Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Applied Departure/ 1

Ödön Márffy, Last Portrait of Csinszka, c.1934

There was no music in the Imperial Panorama - in contrast to films, where music makes traveling so soporific. But there was a small, genuinely disturbing effect which seemed to me superior. This was the ringing of a little bell which sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way first for an empty space and then for the next image. And every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their clouds of dirty yellow smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure. I formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendours of the scene at just one sitting . Hence my intention (which I never realised) of coming by again the following day. Before I could make up my mind, however, the entire apparatus, from which I was separated by a wooden railing, would begin to tremble, the picture would sway within its little frame and then immediately trundle off to the left, as I looked on.

Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900

I always stop - always stopped, let's face it - in front of Csinszka in the Hungarian National Gallery on Castle Hill. Something in the picture declines the solicitations of its viewer, which has at points seemed to me to offer a sturdy metaphor about the repetitively-mythologised inscrutability of Hungary to foreigners. As I've maintained throughout my stay here, however, isn't that inscrutability itself a kind of representation or wishful thinking? Is it perhaps convenient for the European imagination to have at the very heart of the continent a country and people elusive to the systematising narratives about culture which we use to make sense of ourselves, with political and linguistic geography figurating the big story about identity - the one in which we are never entirely coincidental with ourselves - that Freud gradually cultivated from folk tales and the recollected dreams of the bored bourgeois in nearby Vienna?

Last Portrait of Csinszka itself accomodates multiple epistemological blocs. With disconcerting forthrightness, the painting is segregated into differing, not necessarily antagonistic, planes of mimetic assurance. Although her own attention is plainly directed into the ether, Csinszka is the most worldly point in the composition; the childishly careless window around her the second (the painting is thus framed as liminal); the looming, Kafkan lover the third. He is styled allegorically, as the gatecrasher of idle thoughts, perhaps, or the history that ushers you away - much too quickly - when you're not looking. If he offers protection, he doesn't supplement it with comfort, and the awkward affection of his gesture is certainly not reciprocated. He might be a ghost, the trace of the past in the present, were it not for his oddly futuristic, and indeed oddly Futurist, appearance, which reminds me for some reason of the cyborgs in Rex Warner's 1941 novel The Aerodrome, an outstanding British depiction of the co-option of ultramodern technologies by the Nazis. Extrapolating a little, it's possible to make the observation that the man who drapes his misshapen arm over Csinszka synthesises the awful realities of the 1930s with the completely inconceivable character of history in that period, and that the titular figure synthesises the awful plausibility of wishful thought. In times of crisis, what we long for acquires a specious density, while what we experience is 'like a bad dream'.

Throughout the 1930s, Elizabeth Bowen was writing novels overrun with characters who conspire against historicity only to be ground down by its very relentlessness, so it's strange that her dustjackets are often decorated with pictures of women who flawlessly resemble, both in attire and dysphoric posture, the one Márffy depicts here. Last Portrait of Csinszka is a characteristically Thirties performance of an inversion of mimetic order, by which the least 'realistic' elements of the composition are precisely those which invite the real world into it, that Bowen's novels hint at in the implausible swastika-shaped house in The Heat of the Day or the demonic, unearthly Markie in To the North. Perhaps the best point of comparison here, though, is Antal Szerb's novel Journey by Moonlight, one of the great finds of my spell in Budapest, which maintains an absolute, unstratified simultaneity of register by fusing a massively subjectivised fugue time with intimations of a broader history giddy with its own velocity.

De-Stalinisation, Broadsheet Style

There's a longer post on this topic coming soon - it may well be my first after my permanent return to the UK on Sunday - but here's a teaser of the subject matter. I hope I'm not the only one who feels suspicious of the broadsheet columns, representative of a whole subgenre of revisionist history (examples here and here of works which mask a political agenda behind the supposed urgency and objectivity of their message), which labour the 'Stalin as bad as/ worse than Hitler' point, as if anyone who has ever felt the slightest of leftish inclinations stands in need of reminding about what took place in the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1953.

Two quick points. First: are such arguments ever anything other than sententious point-scoring? Amis's Koba the Dread seemed to mark the beginning of his diversion into conservative truculence, which reached its apotheosis with the (quite literally) execrable 'The Last Days of Mohammed Atta' and the stunningly ill-advised essay 'The Age of Horrorism'. Since Koba, he's been wagging his finger, most probably at CW students at Manchester University, and making claims that are either so obvious that they can only represent the need of an increasingly intellectually bereft novelist for straw targets or wrong in a manner that is so outré as to be almost avant-garde. The 'Stalin = worst' argument brings to mind Patrick Hamilton's brilliant caricature Mr. Thwaites, the aging blimp in Slaves of Solitude who believes that it is the iconoclastic verve of his rants, rather than their bullying predictability, which sends the likable protagonist Miss Roach up the wall. For young writers, it's frustrating to see well-paid public intellectuals filling column inches/ broadcast schedules with opinions which, while inching ever closer to earning the epithet 'received', are presented as the product of someone daring to say the unsayable. It would be interesting to see a contemporary columnist discussing the historical conditions that drove the Soviet Union towards Stalin in the first place; after all, there's been plenty of attempts to historicise Nazism.

Second: Russophobia seems to be a sanctioned form of racism. I don't know what the majority of the mainstream media think the 'colour' revolutions in post-Soviet states are, but I'm fairly certain that they're anything but triumphs of social democracy. Furthermore, when Russians aren't being represented as the oppressors of 'Plucky Little Georgia' or the conquistadores of Baltic hyperspace, they're painted as barely-civilised invaders disguised in Gucci and Prada. Remember this?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Yes, but your 'pastiche design' is worse!!

Art and its forms and techniques live in history and certainly do change. I sympathize with a remark attributed to Saul Bellow, that to be technically up to date is the least important attribute of being a writer, though I would have to add that this least important attribute may be nevertheless essential. In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven's Sixth Symphonyn or the Chartres Cathedral if executed today would be simply embarassing.

John Barth, 'The Literature of Exhaustion'

Prince Charles threatens to quit the National Trust because they don't subscribe to his unreconstructed-if-they-hadn't-been-reconstructed-from-something-over-2000-years-old opinions about architecture. Funnily enough, I probably feel as hostile as Charles does towards the sort of Postmodernism he's attacking, but he's completely unaware that his set of beliefs belong to exactly the same intellectual current. Go, for example, to your nearest Sainsburys: it will be a bland, brick building decorated with twee nods to some never-real agrarian idyll: Poundbury on the cheap, in other words. As per usual, Charles is being allowed to speak on behalf of all the people in the UK who a) have day-to-day, functional contact with both his despised postwar modernism and with the idealess randomisations of the Postmodernism which neo-Neo Palladianism and, er, pseudo-yeomanesque actually sustain, and b) are inevitably a lot closer to the sharp end of the sustainability issue than a man with a Civil List airmiles allowance ever will be.

Isn't it odd how sustainability, an immediate concern of modernist architecture and planning, should become a stick with which the material effects of premodernist ideologies should make a comeback? As much as I believe that there has never been a time in which sustainability should be more of an issue - with two weeks still to live amidst the wreckage caused by post-1989 economic deregulation, I feel more strongly about this than ever - it often seems that it has become synonymous with expensive, slightly off-grid libertarianism; which is to say that it implicated in an argument against any sort of planning whatsoever, and the devolution of the independently wealthy from social answerability. One needs only look at contemporary Tory policy: apparently, our current predicament arose out of unsustainable public spending on the likes of the NHS. I find the cut of the jib of current Tory spin absolutely jaw-dropping, not least because it is a known fact that Thatcher purposefully withered (some might say crippled) the state in her time in office, absolving the likes of David Cameron from any loyalties to Britain as a community, but not from their 'responsibilities' to the Poundbury/ Totnes pre-industrial theme park which is supposed to constitute a viable future for the 60, 000, 000 inhabitants of the UK.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


So this (understandably) 'minor' academic's account of Britain's supposed ills (the 'scourges...of modern Tory demonology', according to a disappointingly passive John Harris) are based around three points. These are:

1 - The 'postwar expansion of the state'.

During the 1930s, two camps existed within the UK. One - incorporating a sizable proportion on the left, prior to some of the British Communist Party mucking up severely in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and quite a few Conservatives as well - wanted to intervene in the incipient European crisis before it, and I'm sorry if this sounds an understatement, got too late. The other - incorporating quite a lot of Conservatives, aristos, and the editorship of the Daily Mail - wanted to chum up to Hitler. We won't go into the question of intervention in Spain here, although it might have saved a few headaches somewhere down the line (rubbish song, but the Manic Street Preachers knew the deal here.) The non-interventionists won the day. Britain consequently fought a paralysing pan-global war which decimated half of its major cities and lefy it in crippling debt. Angered by the arrogance of a Conservative Party who acted as if election was their divine right, and still mindful of the facetious 'return to normal' enacted by the governing classes in the aftermath of World War I, the British public voted in Clement Attlee's government of democratic socialists, who instituted a programme of reforms designed to make sure the people of the nation could, you know, eat every day and go to a hospital when they needed to and stuff like that. Millions benefit: in spite of the fact that Britain was absolutely bereft of cash, its people were - in general - better looked after than ever before. Within twenty years, people who would, ten years previously, have associated the word 'university' with the man they saw to pick up a prescription are enjoying their graduation ceremonies. Notwithstanding the fact that the 'expansion of state' began as a bloody neccessary measure during WWII, under a non-more-Conservative PM, this is disingenuous Thatcherism at its worst.

2 - 'Next came the left's embrace of what was supposedly all the rage in the 1960s - hedonism, moral relativism, 'the politics of desire' - which Blond thinks trickled down to the most vulnerable layers of society and spread chaos.'

There's a lot of unpicking to be done there, isn't there? This is the old 'John Lennon wrote "Revolution" while voting Conservative as a protest against excessive taxation' argument, in a strange kind of way. If the left embraced the hedonism of the Sixties - and this is a rather worn cliché, I think - then the right were no less guilty. Where some of 'the left' might have dumbly taken Laingian and Reichian 'theory' as an invitation to screw everything that moved whilst imbibing anything chemical they could lay their hands on, the right were embracing radical individualism no less wholeheartedly. The fundamental difference is that the left's 'politics of desire' were tempered by an ethics which demanded a critique of this individualism, which found its popular manifestation in punk (I don't believe its key slogans need repeating here) at more or less the same time as the mainstream right was abandoning the last vestiges of paternalism to participate in a Damascene conversion to Thatcherism. There are three kinds of Conservative: 'disappointed of Tunbridge Wells', who believes in all forms of legality until he's caught speeding, the typically more sociable libertarian Tory with whom you can have a pint and an argument until he's carted off for attempting to punch a police officer, and the one who wants to have it both ways. Lest we forget, the last Conservative government was brought down in part by a preponderance of the latter, who seemed unable to keep their own cocks in their pants while telling the rest of us to behave as if we were extras from The Vicar of Dibley. A Cameron government will mix all three, resulting in unmitigated disaster for everyone who isn't George Osborne.

3 - 'Finally, Thatcherism unleashed the free market...'

Well, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

'A dirty, hoggish people'

How one, admittedly crazy-sounding, Latvian politician saw the British after witnessing planeload after planeload of stag parties puking, pissing, and shagging their way around Riga, behaviour which has prompted the city's mayor to issue a public warning asking all-male groups from the UK to up their game a bit.

I have rather mixed feelings about this. Stag parties are not my thing, and the only one I ever went on involved a bunch of us playing pool in a cottage in Blakeney, having a kick-around, rescuing two small children from the salt marshes (long story), eating some lasagne, then heading back to Norwich full of bracing sea air. I could, I think, manage the 'rugged outdoor activities followed by one big night out in a UK city'-type affair, but the decidedly 2000s practice of decamping en masse to Central Europe, drinking Dreher or Krusovice until it comes out of one's eyeballs, then visiting extremely expensive strip & clip joints leaves me cold. Spending ten months in Budapest's District Seven, effectively the hub of the city's nightlife, has allowed me to witness a lot of these parties at first hand, and they're pretty grim. On our street there's a well-patronised, well-regarded romkert (typically, a squat-like bar set up in a disused building, decorated with furniture collected in the biannual district chuck-out) called Szimplákert. Now, Szimplákert has become, to a degree, a victim of it's own success, and even makes it onto the pages of the typically unadventurous Lonely Planet bar listings, with the result that big groups of Brits - or those smart enough to realise that they're being massively overcharged in the shiny, Square Mile-type bars on Liszt Tér - wind up there. Cue parades of middle managers in polo shirts decorated with 'hilarious', often borderline homophobic slogans ('Budapest 2009 - Gay-vin's Stag Do!' was a recent favourite), yelling at the barmaids in English, and competing with the local winos to see who can leave the biggest patch of vomit on my doorstep for me to step in come Saturday morning.

The thing is, though, that I can't help but feel that the British are scapegoated somewhat. I've seen plenty of Germans, Scandinavians, and Russians behaving identically in District Seven, the difference being that the British only seem to act up when under the influence. When sober, most English people at least demonstrate a degree of embarrassment about their unwillingness to take the plunge with Hungarian, whereas I frequently see Germans snap at shop or café workers (in English or German) then descend into fits of mirth at their addressee's inability to respond. What price a guy from Szeged or Miskolc walking into a bar in Hamburg, rattling off an order in Hungarian, and expressing complete incredulity at his failure to be understood?

I've often asked my students, and people I meet around and about, what their stereotype of an English (or Scottish - they don't often differentiate) person is. Sample answers: 'a snob'; 'an alcoholic'; 'a football hooligan'. The latter I find intriguing - I would have gone along to see Újpest or Fradi by now were their stadiums not more or less given over to Drehered-up ultra groups (witness the behaviour of Újpest's 'boys' as they host cross-border rivals Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League a few weeks back): by way of comparison, I've very rarely felt intimidated either within or en route to any English ground. I do feel that the British, and in particular the English, are frequently asked to take the rap for forms of behaviour which are endemic throughout the whole of Europe. I admit that I feel safer walking around downtown Budapest at three in the morning than I do walking through Norwich's leafy suburbs anytime after eight, but I hardly think antisocial behaviour is a problem exclusive to the UK.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

'Far stronger than the British would ever have tolerated'

Neil Ascherson in today's Observer, bucking the trend of 'twenty years later' style articles to act as if post-Soviet democracy is a uniformly good thing:

What most ordinary people wanted, at the end of 1989, seemed to be something like social democracy. In other words, freedom, a regulated market economy, and a strong welfare state - the "European" model. Not unreasonably, the public thought that they could combine the freedom and prosperity of capitalism with the social benefits they had learned to expect under communism.

They were wrong. The countries in transition imported an undiluted version of Thatcherism, far stronger than the British would ever have tolerated. Price controls were abolished, subsidies cancelled, currencies left to find their own level. Many state industries and services were privatised, often bought over by western multinationals. Huge gaps appeared between rich and poor: a new, predatory super-rich class on one hand, near-destitution for pensioners and the redundant on the other. Social services withered or vanished, like the elaborate network of free day nurseries for working mothers in East Germany.

Transition soon carried away the revolutionaries themselves. In Germany, Bärbel Bohley and Jens Reich of Neues Forum went back to teaching and painting. In Poland, a new tribe of "professional" politicians, including reformed communists, had replaced the Solidarity veterans by 1993. Even Lech Walesa, the first freely elected president, was out of office by 1995, replaced by an ex-communist. In Czechoslovakia, which broke into two states in 1993, most of the Charter 77 heroes were out of government by the time of the split. Isolated, Vaclav Havel stayed on as Czech president until 2003.

The shape of politics had changed. The poor - the losers in the shift to capitalism - were now championed by right-wing nationalists, not socialists. Against them stood the new urban middle class and the sanitised post-communists, committed to neoliberal economics and European integration. The old revolutionaries now retreated into academia, journalism or seats in the European Parliament.

This is not the world they hoped for, back then when they stood exhausted among vast crowds who kissed them and cheered them and waved national flags. Adam Szostkiewicz, who had been jailed in 1982 as a Solidarity organiser, remembers how his hopeful fellow prisoners were disillusioned by the new Poland. "They expected a revised version of an open, free people's democracy, which was not to be. The new Polish democracy was too liberal and not 'social' enough ... for me, with my middle-class background, it was all right, livable, promising. It may sound rather minimalistic. But in the light of the historical experience of our parents' generation and our own, we may be forgiven, I suppose."

A Czech friend, who didn't want to be quoted by name, was much harsher. "Nothing remains of our old spirit. The Czechs have become a nation of little white mice, jostling for money and biting each other. Nobody sane could want to go back to the communist days. Yet what freedom have we really gained? Back then, the Russians made our foreign policy; now the Americans do. Back then, we lived in a culture of communist lies and false promises. But isn't the capitalist media and entertainment culture just as false and manipulative?"

Miklos Haraszti, the best-known figure in the Hungarian opposition 20 years ago, now lives in Vienna as representative on freedom of the media for OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). He insists that he and his generation never had "perfect society" illusions. "I wrote a sober forecast then, saying we knew our democracy would be noisy, dirty, corrupted." His main regret is that Hungarian politics after 1989 became so partisan. "Our round table led to an idea of perfect liberal-democrat constitutionalism -almost too advanced. Reality pushed that over. We didn't want majoritarian, British-style politics, but something based on consensus, on a common denominator of our democracy. But populist instincts pushed towards a majoritarian style. This lack of the common denominator, the partisanship especially in the media, is creating something like the Weimar Republic. And that inevitably leads to totalitarianism unless we can find a substitute.

Until a few weeks ago, I went, every Wednesday morning, to the MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) building, a little beyond Vörösmarty utca metro station on Andrássy ut, to teach a man who deals with the logistical headaches of driver allocation across the network's six regions. When he left school, he worked as a locomotive driver on a Pannonian branch line in the years imminently preceding 'System Change'. Simultaneously, he studied for a degree in HR (or whatever János Kádár's laissez-faire communists chose to term this none-more-Blairish field), and this allowed him to enter into the post-Habsburgian labyrinth of MÁV's managerial pyramid. Recently, he completed a second degree, for which he submitted a thesis advocating a rethinking of the organisation's command structure: occasionally, he makes wistful references to Britain's 1990s rail privatisation, which he seems to me to have conflated with some mythical age of rain and steam. Given that senior MÁV employees receive a pan-EU fare waiver valid for roughly one week of every year, and an additional discount for family, he perhaps failed to notice the various atrocious consequences of privatisation in the UK when he visited.

As in many Hungarian businesses, and state institutions, there's a certain valorisation (or fetishisation) of the Thatcher-Blair 'achievement' which follows on from the 'undiluted' transfer of Thatcherism into Central and Eastern Europe that Ascherson discusses. MÁV's running of what would seem, to the average Briton, to be a relatively cheap, punctual, and well-used service, albeit one which is run at a net loss to the heavily indebted state, is regarded with something oddly resembling guilt rather than with the pride that success in the face of the severe limitations brought about by Hungary's first dust-up with the Invisible Hand should legitimate. It's almost as if the linguistic and material veneers of success and competence that impinge upon every bloody second of every bloody day in Britain (as a wag on a message board I read noted recently, it's virtually impossible to drive past any business HQ in the north-east now without seeing the words 'passionate about [insert name of product - crisps; hair gel; worming tablets - here]' emblazoned on a thirty foot long laminated banner on the outside) represent something to aspire to; something which would constitute a final act of supplication in the direction of Brussels and Washington. Boosted with seemingly unlimited finance from 'rich Central Europe' in the late 90s, there was a flash of the fur of a Magyar Tiger at the start of this decade: now, it seems that they're being asked to buy into the whole package precisely when it's the last thing they can afford to do in practical terms. Whether or not one accepts the notion that the subsidisation of public services is one of the main things that taxes exist for, it is hard not be struck by the uneasiness in the 'new democracies' as regards the absence of the superficial signifiers of prosperity - Pret a Manger, say, or a new set of sub-Fosterian offices for PWC - and the manifestation of this anxiety in a form of insistent, maddeningly limp corporatese flaunted throughout the glitzed-up bits of downtown Pest. Their own language honed in subtlety of expression (there are more than eight ways to express the basic information 'Eva likes flowers', each of which shifts the emphasis slightly to gesture towards something beautifully unvoiced), Hungarians labour awkwardly within the no-man's-land of Business English, where the quicksilver idioms and turns of phrase which characterise the parent tongue ossify as inflexible, de-ironised dictums, encumbered with grotesquely insincere conviviality. (Business English: a language invented, in an act of revenge, by the kids whose stories always came back covered in red ink: 'not a proper sentence, Richard.')

MÁV has now moved from its base of more than 100 years in the Terézváros to a purpose-built, sub-Fosterian HQ at Népliget, the vast park on the frontier between the Eight and Ninth Districts which is also the home of the similarly under-reinvention Ferencváros TC's Albertstadion. Andrássy ut, with its frighteningly steampunk paternoster and tatty, endless, dimly-lit corridors, is to be sold: one imagines that it will become a scmaltzily 'authentic' hotel or an apartment block for the well-heeled.

The top of the page shows a projected vision of the 'Corvin Strand', an act of regeneration that has so far consisted of packing the (largely Roma) inhabitants of this impoverished section of District Eight off to the distant suburbs and putting up a bunch of office blocks and flats that are, due to the economic crisis, too expensive to complete.

Friday, 19 June 2009


My PhD thesis, bound.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

'If you crash a helicopter, you probably die'

Or so claims a good friend of mine, who took time out from his own documentary film to go and see Terminator Salvation last week, returning with the above assessment of the film's mimetic shortcomings. But I'm feeling all conspiratorial about this, and I'm really not sure that the prevailing hostility towards the fourth film in the Terminator sequence is at all justified.

First things first, TS falls some way short of T1 and T2, and it would be unfair not to point this out. However, judging the new movie solely on such grounds seems to be an act grounded in an urge to be proved right, a not-so-latent wish on the part of the 'mainstream arthouse' devotees who staff broadsheet culture sections to strike a blow against an extremely abstract notion of 'Hollywood'. I'm not in the business of backing up my intuitions with any kind of factitious data, but I'm willing to guess that the reviewers in the 25-40 bracket who came down like a ton of London (Farringdon?) Bricks on TS, and did their best to murder The Dark Knight, and have almost certainly already written their reviews for the Robocop remake, would happily sit through repeat viewings of piss-poor whimsical bollocks like Juno, Broken Flowers, The Virgin Suicides, Before Sunset or any one of the ceaselessly proliferating Amerindie flicks that deal with bugger all in a style which signifies Incredible Meaningfulness. (By the way, that's two digs in three days at Richard Linklater, which isn't entirely fair because he made Dazed and Confused, a beautiful movie, and A Scanner Darkly, which, while not quite Blade Runner, did a passable job of making me feel as interestingly discombobulated as the work of Phillip K. Dick, from which it was adapted.)

Of course, it sounds like what I'm doing here is making a populist swipe against 'pretentious' films, but I think I'm actually pursuing the opposite. Perhaps the fact is that TS wasn't really very good at all, but my frustration at the perseverance of the 'oh, aren't we all so relaxed and unconcerned and emotionally literate' media to thrust the empty vessel of the abstractly 'arty' movie - not to be confused with the abstract art movie - in our direction led me to enjoy it more than it deserved. But, if I'm being perfectly honest, ninety minutes of Christian Bale and Sam Worthington machine gunning robots and crashing helicopters just has, to any sane person, be preferable to two hours of Bill Murray knocking on doors and wearing a tracksuit. McG's taking on of the Connor v. Skynet mythos might lean towards a rather reductive, underexamined philosophy - apparently, humans will always have the advantage of a vaguely defined 'humanity', AKA soul, which Skynet's otherwise unimpeachable AI cannot cow or acquire for itself - but at least it makes a less myopic engagement with a Big Question than any of the wan feasts of self-congratulation that I've listed above.

Maybe the question isn't so much 'is TS any good' - I enjoyed the cinema experience regardless of the film's eventual quality - but 'whither the arthouse film'. Two points here. One: since around 2001/2002 'artiness' has been the dominant ingredient of the perfume that marks one out as 'not in favour of illegal wars'. From the rather desperate attempts to conceive of an American 'lit rock' musical scene last year, which seemed to be engendered by little more than the fact that one of Vampire Weekend had read some Thomas Pynchon, to the pleasing on the ear but nonetheless essentially cosmetic rants of Charlie Brooker (one of the good guys, but effectively trapped within his own overly imitable sentential rhythms...), to weirdly Lacanian blog posts like this one, an unwillingness to tow the 'scent of art' line has you marked down as, oh, I don't know what, Toby Keith or Littlejohn or someone, and when you've just spent four years going half-mad trying to produce serious arguments about art and culture it's rather frustrating. Two: is there room for a revitalisation of the auteur? Common consensus seems to treat Jim Jarmusch and Linklater and even Sophia sodding Coppola as if they're the natural heirs to Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Godard, Rivette et al but they just aren't. Because you're all attentive readers you'll have read the article by David Thomson I linked to a week back in which he (rather painstakingly, for a comparatively short article) demonstrates how Hitchcock's films are held together by force of style rather than by any Aristotelian commitments. In the case of Jarmusch in particular, I'd argue that the modern pseudo-auteur film retains aesthetic unity through the force of the image of the force of style, by a laboured framing of the directorial tic and a carefully-planned strategy of homage to one or two of the masters. Of course, America has had its own genuine auteurs, but too many overlook the seventies directors - and hell, why not James Cameron and Ridley Scott as well - because of a poor gold-shit ratio. But there is surely much more to be gained by watching King of Comedy, or The Conversation, or Blade Runner, than by wasting one's time with a dressed-up undergraduate fantasy like Linklater's Before... films.

You know, I really want to stop writing gnarly stuff and tell some stories about Hungary, but this comes so much more naturally to me....

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

'They complained of "high maintenance" students who sought constant advice'

Although I'm surprised that anybody needed to be paid to produce a report bearing such strikingly obvious conclusions, I'm pleased that the disastrous consequences of rote-learning at A-Level have been properly recognised. The point about needy students sticks out, though: the demand for spoonfed information that arises shortly ahead of essay deadlines and exam periods is - if your experiential point of comparison is as recent as the beginning of this decade - really quite shocking. Whenever I prep undergraduates for an exam (usually the unweighted Year 1 test, which is effectively the HE equivalent of a SAT), I tell them how I went about making the step to sophomore. That process entailed sitting in the library for a few hours a day, reading and making notes on books which weren't on the course reading lists, but sounded interesting and relevant. Unsurprisingly, by dint of their not being on the lists, the books were always available, so I saved myself the three or four hours a day the usual panicking undergraduate expends running around the Short Loan room and the recent returns area looking for, I don't know, John Lukacs' Hitler and Stalin or Jane Eyre or Elementary Plant Biology 101. Of course, the approach worked because reading the new books with reference to the soon-to-be-completed course provoked a reactivation of my previous reading, so I could sit with my lecture notes on the desk, constantly reframing them according to my latest theoretical whim (I was discovering Propp, Shklovsky, and Jakobson at the time). I suppose this method is closer to the one applied by students who don't attend universities which use the (Scottish, if you like) modular system, in which case I might be seen to have been going several extra miles, but it more than paid off.

Anyway, I always explain to students how and why this attitude is better, and emphasise that it's completely pointless to sit there combing lecture notes if there is no critical subjectivity motivating what has been copied out over the course of a term. Generally, the response is a muted 'suppose so' mixed with a few people who come out and say more or less honestly that they'd been hoping that I would tell them how to pass the exam. It doesn't take a genius to see which system has been responsible for incubating such infantilism; it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to see that A-Levels have been subjected to the general and overwhelming pressure of Blairite glibocracy. The cultural logic of late, late capitalism - as manifested in, say, The Guardian's culture section or even by a platform as critically well-meaning and superficially corruscating as Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe/ Newswipe series (having finally seen them, I'll tentatively add the first two parts of the Red Riding adaptations in here) - has it that intellectual labour bears no reward, and that the ultimate object of a participation in any strand of cultural thought is a patina of 'artiness' which brings with it a lifelong obligation to attend the opening of (for example) each new film by Richard Linklater or Michael Winterbottom. One studies an arts subject at university because it's a passport to 'alternative', rather than due to any intrinsic interest in what being 'alternative' might possibly mean.

This is where the A-Level approach to EngLit both arises and is instrumentalised. According to a number of the theoreticians of literature's pedagogic value, 16-18 year olds must be taught the subject as a kind of hormonal complement. Anyone who has been, or known, a sixth former, will be aware of the absolutely paramount role of a loosely-defined individualism within their schema of ideas, hence the world of acoustic guitars, lifts to gigs, and self-consciously tasteless humour that they nearly all inhabit. For a text to have an impact, therefore, it needs to mirror the indignation of the teen, which is to perform the act of interpellating the 'rebellious' individual. There is no medium, only a Holden Caulfield-like message, and the message is - give or take a few lightly grazed political 'issues' - 'your individualism is sacrosanct'. The entire Western corpus becomes a drawn-out bildungsroman leading, with apparent inevitability, to the sanctioning of one individual in their easily-maintained, and thus unimaginable, historical moment. If 'high maintenance' and 'neediness' are terms drawn from the lexicon of romantic insecurity, their application to a pedagogic situation in which the student is reliant upon pseudo-plausible and easily digestible responses to the egotistical questions 'how did this text bequeath me' and 'how does this text sustain me' is entirely apt. There is far too little intellectual uncertainty in the experience of the arts undergraduate, and the suggestion that they be asked to cope with a little more is a welcome one.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Right, I'm planning to pull my finger out over the next few weeks and put a few things up here. As a precursor, a few links:

An absolutely magnificent article by David Thomson on Hitchcock - you could remove the specifically cinematic vocabulary and use it to make a case for abstraction in any medium. I love the stuff about the marriage of order and disorder in Hitch's frames: I've always meant to accommodate the 'plane scene' in NbNW into my 'terror and flat landscapes' paper for precisely this reason.

Bradford is the first UNESCO city of film!

And something previously unknown to me: Paul McCartney's 'Temporary Secretary'. It might induce queasiness.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Liking this a lot #4

Oh, one more. The excellent twohundredpercent's take on the ongoing catastrophe that is Darlington FC.

Liking this a lot #3

And, of course, Jenny's recent posts, particularly the excellent skewering of the noughties 'angel cult'. And the picture of me.

One point, Mrs, regarding the most recent post: you may think that a pan-European devotion to Yellow Magic Orchestra is a lie born of a sinister conspiracy dreamed up by the writers of modern languages textbooks, but I was fortunate enough to catch almost all of Laid Back's absolutely genius anti-drugs-message-that-was-surely-made-under-the-influence-of-drugs 'White Horse' in the 24-hour supermarket on Kertész utca today. Life on the continent really is like living inside an eternal Mantronix set.

Anyway, why would anyone not like Yellow Magic Orchestra?

Liking this a lot #2

Lorc's return with a post which is, even by his own high standards (this list of sarcastic essay comments from 2005 is a longstanding favourite of mine), seriously good.

Liking this a lot #1

Karl's interview with music writer Nick Kent for 3AM Magazine.

The relevance of vicars

As an aside to the Duffy stuff, a great quote from one of the best pieces of literary polemic I encountered last year:

Conservatism is the dominant voice of the age, which is one of steadily rising property prices and ostentation. In poetry, the great fear of radicalism (a kind of taxpayers’ revolt against the destruction of chartered intellectual property) found an outlet in a mixture of infantile regression and stylistic regression, in which inane and artificially irresponsible tones were mixed with a conscious and discreet return to outdated forms fragrant of ‘old money’, to Auden, Betjeman, and Larkin… poetry seemed stuck in a Christian youth club of 1955, with teenagers sneaking puffs on fags and a guitar-playing ‘relevant’ vicar.

Andrew Duncan, The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry

Friday, 1 May 2009

'Limits', you say?

Apparently, Carol Ann Duffy's poetry 'consistently pushes the limits of form and language'.

I'm not bothered about who becomes the laureate: it's a crap job for crap poets to write crap poems to crap spec. If Duffy wants the job, I'm pleased for her, and it seems some mark of progress that a writer whose sexuality 'would not play well with Middle England' a decade ago is not thought of in the same terms now (this is not to say that we don't have a long way to go.) Beyond identity politics, though, the likely appointment is reflective not only of Establishment (whatever that means) tastes, but - as the mood of vindication in the broadsheets suggests - those of people often entrusted with providing the nation with a cultural mirror.

Duffy's visual equivalent would be someone like Beryl Cook - cheeky, even scathing, but not the kind of artist who could be honestly said to be even glimpsing the limits, let alone 'pushing' them. And yet when you dare to point this kind of thing out to people, you're all too often met with a vague and yet pissed-off charge of 'elitism': you're a 'critic' who wants to spoil the 'fun' for everybody else. The consensus seems to be that British people should not be allowed to admire artwork more complex than L.S. Lowry; the argument which points out that the potential enjoyment of modernist and abstract art, poetics, and music by the general population is hampered by a covert (and not so covert) ideology of say-what-you-see realism which is instrumental to Britain's real elitism is generally given short shrift.

So it's not the appointment of Duffy that is the problem here: it's the media's celebration of her simultaneous 'difficulty' and 'accessibility'. The former is a fantasy, and one which is applied to far too much British poetry which has not earned the tag. The latter is still more problematic: 'accessibility' seems to be one of those business-speak buzzwords, implying that most people are too stupid to make their own decisions about everything else out there.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Anyone who feels America or Britain is moving nearer to an Islamist caliphate because of a suicide bomber is a wimp who has no belief in the robustness of democracy.

- Simon Jenkins on the CIA's use of torture as a method of interrogation in today's Guardian. Probably about time that someone set that idea out in terms as clear as this...

Monday, 20 April 2009

RIP J.G. Ballard

There's really not much to say here, is there?

I read Miracles of Life, JGB's recent autobiography, less than a month ago. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone to whom the word 'brave' could be applied with such a vast array of meaning: Ballard seems to have never taken the easy option, either intellectually or in the course of everyday life (in as much as we might use a phrase like that to apply to someone so exhaustingly extraordinary.)

Anyway, RIP.

'Selfindulgent' links

Having recovered from the traumatising words of the muscularly anonymous 'Anon' (see comments on previous post), I thought it might be about time to make a tentative appearance on here to see if said uncompromising dispenser of electronic critique has gone away yet...

Firstly, a poem by John Tranter in the edition of Jacket which is currently being put together. It's called 'Craig Raine's Arsehole', and it's really very funny.

Secondly, Basil Bunting reading his own Briggflatts, the 'northern Waste Land', at an American poetry conference in the 1960s. You'll need to set aside an hour or so.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


The Guardian's April Fools Day joke this year took me approximately 0.000005 seconds to spot. It's pathetic. Unless that's actually true (I almost, almost, wouldn't put it past them) and 'Iran Offers to Help US in Afghanistan' is the real trick article...

Monday, 30 March 2009

Happy Warriors

Evan Thomas, my ex-flatmate and longtime partner in the 'Mr Weinstein' pitching game, has been making a documentary film-poem about the wartime activities of the USAAF's 8th Air Force in Norfolk during the Second World War. He's been as far away as Florida collecting footage and testimony, but a lot of the work involves wandering about eerie Breckland airbases filming disused Nissen Huts. You can visit the film's website here (and pick apart my constructions in the introductory text).

Sunday, 29 March 2009

March 2009: edited highlights

In lieu of an interesting new post (I've written 2,000 words of fiction, 500 words for a friend's website, and a long-ish lesson plan today), here's a rustle through the baggage of the Ides:

- The Spirit (n.) Film we saw and were enormously underwhelmed by. Samuel L. Jackson needs to sort it out, but not as much as Frank Miller does. I'm not sure the premise 'ghost flirts with women and Scarlett Johansson dresses up as Eva Braun' should have passed the 'Mr. Weinstein' pitching test.

- Walking (v.) Less of this in March, largely due to increased work commitments. The seasonally-affected Magyars have chinned up in the last week or two, according to my ambulatory researches, but I'm not covering five miles a day any more.

- Bankruptcy (n., abstract) Darlington FC have a month to find a buyer or they will cease to exist. Internet chat suggests that we'll have to pull together and reform as a 'Fans' Club' in the murky depths, where I would be - in all honesty - perfectly content.

- Politics (n.) Ferenc G. is gone but nobody seems to want his job. Corrupt, naive, and arrogant as Gyurcsány might have been, I feel rather sorry for him. When I saw him, he had stopped with his wife and daughter to buy some pre-cinema pic 'n' mix. Sights like this tend to humanise politics. In other 'humanising of politics' news, the godawful Jacqui Smith is all hot and bothered because her Guy Fawkes-a-like husband decided to get, well, hot and bothered on ministerial expenses. My inner schoolboy wants to use the phrase 'wank bank' here, and just has.

- Dream (n.) And a political one, at that. Last night I dreamt that I was crossing a big Budapesti boulevard with Gordon and Sarah Brown, and David and Samantha Cameron were crossing in the other direction.

- Clock change (n.) - 'Time-wasting bastard', more like.

- Badly-written (adj.) - I'm reading sci-fi novelist Brian Aldiss' autobiography at the moment. It's absolutely fascinating if you're interested in the currents of ideas which drove British postwar fiction. It's also terribly composed, and pays no attention to the potential tonal discrepancies between eulogistic descriptions of one's wife and throwaways like 'the water was gonad shrinking'. Full marks for attempts to posit a postwar avant-garde, though, even if this is mucked in with lengthy celebrations of (NO! NO! NO!) Kingsley Amis.

- Well-written (adj.) - I (re-)read Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction earlier this week. I need to write about the appropriation of the Sebaldian voice against Sebald's own arguments about style and kitsch. The decontextualisation of Sebald - only seven years after his death - is infuriating. For now I'll only remark on the wonderful Clive Scott's cautionary reminder, in his obituary for W.G.S., that the infinitely imitable nature of the style of a novel like Austerlitz was/ is a joke that flies in the face of the absolute alignment of form and content that Sebald achieved. For me, Sebald is a Beckett unashamed by the ultimate embededness of style within historical context. There is no superfluous melancholy in The Rings of Saturn; there is nothing whimsical or unearnedly peripatetic about Vertigo. Going back to On the Natural History of Destruction made me ask one or two severe questions of my thesis, I can tell you.

Anyway, that's for another day. I'm off to bed. Xx

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Man, he used to be so cool....

Just trawling the internet, trying to recover from a mild hangover and avoid writing a lesson plan, when I came across this interview that I did for a guy in Sweden's hipsterish music website back in the olden, golden days of AHRC funding, no pressing deadlines, Truck Festival etc etc. In celebration, a few Teknikov highlights:

- Sharing a stage with DFA's occasionally excellent Prinzhorn Dance School. It wasn't the gig or the company that made this evening memorable, however: it was the post-show shenanigans which allowed our reputation as Norwich's most immature band to spread beyond the confines of the fine city. Yes, we had 'handbags'. Mat and I stole Tony's hat for the nth time that week. Retrospectively, I can understand why he was a bit annoyed. Anyway, he retrieved said item of clothing and started hitting me around the face with it, provoking an unsightly tussle from which no-one emerged with any credibility.

- The Art School gig. This was a great night. The support act was an American chap who none of us had ever met before and he turned up at the venue, guitar in hand, precisely half an hour after he was supposed to be on stage. Our set got really squeezed because we were on late. Naturally, we spent the intervening period drinking cheap Oranjeboom and getting more and more nervous about the delay, an anxiety which transformed into adrenalin the moment we went on. About halfway through the set, and midway through a song, someone figured out how to turn the hall lights down and the backlights came on completely unexpectedly, at which point everyone went mental. There was a moshpit! People were dancing!

- Truck 2006. This was amazing. We spent three or four nights in Abingdon prior to this show doing what we do best, namely going to the pub, arguing, telling each other ghost stories, talking about football, and failing to do any rehearsal whatsoever. Somehow, this cocktail of procrastination worked wonders. We were the first band on and the atmosphere was incredibly tight, as one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen in the UK was half an hour from breaking. I had sweat running into my eyes before we started playing. The tent was absolutely packed as we were one of the first bands of the weekend and, from the stage, we could see more people running across the field to come and see us. We then spent the rest of the weekend getting drunk, arguing, telling each other ghost stories and talking about football...

- The MacBeth. Our pre-Christmas 2007 jaunt to Hoxton was probably my favourite of our London gigs. Once again, we were incredibly late onstage thanks to the previous band, who took ONE BLOODY HOUR to get their equipment offstage. The gig organiser, who gave the impression of just having escaped from rehab (probably not uncommon in a known haunt of Amy Winehouse and Peter Doherty) had to plead with the stern barlady to let us play at all, and he only did this because we were all devoting energy to being conspicuously angry and walking around kicking our amplifiers like Ian Brown on the Late Show. Anyway, we got on and all of our instruments went absolutely mad. The Roland sounded as if it had fallen victim to some antagonistic nanotechnology and (as so often happens) my guitar string snapped during the very first song, meaning that I had to play the atrocious spare guitar for the entire gig. When we finally got going, though, we were ace, albeit in a frighteningly distorted, No Wave kind of a way.

Obviously, I won't go into all the times we were crap, or apathetic. Can you tell that, contrary to what I've gone on and on and on about in the past, I'm missing Teknikov rather a lot?

Monday, 23 March 2009

Half-arsed, putting off going to work, news digest


Ferenc Gyurcsany resigns as Hungarian PM, but not before deploying some ever-so-slightly emotionally manipulative language (he's such a Blairite). Actually, it all seems to be a ploy to prevent President Sólyom calling an early general election, but let's allow the almost completely unmourned (and, lest we forget, multi-millionaire 'socialist') Gyurcsany have his moment of spurious dignity. Here's a quick flashback of his career highlights:

Saudi 'terrorists'
(Feri's cracking wheeze about the supposed extracurricular activities of the Saudi national football team.)

A moment of unguarded honesty brings a major European capital to a standstill.


On the subject of people who can't be trusted to be left alone with a microphone for five minutes, Chris Moyles is in hot water again/ Chris Moyles has been a dick again/ Chris Moyles is still not funny.

I hate to say it, but I frequently feel as if Moyles is the embodiment of the noughties British zeitgeist.


And, carrying on the theme of zeitgeist-embodying loudmouths, The Damned United, Tom Hooper's adaptation of David Peace's novelisation of Brian Clough's scarcely believable 44 days in charge of Dirty Leeds (made more dirty by their being Moyles's team of choice) is out this weekend. The BBC's Pat Murphy interviews Martin O'Neill, manager of Aston Villa and former Clough underling, about it here. O'Neill is, as ever, an eloquent interviewee (he studied law at Queen's University prior to joining Forest, and is an avid amateur criminologist in his spare time), and I was surprised by the uncanny resemblance of his diction - close, spare, precise - to my dad's.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Ferencváros - Newcastle, 1996

I remember the hype around this game really distinctly, for some reason. I also remember absolutely despising Newcastle at the time and really, really wanting Fradi to win. All the attention before the game focused on the home team's prodigiously talented young midfielder Krisztián Lisztes, who some pundits were painting as the great new hope for Hungarian football. Sadly, Lisztes's career has been dogged by a series of injuries and, while he's won plenty of trophies in the Bundesliga with VFB Stuttgart and Werder Bremen, there seems to be a sense that he might have become a real star. As is sometimes the case, the Czechs ended up with publicity at the expense of the Hungarians, and the most famous midfielder to come out of Central Europe in the mid-1990s was the great Pavel Nedvěd, who is still going strong at 36 for Juventus.

A few things came out of this video for me. Firstly, the extent to which Hungarian football has declined over the last decade. When FTC's name came out of the hat as Newcastle's draw, they were genuinely considered a threat to Shearer et al's chance of progressing. Nowadays, Huungarian sides are looked upon as soft touches: when Zalaegerszeg-based ZTE sneaked a 1-0 first leg victory against Manchester United in a 2002 Champions League qualifier (before being thumped 5-0 in the return at Old Trafford) it was considered an upset of almost implausible magnitude. The result was so unusual that, according to some of my (non-football-loving, female) students, Béla Koplárovics, scorer of the winning goal in Zalaegerszeg, attained overnight fame throughout the country.

Secondly, of course, is the decline of Newcastle over a similar period. Given some of the players they've fielded since the unpleasant sacking of Bobby Robson in 2004 (not to mention some of those that Robson himself chose to deploy) it's probably surprising that they've lasted this long without being relegated. This year, their number might well be up, and my guess is that it's only the plight of semi-local rivals Middlesborough, the subject of internet rumours regarding imminent administration (rumours, I'd best stress, on the internet), that's acting as any kind of comfort for them at the moment. Just seeing the short clip above brought back memories of how good that Albert - Lee - Ginola (left on the bench that night in Budapest) - Ferdinand - Shearer side could be. Srnicek's early error, however, is an augury of how the next thirteen years were to turn out.

Thirdly, there's a lovely moment in the video where Rob Lee sees a slightly-scuffed shot hit the post and then trickle teasingly along the line before the Fradi goalkeeper comes to his senses and jumps on it. Various Newcastle forwards raise their hands as if they're about to begin celebrating, but as soon as the referee signals 'no goal' they're back to business. There's no John Terry-esque referee-harrassing here. Have we really got this bad this quickly?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

'Writers are lampposts, critics are dogs': Paulo Coelho Opiating the People

Yeah, well I'd rather be a dog than a lamppost, you dirty old hippy.

You can barely move in Hungary for people reading Paulo Coelho's, er, 'books'. It seems that the fall of communism facilitated not only the eastward surge of capitalism but a concurrent (and, if you ask me, related) influx of pseudo-spiritual bullshit.

It also fits the tendency of mainland Europeans to be far more susceptible to earnestness than the snarky British. It's almost disappointing to be out here knowing that you will never, ever be able to see the point of Bono, Depeche Mode, or the Smashing Pumpkins in the way that a Frenchman, an Italian, or a Hungarian can...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


I've just discovered that my old friend Seb has a blog. He's never been one to sit on the fence...'The motorist lobby are hypocrites' is the best post title I've seen this year and I couldn't agree more with the sentiments he expresses about the hypocrisy of MacKenzie et al.

Be warned, though: he's a Liverpool fan.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The bleak shall (not) inherit the earth

So British drama controllers are planning a shift away from the 00s 'bleak paradigm' to return us to the programming which prevailed back in the days when Tony Blair was a wisecracking ingénue and foreign policy meant, and only meant, 'Maastricht' or 'Sarajevo'.

It might be a stupid question, but can't we have both kinds of television? I've been happy to avoid the torrents of Tunbridgian disgust that have no doubt accompanied Channel 4's somewhat risky decision to adapt Red Riding, but I also accept that there is a significant sector of the audience demographic who will always be a little bit more Hamish MacBeth in their tastes, no matter how hard the expensively-denimed advocates of broadcasting edginess try to convert them. Unrealistically sidelining financial questions for a moment, surely there is another form of programming which could be downsized to make way for more drama and, since we're being utopian now, more intellectual content of the John Berger/ Kenneth Clark/ Death of Yugoslavia mutant Reithianist school (the one that educates the viewer but probably in a way incompatible with Reith's ideology)? Come to think of it, are the light entertainment/ reality TV hybrids that are so common now actually any cheaper to produce than some sexily conscious Play for Today type material?

Alright, I'll stop fantasising and return to my lesson plan. Sorry.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Szabadság: Pt. I

As one gets closer to the Danube, the intersections of streets and boulevards in Districts VII and VIII will suddenly provide a long view, across the river to the Gellért Hill, where the snow has not yet melted. Invariably, our line of sight is interrupted by the Szabadság (Liberty) Monument at the southern end of the hilltop, an allegorical figure who flings her arms open back over towards Pest and working-class District IX, Ferencváros.

If the IXth sounds familiar to the British ear, it is almost certainly because of the football team of the same name who play there, their stadium a few miles down Üllői út plausibly the object of Liberty's gaze. 'Fradi', as they are popularly known, were a famous name on the European scene until the mid-1990s, and most recently made English headlines when drawn to play Millwall in a UEFA cup tie in 2004, thus allowing two of Europe's most unreconstructed sets of supporters the opportunity for an unfriendly get-together. Fradi won the tie, but were soon to experience domestic ignominy for the first time, being relegated to the second tier for financial irregularities in 2006. Because of a promotion bottleneck - only one team from each of the 'B' Liga's regional sections is allowed to go up - they have yet to return to the top flight, and their generally conservative fans have hinted darkly at a conspiracy on the part of the Socialist (read: high-taxing modernisers with a paradoxical faith in Thatcherite deregulation) MSP government of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Ferencvárosi TC encapsulate, at this moment in time, the problematic nature of the EU at the close of the 00's. Owned by British businessman Kevin McCabe, whose prize football asset is Sheffield United, and managed by ex-Leeds striker Bobby Davison (who uses McCabe's other team as a source of young English loanees), FTC's recent history seems to mirror the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe to Western investment and management philosophy. McCabe's company has big ideas for the club, involving a stadium redevelopment and a medium-term plan to see the boys in zold and fehér playing for big money in the Champions League, another footballing institution which is representative of early 21st century European economic trends. But Fradi have an older symbolic value. Like Chelsea in England, they're a side who have traditionally represented the socially conservative section of the working class, and since 1989 they have been a rallying point for elements of the Hungarian far right.

The Hungarian far right agenda might be summed up according to three key principles. Firstly, it is hostile towards both Jews and Roma, although its phobias are not limited to its principle scapegoats. Secondly, it is irredentist. A popular graphic symbol amongst its members is a map of Hungary - actually, the portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire sublet to Budapest - prior to the Treaty of Trianon. Parts of modern Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine, and most of Slovakia, are incorporated into 'big Hungary'. Thirdly, like the British medium-to-far right, it is adamantly anti-European.

Ferencváros thus find themselves in the curious position of exemplifying the conspicuous mobility of capital in post-2004 Europe and embodying an attitude which might be said to be its antithesis. As hostility towards Gyurcsány and the MSP swells due to Hungary's modishly collapsing economy, one might grasp in the situation a worrying indication of the dominant tendency in European dissent in 2009. The financial crisis - it seems glib to use the word 'present' here - has loosened the cap, never altogether sealed tightly, on the resentments of immoderate conservatism across the continent. A number of commentators, often liberal or leftishly inclined, have predicted a 'hot spring' for Europe this year and for the nations of the 2004 accession in particular. Romania, the Baltic States - one of which, Latvia, has already pegged its currency to the Euro - are seen as likely flashpoints of civil disturbance. Bulgaria is extremely unstable. Demonstrations against Gyurcsány wouldn't be a new thing here, but we can expect more of the same as the year wears on. Western Europe, however, seems just as liable to witness unrest. France we already know about, but Italy, Ireland, and even the usually timid UK seem to be approaching the red part of the thermometer. Greece and Iceland have already reached their internal tipping points.

It's absolutely crucial to note here that what we stand to see is anything but a repeat of '68 or, for the former communist states, '89. In the West, the recent history of civil disturbance offers only France and Greece as examples in which the voice of dissent was (broadly) leftist. The 2006 Dublin riots and a series of particularly nasty, racially-driven outbursts along England's M62 corridor share much in common with the nihilistic outbreaks of joyriding and vandalism that erupted in the likes of Blackbird Leys and Benwell in the early 1990s. In these cases, no progressive political argument was being made. Frustrations that might have been harnessed by the left - bad housing; unemployment; the neglect shown by successive governments to former industrial areas - came out anyway and attached themselves to specific targets within the disaffected community. Does anyone really believe that the 2000 Paulsgrove riots were really about paedophiles? Why did they not take place in, say, Cheltenham? My inclination is that the right are slowly getting the first dibs on resentments that, ideally, might be addressed with an entirely different mode of analysis.


As ever, we are hampered by our inability to think ourselves into history. 9/11 remains the cardinal example of this in recent memory: few can honestly say that the attacks prompted anything byt a mixture of objectless anxiety (a vague, 1939-esque premonition that Things Would Never Be The Same Again), and a childlike faith that a benevolent agency would act as the invisible hand of stability. Eight years later, we're still twiddling the same abacus. History is elsewhere, a set of past tenses which were eventually recuperated as the just-about-inhabitable present. Teaching a humanities subject at a university can provide a salutary crash course in this weltanschaung, which can't quite be described as apathy. Progress and security are interpreted as the ability to make judgments about things that happened a long time ago: we are invited to assess the value of Heart of Darkness according to our certainties about the wrongness of colonialism. Each text allows a new opportunity to rate ourselves a historical (allegedly disposed-with) demon: Hitler, Idi Amin, Field Marshal Haig, postwar austerity. First year students, unwittingly, are the 21st century's premier proponents of Whig history. Given that their lecturers, and a still-sizable number of their secondary school teachers, cut their teeth on Marx, Althusser, Adorno, and Derrida's seance with Marx, one has to wonder where this guarded optimism is coming from. Repeatedly, politics is displaced into parts of the world where Whiggish benevolence might still be seen to be required: Palestine, Sudan, Tiber, Iraq. Borrowing a notion half-remembered from Slavoj Žižek, it might be said that their appeals are made to the grace of the system, the capacity of which for discretion is read as some Darwinian zenith of political possibility, rather than directly against it. Anything wrong is interpreted as a malfunction within the system, which must be normalised, rather than as an inherent flaw. I've resisted writing about this so far, but the well-intended jubilation surrounding Barack Obama's victory is the categorical example of this: as if Obama's incessant realpolitiking during the election campaign were not enough to make us suspicious, we should remember that the new president is opposed on principle to certain rights that a significant number of his worldwide admirers believe should be inalienable. Labour's 1997 victory - which is not the same thing as a victory for Labour in 1997 - should have served as a cautionary reminded about this kind of triumphalism. In each case, the victory of a nominally left leader acts less as a prompt for real advancement and more as (spurious) proof of our own political perfection. We have no sense of ourselves as historical beyond vague platitude's about the electorate's capacity to 'make history'.

Meanwhile, the right persists with its own unpleasant brand of selective historicism. I've talked at length about the wolf in lamb's clothing of the conservative commentariat, whose assumption of the voice of 'sensible opinion' has allowed for the propagation of opinions which are, quite simply and irreducibly, extremist. Most troublingly, the likes of Richard Littlejohn have been allowed, time and time again, to play the wounded party as they reduce all left-wing critique to the analysis of a crypto-Stalinist 'metropolitan elite'. Absolutely everything they disagree with is dismissed with the wholly unearned seen-it-all-beforeness of a Phillip Larkin poem: they are allowed, like Nick Griffin is, to represent themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of the free- and right- thinking. In spite of the fact that they have a variety (and the majority) of established media platforms to speak from, they are permitted to claim that they are subject to a left-wing conspiracy which aims at their silencing.

To be continued...

Hillsborough 20th Anniversary

There's a piece in today's Observer about the Hillsborough Disaster. Twenty years on and countless eyewitness accounts later, this is still almost unbearably moving. It's shocking too - the anecdote about the policeman telling survivors not to use an advertising hoarding as a stretcher because they were 'vandalizing the stadium' took my breath away.

The tragedy, seen retrospectively, was a watershed in British politics. In its wake, it became unacceptable (or, for more cynical parties, inexpedient) to make Mail-like generalisations about the behavioural tendencies of large groups of people. The article makes it abundantly clear that the disaster was not attended to sufficiently because the police assumed that there had been crowd violence. And yet crowd trouble itself was less the result of a spontaneous desire to fight than it was a conduit for the frustrations of a Britain that was, successively, broke and dominated by an uninclusive monetarist attitude as it moved through the 1970s and 1980s. The old cliché that rave culture put the lid on hooliganism by providing a comparable, and yet nonviolent, outlet for the desire to be part of a mass movement is more true than the noun at the beginning of this sentence would have you believe: very few people were 'fighting just for the sake of fighting'.

If crimes tell us more than anything else about our culture, can disasters be said to do the same thing? Much ink has been used describing the links between the series of rail tragedies around the turn of the Millenium and the negligence of the Blairite government. Hillsborough, along with the Zeebrugge ferry sinking, are the totemic catastrophes of the Thatcher era. The latter resulted from the attitude that time is money: the boat's bow doors were not secured before departure, provoking the investigating judge to mention a 'disease of sloppiness'. The same carelessness was evident at Hillsborough, but there were clearly other complicating factors. Thatcher declared her intentions towards football supporters with her notorious ID card scheme and one club - Luton Town, owned by the commitedly neo-Tory David Evans - had already made moves to implement it. Fences were put up at the majority of grounds, as if the players, rather than opposing supporters, were the object of aggression. Travelling fans were locked in cramped football specials to ferry them to and from away games. There was little consideration shown for the large majority of fans who did not participate in disorder, and a blanket lack of willing to engage with the social problems that motivated those who did.

On the subject of social problems, the fact that the tragedy occurred in South Yorkshire is fairly unavoidable. Taylor's report bore out the suspicion that inept, inconsiderate policing was largely to blame for what happened. The S.Y. force in 1989 was staffed largely by veterans of the Miners' Strike, and the conflict had clearly imbued the organisation with a siege mentality. As the article, like many before it, shows, the police were utterly incapable of interpreting the events as anything but violence and disorder. By the time they performed the necessary measures, it was far, far too late.

The public response is all that remains in my memory from that day - I was only eight years old. I didn't find out about Kelvin MacKenzie's sociopathic line on it all until much later on. The Sun's reportage on Hillsborough is arguably the biggest misjudgment in British journalism since Rothermere's backing of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and the paper's sales on Merseyside are still significantly lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That MacKenzie has made sporadic attempts to defend his editorial choices that week tells us a lot about the ongoing pervasiveness of Thatcherism.

I began going to football the following year. The fences were still up at Feethams, but the attitudes surrounding football had already begun to change. Although I've seen them get unnecessarily baton-happy on a few occasions, the police are now generally responsible and cooperative when it comes to crowd management at football. More importantly, the popular and political determination that nothing of the sort should ever happen again is ongoing. Articles like this contribute to that will.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

'Are you getting this, ground control?'

Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is the Classic Serial on Radio 4 at the moment. I wouldn't normally mention this but for the fact that I spent yesterday evening reading up on what I like to call 'spooky space stuff' in the wake of the International Space Station's near miss with some orbiting litter earlier this week.

Rendezvous with Rama is one of the most depressing books I've ever read, even by the standards of most post-1945 science fiction. I'm not by any means saying that sci-fi is bad, but its typical tropes - the evacuation of the earth, travel over multi-generational time periods, sequestration in stasis - leave me pretty cold. The one that genuinely pisses me off, though, and this is unquestionably a highly significant part of Clarke's weltanschaung, is the reduction of female characters to childbearing and nurturing roles. In Rama, this (covertly) has the structure of a revenge fantasy: the woman who ends up tasked with the 'Eve mission' - Rama, it transpires, is a celestial opportunity for humanity to start again, and its investigators have been lured there for a short, knockout, Darwinian tournament - begins the novel as a highly-respected scientist. It's over a decade since I read it, but I'm sure that there's a lot of male-endorsed chaff about her nascent maternal stirrings. Anyway, there seems to be a lot of that about in science fiction. However women come out of Flaubert's work, or even that of an unrestrained cock-waver like Henry Miller, it's very rarely like this.

That said, I'm interested in the power a lot of sci-fi has to induce such a sense of dislocation in me. Dostoevsky or Kafka or Sartre or Camus or Blanchot or Robbe-Grillet (okay, maybe The Plague, which has certain tendencies in common with sci-fi) don't do that to me. Ray Bradbury or William Gibson, on the other hand, do. If someone could venture to name the effect I'm discussing, I'd be fascinated (I don't think 'the uncanny' does enough work, in this case).

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Me, last week:

Julie Myerson is right to say that our writing tells us much about ourselves that we don't already know.

Last week, what I didn't already know about myself was that I was writing a sentence about someone who was about to become extremely (in)famous indeed. It's come to a pretty pass when the literary affair of the year isn't the Sartre-Robbe Grillet debate, or even a spat between Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, but a kerfuffle over the self-indulgent 'mumoirs' (THAT IS MY NEOLOGISM TM TM TM COPYRIGHT IDST!!! Seriously, I just made 'mumoir' up. They might as well give me the royalties cheque now...) of an Islingtonite mother-of-three who can't get her head around the fact that her son smokes a bit of dope.

In all seriousness, I recognise that 'a bit of dope' actually does - contra the assertions of many of the smug hippies on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog - have the potential to derail one's life in potentially serious ways. This probably deserves qualifying by saying that something approaching the opposite is true for many individuals (cannabis can focus people just as it can distract them; not all users spend their entire life in a smoky room watching Harold and Kumar), and that those who are affected negatively by it are often negotiating less contingent stresses and strains. From what I've read about the Myersons, it seems that her son was ludicrously overpressured by parents who felt that they were doing anything but: from my teaching experience, I can say that Britain is overrun with teenagers who have had it banged into them that nothing but relentless, quantifiable achievement will do. This doesn't mean that kids are being encouraged to learn about things; it means that they are (implicitly) being pressed to learn by rote - wherever that's possible - so they can get the best grades/ the best job. IMO/ IME this is a specifically middle-class problem. There are lots and lots of potentially talented individuals for whom university becomes a self-destructive circle of mechanistic revision and joyless socialising, rather than an opportunity to, well, find out about what I remember Karl and I, in a flash of almost revolutionary wisdom, agreeing to term 'stuff'. It is all too rare to meet a student who says something like 'I picked English Lit/ History/ Classics because I find the subject bottomlessly interesting and, to tell you the truth, I don't give a fuck what grades I get because the studying is rewarding enough in its own right.' That's a pity, because they're invariably the ones who get the best results.

Anyway, despite not liking the idea of Jake, who I get the feeling is probably one of those pious weedheads who listen to Manu Chao, I am on his side. His mother is hacking out the typical Islingtonite route of building a literary career grounded on an erroneous belief that their own experience is somehow more vital and visceral than that of anyone else (what price the mother of a heroin addict from Burnley being given the opportunity to publish such a book?) and, on those terms alone, offends my most deeply-held principles. She's the new Wife in the North.

Oh, and my own parents? They are bloody good at 'no pressure', to the extent that not an eyelid was batted at my numerous C-grade GCSEs. In the most memorable example of 'no pressure' (as far as I'm concerned), my mum once semi-encouraged me to go to London for a play-off final when I had a four-hour exam in Norwich the next morning. True to form, I refused to go and spent the evening in the pub instead, but it was nice to be trusted to be able to do well even if I had gone to London. I get the feeling that the meddling committed by the Myersons of this world doesn't accomodate pre-exam play-off piss ups...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Arsene Wenger compounds his resemblance to Jack Straw by claiming that Arsenal may be a priority target for extremists. It's not the greatest excuse for falling into fifth place, is it? In fact, it's almost 'dog ate my homework' country.

I think he's been reading this novel.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

'In our hour of financial need'

The Guardian staples its colours to the mast: as hundreds of jobs go in the media, Farringdon expresses solidarity by paying Matthew Fort to optimise our pizza-buying experience. Well, as they say, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem...

Let's just say Nero's tuning up again.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Am I the only one who was misled by the adjective in this article?

Actually, come to think of it, I probably was...

Writing: fun?

Writers respond to the question 'writing for a living: a joy or a chore.'

Will Self's answer is probably most consonant with what I think about writing fiction. Nobody is making you do it, contra to what Amit Chaudhuri seems to be arguing (I've met Chaudhuri a few times and this point seems typical of his Eeyorishness - he's also a classically-trained singer and one occasionally gets the impression that he'd rather be doing that most of the time.) It's pleasing that self refuses angst here. Ronan Bennett is straight to the point as well: 'I am not a tortured writer', he says, pleasingly opting out of the mythopoetics I was discussing last week. Julie Myerson is right to say that our writing tells us much about ourselves that we don't already know, and that this can often be frightening (but, I think, it's just as often comforting or reassuring). Geoff Dyer claims to prefer the tinkering and toning to the initial act of invention, something I can sympathise with at times.

But John Banville? Bloody hell. I'd like to credit him with being ironic here, but I suspect - having read The Sea, simultaneously the least original novel ever and the one that behaves as if is the most radical - that he isn't. Banville's utter pomposity is perhaps matched only by that of the actors in Blackadder.

Self is riding the updraft of my estimations at the moment, though. As a bonus, read the transcript of his absolute demolition of Richard Littlejohn and his 'novel' To Hell in a Handcart here.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Fascinating stuff from Germaine Greer - perhaps the best public speaker I have ever had the pleasure of being in an audience for - on the disparities between male and female humour, and the old lie that men are funnier than women. I can't really add much to this, because I'm knackered, other than to say that I agree that the majority of men I know who really, really enjoy making other people laugh (ie, me) look for a kind of acceptance in it. I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, though...