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2011
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August 31st; Attend Writer's Group for the first time for quite a while, at Esther's. Bubbly Victoria is there with tales of white-water rafting in Siberia, Heather drops in, the enthusiastic antique-dealer girl who has written a book about buttons is there. An American redhead called Kate turns up later with wonderfully tasty apricot-themed shortbread she has baked.
August 30th; More on the new US economy.

August 29th; An oldie but goldie revisited: skirt lengths & bourse trends.
August 28th; Invited over to Terri & Alvi's for a test shoot. After lots of making up, moving of screens, closing of window shutters, Terri takes some test photographs of a girl in a long gown and very high heels while the rest of us, such as the Russian linguist boyfriend of the mannequin and his adorable golden retriever, sit around and chat.

August 27th; Up early to scrub balcony, then move some of my wooden sticks & paraphenalia out onto said balcony, then do some cleaning inside. Walk over to day-and-night bookstall man, who yesterday said he would show me his other books if I came at ten today. Curious how I feel about the city now that I've been walking everywhere for a couple of weeks. Most places feel further away, but one or two have subtly approached a little and seem slightly closer. Something quite appealing about simply walking to wherever you need to go, and the extra time doesn't seem wasted. I noticed this during the couple of years I walked to school each day: somehow the chance to sort things out in your head, the extra clarity walking outdoors gives you, actually makes the day more, not less, efficient. I look at his books about electronics, but they are all fearsomely advanced communist guides on how to take a television to pieces using only a teaspoon, how to wire up air-traffic-control towers with home-made vacuum valves, and so on. Nothing with the basic material about magnets I really should know, I should be able to find on the internet but cannot, and which I know for certain was clearly explained in my childhood collection of How-and-Why-Wonder books that mother lost during her spectacularly misguided house move from Manchester to Yorkshire that has been magnificently inconveniencing me ever since. Suddenly up pops Mariannpsy on the street in front of me from nowhere smiling happily, and invites me to join her in a toy shop. A few hours later I am in the shopping centre. I see a spoilt little boy giving his mother & father a hard time. They are completely unable to control him, the mother is young, cute, blonde, and harassed - the father affable, friendly-looking. Both defeated. I tell the little boy in English "Listen to your mother!" and the effect is electrifying. All three go quiet, and the little boy is frozen in shock at clearly being addressed, but in a language he doesn't know. The parents giggle, amazed at how easy it is, we laugh and I tell the small boy in Hungarian to be nice to his mother. Seconds later, I leave to go over and join the queue for sandwiches, the child works out I am not a new part of his life, that his parents are still unable to be firm with him, and his brattish behaviour resumes like a switch being flicked back on.
August 26th; Look some stuff up about diamond-grit mesh sizing. Refresh my vague memories of what making a WiFi antenna out of a Pringles can involves. New York seems to be having earthquakes & hurricanes, or so we hear. Wonder about ways to clean some dirt off my macro lens without scratching it.

August 25th; So my neck seems better at the back, but now I seem to have pulled something at the front, at the right end of the clavicle. Also have heat rash in one armpit, Gentle Reader will be especially interested to learn. I buy a couple of measuring jugs.
August 24th; I go to the real chemists a couple of blocks along the main boulevard. Although it has the same brand name ('Azur') as the more familiar shops with shelving units stacked with brands of shampoo & toothpaste all across the country, this Azur is a special one. It has an industrial feel inside. Entering is like stepping back a century. There are no displays, just a long counter down one side and one end of the shop covered in old white formica. Calendars & items on the wall have the dusty faded look of shops in very small provincial towns. There is the generic stink of school chemistry labs. The big man behind the counter wears an authentic lab coat, no less. His is of the grubby bunsen-burners-and-iodine-stains variety, not the fake-science jackets of beauty salons so white they practically glow in the dark. He has the weary smile of a man with chemicals that can kill people and dissolve their chopped-up bodies. This is the kind of chemist's shop in which characters in Agatha Christie 1920s murder stories could buy enough stuff to exterminate a village just by signing something called "the poisons book". We look into his drawer of textile dyes together and he shows me a piece of card with fifteen small rectangles of cotton - each dyed a different colour of course - glued onto it above the name of each colour. I choose blue. Our business is done. I step out back into blinding August sun and oven-like heat clutching my industrial-yellow paper sachet of blue powder. Right there is parked an incredibly new car, looking as if it is out of the showroom less than half an hour, in shiny bubble-gum pink. The car is so glossy & cheerfully the colour of 12-year-old girls' nail polish I almost laugh out loud.

August 23rd; Heat intensifies. People round here seem to be getting more shouty at night than a couple of years ago. Hard to say why. Might be students moving into the newly redone apartments. The people in the flat right above me have had a couple of all-night sing-songs recently, where they play the Lionel Richie original to 'Easy Like Sunday Morning', not the Faith No More cover version. An alarming notice in the lift claims someone was attacked in there by an intruder a few days ago, but I have trouble believing this.
August 22nd; Weather getting hotter. Spend much of my energy today disentangling myself from a British online firm that has been sucking ten pounds a month from my bank account since November 2010. All for a 15-pound-off voucher I was never able to use. I have to scan several bank statements and e-mail them in, then phone another number and explain why I want the money returned I never realised I was signing away, and then go to a website to print out a form I must fill in. Then I will have to fax that back to them: a chore for tomorrow. Text of an interesting talk about the future of books from a Glaswegian writer.

August 21st; Neck still aches a little, and strangely so does my left foot from July, but today feel almost alarmingly alert & adroit. I saw the half-done 2nd chair into two pieces, because it's clear there is no other way I can get myself at the proper angle to chisel slots into the inside faces of the legs: silly of me not to see from the start that would be hard.
August 20th; The fireworks they hold this day each August are always strangely sad. People stand at the crossroads near my flat quietly chatting in the sticky heat of the night, and though we can hear the booms and bangs of fireworks going off, nothing is visible in the sky. After five minutes three bursts of pink & purple stars appear down the narrow slot of one street. A minute or two on, I see a few more fireworks go off in the sky, but only because by then I am almost down at the main boulevard and the tram tracks, strolling to the night shop. Yesterday's walking tour (four miles? perhaps five or six) felt like some kind of farewell to Budapest. Most streets have a few darkened shops which have simply not bothered opening their doors or changing their window display for a year or two, or in many cases for a decade or two, as if it is just all too much for each shopkeeper to bear any more. Even with some modern businesses dotted around, the main mood of Budapest reminds many visitors of towns frozen in the 1950s, forever remembering the prosperity they had before the war. Another British comparison would be provincial seaside towns in the winter, where whole streets seem to hibernate. This can be soothing, but Budapest's bitter-sweet mood of quiet loss & regret is nonetheless an acquired taste.

August 19th; To get paid for the wrestling translation & voice work, I walk to Kalman's office, then learn the money is with Sanyi, the sumo-wrestler & sound producer. So I must walk over the 1960s Erzsebet bridge into Buda in quite warm sun to locate the Duna Televizio studio and find him on duty doing some sports show. Once he pays me, I then walk back to Pest by another route. This goes over the Victorian Margit Bridge, where I loiter to watch a wonderful sunset over my shoulder in various shades of buttery vanilla sky. This is on the bridge whose cast-iron railings have been painted a thick marzipan yellow. I sit outside a McDonalds at the Pest end of the bridge looking back over the river straight at the last light of the day disappearing behind the Buda hills. The first refreshing cool wind comes. Massing dark blue clouds push the last scraps of silver-gold under the Buda skyline. As night falls, Marguerite & her small fluffy dog Emma come to meet me, and we eat outside a small restaurant two blocks north of the boulevard and one block in from the river on a dark, tree-lined street. Later, after a short taxi ride, she introduces me to Patrick, with Niall & Henry & other people already at another bar.
August 18th; Late at night, finish 'Politics' by Aristotle. Long while since I last read this, and this time I think I see what is so extraordinary about it. People are inclined to say Aristotle thinks like a biologist, but since biologists now know lots of chemistry, genetics, and maths, this doesn't sound quite right any more. Linnaeus' big project to classify all living things in the 18th century is the last time the Aristotelian approach was taken seriously in cutting-edge science. These days it explains it better to say Aristotle thinks like a gardener. His simple refusal to move below the level of practical common sense, his refusal to seek some kind of pseudo-physics essentialism, is an extraordinary shift from Plato and (perhaps) Socrates. What is more shocking to realise is that Plato's insistence on looking for "fundamental" principles in politics is still the norm in the 20th and 21st century world. Plato insists on treating a society as something like a crystal with essential qualities, internal elegance, symmetry, harmony, underlying laws somehow simpler and more parsimonious than the surface complexity - in other words as something which opens itself up to the same approach mathematicians take to numbers & geometry. Aristotle just doesn't buy this, which is why his account read so oddly for me at college. Once he has described the characteristics of an oligarchy or a democracy or a monarchy, using plentiful practical examples from the Greek Mediterranean of his time, Aristotle just does not think there is necessarily any "deeper" to go with an analysis. Aristotle dares to say (like the later Wittgenstein but without his mystical drunkenness on the brilliance of his own double-take), that there might be no "foundations" or theoretical "structure", might be no further "down" to take a principle. I tried to list who else believed this, and could not come up with anyone else but Burke. Everyone else writing about politics since the Renaissance, as far as I can tell, thought of themselves as clever scientists uncovering some inner secret, some key to understanding all societies. They all saw themselves as something like a humanities cross between Plato & Galileo, in other words. Once you get used to Aristotle's calmly confident use of "this should be", "it is better if", some uncannily convincing thoughts emerge, even when he is being opinionated. Young people should not be present at irreverent lampoons if they are still too young to drink. Musicians are unmanly, and it is not wise for a society to hold them in too high regard, even if everyone needs to relax at a singsong sometimes. In Book VI, "....if the will of the numerical majority is to prevail, they will do injustice by confiscating the property of the rich minority..." A couple of lines later, he gives a numerical example of six rich property owners voting with fifteen poor voters, against four rich property owners who voted with the remaining five poor voters, and says that whichever of those two sides has more property in total should carry that vote. The purpose of war is peace, the purpose of business is leisure, so however noble warriors are by nature (here he gently but firmly opposes his teacher Plato's admiration for the warlike Spartan state), they must learn to continue that noble outlook into the moderate, balanced, tasteful life of an active citizen. All his claims he supports, not on a structure of essentialist axioms about human nature or dignity or soul, but by reference to some of the numerous Greek city states where this or that historical event happened as a result of some action or other. The only theory of human nature he has to guide all this is his set of thoughts about how a free man should pursue the good life of dignified, noble, & moderate conduct. Never mind business gurus who burble in support of flat organisations, this is a flat discussion of organisations. His real self-discipline shows when he restrains himself from analysing a topic into more layers than makes sense. If tempted, he resists.

August 17th; Wednesday. Voiceover at Kalman's about Hungarian wrestling. In the evening, Exotic Girl 1 and Peter the Harpsichord Builder kindly take me out for dinner. Exotic Girl has a long list of book & film recommendations for me.
August 16th; Tuesday. Yesterday's money arrives at the end of today.

August 15th; Monday. Neck hurts. Work on Kalman's translation.
August 14th; Sunday. Neck hurts. Work on Kalman's translation.

August 13th; Saturday. Neck hurts. Work on Kalman's translation.
August 12th; Friday. Couple of Tarot readings for Kalman in his office with the Crowley cards.

August 11th; Thursday. Neck still very bad. Work in Kalman's office.
August 10th; Wednesday. Surprise invitation to dinner at Terri & Alvi's. They have been decorating. They tell me a bit about London's Yoof current rioting. It seems to be largely rage the state isn't giving them more bling. She claims a Guardian headline said 'The blame squarely lies on government policies of 32 years ago'. Not a word about how Moscow-funded trade unionists nearly closed Britain down six years before that, of course.

August 9th; Tuesday. Neck still very bad. Work in Kalman's office.
August 8th; Monday. Neck still very bad. Work in Kalman's office. Finish a depressingly weak tome by Oliver James, called 'Affluenza'. Perhaps the most worrying part is that James' confused waffle is gushingly reviewed ("a sizzling reality check") on the back cover by someone called Avner Offer, apparently a Professor of Economic History at Oxford. If that's true, and Avner meant this, then truly standards have fallen a long long way. Briefly, James claims to have discovered a kind of psychological virus, called either "affluenza" or "selfish capitalism" which, yes inevitably, dates from Margaret Thatcher's and Ronald Reagan's governments of the 1980s. It's pretty clear by now how traumatic the soft left found that decade, but the depth of their self-deception still startles. Though in fact the 1970s and 1960s were foaming at the mouth with materialistic greed, ideological class hate and status rage, this book claims that shallow pursuit of brand names, money love & bling date solely from the Conservative governments of 1979 onwards. James is able to tap into a broad readership of people whose memories of what really happened from the 60s to the present have been overwritten and reshaped by the BBC/Guardian myth of what happened. He mixes crank psychology (Freud) and crank economics (Marx) into a blend I've noticed goes down strangely well with paternalistic people from privileged backgrounds, a group he is careful to regularly remind us he is from. His claim to have found something rests on interviews. These are where he questions people, then sneeringly sums them up in a couple of lines in a way that most of his readers will feel good about going along with, pointing out contradictions uttered by people kind enough to talk to him, their lack of wit, and so on. He refers frequently to people driven by materialistic and status views of residential property (though he reveals he has those too), people driven by a need to impress their fathers (it becomes clear he badly wants to impress his father), people who cannot be honest with themselves (he has major problems being honest with himself); and the fragments of his text which are thoughtful are ideas taken from books he found on his father's bookshelves. Since these are largely bestsellers of the 1940s and 50s, he can be confident most Guardian readers have not read them and are intrigued by the titles. Such as those by Erich Fromm, Michael Young's satire coining the word 'meritocrat', a text by Lionel Trilling. I read the first two authors and they're good, but knowing some of his crib-sheets first-hand makes it painfully clear how far 'Affluenza' is less than the sum of its sources. James trots round the world interviewing folk in each place and comes to the conclusion that Denmark is far more socially advanced than Britain (though he makes selective use of statistical studies which support his thesis, it never occurs to him to check Denmark's figures and find out how high their crime rates are). Even there he cannot restrain himself from pooterishly ticking off the locals and setting them right. During a comical few days at a Danish kindergarten James chuckles on page 344 confidently that children that age are far too young to be manipulating their parents (as the head Jasper claims they sometimes do {would be fascinating to hear Jasper's off-the-record account of several days with windbag James in his kindergarten}). A few pages later on page 350 James smugly observes that a child that age is being deliberately cool with his father as he picks him up at the end of the day to show he was hurt to be left there - in other words he attributes the same level of emotional sophistication he chortlingly mocked when the teacher attributed it. He asks the poor man "if he was aware of attachment theory or had heard of John Bowlby, its creator," and proudly notes that one kindergarten teacher (who he archly notes had an account "intriguingly different from this") thought a child had been there four weeks instead of eight weeks, so obviously "she did not know the child terribly well". He clearly sees himself as a shrewd, seasoned investigator who knows a thing or two about life, rather than as the insufferable prat who wrote this book. Apart from revealing himself as the sort of finger-wagging bore who drags out committee meetings to show his mastery of something irrelevant, his few days looking at Danish child care are particularly odd since they unwittingly undermine his whole thesis about Denmark. On page 363 he judiciously notes that Danish kindergartens do seem to instil conformity (an anecdote about Danes back in 1973 refusing to cross the street against the traffic lights even on days all cars were banned and there were no vehicles anywhere forms one of the few interesting paragraphs in 'Affluenza'). He spots that this creates blandness and removes playfulness. Yet he seems to miss what this says for the other things he admires about Denmark. (This might be because restoring his family's status foothold on London's housing ladder {Prologue} looks to have been the real drive behind getting his blockbuster written, injecting a note of slapdash hurry.) His Danish claim is that it is a relatively "virus"-free society. James decides that Denmark has lots of confident working women (good), is a culture where people try hard not to show off and are anxious to fit in with others (good). Therefore it's striking when he criticises Danish parents for leaving toddlers in day-care to (a) toughen the child up and get it used to fitting in with other people's needs, and (b) because Danish mothers are bored at home and would like to go to work and earn more money, cutting directly against the two things he most praises in the Danish model.
'Affluenza' is shot through with the kind of self-contradiction he picks his interview subjects up for, except there's far less excuse for leaving his in an edited text. "Throughout our meeting, Gus frequently spoke of feeling superior or inferior to others," James says of another unfortunate person generous and trusting enough to meet our author in New York for a chat. This sentence of course describes James himself startlingly well - at least the superior part. James' attempts to analyse people all ooze the pride of the amateur psychologist he is quick to spot in others: "This unsatisfactory experience of therapy leaves Gus prone to earnest psychologising but without great insight," James grandly remarks of poor Gus. Then when Gus comes up with (as Americans often do) a line like 'I was a nerd before nerds had been invented,' James pompously asides that "(he made frequent attempts at aphorisms like this which did not have quite the cleverness which I felt he imagined they possessed)." A lot like James' attempt at a book then. What extraordinary rudeness about someone who helped him. It is hard to know whether to blame a writer so utterly up himself that he sneers in brackets about his interview subjects, or the publishers who cobbled together this shoddy product and the reviewers who praised it. Whichever it is I very much hope Gus one day gets the chance to spoil something for Oliver James, and takes it.
James' overall thesis that melts like dew in the dawn when examined, is that shallow greed & materialism are both as old as the hills, and yet since the 1970s (for which read since 1979) have become "ubiquitous". Some might think that perhaps more newspapers, telegrams, photographs, clearer understanding that others live in luxury and are sometimes more beautiful, higher expectations of life, might be doing this. Centuries in which material worries like food & shelter no longer fill every day enabled growing numbers of people to hope for more, to start to think more and more about their relative lack of status. All this, you might think, has made more people dissatisfied with their lot and keener to change it - even at the cost of their own soul - increasingly each decade since at least 1800. Of course this is just too simple and obvious for James. The thought that aristocrats have been obsessed with status, fashion, displaying wealth and physical beauty for thousands of years, and that now hundreds of millions of people worldwide are rich enough to be prey to the moral weaknesses only big landowners were exposed to five centuries ago, just never occurs to him. This might be because he needs a clever-looking gadget like the brand name 'affluenza' to give him a product, and also because his half-educated soft-left readers expect a mechanical answer to a spiritual question. Which is why the whole text is couched in pseudo-scientific language ("virus", "mechanism", "attachment theory", "structure", "immunised"). Most of them would find anything plainer too simple to be credible. It wouldn't seem clever enough for them or him, and it would be much harder to bloat into 550 pages.
Some policy suggestions in the last few pages (he prefaces these by saying now he's going to say what he really thinks, as if what he thinks hadn't been made embarrassingly obvious already) are truly squirm-making stuff. The only parallel I can find are those readers' letters to newspapers which suggest everything would be all right again if three randomly-chosen policies were imposed on the country. Perhaps the most charmingly daft is the idea that all new MPs should be forced (by law of course: for James and his readers the solution to a problem is always a new law) to spend a short period looking after a small child - which of course lets out of the bag that he was one of those twerps who airily thought looking after babies and toddlers was easy until he tried it.
What this tome is about but cannot openly tackle without frightening off buyers is spiritual versus materialist philosophies. James patronisingly tells his readers to try some meditation or take some time off to relax, as if religious faith is rather like gardening. In his puffed-up country doctor way, he says some of his interview subjects are "authentic", having been "immunised" (immunised to this made-up virus he hopes will be his meal ticket for the next ten years) by some religion or other. He pats them on the head for having a hobby that helps them, though of course true understanding of the underlying mechanisms is reserved for people like him.
A possible excuse for the crass enthusiasm from reviewers of this overblown newspaper column is that almost no-one actually reads books all the way through any more. What made this a bestseller is how perfectly it suits a very big audience just educated enough to think a book with a snappy slogan can sum up the day's social problems, but not educated enough to have read more than a couple of other examples to compare it to.

August 7th; Sunday. Work on Kalman's translation about Panama.
August 6th; Saturday. Astonishing neck and upper back ache. How did I do that?

August 5th; Left foot starting to hurt a bit less.
August 4th; Gold & silver still looking lively.

August 3rd; Must check this online currency.
August 2nd; Finish a slim volume called 'The Hermetica', by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy. This is not really the Hermetica per se, but rather a very short digest of bits of it. These are the 2nd-century AD writings attributed to Thrice-Great Hermes by enthusiastic later translators & readers like Ficino. The authors mention the work of the scholar Isaac Casaubon who decisively showed in 1614 from internal linguistic clues that these Greek texts could not predate 100 AD Alexandria, and were not, for example, five hundred years older. As seems pretty obvious to a modern reader first hearing this, the surviving writings could still easily have been a rewritten 1st or 2nd century version of a much older set of scripts or oral traditions. Although James I's court wanted to separate itself from the occultism of Queen Elizabeth's last decades, it does seem odd that no-one then remarked Ficino's texts could still be transcriptions of older material. That's after all what Hermeticists said they were, and collating, translating, & transcribing source texts was in any case what scribes in 2nd-century Alexandria did most of the time. It seems that James' court was very intent on silencing the Hermes craze in England, and that this was matched by a similar chilling elsewhere in 17th-century Europe.
The authors explain that the main idea throughout these documents is that the universe is one huge mind, the mind of God. This was the same claim that got Spinoza ostracised from Holland's Jewish community half a century after Casaubon - so for well over a thousand years this was intensely controversial material. The main heretical idea was that man could become like a god by elevating his mind to the sphere of the divine. The belief that destinies were largely fixed, and that fixing them was the purpose of the zodiac, introduces a more depressingly Oriental element of fatalism. This contrasts oddly with the uplifting view that man can unite with the godhead, the part that enthused the Italian Renaissance with new faith in the potential of the human individual. As man ascends towards the divine singularity, leaving behind various petty appetites and preoccupations like discarded shells, the similarities to "The One" of Plotinus are the most striking. From our standpoint, the most controversial claim is that these post-Christian writings resemble neo-Platonism not because they are Platonistic or Stoical, but the other way round, because Pythagoras & Plato/Socrates got much of their philosophy from older Egyptian religious traditions which predated them.

August 1st; Drop in on Kalman's office. He plays me some music by Mr Dub FX. He also tells me an intriguing anecdote about one of those seances-that-go-a-bit-wrong many people when younger undertake in jest. Kalman's school chums decide one summer night at a house in the country in the 1990s to invoke the spirit of Nostrodamus. They burn candles, perform the recommended chants they find in a book, and so forth. Then Kalman blacks out and comes to 90 seconds later in the garden to the sound of people screaming. He had, apparently, started chasing some girl while shouting in Latin, a language he'd never studied. Something plausible about Nostro, briefly released from sexless centuries in limbo, being unable to restrain himself on sighting 17-year-old Hungarian lasses in 1990s fashions.


Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com