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.