Monday, 26 May 2014
Budapest 4: cellar / university / monastery
The days have rushed by without a chance to sit down and write so I am catching up.
The day after the inaugural speech I had been asked for an interview on podcast for a small station with very limited audience, but I had been in touch with the man who asked me and we shared some views on Hungary. So Clarissa and I went along to the do the recording in one of the poorer parts of the city and were shown into a cellar by our host who was soon joined by his colleague from the Central European University.The conversation, for a series titled Perspectives on Hungary, lasted about an hour and a half. Poetry was no part of it: translation was discussed but the talk ran chiefly on history, politics and social circumstances. There was much to say and we got on without repetition. Half way through a poor unemployed man in his fifties or so popped in to ask whether this was the soup kitchen. It was, but not today, said our host. Outside, the hard worn faces, the crippled, the coping, the neglected and the frustrated among whom the seeds of resentment are first sown to be brought to flower by the dissatisfied lower middle classes. I mentioned the numbers of limbless in the city on Twitter and was told that Hungary's record of amputations is twice that of western Europe and is the result of untreated diabetes. I'll link to the podcast once I have a link. I am always curious whether I have said anything stupid or regrettable but I don't think so on this occasion. We will see.
From the cellar to the university to meet an old friend, a prominent poet and literary scholar, who is teaching there. He took us to his office. See anything missing? he asked. There was no computer. There is in fact just one computer between some sixteen staff and one photocopier for the faculty. The government has cut university support by a third. And this university is the finest and most prestigious in the country and internationally. Students have to buy more books. Meanwhile, in order to save more money, the university introduced compulsory early retirement for senior staff. Support for the far right Jobbik is particularly strong among the student-age group and is so among the university's students, that is if they are interested in politics at all. The students union is run by Jobbik and has been for some years. Our friend loves teaching and divulges all this in small snippets with a rueful smile. It is not a litany of complaint or frustration bursting its banks. It is just the way things are.
We have one more meeting in a nearby cafe with a younger poet with whom I exchange books, then we go out for a meal. Our English guests have spent the day visiting Esztergom. Disappointed by behaviour in the cathedral they find the town poor and are surprised, or so we discover the next day when we sit down for a goodbye lunch with them at a nearby street corner restaurant. I will be fascinated to hear their impressions once they have had some time back. There is so much beauty in the city that rises above the noise of political developments.
After lunch we go back to their flat where they pack and wait for the shuttle bus to take them to the airport. We return to our dear hosts for a brief while before setting off to visit M, the man I consider my father-in-Hungary, who is now in his eighties and with many physical problems. He was a very important magazine editor and has become a marvellous writer in his late life. From a part-aristocratic background, he is one of the most civilised people I have ever known and is chiefly responsible for commissioning many of my poetry translations. His first greeting is: I didn't think you'd come back to this benighted country. He is more than furious with the way things have gone and are going. Like all our friends he fears the rise of a new fascism - not in the easy terms of some western student revolutionary but from the point of view of someone who actually knows what fascism was and is. An hour or so with him is enough as he tires. I love this man and will be devastated when he finally goes.
The next day we travel to the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma but I will give that a separate post.