Monday, 24 December 2018

Presents 3 - No Longer Needed

If you have lived somewhere where there are shortages or rampant inflation, you tend to get into the habit of buying things when you see them, usually getting multiples and hoarding, in case you never see them in the shops again. It is a neurotic impulse that is hard to break when you are back in a land of plenty, and for me it led on to a decades-long habit of buying presents throughout the year, in often absurdly early preparation (think January sales early) for Christmas. If I saw something lovely that I considered would be perfect for someone for whom I thought I would need a Christmas present later, I'd buy it and put it away, regardless of the date.

Not any more.

I've learned my lesson. Through sad experience, it has at last dawned on me that storing up things for the future is fairly pointless if that future never actually arrives.

The thing is, you lose touch with people sometimes. You move to a new place and somehow the bonds of friendship do not survive the added element of distance. Or you simply run out of things to say to each other. Or your friend's husband decides you are insufficiently woke and your friend decides it is easier to let things slide.

More jarringly, you are outright dropped, as in the startling case of my stepmother. I still have the book I bought for her that I thought would make a perfect Christmas present in 2008. It sits on an upper shelf, along with a few other presents, forlornly waiting to thrill recipients who will never appear. Unfortunately, between that book’s purchase and Advent, my stepmother mysteriously cut me out of her life. Even when my brother died, she did not bother to get in touch. He was her stepson, but apparently, despite our best efforts, we had inspired in her no longlasting affection.

And, speaking of my brother, that leads me to the saddest element of all that relates to presents - the impulse to buy things for someone who is no longer here to receive. The realisation that you have found the thing that would give most pleasure to someone that you love but that you cannot give it to them and they cannot receive it - that is one of the devastating ways that grief ambushes you.

It is just one element of the slowly growing awareness that missing someone is not a thing that passes, not a stage that you go through and emerge from eventually, unscathed. Missing someone, you finally recognise, is permanent. You don’t get over it; you only learn how to live with it. You make a space in your life, and it is filled by an absence. Although there is nothing there, it feels like a boulder, a huge dark heavy object always by your side.

And on that cheery note, a very happy Christmas to everyone and best wishes and great hopes for a peaceful, generous and kind world in the new year.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Presents - Part 2 - False Friends

Some people call presents "gifts". I probably used to. But then I moved to Vienna and encountered the German language. Now, I never give anyone gifts.

My aversion to gifts is the result of my first attempt to buy one in a German speaking environment. It was not long before Christmas and a friend of mine back in Australia had given birth to a little boy. I decided that the Christmas market in front of the Rathaus in Vienna would be a perfect place to buy a present for the baby. I was hoping to find a cuddly toy he could have in his cot with him, or a wooden wheeled object he could, when a little older, roll about the kitchen floor.

But I was stumped. While there were lots and lots of lovely things for sale, each time I looked closer I found they bore labels on which were written the words "Nicht Giftig". Was it an Austrian law or a local custom that prevented these things from being presented as gifts, I wondered. I had been told years before that the Scots believe you should never give a knife as a present but why on earth would you prohibit people from providing children with teddies and wooden trains?

It must be the European Union, I decided, health and safety and the fact that all these things were handmade and so hadn't had an inspector check that they wouldn't choke a child or cause them harm. And while I disapproved of such measures and loved the idea of giving something that the child receiving it wouldn't find seven identical examples of lying under the tree, I didn't want my friend's child's dath on my conscience.

So I left the Christmas market and went to a department store, which was full of factorymade things. Like most shopping these days, it was pretty dispiriting as nothing there possessed beauty or had been made with a craftsman's skill. On the other hand, most things, having been made in China, had packaging printed in English, including messages about being safe for infants.

It was only after Christmas that I enrolled in German language lessons. Too late I discovered what "giftig" really meant.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Battered Penguins - The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield*

I discovered The Strange Death of Liberal England via another blog and decided to read it as I had just finished The Great Calamity, about famine in Ireland, which left me with the surprised impression that it was the Liberal Party and not the Conservative Party, as I had ignorantly imagined, that behaved with such astonishing lack of compassion during the terrible period of the potato blight.

However, the Irish famine is outside the time frame Dangerfield chose for his chronicle of Liberal England's strange death. His tale begins some decades later, in the early twentieth century. It covers the years just before the First World War.

Dangerfield's thesis is that our view of the years before 1914 as a time of glorious, innocent perfection is completely and utterly wrong. What he sets out to demonstrate is that, rather than the First World War shattering a beautiful, ordered calm, the conflict actually came along just in time to prevent chaos - precipitated partly by Suffragettism, partly by unionism and partly by the question of Irish Home Rule - from engulfing Great Britain. "The great General Strike of 1914, forestalled by some bullets at Sarajevo, has slipped away into the limbo of unfinished arguments" Dangerfield tells us, adding that there might have been a civil war in Britain, but "these events have expired, unborn in the enormous womb of history."

Dangerfield nominates the year 1910 as his starting point, because it is "a landmark in English history, which stands out against a peculiar background of flame". He goes on to explain that his book "is not a record of personalities but of events", but he is deluded in this statement, as his book provides exactly the opposite of what he claims. As a result, while I remain fairly confused about the sequence of events Dangerfield attempts to chronicle, particularly those relating to Irish Home Rule, I have emerged from his book extremely grateful for the new and wonderfully vivid portraits he provides of the personalities of the time.

In fact, Dangerfield's perceptive and witty descriptions of personalities are what make this book so good. For instance, who could not laugh at Dangerfield's characterisation of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as:

"an elderly and rich Presbyterian whose three passions in life were his wife, the French nation, and his collection of walking sticks"

or his summing up of Lloyd George as:

"less a Liberal than a Welshman on the loose"

Thanks to Dangerfield, Asquith, who has been a familiar name to me all my life, is now a living figure in my mind. Dangerfield describes him as:

"a man extravagantly moderate … moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive", a man who "had the sort of character which is so often found in the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford and Cambridge - that is to say, he was almost completely lacking in imagination or enthusiasm",  a man with "a bland and weary face, in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a standstill", who displayed "a certain lack of ardour, which often comes upon men who have given their youth to the Bar".

Mr Arthur James Balfour, one time Prime Minister and Conservative Leader, is another statesman who is now vivid in my imagination, thanks to Dangerfield - who through his conjuring of Balfour's character, (which in tone reminds me of Dickens's wonderful skewering of the Veneerings and their ilk in Our Mutual Friend), also summons up a whole, vanished milieu:

" ... Balfour, politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school: in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead. In Westminster, being a member of the Cecil family, he was at least assured of a hearing.

He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at its lowest ebb: he pursued his speculations with the same earnestness and skill which he gave to golf, tennis, and the arrangement of dinner parties. He loved music, never got up till late in the morning, nor had ever been known to read a newspaper. He doubted everything on principle, but had never thought enough of life to distrust it. He was attractive, easy, and, as the years grew on him, fearless.

In his youth he had been known as 'pretty Fanny'; and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull: it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a skull's special property of hollow mockery its eternal memento mori - which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.

Nobody had expected much of him when he first entered Parliament; but he had developed such a sinewy and subtle dialectic, such a knowledge of Parliamentary tricks such a display of every quality except passion and leadership, as delighted his friends and not infrequently confounded his enemies".

Mr FE Smith, a close friend of Churchill, leaps from the page with similar clarity and brightness:

"He was tall, dark, slender and a little over-dressed. His eyes and hair were lustrous; the first from nature, the second from too much oil. His mouth had always a slightly contemptuous droop, his voice was a beautiful drawl. He had acquired, not diligently, but with too much ease, the airs of a fox-hunting man who could swear elegantly in Greek. Many people loved him, most distrusted him, some despised him, and he despised almost everybody".

Partly thanks to a visit to Marienbad in 2015 , I was already familiar with Edward VII's appearance, but I will be forever in debt to Dangerfield for explaining how that king appeared to his subjects and what his appeal was, given how different from our own very popular monarch his character was:

"Edward VII represented, in a concentrated shape, those bourgeois kings whose florid forms and rather dubious escapades were all the industrialised world had left of an ancient diviniity: his people saw in him the personification of something nameless, genial and phallic, the living excuse for their own little sins. ...He was never tyrannical, he was never loud, or ill-mannered; he was just comfortably disreputable.”

Dangerfield's book was written well before the Second World War, and so the man who was later to become the greatest leader of the twentieth century is seen from a less reverent perspective than our own. Dangerfield describes Churchill as "a man of strange inconsistencies", with a "chequered career", a man who "pursued the limelight as wholeheartedly as any man in England". Amidst this to us – or at least me - rather shocking irreverence, however, he does concede that it was Churchill, not Lloyd George who introduced unemployment insurance having "with characteristic clairvoyance [foreseen] its necessity when he was still President of the Board of Trade". Perhaps in that reference to 'characteristic clairvoyance', Dangerfield is unwittingly conceding that there is something special about the man he is describing and therefore showing himself at least partly prescient about the capacities that Churchill would later display.

When writing about collectives, Dangerfield demonstrates a similarly witty acuity to that he employs in resurrecting long forgotten individuals. For instance, he describes the House of Lords as "a horde of hereditary nobodies, possessed with a gentlemanly anxiety to do the wrong thing" and sums up the English gentleman as: "a species of creature which often behaves in a dutiful and disinterested fashion, but is also capable of more eccentricity than all the gentlemen in Europe combined".

In a remark that may have relevance to Great Britain and its reasons for wanting to leave the EU, Dangerfield observes that: "Free Trade had been an article of British faith - whether Liberal or Conservative" adding with a refreshing honesty about  his fellow countrymen, their motivations and their illusions about themselves, "To Englishmen ... it represented that combination of the ideal and the profitable which is peculiarly English."

The clarity and humour of Dangerfield's writing was reason enough for me to keep reading, but what makes the book especially intriguing just at the moment is the fact that the political period it covers seems to have been as chaotic as the times the United Kingdom is passing through now. The first hint of this comes in the introduction, when Paul Johnson refers to the consequences of the Lords' revolt in 1909, explaining that:

"it opened a period of relentless political warfare, in which the normal courtesies of parliamentary life were abandoned and London society split into two hostile camps".

It is hard not to think of the current state of Remainer/Brexit polarisation in London today, while reading this sentence.

Further on in the text, Dangerfield's description of the 1910 election sounds very like the last one conducted by Mrs May, as does its result:

"After a month of very dull electioneering, the country went to the polls in small numbers and recorded a lethargic opinion. As a result, the Liberals were so reduced, and the Conservatives so swollen, as to be almost equal in numbers: the Irish and Labour parties held the balance of power"

Meanwhile, in Dangerfield's summing up of the motivations of those defending the rights of the House of Lords, there are glimmers of the romantic impulse at the heart of many people's decision to choose Brexit:

"This venerable House of Lords was not simply a constitutional relic of the grat landed fortunes; it was also a fetish it meant the ideally paternal responsibility of the noble few. And though this meaning was quite irrelevant to the twentieth century, yet those who tried to preserve it were not merely idle men or arrogant men. They saw the passing of certain values which at their best were very high and at their very worst were very human; they did not realise that life consists in change, that nothing can stand still, that today's shrines are only fit for tomorrow's cattle. Clinging to the realities of the past, they prepared to defend their dead cause to the finish"

Additionally, when Dangerfield talks of "the familiar, serene incompetence of the Cabinet in 1914" I defy anyone not to think of the UK Cabinet of today

Lastly, it is impossible to read about the conference opened by the King on 21 July, 1914 in Buckingham Palace, whose vital question was "should Ulster be excluded simply for a period of years, or should it be excluded forever", without recognising that some things never change.

Dangerfield's decision to conclude the book with a close look at Rupert Brooke, who he characterises as emblematic of the pre-war period, seems something of an anti-climax, but he does mount a good argument that Brooke's vision of "the England where the Grantchester church clock stood at ten to three, where there was Beauty and Certainty and Quiet" was escapist and entirely unconnected with reality. Whether the current yearning of a large part of Britain's population to escape the European Union is fuelled by a dream of a similar Britain, it is hard to know. If it is, then disappointment beckons, if Dangerfield is right in his belief that the Brookean vision is and always was an illusion, for, if that is the case, it will presumably turn out to be an illusion in the future as well.

Someone I met shortly after beginning to read The Strange Death of Liberal England described the work as "a masterpiece of directionless irony", While I think it is a bit of a masterpiece, I would quibble with the idea that it is ironic – sardonic is the word that more accurately captures its tone. And, while on the whole Dangerfield seems perceptive and his judgments accurate, thus far in the current crisis one claim he makes, namely:

it is the genius of the English people always to raise up an appropriate man to suit every crisis"

seems thus far to be being proved extremely and utterly wrong. Let us hope that in the fullness of time that will change and, ideally without the outbreak of a third world war, catastrophe in the British Isles will yet be averted. 
*  I am once again stretching the boundaries of this series's name - the book I read is a paperback, but published by Paladin rather than Penguin. But never mind, "same diff" as people sometimes say.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Presents - Part 1 - Receiving

I love presents, getting them and giving them, although in my experience, when on the receiving side of the equation, they are usually at their best before you know exactly what they are.

I was about six when I first realised this, on a long ago Christmas morning. It was still dark when I woke, but even through the gloom I could make out a package resting at the end of my bed that hadn't been there the evening before.

I knew I had to wait until at least one other member of the family was up before touching the package, and so I lay staring at it for what seemed like hours. The sun rose, and as the pale dawn light began seeping through the window, I was able to make out the package's outline more and more clearly. To pass the time, I tried to imagine what it might contain.

I came up with fifteen or twenty possibilities before my brother burst in and we were able to start tearing paper and showing each other the things that the paper had concealed.  We each had been left, ( by someone who, despite the fact that I am a fairly credulous personality, I do not remember ever thinking was anyone other than our parents), stockings stuffed with many small things, so it took a while before I got round to the mysterious parcel.

When at last I did get to it and ripped off its wrapping, I discovered an object I hadn't even thought of lying inside.

It was a Russian nesting doll. It was made of wood, and brightly painted, and I kept it for many years. Strangely enough though, now that I remember it, I realise that I haven’t seen it in a long, long while. I don't remember throwing it away but it may have got lost on a move between one posting and another. Or perhaps at some stage I handed it on as a present to someone else's child.

If I did, I wonder what the recipient thought of it. I have to admit that when I first saw it I felt mildly disappointed, even though it was much better than most of the things I'd imagined that I was going to receive. It says much about the respect I had for the adults in my life that I had pretty much decided that what the package contained was either a blue and white china jar (my father was mad about blue and white porcelain) or a colourful enamel flower pot, (my mother loved gardening).

I didn't look forward to either of these objects - what six year old would? However, until I knew finally and definitely what exactly my present was, even if it might be one of the to-me-at-least unexciting possibilities that I had conjured up in my mind's eye, there was an oddly pleasurable uncertainty to be enjoyed.

But now I was faced with reality - this colourful nest of Russian ladies - and, in its presence, every other possibility vanished into thin air. Reality had taken the place of imagination, and it offered a narrowing of perspective. Just as it is deflating, however much you want to know "whodunnit", to arrive at a mystery story's conclusion, as the resolution can somehow never be as satisfying as the shadowy, half-formed speculations that lurk in your mind while the puzzle remains unresolved, so the sudden disappearance of all those other imaginary presents left me feeling less as if I had been given something and more as if I'd had countless unknown objects snatched away.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Happy Birthday Bram - Battered Penguin: Dracula by Bram Stoker

I feel drained today because I stayed up late with Dracula. Serves me right, wasting my time with a potboiler, some might say. Except that the book is not just a potboiler - and to the extent that it is one at all, it is a very good one - and, I suspect, innovative in its time.

But, as I say, the book is not merely a page turner. In fact,  having read it, I at last understand its ubiquitous appeal: the reason that it is so regularly referred to and parodied and updated - the beauty of the whole Bram Stoker tale, (and by the way it is Stoker's birthday) - is that it can become so easily a metaphor for other things.

In my case, I have become convinced that, if I could spend long enough - and, drained as I am, I haven't the energy just now - I could construct a superb and complex argument to the effect that Stoker's book can be taken as a metaphor for Brexit.

After all, if you look at a map that shows the territories of all the EU's member states, the geographic capital of the European Union ought really to be Budapest. Budapest is closer than any other city to the central point of the territories of all European Union members (or at least, in my geographically dyslexic way, that is how the map looks to me.) And, remembering that there is a deep belief held by many Hungarians that Transylvania is part of Hungary and taking into account that Dracula hails from Transylvania, one can take it that Dracula is the European Union and his lair in Transylvania is Brussels.

Therefore, Dracula's invasion of the British Isles and attempt to bleed England dry can definitely be taken as an allegory for current events.

Except that in Stoker's book the brave English prevail and not only drive Dracula out but manage to destroy him. Sadly, the British state is too deeply compromised to achieve such an outcome, I fear. If you want to know why I think that, have a look at this picture of the current Prime Minister of Great Britain. Poor woman, I'm sorry she has been overcome by the horrid Count, just like poor Lucy and - almost - poor Mina. However, it is clear when you look at her, that all is hopelessly lost:

If you haven't read the book, I recommend it. The beginning is a little slow and the last section is so exciting that you have to read feverishly, possibly slightly sliding over the paragraphs in a hasty rather than a careful manner. If you are in the market for a potboiler with perpetual relevance, Dracula is a remarkably good one and resonates marvellously down the years.

PS I wonder if Van Helsing in Stoker's Dracula was a forerunner for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot - his patterns of speech are very similar e.g. "While you, friend Jonathan, go in your so swift little steamboat".

Monday, 29 October 2018


Today the Times reports that the murderors of Jean McConville were Marian and Dolours Price, plus - they always insisted - a third, anonymous person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Price sisters argued that that person was the one who fired the fatal shot - but, as they admit that each one of the three fired one shot into poor, innocent McConville, this attempt to shift blame looks pretty pathetic in moral terms.

I had not heard of the Price sisters before today. It turns out that they were part of a group of people who carried out the Old Bailey bombing in 1973, in which at least 200 people were injured, (and a second bombing was intended, although it did not in the end occur, so who knows how much bloody mayhem they were willing to create). Furthermore, Marian was later involved in an attack on the Massereene Barracks in which two British soldiers were shot dead.

From my perspective, these women are violent fanatics, cold-blooded murderors of innocent people and there is no political cause that can ever justify their actions. But the gulf that lies between my perspective and that of supporters of the IRA is immense. Search for the two sisters on the internet and you are instantly met with articles that sympathise not with the sisters, but rather their hapless victims, and articles that express outrage at the sisters' - to my mind, all too brief - incarceration.

A letter written by Dolours in prison seems equally unable to imagine another perspective. Rather than expressing regret for her dreadful actions, she bemoans being deprived of the opportunity to live a full life, to have children and to love. She writes without irony, apparently unable to recognise that these were the precise consequences of her actions against Jean McConville - and, of course, not only did she deprive that poor woman of all opportunities, she deprived her children of a happy childhood.

Well, my perspective is that, no matter the cause, terrorist violence is never, ever the solution. Once the decision to commit violence indiscriminately, targeting a civilian population or someone you merely suspect of being against you, your cause has lost its legitimacy. No justification you produce about how cruel your opponents are or how rigged their system may be can ever make killing acceptable. If a new order has its foundations in bloodshed, it is corrupted and indelibly stained.

And, in the specific case of Jean McConville, a terrible, cruelty was committed and it was utterly wrong.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Adventures in the Cinema

In a cartoon by the late, great William Hamilton in a long ago New Yorker, two children, aged about nine or ten, are walking along, deep in conversation. As Hamilton's pen catches them, one is saying to the other: "Bludgeon of Death was a good movie, but Screaming Eyeball was a GREAT movie".

Reversing and paraphrasing Hamilton's caption, I would say, having just been to the new film by Laszlo Nemes, "Son of Saul was a great movie, but Sunset is a lousy one". I wrote about it here.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Stung by a Robot's Scorn

I have an account that allows me to buy an audio book each month and usually I buy mystery novels which I listen to while cleaning the bath and doing the ironing and generally trying once every four weeks to keep filth and chaos at bay.

But this month, having heard someone on the radio say that they'd read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire several times and found themselves spotting parallels with events in Washington on a daily basis, I decided to choose the audio version of that book instead.

As the audio version turned out to come in at over 100 hours (maybe even over 200 hours?) of listening, our house was going to be miraculously clean this month, our clothes miraculously crisp and smooth. That is, if I hadn't realised rather quickly - well actually not that quickly, several hours in, to be truthful - that listening to something that dense entails then having to search out large chunks of the written text in order to read it over and absorb everything in it properly.

And, once I'd made that realisation, I decided I might as well wait until I have time to read the book itself - at which point, I returned the audio book to the firm from which I buy my audio books.

The return went without a hitch and about ten seconds later I received an email confirming that things had gone smoothly and that I now had a credit to my name.

But then came the sting - the electronic sneer, the yeah-we-saw-how-you-were-trying-to-pretend-you-were-an-intellectual-but-couldn't-cut-the-mustard-you-never-fooled-us-we-know-your-type-exactly moment. For the email, which began, "We would like to inform you that your return of Gibbon's Decline and Fall has gone through successfully", ended, "and here are some crime thrillers and mysteries that we think you might like to chose instead."

What is that mocking sound I hear in the distance? I think it may be digital laughter. I was hoping that  that was a thing of the future, but it seems it's a thing of right now.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Wesselenyi Wandering

The day before yesterday, as I've already explained, I was inspired to go down Wesselenyi Utca, near where I live in Budapest, to look for Goldmark Hall. What I didn't mention was that on the way, I saw this nice man - (I do have a weakness for faces on facades, although I'm uncertain whether this is shared):

 who was gracing a building that also displayed these rather fine mosaics:

I thought it would be a bit flippant in the context of yesterday's blog post to suggest that this museum, next door to Goldmark Hall:

seemingly devoted to the first Hebrew woman to become a parachutist, might have a very limited audience, which is not entirely to detract from the subject's individual achievement, merely to question whether there is enough of a story there and whether, if there is, it is of deep interest to a huge range of people. But I suppose before making a final judgment, I ought to go to see for myself.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Theatre of the Exiled

I have had a book called Jewish Budapest for a long time but until yesterday I'd only ever used it to look up in the index the street where I live and bathe in the reflected glory of the fact that the Catholics in two of its buildings bravely hid Jews during World War Two.

Yesterday, though, I started to read a bit more of the text and discovered that, while, (as I knew already), in the 1920s the Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki introduced laws restricting those of Jewish origin from various activities, these laws were subsequently repealed - or at least fell into abeyance for a while. However, in 1938 a new series of laws were introduced that once again restricted the activities of the Jewish citizens of Hungary - and, despite the fact that there are quite a few things I've read about Pal Teleki that attempt to deny or at least mitigate his anti-Semitism, on the evidence provided in Jewish Budapest, it does appear that his role was absolutely to be deplored, (a speech of his from a parliamentary debate on the introduction of one of the (Anti-) Jewish laws on 15 April 1939 is quoted as follows:

"I support this bill based partly on my own conviction; I agree with its main points, by and large, but at the same time I must emphasise that had I submitted a bill drafted entirely by me, certain portions would have been much stricter ... This Act introduces the alien ideology [sic] of race and blood into Hungarian legislation and mentality ... I have been convinced of the appropriateness of this attitude in its scientific and social aspects for more than 20 years now, as I have argued in words and writing."

Possibly Teleki is being selectively quoted but, if his sentiments were as this passage suggests, the softness of many commentators in discussing his behaviour is wrong and the Hungarian statesman from that time whom we should all be admiring is Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who paid for his bravery in arguing against anti-Semitic measures by being murdered by members of the hateful Arrow Cross movement in 1944).

Once the first of the new (Anti-) Jewish Laws (as the book calls them) was passed, no Jewish authors could publish their works except in the Jewish press, no Jewish actors or musicians could perform, except among their own race. As the book says, "In the cultural and intellectual sphere, the ghetto was set up before its actual walls were erected in Budapest."

Showing great initiative, the Jewish community set about providing its own artistic forums in various places around Budapest, but most prominently at 7 Wesselenyi Utca, which is not far from where I live. The Initiative of the Artists, which included in its number Sandor Fischer, father of Adam and Ivan Fischer, was formed and it managed to provide work for about 700 artists of various kinds.. On Saturdays and Sundays, both in the afternoon and the evening, and to begin with on Tuesdays and then from 1942 also on Thursdays, drama performances, literary evenings and musical evenings took place. Opera performances included: Verdi's Nabucco in January 1939, Cezar Franck's Rebecca in February 1940, Beethoven's Fidelio on 9 November 1940, Gluck's Orfeo on 20 January, 1941, and Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio on 27 January, 1941. Also scheduled, but never performed, due to the imminent arrival of the Nazis in the city, was Verdi's Aida on 2 March 1944.

There were performances of plays by many different playwrights, including Molnar, plus a production of Hamlet in 1943. There were recitals by, among others, Jeno Deutsch, a pupil of Bartok and Kodaly. Late in 1944 Deutsch disappeared in a forced labour camp. On 8 December, 1941, the Hungarian premier of Bartok's Divertimento was held in Goldmark Hall and on 7 December, 1942 an evening celebrating Kodaly's 60th birthday was organised, which Kodaly attended. Performers included Dezso Ernster who left Hungary later and became a soloist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Sadly, not all his colleagues were as lucky: David Ney who sang with Ernster in the Theatre of the Exiled was taken from the ghetto of Koszeg and died in a concentration camp at Horsching in Austria in 1945.

Zoli, a famous clown, (real name Zoltan Hirsch), was also among the Goldmark Hall regulars, but in 1945 he perished in Auschwitz.

Laszlo Zsigmond, who the book explains was a noted scholar of music history and poetics managed to set up a music academy at the Goldmark Hall as well.

"The last performance in the Goldmark Hall", Jewish Budapest explains, "was on 18 March, 1944, one day before the German occupation of Hungary. Then it was impossible to continue. The building itself, including the stage was hit by a bomb during the siege of Budapest. It was rebuilt only in 1974. The Hall is in perfect condition and in regular use ever since, but the stage has not been rebuilt."

Naturally, I wanted to see this remarkable place, so this morning I walked down to 7 Wesselenyi utca, the address of Goldmark Hall. Here are some pictures of the building that was the setting for those defiant performances, in which - or through which - the participants expressed their refusal to be defeated by bullying and prejudice, to be cowed by attempts to crush the spirit of a particular community:

My book provides two long passages from a 1982 work called Bells of Atlantis, by George Sandor Gal; the first is about Goldmark Hall and the performances there, the second about the Goldmark music academy that was formed within the building:

1. "The Goldmark Hall became a peculiar cultural ghetto. Jewish actors banished from the theatres performed dramas here, singers discharged from the Opera House staged whole operas and the musicians organised such an orchestra that their concerts attracted personalities like Sergio Failoni, Aladar Toth and Zoltan Kodaly, who came with his unforgettable wife, the grouchy, forthright and genial Mrs Kodaly, or Emma neni, (Aunt Emma). Their appearance at these concerts was, of course, not only a matter of artistic enjoyment but a political protest. These people - we may as well call them heroes - gave evidence that no prejudice could stop them."

2. "God Almighty, what a school it was! Where Bence Szabolcsi [a great historian of music, particularly Hungarian music] would just drop by, silently, as a guest! But in spite of his modest, reserved conduct the invisible flame of his glorious spirit was there with him, burning like a sanctuary lamp. The minute he entered the largest room, which was now turned into a concert hall, the air started blistering around him - it was the presence of Spirit and Knowledge, of the kind of curiosity which makes man human ... He spoke gently, in a faint voice, which kept his students quiet too. He spoke of the Goldmark school, of Hungarian music. In his spontaneous talk there was no hint of the prevailing brutal laws, no trace of resentment or accusations, as if this coarse, hostile world did not exist out there. He did not refer to it with a single word, yet it was clear: these few years of yellow armbands, Jewish Laws and forced labour seem like a short intermezzo, a tiny fragment of time compared to the millennia through which Hungarian melodies have been flowing from the Siberian desert to the Great Hungarian Plain, to the banks of the Danube and the Tisza, like a flag torn a thousand times, though ultimately glorious ... On the second occasion Szabolcsi came with a guest, Maria Basilides, and they gave an improvised concert ... Not only did they recall old tunes, but the landscape too where they were born, the people who created these tunes, the plains and hills, which carried the tunes further, and a whole people who had been struck and imprisoned by fate ever so often and who could dream and sing even amidst the greatest poverty."

There is so much to be admired and so much poignance in the collective efforts that went into maintaining artistic life in the face of concerted attempts to shut artists of a particular race out of creative life. I will not walk down that part of Wesselenyi utca again without thinking of those people and those dark days.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Not Distant, Just British

I had some English friends to stay the other day and was rather embarrassed as I felt one of them had been a little chilly to one of my good Hungarian friends.

When I saw this Hungarian friend again, I apologised for my English friend's somewhat icy manner toward her.

"Oh, I didn't think that she was being chilly", my friend said and then proceeded to tell me a story about a Spanish man who was found on a beach madly making love to a dead woman. When the police asked what the hell he was doing and told him how wrong it was to commit necrophilia, he exclaimed in surprise. "Dead?" he said, "I didn't know she was dead; I thought she was just English."

In the same way - well no, not exactly the same way, I suppose, but in a similar way - my Hungarian friend assumed my English friend was not being chilly, but merely very British.

So I suppose you could say I was saved by a stereotype.

Speaking of which, it turns out that, whereas some Australians claim to believe that the best place to hide £20 from a "Pom" is under the soap, some Hungarians have the same illusion regarding the citizens of France.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

To Bath and Beyond

Having visited our older daughter in Bristol, we stopped in Bath the other day, to see a tiny exhibition at the Holburne Museum. I did not know, last time I went there, that the Holburne Museum used to be a hotel. It is a lovely building and some say that Jane Austen could see it from her window in Great Pulteney Street (a street on which William Wilberforce also stayed, although the Bath portrayed in Austen's waspish novels doesn't allow the presence of such well-intentioned souls as he).

The exhibition we went to see is being shown in a small upstairs room. It displays things a woman called Ellen Tanner brought back from what essentially seems to have been a series of shopping trips to the Middle East in the late 1890s.

Miss Tanner, who was born in Frenchay, near Bristol, cared for her father - who was a "wealthy attorney-at-law with shipping interests" - for many years, as her mother had died when she was still a child. When Miss Tanner's father eventually died, she was left with an inheritance of £18,000. She was in her late 40s and she "discovered a love of travel", as the catalogue puts it. 

According to the museum, in 1894 she set off from Victoria Station for Marseilles, from whence she took a merchant steamer through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf  to Baghdad and then rode a horse across country into Persia, accompanied by local guides and staying in caravenserais (what are caravanserais?) on the way. Apparently she used as a guide a book called "Persia and the Persian Question", written by George Curzon and published in 1892. Although this meant she had to carry two large volumes, she did so for her whole 7000-mile journey.

This photograph, taken by Herbert Sykes, (a friend of Miss Tanner's, I seem to remember??) in 1903, is called The Europeans at Yazd, and Miss Tanner is sitting at the little table covered with a white cloth, talking to the man in white shoes (she is fifth from the left). Compared to the giggling Gerties to her right, she strikes me as rather fine. I wonder if the dogs belonged to the Europeans or were local strays.

Tea at Nasrullah Khan's house, with Miss Tanner on the left. While here Miss Tanner is dressed as a westerner, the catalogue explains that quite a lot of the time while travelling she adopted the Persian chador, a head-to-foot cover of black silk or black glazed calico. She describes putting "on my disguising Persian clothes, as I wanted to explore Yezdikhast without being crowded round by the curious inhabitants ... doubtless the people perceived I was a Ferringhee -foreigner- from the walk, as I cannot attain to the Persian shuffle; but being veiled duly, and bundled up in the chador, and full baggy trousers all Persian women wear, I presented nothing to shock and astonish their eyes, and passed unimpeded on my way". When she was dressed in a Western manner, as in this photograph, Miss Tanner's own appearance did not go unremarked; she describes "women .. chattering among themselves and pointing to the fashion of my garments as a marvel, and as I doubt not, a scandal, for I was in a cotton shirt and dark skirt, and on my head had a rather battered old sailor hat, with a blue gossamer veil to protect my eyes from the sun and dust." She in turn when taken by a hospitable hostess into the anderuns (women's area of the house) was shocked by "the anderun dress of Persian women of the upper class", which she deemed "ugly, and indecent, being an exaggerated ballet costume." I don't know at what stage in Miss Tanner's travels this picture was taken but by the time she had finished her wanderings she had apparently lost three stone.

Miss Tanner did not always travel alone but also with friends. She knew people in the Foreign Office and was therefore able to stay at British delegations from time to time - but she was also happy to stay in a tent. She kept a diary, which is held in the Bristol Museum. My favourite quote from it is her description of Baghdad:

" we came in sight of Baghdad, it looked like a fairy city with the palm-fringed river, orange gardens, the houses on the waterside like Venice, and all her mosques and minarets gleaming in the yellow evening sunlight."

Talk about poignant. She also wrote:

"The palm-fringed banks, the shipping, the creeks and above all the dazzling sun-light of Bussorah (Basra) charmed me."

Of course, the museum curators want to observe the current pieties and point out that the things Miss Tanner brought back are not just things but:

1. "reminders of Britain's less than exemplary past involvement in international affairs" and "the fragility of "cultural heritage; and

2. objects that give us a chance to "celebrate" (dreaded word) the "extraordinary artistic and cultural output of the Islamic world".

In similar vein, while grudgingly admitting that Miss Tanner did not actively steal what she brought home, ("Although Tanner paid for the items she acquired"), they label her "an appropriator of Persian artistic culture", as they think that she bought some tiles that may have been removed from historic buildings Iran. Leaving aside the question of whether she herself had any idea of the possibly dodgy provenance of the tiles she bought, there is also a debate to be had over whether whatever she brought home would have survived in situ or whether it might long since have been plundered or destroyed in the Iranian revolution and the years since then. On the one occasion when she did souvenir some tiles without payment, it does appear from her account that, had she not done so, they would have been lost to posterity anyway:

"...from the ruined palace adjoining the Aineh-Khaneh", she writes, "I abstracted three tiles from a small inner chamber leading into the bath. I was ashamed of myself for this act of vandalism, but it seemed to me, seeing how these beautiful tiles were suffered to fall off and lie neglected on the ground, that they would be better appreciated by me than the Persians."

Of course, the Englishwoman is making quite a few assumptions there, but our current tendency to rush to judgment on our predecessors does seem to me to be very one-sided. It is possible that she has a point, that the culture that produced the tiles had, at the moment when she was visiting, run down to the extent that the fine things created in earlier times were no longer being appreciated or cared for. While her action was still wrong, it is not quite as reprehensible as the curators want us to believe - more human error than imperial pillaging, I would say.

The curators also highlight what they call Miss Tanner's "extraordinarily superior and dismissive" attitude to the foreign cultures she observes, providing the following examples to support their case:

1. She referred to "the terrible immorality of the Persians";

2. "When being taken around Kermanshah by Hadji Adur Rhamann, a cultured ex-diplomat who served in London and Europe, she writes:

'I really pitied the poor man, trotting me round in this manner. Of course to the oriental mind one is mad to move about in the heat of the day, and go hither and thither looking at antiquities and places of no interest to the native'"

To my eye there is nothing at all superior or dismissive in this, apart from a sense of self-dismissive shame that such an eminent person should have to bother with her. Miss Tanner expresses embarrassment because she, with her trivial pursuits, is wasting the time of such a distinguished figure - but I suppose the phrase 'oriental mind' and mention of the word 'native' are enough to set off hypersensitive alarm bells. The curators mention elsewhere in the catalogue that Miss Tanner also was swept away by the kindness and hospitality of all she met, but somehow her appreciative words are no kind of mitigation for her sin of being western:

"Never by any possibility could I experience greater or more delightful hospitality and kindness than I met with in Persia"

3. "She describes with typical frankness her attitude to religions she is not fully engaged with:

'I am told it is far better to profess Christianity in Persia than to be a Suni Mahommedan, as the Persians are bigoted Shiahs, and regard the Sunis much as an extreme ritualist of the Anglican Church does an evangelical or a dissenter'".

Surely drawing a direct analogy with her own religious culture is actually a sign of egalitarianism - Miss Tanner does not describe the religious traditions in the countries through which she travels as being lower than her own, but parallel with. But the trigger word for the sensitive curators here is probably 'bigoted', even though I think it would be hard to argue that there are no sectarian divisions between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims in the area about which she writes. The truth is that she was an enthusiastic admirer of the beauty produced by Islamic culture, which is why she collected so many things to take home. As she notes in her diary, while in Baghdad "an enlightened Mahomedan gentleman close by [took me to] his roof top from [where] we looked over the Mosque, which for beauty I still think the finest I have ever seen, so exquisite are its proportions." You don't describe the product of a civilisation you despise as "exquisite".

But sadly, as happens so often these days, the people in charge of the exhibition see the world from a very particular contemporary perspective, wherein cultures other than their own Judaeo Christian one are to be praised, while their own cannot be condemned firmly enough. If, by chance, some aspect of a foreign culture is impossible to frame as positive, any criticism will ideally be couched in an understanding that the unacceptable cultural flaw is somehow the result of the pernicious earlier interventions of the west. In this way of looking at things, Judaeo- Christian culture has done almost nothing positive but has trampled and damaged other cultures wherever it has gone. I think sometimes of the impressive and highly original essay about living in Saudi Arabia with which Hilary Mantel won the inaugural Shiva Naipaul prize; in it, Mantel describes her attempts to embrace the culture in which she found herself living and her final acceptance that she could not, that some cultures are not worth embracing. I wonder if it would still be a prizewinner - or even published - in today's climate.

As for the concept of autre temps, autre moeurs, that has evaporated into thin air. Modern preoccupations elbow out any allowances for earlier, different perspectives.

Never mind: plundered or purchased fairly and squarely, here are the things I particularly want to "celebrate" from my visit to the exhibition:

These tiles are displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. They are 17th century and the label tells us that "the design with simplified carnations and cypress trees is a provincial version of Ottoman Iznik patterns". They bear inscriptions related to Islam. I don't find them especially beautiful but they make me sad as they were made in Damascus, and I doubt today's situation would allow such civilised pursuits as decorative ceramic tile making, more is the pity.

I think the chief appeal of this box for me is the fact that it is made of pear wood, although I do appreciate of course that the carving is exquisite, if you like that kind of thing.
Box, carved pear wood, Iran (Abadeh) 19th century - the decoration copies bas-reliefs at Persepolis

I did not note down what this was but, as the scene looks faintly saucy, I wonder if it is from Shiraz, as Miss Tanner noted in her diary "The regulation length of a fashionable woman's skirt in Shiraz is the span of the wearer's hand and the width of her four fingers laid together and judging from those I saw, I quite believed it. The amount of bare skin visible was great". On the other hand, Miss Tanner goes on to point out that, "No male eyes behold them, except those of their own husbands of course", and I'm not sure that this picture is one of mere conjugal bliss.

This is a hawk, made of steel with inlaid gold and silver decoration (although I couldn't spot it). It comes from Isfahan and was made in the 19th century. The following picture is of the same object, plus a peacock made in the same place at the same time. 
Animal figures like these, the catalogue tells us, were "often attached to the 'alam, or standard, carried in the mourning processions of Muharram, the Iranian New Year and Miss Tanner watched one of these processions when she was staying in Gulahek, near Teheran, in the summer of 1895

These teacups and saucers are very small. They are enamel on copper and were made in the 19th century in Iran
I love blue glass but I find this bottle rather ugly, unlike all the other visitors the day I was at the Holburne. Made between 1700 and 1800, it is thought to be a rosewater sprinkler, although the word for it in Persian is ashktan, which means, apparently, container for tears, leading to fanciful (?) speculation that the bottle was made for collecting the tears of women separated from their husbands. While that is somehow an intriguing image, I can't help asking what a sub-Zsa Zsa Gabor woman I met when I first moved to Budapest asked me, when I said I might try to learn Hungarian: "But, darling, votever for?"

Now we come to the meat of the exhibition's interest for me - the textiles. I ought really to have headed this piece, "If you love textiles, this is for you", as essentially textiles form the best part of Miss Tanner's collection. I do love textiles, so I found the next few things thrilling, but, if textiles bore you, I should look away now.

This seemed an oddly racy item for a woman of Miss Tanner's age, although the label claims that it "would have been worn with a ... chemise". 

This is a needlework box, made of silk and wool in Iran in the 19th century. It is fashioned from an elaborately embroidered fabric normally used for women's trousers (see later picture with corner folded down for the same kind of textile). The examples of embroidery it contains came from Kashan in what was then Persia.

Trouser panel, silk and wool, Iran, 19th century. This type of embroidery known as naqšeh, is characterised by diagonal lines framing dense floral patterns. These panels were so popular the there were stories of men unpicking their wives outfits to sell in the bazaars. The reverse shows how bright the trouser panel would have been when Miss Tanner bought it - the colours have faded from light exposure

Now we come to the thing that I loved more than anything else in the exhibition. It is 19th century embroidery, silk on muslin and comes from Kashan. In her journal, Miss Tanner describes viewing textiles in Kashan, writing, "I bought some of the white silk embroidered squares of a species of fine silk canvas used by the women as head coverings or veils after the bath. They are as far as I know only worked here and are beautiful and uncommon."

It is worth clicking on the photographs to enlarge them, so that you can see how lovely the stitching is:

19th century silk and wool embroidered bags from Iran
These are silk and wool, 19th century embroidered panels from Iran that Miss Tanner described as hand warmers. The museum label explains that Persian embroidery designs were often geometric and repeated, taking inspiration from nature, religious symbolism and the history of the region. 

Now we come to another couple of astonishing pieces of embroidery. I admire their rich craftsmanship, while preferring the delicacy of the white muslin and silk piece and the subtlety of it. They probably come from Shiraz and are made of wool and silk. The dense stitching is marvellous; one of the things I especially love about textiles is imagining women working away in domestic settings day after day, probably in their spare time, creating these things: 

Embroidered shawl (although probably used as a tablecloth), Kerman, Iran, 19th century

This is a tent panel made of printed cotton, from Iran, made in the 19th century. In her diary Miss Tanner describes how travelling tents were set up: "to secure privacy the plan is to hammer a large nail or tent peg into one of the holes left by previous travellers each side the open doorway, and hang a carpet, shawl or any sort of curtain one might possess just above the level of one's head, and there was one's bedroom." If they were all made with textiles like this one, a campsite would have been a very splendid sight.