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2007
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June 30th; I fall into the crack between two transport passes, and have a day walking around Ujpalota. Particularly depressing snack at a kind of indoor fake 'village square' in the shopping mall (Nice to see they still haven't corrected the Hungarian typo {or "witty" pun... surely not?} on the banner of their website after six months). Under a glass roof pyramid letting in bright sunshine, I sat in a ring of wooden benches and potted palms with a family quietly speaking perhaps German. We were all looking at a vile sculpture-cum-fountain of a metal man in a suit, complete with briefcase and umbrella. While the smallest child from the family of unknown nationality on the next bench half-heartedly threw first one and then the second of its miniature shoes at me, I sat gazing at the nasty sculpture. The sculptor had oh-so-cleverly made water dribble down all over him from inside the bronze businessman's umbrella. Melancholy comes from within, I suppose is the message. The water trickled onto the cobblestone-covered plinth where he was poised, waiting for the bus that would never come, even as a hot summer sky dazzled through the ceiling glass. Somehow the fake raindrops bouncing off his boxy bronze briefcase were especially dispiriting.

June 29th; Meet Wayne in town. Accept his document, and catch bus up hill into Buda to see fitness club.
June 28th; Breakfast with Kath & Robin. Dinner with Rob. Robin mentions an English artist called Osman Spare he says was asked to conjure some spells for the War Office during World War 2. He takes me to join Zeno at Judit's flat for sage tea. Zeno wears a gold silk tie and a black shirt. On one wall of a dark inner sitting room, Judit has a stag's skull mounted on a red embroidered wall-hanging, flanked by two smaller stag skulls, facing a mirror on the opposite wall. The antlers of the large stag skull are hung with eight Christian crosses and two Marian necklaces. Later meet Rob at Menza restaurant for tasty steak. During a relaxed evening of conversation, Rob encourages me to read more about the 1956 Suez Crisis. He also mentions recently pissing alongside a Hungarian man doing a two-handed wee while talking to a mobile phone tucked under his chin. When it slips into the urinal, the man finds himself urinating onto his own phone, unsure of what to do next.

June 27th; Uneventful day. Ache in right forearm from water-pumping partly faded.
June 26th; Finished 'In Search of Memory' by Eric Kandel. Goodness. Kandel writes about his scientific life becoming a major researcher in neurology in American academia, and how he made central discoveries about how memory works in neurons, eventually sharing a Nobel Prize with two colleagues. He blends this nicely with his memories of childhood in Nazi Vienna, his Austrian Jewish family fleeing to the US just in time. But the astonishing reviews that attracted me to Kandel's scientific autobiography seemed to be for a totally different book. "Arresting - indeed unforgettable."; "An enchanting book."; "A gripping memoir...[a] stylish book...Kandel's prose is limpid, his storyline clear and compelling... It's hard to put down."; "Written with talent and grace..."; "...a scintillating mix..."; "...a stunning book..." This is from almost four pages of lavish praise by 21 reviewers. The first thing that struck me was how easy it was to put down, and how difficult to pick up, not least because it's about 200 pages longer and a pound heavier than it should be. In fact, I frequently put it down after less than a page, needing a little rest from that limpid prose. It must have happened before, but I cannot remember quite so strongly disagreeing with so many reviewers, and wondering which book it was they read? Or indeed if reviewers (or editors) actually read books these days in the old-fashioned sense of "read"? You know - all the words on every page.
Eric Kandel is clearly a likeable, tenacious, and intelligent man. He's written several other books, so it might be no-one quite dares edit him, but I was staggered, looking through his acknowledgements to find a whole host of editors gratefully credited. Two, Blair Burns Potter and Angela von der Lippe, are specially mentioned as doing the bulk of the editing, and science writer Geoffrey Montgomery apparently rewrote whole sections. Perhaps they would all say privately, "You should have seen it before we worked on it." I don't know. But Kandel's text is hard to follow, heavily padded out, and is almost uniformly dull. Footnotes - rather than the glossary at the back - would have helped hugely. Inside this plodding tome, there is a hint of an interesting story trying to get out, and if reviewers just skim these days, perhaps they felt as if they read that story? After his family flee Nazi Austria, Kandel studies hard at school in the United States. Once at college, he starts off in humanities, becomes interested in Freud's ideas on the unconscious (though is apparently still unaware that they are really Schopenhauer and Nietzsche's ideas on the unconscious), starts on medicine so as to become a psychoanalyst, gets an exciting introduction to lab science, and moves into neurology. Kandel sensibly takes the reductionist line, and starts work on a kind of sea slug, Aplysia, which has very large nerve cells allowing electrodes to be inserted into single cells. He has faith that understanding nerves at a simple level will allow fundamental findings into neurons and memory to be made, he is right, and he makes them. He finds a mechanism that reinforces the synapse between two neurons for short-term memories, and unravels another mechanism that releases chemicals stimulating the neuron to grow extra dendrites for long-term memories - thus increasing the area across which the two neurons will connect next time. Later he and his team do important work on anxiety in mice and how it mediates learning in the amygdala, a region in the centre of the brain. It takes us over 420 largeish pages to get there.
So why the reverential, breathless reviews? I suspect two effects: awe at a Nobel-Prize-winning brain scientist and awe at a triumphal story of Central-European Jewish child escaping death in Holocaust to make good in America, land of opportunity. I think the neurology reviewers were excited to see a book trying so hard to explain their field to a wider readership and the general reviewers loved the logline of Jewish emigre researcher probing memory in the lab while ruminating on his own poignant reminiscences of pre-war Vienna. This is the end of an era, and some reviewers must have been responding to this. There won't be many more Nobel-Prize-winning New York scientists who can remember a European childhood cut short by Nazism, so that makes him hard for Americans with a sense of history to criticise. I also became suspicious that Kandel has a subtle blend of affable charm and steely determination which makes him almost impossible to edit. Frustratingly, there is some good writing. There are intriguing anecdotes (five that I recall) and bits of the book promise much. Kandel's good humour, kindness and sheer likeability shine through. The diagrams are excellent - easily the best part of the book for me, though the acknowledgements for these are a bit vague. They seem to be down to Maya Pines, Sarah Mack, Sarah Lam, and Charles Lam. Here are the five anecdotes that stay with me. (1) He remembers his family being ordered out of their apartment on the date of Kristallnacht, so that Nazis could loot it, and recalls his brother having the foresight to take his stamp and coin collections with him. (2) When 8 years old he recalls their 25-year-old maid, Mitzi, encouraging him to touch her breasts and run his hands over the rest of her body in an early sexual experience he describes as sensual and unexploitative. (3) In New York his early collaborator in brain science loves opera, and always enjoys sneaking the two of them into the opera illegally through the basement, paying off ushers in the back garage area. (4) The sea slug he studies is hermaphroditic, so that they sometimes form chain-gang orgies, each rogering the one in front while being rogered from behind. (5) Briefly back in Vienna after winning the Nobel Prize he has an eerie confrontation with an elderly woman geographer, an Austrian, who tells him that Jews exploited gentiles in pre-war Europe, Vienna in particular.
On the other hand, his editors left in sentences like this on one page 283: "But whereas long-term facilitation in Aplysia strengthens synapses heterosynaptically, by means of a modulatory transmitter acting on the homosynaptic pathway, many of long-term potentiation [missing word?] can be initiated merely by means of homosynaptic activity." He is particularly guilty of mentioning everybody, saying how clever they were, yet leaving out that extra half-page on each one's work which would have justified the praise. There is a parish-newspaper feel to it - everyone being politely mentioned, however boring it is for readers. We even get his Nobel speech, and the Nobel speech by the prizegivers mentioning him, both excerpted. He puts in his daughter's poem about Daddy's experimental sea slug, both in text and in facsimile so we can see her unsteady, child-like handwriting. We repeatedly hear about his love of opera, classical music and art prints without ever hearing which composers and artists or why. Understandably, he suffers a kind of pre-war Vienna chauvinism, overrating Viennese thinkers Wittgenstein and especially Freud even after his own work shows what a false turn Freud took. To make Freud look good, he picks a few encouraging quotes that fit modern neurology out of Freud's slagheaps of dogma, even while rightly criticising psychoanalysts for staying aloof from brain biology for so long. There are two paragraphs about how and where the sea slug Aplysia (the focus of fifteen years' work) lives. He says it makes purple ink, is mentioned by Pliny, and has the strange sex life mentioned in (4). I wanted to know a bit more - for example, what eats it? Can it survive outside water? Whereas the chapter about him receiving the Nobel Prize goes through his itinery in Sweden in agonising minute-by-minute detail. The self-indulgence isn't all dreary: I laughed when he acidly remarks that once the news came out about his Nobel Prize, girls he hadn't heard from since secondary school suddenly got back in touch. Some pages on Nazi Austria are interesting (there is a fascinating, disturbing photograph on page 407 of Dean Eduard Pernkopf being greeted by an auditorium full of Nazi-saluting academics at Vienna's Medical Faculty in 1938), but most of it doesn't do justice to the material. Kandel clearly has a talent as an experimentalist: the knack of designing an experiment just complex enough to test something important, just simple enough to give a decisive answer. We get a hint of this skill in the book, probably a harder skill to master than it sounds. Sadly, this talent isn't complemented by a good writing style. I'm trying to imagine a certain kind of American in publishing who feels a Big Theme deserves a Big Book, and thinks because they didn't understand the jargon about synapses and proteins they must be in the presence of genius - but I just don't believe most of the people who reviewed or even edited this text read it all. Borrow if you must, but don't buy.

June 25th; Warm and sticky all day. Over at Esther's by evening to use her Apple Mac to try to open my Greek and Georgian font files. Not a success in software terms, though she makes lovely soup & muffins. Esther kindly offers to invite me to join iwiw, but we cannot find the correct button on their website.
June 24th; Quiet Sunday in Budapest. Citizens, I've lost my Pannon SIM card and the phone numbers stored on it, so please text me on 30 301 0712.

June 23rd; Train to Gatwick to fly to Budapest. Flight crowded. We all sit on the plane for an hour before it takes off. The man in front of me, tall, muscular, English, uncomplaining, 28-32, has somehow got himself a Hungarian girlfriend or wife who has to sit one row behind me over the aisle. She is still young but rapidly adding weight. At intervals during the flight, she comes over to stand next to his seat, and presses his head into her ample breasts in a vaguely reassuring, slightly absent-minded way. Since she grips the top of his seat right in front of me to do this, I get to see that all her fingernails have a small picture of a plant painted on top of the pink varnish. Three broad strokes of green for the leaves, a thinner green stroke for a stem, and dotted yellow blobs for the bloom. I also get the chance to admire her pencilled-on eyebrows, drawn in a kind of slatey grey-green, with all the original hairs exterminated - and her rapidly developing double chin. Not bad going for a woman whose skin puts her in her late 20s, max. Must be wife, on further thought. Hungarian fiancees stay slim until marriage.
Wonderful to be leaving Britain after this couple of months. To be able to at least partly leave behind the scenes from the hospital: spoonfeeding my mother with tears welling up in my eyes; the nurses and other patients telling me she was calling my name out in her sleep every night. The scenes at home before she went in: the grotesque nights when she was up, awake, hallucinating, showing the darker, sneering character always hiding in there over the decades; the times when it became clear just how intensely, bitterly she remembered the hurts others had dealt her, yet had casually forgotten or airily dismissed the hurts she had dealt others. The pompous consultant, Chandrate, summoning me into his office as though I was a naughty schoolboy, telling me nothing of what I needed to know to decide whether to try to buy a private operation early enough to have saved her life - either because he didn't know, or didn't expect to be questioned. His chirpy registrar who happily told me they were sure their diagnosis of congestive heart failure was correct with the proud air of a puppy who's just retrieved its first stick. Mother's sheer terror at approaching death. Having to deal with my relatives and their resentments precisely when I felt least able to. The hideous last night when I could not sleep, when it was too late to take a train to the hospital, but could, in my bedroom, physically feel mother ten miles away sliding into the pit of death between one and two a.m. Fifteen minutes of a horrible clutching sensation in my stomach, like a desperate call of help me help me help me - yet totally silent. Judging by the book on memory I'm now approaching the end of, I should have less need to forget new memories now she's gone. Clarity of mind at last? More memory-fixing CREB1, less memory-dissolving CREB2.
June 22nd; Meet two Roffers & a tequila nymph.

June 21st; Juno introduces me to two dogs and their owners. Last night after dark we meet a small terrier and a woman from Wales who lived a few years in Rotterdam. Juno & the terrier are friendly but find it difficult rubbing noses due to height differences. The terrier keeps walking under Juno: each time both dogs seem unsure where the other one has gone. In bright sunshine today, Juno and a golden retriever rub noses, romantically separated by a garden gate. On the next street corner I discover that I am walking two dogs not one - the blond dog has somehow burst free to join his playmate. Both dogs gambol happily on the lawns until Charlie's anxious owner finds us at almost the same spot of grass in the park as last night's meeting. She explains they are old friends, but her golden dog lacks road sense. By evening, go to Islington for brief drink with Nigel of Light. We talk about photographs, life classes, writing. Back in south London, Nigel of Darkness has returned from moving most of his belongings to Manchester.
June 20th; Talk on the phone to Yorkshire Water, who don't take notes very carefully. I'm bored today.

June 19th; Alone with dog. I feed Juno in Nigel's approved the-street-is-my-dogbowl manner, plopping the quivering cylinder of meat jelly down onto the kerb. Juno gobbles it up and licks the paving stones clean. Long, hot day followed by a brief thunderstorm. This probably is the last time I'll stay in his house in south London, since next week he exchanges documents with the pretty Indian solicitor Alpa we met a couple of days ago.
June 18th; While waiting for Nigel's van to Manchester, we agree Alderman Brown probably won't be good for civil liberties.

June 17th; Quiet Sunday. Nigel of Darkness & I stand in the centre of the Catford Tesco supermarket. He tells me that a cashew is not a true nut. The six-fingered checkout girl he promises is, we are sad to find, not working today.
June 16th; Phone Northern Rail up to establish that trains are running. They are. Pack and get to station. Oh no they're not. Get bus to Halifax. On bus, a kindly woman called Helen stops me from berating the driver and introduces me to other flood-stranded travellers, like Nick, a teacher of thinking skills at a Montessori school. Nick and I have an interesting chat on bus to Leeds, where an emergency train takes me to Doncaster. On train get talking to Emma, a business student soon to holiday in Thailand - though it is really Japanese she wants to learn. Tired and sweaty, I make it to Nigel's around 5pm, earlier than expected. He takes me back to the Bulgarian cafe where he is having a coffee with Denis.

June 15th; Rains heavily all night. Radio news in morning says much flooding across Yorkshire, though less so in my bit. Drizzle continues during day. Different friendly water man pops over and puts some dye down an outside drain to help trace my leak. Violence calms down in western Palestine. In the last couple of days purists from another start-the-world-afresh organisation, called Hamas, have been throwing people off buildings and pumping bullets into other people in hospital beds. There seems to be less of this now, and the stage set for a sort of East versus West Palestine war of separation, with a group called Fatah or Fateh controlling the West Bank, and Hamas controlling the Gaza strip. Exciting times.
June 14th; Friendly water man pops over and sploshes in cellar for a moment. Recently I have Radio 4 on almost the whole time. Last couple of days I heard two chunks of a book being read on Radio 4: part 1 and part 3, I think, of 'Paper Houses' by Michele Roberts. Startling change between the two instalments. The first, about college and her first job at the British Library, was wistful, interesting, sharp. She described people and places. Her feelings came out naturally as she narrated her way through scenes. Part 3, it seems, followed from a section I missed about her writing for 'Spare Rib' magazine. By Part 3 she's in the feminist writing circuit of late 1970s London. The shift in tone was extraordinary: an early love of books had become a raw needy hunger to be heard as a writer; stuff about going into analysis which left out anything to help us to imagine her analyst or where it happened. I didn't notice any streets, houses, people - apart from two men's names - no parties, meetings, very little outside her emotions in the abstract. Me me me, in short. It can't have been that bad, but it felt much duller than Part 1. Today I hear what sounds like Part 4, and she has calmed down a bit, but only a bit. There's an opening description of winter, though of course it's a metaphor for her loneliness and inner chill. She's in her early 30s and confessing she feels insecure in the early 1980s. She meets an attentive, scholarly older man who proposes to her and whisks her off to Italy. We hear mainly about the insides of rooms in Italy and the insides of rooms in Harvard. How the marriage breaks down is rather mysterious. I can guess, though.

June 13th; On phone to lawyer, water company, insurers, and James.
June 12th; Get to the end of library copy of 'Evolution and Healing' by George Williams and Randolph Nesse. The idea of this mid-90s book is that medicine has been slow to absorb Darwinian ideas, especially the work of Trivers and Hamilton showing that benefits accrue to genes, not individuals or species - and that this perspective changes everything about health care. For example, old age is a result of trade-offs giving advantages to young animals when they are of breeding age, overeating is a good strategy for nutrient-poor Stone-Age life, allergic overreactions come with alert immune systems, cancer is overactive cell growth. So "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower ... is my destroyer" - really. Particularly the arms race between parasite and host is the big agent of change, making sexually scrambling genes worthwhile, and any advantage temporary, as Matt Ridley explained well in 'The Red Queen'. Perhaps only outdated in the assumption that there is not much we can do about these genetic predispositions except be aware of them and make lifestyle adaptations.

June 11th; Tim & Sara come over for ginger tea. I hear a description of some estate agents as "half-wits", but perhaps they were just sweetly consoling me. Sara describes a curious bagpipes-&-majorettes event in Salford this morning where she played the bonny pipes. Tim recommends doing one's own conveyancing.
June 10th; Start opening my eerie unopened mail from 1991. Open a chatty letter from Mark. Find a dinner invite from Anne Barkas, an alert old friend of mother. I post off a postcard on the offchance we could catch up on the phone, then, back from the postbox, notice in mother's address book the words next to Anne's name saying "died in Glasgow in 1998". Better buy some more St John's Wort at this rate.

June 9th; A phone call from Dan jogs me out of my self-pity. The retina in his right eye detached, and he went into hospital for a disgusting-sounding eye operation under local anaesthetic. He says it went well, but of course he'll be unable for many weeks to give the van-driving and house-clearing help he kindly offered with mother's house. I feel ashamed for being cross & miserable yesterday when I have no such worries. I almost drop the phone when Dan describes how the initial peeling away of his retina cells seemed like "a dark curtain being drawn across" his right eye. Ugh. His eyeball is now apparently full of gas, so he must not fly for a month or so. Definitely one for the Intelligent-Design half-wits to explain: what kind of intelligent designer puts our retinas on backwards? Unless it was really squids God made in his own image, of course.
June 8th; Last night was very optimistic after some herbal tea with Gavin, when he recommends his estate agents to me as good people who will manage and let out this house while I go away, sorting things out for me for their fee. Today, I phone them up, a woman comes round and reacts with almost instant disgust at the inch of water in the cellar, saying house is a health hazard. She lists a set of things I must spend money on before I am legally allowed to let it out. At the end she calls the house a liability, not an asset, and casually mentions I might flog it off for 90,000 pounds - one thousand more than what my mother sold the Manchester semi for. The large semi with the large garden now worth almost a million quid according to James. So thanks for that, mother. At the cost of several people's happiness, mainly hers, I have been successfully punished for refusing her demand of 20 years ago. This was that I live with her full-time so that I should take from her the burden of letting out rooms to lodgers. This burden I recall from childhood days when we did it together amounted to at least three days' hard work a year cleaning and moving furniture, with which she constantly complained she could not "cope". Judging by the coloured map on the front of The Times a couple of days back, she managed to move from one of the fastest price-growth regions of England to the slowest price-growth region of the entire country. Quite an accomplishment. I phone the insurer [mother let the policy lapse in 2004] who says there's a need to phone back tomorrow after a word with the underwriters. Why? Because by postcode the insurer can tell the house is in one of the areas of England most prone to subsidence & flooding. Oh good. Go to bus stop in order to use Internet in Hebden. First bus drives past because it is for training only. Second bus is a school bus, and I'm ordered off when I get on. The next three buses are all school buses. Then another school bus. Next bus, school bus. I glance down at my mobile phone, and start to answer a text. A bus I could have caught sails past, despite the fact I am leaning against the bus stop. Am able to catch the ninth bus. Obtain some relief in the evening by reading Mark Buchanan's 'Small World', about the network ideas behind maps of the Internet, Milgram's six degrees of separation, epidemiology, irritatingly-named "complexity theory", and Gladwell's 'Tipping Point' book about fads. The main idea seems to be a trade-off between the clustering created by strong connections, and the broader links created by weak connections. Together, they seem to make webs of connections like brains and social networks function more effectively than at either extreme.

June 7th; Lots of small children at church. Pick up ashes from undertaker and pay bill. Try out iffy trading platform.
June 6th; Of course it couldn't possibly work. What was I thinking? Water back in cellar. Shorten flex on ceiling light. Visit library.

June 5th; More mortaring in cellar. Can this possibly work? Meet James in Manchester. We look at Chetham's Library from outside.
June 4th; Pump cellar dry. Again. Experiment with temporary mortar seal. Successful plumbing mend elsewhere in house. Entertaining evening music-hall stuff. Prospective tenant still shaken and takes offer of accommodation from sister. In other words, not from me.

June 3rd; Strip tape off windows and razor-blade away stray smudges of paint. In church, jolly vicar uses a mirrored disco ball, a ball of string, and a three-foot-diameter frisbee to explain the nature of the Trinity.
June 2nd; Cellar needs pumping again. Some good Radio 4. Prospective tenant has accident falling off bus so has to cancel visit.

June 1st; In small hours, finish book mother bought recently on 'Indian Sculpture' by Grace Morley. Runs through two thousand years of Indian sculpture, highlighting the crowds of lively characters that distinguish Indian friezes and sculptures from other traditions. Mainly Buddhist, Jainist, and Hindu. Odd that we get taught at school that Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, when books say that Buddhism is older. Did not know that Jainism is almost the same age as Buddhism. Curious images of impassive Jainist heroes of meditation. So sunny today uncomfortably hot outdoors.

Mark Griffith, site administrator / contact@otherlanguages.org

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