Monday, 9 November 2009


The ceremony beginning the reburial of Imre Nagy, 16 June 1989. As I remember I was standing just off the bottom right hand corner of the picture.

By the time the Berlin wall came down we were back in England, but from January through to September we were in Hungary - in a rather privileged position. I was British Council Scholar, originally for five months but then an extended period. We were living most of that time in the vacant flat of the sociologist and writer Miklós Haraszti who was then in the USA, as, what he called, "Dissident in Residence' at Bard College.

There is far more to say about him, the flat, the district, and when I get around to writing a proper book about life, the universe and everything - let's call it a memoir, for argument's sake - about this year and this place. Enough to say it was in central Pest, the University district, a very short walk from the Danube, as also to Vörösmarty tér, the central square where the publisher and friend for whom I was translating various things was located.

During the year we got to meet a number of the dissident leaders and became friends with the president-to-be of Hungary, the admirable Árpád Göncz, not that we had any idea he would be president then.

Day by day, week by week, the big wheels and small wheels were falling off the state to the extent that there was considerable apprehension that the whole shebang - party, state, country, people - would come to grief. Hungary was far ahead of the rest in this respect. I remember the TV interview with the Czech non-person Alexander Dubcek that could be received in Slovakia which was the subject of diplomatic protests. I remember vigils for Vaclav Havel and the great core events such as the gathering and march on 15 March and the reburial of Imre Nagy , the executed prime minister of the revolutionary government in 1956 on 16 June. I was at both these events.

There was the first mention of 1956 not as a counter-revolution but as a revolution. There was the cutting of the wire fence on the Austrian border. There was the visit of George Bush Snr, as of Michael Jackson. There was the tragic transmission from Tienanmen Square on 4 June. There were the tensions with Ceausescu's Romania. There was the constant heady edginess.

And Poland. And the keys in Prague. The wall and Christmas Eve outside the Romanian Embassy.

It seems no time, and it seems an age. I have every day's newspapers up in the attic. I have the little paper flag with the hole cut out of the centre. Possibly even the tricolour cockade.

At this distance does it seem a good thing? Were too many babies thrown out with the big bathwater?

I am absolutely certain it was a good thing. I am absolutely certain that getting misty-eyed about Stalin or about any of the central aspects of Eastern Bloc communism is being dishonest or soft in the head. There were babies in the bathwater, of course. No-one moves from evil to good in one simple step. It wasn't all evil and it certainly is not all good. But 1989 was not the exchange of a spiritual state of purity for a corrupt material state, as some would have it. The kind of social coherence created by suppression is not worth having.

Suppression is not to be welcomed. Oppression is not to be welcomed. In some ways, I preferred visiting Budapest in the eighties to visiting it now. But history is longer than twenty years. I was twenty years younger then. The world seemed a little simpler. The word 'freedom' had a solid four-square look to it. Now we tend to think some of it is smoke, and some of it is mirrors. We forget the solid part.

There was a very good BBC4 documentary on the end of the wall on Friday. I never mean to watch TV but this gripped me. It seemed fair minded to all sides but fully understood why it was good to see the wall collapse. What kind of state is it, after all, that has to wall its citizens? There remains something solid about the word 'freedom'. In some ways it is more solid than ever.

The word 'freedom' is, I think, more applicable to post-1989 than pre-1989. Complexity, after all, is one of the great freedoms, possibly the greatest.

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