Thursday, September 29, 2011

hesitant reclaim

Yesterday I said that I have to reclaim the blog or close it for good. This being a product of my vanity, what I expected from my dear readers was an outcry of shocked indignation. "How can you even think about it?" was the only possible response. Instead, what I got was the valid question of whether I was going to write fiction when I stop blogging, as if that were a foregone conclusion. I'm not going to answer that question. I can't – I simply don't know whether I've got fiction in me.

Taking one step back, I'm not sure yet that the blog needs to go. It's certainly of no use to me in its current form. It doesn't help me develop my writing skills and thus defies its purpose. But instead of shutting it down, I think I can claim it back.

When I said yesterday that the blog was a vanity project, I was right in my choice of words but not in my understanding of the situation. There can be no doubt that I write about myself, but I pick my stories with my readership in mind. Sometimes I choose words, phrases, details or mementoes specifically for one reader or another. To some extent, I'm writing for you who are following faithfully.

What I should be doing instead is taking vanity to the next level, by writing for myself as if no audience existed, taking the blog back to its original idea as a vehicle for my learning by doing. The question is whether I should start a new, anonymous blog to avoid the temptation of falling back into the comfort of talking about myself. But maybe, if I write only for myself, the readership will quickly lose interest and dwindle, and there wouldn't be a difference. I might just try that and see where it takes me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

failure to write

The two types of writing I love most are short stories and travel writing. Travel writing I've done quite a bit of, and I'm rather happy with some of the results. If I had got a lucky break here (when I contacted the Guardian before going to Syria) or there (when I submitted the walk through Hama to a travel writing competition), I might be doing much more of it – and maybe getting something more tangible out of it than the pleasure of remembering good times and sharing them with friends.

On the other hand, my foray into short story writing has been utterly pathetic. When I started attending a semester-long creative writing course last year, I hoped it would open my mind to another world and set me on the path to fictional glory – or at least ability. But I was pretty much lost from the first moment, out of my depth, empty of making up anything. I started two stories whose fragmentary beginnings received a warm response during group critique, but I've been utterly incapable of taking them anywhere.

Tonight, when I should have been sleeping, I pondered the state of the world and a little chess puzzle and suddenly realized with absolute clarity why it is that I suck at fiction writing. My approach is flawed and the blog has to do with it.

This blog was started as a writing exercise. I believe that one's writing can be dramatically improved by dogged persistence. The blog was supposed to be self-inflicted pressure to learn by doing simply by having the feeble nagging of an empty sheet replaced with the reproachful glow of the date of the last post. One week and no activity? How is this a blog when there's nothing happening?

No matter the weak fictionalization – the obscuring of details, the deformation of chronology, the invention of incidents to drive a story, and the avoidance of names – the blog is me. It chronicles, with some artistic license, chosen aspects of my life. It is not entirely autobiographical, but it couldn't be much further from fiction.

What I realized tonight is that the difference between blogging and fiction is in the narrator. In fictionalized blogging, the writer imagines himself as the narrator, even if the story is told in the third person. In proper fiction, the writer imagines himself in the shoes of the narrator, even with a first person narrator. It's what would I do versus what would the character do. It's obvious which approach drives a story forward.

Until tonight, I was fully subscribed to the dictum that all fiction is autobiographical. It is true that there are often strong aspects of the author's biography in fictional writing, probably most of the time. But that doesn't necessarily make the writing autobiographical. A good writer fills the characters of a story with elements of his biography because that's what he knows best, but he is not the character.

In my blog, I'm always in character. I realize that this fictionalization thing has been nothing but a lame excuse. It lets me continue with a blog that does nothing for my fiction writing ambitions, an effort that, if anything, is detrimental to them by sucking my energies into a black hole of pointlessness.

To generate fiction, a writer has to leave the characters he has created. He has to let go of them lest they become a collection of surprisingly dull alter egos. The writer must stop imagining realities alternative to his own and start simply imagining, letting invented but convincing characters drive the story.

This blog's original purpose was to get me started as a writer, to get me comfortable with language, ideas and expression. It has done that, but I have long hit a wall. I'm not making any progress anymore. My blog has degenerated into little more than a vanity project, my fifteen minutes of fame twice a week. Even to myself, is just like any other blog.

Is it time to reclaim the blog – or abandon it for good?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

getting curiouser

I wish I had something else to talk about, and the other day I thought the apartment/landlord drama had come to end, but it keeps escalating, although for me it has long reached a level where I'm not comfortable following.

Yesterday, I found two letters in my mailbox. The first was from my landlord. It was a document I had requested nearly six months ago, though I made my case again on the phone on Wednesday. The letter states, categorically, that "the Landlord, any of the Landlord's employees or any of the landlords [sic] agents will not enter the property without 24 hours' notice". It's pathetic that this would need to be put in writing, but I was happy. The beautifully placed apostrophe on the "24 hours" was an added bonus and made me generously look over the one that was missing on the third "landlord".

I got down to signing the new tenancy agreement that has been lying around and gathering dust ever since it was sent to me three weeks ago. But there was the other letter. I opened the second envelope and retrieved a color photograph of my building, the yellow of the downstairs shop's sign eye-wateringly bright.

Besides the photograph was a detailed description of the building, its tenants and the lease terms (total current rents just a bit more than I earn before taxes and deductions), there was a second sheet that invited me to bid on the property, being the "occupational tenant" and all. My building is coming up for auction.

I was getting sufficiently frazzled at this point, I have to admit. A property auction usually means economic distress. Has the landlord not been paying the mortgage? Is a bank now trying to minimize the damage by extracting from the heap what it can? Is this a repossession and what does it mean for me as a tenant? The letter reassures me that "this should not affect your current tenancy agreements", but how naive do you have to be to believe a real estate agent? And note the strategic placement of "should". Could I be out of the flat the day after the auction?

I will have to call the landlord on Monday but I'm not very optimistic about learning much. After all, Kingstar UK didn't consider it necessary to tell me that the auction was coming up in the first place. They didn't even tell me what the purpose of last Monday's inspection was. And why do I have to sign a new lease? The sales sheet mentions my old rent.

It also mentions that "viewings are by appointment only". With the landlord I had agreed to put the original lock back into the door as soon as they sent me assurances that they wouldn't enter without notice. This has happened, but was it just a ruse? Who will the appointments be with? I don't think I'm gonna change the lock back quite yet.

What the sales sheet doesn't mention is the reserve price of the property. It's not that I'd be interested. I'm happy to rent and, under normal circumstances, let others deal with the aggravations of owning property. Plus, the moment I owned my flat, I would have to take care of it and bring it up to my standards. We're talking new kitchen and new windows at the very least. Not something I want to deal with.

In addition, prices in London have never let up in their Ponzi-like rise, and while I could probably afford my flat with a bit of scrimping added to the usual parsimoniousness, especially if on offer at an auction, there's no way I've got the bucks (or, rather, quid) for an entire building. Still, I wanted to know what the guide price was and surfed over to the property consultancy's website.

I had to scroll down to the second page; there were dozens of lots in the raffle, promising returns on investment of anywhere between 0.4 and 40% per year. One of the few lots that didn't display an expected return was my building. There was no guide price. The lot had been withdrawn. How curious, I was thinking. Why go through all the trouble?

It got even curiouser. When I came back from a 15-mile run this afternoon, more devastated than after the London Marathon (but then I haven't run in two months), I discovered a large plywood sign protruding from between two of my living-room windows. "Auction - Freehold investment", it says. What's going on?

Friday, September 23, 2011


Monday morning, I was kicked out of bed by Levent, the same dude that had already tried to get into my flat the Friday before. On Monday, he was there with a wingman to do an inspection – or so he said. I didn't know and I had no way of finding out. My landlord hadn't notified me.

Stupid as I was, I let Levent's wingman in. Friends, don't do this at home! Don't let anyone in just because that person knows his way around. Crime is up in London, and burglary especially so. Levent and his wingman could have just as well been a couple of burglars on a reconnaissance mission. I wouldn't know – my landlord never told me someone would come by.

Sometimes I think my landlord is willfully aggressive and that he tries to bully me as if I were a clueless immigrant with no recourse besides a tearful letter to his mum. Sometimes I think they're just clueless immigrants themselves. But when I call the office, the person I talk to is invariably kind and helpful, and immediately connects me to whoever I want to talk to, and things are usually sorted out quickly – more or less.

So it happened this Wednesday when I called Kingstar UK and inquired about their attitude towards trespassing and "quiet possession" and concepts like that. I don't want to mince words; the argument was heated. My contact on the other end of the line raised her voice, and so did I. It wasn't in vain. In the end we agreed that I would sign another lease, at the conditions they set but only once they've sent me a letter renouncing in writing further attempts to trespass on the property I'm renting. I'm still waiting.

Friday night we went for drinks. The bosses had got a grant funded and reckoned the lab deserved a cheer. What could be better than a pint of Broadside or a double Black Bush in the campus pub? I was late to get to the gathering but not the last to arrive. A few pints into the socializing, the bosses took off. Some students did so too, but postdocs arrived to fill the gap.

The group had thinned down, but the discussion became lively and potentially essential. How do you secure the next job? I maintained that qualifications didn't matter. At our level, we're all good. What sets the good apart from the rock stars is the motivation. If you convincingly show that you want the job, you will get it.

I've written plenty of cover letters and I've been invited to enough interviews to not have off days for vacations since Easter. Clearly I'm doing something right. But maybe I'm doing something wrong as well. I haven't got a job lined up, after all. Maybe I shouldn't focus all my energies on my flat.

Friday, September 16, 2011

rogue trader

This morning on my way out, I was greeted by a dude by the building's front door. He was inside, obviously had a key, and looked as if he had business to do. I wished him a good morning and proceeded to make my way through the door, but his question held me back. "Are you living in flat 1?" he asked me.

Indeed I do and I knew what was about to unfold – yet another skirmish in the ongoing battle between the landlord and me. I remind you that my landlord, Kingstar UK, thinks not only that trespassing is legal but also that I should leave my doors unlocked for them when I'm out. I don't agree and I'm ready to fight my case, though verbally it feels much like trying to convince the Pope that God doesn't exist. Facts don't cut it, and I'm not good at screaming sense.

With either party failing to make headway, we're engaged in a standoff that I consider futile for them and acceptable for me. After all, since changing the locks I don't care anymore what their attitude towards trespassing is. They, in turn, have learned to send letters advising me of the presence of an electrician or gas man a few days in the future. That's not the same as asking me for permission – which they are legally bound to do – but it's good enough for me.

Is it also good enough for them? I was wondering that when I opened a big envelope ten days ago that contained a new lease, ready for me to sign. The accompanying letter began thus: "As you are probably aware, your tenancy is due for renewal from 19 September 2011."

As it happened, I wasn't aware of this. What I was aware of is that I signed a six-month lease when I moved in. When that expired, it automatically converted into a periodic tenancy agreement, on unchanged terms and conditions. My tenancy agreement doesn't need renewal. It continues until either of the parties bails out.

I can understand that the landlords wants more money – which is the one change I noticed in the lease compared to the old one. The proposed increase is within my means and within the rental value of the flat. In my limited understanding, rent increases in a periodic tenancy agreement need the agreement of both sides. As I do agree - paying a bit more beats finding another flat - I could just go ahead and sign the damn thing. But I'm on my way out of London, off to greener pastures (though details haven't been sorted out yet), and I'd prefer to stay on periodic tenancy.

Should I just sign the thing anyway and take a gamble? Should I call the agency and remind them of the situation - and encounter irremediable delusion? Should I ignore the new lease and risk being evicted, with a notice period of two months? These thoughts were still going around in my head when I started arguing with the gentleman by my door.

He pointed out that, for emergencies, the landlords needs access to the flat but couldn't quite get my point that an electrical inspection is not an emergency and must be scheduled in advance. (Their problems at scheduling were emphasized by the fact that the person actually doing the inspection - my guy was just an agent - had gone AWOL.) We kept arguing about the locks and privacy and got nowhere. The dude insisted my flat should be open to him. "It's in the contract", he said at some point and when I didn't believe him, he showed me. It was there, black on white. Baffled, I went to work.

Tonight, I couldn't wait to check my lease. The one I was asked to sign did indeed state that the tenant shall "Permit the Landlord or the Landlord's employees or agents to enter the Premises at all reasonable times with or without notice [...]" It could be argued that there are no "reasonable times" to enter my flat without notifying me, but that's beside the point. The point is that my current lease doesn't include the "without" part. There's no way I'm gonna sign the new one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

easy journey

It happened outside Gatwick; I had returned from yet another potentially career-defining trip. The EasyBus to London was almost ready to depart. Three potential customers were standing on the sidewalk next to the orange van, unsure about how to proceed. Wagging the glowing screens of cell phones at each other, the hoped to resolved the situation. In vain. They had flown in on Virgin and booked in expectation of the usual delay but arrived on time. Now they were early, all of a sudden.

The driver, with his raspy laugh and bushy grey hair, jovially told them he was probably too full to take them though only a handful of seats were taken. He offered the hop over to the South Terminal but warned that he might have to leave them there. "Make it easy on yourself", he said, taking his seat behind the wheel. "I have to go. Sorry." And with another laugh he put the foot down.

EasyBus drivers are usually in their early thirties, hail from less fortunate parts of the world, have an air of perpetual bafflement about them, and pilot the orange Mercedes as if it were a cruise missile locked on target, with scant regard for the machine and none at all for speed limits. There are between two and three journeys an hour to Gatwick and four to Stansted, in all weather and traffic conditions, and the vans always arrive safely. That they don't regularly explode in fatal crashes is a total mystery to me.

Tonight's driver was different, an elderly gentleman with a faint American accent. Instead of the regular drivers' high-visibility vests he wore a white shirt with a logo as discreet as an orange logo can be. I almost didn't notice him as a driver. When I sat down it occurred to me that he might be a manager in disguise, so removed was he from the usual ragtag bunch. Maybe he was the CEO doing reconnaissance at the front lines, inspecting the troops to see how the new corporate strategy plays out in the real world. He certainly looked disheveled enough to be in disguise but appeared overall too comfortable with the job for it to be assumed for the night only.

The wild Rastafarian on the way out yesterday morning certainly didn't pretend anything. He took his place behind the wheel and bellowed a stern "No eating or drinking on the bus, please" by way of greeting - more than I normally get but still not exactly welcoming - and proceeded to pound the poor van as if he considered punishing the vehicle one of the perks of the job. We made it to the North Terminal in 58 minutes, a new record for me.

My trip was on Air Berlin, with that airline for the first time in half a dozen years. As before, I regretted that it didn't fly to more destinations on my radar. Air Berlin is a curious hybrid, conceived as a budget airline with the mission to blow Lufthansa out of the comfortable water of a near-monopoly. Maybe the task was too easy, because the newcomer never tried too hard to be budget. The snacks aboard were always free, the seats selectable in advance, and checking luggage never cost. And with everyone cutting costs to survive the recession, they've gone the opposite way. This time, everyone got a chocolate heart upon disembarking and there were more free newspapers than at Lufthansa, stacks piled higher than at your newsagent. There were also magazines. When was the last time you got a free Economist on board?

Why you would want to read an Economist in these volatile times is a different question. The Greek basket case is fraying so badly that no one realizes the 30% discount on stocks are a good deal. (Have you noticed that investors get purchasing urges mostly when things are expensive?) I opened the magazine from the back, avoiding the trauma of economic and current affairs news. A book review caught my eye, David Bellos ruminating on the art of translation and some of the oddities of languages, certainly something I'd like to read.

The review alone made some curious connections, mentioning for example the fact that the French language has two words for the word word, if you get what I'm saying. In my understanding, mot is grammatical while parole is more metaphorical. You can give someone the parole, for example, but not the mot. Hungarian was also mentioned, a language that does one better than German where you have compound words that can stretch to two dozen letters. (Everyone should have a Haftpflichtversicherung, for example.) But German compounds are always words in meaning. Hungarian compounds can be more complex.

I was reminded of a chapter in the book I'm currently reading, On the Road to Babadag, where the Polish author visits a place in Hungary called Sátoraljaújhely, which apparently literally means "a tent pitched in a new place". I wouldn't know, I don't speak any Hungarian, but I do remember the flashy új! on products (not tents but novelties) in Hungarian supermarkets, which is consistent with the translation.

As the EasyBus navigated the airport roads, I fell into a deep reverie about traveling the forgotten east of Europe, a region of obscure languages, cultures and customs, a region to take pictures and collect stories, a region I have yet to see. I've never made it beyond Romania in any direction. Maybe next year will give me the chance at least.

In less than five minutes we got to the South Terminal. More travelers were waiting than were already on the bus and it took a while to check and sell tickets. Luggage needed to be stowed and passengers sorted out, but none of this took much time and soon we were on our way. Four seats remained unoccupied.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

at the races

In some circles, the kind of circles that have scones with tea and a butler to serve them (and if they don't have the butler, they have at least the feeling of entitlement to one), races doesn't need a qualifier. It inevitably involves horses. Races take place at Aintree, Ascot or Epsom Downs and spectators come to see and be seen. There's always a big hat day at Ascot. These are not my circles, and I've never seen horses race.

What I've seen race are dogs. They are lower-key entertainment, with simpler tracks, smaller audiences and no pretentiousness in the stands. That doesn't mean they deserve derision or contempt. Greyhounds are, I learned watching an old but particularly hilarious rerun of Top Gear on the msn video player tonight, the second fastest accelerating animals, zero to 45 mph in not much more than one explosive second.

I had seen dogs race for the first time in the summer of 2008, at Walthamstow Stadium in the northeast of London. It was a memorable night but for a sad reason. That night, the stadium was opening its doors for the last time before being handed over to a developer with plans to tear it down. The partying masses around the track and the lines at the bars longer than the intervals between the races disclaimed dog racing as a dying pastime. But the owners pointed out rather bitterly that if the crowds hadn't just come for closing night but regularly, they would have never had to sell.

walthamstow stadium

Three years ago, the largest and arguably most beautiful greyhound stadium closed for good, and there was nothing to fill the gap. Or so I thought. But when my mom came to visit and spoke with wild excitement about her day at the races many years ago, I fired up my favorite search engine and discovered another dog track not too far from home. Wimbledon stadium sits in an industrial site and, surrounded by car dealerships and workshops, isn't a pretty sight, but it's got dogs running two nights a week.

Last night, we were among those watching. We were late but easily found a good place to watch, near the traps and in plain view of the trackside bookmakers. Betting is essential for the enjoyment of racing because, really, how would you get excited about half a dozen interchangeable mutts completing a sandy loop in half a minute if your money weren't on one of them? The bets make people scream numbers, colors or names as the dogs flash by and then erupt in wild cheers if their dog has won. In the fourteen minutes until the next race starts, new bets are made, fresh beer is bought and chatter fills the air. As the night progresses, the crowd gets louder and the races become jollier, but the dogs couldn't care less.

I didn't care much either, to be honest. It had been a long week and I was exhausted. The intervals between races felt a bit too long. At one point I explored the facilities and made it to the food counter: venue fast food, overpriced and bad. Offering hotdogs was bad taste, I thought. When I got back to the track, the next race was about to begin. The stands were sticky with beer.

It was race 12 out of 13, and people were slowly drifting out. We moved one level up. The grandstand was littered with plastic cups, shreds of paper, random rubbish. In the center of the track, a ceremony was held. Some dog graciously accepted a trophy, but it was far away and hard to see. No one seemed to pay much attention. Night had long fallen. For dog racing, already a niche industry, the future doesn't look bright.

Wow, that was a weird post. So negative towards the end, though the evening was actually quite funny: the racing dogs are hilarious, as are the people watching. And what is it with the first paragraph that's so much like a first paragraph I wrote last year? Lack of creativity, or what?