Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Budapest just before the end of Communism

In October 1983 I went as a reporter to the Gymnastics world championships in Budapest. The first thing the guidebook told me was, “There is no such thing as a Hungarian race”. Hungary is a land right on a busy crossroads, and its history consists of an endless series of invasions, about one every other century: Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Avars, Magyars (who gave the country its incomprehensible language, completely unlike any other in Europe), Turks and Germans, and even obscure and forgotten peoples like Alans and Gepids, all of whom seem to have left something behind. The people you see on the metro, speaking Hungarian, range in appearance all the way from Germans to Turks. More recently, Russian armies have invaded three times; once at the end of the Second World War, and twice, in 1849 and 1956, to crush revolts. After the first World War there was famine and a violent communist revolution that was soon crushed by a violent counter-revolution. There was a large Jewish population until 1944, when the Nazis shipped them all to Auschwitz, deeming this a better use of dwindling resources than fighting the Red Army which had already reached the Carpathian mountains. Soon after this last fling of the Holocaust, Hungary was occupied by the Red Army and a communist regime was forcibly imposed. In 1956 Khrushchev sent the Red Army in again, to crush the government of the reformist communist Imre Nagy: an invasion paralleling the invasion of Tsarist troops in 1849 which crushed Kossuth’s rebel government. It is all very different from the history of Britain, tucked away behind its barrier of sea on the extreme fringe of Europe and seldom attacked.

I got a press pass for the gymnastics very easily, since hardly any British journalists could be bothered to cover the event. The entire British contingent, gymnasts, journalists and supporters, were lodged together in the Buda Penta hotel; a fairly lavish and new affair just behind Castle Hill, in the centre of old Buda on the west bank of the Danube. Rather to my disappointment, it wasn’t on Attila Street. As well as being close to the interesting areas of the city, it was next door to the last stop on the metro line which led direct to the Nepstadion, where the tournament was being held, so it was impossible to get lost.
I was given a press dog-tag, complete with photo, which got me into most places, a presentation bag of various small gifts, and a stack of information sheets prominently labelled “propaganda”. By the end I had an enormous accumulation of press handouts, and had to leave most of them behind, since they would have filled my suitcase. The British press contingent was extremely small; limited in fact to me, Frank Taylor of the “Mirror”, a couple from the BBC, and John Taylor (the former Welsh rugby star) for ITV; which corporation had decided at the last minute not to screen the event, but let him go along anyway, with several hundred pounds’ worth of expenses and nothing to do. This extreme British apathy towards the event was presumably the reason I got my press pass so readily. Frank Taylor told us some interesting stories, notably how he had been in the plane crash in Munich in February 1958 which killed half of the Manchester United football team: Frank survived at the cost of a badly smashed leg. In the press room I was surprised to find journalists reduced to one-finger typing, interspersed with curses as they ripped out sheets of paper and screwed them up in disgust. When I looked closer I discovered the reason: Hungarian typrewriters did not have the classic "qwerty" keyboard; there was a Z in the middle of the top row, and lots of extra keys for the numerous accents which the Hungarian language carries on its vowels.

The Hungarians had gone to great lengths to impress. Apart from all the deluges of printed information, lunches for journalists cost under £1, drinks were very cheap, and there were frequent handouts of local wine and fruit juice. The biggest press event was a reception at the university on Saturday morning: over 300 journalists had been invited, but only about 80 turned up, and there were huge mounds of well-presented food left uneaten. Our hotel arrangements were only Bed & Breakfast, but the breakfasts were so vast that we filled up plastic bags with food for consumption during the day. With this and the meals on offer at the stadium, I never got around to trying the local restaurants, which were supposed to be very good. John Taylor told me that on arrival he attempted to change £300 at the airport, but the girl at the desk simply laughed at him and said he would never be able to spend all those forints – which indeed he couldn’t. Prices were so low that I found it difficult to spend more than a pound a day, and there was a complete absence of Russian-style foreign currency shops. Overall, Hungary seemed a good place for a cheap holiday

What emerged very strongly from the gymnastics tournament was how very much all the Eastern Europeans hated the Russians. Over 90% of the audience were desperate for the Chinese to defeat the Russians, and made their feelings felt very loudly. It was the noisiest gymnastics event I have ever attended. It all reached a climax on Sunday morning when we all felt one of the Chinese had been robbed of the gold medal on Rings by bad judging, and there was an anti-Russian jeering campaign lasting a good twenty minutes. The Chinese coach was wildly cheered when he put in a protest, and howls of execration greeted Boris Shakhlin, the chief judge who was also unfortunately chosen to present the medals. The lights were then turned down for the Soviet national anthem, which was almost drowned in a storm of jeers and whistles. No doubt the Hungarians had been longing for years for an opportunity to do this with impunity, and they could now blame it on the ill-mannered western tourists.

Budapest was a very easy city to explore. The entire British contingent, gymnasts, journalists and supporters, were lodged together in the Buda Penta hotel; a fairly lavish and new affair just behind Castle Hill, the centre of old Buda. Rather to my disappointment, it wasn’t on Attila Street. As well as being close to the interesting areas, it was next door to the last stop on the metro line which led direct to the Nepstadion, where the tournament was being held, so it was impossible to get lost. The metro system, besides being very simple by London standards, cost only one forint to use (less than 2 pence: and many of the locals didn’t even pay that, but simply went in through the exit. The first time I used it I followed them, and then it occurred to me that surely I ought to be paying something to use the system!); and anyway many of the places to see could be reached on foot from the hotel. The city is in two parts: Buda (the Roman Aquinium), built on a series of hills on the west bank of the Danube, and containing most of the older buildings; and Pest, on the flatter east bank, with the main shopping areas around Vaci Street and Engels Square. The best views are from the Citadel, on the next hill to the south of the centre, particularly from by the huge statue of St. Gerald. I found a rather battered Roman arena in the north of Buda, and a museum in the old palace on Castle Hill which contained a great deal of Roman material, much of it better than any Roman remains in Britain. The Danube frontier was, after all, much more important than Hadrian’s Wall. There was an even better museum in Kalvin Square, with an astonishing collection of relics of the various invaders, and also the Hungarian crown jewels, in a glass case under armed guard. The cross on top of the enamelled Crown of St. Stephen appeared to have got squashed at some stage. I also found, in another part of the old castle, a Museum of the Hungarian Working Class, which I didn’t visit, and the Hungarian National Gallery, which featured lurid 16th- century altarpieces and wildly patriotic paintings of the last century (“Prince Hunyadi defies the Turks”; 20ft x 13; etc.). Whilst wandering round the city I found a genuine Turkish bath under its dome.

Probably because of all those invasions, Budapest hardly looks an ancient city. Much of it was destroyed in 1945, and there are very few old buildings left. Even the places which look old, such as St. Matyas cathedral on Castle Hill, and the nearby Uri and Fortuna Streets often prove to be reconstructions. The existing bridges are all postwar. It is still very pleasant. From Castle Hill you can wander along the surrealist pseudo-mediaeval Fisherman’s Bastion (a long way above the river!) and look north to the parks on St. Margaret’s Island, or across to the huge bulk of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the peculiar 19th century Parliament Building, which has the only Gothic dome in the world. But really the most notable thing about Budapest was that it wasn’t in the least like Moscow. The atmosphere was much more reminiscent of Paris. The people looked very westernised in their dress, the shops and markets were well-stocked and prices very cheap. There were many advertising posters, but a complete lack of exhortations to fulfil the 14th Five Year Plan, and I could find no photos of the national leadership anywhere. The cinema was offering “Jezsusz Chriszt Szupersztar”, and local bookshops featured the whole gamut of Western culture from Wittgenstein to John Lennon. I am not sure which of these caused Vladislav Rostorotsky, the world’s greatest gymnastics coach, to be found early in the morning waiting for the main bookshop on Vaci Street to open, and then to load up his trolley: presumably with books not available back in the U.S.S.R.

All-in-all, Budapest was quite different from my previous experience of communist capital cities. The sudden and bloodless collapse of communism in eastern Europe was only six years away, though I foresaw this sensational development no more than anyone else did.

Postscript: Some years later I met a Hungarian who had escaped as a teenager in 1956 and had lived in Britain ever since; unable to return to his homeland until after the communist regime fell. In the course of conversation he suddenly told me, “You know, I still get angry thinking about the Treaty of Trianon”. This was one of the treaties signed in 1919, after the First World War. Amongst other clauses, it gave Transylvania to the Romanians, much to the resentment of the region’s Hungarian minority. Once again, we in Britain have no equivalent grudge.

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