My Budapest

Hardly a week goes by without someone asking me for advice on where to eat and what to do in Budapest. Usually it’s friends asking for friends or colleagues with different interests and requirements. In anticipation of a raft of questions coming as the summer holidays approach, I thought I’d spend some time drafting a summary of where I like to eat and what I like to do in Budapest, a list of personal favourites, for what it’s worth.

Fricska Gastropub, Dob u. 56-58, in District VII, is still my favourite upmarket restaurant. The chalkboard menu changes daily and usually offers a choice of four starters, a couple of soups, half-a dozen main courses featuring everything from fish to steak to wild game, and a few tasty desserts. When they run out, they run out. It’s a popular spot, so reservations are recommended and can be made through their website: http://fricska.eu/en/. It’s closed Sunday and Monday.

For Hungarian fare, I like Huszár Étterem, II. János Pál pápa tér 22, in District VIII. They do a particularly good Jókai bableves (bean soup) and an excellent goose with red cabbage. Their trout is worth trying, too. It’s within spitting distance of Keleti train station, which makes it a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, who seem to enjoy the live music offer. It’s often booked out for private parties, so best to check ahead of time to make sure it’s open. And it’s great for large groups. http://huszar-etterem.hu/

Kompót Bisztró, Corvin sétány 1/B, in District VIII, is a favourite for lunch. Their buffet breakfast is popular as is their daily menu (at about €5). It’s a nice place for dinner, too, with terrace seating on the bustling sétány. Corvin sétány is a pedestrian zone boasting myriad cafés, restaurants (including fish, Italian, Indian, sushi, a hummus bar, and one of the best burger joints in the city, Epic burger), a craft beer pub, a casino, and my favourite wine café in the city, Vino és Wonka. They, too, have a chalk menu featuring wines from smaller Hungarian vineyards, a few nice antipasto plates, and some great chocolate.

And while in the Corvin area, there are a couple of interesting museums worth checking. Like the Holocaust Memorial Center, Páva utca, in District IX. If I had to choose between this and the House of Terror on Andrássy, this is the one I’d visit. The museum is linked to the Páva utca synagogue, once the second largest site for Jewish worship in Budapest. It’s closed on Mondays.

Further down, on Dandár utca 1, also in District IX, is the Zwack Unicum Museum, which, to my mind, is one of the best in the city. Exhibits showcase the history of the Zwack family, makers of the famous black liqueur and a video biography of the firm’s history gives a rare insight into how life once was and now is in Hungary. And, as with all good liquor tours, tastings are included. Closed Sundays, tours are available in English. www.zwackunicum.hu. And you can get a combination ticket that includes entry to both this and the Holocaust Memorial Center.

National History Muesum - what to do in Budapest

Back then to District VIII, to the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Ludovika tér 2, which dates to 1802. This is a fascinating place with all sorts of exhibits including a dinosaur park. The interactive games make it all that much more interesting. It’s closed on Tuesdays, by the way. It’s practically next door to Orczy park, Orczy út 1, which is a lovely spot to walk or picnic and has a great kids playground and adventure park. And over the road again, are the ELTE botanical gardens on Illés u. 25, a lovely spot to while away the hours looking at interesting plants and flowers. Open daily.

Further out on this side of the city, at Népliget, is the Planetarium, with its fantastic photo display and tours of the solar system (in English, too). It’s currently under renovation but check to see if it’s open when you get here.

Budapest has plenty to offer in terms of music and exhibitions. One of my favourite venues for live music is Kobuci kert, Fő tér 1, an outdoor venue in District III. Set on a rather lovely square, within walking distance of the Danube, it’s a happening spot that offers ticketed events (from as a little as €5), reasonably priced drinks, and decent grill food. BudapestPark , Soroksári út 60, in District IX, is another rocking spot, as is Barba Negra, Prielle Kornélia u. 4, in District XI. Check their websites for details of what’s on.

Downtown, Akvárium Klub on Erzsébet tér 12, is more central, with lots of outdoors seating. Across the river, Mátyás church, 2 Szentháromság tér, in District I, offers free organ recitals on Sunday evenings at 6pm. It’s a great way to get to see the church without paying the admission fee and while there, you can enjoy a spectacular view the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is breathtaking at night. Lot of churches in the city offer musical events as does the famous Liszt Ferenc Academy on Liszt Ferenc tér

But while you’re over in the Castle district, the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum is worth a visit, at Lovas út 4/C.  It’s a little pricey, but worth the money. The guided tours are excellent. And when it comes to things in rocks, visit the Gellért Hill Cave in District XI which, in its day, has been a chapel, a monastery, and a field hospital for the German Army during WWII. It re-opened as a church in 1989. The self-guided tour (headphones) is available in many languages and well worth the admission. It’s across the road from the famous Gellért baths, high on the list of Budapest spas, but doesn’t come close to my favourite, the Rudas baths, Döbrentei tér 9. They open late (10pm to 4am) on Fridays and Saturdays. Quite the experience.

There is so much to see and do in Budapest that I could go on and on. And perhaps I will. Next time.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 June 2018

2018 Grateful 32

Wednesday. May 23rd. The day John Malkovich came to Budapest and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Right now, I’m trying to decide if it was worth the experience.

In true marketing fashion, I made a rash purchase (4 tickets) and am now trying to rationalise my decision. Apparently, this is what we consumers do all the time. It’s what keeps the marketers in business.

The facts I had at the time were:

  1. John Malkovich was coming to Budapest for one night only.
  2. He was performing what was billed as one of the top 10 shows in the world (I can’t recall where I read that snippet)
  3. If I didn’t see the man this time, I was unlikely to cross paths with him again.
  4. The cheapest tickets I could get were 20 000 huf (~€60 / $70).
  5. We were expecting visitors and I thought it would be night for them to rememeber.

And it was, but probably not for the reasons I imagined.

We rocked early to Budapesti Kongresszusi Központ, in plenty of time to have a pre-show drink and take our seats at a leisurely pace. I was all excited. I’ve had a thing for the bould JM for just about ever. What a voice. The 26-piece string orchestra – Danubia Orchestra Óbuda took their place. And the show started. No sign of the man himself. But I didn’t panic. Perhaps, I thought, he’d enjoy a grand entrance. Above the stage, rain was being projected onto a white screen. I quite fancied that I saw his face in the droplets and given the title of the programme – Report on the Blind – my imagination began to run riot.

Maestro Dirk Brossé was conducting and violinist Ino Mirkovic also made an appearance. Now, had I done my homework, I’d have been all the wiser. But I hadn’t. And I wasn’t.

Psycho Suite by Bernard Herrmann and the Adagio (To the Unknown Soldier) by Dirk Brossé and still no sign of John. My blood pressure began to rise, slowly. I could feel the anxiety setting in. I began to wonder if we were in the right place. I drew a map of the venue in my mind and decided that there were no other gigs on that night (and it would have been strange, anyway, not have to have been ousted from our seats had we been in the wrong place). The rain at this stage had turned to snow and the images of frosted glass and the ice patterns provided only a mild distraction. The avalanche footage was quite compelling though. But 45 minutes in and still no John.

Then a man appeared on stage – and I breathed a sigh of relief – a short one. On closer inspectection I saw a face that was too round, a body that was too slim, and a hairline that wasn’t quite far back enough. Not John. They danced. At one stage he blindfolded himself and hope rose within me briefly – I was grasping at blind straws. I tried to control the angst. And then came the intermission.

I left my company inside and went outside to calm my nerves. Everyone seemed to be wondering what was up. I wasn’t the only one. Then I heard that this was just the prelude. The warm-up. The man would make his appearance in the second half. And he did.

Accompanied by pianist Anastasya Terenkova, Malkovich took us on a rollercoaster ride, his voice doing more than the 26-string orchestra could have done. He was quite something. He posited some theories:

  1. God does not exist
  2. God exists but he is a bastard
  3. Good exists but falls asleep and his nightmares are our existence

I quite liked No. 3. I thought ‘wow – he wrote this stuff. Amazing.’ But he didn’t. It was a chapter from Ernesto Sabato’s novel On Heroes and Tombs. Malkovich played the protagonist Fernando Vidal who reckons that blindness drives the world. It was mesmerising. Mesmerisingly short. Just 30 minutes, if that. And it was over.

It’s taken me a week to process it all. Am I glad I got to see and hear the man in person? Yes. Am I glad I didn’t pass up the opportunity? Yes. Do I reckon it was worth the guts of €250 – which is a plane ticket somewhere – I’m not sure.

But I learned a lot about myself. If I have no expectations at all – which is generally the case – I can’t be disappointed. My mother tacked that one on as the ninth beatitude. But if I have expectations, and I’m thrown off course, then I get ansty and anxious. I let it consume me. I tried to enjoy the music in the first half, which was stellar by the way, but my heart was racing and my mind was all over the place. I had brief moments of enjoyment but peppered as they were by a sense of being utterly lost, I barely remember them.

I wanted to see him so badly that I didn’t think to check what it was he’d be doing. I could have. It’s out there. I could have done my homework, perhaps before I bought the tickets. But I was blindsided by fame. Still, though, as a lover of oratory and the spoken word, I think Malkovich would be hard to match.

I’d like to see  Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters. The interview with photographer Sandro Miller makes for fascinating reading. And I never knew that JM owns a restaurant in Lisbon, speaks fluent French, and lost millions in Bernie Maddoch’s Ponzi scheme. For the background reading, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to hear the voice in person, I’m grateful, too. I only wish he’d spoken for longer and that I’d known what I was letting myself in for.


 

To A Bird Another Bird

Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.

When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.

British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?

Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’

His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.

There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.

I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.

All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.

If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.

Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018

2018 Grateful 35

Usually I don’t get heat-cranky till late June but this hot weather is playing havoc with my schedule. The hottest April on record here since records began 218 years ago, the highest low temperature ever, and the highest morning temperature registered on 1 May.  We’ve skipped spring and leapfrogged into summer. Madness.

Over in Alaska, friends are waking up to snow-covered decks. They had summer last week and have now reversed back into winter. Avalanches are being forecast with 33 inches falling on Thompson Pass since 4 May. More madness.

In Dublin, they’ve had a rocking weekend with an Irish hot of 20 degrees. That’s practically a heatwave. I’d say it was madness, but sure they’re mad anyway 🙂

And with far more to complain about, friends in Hawaii are watching lava warnings after a massive earthquake the other day. Evacuations are underway. Lives are falling asunder. What’s happening in the world?

 

All I needed was some perspective. My lot don’t seem half-bad in comparison. I’ll quit my bitchin’ and deal with the perspiration. I’ll bring out the perfumed hankie to combat the rampant BO, and start planning a trip to the sea. Lots to be grateful for.

 

Stopgap Grace

Am excited. So excited. My man Neil McCarthy will be back in Budapest next week. Okay, so technically he’s not my man, but I feel a strange affinity to this purveyor of words who reintroduced me to the joy that is poetry. Many moons ago, when Treehugger Dan’s was a pillar of the Budapest arts scene, I went to one of his gigs and sat, mesmerised, by the life he imbued in his poems. That was back, I think, in 2009 or 2010.

At the time, I was feeling a little homesick – not for Ireland but for her people. For that rich and wonderful way we have of telling stories. For the calculated casualness with which we choose our words. For the pictures we paint with our imagery and the tunes we create with our turns of phrase. Even in the innermost of our inner cities, poetry is on the move. We have a way about us and McCarthy is better than most.

He sat onstage, with his trademark flat cap turned backwards, looking every inch the fellah who sits in my local at home, sorting the world’s problems over a pint or three. And a little bit of me fell in love with him. I’m not usually given to such flights of fancy but that night, I wanted to take his words home. I cornered him outside over a smoke and asked if he had a CD – I had visions of listening to him each time that hankering for all things Irish hit me. He was thinking about it, he said, but in the meantime, he had a booklet that he could send me when he got back to Vienna. And he did.

Fast forward a few years to 2012 and that CD came to be. I sent copies to friends in the States and in Australia. And I nearly wore my own copy out. With three chapbooks to this name, Stopgap Grace (published by Salmon Poetry) is McCarthy’s first published collection; it’s a joy to read. He has a way with capturing the moment, the mundane, and making it memorable.

I expected them to tell me that my bacon
had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life,
was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings,
played the cello, spoke Latin and learned
to salsa dance while visiting relatives in Cuba.

McCarthy is coming to Budapest next week and will be reading from this collection at Massolit Books and Café, Nagy Diófa utca 30, in the VIIth district, from 7pm on Thursday, 10th May. One not to be missed. Copies of the book will be on sale and I’m sure he can be talked into signing them, too.

One not to be missed. Get there early to get a seat. It’s a smallish venue.

 

The politics of decency

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. Those aren’t my words; George Orwell wrote them back in 1941 in his book All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.

Fast forward 77 years and Hungary has just come through another general election. In the lead-up to it, the media was full of who said what and when and about whom. Accusations and half-truths were flying around like missiles seeking a target. The opposition was scrambling to put aside their differences, and their egos, and reach some sort of agreement to present a united front to the voters on 8 April. Memories of events and incidents long past resurfaced. Old grudges gained new ground, ignoring the entreaty of former US President John F. Kennedy who urged Americans back in 1958 not to ‘seek to fix the blame for the past’ but instead to ‘accept [their] own responsibility for the future. In other words, it was business as usual.

For a foreigner with minimal Hungarian, my knowledge of what’s going on is limited to the English-speaking press or at the mercy of Google translation. Asking Hungarian friends for their take on specific happenings helps to a point, if I remember that they’re seeing things through the prism of their own experiences. My struggle to find truth amidst the deluge of information available is a difficult one and as I don’t have a vote, perhaps it’s all a moot point anyway. But when I have an opinion, I like it to be an informed one. And I like to know what’s going on.

Specifics aside, I find myself wondering about politics and politicians, about why we vote into power those we do or worse still why we don’t bother voting at all. I’m spending a lot of time considering the traits I’d like to see in my ideal politician, how I’d want them to behave, what I’d like them to do. And perhaps the day will come when we can have our politicians made to measure – in the meantime I can but dream.

Back in 1948, Herbert Hoover, in his remarks to Wilmington College in Ohio, noted:

It is a curious fact that when we get sick, we want an uncommon doctor; if we have a construction job, we want an uncommon engineer; when we get into war, we dreadfully want an uncommon admiral and an uncommon general. Only when we get into politics are we content with the common man.

And while I might want the leader of my constituency or indeed my country to be an ‘uncommon politician’, I can’t decide if I’d like them to be a man or a woman, or if it matters.

The Internet is littered with studies and reports drawing a (spurious?) correlation with the number of women on the board or in leadership positions with a company’s financial and other successes. Adjectives such as empathetic, ethical, and honest are prefaced with ‘more’ when it comes to describing women in leadership roles. Okay, findings can be massaged and for every report showing a correlation, another refutes it. But is there an added dimension that women bring to politics? Benazir Bhutto said that when she entered politics, she brought another dimension to the table – that of a mother. I think of the women leaders I know and am not at all sure that I see that maternalism in their politics, be they national, international, or corporate.

Before dipping my toe in the pool of diplomacy, I’d have argued long and hard that I wanted the leader of my country to be honest, always, all the time, no matter the cost. I know better now. Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski gave a keynote speech back in 2002 at the Morality and Politics conference in Vienna. Entitled Is Honest Politics Possible?, the keynote explores the place of honesty in politics and defines an honest politician as

Someone who regards politics as a tool for achieving the common good. He is not naive, and knows that patience, compromise, and a policy of small steps are often needed. Yet in pursuing partial goals he will not lose sight of higher objectives.

This perhaps I could live with. As long, of course, as those higher objectives were for the greater good. I don’t want to be lied to, but sometimes ambiguity has its place. And anyway, in this day and age, the definition of truth is blurred to the point that it can almost mean whatever you want to mean.

When it comes to describing a good politician in a democratic society, adjectives abound. We want our politicians to be accessible, believable, compassionate, decisive, ethical, faithful, generous, humble, intelligent, jovial, keen, law-abiding, managerial, nuanced, open, pragmatic, questioning, reliable, sincere, trustworthy, utilitarian, veracious, worthy, xenial, youthful, and zealous. No tall order there! We want them to inspire hope, to offer security, make our worlds better. We want them to practice what they preach, to advance our cause, and to take care of the less fortunate. We want them to have a lived a blemish-free life. We expect either too much of them or not enough. We blame them for working the system while we do the same ourselves, albeit on a much smaller scale. We set them up to fail and when they do, we complain, loudly, at their shortcomings.

After much consideration, I’ve decided that Theodore Roosevelt, had it right when he said in his remarks to Harvard and Yale undergraduates invited to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, June 1901: the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency. Decency. That’s what I want. I want my politicians, my leaders, my guardians of tomorrow – I want them to behave decently at all times. Is that too much to ask?

First published in the Budapest Times 13 April 2018

In a state of shock on Mars

I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect this. And when I read today in the Hungarian Spectrum that a ruling politician had declared that “our goal is to achieve a stable, absolute majority with 100 seats to establish a government. Above that number every seat is only a gift, a sign of the voters’ trust,” I had to wonder. A two-thirds majority was some gift indeed. I’m deflated. Completely deflated. Friends who voted spoke of the palpable excitement and anticipation of change at the polling booths. The other guys were being better people and standing down in favour of stronger counterparts. It seemed as if the planets were aligning and while I never thought that the 100 seats would not be achieved, I was sure the other guys would fare better. But I was wrong.

I dug out this poem I’d read last year in the aftermath of another disappointing election – and it just about sums it up for me.

An Election Tale: A Poem By Tarik Günersel

Once upon a time, on Mars,
an election took place –a farce:

A profit promising guy was promoted
for imperial goals; twice his followers voted.

The Electoral Board: “It’s been a good race;
here’s the official result we realistically face:

A post-modern synthesis of kingdom and republic.
Despite infidels, God’s Law conquers the public.

We proudly present this legal innovation,
which is naturally the best for our obedient nation.”

Thus the selected leader declared “Victory!”
A journalist dared to ask: “Is justice history?”

Public reaction was professionally tested;
“Fraud!” –some opponents protested:

“Booo! Look at the voting lists: We’re excluded,
but some dead were secretly included!”

On TV, the financed misleader announced:
“All those traitors must be denounced!

Evil circles keep sponsoring their acts,
I speak the truth, supported by alternative facts.

In our new democracy, which patriots promote,
dead citizens can also vote

as the revival of our passified [sic] nation.
Down with foreign agents! We need fair aggression!

I do have an idea about sports:
Attack is the best defense, as echoed in the courts.

My leadership proves that ‘evolution’ is wrong.
To my faith in God your lives now belong.”

All such stuff was not without reaction;
some with conscience attempted action:

Two girls, on hunger strike, stood up
and were given free poison in a cup.

A few more utopian objecters [sic] joined in the story
for a happy ending –a deserved glory:

“It’s high time for a revolution
for Martian rights, devolution!”

The outcome on Mars remains unknown,
but your life on Earth is a path of your own.

No gods can build a future for you.
No solution can rise out of the blue.

 

The great wave

A few months back, in a workshop I was running, a participant included an image of The Great Wave by Japanese artist Hokusai in their presentation. I was the only person in the room not to have seen it before and thereby not to recognise it. The shame of it. Where had I been? Coincidentally, that same week, I saw an advertisement for a screening of a documentary from the British Museum about the artist and his work. The first two were sold out but I managed to get tickets for the screening in March.

In the months that followed, I forgot all about it. When the day dawned, I was up to my tonsils – a litany of meetings strung together like beads on an abacus all totting up to a controlled frenzy. But we had tickets. So we went. To Várkert Bazár, billed as ‘a renovated 19th-century Neo-Renaissance complex of exhibition halls, theaters, gardens & restaurants. I’d not been before and the venue was another reason I’d chosen to go. But wow… Hokusai! Where have you been all my life?

Hokusai was painting right up till his death, some four months after his 90th birthday (depending on which page you read on the WWW). And by his own reckoning his best work was the work he did shortly before he died.

From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

Interestingly, a variation of this translation also appears on the web. Or perhaps he was paraphrasing himself.

When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age.

There’s a good biography of his life on the Katsushika Hokusai website, which says that he changed his name more than 30 times during his career, a practice common to artists of that era in that part of the world. My favourite was Old Man Mad (Crazy) about Art (Drawing): Gakyō Rōjin Manji. The Guardian ran a piece on him last year and included some pictures of his prints. It’s worth checking out.

It’s said that Claude Debussy was inspired to write La mer after seeing The Great Wave, and while it’s arguably his most famous print, I was more taken by Poppies. I can feel the wind as I look at it. Amazing stuff.

Of course, I changed my mind a million times as the documentary went on. And then, when we got a virtual tour of the exhibition in London, I changed it yet again. I was very taken with this one but I’m not so sure I’d like it on my wall. But how alive it is. Those eyes. Still, after all the back and forth, I’m sticking with Poppies as my all-time Hokusai fave.

If you get a chance to see the documentary, make the time for it. If you’re one of the lucky ones who got to see the exhibition somewhere in the world, I’m suitably envious. It’s possible to order hand-painted reproductions of all his work from Japan, and with a 365-day return policy. Once I’ve decided what size I want my Poppies, I’ll be doing just that. What a man.

What’s the opposite of gun?

I have a fondness for poetry. Not all poetry. Some poetry. I like slam poetry, with its fast and furious pace, its jumble of words cascading over one another as thoughts rush out and feelings rush in. I’m a fan of the Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan and travelled last year to Bristol to hear him live. He didn’t disappoint. You might know him for his poem on bullying To This Day…For the Bullied and the Beautiful that went viral a few years back. He suffers from depression and speaks openly about it, as he does many other issues that are so human, so prescient, so now. He makes sense.

And while WB Yeats gets my vote for an old Irish classic, an Irish classic in the making is the fab Neil McCarthy. Of anyone, he’s the one responsible for reconnecting me with the joy that is the spoken word. He’s going to be in Budapest launching his latest book on May 10th – at Massolit. If you’re in town, don’t miss him. When Neil recommends a listen or a read, I listen and I read. Enter Brendan Constantine and his opposites game. Given the debate that’s reverberating through the USA, supported by all those on the outside looking in, it’s a topical one. One that gives pause for thought – and more.

 

I’ve finally made time to listen and to read. I’ve realigned my priorities and taken the back control I’d temporarily lost to the gigging world. No more working myself to near exhaustion. Life is far too short not to make time for poetry.

 

2018 Grateful 41

Charles (Chuck) Swindoll is a pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher. He’s 83. He used to stutter. I still stammer. He was a member of his school’s marching band. I was a member of mine, too. He has a radio program – Insight for Living – that is broadcast on more than 2,000 stations around the world in 15 languages. I’d like one of those. I dabbled briefly in it one year in with a series of podcasts called Hotline to Heaven. And it’s on my list to do again. Occasionally, I get posts in my inbox that mention him. A few weeks back, I got this one on the Giving Tree.

‘When the boy was young he swung from the tree’s branches, ate her apples, and slept in her shade…But as he grew up he spent less and less time with the tree. “Come on, let’s play,” said the tree. But the young man was only interested in money. “Then take all my apples and sell them,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. He didn’t return for a long time, but the tree smiled when he passed by one day. “Come on, let’s play!” But the man, older and tired of the world, wanted to get away from it all. “Cut me down. Take my trunk, make a boat, then you can sail away,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. Many seasons passed – and the tree waited. Finally the man returned, too old to play, or pursue riches, or sail the seas. “I have a pretty good stump left. Sit down here and rest,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy.’

Swindoll likens the tree to the many people who gave of themselves so that ‘he might grow, accomplish his goals, and find wholeness and satisfaction.’ And, indeed, there were times he was a giving tree himself. I was reminded of this earlier this week as I went about my business in Budapest. I had resolved some time ago that if I were approached on the street by someone asking for money, I’d give. Something, anything. My various pockets all have at least a 500 ft note in them, ready for the off. And when it comes to doling out the forints, I try not to discriminate. I read this verse on FB a few years back and it’s stuck in my head. It’s made me want to work on not being judgmental but it’s hard. It’s as if I’m preprogrammed to make snap decisions that catapult me into the role of judge and jury. So to avoid this, I try to give regardless.

But I still judge. And this means that after I’ve walked by an outstretched hand having judged it too well manicured to be in need, or after I’ve stepped over legs shod in designer-brand shoes that I can’t afford myself, I have this internal debate that could last second or minutes. After 12 months solid practice, 8 out of 10 times I’ll double back. But I’m still not there. I’m a work in progress.

Sadly, it seems like the asks are getting more and more plentiful. The number of people of all ages on the streets of Budapest asking for help is heartbreaking. And yes, perhaps for a sizeable number of them it’s a mafia-run day job. But what of the others, those in real need? Am I to be the one to judge? Perhaps, if I were smarter or more streetwise, I could. But I’m not. So I give. I’m aiming for 100%, but I’m not there yet.

I’m grateful for all the trees in my life – you know who you are. With thanks.