Monday, 28 June 2021

Waugh on Gaudi

It was such a delight to discover while reading an article in a publication called, oddly enough, The Article, that Waugh can be added to the group of two - me and GM Davis - who hold dissident views on the architect whose name is Gaudi. 

For Waugh, according to the article I was reading, believed that Gaudí’s creations: 

“apotheosised all the writhing, bubbling, convoluting, convulsing soul of the Art Nouveau . . .The effect was that of a clumsily iced cake . . . [The walls] were made to look like caves . . . all wildly and irrelevantly curved, as if drawn by a faltering hand . . . He is a great example of what art-for-art’s-sake can become when it is wholly untempered by considerations of tradition or good taste.”

Is this more proof that Waugh was a genius? Surely yes.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

T-Shirts Again

Some people prefer visual to verbal arguments, which is why, as a follow-up to my verbal attack on the rise of the t-shirt as clothing in non-active, non-sports situations, I am putting this visual argument here. I think it makes the point clearly and succinctly:

Friday, 25 June 2021

Holiday Ideas

Some people I know were outraged yesterday that Redonda was left of the UK’s expanded "green" list of countries, (places its citizens can travel to without having to quarantine on their return). Personally, I was more affronted that the island of Saint László didn’t make the cut. 

I first discovered this little known resort thanks to a 1997 piece by brilliant Hungarian journalist Dork Zygotian (aka Dumneazu). I reproduce it here:

Slide away to the Lard Coast

By Dork Zygotian 

It’s vacation time again, and eager travelers are trying to decide where to go this year. Will it be the warm seas and white sand beaches of the Caribbean, or the small hills and windswept plains of Hungary? Ocean breezes or Trabant fumes? Grilled Red Snapper or boiled carp?

Well, now you don’t have to choose between the two! Come on down to the latest tourist find in the Antilles! The tiny Hungarian island of Saint Laszlo awaits you!

Yes! Saint Laszlo is one of the last undiscovered gems of the Caribbean, an island so small and insignificant that even Hungarians had forgotten about this relic of their imperial splendor nestled between the Venezuelan coast and Key West, Florida. Since 1989, however, more and more Saint Laszlonians have been traveling abroad, and more tourists are discovering this Uralic sandbar in Paradise, with its quaint customs, savoury cuisine, and bad telephone system.


Saint Laszlo, an uninhabited island known to the Arawak indians of the Caribbean as “Guaccatuccaijandebrecen” was discovered during the 17th century by Spanish pirates, who used the tiny (one mile wide, four miles long) islet as a base to wash dishes and read the newspaper in between raids on English and french shipping. During the 18th century the island passed from the crown of Spain to the British, and then in quick succession to the French, the Swedish crown, back to the British, then to a Spanish concession, French again, then to the Danes, and then back to the British. The colonial powers imported African slaves via Brazil and Cuba to work on the clam plantations along the coast, but with the collapse of the inland’s aloe vera industry (shampoo having not yet been invented) the island lapsed into an economic depression and tropical torpor. During the Napoleanic wars, however, the local British commissioner for the island hosted a delegation from the Hapsburg crown, and the island was lost in a game of poker to Count Laszlo Turoczy de Lakotelep, a Hungarian nobleman. The Count was a great supporter of Hungarian independence, and as soon as the Hapsburg delegation had left the island, Count de Lakotelep hoisted the flag of the Hungarian crown, poured himself a stiff rum punch, emancipated the island’s population, and went fishing.

Spurred by postcards sent home by the illustrious Count, other Hungarians were eager to emigrate to this minute outpost of Hungary in the colonial Caribbean. The first shipload of fourteen arrived in 1817, with a couple more a few years later. After an influx of refugees following the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, the Count felt the island had gotten too crowded and stopped sending postcards. The economy of Saint Laszlo underwent sweeping changes with the collapse of the plantation system. A visitor from Trinidad wrote in the 1850s “Today I paid a courtesy visit to the Count’s aloe holdings in the parish of New Pesht, but as the labourers were far more interested in the drinking of their coffee and the reading of their newspapers, nothing could get done.” Energy was diverted from agriculture to bureaucracy, and soon Saint Laszlo was exporting rubber stamps and countless carbon copies of pointless documents to other islands.

During the negotiations leading to the historic 1867 compromise between the Hapsburg crown and the Hungarian Parliament, the colonial compact defining Saint Laszlo’s status was unfortunately lost in a stack of papers at a coffeehouse after one too many brandies, and Hungarian possession of the island was simply forgotten. Except for a few family contacts and a trickle of immigration, Saint Laszlo was to spend the next century in rum and palinka soaked obscurity.

After 1989, however, the island’s economy was on the verge of collapse, and increasing numbers of Saint Laszlonians chose to emigrate to London and New York, where increasingly met with other Hungarians. Saint Laszlonians are renowned for their skill as taxi drivers, and upon hearing Hungarian spoken in their cabs, they would respond in the native Saint Laszlonian patois, a rich mixture of Hungarian and Caribbean English and Haitian creole. This often resulted in better tips, and increasing numbers of Saint Laszlonians began taking their vacations at Lake Balaton. Today ties between the island and the Hungarian motherland are growing, although true to the scale of Saint Laszlo, in very small amounts.

In an effort to get Soros money for a women’s center and kick start a tourist industry, Saint Laszlo today celebrates its Pannonian heritage and is open to all who seek their own Uralic place in the sun!


Getting there. Difficult. Saint Laszlo’s harbor town, Portopotti can be reached by regular kayak, canoe, and rowboat service from Jamaica, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, and someplace off the coast of Panama (ask for Carlos). Air Saint Laszlo and Malev have recently agreed to provide regular service with a new fleet of ultralight aircraft and paragliders from their new hub air-service in Des Moines.


Flat, surrounded by water. On the north coast, Mt. Langos (7 meters) towers above the Hajdu National Mangrove Swamp Park, and expeditions can be arranged the nearby village of Old Laci. Be sure to visit the picturesque Puszta stretching for several meters south on the western peninsula. Take the cure at the famed medicinal baths in East Furdo, famous for treatment for arterial sclerosis, agita, and sunburn.


2, 043 (maybe 2,044 by now.) The Saint Laszlonians are a creole mix descended from Africans, Hungarians, and a boatload of rather friendly Argentinean traveling actresses, who were actually French, who arrived in 1934 and never left.


Gross national product in 1996 was USD$ 874.32. The local currency is the Pingo, which trades at SLP 2,987,560.54 to the US dollar, and is depreciated each Thursday at four pm. Bring lots of brightly colored baseball caps for cab drivers! The main industries are taxi driving, politics, drinking coffee, clam gathering, lard patty manufacture, and tourism.


 The 2,043 residents of Saint Laszlo have a lively political life represented by 432 political parties, 89 non-governmental caucuses, 650 NGOs, and three all-night bars. The ruling coalition, the LLLU (Liberal Laci Litigation Union) has ruled since 1908.


Catholic 45%, Calvinist 45%, Jewish 5%, followers of Afa, the local Afro-Caribbean-Hungarian religion, 100%.


Laci Panzio, in the capitol (three beds, also a comfy chair in the TV room, swimming pool, sauna, pig-killing shed. Tel. (965-1) 4) Also the Forum Hotel, Chickentown, offers excellent accommodation on Jozsefvaros Bay (4 beds, 2 comfy chairs, conference center, swimming pool, toilet, ice box. Tel. (965-2) 3)


Laszlonian cuisine combines rich Hungarian cooking traditions with fresh, local Caribbean ingredients. The cuisine is unique in the tropics in the predominance of heavy, starchy foods cooked in lard and smothered in sour cream. Try the local specialty, Conch Gulyas, traditionally cooked outdoors by clam gatherers known as “klamos”. Delicate Caribbean fish such as snapper and kingfish are boiled into the paprika flavored stew called “Halasz pot”. Goat lecso, tripe ‘n’ yam, creamed “kids and livvies”, and stuffed cabbage made with jungle snails appear on all menus. Pork is the favored meat of the islanders, and has led to a wide array of island specialties including lard soup, lard fritters, lard balls, lard ‘n’ yam, lard flowers, lard surprise, “fat ‘n’ lardy”, lard croquettes, lard patties, lardos and the more delicate, almost feathery larditas, the perfect end to a Saint Laszlonian meal. Coconut strudel, mango pastry, and passion fruit fried in lard and topped with bacon are available on almost every street corner on both of the streets. Wash your meal down with some light and fruity Mango Tokaj wine, or a North Coast Bikaver, reputed to be among the best of south Caribbean red wines! The local tipple is palinka, a form of rum made from beach plums, which is available in both three and five liter bottles.


The majority of the population are members of one or another sect of the Afro-Hungarian religion called Afa. Afa is a traditional syncretic belief system which combines features of Afro-Caribbean world view with a more pessimistic central-european outlook on fate, and is enriched by a mythical obsession with the poetry of Endre Ady and re-runs of the TV series Dallas. “Afa will get you!” goes the folk saying, “Nothing is stronger than Afa!”. The earthly representation of Afa is the spirit Apeh, pervasive and nosey, which demands that each and every transaction made be consecrated to the Gods of Afa with a slip of paper representing some form of sacrifice. Descendants of various African and Hungarian families often maintain separate cult houses in which to worship Afa and Apeh, and a visit to the Afa cult shrine in the Yoruba-Paloc village of East Nograd at carnival time is not to be missed. The priests of Apeh stalk the village homes looking for sacrificial hard currency transactions, while the local people, dressed in fantastic creole-hussar costumes, parade through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and cimbaloms singing the ancient cult songs in the local creole, such as “Apeh! Apeh! Menya franzba! Menya franzba! Afa! Afa! Penzunk mar neench! Tunj mar ell!” (Prof. Hilton Kayeftee, of the University of Saint Laszlo, gives a translation of this song as ‘God of Greed, go to France! God of Sacrifice, we’re broke, eat tuna!”) At the height of the festivities, the main square of Saint Laszlo is crowded with carnival dancers doing the national dance of the island, the “Szamla” to the sound of booming drums and the ever-present cimbaloms, waving hundreds of colorful little pieces of paper (the “szamla” from which the dance gets its name) and spitting in the street. The evening ends with the parking of hundreds of little cars on the sidewalk to the raucous singing of the creole song “Trabby, trabby, ohhh! Budosh, budosh trabby, ohhh!”


Saint Laszlonians are particularly proud of their local poets, and no visitor should leave without picking up an anthology or fourteen of their work. Zoltan Banana is one of the younger generation, and his “Hymn” exhibits the creole synthesis that defines Saint Laszlonian verse: “I want to jump off / the bridge of freedom / the dark hours close in on me / the noose tightens / but then I think / I’ll just smoke something and drink a rum-palinka / daylight dawns anew!”. James Turofej’s work shows the deep tradition of Laszlonian creole language and folklore in his community, Csongrad Cliffs, such as in the poem “Taxi Man” : “Born between de Tisza and Trinidad / Gleaming fields of coconut an’ poppy / I drive me taxi / and pay it all to Apeh / life cyaan go on / mebbe me jump offa bridge”. The use of bridge symbolism is significant - there are no bridges in Saint Laszlo!



Saint Laszlo Dept. Of Tourism 
Darvas Lili Road 2 
Csongrad Cliffs 
Saint Laszlo 

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Unremarkable Reminders

It is more than twenty years since, surprisingly unexpectedly even for those who’d spent their lives studying the Soviet bloc, the terrible old structure suddenly collapsed. The countries that struggled out from under the rubble have mostly gone on to embrace the bright new futures that awaited them.

Thank goodness. How joyous. I hated everything about those old days.

All the same, when I see some small relic of that former reality, I relish it. Not because I’m nostalgic, not out of any sense of regret, but because they are tiny reminders embodying the utter trashiness of that old world. As the years go by & the sheer awfulness of Communism as practised in Eastern Europe is remembered by fewer & fewer who actually experienced it, I think the unnoticed relics of the former ghastliness become more & more important to preserve.

Here are some examples I saw today - imagine a whole world of such battered rustiness & flimsy quality. East of Austria, that was the deprived world of every European country from shortly after World War Two until 1989:

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

From Plastic Bags to Patriarchy

Since I was 14 or 15, (that is, since a very long time), I have been conscious of the need to use little or no plastic; waste no food; walk whenever possible, or use public transport; locally source to reduce pollution; and so forth and so on.

I was surprised then some years ago when a bunch of people burst onto the scene, (most of them, strangely, accompanied at all times by disposable plastic bottles of water, [a brand-new must-have back then]), haranguing the rest of us not about pollution but about what was at first called global warming but then, when it became clear that not all weather is hot weather, was given a brand makeover and renamed climate change.

I remained aghast at the way cars seemed to be taking over the landscape, China seemed to be a giant smogbound nature destroyer (as was the Soviet Union and its satellites before it [exhibit a: the Aral Sea*]), but something niggled at me about those who exhorted us to tackle climate change, rather than pollution. 

At last when I read a statement put out in November 2019 by that strange media creation Greta Thunberg, along with a couple of her less well-known colleagues, I understood where my concern about the movement rested. This was the passage that made things clear for me:

“The climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, of justice, and of political will. Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fuelled it. We need to dismantle them all. Our political leaders can no longer shirk their responsibilities.”

The advocates of climate change believe capitalism is the problem, when in fact the majority of the very worst examples of pollution have been created by totalitarian governments. Dismantling our systems, while leaving China to merrily wreak havoc on the air, the rivers and the land, is a certain way to destroy everything that is good on this planet. 

* Here is AA Gill's essay on the Aral Sea, from July 2000 - it is a marvellous piece of writing (whenever I read it I wonder what became of Gary); if you want more, it comes from AA Gill is Away, ISBN 978-0-7538-1681-3, Weidenfeld and Nicolson:

"The Aral Sea, July 2000 

The man behind the desk has a bandaged ear. Perhaps a previous guest let him keep the rest of his head as a tip. He holds my passport and press accreditation as if they are fortune cookies containing death threats. He licks his fingers, then his lips, then the ballpoint and begins very slowly copying out the letters and numbers in triplicate on three ancient, moth-winged ledgers. He has no idea what he is writing, it's all English to him, awkward for his Cyrillic-conditioned fingers. 

Finally, he writes US$40 on a scrap of paper and rubs his thumb and forefinger together. Forty dollars. That's more than a month's wages for a middle-class man here - if they had anything as outré and modern as a middle class. He hands me a receipt on a square of brown lavatory paper, which is useful because it's the only lavatory paper in the place. This is only a hotel because they charge you $40 to stay. There's no furniture and no soap. The water comes in a prostated, rusty dribble. The bath has been used to interrogate sheep. The towel is a bar mat. There's a blanket, a chipped tin teapot and a carpet that looks like tar applied with a comb. All night, lost herdsmen bang on my door and stare as if they've seen the ghost of tsars past. Welcome to Nukus, rhymes with mucus, twinned with nowhere. Nukus, no mates. 

Nukus is the capital of Kara-Kalpakstan. Don't pretend you've heard of it, a semi-autonomous republic in the far west of Uzbekistan. One of the "stans", shires of the former Soviet Union. A vast area of vast land. Desert, mountain, broken promises and wrecked grand plans once known collectively as Turkistan or where-thehell's-that-stan. Now cut into five post-meltdown new countries - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - which stretch from the Caspian Sea in the west over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Tien Shan mountains of China to Mongolia. This was the Russians' back yard, not open to the public - - a place to dump rubbish, people, embarrassments and five-year plans. Up there somewhere in the desert is Star City and the space programme. Also the glowing half-life of above-ground nuclear test sites and their collateral seeping, cancerous waste.  But right here is the big one - the stans' main claim to an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. The Kara-Kalpaks can boast the Biggest Ecological Disaster in the World, Ever. Nothing else, no smoking rainforest, no solitary carnivore, no home-county ring road, comes close to the majesty of this disaster. Not just the biggest, but the fastest. Organised and executed with the precipitate callousness, greed and sheer eye-bulging stupidity that only hands-on communism can muster. They've managed to drain the Aral Sea, the fourth biggest inland lump of water on the globe, and they've done it in 20 years. The southern Aral was created and maintained by the Oxus river (now known as the Amu Darya), which rises in the frozen attic of the Pamir mountains and meanders across grassland in search of a coast, finally giving up and creating its own terminus. The Oxus is/was one of the great rivers - the ancient Persians thought it the greatest. Along its banks the towns of the silk route flourished. The orchards and spice gardens, the mulberry trees and roses of Samarkand and Bukhara and Khiva. 

Cotton has always been grown here, mixed with silk into a bright material that made Bukhara famous. Then in 1861, across the Pacific, something apparently utterly unconnected with central Asia caused the flutter of chiffon that grew into a wind that became a dust storm that changed everything: the American civil war. Russia was one of the few supporters of the South (we were another), Russia bought its cotton from the South - to make up the deficit they increased production in the stans. When the communists took over, they decided to bury capitalism in a generation, and turned the whole of this vast area into a monocrop culture of the stuff. In 1932, they started the Fergana valley canal, one of the huge, murderous, wasteful engineering achievements of Stalinism. It was only the beginning. Soon the apparently inexhaustible Oxus was gashed and slashed with thousands of miles of arbitrary irrigation, canals and dams, hydroelectric plants and repetitive ditches. They did the unthinkable, the unimaginable: they bled the river dry. Now it does not even reach the Aral Sea. 

Oh, but that's not the half of it. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops, and all mono-crops are prone to disease and infestation. Cotton naturally is particularly weedy. The haemorrhaging river leached salt that should have gone to the sea into the earth. The water came on and off the field up to 15 times in its course and sucked more salt to the surface, salinating the water table. Now a crystal layer sits on the exhausted earth and the tea tastes like a practical joke (oddly, it improves the coffee). Here, the drinking water is three or four times more saline than is considered healthy or palatable. To salt the land is a biblical horror, the final murderous curse of a place. Kara-Kalpakstan has become the largest cruet set in the world. Ah, but we are not finished: terrified managers facing falling yields sprayed tonnes of phosphates, nitrogen and, worst, DDT indiscriminately over the fields, and it's still all here, blowing in the wind. 

Step out onto the wide, grim, grey streets of Nukus, and in one slow pan you can see all you will ever need to know about communism. It is not so much that this place of hateful, cheap Soviet architecture fills the soul with gloom: it's that it sucks everything remotely beautiful or sensitive from the soul, leaving a vacuum of low-grade depression and the tinnitus of despair.
Seventy years of communism, all that hardship, terror, death. All that effort and hope and promises, the forced migrations, the cruelty, exhaustion, misery and rationing, the starvation and privation, the mechanical, imperative certainty of it all, ended up with this baking, grim bleakness. 

A few bronchitic, gaseous Ladas career along its broadly potted and rotted roads, every one a taxi. An old woman squats beside an upturned box, selling individual cigarettes, sunflower seeds and sluggish, dusty cola. She is the summit of independent Uzbek private enterprise. A man in a traditional skullcap pulls a reluctant goat on a rope. The goat bleats piteously - it knows this is not a good day. Soviet-style posters of happy storm troopers and peasant girls fondling potent sheaves fade and curl in the hot wind. Bits of folk-painted hardboard clap against iron and cement like early drafts for BA tail fins. This is a bad place, a sick place. The damage to the land is as nothing compared with the damage to these people.

Here is a brief and incomplete list of what the Kara-Kalpaks can expect in return for their cheap cotton and blasted land: bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, infantile cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, kidney disease, endocrine disease, urogenital disease, diseases of the nervous system - all of them way, way beyond what would be considered acceptable in a normal, moderately developed world - and chronic anaemia. Even before they're born, Kara-Kalpaks are cursed by their habitat: 97% of pregnant women are anaemic, 30% of births may have defects, 1 in 10 babies may already be dead. These figures, as with all statistics in this piece, are educated, conservative guesses by outside agencies. The Uzbeks don't make a habit of washing their salty linen in public or letting their citizens know what's sitting at the end of their bed. But there are special wards just for birth defects here that no outsider has ever seen, the consequence of DDT and salt and malnutrition - thin bread and tea is the daily diet of most Kara-Kalpaks. What makes all this more ironic is that these exhausted women were the original Amazons, the warrior caste Alexander supposedly would not fight. If a child makes it past birth and the 30% infant mortality rate, then it had better pack its experiences and fun tight, because life expectancy is probably only 38 choked, grim years. 

The microscope I'm looking through is a gift from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Through the mist of blue, stained lung gunk on the slide swims a bright red spot. That's it. Yes, that's definitely it. The red spot that marks your card for life: tuberculosis. TB is the number one top-of-the-pops killer in Kara-Kalpakstan. New cases in Nukus come in at a hacking 167.9 per 100,000 of the population (50 is considered an epidemic elsewhere). The microscope is the only piece of equipment in Nukus's TB hospital that couldn't have been made by a carpenter or farrier. This rambling institution, like the hotel, is only a hospital because someone says it is. There is no equipment, nothing that plugs in, just iron beds and broken tables and Cyrillic posters warning against Aids, which hasn't got here yet. The distempered walls flake and sag.

There's an overwhelming smell of sick, hot sewage. A truck pumps out the open latrines. Most patients sit outside in the baking dust, catching what passes for fresh air. The hot wind gusts with thick, poisonous lungs. The stoic sick hawk and spit. Spitting is a national sport. When I suggested, all things considered, they might be asked to stop, I'm told it's delicate, it's a cultural thing. Yeah, and Genghis Khan thought kicking people to death in sacks was a cultural thing. TB is very, very infectious. We walk around wearing paper Donald Duck masks. 

As ever, the children's ward is the most depressing: little girls wheezing on beds, watching the motes dance in the sun; the hospital cannot even feed them properly - a little yogurt if they are lucky; mothers in bright headscarves hover in corners, desperately grateful for even this, not wanting to draw attention or make a fuss; infants as young as nine months are brought in with TB. In children, it's likely not just to be pulmonary: it affects the other organs, the bone, the spine, as meningitis. 

A small lad tags along with us, pretty, pallid, central Asian features with a mop of black hair. Whenever I look rough, he's there, sneaking with a tyke's smile and a slight squint. His name sounds like Gary. Gary's bright as a button, except he's not: he's got TB and the complications of pleurisy, and he's brain-damaged; and he's an orphan; he's seven. 

Today, by chance, is my son's seventh birthday. Thousands of miles from here, his healthy lungs are blowing out candles. I should be there but I'm not; I'm here with Gary, who puts his face close to mine and laughs - the first laugh I've heard in days, a tinkling, rippling noise, an echo from another place. I smile back but realise he can't see it, because I'm wearing this antiseptic muzzle to protect me from his breath. 

Being dealt TB, pleurisy, brain damage and a family of one in Nukus is about as low a hand as God can offer a seven-year-old. We walk on through the wards, the little hand fits into mine and breaks my heart. TB is not an illness like cancer or malaria or cholera. It's not the result of bad luck or bad drains or genes or insects. It's a consequence, an indicator of something else, something we've got loads of - money. More exactly, the absence of it. TB hitches a ride on the back of extreme poverty. Only the poor and malnourished, the weak, are susceptible. It's as if they read the instructions on the box the West comes in wrong, and went and got inconspicuous consumption. That it should have returned so violently and comprehensively in what was, until a decade ago, part of a superpower, is a symbol of how precipitous the collapse in central Asia has been. 

MSF is treating TB with some success, and for every patient, of course, that's a miracle. But in the general walk of life in Uzbekistan, it means little or nothing. MSF is here because someone should be here to show that someone out there noticed and cared. They can't tell how many of their failures have the terrifying new variant of drug-resistant TB. Oh, it's out there. Prisons have about 40% TB, one in five of those drug-resistant. The only laboratories that could do the tests are in the West. Incidentally, my local Chelsea & Westminster Hospital had a rare case last year: an immigrant who was kept in locked isolation. He escaped, and the health officer ordered a police search. Here it could be anyone: the waiter, the man who spits at your feet, the policeman who leans in the window to check your papers. The treatment for drug resistant TB costs £8,000, has side effects of kidney failure and blindness, lasts five months and then it's only 50-50, a toss-up. 

Don't stop reading yet. The best bit is still to come. We haven't got to Muynak yet, the destination of this piece, the real reason I came here. Someone said to me in passing, apropos of nothing, over lunch in the Ivy: "Hey, why don't you go to the worst place in the world?" The worst place in the world has an emphatic ring to it. 

We leave Nukus in an ancient Volga. The driver loves it. A fine car. A good car. It's a deathtrap heap: the safety belt is attached to the chassis with gaffer tape. On the outskirts of town, a bridge crosses the Oxus. The river is a brown, turgid worm as broad as a peaty salmon-spawn stream. "There are the old banks where it used to run," points the driver. Where? I look and can't see. And then, pulling back for focus, the width and depths of the once-upon-a-time river are revealed in the distance. It was huge, wider than the Nile - a dozen motorways across. Awesome, appalling. The road traces the crippled stream north, through the horizon-shoving flatness of semi-desert and large, vacant fields with a frosting of salt. We pass plunky, unstable three-wheeled tractors, sand-matted camels, men in traditional long coats and boots with galoshes riding dusty, ballet-toed donkeys, and patient families with small, plastic bundles waiting for lifts. Every tree in Uzbekistan is painted white. It's the literalism of communism. Someone once wrote an after-lunch memo, and the next day they started painting all the trees. We stop in a village to visit the hospital. The doctor in his white coat, boiled thin and translucent, and the tall chef's hat that medical folk wear here, stands in the dust. A cleaning woman is tearing a strip off him; the patients stare at him. For a moment, he looks at the ants and silently turns back to his barren, distempered office. His one medical assistant has just got TB. He hasn't been paid his pittance of a salary for seven months. The health ministry has fined his under-resourced hospital for not disposing of its rubbish properly. He hasn't got an incinerator, a tin can belches greasy sputum smoke. He drinks. All day, every day, hopelessly. 

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed with exhaustion and horror, the stans were the only constituent part that didn't want independence. They actually asked to stay - better the devil ...
Russia had to push them out like reluctant teenagers, so they waited till they had half a dozen Aeroflot planes on their provincial runways and declared independence and a national airline. Nothing else changed much - it just got smaller and meaner. Uzbekistan is still a one-party command economy. It recently came top of a business magazine's list of the world's most corrupt countries (when that was reprinted in the local press, Uzbekistan's name had miraculously vanished, that's how corrupt it is). Every cotton harvest, schools, universities and offices are emptied into the fields. Everyone must pick and sleep in freezing barns, beg food and drink salty ditchwater. It gets harder: every year the fields are scoured for every wisp of cotton. Yet the people don't yearn for democracy. Democracy is an indecipherable foreign language. Since before the birth of Christ, this swathe of earth has suffered under waves of light-cavalry dictators: Macedonians, Persians, Arabs, Scythians, Mongols, Russians. A word was invented for them: horde. 

This place is anti-democracy, the opposite of democracy. What people yearn for is a new, better, stronger megalomaniac. There are rumblings of infectious, fundamental Islam coming from out of the desert, and the government is keen to associate itself with the personality cult of Tamerlane, or Timur, as they call him, erecting hideous, über-realist statues, gaining strength by retrospective association. Timur was Uzbekistan's home-grown 10th-century monster, creator and desecrator of the biggest land-based empire ever seen. A man who made Stalin look Swiss. 

Muynak quivers out of the dust. It looks like solidifying dust, shimmering in the heat haze. It's a seaside town, a spa town, a summer holiday place with a promenade that's also a fishing port with a flotilla of big trawlers and cargo barges in a harbour. There's a huge fish cannery that's won international awards. You can tell instinctively it's a seaside town. It has that sense, that rather tatty, low-rise feeling; light and air, bracing. 

We walk up a dune to the edge of a beach and look out to sea. It's desert, as far as the eye can stretch - flat, scrub desert with shells. Muynak is now 100 kilometres from the water. It's as if you stood on Brighton pier and the sea started at Paris - truly unbelievable, shocking. In the distance, dust storms twist, a family walks across the sea bed, the father's angry: "Wolves," he shouts. Wolves took his cow in the night. His son carries its head in a congealing sack. Sea wolves, sea cow. Muynak is a town in shock. It feels the sea like an amputated limb. Still aches for it. Men sit and look out at the waves of sand and hear the surf. The Aral Sea, with its thick deposits of salt and chemicals, is now the biggest single collection of dust in the world. It's the equivalent of a friable, airborne, choking Holland. Every year, suffocating toxic clouds blow into town. Man-killer dust. And I forgot to mention, out there, just over the curl of the earth, is an island that, in the way of this country's negative absolutes, has the biggest chemical weapons plant in the world, that contains the largest dump of anthrax on the planet - abandoned, waiting for the wind. 

Of all the ills that have been dumped on Kara-Kalpakstan, it seems invidious, unnecessary, to mention unhappiness, but Muynak feels grief-stricken to the point of madness. The people move with a slow, pointless lethargy. All around, there are signs of psychotic, repetitive comfort: men sit rocking like caged bears, women with short reed brooms sweep their doorsteps maniacally for hours. I watch a man wash an ancient green van from sunrise to sunset, the corrosive dust falling as fast as he can wipe. Early one morning, I notice an old chap sitting on a bench staring at the absent coast, legs crossed, arms folded in his lap. At dusk, he's still there, hasn't moved a muscle. 

The town itself is worn out, all its constituent parts loose and sagging; hinges rasp, the edges of things are darkly rounded with abrasion. It's coming to the end, the factories and canneries slowly sink into the grit. The darkly empty fish fridges are slumped saunas in the heat. Steel hawsers and bits of black metal grow out of the rising earth like hardy plants or drowning hands. Even imagining the effort that once invigorated them is exhausting. Stunted cattle plod the street, cudding dust and mud, so scrawny that at first I wondered why they were all calves. Large, hard-boned dogs crack their skulls on the smoky rubbish wasteland on the edge of town, hanks of gory sheepskin lie in the turgid filth and multi-species dung. Only the children run and shriek and throw stones and wrestle like children everywhere, making balls out of rags. The three, parallel tarmac streets are their playground. The road is covered in chalk drawings: hopscotch and football pitches, pictograms of dolls and soldiers, houses, cars and ships. Ships they'll never sail in. It's a long, black wish-list letter to Father Christmas, the one dictator who never visited these parts. 

They're still here, the ships - huge ships, blackened and callused. They lie askew in their dry beds, at anchor for ever, their plates wrenched off to make defensive stockades for houses. Their ribs are like the bones of extinct animals; brave and boastful names peel off their hulls. I lie in the dunes and listen to them, the wind plays them like a sad band: hatches boom, metal keens for the lost sea. A hawk hunts the sparse grass where seagulls should call, runty cattle move silently in line astern. You can still hear it, the echo of the surf hissing on the hot shore. It is the strangest, most maudlin place I've ever been. There's something particularly awful about dead ships. All other discarded man-engineered metal is eyesore rubbish, but not ships. They retain a sense of what they were: a majesty, a memory of the lightness under their keels. Of all the things sailors dread, carry superstitious talismans against, weather and wave, snapped hawser and hidden shoal, none, even in his wildest dreams, imagined that the sea would leave him, would get up and steal away.

This town thought many things, worried and dreaded plenty, but it could not conceive that it would one day be abandoned to dust. On a dune overlooking the mirage of water is the Russian sailors' graveyard. The crosses made out of welded iron pipe have, in the Orthodox way, three crossbars. Unkempt and crooked, they look like the spars of tall ships ferrying the dead. All the Russians that could go have gone now, leaving the Kara-Kalpaks. But the old Russian harbour master is still here, living in a dark hovel of memories and smells with his babushka wife, a painting of Stalin and a map of remembrance with fathom markings that are thin air. He has his uniform and grows garrulous about the good days when there were 40,000 people here. Holiday-makers, work and play. "It took a day, a whole day, to sail across the Aral. We knew it .
was shrinking: we built canals out to it; we chased after the sea." And then, one day in 1986, all the fishing boats went out, cast their nets in a circle, and when they pulled them in, there was nothing. "We knew it was the end." 

A story like this, a story of such unremitting misery, ought to end with a candle of hope. There should be something to be done. Well, I'm sorry, there isn't. Plenty of better men with clipboards and white Land Cruisers have been here to put it back together again, but they've retreated, dumbfounded and defeated. The World Bank has just spent $40m on a feasibility study and come up with a big idea. The big idea is a wetland bird reserve. Thanks, that would do nicely. You can't cry over spilt water: it just adds more salt. The sea will never come back to Muynak. The river will never repair its banks to meet it. The people of Muynak have nothing to do and nowhere to go; surrounded by thousands of miles of dust, without money or health or expectations, they'll just wait to die. The children will stop drawing in the street, grow up and give up, and the town will give up with them. 

I said at the beginning that it was an ecological disaster, that's not right. That puts it at a remove, makes the Oxus and the Aral Sea a piece of cowboy exterior design, a cockup with fish and minerals. It's not that. It's a human disaster of titanic proportions. This hard earth of ours doesn't care if it's a sea or a desert, a river or a dune. It has no game plan, no aesthetic. Eagles will replace the gulls, and there are plenty of salt-loving succulents that see this as a golden opportunity. Rivers and seas come and go, there's just no space for people here. For them, for us.

In the hospital a young lad sits on the edge of his bed. He is frightened, his eyes are like saucers. His breath is as quick and shallow as a trapped bird's. He's right to be frightened. He's very sick. His bones incubate a mortal malevolence. His mother has pinned a little cloth triangle to his shirt. I ask what it is. "A protection against the evil eye, for good luck."It holds salt - cotton and salt. Boy, was she ever misinformed."

Gill seems to have been fairly right in his bleak assessment of the chances that the Aral Sea might recover, but efforts are being made and a tiny bit of progress has been made. This link leads to more information on that and includes a very striking set of satellite photographs that show the lake as it receded.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Things I Ought Not to Think - an Occasional Series

I think I’ve been intermittent enough & boring enough for long enough now that I may be able with equanimity to use this blog as a soundproofed cell in which to scream without disturbing others.

Which should mean that I won’t upset anyone at all when I announce to the soundproofing that I believe that, if you are over 60 & appear in an interview on television, you ought not to choose a sloganned T-shirt as the thing you decide to wear.

Since no-one can hear me, I’ll go even further (although whispering this part, as can one ever totally trust soundproofing?) & admit that in my heart of hearts I believe T-shirts look best on children, & older people wearing them look … no, I’m not going that far actually. 

T-shirts are smart, T-shirts are lovely & I would never suggest that they embody both the infantilisation of the western population & a disappointing rejection of craftsmanship & delight in individual elegance. Nor would I suggest that those rejections contribute significantly to the trashy dreariness of modern life.

I also wouldn’t mention that I suspect many T-shirts worn by people who should know better are actually made by slaves in China.

But I would suggest before buying anything, (not just T-shirts) that everyone should check the label. If you haven’t much enjoyed the last couple of years, bear in mind the fact that, when an odd new respiratory disease broke out in Wuhan, the Chinese government instantly shut down all flights from Wuhan to other destinations in China but allowed flights from Wuhan to the rest of the world to carry on at full pelt, (hell, there were people out there clamouring for new T-shirts). 

We may never prove where the coronavirus variant that changed all our lives was created, but we can be sure that China swiftly recognised it as dangerous & made haste to protect its own population but didn’t choose to do the same for us. Reprehensible.

Now I come to think of it, perhaps I could be persuaded to wear one kind of T-shirt: one made by a local craftsman from fabric woven somewhere other than China & bearing the slogan: “Down with CCP China; down with Xi”.

(Imagine it: a T-shirt whose slogan included a semi-colon. That might almost make it grown-up.)

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Books Read in May - Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh

"There was always in Evelyn a conflict between the satirist and the romantic", Graham Greene observes in Ways of Escape (another book I read in May, as it happens). It seems to me that in Put Out More Flags, Waugh produces not a conflict but an extraordinary blend of satire and romance. It is his ability to create this odd blend that makes him unique and wonderful, for satire is usually so unbearably cruel, whereas Waugh both loathes and adores humanity. Put Out More Flags  is simultaneously extremely funny and absolutely serious, its characters often grotesque to the point of pantomime and yet brilliantly alive in the reader's mind. It is a marvellous book written by a genius, capturing entirely entertainingly that split second just as World War Two began. To write something that never seems difficult or boring but is also immensely perceptive, clever and a masterpiece on every level is a brilliant achievement.  If you are new to Waugh, you can begin with Put Out More Flags and still have the pleasure of The Sword of Honour trilogy, with its vast cast of characters ranging from the foolishly courageous through the tragic to the utterly unscrupulous and its melancholy wisdom. I could fill pages with brilliant quotes from Put Out More Flags novel, but it is too wonderful to be written about - it must be read. Waugh was truly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. 

Books Read in May - Our Lady by Benedict XVI

In this little book Pope Benedict XVI explains that an important significance of Mary, mother of Christ, is to be found in her decision to say yes to her role, thus becoming an example of someone who says "'no' to the voice of selfishness and 'yes' to that of genuine love." Benedict does not deny the mysterious nature of faith. He emphasises many times that love is central to it. 

"The true stars of our lives are the people who have lived good lives", he explains. 

"Must try harder" was the repeated cry of all my teachers, and I'm sure it still applies. Books such as this are good reminders that there are spiritual as well as earthly goals.

Books Read in May - Home Truths by David Lodge

David Lodge is a clever and amusing novelist. This novel is one he adapted from a play that was presented to good reviews and large audiences in a provincial theatre in Britain but not staged again thereafter. I hadn't thought about what a problem that might be for playwrights, and it seems rather brilliant of Lodge to decide to adapt the thing so that a wider audience could have access to it.

The adaptation works - Lodge created an entertaining novel from what must have been an entertaining play. It concerns one character who has given up being a writer and another who has kept going, becoming a script writer and part of celebrity culture. There is a slightly boring love triangle to hold the whole thing together. The end isn't perfect, but unfortunately that is true of 99 per cent of novels - and plays, come to think of it. Never mind, the book was enjoyable and I liked the justification the writer who has given up writing supplies for his decision, when how he could have stood giving up writing:

"You mean, how could I give up all those long, solitary hours spent staring at a blank page, or out of the window, gnawing the end of a ballpoint, trying to create something out of nothing, to will creatures with no previous existence into being, to give them names, parents, education, clothes, possessions ... having to decide whether they have blue eyes or brown, straight hair or curly hair or no hair - God, the tedium of it. And then the grinding, ball-breaking effort of forcing it all into words - fresh-seeming words, words that don't sound as if you bought them second-hand as a job lot .. And then having to set the characters moving, behaving, interacting with each other in ways that will seem simultaneously interesting, plausible, surprising, funny and moving ... It's like playing chess in three dimensions ... It's absolute hell."

Books Read in May 2021 - Cork and the Serpent by Macdonald Hastings

The least good of the Cork books that I have read. I wouldn't recommend it. The central female character is hard to believe in and very irritating. I didn't want to see Mr Cork brought down to the level of a mere foolish man.

Books Read in May 2021 - A Family and a Fortune by Ivy Compton Burnett

I admired this more than I enjoyed it, particularly the conjuring up vividly of the character of Aunt Matty  purely through dialogue. Compton Burnett was clearly shrewd and perceptive. Her view of human beings I suspect matches that expressed by one of the characters in the book, who says:

"It is a pity we have to be human ... Human failings, human vanity, human weakness! We don't hear the word applied to anything good. Even human nature is a derogatory term."

Brilliant but slightly icy. 

Monday, 14 June 2021

How Low Can We Go

The downside of Twitter is that you cannot lead a sheltered life there. The most recent example of its intrusive nature that I've experienced is my unwilling discovery that a journalist with the surname Toobin was sacked for masturbating while on a Zoom meeting with colleagues. 

I think sacking this person was a fairly reasonable response to his behaviour. People do have a duty not to shock those they work with simply because they have forgotten what is taboo and what isn't in a public setting - or in his case, because they aren't very good at working technical things.  My only objection to the sacking of Toobin is that it ought to have been the resignation of Toobin, in a world that made any sense.

But I don't think the problem with what Toobin did is a moral one - that is, I don't think his behaviour had a victim; he didn't intend (or cause) any pain, (beyond a fair bit of disgust), to anyone else. What he did do was offend social mores, behaving with such tastelessness and vulgarity that, I would have assumed, he would never, ever want to show his face again. 

A normal reaction to the debacle Toobin found himself at the centre of would have been to feel the most unutterable shame - so intense that one would do everything in one's power to remove oneself from public life ever afterwards. Personally, I would probably have chosen to become a hermit henceforward. That would have been the approach of a civilised human to the sorry sequence of events.

But the reason I know anything about Toobin is because he has been given back his job - or some other job - in the media and, as a result, a video to publicise his reinstatement turned up in the Tweets I see. 

The video is one of the most unsavoury and uncomfortable exchanges I've ever witnessed. But also, for me at least, it is exceptionally depressing - because Toobin doesn't seem to understand that he has disgraced himself, that it will never be possible for anyone to look at him again - ever - without wondering if he is going to dash of for a quick private moment or has just returned from one. From the day that that Zoom story broke, every time Mr Toobin's hands are visible, everyone around him will find it hard not to wonder where they have been lately. And heaven forfend that handshaking ever comes back in in Toobin's social circles. Just, sorry, no.

Yet Toobin seems curiously unaware about the consequences of his unusual (I hope) behaviour. He doesn't seem to recognise that he has blown it - not morally, as I don't think what he did had any victims, but reputationally. He is ruined. He is a clown. He is a man known first and foremost for his sexual urges. From now until eternity, as a result of his gaffe, he will remain, at best,  a figure of fun, a person who has acted with such exceptional vulgarity and tastelessness that he cannot ever be taken seriously again. 

The fact that Toobin doesn't recognise what he has become only increases his lack of decency. "I am trying to become the kind of person that people can trust again," he declares on the video - but it isn't at all a question of trust but of manners and mores. 

The only person Toobin has hurt is himself and he seems not to see this. Toobin hasn't made himself frightening but he has made himself absolutely disgusting. Just as, once you have made yourself famous, you can never go back to anonymity, so, once you have proved yourself unsavoury, creepy, skin-crawlingly uncivilised, you cannot just wipe yourself clean. 

Toobin has exposed himself - no, not just like that, I mean spiritually. Reintegration is not an option. Profumo understood the problem. He knew that when you make a total arse of yourself you cannot return to public life. In the end, his acceptance of that fact did return to him a very tiny bit of respect, but even then he remained the man who'd done what he'd done. 

Mr Toobin, with his desperation for yet more attention, proves himself a savage - and the fact a media organisation is complicit in attempting his rehabilitation proves that we live in truly depraved times.  

And it is that that makes this story, ghastly as it is, very important. The return - or attempted return - of Toobin to the spotlight, the belief that he can be rehabilitated and regain respect after such behaviour, is a sign that we have reached a very low ebb indeed. Decadence is upon us. Civilisation is in the steepest of steep declines.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Long Time No C

I had no idea Edward de Bono was still alive until I saw his obituary in the Times just now. Until I read it, I knew very little about him, beyond the fact that he existed.

It turns out he was half Irish and half Maltese, a doctor and the person who introduced "lateral thinking" into the language. As a home sewer - (no, I don't mean the underground kind; a person who sews is what I mean - the word 'seamstress' strikes me as suggesting too much competence to be applied to me) - perhaps the detail in the obituary that I am most in awe of is the passing reference to de Bono's colourful self-made ties. The obituarist mentions these in such an offhand way that I have to assume they do not realise that making a tie that actually looks okay is a tricky thing, requiring quite a bit of skill.

Aside from that, I thought the obituary contained two other details that made it worth a commemorative blogpost. Here they are:

1. Edward de Bono suggested 'to the Foreign Office [that they] ship large quantities of Marmite to Israel. De Bono explained that both Arabs & Israelis suffered a zinc deficiency due to consuming unleavened bread. Marmite might thus offer a partial remedy to the Middle East problem.'

In my experience, Marmite is not a great unifier. However, it might have had the effect of reorganising the opposing parties along new lines.

2.  'Every morning he rose before 6am to type his latest thoughts on an Adler typewriter. So frequently was he heard bashing the keys that his son Charles, when asked at the age of ten what his father did, replied: “He’s a typist.”'

The permanent secretary of some government department suffered a similar fate on a visit to Japan, when an interpreter introduced him as the department's constant typist.

Under the obituary, there are various comments, including little puzzles of de Bono's that people have remembered. There is the one that represents the title of this post - 'Entury' - and there is this one - 9547653821S13735784A79073F9654E74574T2957387Y6375487 - which I probably don't need to provide the solution to (that said, I only got it because the commenter did provide the solution, so don't hesitate to ask if you can't be bothered doing puzzles [I'm not a keen puzzler myself] but would like to know.)

Monday, 7 June 2021

A Les Murray Poem I Particularly Like

 Poetry and Religion

Les Murray

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds—
crested pigeon, rosella parrot—
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.