The stuff nightmares are made of

WTF?!*  Had I been doing anything more than a sedate 25 mph on this relatively remote stretch of a very minor Austrian road, I might have left skidmarks. As it was, I braked hard, and stopped dead, not sure where I was or what was I was looking at.

IMG_3273 (600x800)IMG_3274 (800x600) Two sentry boxes were positioned on either side or a narrow country road, each containing a harrowing, life-size wooden carving of an emaciated man. We had seen no signs. No billboards. Nothing to explain what we might be looking at. On closer inspection, each had a small metal plate with the name of what we assumed to be the artist and the title of the piece (in German). We had obviously hit upon some old open-air art installation, one that had weathered the test of time with varying degrees of success. Ahead of us, the road stretched for miles, cutting a straight path to the horizon. It was hot. Very hot. The trees were still, the sunflowers and the corn unmoving, fixed with a rigidity that wasn’t just attributable to the lack of wind. My imagination was already running riot.

IMG_3308 (800x600)IMG_3304 (800x600)We were a couple of miles outside Andau, an Austrian village very near the Hungarian border, trying to find the bridge immortalised in James Michener’s book – The Bridge at Andau. [When I first came to Budapest, three books were recommended to get an insight into what makes the country tick. This one, Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, and Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, each one worth a read.]

The Bridge at Andau is James A. Michener at his most gripping. His classic nonfiction account of a doomed uprising is as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling novels. For five brief, glorious days in the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian revolution gave its people a glimpse at a different kind of future—until, at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November, the citizens of Budapest awoke to the shattering sound of Russian tanks ravaging their streets. The revolution was over. But freedom beckoned in the form of a small footbridge at Andau, on the Austrian border. By an accident of history it became, for a few harrowing weeks, one of the most important crossings in the world, as the soul of a nation fled across its unsteady planks.

It was across this bridge that more than 70 000 Hungarians fled to Austria, days after the failed 1956 Revolution. Once they’d reached the other side, they had a five-mile walk to freedom through the swampy no-man’s land along this road,which back then was little more than a bike path.

At Andau there was a bridge. Could someone reach it, he found the way into freedom. Only an insignificant bridge, neither wide enough for a car nor strong enough for a motorcycle. It’s rickety …..

In 1996, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the  Austrian and Hungarian armies cooperated to rebuild the Bridge at Andau, witness as it was to such a remarkable happening.

Those generations who had once built this bridge could not, of course, know the role this bridge of simple planks and beams will play one day….

That year, what had become known as the Road to Freedom, was used as an open air exhibition for 90 pieces by artists from both countries entitled The Road of Woes. And it was the remnants of this that we had stumbled across.

IMG_3280 (800x600)As we drove slowly alonIMG_3282 (600x800)g the road, we began to get some sense of what the journey might have been like. The average age of those escaping was 27; many had young children with them. Some 500 students and their university professors made the trip, too. Michener’s account, told from his vantage point on the Austrian side of the border, makes compelling reading. Although it had been a few years since I read it, it all came flooding back, helped in large part by the sometimes very graphic works of art potted along the way. We were on our own. Not another car in sight. I gave quick thanks that we were doing this in daylight. Had I caught the sentries in my headlights, the one sleepless night I had might have been serialised.

They came out of the reeds of the marsh land, from the mud and the dirt, right across the swamps and via the Einser channel, across the bridge with the rickety beams. Yes, that’s the way they came. Then we heard a dull bang, but nothing was to be seen. A refugee, who had kept hidden until then, took his opportunity. Breathless he came running towards us: “They have blown up the bridge!”

IMG_3286 (600x800)The agony was all too visible. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, to have had to pack up my life into one small bag and then make the break, leaving family and friends, and a lifetime of accumulation behind me, knowing that at any minute, I could breathe my last. This, of course, is what hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees face on a daily basis. [Coincidentally, my book of choice right now is about Mexican illegals feeling across the Texas border into America. The human coyotes they have to deal are just another form of sentry.]

Michener, after witnessing what he had, said that if he ever had to flee, he hoped it could be to Austria, such was the compassion with which the Hungarians were treated.  The humanitarian work accomplished was quite simply amazing – the  schools, the kindergarten, the cinema and all public spaces have been provided for the accommodation of refugees.

IMG_3295 (800x600)The countryside, being what it is, has grown up and over many of the pieces so that they seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Heads swivelling back and forth we went for a fair stretch without seeing anything but so involved were we in the experience that we were imbuing rocks and dead trees with all sorts of stuff that simply wasn’t there.

IMG_3288 (590x800)IMG_3289 (600x800)Perhaps the most graphic  was a series of dismembered limbs, hanging on what I assume is a leftover piece of the original Iron Curtain. Another, a woman, hung suspended from the air, her hair falling away from a face contorted in agony. I wondered if this depicted the agony of what she had left behind or something she met along the road. I began to think of mines, and snipers, and all sorts but as I said, it all appeared without warning – I was clueless. Days later, as I write, what’s to be gleaned from the Internet wouldn’t make a bowl of soup. I did find one page though, that leads me to think that there’s more than just the 1956 Revolution being commented upon. It would seem that the pieces symbolise the rejection of violence, intolerance, inhumanity, contempt of humankind and racism. And their state of disrepair stems from the fact that they remain the property of their creators and are not maintained by the municipality.


IMG_3299 (800x600)IMG_3300 (800x600)Even after the Russians blew up the bridge on 21 November, the Hungarian people kept crossing and the Austrian locals in Andau and surrounding villages kept their doors open.  In a world that is going slowly mad, it’s gratifying to think that compassion for the fates of others existed and that people were willing to do their bit. I wonder how many of those who fled have come back to visit? Where are they now? Is that journey just a fleeting memory or has it shaped the lives they live today?

Standing on the Hungarian side, looking across the bridge to Austria, was a sobering moment. The walk across that second time even more so. Yes, the bridge has been renovated, but the wooden planks still groan, footsteps still echo, and that sense of touching down on terra firma and looking back is all too real.

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Intimate apparel

Back in a previous life, many lifetimes ago, I lived in London. For about 18 months, I went to the theatre at least twice a week. I caught pay-what-you-can shows on the fringe. I watched for deals for shows at the West End. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who had access to free, last-minute tickets for many of the big names, the classics. I was in heaven. I could ignore the humdrum, nearly robotic existence that was my lot in London as I didn’t have the bank balance to make it otherwise. I had an escape.

Budapest has many things in its favour. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous city with plenty in the line of music but not enough in the line of English-language theatre. So when I get the opportunity to see a show when I’m travelling, I’m never one to say no.

In Bath recently, the gorgeous MC had gotten tickets for the last night of Intimate Apparel, a 2003 play by American Lynn Nottage about a seamstress in 1905 New York which was enjoying its British premier. Esther (Tanja Moody), single and in her 30’s, makes underwear for rich women and harlots. She buys her material from a Romanian Jew (Llan Goodman), betrothed to a woman he has yet to meet. The chemistry between them is electric, but theirs is a forbidden future. All of my silent urging couldn’t make it happen. It was 1905. New York. She was black. He was Jewish.

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

Chu Omambala

Chu Omambala

Esther receives a letter from George Armstrong (Chu Omambala), a labourer working on the canal in Panama. Illiterate, she asks one of her rich, bored clients, Mrs van Buren (Sara Topham) – who herself is trapped in a loveless marriage into which she has failed to bring a child – to write a reply. Through van Buren’s life we see that money can only make up for so much. Esther’s landlady, Mrs Dixon (Dawn Hope), mothers her. Dixon’s life is founded on an inheritance from her dead husband whose wealth was a compensatory factor – he was neither socially ept or good looking.  The correspondence thus continues and by the intermission, I find myself thinking of any potential suitor as ‘my man from Panama’. But as is often the case, I changed my mind.

Rochelle Neil Credit: Simon Annand

Rochelle Neil
Credit: Simon Annand

Esther’s best friend Mayme (Rochelle Neil) is a hooker, clothed in her friend’s creations. She, too, is in on the romantic correspondence. George finally arrives in town and he and Esther get married. His life as we see it mirrors that of many immigrants, lost in a world they know little about, trying desperately to find a way to fit in.

We sat in the front row – up close and personal – in the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It was a mesmerising production. There wasn’t a weak performance on stage. For nearly three hours, I sat enthralled, transported to another world, completely engaged in the lives that were unfolding before me. The disappointment I felt when nothing worked out as I wanted it to was real – very real. I went from love to hate with a passion that surprised me. I found myself making excuses for the characters, as I might with real friends, forgiving them their foibles and rooting for their success. I felt their pain, their frustrations, their fleeting joys. When the final curtain came down, I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. I felt as if I’d been through the wringer; I’d been to the theatre.

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman Credit: Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman
Credit: Simon Annand

The play is about intimacy, the politics of which are understated but well understood. Intimacy between friends. Between men and women. Between women and women. It is a compelling piece of work, one that is worth seeing again and again. Nottage’s plays are about people who have been marginalised. Her intent is to write forgotten voices back into history. See it if you can.

couch-teaser1Back to Budapest, though, and good news for English-language theatre. This week saw the evolution of the much-loved Budapest Secret Theatre into Budapest English Theatre. A new show, PreText, is planned for this autumn. And that makes me happy, very happy indeed.

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Edward de Bono once joked with me that I could have a case for the Court of Human Rights. He reckoned that between the whole Murphy’s Law idiocy and the old ‘Murphy was an optimist’ mantra, I could claim just cause for the occasional bout of melancholy that besets me – i.e. the pressure of the world’s expectations that I be miserable.

I wonder, too, if this inate melancholy is one of the reasons why, although tone deaf and musically illiterate, I simply love the Blues (…and Country Music, but that’s another story).

20140724_222359_resized_2In search of some live music in Budapest the other night, I consulted the Oracle, she who is one half of the Cool Colours duo. She recommended a Blues band that goes by the name of Turnaround; they were playing at Old Man’s.

I’d not been there in a while and had never heard of the band. YouTube searches came to nowt but confident that the lovely PH knows what she’s talking about, I went along.

Hideg Csaba, Donyán Andrász, Rókusz Andrász, and Szkórits-Tala Gábor are quite the performers. So engrossed were they in their music, that I felt at times as if I was watching a bunch of lads playing in their front room. Some musicians play for the money; others, like these, play for the sheer love of the music. They were completely absorbed. The music was in them. Their accents for the most part were faultless. And not for the first time I marvelled at the ability of musicians to sing songs in English and yet barely speak the language off stage.

Hearing  Let the good times roll without any brass was a little different. I always have Ray Charles’ version in my head but even with three guitars and the drums, they did it justice. Ditto with Willie Dixon’s I just want to make love to you, made famous by Muddy Waters. After a while, I stopped missing the horns and the double-bass. BB King’s Rock me baby was my favourite cover of the night. The years fell away and it was Dublin, 1985 and BB King was playing at the National Stadium. I was there, on a date, with a chap called Eoin. Magic. My first ever Blues gig. Thank you, Eoin, wherever you are.

20140724_222215_resized But perhaps what made the night for me were two songs in particular – Sweetie Kitty and Cherry Festival, both penned and sung by Mr Donyán himself. As the lads swapped out guitars and took their cue from Csaba (Mr Cool), the night rolled on and two hours passed in a flash.

Old Man’s has a curious policy that if you sit to the left of the room, you have to eat. You can sit to the right and just drink. And you don’t know this until you sit down. Our table was up front. Loathe to move, I ordered a Caesar salad. A quiet note to the management here: A Caesar salad should have anchovies,  Parmesan cheese, romaine lettuce, and croutons. Adding croutons to a bland tomato and lettuce salad does not make it a Caesar.

Food aside, it was a great night. Watch out for these lads and MH/DT, put them on your list of people to see when you’re back in town.

This week, as temperatures soar and my temper shortens, I’m grateful for music and musicians, for those who are passionate about what they do, who sing just to sing and play just to play. Thank you for restoring my equilibrium. Know that you are saving lives 🙂



Attitude kills?

Last weekend, I did what hundreds, if not thousands, or indeed hundreds of thousands of Budapest city dwellers do every Sunday in the summer – I drove back from the Balaton.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADriving in Hungary at the best of times can be unnerving. Patience is not a national virtue, at least not for those sitting on a few tonnes of metal, with a steering wheel in their hands, and the potential for speed underneath their feet. Üllői út is a favourite inner-city racetrack for boy racers and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had my daydreams interrupted by the screech of tyres and the clash of gears as cars built for autobahns forget they’re driving the korut.

I’d heard tell of the nightmare that many endure coming back from a weekend’s R&R but I’d never experienced it first-hand. We left Fonyód about 3.30 pm to avoid the traffic, hoping that no one else had the same bright idea. And we did fine at first on the motorway until, when doing the requisite 110 (or was it 130?), I rounded a curve to be met by the flashing tail lights of the car in front of me. Thankfully there were enough chevrons between us to avoid collision but I swear I nearly had a heart-attack.

As we crawled forward, I waited expectantly to pass a crash or a police check, or something that would explain the sudden slow-down of traffic. But nothing. Five minutes later, we were back on track and it was full speed ahead.

Then it happened again, and again, and again. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. I thought it might have been merging traffic from the on-ramps, but no. I thought it might have been a speed camera, but that wouldn’t explain going from 110 (or was it 130?) to 40 in two seconds flat. But what did suddenly make sense was the high number of accidents on that road each summer. This sort of erratic driving can’t be good for the nerves, and after a weekend baking in the sun, who has every brain cell alert and engaged?

I had time, as we inched along, to clock the cars and noticed that many city cars (compacts and economies in rental-car terminology) were competing, or trying to compete, with high horsepower vehicles that could probably outrace most cop cars, given a clear road and good conditions. This unequal power match leads to more unsafe driving.

I was in an immaculately kept 18-year-old Honda and when I moved to an empty left lane to overtake a Fiat contemporary, I suddenly had an Audi A7 up my ass. He came out of nowhere and was so close to my tail it was personal, intimate even, if not obscene. I was tempted to brake and see where he’d end up … but it wasn’t my car.

Nearer to Budapest, a BMV flew up the on ramp and diagonally crossed four lanes seamlessly. No indicator. No rear-mirror check. Just a bald, arrogant claim to the road that said more about his personality (and yes, it was a he) than anything. And again, the number of fatalities began to make sense.

According to the International Road Traffic Accident Database, Hungarian motorways are 8 times more dangerous than UK motorways, and twice as dangerous as Belgian and Austrian motorways. In contrast, in Germany, where there are no speed limits, it’s twice as safe to drive as in Belgium or Austria and three times as safe in Hungary. So if it’s not speed that’s killing people, could it be attitude?

First published in the Budapest Times 25 July 2014

I don’t know

I was awake half the night. I couldn’t sleep. Yes, the heat was oppressive but that wasn’t it. My mind just wouldn’t let go of what’s happening in Gaza. I don’t have any answers. I don’t know enough about what’s happening to contribute in any meaningful way to the debate. I have never lived in Israel or in Palestine. Other than spending a week there last year, I know little of what life might be like there. I have no close Palestinian or Israeli friends. I’ve never studied Middle Eastern politics. My knowledge of international affairs is limited at best.

Jewish father and son

And yet, it seems as if I’m expected to have an opinion. Everyone else does. I’ve spent the past few days reading posts on Facebook. I’ve been following links. I’ve been reading newspapers. I’ve been combing through blogs. And one thing that puzzles me is how anyone, anyone not directly caught up in it all or an expert on the subject, can categorically say that they support one side or the other, without question.

I have questions. Lots of them.

How come the stats I see show more Palestinian civilian casualties than Israelis? Could it be that Israelis better protect their civilians while Hamas urges Palestinians to stay put? And storing rockets in schools can’t be safe, can it? I don’t know.

By all accounts, Israel is on the receiving end of more attacks than it makes. And apparently it has offered no military response to many rocket and mortar attacks in recent months. So why then is it the bad guy in this mess? I don’t know.

Graffiti on Bethlehem wall

Yes the photos of dead kids and dead women are horrendous. The thought of killing kids, any kid, is beyond comprehension. The civilian death toll is abhorrent. Civilian casualties in any war are tragic – but they are a fact of war.  I’m not condoning, I’m not excusing. I’m just saying. For as long as man has been alive, we’ve been killing each other and nothing makes that right.

Graffiti on Bethlehem wall

In today’s technology-driven world, soundbites and photos are practically instantaneous. We see death and rockets and mortars and hear cries and pleas and our hearts bleed for what is happening – and we react. We’re human. But are we are seeing an emotional, knee-jerk and all too human response to a situation that could well be being manipulated (however intentionally or unintentionally) by the world’s media and its sources? I don’t know. I do know that paper will take any print.  I lack faith in the media to report accurately, with full context, exactly what is happening. Which is why I read, and read, and read – and am still none the wiser. For every answer, I find two more questions. Does anyone really know?

I don’t know much. I don’t profess to be any kind of expert. Yet I can’t forget what happened in Bosnia, when the Serbs were castigated by the world’s press, and often rightly so, but equally often as a result of the machinations of the Bosnian PR machine. Even today, Serbia still struggles to shake a reputation that, to my little mind, should equally have been shared with Bosnia. The Serbs I know (and I know quite a few from all walks of life) are, without exception, some of the nicest, kindest, most hospitable, most intelligent people I know and still they’re cast as the bad guys. I am not comparing like with like here, or equating then and now. That would be ridiculous. I just want to voice an underlying concern I have about the possibility of  moral manipulation.

Israel Paletsine

Israel isn’t without fault. It takes at least two sides to wage a war. What must it be like for Palestinians to live behind a wall, in a veritable prison? Or to have had to give up their land to create a nation state for Jews? I don’t know. Yes, I read the testimonies on the Wall and I was moved, very moved. And shocked, and horrified. And yet I wonder what must it be like for Israelis living in a country where their immediate neighbours would prefer if they were wiped off the face of the Earth and their collective might could well accomplish this? I don’t know that, either.

Some say that international laws are being broken, that Israel is in violation by allowing its citizens to live in occupied lands, that  it is edging inch by inch into forbidden territory.Others say that Israel has no rights to the land at all. But decisions were made, rightly or wrongly. Some Hungarians might prefer the Triannon Treaty to be reversed just as some Irish might prefer to see a united Ireland. Are they right? Are they wrong? I don’t know.

Israeli fence

Extremists seem to be ruling the day – people who have little or no interest in finding a compromise in a war that is, to my uneducated and unedified mind, about who gets to keep what land. This latest round in a war that has been going on for decades started when Hamas reportedly killed three Israeli students in June. Israeli extremists reportedly responded. There is no denying the numbers…Palestinians are faring very badly, urged are they are to ignore Israel’s warnings of pending attack and stay home. And should they have to move? Are they right to stay? I don’t know – I’m not there. Surely though we need to look behind the numbers. Behind the images?

Wall in Bethlehem

I see petitions to expel Israeli ambassadors. But isn’t diplomacy the only way out of this mess? I see petitions to place sanctions on Israel but who will this really affect? I feel a rising wall of revulsion against Israel and I worry that this won’t stop at hating a country but will degenerate into hating individuals. What must it be like, as an Israeli, to be living anywhere in the world right now? I don’t know. What must it be like as a Palestinian to have your leaders tell you to be brave in the face of death? I don’t know that either.

There is so much that I don’t know. I will continue to ask questions. You might continue to answer them. But then I will ask how you know what you know and why you think as you do. It’s a given that it’s inexcusably wrong to kill kids – but even to this uneducated, unedified mind, there has to be more to it than that. It’s not that simple.

If I don’t agree with your opinion, or I don’t take as gospel what you are saying, or I don’t apologise for asking questions that you believe make me partial to Israel, am I wrong? I can’t pretend to know what I don’t. I can’t see how I could ever take a side without speaking to those involved, without living the lives they live, without growing up in a culture that is so alien to the one I know. If you are happy to do so, if you know enough to make your mind up and debate your corner, hats off to you. But please, don’t feel the need to convince me of the same.

By all means engage me in conversation. Let’s have a discussion. Feel free to share what you believe. But please, don’t evangelize. Be open to what  opinions I might have that may not tally with your own. Be open to questions I might ask, even if you don’t have the answers. And please, which ever side you are on, don’t make this about individuals. Nations act in the name of their citizens, but not each and every one of those citizens necessarily agrees.

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Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world

Sitting in a hotel room on a Sunday morning in Geneva last month, it seemed as if my plans for the day were doomed. To get to where I wanted to go, I’d have to take a train out of the city and then double-back by bus (the only route).  I’d just discovered that both Richard Burton and Alistair MacLean were buried about half an hour by car outside the city in the village of Céligny, but in the few hours I had before dinner with some friends, I wouldn’t have time to make the trip. Then my phone went. It was DD. Before dinner at his, he said, why not visit a little cemetery he’d come across just outside the city.  I texted back, already knowing that the universe had listened. ‘It wouldn’t be in Céligny by any chance?’

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Lots of famous people are buried in Switzerland. I was quite surprised that Richard Burton would end his days in this tiny sanctuary – Vieux Cimitière –  also known locally as the protestant cemetery. But then I hadn’t known that he’d lived amidst the 600 or so locals for the last 26 years of his life  in a three-bedroom converted farmhouse that had a library bigger than the cottage in which he was born.

IMG_2908 (600x800)And I was equally surprised that given there are fewer than 30 (I think I counted 28) resting peacefully around him, that one of these should be Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean. I grew up on MacLean. I begged my dad to join the local library so that I could use his tickets to pick books from the adult section. The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare  – I loved them all. Although not yet old enough for the library’s classification of adult, I was ‘safe’ with him as, quite unusually for his genre, his heroes never had sex; he believed that it, and romance, simply got in the way of the action. For a man who made a fortune churning out thrillers (so much so that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile), he never claimed to be a writer: ‘I’m not a born writer, and I don’t enjoy writing […] I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished.’ And yes, Mr MacLean, sometimes it showed. Nonetheless, thank you for the many many hours of mindless entertainment you gave me and so many millions of others – and thanks too, for the entreaty you left on your gravestone.

IMG_2915 (800x600)IMG_2913 (600x800)Near both of these famous people lies another man. André Bordier’s eternal words are quite simple – vis ta vie – live your life. I have no idea who he was, or what sort of legacy he left behind, but I was completely enthralled by the sculpture that stands on his headstone, wondering briefly if it was an African-influenced take on the Madonna and Child.

It’s a lovely spot, hidden from the world  off a small country lane that runs by a stream. It’s quiet, full of shadows, with a a sense of peace about it that would lend itself to reading. I can think of worse places to spend eternity.

IMG_2938 (800x600)IMG_2928 (800x600)Not far away is the new cemetery, a different world entirely, with closely set graves that belie whatever attempt was made to put them in order. Encased behind a wall that clearly marks its territory, it too is quite beautiful, but in a different way. It has none of the wild abandon, the natural simplicity of the Vieux Cimitière. Add this to the engraved inscription above the gate – Ici l’égalite – and it would seem that a point was being made by its almost random orderliness.

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I couldn’t help but contrast the wordiness evident here that was missing from the simpler graves next door. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering how many people give thought to their epitaphs.

The contrast was remarkable. I’m now leaning heavily towards a preference for nature running wild, with just a little bit of pruning, rather than the more modern gridplot effect that, even with flowers, can be a little sterile. No one really dies to order, do they? And few of us live the type of orderly life that should be mirrored by our graves.


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Had he asked us to strip naked and hop on one leg while pretending to play the accordion, most of us would have been starkers before we gave it a second thought. Such is the mesmerising power of Hugh Laurie, a man who is right up there on my list of all time sexiest men in the world. Be still my beating heart…

20140719_221129_resizedHe was playing at the Budapest Congress last night, along with the Copper Bottom Band, each of whom is worth seeing in their own right. And he was bloody brilliant. From my first-row-balcony vantage point, the place looked full – I couldn’t spot one empty seat and I wondered, as Laurie did, whether people came expecting to see Dr House. As he said himself, we had to wondering what to expect, given that until recently, he was an actor. And how comforting would it be if an airline pilot welcomed us on board by saying that until recently, they’d been a dental hygienist. But he promised  we were in safe hands and he was right. Kicking off with Cmon baby, let the good times roll, it was a joy from start to finish.

That Laurie has a deep love for the Blues is obvious. He speaks of James Waynes, Kansas Joe McCoy, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bessie Smith in hallowed tones. He introduces their songs with respect and feeling. Each and every member of the band had their moments of glory. Vince Henry (sax and clarinet) and Elizabeth Lea (on trombone) were out of this world. It’s not the Hugh Laurie Show. It’s not about ego or fame or stage time. It’s simply about the music. To see Laurie visibly moved as Jean McClain sang I hate a man like you was something else.

For me, one of my favourites last night was his rendition of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927. But it was beaten for top place by his version of Louis Armstrong’s St James’s InfirmaryHow can one man have so much talent? Yes, there were better singers on the stage, but if he sounded a little thin at times, he more than made up for it with passion and his enviable ability to relate so well with his audience.

He did what I’ve never seen before in my seven years of major music in Budapest – he got everyone up dancing, and kept them there. Pensioners and teens alike. All sorts of everyone. When the band stopped for a quick one, on stage, he drank to our health and paid homage to those who came to listen because, as he said, songs live and breathe and have meaning because people listen.

Laurie danced the tango with Guatemalan-American co-singer, Gaby Moreno, during a reworking of the Argentinian El Choclo which they pitched alongside Louis Armstrong’s Kiss of Fire. He sang with the boys in front of what looked like a vintage mic that made it sound as if we were listening to them on an old radio. The stage was set like a living room with standard lamps and rugs and even a picture of Queen Victoria. It was like being in his living room.

As he loped across the stage, made faces, and folded himself into his piano, it was obvious that he was playing, not only for us, but for himself. The entire band was having a blast. The mutual respect between each of them was palpable. And their acknowledgement of each others job well done was refreshing.

His second of three encores, Alan Price’s Changeshad me on the verge of tears and ready to promise undying love and a lifetime of darning, if only he’d asked.

It was more than a concert – it was an education. I left feeling grateful that I am now far richer in my knowledge of the Blues, and in my appreciation for the old stuff. I am grateful that I got to spend the evening in the company of a gentleman. It was a privilege indeed Mr Laurie – thank you.

And thanks to the gorgeous MI&MM for the tickets! You’re angels.



Köszönöm, nem

Seven years ago, I took. I took repeatedly. I took whatever was proffered regardless of the hand it came from or the message it carried. Then I learned the words: nem, köszönöm (no, thank you). Then I learned to put them in the right order: köszönöm, nem (thank you, no). Now I’ve added a smile and occasionally a shrug of the shoulders, but no matter what I do, when I refuse, I feel as if I’m single-handedly doing someone out of a job.

Surface from any underpass or metro in the city and you’ll be met at the top of the steps by someone handing out flyers. They could be for discounted English lessons, for half-price pizzas, for good deals on old gold, for car services, for whatever. They’re advertising of some sort or other and, by all accounts, this form of direct marketing is very effective. I know. I asked. Well…I Googled.

This from a printer: In my experience, customers always tell me how well a certain flyer worked for them in gaining valuable business. I can see how it might, were I to get it in the post or inserted in a newspaper and glance at it idly over breakfast one morning and I just happened to be in the market for three metres of silk and a spool of thread that particular Tuesday.

This from a marketing adviser: The purpose of your flyer is to get your prospective customer to take a specific, desired action. Great – but if I don’t have a dog, a car, need English lessons, or have gold to sell, what then? Is the desired action to bin it?

From a university course: Flyers can be useful tools to communicate with new or existing customers. But perhaps this customer doesn’t want to communicate with you or even be communicated with. Some distributors can be quite in-your-face and take the delivery part of their job just a little too seriously. But rather than say no to you, I have to say no to them. And suffer the look. And feel as if I’m jeopardising their job.

Many people make their living from handing out flyers. I hope they are paid by the hour and not by the number of flyers they distribute. Hats off to them for their perseverance and their patience; I don’t think I could engage with people and so many köszönöm nem all day every day.

So while I struggled initially and did what everyone else seemed to do and took the paper proffered, it soon got to me. No matter how I looked at it, it added up to one massive waste of paper. And it couldn’t be good for the environment. All those trees wasted. Books and newspapers and bulletins – they can be read, reread, and passed on. But flyers?

I’ve watched. Just the other day, 13 of the 13 people I saw taking flyers, binned them. Five glanced at them first. The other eight binned them without even looking. That had to rankle the distributor, I thought, but he didn’t look too bothered. Perhaps his job is done once the flyer leaves his hands. But those eight who accepted the flyers and then didn’t even read them were little more than passive conduits, moving paper purposelessly from A to B. And I wonder, too, if they were even aware that they were doing it?

So, jobs or the environment? I know now why I’d never make a politician.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 July 2014

True till the end

I’ve often wondered where the bitches and the bastards are buried. Those nasty people who beat their spouses, molest their kids, kill their mates. In all the cemeteries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a gravestone marked with ‘Here lies the b______, may they rot in hell’ or even anything approximating it. I have seen some that offer just the opening and closing dates of a life with nothing extra, and perhaps this was because those burying the corpse had nothing good to say about it. Perhaps. What’s that old adage? If you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all?

IMG_2887 (800x600)IMG_2879 (800x600)None of this was on my mind as I visited a cemetery in the heart of Geneva. Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, is near the Plainpalais and not all that easy to find. I had to ask four people before I found someone who could direct me  (mind you, that could be a reflection of my pathetic French pronunciation!). But find it I did, eventually. It’s a lovely oasis in the heart of a built-up, lived-in neighbourhood, a walled-in park where people come to sit and chat and have a picnic lunch. This was a little at odds with the Geneva I thought I knew and, not for the first time, I found myself revisiting the opinion I’ve formed of the city.

IMG_2870 (800x600)IMG_2871 (600x800)Home to such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges and John Calvin, former presidents, and a palette of artists of various forms, the cemetery is populated with simple headstones that lack the sculptor-ish wows, of say, Milan or Zagreb. And yet they are quite remarkable in their simplicity and their natural form.

Many are without accolade, opting for the sparsest of biographical detail – born, died, and spent the time in between painting, or writing, or whoring – or all three.  Yes, that one surprised me, too. And I was equally touched to see fresh flowers on Ms Real’s grave and two young men in attendance. Whether they knew her or not, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they, too, were moved by the honesty of the inscription, moved enough to weed and water and pay homage to a woman who knew exactly who she was. Or then again, perhaps she had no say in the inscription and some bitter ex-husband or grieving family took their parting shot. That’s the wonder of the dead – they can’t contradict the stories I choose to make up in my head. No wonder I find them such good company.

IMG_2886 (800x600)IMG_2873 (800x600)Five years of French were called into play as I tried to decipher what might be described as the anomaly – the one with the full-on testament to a life well lived. I read and re-read the inscription, picking out words that I was relatively certain I understood and then trying to make sense of what went in between. I thought it rather lovely, and for the millionth time wondered what would be said about me when I’m gone. Then again, I’m nearly at the point where I’m opting for cremation and ash scattering, so that might no longer be all that relevant.

IMG_2882 (800x600)IMG_2878 - Copy (600x800)Cemeteries are wonderful places in which to take stock of life. To stop for a while and get off the incessant treadmill that is twenty-first-century living. To reflect on what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why you’re bothering. Occasionally, you meet some honesty, some real truth. More often you see memories inscribed on stone, memories that might well be a case of remembering the best and ignoring the worst. And in some cases, as in Geneva, you simply get the facts. The bare facts.

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Voting mad

Legalised marijuana. Low gun crime despite the liberal gun laws. Life expectancy for men and women in the 80s. Switzerland is certainly full of surprises.

One of our meetings was in Bern, in the Swiss Parliament building and, as is perhaps usual with a foreign delegation, we had a tour of the Federal Assembly – a chance to see the inner sanctum of a country that hasn’t lost its ability to surprise.

IMG_2959 (800x600)The Swiss system of government is quite unusual in that the people, with enough signatures (50k), can overturn any decision made in either of the two chambers – (1) the National Council, with its 200 members elected by a system of proportional representation since 1919, and (2) the Council of States, with two members representing each of the 26 cantons – and send it to popular vote. It seems as if the  Swiss like to vote. They’ve had seven referendums so far this year with two more in the offing in September and November. [There are 46 members of the Council of States and this has something to do with some cantons having split in two lately but retaining one rep for each half of the split.]

IMG_2973 (556x800)In the Council of States, members debate in their chosen language, and as there are no interpreters, everyone is expected to be fluent in each of the four Swiss languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch (yep – that was a new one on me, too – I had to look it up. What’s amazing though is that it’s an official language even though it’s spoken by less than 1% of the population). And there are no terms, as such. You’re in until you stop being elected.

The building itself was completed in 1902, both chambers connected by a domed hall in the centre in which stand the Three Confederates whose oath was most likely made famous by Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. 

We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.

IMG_3001 (800x600)IMG_2996 (800x600)The 5×12 m painting on the wall of the National Council is called The cradle of the confederation (Le berceau de la confédération/Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft). Painted by Charles Giron, 1901, it has, hidden in the clouds, a naked female who IMG_3000 (800x600)is said to symbolise peace. It’s a restful room, lined with beautifully carved seats and overhung with wrought iron balconies heavy with visitors on the days the council is in session. That’s certainly one thing the Swiss have over the majority of their European counterparts – they’re fully engaged in the governing of their country.

IMG_2998 (800x600)Some trivia

  • Even though its gun laws are rather liberal, Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of all industrialised countries (2.3–4.5 million guns in a population of 8 million).
  • As at 2013, 85% of men and only 41% of women work full-time.
  • Women didn’t get to vote until 1971.
  • Only about 2% of Swiss wine leaves the country.
  • Possession of marijuana was decriminalised last year.

Worth a visit if you find yourself in Bern visiting the Bärengraben (Bear Pit).

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