Saturday, 30 May 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Memories of Carefree Times: Barnard Castle 1

Since Barnard Castle is in the news, I might as well admit that I have been there, although not in order to work out if I had the strength to drive back to London. In my case, I was drawn by the Bowes Museum and most particularly one object in its collection, of which this is a detail:

Actually, it is wrong to call it merely "an object"; it is a wonder. It is called the Silver Swan, and here is a little film of it in action:

What first drew my attention to the swan's existence was a BBC documentary. It is one of the few pieces of television that has ever really caught my attention, taught me something and inspired me to try to find out more. It is called Mechanical Marvels and its presenter is an academic who spent much of his childhood in Australia but now lives in Cambridge. You can watch it here, and I highly recommend that you do:

Although the silver swan is usually ascribed to James Cox, the person who probably had most to do with the mechanics of making it was a Belgian who moved to London around 1763, where he began by working for James Cox. The Belgian's name was John Joseph Merlin. He knew Fanny Burney, Samuel Johnson's friend Mrs Thrale, JC Bach and the painter Gainsborough, who made this portrait of him:

Merlin was an instrument maker, an inventor and a clock maker, but his main passion seems to have been the making of marvellous toys. It may have been via this preoccupation that he came to know Gainsborough, as the painter's brothers - John, or 'scheming Jack', and Humphrey - were also both fond of inventing curiosities. John/Jack supposedly invented a self-rocking cradle, a 'boon to mothers' and a wheel which turned in a still bucket of water, (a boon to no one, I would have thought), and spent a lot of time trying to fly with a pair of cardboard wings, (I presume without success).  Humphrey invented various boringly unplayful things to do with ploughing and steam engines, but he also made a clock powered by musket balls descending into a small bucket, which sounds more like fun. This clock of Humphrey's ended up being owned by a person called Philip Thicknesse, who Gainsborough painted - I only mention him because I found in the entry in Wikipedia about him a detail that I have never been able to forget: it details a clause in his will that can only be described as an example of taking the desire of a parent to influence a child's behaviour a step too far (a step beyond the grave, indeed):

'His will stipulated that his right hand be cut off and delivered to his son, George, who was inattentive, "to remind him of his duty to God after having so long abandoned the duty he owed to a father, who once so affectionately loved him."'

John Joseph Merlin set up "Merlin's Mechanical Museum" in Hanover Square - you can look at the catalogue here. Sadly, I don't believe any of his automata, besides the silver swan, survive - let alone those of the man thought to have inspired him, John Vaucanson*. I would have liked to see Merlin's "Silver Lady", which was extolled by Charles Babbage - you can read some of what Babbage said about it here, (according to that blog post, Merlin also invented roller skates)

Silver fish, leaping up to be eaten by the silver swan - although, as the Bowes guide pointed out when we were there, swan do not actually eat fish 
It was worth visiting the Bowes Museum for the Silver Swan alone, but there were also many other beautiful objects in the collection, which I will post photographs of in future posts. You will not be disappointed if you decide to visit yourself. It's a gem of a museum.


* Vaucanson made three celebrated single-figure automata: a flute player; a pipe and drummer; and a gilded-copper duck, which could eat, drink and perform 'all the quick motions of the head and throat which are peculiar to the living animal', according to the French Academie des Sciences (although Hogarth was less impressed, saying that it was just "a little clockwork machine, with a duck's head and legs fixed to it ... a complicated, confused and disagreeable object" - but perhaps he was in a bad mood the day he saw it.)

Friday, 29 May 2020

Emerging from Lockdown Bulletin - Harsányi János Memorial

At 11 o’clock this morning I went two doors down to witness the unveiling of a plaque which commemorates János Hársanyi, a Hungarian who escaped to Australia in 1950 and later went on to the United States, where he was living when  he won a Nobel Prize.

The plaque was put up on the building in our street because it was there, in the basement, between 1944 and 1945 that Hársanyi, together with more than 200 other Jewish Hungarians, was sheltered by the Jesuits and thus saved from being murdered  by the Nazis and their local pals, the Arrow Cross.

The event caught my attention with particular force because it was such a surprise to discover  that anyone on this street other than us might ever have set foot on the campus of the Australian National University in Canberra - it turns out Hársanyi actually worked there for a time. The fact that he moved on because he couldn’t persuade anyone to get interested in game theory surprised me far less, as Canberrans are rarely a playful lot.

Hársanyi, judging by his claims about what he understood to be his wife’s marriage vows, recorded in this Wikipedia entry, clearly was.

I’m moved by this story and glad the plaque is there for me to pass each day. The story it tells is a good reminder that human beings are capable of astonishing cruelty, true kindness and, if you add in what Wikipedia tells us about Hársanyi, also  a bit of fun.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Emerging from Lockdown Bulletin - a Walk in the Buda Hills

I don't know about anyone else but, after attempting cheerfulness for some time now, I'm beginning to give in to melancholy. I want to be carefree again, and I don't see how that will happen, even when our local lockdown in Budapest eases even further than it already has.

For me the problem is that I have had a glimpse of how quickly everything can change and how little humanity is in control of anything. There has been a great deal of death resulting from this new form of coronavirus, but, curiously, for me it is less the awareness of the death toll itself than the surprise of the overnight switch to confinement and the concomitant curtailment of the sense of boundless possibility that has brought a rather hard-to-shake awareness that time is limited and death awaits us all - added to that is the sad thought that although, as someone I used to know was fond of saying, "We only get one shot at this vale of tears you know, old girl", at the moment it is not possible to enjoy that one brief shot of ours to the absolute full.

Anyway, sensing my increasing gloom, my husband suggested we go up into the Buda hills and walk through the beech forest to a church that is on the route of what is called the Maria Way.

To begin with it was great to be up there, even though it was as cold as early winter and rained for part of the time. Unfortunately though, after a while I felt myself wanting to come home again, growing ludicrously afraid that bits of virus might be flying through the air and into my respiratory tract, intent on killing me. I don't know if anyone else has similar mad anxieties, but I hope that eventually I'll overcome them so that when we really are told everything is safe again I'll be able to believe it and head out happily into the world.

I'd have to admit that this notice right at the start of our stroll, warning of the dangers of African swine flu and imploring us to report any dead wild boars that we might stumble across, didn't exactly calm me. I decided I wouldn't point it out to my husband as that way at least one of us might enjoy themselves relatively unclouded by fear of disease.

To distract myself from thoughts of illness, I took some pictures and although they are pretty unexciting I will post them here below. Before the virus arrived I had decided that it was rather tedious of me to put pictures on my blog of where I'd been, that all I was doing was creating an endless dreary digital slide night. Now though, I've realised that, at least while we are all somewhat circumscribed in where we can go, it might be quite nice to make some posts that remind anyone interested that, when we are able to go out and about again, there are still so many wonderful places to visit and so many paintings and works of art longing to be looked at.

So today I'll share my pictures of our walk the other day - (prepare for mainly beech trees) - and in the coming days I will try to sort out all the other pretty things I've seen and photographed over the last year or two, but until now not included here - (prepare for large quantities of architectural detail and some paintings).

The gateway to the Maria way from Normafa

My attempt at being artistic with wet leaves

Setting out

As a child my mind was filled with this sort of thing - could it be a ragwort? 

A beautiful tree but too tall to fit into a picture 

I can never resist a lost pet sign - this one, on a post opposite the church, is two years old. I wonder if anyone has ever found a lost pet thanks to one of these things. 
The church we went to find - it was locked thanks to the virus, needless to say

The church's history, for those who understand Hungarian

A tree that made the trip worthwhile

The path home

Friday, 15 May 2020

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Learning Hungarian

I read somewhere that to get through lockdown I would need a schedule. I therefore drew up a schedule so laden with tasks and duties and exercise rituals that I feel burdened before I even get out of bed.

First on each day’s agenda is learning Hungarian (one hour minimum!) This is an enterprise that I will need more than one lifetime to complete. One reason for this fact is that Hungarian is a language that bears little resemblance to any other language I’ve come across. That means trying to learn its vocabulary is rarely made easier by any resemblance between Hungarian words and words in some other language I’ve learnt. As a result, instead of thinking, "Oh yes, 'cittá' is not unlike 'cité', (or indeed good old 'city'), you have to make up elaborate methods to bash into your memory the meaningless jumbles of letters Hungarians have chosen to label things with.

Thus, in order to remember “beavatkozás” which means interference or intervention, I have had to tell myself that there was a beaver that got interfered with, ending up with an 'atkozás' on its end, in place of an 'r'. Similarly, to remember 'kiszolgálás', which means service, lacking any kind of familiar peg in my mother tongue or any other language I'm familiar with on which to hang it, I’m forced to think of a waiter whose service is so excellent that he goes round and kisses all the old girls.

And, as well as the particular difficulties this individual language presents, there is also the problem of my wandering mind. Instead of obediently learning, I ask questions, which is a disastrous strategy. If, instead of meekly accepting them, you start to question the underlying logic of grammatical rules in any language, you will soon find yourself wandering the same dangerously infinite corridors of unsolvable speculation as you do when you begin asking why anything (or indeed everything) exists.

I know this, and yet I can’t help wishing I could work out why, if so many languages feel the need for gender, Hungarian does not. Yes, that is right - the Hungarian language does not have different words for he and her (let alone sailing off into a third gender called neuter, which German then proceeds to place young females in).  Extraordinary isn't it - the media labels the Hungarian nation as right wing but actually Hungarians are among the wokest people on earth - and their wokeness is embedded in their mother (or should that be 'parental'?) tongue.

For a long time, another avenue of speculation for me was the rationale behind the complexity of the Hungarian verbal system. Using Hungarian verbs requires the kind of ingrained mental nimbleness that I suspect has been a factor in helping Hungary to its record number of Nobels per capita.

You see, when formulating a sentence, Hungarian demands that you know well in advance whether the object of your verb will be definite (‘the’) or indefinite (‘a’) and that you adapt the verb form you use accordingly. Why any group of people would choose to perpetuate this complication in their language has, as I say,  puzzled me for a long time, but no longer - a friend married to a Hungarian explained to me the other day that, as no foreigners ever perfectly master the system, it is a useful method Hungarians use for spotting who is not really truly part of the tribe.

But there remain other puzzles to consider still.  There’s the passive for example. That is to say, there isn’t, for, in Hungarian, the passive barely exists. As my grammar book explains “When the agent is expressed with the English passive, in the corresponding Hungarian construction the active voice will generally be used with the agent as subject.” This is fine by me. I approve of very minimal use of the passive, but what does get me thinking in this context is this: has the state of affairs regarding the passive and their language come about because Hungarians find it hard not to be active and take responsibility or is it their language that determines their lack of inclination to suggest something happened through no fault of their own? I imagine there may be a whole field of research, called "linguistic determinism" or something similar, in which people while away their lives trying to find answers to such questions. But how can those answers ever be definitively verified?

And finally, at least for now - I am still on a journey of discovery in the mountain ranges of Hungarian - there is the curious fact that whereas in English you have two eyes, hands, legs etc, in Hungarian a singular noun refers to each of these pairs. This leads to the curious situation that, if someone loses, say, an eye, they are said ever afterwards to be half eyed. Once again instead of trudging on through the learning process, my thoughts wander off: the concept of two things being an inseparable package although physically not conjoined is too intriguing - why do they view them that way; why don't we? Oh dear, I realise, I will never get anywhere if I keep on drifting off into pondering instead of learning, speculating instead of knuckling down.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Lockdown Nostalgia - A Spring Walk

How odd - exactly this time last year, we were all blythe and innocent of our freedom and I went off on a long walk to buy a mop. When I got home, I started to make a blog post about it, but decided it was too humdrum and boring to inflict on anybody. 

Finding the draft of the first part of that blogpost now, it strikes me as the height of excitement, in a world where carefree walks - unmasked, without a rush to the soap and water and hours of hand washing on one's return home - are no longer a possibility. Which is why I've decided to include it on this blog after all, in sad memory of ordinariness and its many joys. I hope that by this time next year we will all be able to stroll about in search of mops again, without any anxiety about being infected with a germ that, without any particular rhyme or reason, decides to really go hell for leather in a battle of life and death with random of its victims. Mind you, I suppose the conversation I overheard a year ago could be said to be rather more apposite now, very sadly

From last year:  "The other day when I needed to buy a mop I decided I would walk to the big hardware store where such things can be found. I normally take the tram from outside what my neighbour calls the Great Market, but the weather was so good, and I'd seen from the tram window some faces on the sides of buildings that I thought I might like to photograph.

So off I went, past one of my favourite balconies:

admiring the bursting into leave of various trees in the district:
People were out and about, chatting. As I passed, this man was saying, "Well, they've all died now; yes, they're all dead", which is a not untypical conversational gambit in my neighbourhood:
Somewhere else on this blog, I once wrote about my fondness for a good balcony, and I stopped to admire these ones:

Then I spotted some faces:

Further down the same street, I came across this building, which I think could only be Hungarian, with its nod to a rural dwelling in its top floor timbering:
The one next door has a dinky mini-balcony, up there under the triangular eaves, not a useful space but nice to step out for a breather and possibly manage to grow a pot of mint or parsley upon:
More faces popped up:

I also came upon a rather sweet train that runs to Csepel, where there is, I believe a rather atmospheric abandoned industrial complex. Perhaps one day I'll go there, but for now, I'll just dream of the train ride: