Hey Mr Squirrel

Photo courtesy of Marcus Frakes

The last time I sat in a room listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour was on a rainy night in Dublin. The man: Kris Kristofferson. The venue: the Point Depot. Fast forwarding about six years to a rainy Saturday night in Budapest, I found myself in another room, listening to a man with a guitar, a mouth organ, and a sense of humour. The man: Bob Pike. The venue: Manga Cowboy.

You’re mad, I hear you say. You’ve lost all sense of scale. The Point holds thousands; Manga holds maybe 40. Kris has billions of fans; Bob, well, maybe not quite as many….yet. Kris has sold millions of albums; Bob has yet to cut one. Kris has a beard. Bob has a shadow. No matter. Both have a story to tell, if you want to listen.

I don’t mind, if you don’t mind. We’ll take our time till closing time. Last call!

Last night at Manga Cowboy, in the first of a series of acoustic gigs at that venue, Bob met his public. Outside, pedestrian umbrellas battled it out with the wind and the rain. Inside, Bob battled through the emotional upheavel of marriage, divorce, and Irish dancing. I’m no expert but I know what I like: a good tune with thoughtful lyrics; a song that both sings to me and talks to me.

I’ve had my fill of Babe Ruths; I want your apple pie

Some were listening; some were passing notes; others were chatting amongst themselves. Some were dancing quietly in their chairs; some were tapping out a beat with chins and hands and heads and feet; others had just come along for Manga’s American fusion food and excellent Hungarian wine.  But when the lyrics hit home, you could see it: the momentary start of surprise at hearing your thoughts in song; the quiet smile acknowledging a shared experience; the quick flash of memories revisited; the out-loud laugh at something that traversed the ridiculous to the sublime.

Hate to see you go

I cried in public when I heard that Johnny Cash had died. I’ve missed this sort of music; these sorts of raw lyrics. I’m tired of being told what to think, and what to expect and how to feel. I’m sick of authors who signpost their books; playwrights who leave nothing to the imagination; scriptwriters who fill in all the blanks. Show me, don’t tell me. Give me a melody that I’ll still be humming a week from now; give me a lyric I can quote; give me a story I can relate to. And show me that you mean it.

He says he hasn’t done this in a while. Voice a little rusty? Maybe. The man himself a little reticent? Perhaps. As his wit was watered, he seemed to relax. The humorous asides, the short explanations, the clever commentary – all added to the music in what was a marathon set. But I wanted more of it: that conversation between the man and his public. I wanted people to shut up and listen; to give the man his due.  I saw him wow the audience on stage on Wednesday night at the Gift of the Gab speech slam with his take on nose hair and being Bob.  Last night, that witty, irreverent, piss-taking comic was replaced by a thoughtful, introspective, slighly zany singer/songwriter. Both equally clever. Both equally entertaining. Bob Pike, boys and girls, is one talented man. I’m glad I dug out my umbrella!

The Catch 22

 I am not political. I have never been political. The permutations and combinations that need to be worked out in order to decide who gets to sit in parliament, any parliament, are way beyond my simple maths. I have yet to understand the nuances that lie beneath the political rhetoric offered by opposing sides: to me, it all sounds the same. In Ireland, the differences between political ideologies are slim enough to be practically invisible and to my unpoliticised mind, the same could be said of many other countries. The end goal of any party seems to be pure, unadulterated power. And so, for the first time in my apolitical life, I find myself a little concerned. Actually, I’m downright nervous about the idea of one political party, any political party, in any country, having a majority that will effectively allow them to change the Constitution without referendum. For a nation’s people to be so powerless is scary. But then again, I’m not a politician.

Before I cast my vote, I’d like the answer to two questions: Why – in a country that has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners, a notable collection of writers, artists, composers, scientists and mathematicians – are teachers so underappreciated and horribly underpaid? Don’t they hold the future of this country in their classrooms every day? G. K. Chesterton said that ‘without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously’. Now, more than ever, we need our children to be educated to think for themselves, to form opinions, to question the status quo, to learn right from wrong, to forget about how it has been done and to think about how it should be done, to face up to their responsibility as citizens of this great country.

Gullible or naive?

I’ve recently heard Hungarians I know recount stories of faking diplomas, having someone else sit their exams, paying someone to write their thesis or dissertation and then being coached by them to defend it. Any minute, I thought, the candid cameraman will jump out and laugh at me for being so gullible as to believe it all. But he never did. Perhaps this happens the world over…and ‘naive’ is my middle name! But I was shocked. And I can’t help but thinking that if teachers were given the respect their responsibility deserves and paid accordingly, if the disease were treated, and not merely the symptoms, then education might once again be something to be proud of and the future might look a little less bleak.

Health is wealth

That brings me to Question No. 2. Why are doctors and nurses paid so little? Society’s obligation to its elderly, its sick and its infirm surely goes without saying. Recent conversations with doctors, specialists and medical staff have left me flabbergasted. When a man in an Armani suit gets to jump the hospital queue and the little old lady has to wait for yet another hour, there is something not quite right. When families are subsidising their doctor sons and daughters so that they can work the wards, something is wrong. When patients are giving backhanders to ensure a level of healthcare that is their right, something is very wrong. When countryside practices lie empty because those who might have staffed them have gone abroad to countries where their expertise is valued and rewarded accordingly, something is very, very wrong. Who will take care of those left at home?

The buck stops here

To my unpoliticised mind, it’s not the alphabet army of CEOs, CFOs, and COOs, or the politicians who should be earning the big bucks; it’s the teachers and the doctors and the nurses. Those people whose very job it is to nurture society, to educate it, to keep it healthy and strong, and to care for it as it grows older. For only with a strong, educated, and healthy mind, is society in a position to effect change: to right the wrongs, to grow its economy, to take its place on the world stage. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about: a future in which we abdicate responsibility to whatever political party has come up with a majority; a future in which citizens are in danger of losing control of their Constitution; and even worse, where they are too worn out and apathetic to care one way or another.

But the Catch 22 is that in order to accomplish anything, the government needs money. And for this to happen, people need to pay taxes. But for this to happen, the tax system needs to be reformed and the government’s accounting made transparent. A flat rate would be a start, followed by society disowning those who avoid their responsibility as citizens. But hey, what would I know? I am not political.

First published in the Budapest Time 15 February 2010

Walk left, stand right

There is a debate raging in Budapest that has nothing to do with politics, religion, or the price of a tea in China. The proponents and opponents of this particular issue cannot be divided by race, class or creed. Unless you’ve been dragged into this debate by someone eager to bolster support for the side they happen to be taking, you’re probably unaware that it’s going on. Yet it’s consuming an inordinate amount of time in conversations around the city; time that used to be spent talking about things that actually matter, like politics, religion or the price of tea in China.

Right, left or in the middle?

So, where do you stand…on an escalator? On the right, on the left, or in the middle?  More importantly perhaps, why do you stand there?

If you stand on the right, do you do so because a) you’ve been institutionalized: walk left, stand right is pretty much universal and why should Budapest be any different; b) you’ve read the safety reports and know that the safest way to ride an escalator is to stand on the right and hold on to the rail; c) you value your thinking time and don’t want it interrupted by a constant stream of elnézésts as those trying to get fit, stay fit or in a hurry pass you by; or d) you don’t want to stand in the way of progress.

If you stand on the left, do you do so because a) this is the only opportunity you have to stand beside your friend and chat; b) you’re anti-establishment and never follow rules, even those that involve social etiquette; c) it’s an escalator, damn it, and if people want to walk or run up or down, they should take the stairs (if you lived in Washington DC, people would call you an ‘escalump’ – the human equivalent of a speed bump; or d) you live in Hungary because it isn’t the UK or North America and you see this conformity as the first step down the rocky road to sameness.

If you stand in the middle, do you do so because a) you have friends on both sides of the debate and don’t want to alienate anyone; b) you’ve been working out and have bulked up so it only looks like you’re standing in the middle – really you’re standing on the right; c) you’re indecisive but believe in taking ‘average’ to new heights; d) you have no friends and by standing in the middle, you’re guaranteed that someone will talk to you, either to ask you to move right or to engage you in a spate of escalump bashing.

Or perhaps you don’t stand at all – you move – but you want other people to stand on the right so that you can keep moving.

The laws of motion

A typical argument from the static left is that escalators, unlike moving walkways, are not designed for walkers or runners and therefore it shouldn’t matter where they stand. This is combated by the moving left, who maintain that an escalator is, in effect, a stairs, and people don’t stand still on stairs, now do they?

Another argument from the static left is that running or walking doesn’t save you time so why bother…you’re really only rushing because you want us to think that you have places to go and people to see. But, say the moving left, you have no idea why we’re running? Maybe we’re getting fit, staying fit, or in a hurry home. Why are you so interested, anyway?

In Budapest, almost 10,000 people have joined the Facebook group Jobbra állok a metró mozgólépcsőn. BKV’s terms and conditions of travel state: ‘Travel on the right-hand side of the escalator and leave the left-hand side free for passengers in a hurry to pass you.’ In other words, walk left, stand right. But in Toronto, in 2007, the Transit Commission removed all signs suggesting the walk left, stand right practice from their 294 escalators after a safety inspection agency told them that they were condoning unsafe behaviour: apparently, moving on an escalator can be dangerous! So who’s right? Or wrong? And does it really matter?

For me, there’s no contest. The etiquette of standing right, walking left makes perfect sense.  You never know, one day I might get the urge to exercise and it would be nice to have a clear left lane so that I could act on the impulse before I have time to change my mind. But, more importantly, on the escalator in Moszkva tér in particular, it means having an uninterrupted 1.56 minutes to think about important things in life, like politics, religion, and the price of tea in China.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 February 2010