Dazzling Doors (The Hungarian Parliament)

Recently I went on a visit to Hungary to spend time with family and catch up with old friends… and to introduce Young Friend of the Elephants (who caught the photography bug from me) to some of the more prestigious buildings of Budapest. In the course of which we took a copious amount of pictures, most of which proved to be a blurry failure when downloaded to the computer – but of that, more in another post…

Because today I’m contenting myself with nominating some dazzling doors from the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (the few that came out sharp!) to Norm’s weekly Doors challenge.


You might also like:Under Italian Influence: The Queen's House in GreenwichSun-DrenchedSpain in Black & White III

How to Live like a Local in Budapest

I just came home from home. The experience was slightly unnerving in both directions (as usual). To begin with, there was the inevitable confusion of languages: while at home, I tended to do it all wrong. I spoke Hungarian to Young Friend of the Elephants and English to my father, not to mention when I creatively mixed the two languages to the changing room attendant in the thermal baths. To end with, back home there was the immigration officer at Heathrow who asked cunning questions to find out if I was trafficking my child into the country to be some sort of a domestic slave. (She’s washing up after dinner right now but don’t tell that to the border police.)

Continue reading “How to Live like a Local in Budapest”


Through the tube barriers on Fatal Friday

If you and I sat down to have a cup of coffee right now… well, to begin with, I’d be drinking lemon tea. And despite of all the interesting books that you think we could or should be talking about, chances are we’d end up talking about politics and football.


(Yeah, I know. It pretends to be a book blog.)

But we had a referendum last week and the UK decided to leave the EU. Simultaneously, we reached the knockout stage of the European Championship…

Continue reading “Exit”

On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

Continue reading “On Goulash Communism”

33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

Continue reading “33 Days”

Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

Continue reading “Fever Pitch”

To Know Who We Are

Thought for the day (okay – night):

“Somos un país cuya transición a la democracia estuvo pilotada por las mismas élites que lideraron la dictadura… y quizá no pudo ser de otro modo, pero es necesario saberlo.

…Porque hablar de políticas de memoria nunca es hablar de pasado, es hablar de presente, es hablar de identidad. La memoria es la capacidad de entender lo que somos y a la vez la voluntad de querer decidir lo que seremos.”

“We are a country whose transition to democracy was piloted by the same elite who led the dictatorship… and perhaps it couldn’t be in any other way, but it’s necessary to know it. It’s necessary to know who we are.

…Because talking of politics from memory is never talking of the past, it’s talking of the present, it’s talking of identity. Memory is the ability to understand what we are and, at the same time, the will to want to decide what we will be.”

Continue reading “To Know Who We Are”

The Great Siege: Malta 1565

I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.

Continue reading “The Great Siege: Malta 1565”

Part of the Folk Process

Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?

On the River Rance, Dinan, France

A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was  not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.

I’m not particularly into music history but I believe volumes have been written about the spread of folk songs, sailors’ shanties, etc. across the Atlantic and there is in fact nothing remarkable about the song being known both to the French and the Americans. Witnessing evidence for this first hand though was another thing altogether; especially because the kids experienced folk music – the way it’s meant to be – for the first time.

About Folk Music and Music Education

When I was a kid, I was taught folk music in school. In Hungary folk music is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of music education; in the land of Kodály and Bartók folk music is a sacred cow and the only way to teach music is by drawing from a “clean source” (ie. folk music).

Only from a 'clean source': children in a suburban folk dance club in Budapest
Only from a ‘clean source’: children in a run-of-the-mill suburban folk dance club in Budapest, Hungary

In Hungary toddlers are taught rhythm by clapping and tune by hand-signs, and every child, even if tone-deaf like myself, leaves primary school with the ability to sing on sight from a sheet. I acknowledge my debt to the Kodály method but I do remember how dreary we used to think folk music, degraded to a compulsory school subject. (On the other hand, in England music education consists of teaching children snatches of West End musicals, often singing lyrics that are highly inappropriate in mouths of under-10s. But perhaps it’s just me who cringes as 7-year-olds render songs from Jesus Christ Superstar at an infant school’s Nativity play.)

I’ve heard some great traditional songs on recordings. I’ve been to some great concerts listening to folk musicians who really knew what they were about. But I always came away with a feeling of having been somehow robbed: a crucial ingredient always gets lost. It’s music played by trained musicians and (barring its origins) it’s got nothing to do with us ‘folks’. Not like French holiday makers singing together on a boat just for the fun of it. Not like that evening in my aunt’s overcrowded kitchen, when I was about 8 or 9 and the family, three generations, gathered together for some forgotten occasion, and with the red wine and the talk flowing freely somebody started to sing. One by one the adults joined in, and my uncle brought out his zither. That was folk music: untrained voices, joining together, sharing something. Red faces, bright eyes, laughter, much banging on the table and half-sentences shouted over the twang of the zither, while the music and the singing got progressively worse as the evening wore on and the effects of the wine began to tell.

Homer and the Oral Tradition

I was thinking about this, about folk music, and about what a difference it makes to take part in it as opposed to merely studying it because of what I’ve been reading in The Mighty Dead – the book I’m about halfway through – about the oral tradition and how this may give us an insight into Homer.

Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]

This is about Milman Parry, that careless packer, the brilliant American scholar who went to Yugoslavia between the two world wars in search of the Homeric process. Parry saw Homer as a man embedded in a long standing tradition of singers retelling the same story, and with an assistant and a translator set out for the remote mountain villages to listen to the guslaris, singers of epic poems accompanying themselves on a gusle, a single-stringed violin. Parry and his companions collected 13 thousand songs and were astonished to find singers who could remember over ten thousand lines. Others followed in Parry’s footsteps: in the aftermath of World War II, a Connecticut professor by the name of James Notopoulos travelled to Crete and collected songs in the mountains of Sfakia. On the request of Notopoulos, one of the singers improvised a song on the spot about the famous kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, in 1944 by the British. Almost nothing in the song as heard by Notopoulos corresponded to the actual facts; the singer utilised ancient formulas to improvise a story to his own liking.

Homer vs Academia

People try to read the Iliad today, or the Odyssey, and as often as not are confronted with convoluted language, forced into dactylic hexameters. In lauded scholarly editions the introduction is often longer than the epic itself and the mountain of notes at the back of the book is enough to scare away even the most eager readers. The famous Homeric epithets bore today’s readers to death, because after all how many times do you really need to hear that Achilles is swift-footed and does Apollo really need to be constantly called “god of the silver bow”, nice as the phrase might be?! But these phrases are aide-mémoires, ready-made building blocks to fit the dactylic hexameter. The Iliad and Odyssey were not meant to be read in solitary comfort on a sofa.

Homer, detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum
Homer. Detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum

There was a time in history, the time of Homer, presumably, as well as the centuries that went before and after, when the Iliad or the Odyssey were not merely an academic exercise. Unlike today, they were not just the territory of university professors indulging in self-serving discussions on the merits of each line or bickering over whether Homer was one man or more, killing the epic story in dry scholarly analyses. There was a time when the themes on which the Iliad and the Odyssey are developed were shared by ordinary people, when everybody knew the fundamentals of the stories. In the fifth and fourth century B.C., travelling storytellers, rhapsodes, performing the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of life in Greece. And so these stories were told and retold, sang by the rhapsodes, changed and shaped slightly differently in each telling. Not everyone can (re)tell a story well, much less make one up on the spot no matter how familiar with its elements, but everybody can listen, and a travelling storyteller can and will, if he wants to make a good living, adapt his story to his audience’s perceived likes and needs. And much like the interaction between the actors and the groundlings in Shakespeare’s Globe makes a play more alive, more memorable and wholly unique and unrepeatable, so this manner of performing made the Iliad and the Odyssey alive, memorable and unique.

Step back from the book and see in your mind the rhapsode in his travelling cloak, with his staff in hand, singing out to a crowd of random listeners in the bustling agora to earn his dinner. Imagine watching several of them perform in competitions, one after another, each desperately trying to trump the previous singer.

Homer, admirable in all respects…

(Aristotle: Poetics)

I don’t really care if Homer was one man or more. I don’t really care if there never was a man called Homer. What I do care about is the stories. The way they are taught in schools (when they’re taught at all) they seem dead and boring – nothing to do with us today. But these stories didn’t survive thousands of years by being bad. I happen to like the way the Iliad has been told by Homer, epithets and all. Not everybody does. But you don’t have to read Homer to enjoy the story of the Trojan War or the wanderings of Odysseus. They’ve been told and retold time and again, sometimes focusing on this episode, sometimes on that. Take the story and turn it into your own. Like with folk music, it’s all about being immersed in it. And then someday you might want to come to Homer for his take on the story.

Maybe that’s how we should introduce children to Homer: tell them the stories, give them a list of epithets and let them retell their favourite bits, making it up as they go along. Like that Budapest folk musician did above when he put the bow in the children’s hands. It’s all part of the folk process, after all.

Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)

In my experience, no one likes Tolstoy. Not ordinary people, at any rate. Some people like Dostoyevsky, and the rest daren’t confess to never having read Crime and Punishment. But Tolstoy, like Homer, is a persona non grata at the average middle class dinner table. If you like Tolstoy or Homer, you’re in the category of a weirdo, or, if you live in England, where they pride themselves on their tolerance, you’re an eccentric.

Continue reading “Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)”