NEW, OLD TOWN

Some weeks ago, I took the train to Dunaújvaros (that’s Danube New Town, formerly Sztálinváros) the purpose-built industrial town some way down the Danube in central Hungary. Under Soviet rule, Dunaújvaros was used to showcase the socialist perfectibility of Hungary, even after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution eminences were taken on hospitality tours of Hungary’s largest iron and steel works and the wide, dappled avenues lined with Socialist Realist apartment buildings.

Left to rust after The Change of System, or System Change (note the linguistic implications of these terms for denoting the end of Communist rule here in Hungary) it has latterly undergone reinvention as a city of culture (though not as a City of Culture – that honour will be bestowed upon Pécs in 2010). Dunaújvaros now has its own Institute of Contemporary Art, artists’ studio complex and the International Steel Sculptors Colony. There’s something pleasantly apposite and self-sustaining about this particular process of regeneration. The iron and steel works supports the artists with materials, and in turn the works are bought by the local council and installed in public spaces, like the sculpture garden on the banks of the Danube.


No Gehry or Foster destination architecture here, nor the kind of apparently well-intentioned, yet fundamentally-insensitive attempts at Critical Regionalism you might find in British post industrial city centres under a process of regeneration. This low-key town’s prime tourist pull seems to be the beautiful view across the Hungarian plains.


The Hungarian Government, like that of Britain, clearly recognises the regenerative power of that thing, culture, though, and the ease with which cultural regeneration segues so easily with commercial development. The National Theatre* and the Palace of Arts on the Pest bank of Lágymányosi Bridge are the cultural luncheon meat in a commercial sandwich that is regenerating the Ferencváros district, just north of the island of Csepel.


Here, as in other spots around the city, Budapest seems hell-bent on transforming its cityscape into the kind of glass-boxed, stone-fasciaed heterogeneity that better befits a modern European capital. Vodaphone and Morgan Stanley have already moved in. There’s a riverside redevelopment apartment complex, replete with the kind of architectural clangers (lack of provision of pedestrian access or most basic services and amenities) generally associated with British redevelopment projects. There’s also a good smattering of public art installed with the express intention of evoking, in ersatz style, the heritage of the area, and the deeply-emotive significance of the National Theatre in Budapest (it was demolished on a shaky pretext by the Communists in 1965). Despite these attempts at producing locality, this place, this strange shiny, landscaped enclave on the banks of the Danube could be anywhere. All they need now is a Big Screen like in Hull or Manchester – the cherry on top of all post industrial regeneration projects, I reckon – and the successful transformation will be complete.


* The National Theatre has long been a pawn in the game of tit-for-tat that is pluriform multi-party democracy here in Hungary. I’m going to resist recounting its chequered history here; those with a taste for the political absurd can go here to read the tale in full.

On Loving Angels, Instead

I leave the window open every time I go to sleep, just so she can come in. Just so she can be with me. Jack Tweed, OK! Magazine, April 7 2009

The popular response to the death of Jade Goody from cervical cancer some weeks ago took its cues from the interminable vamp in the tabloid press in the weeks and months leading up to her death. Her very public mourning has made us feel most uncomfortable: those badly-spelt tributes on The Sun’s message boards, those cheap wreaths stacked outside St John the Baptist Church, those pinch-faced women toting half-deflated helium balloons outside her home in Upshire. Yuck, the rank whiff of British working class sentimentalism. We’re a commemorative plate away from Lady Di territory here. Thank God for The Guardian, then! Their commentary straddles – hand-wringing and superior – over the tabloid dross pile, asking just what does the death of this 27 year-old woman teach us about ourselves? Matching sub-Baudrillardian analysis (postmodern!) with touching anecdotes (poignant!), they conclude: not much, but it’s terribly sad!

However, I’m not here to take potshots at The Guardian, not today anyway. Instead I want to talk about the sudden appearance of supernatural beings in our most rational of Kingdoms. I’m talking, of course, about the angels in our midst.

Here’s some rather bilious cut-and-pasting from the BBC comments board to illustrate:

God bless the brand new angel and u will never forgotten u were a great woman. Jade Goody passed away to heaven as an angel. God needed another angel. R.I.P Jade. Its been a week since god blessed the sky with a new angel… the stars are shining bright for your boys Jade.

A very peculiar lexicon has emerged out of our response to these very public deaths over the last twelve years since the big one, the one that started it all, the one that we’re all rather embarassed about. It’s a language that is shared not only between those with the poor spelling and the Interflora wreaths, but also – curiously – those with the university degrees and respected careers in journalism who are currently employees of Richard Desmond. One arranged around some kind of quasi-religious myth, which bowdlerises its basic structure from Catholicism, its rhetoric from OK! Magazine and its iconography from Anne Geddes.

In postwar Britain, our shaky sense of the real brought a raft of moral, occultist and mystical dogma, all compensating for the decline in religious faith – those old, sacred, survival fictions. The brittle social satires of Muriel Spark, early Christine Brooke-Rose and Angus Wilson depict a nation busily crafting their own ersatz meaning-making machines. Their characters are epistemological bricoleurs, rehashing old moral systems or creating new technological and scientific cults with which to make sense of a world after rationalism, after Freud, after Einstein, de Broglie, Planck and Heisenberg. In our own, rather drab, Franklin Mint mass hysteria, in our new moral maudlinism, we too – to borrow Muriel Spark’s phrase from The Comforters – are displaying our own ‘turbulent mythical dimensions’ under extreme duress.

JENNIFER HODGSON IS PERHAPS THE MOST INTENSELY GROWTH-ORIENTATED INDIVIDUAL YOU WILL EVER MEET!

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.

EDUCATE, INFORM, ENTERTAIN

Pssst!

If you, like me, fancy a having a go at Art Appreciation 101, I can think of few better places to start than John Berger’s fantastic Ways of Seeing.

In a week when the view of Britain from here has tested my powers of disbelief (I’ll let respected media outlet Yahoo! News’ “Hot Topics” sum this one up: “Jade Goody, Recession, Royal Family, Crime, Knife Crime”), the soothing, Reithian vigour and properness of this landmark BBC television series has been most heartening.

Watch out for British experimental author Eva Figes making an appearance in a truly 1970s roundtable discussion about the female nude in episode two.

In Every Tourer Caravan a Portatoilet: The Roxy Music Story

On Saturday I watched More Than This: The Roxy Music Story. I’m certain the BBC only have the one narrative arc for these rockumentaries, interspersing the talking heads with stock footage of Thatcher, the Miner’s Strike, football hooligans or the generalised white dog shit Britain of the 1970s, as chronologically appropriate. The social realist rags to outrageous riches yarn is British pop music’s favourite bedtime story and Bryan Ferry’s is pretty outré, “escaping” Tyne and Wear for art college, then London, Jerry Hall, Bel Air, Miss World, Marks and Spencer &c &c &c.

However, what interested me wasn’t so much the fabulously strange records of Roxy’s early career – Ladytron, Virginia Plain, In Every Dream Home a Heartache and Do the Strand – but their other lineage, the one that held vast appeal for the core 35 – 44 audience of medium wave radio stations specialising in smooth, contemporary classics. During my early nineties childhood, grotesqueries like Dance Away, Avalon and More Than This were still in heavy rotation on Yorkshire Coast Radio. As the hiss n’ crackle soundtrack to summers spent in a tourer caravan on the coast of Filey, those records, along with Weather With You by Crowded House, Spandau Ballet’s True, Hazard by Richard Marx and Save the Best for Last by Vanessa Williams, still smell of car sick, soft furnishings and boredom. And I’ll never be able to associate them my Dad’s copy of Virginia Plain on lilac 7”, which was the mainstay of our front room discos on nights that mum was at work.

Watch here.