Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I usually end up in Paris in-transit, at 7am, straight off a late-night, Dover-Calais ferry with 12 hours to kill before catching the night train south to the Basque Country. In fact, the one time I actually went there for an overnighter is indelibly marked by the roughhouse groping I received on Boulevard de la Chapelle. Each time, early doors, before our layover begins to drag with 10€ steak-sponges, blisters, nark and catatonic meanders in the Forum les Halles shopping mall, I always make a beeline for 5 bis Rue de Verneuil, Serge Gainsbourg's former home off the Champs Elysee. Many others do the same: the high wall that hems Serge's Paris house is covered with stencilled grafitti and scrawled messages of respect, admiration, desire. Each time, I kick my heels on the kerbside, astonished by the kind of (not cultish or kitschy, but truly popular) devotion he inspires.

Currently, 18 years after his death, Serge's house remains pretty much as he left it. Not that you'd be able to tell from the street; his family have installed security gates to keep devotees out. In 2007, it was reported that Charlotte Gainsbourg, his famous daughter, was hoping to convert it into a museum. For now, here's a look inside from Vogue Paris in 2007.

(Pictures via gnarlitude.com)

Thursday, March 19, 2009


This is a detail from a house on Ings Road Estate in East Hull. My mum and auntie were brought up here, indeed my grandparents and uncle still live here, in the rubble of their vanishing estate, still reluctantly prospecting other places to live.. As a child, the houses here, built on the whim of social housing planners, always seemed pretty magical to me: half brick, half panelling, they seemed like exotic Swiss chalets from the perspective of a small girl who lived in a Victorian semi.

They're going... going.. gone now. The whole area used to be council estate, but the Barrett homes are encroaching, land values have had increased (Hull, with its ever-proliferating regeneration programmes was a latercomer to the property boom), and the developers have razed the estate to the ground bit-by-bit to build newer, probably even dafter-looking homes.


When I first decided (a couple of years ago, in a post-degree jag of self-improvement) that the thing I wanted most was to become a proficient photographer, I first (such an Englishwoman, never quite comfortable with the fact of her own creative impulses) amassed a collection of books on the subject. One of those was Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, wherein Susan Sontag's foreword describes Barthes' critical dandyism. Sontag explores the process by which the Critic-Dandy chooses to collect certain objects into their discourse. For her, the objects are selected according to a kind of polyphonic whimsy, which draws more, and more various, objects together to form a diorama of the critic's individual taste.

Her admission of the critic's personal investment in the Things he critiques is as simple as asking "Why do you like what you like?", but I think its often overlooked: too personal, too emotional, too human. In this essay on Barthes, Sontag is concerned with feeling the shape of Barthes' oeuvre; its 'retroactive completeness', the patterns and preoccupations that emerge fully in hindsight. I've been thinking for some time about how this process can be traced backwards, how childhood predilections and obsessions feed our critical bent in adulthood.

All of this is proving a rather long and ponderous vamp to a clip of Reggie finally "seducing" Joan in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. I remember watching reruns of this melancholy and terminally dreary BBC comedy, and somehow knowing that it would come in handy later. As a pretty self-defeating 10 year-old, this small ping of recognition would generally mean I obstinately stopped paying attention, but the brown absurdism of this tremendously sad programme still took root, clearly.


Though I bitch n' moan about the misuses of the internet rather a lot (blog monetarisation, the Raw Food movement, online personal development gurus - "you too can finally experience the kind of life that deep down you always knew you were meant to live" - and personal branding passim) one of its very best functions is, I think, as a sort of clubhouse for enthusiasts and connoisseurs of all shades to guild together and gently indulge their bent, however obscure.

8333696's collection of pictures of abandoned and disused buildings is a fine example. She's one of a hardy band of benign trespassers (I believe the term correct term is Urban Explorers) who tote their cameras to places they shouldn't be (derelict lidos, asylums, factories, power stations) and chronicle what they find.


Swedish television's 1936 film, Bathing in Buda.
(via Pestiside.hu)


I hate how noone ever talks about how bad British architecture really is. I hate the bastards who make these buildings. So here I am, taking the piss out of them.

Yes, mate! Read and see more here on The Ghost of (Ian) Nairn's blog Bad British Architecture.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Let's go backwards. Backwards in time, all the way to the beginning. Back to a country that neither of us would recognize, probably. Britain, 1973.
-Was it really that different, do you think?
- Completely different. Just think of it! A world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes. A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war in Kosovo or Afganistan. There were only three television channels in those days, Patrick! Three! And the unions were so powerful that, if they wanted to, they could close one of them down for a whole night. Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!

Jonathan Coe, The Rotters Club

At the moment, I'm making a concerted - if slightly reluctant - effort to bring my reading up to date. Indeed, if you glanced at the stacks of books currently gathering dust in storage back in the UK (ie. toppling precariously off my Dad's ad hoc book shelves) you might be forgiven for thinking that the novel ceased existing some time around 1978 (which it didn't, did it? Might as well have done, though. Arf arf. A little "situation of the novel" humour for you there. Jeez.)

Anyway, after a happy couple of days counting the erections in The Line of Beauty, I'm now onto Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club. I'm, oh, about 50 pages in, so not much cohesive to report at present, except this: Now, I've long held that English culture seems to develop unevenly around a series of time-lags, that there are certain manifestations or practices that persist, long past their appropriate chronology. However, it's pretty disconcerting to find that Coe's mid-seventies Birmingham, with its homemade light ale, Big School, prefabs and Black Forest gateau, meshes so easily with the 1990s Hull of my childhood.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I don't edit these, promise. It seems there's some kind of dayglow pigment in the yellow ochres, dusky roses and orange peels they slap on the exterior of buildings here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


For Frank Kermode, Zadie Smith's novelistic gift lies in her talent for "being in the world, for knowing and loving its diversity". Now, Kermode is, as well as eminent and brilliant, almost ninety, and so I forgive him this oversight, but if that's the case then what is this?

...which is the shit, man 'cos it's like the best thing in the Requiem, and it made me think damn, you can be so close to genius that it like lifts you up... and all these people be trying to prove that it's Mozart 'cos that fits in with their idea of who can and who can't make music, but the deal is that this amazing sound was just by this guy Süssmayr, this average Joe Schmo guy...

(On Beauty's Carl, explaining to Zora that much of Mozart's Lacrimosa was, in fact, composed by Franz Süssmayr.)


Hundreds of column inches are devoted to prodding the mystique of what those that write for a living do all day. I'm thinking particularly of those picturesque writers' profiles in the Guardian Review, often accompanied by a photograph of the writer's desk: usually Habitat-level or above( or junk shop and artfully worn), framed by postcards and tasteful, not-too-distracting bits of art, perhaps the odd, intruding piece of domestic detritus. Writing, by these accounts, is comfortably incorporated into the day thus: one rises at seven, and is shuffling papers at her desk by eight, exhales the necessary 500-100 words by lunchtime and has the rest of the day free.

Well, in my experience, its not quite like that. Writing for a living (and a very bitty sort of "living" at that), for me, happens along a daily line of most resistance. Its a myopic, time-shrinking thing, marked only by the irregular peaks of hammering a thought into a just-about-satisfactory expression, a half-decent paragraph. It's pacing, always overdoing the coffee and always falling asleep to the sound of a book (hopefully paperback) falling on your head. The commercial writing I do (which just-about comprises my actual "living"), however, is a wholly different matter. Its nigglingly riddly, but neat in the end, it grants the rewards of sudden expertise on subjects well outside your usual remit. If you're pervy that way, you might even get a kick out of it.

Thank God, then, for getting out of the house. In Budapest, it's quite permissible to move your home office operations (that's a term I use to describe my yellow laptop, "Bigbird", my pencil case and my kettle) wholesale to the nearest café. This is Central European café culture for you and, happily, it has granted my working day a welcome semblance of sanity - even productivity - at last. After all, under the scrutiny of twenty others engaged in their own similar pursuits, napping, pacing, growling at the computer screen and systematically splintering your arsenal of freshly-sharpened pencils with your teeth doesn't seem quite right.

In Budapest's Golden Era, cafés served a similar purpose to the gentleman's club. Here's John Lukács' description from his very atmospheric Budapest 1900:

One could sit for hours over a cup of coffee, with a glass of water frequently replenished by a boy-waiter, and avail oneself of a variety of local and foreign newspapers and journals hanging on bamboo racks. One could send and receive messages from the coffeehouse. Free paper, pen and ink were available there... At a particular table - their reservation was sacrosanct - this or that group of journalists, playwrights, or sculptors and painters would congregate, usually presided over by one or two leading figures... In those frequented by journalists and writers the headwaiters (some of whom were celebrated for their knowledge of literature) kept sheaves of long white sheets of paper available to any writer who chose to compose his article or essay there. These headwaiters were also the courses of tips of the turf, of useful gossip, an - more useful to writers - of extension of credit as well as occasional loans of petty cash.

These days, sadly the fringe benefits have gone, but the spirit's still there. In fact, I'm pecking away at my keyboard here in Szoda, just around the corner from my apartment in the VIIth. Though the music policy might be called questionable, its a damned sight better than sixth form smokers corner at Café Nero in Norwich.

If, by some mischance, you've stumbled upon this post looking for useful information, here are my picks for if you're toting a decent book, writing your memoirs or have to edit a 10,000 word business report "by close of play today" (yeuch!):

Király utca 50.
This place positively invites repurposing into an office, ersatz HQ or a classroom. In the sea of tables upstairs I've seen English lessons conducted and regular meetings of what looks (and sounds) like some particularly fiery and well-subscribed Students Union society.

Blaha Lujza tér 1-2,
Big and barn-ish, there are nice, big tables here to liberally sprinkle the contents of your bag over.

Ibolya Presszo
Ferenciek tere 5.
Where ELTE students, squirreling away at the library opposite, go for their tea break. Also, strange cushioned around out the back, if you need a lie down.

Muzeum Cukrászda

Muzeum körút 10
And finally, a good bet for afternoons when you're full of good intentions but know that, in fact, all routes inevitably lead to egy korsó sor, kerem. That is, this place serves coffee, but also booze, cake and is open 24 hours.

By no means feel restricted by this list, however. I've seen people, four pints in, whip out their laptops to deal with some urgent correspondence in the middle of a heaving Saturday night out at Szimplakert.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I'm the kind of girl who enjoys - and, indeed, positively engineers - a time lag in her apprehension of most major cultural events. If there's fuss and column inches, I'll generally go away, have a cup of tea, and come back later. I think Joe is the same, he's rather enjoying the elongated anticipation (or delayed disappointment?) of not being able to view the first part of the Red Riding Quartet Trilogy here in Hungary, which aired in Britain last week.

I've been watching The Thick of It, which was first broadcast on BBC 4 in 2005. It's marvellous stuff - close-to-the-bone, Machiavellian, grotesque - and has me thinking that Armando Iannucci makes a better comedy writer in, say, 1985, than 2005. That's not to dismiss the very noughties Nathan Barley, whose compelling discomfiture - despite a weak and bitty structure - was upstaged by critics' and commentators' hilarious offscreen attempts to find a fingerhold in its scree of irony.

Agreeing with the comments elicited by YouTube clips is generally a bad idea, but those attesting to the perfection of this series are pretty close to the mark, I think. Viewing feels very timely and pertinent in current circumstances, too.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


I’m somewhat ashamed to report that it’s taken me four months to locate the foreign language library here. The process of “settling in” has, let’s say, not quite been an Edith Whartonish whirl of appointments with the local dress-maker - it might better be measured by the friendly acknowledgements won from our local taco-slinger or semi-professional chess player turned barman. In fact, I’ve comprehensively failed at resolving most practical matters, including finding a dentist, a doctor, or a supplier of the kind of vegetarian spacefood I occasionally disgust my boyfriend by consuming.

I got through the first four months with the pile of paperbacks I lugged over here as excess baggage. I’ve exhausted the more diverting of these as bedtime reading , or, indeed, sweated ponderously over the more oblique ones whilst writing an academic proposal – I was almost the woman who had to pay a baggage supplement for carriage of her Christine Brooke-Rose omnibus. I cased Budapest’s second-hand bookshops for a while, but found selection more interesting for the paratextual tales the novels had to tell than anything else: who, exactly, carted The E.S.P. Worm by Robert Margoff and Piers Anthony (a “brain-bending science fiction surprise”) around Europe, decided (wisely) that it wasn’t a keeper and offloaded it at a bookshop behind the Opera in Budapest?

Anyway, the library on Molnár utca comes highly recommended. Its smallish English language section seems orientated towards the fine English Studies programme at ELTE nearby. I came away with a haul comprising Joan Didion’s The White Album (a favourite, favourite prose stylist); a couple of lit crit surveys by that contemporary fiction lot to rouse my ire; a novel by Iris Murdoch that, for all the references to it sprinkled liberally throughout my undergraduate dissertation, you might assume I had already read and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which I raced through at lightning speed this weekend. It has had me pondering my own decidedly less luminous intermingling with the Hull commuter belt’s Yorkshire Post cognoscenti as a teenager at a grant-maintained private school, which was more a seven-year blur of chronic embarrassment at provincial Italian restaurants and rugby club discos than cocaine and sodomy in South Ken.