarian writer called László Krasznahorkai. I'd already read about him, as it happened, in the London Review of Books, and it had become clear to me then that he was, as my little sister once said about the news, when she wanted, aged about six, to change to another television channel, "too interesting" for me, in the same way that Finnegan's Wake always has been.

Having read the article Denis sent, I returned to the book I am reading at the moment, Becoming Dickens, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, which meant that almost immediately after reading this in Denis's Guardian article:

"Krasznahorkai spoke in English ... offering the opinion that the full stop 'doesn't belong to human beings, it belongs to God', which is why he doesn't much care for paragraph breaks"

I came upon a description of a kind of pantomime one-man show put on each year in London in the 1830s by a character called Charles Mathews. It was called an "At Home", and Charles Dickens loved it. It was one of Mathews's characters that particularly caught my eye:

"Miss Never-End, 'who despises colons and semi-colons, and never in her life could be induced to make use of a full stop'."

Have we become wiser, with our reverence for Miss Never-End's modern representative, or is Krasznahorkai wearing the latest set of emperor's new clothes?

I am not actually posing the question from a position of entrenched conservatism. I genuinely do wonder what is the purpose of fiction that is very hard to get through, despite being,  in small chunks, undoubtedly beautiful and fascinating in its detailed description of an individual experience of existence.

To give a taste of the kind of thing a reader deals with in Krasznahorkai, here is an example, (via his translator, George Szertes, of course, and who knows how much of the passage's beauty is in the original - my Hungarian is nowhere near up to judging  - and how much added by the translator [but that's a whole other question]):

“In the tense silence the continual buzzing of the horseflies was the only audible sound, that and the constant rain beating down in the distance, and, uniting the two, the ever more frequent scritch-scratch of the bent acacia trees outside, and the strange nightshift work of the bugs in the table legs and in various parts of the counter whose irregular pulse measured out the small parcels of time, apportioning the narrow space into which a word, a sentence or a movement might perfectly fit. The entire end-of-October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the power of the eye they don't hang together. So with the door left open as if forever, with the lock that will never open. There is a chasm, a crevice.”

I suppose I am really unsure about what fiction is supposed to do. I find it hard to rid myself of the idea that, given reading is an optional extra rather than a necessity, a writer's duty is not to be difficult, but to entertain at least a little - and then, within the entertainment, anything can be smuggled in. Thus, George Eliot, in Middlemarch produced a work in which the reader identified with certain characters in a quite soap-operaish kind of way - or at least I did (barracking from the sidelines, willing Dorothea not to marry Casaubon, et cetera) - and then, within that framework, produced one of the most extraordinary portraits of human existence ever written, studded with perceptive observations and wisdom.

Once duty in fiction shifts from the writer to the reader - I must read this, it's dense and tough but it will surely be good for me, like All Bran - I can't help wondering if the writer hasn't betrayed his audience. I'm not suggesting that Gone with the Wind is better than Finnegan's Wake. I think I'm saying that neither of them are really successful - or perhaps, in the case of Gone with the Wind, that it is successful on its own terms but I find it unsatisfying and, in the case of Finnegan's Wake, or Krasznahorkai's work, that I'm not sure what the terms are that these works are trying to succeed on, but they don't seem to be terms that include giving pleasure to readers - and, if they aren't interested in their potential readers, what is their reason for being, for what is a written work made for if not for a reader?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Street Theatre from the West Country

My older daughter, who lives in Bristol, (and is available for commissions [loves doing portraits and paints beautifully, as well as draws, should you be looking for the perfect present]) found three young entrepreneurs outside her house yesterday, selling compliments for 20p. "I bought one", she said and "they wrote 'lovely hair and nice attitude'. Awww ... They were also selling jokes for 20p . They were saying 'buy one compliment for 20p, and one joke for 20p and you get a free laugh!'"

So far so good. But, in my daughter's words, there was:

"a sad ending to the story:  Came out of my house about an hour after I took this picture, to see the girls running merrily up to various pedestrians on my street. They then approached a rather scruffy looking chap, cradling a bottle of chardonnay, they announced 'compliments for 20p!! feel good!' to the man, who stumbled out of their way, turned to them and shouted 'FUCK OFF YOU STUPID LITTLE CUNTS!!' . He stumbled off down the road. There was a shocked silence... the girls looked deflated and a bit frightened. I tried to rectify the situation slightly by shouting back at the man something like 'DON'T BE SO RUDE!', but i think it was pretty ineffective... a little bit of innocence was lost today in bristol :-(."

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Grudging Praise

Following on from my objections to Starbuck's turning up in Vienna, I suppose I should admit that they do do some things well. I only realised this clearly the other day when I was at Luton Airport, standing in a corridor between WH Smith's and Starbuck's (yes, I know they don't use the apostrophe, but they ought to) waiting for my flight to Budapest to open for check-in.

In WH Smith everything was a bit grubby. The ceiling was a series of plastic perforated chequerboards, into which lights and fire-sprays had been recessed. Every now and again one of the chequerboards would be replaced with a square containing four fluorescent tubes, inadequately disguised by pierced metal covers, and in a couple of places a space had been carved out to accommodate a large beige plastic air-conditioner. These machines were grimy and had patchy stains like the burns you sometimes see in formica in cheap hotels, where some former occupant has put down a cigarette and forgotten about it. In one place, any kind of cover was missing, and you could look up into a dark cavity full of blackened piping. Most sinister of all, at intervals across the ceiling, almost unnoticeable unless you really paid attention, were the glossy inverted domes of CCTV cameras.

Arranged along the top of the walls, at the point where they met the ceiling, were metal-framed plastic panels announcing on a dull blue background that WH Smith is No.1 for magazines. Beneath these were ranks and ranks of metal shelving, filled with books, magazines and sweets, set out without any discernible effort to produce an attractive impression rather than just shoving the goods within reach of the public. The floor was covered in murky grey-green linoleum tiles, which had become splotched over time with unidentifiable, but seemingly indelible, black, slightly rubbery-looking splatters.

The whole scene was pretty uninviting and so I was surprised when a group of Poles elbowed me out of the way in their eagerness to empty the container I was standing beside. It contained fridge magnets of telephone booths and post boxes, both of a design too pretty to be considered practical for current manufacture, and of the lamented Routemaster bus.

Having been displaced by the Poles, I went across to the Starbuck's opposite. Their ceiling was uniform, a system of clean steel mesh, their flooring was wood, intercut with dark ceramic tiles that looked a bit like stone. Their tables were wooden, their chairs were wood or padded leather - or leather-lookalike - designed to look like something in a comfortable club. There were wooden bookshelves with products arranged attractively on them, as if they were on a dresser in someone's cottage kitchen - and near them wicker baskets, not plastic tubs, piled with more goods. Over the (wooden) counter lamps with metal bowl-shaped shades shed a warm light on customers.

Where WH Smith's interior was semi-industrial, the whole design of this place was intended to make you feel that you were not in an airport but a domestic interior. The use of wood and wicker, instead of metal and plastic, was beguiling in such surroundings. I had to take my hat off to the people behind the whole enterprise. They had got the outward look of the place so right. Given the effort they'd put into the exterior features of their business, though, I found it even more baffling that they hadn't addressed the central thing they do with a similar level of concentration. Their coffee is, quite frankly, disgusting and no amount of interior design can change that fact.

Friday, 13 July 2012

I Was a Poet, but I Did Not Know It

When my children were little, I earned money, while staying at home, by being a transcriber. Little did I know that those women of my acquaintance who, having made the decision to not stay at home with their children but to continue instead with their glittering careers (composed mainly of long afternoons in stuffy offices trying not to fall asleep as their colleagues droned through dull meetings) and consequently looked down their immaculately made-up noses at me (no, no, it didn't rankle at all, I'm not in the slightest bit bitter, hem hem) were utterly wrong in assuming that transcribing was a menial task.

It turns out that, as a transcriber, I could have been a contender - in the poetic world at least. There is in fact, according to the 10 May 2012 (note, not 1 April, as you may assume by the time you've read the rest of this post) issue of the London Review of Books, a man called Kenneth Goldsmith who publishes poetry - or rather 'poetry' - that consists of transcriptions of radio broadcasts.

He has, for example, created a work called Traffic, which is his transcription of an entire day of traffic reports from New York. He has 'created' another called Sports which - you guessed it - is a transcription of the radio commentary of a sports event  (a baseball game, as it happens, but I imagine it could have been taken from cricket or golf or even synchronised swimming and still produced a pretty similar result). He has also 'created' Weather - by now, I need not go into details; I assume it's pretty simple to work out the content of that one.

Goldsmith, with what I have to admit is an admirable level of honesty, describes what he does as 'uncreative writing'. He also happily admits that his books are 'impossible to read straight through. In fact', he goes on, 'every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly.' He claims that 'writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance'. If he is so concerned about textual abundance, I can't help wondering, why has he chosen to add to the problem with works such as Day, a retyping of one issue of the New York Times, and Soliloquy, a transcription of every word that he, the 'poet' Goldsmith, spoke for a week.

Unfortunately, Goldsmith is not an isolated prankster. There's a whole lot of these con-artists - sorry, I mean 'neo-modernists' - out there it seems. Another prominent figure in uncreative writing circles (where being unoriginal is the most highly prized quality, I assume) is a person called Tan Lin, who reckons, 'It would be nice to create works of literature that didn't have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats' (which makes you wonder what definition of 'literature' he is working from) and states that 'Today no poem should be written to be read and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them.'

My response may be absurdly blinkered but I can't help it. It can be summed up in just one word and that word is 'Why?' Why would what Lin describes be the best form of poetry? Why are transcriptions of newspapers or traffic reports worth any of our attention (except when we want to know the news or to find out whether the road home is navigable)?

If you have nothing to say, don't bother. Transcribing stuff is not a substitute for creating content. No-one has an obligation to write - there are already plenty of books in the world and keen readers are diminishing in number. On the other hand, if we are going to redefine poetry then I'm going to start a new school that is not about putting things down on paper at all. My poems aren't going to be written in any way - quite the reverse. A sequence of poems will be a sequence of hours in which I sit quietly reading. From now on, each time I finish reading a book, I'm going to call the whole process of having read it 'a poem'. And when I've created a hundred 'poems' - or maybe several hundred - I'll be expecting a Queen's Medal or even, perhaps a Nobel Prize.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Street Theatre

It was a wild night at our place in Budapest. After days of intense sun and no wind or cloud at all, thunder came rumbling in and flashes of lightning split the darkness. My husband's playtrack shifted with appropriately lightning speed to 'Stormy Weather', which is more his usual style than Joni Mitchell. I sat on our corner balcony and watched events in the two streets that converge directly beneath us.

Around midnight there was an explosion of shouting from one of the flats at the bottom of the building. It was so loud that people came running out from a nearby restaurant and stood before the windows behind which, presumably, the accompanying fight was taking place. From their reactions, plus the roaring fury of the voices, things were looking pretty hairy in there. There was talk of calling the emergency services. However, the obvious strength of our neighbours' rage was so great that it was almost certain to be unsustainable. Sure enough, after ten minutes, the howls of anger diminished to whimpers. Some pretty vigorous door slamming followed and then quiet descended once again.

But not for long. A taxi driver came hurtling round the corner next, racing down the street at frantic speed. When he saw an earthmover rising up in front of him, blocking his way (the street is being dug up and cobbled so that it will soon be a semi-pedestrianised zone) he braked violently. Then he threw his vehicle into reverse and started backwards at equally high speed, ramming straight into a heap of as yet unlaid cobbles that, presumably, he hadn't noticed.

After a pause during which he tried unsuccessfully to move the car forward and free of the stones he'd got caught up in, he leapt out, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man with a dyed comb-over (very Death in Venice but only in this solitary respect, to be honest) and rapper clothing - bright white shoes and similarly dazzling white shorts, a large black nylon sleeveless basketballer's shirt and lots of medallions and crosses on chains. Having assessed the situation, he passed his hand through his meagre hair and spat. Then he reached back into the car for his mobile.

For about five minutes he sprang about, gesticulating and yelling into the telephone and, almost before you knew it. a whole fleet of fellow taxis were gathered about him. Amidst more shouting and leaping, the stranded taxi was liberated. The other taxis melted into the night almost as quickly as they had arrived, and our man was left kneeling at the rear of his car, trying fruitlessly to reattach a broken piece of chassis to the back bumper.

All the while - indeed, since late afternoon, outside one of the classier cafes on the adjoining street, a drunk had been the centre of a different kind of narrative. For some reason, around five he had come staggering along and, pausing, the idea had come to him that this would be a pleasant place to spend a few hours. Having settled himself just beside the doorway of a cafe-bar and opposite the outside tables of the corner restaurant, he produced a bottle and began to drink. In between swigs he made announcements to the street in general, trailing off from time to time into little moments of interior reflection - or possibly falling briefly asleep. Various members of the cafe-bar's staff came out to look at him as he made himself more and more at home. When he started to sing, three of them all appeared together. Luckily, his attention was soon caught again by his by now nearly empty bottle, and, by the time he'd drained it, the urge to sing seemed to have passed.

Even from the third floor, it was obvious that the drunk was filthy. He wore a grimy blue-plaid shirt, its buttons undone, black smeared trousers and matching boots. His skin was that rusty colour that drunks' skin often becomes. Perhaps because I was looking at him from above, seeing the top of his sweaty head - that very first part of the anatomy that most humans thrust into the world - I found I couldn't help thinking about how, despite the state he was in, he must once have had a family. To someone, at least for a while, he must have been a beloved son. Yet none of the passersby seemed to notice him - and those that did steered a wide berth.

At least they did until a young man - not an especially attractive or caring looking type, just a bloke in shorts, flash trainers and a polo shirt - emerged from under the awning of a restaurant table and went up to the drunk and offered him a cigarette. The drunk accepted the offer and, after lighting his own, the bloke knelt down in a way that was oddly moving and, cupping his hands around the drunk's, lit the cigarette he'd given him. Once he was sure it was going properly, the Good Samaritan (and ,despite recognising that smoking is bad for you et cetera, I think the bloke was a Good Samaritan), stood up and reached out his hand and shook the drunk's hand warmly. They exchanged a few words, the bloke shook the drunk's hand again, I think this time slipping him some money, and then he went on his way.

The drunk looked after him, possibly as astonished and admiring as I was. He smoked his fag and, when he'd had enough, he carefully stubbed out the flame and stowed what was left behind his ear. He turned and at first I thought he was going to crawl across the pavement for some reason, but then I realised he was merely making an ungainly attempt to stand up. Eventually he managed this, collected up his belongings and set off in the direction of his mentor.

A snatch of music from the little record shop further down the street must have caught his ear, for, instead of walking, the drunk began to waltz unsteadily with an unseen partner. All was going well. I was thinking increasingly sentimentally about seeing the best in all humankind and doing good unto others. Then the drunk spun his wobbly way into our street and, perhaps registering the fresh cleanliness of the cobbles, remembered there was something else he had to do. Squaring up groggily to the wall of the house opposite, he undid his fly and began to pee. I went inside.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Hotel Nonsense

I have already said enough on the subject of hotels and towels, but I feel I've hardly begun on the other mad things you find when you stay in one or other of the world's big chains. Here are two examples of loopy messages left for room occupants in a place I stayed recently. Each of them is probably the result of memos, meetings, policy documents and inter-departmental protocols. Each of them is batty:
Wearing a shower cap is such a mood changer - especially if you do it in a crowded restaurant or diplomatic cocktail party

Who would have thought?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Vienna's Faces

We were only in Vienna overnight but, even in that short time, as well as seeing a dog that someone I know will love (the picture was on display in the window of a very grand curtain and upholstery material shop):
and an amazing, if headless, cake:

(plus reacquainting myself with Austria's K und K obsession):

(it appears that some people need to feel K und K right down to their underwear), I also saw an awful lot of new faces:

Among them were the figures on the facade of Cafe Central, which, apparently, represent all the different peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire:

Can anyone identify which one is which?

Not forgetting @aptronym, I also snapped one or two particularly striking doorways: