Middle Earth and form-filling – David Graeber on bureaucracy

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews of books I’ve been reading.

David Graeber – The Utopia of Rules

A wonderful  book! Graeber manages to write in a relaxed comprehensible – even witty – style about a subject that normally kills anything like that stonedead: bureaucracy. He asks pointed and excellent questions: why has bureaucracy in fact increased exponentially, especially in the USA, UK and Europe, while every right wing commentator is noisily insisting it’s going to be reduced? Why has it extended its tentacles from the military and government and corporations to education and the rest of society? Why does bureaucracy make us act so stupidly? Do we actually secretly like bureaucracy, because it makes us feel safe inside a game with rules, even if we don’t actually understand the rules?

More seriously he also examines what is the connection between state violence and Batman? And why doesn’t Middle Earth have any bureaucracy?

There’s one thing I’d like to ask him: have you read any Terry Pratchett? And particularly “Going Postal” and “Making Money”, late books where the Wizard of Ankh-Morpork dares to contemplate the irruption of bureaucracy into a fantasy world? Or “Small Gods” one of the finest religious satires ever written, which contains a particularly poisonous example of the perfect bureaucrat?

If you like this, consider helping me to write more!

You can buy the book here.

 

Please, Mr Corbyn…

9th May 2017

Budapest

Dear Mr Corbyn,

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to kick the Tory Corporates out of power on 8th June, with a hefty landslide. Nothing else will do.

Now you probably won’t achieve that without doing some things that may be against your ideology. Not against your honour – it’s clear that you are an honourable man, but ideology is different from honour. Please have the courage to dump it.

If you want to beat the Tories, Labour must ally with the Greens and the LibDems. If you don’t do this, wherever the Left fields multiple candidates, its vote will be split and it will lose. In the noble cause of removing Mrs May before she does any more damage, hold your nose and do it. Let the new Progressive Alliance do what they’re doing without any apparatchiks from Labour expelling them from the party. Puhleese! What are you thinking of? Don’t be Stalinist. It’s old-fashioned and embarrassing.

If you want to beat the Tories, you also have to hire better speechwriters. Pretty please?  You need to inspire people, you need to bring them clapping and shouting to their feet. In other words you need to stop addressing audiences as if they were a committee at midnight. OK, I understand that after a lifetime of doing just that, you may find it hard. But at least get some inspiring wordsmiths, get some slogans, punchy memorable phrases, soundbites if you will. I’ll do it for nothing if you ask, but I’m sure you can find someone better than me. Do it.

If you want to beat the Tories, you have to hammer away at how the appalling inequality in Britain is pulling our society apart at the seams. You have to save the NHS. You have to save the schools. You have to end Food Banks due to lack of demand.

You can have three core statements: you don’t have to go as bovinely stupid as Mrs May’s “strong and stable” mantra, designed to appeal to the frightened old people who are now the Tories’ main supporters. Every time she repeats it, have someone pop up and say “weak and stagnant”.

You see, if you want power, you have to show your feelings. Don’t tell lies. Don’t lose that wonderful old-school dignity of yours. I know you’ve got passion in there somewhere, because you are genuinely a champion of ordinary people and nobody does that if they don’t give a toss. Let your passion show.

I know it’s going to be hard on you. But could you try, please? The UK seems to be lurching backwards into the Seventies, except this time with a lot of incompetent smug millionaires in charge, backed by billionaires. The troubles of the Seventies were caused by runaway unconsidered socialism. Our present troubles are caused by another economic ideology, that of runaway unconsidered neo-liberalism (neither new nor liberal). We need to find a better economic theory – but not now (now is not the time…) Now we have to win.

I’m not even a member of the Labour party because I don’t think writers should align themselves with any party. But I honestly think you would make a good, possibly great, Prime Minister.

We need a landslide to dislodge the Tory Corporates. Think how lovely it’ll be to watch the needle swing far into red territory, think how lovely it’ll be to watch their faces and the faces of the pundits as the great British electorate administers another massive kicking to the Tories and hauls them out of their cosy trough!

Somebody has to step forward and stop the rot as we slide steadily into being a much smaller, poorer, one-party-state version of Trump’s America. This may be the last chance. It could be you. Would you give it a try, please?

Please?

Best wishes and good luck,

Yours sincerely,

Patricia Finney

Time to chuck out the old Right/Left dualism.

We need a completely new way of thinking about politics and we need to throw out the old Right/Left dualism.

It’s finished. It’s had its day, caused untold death and destruction throughout the 20th century and needs shooting in the head.

Yes, it was quite a useful tool because we humans are dualistic thinkers and we have a visceral need to split things into two categories – right/left, bad/good, up/down etc. But it doesn’t work any more. Partly because as the Right becomes more and more extreme, the Left is floundering, having lost its founding myth of Marxist thought. Partly because there are important political groupings that don’t fit into it at all – is the Daesh/ISIS death cult leftist or rightist? Neither, it’s a religious fundamentalism. Partly because a lot of political thought has become as sclerotic as the thinkers, tinkering with unimportant things.

We need a new axis to help us think about politics.

Here’s one.

 

<____________________________________>

Extremist                                                                     Moderate

 

It’s really about finding political similarities. Although people with leftist convictions often feel more comfortable with other lefties and rightwingers with other righties, there are a whole bunch of people who are completely excluded. What about Libertarians? You usually find them lumped with rightwingers, yet Libertarians are usually neither racist nor sexist nor interested in controlling what drugs people take. They are as anti-government control as any dyed-in-the-wool Anarchist. So where do they go?

Simple. On the Finney axis, moderate Libertarians go with other moderates like old fashioned liberals. Extreme Libertarians go with the extremists. Tea Party republicans obviously go on the Extremist end, moderate Rupublicans stay moderate. Where do we put the radical Evangelical Right? With the Extremists.

Like this.

<____________________________________>

Extremists                                                                                        Moderates

Communists                                                                                     normal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans                                                                     normal Republicans

Anarchists                                                                                        Liberals

Daesh/ISIS                                                                                        Episcopalians

Creationists                                                                                      Reform Judaism

 

Etcetera. By all means tinker with the lists but remember, this axis is about a willingness v. an unwillingness to listen, awareness of v. obliviousness to confirmation bias, ability to have civilized debate v. insistence that your viewpoint, is the only one.

Just in case you’re worried, in fact there are relatively few Extremists in the world. Most people are instinctively Moderate. The trouble is, a few Extremists with their passion and hatred and noise can have a truly massive effect on everyone else – as shown by the Tea Party and Daesh/Isis. They can convince unthinking Moderates that racism is fine and sexism is funny.

On the other hand, sometimes the Extremists’ passion and hatred and noise are what you need to change a bad status quo – for instance, the people who destroyed the Slave Trade were the Extremists of their time, while most white people were just toddling along comfortably, never thinking about slavery.

So we need both styles of thought. That’s worth remembering. It’s worth repeating. WE NEED BOTH STYLES OF THOUGHT.

Personally, I’m an Extreme Moderate, which is a whole other ballgame.

 

Why Donald Trump might be President of the USA.

I think I understand why Donald Trump can get away with anything. I’ve been mulling it over for a while and I think it all goes back to the US Apprentice “reality” series (2004-2016), the TV show that is basically an extended job interview for eight people. Donald Trump was a co-producer and the guy who said “You’re fired!”  At its peak it had an audience of over 11 million though its ratings have been steadily dropping and it has changed to using celebrities rather than real people. It’s still running, although Trump was fired by NBC in 2015 for saying rude things about Mexicans.

Now I don’t have a dog in this race. I’m British, I can’t vote in an American election. I only care whether it’s Hillary or Donald, because I don’t want to be nuked by anybody.

On the one side we have Hillary Clinton, whom nobody seems to like. True, she is a long-serving politician with a few skeletons in her closet and is accused, on small evidence, of corruption mainly because of her years in politics and being married to Bill.

The fact that she’s female in the world of American politics is a huge disadvantage. She has a much longer, more complicated and contradictory set of unspoken rules that she must obey than any man. If she raises her voice she’s told off for being shrill. If she doesn’t raise her voice, she’s told she’s weak. It’s odd but true that old-fashioned Europe is much more comfortable with female rulers. Just to remind you, in the UK we had Margaret Thatcher in 1979, or 37 years ago.

On the other side we have Donald Trump. I honestly can’t imagine a man less worthy to lead America. Based on what he says, repeatedly, he’s a bigot: he hates everyone except white men, or possibly, himself. His misogyny is legendary. He’s presently showing worrying symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  He has a lot of strikes against him on the financial side as well – including self-admitted non-payment of taxes which he regards as smart, routinely bankrupting small businesses by not paying their invoices (also smart) and being in the pocket of Russian oligarchs.

If Hillary or anyone female had that kind of backstory of sexual scandal and financial fecklessness, ridiculous ignorance and bullying of disabled veterans, she would be laughed out of the primaries. She would never run, let alone get a nomination, Republican or Democrat.

None of this seems to matter to Trump’s supporters.

I think there’s one explanation here for some of the male support for Trump. They may not be misogynists like him, but they still don’t like the idea of a woman as President because… well… it reminds them of Mom. We don’t have to get too Freudian here, but this is very clear from a lot of the unbelievable spite hurled at Hillary.

OK, so why does Donald have any support among women, which he clearly does. Why would any woman support a man who clearly hates women, puts them down, jeers at them for being fat and having periods.

Well, some of those women are diehard Republicans. They’re thinking: he may not agree with Republicanism, he may be a misogynist, but he’s our misogynist, so we’ll vote for him.

Now there is an unpleasant (and wrong) attitude in Europe, which looks down on Americans as crazy, ignorant, heavily-armed lunkheads and that’s why they want to vote for Donald. This is a stupid attitude. America still has the most vibrant economy in the world and you don’t get that if everybody’s dumb. You have the normal distribution curve but in general, Americans are smart because that economy is very harsh if you aren’t. Some of them pretend to be dumb, the better to sell things to the snotty Europeans. They’re also adventurous. Only eight years ago they voted in a black man to be President.

So why are any of them, male or female, preparing to elect as President, a man who is less intelligent than most of them?

I think it’s down to the “The Apprentice.” There’s an effect which makes the stars of soap operas and reality shows seem like one of us, friends or at least acquaintances. They come into our living rooms and bedrooms and talk to us, entertain us. We often talk back. Subliminally, we think of them as near neighbours, as people we know.

There’s a long-running radio soap in England called “The Archers” – an everyday tale of farming folk. I once heard that it was a very serious decision if one of the characters was going to have a baby – because the BBC knew that they would have to hire extra staff to cope with the flood of baby jackets, pompom hats and bootees that their fans would send to the fictional baby. The mother was real to the knitting ladies, she felt like a friend, so the baby was real too.

Even being quite a minor celebrity this way helps. Would we have had the Brexit vote in  the UK without cuddly old Boris Johnson, from “Have I Got News for You”, cheering it on? I suspect not.

Anyone we see so regularly, even someone as brazen and bigoted as Donald, unconsciously becomes part of Our Tribe. He gets to be Uncle Don, he’s funny, he shocks the liberals. He’s a character. He’s like the drunken, fat, unpleasant Sheriff that you can’t get rid of because, incredibly, everybody likes him.

They say things like “Uncle Don tells it like it is” and “Yeah, he’s a bit rough when he’s talking about Mexicans/Chinese/women (but who likes them, eh?)” They say, “Hey, Uncle Don, have a beer, big guy!”

That’s why Donald is going to be elected. Because the audience for “The Apprentice” have all accepted him into Their Tribe. Hillary has never been on a reality show, she isn’t considered part of anyone’s Tribe, except her own.

Uncle Don is shocking and funny and a lot of people feel they know him well. “Yeah, sure, Uncle Don, we’ll elect you. Have another beer.”

 

B*gg*r, we have to Brexit.

It’s very annoying when someone on Facebook makes a point from the other side of the Brexit/Remain argument which is not only valid but blows your argument out of the water. For the avoidance of doubt he was a Brexiteer but I’ll keep his name out of this until he gives me permission to use it.

I was banging on about parliamentary sovereignty, which I happen to believe in strongly. It was the only thing that tempted me to vote Brexit in the teeth of Farage, Boris and Gove (for people reading this in 2018, they were prominent politicians who lied their way through the campaign on the side of Brexit. Yes, I do mean Boris Johnson, the reality show star). Parliamentary sovereignty was being steadily watered down by the EU and the highest appeal court in the land was no longer in the land but in Luxemburg. I don’t like that.

My Facebook interlocutor (friend would be a bit strong) basically said, paraphrased: Cameron delegated parliamentary sovereignty to the referendum, making no mention of a two-thirds majority, which he should have, nor that it was advisory. In fact, he said it would be binding. He is the PM, or he was (2018ers, you can look him up). In the UK we live in what is really an elective dictatorship so he could do that, however stupid it was in retrospect. Obviously he thought that Remain would win.

This blew my argument about a general election and a vote in Parliament on grounds of Parliamentary sovereignty out of the water. Even the constitutional lawyers (Mishcon Reya) riding to the rescue of Remain are going to have trouble with that, especially if the Brexiteers get their own constitutional lawyers saddled up and galloping out.

I still think that a general election on the subject would be a very good idea but it’s no longer possible to say it’s essential.

Bugger.

So we are now going to have to crash out of the EU somehow, a vast change that will take years and billions of quid to achieve. The EU MEPs are saying “Goodbye, don’t let the door hit you in the ass,” only a bit politer. We’ve always been the awkward squad and as a result we probably had the best deal of anyone in the EU, but hey! What does it matter when you’ve now got that extra 350 million quid a week to spend on the NHS?

Oh we don’t. Oh dear.

There is also the nasty sight of English xenophobia crawling out from under its rock. I suspect that many ardent Brexiteers genuinely though that by voting “Leave” they were voting against horrid brown and yellow people and people who don’t speak English but insist on rudely speaking their nonsense garble where proper English people can hear them. They thought this because Farage told them so. In fact I suspect quite a few of them thought that voting “Leave!” was an imperative addressed to the horrid foreigners – as in, Leave, you bloody foreigners!

Of course, the idiots are now wondering why the bloody foreigners won’t Leave immediately so they torch Polish homes and shout “Go home!” on buses to third generation Englishmen and women who happen to be brown.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so disgusting and tragic.

How was Cameron so stupid? Well, he’s sloppy, of course, always has been. But it’s mainly that he and all the other Remainers, including closet Remainers like Boris, simply forget the people who live in the rest of England. If he thought of them at all, it was as a distant noisy crowd of people, all watching TOWIE and necking beer and doners (traditional English food, that). The oiks, as he probably called them at Oxford. Rather awful people, in fact. And the old, of course. A bit set in their ways. Not many of them. Surely the nice people outnumber the poor and the old? Don’t they?

No, you twat, they don’t. Especially in a neoliberal extreme capitalist system, the Poor VASTLY outnumber the Nice. A lot of them are often ex-Nice themselves and extremely angry about it. They were the cohort who voted Leave as a way to kick you in the balls, by the way.

And so Cameron ran his referendum, no two-thirds majority, binding, and dropped us deep in the shit becase he’s sloppy and has lived in the Rich Bubble all his life. I’m sure he’ll be suffering terribly in his Dordogne/Provencal/Tuscan villa (can’t be bothered to look it up, there’s sloppy for you).

You may have noticed that my contempt for the man is epic, even exceeding my contempt for Tony Blair. He had a responsible position as Prime Minister and he had a duty of care to all the people of Britain, not just the Nice. He had a duty of care to the Poor as well, the people who are too busy coping with being poor to check out the clever arguments, weren’t sure what the EU is (but googled it afterwards), trusted Farage because he likes a pint, trusted Boris because he’s funny.

But the Brexiteers won and now we’re stuck with it. Well done, Cameron. Great job.

Hoo. Fracking. Ray.

In the Referendum, please don’t be tempted to kick Cameron in the balls.

The referendum is tomorrow and the country seems to be evenly divided. I’ve read a lot of stuff for In and a lot of stuff for Out and to be honest, I’m still not sure. My postal vote has already gone in (hope it gets there in time) and I voted Remain.

Why? I wasn’t very impressed with the Out crew, despite my love for Boris. The great and good seem to be solidly for Remain – which immediately made me want to vote Out. The minute I thought I’d vote Out, Farrage would come up with something so outrageously racist that I’d go back to Remain.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

So now we need the Wisdom of Crowds. That’s the strange fact that a group of people will often come up with a better answer to a problem than any lone genius. The typical example of this is at those Summer Fayre competitions to guess the weight of the piglet in ounces/guess the number of marbles in the jar. It’s a fact that if you go late, add up all the numbers suggested so far, divide it by the number of people who tried, you will probably come up with the right answer. It’s strange, it’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

It’s why democracy works.

It’s why every vote is important, no matter which way you vote. The more votes there are, the closer to the right answer the result will be. I don’t mean “right answer” as in “the one I agree with.” I mean “right answer” in the sense of what is best for the country – it could be In, it could be Out, I’m honestly not sure.

So first, make sure you vote.

Secondly, try to resist the temptation to give David Cameron a good kick in the balls – which would be an Out vote. I know, I know, you see his round fatuous face, hear his oily “sincere” voice and toffy tones and you instantly want to machine gun him. Seriously, don’t give in to this.

The Wisdom of Crowds only works if everyone is honestly trying to get the right answer – not being distracted by the alluring prospect of watching Cameron spitting balls and shitting teeth.

So go to it, British Crowd. Let’s see what you got!

Climate Change March, Budapest, 29 November 2015

Well I went on the Climate Change March in Budapest.

I liked:

The friendly informal atmosphere, with everyone walking along and nobody trying to get in front of anyone else. There were leaders, mostly young students and the traditional mysterious Frenchman (Sartre? Camus?) but they weren’t too full of themselves. They pushed the sound system along on a bike and tried valiantly to get some chants started (but see below).

The organisation. At first I was worried we might be outnumbered by the cops, but in the end there was quite a respectable number of us, mostly youngsters and expats, with a few old hippies and punks (like me). I get a real thrill when they hold up the traffic for us as we walk past. Sorry, drivers, you must hate us… But it’s great!

I loved the samba drums – we could have done with more of them but the ones we had were great. I must get into samba drumming, it’s wonderful.

A beautiful final image – we were asked to pick up and carry autumn leaves and then at the end of the march, drop them in the Danube to symbolise the letters they’ve sent to the government (leaf and letter are the same word in Hungarian). Watching them fluttering down to land on the surface of the river was strangely satisfying, like playing Poohsticks.

I didn’t like:

The arguments I had with friends before the march – all saying, oh it’s not worth it, we’re doomed but not till I’m dead, what’s the point, one person can’t do anything, I’m sick of recycling, but I like eating meat… etc etc. I will get into the Competitive Austerity problem another time, but this really annoys me. The only thing that excuses you from a climate change march is having kids – and there were families with kids there. It’s important. Until we have sorted out the climate change problem, nothing else matters because climate change will KILL US ALL if we carry on ignoring it.

The speeches. Part of the problem was that they were mainly in Hungarian, valiantly translated into English as they went along. Now I’ve been here for two years, nearly, and even allowing 6 months off for having a stroke, I still don’t understand Hungarian very well. I can cope with a normal conversation, usually, but sooner or later the sentences will lengthen, the words will acquire a forest of endings and I will completely lose track. This despite a lot of work, may I say, so it depresses me. So bear that in mind when I say that I found the speeches too long and too complex, even when translated into English. Even worse were the points from an interminable pompous letter they had sent to the government. Honestly, I even felt sorry for Viktor Orban, though I’m sure he didn’t read it.

You need three points only, not ten. You need short punchy sentences. Like this. You need a poet’s ear for what people will actually hear.

When you’re shouting slogans, they need to be short and rhythmical, not long and well… lame. That’s why none of them really got going. Find a poet. There are lots of poets in Hungary, or there were. Chuck a rock into a kavezo and you’ll probably hit two. Even I can tell Hungarian poetry is wonderful, so I know you can do better.

See you next year!

Bloody foreigner – Bureaucracy Games #3

 

I sat down on a very hard chair and took another look. Yes, no mistake, they had got through a whole two people in the time I’d been gone. So I did some meditation. Once you’re in the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room, you’re in an endurance contest and it’s essential to be calm or you’ll blow a gasket. If you turn into Basil Fawlty and rave about the British consul, you’ve lost humiliatingly.

Returning from the land of Om, I finally noticed a tatty notice in English on a pillar which alleged that if we wanted to get our documents back, we should photocopy them. Ah shit – the oldest trick in the book, the Duplicate Documents They Don’t Tell You About. Amazingly there was a photocopier and it worked. I quickly photocopied everything before it broke.

Back to sitting. Two nice girls asked me if I could change some money so they could work the passport photo machine. I did it and then thought… “Oh no! What about photos? Yikes!” The Passport Photo That Has To Be Precisely Correct That They Don’t Tell You About is a much loved late move in the Bureaucracy Game, I’m looking at you, USA. I was sure I’d had some passport photos taken a couple of weeks ago for something else, surely… I shuffled through my enormous rucksack with which I accidentally knock over at least one Magyar on every bus, and found… Three passport photos. Yess!

Back to waiting. 608. Lots of numbers beginning with 3. 610. More numbers beginning with 3. I looked around and realised that there were in fact two kinds of people in the Official Standard Bureacracy Game Waiting Room. Most were harassed non-Magyars, dressed either sexy-cute or smart-casual, recently shaved, haircut, staring at the digital scoreboard.

Some were Magyars, striding through importantly, wearing suits. One particularly fine gentleman was in a shiny grey silk suit, pink shirt, white contrast collar, cream-and-gold striped tie, with the jacket slung round his shoulders. Shit! I thought, realising what I should have worked out a couple of hours before.

Lawyers!

The implications were devastating. That means they haven’t separated out the Appeals from the easy-peasy-I’m-an-EU-citizen and there are LOTS of Magyars in England, so deal with me and get rid of me first. The mysterious numbers in the 3 series on the board are the ones who brought their lawyers. Hence the taxis skulking outside to take the important lawyers home. Shit! Shit!

Looking around with new eyes, there were lots of lawyers. One gent from the Gambia sat down and started barking fluent Hungarian into his mobile after gently explaining to his client in English what was going on. Then he started explaining to a fellow lawyer about how he was going to Vienna for a one day conference which was all paid for by some agency or other. Then he started a fascinating story about how a dentist in the north of somewhere had a big herd of cows and was actually paid in cows but before he clarified whether this was in Hungary, the Gambia or somewhere else, his client’s number came up and off he went. Both he and his client had come in some hours after me, I noted. They left before me too.

I sat. I wandered about. I asked whether I actually needed a passport photo. No, said the girl. Five fifteen, said the nearly stationary clock. OK. Now I was worried. There’s a particularly nasty late-game stand-by in which, if they haven’t got to your number before closing time, you have to come back another day and start again. I anxiously checked my diary: yes, I could ruin two more mornings this week if necessary.

Paranoia got too strong. I lost some Patient Waiting points by asking the information desk girl if they played the Closing Time move, but they didn’t. They just don’t let anybody else in after 6.00 pm. Slowly the OSBGWR emptied as the digital board rattled up through the 300s and in the 400s. A 627 flashed by and was gone. The 400s continued their slow parade.

Right, I thought, I know what’s going on. You’re playing the two queues system and you’re doing it badly. You’re putting the Appeals + Lawyers through before the boringly ordinary and easy EU citizens and that, as you should know, expert players as you are, is a Foul. You should at least have a quota for how many Appeals go through before waiting EU citizens and you know it.

It was late for calling a Queuing Foul but on the other hand, I knew I’d been accumulating Patient Waiting points and I should be able to do something with them. I went up to one of the girls who had been processing a different lot of people who was clicking through the digital numbers. Yes, she spoke English. “I wonder,” I asked with elaborate timidity, “if I’ve missed my number? I came in at 14.31.” She asked to see my ticket which meant she knew I had her: I showed it to her, 628, stamped 14.31.  “627 was quite a while ago,” I amplified. “You’re next,” she said and trotted backstage.

And I was. Ten minutes later I was into the Inner Sanctum with the booths and the bulletproof glass, in front of a very pretty girl with pink trousers and a cute layered hairdo with black underneath and bottle-blonde on top. In the time she could spare from flirting with the tanned lawyer at the next door booth who was sorting a footballer’s application, she input all the stuff, collected the photocopies, had me sign six or seven documents. Where’s the stamp, she demanded, perhaps hoping for a late turn of play. Nah. Very slowly I got it out of my purse and handed it over. Stamp stamp, sign sign, stamp. I read the card to check it had the correct details. Despite the tanned lawyer tilting back on his chair beside me, it did.

Hot plastic lamination – yess! A beautiful smell! I got the card (the other one comes later in the post.) Hah! I may have lost Rounds #1 and #2, but I narrowly won Round #3 and Round #4 is a knockout to me!

I won. Again. Hot damn, I’m good.

Bloody Foreigner – Bureaucracy Games #2

The following Tuesday I still had three weeks to complete the Bureaucracy Game and get the special card/document/stamp you have to have to avoid deportation or something. I’ve learned the hard way against the expert players in the UK, that when you have to play the Bureaucracy Game, it’s no good putting it off until the last minute. You need plenty of time so that you can play at your best with the champion players inhabiting whichever branch of the state you’re dealing with. Once you’re up against a deadline and they  know it, you’re doomed.

I only waited two months in the hope I’d be able to understand a bit more Magyarul. Ha! “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” say the Magyars sympathetically when you tell them about your crazy plan to learn it, which means literally “Hungarian is very heavy”, but actually means it’s difficult. It’s complicated, is what it is, and they’re very proud of it and of it being non-Indo-European (Finno-Ugric, if you’re interested). So not even the numbers sound familiar.

Anyway, I followed my usual Bureaucracy Game strategy and gathered every document I could think of, got confirmation of where I’m living, teaching contract, passport etc etc yadda yadda. This is so worthwhile. I still remember the joy of watching the sad deflation of the little man with the dodgy toothbrush mustache and starched shirt in the Spanish equivalent of the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal. Among the many documents I had brought him were two that were not mentioned on any list anywhere but were still completely essential. Hai! Yeah! I win, Mr Toothbrush Mustache, and you LOSE. He knew it too and my prize was the relevant card in record time so he could get rid of me and Forget.

With the light of battle in my eyes and a rucksack full of paper ammo, I headed for the correct bus. Bus #1, check, bus #2, check, Ujbuda Tesco’s, check, hello Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal – and yes, hooray, there were plenty of pissed-off foreigners hanging around, some black, some brown and quite a lot of them Chinese. Plus two taxis waiting by the side of the road which I should have recognised as a sign of trouble.

In I trotted to the first office, ignoring a sign telling me that holders of Type D passports should go somewhere else, on the grounds that if I was a Type D passport holder, I’d know I was, on account of having a funny Cornish-pasty-forehead and being a Klingon. Luck was with me – there was no queue for the information desk, although I was in the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room – about 50 bored people distributed around 70 very hard chairs in a striplit stuffy hot room, all gazing in despair at a digital noticeboard with numbers on it. Uh oh, I thought.

The nice girl at the information desk spoke embarassingly good English, as so many Magyars can, and told me that I needed a special payment stamp which I could only get from the Post Office across the road and asked if I had my Ehic card (European Health Insurance Card, if you’re wondering). By sheer good paranoia I did have it, as I carry it with my passport in case I’m in an accident. Or, as it turned out a few days later, have a stroke.

She gave me the essential Magic Ticket for the queue lottery (628) and when I looked, there was only 601 showing alongside several other sequences of numbers starting with 2s and 3s. OK, I’ve got an hour or two, I though in my innocence.

Across the road I twice completely circumambulated the large shopping centre, looking for the Posta. Various helpful Hungarians tried to explain where it was and I still couldn’t find it, until a girl at the Tesco’s information desk led me to it personally and I found it in a separate section only signposted with a toyshop. So well done, Tesco’s customer survice, you gained me some good points so I could win Round #3 of the Bureaucracy Game. Finding the Posta was their second try at their favourite Invisible Office gambit and might even have worked. Heh!

The nice girl at the information desk had written down the name of the special official stamp I had to get, so I got it, easy as pie. The whole thing had only taken an hour.

Back I trotted to the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal, feeling optimistic. Back to the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room with the digital board and the numbers.

They had got to 603.

Bloody foreigner – Bureaucracy Games #1

This story comes before the Stroke Tales, but I didn’t have time to post it before I actually had my stroke.

I like being a Bloody Foreigner. I enjoyed being a guiri (means “stupid northerner”) in the south of Spain, though the Spanish are mostly courteous and hospitable and don’t let you know about that. They watch the antics of drunken expat Brits with astonishment and the lobster-red tourists likewise and occasionally take the piss in Spanish with elaborate subtlety. My Spanish was occasionally good enough to spot this and take the piss back, which was very entertaining. In Hungary now, my Magyarul (Hungarian for Hungarian, actually) is definitely not good enough to spot anything at all.

However what I really wanted to talk about with reference to my Bloody Foreignerness was my Bureaucracy Game with the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal.

Which, as I’m sure you realise, is the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationalisation, address: Budafoki ut 60. I had to conduct some essential bureaucracy there, involving forms, probably a passport photo and a lot of documents so I could have the important registration card I need to do other stuff in Hungary such as get a tax number.

Yes, I looked on their website which seemed to be in Hungarian only, blocked by a very polite letter in English asking me to tell them how to improve their website which took me the devil of a time to get rid of so I could see the website itself. I tried Google Translate on some bits of it which produced the usual hilariously useless and wrong results. You can’t expect a computer algorithm to cope with an inflected language, particularly one with at least fifteen case-endings, including some called the Inessive, Delative and Superessive (me neither).

So I got the Addressive (sorry) and decided I’d do what I call a Reconnaissance in Force. This means I use a free afternoon to turn up in person with everything I can think of that I might need or that they list (that bit of the website made some sense and there were other websites that were helpful).

Obviously I don’t actually expect to get anything done: it’s just a scouting operation, the opening moves of the Bureaucracy Game.

So I got on a bus, got off it where I could see number 59 Budafoki Ut and found out from some very helpful Hungarians using my haphazard Magyar and their school English that in fact number 60 Budafoki Ut was three bus stops away on a different bus entirely.

Ho ho! Well done, Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal! Round #1 to you. Brilliant move with a witty touch. Bloody Foreigners have to prove their stamina by actually finding the place, in the Invisible Office gambit.

Another bus ride later I got off, ironically opposite the Ujbuda Tesco’s, crossed the road and found a sign saying “Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal” which was what I had in my notebook. Optimistically ignoring the lack of annoyed foreign people around, I wandered into what looked like an entrance with an enquiries window. A grizzled old veteran, clearly still in mourning for the Soviet era, scowled at me when I apologised for only speaking a little bit of Hungarian. He shouted “Zarva! Zarva!” at me which even I knew meant it was closed.

Of course it was! Grizzled Old Soviet bloke was right to be highly annoyed by my ignorance.Everybody (except Bloody Foreigners) knows that the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal is only open in the mornings on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, only in the afternoon on Tuesdays and not open at all (except to students) on Wednesday. It was a Friday afternoon – what kind of madness made me think I could come in and Do Bureaucracy?

And Round #2 to the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal. Another stunning use of the Random Opening Hours gambit!

My feeble riposte was to let my fragmentary Magyarul get more British by the second and take my time noting down the opening times which interfered with his enjoyment of his book. I annoyed him even more when I asked brightly (in Magyarul) if there would be anyone there on Monday who could speak English? There would be, apparently, if I understood Grizzled Old Soviet bloke correctly as he waved his arms and told me that they speak any language at all. Probably not Qechua or Glaswegian, I thought.

I have to admit that I didn’t do too well in my Reccy in Force. Never mind, I thought, there’s Round #3 next week when I have a free afternoon which remarkably coincides with the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal’s opening time: Tuesday (Kedd) one pm to six pm. We’ll see, I thought.