Monday 17 July 2017

Acceptance Speech of UEA Honorary Doctorate 17 July 2017

Thank you very much indeed, Chris Bigsby.* Thank you the University of East Anglia. I am enormously honoured and astounded. To pick up a theme from Chris, this is indeed a time of refugees, though the climate of reception has changed since my family came here. Let me say a word about my own time as a refugee.

When we arrived in England in the December of 1956 the authorities placed us, along with a lot of other Hungarian refugees, in off-season boarding houses on the Kent coast. Hundreds, maybe thousands of us, were being accommodated in such places elsewhere. It was in the depth of winter, cold and dull, but we could take walks along the prom and gaze at the sea, a great alien body of water the like of which none of us had seen before. It was as grey as everything else around us at that time but its noise was denser, a hiss, a low growl and a sort of clattering surge that served as both threat and safeguard. It was tangible, almost solid. If we wrapped up well and kept watching we would finish up tasting of salt. Our fingers had a clear salty taste. And as the year moved towards spring and colours brightened we got sharp salty winds and moved through what we began to think of as salty light.

The sea, the light, the taste of salt, are primal experiences, a kind of poetry written on the bone. Everyone understands poetry in that form. For most of us it is, as W H Auden put it in his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats, a way of happening, or what Finn McCool in Irish legend decides is the music of what happens. It is the way someone steps out through a door, the way something lies on the table, the way light moves, the way something extremely minute makes sense by being itself yet being other and more. It is usually concentrated into a moment and my guess is that we desire such moments more than we desire money or fame or even what we call happiness. Such moments are what move us from routine into possibility. We live for the poetry in them and can’t really live without them. We want the other stuff that jobs and careers bring us and offer to society, and - of course - they too contain such moments. But we need the poetry of being to bring the world round to us and to make life worth while..

For a writer, it is more specific. It is sea, light and salt as they meet language. It is the way words strike each other and form something beyond themselves. It is not lyrical speech or a pretty way of saying something plain. It is language that is compelling in its own way, however simple or difficult, however direct or ironic. It is complexity coming to a shape, becoming a process that reads as meaning. It is all the terrible and beautiful things we fear, know, hope, and imagine assuming a comprehensible shape in words. 
 I don’t want to speak in grand rhetorical terms but I feel this is true. If we don’t believe something like this why do it? Why engage with it?

Well, we do engage with it. I started at seventeen knowing practically nothing and I don’t claim to know much more now.  What I do know is that I am deeply privileged to be honoured in a way I never expected. For me it is moving and rather astonishing. Thank you for the great honour. Thank you for astonishing me.

As for refugees they are, as we were, like leaves blown off a tree, drifting where the wind or sea takes them. But not just leaves. Leaves wither and die and return to earth. Refugees, migrants of all sorts, are also seeds of new growth and always have been. Few of us present here now live in the places where we were born. We too drift and seed. On good soil with a little tending we become part of the landscape. That is our history, our present and, with luck, our future.

*The oration was by Professor Christopher Bigsby