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2011
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January 31st; Today is - or would have been - mother's birthday. John K & his mother drive over for a rather jolly lunch. Mrs K tells me of life in Cyprus, where she spends about 2/3 of each year these days. Afterwards, she buys some bread so we can feed ducks on the canal. I do more rasping of the frustratingly swollen front door, and more furniture into the skip. In the evening, my internet connection goes down for four hours, and after rummaging in the few boxes of my mother's books left in the downstairs room, I find 'The Franchise Affair' by Josephine Tey, a soothingly dated detective story set in a mythical sleepy English town in the late 1940s where a teenage girl accuses a woman in her 40s and her mother in her 70s of keeping her prisoner in an attic and beating her for several weeks. The central character is a country solicitor in his forties already settled in his ways who is clearly destined to fall in love with the younger but still middle-aged of the two spinsterish "witches" in their strange, isolated house. He is not entirely convincing, although the pair of weird women with their acidic humour and their refusal to be weak or feel sorry for themselves are striking. In fact, as fits a book written by a woman, all the best-drawn characters in the book are women. Much of the story is like Colin Watson's Flaxborough with drier, gaunter humour lit by occasional flashes of wit or memorable imagery. The book's mood is placid, but verges on something haunting, even eerie. The poetic younger colleague of the male lawyer describes marrying the 40-something Miss Sharpe as being like trying to marry wind or clouds. Though the plotting is plain & simple, perhaps intentionally so, there are moments of character surprise. Half a page of speech by one woman married to a charming philanderer brings to life a vivid cameo character who offhandedly describes her wayward husband as "fun and a good provider". Some of the violence in the book is startling, and shows that whipping up a lynch mob was just as easy before television or internet chat networks, if not easier than now. The male characters tend to be earnest stalwarts or devious charmers, but as a cartoon of the English market-town murder mystery with its odd nostalgia always for some gentler yet darker time further back, this has some powerful moments and clever observation.
January 30th; Ed pops over, we chat of this & that, read some Geoffrey Hill together.

January 29th; Village electrical appliance shop is open this morning. Yesterday I bought a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner. Today a small radio to replace the one that got fused by the water burst. At the supermarket, the woman behind me asks the sales girl how her dog is doing. "Very well, thanks. He's a star!" says the sales girl happily. "Mine's a little git." says the shopper firmly. "He eats all my vegetables!" she shouts, and they both explode with laughter. Merry England continues. Back in The House, continue picking & hoovering the kitchen ceiling off the kitchen floor. Skip waits outside. I start to dump furniture into it. By night the two radiators at the top of the house start to gurgle oddly every few minutes. It feels as if the house has a digestive system, and its tummy is rumbling as I drift off to sleep.
January 28th; The gas-pipe man from the village arrives, snorting when I ask if he will make sure to instal only Baxi fuses. "Fuses are fuses" he mutters, asking me if it was a woman on the phone who came out with that instruction. He meticulously begins to trace problems through the boiler, component by component, until he has established that the external pump is broken. After replacing this, he warns me the boiler is still broken. Then amazingly, it restarts. The gas-pipe man has two radiators working, but warns me that the other four will be another visit to get working again, since the valves seem broken. Not longer after he leaves I rejoice in my first hot bath in over a week.

January 27th; Gloomy day. Realise that I have no hot water, still, and no tradesmen are booked today. The not particularly enthusiastic boiler people cannot come again until Monday, though they grudgingly agree that their 350 pound charge entitles me to a free follow-up visit. Since the gas-pipe man is coming tomorrow, Friday, I nervously ask their permission to have him check the boiler's fuses without voiding my guarantee. They say yes if he only instals proprietory Baxi fuses.
January 26th; Plumber turns up first and gets straight down to work. When the boiler technician comes next, the plumber calls him "feller" and the boiler man seems to not like this. Plumber goes off to buy parts and the boiler man says he cannot test the boiler since the water is still turned off, so he's finished. He leaves. Electrician arrives, and plumber returns with his parts. He discovers a third burst pipe, changes a washer, and he stands by watchfully as I turn on the water to feed back into the central-heating system as the now absent boiler technician instructed. The pressure gauge doesn't go up, and we hear shouts from the electrician downstairs. Water is pouring out of the radiator in the sitting room, which has burst a valve. Of course, the boiler technician repaired the boiler and was careful to say his firm was not responsible for the heating pipes. Yet legal controls stop the plumber from repairing the radiators, though he kindly caps off a fourth burst pipe he finds in the heating system. He and the boiler technician talk by phone and the boiler technician refuses to come back to help with pipes awkwardly positioned behind the boiler. The electrician has solved an old wiring problem and he leaves. The plumber caps off my radiators so I can heat the water and as they all go I get ready for a hot bath at last. I run the tap and see that the boiler is not working as it was before, and that water is cold. Return to spongeing water out of my soaking wet sitting room carpet.

January 25th; Say farewell to Ralph and his remarkable house after a wonderful breakfast of lots of toast and marmalade, and set off for train. On bus meet a young mother with a three-year-old who is a school teacher of Latin, Spanish, and French. Get across town and arrive at King's Cross where an announcement is playing on loop: "Will Inspector Sands please report to the London end of platform 10." This message goes on for about half an hour, and I get on the train twenty minutes early just to stop hearing it. Ride train up north. Several hours later, reach Village house to find front door so swollen with damp I almost have to break it down. Once in, I cannot close it, so I begin rasping down the wood along the edge of the door. The kitchen ceiling paper hangs down in big sheets, as if the ceiling is an open wound in one of those Catholic paintings of a saint being tortured to death. After two hours of shaving wood and unscrewing both latch and lock cover plate, I can just about close and reopen the front door semi-normally without breaking it, and Ed arrives to help me buy a replacement door for the back of the house. We drive out to Halifax in the dark after 6pm, find a B & Q, and look at the doors. None come with locks or with a service that inserts locks if you pay, so I must get a carpenter. Searching for coloured chalk to help me shave down the swollen damp front door to fit we find an empty late-night warehouse store where a very bouncy teenage girl is extremely excited at the thought I want to buy coloured chalk at 8 o' clock at night. I get, for less than a pound, ten very fat chalks in five colours in a Jumbo Box. Ed & I have a curry buffet in Bradford to celebrate buying Jumbo Chalks. We dine in a large empty restaurant with a stage and an indoor stream with fish swimming in it past our table. I burble a bit about my renewed interest in Spenser's 'Faerie Queen' and Ed tells me Neil Finer is a doctor now and has a baby daughter of about two. It turns out that Ed was in the Penn Club on Sunday night just like me, but on a different floor.
January 24th; I move my bags to Ralph's home, even more crowded with engine parts than before. A car wheel blocks the front hall. We drink some beers and chat, then I set off Saffron Walden to meet Roger the Wizard. Getting there eventually, Roger says I now seem like a high-definition 1200-line-per-screen television screen, not a 625-line or 360-line screen. Get train back to London, and on the Tube am near a group of dressed-up office girls out for the night. The pretty brunette opposite in the lace-up boots is mistress of ceremonies leading the discussion, and she emphatically states no more Chinese food for her. "They eat dog, inay? Int you hear bout that? Someone found a microchip in their chow mein down Brick Lane. Tastes like labrador sometimes anyway." I point out she shouldn't really admit to knowing what labrador tastes like and they grudgingly chuckle. Someone else says something, and the brunette says in a thoughtful way, "Well, we're in a recession." and they all laugh. Find Piera in an event at the Royal Geographical Society where a blonde with curly hair is showing us highlights from the forthcoming BBC TV series about spices she is presenting. In the empty bar afterwards Piera & I find Ralph, we look at some Mapplethorpe-ish photographs of spice plants and a blonde comes over proprietorially and greets us. I write in her visitors' book that we enjoyed her lecture, slightly embarrassing when I realise she is not the lecturer but a taller blonde photographer girl with straight hair. Ralph, Piera & I eat in the Polish Club over the road, which is empty, and has a trembling chandelier because there is a dance class upstairs as we dine. I go back to Ralph's and drift off into a rich deep night of sleep on the sofa to the sound of scratching & chewing by the mouse that lives somewhere behind all the boxes in his downstairs room.

January 23rd; Travel out to Croydon to meet Psychic 1. In her cosy sitting room she tells me that I must listen to my intuition more, that I am essentially a blue type, and defines white magic as strengthening the will of others and black magic as weakening the will of others. I compare it to Kant's idea of never treating others as means, but as ends in themselves. On her shelf I see a book with the wonderful title 'Practical Time Travel' by someone called Colin Bennett, who might or might not be the Colin Bennett who wrote the equally superbly named 'The Infantryman's Fear of Open Country'. By night I return to the Penn Club.
January 22nd; Fly to London Luton. Uneventful journey. Last night watched a film borrowed from the French Institute: 'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud' {'Elevator to the Gallows'}, directed by Louis Malle with a soundtrack by Miles Davis. A curious but quite compelling 1958 drama of a man trapped in a lift overnight in an office building and the two teenagers who steal his car in the meantime, this works at moments but mostly feels like a set of independent stories not quite linked together. Nicely observed black-and-white photography with some lovely performances, particularly the man in the lift and the teenage boy's utterly adorable shopgirl lover.

January 21st; I meet Mystery Friend 2, who has flown in from London, and we do some bureaucracy together. It doesn't go well. He says crossly that the Wekerle Housing Estate's street plan of concentric squares sounds like a "dazzle pattern of town planning, populated by people who drone and bump into each other" and that Hungarian is a "garden-gnome language". With his help, I get two boxes of books from the printer back to my flat, leaving five boxes there bound for America. One day.
January 20th; Big day at Ilan's. I film him cutting cardboard for his website, and he talks me through exporting books to the USA. We grapple with the requirement to obtain a "customs bond" in order to send stock to Amazon. In the middle of the day his masseuse turns up and I go out to buy sausages while they get on with it.

January 19th; Ilan helps me understand my options for the fiendishly bureaucratic freighting to America task, and we join his Chinese herbalist for dinner at a restaurant near the railway station afterwards. Wei & her Chinese friends explain it is soon new year, when the Year of the Rabbit begins.
January 18th; I buy a set of boxes as open sheets of cardboard {the right size this time} from the back door of the post office. Of course, each of their range of differently sized boxes are printed with the logo of the Hungarian Post Office logistics, its website, and its phone number. What it doesn't occur to the logistics experts to do is print the sizes on the range of boxes, which are quite similar-looking when opened out as sheets. They could use inches, centimetres, bee spaces, any agreed measure of size. Even just calling the boxes "small", "smaller-medium", "medium" etc, or even just A, B, C, D, but no. The boxes are completely unlabelled as regards their size. Never mind. This time I get the right size, and struggle back into the front of the post office holding seven large sheets of cardboard taped together, actually cutting my chin on the edge of card stumbling on the steps. As I curse Hungary and everyone in it, people around me immediately begin to be really friendly and sweet. The counter staff are jollier than I have ever seen them, and as I waddle to the tram stop a woman appears beside me and insists on helping me carry the cardboard sheets. It dawns on me that she is the lady who comes to my flat every few months to read the water meter. I get to the printers, where Eva is wearing a Macskafogo t-shirt and insists on helping me pack the parcels of books into the seven boxes, once I fold them into shape.

January 17th; Interesting day. At the pastry shop I walk in to find the evangelical blonde in a lively but friendly debate with a soft, pleasant-looking lad. The blonde is in a severe navy-blue pinafore dress with a smooth white pullover underneath and this shows off her shoulder-length hair she has brushed straight, making her look crisp and radiant. As I walk into the tiny shop, she is saying loudly with happy pride "No! It's not going to be like that with me. First comes God. Second will come my husband. After that then will come my children. This is how many marriages go wrong - the children arrive and the proper order of priorities gets upturned." She seems to have it all worked out. She turns to me beaming, I apologise for interrupting the theological debate, and they both laugh. As she wraps a couple of scones and gets an energy drink out of the fridge for me {this is the girl who reproached me for drinking the 'Hell' brand of ceffeine drink, and asked me if I knew what the strange foreign English word "hell" meant in case I was making an innocent mistake in buying it}, the soft lad exchanges a meaningful glance with me. It's a look many Hungarian and other Continental men give other men at moments like this. It roughly translates as "Isn't she lovely, eh? I can't blame you for fancying her too, but - no offence mate - I'm doing my best to chat her up here." It's a sort of may-the-best-man-win expression with an extra nuance of apologetic wistfulness. I go to the French Institute to return two films on DVD. I find that the mediatheque {their fancy word for a library that lends music and films too} is closed on Mondays, so I use the loo, and wander round an exhibition upstairs, called 'Skies', a set of photographs by someone called Akos Czigany. The room lined with his black-and-white photographic prints is empty of people, and his snaps are empty of people too. All the pictures have one clever-clever idea, and he goes through lots of permutations. Each photograph is taken by a camera looking straight up at the sky from inside the courtyard of a building {many of them in Budapest by the look of them}. So each picture looks odd initially until you see that it, and all the others, are vertical shots of white sky, all sun or cloud detail deliberately contrasted out. The pictures are therefore as empty as most contemporary art, since each one is a centred blank white rectangle framed by the grey inner walls of the building whose courtyard it is. A few seconds after the first surprise you see an exhibition-generating gimmick, done 30-odd times. Dutifully I look at a couple more of them, and after some moments the gimmick fades away and some of the surprise comes back. I start again to see the boxy grey courtyard sides as short horizontal oblong tunnels leading out into whiteness, nothingness. Though details like railings and plants from the walkways round the sides demand to be seen as human and remind you the camera is pointing straight up, I find myself returning to seeing the sky as horizontally there, straight ahead, as if the photographer is about to launch sideways out of the bowels of some baroque spaceship itself hovering or flying through white cloud. A mild vertigo returns. Back downstairs out of the building in, after just 15 minutes, thick fog has descended on the Danube. Thicker than I ever recall seeing it. The French Institute is on the river bank, but now it might as well be on the shore of a lake or a sea. Soft, blank whiteness blurs everything past the railings of the embankment. Staring hard, I see the very faint, blurred ghost of a low, two-storey building across the river, but then I remember there are no low buildings at that point, and I notice that the ghostly building is moving. It's a cargo ship chugging upriver. Amazed, I move two tramstops down the Gellert Bridge, and see a stray sunbeam picking out the upper flanks of the university building across the river. I go back upriver on another tram and at Margit Bridge the fog again has made Pest totally vanish. Crossing Margit Bridge, the fog is so thick that even the island in the river has gone, and only as the tram passes do the grey silhouettes of three or four trees show on one side where the island is. At one point both the island and Pest are shrouded in fog and the tram is just moving steadily through empty whiteness. In the evening I finish 'Les Hommes et leurs genes' {Humans and their genes} by sprightly grand man of French genetics, Albert Jacquard. Perhaps I read something else by him a few years ago. This agreeably slim book is a quick tour of genetics for the general reader, and he takes care to explain how genes persist in populations, why eugenic plans to eradicate certain genes are inhuman and impractical, what precise sense can be given to terms like 'race', and why the simplified idea that evolution spreads genes that favour the individual creature's chances of surviving or procreating often isn't quite right.
January 16th; Sunday. Some time between 7am and 10am the dog must have decided to sleep at last, because I wake up on the sofa with my mobile phone buzzing repeatedly at me. Maud has arrived in the pawprint van and is waiting for me downstairs in the van to pick up Samuel. Though he seems amiable enough in the morning as I take him down in the lift {he refuses to ever use stairs but also is angry and snarls if I try to carry him} with the same bags of food, bedding, bowls and medicines Maud gave me about eighteen hours ago, I have never been so glad to see a dog leave. However cruelly he was treated in the past, I have limited reserves of energy of my own. The other five dogs I looked after were fine. Not this one - or perhaps he's fine, but only with women.

January 15th; Saturday. The Norwegian girls ask me urgently to look after one of their dogs, a half-Puli called Samuel who had apparently been horribly abused by his owner, a man. They warn me he smells bad and needs to be taken for a wash & clip which - generous to a fault - they offer to pay for. Maud, now blonde, turns up in the pawprint van after dark and hands over the grumbling dog. I promise to wash him myself, since all the pet-grooming places are closed. I take him up into my flat. He wears a leather harness Maud fits to him in front of me {finding that just while in the van he has chewed through his leash} and a new leash. The poor little thing absolutely reeks like some homeless people. He hasn't had a bath in years. Maud also I said I shouldn't try to wash him for an hour {saying something a bit puzzling at first about Samuel disliking men's voices}, so I wait while Samuel snuffles round my flat. He is filled with a curious kind of stubborn energy. He is repeatedly intrigued by his reflection in the glass of Robin's abstract painting. He is puzzled by my glass doors onto the balcony and several times over the course of the evening bangs his nose into the glass, seemingly not learning that something solid is there the way other dogs do. After about an hour of waiting and a two hours of coaxing, I manage to get him into the bath and shower him with soap. He growls at me throughout, but there is no biting. I rub him dry with a towel and he seems to take this well enough. The stench lightens. Trouble starts when I try to get his harness back on half an hour later to take him for a walk. He grabs part of the leather, starts chewing, and snarls and attacks me when I try to stop him. Following Maud and Anouska's advice I back off, and use only a high voice with him. Over the next hour or so I watch him eat the entirety of his six-strap harness, leaving only three shiny metal loops on my floor, all the while obstinately snarling at me if I approach. I start to get the feeling this dog is going to have to be watched and managed full time. He starts absent-mindedly roaming around the flat attacking various bits of furniture. Somehow I get his single collar and the leash onto him without being bitten, and he briefly calms again. We go out for a walk. On the way out of the building he bangs his nose trying to walk through another sheet of glass. On the street he pulls back and forward the whole time in a way I've never seen in another dog. We see other sheets of glass in the lobbies of other buildings. He stares at each one thoughtfully for a second, then tries to walk through each one, and bangs his nose each time. We get back to my building and he bangs his nose on the same sheet of glass in the lobby during his journey back in. In my flat, he shows no sign of wanting to sleep. About 3am, I lock him in my bathroom with his bedding and a bowl of water and he begins to scratch the door frantically and howl enough to wake the neighbours. I let him out and collapse on the sofa. He then roams around the flat, doing something loud roughly every five minutes. For the next two hours he wakes me every five minutes, just as I am falling asleep each time. I lock him in the bathroom again, he makes grumbling noises but does not howl this time. It is now 5.30am. I send an e-mail and a phone text to the Norwegian girls asking them to take him away again as soon as possible. It has dawned on me that - like some children badly beaten by their parents - Samuel actually wants me to hit him. It's probably the only form of affection he knows, and he has been winding me up all night so as to get some physical closeness of the only type he understands - at least from a man.
January 14th; Sleep 15 hours. Extraordinary rich, intense dreams. At my last waking, I have just begun learning the piano and some woodwind instrument {one lesson each} and am hanging to the top edge of a high brick wall, my head in shrubbery and tree blossom, having a conversation with a small old lady down below in a walled garden of, I think, a church. Ilan cooks a delicious breakfast at his flat, where he plays me several violinists performing the same piece, insisting that Nathan Milstein takes a quite different approach to the melody to the other performers. Then we go to the OBI hardware warehouse. While I spend five minutes buying the cheapest hand saw, Ilan tests out and shows me lots of power tools for 3/4 of an hour.

January 13th; Finish Ilan's copy of 'DMSO', a book about dimethyl suphoxide and its alleged medicinal benefits by Morton Walker. Apparently it is a small molecule that quickly penetrates living tissues very quickly, leaving behind a vague smell of seafood, sometimes carrying other medicines into the body effectively. Seemingly very unrisky, the story is that FDA recognition of the drug in the United States has been slowed by the difficulty in doing double-blind tests {because the patients smell so distinctive, a smell that has proved hard to fake in the placebo} and in motivating pharmaceutical research into a substance that sells cheaply and is hard to patent. Slightly heavy-going as a read, but an intriguing cautionary tale.
January 12th; Peculiar unsolved bank heist story about a very elaborate robbery almost eight years ago by a man with a time bomb fixed round his neck.

January 11th; My postcards arrive at last.
January 10th; Bold article suggests starting the internet all over again.

January 9th; Wash & scrub down balcony. Bump into the exotic Michal at restaurant.
January 8th; I wake out of a dream in which I am reading aloud from a book to several people in a sitting room, and saying in surprise "Who'd have thought that Manchester has not one, but two Sorcerors' Cemeteries?" Leisurely afternoon with Ilan, Silvia, and an alarmingly large pizza.

January 7th; Buy some seven-foot sticks of wood. Preparing next book already, though The Royal Mail seem to be sitting on two parcels from two weeks ago, one of which matters.
January 6th; Back at the gym changing room with the ridiculous L-shaped locker doors that doubtless won someone a design award. Miracle one of the sharp, head-height metal corners hasn't crowned me yet. Strange scene as I shower and dress to leave after dark. A bulky but muscular man with a shaved head in his coat sitting with a small boy, perhaps 7 or 8, wrapped only in a towel. The shaved man looks sensitive rather than thuggish. They sit in complete silence for about ten minutes straight gazing ahead at the locker doors facing them. The man sits with one arm casually round the boy's shoulders, the boy seemingly unworried by the silence of, I assume, his father. Neither are at all bothered by what would have been any woman's concern, that the boy would "catch his death of cold". Find myself wondering if the man is divorced or separated and is treasuring a last few moments alone with his son in the one room where the mother, perhaps hovering outside, cannot march in and retake custody of the child.

January 5th; Woman does software trick on Van Gogh paintings to make them look like cardboard cut-outs.
January 4th; Tuesday. Intriguingly high-minded American website.

January 3rd; Monday. Finish the little book Rob kindly gave me last week, one of those darling volumes that nestle next to tills, 'In the Cards' by Nancy Arnott is a good quick overview, with some nice ideas for spreads based on the Major Arcana plus one suit. Adorable illustrations drawing from about five packs.
January 2nd; Sunday. Very strange dreams these days. Today or yesterday I wake out of a dream about Bournville and Port Sunlight with tears in my eyes. Startling.

January 1st; Quiet day alone at home, doing papier mache. Since Robin & I were a bit baffled by the French in the black and white 1965 'Alphaville' that we were allowed to watch 2/3 of at Christmas, I watch it right through by myself on the laptop, followed by 'Le Cinquieme Element' (The Fifth Element) from the late 1990s, the other DVD I borrowed from the French Institute. All while pasting bits of newspaper together. I chose the two fairly at random {I really had no idea what Alphaville was about}, but it turns out to be quite curious to watch them back to back and compare them. Apart from both being by film directors called Jean Luc {Godard & Besson}, they both turn out to be fantasy films about the future, both play games with the conventions of the sci-fi genre, and both are about a gruff American on a crucial mission meeting a pretty French girl with a shoulder-length haircut. Alphaville ends with the girl telling the man she loves him. Le Cinquieme Element ends with the man telling the gamine he loves her. Both statements have metaphysical implications: the first that the rescued lass has discovered emotion and is freed from the soulless, computer-controlled technopolis that is Alphaville, the second statement of love fulfils an ancient prophecy and literally rescues the world from a fireball. While Besson's red-haired alien girl clearly reprises the wild chick who kills stylishly but still needs love from his earlier film 'Nikita', it was how much other film-makers have copied Alphaville that was most startling. For one thing, the future with a casual mix of modernistic and historic interiors influences 'Bladerunner' 17 years later, and the role of the dark-haired "replicant" who saves the hero's life clearly comes straight from Godard's Anna Karina character. The Bladerunner android even looks like Godard's heroine. One woman interviewed in the documentary part of the DVD chuckles as holds her two hands horizontally, edgeways, in front of her own face to show the dramatic letterbox impact of Karina's straight dark fringe. The trope of baffling the supercomputer with an illogical remark has been reused since by imitators ad nauseam, as has the disturbing voice of a man with no larynx. Both films have as their central character an American from New York, both actors replaying a cliched role they have played in other films, a role that gets gently mocked both times. There is also the poignant sight of, three decades apart, two earnest declarations of love from French cinema to American culture, requited on film but not in life.


Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com