Radio Waves

THERE WAS an iconic moment in  twentieth century history. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Here’s Radio Rákóczi. “This is Hungary calling. This is Hungary calling. The last remaining station. Call to the United Nations. Early this morning Soviet troops launched a general attack on Hungary. We are requesting you to send us immediate aid.” But the aid never came. Nothing came. The West was busy with the Suez Crisis, and Khruschev was free to send in his tanks and brutally suppress the revolt against Moscow. After that there were no more revolutions, and Hungary remained a satellite communist state – until 1989.

I was barely a month old, when the Uprising happened in November 1956. My friend István was seven. He lived with his parents in Miskolc, in the North East of the country. So, whilst my parents heard the desperate radio broadcasts from Hungary in the safety of a small English town – István’s parents heard them pouring out of a sturdy transistor, in a kind of Hungarian hell: his mother holding him tightly against the thickest wall of the flat, beside the window, as the shootings and the lynchings began. He still has that radio (you can see its picture here) – a solid relic of revolution, which sits, mutely now, on a small table in his Budapest flat. Lest he forget.

I first went to Hungary in 1988. (See Walking Back Home1). My Hungarian editor and friend Ria – Marike – had moved back from London to her home country, to work as a dramaturg in the South East of Hungary, at the brilliant Csiky Gergely Theatre in Kaposvár. A kind of mini defection-in-reverse. She was very cool. She invited me over, in the dead of winter, January 1988. The snow was thick on the ground. Icicles hung from the trees. The country was foggy, moody, hidden from view. Everything was deeply intriguing, from the incomprehensible language, to the tribal pride, the poetry and music, and carefully preserved customs, food, folklore. I loved it instantly, and went back several times, throughout 1988 and 1989. I worked as a movement coach in two theatres, but mainly was just hanging out with the actors, breathing in a very different air.

It wasn’t so easy, going back and forth. Visas had to be queued for. Reports to the police – as a foreign alien – were regularly required. But I always felt protected and safe. I had the arrogance of youth – and possessed the undoubted talisman of power and freedom: a British passport.

István became one of my closest friends, and still is. We never spoke of 1956, until a couple of years ago, when I asked him all about his youth, and mentioned the Uprising, and the unforgettable SOS broadcasts to the West – heard but never answered. It was then that he pointed to his parents’ old radio, an artefact I’d never noticed till that moment, but a permanent fixture, on a little side table next to his telephone. “We heard them too,” he said, “on that radio.”

In a calm, dispassionate voice, he spoke of his seven year old’s memories, then: of Miskolc in revolution; of men running in the street; of a man climbing to the top of a tall building to topple a Red Star, the people below him clenching their fists in support and shouting, shouting, shouting.

This was before the tanks arrived, pouring across the border from the Ukraine. And then the killing began. “I remember a huge hole in a building in the the main street – a tank went right through it…I remember people hanging from lamp posts… We heard machine guns, there was shooting, and we saw people running along the bank of the River Szinva. The little river in Miskolc was important for the town’s iron works, and the river always ran red.” Never more so than in that distant November.

It was all, said István, “strange and exciting” to the barely comprehending mind of a seven year old boy. His words made my blood run cold. How different our lives were, like two people from distant planets – now so close, such friends. And some old memory stirred in me, too. My father used to talk, when I was a child, about colleagues of his, at the college where he taught: idealistic left wingers, full of the zeal of revolution – tucked inside the safety of our sleepy, leafy Essex suburban town. One of his friends, a glamorous, charismatic figure, was a Communist Party member. “But he came out in 1956”, my father told me. “He couldn’t stomach what happened then”. A revolution betrayed.

The Hungarian politician in charge during the ill-fated Uprising, was a mild-mannered reforming communist called Imre Nagy, who looked more like a bank clerk than a party leader. He was there by popular demand. But the changes he wanted to implicate were too liberal for Moscow, and he was removed, put on show trial, and later summarily executed and thrown in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Budapest.

In June 1989 – just as a new kind of revolution was dawning in Hungary, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only months away – there was a huge ceremonial “re-burying” with honours of Imre Nagy, in Budapest’s enormous Heroes Square. Thousands upon thousands of Hungarians gathered to celebrate a new beginning, with a massive sense of sorrow, of hope, and of collective celebration. I was there too, wandering in and out of scenes so vivid and emotional, it was impossible to grasp the enormity of what was happening: but I was happy to be a witness to it, all the same.

“Freedom” has proved a poison chalice for Hungary in many ways, over the past 25 years. The government now is openly right wing. There is a powerful far-right Jobbik faction too, that disseminates a stream of anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-intelligentsia invective. As in the rest of Europe, the liberal voice is being shushed. We simply have to wait for it to get louder and freer again, to trust that it will.

As for me, the resonance of Hungary, this tiny,tiny country, continues to sound, deep in my heart. Maybe it’s because I was born in 1956 – because I remember fragments of things my father told me, of a politics I could hardly decipher, but which somehow struck a chord… Or maybe it’s just that I have always felt at home in that foreign place, loved by the people I meet there, defended by their intelligence, their warmth, and their deep ability to survive. And there it stands still: that old, squat radio on István’s table – silent witness to so much that has gone before. To everything.

There is a wonderful, though harrowing museum, which documents much of the troubled twentieth century history of Hungary on Andrássy Út, Budapest:


Broad Beans

IT IS the last day of spring and – with the 1st of June tomorrow – the theoretical dawn of summer. But you would not think so, if you stepped out into my Leeds garden today, with its cool, unfriendly breezes, and if you saw the array of plants, giant poppies chief among them, who are steadfastly refusing to pop their swelling buds, because it’s just not warm or sunny enough. After the colourful heat of early April, with its dizzying display of spring blooms (now finished), this is a mighty disappointment. But I have a single consolation: the broad beans. There they sit, in a mouldy old grow bag, by the back door. All sprightly green, with pretty white flowers, and a single, bold, black eye at their heart. Even though they are placed right in the pathway of the wind, as it comes bowling down my narrow driveway from the road, they are utterly undaunted: every time a gust pushes them over, up they bounce again, jaunty as you like, hardly a leaf or flower head out of place. Indomitable. That’s the spirit.

For seven years, from 2003 to 2010, I kept an allotment – a patch of wild, weed-infested clay – hidden behind an unprepossessing row of council flats in a downtrodden part of North East Leeds. Despite its unpromising location: it was a little piece of paradise. (Apart from the politics of The Allotment Committee, which were a nightmare. But isn’t that always the case?Where two people and a clipboard are gathered together…)

I took on my plot in direct response to a crisis in my life – the terminal cancer and death of my husband Tim. When you are a long-term carer – as I was, for ten years – you are in a strange kind of isolation from the rest of humanity. There is “normal” life: and then there is the prison that serious illness creates – a prison of the body, a prison of the mind.

I started digging my allotment because I honestly did not know what else to do. Turning the earth, making things grow, being outside, gave me a primitive sense of purpose and renewal. Amidst all that dying – a feeling of being alive.

But the truth is that I was never much good at growing vegetables. My overgrown piece of land was colourful and pleasing, certainly – full of rampant flowers, a tiny, fecund pond, and an old glorious shed. But productive? Feed the family? Avoid ever having to darken Tesco’s doors again, for fresh fruit and veg? Not exactly.

Oh, I made lots of charts about crop rotation, about the particular needs of the cauliflower, the potato and the pea, and I set about with netting, twiggy pea sticks and bamboo stakes as if my life depended on it. But honestly? I never really got the hang of it, and I never really cared. That little plot of land saved my sanity, restored my health and strength, and for that I will always be grateful.

In the end, I gave it up for the same reason I began: grief, loss and change. In 2010 my darling dad died, and I lost all heart for growing things for quite a while. I turned my back on the garden that had once restored me, and found solace in other places entirely – re-discovering my love of languages, travelling back to Eastern Europe as I had done in my youth, enjoying the city, and the company of others, with the same zeal I had once felt for being alone with my trusty trowel and spade.

But things go in circles – they have rhythms of their own – like the sea and the tides and the seasons themselves. Since I have been ill myself, over the last year or so, the urge to dash off to bright lights and foreign cities has ebbed away. At least for now. I find pleasure, once more, in the  immediate wonder of the natural world around me: in the cheerful broad beans right outside my back door.

Actually, the one crop I did have unfailing success with, whenever I popped their seeds in the ground, was the bean. It was my father’s favourite vegetable – mine too, I believe – with its curious velvety texture, its delicate, sophisticated taste. So I am delighted to see these beauties appear for me now. A message of resilience. Of memory, and of hope. (And of a damn good broad bean risotto, just waiting to be cooked…)

Read more about my allotment in ‘A Handful of Earth’ published by John Murray in 2007, and still widely available online.

Riot in the garden

Happiness is… Forgetting to tend the garden, and letting it, well, bloom. Peony profusion, and so much else. Happy May Bank Holiday. Which I shall spend, variously, reading, drinking white wine, staring at flowers – and then, off into space. Join me, in the quest for a more peaceful and indolent world.

My book A Handful of Earth (John Murray) explores this notion more thoroughly. How the garden heals us…

Walking Back Home 3

There is something almost obscene about a rhododendron in full flower. With their massive blooms and brash, bright colours, they come on like some brassy, bosomy madam – only too eager to share their fulsome wares with anyone who’s around. It took a while for me to love them, as a gardener with a preference for the softer, more muted members of the garden family: but I do love them now. They are so…unabashed. So frankly loud. So gorgeously vulgar.

My walk this week, with two singing friends, Mary and Eileen, was in the grounds of Temple Newsam in East Leeds, a fantastic 1500 acre estate in East Leeds, which was first owned in 1520 by Lord Darcy, but is now in the gift of Leeds City Council. Power to the people – even if it took 400 years!  There is everything to enchant here, really, with the elegant Tudor buildings, a little farm for the children, walled gardens, a lake, and beyond that, miles and miles of rambling woodland. Also, most importantly, there is a tea room.

Since ‘walking back home’ is all about gaining strength and good humour, in recovery from a debilitating anaemia, I am not very interested in long hikes: at least, not yet. I still struggle with muscle aches – and the recent agonising addition of a Frozen Shoulder – which are all legacy of last year’s illness – and so short bursts of fresh air suit me better than the demanding rigours of “proper walking”.

Consequently we didn’t go far. We ambled. We took our time. Much like the cattle, and new calves, who came forward to meet us and say a lazy hello, after lifting their heads from their grazing, on the broad sweeping uplands in front of  the main house. The newborn of spring – birds, lambs, calves – are everywhere right now. And they bring a lift to the heart: all shiny, new and guileless. An absolute poem to the new and the hopeful in life.

Anyway, the undisputed stars today were certainly in evidence, by the walled garden, through towards the woods, and down by the lake. Rhododendrons. In all their gaudy glory. Shocking pink, sherbet orange, deep vermilion, thick, painterly white – with huge blossoms, and fat, gnarled branches and trunks, showing the strength and tenacity that supports all that technicolour showing off. (The picture I’ve included is of one of the quieter specimens, for sure.) All rhododendrons love the acid soil of Leeds, and are popping up in gardens – and in wilder spaces like Temple Newsam, Meanwood, the Hollies – with absolute gay abandon now. Go see them, if you are anywhere near. And take your sunglasses. You’ll need protection.

Here’s a longer feature from me on Temple Newsam, written a few years back –  exploring the wilder edges of the estate:

P.S. Apparently the rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal. Given the horror of their recent earthquakes, how much those people are in need of flowers: and of huge amounts of aid, and of healing. I dedicate this little post to them. 

Curious Lamb

Here is a very short post with a picture of a very plump lamb…One of the lovely sheep I mentioned in my previous spring post, Walking Back Home 2, about the creatures at Bolton Abbey. This little black-faced character was the most curious of all the curious beasts, stopping mid-munch, to step boldly forward and look us straight in the eye. He is a very pleasing fellow. And if he is a girl – then she pleases me even more! Be bloody, bold and resolute, young creature. Look at life with a steady gaze, while it is still in your gift.

My book ‘Old Dog’ (Simon and Schuster) is about another lovely beast, a little scamp of a dog called Muffin. She was curious about everything too…But she never chased a sheep in her life, honest!