Wednesday 18 December 2019

Prayer for my Daughter

Magdalen College, Oxford

Somehow or other I succeeded in leaving this poem out of the New and Collected (2008). I did not mean to, it just went missing. Then recently, when I was in Munich, the man who had invited me, Helge, said it was this poem that I had read some  fifteen years before at Cologne, that he remembered and that other people had liked so much.

Last night I read it at LUMEN, the cold weather harity in London, and one member of the audience has written to me and asked where she could find it. The answer was, 'nowhere'. But I have found it among old files, and here it is.

It was written for our daughter, Helen, just about to go up to Oxford in 1994, the year we moved to Norfolk. It refers to the Yeats poem, of course, and quotes it too, but it refers to much else. Each time I wrote one part another part demanded to be written so in the end there were seven. It was both fun and moving to write.

Prayer for my Daughter

So here we are and here’s my stanza,
like a Clementi cadenza
a penny-plain extravaganza,

just to keep things neat but sprightly
in what might otherwise politely
decline into a straight unsightly

father-to-daughter patronising
advisory misadvising
lecture on vague points arising,

a Yeatsian prayer to admonish
characteristics too Maud Gonneish,
Fenian or Amazonish.

My stanza’s nineteenth century capers
are out of time. I read the papers
and know the new opinion shapers,

I know their loose, sincere demotic
ironies and semiotic
quiddities, but I’m Quixotic:

though windmills are as quaint as giants,
I continue in defiance
of gravity or modern science

rhyming like a man demented
dolphin torn and gong tormented
till the giants have relented.

Darling, tonight the whole horizon
closed like a lid. The traffic sighs on
rainy tarmac, men flit like flies on

jets of wind, the river fractures,
and a streetlight manufactures
a wealth of frazzled broken textures.

So beautiful: the petrol station’s
amber flatness, the quotations
of lit shopfronts, the impatience

of running clouds. The winter races
into darkness, interlaces
bodies in its breathing spaces.

You see, I want to turn this patter-
song to deeper, graver matter,
more throttle more carburettor

I want to be a souped up, solemn,
portentous father, wise as Solom-
on not just a gossip column,

someone you’ll take seriously
whose works you’ll study furiously
not discard imperiously

from some theory-laden high-rise
nor swat and squash flat, wasp- or fly-wise.
but approve, applaud and lionise.

Walking last night I sought an image
to offer you, a kind of homage
to the wind’s wild scrape and scrimmage,

and noticed how the very cheapest
vulgarisms struck the deepest:
the Woolworth lights, a buckled leaf pressed

to the pavement, a crisp packet
flying in the gust. I took it
home with me, to store and stack it

in memory, imagination,
to use it in some combination:
a poem finding its occasion.

Some quick advice? Well just a quickie:
Beware the sentimental-sticky,
Beware the choosy and the picky,

Beware all those who talk in torrents
The snobs who earned the strict abhorrence
Of poor pale sickly D.H.Lawrence,

Beware the Oxfordly superior,
Beware those with a smooth exterior,
The cynic wiser and world-wearier,

Beware the shady and the murky,
Beware the overprecious-quirky,
Beware your father talking turkey.

Out on your own. The eighteenth hurdle
safely past. The tales I’ve heard all
tend to make a man’s blood curdle,

so to the prayer (I’m feeling prayerful):
Darling be wise, be good, be careful,
be water, fire and earth and air-ful,

find images beyond the kitchen
that women used to bake and bitch in
from Halicarnassus to plain Hitchin,

may you, in darkness, be that changing
wind and light, your mind free-ranging,
sea-like, unplumbed, salt, estranging,

tender, yes, but not kid-gloving
neither too mousy, nor too shoving,
be fortunate, be loved, be loving

be all of these, be kind, far-seeing,
in short, beyond the you- and me-ing
all that befits a human being,

what human beings may be made for:
life, unearned, unknown, unpaid for,
that you were celebrated, prayed for.

Friday 13 December 2019

On the General Election 2019

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

These are not forecasts since I don't consider myself a soothsayer. They are, I would claim, reasonably founded apprehensions. I break them into three headings.

1. Public broadcasting and media

This morning Charles Moore barks at Nick Robinson. He is clearly excited. He is telling Robinson that the BBC should lose its licence fee. In fact he is forecasting it.

Johnson had hinted at this earlier. It is not that the BBC is biased towards Labour, it is that it can, on occasion, be hostile to a Tory (much as it can be hostile to a Labour spokesman.)

Well, we can't have that! We cannot possibly support it. We must have a tamer more Tory BBC. and we will do it by turning it into a purely commercial operation, one ideally in the hands of one of our friendly billionaires, or, failing that, in hock to powerful commercial advertisers. That'll teach 'em!

And as for Channel 4...

This is the beginning of a very slippery slope since it is entirely a political decision. In that respect it is moving ever closer in step with with Viktor Orbán's Hungary where almost the entire national press and public media are government mouthpieces.

2 Brexit and the Red Wall

No, I did not anticipate the scale of the Tory victory, and much of it through the collapse of Labour in the North of England. I am pretty sure Corbyn supporters have a point in arguing that Brexit lay at the heart of it.


... is it not extraordinary that the constituency I think of as the Brexit-maddened poor should vote for an Old Etonian, frequently-confirmed, habitual liar who has no interest in their condition?

Contrary to Theresa May's mantra of Brexit Means Brexit, my contention is that Brexit has never meant Brexit. It has not meant any particular attitude to Europe either economically or politically. Brexit has meant all your grievances bundled into a single package that caters to your pride and insecurity. Europe has very little to do with it.

That pride and insecurity can only be intensified through presenting any case of potential revision as betrayal (a very popular rhetorical trope for Brexiters.) So not only have you been betrayed by an external Them (though any Them would do) but are now being betrayed all over again by an internal Them.

In this case the internal Them were the Labour Party and the liberal-minded as well as radically-minded educated class (which includes most artists.)

The issue extends far deeper than being a member of the EU. It is an existential issue of honour and anger.


I hear people like Lavery, the Labour Party Chair, blaming the Remainers within the party for the loss.


... instead of blaming the Remainers in the Labour Party I would go back to the referendum itself where we were told time and again how Labour - led by Corbyn - were putting the case for Remain.

That was a clearly lie. The fact is that 48% of the voters were left without a major advocate. Labour then pussyfooted around for almost three years before equivocating itself into the worst of all positions.

The position in which it could be accused of betrayal by both sides of the Brexit debate.


Meanwhile one Tory MP has already compared the fall of the Red Wall to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That is about as foul and disgusting as you can get. That's the direction we are heading in.

3  The Future is Another Country / Rats' Alley

It's a moot but vital question whether the vote reflects the temporary mood of the country or is a sign of deep and significant change in it.

I hope it's mood and therefore temporary (since everything is temporary) but I am apprehensive about a deeper change.

That change (at least on the immediate level since there are always more reasons) began with the drive against immigrants. Not so much as a matter of control but as a matter of downright hostility: the "hostile environment" minted by May. Hostility kicked in immediately as it always does when a scapegoat is offered: it is simply well-tried historical mob behaviour.

The frustrations of any group of people can be offered a useful vent. Just as Brexit didn't mean Brexit, so the immigrant cause was a sign of a much deeper, much more complex malaise,. The individual strands of that malaise would take far too long to analyse.

Fintan O'Toole wrote well about it, maybe because the Burns adage is true: we lack the gift to see ourselves as others see us.

Factors, very crudely speaking, include: the end of the imperial era; the likely break-up of the United Kingdom; the financial collapse of 2008-9; the forces of globalisation, and the climate crisis. These forces play at least some part in the dramatic shifts across the world. They cause insecurities that certain political stances can look to address.

The guilt of empire is now entirely on England's shoulders and the load is all but intolerable. In Germany's case the guilt was clear and imposed as the result of a lost war. England did not lose that war or any other since. Not clearly and absolutely.

The reaction to guilt is hatred and distrust of those who impose it. Who imposes the guilt? As the poor will see it, it is foreigners and the liberal intellectual class who absolve themselves of it by blaming the very feelings that the poorest were told they were fighting for.

Trump wins. Johnson wins. There will be no national introspection under Johnson. There will be Churchillian bluster by the bucketload.


And where is this leading beyond mood?

The old industrial and class loyalties are enfeebled. Cultural loyalties - the least articulate and least useful of loyalties - remain. Those loyalties can be manipulated by the powerful forces of bread and circuses. Give 'em the right sort of blustering pap and make them believe it emanates from their own souls. Do that and they're yours. Their own blusterers will drive you on. Maybe faster and further than you think.

That is, of course, an apprehension, not a forecast. But it is not mere fancy. It is an option, and, I think, an ever more likely option.


This then is rats' alley. How will life change there?

Let's see how many hospitals are actually built, how many schools need support, how many genuinely affordable houses will become available, how much more exploitative the conditions of employment will become, how harsh the penalties imposed on those genuinely unfit for work, how many rough sleepers will be on the street, how many food packages will need to be distributed, and how far the cases of mental illness and suicide will rise.

Rats' alley waits to discover the answers.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

The Photographer at Sixteen
The Saturday Paper (Australia)

On July 31, 1975 – in the midst of an uncharacteristically hot English summer – Magda Szirtes, a Jewish Hungarian survivor of World War II, took an overdose in her North London home. The ambulance dispatched to revive her was delayed by a minor traffic accident on the way, and she died.
A small, sad, slightly absurd domestic tragedy – one that could have easily slipped, like countless others, between the floorboards of a cataclysmic century – except that Magda’s son, George, then a penniless young teacher, would go on to become one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets and translators. Over time he would learn about the larger circumstances of her early life. He would be moved to visit her home country (and his birthplace). And he would venture to recuperate, first in poetry and now in prose, something of the character of her life and fate.
The result is a love letter from a son to his mother, rendered unrequited by her absence. It’s a detective story, too, since the final suicide note discovered by George’s father in the wake of Magda’s death was only the last in a series. Responding to the suicide of Primo Levi in Turin at the age of 67, Elie Wiesel said of most lauded literary survivor of the Holocaust that he “died at Auschwitz forty years later”. In The Photographer at Sixteen, George Szirtes goes in search of the initial blow that struck his mother down. He then traces the slow course of its damage over time.
All this makes the work sound like a high-toned misery memoir, but it isn’t. Szirtes, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry and the Man Booker International Prize for translation, has no truck with the naked theatrics of grief. Instead, he uses his considerable dual gifts – the gift of language in the first instance, and the gift of subordinating one’s own self to another self in the second – to substantiate the ghostly presence of a powerful personality and a physically striking woman:
“I have no wish to submit her to retrospective analysis,” he writes:
I want to report her presence and register it as it moved through life by moving back into her own past with her. I want to puzzle over it and admire it while being aghast at it. I don’t want to be certain of anything. I don’t want to come to conclusions.
A challenging act of filial love, this: to record without judgement, to feel his mother’s pain without embalming himself alongside her in historic hurt. And yet he manages to do so, using a method that seems counterintuitive but turns out to be both aesthetically rewarding and respectful to the mystery of Magda’s past.
As Szirtes explains above, he does so by running the memoir in reverse: starting with his own relationship with his mother and then moving her backwards, away from him, away from England, away from her husband and back into the partial and incomplete record of her wartime and pre-war existence. He releases her into history like a fish freed in the river from which it was caught.
Magda Szirtes was Romanian by birth, Hungarian by cultural affiliation and Jewish by dint of immemorial ties of blood. She grew up in a middlingly prosperous middle-class family in the regional Transylvanian city of Cluj, before leaving school at 14 to become a photographer’s assistant, a hand-colourist of black-and-white film, and a would-be photographer herself.
Budapest, home to Robert Capa, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész and Brassaï, was a world capital of photography when she arrived in the city as a strikingly attractive teen. But her socialist sympathies and Jewish background made life in the wartime city increasingly fraught. Even after she had met László Szirtes, the mild, gentle man who was to become her husband, she lacked protection from larger events.
Those events saw her spirited away to the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück, along with 150,000 others in 1944, and then to Penig, a satellite camp of Buchenwald. When liberation by the Allies came to these camps in April 1945, Magda was one of 80 women left in the sick bay after the SS authorities initiated a final death march to Theresienstadt. Her son reports that when Magda was rescued she weighed 38 kilograms.
George Szirtes’ imagination glances off Magda’s camp experience; there is simply too much hurt and pain for that time to be fully countenanced. What’s more, those events constrict her life in ways that deform its broader arc.
What he does do is linger, beautifully, on her slow return to health:
There is food, a carefully gradated increase in diet, the return of taste and smell. The touch and feel of knife and fork and spoon and plate. The relative softness of cloth, the simple cleanliness, followed by the slow rediscovery of the body as pleasure, the rediscovery of the autonomy of one’s own self.
No, the real bitterness resides not in the camp experience, but in its aftermath, when she returns home to discover her mother and brother were murdered in Auschwitz, her father vanished; her former neighbours indifferent to so much loss.
For George Szirtes, born in Budapest in 1948, the family she established so quickly – and which was obliged to flee to Britain in 1956, following the Hungarian uprising – formed a kind of bulwark against that loss. But it was not, could not, be wholly successful. The compassion the author expresses in these pages is shadowed by guilt: that as a child and young man he refused so much of her need, to be generous, to be affectionate, to be in control of events. The universal rebellion of adolescence is here recast as an unwitting cruelty to one who had already suffered too much.
As a work of recompense, however, the work achieves its end and more. It does honour to Magda Szirtes: it recalls her not as one who was sick or damaged or dying but as “a woman in her prime”.  
Geordie Williamson
MacLehose Press, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "George Szirtes, The Photographer at Sixteen". Subscribe here.

Snapshots of a Captive Subject
The Financial Times

Miranda Seymour  JANUARY 25, 2019

“We seem to be born of secrets,” muses the author of this unforgettably sad book. “But isn’t everybody?” 

 What is it that makes a memoir exceptional? How does one invent the truth? Reading the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes’s delicately forensic exploration of an impossibly passionate mother whose abrupt death, aged 51, in an ambulance crash in 1975 brought release from a life she could no longer defy, it becomes clear how little overtly dramatic content counts, compared with the sensibility — and, above all, the impulse towards honesty — of the writer. 

 Evocative narrative sequences are the hallmark of Szirtes’s poems. His parents haunt them, as do his recollections of a carefree Budapest childhood that ended on the day in 1956 when a stray bullet ricocheted off little George’s toy watch, while corpses dangled from the lampposts lining the streets in which he played. 

 There, or at Ravensbrück, the brutal camp from which his young Romanian-born mother was transferred to the horrors of Penig (near death from starvation, she would be rescued by a bewitched US officer in 1945), might have seemed obvious points at which to open Magda’s strangely triumphant history of torture, flight and survival. Szirtes, having pondered and reflected on his subject for a quarter of a century, opts for a subtler approach in The Photographer at Sixteen. Time is upended. We move from the moment of Magda’s death back towards her birth, enlightened by consequences that could never have been foreseen. 

Like WG Sebald, the German-born writer known for his meditative juxtaposition of words and images, Szirtes makes careful use of photographs within his text; unlike Sebald, he subjects each to a piercing analysis. The sad heroism of his hardworking Hungarian father Laszlo — all Magda’s love was reserved for her sons, all her darkest suspicions for a husband who adored her — is stressed both here (tenderly clasping his wife’s wasted form for a family snap, while his huge owl-eyes steadily meet the camera’s gaze) and there (as he clowns for her in a zoo, playing at being the captive he truly is). 

But it is Magda who emerges from these tiny images as the actual prisoner, struggling to manufacture magic from her confinement in a coldly colourless London suburb. (The open spaces of Australia had long been her dream.) Nothing escapes her son’s observing eye. She called George “little squirrel”, her only consolation. She baked him cakes “like a real mum”, dressed him like royalty. Examining the neat north London kitchen in which she perches, tiny as the pet sparrow she inadvertently crushed underfoot, Szirtes remembers the room’s disquieting feel: sticky as the grey gingham vinyl peeling from its surfaces. 

 “It sticks to her too. She is trapped in it . . . Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down . . . Your body is not where it ought to be . . . It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.” 

 Here, following the abrupt end of Magda’s short, harsh life, the memoir has already begun its backward spool, an appropriate term for the history of a woman who specialised since girlhood in photographic improvement (there is nothing new about airbrushing). Unknown events pull the reader back to the gates of Ravensbrück, a place that Magda’s son denies his imagination the right to describe. Hints are dropped, of whippings, starvation, public rapings, full-body shaving, bromide-laced coffee to keep the female prisoners hygienically barren. Szirtes scarcely comments. A handful of bleak facts suffice. 

Criticism — Magda was plainly impossible to live with — is withheld. “It is her desperation I am describing, not her selfishness,” writes Szirtes. What emerges, present in every line, is the magnetic force of Magda’s personality, her hunger for a happiness that focused on the success — always under her direction — of her sons. Courteously opening doors for female teachers or strolling through Wembley’s staring streets in tight shorts and white shirts, Magda’s sons “were a laughing stock, but not to her”. Love was always a threat. How could they love her as she loved them? 

 “The tide is sweeping her away from me,” the author states. Not so. Szirtes has made her monument. It is a courageous and remarkable achievement. I’ve read no memoir that moved me more.

 The Photographer at Sixteen, by George Szirtes, MacLehose Press, RRP£14.99, 208 pages

Spellbinding Memorial to a Mother
From The New European

CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY on a stun­ning, ten­der new book in which the au­thor traces a par­ent’s event­ful life back from its tragic end

It comes to some­thing when the coun­cil send­ing round a cleaner to a young Ge­orge Szirtes’ house in south Lon­don while his mother was re­cu­per­at­ing from a 1967 op­er­a­tion and that cleaner be­ing David Bowie isn’t even close to be­ing the most re­mark­able story in The Photographer at Six­teen, pub­lished next week by Ma­cle­hose Press. In a book full of warmth, grief, cu­rios­ity, wis­dom, stag­ger­ing anec­dotes and a com­ing to terms with the vi­cis­si­tudes of 20th cen­tury his­tory, be­lieve me when I say Bowie in marigolds is far from the pre­vail­ing im­age you take away at the end.

It’s billed as a mem­oir but that doesn’t do jus­tice to a book en­com­pass­ing po­etry, Euro­pean his­tory, travel and bi­og­ra­phy in its highly orig­i­nal telling of the au­thor’s mother’s life and the ex­tra­or­di­nary, heartrend­ing events through which she lived.

“The am­bu­lance was wait­ing at the junc­tion,” the first chap­ter be­gins. “She had taken an over­dose and time was short. The driver thought he saw a gap, moved for­ward, then stopped be­cause the gap wasn’t big enough. The car be­hind ran into the back of the am­bu­lance. The am­bu­lance was dam­aged. The drivers got out and my mother died.”

As first para­graphs go that’s a pretty ar­rest­ing one, sig­nalling that this is to be no con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive. The Photographer at Six­teen is a bi­og­ra­phy told back­wards, be­gin­ning with the death of Magda Szirtes af­ter an over­dose dur­ing the sum­mer of 1975 and work­ing its way back through her re­mark­able life. This is a brave Ben­jamin But­ton of a for­mat – Szirtes is one of our most cel­e­brated con­tem­po­rary po­ets but this is his first prose book – but it works ex­traor­di­nar­ily well here, build­ing sus­pense through af­ter­maths and con­se­quences rather than omens and por­tents.

As first para­graphs go that’s a pretty ar­rest­ing one, sig­nalling that this is to be no con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive. The Photographer at Six­teen is a bi­og­ra­phy told back­wards, be­gin­ning with the death of Magda Szirtes af­ter an over­dose dur­ing the sum­mer of 1975 and work­ing its way back through her re­mark­able life. This is a brave Ben­jamin But­ton of a for­mat – Szirtes is one of our most cel­e­brated con­tem­po­rary po­ets but this is his first prose book – but it works ex­traor­di­nar­ily well here, build­ing sus­pense through af­ter­maths and con­se­quences rather than omens and por­tents.

By rights it’s a struc­ture so un­fa­mil­iar to us it should feel stilted but such is Szirtes’ skill that he leaves the reader with a vividly-formed im­pres­sion of a woman who found her­self re­peat­edly at the heart of some of Europe’s most tu­mul­tuous events of the 20th cen­tury yet, de­spite liv­ing with a heart con­di­tion, sur­vived them all to die on her own terms.
How well do we know our par­ents? How well can we know them? We view them in­evitably through the prism of their parental role, al­most as if they ma­te­ri­alised fully formed on the day we were born. There’s no set age for the re­al­i­sa­tion that our par­ents had lives be­fore we came along but the ar­ro­gance of child­hood makes it an as­tound­ing rev­e­la­tion when it comes. How­ever close we are to them we don’t truly know our par­ents be­yond the roles they play in our lives and, in our ear­lier years in par­tic­u­lar, we’re not ac­tu­ally that in­ter­ested.

How well do we know our par­ents? How well can we know them? We view them in­evitably through the prism of their parental role, al­most as if they ma­te­ri­alised fully formed on the day we were born. There’s no set age for the re­al­i­sa­tion that our par­ents had lives be­fore we came along but the ar­ro­gance of child­hood makes it an as­tound­ing rev­e­la­tion when it comes. How­ever close we are to them we don’t truly know our par­ents be­yond the roles they play in our lives and, in our ear­lier years in par­tic­u­lar, we’re not ac­tu­ally that in­ter­ested.

When we lose a par­ent, how­ever, it isn’t long be­fore we start think­ing of all the things we could have asked them, mulling over the things we wished we knew about them. What made them into the peo­ple they were? What were their hopes and dreams when they were young? Were they ful­filled? Had life turned out the way they’d hoped or ex­pected? How did they re­ally feel? Usu­ally those ques­tions only oc­cur to us when it’s too late and we’ll never know the an­swers, but here Szirtes sets out to an­swer some of them even though his mother has been dead for more than four decades.

He hopes to learn why she be­haved in cer­tain ways and did cer­tain things, not least tak­ing her own life in 1975 at the age of 51, but mostly try­ing to gain a sense of who Magda Szirtes, mother, wife, refugee, photographer, eth­nic Hun­gar­ian born in Ro­ma­nia, ac­tu­ally was.

The events of the first half of Magda’s life, through which the worst ex­cesses of mod­ern Euro­pean his­tory blun­dered back and forth, made her a per­son prac­ti­cally un­know­able while she was alive, it seems, so how can we get to know her in death? Szirtes sets out with lit­tle to go on out­side his own mem­o­ries: a few pho­to­graphs, some recorded con­ver­sa­tions with his fa­ther, a scat­ter of doc­u­ments and a sin­gle tape record­ing of Magda singing Happy Birth­day.

He has no choice but to project him­self onto these bare de­tails that leave huge yawn­ing gaps in Magda Szirtes, gaps that he has to fill amidst the dan­ger of for­sak­ing ac­cu­racy to con­jure the woman he wants her to be. It’s im­pos­si­ble to be dis­pas­sion­ate when you’re talk­ing about your mum.

Along the way as we move back­wards through Magda’s life we learn much about the Euro­pean 20th cen­tury, not to men­tion ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vivid rec­ol­lec­tions of just how it feels to be a refugee. For­tu­nately most of us will never know the re­lieftinged fear of ar­riv­ing some­where new and un­known in just the clothes we stand up in with un­speak­able hor­rors and dan­ger still just be­hind us, gate­crash­ing our thoughts and haunt­ing our dreams. This book may tell a refugee story from more than 60 years ago but the ex­pe­ri­ence, emo­tions, hopes and fears re­main ex­actly the same.

Szirtes, his par­ents and his brother ar­rived in Eng­land af­ter flee­ing the fall­out from the failed Hun­gar­ian up­ris­ing of 1956. On an early hol­i­day to Hast­ings when the fam­ily has found a home and his fa­ther has found work, the young Szirtes looks out to sea and captures a lit­tle of what it was like set­tling in Eng­land as a po­lit­i­cal refugee, es­pe­cially one from a land blighted for cen­turies by war, up­ris­ings and in­va­sions.

 “The sea guar­an­teed there would be no shift­ing of bor­ders,” he writes of the view from Hast­ings beach. “No for­eign army would march in and over­run what the Hun­gar­i­ans called ‘the is­land na­tion’. The Bri­tish Navy was the finest navy. The Bri­tish Em­pire was the finest the world had ever seen. Bri­tain had won the war and here we were on the very beach where Bri­tain had last been in­vaded. And when was that? Al­most 900 years ago. Think of that! What was it that mat­tered most in Eng­land? Free­dom, said my fa­ther. Free­dom.”

The re­cent me­dia frenzy over the small flurry of peo­ple cross­ing the English Chan­nel by boat is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the de­mon­i­sa­tion and fear of the other that pre­vails to­day, the surest sign of a na­tion ill at ease with its own iden­tity. They’re re­ferred to as ‘mi­grants’ and ‘asy­lum seek­ers’, the lat­est nifty bit of de­hu­man­is­ing through sim­pli­fy­ing of lan­guage that ex­cuses hav­ing to think of them as hu­man be­ings.

They’re the face­less threat, not peo­ple with skills, pasts, fam­i­lies, pas­sions and plenty to of­fer the na­tion in which they seek to make a home now that their own is closed to them. We’ve all met some­one with ‘le­git­i­mate concerns’ about im­mi­gra­tion who when you point to their French son-in-law, Pol­ish GP and In­dian ac­coun­tant reply, “oh no, I’m not talk­ing about them, they’re all right”, as if in the run-up to Brexit they’ll re­ceive a form from the Home Of­fice ask­ing them to list their ones-that-are-all-right. Chalk that up as a re­sound­ing suc­cess for the dog-whistling rab­ble rousers, be­cause the cli­mate has trans­formed since we were a wel­com­ing is­land haven.

When the Szirtes fam­ily touched down in Bri­tain on a BOAC plane in De­cem­ber 1956 with noth­ing be­tween them but a toy type­writer case full of old fam­ily pho­to­graphs and the clothes they stood up in they were re­ceived with un­fail­ing com­pas­sion and warmth.

There was no home sec­re­tary man­u­fac­tur­ing a phoney im­mi­gra­tion ‘cri­sis’ and de­mand­ing to know why they hadn’t re­mained in the first coun­try they reached. There were no navy ves­sels pa­trolling the English Chan­nel be­cause the big­gest threat to this coun­try is ap­par­ently half a dozen freez­ing, fright­ened Ira­ni­ans in a semi-de­flated rub­ber dinghy. Back then there was just prac­ti­cal help given will­ingly on the ba­sic hu­man agree­ment that we are all equal wherever we come from.

When a Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer reg­is­ter­ing the fam­ily at a re­cep­tion camp in Wilt­shire learns that Ge­orge’s fa­ther Lás­zló had worked as a plumber, “he was clearly pleased and de­clared that my fa­ther would have no prob­lem find­ing work... It was like magic”.

When the refugees were asked, in or­der to help de­ter­mine their wel­fare needs, to stand in lines cor­re­spond­ing to re­li­gious be­liefs Magda, a decade af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the worst of a trau­matic war, was re­luc­tant to line up with other Jews, such di­vi­sions and sep­a­ra­tions bring­ing back dread­ful, still raw mem­o­ries.

“My fa­ther as­sured her there was noth­ing to fear in Eng­land,” writes Szirtes.
The fam­ily moved from house to house at first, all ar­ranged, fur­nished and paid for by refugee com­mit­tees un­til they could get on their feet, but even­tu­ally they found a house in which they could set­tle and the Szirtes fam­ily “com­menced English­ing our­selves as fast as we could”.

Yet while the refugee ex­pe­ri­ence un­der­pins the book it’s the enigma of Magda that over­rides the nar­ra­tive. We learn that she has a his­tory of heart trou­ble, that her sui­cide isn’t her first at­tempt, and as the book grad­u­ally slips back through time we hear hor­rific sto­ries of her ex­pe­ri­ences and marvel at how she could pos­si­bly have made it as far as that Wilt­shire mil­i­tary camp, let alone build a whole new life from scratch.

It’s not giv­ing too much away to say that Magda’s en­tire fam­ily was mur­dered dur­ing the war. It’s a com­mon story of the Holo­caust but one whose im­pact is no lesser for such an unimag­in­able bur­den for any­one to carry through life. Nat­u­rally she had high hopes for her two sons, chan­nelling all her love into them as the only legacy of un­told gen­er­a­tions car­ry­ing on their shoul­ders the ghosts of peo­ple they’d never known.

That sense of life’s fragility learned through trauma made for a mixed re­la­tion­ship as Szirtes grew up. Magda was as­sertively pro­tec­tive of her two boys: when a neigh­bour com­plained about the young­sters us­ing a swear word in the gar­den she im­me­di­ately sent them back out with in­struc­tions to swear as loudly and in­ven­tively as they could, for ex­am­ple.

But there was also the sup­pressed anger at the an­tipa­thy the uni­verse had shown to her suf­fer­ing: Szirtes re­mem­bers be­ing a small boy mak­ing a mess of his home­work and his mother sud­denly leap­ing out of her chair to strike him on the head with a plas­tic box.

The more The Photographer at Six­teen pro­gresses, the more it be­comes a won­der that Magda hasn’t dis­played more anger given the cards she was dealt. As we pass through her life in re­verse there is frus­tra­tion and re­lief, joy and dark­ness, con­cen­tra­tion camps and be­tray­als, mis­un­der­stand­ings and losses, com­mu­nism and fas­cism, hid­ing places and cross-border flits, all com­bin­ing to make the photographer of the ti­tle a be­guil­ing, heart­break­ing yet ul­ti­mately elu­sive enigma. She’s brought to life beau­ti­fully in this un­flinch­ing, un­fail­ingly warm ac­count of a dis­placed, tragic, rel­a­tively brief life that for all its tu­mult ended at the road­side in a dented am­bu­lance as drivers ex­changed in­sur­ance de­tails. One thing we learn from The Photographer at Six­teen that for some peo­ple cir­cum­stances con­spire to leave them in con­trol of only one thing – their own death.