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2010
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May 31st; More rain on and off. Lights go out at the gym, and suddenly the long, tube-like brightly-lit room full of weights machines and mirrors is revealed to be a gloomy set of connected cellars. Lozenges of grey early-evening light down from grilled windows at foot level up on the pavement outside pick one or two of us out in the thickening darkness like faceless artisans tending our machines. It could suddenly be an engraving from the 18th century of how the poor toil in some ghastly basement workhouse beneath the streets. By night finish the paperback collection of Rudyard Kipling short stories 'Plain Tales from the Hills' that I picked up second-hand a couple of months ago. These are very good, and are tales of mishaps, minor comedies, and occasional darkness in a province of British India in the 1880s and just before. Though I haven't read more than 20 or so collections of short stories over the years, these are the best lot yet. Many have a sting in the tail, not yet the smart-alec twist in the tail this form increasingly had later. Many are surprisingly moving. However, what most strikes is Kipling's command of story-telling and his sheer range, from light comedy to bleak horror, through farce, irony, despair, often changing mood unexpectedly. The style is indeed deceptively "plain" and direct. All are told in a dry, ironically business-like tone which softens or hardens without warning. Not one but two tales are about a small child {one 6 years, one even younger}, each of whom emerges as a rounded character. Kipling pays more attention to the British than to the Indians, and sees more distinctions among the grades of white man, but many of the Indian characters are drawn sharply and hauntingly and live on the page more vividly than the Anglos. Quite a large number of Indian words are dropped in, sometimes 4 or 5 in one story, and I didn't know any of them, but they don't impede the narrative. However, Kipling's fondness for writing in dialect has irritated many readers, apparently, and 3 or 4 of the tales are a struggle because he spells out British regional dialects and has those characters speaking for long stretches. One anecdote told by three soldiers, I think one Irishman, one Londoner and one Northerner, was very hard to follow at first, yet with effort they jump out as startlingly true-to-life. Often accused of patronising common soldiers as comic characters, I realised with a shock I've several times met characters that talk and think just like his do, a hundred years on. In fact, a scene flashed back to me from the 1980s: two barrow-boy traders I used to work with on the financial markets yanking another trader out of the gilt-futures pit because he'd gone in drunk after lunch and was going to lose lots of money unless they stopped him for his own good - the tone they used to remonstrate with their colleague was exactly like one of the characters in this book. Kipling commonly depicts middle-class British men as fools, and he is much more positive about the women, the Indians, and the British Tommies. Some very memorable characters are shrewd women {such as Mrs Hauksbee} who he archly describes as far superior to men in their wisdom & cunning. Most readers of prose fiction are women, then as now, and just occasionally I might have caught a glint of Kipling's own slyness as he indirectly courts his most important group of readers. Something about his lucid, dry prose reminded me of the style Fay Weldon tried to adopt {a worldly-wise narrator's voice and crisp, elegant sketches of social scenes, but a carping snideness in place of Kipling's wit & compassion}. I wonder if she read him when young. A scene where Kipling sends an irritating character mad made me laugh. For about a century since Freud this scene must have struck readers as clumsy and outdated. Now we can once again see that how he depicts his character's aphasic attack is clinically accurate while the intervening decades of Freudian folkloric mist start to fade away. A sharp eye-witness writer who looks set to outlast intellectual fashion.
May 30th; Yes, more rain. Greece and the euro stay together for now. I'm starting to get to know the artsandletters website's main obsessions: Darwin, Islam, Heidegger, religion, American novelists {a piece about Norman Mailer's relations with women cannot quite bite the bullet and consider that he might just not have been a very good writer}, Oppenheimer, museums, Ayn Rand, the Soviets, Mozart. Though it links to some wonderful articles, I get a stronger sense of deja vu each time I revisit it.

May 29th; Back at gym. Fitness Mariann is wearing a figure-hugging black tee-shirt emblazoned, as often for the girls behind the counter, with a brash slogan in English. This one says in 2-inch-high glittery letters 'Sexy in Black'. I tell her for once her shirt is telling the truth, and she blushes and looks down bashfully. Some charming Hungarian graphics from the communist era. Funny how poignant and optimistic faded futurism can look when it's shrunken down to stamp-album, toy-town scale.
May 28th; Dinner with Marguerite & Csilla, which turns into an extraordinary debate about the nature of evil. Marguerite cheerfully says she does not believe there are ever altruistic acts but there is disembodied evil as a force, as if she is a Manichean with the positive bit cut out. Later we tour the streets so she can guess Hungarian words on signs. Marguerite says that this is the "gateway drug that leads to the crack cocaine of grammar".

May 27th; At 7am, go to my first aerobics class for years and get very hot & thirsty before the hour is over. With about 5 or 6 other young Hungarian women we prance about, stepping on and off fibreglass doorstep-objects, while waving pink-velvet-surfaced 1-kg weights which soon get heavy once ten minutes of moving them in the air has gone by. The instructor plays a seamless techno-music soundtrack, including one bit where I and the girls are all stepping in formation to a deep man's sampled voice looping through the barked-out words "Get the fuck - shut the fuck up - Get the fuck - shut the fuck up" over and over again. In the evening, attend a Toastmasters' meeting at Exxon's offices.
May 26th; Breakfast with Mystery Friend 2. Sun and then yet more rain & thunder. This is starting to annoy me. Buy a syringe with needles at animal pharmacy, then on the way out I accidentally knock over a standing display board, warping its metal plate. I offer to help flatten out the metal sheet, but the woman cashier waves me away looking utterly crushed & defeated by this turn of events. I find some more slim evidence that North West and South West England have been a kind of countercultural Celtic England split by Wales for centuries.

May 25th; Strange afternoon in sun with friend looking for electricity-board offices. More rain & thunder. Drinks with Dorina.
May 24th; Dinner with Scott. We discuss cats & New Zealand. We are trapped in an Indian restaurant by a thunderstorm.

May 23rd; More rain & thunder. John in Manchester kindly mentions that his local library has a Collins Robert English-French dictionary if I need help.
May 22nd; Hot sunny day, early evening thunderstorm. Buy a few yards of cotton fabric. Also in the morning drop in on Timea the potter to pick up my first fired clay fragments, lovely and lightweight and brick-pinkish. Mexican dinner with Ilan, who uses the fine phrase 'Chinesably reasonably' in mid-flow about foreign policy.

May 21st; Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' show generates a little iPlayer window. Some witty technician has given it a volume range from 1 to ...11. 'Spinal Tap' the reference, obviously. Late supper with Lilly.
May 20th; More heavy rain. Late lunch with Robin. Visit shoemaker, retrieve watch & clock from watchmender, pick up mending from new seamstress. Meet Eric & friends for evening drinks. Two mornings ago, I woke from a dream in which I was quoting from some book. The text was called 'The Book of Vom', the author was Pargit Tobe, and the publisher was {of course} Milkhampton Thistle.

May 19th; Kebab with Robin, visit Regina's office.
May 18th; Visit Timea the potter. Dinner with Dorina.

May 17th; Rain continues. Reshape wax cake.
May 16th; More dismal rain. Memory Eve drives over in the pawprint van to pick up fluffy Cuddle Dog Emil. Mystery online dude Draco/Seuci finds some restless ubermenschen in the very act of creating a new sport: running across water, of course. Finish my heavily abridged copy of 'The Story of My Life' by Giacomo Casanova, a vast book in its full extent. Interesting period details of the great adventurer as he lives through the 1730s, 40s, 50s and 60s, moving to and fro across Europe, welcomed and then moved on soon after, getting mixed up in schemes, again & again having to leave a country at short notice. Of course, many of his stories are about women. "Marcolina was charming in bed. It had been eight years since I enjoyed Venetian follies in bed, and this girl was a masterpiece. I laughed at my brother, who was fool enough to fall in love with her." However, what is precious is the incidental detail that brings the 18th century to life. He arrives in 1760s Spain, and is surprised {like this reader} to find the Inquisition apparently requires bedroom doors at inns or taverns to have no locks on the inside but to have locks on the outside. This is so that Spanish Inquisitors can enter the bedroom of any foreigner at will to interrogate him, and keep him there as long as needed. This eerie repressive mood is echoed in a passage reminiscent of today's Islamic Republic of Iran or Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: "At the time, the great uproar in religious matters in the two Castiles {Spain} concerned wearing breeches without a codpiece. Those who wore them were put in prison, and the tailors were punished; yet people persisted in spite of this, and the priests and monks screamed from their carriages in vain when they inveighed against this indecency." A decade earlier in the 1750s, he is betrayed by a spy to the Venetian Inquisition for having some magical texts in his apartment. Casanova is locked up in a notorious prison in the centre of Venice for months, seemingly a sentence with no intended end. Incredibly, he organises an escape for himself and another inmate. Before leaving his cell to climb out through the ceiling onto the prison roof, he takes time to write a witty note to Venice's Inquisitors, asking them to allow his cellmate/informer to keep his books if he did not return, and then: "The idiot {Casanova's cellmate} answered that he hoped to see me again and would give everything back to me.
But it was time to leave. We could no longer see the moon. I tied half of the rope around Father Balbi's neck on one side, and the bundle of his wretched affairs on his other shoulder. I did the same for myself. Dressed both in our waistcoats, with our hats on our heads, we set out to meet our fate.
E quindi uscimmo a rimirar le stelle. {Dante: And we emerged to gaze upon the stars again.}" An extraordinary life.

May 15th; Rains heavily almost the whole day. Emil to be with me one more night. He is very calm & curious, not particularly impressed by dogfood, and almost scientific in the way he wants to methodically investigate each street on walks. They probably spoil him & cuddle him endlessly at the Norwegian Embassy, where he's been living a couple of months. Hungarian telephone system obviously not designed with rain in mind, since my internet connection drops 15 times in one hour this evening.
May 14th; Emil is a bit like a scaled-down Old English Sheepdog, with long, silky fur, about the size of a Clumber Spaniel. His fur is butterscotch-colour with blonde highlights and everyone adores him. I take him for several walks, including to the Mexican restaurant to meet Robin & Hans. Emil is very interested in any slim blonde girl, seemingly hoping each time that one of them might be Caroline or Anouska.

May 13th; Lovely dinner at Terri & Alvi's, with several Swiss colleagues of Alvi. At the party, Budadogs Caroline turns up {not in the pawprint van this time} towards the end of the evening. She brings me another fluffy dog I must look after for a couple of days. Everyone at the dinner loves Emil. A friend sends me a cartoon about Britain's new coalition government: first night at No. 10.
May 12th; Two photographs by David Bellemere which depict a world that seems glossy yet oddly nostalgic, though I can't quite say nostalgic for what.

May 11th; Up early to give short talk about interesting names to public-speaking group. Afterwards walk through sunshine to find a shop selling a blowtorch, so finally acquire the power of fire. Then manage to find some chocolate with gold-coloured metal foil, visit the 2nd-hand camera tripod shop, and take my watch & travelling clock to the watchmender round the corner. Looks as if Cameron and the Tories have made the mistake of taking the poisoned chalice of power in Britain after Labour decide not to form a coalition with the Liberals. Oh dear.
May 10th; Finish editing main draft of book.

May 9th; Do fair amount of work on book.
May 8th; Strange day. Life continues to surprise.

May 7th; Painful calves slightly improve. It seems that the Conservatives in Britain have, despite the constituency boundaries being strongly biased against them, managed to win the largest number of seats, still falling short of an overall majority. Would be nice to see a coalition that keeps Labour in power. That way Labour would have to decide how to cut back the 200 billion pounds of extra annual spending they got elected in 1997 promising would be easily affordable.
May 6th; Election day is still always a Thursday, one of the few quaint British customs that Labour hasn't vandalised yet, and Britain today has a general election. Odd stories about people queuing for hours and not getting a vote, and some seats with large amounts of postal fraud. My calves painful. Peculiar - I did no exercise or strain, yet on Tuesday woke with powerful muscle cramp only in the back of my two lower legs. Still hurts to walk up or down steps.

May 5th; Lunch with almond-eyed Dorina. Return a bouncing Oscar to Anouska.
May 4th; Lunch with Nicolas & his inline skates. Poetically named online friend Morning Lark sends me a link to a whizzy BBC election calculator, a sort of swingometer for our era, or at least for the day after tomorrow. For one night I take custody of Oscar the fluffy stray again. He is disappointed my flat is tidy now and no longer stuffed with stacks of books & boxes of interesting, terrier-sized rubbish.

May 3rd; Looking for two identical 2nd-hand tripods.
May 2nd; I seem to have mild sunstroke from the festivities at yesterday's May Day barbecue. Stumble, dazed, through day.

May 1st; Zoltan & I go to Eugenio's lovely garden party in village of Nogradkovesd.


Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com

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