Fast-moving Hungarian uprising tale with a ring of authenticity

I was lent Margarita Morris’s Goodbye to Budapest by Hungarian friends here in Sydney, which seemed a convincing recommendation; I’d heard some of the stories about how they’d escaped Hungary during the communist era, and the paperback copy they lent me was inscribed with enthusiastic remarks. I’d also visited Budapest a year or two before, visiting 60 Andràssy Avenue, now the site of the House of Terror.

The secret police headquarters at 60 Andràssy Avenue is a central theme in Goodbye to Budapest. It’s where university don Màrton Bakos is imprisoned and tortured by the dreaded AVO secret police. The book is built around the fate of the Bakos family, with daughter Katalin pushing the narrative forward.

Goodbye to Budapest spans the period from October 1952 until November 1956, covering the uprising and its crushing by Soviet tanks. It’s fast-paced, and focuses on the fate of a handful of authentic characters struggling to survive awful oppression and betrayal.

I had a peep at Morris’s website, wondering whether she has Hungarian family connections. Apparently she hasn’t, which is a great credit to the research and empathy behind this book.

I should mention that the paperback is independently produced (I have form in this area), and is professionally put together with a clean design and attractive cover.

A great read!

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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

Musings on a burnt pork chop

Five-minute read

I had misgivings at the first whiff of Worcestershire Sauce. My order of Cypriot Mushrooms, as it was called, comprised overcooked fungus drowned in half a pint of the sour liquor.

During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.

This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.

In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.

If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.

But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.

My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Australian reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of affluent Australians eating Javanese street food among the gum trees and possums.

It was also when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?

And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.

I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me tended to conquer the cuisines of those bits of the world that our forebears had colonised, not those of the colonisers. The acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make a curry, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?

And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern, Greek, part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.

Perhaps that was the case in her childhood. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.

We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel-tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.

Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.

Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.

The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.

“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.

There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.

“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.

“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.

“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.

“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”

My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?

When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.

“I’m from Romania.”

“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”

“India, maybe.” Aha, that could explain the curries.

A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.

“What happens tomorrow?”

“The restaurant closes for the season.”

“What does he normally do?”

“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”

And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.

“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.

I consumed the solids.

My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.

When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.

I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.

“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?

Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”

“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”

She was right of course.

“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.

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This is an edited version of a story I first published in 2016 under the title Diners of the World Unite! 

Drop in here to find out about my novels.

If you’re going to talk like a pirate, do it properly!

Do you suffer from bruxism brought on by poor pirate accents? I do: I grind my teeth whenever I watch the BBC TV show Doc Martin. If you’ve ever watched this program you’ll know that in the English seaside village where the doctor practices, all the locals speak Piratese, or as I sometimes like to call it Yokelese.  But more of Pirate language in a moment.

My real gripe as a finicky linguist is that TV and film so often handle language use so amateurishly. I often get into foetal position and weep when an actor playing an immigrant with poor English is given an inconsistent mishmash of lines where in one utterance they speak in ‘me no understand’ fashion, and in the next produce perfectly formed complex sentences dressed down with a silly foreign accent.

And don’t get me started on those war movies vere ze Chermans spik like zis! Make ‘em speak German and add subtitles, I say. The worst such example of this genre is the (for me) unwatchable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Nicolas Cage should have got an Oscar for sustained performance of high front vowels and trilled r’s.  Maybe he’d had tuition from an actor I once met at an audition whose résumé included the ability to speak English in twenty-five accents, including both Eastern and Western Armenian.

Arrr! That’s Piratese by the way, for ‘back to the topic’. In Britain and Australia, it is customary for actors playing southern English rural characters to employ a couple of pronunciation tricks such as modifying the ‘o’ sounds in words like ‘coat’ and changing the vowel in ‘eye’ to the vowel in ‘boy’. The principal trick, however is to rhotacise, i.e. (in simple terms) to pronounce most of the r’s indicated by spelling. So, where a Londoner or Sydneysider would not pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘hard’, a speaker of Piratese would pronounce it. Give it a try. If you have young children or grandchildren, you can copy Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles, who speaks quite good Piratese.

So why are my teeth a millimetre shorter than they should be? It’s because of the basic mistakes that Piratese speakers make. Why do I keep hearing actors saying things like “Hello GrandmaR” and “Where’s LouisaR?” where no ‘r’ exists in the spelling? Well, the reason is that they overdo a little rule that allows us non-rhotic speakers to pop in an ‘r’ when the next word starts with a vowel. So, while we don’t say the ‘r’ in ‘Here’s my car’, we can say it in ‘My caR is in the next street’.

OK, all clear so far. However, the brains and mouths of native Londoners and Sydneysiders wickedly conspire to play the ‘India office’ trick on us. Try saying this phrase quickly and not making an ‘r’ at the end of ‘India’.  No ‘r’ in the spelling – we just overextend the ‘caR Is’ rule to ease the transition between the last vowel in ‘India’ and the first vowel in ‘office’. Try it: IndiaRoffice.

Arr! What bad Piratese speakers do is push the rule too hard by sticking the ‘r’ on the end of words that end in a vowel but are not followed by a vowel: While it’s fine to say ‘GrandmaR isn’t here’, it’s a plank-walking offence to say ‘Here’s GrandmaR’.

If I can be shamelessly unscientific for a moment, we non-rhotics are like carriers of damaged linguistic DNA; a few centuries ago all English speakers pronounced all their r’s, until the effete London court gave them up and the fashion spread through the hot chocolate drinking classes. But not all our telomeres were degraded, and the vestigial ‘r’ still pops up here and there in the attenuated fin de siècle speech of Camden Town and Bondi.

I’m astonished that few people I’ve spoken to seem to notice these errant r’s, or, when the mistake is pointed out, care. But I do, which is, I suppose one of the burdens that we sad scholars of linguistics carry. For years I’ve struggled to answer the question ‘what’s the use of linguistics’ at cocktail parties, and I’m beginning to think that it’s to keep dentists in business.

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Now, if I’ve sparked your interest in linguistics, have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour, which has no pirates in it whatsoever and actually has nothing to do with linguistics

Sydney thumbs its nose at 8.2 million visitors

Where has the covered walkway gone? Photo: Stuart Campbell

Wrangling three small, sweaty grandchildren off the Manly ferry yesterday in 30+ degree sunshine, I realised something was missing: The covered walkway that used to curve from Circular Quay to the colonnade that runs down to the Opera House.

It’s not a long stretch – perhaps fifty metres – but when it was first built, you could at last walk under cover from the station to the Opera House, with just two small  gaps.

In a tux.

In a ball gown.

Or just in shorts and backpack, like the millions of visitors who come to our city to see the best view in the world.

Not now. The walkway has gone, apparently as part of a building site for a block of flats.  Actually, I thought I might might have dreamt about it, but I checked and  you can see the erstwhile walkway cover in the bottom right of the Pullman Hotel’s website here.

And actually, I thought for a moment that East Circular Quay might be public land, but quickly corrected myself for my foolishness.

So my grandchildren scorched on the way to the Gruffalo show at the Opera House, and got wet on the way back after a southerly buster hit.

Now that’s really not of much consequence. We live here and we can go to the Opera House whenever we like.

But what a great message for the 8.2 million visitors who visit the Opera House each year: It’s not worth our trouble to get you there in comfort.

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Stuart Campbell has lived in Sydney since 1978. He writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

 

Andalus Arabic Choir – Sydney’s best-kept music secret?

arab musicIs the Andalus Arabic Choir Sydney’s best-kept secret? I’ve been listening to Arabic music for decades, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from their annual concert at Sydney Opera House last week.

It was a blast of joy, and a reminder that the heart of multicultural Sydney still throbs. A dozen and a half choristers swayed and sashayed through two sets of songs alongside a world-music flavoured band of piano, oud, qanun, wind, bass and percussion. The names of the singers and the musicians tell a Sydney story – Arab, Italian, Greek, Slav, Dutch, Turkish.

Artistic director Ghada Daher-Elmowy held the performance together, performing several emotion-drenched solos in between exchanging cheerful banter in Arabic and English with the audience.

My favourite song? It had to be Misirlou, sung in Greek and Arabic (as Amal). You may know it from Dick Dale and the Deltones, but there’s an exquisite old Arabic version by Maestro Clovis here which absolutely breaks my heart.

Alf shukr to Andalus for a great night – can’t wait for next year’s concert!

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You can find out about my novel Cairo Mon Amour here. And it contains lots of references to Arab music!