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"In Budapest ...You could - I did - put your fingers in the bullet holes...

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

... like Doubting Thomas who put his fingers in the wounds of Christ."

Hungarian-born, British author and poet George Szirtes recalls his visits to Budapest during the 1980s that culminated in that year of monumental change – 1989.

Photo: George Szirtes in Budapest in 1989 - "trying to draw something"

Introduction: My recollections of the reburial of Imre Nagy and other Magyar patriots executed after the 1956 Uprising (published on 16 June) spurred George Szirtes to send me some of his own memories of that day and those, in turn spurred me to ask George to write a Guest Post (or two) on how he experienced the changes during his intermittent visits in those days.

George was eight years old when his parents whisked him over the border as they fled their homeland in the wake of the failed Uprising, eventually settling in a London still recovering from World War 2. Since then, he has pursued an accomplished career as poet, author and translator, earning a long list of awards for his works.

He now lives in Norfolk, in East Anglia, with his artist wife Clarrisa.

This is his page on Wikipedia:

George and I have never actually met other than over the internet. We were introduced by a common friend. George, let us hope we may rectify this sooner, rather than later. A great privilege to have you in here.

“Five months that somehow turned into close to nine”

1989 was my sixth return visit to Hungary in as many years. 1984 was the first. It was funded by the Arts Council and lasted only three weeks but was to have a momentous effect on my life and career in terms of writing and translation.

Annual visits followed, not just for me but for my artist wife, Clarissa and our – then - young children, Tom and Helen, mostly at our own expense, with three exceptions. In 1985, 1987 and 1989 I was there as a British Council Scholar: the first two times for three months, and the third for five months that somehow turned into close to nine. The first two were under a world order that was drastically to change in the course of the third. My family had left as refugees in 1956 and did not think they would – or could – ever go back. They did, however, do so in 1968, just at the worst time, since the invasion of Czechoslovakia happened precisely half way through our planned stay and we had to get out. I was just nineteen and might – or so my parents thought – have been called up into the Hungarian army. We had driven there; now we had hastily to drive back out. My ambition to be a poet – in English only since my childhood Hungarian was all but forgotten - was already clear to me but I was fresh out of school and had done nothing. The failed revolution of 1956 did wipe away the old-style Stalinist government but was replaced by an almost equally hard line and equally Moscow-backed government led by János Kádár. Kádár was still in charge in 1984. He had cleverly manoeuvred Hungary into a unique position so that, putting aside the odd crackdown (as followed 1968 for instance) Hungary had become what some called ‘the happiest barracks in the Soviet camp’. This relatively liberal position was achieved through 'Goulash Communism', that is to say by allowing for higher living standards and an apparently much more flexible way of using the party-state’s absolute power. There was heavy foreign debt, there was a semi-official black market, and there were winks and nods in business and culture. There was, of course, Russian occupation too, but not too much in the public’s face. That was the Hungary I returned to in 1984. The cynical and half-admiring image of a Hungarian then was of someone who entered revolving doors behind you but came out in front of you. I think Hungarians liked to believe that themselves. Yes, there were taboo subjects and taboo activities but the unspoken rule seemed to be do what you like but not in front of the children. I had fallen in love with Budapest in 1984, as had Clarissa. Budapest became her subject over the next twenty-years and more. Budapest is easy to fall in love with, and especially back then. It oozed a battered but romantic nineteenth century charm: all that wounded grandeur, all those bullet and shell-scarred buildings, all that relief statuary with their missing heads and limbs still clinging to the pock marked walls. You could – and I did – put your fingers in the bullet holes like doubting Thomas who put his fingers in the wounds of Christ. Yes this did really happen to the city and yet it is alive. We arrived in January 1989. Kádár was gone, pushed out against his will in 1988 by the rest of the Politbureau, to be replaced by a man whom no one now remembers, Károly Grósz. Kádár, it was said, roamed around his villa in Buda, raving and raging, and would sometimes still turn up at party HQ babbling nonsense. Whether that is true or not, the fact was that the man in charge of the country for thirty-two years was no longer there. The attic flat where we were to stay in central Pest, belonged to a leading dissident, Miklós Haraszti. I had read a couple of books by him – A Worker in a Worker’s State, which he wrote in his youth, and The Velvet Prison, a later book exploring how Goulash Communism maintained its grip on power through self-censorship. I knew the books but had never met him. It was a poet friend who had arranged for us to live there at the cost of merely paying the bills. This was not an uncommon arrangement then.

Clarissa and I were alone – the children would join us later – when we rang the bell to pick up the keys from Haraszti’s ex-wife, Vera, who lived in the flat next door. Vera, an economist, hastily handed us the keys and apologised for not showing us around because she was watching a debate in parliament. But no one watches debates in parliament, we thought. Parliament was simply a rubber stamp on policies decided by the party headquarters in the ‘White House’ further along the Danube embankment. But this was different. For the first time since 1948 somebody was asking a real question that required a real answer. It was a very politely phrased question but it was a question. The effect was almost shocking. The very idea of it frightened people. Was this the beginning of another 1956? What would the Russians do? That apprehension was to continue hovering over the country right through the year. But who were the Russians? Mikhail Gorbachev had been General Secretary of the Party since 1985 and he was a man of a different stamp to his predecessors. How different was hard to say. How different could the General Secretary of the Soviet Union actually be? There was glasnost, of course, and perestroika. And there had been the Geneva Summit meeting with Ronald Reagan of November 1985, about which I had written a rather Audenesque poem we used for that year’s Christmas card.

1985: A Year of Wonders

Above the silver lake the world’s breath froze –

two overcoats shook sleeves and doffed their hats.

A classical façade distressed itself

with niceties of diplomatic prose.

Spontaneous displays of happiness

accompanied the great event – a band

exploded into music and a child

spoke clean bright phrases in a muddy dress.

The horizontal dead sat bolt upright

to hear the conversations of the living.

Black shiny cars flashed momently with smiles

and stodgy bodyguards got mildly tight.

There was, in other words, a sense that something momentous was happening, or might happen, if only in terms of the nuclear arms race, but the nations of the Soviet empire were wary. They had seen something like this before with Dubcek, with Imre Nagy and with Gomulka and it always ended badly. Besides, the heads of the Warsaw Pact states were themselves hard-liners. Kádár’s Hungary was a liberal exception. ‘Little America’ some people called it. Hungary could count itself lucky. Well, luck doesn’t last for ever. Sooner or later it runs out, and Hungarians were well accustomed to luck running out sooner rather than later. The nation had won the odd intoxicating battle but had not won a war since 1526 and had suffered Ottoman occupation for 150 years, followed by the Habsburgs. That came to a bloody climax in 1848, followed by more repression until, the Compromise of 1867 that established the Austro-Hungarian Empire, nostalgia for which had lasted into the present day. The empire was ended abruptly by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 following the disastrous Great War and which, in turn, led to the Horthy period 1920-1944 (which, as it transpired, was regarded with nostalgia by many on the hidden Hungarian right), then by a few brief savage months of native Nazi rule, followed by Stalinist communism that led to revolution that led to…. Trouble leads to more trouble and it always ends in tears. Hungary was an angry, nervous, fearful country putting on a jolly Happy-Barracks face, enjoying a worldly-wise streak and drowning its sorrows in drink. So that is where 1989 began.

To be continued.

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