Monday 30 January 2012

A mourning ritual: three stages & an infinity sign

An excerpt from Yudit Kiss's, The Summer My Father Died, the book I am currently translating. This passage is from near the end of the book where the father has died and the daughter, Anna, is finding it hard to get over the grief.

Back in Switzerland where she lives and works she visits the family doctor who has suffered much worse family tragedies than her own. It's just a check-up but he can see something is wrong. She tells him about the death.

I quickly recounted the circumstances. He looked at me thoughtfully then suggested we arrange a brief ritual through which I could take leave of my father. I was a little taken aback by that but nodded automatically as I did to everything he suggested. Dr Vesely told me what should be done. The ritual would consist of three parts. In the first I would say out loud everything I loved about my father and our relationship. In the second I’d say what I didn’t like. In the third I would go through all that I had inherited from him, everything that, because, or in spite of him, had become part of my life. After this was done I should imagine an infinity sign, my father in one loop of it, myself in the other. Then I was to cut the link between them.

She returns some two weeks later and after some initial embarrassment she goes through with it.

But once I got through the agony of those first few minutes I was surprised how naturally one thing followed another. After a little while I felt as if my father were crouching in the dim yellow light, in the left hand corner of the surgery. He was there without his usual defences, more real than I had ever seen him. After the initial heart-in-the-mouth feeling I spoke to him without fear or discretion in a way I had never done before. In the torrent of liberated words and feelings there was a moment when I heard the shuffling of paper, and a gentle noise like a pen quickly passing over a smooth page. I think I must have realised that poor Dr Vesely might have had quite enough of this and was making his general medical notes. Perhaps it was a prescription he was writing, or an instruction that I should be removed immediately to the nearest locked cell. But then my thoughts returned to my father who was still squatting in the left hand corner of the room. We were at the third stage of the ritual now, where I was to say what mark my father had left on my life. Once I finished and listened in exhaustion Dr Vesely spoke again.

‘Now imagine the infinity sign with you in one loop and he in the other! Then cut the link between the loops.’

I saw the infinity sign with my father in one loop and a shape in the other that might have been me. I waited a while trying to understand what kind of arena we were occupying. When I looked over to him my father was still there, unmoving, his whole being clinging on to life. I waited a while then started speaking again. You can go now, I said. No one will threaten you there. There’ll be neither shame nor pain. You don’t need to fear anything any more. I spoke quietly, patiently, like someone persuading a child to put on his raincoat so he’d not be soaked to the skin. After a while I felt my father was no longer in the room. He hadn’t left, he had simply been slowly absorbed into the available space: he’d turned to water. I’ve no idea why specifically water, perhaps so that he might remain among us a little while longer because in our worldly lives we had always been sea monsters, always settling by the sea, always dreaming of the sea in summer. For a fortnight or so I continued to feel his presence in the lake then he vanished for good.

When, tearful and covered in perspiration I rose, dripping from the couch and tried to pull my body together, I saw Dr Vesely, perfectly politely sitting behind his desk. We looked at each other in silence for a while.

‘He didn’t want to go,’ I said at last.

‘And?’ he asked.

‘I had to persuade him.’

‘And then?’

‘Then he slowly dissolved in water’

‘What water?’

‘I don’t know. All kinds of water.’

I stood up, my muscles tense. There was no weight hanging over me now.

‘He has left this message for you,’ said Dr Vesely and gave me a scrawled prescription. My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t have read it even if his writing were more legible than usual.

Fascinating translating that because, in effect, by way of the imagination, the translator goes through a version of the psychological process of the character in the book. The process is very simple but the infinity sign is a fine touch. I don't suppose it was entirely Dr Vesely's invention.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Two 1965 pop videos where the women don't move

Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs: Wooly Bully (1965)

The Zombies: She's Not There (1965)

I remember both of these (just) but had forgotten the still women. In Wooly Bully they stand as if they were shop dummies while the woman in She's Not There lies on a chaise longue and looks confidently enigmatic. But she doesn't move either. Sam the Sham was an oddly memorable novelty song. The Zombies were genuinely original and haunting.

But why are the women still? I'm sure a feminist analysis would offer plenty of explanations. They are sexual objects. The have no freedom of action. They have no subjectivity. They activate the idea of feminine mystique at a safe distance. They are cardboard-cutout Muses. They are trophy girlfriends. They are wallpaper, decoration, status symbols. They are the lay figures of pop-surrealism, entirely passive subjects of the potentially sadistic male gaze.

And all this would be true, or might be true, some of it or all of it, and yet it isn't enough. Or if this more or less describes the truth then the truth is deeper and stranger and not quite at safe distance.

Apparent stillness is inanimation. The last stage of inanimation is death. In how many corny ghosts films have we seen the eyes of apparently inanimate portraits begin to move? (I think of The Cat and the Canary, for instance, a comedy based on such tropes). How often, for spooky effect, have statues that we have taken for inanimate stir and threaten. This may be taking things too far but there is something a little unheimlich about those beautiful unmoving female figures who are not altogether powerless, especially the one in The Zombies video, since, surely, she must be the woman who, according to the title, is - unsettlingly - 'not there.'

Friday 27 January 2012

Hungary, The New Theatre, Letter in The Guardian / Roma film

The scene above is from the siege, last year, of the Roma community of Gyöngyöspata, a village in Hungary, and here a film, edited, with English subtitles, published today by The Guardian to accompany it.

The letter below is the complete text of the one published yesterday, also in The Guardian. It is an impressive collection of theatre people. I'm the bottom signatory.

Open, liberal theatre under fire in Hungary

We are alarmed by the imposition of a far-right director on one of Budapest's leading theatres, and call on our foreign secretary and the international community to put pressure on the Hungarian government to reverse the decision before 1 February, the day the theatre is scheduled to change hands. Following the election of the rightwing Fidesz party, the mayor of Budapest sacked the director of Új Színház (the New Theatre), and appointed actor György Dörner in his place. Dörner supports the anti-Roma, anti-gay and antisemitic party Jobbik. Jobbik has been forced to disband its militia, the Hungarian Guard, but its presidential candidate recently stated that Jews were "lice-infested dirty murderers". The party has 47 members of the Hungarian parliament.

Currently, the New Theatre presents both Hungarian plays and the international canon, from Schiller to Shakespeare. Dörner plans to reverse what he describes as a "degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony" in Hungary by stopping the production of "foreign garbage" and concentrating on Hungarian plays. These include the work of his friend and adviser István Csurka, an open antisemite, advocate of the Jewish conspiracy theory, and president of the Hungarian Justice and Life party. Several Hungarian writers have withdrawn their plays from the theatre in protest.

The change imposed on the New Theatre may not be the last. Jobbik and other extreme-right groups are campaigning and demonstrating against the Hungarian National Theatre, calling its work "obscene, pornographic, gay, anti-national and anti-Hungarian". The campaign against a liberal Hungarian theatre, open to the world, is part of a move in Hungary towards intolerance and against democracy. The historical parallels are obvious and chilling. We support Hungarian theatre-makers in opposing this appointment, and urge our government to demand that the Hungarian government overturn this decision.

Artistic directors:
Michael Attenborough
Michael Boyd
Dominic Cooke
Daniel Evans
Nicholas Hytner
David Lan
Nicolas Kent
Josie Rourke
Erica Whyman

Rosalind Ayres
Eve Best
Simon Callow
Bertie Carvel
James Frain
Romola Garai
Gawn Grainger
Henry Goodman
Martin Jarvis
Toby Jones
Beverley Klein
Roger Lloyd Pack
James Purefoy
Antony Sher
Imelda Staunton
Dan Stevens
Janet Suzman
Harriet Walter
Zoë Wanamaker
Samuel West
Timothy West

Neil Bartlett
Gregory Doran
Richard Eyre
Kevin Macdonald
Trevor Nunn
Indhu Rubasingham
Tim Supple

Richard Bean
Howard Brenton
Moira Buffini
Caryl Churchill
April de Angelis
David Edgar
Michael Frayn
Lee Hall
David Hare
Terry Johnson
Mark Ravenhill
Laura Wade
Timberlake Wertenbaker
Arnold Wesker

Bernie Corbett General secretary of the Writers' Guild
Christine Payne General secretary of Equity
Malcolm Sinclair President of Equity
Joan Bakewell
Don Black
Geraldine D'Amico Jewish Book Week
Jessica Duchen
Denise Epstein Daughter of Irène Némirovsky
Ruth Fainlight
Henrietta Foster
Michael Grade
Amanda Hopkinson PEN
Dennis Marks
Kate Pakenham
Sharif István Horthy
András Schiff
George Szirtes

Holocaust Day 3

Your material is your sense of the world as it impinges on your memory and imagination. I can never completely separate memory and imagination and doubt they can be separated, except in the most naked yet vital way through research and record. But since research inevitably includes memory we are aware that, on each successive level, the imagination adapts and rewrites it, until it becomes metaphor, since it is metaphor we are constantly seeking if for no other reason that it offers meaning, connection and end.

There may be certain proprieties involved in the use of material. I have never written about conditions inside concentration camps. I don't feel I have at the right of appropriation. It could be argued that we do have such rights, and exercise them at each moment of our lives, but if I don't feel them I can't write out of them. Maybe my obligation to my parents prevents me. Maybe it is the sense of obligation to my mother that prevents me joining the rich seam of Jewish society that she rejected while being, in historical terms, part of it. I am certainly part of it. If this were 1944 it would be no use if my mother really were Lutheran, I'd be off on those cattle-wagons like the rest. Part yet not part.

In response to my poet friend who told me that the working class had suffered more than the Jews, I might have answered, 'It may be so, but no one has tried to wipe out the working class, to eradicate them entirely.' I didn't answer him then, being too taken aback, wondering if I had been guilty of something, making a false claim, 'playing the Holocaust card', turning to advantage a misfortune than was somehow, really, a kind of paradoxical fortune. And, most importantly, his idea that maybe that misfortune was nothing much after all. You're talking about my mum and her entire family there, I might have said. And didn't.

And maybe it isn't the great 'misfortune': no greater misfortune than that suffered by gypsies, gays, Armenians, and those innumerable tribes of people throughout the history of the world. The others were also mentioned and referred to at yesterday's event. It wasn't a Jewish love-in, the elevation, fetishisation and celebration of a victimhood with which Jews might blackmail the world into doing them special underhand favours. The fact was there were many present there who had lost people, were there because of lost people, or knew directly of lost people. No-one said - because this wasn't the occasion, because it never really is the occasion - that the Holocaust was not a single event in the lives of Jews, simply the biggest in a long series. Everyone there will have felt that deep in the bones, but no-one spoke of it. They don't. It's just a sense of the world.

Not even particularly a Jewish sense, by which I mean the sense born of an instinctive knowledge that one is fated to live in a constantly vulnerable minority that has survived on its wits. It may be just that Jews are likely to feel it at times like this. I mean the Elizabeth Bishop sense of the world as an icy sea in which knowledge is historical, flowing and flown. That sea freezes not only Jews. No-one survives in that sea. Jews are nothing special there.

In fact they're nothing special in the universe, the universe being the way it is. They are just like everyone else, only perhaps, at times, a little more so. The chief lesson one learns from the Holocaust is that it isn't a possession one can dispose of for credit, but a taste and an apprehension of the icy sea that washes at our shores every day of the year. This day we remember it, on other days we get on with the business of living.

Holocaust Day 2

I have often enough written that I was not brought up as a Jew. I mean in any way at all. I was led by my mother to believe that she was a Lutheran, and that therefore we, as her children, would be, officially, of Lutheran background. Not that we ever set foot in a Lutheran church. Both my parents were, at the time of my childhood, atheists. They did not worship any God, neither the Jewish one nor the Lutheran one. We never set foot in a Synagogue either and we kept no Jewish holidays. I knew nothing about them. I think my father would have kept them but my mother insisted on complete dissociation. It was only after her death that our suspicion that she was in fact Jewish was confirmed.

That left us - and now I must talk about myself alone - in a curious position. At some stage or other the question had to arise in the poetry because, however impersonal our subject, our sense of the world is, at least partly, determined by who and what we are. It took me three books to get to the point at which I felt it important to return to Hungary (and it was important, it utterly changed my life), and it was the fifth before the sense of the Holocaust and Jewishness emerged as something pressing. Even so, it was not pressing in my own immediate experience, but as a factor in the sense of sheer being. Budapest, that most beautiful of cities, presented itself physically as scarred memorial to a past of which I was a small part. I felt the bullet- and shell-pitted surface of the buildings at my fingertips: they felt like marks under my own skin, like marks of a realisation that said: 'This is what life is like, not just your life, but life itself'. The poetry then had to go forward, first as 1956, the year of the revolution, but later as 1944, the year of the transportations and vanishings.

When I think of the sense of history in a poet I think of the awareness , under the skin, of death as a presence, death as total indifference in a world of amusement and beauty. That is why Elizabeth Bishop's 'At the Fishhouses' means so much to me. The hand dipping in the icy sea where the seal appears so comically is one of those perfect emblems. The sea to Bishop was as the walls of Budapest were to me. One doesn't have to have direct experience of such things in order to sense them and I value most those who can sense them: not just the tragedy, but the humour and the indifference and the beauty.

Holocaust Day 1

Yesterday I took a train to London to read with Dannie Abse, Wanda Barford, Alan Brownjohn, and Lynne Hjelmsgaard for a Holocaust Memorial event. It's about three hours door to door either way so I had to leave during the interval to arrive home a little past midnight.

The reading was packed and good humoured though the underlying sense of tragedy was palpable. Wanda talked about personal experience, or rather that of her child cousins, who were murdered in Auschwitz. Dannie read from his own work as well as his powerful translation of Celan's Todesfuge, his whole voice changing as he read it. Alan read from his novel in which there is an encounter with a German Jewish optometrist and warned about developments in our own time, and Lynne, whom I didn't know, read a Karen Gershon and a Primo Levi as well as three short poems of her own. I was last and read four poems, the first parts of both Metro and of The Penig Film, adding Grandfather in Green and Children of The Ghetto. I was followed by a young violinist who played the first part of a Bach Partita, then brief coffee and away. The programme continued and by the time it ended I was well on my way to Cambridge.

I rarely read those poems in public though three of them deal with direct family experience of the Holocaust. Very briefly, my mother survived two concentration camps, Ravensbruck and Penig, despite her heart condition, and my father spent much of the war in labour brigades in the Ukraine where many died, and had he not escaped with two others on the route march back, he too would have died: the three of them were the only survivors of the brigade. On her realease my mother returned to her home in Transylvania to find her entire family wiped out and all their possessions vanished. My father's father vanished into Auschwitz. A few years ago I found some film records of the liberation of Penig on the web, which was the trigger for the writing of The Penig Film, which is primarily about the muse of history, Clio, as a film director.

I don't read these poems much in public, apart from on such occasions, because I am aware that some - an increasing number, of people, especially other poets (or so I guess) think of it as playing 'the Holocaust card' or 'the Jewish card', and, if not that, then at least a kind of privileged information, an 'advantage' in claiming attention. If something truly tragic occurred in your near proximity you should have the decency to shut up about it.

I am putting that far too strongly, possibly exaggerating. I may be describing an expectation rather than a fact, but I remember one poet describing how oddly funny it was that Jon Silkin would introduce himself by saying that he was a Jew. There was a suggestion that he was being a little overbearing, even something of a bore. I also recall another poet stressing to me, apropos of nothing, that the working class had suffered far more than the Jews. I hadn't mentioned Jews or Jewishness, but then I also recalled how he was ambivalent about Metro, which was my first venture into the area.

So the uncertainty worked on two levels: on that of taking the Holocaust as a subject at all and claiming part of it, and on that of the notion of personal advantage through the misfortunes of others close to you.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Hungary, an appeal

The signatories - György Dalos, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád and László Rajk - of the letter, The decline of democracy – the rise of dictatorship: An appeal quoted from below, are some the leading figures of the underground before 1989 - in other words the people who took the risks of imprisonment and exclusion.

The present government has snatched the democratic political tools from the hands of those who could use these tools to ameliorate their predicament. While chanting empty patriotic slogans, the government behaves in a most unpatriotic way by reducing its citizens to inactivity and impotence...

...Viktor Orbán's government is intent on destroying the democratic rule of law, removing checks and balances, and pursuing a systematic policy of closing all autonomous institutions, including those of civil society, with the potential to criticise its omnipotence...

...With the removal of the checks and balances, the whole Hungarian state has become subservient to the government, or rather to the prime minister...While local councils have lost the better part of their clout, semi-autonomous institutions such as the Court of Auditors, the Hungarian Press Agency, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the National Cultural Fund might well be regarded today as semi-governmental agencies. Arbitration committees, including the now defunct National Conciliation Council, have been disbanded...

...Fidesz now has the exclusive right to pass any bill into law and make decisions about any issue concerning parliamentary protocol, thus rendering the existence of opposition parties a mere formality. Bills are rushed through legislation with no debate worthy of mention...

...* While retirement age has been raised across the board, a significant proportion of leading judges has been forced into retirement. The judiciary has thus become existentially dependent.
* The Chief Prosecutor, who has the exclusive right to decide which case may be forwarded to the Court of Justice and which court should hear it, is a politician of the ruling party.
* In the future, suspects and the accused may be deprived of the opportunity to consult their solicitors.

This new system marks the end of independent jurisdiction in Hungary...

The appeal goes on to deal with executive power, jurisdiction, the media, and election law. I know this looks like dry stuff and nothing to do with you but it's vital and will impinge on Europe as a whole. I have said it before, but it seems very like a return to the 1930s.

On Hungary, for German language readers, summed up

Every so often, normal service is interrupted by news from Hungary. Today twice.

Two different accounts of the contents of Osteuropa's Hungary issue.

Writing in the new issue of Osteuropa – entitled Quo vadis, Hungaria? – András Bozóki explains how, after 1989, the Hungarian political system was founded on consensus and a deep distrust of power: hence the retention of so-called "cardinal laws" – laws alterable only with a two-thirds parliamentary majority – from the socialist-era constitution. However, formal stability came at a price, writes the political scientist and former culture minister: "The constitution prevented the system from correcting itself. Accordingly, when Fidesz obtained the two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, Viktor Orbán talked not about a correction but about a revolution." What was originally meant to guarantee democracy now does the opposite: "The new government sees the constitution solely as a technical body of laws that they are able to adapt to whatever their political ideas might be. When they pass a law that turns out to be unconstitutional, they don't adapt the law but change the constitution."

The letter of the law: The new constitution that entered into force on 1 January contradicts European requirements of democracy, constitutionalism and the protection of fundamental rights on several counts, writes Gábor Halmai. It allows the current government to set in stone its economic and social policy on areas including taxation, the pension system and families and marriage, so that any subsequent government possessing only a simple majority will not be able to alter these. Second, the newly defined subject of the constitution – Hungary as national community – allows no place for other nationalities living within the territory of the Hungarian state, while entitling Hungarians living beyond Hungary's borders. Perhaps most starkly anti-democratically, the constitution undermines the independence of regulatory institutions ranging from the national bank to the constitutional court and media, and hence the separation of powers.

The upperworld: Bálint Magyar, former minister of education and co-signatory of the "New Year's appeal" issued by former dissidents, recalls Fidesz's first stint in power from 1998-2002: "[Back then] I called the Hungarian phenomenon the organized upperworld, where, unlike the oligarchic organizations of Socialists, the power operating within the framework of a network of democratic institutions extended its fields of operation downwards, using Mafia methods and state support. In the organized upperworld, the state is not an instrument of the Mafia, but it is the Mafia itself." Nothing much has changed in the nature of Fidesz, writes Magyar, except that a two-thirds majority now place sole power in a single person: "When [Orbán] speaks about certain decisions not as his own but of the Parliament, he finds it very hard to suppress an ironic smile."


The new Osteuropa magazine is dedicated to Hungary, which is threatening to turn its back on the West. Sociologist Balint Magyar describes how under Victor Orban, first the Fidesz Party and then the whole country landed in the populist trap - and is now floundering. "What national and social populism have in common is that they pass responsibility onto others. The nation 'which has not been spared by fate' and the man on the street who is exposed to fate unite to lament their bitter lot. Critical reflection of history and a rational approach to thinking about the future have been systematically banned from Hungary's political culture. They have been replaced by self-pity and the search for scapegoats: communists, bankers, oligarchs, liberals, Jews, gays, gypsies."

The writer Laszlo Darvasi tells the story of a country where strange things are afoot. The story begins: "The next morning strange developments were underway in the country. On the building site where the walls were growing upwards, on the steps of the ladders looming high, on the scaffolding and on the public buildings, loud speakers had been attached overnight. These loudspeakers, however rusty and worn out they looked, were buzzing clearly and intelligibly. They had been lying around in old sound archives…"

In further articles, Krisztina Koenen writes about the world as Victor Orban sees it, Esther Kinsky writes about the hinterland, Gabor Halmai on the new constitution, and Kornelia Magyar on the hardships of the Roma.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Clarissa's Birthday 25 January

Last year's birthday

As If We Could Choose

     As if we could choose the moment we choose the moment.
     At one moment turn, at one moment speak, at one smile.
     At one you turn to me, at one you speak, then you smile.
     It is all we have, this succession of moments after moment.

     So you turn for this photograph. Pose, I say, and you laugh
     because posing is serious and laughable. What we love
     turns and poses and laughs because it is what we love.
     So the pose, the solemnity, the turn and the laugh.

     We sink into moments. The moments are soft, made for sinking.
     Time is quicksand, we lie out flat on it as if on blank paper.
     Look how we float over reams, whole moments, of paper.
     And there is the sun to our right, now rising, now sinking.

     Or is it the night with its lightbulbs, awake or asleep,
     just coming to wake and snap into moments like this one?
     How full you are of a life that is so much like this one.
     How bright the eyes in the picture that smile without sleep.

Clarissa 63
This year's birthday

Monday 23 January 2012

London via Ely

After morning at university, I drive back and hop on the train to London. I prefer to go Kings Cross via Cambridge now rather than down to Liverpool Street, one good reason being that the route goes right past Ely Cathedral which looks ethereal whatever the weather, even in bright sunshine. You approach it on the right, its great choir of delicate verticals looking to ease away from the earth as if the whole building were some medieval vertical-take-off machine powered entirely by angels. As the train slows into the station the cathedral manoeuvres itself into position behind the marina. The huddle of small white boats offers a brilliant visual response to the cathedral. The cathedral points up, the boats point towards the horizon. It is the most perfect view you could wish for.

Then you're past the cathedral in the glooms of Ely Station where once on a freezing winter's night I spent a miserable forty minutes having just returned from Germany via Stansted, exhausted, to find everything locked, toilets, waiting room, everything, the wind roaring through and the rain looking to eat up anything in its way. That's when the two drunk hog-roast men arrived, cheerful and fresh from buying hog-roast equipment from Preston, Lancs, and asked me to play Scrabble on the train, thereby cheering me up too.

This time I was going to meet S in the Museum Tavern opposite the BM and talk about a US edition of the poems, or at least some of them. I arrived early, ordered my Jameson's, sat, read and listened half-attentively to the general conversation. S arrived when he said he would, a little later than arranged, a tall, distinguished looking man of about 80. I asked what he'd like to drink and he asked for a half, then fancied some 'bangers', a word that sounds odd in an American mouth. OI ordered some sausages and chips. We talked intensely for an hour and half about everything and parted eventually with some kind of understanding as to what kind of book we were considering. I dashed across Russell Square and just made the train home.

On the second leg of the return journey three older Norfolk women a few seats in front of me were having a loud conversation. Their language was rich and sweary and I wondered at it for a minute then reminded myself that when I say older, I actually mean about my own age. Their mothers wouldn't have sworn on a train, but to them it's not swearing anymore, it's just talk. At one point they'd got onto one of their fellow workers.

- She gone online
- Everybody gone online nowdays.
- Yea but she gone on that Facebook thing
- What she bloody done that for, she never speaks to anyone anyway?

They talked about looking after the old ones and what presents they got their relatives, and what Montreux was like for the holiday ('Not that cold').


I thought they were probably very nice women, kindly, rough tongued. You'd trust them

Sunday 22 January 2012

Crow Country

Today we went to Claxton for dinner then for a walk by the river waiting for the great swirling and gathering of rooks.

Television shows us every spectacular act of nature but it is different being there and watching it yourself through a pair of binoculars, a much finer pair of binoculars than we have at home, by the way. I suppose we spent a couple of hours or so walking there and back, waiting for the rooks to rise, and then they did rise, some 30,000 or so according to our friend & host.

The weather was kind, bright at moments, the wind hard on the ears. It tends to drop as it gets dark, said our host, and I suppose it did. As the sky moved through dusk, which doesn't take very long, shapes became silhouettes, and the river glowed all the more brightly under starlight and a largely clear sky. The pub at the bend glittered as if it were still Christmas, and two or three smaller lit houses were pinpoint sharp.

We were working out which painter would have painted the late dusk in this way. If it were a city Atkinson Grimshaw would have done it, near the sea it might have been William Dyce. Norman Ackroyd might have etched it, but the pools of water were steely and electric, or maybe not so much steel as mercury, and though there was hardly any colour left, except in the river that was now reflecting the starlight, you still felt - crazy as it sounds - the pressure of colour, that the medium of the marshes wasn't black and white but deep sombre tones of green. Looking at the illuminated pub further down the path there was even a touch of Magritte about the scene, not so much pastoral as filmic.

I am so unfamiliar with nature - I can recognise a decent number of birds if they come near enough - that meeting it is like being on the other side of a mirror, inhabiting not one's own subjective imagination but the domain of a different subjectivity; being aware of oneself as a minor phenomenon in the eyes of something with views of its own.

Maybe this is the kind of mysticism that settles on urban people when put down by a rural river at night. It is a mysticism about which I feel as sceptical as I do about most other kinds of mysticism, but that doesn't mean I fail to notice it's there in me. And our hosts and friends, who are proper wide-cultured scientists, would probably do well to dismiss such mystical feeling, pointing to deeper and more intricate workings, to the multiple systems and microcosms of a world that, to a visitor, seems to constitute a unity.

In the end we thank our host for taking us to the place and feel privileged to have seen it. On the other side of the river, by the small brightly lit station that is not expecting any trains, small groups of people were standing, observing exactly the same events as we were, both of us possibly influencing the events we were noting by our presence, noting each others presence too, just as the rooks note ours before retiring to their roosts in woods to which they have returned for generations.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Hungary: now the right marches but what of the right to march

Zsolt Bayer & kindred spirits

Chinese reports 100,000 pro government marchers in Budapest tonight, saying:

The marchers, coming from all over Hungary and neighboring countries with large ethnic Hungarian minorities, met at Budapest's Heroes Square, by a monument to heroes of Hungarian history.

Newswire MTI reported tens of thousands in the crowd of marchers and thousands more cheering along the sidelines.

The marchers, carried posters supporting Prime Minister Viktor Orban who has been criticized by the opposition as well as the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the United States and others for moves they believe violate the independence of Hungary's central bank, judiciary, data protection ombudsman and the media.

"We refuse to become a colony!" argued some of the signs.

A second crowd waited at Parliament, the marchers' destination, to greet them.

Adding that:

The march was organized by journalist Zsolt Bayer, who writes for the right-wing Magyar Hirlap and has often been charged with overt anti-Semitism, Andras Bencsik, editor-in-chief of the conservative and nationalistic journal Magyar Demokrata, Andras's brother Gabor Bencsik, a historian who has written extensively about problems with the Roma (Gypsy) population, and Gabor Szeles, owner of the Magyar Hirlap newspaper
A flavour of Mr Bayer, as follows:

András Schiff's letter to the editor of The Washington Post gave Bayer a wonderful opportunity to vent against Hungarian Jews. I will translate some passages, but I'm not sure whether I will be able to give the flavor of Bayer's writing in English. It is hard for me to be that base.

The piece, entitled "The same stench," begins this way: "A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that 'foul stench wafts' from Hungary. Cohen [he means Nick Cohen, the UK journalist], and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff. Népszava appears with the red figure of the man with the hammer and demands freedom of the press. Most people think that this is something new and that war like that didn't take place before. Nonsense. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány." A brief explanation. Orgovány, a small village on the Great Plains, was the place of massacres committed by the leaders of the Hungarian White Terror in 1919-1920. In plain language, Bayer is expressing his sorrow that not all the Jews were killed in those days.

That's my emphasis there.

Also worth adding is that the government, under the heading of electoral reform, has proposed giving ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary (see pt 5 here), in other words the citizens of other countries, a vote on their party preference. Since over 4 million Hungarians fall into this category this should ensure more Fidesz support for a long time. The injustice of the Trianon treaty is certainly a major issue but there is the ideal of a Greater Hungary behind this. I mention it because of the Hungarians abroad a representation of whom are mentioned as being present on this march.

This is not to claim that Fidesz voters are all anti-Semites and proto-fascists - by no means - but it's as well to know who organises your march


On the other hand we could also read this yesterday.

A civic group said Friday it would file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights because authorities are blocking it from holding a protest on the March 15 national holiday by reserving all likely locations in downtown Budapest for official use.

Peter Juhasz, a spokesman for One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary, said the group is turning to the Strasbourg, France-based court because authorities are limiting its right to assembly.

Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos said in a statement he does not want to block the March 15 protest rally near Elizabeth Bridge and is willing to discuss the issue with the One Million group.

15 March is the key date for demonstrations. It marks the outbreak of the 1848 revolution. I myself was on the one in 1989. Crowding out the opposition is the strategy. Take up every available major public space. No need then for police or baton charges. Sorry, old man, that space is reserved for us.

The time of the counter-demonstrations has arrived. The government will want big shows of strength. It was done in Libya and Egypt. It's a common recourse. Things might or might not begin to get more violent from now so the world should keep watching. I trust the EU is watching and noting all this. And that it keeps track of Mr Bayer.

Friday 20 January 2012

Etta James

Etta James January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012

It is wonderful to have made one heart-stopping classic but to have made three is a claim to greatness. This is not an obituary, most of what you want to know about Etta James can be found on Wiki which will do for now.

Here are the three I mean:

At Last (1960)

I Just Wanna Make Love to You (1961)

I'd Rather Go Blind (1968)

There may have been more beautiful voices but few as heart-breaking, as convincing, or as perfect in its own chosen terms. (The arrangements for all three are part of the perfection)

Thursday 19 January 2012

The Artist: some thoughts

What is The Artist about? Well, it's about silence as metaphor for a start, but before I start polishing my glasses and setting off into the heart of darkness, I should say the film, as style, was light, soufflé light; somewhat knowing of course, as how could a film like this not be, winking at various earlier films along the way (Singing in the Rain, of course, but also Citizen Kane, the Zorro series, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and all too many to mention without sounding pretentious about it) - but not so as to get nudgingly annoying.

What made it light was the absolute acceptance of the conventions of filmic melodrama on the one hand and a glorious delight in directorial and writerly invention on the other.

The melodrama is both in the story - the old, ever moving story of fall and salvation - and in the delicately underplayed acting that paid tribute to silent film without sending it up or wrapping it in candy. The direction was delightful: it was as if Nick Park had got together with Jean-Louis Barrault over a few glasses of champagne. Everywhere you looked in a shot there was perfect placing without heavy self-consciousness. The music was great, the dancing at the end was graceful and joyous, the narrative well sustained. It was a marvellous late afternoon's entertainment.


The plot, like that of Singing in the Rain, concentrates on the moment when talkies put silent films and their stars out of business. Funny, genuinely gifted egotist star who loves his life misses his chance to move into sound while the girl he helped on a whim, and had fallen in love with, goes on to eclipse him by adapting and exploiting the new.

The contrary movement in fortunes is another old story, as old as fall and salvation. The film does nothing with these themes, they are taken for granted. They are serious. They only have to be reactivated so they don't look corny and tired.

Invention is the key. There was the splendid incidental invention (the Nick Park element) - for example, the way the wife of the central character, George Valentin, kept blacking out his teeth in newspaper photographs. There is the lovely moment when Valentin sees the heroine, Peppy Miller's legs behind a screen and starts dancing with them. Again there is a precedent to this, but it was carried off with genuine freshness.

The real inventions however - the moving ones - were those touching the key theme of the film: the movement from silence to sound and all that such a transition implies. The key shot is the one where Valentin first hears the sound of a glass as he puts it down on the table. He has never actually heard sound - not the meaning of sound, not in that way. All noises are suddenly amplified, and while this becomes a running joke it is also an aspect of the tragedy-as-melodrama. Something breaks through to Valentin, breaks in on him with a crash, and it bodes no good.

All the key moments from here on are associated with the intrusion of sound into a silent world. Valentin cannot speak. He mouths, he shouts, he screams at the mirror but no sound comes out. At one level, of course, this is no more than a metaphor for the plot (silent film actor finds no place in the world of talkies), but at another level - and I am not trying to be clever, I think we actually feel this level - it is about the sense of precipitous, calamitous loss. The loss is inarticulable. We cannot speak as we used to. We know George Valentin is a silent film character in a melodrama but that doesn't mean his experience is detached from ours. We find in him what we find in dreams and in masks. His decline to the point at which even his shadow walks off is equally dreamlike. The silence that was once a comfort becomes a disaster if you cannot speak. You no longer know who you are. You shadow - your very soul - walks off without you.

The film, however carries on its light way, with witty use of titling; with the miraculously cute dog (and Valentin is in fact a kind of miraculous cute dog) that acts as his fleshly alter ego; and with the slightly cadaverous, kindly driver Clifton, who remains as loyal to Valentin as the dog does. It's hard to act opposite a cute performing dog. Jean Dujardin, who plays Valentin, brings it off by acting to the dog as well as with it.

I won't write a spoiler here. A friend thinks The Artist (why is it called that?) not Oscar material. In a way he's right, but it is rather extraordinary that within a few minutes we forget we are watching something, well, extraordinary: a silent film in black and white full of all the old silent film tropes we thought we knew so well. All around it in the trailers the normal film world goes on. The new Clooney, the new Eastwood, the new Polansky, but this stands everything on its head. It's not sentimental. It's not too cute. It's not too pleased with itself. It's not irony.

I don't expect a run of imitations, or if there is one I expect them to be far worse. There is a touch of genius here. I think I might give it a vote. Not for the humour and grace alone but for opening up the depth at which lightness can work in us. Some people have talked of it in terms of charm. It goes a lot deeper than charm does. And Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is excellent, moving from John Gilbert to Douglas Fairbanks, to Erroll Flynn to Gene Kelly with effortless ease. You should hear him speak!

And because dancing is wonderful, here is Astaire in my favourite clip that I put up at least once a year. The hell with it! Let's dance.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Hungary, the EU and the international press 2: Fighting back

Forgive the frequency, and sometimes the length of these posts, but this isn't 'just politics'. It is a serious struggle. If in doubt read this about the growth of the extreme Right in the whole region.

There are various ways of establishing authoritarianism as a norm. There is finance, there is the law, there is the press, and there is culture. The Hungarian government has been working at all these levels at a furious speed, hoping that by the time the world has noticed what it is doing, especially in the current economic chaos, the deed will have been done and the changes become irreversible. It has tried to keep the momentum going at home through the usual paranoid, patriotic bluster.

Some of it will be familiar here. It concentrates on interference from the EU, since what have a country's internal affairs to do with them? (The answer that Hungary joined the EU of its own free will and is a member of a group that works within the rules of the group doesn't suit them to occur to them), on the depredations of international finance (and we can guess who that will come to mean, in fact already does mean to some), and on all those cynical godless liberal dictatorships outside the sacred borders of the country - which are not wide enough, of course - whose representatives will insist on asking questions.

The cultural take-over goes on. Orchestras, theatres, magazines, radio stations and newspapers are subject to sackings and political appointments. Most recently the internationally admired director of Trafó, György Szabó has been pushed aside for a government backed appointee. If you can control it, control it, if it's awkward make the lives of those you regard as awkward as difficult as possible until it becomes impossible.

Can you imagine a far right wing Tory government (and I don't mean Cameron), supported by the BNP, replacing the leading figures of law, media, finance, the arts, and the rest of the state apparatus with their own candidates, ensuring that the laws they passed cannot be repealed, and handing the BNP a theatre or two just as as a start? That is exactly what the Fidesz government is doing now.

But the Hungarian government has finally come up against stiffer opposition at the EU, as reported, for example by The New York Times where, Stephen Castle writes:

On Tuesday, the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, said it was starting proceedings over Hungarian measures that threaten the independence of the country’s central bank and its data-protection authority, and over rules on the retirement age of judges. Ultimately, Hungary can be forced to change rules that breach European law or, if it refuses, can be taken to the European Court of Justice.

But the dispute has ignited a broader debate. While the union insists that countries meet democratic standards to join, there are few sanctions once a nation is a member. After talks on Monday, Belgium and the Netherlands suggested that European ministers could discuss the situation next week...

...“Hungary is a key member of the European family,” Mr. Barroso said in a statement on Tuesday. “We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer.”

This seems limited but it's a start and it was enough to send the Hungarian government scuttling back while pretending nothing had happened, as reported through the Associated Press, here today:

Hungary plans to change parts of its legislation that has prompted EU threats of court action and sparked Western fears about democratic rights, a top European official said Wednesday, but the promise did nothing to appease critics...

...After a heated three-hour debate at the EU parliament Wednesday, Orban said Barroso's complaints about the central bank were "not a matter of life or death for us. If the commission believes this is problematic then we have no problem."

The letter was sent only hours before Orbán faced stinging criticism from the European Parliament and a day after the Commission, the European Union's executive, threatened to take Budapest to court over some of its new laws.

"We are willing to factor in the European Commission position," Orbán said of the criticism of the judiciary.

In other words OK, it's not that important, so yeh, we'll compromise, but actually we'll do it anyway. The article goes on:

The Hungarian leader was met with widespread derision as he sought to convince the legislature that the new constitution and laws were necessary to get closer to European democratic principles.

Orban said he expected to find a solution soon to the EU Commission's legal challenges, well before they would reach the stage of going to court.

Hungary could, in theory, be expelled from the EU using article 7 (Respect for and promotion of the values of the Union) of the TEU.

I hope they push Hungary hard on that.

In the meantime there is this excellent Guardian article by the author I am currently translating, Yudit Kiss. She writes::

As is customary in authoritarian regimes, the system's ears are sharp and its arms are long; people think twice before signing a petition, a newspaper article or taking part in public actions where they can be identified. Against this background, the large demonstrations of the last few months, as well as multiplying manifestations of civil courage, have an extraordinary value.

Hungary, the EU and the international press: progress report 1

At last there are people looking quizzically at developments in Hungary. I have posted on it a number of times. On 19 December on the clash with the IMF; on 23 December about the beginning of the protest movement; on 1 January about a quotation from Endre Ady passed around Hungary; on 3 January about the continuing protests, including the video below which very simply and clearly lays out the ways in which democracy is being threatened, and which I insert again as background...

...on 4 January with the newly translated text of an Ottó Orbán poem recited at the protests; on 7 January I quoted a Guardian piece; on 8 January from an Independent article; and on 14 January I gathered a couple more articles, about the changes at the New Theatre, and about the image of the prime minister Viktor Orbán.

Since then, to my delight, the articles have been flowing in and good friends have been keeping me supplied with them. Let me catalogue the main ones this last month before saying something about the situation in the next post.

The Guardian: 25 December, 17 January
The Economist: 11th, 17th
The Irish Times: 11th
RTE: 11th
The New York Times: 11th, 17th
Presseurop 18th and again 18th
Politics HU 15th
Der Spiegel 18th and again 18th

Considering my post on Scottish Nationalism below, it is no great surprise that one big dissenting voice should come from Bill Jamieson in The Scotsman, 15 January, which shows some Scots appreciate a bit of authoritarian right-wingery providing it is national and romantic.

God damns the English, says Scot

I heard the 07:48 Thought for the Day from John Bell of the Iona Community (no BBC link provided). His thought summed up was this. Independence is a sacred cause. The English are moral scum. The English are entirely to be represented by the South East of England, by which we don't mean hop-pickers and ex-miners and people in seasonal jobs in Margate, but the kind of people Braveheart was fighting, plus bowler hats and umbrellas. The Scots, he believes, are a downtrodden people, and, what is worse, the butt of cruel patronising English jokes. They are altogether nobler than the English. And what is more this is so because God says so.

It was this last point that particularly struck me. God, that is. The way God hates some people.

My first encounter with Scottish hatred of England was at the end of the 1966 World Cup when the Scots deservedly beat England, then freshly World Champions, at Wembley. Good for them. What followed was a mass invasion of the pitch and the breaking of the goals, and marching round with the goalpost and bits of turf as trophies. I was seventeen at the time. It was my first British experience of visceral mass hatred. It stuck in my mind if only because I had not heard anyone say a bad word about Scots in England. I might, of course, have led a sheltered life, with relatively few corpses in Hungarian streets.

Then there were other occasions. The translation conference at Cambridge where a young Scottish academic announced that Scotland was one with Africa in being the victim of English colonialism and that the only thing Scots had done in the cause of Empire was build a few ships. They hadn't actually run any of it nor did they benefit from any of it. Scots were on a par with the poorest Africans. She further worried that she wasn't herself quite Scottish enough and opened the notion of deep Scottishness which rang with me in terms of deep Hungarianness, a subject dear to the heart of Hungarian nationalists and indeed racists. She of course was, so she said, coming at this from a left wing point of view. I did put the deep Hungarian question to her which slightly puzzled her. 'How can that be? We're good people,' she implied in her answer.

There was also the Scottish student in my art school class the first sentence of one of whose stories began 'The English ran over our cat'. It was, you understand, the cruel English nation that ran her cat over, because that's the kind of thing the English do.

I could provide several instances but this will do. I only add - no true Scot will believe me of course - that I still haven't heard the English, any of them in public, or to me in private, or in my presence, badmouthing Scots or Scotland. In fact we learn that the English trust the Scots voice, have a high regard for Scottish virtues,and that more English than Scots support Scottish independence. But this only makes it worse for some Scots, who would hate to support anything the English support, even it if it is Scottish independence. Who do you support? Anyone playing England (sic Andy Murray before his PR makeover).


Personally I have nothing against Scottish independence, any more than I had against Slovakian, Czech, Slovenian, Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Ukranian, Georgian, etc etc. I am far more interested in the human race than in in their flags and national anthems, though I can quite see why people gather round emblems, habits, traditions, places and languages. I can even see why people take pride in them. They should take pride. A certain pride in the best of one's ancestors combined with a certain honesty (the best honesty that can be managed in the circumstances) is to the good. Though maybe pride isn't quite the word.

Maybe the right word is pleasure. I do take pleasure in Hungarian powers of invention, in the fifties football team, in 1956, in the remarkably surviving Hungarian language and its literature. It's nice to say 'I am one of those'. 'That's my language'. 'They lived where I lived and saw the same houses, the same river.'

And there are times when pleasure and pride can be legitimately harnessed in conflict with enemies. There is no history without the battle for survival or expansion. Calamities of nature, lack of resources, external military pressures, and sheer desire, have usually been behind the drive to expansion. We are where we are because of such battles and I cannot personally feel quite pious enough to condemn them all form the safety of retrospect. All I insist on remembering is that the status quo is always interim and even the map of a thousand year reich or empire, even in China, is constantly being nibbled away by mice with very sharp teeth.

The hoarded resentments of history are, as I understand it, a source of social energy and solidarity. It's just that my time as an adult has been dominated by the omnipresent sense of righteous victimhood. The young Scottish academic was proclaiming the wounds of her nation while wearing the comfortable clothes of righteousness. She was also lying about the past by substituting one truth for all the others.


I like most of the Scots of my acquaintance, and, in so far as one can generalise in this way, I admire much about the Scottish tradition of intellectual energy and forthrightness. Listening to Alex Salmond, though, is like hearing a stream of bile and contempt for anything south of Hadrian's Wall. The idea of Scottish independence he preaches is contingent on the idea of English wickedness. And in so far as Scots subscribe to this they are best left to themselves. I'll certainly not be visiting the Iona Community.

Just one final word. The economic argument for or against independence is a low argument either way. There are certainly practical considerations but in such emotional matters they are secondary. If people really want something on moral grounds then blow the economics.

The great Scottish hope, often referred to, is North Sea oil. To some degree it is independence. It will make Scotland rich. Scotland will be able to say to the contemptible English: You can't have it. Not unless you pay through the nose, you Sassenach bastards.

Oil is, as you see, a moral issue.

Why do I say these things? Because I like the English people I live among. I don't think they are scum. I expect someone will inform me that there are hordes of English motorists looking to run over Scottish cats. I'll look out for them.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Pram in the Hall

Lukas's feet, first day of life.

A poem about grandparenthood, as requested for a possible BBC radio programme. The title refers to Cyril Connolly's idea - not a precise quotation - about the enemy of promise being the pram in the hall, in other words a kind of stunting. Picture later.

The Pram in the Hall

      The pram in the hall is pushed through the front door.
      Dear enemies of promise, how beautiful you are,
      and all the more so now, seen from the further shore,
      not yet of life, just a street and a parked car.
      Dear enemies of promise how beautiful you are.

      First crawling, first steps. Second on the scene,
      we look both ways at parents, our children once, before
      your crashed-into-life appearance, your perfectly serene
      sense of completion that brings us to the door.
      Dear enemies of promise we’re eager to see more.

      Your fragility anticipates our own by a few years.
      To us you are transfusions of charm, the meadow star,
      the yew and the tower, the moon with its bright shears,
      the waxing light we enter as if from very far.
      Dear enemies of promise how beautiful you are.

Monday 16 January 2012


A long day at university. Drop C off at her work and arrive at UEA at 8. Straight on with admin and marking the whole day, then home and more of the same. But the new Everyman Book of Villanelles arrives with my own contribution, the one about the children of the ghetto. I begin to scan the book and can see what a remarkable range of feeling and mood there is in it. But at the same time I hear the insistence due to repetition. The lines come back, the same lines, and somewhere in the very far distance it's like hearing jackboots.

I know this is fanciful but I write it down on Twitter now, where all the short thoughts go, and Bill Herbert replies in his playful way and talks about dance, along with a lovely verse. And I not only have to admit he is right, but rejoice in him being right, since it is dance I too look for in form.

And yet there is statement in poetry too: a declarative quality I associate with Shakespeare's sonnets, Marvell, Pope and Empson. Even in Bishop's great villanelle, One Art, there is the demand that the poem actually satisfies at the end. Write it!

Meanwhile, somewhere off to one side of it, the right side, there is a drunk who keeps saying the same thing over and over again. He shifts my mind to Jobbik, the Hungarian fascist party, and a line creeps into my head that goes, I hate the gyppos and the fucking Jews, as indeed they do, and, despite myself, a whole villanelle grows from that first line, something that horrifies me with precisely the jackboot insistence I first heard. I can't help writing it, because formally it stands to be written. I wonder if it is worth anything as a weapon against the very thing it says. If it is to be so it requires a subtle wit that undermines itself as it blusters, while at the same time being true to itself as a poem.

I am sitting on this villanelle for now. It's in a bad place in my head. It is right as it is, as form, but I don't know whether it can dance its way out.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Sunday night is....But Beautiful

A day of reading, marking, cross-marking, and writing: a possibly final draft of a poem for a radio programme and words for a Morning Canticle for the new Festival music project, one that works through the day and moves through the streets.

So this is a breath on the spirit, the wonderful Bill Evans (in 1979) and one of the loveliest standards, But Beautiful. Tis brief, my lord.

Saturday 14 January 2012

A Year Quite Round


A poem for daughter Helen who celebrated her birthday yesterday, just a week after giving birth to Lukas.

A Year Quite Round

So life balloons, deflates, and just as well.
You’re born and grow and reach a stable size,
the world meanwhile shows no sign of surprise:
the clock moves on, the hammer strikes the bell,
the hour arrives and goes with no more fuss
than you’d expect. Black holes and stars look on;
the galaxies expand and soon are gone
without a proper leave-taking. For us
time is ourselves, our body clocks tight wound,
not digital but analogue, with springs.
Mechanical and fallible, we bust,
require repair, are liable to rust,
but frankly we’re not bothered by these things.
What goes around, we figure, comes around.

In your case, darling, round has meant quite round
(this year at least, balloons have been the rage).
Ballooned with life, not air, the body-cage
expands into the grand maternal mound
it has since the beginning when the earth
was busy swelling continents and seas,
and simian forebears scampered down from trees
to walk upright and measure time and birth
through their own bodies. What the planets know,
remains beyond us. Certainly we’re born,
that much we celebrate the usual way,
and year by year we look to mark the day
with loud celestial hymn and harp and horn
and all the brass the cosmic winds might blow.

Two more snippets about Hungary

Compare and contrast: Two photos of Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán (see Economist link below)

From another friend:
Unfortunately, there are too many things which are more outrageous and will have graver consequences than the case of the HQ [Hungarian Quarterly]. One is the large-scale dismantling of public collections - museums, monument protection, archeological sites - by hair-raising cuts and cynical reorganizations, and in the spirit of crudely nationalistic ideas. "Heroes, Kings and Saints" is the title of the new exhibiton at the National Gallery, mounted in a style as if time had stopped in the 1860s, and coupled with the show of paintings specially ordered by Orban to celebrate the new constitution.

The Uj Szinhaz story - [The New Theatre directorship I mentioned before] - is the tip of the iceberg with the theatres - at the provincial ones the old directors have all been sacked, and for Budapest there is the time-honoured method of not giving money to the fringe theatres and the ensembles they do not like.

Another, even more injurious case is the new law on higher education, which drastically reduces the number of entering university students and couples it with the introduction of exorbitant tuition fees.


In the meantime, for light relief, there is always this from The Economist:

Yesterday Hír TV, a Hungarian television channel, ran a news story [click the link below "Videók" to view the broadcast story] alleging that we had digitally manipulated the image of Mr Orbán before publication to materially alter his appearance. This is untrue. The uncropped picture, as purchased from the AFP news agency, is above, left. The image as it appeared in The Economist is to its right.

Earlier today we sent a letter to the editor-in-chief of Hír TV denying the allegation. The text is reproduced in full below.

Dear Sir,
I write to reject a completely unfounded and defamatory allegation you broadcast yesterday. Your report accused us of “manipulating” a photograph of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. This is not true, as our photo editor explained to your reporter yesterday before you ran the piece.

Your piece accepts that all publications edit photographs in some ways. Indeed, as in every magazine, all our pictures are colour-corrected for print production. We also cropped this picture to fit the column size: again, every magazine does this and nothing of any significance was left out. But the piece alleges that we went beyond this routine process to change the picture content fundamentally.

I attach the original wire picture from AFP and our cropped picture as it went to the printers. It is obvious that there is no manipulation.

Your piece reflected a dismal standard of reporting. Your journalist acknowledged to our photo editor that he had not actually compared the original with our cropped picture and he would not say how we were supposed to have manipulated the picture. After he rang off, he then failed to follow up this cursory interview, despite his assurances that he would be getting back to her. That was presumably because he would still have been unable to point to any signs of manipulation. It is true that our photo editor spoke to your reporter on an off-the-record basis. But your report failed to reflect her assurances that we had not manipulated the picture. And you never followed up to seek an official comment from us.

Nothing is more valuable to The Economist than our hard-earned reputation for objective and fair reporting. By impugning our actions, for what appears to be some political gain, you defame us and do your viewers a profound disservice.

To put that right, we have also published this letter on our website. Other media outlets in Hungary may want to pursue the objectivity of your reporting a little more thoroughly than you pursued ours.Yours sincerely

John Micklethwait

Episodes on the picturesque onward march of the Party of Vilified and Misunderstood Patriots.

Thursday 12 January 2012

A footnote apropos poetry

From the 1999 Cirque Du Soleil show "Dralion" (Victor Kee)

Because this too is poetry. It's the circus and it's dance and it is most certainly juggling. If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, you might say (and Keats too), then it is mere show, but the leaves come if you dance, and as my friend Peter Scupham wrote a long time ago, it is string not magic, but what if the string is magic too?

Often the most beautiful lyric poems are the simplest in appearance, the plain-spoken poetry of what happens, and I, like others, find it beautiful. But then this too happens in the theatre of the imagination and it is right that it should sometimes so happen that a movement so strenuous, so exhausting, so stylised, develops into a grace that is not just style but energy transformed.

And while we're at it there is this too:

Yes, I've shown it before, it is the great Jean Vigo's Zéro de Conduite

Sometimes - and I feel this in myself - we have as much decency and moderation as we can bear. There must be a place in heaven where Piero della Francesca, Johannes Vermeer, Pablo Picasso and Peter Paul Rubens get together for a drink and a cafe in another district of the same where George Herbert buys John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a coffee and T S Eliot buys John Milton and Emily Dickinson a cake.

Some circus, some chaos, chaos-as-ballet if you like, is always present in great art. We could try going there.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Consolation of Yourcenar

I am nearing the end of the translation of Yudit Kiss's The Summer my Father Died. In this passage the father of the narrator, Anna Holló, is dying in hospital and conversation has become difficult so she offers to read to him. It would be nice to think art had this power. Sometimes, often too late, it has.

In the last days at the hospital I was constantly waiting for my father to speak, to reveal at last the great truths and secrets, and define his inheritance. But our intimate conversations, when they didn’t concern his manuscript, consisted of minor banalities and we were often stuck for words. On day when the gaps in conversation were unusually long I asked him if it was difficult for him to speak.

‘Yes, ever more difficult,’ he said with signs of panic in his eyes.

The havoc in his body was sending unmistakeable messages to his brain but it seemed he was still set on ignoring them. I pulled from my back-pack a thin book, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales, that my friend Justine had brought me the day before I left.

‘Would you like me to read some of it for you?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know what it’s like, my friend lent it to me. But Yourcenar’s a good writer, we can rely on her.

My father nodded, relieved. I took the book and started to read. The story concerned the painter Wang Fo and his students. Wang Fo can paint so well that after a while it is said that with the last stroke of his brush his pictures come alive. Propertied people want him to paint guard dogs, the nobles want fully armed soldiers, priests regard him as a saint, and common people fear him because they fear he can conjure up all kinds of terrible things. One dawn they drag Wang Fo in front of the Emperor who condemns him to death. His crime is that his painted world is more perfect than the real one where the Son of Heaven exercises absolute power. The world is nothing but a mass of scribbles the mad painter has committed to canvas, and our tears are always smudging it, says the Heavenly Dragon. As a last act of grace the emperor allows the old master to complete a half-finished picture that is kept in the palace. While the executioner heats up his iron in the fire, Wang Fo sets to painting the sky-high mountains, the waves of the sea, and the clouds gathering at dawn. As soon as he moves his brush the water breaks into waves and slowly covers the emperor’s palace. Soon a light little barque appears with Wang Fo’s faithful disciple Ling sitting in it. Under the astonished gaze of the courtiers he helps the master into the craft and starts rowing. When the two men disappear behind the cliffs on the horizon and the last plash of oars is heard the water slowly withdraws from the palace. There are only a few damp patches left of the so recent flood.

Art can speak to power by outshining it and outlasting it - and power knows it.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Reading thousands of poems: precepts on the hoof

As one does, one is drawn to reflect on certain things, such as:

1. People get lost in tangles of craft. When craft is art it disappears like the ground you are standing on.

2. Else turn the craft into a magic show, dance on the cracks in the pavement.

3. The Songs of Experience are worth nothing without The Songs of Innocence.

4. Never believe yourself at your gravest or most profound. The planets move on, the odd star occasionally giggling.

5. You can only have your heart warmed once, very lightly, after that the goddess thinks you're getting rather too matey.

6. Your voice is not your voice. It should come at you as from the far end of a wind tunnel so your hardly recognise it.

7. There's such a thing as being poked in the 'I'.

8. I'll just wait around while you describe things. Oops, where have you gone? I seem to have been walking for hours.

9. If your metaphors are any good hang around with them & see where they go, don't go tarting after the next.

10. Why do deathless bad lines refuse to die?

11. Yes you're nice, you're humane, you'd probably be a very good neighbour, but the poem is elsewhere. It's colder there.

12. Occasionally I long for what Joyce called "chune'. The importance of not being earnest, of prose not shuffling its feet.

13. Don't spell it out, let me guess. Especially if I have spelled it before you've finished spelling. Touch and move.

14. Is it a coincidence that the shorter the better in most cases? Certainly more concentrated, words cleaner, brighter.

15. You turn masochist. You wait for poems to slap you in the face. Hit me again, but not just yet.

16. Still being slapped around. Most of my face is gone, turning into a percussion instrument.

17. Some short poems are too short: most long poems are too long. The chief cuts should be at the beginning, then sharpen the end.

This is the end.

Monday 9 January 2012

Lukas born

Grandson Lukas born!!!

Sunday 8 January 2012

Sunday night is...Double David Bowie

Oh You Pretty Things, via James Hamilton

And this, Starman, just because many Bowie songs have a kind of end-of-the-world of sadness, not just in the words but musically, a sadness that seems ever more poignant and yet full of energy and invention.

I have picked these two for his sixty-fifth but there are plenty of others to pick from. Glad to have shared the kitchen with you once, Mr Jones.

Independent piece on Hungary

The statue of Attila József by the Danube, next to Parliament. It may not remain there for very long. (Source)

Normal service will be resumed but these are important times in Hungary and I would like to do my small part in keeping our attention on it. I am grateful for any links offered by readers. This article is by Tony Paterson in yesterday's Independent, thanks to commentator Anne. Excerpts:

In the centre of Budapest yesterday, the number 26 stood picked out in big red letters above the magnificent blue and gold Art Nouveau facade of the city's renowned New Theatre, where Schiller's Don Carlos is on its final run.

The number is the liberals' last stand.

It tells passers-by just how many days the New Theatre's leftist director, Istvan Marta, has left before he is forcibly evicted on the orders of Hungary's new conservative nationalist government. He is to be replaced by a dramatist notorious for his anti-Semitic views and an actor who recently campaigned for Hungary's neo-fascist Jobbik party...

...The nationalist Fidesz government of Viktor Orban is not merely interested in wielding greater control over financial institutions. It has embarked on a Kulturkampf – a cultural revolution – which seems bent on imposing its right-wing and xenophobic ideology on all walks of life, ranging from minorities and religions to the media, judiciary and arts.

Thousands of demonstrators thronged the streets of Budapest on Monday night to protest against the battery of political and cultural reforms that were formally enshrined in the constitution by parliament and came into force on 1 January.

While the Prime Minister celebrated the occasion inside the Budapest Opera House, the protesters gathered outside, forcing him and his entourage to leave by the back door. It was the biggest political protest Hungary has witnessed since 1989...

..Anything that smacks of unacceptable left-wing thinking is being singled out as a target for denunciation or destruction by the Orban government's culture police. Appropriately, its Kulturkampf starts right in front of Budapest's magnificent neo-Gothic parliament building where Fidesz was swept into office with an apparently omnipotent two-thirds majority in 2010.

On a patch of grass outside stands a monument to the working class poet Attila Jozsef, depicting him humbly sitting on the ground. Jozsef committed suicide by throwing himself under a train in 1937, but his poems are regarded as classic examples of Marxist humanist writing. Yet the Orban government has plans to permanently remove the Jozsef monument from its present commanding position. Fidesz MPs have let it be known they object to monuments to such left-wing icons being displayed outside parliament...

...Mr Orban's Kulturkampf does not end with theatres. His government is investigating 82-year-old Agnes Heller, a former dissident and one of Hungary's most renowned philosophers. She stands accused of wasting EU subsidies and has been subjected to a vigorous denunciation campaign by the right-wing press.

The media is another key target. Critical voices are unwelcome. Budapest's Klubradio is a prime example. The station was one of the few broadcasters critical of the government and had about half a million listeners. The station suddenly lost its licence last year and was replaced by Autoradio, a pro-government broadcaster. Andras Arato, former owner of Klubradio, accused the government of destroying freedom of opinion. "We are experiencing a war between Viktor Orban and democrats," he said.

The new constitution also withdraws official recognition from over 300 religious denominations, including Islam, Buddhism and several Catholic orders.
And a small piece of vox pop from an academic researcher:
"Orban is like Italy's Berlusconi – many voted for him, not because they like him, but because they are like him. We are all little Orbans, doing in small what he does on a great scale: big words, but small steps, improvising instead of planning, martyrdom instead of responsibility."

From the removal of the statue of Attila József - universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest European poets of the 20th century - to the burning of his books is not a very big step. That is the kind of disgrace the country is becoming.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Guardian piece on Hungary

I'm glad to see this story running and staying big, thanks here to The Guardian's Helen Pidd:

Surrounded by half-drunk flasks of tea and bundled up in three pairs of trousers apiece, the hunger strikers entered their 26th night of protest outside the Hungarian state broadcaster on Wednesday evening. Temperatures were hovering around freezing and icy rain had started to spit. But it had been much worse, said Balazs Nagy Navarro. "At least they have turned the music off now," he said, pointing to a sandbox suspended from an upstairs window.

Inside the box was a speaker that for "five or six days solid" around Christmas had blasted Jingle Bells at top volume. It wasn't the only eviction tactic. Behind the glass of the MTVA reception area were reflectors that had been used to try to dazzle the protesters outside and prevent photographers from getting a good picture when private security guards came – and failed – to clear the camp....

...While ordinary Hungarians worry most about what will happen to that mortgage they took out in Swiss francs, for many foreign observers the new constitution is the source of most anguish. It came into effect on 1 January, and, combined with at least 350 laws that have been rushed through during Fidesz's 20 months in power, has, say critics, all but removed checks and balances to the power of the government and ruling party. The independence of the central bank has been compromised and Fidesz loyalists now head powerful councils overseeing the media, the judiciary and budget. There have been crackdowns on Roma rights, and funds for education and social care have been shredded, campaigners say.

Some of the world's most powerful people and institutions have also had enough. On Thursday, a spokesman for the European Union confirmed that without a promise from Hungary that some laws would be changed or repealed, neither the EU nor the International Monetary Fund would even discuss giving it the multibillion-euro bailout even Orbán knows it needs (though he calls it an "insurance contract"). EU lawyers are going through the latest legislation with a fine-tooth comb and will soon pronounce on whether it is incompatible with European law....

...Economists believe Orbán has no choice but to promise to repeal laws in return for the €15-50bn he needs to borrow to repay an earlier loan the IMF granted last time the country was bailed out, in 2008. The Hungarian government is now having enormous problems borrowing money after two ratings agencies declared its bonds to be "trash" at the end of last year. Couple that with the fact that the value of the forint is falling off a cliff, and you have the makings of a particularly toxic crisis.

My friend in Hungary, who has attended the demonstrations, talked about the difficulty of overcoming the noise and the bright lights. I understood her to mean this but wasn't sure. Now it is clear. 'If you can't beat them or shoot them, deafen them with Jingle Bells played ad inf.' I think it was the US blasting trash metal that did for Noriega. I'm not sure which is worse.

In any case, the story is not going to go away. I'll insert pieces as and when there's something new.

Friday 6 January 2012

Grandson arrives

We expected him, being the second and, by the looks of his mother, very big, to be early but he was a day and a half late. It had been very hard work for H, our daughter, carrying him in the last few weeks. She went into hospital about noon yesterday and the baby was born at 1:15 in the morning.

I had stayed up at home till 1 at which point I went to bed and immediately fell asleep.

I woke at about 3am and looked at the phone. R had texted about the birth. I stayed awake a little while reading then slept again till almost 8 when C rang. I worked a little in the morning, but chiefly wrote notes here and there for far longer that I thought I could, to the extent that I completely forgot lunch.

So I caught the early afternoon fast bus into Norwich, reading Charles Boyle's The Age of Cardboard and String that I received in the morning post, along the way. I had to keep myself from laughing out loud at times, laughing silently instead. It wasn't gags, it was a wonderful sense of the poignantly, sometimes dangerously ludicrous. I thought there must be a line to draw between Michael Hofmann, CB and Hugo Williams that would define what I loved about English writing, the understatement, the nonsense, the faint desperation and disorientation, the rejection of bombast, the sudden jaggedness of life, and the perfect register of the perfect word, and that this was somehow (given Michael H is German) intrinsically English, though then I thought of two younger Hungarian poets, Andrés Imreh and G. István László, who might have been English in that way, given that description, and that seemed to negate my hunch about Englishness, until I thought about young Tim Cockburn's poems, Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel, also just received in the Salt edition, and of Tim's own love of Larkin and Bennett and how that sat with his equal love for Frank O'Hara, thinking that somehow Tim was very English too, and in this happily confused state I walked the 20 minutes or so to H & R's house.

It was cold but beautifully bright, a fast paced walk, not really thinking much. Going down the last stretch towards their street I passed a young man in shirtsleeves, the way young men are often in shirtsleeves, but wearing a furry cap with ear flaps. It didn't make much sense, I thought, unless he was convinced that all the heat was escaping through either a bald scalp or a still-open fontanelle, and then I thought I recognised a figure moving towards me, and indeed it was him, though I thought he had moved to London. We stopped for a moment because he too was in a hurry somewhere. We grinned, exchanged a few words, then moved off in opposite directions

C ran to open the door for me. R was asleep upstairs and soon Marlie would be up too. We had a cup of tea then got her up. She was immediately smiling, immediately asking for books and fetching them herself. Her passive vocabulary is very wide now and the active is increasing almost daily. C told me she had called for mummy and daddy but when C explained to her that they were in hospital where mummy was going to have her baby Marlie seemed to understand, and stopped asking. Then H rang from hospital asking to speak to R and eventually we got in the car and drove over.


At first you don't see the baby as it is suckling and covered in a blanket. It seems too small to be human, just an extra fold of cloth. H smiles faintly, because she is weak and tired and still in some pain, otherwise perfectly fine and happy. We kiss her and arrange ourselves in the small curtained space. Eventually the baby is released from the breast and appears out of the blanket, his eyes closed against the light, the fists coming up to cover them, then an eye opening, and a roll of the head. His eyes are much like Marlie's were. Big, wide, long lashes. He has patches of still damp dark hair. His legs and arms move automatically. He doesn't yet know what his limbs are, or that they belong to him. We stay for half an hour or so, taking turns to hold him. He tolerates this with good grace and indifference. As long as he is securely held he is fine and does not feel choosy as to who does the holding.

I reflect how different an experience this must be for me as a man. Our agency is quickly done and gone, our attention is all on the mother and whatever business there is in hand outside. Hers is partly dominated by what is within and resides there close on a year, affecting everything. And now here is the product, so new and so complete a body in miniature it seems almost too good, too sudden, a complex mixture of the utterly normal and the phenomenon just beyond understanding.

Outside the cubicle the voices of the mother, baby and visitor in the next cubicle, foreign voices, unplaceable. Their phone ring tone suggests India, Asia, its faintly like the call of a muezzin. Their baby is constantly crying - this one makes a few noises, moves, snuffles a little then claws at the air as babies do. He's fine.

No pictures for now - that will be up to the parents. He spends tonight in hospital, out next afternoon most likely. Then help will be needed.

Time for bed here too. So a new life - not named yet but waiting on a name. Another January birth (that's three now). And the wind has died down.