|Andrew and I photographed and hand-coloured by my mother, Magdalena Nussbächer-Szirtes|
There is a rather beautiful Hungarian word, szélhámos, meaning literally harnesser of wind, or stripper of the wind, but, according to the dictionary meaning, conman or fake or fraud or simply rogue. That, ladies and gentleman, is how I feel standing before you: a harnesser of wind, a wind-stripper, a fraud. But not, I hope, a purveyor of wind, a windy speaker.
Hungarian is an isolated language, marooned among greater blocs of Slavic, Teutonic, and Romance. Its splendid isolation is due to its out-of-place Finno-Ugrian roots that relate it, only vaguely, to Finnish and Estonian, the whole tribe, or group of tribes, having – according to the standard theory – migrated out of Central Asia over the eight and ninth centuries AD to settle, in the Hungarian or Magyar case, in the Carpathian Basin in, according to conventional dating, the year 896; an occupation or land grab celebrated in its millennium year, 1896.
Countries in that part of the world – particularly the landlocked ones - behave like amoeba in geographical terms. They shrink, expand, put out arms and shrink back. Sometimes they are sliced into pieces but, miraculously, join up again though not necessarily in the shape they had before. Sometimes they vanish altogether only to return a few decades or centuries later. This enforced shape-shifting and possible extinction breeds both great anxiety and considerable adaptability, which are the conditions I would most readily ascribe to the country where I was born and left, together with my father, mother, and younger brother in 1956 as a child refugee. As refugees we carried very little except this small toy-typewriter case containing photographs. I still keep it under my desk. Here it is. By the time we had walked, illegally, over the border into Austria on 29 November – incidentally my eighth birthday – there was little else left, other suitcases having had to be offered as payment to those local people who escorted us, together with some fifteen or sixteen other would-be refugees, across the cold and muddy fields in which, my parents told me later, I lost one shoe, arriving in Austria half-shod.
The photographs in this little case were my mother’s work. She was a photographer by training. One chest of drawers, in the Budapest flat where we lived, was filled with examples of her work. Because we left in a hurry, without warning, she simply scooped up an arbitrary batch of prints and put them into the case.
We were penniless on arrival in Austria. We had no foreign currency at all. What we had were the photographs and the charity of others, a kindness we brought with us to England a few days later, when we were granted a flight to London.
Being so rushed it wasn’t a particularly good choice of photographs; bar three or four exceptions all of them were of my family. I knew little about her work as a child of seven of course but I would like, if I may, to use that work, and she herself, as a kind of lever to prise open a bigger Hungarian box.
In order to do so I want first to conjure a childhood memory of her. We are at home, she and I. She is working at a light-box on the table. Next to her are a set of razors, a small sheet of glass, some tiny tubes of photo-oils, and a few slender brushes. The razors are what she uses to mend negatives, the paints and brushes to add colour to a black and white photograph. She reddens cheeks and lips a little. The grey hair turns brown. Clothes take on colour. It is pretty though not exactly like life. Maybe it is simply better. Jaw lines are clearer, wrinkles disappear: everything is – as I would put it now – tending towards an ideal.
[to be continued]