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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
File under: Shameless self-promotion
When I’m not griping about the state of the novel in Britain or poking my camera lens into places it shouldn’t be, I’m a freelance writer, researcher and editor, believe it or not. What’s more I’m currently (ta-da!) available for commission! In a multitude of guises I’ve done lots of web development, web consultancy work and specialist research for business, alongside the usual copy writing, web writing and editing.
P.S. Edit, link fixed!