Sunday, 26 November 2017

True Crime

I love the crime fiction of what is called the Golden Age - the books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers especially. Of course, I've always known, vaguely, that they have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that happened or happens in the actual world I live in. I've also been vaguely aware that there are many people now who have a passion for another kind of crime narrative called "True Crime" but until I looked at a couple of BBC documentaries about detectives working in the Manchester police, I didn't realise how sad and complex true crime stories can be.

In the two documentaries that I saw, the Manchester police were working on two cases. The first involved trying to work out who had killed a young homeless man who was found bashed to death in an area underneath some arches in the city. There he and various others of about his age who had somehow lost their way in life and succumbed to idleness, drugs and drink, had established something they thought was a kind of home. None of the people involved seemed irredeemably depraved, just lost and so hopelessly misguided that getting back to anything approaching a stable existence seemed unlikely. They were people's children but, for whatever reason - either never having themselves had stable homes or perhaps just wilfully - they had tumbled out of normal life. Yet they imagined they had established some kind of little tribe or team, a band of brothers (and one sister), until one night violence broke out, pointlessly, senselessly, and one of them was savaged to death by the others.

The second case also involved homeless people but the victim was not homeless, just extremely confused. He was a young student who, for whatever reason, began to try to hang round some drunks who spent their time in an open space in the city centre. The student told the drunks he had started to like wearing women's clothes. Possibly he also came along dressed in women's clothes - this wasn't made absolutely clear.

Anyway one of the drunks became very angry and chased the student away, with threats of violence. The student disappeared for a while but, when he turned up again, the drunk who had chased him away decided to pretend not to mind him and even asked if he could come to his house for a shower. When the student agreed and the two went to the place where he lived, the drunk murdered him. He then gave himself up to the police, explaining that he knew he would do it again and he wanted to be locked up.

This murderer was a wretched soul, but he had the redeeming quality of being able to stand outside himself. He had done a terrible thing but I found it astonishing that he was able to recognise that there was one part of his personality that he couldn't control and, puzzlingly, given the deeply immoral thing he had just done, to make a moral choice to prevent himself from ever doing such a thing again. The film included a poignant sequence in which we saw this man talking to his mother on the telephone, comforting her, telling her that she must always have known this would happen, that he'd always been a wrong 'un, persuading her that he had to be locked up as he didn't want to kill again and knew he couldn't stop himself.

This was so puzzling - a man who was capable of great evil, who had committed an act of great evil, who believed he could not prevent himself from repeating that act, but who also did not want to commit evil. Thus, in the same body, there existed two contradictory impulses, and he was attempting to overcome the evil that was part of him by having himself locked up.

These were not entertaining stories, there was none of the sense you get in Agatha Christie of a perfect world, its calm shattered briefly by violence, but by the end everything mended and made orderly again. This was reality, not escapism, this was the messiness of human beings and our strange nature. These stories were much more intriguing, of course, than the entertainments featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. All the same, an evening on the Orient Express was, on the whole, the more enjoyable experience, while I recognise that all we were being given was a beautiful pantomime.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Pensioned Off I

Until recently, my husband used to disappear for hours and hours and tether himself to a desk in an office where he worked incredibly hard, only being released for a week here and there, when we would dash off somewhere, exhilirated for the first two days but gradually overwhelmed by the knowledge that the days of holiday ahead were becoming fewer and the moment when he had to return and chain himself back to the desk in the office were approaching rapidly.

However, on 6th October, blessed day, my husband became a pensioner. Now we are free to travel with no prospect of an end. While I hope that we will not actually just end up in perpetual motion, for the time being I understand his pleasure in whizzing off in the car, exploring new places, with the knowledge that, should he wish, the trip need never end. No desk, no office, no chain in prospect. This is freedom.

My husband - henceforth, I guess, to be known as the pensioner, thus avoiding absurdly regal "my husband and I" echoes  - is someone more full of curiosity and more meticulous about researching what interests him than anyone I have ever known. He asks questions I never think of, making me feel that I pass through the world with my brain switched off. Our travels are usually dictated by his pursuit of some abstruse line of inquiry that is preoccupying him. This makes things often unusual and varyingly interesting.

To begin this holiday, the newly fledged pensioner chose Bohinj in Slovenia as our destination. We had been there almost twenty years ago and he was a) curious to know whether the place had changed much and b) eager to see the hotel where Agatha Christie once stayed, which he had heard was undergoing renovation.

It turned out that Bohinj as a landscape had not changed and was still very beautiful:

The falls at the end of Bohinj Lake have also remained the same, but the numbers of people climbing up to see them has increased enormously:

The authorities have also fenced everything in since our last visit. In earlier times we were able to sit right by the waterfall itself. Some busybody must have decided this was unsafe - or some idiot must have fallen in and drowned.

On the positive side, this memorial is now unmissable, whereas it never was so prominent in the past, so far as I remember:
It commemorates a visit to the falls by Archduke John of Austria on 15 August 1807. Very little seems to have resulted from this visit other than the erection of this memorial, which commemorates the visit that resulted in the memorial. This somehow reminds me not only of the "My name is Ron Ronson, I live in Wisconsin" ditty in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 but also of the time when it was Harvest Festival at the English Church in Vienna (where we were living - Vienna generally, I mean, not the church specifically) and autumn leaves, apples, pumpkins et cetera had been placed about the church to decorate it in a suitable way.  The wonderful vicar there, Jeremy Peake, asked the children who were present that day why the church was decorated thus and one replied, 'Because it is Harvest Festival.' 'Yes', Jeremy said encouragingly, 'and what do we do at Harvest Festival?' "Decorate the church like this', came the answer.

Sadly, some of our compatriots also felt the need to commemorate their visit to Bohinj:

thus assisting in ruining this rather pretty wooden hut:

I suppose it would be racist to point out that someone called Drago may not have been an Australian for terribly long or have deep cultural roots in our fine nation, and therefore should not be judged as expressing the nation's soul, so I won't.

We walked from the end of the lake where we were staying all the way to the falls and then back along the other side of the lake, where we came upon a war cemetery. A storyboard at the entrance explained that when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, Bohinj became the "immediate rear end" (I think this could have been phrased more elegantly) of the battlefield in the Krn mountain range. The main supply route of the 15th Austro-Hungarian Mountain Brigade ran through Bohinj, (presumably the town, rather than the lake) and the final stage of the military aerial cableway leading to Komna Mountain was at this spot, called Ukanc, where there were several warehouses of military material and many, mostly Russian, prisoners of war. The troops left Bohinj in November 1917, after the Italians retreated to the Piave River but from June 1915 to November 1917 infantry soldiers were buried at Ukanc, particularly after fierce battles in the summer and autumn of 1915. There are 282 graves in the cemetery. Most of those buried there are Hungarian, Polish or Ukrainian, although there are also Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, Romanians, Serbs and Slovenes, as well as 17 Russian, 2 Romanian and 1 Italian prisoners of war, who built military roads, railways, cut wood, carried military supplies, et cetera, and were not given much food, according to the board. As many as 14 graves have been lost or contain two soldiers.

I had no idea until we stumbled upon it that this peaceful place had been the scene of anything remotely warlike, but I was clearly naive:

But let's talk about happy things - in this case, the Slovene approach to design, which is individual and rather sweet. We didn't see any men with circular white faces accompanied by small girls with aerials coming out of their heads nor any children filled with innocent vim, but presumably they appear from time to time:

At our hotel, we were never quite certain which of these meant that the cleaning lady could come into our room and which meant she couldn't:
Psst - clean my room now?
Do you fancy bringing a budgie and a broom in now?

Actually, I've just remembered - we didn't actually start in Bohinj; that was just where we stopped overnight. Our very first stop of all - although only for a few hours - was Siofok, where we visited the birthplace of Emmerich Kalman, creator of numerous operettas, most successfully, in my opinion, The Gypsy Princess. These pictures show rooms in the museum they have made from the house where he was born:

Kalman, like his fellow countryman and fellow operetta composer, Lehar, produced work that Hitler liked. However, while Lehar attempted to compromise with the Nazi regime - (this is from Wikipedia on the subject: Lehár's relationship with the Nazi regime was an uneasy one. He had always used Jewish librettists for his operas and had been part of the cultural milieu in Vienna which included a significant Jewish contingent.[2] Further, although Lehár was Roman Catholic, his wife, Sophie (née Paschkis) had been Jewish before her conversion to Catholicism upon marriage, and this was sufficient to generate hostility towards them personally and towards his work. Hitler enjoyed Lehár's music, and hostility diminished across Germany after Joseph Goebbels' intervention on Lehár's part.[3] In 1938 Mrs. Lehár was given the status of "Ehrenarierin" (honorary Aryan by marriage).[4] Nonetheless, attempts were made at least once to have her deported. The Nazi regime was aware of the uses of Lehár's music for propaganda purposes: concerts of his music were given in occupied Paris in 1941. Even so, Lehár's influence was limited. It is alleged that he tried personally to secure Hitler's guarantee of the safety of one of his librettists, Fritz Löhner-Beda, but he was not able to prevent the murder of Beda in Auschwitz-III.[5]
On 12 January 1939 and 30 April 1940 Lehár had personally received awards by Hitler in Berlin and Vienna, including the Goethe Medal.[6] On Hitler's birthday in 1938 Lehár had given him as a special gift a red Morocco leather volume in commemoration of the 50th performance of The Merry Widow.[7]) )
Kalman did not. Like Lehar's wife, Kalman was offered the status of honorary Aryan but wisely refused it, (such a revolting offer). In the museum, the exhibit that most intrigued me was a newspaper clipping showing a photograph of Kalman and Lehar meeting after the war. There is something about Kalman's expression that suggests a kind of pity and Lehar has a melancholy about him. I wonder what their feelings towards each other were.

Anyway, to return to Bohinj, after the rather miserable discovery of the war cemetery, we continued on and were soon cheered not only by the rather sweet road signs but also by the sight of this church:

As I mentioned, part of the pensioner's aim in revisiting Bohinj was to take a look at a hotel where Agatha Christie once stayed, (and, possibly slightly less significantly, where we once had lunch 30 years ago).

To this end, on the morning of the day following our hike around the lake, we set off in the direction where we remembered the hotel standing. We soon found it but, sadly, it was quite abandoned and appeared to have been for some time, (this is not the first abandoned hotel to turn up on this blog, by the way):

We agreed that the hotel, regrettably, now belonged to a category invented inadvertently by my mother-in-law when she came to stay while we were looking for a flat to buy in Budapest. Her invariable comment as we went from one dauntingly dilapidated place to another was, (in not entirely enthusiastic tones): "Could be lovely". This phrase, shortened to CBL, has passed into our own private dialect.

Sadly, back at our own hotel, we were told the Christie hotel has now been bought and the new owners intend to knock down every part of it except the stone base. They will then rebuild it, making it "nice and modern". The receptionist did not understand why we were shocked by this. "It is made of wood", she said, as if this were a bad thing. "Yes", we said, "it is made of wood", as if this were a good thing. It was obvious that we were never going to find a meeting of minds. Presumably, the renovation will wipe out even the interior of the room where Christie stayed, which until now has been preserved and which you can see if you click on the photographs at the top of the page here. Incidentally, although the hotel is shown on that page as having a price of two million euros, we were told it was sold to the Catholic Church of Slovenia for a mere six hundred thousand. So clearly any potential  investors in that part of the world need to think carefully about offering full price.

Sadly, there are other lovely abandoned hotels in the neighbourhood:

 This one stands empty, facing the kind of modern one that the receptionist and, sadly, I suspect, her fellow locals think has much more style:

Never mind, the evening after we were in Bohinj, we ended up in a small place in Bavaria where they were celebrating the feast of St Leonhard. There was no suggestion that anyone there thought that there should be a shred of out with the old and in with the new anywhere ever; the entire population of the village where we were staying had come out dressed in traditional costume and were intent on getting traditionally plastered while eating hearty traditional food:
Okay, sorry, that was rather long and I do recognise that I have said more than enough for now. I suppose I ought to admit though that, having covered a good deal more territory since St Leonhard's day and got excited by all sorts of things I have seen and done since then, there will almost certainly be more blog entries like this one - Internet age slide nights, essentially. You have been warned.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Budapest Dreaming I

We're on a trip away from Budapest and, although its only been a few days, I'm missing the city already. To help explain why, here is a little post showing the numerous things I saw that I thought lovely or intriguing during a really pretty short walk that I made the day before we left the city.

The walk took me from the city's main market up the bottom end of the famous pedestrian street called Vaci utca to the bank we use, where I had to organise some stuff. I've done that walk lots of times before but, as always, I quickly realised that there is always more to see.

To begin, I deliberately came out on the river side of the market so that I could look up the street to my right and admire this lovely building:

Then I crossed the ring road and walked toward the building I'd been admiring - and then past it and round the corner, noticing for the first time this rather charmingly gormless person on the facade of a dashingly salmon-painted building a little further along the same stretch:

and a lion on another nearby:
 In fact quite a few lions:
Lions can get a bit boring - their sculptors never seem to make as much effort to give them character as they do with the faces of people.

I've walked this stretch so many times but until the other afternoon I'd never noticed all the decorative faces and figures there were to admire:

The best discovery was an adorable sequence of what you might call scenes from childhood stretching across the front of a Serbian church edifice:

A little further on I stopped to admire one of my favourite buildings on that stretch of Vaci utca - I love the eaves especially:

I don't know how I could never have noticed that the next section contains buildings whose decorative features give the Brussels Art Nouveau facades I grew to love a good run for their money:

Before I reached those though, there were a few more traditional decorations I hadn't really taken notice of before, including one building with the kind of peering out of porthole faces that I first saw on an ancient bank in Siena and that I particularly love:

I cannot have walked even a kilometre but there was so much to look at. Budapest is an endlessly visually interesting city - I don't think I've been anywhere that quite rivals it:

Right at the end of my walk, I came upon these two intriguing memorials. This attractive scene seems to be in honour of King Charles XII of Sweden who rested on the spot where it hangs after riding to Budapest from Turkey in the early 18th century - flipping long way to come without any rest earlier:

This one presumably indicates that once a pottery operated on the spot where a rather lavish building now stands. Intriguing. I will have to try to find out more
When your other home is Canberra, a planned city brought into being by bureaucrats in the early 20th century, (and a very lovely place to live, don't imagine I'm criticising, only comparing and contrasting), it is exciting to feel history all around you in the way one does in Budapest. And perhaps after all I am criticising just a little, in the sense that Canberra's architecture is mostly post-1960 and rarely reveals new details to the passer by, in the way Budapest's invariably does.