ooh ja, zat’s more like it, keep touring

On Friday morning, we packed our bags, said goodbye to our flat on Klauzal ter and set off in the pitiless sunlight towards the train station, picking our way through construction works and admiring the total apathy towards safety barriers displayed by builders and pedestrians alike (they were there; they had been knocked over and everyone stepped over them). Some very cheap sushi bought along the way proved, once again, the old line about getting what you pay for.*

Budapest Keleti Station boasts a beautiful single-span glass roof, set like a vast gem in an imposing Eclectic stone palace; it was proudly considered one of the most modern stations in Europe, back in the 1880s. It has, of course, seen better days, and the fringes of the huge open central concourse are infested with small, grimy fast-food stalls, bakeries and news stands; piss-stained derelicts sprawl on the benches and the ambient smell of coffee, kebabs and engine-oil is tinged with the occasional whiff of vomit. Yet the infrastructure which counts is there and modern, and works nicely – the big LCD screens are a generation ahead of the scrolling orange LEDs or clickety-clackety physical displays that still hang in in some London termini. We retrieved our tickets, and had coffee at a nice railway-hotel bar which felt like a throwback to the 1940s, served by a wonderfully friendly, dignified waiter who had probably been born around then.

The train we boarded was huge and sleek and modern; like many European stations, the platforms at Budapest were much lower than back home, so steps extended from the carriages’ flanks in an exciting sci-fi fashion. Disappointingly, for much of the journey the view through the huge low-set windows was both limited and unexciting; the Pest-Wien line isn’t particularly scenic, and the only highlights were glimpses of wind farms like forests of massive pinwheels, huge marshalling yards lined with aged but well-maintained Continental rolling stock, and, once, an immense refinery. The line wandered for quite a while through Vienna proper, past a major station that was still under construction, all plateglass and white concrete, with platform roofs like giant stainless-steel quiffs.

Wien Westbahnhof is modern, but inoffensively so, and we extracted piles of euros from a post office cash point and hunted for the U-bahn. We negotiated a ticket machine whose English translation was like dealing with Jorji Costava (“okay, I buy the ticket”), and after some deliberation bought a “week ticket”, which we assumed would get us seven days of travel starting from when we bought it. This, as it turned out, was a… misdirection, as the ticket was good for seven days starting on Monday. Fortunately, Vienna uses the honour system too, and having resolved to try to get by on “but we thought it meant weekly from now! look, we actually went and bought a ticket!”, we didn’t once encounter an inspector.

A few U-bahn trains got us to Währingerstrasse, and our gorgeously swanky, aggressively reasonable rented apartment, whose incredibly hunky and muscular owner walked us through the facilities (extensive), the beds (large), and how to operate the sauna. We had an excellent James-and-Tom-made supper, with crumble and ice cream, watched surreal Die Antwoord music videos and drank G&Ts, and it was all very nice.

*I quite like the long form (widely but apparently falsely attributed to John Ruskin) – “there is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey” – but in the real world, I’ve only ever seen it accompany bare-faced price-gouging.

war and peace, knowledge and glory

On Thursday morning, we hit up the Budapest National Museum. Like most national museums outside of Britain, it’s actually about the country it’s in, rather than the stuff that country nicked from everywhere else. Past an enormous classical facade and an entrance hall with an amazing painted roof featuring the various virtues and muses of antiquity, the collection was superb – jewellery older than writing, medieval icons and relics, Turkish trade goods from the century and a half of Ottoman rule, Habsburg outfits and jewels from the height of Imperial excess, arms and armour from every period, Constantine’s crown, Lizst’s piano, Domokos’ gömböc. The sections about the great two-act tragedy of 1914-1945, and the gallery chronicling the communist occupation, were particularly good. It was all neatly and carefully presented, and most signs had an English translation, which helped a lot. It’s not like French or German, where you can get by on word-association and vague old secondary-school familiarity, or even Russian, where most of the critical nouns are familiar once you can read the absurd moon runes they’re written in. Hungarian bears no resemblance to any other language. Downstairs, near a lapidarium brimful of Roman remains, we had cheap, delicious coffee and cake.

James was feeling fatigued, so took off back to the flat; the rest of us went to the Museum of Applied Arts, which runs an (admittedly distant) second to Parliament as the most beautifully excessive building in the entire city. The place was smaller inside than expected (though no less architecturally glorious, an Ottoman-influenced interior kept neutral white to avoid interfering with the exhibits, but pimped like a pasha’s palace in its surface detail), and the collections on display were limited but, again, excellent (apart from an assortment of mediocre modern ceramics on the ground floor, full of aimless passion and visual clutter, signifying nothing). An exhibition devoted to the extraordinary ceramic work of Alexandre Bigot segued into a gallery of general Art Nouveau, half tritely quirky and half heartstoppingly beautiful, and the first floor mezzanine held a collection simply of Amazing Stuff through the ages. I won’t bother trying to describe the best pieces; words can’t do them justice. That’s the point.

We’d not used the Budapest Metro, having stuck to the charmingly creaky old-world trams or just walked. It’s the second oldest underground in the world after London; the line we took dated from 1896, and judging from their performance the ticket machines hadn’t been serviced since then. At the first station, the machine was out of order, and we decided to just get on anyway (Hungary follows the “honour system” ticketing approach, with minimal barriers and few inspectors). At the second, the machine was also out of order. At the third, it was technically working, but wouldn’t take card or notes, and we didn’t have 1400huf in shrapnel. At the fourth, we could see the now familiar “out of order” signs without getting out of the train, and at the fifth we didn’t even bother looking. This unexpected incompetence continued at our destination, the Szechenyi baths, where the turnstiles apparently glitched for fifteen minutes, leaving our high-tech RFID watches utterly useless.

But we finally got through, and it was pretty impressive. Between two huge, imposing baroque revival pavilions, there are three main geothermally heated outdoor pools: a normal one with lanes, a hot one, and a just-warm one with a cool tiled structure in which water jets generate a circular current, in which we mucked around for ages before heading to the hot one. A statue of Leda and the swan overlooked the pool, which was full of couples in varying degrees of refraction-disguised intimacy; I’m not sure how many were actually having sex, but plenty weren’t much short of it. Like a few others in the pool, I put my head and shoulders in the path of one of the water jets projecting from the statue’s base; the sound was like pebbles cracking together, and the feeling like being pummelled by a thousand fists a minute.

We came back via Heroes’ Square, a huge open expanse of flat stone with great assemblies of heroic statuary. Two huge colonnades are lined with Hungarian notables and surmounted with allegorical figures of various Good and Impressive concepts; between the two, Arpad, semi-mythical first ruler of Hungary, stands in front of various assembled lords at the base of a huge column, atop which a hooded archangel holds a double cross in his left hand and the Holy Crown in his right. It’s all very impressive, but the light was fading and the air was full of hungry mosquitoes, so we didn’t linger.

We went back into town to meet a Hungarian chap I know off the INTERNET and wander with him around the party-district swastika, for a nice chilled evening of table football, nachos, drinks and arcade games.

holla holla get forint

I don’t know what exactly it was – maybe the pizza and bready thing for breakfast, the meatloaf sandwich for lunch on Castle Hill, or the vegetarian pasta stuff Tom and James cooked – but I spent half of Tuesday night feeling incredibly nauseated and lurching around near the toilet before being dramatically, horribly sick around 5am. As a result, I wasn’t exactly 100% on Wednesday morning. But I was damned if I was going to miss out on our planned trip to “Celeritas Shooting Club”, possibly the best way to turn cheap steel-cased surplus ammo into piles of tourist money ever devised.

Taxi firms seem to have the market cornered on one-numeral telephone numbers; I’m pretty sure you could select any button on a telephone, press it a bunch of times and get a cab controller answering. The one we called, at the recommendation of Celeritas, was unusual in having a 2 somewhere in among all the 1s, but the car came, driven by a man who spoke rapid-fire Hungarian into his (non-hands-free) phone without pause for almost the entire journey. I don’t know if he was dictating a novel or something, but it was an interesting soundtrack to our tour of outer Budapest. As you head out of town things get lower, more industrial and more run-down, and those grim, drab communist apartment blocks come to predominate. It reminded me a bit of the trip out from central Moscow to Monino, except that Budapest’s outskirts are about a thousand times less horrible and run-down than Moscow’s, and the trees were still alive, and it wasn’t snowing. We arrived at the range, down a concrete staircase in a gated-off but largely empty industrial area.

(“You know, we must be good friends if you’re happy to take out hundreds of pounds of cash and let me take you to an abandoned warehouse miles from anywhere where I have contacts with guns.”)

Celeritas is a small shooting range which harvests the excess spending money of people interested in firearms (whether they be cawadoody gamers or middle-aged war nerds or that most appalling specimen, people who wrote an undergrad disseration on small-arms) who come from from countries with strict gun laws. That is to say, it’s tailor-made to exploit me. We’d all ordered a Red Army package (everyone went for a Dragunov on top). The TT-33 was my favourite, snappy and accurate; the PPSh (though firing it on the enforced semiauto seemed heretical, and it somehow jammed twice for me) was comfortable, the Kalash was meaty and satisfying, the Dragunov kicked like an angry mule, and the Saiga-12 left marks on my shoulder for days afterward. We emerged into the sunlight considerably poorer, slightly bruised, smelling of fireworks and totally happy with our life choices.

I still had an empty stomach and felt queasy, so decided to snooze while the other bros got dolled up in their suits and went out to the opera. This isn’t the extravagance it sounds like – tickets could be had for 800huf, less than £2.50 – but from what I gathered they got what they paid for; they could see very little from those seats, and the opera was in French subtitled in Hungarian on screens, and thus even more incomprehensible than if they had been able to understand the words.

Among the streets of Pest there are a surprising number of buildings that just aren’t there; great square gaps where a whole block ought to be, lined by the raw bricks of exposed interior walls, frozen trickles of mortar sediment weeping out between them. Some of these lacunae have been remade as car parks or rubbish dumps, one was a children’s playground with a huge mural on the repointed wall. Also, there are sex shops everywhere in Budapest; they’re just there, totally normal, rubbing shoulders with fancy boutiques and coffee shops. I don’t have an elegant way to integrate that in with the rest of the travelogue. It’s just something you really notice.

We went out to a “Ruin Pub”, a ruined building converted to a drinking establishment dolled up in all sorts of random artifacts, hipster as hell but with a really nice atmosphere. It seemed to be almost entirely populated by foreigners, though, and we wondered where the cool Hungarian kids came out. There’s a famous drink here called “Zwack Unicum”, and while I’d been pronouncing Unicum phonetically (because, you know, it sounds hilarious), Bill declared upon reading lots of pronunciation guides that the C was pronounced “ts”. As it turned out, this was a lie. James spent a while asking for variations on “Unitsum” and “Unitzum”, to the barman’s complete bemusement, until he tried “Unicum”. There was much mirth, and then we had to drink the poisonous herbal stuff.

the hun and the furnace

buda castle wall

The city of Budapest was, as any fule kno, once upon a time two separate cities: Buda and (shock) Pest. Pest, spread across the Danube floodplain, is a classically continental city, large, attractive buildings of a consistent height lining broad avenues and boulevards down which trams and trolleybuses rumble, with all the space, light and coherency of Haussman’s Paris but none of the monotony. The skyline is patterned with the many-coloured mosaic roofs of churches, a style I’ve seen nowhere else, topped with copper-green towers halfway between onion domes and spires. On the apartment blocks and shopping streets, Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades predominate, every one a quiet masterpiece.

Buda, on the other hand, is built on stone hills, and while at river level it has a few of the great dramatic apartment blocks, the buildings that line its leafy streets and fringe its spacious parklands are more restrained, and often more modern. Two hills in particular dominate the west bank: Gellert Hill, home of the Citadella, and Castle Hill, site of the Old Town and the vast Buda Castle complex. These were our objectives on Tuesday. (The Met Office promised an overcast, but dry, day. This, as it turned out, was a lie.)

We broke fast at a bakery down the road on shockingly cheap pastries (a small cold pizza thing and a split bun that resembled a giant bready vulva stuffed with bacon and cheese set me back slightly more than £1). Then we started hunting for Paris Court, the abandoned shopping centre we’d failed to find last time (which you may know from the opening Budapest scene of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.) Words can’t quite describe it, so have some photos instead.

The Citadella on Gellert Hill is one of those vast, heavy 19th-century hilltop fortresses, of a period where designers gave up on any attempt at subtlety, aesthetic refinement or trace italienne-style geometric patterns, and went for simple massive brute-force stonework to absorb any amount of fire, casemated batteries poking their cannon-snouts from stone walls metres thick. In 1945, that once-immovable object encountered the irresistible force of the late-war Soviet machine, and came off worse. Most of the city’s scars from the calamitous Battle of Budapest* have been covered up, apart from a mess of bullet-holes in one of the buildings near Parliament, but the Citadella bears all the originals, and its old stone is riddled with the impacts of guns and rockets. A lot of people died for this place. Now it’s a tourist trap full of cheerful Hungarians selling trick boxes, lacy tablecloths and three-sided chess sets, and by the gate of the Citadella an overpriced al fresco bar/eatery with pretentious fire-in-tubes decor and generic throbbing background music turns this little piece of history into every other poncy “upmarket” money sink everywhere in the world. We loitered around the monolithic Soviet “Liberty Statue”, admiring the panoramic views of the city, then descended back into town.

Buda Castle has been some form of vast royal palace or other for almost eight hundred years now, rebuilt again and again by the dynasty of the day; the most recent construction, a huge Habsburg palace standing proud atop Castle Hill, was unfortunately the site of the Axis last stand in 1945, and as a result completely and utterly trashed. What decor wasn’t blasted off by communist soldiers during the war was torn down by communist architects afterwards, in their attempts to expunge the decadent glory of the pre-war regime, but the exterior is still an incredibly imposing building. The rebuilt interior, which serves as home to the Hungarian National Gallery, is one of those rare triumphs of modernist architecture, red granite floors, swooping staircases and chamfered columns that combine simplicity of form and elegance of function. It looks like one of the more restrained Moscow Metro stations, which is about the highest compliment I can pay to a building’s interior. The gallery’s collection is interesting; there are lots and lots of historical paintings, depicting great figures from Hungarian history either sitting for portraits or gloriously killing Turks – since Hungary has been fighting Turks since Hungary and Turkey have been concepts, it makes sense as a theme. The battle pictures, oddly, get across the intense, frenetic chaos of combat but have an odd artificial quality to the details; in my experience, most historical paintings are the other way around. Another interesting gallery was full of carved medieval wooden altarpieces, full of smug-looking babies, willowy blonde women shaped like Leiji Matsumoto heroines, and various other uncanny-valley carvings of not-quite-right biblical figures with beetling brows and high foreheads. The upper floors contained statuary and Impressionism (which is always hit and miss with me: half “wow, what perfect economy of detail”, half “oh put some work into it you lazy berks”) and a top floor of purposeless modern trash.

After the gallery, we visited the Hospital in the Rock, a reconstruction/museum of an ancient cave system turned wartime hospital turned Cold War nuclear bunker, full of original medical supplies in their lovely mid-century paper packaging and racks upon racks of terrifying glinting surgical equipment. The museum is populated by various waxworks in German and Hungarian uniforms, ranging from pretty good to pretty terrible (Tom, who works at Tussauds, declined to give a strong opinion to the slightly pushy tour guide, who managed the impressive feat of giving detailed descriptions and explanations in two languages extremely briskly.) Surprises included a display with a Mi-2 helicopter which had apparently been brought into the caves piece by piece and reassembled, and being locked in a small room with two air-raid sirens being cranked enthusiastically by children.

We wandered across Castle Hill to the Fisherman’s Bastion, an absurd affected fairytale structure built on an old crownwork, admiring the fancy statue of Saint Stephen and the simultaneously refined and excessive Matthias Church, before traipsing over to the funicular by the castle on the drizzly walk home.

*Hungary had been well aligned with Germany when the war kicked off, but after having their army obliterated at Stalingrad they could see the way the wind was blowing, and attempted to extricate themselves from Hitler to avoid being the backdrop of Act 3 of the enormous head-on clash between the Nazis and the Soviets. Hitler wasn’t having any of it and had the country occupied. The rest is (a particularly bloody chapter of) history.

all the good men have gone east

Luton Airport is a miserable hellhole and I resent every moment of my life I have spent there. At the gate, the easyjet staff politely requested, for some space-related reason, that ten passengers surrender their hand luggage to be put in the hold (and get “priority boarding”, which is one of the more ridiculous scams of the modern era, but a couple of dozen idiots appeared to have voluntarily paid for it.) Overcome by altruism, James and I elected to do so, on the assurance that our baggage would be the first off and we wouldn’t have to wait around much longer at the carousel. (This, as it turned out, was a lie.) I slept for much of the flight, but woke in time to see Hungary appear as we descended below the clouds: a very controlled, geometric landscape, with lots of clearly delineated fields cut into strips of different crops, and neatly planted woods occasionally interrupted by broad ribbons of grass, which confused me until we descended enough to make out the figures of marching pylons. On the final approach to Budapest Airport, we flew directly over the city, and I made out the Parliament building and Margaret Island. The sun was a stunningly beautiful ruby-red.

After a long, overheated wait at the baggage carousels (moral: easyjet lie to you. Alternative moral: never volunteer to do anything), we were met by a diminutive taxi driver with a moustache that belonged on a Great War grenadier, who opened the front windows wide (getting my instant and permanent approval) and drove at terrific speed to our rented flat on Klauzal ter; at one point we had a drag race with another taxi. (We lost, though, so no tip.) The flat is one of those classically European apartments, thick walls and high ceilings in a solid, ornate, well-made building that’s seen better days: in this, it’s representative of about 80% of buildings I’ve seen in this city. There was no kettle, so we had to pan-boil water for an inaugural cuppa, but having settled in went hunting for supper, and, not wanting to screw around too much, promptly found a sit-down restaurant serving delicious food for delightfully little money. Sated, we strolled off to the riverbank through a dusk that seemed to last forever, walking past St Stephen’s basilica to the gorgeous Parliament building (surrounded by building works, unfortunately) and sat for a while beside the broad, turbulent Danube. Buda Castle shone on the far riverbank, a Hungarian Kremlin, vast and glorious.

On the way back, we bought some breakfast groceries at an all-night shop. I bought something called “Funny Drink” in a bizarre metal-plastic hybrid drinks can, and regretted it more than any other drink I have ever imbibed.

We woke up slowly from a night of miserable heat and, after a scrambled egg breakfast, ambled on into town. The Met Office website promised soothing rain through the day (this, as it turned out, was a lie), and we elected to see some of the more indoors things: Parliament, the Great Market, the National Museum, and Dohany Street Synagogue. Parliament tours in English ran at 12 and 2pm, but the noon tour was full, so we decided to carry on up to Margaret Island. Margaret Bridge is bizarre – built like a standard arch bridge, but bent in the middle to look more like a chevron than a straight line, with a third little prong at the point leading to Margaret Island. The island itself is parkland and swimming pools, with tree-lined avenues full of grumbling tour buses and squeaky little pedal-cars, dotted with fountains, public art and rather too many mosquitoes; we strolled around for a while, before finding a place to eat. A burger the size of a baby’s head set me back 750 FT (Hungarian forints, henceforth “huf”), rather less than £2.50. The food joint had misters spraying a haze of water over the front of the bar, incredibly welcome in the heat. We followed the food with ice creams (they have Twisters in Hungary!) on the journey back to Parliament.

The “Országház”, as they call it, is for my money one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, inside and out. The exterior is stunning, a vast symmetrical sprawl of Gothic Revival excess in white stone, intricate and spiky enough to make St. Pancras look plebeian, its many windows picked out in dark wooden shutters and frames, all topped by a glorious red-roofed dome. The interior is ornate grandeur to put royal palaces to shame, infested with statues, lined with heraldry and dripping with gold. Forty kilos of the stuff was reportedly used in decorating the building, and if you know how thin they hammer gold leaf for gilding, you’ll begin to understand how hellishly impressive the place looked. Under the great dome, flanked by sword-armed guards, the country’s thousand-year-old crown lies on velvet; above it, on each of the tower’s sixteen walls, Hungary’s greatest kings (and a token queen, Maria Theresa) look down with cold, sculpted eyes, their panoply a mix of Eastern and Western fashions across a dozen centuries, Ottoman headgear and curved swords mixing with European hose and harness.

Spending two hours on Margaret Island meant we wouldn’t have time to do the museum satisfactorily, so we instead took a tram down to the Great Market, a huge open glass-and-iron structure full of neatly ordered stalls. It didn’t have the chaotic clutter and mess of the Bullring market in Birmingham, but was definitely a functional, living place where real people shopped (albeit one with the same fruit and veg stall fifty times) rather than a kitschy tourist trap. We hadn’t quite figured out the ticket-punching machines on the first tram (unlike the similar devices in Copenhagen, you can’t just stick a ticket in, you have to pull the hole-punch thing, which we only realised just before getting off) so had, rather naughtily, kept our unpunched tickets. After some discussion about our next move (and a total failure to locate the abandoned Paris Court shopping centre), we used them correctly this time on a tram back towards the flat, via the Dohany Street synagogue. It’s the largest in Europe, but like most synagogues all the fancy bling is on the inside, and it had just closed to visitors (the information booth was called “Jewinform”), and while the outside is still pretty impressive, it is so for scale rather than beauty.

We went back to the flat for tea, as the long-promised rain began to batter at the windows, but couldn’t light the stove to cook dinner (the matches somehow got damp) and decided once the downpour ended to go hunting for langos, a sort of fried bread that Tom had had for lunch on the island and that Bill and James both desired strongly. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of disreputable street food that is sold from crappy roadside vans rather than any establishment with actual stone walls, so we eventually gave up and had cheesy pancakes (and a kebab) instead. Wandering around in search of a cakey dessert, we actually discovered a joint selling langos, and stuffed our little faces with its deliciously unhealthy greasiness, then strolled back to the flat in the evening dark.

“You have to shoot them, Marked One, and quite a bit, I might add.”

i.
Mrs Shepherd, queen of the Bristol Grammar School library, has an unbelievable rogues’ gallery of authors in her acquaintance (she once taught J.K. Rowling, and scuttlebutt suggests she had some part in inspiring Prof. McGonagall), and through her deftly organised events I had the pleasure of meeting various grand old children’s literature personalities back when I was at BGS – among them Malorie Blackman, Eoin Colfer, Garth Nix, Morris Gleitzman and, best of all, Philip Reeve. Some months ago, one of my old English teachers pinged me on Facebook (yes, I have teachers on Facebook, shut up) to ask if I would be up for helping do an assembly with another author, a chap named Charlie Higson, in June. Mr Higson is one of those blokes who seems to have been everywhere and done everything: singer, comedian, decorator, actor, novelist, writer of various TV comedy things (he was part of the writing team that invented Lods Emone.) But, most recently, coming off the success of his Young Bond books (which I only ever really knew about through my mentor in my old Runescape clan, who went by the handle Young_Bond_4) he’s written a series of stories about a zombie apocalypse where the virus kills or zombifies everyone over the age of 14. And that was the hook upon which he was coming to BGS.

So I said yes, and emailed Mrs Shepherd back and forth about times and details, and not too long later three books about zombies appeared on my doorstep. (Verdict: perfectly tailored to the intended audience of teenage boys who like violence – good pacing, good sense of place, technically competent, in touch with what the yoof o’today like, unsentimental and pull absolutely no punches – but are all basically a series of gruesome bone-crunchin’ pus-squirtin’ murder-themed money-shots, and past the stock zombie-movie moral dilemmas avoid really challenging the reader in any way except the strength of their stomach. Mr Higson explained that he avoids putting in words that children wouldn’t understand. I would have loved them unreservedly if I were ten years younger.)

My active role was on Thursday morning, but I went up on Wednesday afternoon for the public event, with zombie-themed cakes and snacks, including biscuit decorations which actually looked like dried blood, and decorative bowls of jelly full of fingers, eyeballs and maggots (as represented by frankfurters, shallots, and grains of rice) and sat next to a bunch of amusingly enthusiastic boys from Cotham High while Mr Higson did his thing. The next morning, having prepared a couple of questions, I put them to him in front of a sea of young faces. Being very conscious of how much I’d loathed past “In conversation with…” people cracking jokes and pretending the show was about them rather than the author, all I did was ask questions, and it was slightly bizarre feeling like a flunkey who could have been replaced by a piece of paper, but I hope I did a good job. Mr H seemed a bit tense and standoffish beforehand – I got the strong impression that he hated waiting around for things to happen – but once he was on stage, spoke engagingly with total confidence and aplomb. Then he handed out prizes to the winners of a short story competition, and we went down to hobnob with the winners (the grandfather of one of which, having heard me introduced as a War Studies grad, cornered me to tell a round of war stories about the Berlin occupation and about knowing Sir Michael Howard; it was great). In the wait between that and another assembly, Mr H and I chatted briefly about writing, and the wish-fulfillment nature of zombie apocalypses, and so on. He struck me as a thoroughly good egg.

Going back to school is weird. It definitely hasn’t been long enough for me to have any fuzzy nostalgia for an institution which I was mostly indifferent to and a place where I was mostly unhappy, but it’s been long enough for it to change a lot. I don’t know anyone there any more except the staff, and many of those I knew have left or, as in the case of Mr Selwyn (my old year 10 form tutor and a generally brilliant and inspirational man), died. And it still feels terribly strange hearing teachers referred to by their first names. (“How’re you doing, sir?” “Please, it’s Roger now!” “What? No! You’ll always be Mr Cox. Sir.”) But I got to hang out with my wonderful old A-level English teachers, Mrs Maddock and Mrs Yemenakis, and while I won’t pretend that I didn’t find my time there (and my childhood in general) a ceaseless sequence of gagging misery, I also won’t pretend that it’s not a good school with great teachers.

And – holy of holies – I got to actually enter the staffroom and sit there like an adult. All I can say is, there was a lot more cereal than I was expecting.

ii.
About a year ago, back in Birmingham, I was sat at my computer chomping some rather truculent pork scratchings, when I felt a particularly large and painful crunch and found that part of one of my teeth had broken off. There’s a filling in the tooth (right-hand maxillary first molar), and while the filling remained, one side of the now-hollowed-out actual tooth had been levered off. Fortunately there were no exposed nerves, but it’s not fun having a yawning (ha) sharp-edged hole in your tooth, so I found an emergency dentist in Birmingham, rode a bus out to the far side of town, sat in a waiting room for half an hour, and they moulded a new bit of tooth into the hole with cement and I rode home texting godawful tooth puns to Fran. So when, while walking back from Asda chomping some crisps, I felt a particularly large and painful crunch and a yawning (haha) sharp-edged hole in my right-hand maxillary first molar, you could say I knew the drill.

The new NHS 111 line is terribly sensible – you ring it and a human appears to give you advice – but unfortunately the advice the cheerful, helpful chap at the other end gave me wasn’t very good. The first number he gave me wasn’t an NHS place; the second didn’t take emergency patients; the third had a five week waiting list. The fourth came good. Dad kindly drove me to the far side of town, and I sat in a waiting room for three quarters of an hour before a brisk, efficient Teutonic-sounding doctor moulded a new bit of tooth into the hole with cement, and I rode the bus home (no puns though.) It feels much stronger than the Brum one (and was much cheaper!) – hopefully it’ll last more than a year this time…

coins are falling from the trees

Among the various fun British things that Mikhail wanted to do before his visa expires and he has to go back to Petrograd (foremost among them going to Edinburgh, which we’re doing tomorrow) was the Bristol-Bath cyclepath, which follows a picturesque branch line decommissioned in the sixties by a swing of Beeching’s axe. Rebuilt as a cyclepath by the first generation of Sustrans, which included my parents, it links the two cities with fifteen miles of well-paved track winding through beautiful countryside and suburban decay.

The weather couldn’t have been better – bright, but breezy enough not to be oppressive. The first leg of the track, leaving Bristol through a long, straight cut shadowed by bridges and lined with the weed-riven ghosts of old stations, was bustling with people: walking dogs or children, commuting into town, or just going for a stroll. But just as we got to the edge of anything that could be considered “Bristol”, Misha’s front tyre went very quickly and dramatically flat; a rather worried phone call home revealed that there was a bike shop in nearby Warmley, and fifteen minutes of walking had us there and getting repaired.

The stations at Bitton and Warmley both used to be inhabited by greasy spoons – proper, solid bacon-bap outlets – but a few years back Bitton went all bijou and upmarket, and Warmley has lately and lamentably decided to copy it. Even worse, at the point we arrived the metamorphosis from cheap, workmanlike catering caterpillar to overpriced affected yuppie butterfly was only halfway complete, so the station was inhabited by a formless goo of an establishment which hadn’t even got its shit sufficiently together to rustle up a gourmet organic panini or some other limp-wristed unfood – just a fridgeful of cans and a freezerful of lollies. So we refilled our water bottles and went on our merry way.

Further on, near Bitton, there’s a great collection of wrecked locomotive guts and gently rusting rolling stock, but while that sort of thing holds a romantic mystique to the average effete young Briton (speaking), you can barely move for wrecked infrastructure and derelict vehicles in Russia, so it probably wasn’t doing much for Misha. (I put this to him: he agreed.)

The last leg into Bath is absurdly beautiful, as the embankment cuts a high, straight, tree-lined path across the flat Avon valley, the river meandering to and fro around and underneath it, and on a sunny day – as this was – the fields on either side fall away in shimmering seas of yellow and green. And then, quite unexpectedly, you happen upon Bath.

Architecturally, Bath is a wonderful oddity: a Regency resort town frozen in time. For two thousand years it’s never served much purpose other than being a spa, for pleasure and relaxation (there’s little clumps of solvent-smelling light industry on the outskirts of the town, mostly out of sight and out of mind), and its height was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, around the same time the better part of Clifton was built. So everything is built of creamy limestone in grandiose neoclassical Georgian stylin’, with great sweeping terraces and crescents and gratuitous pediments as far as the eye can see; it’s a little monotonous, yes, but it’s also nice to have that uniform baseline attractiveness, rather than the ugly mongrel mess of most British cities, brutalised by Brutalism and defiled by plate-glass (I maintain that while the Luftwaffe were quite often complicit, most of the great post-1939 crimes committed against British cities were done so by architects).

I can’t imagine the level of planning-permission-themed nonsense the city council has had to impose to keep it that way, or how subsequently horrible it must be to actually do anything or run any business that isn’t based on ripping off Anglophiles – the city road network is a nightmarish tangle of one-way bullshit – and I know I wouldn’t want to live there (because I know what living in a Georgian house in the winter is like…) but I’m very glad it exists.