Fragments of Memory
of Sandor Vaci
(started on 18th May 2004, numbering as written)
1. On lorry to Balaton 2. By train to Vác 3. Normafa 4. Rosslyn Arms 5. Westbourne Terrace 6. Commercial practice 7. Count fruit flies 8. With Panni to village 9. Falling for skater 10. Alec C and Turks 11. Sandra B and her father 12. Prison: all in at one time 13. Dormobil and rock climbing 14. Peter A 15. Emma Orczy 16. Brussels World Fair 17. American pavilion 18. 18th November 1956 19. Hitch hiking in France 20. Reed City 21. Indians in Michigan 22. Ray and his fall 23. The O brothers 24. Gambrill 25. Bözsi and Balaton 26. Winchester 27. Pozsonyi út 28. Mr Frank 29. Cazzie Russell 30. Pimlico house 31. Plymouth Belveder 32. TR4A 33. Sopron and Biggles 34. Death in restaurant 35. Olwyn Hughes 36. Gone with the Wind 37. Bath after Gyuri Gross 38. Pentax 39. Steam boat on the Danube 40. Blaskovics gossip 41. Clochmerele 42. Mice 43. Diamond in molar 44. Fortune tellers 45. Heffers bookshop 46. Scrap iron collecting 47. The mature carpenter 48. Mosquito Island 49. Kintyre 50. The Town Bar 51. Ditta 52. Eating chalk 53. Barcelona in 1962 54. Being called up in 1944 55. Mickey Rooney 56. Barbara B B 57. Partridge 58 Mary Churchill 59. Memories of my father 60. Judy’s colours 61. Judy’s grandparents 62.Theo Knowles 63. Kate Knowles 64. Knurr Feri 65. Trampled by sheep 66. Mr Coleman 67. Waltham 68. More death 69. Badgers 70. Vera Lamm 71. Cricklewood 72. Fate in a balloon frame 73. Kati Krasznai 74. Rescued in the Tatra mountains 75. Forêt de Fontainebleau 76. Lambretta achievements 77. The birth of the forint 78. New Orleans bus journey 79. Diploma with Honours 80. Lunch after school 81. First words in French 82. Exotic Bulgaria 83. Sputnik 84. Cleaning out lavatories 85. Lukács spa. 86. Aston Villa. 87. The dog that followed. 88. Fish flushed down the toilet. 89. Copenhagen. 90. Late developer. 91. Chilwell. 92. First vote. 93. Budapest Opera. 94. The Tomb of Atreus. 95. London fog. 96. Macintosh Computer. 97. Hungary v England match, 1954.
After the War, in the summer of ’45, we went to Siófok by the Balaton in an open lorry. My cousin Gyurka and I stood all the way looking ahead over the driver’s cab. The wind flattened our hair. I cannot remember anything about the holiday.
Also in ‘45 we traveled to Vác by train. The windows were pulled down so I stuck my head out. Thick soot from the engine blackened my face.
My class visited the ‘Normafa’ in the Buda hills. The ‘Normafa’ was a giant tree hit by lightening long ago, but the place name stuck*. A steep grassy slope led to the valley below. We started running down but I could not stop. The legs just went faster and faster so I threw myself on the grass to roll over and got completely winded.
* Recently I spotted a tableau near the tree saying that Norma comes from Bellini’s opera of the same name. Near the tree an opera singer, Rozalia Klein, sang the principal aria in 1840. So I was wrong all along about the origin of the name.
The ‘Rosslyn Arms’ in Haverstock Hill was a pub visited by the second rank intellectuals and general failures (the first rank went up to the ‘Flask’ further up the hill). The bar in the middle was in a U shape to serve all round. Sheila and Ted ran the pub in their tolerant and friendly way. The daughter had to walk past our stares to get to their flat above. It was like a club. One day a drunk customer climbed on to the bar shouting. Instead of throwing him out they just hung on to his legs until he calmed down. Sheila and Ted retired. Now it is a smart wine bar (that has closed since I wrote this).
Martin and I shared a studio in Westbourne Park Road during ‘73 and ’74. Martin designed a pitched roof conservatory where we grew tomatoes picked for lunch. There was a delicatessen nearby where they sold fresh Normandy Brie kept on a round wooden plate. Slices could be bought. The Polish owner used marble blocks to stop the Brie overflowing.
Whilst I studied in Ann Arbor we visited a commercial architectural practice. The design department was working on a long low office building. The architects drew up alternative ways of treating the elevations, just a few bays. Then they duplicated the drawing and stuck them together for the length of the building. That was their design effort.
In our Ann Arbor graduate class there was a laid-back student called Pat of Polish origin but born in the States. I asked one day what he would really like to do. He said: count fruit flies all day.
My aunt Panni took me during the winter of ‘45-46 to a village in southern Hungary to have me fattened up. The village was self-sufficient. Soap was boiled from leftover animal fat mixed with soda, poured into wooden boxes and then cut up into small bars. The men went out to shoot pheasants and rabbits for meat. The maid slaughtered the chickens. One day a headless chicken flew around the yard and landed flapping in the dirt.
In the winter of ‘46 my mother took me to an ice show in the Város Liget (a little like the eighteenth century Vauxhall Gardens). We sat on wooden benches with blankets on our knees. The loudspeaker blurted out distorted tunes. A beautiful girl skater came on and pirouetted around, sweeping past us. I fell madly in love with her. For days I saved her from mortal danger and she fell gratefully into my arms. Pure torment, but after a week it all faded.
I became very friendly with a red haired, bearded Scot called Alec C. He was a wonderful raconteur who held court in the George pub near Baker Street. One night Alec said let’s go to a bar in Soho where he fancied the waitress. It turned out she was the Turkish owner’s mistress. After some awkward moments we clambered up from the basement but the cooks came after us. Alex lined up against the owner and a tough looking cook faced me. I was still on refugee-status, police records would have counted against becoming a British subject. Anyway I was not a brawler. We dissuaded Alec from fighting and cleared off; he regretting, me relieved. Later Alec became Sandra B.’s lover. Still later he started spitting blood. Later still he smartened up and went back to Scotland.
Sandra B. had a Hungarian father and English mother from the Isle of Wight. They met, I think, in Paris during student years before the War. She moved to Budapest with him where she bore him three daughters. When the communists came to power he was imprisoned only getting out in ’56. B. was a small man with thick glasses. In London he got a job at the BBC’s Hungarian Section where he managed to upset most people. The Hungarian Section served the strongest coffee and had the thickest smoke. B. died in the early eighties, wish I had more conversations with him.
Lola B. classified people during the communist years into three groups: those who have been in prison, those who are in prison and those who will be in prison. Having a record was no great shame and nor was stealing from the State.
During my Polytechnic days a Norwegian student formed a rock-climbing club. We would hire a Dormobil for the weekend to drive up to Snowdonia or the Lake District. The Dormobil was a Vauxhall van that had a boxy nose and sliding doors. Sometimes we would hitch hike separately to meet up later. When hiking through Yorkshire a Catholic priest gave me a lift. He drove through the narrow winding lanes of the Dales pointing out village churches saying ‘these were all Catholic once…’.
On my way to England I became friendly with someone of my own age called Peter A. He had the great advantage of not only speaking fluent English but with a public school accent. His grandmother, who moved to London before the War, paid here for a few years of private education. He was very ‘English’ with asymmetrically parted hair, Harris Tweed jacket, chequered shirt, awful tie and for him England could never be faulted. To cap it all he married a tax collector’s daughter in Bury St Edmunds. I was his best man but totally fluffed my lines at the reception. Perfect English sentences never mind self-deprecating humour were beyond me. They bought a suburban house, had two children and eventually we lost touch (recently saw him again and realized why we lost touch…).
Almost forgot something about Peter A. He lodged with the son of Baroness Emma Orczy of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ fame.
Adrian C. and I visited the Brussels World Fair in 1958. He knew one of the officials in the British Pavilion (a terrible folded Gothic affair). The official asked a Russian over to arrange a ‘confrontation’ with me – the Hungarian refugee from Soviet oppression. But we were timidly polite to each other. We were in the West.
At the same fair the American pavilion was built in the shape of a huge circular drum. Sixteen cinema projectors beamed films seamlessly across so the scene surrounded you whichever way you looked. It was about The West: snowy peaks, prairie, Mississippi, rodeo, rocks. The viewers stood in the middle. The show ended with THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER. The American men gazed up with hands on heart. That was my first understanding of what America meant.
On 18th November ’56 after hours of waiting on the outskirts of Budapest to make our way to Austria we managed to get onto a lorry. We drove westwards through the countryside. An awkward looking young man had a desperate need. The lorry stopped, he climbed down and ran to the middle of a field. Everyone was nervous and impatient. He pulled his trousers down, crouched in full view glancing back at us, would we wait. He finished, ran back, tried to smile as he clambered up and we were off again. It was shear humiliation but also sympathy.
In 1961 Peter M. and I travelled around Northern Europe mostly by hitching lifts. Cars were still few on the roads, both hikers and drivers felt safe with each other. We would hitch together or meet up later. In France a wallowing 2CH stopped for me, the cover was rolled back and the freckled girl driver told me to get in. Being a Hungarian refugee still had a fascination then. She said why don’t I come and stay at her mother’s house with her. I wanted to but M. was waiting for me somewhere. Duty was stronger than temptation so I got out after a while. The moment was lost. Have regretted it ever since.
During my time at the University of Michigan our main project was a master plan for the revitalisation of Reed City. Michigan’s flat landscape lacked features stretching as it does from Canada down to Ohio. Reed City was half way up the state along a highway that hardly ever veered from the straight. Every half hour or so of driving something or other would try to bring attention to itself like the Largest Cross in the World. The only significant thing about Reed City was its railway station on the north-south railroad. In the nineteenth century the town cut the forests down shipping out the logs. When the trees ran out they planted potatoes but that did not reverse the decline. In the fifties an enterprising young man started making tracks for model railways and built up a good business. The town, latching onto welcome revenue, taxed him so heavily he moved his factory just outside the city limits. The Rotary Club luminaries then hit on the idea of asking the University of Michigan to come up with a master plan to attract businesses. That is when our architects’ cavalry came to the rescue… Someone had a small aeroplane in which they took me up to take pictures of the city using my treasured Pentax. I kept clicking away asking the pilot to bank the plane this way and that. We came down, I tried to rewind the film and then realised that I did not take a single picture – the cassette jammed… red face. We completed our plans, presented them at a meeting envisaging hospitals, shopping centres, schools, senior citizens, homes; quite a metropolis. The web search reveals nothing much has happened.
Still in Michigan: an architect I worked for, a bit of a rogue Hungarian, took me up to the furthest northern tip. It was a landscape almost in its original natural state with tall pines and rocks. Some of the indigenous Indians still lived there in the open. One of them built a simple wooden hut. Where it met a rock he cut his cladding timbers around the rock. A white man would have smashed it to take the hut straight through. I learnt more from that Indian than in a whole course of architecture.
A handsome black man rented office space from me in London. He was a technical draughtsman who prepared electrical drawings and specifications spotting a gap in the market. In no time he employed half a dozen people who worked all hours. Ray put up a chart in his office with a steeply rising redline indicating turnover. One day a Porsche appeared. His children went to private school. The pretty wife was dressed elegantly. Then things started to go wrong, he simply underestimated the jobs to get the work. The rents did not arrive. People were laid off. The Porsche, bought on hire purchase was re-possessed. His face took on a grey shadow. The wife left him. Ray quit the office and took a job. It was a truly Olympian fall.
The O. brothers, my stepfather’s father and uncle, married the B. sisters, my stepfather’s mother and aunt. Both sets of siblings came from well-off families. The brothers were well into their thirties but the sisters were young. The girls had to do what their father arranged for them, romance was not part of expectations. Aunt Klára said ‘a man only a little better looking than the devil would do’.
Mr and Mrs Gambrill lived in No 4, Shop Cottages three doors away from us in Waltham, Kent. Both were well past eighty and spent practically all their lives in the village. He was a retired postman. The tiny cottage was even tinier than ours. The loo was outside and in the evenings we could hear poor Mr Gambrill’s groaning… She never left the cottage not even for going next door to the shop. Her swelled up legs were squeezed shapelessly into stockings. We became so friendly that once she even called me ‘ducky’. One morning Mr Gambrill woke up to find his wife stone cold next to him. She was cremated in a distant village, only ten people turned up. He lived on for another two years. The cottage was sold and the new owner ripped it apart. Nothing has remained after them except perhaps this fragment. (Recently I came across another Gambrill; all the Gambrills came from that same 17th century French hugenote stock).
We were great friends with the S. family who lived in a modernist villa on top of Rózsadomb (Rose Hill) in Budapest. Until the communist take-over the S.-s were wealthy, living on the profits of their sack making factory. They kept a cook and a maid. The cook, Bözsi, knew her worth and would take no nonsense from anybody. She was in her mid-thirties and looking around to marry. Eventually a suitor was found. During a hot summer they travelled down to Lake Balaton to stay at the S.’s vacation house. The suitor rented a boat to row Bözsi out to the lake. They must have had an amorous time in the baking sun. He decided to have a swim to cool down, dived in and never came up again. The heart failed as his overheated body hit the water; it was recovered days later. Bözsi continued looking for his replacement.
During my early years of studying architecture I was encouraged by the illustrations in Sir Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture to go and see the great English cathedrals. To save money I hitchhiked over weekends. One of those trips took me to Winchester. The evening came and it was too late to get back to London. The local YMCA was full. Staying at a hotel was out of question. Someone told me that the police occasionally allowed students to kip in the cells. With my newly found confidence I marched into Winchester Police Station where the sergeant laughed at the idea. I suggested then that if I punched him on the nose he would have to arrest me and lock me up in a cell. He stood up, all six feet six inches of him, and said slowly without amusement ‘I don’t think that is very good idea, sir!’. So there was a limit to the English sense of humour.
I wondered off and eventually found a bed and breakfast, way above my spending limit, where the full English breakfast was served in the morning.
During the early forties my uncle Sanyi, his wife, son and father-in-law lived in a first floor flat at 22 Pozsonyi út, XIII. District. The building was part of a modernist development, which still shows impressive design quality. Their balcony overlooked a tennis club flooded in the winter to make an ice rink. The Siege of Budapest lasted from December ’44 to February ’45. The dead were buried hurriedly in any open ground and the tennis courts, during winters flooded to create an ice skating ring, became a cemetery. Sanyi was no longer there when we returned from Buda. The Arrow Cross shot him into the Danube only days before the Russians took Pozsonyi út. There was not much to do for young boys so we wondered around the tennis courts. The corpses were beginning to poke through the rough earth. A great dare was to prod the beetroot red sculls and black shoes, which were still neatly laced. The summer came and the bodies were exhumed. The next winter was bitterly cold and the ice rink again covered everything.
To cope with the housing shortage in communist Hungary some larger flats were divided into smaller units. All flats were assessed for optimum capacity; if the number occupying was below the stipulated then the local council could take a room and move in complete strangers for ‘flat sharing’. So it was better to have ‘ghost’ occupants or even divide into smaller units. This is how the flat where we lived in 3A Rózsadomb utca had become a two-bedroom unit and a studio flat (or garçon in Hungarian parlance). A very important Mr Frank moved into the garçon. He was called Comrade Frank at work but in our reactionary household he was Mister. Mr Frank was head of the national poultry distribution enterprise. Though this was a misnomer as often there was hardly anything to distribute. A chauffer would turn up every morning to drive important Mr Frank to work and of course he was never short of chicken for himself and those he favoured. The two he favoured most were a dark chesty woman for weekdays and a thinner blond for weekends. This was a strict rota and they had no idea about each other. The dark woman was told that he had to rest over the weekend and the blond that he was too busy with his work during the week. Ilonka, our spinster maid, fell deeply for Mr Frank and would clean his flat, look after him, adore him, lie for him. All this went on for several years, but eventually the stress of deciding which district in Budapest would get a delivery of gristle and his non-stop exertions in bed took their toll. One morning Ilonka opened his door and found him alone, very dead. She ran out wailing terribly. The lovers turned up to meet with no little disappointment and resentment then set about dividing what little was left in the small flat. Important Mr Frank was buried and someone else moved in whose name and character totally escapes me. It was Ilonka who grieved over Mr Frank for years to come.
Ann Arbour is chiefly known for the University of Michigan. However it also has some other claims to fame: this is where the Borders book chain started; Arthur Miller was an alumni; the hologram was developed; Frank Lloyd Wright built a house for a professor. The house was sited on a wonderful hillside location. It had a cantilevered roof that came to an improbably sharp point. And it was at this university where Cazzie Russell played basketball in the mid-sixties college team. Not the tallest, only 6’5”, he was an out and out undiluted black athlete. His shoulders were wide enough to span the Grand Canyon, his hair was cut to a cube. In those few years Cazzie Russell was the most exciting player to watch anywhere in the Big Ten Conference. He could bounce the ball with his back to the basket then all of a sudden leap and spin in mid air throwing the ball two-handed straight at the hoop where it would drop down followed by instant pandemonium. Of course he came on a Sports Scholarship, I wonder what his grades were on graduation.
Our house in Pimlico was an uninhabitable wreck when we bought it in 1981. The workman moved in and soon we discovered that under the layers of dirt and paint there were window shutters neatly folded into the splayed side panels. The carpenter brought his chisel to force them open one by one. We waited eagerly to see what was hidden behind them. Nothing was found. The people who lived in the house right from its completion in 1847 were poor and did not have anything to hide. In the whole house all we found was a dead blackbird that somehow got entangled in an open sash window – just a skeleton with feathers spread out as it tried to escape.
The first thing any foreign student arriving in Ann Arbour wanted to do was to buy a full-size American car. A helpful housemate took me out to a garage at the end of a dirt track where I located an elderly green Plymouth Belvedere. Length and width were endless, it had dragonfly wings, eight cylinder engine, bench seats, buttons for everything and of course automatic. I think it was about $180, which was not a great deal even then. During the evenings we would go for drives for no particular purpose: make turns at the traffic lights (left or right made no odds), go past the lit up billboards, fill it up with gas. The bench seats could easily accommodate three abreast, the girl always in the middle. I drove the Belvedere in a snowstorm up to Montreal for New Year’s Eve. It ploughed through slush and snowdrifts like a T-34. On the return trip the engine started to miss beats, two cylinders gave up but that still left six to get me back. One day in the supermarket car park my foot went through the floor, ‘Detroit cancer’ – the salt spray – had eaten the metal away. Later I exchanged it for a mid-sized car and later that to a Beetle. The American dream faded.
After my divorce in 1970 I followed the path of many men finding themselves single again: I bought a sports car. A long cherished dream and sex appeal worth twelve-inch biceps. It was a red soft- top TR4A with chromed knock-on wire wheels. The knock-on meant that the wheels were secured with winged chrome nuts that one knocked clockwise to secure and anti-clockwise to remove using a lead tipped hammer provided with the car. That it was a left-hand drive model did not matter much and advantage on the Continent. The TR4A was the Triumph Company’s answer to the MG Roadster. It had slab sides and frogeye lamps designed by the Italian Michelotti. It could do 120 miles an hours at its shuddering maximum speed. With the top down it was motoring at its best: hair swept forward, view all round, cravat around the neck, girl next, engine growling. It had all a divorced man-about-town could wish for. One afternoon I collected the car from my Cypriot mechanic in Mornington Crescent before going to Chelsea. At Marble Arch there was a slight wobble but thought it was just a bump. Down Park Lane as the second traffic light turned red I put my foot on the break but my left front wheel carried on rolling to the next traffic light ending in a front garden. My beautiful TR4A just lazily tipped sideways on the remaining three wheels leaving its driver looking a complete fool. Fortunately that day there was no girl in the car. The mechanic did not hammer hard enough on the knock-ons. Very embarrassed he picked up the car next day from the police pond. Well, it was a good pub story. Eventually the TR4A became rather ragged the soft-top leaking ever more, it had to go. I replaced it with a totally mundane but practical car. Selling it was a something I have always regretted.
In 1948 my mother took me down to a western Hungarian town called Sopron for Christmas and New Year. We stayed in a small warm hotel. The well-meaning middle-aged women in the hotel took turns spoiling me; only few of them had husbands lurking in the background. It was cold and white. One evening my mother took me for a walk in the quiet snow covered town and in the window of a bookshop there was Biggles in a Hungarian translation showing, I seem to recall, a Spitfire on the cover. Next day I dragged her back, she bought it and my holiday was taken over by Biggles’s heroics in the North African campaign. What I remember is Biggles escaping in a German plane, the German mechanic chasing him and Biggles clobbering him with a spanner then taking off. By 1949 the communists took full control and English books were banned. It took another eight years before Biggles became freely available to me in England but by then boyhood was over. All the same Biggles helped me form a view of plucky and always gentlemanly Englishmen. Oh yes, I almost forgot the other fictional hero: Hornblower.
During our many recent holidays by the Balaton the evenings were spent driving around trying to find yet another restaurant to gorge ourselves in. On one occasion we found a place high up on a hill with a panoramic view of the lake. This was a place for tourists much frequented by Germans. We just finished our cold cherry soup when there was a nervous commotion in one corner. A middle-aged frau had a heart attack dying on the spot. The waiters rushed to cover her up with a tablecloth. The owners tried to make as little fuss as possible and to the credit of the customers everyone stayed calm. The undertaker soon arrived. Then six waiters smiling awkwardly slowly edged their way out amongst the diners carrying a long wood hutch with the body well concealed underneath the tablecloth. Our girls excitedly ran out to see them ease the body into the hearse, which quickly drove off. We resumed our supper of battered carp, cucumber salads, Balaton Riesling and apricot pancakes for desert. A family somewhere in Germany was left with one less but in the restaurant there was just chat.
In the mid seventies when I was a regular in the Rosslyn Arms one evening we sat chatting to a middle aged woman who was introduced as Olwyn, Ted Hughes’ sister. When she heard that I was from Budapest she went into paroxysms, in a good-humoured way, of how she hated Hungarians. It turned out that she had a cad of a lover in Paris who was Hungarian. Recently it emerged that this was none other than János Csokits, a poet, who is still alive and now living to Hungary. Csokits translated Pilinsky with Ted Hughes so he could not have been that bad. Olwyn is the literary executor of Hughes’ ouvre (since this was written Csokits has passed away).
When my mother and Gyuri, her husband of a few weeks, arrived in Vienna in December 1956 ‘Gone with the Wind’ was playing. My mother must have read the book as soon as it appeared in Hungarian translation in the late thirties. There, as elsewhere, it was a sensation and most could hardly wait for the film to appear. But the film never reached Hungary, first because of the war and later Communist censorship. But they knew about it plus it had Hungarian connections. King Vidor the director was of Hungarian extraction, Leslie Howard in a lead role was of Hungarian Jewish origin. So the first thing they did in Vienna was to go and see the film, which I guess had German sub-titles that both could understand. The long frustration was over.
This episode about taking a bath has come to mind on reading John Lukacs’s Hungarian Writing (Magyar Írások), which has a hilarious chapter on the subject. Post-1945 Budapest was a broken place, there was desperation even to meet the most basic needs. You had to barter for anything. We were amongst the first to have glass in our window frames (virtually all the glazing was broken during the Siege either from direct hits or blast pressure). My mother had some Napoleons III (small gold coins) stashed away wisely by my father. She found a glazier whose stock of glass somehow survived. For a few Napoleons we had glass fitted to keep the cold and rain out. Until then only the wood shutters were our insulation. We also had a copper geyser, a water boiler, behind the bath that was heated by a wood fire underneath. My mother struck a deal with Gyuri (George) Gross’s mother whereby she could use the geyser to heat a bath full of water for her son in exchange for half a dozen logs for our own use. I need to add that father Gross was a baker so had an ample supply of firewood for his ovens. Gyuri Gross, three years older than I, duly arrived and had his bath. He let me into the hot bathroom after he got out. There were a few frothy bubbles floating on the grey water and a dark line circled the bath. The still warm water was too good to miss and he did not mind me getting in. I soaked for a while and got out dirtier than when I got in.
The first thing I bought with my newly earned salary in 1962 was a Pentax, a beautifully engineered Japanese camera. I still have boxfuls of colour slides taken with it. I took it with me to the States as my most important possession. It was there with me when I went on my seven-thousand mile trip around the country in 1965. After leaving San Francisco I stopped at a rodeo and set it up on the tripod. A boy behind came leaping down over the seats tripped his Coke bottle all over my treasure. The Coke goo soon seized up the delicate machinery. I could no longer record my travels to show off to friends! In a nearby town found a camera repair shop where the owner took the whole thing apart, soaked it in spirit, reassembled it and charged a fortune but it was never the same again. I continued taking everything in but no means to leave it all to posterity. There and then should have started writing down my impressions in a diary but only these fragments have remained. If a diary is written for others to read it is inhibited from the start and if it is for one self as a confessional of innermost thoughts then what is the point. Still, these are lame excuses for very great diaries have been written for both others and self.
Something else has just cropped up. In the summer of ‘47 or ’48 our maid, Erzsi, took me down to her village for the summer holiday. She came from somewhere near the Danube so our trip was on a steamship during the night. The engine room was open letting the passengers watch the oily pistons puffing back and forth. The rhythm was mesmerizing, the engineering awesome. Eventually the ship came to a stop in mid river, or at any rate manoeuvred to be near stationary. The village had no jetty so a small boat came alongside, we had to clamber down some steps helped by the boatmen. We reached the banks while the ship slowly disappeared down river.
Clipping my toenails has brought to mind Mrs Blaskovics (pronounced Blashkovich) who was my mother’s podiatrist. Every four or five weeks she would turn up with bags in each hand to visit pain and blood on my mother’s feet. The torture chamber was set: an armchair for my mother, in front of her a low stool and then a squatting-chair for Mrs B. Next to Mrs B was a small table for placing her instruments. After carefully unwrapping them from a leather case she laid out the fierce clippers, nippers, rasps, files, polishers, several sizes of skin scissors and pure alcohol in a bottle. At my mother’s feet was a pail of water to soak her hardened skin and nails. All the while they chatted, for Mrs B by visiting the pained, sore feet of middle class women in Budapest carried gossip and to supplement the podiatry income traded in nylon stockings, wool cardigans and cosmetics. Mrs B was a widow, had children so there was always news about them; anyone’s illnesses, marriages ending, frequent deaths, suicides. All were discussed whilst she took the feet in turn to rest on her lap, no escape possible, clipping my mother’s toenails, scraping the dead skin from her soles and digging without mercy into corns. All this led to cries of anguish and no little blood. The sharp threatening scent of the alcohol filled the air. At the end she covered the feet with ointment and gave them vigorous massage. Having done the deed and sold whatever she departed. My mother’s feet took a month to recover until the next time. Still they continued like this until ‘56 and even on my mother’s return trips in the seventies.
I have a special attachment to Chlochmerle, a film based on a 1934 book by Gabriel Chevallier. Under the communists, that is strictest Stalinism during 1950-53, everything was not only censored but spoon-fed to show the world through Red eyes. The West was bad, really bad so anything allowed had to show it up as decadent, heartless, exploitive, enemy!
Hence Oliver Twist, capitalist heartlessness; a 1950 English film in which the main character is buried in concrete, exploitive of the working classes; and Chlochmerle, decadence.
This is what one day, when unexpectedly we were given a morning off, we went to see it with my class. The pissoire, the mayor, the Marseilles at the opening were hilarious but then came the bedroom scene. The protagonist with heavy mustachio is putting on his tie. The camera then slowly pans to a mirror reflecting a woman naked with round, white breasts still in bed. For fourteen-year old boys this was like being hit with a sledgehammer, instant phantasizing. The other unexpected joy was Fanfan La Tulipe, a swashbuckling French film with Gerard Philip and to top it all the wonderful panorama of Gina Lollobrigida’s cleavage. GP standing on top of a haystack, GL asking what is the view like, GP replies: ‘I see a valley between two round hills’. Well, that sounded witty in 1951. These were my stumbling years of adolescence until Jo breathed his last.
Since writing this I have arranged a private viewing of the much-scratched film in a small cinema in Budapest. Waited with much anticipation for the mirror scene when the restaurateur’s lusty wife has her moment with the village beau. Alas there was huge disappointment as the mirror came to view but the film abruptly cut to another scene. The projectionist explained that in the past those who handled films would cut out such juicy scenes for their private viewing and just joined up the strip.
A recent terrifying event has occurred in my office. Mice have suddenly appeared when the place has been rodent-free for over thirty years. It all started when I left some Ferrero Roche next to my desk, as have for a few good years. On coming into the office found that the gold packaging was strewn around, the nut covered chocolate ball had teeth marks. Next, a mouse clambered down the coiled cable leading from the desk lamp. Worse, a mouse, probably the same beast, appeared from the blue wastebasket. I fled in panic. Ildikó came to investigate to clear up but found nothing. The next time I was about to leave found a mouse sitting motionless by the exit door – no way out! Got hold of a long plastic stick to prod it aside. Awkwardly it moved to the right and I could make my escape. Ildiko came again, pushed it into a bag depositing the still just alive mouse into the wheelie bin. From that point on I was ready to flee at the slightest noise. The office was no longer my monk’s cell where I could shut the door to be on my own. Next, another young mouse, this time dead, laid by the door leading to the patio. Jeffrey, our lovely black decorator, dispatched it without any qualms. Still, there were more. A dead adult was in front of the plotter. Yet again Ildiko came to the rescue. She looked under the plan chest and found another, swept up both whilst I quivered outside. Bought poison, an electronic repeller and banged the door every time I entered. Eventually the droppings disappeared. I knew where to check though and to this day whenever I come in look on the window cill and behind the screen for droppings. Now there is nothing, just the repeller that keeps blinking, bleeping. Killed them all or they just got fed up with all the hassle.
Towards the end of the murderous siege of Budapest when people did not know what would happen to them next and how to hide transportable valuables my mother got hold of the idea of concealing her one-carat brilliant shaped diamond she received in her engagement ring inside a dental bridge linking the upper left molars. This was discussed with a dentist who advised that she would have to leave it for a short time with him to set inside the bridge to be fitted at the next appointment. The bridge thus prepared was then implanted and now my mother had something valuable on her that no one could discover. The siege of Budapest came to an end by February 1945. Now the diamond was ready to be extracted. Another dentist was approached who took it out filling the void in the bridge. My mother took her released diamond to a jeweller to be reinserted in the ring. He put his eyeglass on and with disdain pronounced it a fake. The original dentist swapped the brilliant for a glass paste. He was never to be found.
Another story to tell is about my mother. In the late forties she was hoping, still, that my father would be alive. It was a forlorn hope as by that time most who survived were allowed back. Her friends went to fortune-tellers, there were stories of how one revealed this and another predicted that, who the best was as if they could influence events. There must have been one of these women, they were always middle-aged, in a block near us. I was told to wait outside for what seemed a long time. My mother came out saying nothing to me. We kept going to the Eastern Railway Station where the trains from Russia would disgorge the released. The trains would empty but my father never came.
In 1969 I worked on a large bookshop in Cambridge, in fact the largest there at the time and, think, still. The client, Heffers, was a firm who had other specialist bookshops around town. The space was purpose-built, as opposed to fitting out whatever was available, on several levels some below ground. Every week we would have a project meeting and once the plans were discussed we would retire for the butler to prepare lunch that consisted of cuts from a large wheel of Stilton, bread, salad and even wine. The Stilton was carved and carved, it took all of fifty-two weeks to finish it. A reputable contractor from Canterbury was engaged. One Sunday morning I had a call from the managing director of Heffers: there was a terrible storm overnight, which flooded the whole basement! I got into my red TR4A sports car and drove with all speed to Cambridge. There in the bowels of the unfinished bookshop floated beautiful veneered doors amongst all the debris. The foreman had overlooked to turn off the sluice valve of the rainwater drainage letting the river back up through it. The insurance assessor came to approve the claim, being a local man his reputation counted in favour of Heffers. In the end we finished the bookshop, which looked hugely impressive. From the ground floor railing one could take in the whole assemblage. After Lord Butler opened it we trooped in pairs to Trinity’s Great Hall for a sumptuous dinner under the Holbein Henry VIII portrait – an evening to treasure. Just remembered: Rueben Heffer, the chairman, was a Trinity alumni, so it all came together. By and large the bookshop is still there as designed.
One of Lenin’s dictums, his sledgehammer economics, was that heavy industry must be developed before anything else. Hence Hungary, with no iron ores or black coal (all such resources were removed by the Treaty of Trianon), had to construct huge ironworks by the Danube. A whole town was also built to house the workers named, what else, Stalin Town.
To make up for the evident short fall of iron to feed the furnaces a mad campaign was launched to collect scrap iron. With all the propaganda the regime could muster Instructions were given in schools, factories and offices to find the precious metal to a quota system. Collection points were set up where the scrap was weighed and paid for. The war left plenty of buried wrecks, These were dug up and delivered. The scramble to meet the quota was such that, often, useful items were taken, stolen, for ready cash. My class of fifteen-year-olds found this challenge a great adventure. We marched up to the Buda Castle, which was still, in 1952, mostly in ruin. There we found our way into the basement of a once impressive building. With much laughter we set about wrenching the heating pipes off the walls. As they came off we tipped them over the castle walls where they broke into pieces on the rocks below, then we carried them to the collection points. At home my mother stopped me just in time from taking saucepans, grinders and hammers to the collection places.
It was later that I discovered the impressive building was the British Embassy. I don’t think HMG bothered much about missing pipes from their ruin.
This story is riské but just too good to leave out. A mature carpenter, but still full of vigour and drink, was building a bridge somewhere in Hungary. A whole team of men with their wives, cooks, store keepers moved around the country from compound to compound constructing whatever the central planners demanded. They were paid on Saturday afternoons for the five-and-half day working week, whereupon the men made straight for the local pub, kocsma. The kocsma-s were alcohol and smoke filled places for getting drunk, pinch the bottoms of any females who ventured in and to brawl. The wives waited at home in dread to find out how much of the wage remained, hoping the men would pass out without laying hands on them.
After the drinking sessions, late at night, the mature carpenter would regularly find his way to the bed of one of the cooks. He would stay until just before the cocks started crowing. Once he found his way back to his home he quietly slipped next to his apparently sleeping wife to snore like a trumpet. His wife knew, the cook knew that the wife knew and the carpenter did not care who knew. The wife though hatched a plot.
She paid off the cook and waited in her bed after dark for her husband to turn up The mature carpenter came feeling his way to the bed not knowing that his wife replaced the woman he expected to find. We can only speculate what happened when he realised it was his wife who was there for the groping. Perhaps after all the drink the finer aspects of female anatomy between one and another were beyond him to tell. What the wife did to him could not have been fatal for died many years later as the respected husband.
Recently I went for the launch of a book about the Danube. The author was asked if he ever plunged in, he said yes he did. This reminded me of a mosquito bitten holiday in, I think, 1951. There was very little money so my mother took up the offer of a holiday shack on, yes, Mosquito Island in the upper Danube. The shack and all the buildings were erected on concrete stilts as the river would regularly flood over leaving wet mud behind, just what a diligent mosquito would want for its larvae. Hungary is mosquito ridden anyway, it was just that this island was the China of them. After dark we would shut the windows then tried to kill them off by slinging wet towels wherever they settled on the walls and ceiling. Red smudges, we were squashing our own blood, soon covered everything but the buzzing still kept us awake. Swollen eyelids, puffed up cheeks, itchy everything were our due. But there was the Danube with a narrow channel next to the island. My stepfather, who was a barrel-chested swimmer, and I set off to across the water. I was doing quite well but on the way back got tired so clung onto his back just kicking out my legs while he got on with his breaststrokes. We made it back, a proud young boy and a strong swimmer. There were no let up though from the mosquitoes.
When our daughter Sarah was still only a year old we made our way to the peninsula of Kintyre in Scotland where I booked a room on a farm. My mother-in-law, her husband (cum school friend), Ildiko, Sarah and I traveled up in the Saab car we had then. The farmer let rooms to supplement his income from keeping sheep. I bought a fleece from him for my in-law: bloody bits of the skin still clung to it and the rough wool was full of bracken. In-law took it home back to Hungary where it was woven into a rug. We soon discovered that there was no cot for baby Sarah. Our room had a large chest of for clothes so I pulled out the cavernous bottom drawer and that is where baby Sarah was placed in her sleeping bag. She soon went quiet but I kept checking all night just in case someone pushed the drawer shut.
The liveliest bar in Ann Arbor was the Town Bar, that is where black people went to drink, listen to a band and dance. Though a university town where there was no segregation amongst the students once outside academia the usual rules applied. White folks went to their own bar, which was deadly dull with solitary white men slunk over their drinks, hardly ever speaking to each other. By contrast the Town Bar was a wild place, but not for whites. The only way for me to enter was in the company, nay protection, of a black man. So I ventured in with Bill Scott, my dear black architect friend, married to a German woman whom he met while a GI. We stepped into a haze of smoke and deep throaty shrieks fuelled by alcohol. The band was somewhere in the back. There was staring at this white intrusion but with Bill I felt secure. Having got the beers we made our way towards the band. And there he was, Washboard Willie himself, strumming his washboard dressed in outrageous colours that only black musicians could carry off. We sat near him trying to smile this way and that. Then a big black mama started to swirl around, eyes closed, in a trance. Even black folks kept a clear distance. After a while having drunk our beers Willie’s strumming became wearing especially to Bill who was a jazz aficionado. The big black mama’s huge swaying body was barring our exit. We gingerly skirted around. The last thing a white man wanted was to touch let alone bring mama out of her trance. In the Town Bar the white man held no sway.
Ditta was married to my uncle Ernest, as monumental a mismatch as ever. He was almost three decades older, a handsome man who had lived in the arms of many. Ditta was blond, petit, with an enticing figure, her wonderfully shaped bosom set off by a slender waist. We were down by the Lake Balaton for a holiday when they came to visit. In the evening Ernest and Ditta planned to go to a restaurant overlooking the lake where the water carried shouts and music from afar. I was about ten, the age when boys begin to appreciate that women are more than just replicas of their mothers. By nine o’clock I was in bed. Ditta came into my room to change for their outing. “Now, now Sanyi I will pull the blanket over you, and don’t dare to peep!”. I tried to move a little to get near a gap but she watched me, “don’t!”. So I had to listen to the rustling of clothes, could even scent her sweat overlaid with perfume, I tried desperately to imagine her naked but it all remained in my head. In a flash she pulled the cover off standing there in a sleeveless flowery dress looking like a dream. Kissing my forehead and bringing the mirage within touching distance she said “Good boy, now go back to sleep!”. But how could I?
Gymnasium again. We were going to have a tough mathematics test the next day. I was petrified of failing having a feeble mind when it came to equations. How to avoid the humiliation and disappointment in my mother’s eyes: what future is there for you if you cannot become an engineer? Drastic measures had to be taken, I must be ill with a high fever to stay at home in my sick bed! I heard this trick from somewhere lost in the fog of memory: eat chalk and in no time there will be temperature, hot cheeks, concerned adults busying around. After school I sat down in front of my aunt’s mirror watching myself chew sticks of chalk I took from under the blackboard. Just to make sure I opened the windows, it was mid-winter, stripping down to my waist. The chalk was awful but the cold never touched me. In those days I went to swim in outdoor pools even when it was snowing, I had a thin but tough body. I waited and waited by the mirror expecting some sign of shiver. Eventually closed the window waiting for my mother to return from work. I insisted on having my temperature checked under my armpit. It was 36.6 C, totally normal. Chalk and open window could not do any harm to a boy who trained in freezing water.
There was nothing to it but go to school next day. I passed the test.
Have just come back from Barcelona, all crowds, queuing, bulging hairy tourists, hours of standing to see anything by Gaudi, Picasso, Montserrat. The best parts were the occasional chats with fellow travelers, English, Americans, Dutch. Told them all, with unconcealed gravity, that my last visit was fifty-two years ago!
After completing architecture school in 1962 I rode off to the south of France, with the blue stateless Travel Document in my pocket, on a Lambretta scooter (just as we did with Adrian C in 1959). After paying a repeat homage to the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille I carried on to Barcelona, then still in Franco’s Spain. The country was run down but the glories were there to visit. The Sagrada Familia was open to all, the Gaudi completed façade with its daring towers was in place. I could climb up unhindered inside, past excrement, to peep out through the slots over the city then without anything taller than the Sagrada itself. Where the nave is now there was a modest exhibition with a Marquette of what it will be like when completed, that is the central tower projected to be twice as high as those already built. This sounded like the building of Gothic cathedrals that went on for centuries. I rode up the steep slope to Parque Güell, sat on the steps taking in all the wizardry of ceramic covered spires. Now queues are here, climb up there, dodge Chinese tourists who are only interesting in snapping, actually observing seems beyond them. There is, in a selfish way, much to be said for preservation thanks to poverty that lets the connoisseurs wonder around without the ‘madding crowd!’ in the way.
During the war Jewish men and socialists were called up to provide ancillary work for the regular Hungarian Army. They wore uniforms but were not allowed to bear arms. In effect they were forced labourers, mistreated in many cases. My father died at the Don as a forced labourer. Sometime in 1943 or perhaps the beginning of ’44 I received a call-up paper to report for induction in a nearby building. It is just that I was six years old. It was clearly a mistake but my mother, ingenious as ever, took me along for you could not ignore a call up. There we were amongst grown men: a woman with a little boy queuing up in a courtyard. When we got to the sergeant sitting at a desk he shouted: Woman, what are you doing with that boy here, don’t waste my time? My mother handed over the call up paper, which had our address, 19 Visegrádi utca XIII, third floor Flat 6 and my name. The sergeant was not amused but sent us away to the general mirth of the queue.
After the war, many years later, someone in a nearby building owned up, he lived in the same street with the same name but in 49 Visegrádi utca, easy enough to forge. It did no harm to me and he survived, so it was fine.
Mickey Rooney died recently. My first memory of him was a 1946 film about a horse race. He fell off, his adversary raced ahead. Mickey’s horse galloped back and crouched down for him to climb on. He got going, he was catching up, we were out of our seats with excitement –my maid tried to stop me from jumping on the head of a man in the next row. Mickey won the race. Mickey beamed, his freckled nose reminded me of my own spottiness (searching the internet it appears the film must have been National Velvet). Great satisfaction all round as we left the cinema into a dark hot Budapest night.
This is remembering BBB, Barbara B. B. She was a busty, hairy, alluring, hugely sexy English major at the University of Michigan. Alas, although we spent time together, my charms never got me very far. All that came my way were the mercilessly teasing looks of the will-she-won’t-she. Then out of the blue Barbara asked me if she could use our apartment that I shared with John L. to spend an afternoon with her tutor. Even in liberal Ann Arbor liaisons between staff and students were out of bounds. I refused not on a matter of propriety but out of jealousy. I would have hated imagining that the one I fancied was lolling about just hours before in my bed. BBB was from New England. On a visit to New York we met up for lunch then she took me down to her hometown, the name escapes me, to meet her parents. As we drove around in the wealthy neighbourhood her father said you would have to have a very good career to buy one of these. If slaving away was the price to gain Barbara’s hand then my chances were nil. Have regretted never meeting up with her again, is she dead or still going with umpteenth grandchildren or none?
My friend Pista, from the neighbouring cottage in deepest Kent, and I would go out on late afternoons to see whether any pheasants, crossing from the woods on one side to open fields on the other, have been run over ready to be collected for supper. Even when we found one it was a struggle to strip the carcass let alone cook anything with all the broken bones. On one such occasion we stopped seeing that in the middle of a field partridges were pecking away. Pista picked up a flint, threw it to where the birds were and quite incredibly hit one. It must have been a good thirty-yard throw. He was a boy from the country, even so! I, a town boy, just grinned. We walked into the field to find the dead bird with just a little blood on its neck. There was not much meat but in prime condition.
Mary Churchill has just died age ninety-one, that is three months short of ninety-two. I had met her twice. Once in the Hungarian Embassy when the British-Hungarian Diplomacy book was launched in 2004. I shook her hand, touched a Churchill! The second time was at a lavish do in the Savoy as part of the Magyar Magic programme. She came in and as is my wont greeted Mary as an old acquaintance: “you must learn how the Hungarians drink a toast”. She was game. We looped our right arms through each other and drank the schnapps, as close to hugging as decorum allowed. Being a good sport she loved it, “so that is how the Magyars do it”. I was ever so tickled.
(This appeared in the Time Obituary column on 11th June 2014)
I have only a few memories with my father, but in none where the actual person appears, that is the looks, the skin, the smell, the voice. In one memory he took me to Margaret Island for a stroll, probably on a Sunday. We must have met up with someone he knew. While they were chatting I wondered off. Soon I was lost, alone, terrified, what will happen to me? Eventually I lay down on a bench next to a stranger awaiting my fate. After what must have been an eternity my father appeared, he was not amused. My mother told me, decades later, on returning home he dumped me saying ‘here is your son’. Another was with a bicycle he bought me, all shiny and red. It caused quite a sensation with the boys in the neighbourhood. He put me on the bike but I could not stay on let alone ride it even as he ran pushing me along keeping me balanced. He was not known for his patience; well blame my own lack on him. Grumbling he brought me back home and next day returned the bicycle to the shop. He expected too much from me too soon. The third was again about waiting. My father had some business in the factory in Vác leaving me with my grandmother in the house where my mother was brought up. The single storey, modest house was in a dusty street, Ambró utca, that no longer exists. We waited and waited by the window for him to appear – my lovely grandmother, Paula’s, arms around me. She had the smell of stale bread that, ever since, brings her back whenever a like whiff comes my way. That keeps Paula alive in me but I cannot get away from the thought that it went up with her in the smoke.
Judy’s, my first wife, favourite meal was a peanut butter sandwich and her favourite colour was mud-green. All of our bed linen was mud-green. Even after the laundry our linen, never ironed, looked dull and tired.
Judy’s grandmother’s family, on her father’s side, escaped from the Russian pogroms. The grandmother always claimed that she was the progeny of a Cossack rape. The grandfather was a lovely retired doctor who kept his surgery intact with its original early twentieth century equipment, though no patients came any more. Judy’s mother was a DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution, a hard line WASP organization claiming to be the true guardians of America’s ideals. But Judy came from exactly those ideals: a Russian Jewish doctor marrying a WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the melting pot that gave the US its energy and nothing-impossible ambitions.
I was Theo Knowles’s godfather. How could an ardent atheist have anything to do with fostering god-fear in the boy? My role was more being benign, giving the occasional present. First a gold coin on each birthday that I admit was given up after a few years. Theo became an addict and died alone next to a bottle of I do not know what. The church was packed to the rafters for the funeral service; the vicar said the largest gathering he ever saw there. Speeches were delivered, hymns were sung, people hushed outside afterwards. The hearse made its way down the street followed by Kate and Martin, his parents, sunk into themselves but apart. Was it their fault that he could not cope with life or was it all in him from the start?
When Kate became heavily pregnant I offered, without too much foresight, to marry her so that she would not be a single mother with a baby. That came about as the male progenitor, my friend Martin, did not want to have anything to do with Kate’s decision to give birth. Becoming mother was hers alone, not becoming father was out of his hands. Fortunately Kate had a much clearer head than I, she just smiled at the offer so my first role in infant Theo’s life was babysitting.
After my life-changing flush with Ildiko in the Casanova nightclub in Buda one of my classmates, Knurr Feri, and I waited for dawn to arrive by the Danube. The sun rising through the haze was warm even early on. Loose mist lay over the river; the eager fishermen were casting from the stone steps. We just sat there chatting, taking in the scene as the town started to wake to the murmur of traffic. Next we decided, do not why, to make our way up to Rózsadomb (Rose Hill) where Gül Baba’s tomb was housed in an Ottoman building. He was a Turkish holy man who planted roses on the hill in the 16th century hence the name. Turks come on pilgrimage to this day. As I remember it there was a stone sarcophagus covered with Turkish rugs. During my boyhood the dome of the building was struck by lightening. Knurr Feri died in 2012.
In 1961 Adrian, his brother Gabriel and I travelled to Hellas to see the ‘glory that was Greece’. She did not disappoint, I have been a Hellenophile ever since. We travelled light, our sleeping bags were rolled up inside duffle bags, minimal clothing and definitely no razors. We could sleep anywhere in the open though the rocky ground meant most nights were spent tossing and turning. On one occasion dog-tired, not far from Mykonos, we put down in the middle of a field burying our heads in the sleeping bags. Next morning we were woken up by the pressing of light feet on our bodies. A flock of sheep were driven over us, as we looked up we saw the bellies and udders of yews from underneath. The shepherds just laughed in the distance.
Bill Coleman, always Mr Coleman to me, was an old timer in the village of Waltham where we had a cottage. He had a cheeky all knowing smile. Mrs Coleman, still do not know her first name, and Mr Coleman had two boys and four girls. Like for everyone time caught up with Mr Coleman. He died after a long unhappy illness, hated hospital, hated even more being away from his missus. The funeral service was in the church that sat at the end of the village on raised ground overlooking the valleys around. It was simple but moving medieval single-nave church, which had very few memorial tablets. Waltham was taxed dry by the Knights of Malta to finance their crusades, there was no money left for embellishments.
Mrs Coleman asked me to give the funeral oration, which I took as a great honour. The gist of my speech was that he was not famous, not rich, took no part in the war but his life was a success nevertheless. His great success was his family! The family liked it very much though Mrs C mentioned that he had some minor role in the Home Guard. After that I have given two more funeral orations and one reading. I have entered the age when people close to me died (being an atheist passed away would be wrong for passed to where?).
When we bought our cottage in 1979 Waltham was still a self-contained village. It had a village school, pub, shop, church. Once a year there was a village parade. Buntings were hung from the electricity poles, Margaret, the shopkeeper’s wife in all her ampleness could be cheered waving proudly from the tractor-pulled trailer. We, the only weekenders from the big city, enthusiastically joined in. The end of the garden was dug up for a vegetable patch but we were a little disappointed when the potatoes were found to be full of maggots. No matter, this was rural England, not quite Cider with Rosie, but the real thing. First, the school went in a county-wide rationalization of the education system. The shop was next, with its all -important post-office counter, on the retirement of Margaret and husband Anthony. With the shop went the parade. The pub struggled on for a while, the trade was strictly weekend, during the week hardly anyone went out for a pint. The church though is thriving thanks to its energetic wardens, it has not looked this good, well, since the Middle Ages. The houses have been smartened up, some newly built but all inhabited by commuters. Waltham has become a kind of suburb in village clothing. Hope none who live there hear this!
We lived from 1950 to ’56 in one of the best parts of Budapest; that is best before the war and the communist take-over. This was Rózsadomb (Rose Hill, as in 64.). Villas, built by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, lined the climbing streets. At the bottom of our street, what else but Rózsadomb street, was another steeply sloping road. One of the buildings there had major building works in progress to make good war damage and add another floor. A construction elevator to transport men and materials was attached to the building. It spanned over the pavement the shaft landing directly on the roadway. I was making my way home passing just yards away when there was a tremendous, frightening crash. Dust and cries followed. Something went very wrong with the elevator, it fell unstoppably to the bottom. A man who was riding on it was killed instantly. The body was lying on its back, the eyes were open but dull and lifeless. His workmate cuddled him in anguish as we looked on someone who a few minutes ago was so alive. The once living became an object, no longer a who but a what. This is the question mankind has been trying to confront forever about death: where has the life gone?
Woodlands and valleys surround Waltham (in Kent). One of the country lanes winds its way down from the church offering long views over meadows and the bank opposite where we walked often. The soil in this part of Kent was never very fertile, full of flint. There is plenty of wildlife though, rabbits, foxes, deer, (only guessed from footprints), owls and badgers. The badgers dig deep setts in the chalky slopes kicking out the dirt forming level entries. They are nocturnal animals emerging to forage after dark. The badgers eat anything: roots, grub, potatoes, worms, bulbs; they are no respecters of keen gardeners. To see badgers one has to sit by a sett somewhere in a wooded hill waiting for light to fade into night. The end of the day has its own ritual. In the twilight trees become black outlines; modern life’s noises are distant. Bird chirrups stop, pigeons let out their last coos, leaves rustle until all go quiet. It is then that for some life starts in search of food. On some evenings the thrill was to walk into the woods, find a sett then crouch on stools straining our eyes for the badgers to appear. Suddenly, quietly the badgers would come out not doing very much but even in the dark their white stripes would show where they were. Any noise from our unwelcome audience would make them scurry back but soon they would poke their noses out again or disappear through another exit. Often they would shoot off on well-trodden tracks only to return at dawn, hardly worth hours of waiting. Sometimes we would sit around but they just played absent. There was nothing to it but fold the stools and quietly make our way to the warmth of the Compasses Inn for a pint.
In Visegrádi utca, XIII. District of Budapest, floor III. apartment 6. is where we lived once back from the unsuccessful escapade to France when the war broke out. One of our neighbours, post-war, was a young couple, Gyuri and Vera Lamm. He was going to be a doctor and she taught English. He was handsome and amusing. She was dark with black hair, black thick eyebrows, a fine row of white teeth and very very serious. Vera became pregnant and from then on I, a young boy, heard nothing but the inconvenience, vomit, the dreaded pain of giving birth, the aftermath, the staying up at night whenever my mother met Vera, Vera’s mother the formidable Martha, and other middle aged women who seemed to be in abundance around us. On top of it all she did not have enough milk so a complicated machine was purchased by Gyuri to extract it from Vera’s reluctant nipples. The contraption was mostly black with some shiny tubes, an awful rubber cone for fitting around her breast, a motor-driven pump and a glass for collecting the milk to feed baby Peter. Yuk, I froze with embarrassment at the sight of it. But, thankfully I was a boy, no pain for me or any of the other horrible things. I have been grateful ever since.
Once I was turfed out from my uncle’s centrally heated house in early 1957 my life started in the world of London’s freezing rented rooms. The first where I went had a skimpy gas heater positioned where the original coal fire used to be. It was fed from a coin-operated gas meter; you put in a shilling and got, I think, an hour’s worth of flames. But, first in the morning, great willpower was needed to leave the warm bed dashing for the meter. The room was enveloped in its own climate of cold damp air, the gas fire hardly made a difference and anyway only warm near it. The next room I moved to was the same then a friend located a flat with central heating in Cricklewood, a truly dispiriting suburb of London. The landlady was friendly, and at last civilised temperatures prevailed. The block where the flat was must have been designed in the thirties by refugee architects from the continent. And this remained my abode for the next three years. I did minimal cooking, washed my drip-dry nylon shirts and just concentrated on my studies. The student maintenance grant from the blessed Middlesex County Council was six pounds and twelve shillings per week, the rent was three pounds so I could manage. Cricklewood’s only claim to fame was the eponymous Crown public house, the terminal of the 113 bus. The bus ran until eleven in the evening, if you missed it was walk all the way past drunken Irish labourers who set about each other with relish after closing time. I could hardly wait to escape Cricklewood. My chance eventually came in 1960 moving to elegant Maida Vale. Whenever I happen to pass through the place, even now, I still shrivel feeling great relief for having left the place.
In Ann Arbor I shared a rickety house with other students. It looked fine from the outside though a little out of square. It was all timber, built in balloon-construction in the late nineteenth century. Frames for a whole side of the house were nailed together on the ground slab, lifted, then the other sides were built the same way clad in shiplap trying look something substantial. In no time a single carpenter could put together a whole building. Some were faced in fake bricks but they were all timber houses through and through. My aunt told me the rule in Canada was that if a fire broke out forget your possessions just run for your life.
I shared digs with another architect, John L. There was another flat on our floor occupied by two girls who studied law, one a buxom blond the other plain but amusing. We shared endless late hours with them. Upstairs two more students, a tall and a short, shared another flat. One night John and I were at home, watching a game while working on drawings, when there was a heavy thud that shook the timbers of the balloon frame. We did not think much of it. Then came a scream and the sound of someone running down the stair in a panic. Still we did not pay notice but then police sirens stopped outside. Mayhem followed. The lanky fellow upstairs hung himself from a doorframe. In a perverse way I tried to figure out how when there was hardly any height to jump from. The burly policeman came to interview us, almost jolly, ‘this happens not infrequently on this campus’! Being away from home, the pressure to pass tests, the loneliness were too much for some frail young minds. The lanky fellow’s possessions were put in a box and left under the stairs. They were never collected by his family, perhaps something was missing from his life all along.
Kati Krasznai was my first girlfriend in every sense; I was about twenty then – a late starter. She had everything in the right place if not quite in the right proportions, short, with oily skin, small round breasts, arcing dark eyebrows, huge hips, cheery wide smile with gleaming teeth. She also claimed to have lost her ‘virginity’ while doing the splits in a gymnastics class, I believed her. Her father and sister perished; her mother who always had a pained expression never forgave Kati for surviving the much better-looking sister. That is how twisted the tragedy made some people. The mother remarried and produced a little boy. The husband had a job at Harvey Nicholls, a matter of huge prestige among the Hungarian refugees. The family lived in a north London. I was busy with my architectural training; she was studying something at a polytechnic, perhaps domestic science. Good as this arrangement was becoming an architect always came first in my priorities. One night I walked her home in the cold and as we stopped outside a shop window staring at our reflections we said that if in a year’s time we were still together we would marry. I doubted it even then but it sounded good. The last I heard from Kati she was in Arizona.
In the year before our matriculation, that is in 1955, the head of our class organized a trip to the Tatra mountains. To most this meant going abroad for the first time. I think ten of us could afford it, from the remnants of the old middle class. We camped in tents, washed in a nearby stream, ate from tins, teased the head who was only a few years older than us. I exchanged a ‘gold looking’ watch for some Czech currency. On that I bought strong plastic carrier bags much sought after in Budapest because the Czech industry produced superior products even under communism. My mother carried her belongings in those bags in 1956 and I still have them packed flat as mementos. We explored the surrounding steep mountains. I ventured out with some friends then split off on my own climbing up a rocky slope. This was fine as long as I made my way up but then I turned around. The valley below appeared as a precipice. Suffocating fear gripped me, I simply could not make my way down, I was up there in mortal danger all on my own… Eventually heard voices, I shouted for someone to rescue me. The Czech cousin of one of us, an experienced mountaineer, climbed up easing me down to the mirth of all. My classmates still recall this with relish.
Adrian and I set off for Italy in the summer of 1960. At the last minute we were forced to transfer to his rather beaten up Lambretta scooter as our intended mode of travel, my Matchless motorcycle with a sidecar, was stolen the night before departure. We rattled around London arranging the insurance as I sat on the pillion leaning over at traffic lights with a screwdriver to put the gear back to first in the opened up gearbox. The Lambretta eventually took us all the way to Rome but not before the rear hub gave way under the weight of two young men with their tent, sleeping bags, pots, clothes and sketchpads. The breakdown happened in a village by the Forět de Fontainebleau not far from Paris. The local mechanic could not get a hub-replacement any time soon so, I have been admiring the French ingenuity ever since, he placed the aluminium hub in his lathe drilling new bolts into it. This though meant a stop in the forest overnight and a meal beforehand in the town where, luckily, there were agreeable English girls to flirt with. After eating the most basic nosh, drinking the cheapest wine we somehow made our way to the forest to kip down under the swaying trees. Centuries of fallen leaves made the ground beautifully soft. Against the black sky the branches with their gently whooshing leaves became visiting ghosts but the scented air, and the plonk, put us to sleep in the primeval, natal calmness of the forest.
Next day we were all ready to go but that night has stayed with me longing, always, to get back to nature’s cradling in the soothing darkness.
There is more on the Lambretta story. On our way back we stopped in Milan to visit the Lambretta factory to tell them what great machines they produced, look this beaten up sample took us all the way from London to Rome! They nodded but then said Lambrettas have been to the North Pole, well almost, so our trip was nothing out of the ordinary. Having visited the Last Supper, then still in its unrestored state and hardly any queues or security, we tackled the climb up the Alps. In first gear we made our way up the steeply sloping road passing expensive cars whose engines boiled over. We, two scruffy architects, just carried on to the top with no little satisfaction.
After the war Hungary went through a raging, avalanche-like inflation; the value of a salary dropped between the morning and lunchtime. New bank notes were printed with ever increasing zeros. There was nothing in the National Bank to back up the currency as the retreating Nazis booted the gold reserves, and much else, with them to Germany. At war’s end the gold bars, luckily, landed with the Americans who transported the lot to New York. In 1946 a delegation traveled to New York asking the US for repatriation of the reserves back to Hungary, which was rapidly recovering but desperately needed a stable currency. The Americans relented and that summer the forint replaced the worthless pengö.
We were friendly with the Sterk family. Sandor Sterk had a workshop where jute sacks were made in an environment so thick with fibres it was difficult to breathe or even to see. I don’t know how the workers survived it, perhaps they didn’t. Sandor was doing well, in fact after the war anyone who made anything did very well. The birth of the new forint was announced on a warm summer morning, 1st August. My mother and I went to Sterk’s workshop on some business. He led us into his office. Now look! With great self-satisfaction he opened the safe bursting with the new notes. Somehow between the morning and afternoon he got hold of thousands of the new forints. We were mightily impressed but my mother soon had her own. The forint, of course is still around tracing back its name: Florence > florin > forint.
In the summer of 1965 I made the transcontinental journey westward from Ann Arbour to San Francisco. I traveled on my own in a clapped out Plymouth Valiant, three gears and no air-conditioning but a willing workhorse. The width was just too short for a comfortable night’s sleep on the rear bench-seat. The US in the summer was stiflingly humid, so it was slow progress, not much comfort. The empty landscape rolled by but I liked that, it was the vastness of the country. I was young and eager to discover the American heartland. After visiting relatives in San Francisco, dreaming that was the place to be for an aspiring architect, I carried on south through Texas eventually to New Orleans. I stayed in a dormitory of the local university just out of town. In the evening I made my way to the city to listen to jazz, visit bars, stare, walk along the Mississippi to admire the elegant houses built by ship captains, even climb up to the terraces with their wood beads to look over the river. Huckleberry Finn was never far away for anyone of my young days, the river and Huck were inseparable. I took a Greyhound that was almost empty when we set off. The driver was a burly white man with strong, hairy, freckled arms that one always comes across in the South. I sat next to him to get a better view of the countryside passing by. White suburbia soon gave way to black townships. The blacks getting on at stops moved to the back of the bus, in between us the whites in the front and the blacks in the back there was no one. It only occurred to me later that this simply followed the racial order of the south, at least then.
I do not remember the Northern Poly architecture school with any pleasure but that is where I became an architect or at least obtained my Diploma with Honours. This distinction I only discovered later, it would have been useful to know when applying to American Universities to do an MA. I do not know why but the head of the school, Mr Bath, who succeeded the venerable Mr Scott, called me into his office. Outside was his rotund secretary keeping guard a Miss Somebody whose name escapes me. He sat me down opposite him and said: ‘Vaci, there will be no Intermediate if you carry on like this’. It puzzled me as I was not doing too badly. The Intermediate test came after three years of studying and only those who passed could do the full five years. It was a bit of a bloodbath, no pun intended, as the original forty-five was reduced to just nine. I got through. Indeed I passed all of my exams first time round throughout the long five years. That, as it transpired, entitled me to the with Honours. Whether that was down to Mr Bath’s warning or my no-nonsense education in the Budapest gymnasium remains open to interpretation. I certainly did not lack self-motivation to finish, leave the student life behind on £ 6 12 shillings a week and at last embark on a career.
Again remembering the gymnasium. When I would come home from school, at around 1.30, Ilonka, our maid who was shared with two other households, prepared my lunch. It was usually some kind of cabbage mixed with boiled potatoes, definitely not something to ask for another helping. I would sit alone at the table while she crouched in the corner just watching. Meat was strictly once a week.
My first words were in French. My father, mother, uncle, his wife and eighteen months-old me traveled to France in June 1939. There was a serious purpose behind it, the brothers wanted to start a business near Lille with a French partner and if successful settle in France. They deposited me in a residential kindergarten or rather Jardin d’enfant, as a toddler would not have been helpful. I was miserable, could not understand anything but eventually mumbled a few words I learnt from the matrons hence when I started to speak it was in French. There must have a flotsam of foreigners’ children there. We were near a fence one afternoon when a Russian toddler, bigger than I, pushed me over cutting my forehead as I fell. This I recounted many times as an early example of Russian brutality against little defenseless Hungary. I was placed into the infirmary where I waited for my parents to turn up, have they abandoned me? What I remember clearly, still, is that my socks were hanging on the iron bedstead. After a very long time, years?, they reappeared by my sick bed, perhaps the greatest relief of my life. Then came the 3rd September when war was declared. The French immediately ordered out all foreigners who were citizens of belligerent countries. Hungary, in fact, did not enter the war until June 1941 but was already aligned to the Axis camp. The 5th September was our Sortie from the Grade du Nord taking the train to Trieste (still have my uncle’s passport to prove it). I forgot my French in no time.
During the strictest Stalinist years, that is until 1953, there was no travel abroad. Only one of our classmates crossed the border, his father had a very high position in some government department, and that was to Bulgaria. Truly exotic!
In 1961 Adrian, Gabriel and I traveled to see the Glory that was Greece. The complications of my statelessness is for another story. In Venice we boarded a Greek ship with its shambolic crew but no matter we were on our way. Those with the cheapest tickets had to sleep on deck but that had its compensations at night. Above our heads was the black dome with its sparkling stars exactly the way the ancient Greeks saw it. Except! Except! Moving slowly there was a tiny dot passing the stars. A sputnik.
During my years going through architecture school I had a maintenance grant from the Blessed Middlesex County Council. Say blessed as Middlesex had long ago been amalgamated into Greater London. My weekly allowance was £ 6 12 shillings, in the late fifties that was just enough to get bye. £ 3 went for rent, on half a crown plenty of food could be bought at Woolworth, I cycled to Holloway Road weather permitting. To earn a supplement above the £ 6 12 shillings I tried working in coffee bars but was fired after a few weeks. Eventually, my stepfather, who managed a silk screen-printing factory, got me a job as general helper on Saturdays. Long canvas-covered tables were laid out on which the fabric was stretched. Frames were laid over with the pattern formed in the silk screen. A thick dye was poured in at one end of the the screen then a long rubber squeegee – a man at each end pulled it back and forth – squeezing the colour through the tiny holes. Once dry other colours were added. When ready the fabric was put into an oven for curing. The expert workers were all Italians from Como.
The foreman told me, being on the bottom rung, to clean out the lavatories. It was a filthy task for a spoilt middle class boy who not that long ago lived in a spacious luxury apartment in the best part of Budapest. They sniggered behind my back but I told myself that this was good for character building. All the time I was cleaning out the bowls I knew that one day I will be an architect and this will be just a step to toughen me up. I also knew that when I eventually started designing buildings they would still be squeezing dye through the holes.
Part of this I heard just recently from a friend of my mother, Ági Füzes.
Budapest has a long tradition of a town with spas. Natural hot springs on the Buda side of the Danube have been fed into baths since Roman times. There are still Turkish baths and several grand spa buildings that were erected during the heyday of the town’s nineteenth century development. The bourgeoisie would be regular visitors to engage in the mild physical activity of paddling across the pools, have their inflated bodies pummelled and meet up with friends to gossip. One of the best was, still is, the Lukács (for St Lucas). Visitors from abroad would come, that is before the Second World War, to seek the water’s healing powers. The walls to the entrance were lined with marble plaques displaying the grateful words of the mended. Even in communist times the old middle classes kept up their visits, it was the place for a hot shower before going to work. The plaques though were censored, any from Americans taken down.
The Lukács was also the preferred pool for the wife of Hungary’s communist party leader, Mátyás Rákosi – someone called Fenia Kornilova with Mongolian looks. Whenever she took a swim the Lukács was closed to the regulars, the wife of the leader sharing the pool with ‘the people’? No!. The attendants would give a wink whenever asked why the place was shut. It was at the Lukács that I learnt to swim. The pools were open to the skies even in mid-winter, snow would fall on one’s head while doing the lengths.
My mother and stepfather were hurriedly married after the Revolution in ’56 before making their escape across the Austrian border. Ági, ninety-two years old, told me that after the Registry Office they went on honeymoon…to the Lukács.
The first English football team I ever heard of as a schoolboy was Aston Villa.
Recently I have become fond of dogs. Perhaps it is down to Wyndham’s slender legs and elegant gait, a whippet that belongs to friends. Once the siege of Budapest was over in February 1945 we made our way back to Pest. We walked through a devastated city of ruined buildings, dead horses, fresh graves, shot out tanks, not a single pane of glass in any window. We walked in the middle of the streets to avoid falling masonry. Occasionally other hungry, sunken-eyed citizens came by. Then a dog sidled up, not encouraged but it just followed us from a safe distance. Perhaps its owner was killed, or it got separated. Whichever way we went the dog was not far behind looking at us with pleading hungry eyes. But we only had enough food for us, my mother was tempted to throw him something but that would have meant less for us. We became quite fond of our dog, there was nothing for him but he just decided we were worth keeping to. We tried to shoo him off but to no avail. Once we got to our destination in Pozsonyi út the dog decided that we were a lost cause so reluctantly walked away. But the faithful dog with its animal kindness, though not wanted, stayed in the memory with a tinge of guilt.
Still in post-siege Budapest that is post-February 1945. Russian soldiers, who took hold of apartments, were simple men who never before came across WC-s that flushed everything away with water.
One lot of soldiers got hold of a live fish, which they put in the water of the toilet bowl to keep it going till later consumption. Expect it flapped around trying to find a way out. Someone must have had a need, and being unaware of what use the bowl had been put to, pulled the chain of the overhead cistern whereby the fish, by now dosed in waste, disappeared into the drainage system with a loud gurgle. The disappearance of the fish was taken as a slur on the honour of the Soviet Army. Amid much shouting about the moral rectitude of everyone’s mothers machine guns were angrily pointed at the frightened owners of the apartment. That is all I remember or perhaps it was my mother who told me this with no little satisfaction. An intriguing thought is that the fish was flushed all the way to the main sewers, eventually back to the Danube where it came from, a happy ending of sorts.
During my five years in architecture school, in order to expand my horizons, I spent every summer touring to see buildings in England and abroad. The Abroad had its complications for being a stateless refugee I could only travel using a blue Travel Document issued by the Home Office. Still, it was a great deal more than not being able to see anything of the world from communist Hungary. Come to think of it touring sounds a little grand, it was in fact hitchhiking, then still safe for both hiker and driver.
The Travel Document, blue but at least with a hard cover, required that visas be obtained well ahead in reverse order so that any country could deport us to the country we just came from. So the visa order for exploring Scandinavian architecture was England > Belgium > Germany > Denmark. Then Denmark > Sweden > Finland followed. I travelled with Peter Markus from our course, a fellow refugee from Hungary, whose parents previously had to flee Greece once Stalin pulled the curtain on the Communist Insurgency there in 1949. The Greek communist refugees were distributed to satellite countries and that is how Peter and his family ended up in Hungary. The 1956 Revolution gave Peter the opportunity to escape westwards via Austria to England. Such stories were not unique in post-war Europe. He eventually ended up in New York and we lost touch.
The first task on arriving in Copenhagen was making our way to the local Youth Hostel, excellent places for young people who had to manage on pennies. Copenhagen, indeed Denmark, was a friendly welcoming place where being recent refugees from Hungary carried a certain cachet. Just then a film was being made about the war-time occupation that required a shot of the main square showing hundreds of cyclists circling, I think, to confuse the Nazi occupiers. Peter and I got jobs as extras acting the brave Danish cyclists. It was a very satisfying moment worth pints on our return to London.
At the Youth Hostel we made our way to the cafeteria for lunch. Round tables were laid out with national flags so the travelling youth could show where they came from. The British sat with an air of nonchalance, the French with superiority eyeing suspiciously the Germans. The Italians just smiled. There was no flag for us so what to do but sit meekly at a table displaying the blue flag of the United Nations. Then came something that has stayed with me ever since. A tall, bespectacled American got up from the Stars and Stripes and walked over to sit with us. Yes, in absolute sympathy. This small gesture, which made me a friend of America ever since, was worth several Marshall Plans.
I was a late developer; reading age ten, swimming age twelve. It would be an easy excuse to say the war kept me back but then other boys of my age who lived through the siege of Budapest could read and swim by age seven.
My breakthrough with reading came in 1948 with Gulliver’s Travels in a junior edition. Slowly letters joined into words, words into sentences then into whole pages. After he reached Lilliput I was on my way. At last the frustrations of nagging my aunts to read books aloud were over. After Gulliver there was no stopping me, I became an avid reader who could hardly wait to get home from school to bury my head into Karl May’s Apache books, three thick volumes of it. Later when we lived in Rózsadomb there was a shelf above my bed filled with the complete edition of Mór Jókai’s novels. I started off on the left reading book after book but by the time the middle was reached I developed a complete aversion to his romantic stories and have not touched one since. Jókai was translated into English but now forgotten.
The swimming took even longer, my fear of any water deeper than four feet was becoming an embarrassment. My stepfather enrolled me at the Lukács (St Lucas) for swimming lessons under the stern gaze and grey moustache of Uncle Dezsö who lorded over all in his spotless white outfit. Uncle Dezsö had a contrivance to teach you to swim without ever getting into the pool himself. This consisted of a long pole with a cord at one end attached to a wide belt. The aspiring swimmer would put the belt around the waist while Uncle Dezsö laid on the pole, which was projected over the handrail. His left leg would be wrapped around to other end of the pole balancing the weight of the swimmer. Instructions were shouted down to push the arms forward sweep back kick the legs for full breaststrokes. Sandor, stretch forward, more and again and again, Sandor try harder or you will sink forever! Eventually all his charges would get the hang of it. Uncle Dezsö’s trick was to loosen his leg no longer supporting his pupil who did not realise that they have started to swim on their own. As with my reading I became a very keen swimmer doing thousands of meters in the pool summer or winter in the open, swim far out in the Balaton, the Danube and eventually into the deep blue sea.
My first job after qualification from architecture school was with a firm called Austin-Smith Salmon Lord. The Austin-Smiths were a husband and wife. Mike Austin-Smith fought in North Africa then up Italy where he earned the Military Cross for directing the escape of his tank standing up in the turret while under fire. After the war Mike went back to the AA to complete his architectural training, there met a busty, business-minded student whom he married. They sat up in practice with two other just qualified architects, the Salmon and the Lord. Mike, who was handsome in a David Niven kind of way, wisely kept his contacts at the Ministry of War (renamed Ministry of Defence, surely an early manifestation of political correctness). These contacts were busy handing out building commissions to house the newly constituted Regular Army. His wife ran the business side, the two young ambitious partners attended to the practice of architecture. There was plenty of work rebuilding the country, social housing and a recovering economy.
One of the commissions from the Army was to survey every single building in the Chilwell Camp outside Nottingham. Chilwell was where the Army’s heavy equipment was serviced, that is tanks, guns, lorries, any heavy machinery to fight an enemy. Our whole office decamped (not a good pun…) to Nottingham for the survey. The camp had over one hundred and fifty rather ramshackle buildings, which had to be measured, assessed and reported on. I figured out that the internal height of a building could be measured by focusing my brand new Pentax camera’s lens on the highest point then read off the markings. This was proved very useful.
Being professionals we were invited to eat in the Officers’ Mess but were free to mingle with anybody in the camp. One sergeant told us, with no little glee, that a young officer arrived one day in his brand new low-slung red sports car which he parked around the corner of the largest repair shop. A tank rattled out making its trial run. The driver could only see high ahead that was usually no problem as the whole idea of a tank is to flatten anything in its way. The pretty little car did not stand a chance, it became crunched up metal under forty tons of Chieftain. The young man’s loss in his pride was immeasurable. It was most unfortunate but judging by the glee perhaps not so much an accident as taking it out on the ‘toffee’ class.
The General Election of 2015 was yesterday on 7th May. In 1959 Harold MacMillan was elected for the second time after a successful campaign against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Friends from the architecture school took me along to Trafalgar Square to witness the bonhomie as his triumph was announced. The cold of October did not stop the wild and young from climbing into the fountains, drenched but ecstatic. For a good view we stood on the upper level just below the National Gallery. As so many times in my life I was a curious but detached observer; still in stateless mode, voting was still years away. By the time of the next election in September 1964 I was a proud subject of Her Majesty the Queen but away in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Going to the Consulate in Detroit to vote was too much hassle. Indeed my first vote was not cast until 1970 by which time I was thirty-two, mature but lacking political nous.
My mother rented a box with the S. family at the Budapest Opera. If you were middle class, that is before the communists finally took over in 1949, you were expected to attend opera performances. The ornate gilded surroundings were the place to show off and gossip. Mother took me to all the performances in the Budapest repertoire. By age ten I had seen all the grand operas. But she did not take me one evening leaving me with the maid. But I was a naughty boy sneaking out in my pyjamas making my way to the Opera. There all attendants knew me so let me go upstairs into the box. I opened the door settling down into my normal seat at the front. There I was watching, Verdi’s Othello, in my pyjamas, My mother thought it was a cute thing to do and a good story for a while.
More from my trip to Greece with Adrian and Gabriel in 1961. We hitched lifts and walked in the baking sun towards Mycenae to explore the Tomb of Atreus then to stare up at the Lion Gate that adorns our professional body, the Royal Institute of British Architects. As we strolled we came across a small group of women struggling to drag a lamb along. Trying to be gentlemanly I rushed to help by picking up the lamb wrapping the animal’s warm belly around the back of my neck while holding its feet. The lamb liked it and I was so pleased to be taking part in this biblical procession. The women chatted leading us to their house. There the men, strong and tanned since Hercules, welcomed us offering drinks with the always-warm Greek hospitality.
It turned out that the lamb was there for a festive feast whose name escapes me. The poor creature was strung up and as a gesture of great honour I was handed a knife to apply the fatal cut across its bare throat while it stared in fear with bulging eyes. I could not kill the animal, which laid so snugly over me just an hour ago; it was so innocent, powerless. Yes, like in the Bible. I declined to the great mirth of the Greek men who had no problem doing the deed, we even turned away whilst they bled the carcass. But then came my, our, hypocrisy. We merrily joined in eating the roasted lamb downing it with retzina.
In the Tomb of Atreus, a great stone dome, we whispered to the wall that carried the sound around to be listened to on the other side, it was one of the magical places of Hellas.
The fog in London, at its densest, was a surreal experience almost like floating in space. Tiny stings of soot, on which the moisture settled, were felt on all exposed skin, you saw it and felt it. A white shirt within hours had a dark rim around the collar. Nothing in the fog had a clear outline, a blurry world surrounded everything. The arrival of a bus was first detected by the sound of the engine and only later did the lights emerge in the soup getting brighter as it got closer but still enveloped. Visibility was so short that the bus driver could not see the sides of the road to steer straight, the conductor had to walk in front with a torch to guide him, yes always a him no women drivers then. The fog even penetrated into where people lived, a longish corridor one could see signs of the haze. The streets were lit with the orange glow of sodium lights, which supposedly penetrated the denseness more than white. Once the Clean Air Act started to have an impact, in effect banning coal fires, the soot disappeared taking the fog with it. The fog only survived in the imagination of foreigners and song, Foggy London Town. The fog was one phenomenon that even those who yearn for the past never wish back, there is no sentiment about it.
In 1989 I bought my first Apple computer to produce drawings. This was the original little upright machine called the Macintosh that combined the processing with a built-in screen. The screen was so small that another monitor (only nine inches) was required to follow the details of anything drawn. A dot-matrix printer produced the output on paper. By today’s standard it was all rather basic particularly the software, but, a big but, it worked. Within two weeks of acquiring this assembly of working parts the drawing board with its parallel bar became redundant. Other more advanced Apples and software were bought as time went along. The drawing board though stayed as a very convenient writing surface, much more useful with its sloping top than a flat top desk.
Now that the (2018) Football World Cup is under way again a memory has cropped up of a match that I was fortunate to attend in 1954. This was the return leg of Hungary versus England following the Magic Magyars’ humiliating victory in Wembley the previous year that ended in 6:3, the first time England suffered a defeat on home soil. We listened to the match on the radio in Budapest and the ecstasy felt by a small country, whose history was always on the receiving end, is hard to imagine. The glory was reflected on all, the regime basked in how a communist country could defeat an old capitalist power. Of course that is not how we saw it – Hungary again exceeded herself only two years after the triumphs at the Helsinki Olympics. Then one could be proud of being a Hungarian, well at least in sport.
The match in Budapest was played in the People’s Stadium, Nép Stadion in Hungarian, the upper tier of which only stretched half way around and has remained like that ever since, expect they simply ran out of money to complete it. Still the stadium could accommodate 92,000, one per cent of the country’s population. The excitement about the match was palpable everyone desperately wanted a ticket indeed obtaining one required serious political or economic connections. There was no way a sixteen year old boy could get hold of one unless he was the offspring of a party official. However there was hope for me in the person of my angelic Aunt Kato. I was the son she never had, in some ways I was closer to her than to my loving but intellectually rather unenterprising mother. Kato’s husband Jenö (Eugene) who had a managerial job was allocated a ticket not that he ever went to a football match. My aunt of course knew that I wanted nothing more than to go. What followed between Kato and Jenö in the confines of their bedroom I cannot guess but he in the end generously passed his ticket to me. So on the day in May1954 I marched amongst an excited crowd to the stadium, we appreciated our privilege of being present and of course we had no doubt who would be triumphant. Some people shut themselves in the lavatories overnight to be present but were caught. My ticket was for standing room in an awkward part so it was a strain to see the match but who cared. England were thrashed 7:1 indeed the spectators felt such sympathy for this outplayed team that when Billy Wright, the captain of England, made a foray into the Hungarian half he was wildly applauded. England eventually managed a single goal, the Hungarian team’s defence was not its strong point but then they could always outscore the opposition. Later there was more kudos in telling people of having been present at such a historic event, well in footballing terms.
The Magic Magyars were at their peak travelling to the World Cup later that year and when beaten by West Germany in the final all the reflected glory turned into bitter dust. The team had to come back in a circuitous route. There were mass gathering with nervous police driving around. It was the first time an unauthorised demonstration under the communists took place, perhaps this was the forerunner two years later of the revolution in 1956.