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2011
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March 31st; Another day at the library. Stripeyness abounds.

March 30th; In the afternoon, am trying to do some work in French Institute library, sitting by big windows overlooking the Danube in sunshine, when a strange Frenchman comes in, twitching and talking to himself. Like a Continental version of the Angry American last night, he sits down at my table, although five or six others are available. He smells mildly. After a few minutes of listening to him giggle and apparently speak back to writers in the stack of French journals he's working through I realise there's nothing I can do, and move upstairs to a dark gloomy corner of the library, surrounded by CDs of chanson collections.
At night I finish reading through the book Rob lent me, 'Number' by Tobias Dantzig, a history of mathematics which pays more attention to notation than other histories I've seen. Generally there is only a section on zero, and perhaps the decimal point, and on the naming of negative or complex numbers. Dantzig goes further, explaining how each new notational innovation made it possible to think about things that before were hard to imagine or get a grip on. Since this is how I've always felt about mathematical notation {indeed that there is much further to go}, this strikes me as the best maths history I've read yet.
March 29th; Finish an autobiographical book on the tram called 'Some Girls' by Jillian Lauren. This is the story of how, at the start of the 1990s, an 18-year-old American girl who does alternative theatre but lives by stripping, and has just started working as a prostitute, gets invited to fly out to Singapore "for a party" which will pay handsomely. She finds out when she gets there that she has in fact been recruited for a couple of weeks into the harem of one of the Sultan of Brunei's younger brothers, both more lucrative and more boring than she ever imagined a party could be. What's unusual about the book is the combination of an irritating overwritten style with an interesting story. The good part is essentially the experience she went through, what it tells us about how seraglios work, and just how quickly & easily - surprising Lauren herself - a group of pretty girls brought up in a culture of emotional independence & pride sink into scheming and competing for the favours of one powerful male. Girls from different parts of the world stock the prince's palace, and the Asian girls at once emerge as better at the game, yet much of the time kinder, wiser, cleverer and just more feminine than the Western girls. Unfortunately, to hear the main story we have to wade through Lauren's personal posturing, complaining, and self-criticing, emblazoned on every page in the American style. It starts early, with a prologue that tells the tale of the queen who spins out the thousand and one Arabian nights of shaggy-dog stories to save herself from daily threat of execution. That section closes "This is, of course, the story of Scheherazade. It's the story of the story-teller. We lay our heads on the block and hope that you'll spare us, that you'll want another tale, that you'll love us in the end." After such a breath-takingly conceited start, appropriating the genuine oppression of women in danger worldwide to her spoilt self-pity, it's quite hard to like the woman enough to read another page. After a few weeks I was able to start again, moving on from that extraordinary paragraph. She talks a lot about being good at English at school, wanting to write {or sing or dance or act}, and it is hard to know if this book got helpfully edited. On balance I think not, because she takes the trouble several times to distinguish Bar Mitzvah {for Jewish boys} and Bat Mitzvah {for Jewish girls}, yet never checks to find out that the frequently-mentioned girls from the Philippines, important in the palace, are Filipinas - she writes "Filipino girls" throughout. She also writes 'disinterested' throughout when she means 'uninterested'. This is trivial, however, compared to her smart-alec tone of voice and her brittle show-off prose style. Not another Scheherazade, by any stretch. "Just look at that checklist. Don't worry, that's not your little girl. She'll never turn out to be like me." Almost every page has cringe-making writing like this, straining to sound clever & well-written: "I like to, when I can, shed my leaves so that the branches are bare, brittle. I like my blood to run cold as the snow. No fuel to feed the fire that warms it." The author insists on her lack of confidence, her ugly duckling status, her doubts about her own figure. "I knew something about New York. I knew I wouldn't be ugly when I got there. .....Basically I am a chubby girl with fits of anorexia and bulimia." This sort of stuff goes on throughout the whole book, playing up her status as a Jersey Girl worried she'd never make the grade. She repeatedly nags on about her indifferent looks, as if plain girls get handpicked to be flown halfway round the globe by the brother of the world's richest man. A glance at her photo shows someone in her 30s still a very good-looking woman, albeit with a slightly alarming allure: white vampirella skin, a mouth that's beautiful without looking sensuous or generous, thick dark hair, fine features {certainly not "chubby"} and something vaguely obsessive hovering behind the improbably coloured deadpan eyes. My interest always palled when she breaks off from talking about Brunei to dredge up an episode from her New Jersey suburban childhood, adopted as a baby by a Jewish couple she ends up despising yet pitying. The episodes are always symbolic, blatantly designed to build a bond with American readers. They concern some incident at school or summer camp that isn't really very interesting, but gets overwritten anyway and overlayed by her endless dialogue with herself. Quarrels with her parents - a time her foster father slapped her repeatedly round the face at sixteen, shouting at her because she had been rude to her foster mother - some early ambition to act or dance in some school show. These scenes are all strangely revealing yet evasive at the same time. Lauren seems to lay her history bare on the page, but something is being left out.
For example, the casually-mentioned episode where she loses her virginity at fourteen having been taken home by a stranger from a Grateful Dead concert where she is tripping on acid and without any friends. This episode raises more questions than it answers. She describes having sex with this nice man who takes her back to his Long Island flat, partly out of gratitude. Then while he is sleeping she steals thirty dollars from his wallet, and tip-toes down the stairs of his building with her shoes in her hands before running several blocks to start on her way home. Not even a scrawled goodbye message to the first man she has ever mated with. Quite decisive for 14. She sounds old before her time, and any sensitive reader wants to either not hear this level of detail, or to hear a lot more. After that anecdote we're hardly surprised she is stripping at seventeen, lying to her boyfriend while working at an escort agency, or lying to her parents about flying to South-East Asia for the harem job. If we can get interested in someone as self-absorbed as Lauren we naturally want to know more about the five or six years leading up to fourteen - either that or learn more about the Brunei royal family and their hangers on. Though there are some goodish cameo sketches of some of the girls who become her friends and enemies during the harem adventure, we don't really get either a convincing description of Lauren's life, or of her time in Brunei. What we get is more a set of intriguing jigsaw pieces from both lives with large gaps in between. Either she doesn't want us to know about the gaps, or she hasn't thought them through.
Once or twice some good prose pops up. One night in Brunei she has a strange dream. "I slept in Robin's arms and dreamed that I was the Sultan, or not exactly the Sultan, but a man.... I am a man and I walk into the Kit Kat Club on 52nd Street.... I buy a lap dance from a girl whose face I can't really see, but I can feel her heat. It surprises me how profoundly naked she is in my lap. In the dream, I'm awed by her softness. I think, You can buy a girl, a whole warm, velvety girl. ...I never got it before. I never understood why you'd want to buy a girl, until that dream. In my dream I was so grateful to be a man." Perhaps no accident that when Lauren is transported in a dream into someone who isn't her, suddenly she can write.
What makes this book truly interesting is what this chattering woman reveals unwittingly about South-East Asian court politics by her own failure to understand it. Her good looks aside, both her journey up and her journey down were due to her gaucheness, her oddly fresh, direct manner. But she doesn't grasp this. She ends up annoying the prince and her allies in the court in just the same way she annoys her readers in the book. Fiona, the Filipina favourite of Prince Jefri {aka "Robin"}, helps her into Robin's favour and even through Lauren's eyes comes over as intelligent & balanced. Jillian gets chosen to stay on, in part because of Fiona, and she stays there for months, not just the initial fortnight. Fiona the Favourite helps Jillian the American girl because the Filipina is using her to exile another girl, but also because Fiona is clever enough to know that the favourite needs allies more than anyone, to know that there is plenty of prince to go round and plenty of room at the top, and because she genuinely likes Jillian. Lauren half-senses all this, but mishandles it anyway. Fiona gives her three crucial pieces of advice, all of which Lauren fails to follow. Fiona's 1st tip: "'Stop being stupid. Are you here to make friends?' she asked. 'That's a mistake. I'm not your friend. Robin is not your friend. Those morons are certainly not your friends. The money is your only friend." Yet Lauren still panics about who she can trust or the creepy surveillance, despite being the Jersey Girl in a hurry to grow up. Fiona's 2nd tip: "'You'll learn that Robin never keeps skinny girls around for long,' she said. 'Now tell me, who can resist a man like that?'" So, Lauren starts dieting herself into oblivion. Fiona's 3rd tip, when Lauren is talking about her adolescent ideas of literature and returning to New York Theatre Land, by now Fiona's obvious exasperation leaping off the page and across the years: "'Can't you just sit still for five minutes? It's not like you're being asked to dig ditches. Go ahead and write all the poetry you want right here. Learn twelve new monologues. Knock yourself out. It's not where you are that's the problem.'"
Lauren wrily sums up her failure to understand this point as a failure to understand the value of money, and how hard it is to obtain in normal life, but her illusions about the bohemian arty world of New York seem still intact today. She describes returning to the Big Apple to be cool at parties, to act, and to pair off with another alpha male, Andy. He's a big wheel in avant-garde electronic music. Her description of the milieu she came back from Brunei to artistically fulfil herself in is gushing: "Richard stages plays that aren't plays exactly. They're more like three-dimensional poems or philosophical treatises told as a nursery rhyme. Being cast in one of his shows means that you'll be standing in for any number of the shadowy figures in his subconscious and that essentially you'll be moving around inside his head for a few months." Her anecdotes reveal a touching literal-mindedness. She finds a kind, wise therapist in Manhattan who she feels helps her. He is an Auschwitz survivor with a number tattooed on his arm, so she goes out and gets a wild tattoo done herself across her midriff & pussy, her first ever, so as to commit herself to something, to decisively join the bohemian gang. The abortion she has to have is movingly told, even with the prose style, and she slowly learns that being dumped in New York by a workaholic composer is much like losing the affections of a prince, just with substantially less money & comfort. After a year in New York, she goes back to the parties in Brunei for a few months, but of course things have moved on in that little world too.
This is where the outlines of a genuinely sad tale show through even this self-absorbed monologue. Despite her seeming openness with the reader, Lauren works hard to conceal some things. The most important thing I believe she hides is that she started to fall in love with Prince Jefri, and he with her. To her slight surprise he is handsome, athletic, and young. Ironically, they are similar types - he hardened by his education in England's public schools, she hardened by the US suburban version of the stiff upper lip. Despite their different types of social confidence, both people inside are awkward and reserved. The night where he takes her out for a spin in his new sports car in the palace grounds and she struggles to say the right thing is poignant. She admits to being enthralled as well as exhausted by the underhand scheming at court. She admits she sometimes enjoys the glamour, finds herself embarrassingly excited by the jewelled gifts. The one thing she won't admit to is the L word, love. Hard-headed New Englander to the end, she can see he has a tough time having fun, that he is full of tension, that he wants to be loved, that he works really hard at whatever it is he does, that he is shy. What neither of them can do is reach out, show some tenderness. Neither can open themselves up to the other a little, even with Fiona the Favourite's eye-rolling hints to both of them. Both Jefri/Robin and Jillian have already had sex with far too many people, for one thing, for gentleness and intimacy to come easily. Jillian gets plenty of chances though. Only once, when she buys the prince a rubber duck for his bath on the basis of a joke, do we glimpse anything like a real effort to treat him as a person. Most of her writing is focused on how he is not treating her or any of the other girls as people, and yet at the same time how she "knows" she has to hold herself back to "keep him intrigued". One girl who finally cracks during the court's endless war of nerves, breaks down and throws herself at the prince's feet sobbing in a public scene, serves as a terrible warning to them all not to let go, not to open up. Though of course you only crack like that if you were bottled up and pretending indifferent aloofness to start with. So, a year later, by the time she gets back to Brunei, she is 19 and has an abortion behind her. The prince has cooled on her {understandably} and a new Filipina girl arrives who is curvy & voluptuous as Fiona recommended Jillian be. Robin/Jefri becomes keen on her. Jillian is still a paid guest, there are still presents, occasional trysts with Jefri/Robin, but the mood has changed and the moment has passed. She saw her destiny unfold and watched it slip away.
What are the lessons? One is that it isn't raw power or money that really make sexual attraction work for women. If it boils down to any one thing, it's status. There's something deeper though. Lauren repeatedly mentions fairy tales, and how much she had soaked up Disney versions of stories about princes and princesses. Which is odd, because one message those stories insistently drive home is that the handsome prince can fall in love with the fair milkmaid {Jillian even describes herself as physically looking like a peasant lass at one moment, seeing no link to the folk stories} ...as long as her heart is pure and open. Instead, revealingly, even while shrugging them off dismissively and making fun of her own childish fantasies, she talks about the Disneyfied myths in terms of the girl being awoken from a kiss by the prince, being turned into a queen with a gold ring and a gold crown, in terms of what the girl gets, never in terms of what the prince also gets - the love of the honest virtuous maid. Of course each legend's humble beauty is always young and pretty, but in the stories that's not how she distinguishes herself. It's the maid's frankness and transparent goodness of heart that puts her ahead of the cunning foxy girls, in fairy tale after fairy tale. The cruel irony is that if you hide your feelings, that shameful sneaky caution becomes itself the thing you need to hide. Lauren was nearly the one both young & beautiful enough, yet fun & quirky & herself enough, to win his love - at least to have a permanent income and place at court on reasonable terms. Had she had the courage to reveal herself to him at the time, just been a little less knowing & streetwise, she might never have needed to write this book. Had she failed but had the courage to reveal her failure and her regrets in writing, it could have been a really good book. But her book goes wrong the same way her spell in the palace went wrong.
Of course, it's understandable that what might have been hurts so much she wants to hide it from readers, act the smart-mouthed teenager to the last. But all the way through the story, at vital moments she keeps asking herself "What would Patti Smith do?" That was her test of how to live. Whatever the truth of the music or the real woman, it's not hard to guess that Patti Smith's stage persona would have taken that chance, shown her feelings, reached out to the man's feelings - and if she'd failed, she'd have told the truth in her book. Despite years of telling herself to do it Patti-style, Lauren never works this out.
...In the evening I have dinner with Anthropologist Marc en route to his Virgin-Mary-worshipping village in Transylvania - we talk about vampire cults and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not far from the restaurant, a scruffy, intense-looking American man in the street shouts at us "You guys Americans?" and then gets aggressive because we don't want to chat with him, explaining that he was nice, but we are assholes. Late drinks with Martin, who is passing through town. I relate last night's strange musical, and Martin darkly reminds me of American Christian Zionists excited by Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they see it is as a harbinger of imminent "end times".

March 28th; In the mid-afternoon, I drop into the tiny pastry shop for a drink & some buns. Dori the evangelical blonde laughs and waves at me through the double glass of the pastry cabinet. Quite suddenly, she asks me if I want to see a play this evening. When I get back into my flat I only notice at the third bun that she got my order wrong, an order which has never changed in the dozens of times I've dropped in on the days she works there. And so, at 6.45pm I find myself waiting in the ticket queue in the lobby of the fake Venetian/Moorish Urania cinema on the street to the river which it seems sometimes has stage shows as well as films. She doesn't turn up. Just before curtain up at 7pm I phone to ask if she needs a ticket, she says no, apologises dizzily that she'll be late, and explains where she will be sitting so I can buy the right ticket. Turning to the box-office people, I ask to buy a ticket, and they gloomily explain that the ticketing software won't let them sell me a ticket at 7.03pm, and they usher me in for nothing. I find myself in a sort of Biblical klezmer jazz opera called 'The Invisible Hand', based on the Old Testament Book of Esther. About 7.35, she arrives with a girlfriend and the two of them mime hellos as they squeeze past to sit in my row. Quite odd to watch the whole performance because while the acting is wooden {a lot of actors pacing around unnecessarily}, the singing and dancing are good. I watch groups of awkward people on stage again and again go through a scene of overacted dialogue only to suddenly snap into immediate ease & poise to sing or perform a dance number. I remember Nina's remark "I like their folk-dancing! It is the only time Hungarians look proud and happy." This is probably because the cast is made up of singers and dancers, but I start to speculate that Hungary is in some deep way a country of dancers and England a country of actors.
The musical ends with the unfurling of a huge Israeli flag, and I'm reminded of the big 7-stick candelabra sculpture at the entrance to the mega-church Dori invited me to, and the only editorial I read on her evangelical Protestant website about how bad anti-Semitism is and how Hungarian Christians should see themselves as friends of Jews. The audience seems dominated by people from Dori's church.
March 27th; Curious claim that Libyan rebels now being helped by NATO against Qadaffi actually are fighters who supply a large share of anti-Western suicide bombers, terrorist, and jihadists attacking NATO troops in Iraq. The source, a West Point Academy study. Meanwhile, a graphical gadget called 'word clouds' tells us next to nothing about anything.

March 26th; Apparently, with some degree of statistically significant success we can guess some people are criminals just by looking at their faces. Except that women subjects in the study couldn't spot who the rapists were.
March 25th; Work in the library at French Institute. Lunch a pleasant bowl of pasta with spinach at a table outside in sunshine & cool breezes. Henri drops by briefly. Ideas meeting from 5pm with Marci, Bret, and Andrea at Kalman's office. Later in the evening Bret & Kalman tell the sad story of how Budapest notable Torture Johnny pulled out of funding Sam's film project {'Pussy Cats in the Cage of Death'} because it wasn't violent enough.

March 24th; Bump into Jeremy 2 on the tram and pop back with him for a coffee. He tells me about his time as a vice officer in Southampton when one day he & a colleague drove round their red-light district patch with a ghetto blaster in the car playing 1930s swing jazz tunes at full volume. Musical groups with names like Harry Roy and His Tiger Ragamuffins suggest that perhaps less changed between 1935 and 1985 than it seemed at the time. He adds some other interesting details, including that the whores and pimps regarded "the Vice" as different from the police, saying things like "he used to be in the Vice, but he's joined the police now." Later in the evening, briefly meet Dorina for coffee to return her cybernetics book. She praises a webpage of futures that never happened.
March 23rd; Tea with Arabic teacher to discuss translation. Later to French Institute to meet Serge Latouche, an anti-globalisation activist Henri has kindly persuaded to consider writing a piece for the 2nd edition of the economic crisis book.

March 22nd; Apparently this week is the 200th anniversary of New York's decision to lay out a grid-like street pattern right up the still largely rural island of Manhattan in 1811 in allegedly far-sighted anticipation of mega-citydom to come. Hilarious quote by modernist architect Rem Koolhaas describing it as “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization.” confirms Koolhaas as a total nutter, since it was clearly not courageous at all {what did they risk? the town council a hundred years hence thinking they had been a bit silly?} and couldn't possibly be the most courageous prediction in Western civilisation even if it was courageous, which it wasn't. What a complete twonky. In actual fact of course, it was - in the more modest history of town planning as opposed to all civilisation - a historic vote for boredom, lack of imagination, and adulation of commerce. That's overlooking the fantastic opportunity they never even noticed to arrange in advance for sections of farmland and countryside to come in right close to the centre of town and stay there. Instead their claustrophobic dream: nothing but miles of identical pre-planned streets laid out as far as they could imagine. A strangely fateful decision to make certain neither New York nor other cities with graph-paper street-plans could ever turn into proper places. As the astute Frenchman quoted in the article realised, it ensured they would become forever rental zones in which the human trace of any life can always be bought up, wiped off the map, and overwritten.
March 21st; Almost meet Henri and Susan George, but in the end don't manage it.

March 20th; Sunshine has begun. Might be here to stay this time. Pop over to Jeremy 2's new flat to see the building work in progress. Do more work on chair, still tantalisingly poised on the brink of true chairhood.
March 19th; Finish a slim book I bought in the autumn called 'Circus Philosophicus' by an American philosopher teaching in Cairo. In each short chapter he explores a metaphysical idea using an extended metaphor {a giant ferris wheel, a bridge over a lake of fire, a world in which everyone is an oil rig...}, each supposedly spun out of a real incident he experienced. He says he aims to return myth to its rightful place at the heart of philosophy. The pre-Socratics, Leibniz, Husserl & Heidegger, and several other metaphysicians are examined in this way. No metaphor here quite matches Plato's Cave, but nonetheless an interesting project. Its style of self-consciously diffident whimsy makes it unlike anything else. The book closes in a meeting with a barrel-chested, cigar-chomping literary agent, explaining how the author, Graham Harman, sold him the book {provisional title 'Mustard'}. Of course, he took three friends to the agent's office: a Belgian surrealist with a waxed moustache, a Japanese Zen monk, and a practising telepath he had once hired to entertain at a party. Proposing authors take note.

March 18th; Pop down the road to Golgota square, hoping to run into three-fingered Lenny, but instead just have a conversation with a rather sweet half-Polish girl at the reception counter, who earnestly urges me to join one of the preachers' sessions at the conference. I demur, saying I don't think the idea of hell sounds very nice. Gloomy Manchester-style rain continues. Productive lunch with Henri reviewing a list of French thinkers to include in the book. Enjoyable Arabic lesson - our new teacher is a bit poorly, but still comes in to teach us, snuffling, and it feels like I'm learning. Evening out at a bar cum pizzeria with Kalman, where there is now a wall of bubbles constantly rising behind the bar staff since I last went there with Mystery Friend 2. There we meet Bret & Film Director Sam, who these days is doing paintings he says. On late tram home, bump into Alex the Serb from Xenomusic days, as cheerful & intense as ever. With minimal introduction he calmly explains that Aristotle is superficial for him compared to Plato.
During the day finish and return 'L'Empire de Nombres', a book full of jolly pictures that goes with a DVD film I also borrowed from the French Institute last week, without realising they were the same thing. The book about numbering finishes slightly eerily - and in the end inaccurately I think - with remarks about how much we use numbers in modern life for credit cards and tax statements, making numbers fundamental, integral to life. The book goes entertainingly through the acceptance of zero, negative numbers, irrational numbers, and complex numbers - illustrated by a whole range of tasteful images. These include some of Saul Steinberg's cartoons, among which are one or two, though I never noticed when small, explicit mathematical references. As a child I thought they were just random jumbles of algebraic symbols the cartoonist had thrown together for effect. The film was much the same material, though certainly not word-for-word, with lots of tricksy photography, and some tastefully arty choices of colour & lighting. Yet while Denis Guedj looks in his photo in the book like a dashing young don, on the soundtrack of the DVD he sounds like a puckish old professor.
Today at the Institute, I also return a documentary film on DVD called 'Ils veulent cloner le Christ', a French TV documentary bustling with cardinals, lab technicians, members of cults, geneticists & forensic historians with microscopes. Despite watching this film about people who think the Turin Shroud might be genuine, and so it might be possible to clone Jesus Christ from scraps of DNA on the cloth - and watching it several times - I get very little out of this aside from hearing how Italians speak French. My oral French really is appalling.
March 17th; Breakfast at cafe with Martin, briefly back in town after sailing adventures. Normally I scoff when New Yorkers proudly boast "only in New York", but perhaps this story does the city justice: Man Finds Sex Scarecrow Filled With Chinese Food in Roommate's Bed.

March 16th; Grey raininess persisting, despite the false dawn of Saturday morning. A nuclear power station in Japan appears to be melting.
March 15th; Hungarian holiday to commemorate their rather opportunistic 1848 uprising, which began in Budapest the day after a revolution started in Vienna. Bit of sun, bit of cloud. Do more chisel work on chair. After midnight, pop out to get a slice of pizza, and help translate for a big-shouldered American man who the Hungarians behind the counter don't understand. He and I sit down to eat our slices of pizza and he fixes me with something of an Ancient Mariner stare. Unsettlingly pale blue eyes, a slightly manic, intense manner. He tells me of how God saved his soul one night in a Baltimore cinema at the age of 20, when he had a wild, hedonistic life and was about to die of heart failure and go to hell. Some interesting anecdotes about what it feels like to be seized by angels of death {they were grey and had wings and he heard them say to him aloud "Right, we've got you now"}. Some other envoys of The Enemy turned up again at a Grateful Dead concert several years later to offer him "power, money, women, and cars". Lenny says he has died six times, and shows me a three-fingered hand where he lost a finger while being shot in the back of the head {where his hands were linked in submission} by some carjackers. We part around 2.45am, having given me a small orange pocket copy of the New Testament, and it emerges he & his church are in Golgota square, in the same building where that depressing nightclub The Black Hole used to be. Now renamed The White Hole, Lenny says cheerfully as we part company.

March 14th; Grey chill returns. Tea with Zoltan who tells me about exorcists.
March 13th; Sunday. I go down to Kobanya at the southern end of the metro line to meet Dori the evangelical blonde at the Protestant service she so sweetly invited me to. She bounces out of the personnel door to greet me, looking shapely & fetching in a black clinging outfit with a cream, woollen, somehow macrame-style cardigan on top. She fetched me here, anyway. I am ushered through a set of metal-detector gates, as at the airport, and I have to surrender my cigarette lighter someone gave me with its Playboy logo to reclaim later. Momentarily glad it is not my other cigarette lighter some girl in a night shop sold me with a cartoon of a sex position on it. The place is huge, and bustling with people. Dori, positively glowing with cheerful faith, shows me straight to a set of queues of people lining up to buy sandwiches and drinks to take into the main hall, and it begins to dawn on me that this is not going to take one hour. Hiding my sinking feeling, I casually ask if this is going to be 3 hours long? "Yes!" she giggles happily, blinking and shaking her golden tresses, almost squeaking with excitement at the prospect of a solid three hours of praising the Lord. I buy some water.
Dori has thoughtfully reserved me a seat right in the back of the centre section of the hall, facing the stage yet close to an exit at the back so I can pop out for material sustenance while my soul is nourished and slaked within the hall. She also has found me a slightly wild-eyed companion called Attila in a pinstripe suit and pink tie, who is very kind and is visibly thrilled at the prospect of the worship coming up. I am seated between him and a chubby red-cheeked woman somewhere in her 30s with a bob haircut who is also twitching with barely suppressed impatience for the meeting to begin. Several rows in front of me, up on stage, a man in a mustard-coloured jacket, brown shirt and olive green tie is talking to us about a book he recommends, and he is magnified on a giant screen behind him making him roughly three times his normal size. By a peculiar optical illusion, I have the impression that the large character on the screen is the real him not so far away from me, with a miniature puppet of himself jerking about just in front of him, perhaps operated by one hand. This is partly to do with the edge of screen being indistinct, since it is the same colour as the wall on each side it's enlarging. Suddenly the proper service begins. A warm-up preacher quickly gets us all to thank God and after only about five minutes there is a very well choreographed change-over, and the screen is showing a drummer with a black shirt, yellow tie, and matching yellow braces, leading a band of musicians. The front of the stage is lined with five men in black or very dark grey suits but cheerful-coloured ties, each with a microphone, and they bob about, singing different verses of the Hungarian rock hymns everyone knows the words to - looking a bit like bank managers bopping at the wedding party of their younger sister. The meeting is huge. Dori said five or six thousand, Attila said six thousand. We are clearly in a converted factory or warehouse hall, now well furnished with chairs, railings for banks of seats, and special podiums and runways for television cameras feeding the giant screens to move about. I don't know about Zoltan's claim this movement was founded by the SZDSZ, but there has clearly been lots of American advice in how to set this all up. It would be an exaggeration to say that there is a sea of hands in the air around me, but perhaps every fourth person is stretching up one or two hands, and every second person has both hands open outstretched at roughly elbow height. The brunette to my right is clearly wound as tight as a watchspring, and I am anticipating her being one of the first later on to speak in tongues, perhaps roll around on the floor a bit. In upper banks of seats to the right and left of the main stage, a row of girls all in white shirts {right} and boys all in white shirts {left} are swaying from side to side with each song to encourage the mood, not that the vast congregation seems to need much encouraging. We are standing, bobbing about, and singing on our feet for about an hour and my legs and back are aching. I briefly wonder if long Orthodox services where everybody stands in front of their God for hours at a time are what keep Serbs and Bulgarians so fit and slim. The music is of the Cliff Richard / Barry Manilow lineage and as I look at the hands stretching up I think this is just the sort of music that in a darkened hall would have people holding up cigarette lighters - or these days lit mobile phones - for some sort of country rock anthem. I have the feeling of being trapped in a television variety show, except without the variety. We get to sit down, there is more preaching, and after two hours total I crack and go outside to visit the loos and check a sympathetic phone text Mariannpsy has sent me, expressing mild concern I should be at the Hit Gyulekezet. After ten minutes off {wherever you go in the building, even in the gents, the booming voices of the preachers are conveyed over the public-address system so that, in a rather East-Bloc way, you are never alone}, I rejoin the worshippers. Attila nudges me to explain that the founder of the movement, Sandor Nemeth, is now speaking. Partly because he speaks slowly and emphatically, partly because {my inner snob is quick to remind me} the Hungarian is probably not very complex, and partly because he repeats the same thoughts and ideas again and again and again, I find I can follow pretty much everything he says with my Hungarian. We are two and a half hours in now, and I am pacing myself. If the end is in sight at a total of 3 hours, I can take another thirty, forty minutes of this. I finish my bottle of water. Nemeth reflects on the tragic events in Japan, the transience of the material world, the signs that all things will pass except belief in God, and - well that's it, really. To be fair Sandor goes off in one or two interesting directions. For example, he says, if there is a spiritual link between our world and hell there must also be a material link between our world and hell, and in fact, given what's going on at the moment, the mouth of hell is "probably" somewhere in the Pacific region. For five minutes he speaks over big-screen images of tsunami water surging across Japanese towns and Sandor reminds us that when the flood that Noah survived came every mountain on earth was covered in water {I briefly try to imagine the volume of ice needed to store enough water to add five miles to the global sea level, but give up}. This goes on some more. And some more. To my horror, it dawns on me that this is not going to top out at three hours after all. 6,000 people are politely listening, in fact wisely nodding and earnestly agreeing under their breath, while this well-meaning tede harangues them and I realise that if he rambled on until 6pm, they would stay listening with rapt attention. I cannot believe people's appetite for this. Have they no hobbies? No pre-cooked dinners to warm up? I am in a kind of school assembly that never ends. Squirm-making memories of those deeply-embarrassing Ray Davies assemblies at school swim before my inner eye - especially one where Davies, a physics teacher, whacked fake tennis balls made of scrunched-up newspaper into the audience with a real tennis racquet, booming "I believe in top spin" to suggest that God is a kind of abstract quality embedded in reality, like spin. Sandor taunts us, or at least taunts me, by repeatedly seeming to wind down, saying "So finally", and "The last thing I want to say", or "So, before you go away today", and each time I perk up, thrilled to the core of my being at the idea of getting out of this place, but no. One of these phrases will come and go, he clears his throat, and then just starts ranting again, that mirage-like goodbye phrase fading ten, fifteen, twenty minutes into the past like water snatched away from a thirsty man, again and again. And everyone takes it. They love it in fact. What's more, his voice is not quite monotonous enough to let you think about something else. Whereas Galileo could be in a dull sermon and use his pulse to time the swinging of a church lamp to perceive a quality of pendulums, this is more insistent. Sandor, and his enlarged screen self, push in on your consciousness, as do your twitching neighbours, and you are forced to listen. What is unbearable is the sheer repetition. He says that all the things we have are passing gifts from God, and that a state of loving gratitude is a liberating state to be in. This is a very reasonable view with a lot to commend it, but all these thoughts he has already outlined very clearly in his first ten minutes, yet he continues saying them for almost two hours.
Though the meeting has been marked by the occasional whoop of joy from an audience member, there is not the outbreak of speaking in voices I was expecting. I wonder if some people at these charismatic services might start babbling incoherently, thrashing and flailing their limbs, due to having simply been driven insane by sheer boredom, not that anyone around me looks like they could ever be bored by anything. When it reaches a total of four hours, I leave, retrieve my coat, and wait on the stairs for Dori {who is working outside with security and so can enjoy the preaching over the tannoy} to appear. She bounces up, and we thank each other. The voice of Sandor Nemeth is still banging on over the public-address system as we say our goodbyes. Incredulous, I ask her if it goes on another hour? No, she says beaming contentedly, he's finishing off now. I enquire if she does anything else in her life, and she says she might set up a business soon. I stagger out of the building. It seems to me that the capacity for fanaticism on the Continent is rooted in the patience of audiences like this. Every Budapest art exhibition opening, for example, always comes with a 25-minute waffle at the start by a pompous art critic, and though gallery-goers get a chilled glass of white wine to bribe them to put up with this, they don't really seem to mind. If people will just placidly listen while someone wibbles on for hours, no wonder strange movements can get going. Of course there must be huge halls like this in England right now, but I cling to the hope that most English people just won't tolerate this kind of rudeness - won't put up with someone being strenuously, inconsiderately dull for hours on end. As I walk unsteadily to the petrol station, I start to wonder if I might have a new understanding of the Restoration in 1660. We read that England was fed up with Puritan bans on horse-racing, ball-games, market fairs on Sundays under Cromwell, but that might only be part of it. I am quite sure that during the republican Commonwealth there were four, five, six-hour services. It might not only be what Puritans didn't allow that doomed the interregnum, it might have been what the Puritans insisted on. I try to imagine an event like this where any sign of irritation might bring punishment, where attendance is compulsory, where people are being told off every week or several times a week, and have to sit and listen. Perhaps, even in a deeply religious country, there came a point where the English wanted anyone else, even the uncomfortably High Church Charles II, because they felt... Someone. Please. Just. Make. The. Boredom. Stop.

March 12th; Warm, actually warm, sunshine. I cut more slots in pieces of wood out on the balcony, and have to keep coming in every half hour because I get too hot: the overexcited Hungarian spring has arrived at last. Improving on yesterday, cut three more rectangular openings in sticks of wood. What I hadn't expected about using a chisel was that
(1) While still a challenge, needing care, it is actually quite a bit easier than I expected to cut clean, straight slots in wood if you are careful and take your time.
(2) Chiselling is a lot more sensuous an experience than I expected. Once the piece of wood is secured firmly with the clever new clamps Ilan recommended I buy {with no screw tightener, but instead a pumping action adjusting the clamp in a straight line} meticulously chiselling out rectangular shapes is strangely gorgeous. I feel a curious swell of gratitude coming from my hands, thanking me for giving them something interesting to do for once. After half an hour I change from the 6mm chisel blade to the 10mm chisel blade, and at once my hands protest that they are just getting used to the swing of the mallet and the amounts of angle and pressure the 6mm demands and ask to go back to the narrow chisel for the time being. I do as they ask, and we go back to the 6mm.
As a result of just a couple of happy hours on the balcony, the proto-chair goes from being a rather abstract set of measured sticks to something which, though unglued and balanced like a house of cards, lacking cross-struts or a seat or a back, begins to look in some way vaguely like a chair.
March 11th; 2nd Arabic lesson with cheerful new teacher. At home nervously cut first slot in the side of one chair leg with a chisel. Seems to go well. Two articles about sexual mores. One article, by a man, says that young women cannot get young men to marry them these days because economic relations have changed and the social cost of pre-marital sex has plummeted - that it's not really anyone's fault and it's hard for anyone to do anything about it. The other piece, by a woman, is much funnier, but says that young women cannot get young men to marry them these days because they're nasty or they're not trying properly - she says it's women's fault, and women can clinch marriage if they really want. The second shows a much weaker grasp of the whole topic, but is more entertaining to read.
Bump into the pastrie-shop blonde just as she is leaving shift, and I pledge to attend her evangelical meeting this Sunday, a church Zoltan last week claimed had been set up by a Hungarian political party the SZDSZ, which sounds a bit odd.

March 10th; Lent has begun. I eat the beans I soaked overnight with some clippings of chives & lemongrass. At once hate the quite normal taste of the beans, their profound beaniness. Feeling a bit feeble, I finish my copy of 'Zuleika Dobson' by Max Beerbohm. Although the book is very lightly written, full of arch humour, there is something eerie about knowing it was first published only a decade before the First World War, given that it is a comedy in which a brilliant young Oxford undergraduate, the Duke of Dorset, decides to die for love of a visiting conjuror, Zuleika, and the entire male student body want to follow his noble example. Some wonderful, if slightly chilling, insights into how men and women in love think, although none of the characters are really rounded. Like Kate Moss realising she cannot take a good photo, so cleverly dodging that challenge in an exhibition of celebrities' photographs I saw in WestEnd shopping centre, Beerbohm also knows quite well what his limitations as an author are, and deftly sidesteps them with humour and studied casualness. He portrays the young Duke's well-meaning pomposity & coldness amusingly. At one fine moment, Dorset has to write a reference for his landlady, briefly toys with the idea of composing it as an ode in Doric Greek, but instead dashes off a sonnet in what he imagines to be Oxfordshire bumpkin dialect. Instead of feeling patronised, his landlady is thrilled and later has it framed. The interlude the author spends with the Greek gods in Chapters 11 & 12 is wonderful, and overall the book is a lively portrait of a very recently vanished era. Yet unsettling and quietly dark too.
By now is clear I am ill with diarrhoea, though feeling quite cheerful. Meet Rob for an Indian meal in the evening, hoping this will stop my constantly being drained {it does in fact}. We talk about music, emotions, & vampires.
March 9th; Ash Wednesday. Finish Dorina's copy of 'Kibernetika', a book from the mid-1970s by Oskar Jursa, translated from German into Hungarian by Maria Valachi. Filled with adorable period illustrations of Man-From-UNCLE-type paper cutout figures surrounded by chunky arrows and cartoons of reel-to-reel tape-players and paper tape with punched holes. Jursa does not just write about computing, but takes the claims of cybernetics {a word we don't hear too much today} seriously, treating the human brain and physiology as cybernetic systems with feedback, as well noting the similarity of DNA to computer code, or even punched tape. He predicts that in 1990 people who do not understand computers will be the new "information poor", which is pretty much what commentators were still saying in 1990. The book closes with warnings of the awesome power computer-carried news & information will give to manipulate and shape public opinion after the year 2000.

March 8th; Sleepy yet suspicious girls' song from the Echoey Era.
March 7th; In the Corvin shopping arcade, the very last shop on the right before the end at my street is a shop called Okaidi with double, no probably triple-real-size, full-length photographs of children in the windows. Each child is labelled by an English word in large letters: diversity, variety, lively. I keep wondering if the image designer thinks all three are nouns in English or thinks all three are adjectives or {obviously this one} doesn't care. The full-length photographs disturb me in some inexpressible way.

March 6th; Since it's Sunday morning, here is - with slightly fuzzy image quality - 'Easy Like Sunday Morning', the surprise Lionel Richie cover by early-90s thrash-metal slackers Faith No More. The celebrated tarts and trannies video still charms.
March 5th; For perhaps a year, I've been walking past a strange message daubed in black paint with a thick brush in English on the off-white concrete building almost on the corner. In six-inch-high letters, in five short lines like an odd concrete poem is the message - Pleas / keep / IT Alive / ADRI AND / PiPi - which descends the wall from five feet down to three feet above a bleak couple of square yards of shallow soil barren in winter & summer. This is next to a garage door which I have never seen open. I sometimes think the flowerbed entombs some dead plant ADRI AND PiPi were supposed to tend to, and sometimes think the message is more abstractly mystical.
Newspaper story about a psychology experiment which finds people with conservative views are better looking than liberals or left-wingers. Based on British, American, and other non-Scandinavians judging photographs of hundreds of Finnish local-council candidates they almost certainly didn't know. Rather bizarre headline for a British newspaper, talking about 'Republicans', but not such an odd result. As the experimenters suggest, good-looking people might feel the world is a fairer, more reasonable place, while plain people are likely to be less content. Also, any class system will over a few generations shuffle genes for being attractive upwards.

March 4th; New Arabic teacher. Radio show on Taiping Rebellion.
March 3rd; Lovely dinner at Henri & Camilia's, with Zoltan Becsi. We talk about George Lucas, the forces of darkness, and recent trends in France.

March 2nd; An American film actor called Charlie Sheen is saying boistrous things about himself, such as "I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' rock star from Mars." or "I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." Hard to believe that in the United States there could possibly be a limit to healthy go-getting self-love, but some people in the US seem to think Mr Sheen might have reached that point. Here's a handy lexicon to guide people through his various affirmations, and here are some of his quotes set oddly to low-key New Yorker cartoons. Some of the purest American poetry since Al Haig.
March 1st; Book shipment to the US waits on some stupid "tax number".


Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com