Monday, 7 September 2015
Budapest Diary 6/7 September
I am writing this on Monday, the 7th, when we are due to leave. Our flight is quite late so the day remains. Yesterday we met, Gy, another old friend who used to be a radio journalist in the English language section of Hungarian radio back in the previous dispensation, in the eighties. She lost her job in the changes chiefly as a result of political pressure. The media in Hungary are always being seized by whatever government happens to be in charge though Fidesz has exceeded previous post-1989 norms not so much by direct take-over but by shifting money, licences and permits around so much that its people are in charge of all the most prominent radio, TV and newspaper organisations.
Our journalist friend does voluntary work now. She helps to feed the hungry of the VIIIth district, one of the poorest in Budapest. Her group is responsible for twenty-five families, some Roma, some just very poor. In fact she has just finished her shift. I know the district. The grand old buildings are rotten, the streets are like Skid Row. Some streets and squares here are distinctly underclass territory.
Over a light lunch by the Corvin cinema (a great centre of armed resistance in the 1956 revolution and well marked as such) she tells us that some four and half million people in the country are under the poverty line. That is almost half the population. Other estimates might vary but the government has banned research into poverty so it's hard to know. Gy is very apprehensive about the future, particularly about the prospect of far-right Jobbik forming a government.
Knowing that we are part of a privileged, intellectual circle when we come, I continue to be curious about the Hungarian populace at large. Why would they vote for a fascist party? I ask. Jobbik is very well organised, she says. They send out volunteers to help with daily tasks in the rural areas and the smaller provincial towns. They act like scouts. Local people are not interested in politics and still less in ideology, they are simply grateful for help so they vote Jobbik. Other parties have been incapable of grasping this and have no clear leading figure. Jobbik has toned down the rhetoric without toning down the ideology. They are still a quasi-military force.
So much hatred in people, she sighs. She has seen them in the street. Ugly to look at, she says. There were the louts who set out to attack the migrants at Keleti station. And there are the respectable looking middle-aged malicious ones. But it is the young she fears, the young who are intelligent and educated, but work for Jobbik. She too feels she is surrounded by people who are sympathetic to her own views, so she feels alienated from the potential Jobbik voter. The average Hungarian, says Gy, is mildly anti-Semitic but that latent anti-Semitism and anti-Roma feeling is there to be exploited.
And Fidesz does this too, she says. Orbán's talk of Islamic hordes swarming through Hungary to take over Christendom is a story that plays well in a country that had a century and a half of Ottoman occupation and feels itself isolated and vulnerable. Both Fidesz and Jobbik rely on raising fears they can then claim to address. Orbán won't care that liberal Europe loathes him: he glories in it. He could turn to Putin for help and Putin might give it, not because of any sentimentality towards Hungarians but because it might help him extend his power base. The irony is that the Hungarian state makes far more of Russian tyranny than it does of the German in its official House of Terror.
It demonstrates how confusing modern geopolitics is. Left and Right are interchangeable on some issues and diametrically opposed on others. I wouldn't be the first to suggest that in the contemporary world ideology is a post-modern parlour game, a way of seizing, maintaining and directing power. I wouldn't be the first either to suggest that our emotions are intense but thin, our talk is of humanity but our tempers are frayed and ever ready to scream blue murder. We are natural prey for demagogues and quick-fix radicalism.
What would Gy do if Jobbik took over? Where could she go? She is seventy years old and alone. She is a EU citizen until Hungary decides to leave the EU. But how could she afford to move? Her English is excellent. She has no Swedish. Perhaps there will be Hungarian refugees flowing across the borders again. And indeed there may be as many as 700,000 Hungarians abroad right now, young, intelligent, highly-trained people, who may decide not to return.
In the evening we return to our closest and dearest friends and go for a meal at a favourite Buda restaurant, the Szép Ilona (La Belle Helene). It is pretty full and we spot of a couple of diplomats and politicians among the diners. We are soon joined by J, the poet Ottó Orbán's widow. She is in her eighties now but is always out at exhibition openings, and theatre and cinema premieres. She goes to every event she can. She has just returned from a Joyce and Yeats tour of Ireland led by a mutual acquaintance, a retired Hungarian scholar. Though her voice is quieter than it was - it can be hard to hear her - she is absolutely full of life. Her attitude is that if you leave life, life leaves you.
Today the temperature is more like England. We are under 20C for the first time. A nice day for flying home. Meanwhile the refugee crisis goes on. Nothing is 'solved'. Temporary measures are everything. The old empires continue to fall and reassemble themselves over the bodies of the dead and fleeing.