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2011
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June 30th; Invited by Eszter to exhibition of glass sculptures by Maria Lugossy at the nearby Applied-Arts Museum. Although some of these look rather good when carefully lit and photographed on her website, most of her work in the airy, well-lit central hall of the museum is eye-wateringly ugly. From a false start with metal tubes in the early 1970s, she found her material in the late 70s with a series of glass pieces each like a giant two-foot or three-foot diameter lens. These are cut sheets of glass glued together which then have their edges ground down at an angle to make a smooth giant lens shape. Some of these simple forms have a charm, where chipped or damaged glass sheets within the lens give the overall block of glass internal texture and shifting tints of light. They are restful. These seem to continue the 1960s and 70s conceptualist, colourist wave of gallery objects that soothed and vaguely promised something purer & cleaner one day. However something dreadful seems to have happened in the late 1980s. I suspect this was a breakthrough in selling her work to a couple of wealthy Hungarians suffering from clinical levels of poor taste, but of course I don't know. In any case, Lugossy's work in the 80s and 90s gets darker, more formless, more Hungarian, and in some cases utterly vile. Her signature glass lens starts to creep out of rocky, opaque hiding places like some sort of jelly fish or mollusc. By the mid-1990s bits of human bodies in bronze, such as buttocks, shoulder blades, bits of faces begin to be embedded into carved glass made to look like globular mud, as if seeping out of or being smeared back into some kind of primeval paste. Many of the works have flattened dimensions like the original big lenses, so they lie on the floor of the gallery, three feet by four feet by perhaps one or two feet vertically. The general impression is a set of fried eggs or oysters photographed in black and white or sepia, enlarged and hideously congealed into three dimensions. Some of them were a lot like a particular species of rubbery blood-sucking omlettes I recall threatening the lycra-clad crew of the early Star Trek TV series, invading their cardboard spaceship and launching themselves at our heroes' necks and faces. Quite a lot of postwar Hungarian, and in fact Polish, art seems to superate or ooze out of the sculpture or canvas. The show's most recent item I liked, from 2004, called 'East-West', is the only one where she puts glass next to wood. Her curved solids made of glass here are encased in drawers of a small old wooden case. For some reason this seems a hopeful work with some wit or humanity. As you stand in front of it and gaze into the curved block of glass there is even a slightly magical effect, as if the glass stands in for all the strange imagined items you can find in an old box, or in some odd way dramatises the thrill of opening the lid or drawer to see inside, freezing that moment into something else. Here it is.
Trudge home through heavy rain, luckily not far from the museum. Later finish reading impulse buy from Manchester Airport - 'The Wavewatcher's Companion' - a book about all sorts of waves by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, co-founder of the Idler magazine. The cheery, slangy interruptions the narrator uses to get chummy with readers are a bit irritating, but sometimes they do raise a smile. His habit of putting heights in metres is irritating, especially when he puts the rest in miles per hour. Interesting to hear that "de Broglie" is pronounced as "de Broy", and that the duke effectively extended the wave-particle duality to all matter. The wave-corpuscle light debate neatly summarised too: Huygens says waves / Newton says particles / Thomas says waves / Planck & Einstein say particles / now everyone says both. His overall approach is to just wander about his subject chatting about whatever strikes him, and this brings up gems - such as the tendency of traffic to spontaneously produce clumping at above 40 vehicles a mile, and for those waves to travel backwards at about 12 mph. He explains very well how waves of desert (or beach) sand are not at all like water waves, even though they look a lot like them. He has a short section on acoustics, suggesting that the mysterious Neolithic chambers (Princeton maverick Jahn pops up with his measuring equipment) seem designed to resonate at four cycles a second. The way light interference by the microstructures on butterfly wings create certain iridescent colours is well explained. A curious artwork made of some pipes that record vehicle noise on a bridge concentrated into certain harmonics is mentioned. Perhaps what is slightly frustrating is the way he picks something only to drop it a few pages later. The book peters out with a curious chapter about surfing in Hawai'i and the death of a surfer while he is there.
June 29th; Lovely tale via Suzanne D. Either a hoax or a dark warning against letting 12-year-olds loose with family-tree software. An American schoolgirl claims that every US president up to and including Barry O., has blood links to the family of King John (1166 - 1216) ...all bar one. Supposedly, that sole exception was Martin van Buren, the first US president born after independence from Britain, and growing up as a Dutch-speaker the only one to date whose mother tongue was not English. John Lackland must by now have a couple of million living direct family. Even so, for all but one leader of the Rebel Colonies to be descendents of the English king whose overbearing incompetence led his mightier subjects to draft the Magna Carta just too cute to be true. Nice story though.

June 28th; Drinks in the evening with Martin & friends. He is moving out of Budapest, and will start a Cordon Bleu course in London soon. Much confusing but titillating foodie discussion.
On the other hand, to return to recent days' less appetising themes, Josh in England sends me an article about a home-made Russian heroin substitute intimidatingly known as "krokodil". Apparently the flesh starts to decay all over some addicts' bodies while they are still alive - Josh suggests to me that this trumps the face-eating American cocaine story of a few days ago. Although an enigma, I don't think he is the absent Josh from June 27th's student-love-life link.
June 27th; We must now be officially living in The Future: a Japanese scientist says he has grown edible meat steaks from human excrement. Might be some consumer resistance on this one.
Continuing the slight low-life perspective, a poignant glimpse of student love life, and a very studenty-seeming quasi-bohemian website. Swellco & Swellco at first glance looks vaguely public-school ...either Oxford-undergraduate or London-art-college in style. They throw in undressed girls wearing animal heads, undressed girls with firearms, general occultist naughtiness, heraldic emblems, a smattering of Latin mottos. A typical menu item is headed "And now without further ado.... Dragons Fucking Cars". However, on closer inspection, there are rather too many machine guns, an earnest desire to mock the US flag, and the faces just don't look English enough. In fact the site seems to emanate from the city of brotherly love. Perhaps Philadelphia is the most British American town after all. Staying with neglected older cities in North America, I finally get round to watching some three or four minute snatches from the Baltimore-based TV series The Wire. Been hearing for years that this drama shows Americans can make great television after all (a decade old now, first screened in 2002), expectations were naturally high. Some scenes, like this amusing bit where two junior drug-gang idiots are taught how to play chess properly by a more senior drug dealer, are impressive. They show that The Wire spent real money on writers and actors, and suggest a lot of work put into portraying that world accurately & carefully. Some of the efforts to impress with realism ring true. One gang leader dresses smartly, is attending an economics course, and is serious about turning his street louts into a more legitimate-looking illegal business that makes more money, kills fewer people and attracts less police attention. In the 21st century, police officers use computers but are also sometimes made to type out official reports on manual typewriters, perhaps as an obscure form of schoolroom punishment. There are character-development scenes, for example where a female police lawyer gets giggly and giddy at how thrilling the work they're doing is. A lot of attention is paid to the minutiae of courtrooms, obtaining wiretap warrants, feuds between lawyers. Overall, in terms of realistic quirky detail the series feels like a cross between The Sweeney and Muck and Brass, albeit with a higher filming budget and larger sets. Or perhaps The Chinese Detective mixed in with a strong dash of Repo Man. However, you don't have to watch too many clips before cracks start to appear. At one or two moments it's hard not to wonder if the main aim behind The Wire is to justify telecoms surveillance by the authorities and ridicule the legal obstructions to it: perhaps a coincidence, but the first series was in development the same year America's Office of Homeland Security was being set up (BBC Radio's The Archers countryside drama serial was originally started with funding from Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, if quiet official support for The Wire sounds unlikely). Meanwhile, the Wire's drug addicts, the actual end users at the bottom of the food chain, seem something of an afterthought. And weirdly, the writers sometimes put characters in totally absurd scenes. In one, maverick plainclothes cop McNulty "loses it", takes a wild-eyed swig from a concealed whisky flask out by his car, comes back into a house and starts manhandling a body in front of his cigar-chomping superior officer. Boss calls him "a sick fuck" but looks completely out of his depth, pacing around trying to think what his character would do in this situation. The rogueishly attractive, slightly unhinged hero McNulty is the oldest cliche in TV police shows, and it does seem odd that he has no fewer than three (or is it four?) superior officers who are all Steady Eddie black men, the criminal gangs are full of black men, and yet the series seems to nonetheless revolve around the one white man in a milieu where very plausibly the hero could have been a negro too. The black desk superior berating his go-getting "unconventional" white junior cops has been a fixture in this kind of drama for at least four decades now. Though a lot of praiseworthy work clearly went into developing a range of believable personalities, especially among the Wire's drug dealers, I can't be the only person by now getting a bit tired of dramas in which surprisingly thoughtful hoodlums wax philosophical that "the game ain't the same any more", or where wry scenes smirk at street thugs using Robert's Rules of Order to conduct gang meetings. I also get the feeling that the best scenes and character touches were made using a kind of authentic-detail filter, where writers & actors cross-examined people with experience of that world - rather than from a sense of the characters as organic individuals in themselves. At some moments - like the McNulty Turns McNutty scene - plotting goes in a new direction demanding a deeper sense of who crucial characters are, and the writers and actors just look lost, as if the strings on a puppet got cut.

June 26th; Afternoon chatting with Robin about life, love, & art: the usual. I tell Robin about the Siberian-magic Anastasia books, and the Portuguese girl Vera on the aeroplane from Sweden ten days ago who recommended them to me. On a somewhat related theme, this is apparently what the map of Tolkein's Middle Earth fantasy land looks like in Russian.
It seems that lots of cocaine in North America has been accidentally mixed with something that will rot your flesh. The film rights might be worth something.
Monika points me to a rather enjoyable film in English about planned obsolescence one paragraph down on this page. The story is well told. Though a documentary, it brings together several plotlines. A Catalan office worker today is determined to not buy a new computer printer but mend the one he has. The history part relates how a real-life cartel of lighting manufacturers - the lightbulb conspiracy of the title - deliberately brought down the working life of light bulbs during the 1930s all around the world from two or three thousand hours and rising before World War One to one thousand hours by World War Two in order to keep sales high. A fire station has a good old-style lightbulb made to last. This bulb has been burning for (now) 110 years and is still lit (outlasting two shoddy modern webcams there keeping an eye on it). The film-makers capture the firestation birthday party which honours the lightbulb turning 100. That lightbulb is now within five years of burning for a million hours - rather different from the 1,000-hour lifetime deceitfully billed as a boast by manufacturers since WWII. In fact bulb lifespans were kept down to that lifetime by engineering in fragility that originally wasn't there. A cameo role in the film goes to critic of growth Serge Latouche. Latouche is giving us a chapter not out anywhere in English if our second edition goes ahead - thanks to Henri who introduced us.
June 25th; Odd news story from some days ago on The Register. Has not been picked up elsewhere, but says that some solar-astronomy research teams are worried that the next sunspot cycle appears to not be happening. Speculation this might entail a new Maunder Minimum (a period of low sunspot activity that brought 70 years of very cold weather in the 17th century called the Little Ice Age) seems a bit premature. Would be rather funny, nonetheless, if fossil-fuel emissions turned out to be the only thing saving us from a new era of Breughel-type winters skating & roasting piglets on the frozen Thames.

June 24th; Interesting book review about an anthropologist with a plausible explanation of why Arab political cultures don't adapt well to democracy: namely the basic unit of all societies is the clan, and most Arab cultures still have strong clans. A version of this thought came to me a couple of years ago - that only societies that find a way to integrate or balance several clans can progress beyond internecine nastiness. My hunch, which I doubt the Yorkshire anthropologist Fox reached (though I haven't read his book so might easily be wrong), is that (obviously the right kind of) active hereditary aristocracy is almost always the only bridge between the chaos of a land divided among clan warlords and any sophisticated, reasonably lasting civilisation worth having.
June 23rd; Hot sunny day in Budapest. Get a couple of things done. Read a short book by Christopher Snowdon called 'The Spirit Level Delusion', which checks the claims in a publishing success of a couple of years ago by two epidemiologists called 'The Spirit Level'. That book cites statistical evidence that countries with lower levels of income & wealth inequality have lower crime rates, higher life expectancies, and so on. Since The Spirit Level was enthusiastically praised by George Monbiot, Polly Toynbee, and Roy Hattersley it's hardly a huge surprise to be told its conclusions are wrong, achieved by a mixture of statistical trickery (cherry-picking data) and wishful thinking, but Snowdon's understated and polite book is still worth reading. (Apparently Toynbee referred to one of the two Spirit Level authors as "a kind of Darwin figure".) Snowdon cunningly mentions early on a study showing that actors who won an American Film Academy award (an "Oscar") live three, four, or more years longer than other actors, explaining Spirit Level authors Wilkinson & Pickett use similar reasoning to show how resentment of other people's relatively greater wealth shortens lives and creates other undesirable social outcomes. This is cunning of Snowdon because he leaves it to a chapter near the end to mention that the Oscar-longevity study got debunked. This is also when he calmly adds that Wilkinson & Pickett cite the incorrect Oscar-longevity finding on the back of one edition of their book as support for their ideas, and when he explains the simple statistical distortion ("immortal time bias") behind the mistaken claim that winning an Oscar lengthens an actor's life, when in fact it doesn't. This is something you'd think two academic epidemiologists might have noticed for themselves since immortal time bias = survivor selection bias features large in analysing results from medical research. Some of the scatter graphs when redone properly (such as by including all the countries in a certain income bracket, rather than just those countries or years of data that suited Wilkinson's & Pickett's thesis) suggest that many highly unequal countries have better social results in some areas than the Nordic nations the left routinely admire. For example, Denmark having the EU's second-highest burglary rate {an EUICS study}, Sweden having the EU's highest rape rate, almost a third higher than the US and double Britain's - {Tenth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends}, or Sweden having higher rates of theft, fraud, car theft, and burglary than the USA {Tenth UN Survey again}. Snowdon manfully resists the temptation to draw this opposite conclusion that higher rates of social equality lead to bad outcomes. He restricts himself to making a convincing case that comparitive country data simply fail to support The Spirit Level authors' ambitious claims.

June 22nd; On train to Manchester, get talking to three people involved with a fashion show in Bradford. On plane to Budapest, find myself next to a man working for Ericsson who tells me he once made a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, starting at Wigan finishing at Peking. This man, a Lancastrian who has learned German, tells me he also visited Belarus. He finds the masses of pretty girls everywhere on his business trips to Eastern Europe "do his head in", were in the last month before his recent marriage "not what he needed to be looking at", adding "the worst thing is you start thinking it's normal". I thoughtlessly reply that outside Britain it is normal really, and then realise I need to backtrack a bit. We land in Budapest around 6pm. Weather here tiringly hot & sticky.
June 21st; Longest day of the year in The Village is mainly grey & rainy, interrupted by short spells of washed-out apologetic sunlight which just worsen the pathos. Delving into the few boxes still left in the house, find an unusual old detective novel - unusual in the sense that it is a straight murder mystery written by someone much better known as a science fiction writer, the Russian-born US citizen Isaac Asimov. 'A Whiff of Death' takes place in the chemistry department of an American university in the late 1950s, and is elegantly plotted. Interesting to see how tense the main character and his wife are about their financial security should he not get tenure, how much the 50s were still overshadowed by the Depression of the 1930s. Two shocks for me were that the main character's young daughter has a television in her bedroom, and that this anxious nuclear family in 1958 have a dishwasher which is equally casually mentioned as nothing unusual. I think it was the mid-1980s before I stood next to or put any dishes into a dishwasher, and right up to now have never lived in a home with one - a half-century after this book. Asimov explains plausibly why a university chemist has to play detective. A surprisingly good read.

June 20th; Dean comes round to check on work needed in the kitchen: he seems sensible. Later I strip the paint off my front door, listening again to a Radio 4 documentary about the strange death of light orchestral music. In the early 1960s, a secret BBC survey revealed that 50% of the British public liked classical music, 50% of the British public liked the new pop music, but 85% of Britons liked the bouncy orchestral arrangments of Music While You Work and the Light Programme. It seems that the BBC decided to ignore their own research, close down the Light Programme, and invest bandwidth heavily into the groovy new pop music phenomenon. Seeing me on the street with my paint scraper, near-neighbour Frank, always very courteous and friendly to mother when she was alive, gets out of his shiny red car and starts chatting. Realising how many wonderful anecdotes I brushed aside or never heard in my impatient past, I encourage him. Only when he is sure he is not boring me, he relates being a wheelwright and blacksmith in the 1940s when horses & carts were still the norm in farm work. He flew a Tiger Moth aeroplane from a local airfield as a hobby, later working 15-hour days to pay back debts his father left the family foundry with. He continues to run the foundry. He tells me he still has his 7 lb hammer and still enjoys using it though his muscles are now weak. He mentions a frightening dream he had 18 months ago of, he says, uncharacteristic vividness. He dreams walking down a deserted motorway where grass is growing knee-high between road sections, and most of the remaining tarmac is covered with leafmould. No people are in sight anywhere, and he feels a sense of dread, desolation, and a feeling of certainty that this collapse of civilisation will come, not at once but within a few decades. He calmly describes the fear he felt in this dream as worse than any of the car crashes he was in, or the time in the air when a storm almost brought his plane down. Later I go for a drink with End of Street Steve, who kindly went into my house last week to turn off the water. He tells me about his sometimes acutely painful facial-nerve neuralgia, how he was in London at a sufferers' conference on Saturday where some neurologists gave interesting talks, and how his sister died five years ago after a couple of decades on Long Island working as Art Garfunkel's family nanny. One of his brothers died at 22 in a motorbike accident just a hundred yards from where we are sitting, leaving that same pub back in 1968. Steve recalls how he, then 18, was told by police to wheel the damaged motorbike the mile down the road to Hebden Bridge. Just as he got it home, a police van turned up announcing they would pop it in the van and take custody of it after all.
June 19th; A relaxed Sunday in The Village, getting ready for Monday and Tuesday and painting an extra coat of varnish on the outer face of the January back door. As the varnish dries, I read the second of the two bizarre books by Vladimir Megre I bought in London. This one is 'The Ringing Cedars of Russia'. This volume tells more about how the original Russian book got published in mid-1990s Moscow, after Megre struggled to write it (he had complained to Anastasia that he was a poor writer) while his business fell apart. The details of how a perestroika-era company gets dismembered by employees were interesting, and whatever the story of Anastasia is based on, it seems to have mesmerised several people into helping a near-penniless Megre fund the first print run. An old lady promotes it fanatically, three students type up the first manuscript without demanding pay, a photocopy shop prints and binds the first copies without demanding cash upfront, and so on. In one intriguing period, Megre, depressed back in Moscow as his firm collapses, struggles to set up a league of principled entrepreneurs thereby convincing those around him he has lost his mind while out in Siberia. He comes close to suicide. The thing that stops him on his way to end his life is hearing two girls on the metro playing a song he had only ever heard before sung by Anastasia in the forest wilderness of the east. One day, he finds how quickly a man can fall through the Moscow social system as he is mugged for his fur cap, so that his bare head is bloody and he is staggering, then gets splashed by traffic driving through big puddles, and in a few moments has become a vagrant everyone on the street is avoiding. He is saved by a homeless man who turns out to be a former KGB colonel. They sleep a night in a cellar where heating pipes are exposed, and nearly die of asphyxiation when other tramps lock them in, seal the windows, and set fire to cotton wool. The ex-colonel becomes inspired by Megre's story of a wild woman of the woods demanding he write a book about her. He gives Megre his last silver cross, begging Megre not to give up on the project, and is killed by other tramps the next morning while scratching the words 'The Ringing Cedars of Russia' in red brick dust on a wall. We hear the ex-KGB man dies with a smile on his face, his fatal fall off the crate he is standing on lengthening the third ray from his cartoon sun into a single line reaching all the way to the ground. Powerful stuff, blending utopian social schemes, Gaian earth magic, fairytale myth, a weirdly compelling heroine and her clumsy narrator, and absolute lashings of intensely Russian sentimentality. Literally a book that sells itself. For one thing, the content is so extreme that it directly assaults cynicism & scepticism head on. Siberia is a mystical frontier for Russians. Megre touches on the story of the - he feels - wrongly maligned Siberian monk, Rasputin. As a place of internal exile, a wilderness that purifies those who suffer there, and a place remote enough that tribes still practising shamanism survive undisturbed, Siberia is for Russians the essential Outer Place, a lost Eden preserving secret traces of a better world. Megre compares meeting Anastasia's family to the discovery in 1978 of a tiny, isolated group of schismatic Orthodox Christians, a last few of The Old Believers, hiding in Siberia since the church split in 1666. I recall seeing a picture in a magazine in the 1980s of a gap-toothed Siberian Slav girl with blonde plaits, freckles, and a strange wide-faced openness, that for five or six years formed an oddly persistent search image for me of a potential Love of My Life From The Eurasian Steppes. In the 1990s I frequently thought of going further east, and remember a peculiar afternoon in a Budapest cafe with a young blonde, half-Russian half-Hungarian, talking hypnotically about childhood visits to Siberia, and how it was like a vast ocean with the people there scattered across the face of the land like shoals of fish. She added she could sometimes attach ashtrays and other heavy objects to her forehead by simple willpower - as you do.

June 18th; Wake up in the spare bedroom at the flat of Exotic Girl 1, refreshed from a deep sleep. She takes me to meet the genial thoughtful Paul: novelist, linguist, and teacher of short-attention-span twerps. We eat cake, drink tea, and stroll round a nearby park. I catch my train, meeting a middle-aged American couple teaching computing in Lincolnshire (he hardware, she software) and I explain my full-sentence doctrine that the root cause of most software uselessness is programmers' hatred of words & books. I reach my house in The Village. 'Anastasia' by Vladimir Megre turns out to be even more curious than it looked when I was handling Vera's copy on the plane yesterday. The telepathic faith-healer girl Megre meets when charting a cruise ship on a trading mission up a Siberian river emerges as Francis of Assissi crossed with Tarzan. Animals tamely listen to her. Her grandfather and great-grandfather try to persuade Megre that a 500-year-old pine tree (a "ringing cedar of Russia") wishes to be cut down and chopped up into pendants to heal thousands of people, and is making a humming noise to alert foresters to its desire to be turned into timber soon. Anastasia has an intriguing plan for a world spiritual revival based on Russia's market-gardeners and allotment-farmers. She regards UFO-type flying machines as uninteresting exceptions to humanity's reliance on explosive propulsion. Her most passionate desire is to explain, through Megre, her forest community's views about the right way to bring up children. The book closes with a selection of the poems the original publication stimulated among ecstatic readers across Russia. This is book 1 of a 9-book series. I bought 1 & 2 in London today. They're weirdly readable, but two should be enough for now.
June 17th; Curious, hard-to-forget day. Kind Annika drives me into central Stockholm where there is light drizzle and grey skies, and I potter about printing out my Ryanair boarding pass then getting on the shuttle bus to a different airport comfortably early. At the airport I'm briefly alone with the check-in lady, and she quietly divulges that Ryanair are aggressive with airport staff, not just with passengers. Queuing to board the aircraft I find myself among eighty noisy British schoolboys who for some reason have just spent a week in Sweden. I am right behind a sporty dark-haired Swedish man in his twenties and a tall, olive-skinned girl, possibly Persian but Swedish-speaking, with stupendously shapely legs, thick glossy black hair, and a tight-fitting dogtooth-pattern silk top. I assume they are together, but slowly realise they are not - yet. We walk across the asphalt towards the aeroplane's front steps. Fat squeaky 12-year-olds surge towards the back steps like cartoon fruit. A random shuffle of passengers leaves me walking beside the wonderfully leggy slim brunette who seems to enjoy chatting in English as much as in Swedish. Inside the plane, something odd happens. I find myself in the aisle of the plane, about to sit with the dark-eyed houri. She is on one side of the aisle, while a hippie-looking redhead girl sits on the other side. I cannot quite pinpoint what crosses my mind, but a conscious thought pops up that the young Swedish lad deserves to be with the Near-Eastern princess, and a curious little urge makes me sit with the redhead instead. The sporty good-looking but shy Swede is right behind me and so he sits with the long-legged brunette. We are symmetrical. The two males in the aisle seats, the two girls in the window seats. The redhead girl wants to chat and has an odd radiance about her. Minutes after take-off she points out how extraordinary the clouds are out of her window and insists I look closely. In fact, she is right. On all my flights ever, I've never seen clouds like these, extraordinarily solid-looking castles of ice cream seemingly just yards beyond the wingtips. She is Portuguese, works around the world in eco-villages, is clutching a battered paperback book, and I find myself asking about this book. It seems to have had a strong effect on her, and to represent a whole lifestyle. It is called 'Anastasia', apparently the first of a sequence of cult books about a middle-aged Russian businessman in the 1990s meeting a beautiful wild girl in a remote part of Siberia. She insists he write a book about her, that he change his moral outlook, and that he thereby help her spiritually revive Russia and the world in line with her teachings. I read occasional sentences from Vera's copy while we talk. She relates her time at Findhorn in Scotland. She is a sort of mirror-image Lykke Li. While Li is a Swedish girl who grew up on a Portuguese hillside, Vera is a Portuguese girl building houses on a Swedish island.

June 16th; Late last night Annika & Imre ask me to do some Tarot readings. We close with an interesting idea from Imre of doing a non-personal spread not about any of us but about a public event. He suggests the death of Osama bin Laden, and we all shuffle and all draw cards. The two cards at the heart of the affair are the 8 of Wands (Swiftness) and The Magician, while The Hermit is in the recent-past position, and Judgement occupies the possible-outcome position. The final four cards cover all four houses and all four royal positions, one of each.
Quite eerie the way night time works in Stockholm during the summer. It gets darker late on, around 10pm, but somehow dusk never turns into night. There is effectively a dusk lasting from about 10pm to 2am, making dusk and dawn all one phase. I shall remember the wooden-board houses in mainly three colours. There is the dark intense dried-blood red of some buildings as in the relocated folk village Annika showed us around today. This traditional rust red apparently comes from soil rich in iron ore. The other two common colours of exterior paint used for mainly horizontal wooden slats cladding the outsides of residential houses are a sort of greyish green, and a kind of vanilla-toned dark cream. Easy to forget how far north we are. In Stockholm, only halfway up Sweden, the last few days had me closer to the pole than northern Scotland - at more like the latitude of the Faroe Islands. I finish an odd short book I bought yesterday in Uppsala, 'The Cult of the Fact' by Liam Hudson, psychologist author of a paperback I saw everywhere in the 1970s but never, I think, actually read, which discussed differences between 'convergent minds' and 'divergent minds' in schoolchildren. Hudson modestly breezes through his own education as a scientific psychologist on the fringes of the ordinary-language philosophers' gang in 1940s and 50s Oxford. He introduces a curious digression for several pages about unicorns, including a lovely English-language translation of Rilke's sonnet about the unicorn, and at another point quotes at length from a Michael Frayn novel about academics on television. Hudson describes how the scientific-psychology emphasis on rats in mazes and other laboratory experiments suddenly went out of fashion in the 1960s. Hudson praises Ronald Laing for revitalising experiential subjective psychology, while shrewdly predicting that this too will be a transient fashion lasting only a couple of decades. Hudson nicely spans several styles of psychology, goes deep in just a few pages into what he sees as academic psychology's basic frailties, and raises interesting criticisms of how profoundly students' minds are shaped by the unspoken assumptions of their educators. A 1975 dedication written inside and a typed 1976 bill for a meal at an Uppsala grill restaurant folded inside the book complete its setting in time & space. Presumably it spent 35 years in a modernist home with pastel-coloured furniture somewhere in the old Swedish university town before moving on to me.
June 15th; Relaxed day in Uppsala with Annika & Imre. We visit some botanical gardens linked to Linneus the first systematic taxonomist, where an eerie stone face welcomes us from among the ornamental geometric lawns. In another building we see the Silver Bible. Then we go to a scientific museum full of old maps, cabinets of wonder, telescopes, old surgical instruments, Viking remains, and a large wooden dissection theatre with very steeply-banked seats under the building's cupola. Uppsala clearly a university town: flaxen-haired girls on bicycles much in evidence.

June 14th; Wake up in Tor's bedroom, watched over by large fluffy toy animals. Drive with Annika to airport to pick up Imre, and from then on to Stockholm for Annika's thesis defence. I meet lots of nice people and sitting through her defence is rather interesting, even though I don't know a single word of Swedish. There is an "opponent", a tall thin articulate man in a dark suit who has it seems prepared a detailed two-and-a-half-hour slide show of questions and concerns about Annika's thesis. He proceeds to move through the slides, some of excerpts from her book in white writing on a black background, raising questions about her research. Her research dissertation is called 'Homo Clima' and is about the idea that climate change is now a body of norms or a knowledge discourse that shapes people into self-governing subjects, worrying over their carbon footprint and praising themselves and each other when they are virtuously green. The main theoretical influence is Michel Foucault.
June 13th; Uneventful flight to Stockholm. Met at airport by Annika, as bubbly as ever. We drive to Uppsala.

June 12th; Packing for Sweden tomorrow and then on to England. I know it's a mistake to buy cheap brushes, but during application of undercoat to part of the second chair, the brush is completely denuded. Not a bristle left.
June 11th; Morning swim on the island with Jamal. He's concerned my breathing technique on the crawl is wrong, which is why that stroke tires me out so much. Late afternoon green tea with Terri & Alvi, where we chat about Essex Girls and The Joseph Conrad Effect. Terri mentions recently seeing a clip of Naomi Wolf discussing how zealously Dominique Strauss-Kahn is being prosecuted, and why she thinks that might be. Curious set of book covers redesigned as if in mid-20th-century Polish editions. One or two rather good. Slightly parochial American ideas of what counts as a 'literary classic', but never mind.

June 10th; Am interviewed for a TV documentary about Spain's economic crisis.
June 9th; Last web lesson with Monika. Am e-mailed from Yorkshire - apparently there is water flooding out of my house again. New problems, just what I need.

June 8th; Green tea with Henry in hot sunshine on Andrassy street. We reminisce about teaching in the Austrian countryside, and Bernhardt's sage warnings about Nazis in the hills. In the evening, Terri & Alvi hold a screening in their flat, plying us with salty snacks, spritzers, cherries & cake. Six of us watch the 1972 Tarkovsky movie 'Solaris', subtitled into English. A psychologist must visit an almost-deserted space station orbiting another planet where the crew, down to only three men, are sending back increasingly eccentric reports to Earth. A single clip like this one fails to convey the powerful cumulative logic of the film. This scene, apparently of a woman undressing in the cabin of a scientist on the space station, is not what it seems at all. After an hour of building mood and plot this point in the story is in fact quite something else. The restrained Russian actors, quiet stubborn faces suffused with emotion, bring the eerie plot of the Stanislaw Lem sci-fi novel vividly to life. We see the central character leaving his former life behind, aware he might not return from his mission. We dwell on a night-time scene at his father's house, where he burns old letters and photographs on a small bonfire in the garden, quietly distressing his parents as he does so. Curious stories about Solaris and its space station precede his launch.
Tarkovsky several times undercuts the usual action-led story line of a space movie. He repeatedly undermines our expectations of action so as to lead us back into mood. Frightened on his first night, the hero takes a gun to bed with him he finds in another man's cabin - we expect a mishap but the gun just "tickles" and drops out of the story. Much of the film seems to be about sleep, falling asleep and waking up. Many awakening scenes feature slow camera pans that fill us with nervous expectation something will have changed - then mood comes back in to replace the missing plot moment we were tricked into waiting for. Far from the space station hiding a weird secret, its central strangeness - that Solaris is a planet that seems to have one vast intelligent ocean that somehow affects the minds of the human astronauts orbiting the planet, driving them mad - is given away almost casually early on. The compulsory cliche shot when the hero's craft launches from earth is simply missed out - we see a frame of deep space and only hear the central character asking over his radio how long before lift off, only to be told it already happened and he's already on his way. Yet his earlier car journey into the city to prepare for take-off, full of motorway tunnels, brutalist 1970s concrete structures, and a strange washed-out look where only red glimmers through otherwise monochrome shots, is drawn out and dwelt on. This ten-minute car journey is somehow the real beginning of the mission into space, telling us that our hero's expedition is as much a journey into himself and the unfamiliar aspects of familiar darkness as it is a trip into some exotic outer darkness. The film itself opens with white credits on a black background to solemn, ethereal organ music, creating a religious atmosphere later deepened with a non-musical score. Almost all the time on the space station, deep slow chords of electronic sound swell and ebb in the background matching rolling emotion and tension tied into slow camera movements. Stylistically influential, the space station has the squeaky white plastic furniture and curvy modernism of 60s Nova, Omni & Biba, but it also has clutter. The increasingly erratic, scruffy crew members have made their quarters messy, either comfortingly or worryingly, depending on your view. Crude drawings are taped up. A childish stick figure sketch labelled "human being" stuck to the metal door of one cabin hints at mental breakdown. As the station commander shows our hero how to attach a piece of paper with strips torn in it to the air vent in his quarters because it lets you fall asleep seemingly listening to the sound of leaves in the wind, he chuckles admiringly that this idea of a crew member (who has recently killed himself) shows "the simplicity of all truly great ideas". We sense just how far these men have drifted from the semi-military discipline and scientific purpose they had a few years earlier. Also breaking with modernist convention, the space station has a proper library, where they can relax at mahogany tables with proper books, candles, antique prints, bottles of good wine. In the Solaris day, harsh sunlight reflected off the planet-sized ocean glares into the station's curving corridor. At night, swirling forms of the strange ocean can be seen from the space station portholes as a dim silvery glow: another disorientating rhythm crew members have trouble adjusting to.
Oddest of all, we slowly grasp that the strange ghosts the planet extracts from the cosmonauts' memories are not a form of psychological weapon or punishment. They are something else.
Early on in the film, as we see the distress and worry on Earth about what has gone puzzlingly wrong with the Solaris mission, we've been primed for a space version of 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad, Lem's Polish compatriot. Just as Conrad's narrator must journey into the unknown to investigate the misdoings of Kurtz in 1890s Africa (retold on celluloid as 'Apocalypse Now' in 1970s Vietnam) there are the same odd, garbled reports filtering back, the slow mission of discovery the hero must make as he goes deeper into the exotic zone to discover what the appalling secret is, finally realising that true darkness is inside the human soul.
Yet Lem and Tarkovsky lead us into a slightly different heart of darkness, even if almost as frightening. In one way, the thinking ocean of Solaris acts like the insect-like aliens in H.G. Wells' novel 'First Men in the Moon'. Wells' aliens sat quietly in his hero's lunar cell for hours, carefully imitating his every random gesture & sneeze until he grasped they were there to learn the Earth beings' language and open communication. The ghost "visitors" that the sentient ocean of Solaris conjures out of each cosmonaut's mind are not the cunningly disguised alien spies of American space films. They are not infiltrators from the ocean (none of the very solid ghosts seem to realise why they are there). They are like gestures held up as attempts to begin conversation, just as the Wellesian moon creatures copied human coughs and twitches so as to say: let's talk. Not only is this an alien intelligence not a creature like us or a society like ours, rather a composite mind of almost unimaginable differentness - a planetary ocean ...also, in refreshing contrast to sci-fi writers & scientists who predict communication with aliens will use the language of mathematics, Lem's & Tarkovsky's alien intelligence communicates in the language of pure emotion. So Lem's outer-space rewrite of Conrad's journey into the Congo jungle also explores emotional darkness, but with a chance of redemption - at least if you can handle your own regrets, lost loves, unexpressed demons. What you find depends on who you are and if you can change. Tarkovsky seems to believe the point of being alive is to experience fully your own feelings about those you love, and that might be the deepest thing you share with an alien species. A lot of sci-fi has aliens & humans talk to each other straight away so they can quickly agree on their differences and get down to some conflict. Solaris stops that plotline before it even begins. Instead the mystery of how to comprehend your own feelings and even sense there is someone else sensing you ...becomes the whole story.
June 7th; Warm, wet, windy weather. Sometimes the strong sour perfume of perhaps labernum or linden trees brings back previous springs & summers. Walking through a breeze of this scent gives me a curious mood, about 1/3 nostalgia, 2/3 hope.

June 6th; New Scientist forays into economics.
June 5th; Wonderful day off at Franc's. A relaxed lunch stretching from 2pm to 8pm, with Franc, Henry, Bori, and Johnny doing much of the cooking. I get very pleasantly merry on white beer and there is much banter.

June 4th; Brief afternoon tea with Ilan. Nice simply written introduction to cascading style sheets.
June 3rd; Hide in flat all day and get some bits of work done at last. Seems 'onmouseover' is easy to do. What takes more trouble is 'fade' or 'transition' to slow down the image change at rollover. Amazingly, appears to need 20, 30, even 40 lines of Javascript to achieve. Either that or something much shorter in CSS3 that I understand even less.

June 2nd; Bombastic rap video pillages Renaissance art, Greek mythology, and some other odd things for visual references. America's urban masses rediscover the benefits of a classical education. Like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it's no longer clear which way is up: a metaphor for our PoMo times.
June 1st; To show just how many attacks are going on against chambermaids in Big Apple hotels, like the alleged assault on a maid by French IMF person Dominique Strauss-Kahn you might imagine was sub judice, a New York magazine finds two women with a total of 38 years' employment between them to interview about the perils of hotel work. It seems that during these almost four chamber-maid-decades one man showed one of the workers his todger, while the other woman got asked for a kiss by a Japanese guest and some years later had her arm grabbed by a third man. It's a jungle out there, people.


Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com