I spent this week in Budapest staying at the excellent Intercontinental Hotel with a fantastic picture window overlooking the Danube and The Castle. Hot and sunny during the day and just plane hot at night. There is nothing like travelling around Europe for a few years to make you understand just how crap British weather is. Once the light faded the castle illumination came on. Gorgeous! As was the parliament building a little further along the river.
For lunch one day we drove out to Budaörs and visited the Adler a traditional Hungarian restaurant where I ate good goulash. One evening I took a boat ride along the river. The commentary explained the architecture and mentioned that a Hungarian invented the computer. Odd, as I’d been told that it was either Allan Turing or Charles Babbage, both Englishmen. This reminded me of a Dutch friend telling me that a Dutchman had developed ideas on gravity before Newton. When I was a kid I was led to believe that Britain created the whole of the modern world. At school I was told that William Caxton invented the printing press and it was comparatively late in life that I learned about a German named Johannes Gutenberg.
A little later I ate in the excellent Sörforrás restaurant. Comfortable, good service and delicious Hungarian and international food. I think that, really, the whole of European history is one. We speak of globalisation now but centuries ago there existed a Europeanisation of scientific and artistic thought. Presumably the educated people understood this but the illiterate masses were oblivious to it. Not so different from today when the world’s elite flit around the globe paying their taxes wherever convenient but when they need our support they appeal to our nationalistic feelings with terms like “in this land” and “We British”. Remember Tony Blair banging on about being “passionate” about British this and that yet when he left politics he got a job with an American bank. Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson observed, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
In truth, I don’t believe that many great discoveries come about in isolation. Ideas about relativity were simmering away amongst the world physics community before Einstein finally hit the nail on the head. Ideas and memes swirl around in our culture like the currents in a river. They ebb and flow and occasionally some bright spark gets drawn into an eddy and brings it all together. The sum of human knowledge is ratcheted up another notch. Yes, it was Einstein who made the final move but if he’d fallen under a car, someone else would probably have got there soon enough.
It crossed my mind that, like a river, human knowledge has many tributaries and side channels. Perhaps Einstein’s marvellous discovery helped us focus our attention on the material world and we’ve made great progress in this respect. Yet I wonder how it is that a civilisation which can place men on the moon and robot cars on mars can’t figure out an economic system which does not either get bogged down in authoritarianism inefficiency like Socialism or have periodic catastrophes like Capitalism.
The odd thing is that nobody seems interested in developing another system. People who don’t like Capitalism have an irrational faith in Socialism. People who mistrust Socialism think that recessions, depressions and credit crunches are just something that society has to endure along with the concomitant suffering of the poorest. If the brightest and the best could be dragged away from their Bloomberg terminals then maybe they could figure out a sustainable economic model. Ah, but that would mean change and nobody likes that.
Perhaps the relevant ideas and memes are swirling around us already; climate change, the Internet, super-complex and reliable consumer products, globalisation, a common language, the creative class, additive manufacturing. Perhaps all the pieces already exist and we just need some Einstein to put it all together?
On this visit I did not board the funicular railway up to the castle but I hung around one evening near the station at the bottom and took photos as evening fell. Vast cruise boats slid by, many from Germany. The Danube rises like an enormous cake in Germany’s Black Forest and flows through Vienna, Bratislava and Belgrade not to mention Orşova, Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Calafat, Bechet, Dăbuleni, Corabia, Turnu Măgurele, Zimnicea, Giurgiu, Olteniţa, Călăraşi, Feteşti, Cernavodă, Hârşova, Brăila, Galaţi, Isaccea and, of course, Tulcea.
As I crossed the bridge back to the hotel I looked down and saw one of these floating leviathans drifting by with a swimming pool on it’s deck. It has never occurred to me to cruise along a river before. What a great idea. You can stay in one place while visiting the great cities of Europe.
The hotels are near the main entertainment area in Budapest and the night was busy with tourists and locals. I bought Kürtőskalács, or Chimney Cake, from a street seller. Spirals of pastry dipped in nuts and sugar that tasted, to me, like mince pies. One starts to eat this delicious confection and gets the idea that one will eat just one more ring before stopping. But these are not rings, this is a spiral and one munches on and on and on until one has devoured the whole thing.
A driver had been organised to take me from the hotel to the office the next morning. I emerged early and he had not yet arrived and so I stood gazing out over the river and waited. The hotel concierge approached, asked my name and said I should get in one of the taxis that always wait outside the hotel. I explained that I had a car coming but he insisted. I walked to meet him at the car and explained again that this was unnecessary. This time a second concierge joined in telling me that I should get in the car and when I tried to speak a passing young man with a rucksack said to me: “He couldn’t come”. For just the twinkling of an eye I thought I was back in The Village. Either that or some Soviet era spy thriller. It seemed that the whole of Budapest knew who I was and was conspiring to kidnap me.
I got in the car and went to the office.