Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Olympus OM-1n

Off to Budapest. I visited back in February but never got around to writing about it. Everybody knows three things about Budapest. The first is that it rotates counterclockwise. Immanuel Velikovsky, in his fascinating but deeply flawed Cities in Collision, argued that this was because Budapest had originally been a comet, violently smashing its way through Europe until it settled in its present location.

Modern science, on the other hand, believes that Budapest was formed in pre-Cambrian times, when a massive earthquake caused the ancient river Mooustak to run with boiling blood. Eventually the tremors ceased, and a new river - the Danube - took its place, splitting the city into two halves.

This post was mostly brought to you by Fuji Superia

On the left, Buda, on the right, Pest. When the citizens of this new city awoke on the morning after the earthquake they found that a spirit force had taken all the women and girls to Buda, leaving the men trapped in Pest. Any attempt by either sex to cross the Danube was blocked by an invisible barrier, and a separate barrier of the heart prevented the people from going around the edge. They were filled with deep sadness whenever they approached the city's boundaries.

And so the men and women of Pest and Buda lined up of an evening on the banks of the new river; the men communicated their love with torches, the women by waving their undergarments. Over time the men tried to solve their plight by digging a huge tunnel, and the women on the mountainous rocks of Buda built a gigantic telescope to study the stars, but it was to no avail. They grew old and passed away. Budapest is thus a city of melancholy founded on the broken hearts of lonely people.

Modern Budapest itself is composed of four zones, Bud, Ape, S and T, which are west east north and south respectively. Budapest is pronounced as if you were Sean Connery, but only on the weekends, and also it's the capital of Hungary. People from Budapest do not kiss, instead they kish.

No, seriously, they don't kiss, or at least no-one ever tried to kiss me when I was there, and neither did I try to kiss anybody. The great thing about Pimms is that you can drink it, and it doesn't taste like drink, but it does get you drunk.

I've never visited a former Eastern Bloc country before. When I was a kid the people of Hungary were poised to attack the UK with nuclear weapons, but today we are friends.

British people stereotype foreigners. Hungary is unusual in that I can't think of a British stereotype of Hungarian people. Historically, our two empires didn't interact very much, and for the last half of the twentieth century Hungary was distant and anonymous, like Austria or Bulgaria. I have a vague idea that Hungarians are supposed to be arrogant megalomaniacs who are excessively proud of their meager accomplishments. Hungary is the nation of the Gömböc, a kind of curved object that only stands upright one way. There was a museum exhibit about this thing. It was discovered in 2006 and hasn't revolutionised human society yet, but there's still time. Think how long it took for carbon fibre and lasers to filter down into common use.

It's Bela Lugosi. He's dead.

Nowadays Budapest is a popular holiday destination for British people because it's cheap, it's cheap, there are lots of McDonalds, and it's cheap. It's like a training wheel version of Croatia or Slovenia, in the sense that it's a little bit Ost without beingHostel e.g. there's very little chance you'll be kidnapped and forced to participate in a sick game where you have to murder your fellow tourists by force-feeding them ground glass until they bleed from every orifice. Hungarians are not yet in the Eurozone, so they have their own currency - the Huf, which is roughly 500 Hufs to the pound.

Some Huf. The coins were shiny and pristine because nobody uses them.

It's also lovely, and the climate is decent and it's cheap. Doubly cheap because much of Budapest's appeal is visual, so that unlike e.g. New York you don't have to spend a fortune on museum entry fees to enjoy it. You can just walk around and point at the buildings and look at the people and imagine kissing them, because the woman are attractive. If Hungary has nothing else to export it could always export its women. Such as Rachel Weisz, born to Hungarian-Austrian parents. With a couple of train journeys I also managed to add Austria and Slovakia to the list of countries I have visited, for four hours apiece. So, Budapest/Hungary, you're highly efficient.

Bupadest has a new museum, The House of Terror. It's a fascinating place that appealed to me because I'm a man and thus naturally drawn to horror and terror and so forth. The museum has been controversial because it glosses over Hungary's role in the Second World War, essentially fast-forwarding to the last year of the war and then fast-forwarding through that.

It's often said that British people are obsessed with the second world war, probably because they have little else to be obsessed about, and this is true, they/we are. Hungary entered the war as a member of the Axis, although I have a sense that Hungary's leader, Miklós Horthy, simply wanted Hungary to be on the winning team, which perhaps explains why he remains popular in Hungary rather than hated and despised.

Horthy raised an army of two hundred thousand men to help Germany invade Russia, because Germany looked like the winning team and Russia would be easy. Most of those men ended up dead around Stalingrad, at which point Horthy decided to cut Hungary's losses and withdraw from the Axis. Hitler then sent troops to occupy Hungary, although Horthy was allowed to remain in charge. In late 1944 he tried to negotiate a peace with the Soviets, but it was for nothing, because Hitler had him removed from office and replaced by the Arrow Cross Party. The House of Terror essentially begins its story at this point, ignoring all of the earlier stuff.

The Arrow Cross Party were a bunch of hopeless Hungarian Nazis who had been around for ages without ever coming close to power. Nonetheless In October 1944 they suddenly found themselves thrust into office by the Germans. At that point Soviet troops were already inside Hungary and the Arrow Cross Party only had control of Budapest and the west of the country.

And then only for a couple of months. Budapest was surrounded by Soviet forces in December and captured a few weeks later, and by February 1945 the Arrow Cross Party was just a lot of scattered militia bands retreating west, killing everybody they didn't like.

The Arrow Cross Party is fascinating. They had propaganda posters and newsreels, and uniforms and flags and parades and meetings so forth, but they must have known they had no future. I wonder what their meetings were like; did their agendas go i) repulse the Soviets ii) kill all the Jews iii) force the Soviets to declare peace iv) invade the moon? Despite futile attempts to present themselves to the outside world as moderates they were just a bunch of disorganised thugs whose reaction to being caught in a hole was to keep digging, furiously.

The House of Terror has very little about this. Instead it moans about the Soviet years, which were probably very hard, but if I was Russian I would not have been too concerned. The 1956 uprising has instead become Hungary's new heroic past, but again the House of Terror seems to gloss over everything that happened after that. What did the Hungarians do in 1972, 1979, 1986?

The 1956 uprising coincided with our involvement in Suez, which overshadowed it here in the UK. There was apparently a very brief refugee crisis, although I imagine this must have been awkward, especially for Britain's socialists. From the point of view of the United States it was all equally foreign, and the Novembver 1956 issue of LIFE magazine covers it in an unusually graphic way EDIT that defies my attempts to embed it in this blog. Suffice it to say that there are photographs of some secret policemen being shot, and then hung upside-down so the crowd can spit on their bloodied corpses! It's striking.

It's ancient history now. What with recent events in Greece and Tunisia and so forth I say to myself "there was far worse not very long ago; we will forget".

The impressive Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art is surprisingly obscure and out of the way. It opened in 2005, although it has the air of something from the USSR. The bookshop had a book about unintentional design, which I now kick myself for not buying.

Jimmy Savile is nowadays reviled, and rightly so, and even during his heyday there was a whiff of something not quite right about him. I think there was an assumption that he was gay or asexual, which in the 1980s was even worse than being gay. But he had the patter. DJs have a patter. Wolfman Jack had the patter. Market traders have patter. Tony Blair had patter and of course so did Hitler. The skill of talking non-stop in an exciting way. Like everything in showbiz it's extremely difficult and takes a lot of skill and preparation and practice.

I often wonder where it came from. Rock and roll radio emerged rapidly in the 1950s, and like acid house and punk it evolved and mutated at incredible speed. Rock and roll was essentially a technological art form that relied upon a huge technological infrastructure of electronic recording studios, electric guitars and amplifiers, electronic record players and of course portable transistor radios. In both the UK and the US there was an element of criminality as well; there were "border blaster" radio stations in Mexico, broadcasting over the border, and we had offshore pirate radio on ships moored just outside UK territorial waters. Early rock and roll radio was a bit like the modern-day app market, or the mid-2000s market for mobile phone ringtones. It was vibrant, shady, driven by an urge to exploit transient micro-trends before they burst. People tuned in for a thrill, to divert their attention from the misery of everyday life.

The few Trabants I saw were probably owned by hipsters. This is Kodak Portra 160VC.

I've never heard authentic old-fashioned rock and roll radio. American Graffiti, set in 1962, tries to recreate the spirit of it (with a guest appearance from the actual Wolfman Jack), and Robin Williams presumably did some research for Good Morning Vietnam, but beyond that rock radio was a transient art form that left nothing behind. The shows were broadcast live, once and never again, never recorded for posterity. Along with home shopping channels and twenty-four-hour news they were not built to last.

Think about all the hours of home shopping television shown on all of the different channels all across the world. In terms of quantity, does it outweigh drama and comedy? Game of Thrones has won awards and has a passionate fan base, and it's excellent clickbait, but in terms of quantity it is not television. QVC and the Home Shopping Network are television.

I have always assumed that DJ patter was part of an arms race for people's ears, and that it evolved in parallel with record production; in the UK it's easy to draw a line from carnival barkers and market traders and music hall to the likes of Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Savile, I assume the US had their own lineage. Now then now then as a DJ you have to talk non-stop in an energetic manner so as to enthuse the audience and drive them into a frenzy, with the ultimate goal of getting the kids to hand over their pocket money, and that's a lot like writing a blog. You have to talk non-stop even when you've run out of things to say about the topic.

Did I mention that Budapest is cheap? Drink is cheap in Budapest. There were far fewer prostitutes than Barcelona. There is an island called Margaret Island, but when I was there (early March) everything was shut. There were crowds of joggers jogging around it in a counter-clockwise motion, no doubt trying to rotate Budapest into the correct alignment.