Friday, 30 April 2021

A Spring Walk

Yesterday I went for a walk across the river and up the Gellért Hill in Budapest. It is a walk I often do. I never fail to be delighted by the pale blue school I pass. For more pictures and informaton about the architect and the building's history, see here (in Hungarian, but thanks to the wonders of Google Translate that shouldn't be a barrier, and anyway there are many pictures)

I am almost equally fond of this sheltered stone bench, which is just beyond the pale blue school. It is seems to me to have been built with the kind of care and attention to urban amenities that one no longer even expects, let alone receives, today:

As it is spring though, buildings - (or, as some high falutin types like to say, "the built environment") - weren't my first priority. 

Spring in Europe, even in the most architecturally blighted landscape, always lightens the heart via trees and birds and flowers (we all of us have our own inner Fotherington Thomas, don't we?) There is the sudden return of birdsong. There is the new growth, the leaves so fresh and, at the risk of sheer banality, so green and so glossy. 

If there were a Desert Island Discs for trees and I could only take one from my list of favourites, a horse chestnut tree in spring time would without a shadow of a doubt be the tree that I would choose for my desert island (speaking of Desert Island Discs, apparently there was a genius on the other day who chose as his luxury a Viennese cafe).

The building this horse chestnut stands beside was during the second world war, in case anyone is interested, the Swedish embassy, and it housed Raoul Wallenberg

Anyway, I got so carried away in my pleasure at the arrival of spring that, as I was coming back down the hill, I embarked on an exchange with a man who was sitting on a bench. Around the man not only was their birdsong and new leaf on all the trees and bushes, but also flowering poppies, wintersweet, lilac and honeysuckle. There was a very slight breeze but it resulted in a rippling, dappled pattern of shadows that was very pleasing. 

The man was not looking particularly cheerful, and I thought he might be feeling lonely. Therefore, in a spirit of friendliness, I commented as I passed that it was a beautiful day. He looked at me with a face that did not seem to be lit up with the same delight as mine. "It could be warmer",  he said.

I was reminded of the story told regularly by the headmistress at a school I went to for a couple of years. I think it was a parable from Aristotle, or could it have been Plato? Anyway it involves a sage man, walking along the road that led from Athens to Sparta. He sees a man coming towards him and when that man gets close, he hails the sage man and asks him if he is coming from Athens. When the sage man replies that he is, the wayfarer asks what Athens is like. The sage man replies with another question (does this suggest it is a story of Plato's, was counter questioning his method?): "What did you think of Sparta?" 

"I hated it", the wayfarer tells the sage man. "Well then, you will hate Athens", says the sage man. The two of them part and each continues on his way.

Soon the sage man sees another figure coming towards him. The self-same conversation follows, except that when the second wayfarer asks about what Athens is like and is asked in turn how he liked Sparta, he responds by saying he loved it. The sage man then assures him that in that case he will love Athens too.

That man on the bench, I thought, didn't see a beautiful day; he only saw a day that could be better - he would have hated Sparta and therefore he would have hated Athens. 

But then, when I told a friend of mine the story, she explained that, while the word for "day" that I used in Hungarian is indeed the word for "day", the man probably misunderstood me because it is also the word for "sun"; he probably thought I was commenting specifically on the sun and its warmth at that moment, and I ought to have used the word for weather. Which proves that drawing any conclusions from interchanges in foreign languages is fraught with complication. 

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Emerging from the Ruins

Several people I know have spoken to me about a puzzling sense of melancholy as lockdown slowly comes to an end (one hopes). While the panic, sorry pandemic, was in full swing, most people's main preoccupations were: 1. a longing to return to how things were before; and 2. a dogged day-by-day determination to endure. 

But now the tide of fear is subsiding, people have stopped dropping like flies in the street (hang on, that never happened, so why ... no, no, let's not open up that can of worms) and the first signs of normality are appearing along with the new spring leaves on the trees.

So why the sad faces? Smile, it might never happen, as men yell in my direction from time to time in the street.

Could delayed shock be part of what is making some people feel odd when they expected to feel ecstatic - the shock of realising that you cannot ever again take anything for granted? Although some freedoms and rights are gradually being returned, we now understand something most of us really weren't aware of a year ago - namely, that everything can be whipped away at a moment's notice, on someone else's whim. There is also no guarantee that we will ever be allowed to do all the things that we used to be allowed to do - and, most shockingly, it turns out that large numbers of our fellow humans seemed to be delighted to find themselves incarcerated in a cage of rules.

Or is there something else at work? A year ago, abruptly, the fabric of our lives, the backdrop of day-to-day existence, was torn up and the torn pieces were tossed high into the air. The things we had assumed were part and parcel of normal human life vanished before our eyes. 

We endured that strange and unexpected transformation, and now, twelve months later, as we snatch back the shreds of our former lives and start to try to put them back together, every single piece has to be examined, to see exactly where it goes. As we study each bit, we have to reassess it, asking ourselves: where does this fit - in fact, does it fit anywhere at all? Every aspect of our existence is thus thrown into question. 

Having thought all we wanted was to go back to normal, we now find ourselves facing choices. Where before we simply accepted, we now are faced with questions that in turn make us re-examine the past. 

So many things were taken away but did we miss all of them? Having lived without them, do we really want to go back to all of those places, those people, those habits? Before all this happened, were we actually happy or were we simply unthinking? Now that we are starting over, do we want to rebuild things exactly as they were again?

Questioning one's own reality is a frightening experience, and more than enough to induce melancholia. We thought we were happy then, but can we be absolutely sure?

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Then Again

Having yesterday cited interviews in 2018 conducted by Andrew Neil as examples of journalism being too preoccupied with gotchas and not interested enough in helping the public to understand the true nature of things, I now present an object lesson by the same Andrew Neil in how to be a really good interviewer. 

On the latest online weekly programme put out by the Spectator magazine Neil decided to interview the father of the current Prime Minister of Britain (who is someone I am glad survived his bout with coronavirus but I wish, given his apparent lack of any leadership qualities, had since retired to recover his strength and look after his latest child). 

My initial reaction to the news that the Prime Minister's father was going to be interviewed was to groan. If there is a greater self-promoter in the Johnson family than the Prime Minister himself and his sister, it is Stanley, father of them all. However, Neil, simply by asking good, careful questions calmly, did a superb job of exposing Johnson senior's ignorance, lack of principle and pomposity, as well as the worrying flaws in the extreme environmental policies of his son's government, (policies that, one came to suspect over the course of the interview, are at least in part the result of lobbying from the frightful Stanley, a man who does not repudiate the worst excesses of Exctinction Rebellion - in other words Extinction Rebellion ideas are being incorporated in policy at the highest level in Britain today, which is just marvellous).  

For all Johnson Senior's conviction that the public is becoming aware of the costs of, for instance, the coming compulsory boiler conversions each household will endure and is totally in favour of it, it became evident in the interview that this issue alone is going to be enormously damaging for the budgets of individual householders - and in any case is possibly unfeasible. In Stanley Johnson's performance, moreover, the viewer was able to see exactly where the current Prime Minister's own waffly bombasticism comes from and to discover that, as so often, the British establishment all too easily overlooks issues of human rights, if its own domestic interests are at stake - in this case the abuses the public is being encouraged to minimise and overlook are those of the current Communist regime in China, one of the cruellest and most dangerous the world as ever seen, but meh:  

It is a service that Neil has done in this interview, but it is a worrying thing to watch, simply because I have no idea how Britain is to rid itself of zealous idiots who are committing their hapless voters to enormous expense - expense that is to be piled on the already astonishingly enormous expense caused by the strictest and most ineffective lockdowns the world has seen during this pandemic. There is no opposition to any of this. The only voices of dissent in the parliament are those who argue that, whatever is being done, it is not enough. My children live in Britain. I worry for them.

Thursday, 15 April 2021


Looking for something else on this blog, I read a post from 2018 about political reporting. Reading it, it occurred to me that since then very little has changed in that regard, except possibly for the worse. It struck me that while fox hunting has been banned in Britain, politician hunting has not. Where once there were men in pink coats on horses, with other riders galloping behind, now we have journalists who do not have horses but who are just as forceful when it comes to hue and cry.  This may explain why are leaders are less good than they might be: who would put themselves forward in order to be hunted - and, of those who did decide to, who would survive the relentless deliberate goading of journalists, designed not to illicit information but to humiliate and undermine? 

This revelation came to me when I was watching some interviews conducted by AF Neil with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The interviews were bruited abroad as absolutely brilliant, but to me they seemed - and they still do - to be absolutely perfect examples of why politics is broken at this time. Instead of asking questions of interest and waiting for answers as they once did, journalists now hector and bully.  They lay traps for gotchas and they are ruder than anyone should be. This is considered great journalism, and in the last year there has been the added element of panic stoking, when a genuinely useful journalistic task would have been to engage in analysis of risk and the potential effects across all areas of life of various strategies to deal with it. But that might involve some serious work and complex thinking. 

In those interviews in 2018 the examples that struck me as egregious were many. I picked out only two. The first was when Andrew Neil asked Johnson this:

"Someone who's worked for you, who knows you well, says you're all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won't they"

To me, that wasn't actually a question - essentially Neil was hurling an anonymous insult at his interviewee and expecting what? That Johnson would say, "You're right. I'm awful". Or could it be that he just hoped to elicit squeals of joy from admiring journalistic colleagues - "Ooo look at Andy, being butch and showing no respect, that's how we do it these days, spit on the lot of them, while never being prepared ourselves to take on these hellish jobs".

And to Hunt, Neil sneered that his business wasn't as big as those founded by people like Steve Jobs - because, once again, why should you show any respect for anyone who wants to be a member of parliament, even if you, the interviewer, have never set up a company or created new jobs for anyone, or indeed ever tried to do anything constructive, preferring to go into what is no longer a studio but an arena and attempt to tear and rip away any tattered vestiges of respect the public might hope to retain toward their elected representatives. 

Imagine if journalists subjected themselves to these kinds of experiences. But they never do. The media like to remain firmly in a pack, hunting, not hunted. Their prey is politicians and anyone at all who tries to do anything positive. It's actually both sickening and hugely corrosive for democracy and decent government - you have to be prepared to be hounded if you decide to go into any form of public life - not merely questioned, but spoken to with unbridled viciousness, as if you deserve it just for daring to try. It's called bullying, and political interviewers have become the entitled, arrogant bullies of our age. Journalists have become one of the major reasons the world is in a mess.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Dream Leader

In the latest issue of the New Yorker is an article by John McPhee. As I revere his writing, I turned straight to that page. 

I brought with me to my reading my preoccupation of the moment - something that has increasingly been on my mind as this last year has progressed. That preoccupation is: why are our leaders so second-rate at the moment and, if I am so critical of them, what is it I want instead?

I have no answer to the why but, in John McPhee's description of Paul McHenry Washburn, Captain in 1988 of the SS Stella Sykes, US Merchant Marine, I have found a perfect summing up of what it is I expect from a leader:

"He was aloof, commanding, understanding, sympathetic, and utterly adroit in the skills of his demanding profession ... from the engine room to the bridge the ship was running on respect for him."

Monday, 12 April 2021

Reading: The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians is the 14th or 15th novel by Graham Greene that I have read in the last year and a half. I find him entertaining and I admire his diligence - although I suspect he would hate that second adjective: I have the impression that effortless, politely disdainful, insouciance, what we might now call cool, was the effect he was aiming for. In this regard, as a figure he reminds me a little of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens - all three were or are aiming fairly obviously to appear nonchalant (although why an attitude that borders on indifference and apathy is so often charismatic is something difficult to comprehend - perhaps it was a useful attribute when we were hunter/gatherers). Of course, the very fact that an effort, however faint, is discernible, means that none of them ever were or will transcend being poseurs and reach the state of true and genuine cool. 

All three do manage to be icy to some degree though - and, speaking of icy, Greene remained friends until the end with the coldest man ever to come out of the fairly chilly culture that is upper middle class England - Kim Philby. Greene's loyalty to a monster is something that I cannot understand.

But let us return to The Comedians - it is not the best (or the worst) book that I have read by Greene, who is definitely patchy. However, it is, like almost all his work, diverting, not least because of its setting, impoverished, terrorised Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's violent reign. 

The story begins at sea, on a boat that is on its way to Haiti. In the closed world of a ship, amid some typical Greenian grotesquery - most notably the desk "littered with great swollen phalluses ... like a massacre of pigs", which is the result of the ship purser's decision, given the lack of balloons onboard, to blow up condoms as decoration for the shipboard party - and some fairly heavy handed hints of impending menace - "the flat grey sea ...seemed to lie ... like an animal, passive and ominous in a cage waiting to show what it can do outside" - we are introduced to the three main characters: Messrs Brown, Smith and Jones. As their names suggest, Greene is presenting the reader with emblems as well as characters. 

Brown is the narrator, a man born in Monte Carlo and claiming to be detached and rootless as a result, a condition he seems to regard as something to be proud of. I think he is confusing indifference with Romantic alienation, just like those who wish to be cool. In his apathetic self-aggrandisement, Browne quotes possibly the worst line of all Romantic poetry, the bit about "rocks and stones and trees", from Wordsworth's A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal. 

Habitual readers of Greene will recognise Brown - he is a new iteration of the narrator in The Quiet American and, like that figure, for all his claims of detachment and having "forgotten how to be involved", he is very involved - even obsessed - with a woman he knows will never wholeheartedly love him, partly because she has a child whose name is Angel. Presumably Greene thought the allusion would help to remind the forgetful or unenlightened among his readers that all women in his fiction, even the prostitutes, are really the Madonna.  

Brown tells us the tale of the interweaving experiences of the three men - Brown, Smith and Jones - during their time on Haiti. His tone is world weary and melancholy, everything is in a minor key - indeed, very little Greene wrote is not steeped with this minor key melancholy; even Monsignor Quixote, despite that book being essentially a comedy. Brown explains that his world-weariness has only come to full maturity since - and in part because of - the events he tells of in the book. At the time of which he tells, he admits, "I still regarded my future seriously", while now he can no longer be sure that it is possible to "describe as serious the confused comedy of our lives". Looking back, he sees that as far as Haiti and life there goes, the novel's central trio "were only a subplot offering a little light relief". 

The character called Smith is another Greene retread. If Alden Pyle from The Quiet American had grown old he might well have become something like Smith, an evangelical vegetarian who once stood for US President. In the 11 years between The Quiet American and The Comedians, Greene's attitude toward Yankee naivety seems to have become more nuanced. While Smith is seen as largely laughable and naive, he is also allowed to display determination, courage and integrity. "Wasn't it possibly a flaw in character to believe so passionately in the integrity of all the world", Brown asks himself about Smith, but ultimately he sums him up as "an old man with beautiful manners", adding that "suddenly I realised how much I missed him", somewhat undermining his claim to be entirely emotionally null and void. 

Finally there is Jones, the unikely beating heart of the novel. Jones, a liar, a conman and a crook is a man who "wore his ambiguity like a loud suit". He admits that "somehow I couldn't find what I was intended to do." In some respects, he is Brown's mirror image. Although Brown owns a hotel, while Jones owns nothing, although Brown, it is implied, is tall, good looking, possibly even debonair (in my mind, he appears as a poor man's Cary Grant or as James Stewart in a very bad mood), while Jones is tiny, "with dark Pekinese eyes" and flat feet, what both men share is a taste for dissembling - they are among the comedians of the title and their relationship is constructed on that basis:

"Interrogation, partly concealed, was to be the basis of our relationship in the short time it lasted: we would snatch at small clues, though in great matters we would usually pretend to accept the other's story. I suppose those of us who spend a large part of our lives in dissembling, whether to a woman, to a partner, even to our own selves, begin to smell each other out. Jones and I learnt a lot about one another before the end, for one uses a little truth whenever one can. It is a form of economy."

Each has a loose understanding of the difference between right and wrong. In an earlier incarnation, Brown sold fake paintings to those willing to be fooled: "I once sold an imitation Pollock to a man who had Walt Disney dwarfs planted in his garden, around the sun-dial and on either side the crazy paving", he confides. "Did I harm him? He could afford the money." 

Furthering the identification between the two, Brown encourages us to believe that both he and Jones at the start of the novel simultaneously reach a crucial moment, the "point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives". 

But there are major differences. Jones, unlike Brown, possesses the ability to make women laugh. Both Brown's mistress and his favourite prostitute mention this aspect of Jones’s personality with fondness. Furthermore, despite the two men sharing a fairly fluid approach towards honesty, Jones may be more reluctant than Brown in his waywardness, if Brown's speculations, articulated in one of the book's most lovely passages, are correct:

"I wondered whether perhaps in all his devious life he had been engaged on a secret and hopeless love affair with virtue, watching virtue from a distance, hoping to be noticed, perhaps, like a child doing wrong in order to attract the attention of virtue."

In addition, unlike Brown, Jones has a guiding dream - in fact he has two: "You have to have two in case the first goes wrong", he explains. One, his back-up, is to set up a golfing resort on a coral reef not far from Haiti, with "a long bar made of coral called the Desert Island Bar". The other is to be a hero.

According to Paul Theroux in the introduction to my edition, the book was written at a time when Greene was short of money, due to the failures of an accountant (Theroux suggests that Jones may be modelled on this figure) and possibly this led to some slipshod stylistic moments. The book's opening line strikes me as stupendously unwieldy, especially from the author of Brighton Rock, which has one of the most arresting opening lines in all fiction. One of the first things we are told about Mr Smith is that he has "large innocent hairy ears"; the concept of innocent ears is one I find hard to accept. There are also dissonant moments I think could have done with cutting, such as the exchange between a young American couple about the female partner's ability to swim the backstroke: it is snobbish and pointless and rings quite untrue. Similarly, there are quite a few clunking similes, such as "The rain was hammered into the ground like a prefabricated wall." 

But there is much to enjoy in the book, including many good lines. Perhaps the one that stands out as being ideal for these times of government imposed restrictions in the name of safety is the narrator's remark that "security can get on the nerves just as much as danger".  

Potential readers should be warned that there are a couple of moments of unutterable racism - my least favourite is "his face dripped with tears like a black roof in a storm". On the other hand, some of the racism goes the other way: a Haitian official observes: " My personal view of every white man is very low. I admit I am offended by the colour, which reminds me of turd. But we accept some of you - if you are useful to the state."

Unlike The Quiet American which takes your breath away with a late twist, The Comedians has no plot surprises. All the same, above all because of the character of Jones, I recommend it. And despite my reservations, including the fact that the character he elects in this novel as the person with true heroic integrity is a Communist, I will go on reading Greene. I think he was utterly mistaken in his hatred for America, his armchair Marxism and his loyalty to Kim Philby (and don’t get me started on his behaviour toward the women in his life) but, in the end, although he was a bit of a swine and a bit of a show off, he was, in his writing, a great entertainer. In other words, he was, in all senses, one of those people he called "the comedians".

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Covid Consequences

After a few weeks’ break, hairdressers reopened yesterday in Hungary. Today my husband, who hates it if his hair brushes his ears or flops in his eyes or falls over his collar and has consequently been chopping away at himself for a few weeks, went to get his hair cut. The lady he went to stood behind him, looked down at his hair & then looked at him in the mirror, her expression half amazement, half horror: Mit történt? she asked (what happened?)