The book is green with golden letters, cloth bound. Sunlight faded the spine into autumnal yellow so that you can no longer make out the title and the author very well. When you open it, the yellowed pages rustle, feeling slightly stiff to the fingers. The title page is followed by the picture of the author printed on smooth, glossy paper that contrasts with the coarser pages that follow it. I turn the pages and think: they don’t make books like this anymore.
And then there’s the way it smells. The smell of decades which lingers on your fingers even after you put the book down.
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.
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.)
The other day, reading a history of Spain by Juan Eslava Galán, I came across the following paragraph:
Spain had become the defender of the honour of God. Theologians and thinkers (not so many of these latter) became convinced that Spain and God were united in a pact. God promoted Spain to the rank of the chosen people, protected her and granted her riches and power (the Americas) in exchange for which Spain acted as his armed arm on Earth, champion of the true faith against the error of the Protestants and the Turks.
España se había erigido en defensora del honor de Dios. Teólogos y pensadores (de estos hubo menos) llegaron al convencimiento de que España y Dios estaban unidos por un pacto. Dios la había promocionado al rango de pueblo elegido, la protegía y le otorgaba riquezas y poder (las Américas) a cambio de que ella ejerciese como su brazo armado en la Tierra, paladín de la fe verdadera contra el error de protestantes y turcos.
This notion of the pact with God and the chosen people put me strongly in mind of the Hun-Hungarian legends which I read as a child.
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…
Imagine that you just built a graceful sailing ship – a tea clipper, no less – and have to come up with a name for it… Any ideas? No? Well, if you’re short of ideas, allow me to suggest you a name. How about the Skimpy Night-dress?
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.
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?
“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.”
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.
I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.
Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?
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.
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.