Monday, 29 October 2018


Today the Times reports that the murderors of Jean McConville were Marian and Dolours Price, plus - they always insisted - a third, anonymous person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Price sisters argued that that person was the one who fired the fatal shot - but, as they admit that each one of the three fired one shot into poor, innocent McConville, this attempt to shift blame looks pretty pathetic in moral terms.

I had not heard of the Price sisters before today. It turns out that they were part of a group of people who carried out the Old Bailey bombing in 1973, in which at least 200 people were injured, (and a second bombing was intended, although it did not in the end occur, so who knows how much bloody mayhem they were willing to create). Furthermore, Marian was later involved in an attack on the Massereene Barracks in which two British soldiers were shot dead.

From my perspective, these women are violent fanatics, cold-blooded murderors of innocent people and there is no political cause that can ever justify their actions. But the gulf that lies between my perspective and that of supporters of the IRA is immense. Search for the two sisters on the internet and you are instantly met with articles that sympathise not with the sisters, but rather their hapless victims, and articles that express outrage at the sisters' - to my mind, all too brief - incarceration.

A letter written by Dolours in prison seems equally unable to imagine another perspective. Rather than expressing regret for her dreadful actions, she bemoans being deprived of the opportunity to live a full life, to have children and to love. She writes without irony, apparently unable to recognise that these were the precise consequences of her actions against Jean McConville - and, of course, not only did she deprive that poor woman of all opportunities, she deprived her children of a happy childhood.

Well, my perspective is that, no matter the cause, terrorist violence is never, ever the solution. Once the decision to commit violence indiscriminately, targeting a civilian population or someone you merely suspect of being against you, your cause has lost its legitimacy. No justification you produce about how cruel your opponents are or how rigged their system may be can ever make killing acceptable. If a new order has its foundations in bloodshed, it is corrupted and indelibly stained.

And, in the specific case of Jean McConville, a terrible, cruelty was committed and it was utterly wrong.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Adventures in the Cinema

In a cartoon by the late, great William Hamilton in a long ago New Yorker, two children, aged about nine or ten, are walking along, deep in conversation. As Hamilton's pen catches them, one is saying to the other: "Bludgeon of Death was a good movie, but Screaming Eyeball was a GREAT movie".

Reversing and paraphrasing Hamilton's caption, I would say, having just been to the new film by Laszlo Nemes, "Son of Saul was a great movie, but Sunset is a lousy one". I wrote about it here.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Stung by a Robot's Scorn

I have an account that allows me to buy an audio book each month and usually I buy mystery novels which I listen to while cleaning the bath and doing the ironing and generally trying once every four weeks to keep filth and chaos at bay.

But this month, having heard someone on the radio say that they'd read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire several times and found themselves spotting parallels with events in Washington on a daily basis, I decided to choose the audio version of that book instead.

As the audio version turned out to come in at over 100 hours (maybe even over 200 hours?) of listening, our house was going to be miraculously clean this month, our clothes miraculously crisp and smooth. That is, if I hadn't realised rather quickly - well actually not that quickly, several hours in, to be truthful - that listening to something that dense entails then having to search out large chunks of the written text in order to read it over and absorb everything in it properly.

And, once I'd made that realisation, I decided I might as well wait until I have time to read the book itself - at which point, I returned the audio book to the firm from which I buy my audio books.

The return went without a hitch and about ten seconds later I received an email confirming that things had gone smoothly and that I now had a credit to my name.

But then came the sting - the electronic sneer, the yeah-we-saw-how-you-were-trying-to-pretend-you-were-an-intellectual-but-couldn't-cut-the-mustard-you-never-fooled-us-we-know-your-type-exactly moment. For the email, which began, "We would like to inform you that your return of Gibbon's Decline and Fall has gone through successfully", ended, "and here are some crime thrillers and mysteries that we think you might like to chose instead."

What is that mocking sound I hear in the distance? I think it may be digital laughter. I was hoping that  that was a thing of the future, but it seems it's a thing of right now.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Wesselenyi Wandering

The day before yesterday, as I've already explained, I was inspired to go down Wesselenyi Utca, near where I live in Budapest, to look for Goldmark Hall. What I didn't mention was that on the way, I saw this nice man - (I do have a weakness for faces on facades, although I'm uncertain whether this is shared):

 who was gracing a building that also displayed these rather fine mosaics:

I thought it would be a bit flippant in the context of yesterday's blog post to suggest that this museum, next door to Goldmark Hall:

seemingly devoted to the first Hebrew woman to become a parachutist, might have a very limited audience, which is not entirely to detract from the subject's individual achievement, merely to question whether there is enough of a story there and whether, if there is, it is of deep interest to a huge range of people. But I suppose before making a final judgment, I ought to go to see for myself.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Theatre of the Exiled

I have had a book called Jewish Budapest for a long time but until yesterday I'd only ever used it to look up in the index the street where I live and bathe in the reflected glory of the fact that the Catholics in two of its buildings bravely hid Jews during World War Two.

Yesterday, though, I started to read a bit more of the text and discovered that, while, (as I knew already), in the 1920s the Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki introduced laws restricting those of Jewish origin from various activities, these laws were subsequently repealed - or at least fell into abeyance for a while. However, in 1938 a new series of laws were introduced that once again restricted the activities of the Jewish citizens of Hungary - and, despite the fact that there are quite a few things I've read about Pal Teleki that attempt to deny or at least mitigate his anti-Semitism, on the evidence provided in Jewish Budapest, it does appear that his role was absolutely to be deplored, (a speech of his from a parliamentary debate on the introduction of one of the (Anti-) Jewish laws on 15 April 1939 is quoted as follows:

"I support this bill based partly on my own conviction; I agree with its main points, by and large, but at the same time I must emphasise that had I submitted a bill drafted entirely by me, certain portions would have been much stricter ... This Act introduces the alien ideology [sic] of race and blood into Hungarian legislation and mentality ... I have been convinced of the appropriateness of this attitude in its scientific and social aspects for more than 20 years now, as I have argued in words and writing."

Possibly Teleki is being selectively quoted but, if his sentiments were as this passage suggests, the softness of many commentators in discussing his behaviour is wrong and the Hungarian statesman from that time whom we should all be admiring is Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who paid for his bravery in arguing against anti-Semitic measures by being murdered by members of the hateful Arrow Cross movement in 1944).

Once the first of the new (Anti-) Jewish Laws (as the book calls them) was passed, no Jewish authors could publish their works except in the Jewish press, no Jewish actors or musicians could perform, except among their own race. As the book says, "In the cultural and intellectual sphere, the ghetto was set up before its actual walls were erected in Budapest."

Showing great initiative, the Jewish community set about providing its own artistic forums in various places around Budapest, but most prominently at 7 Wesselenyi Utca, which is not far from where I live. The Initiative of the Artists, which included in its number Sandor Fischer, father of Adam and Ivan Fischer, was formed and it managed to provide work for about 700 artists of various kinds.. On Saturdays and Sundays, both in the afternoon and the evening, and to begin with on Tuesdays and then from 1942 also on Thursdays, drama performances, literary evenings and musical evenings took place. Opera performances included: Verdi's Nabucco in January 1939, Cezar Franck's Rebecca in February 1940, Beethoven's Fidelio on 9 November 1940, Gluck's Orfeo on 20 January, 1941, and Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio on 27 January, 1941. Also scheduled, but never performed, due to the imminent arrival of the Nazis in the city, was Verdi's Aida on 2 March 1944.

There were performances of plays by many different playwrights, including Molnar, plus a production of Hamlet in 1943. There were recitals by, among others, Jeno Deutsch, a pupil of Bartok and Kodaly. Late in 1944 Deutsch disappeared in a forced labour camp. On 8 December, 1941, the Hungarian premier of Bartok's Divertimento was held in Goldmark Hall and on 7 December, 1942 an evening celebrating Kodaly's 60th birthday was organised, which Kodaly attended. Performers included Dezso Ernster who left Hungary later and became a soloist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Sadly, not all his colleagues were as lucky: David Ney who sang with Ernster in the Theatre of the Exiled was taken from the ghetto of Koszeg and died in a concentration camp at Horsching in Austria in 1945.

Zoli, a famous clown, (real name Zoltan Hirsch), was also among the Goldmark Hall regulars, but in 1945 he perished in Auschwitz.

Laszlo Zsigmond, who the book explains was a noted scholar of music history and poetics managed to set up a music academy at the Goldmark Hall as well.

"The last performance in the Goldmark Hall", Jewish Budapest explains, "was on 18 March, 1944, one day before the German occupation of Hungary. Then it was impossible to continue. The building itself, including the stage was hit by a bomb during the siege of Budapest. It was rebuilt only in 1974. The Hall is in perfect condition and in regular use ever since, but the stage has not been rebuilt."

Naturally, I wanted to see this remarkable place, so this morning I walked down to 7 Wesselenyi utca, the address of Goldmark Hall. Here are some pictures of the building that was the setting for those defiant performances, in which - or through which - the participants expressed their refusal to be defeated by bullying and prejudice, to be cowed by attempts to crush the spirit of a particular community:

My book provides two long passages from a 1982 work called Bells of Atlantis, by George Sandor Gal; the first is about Goldmark Hall and the performances there, the second about the Goldmark music academy that was formed within the building:

1. "The Goldmark Hall became a peculiar cultural ghetto. Jewish actors banished from the theatres performed dramas here, singers discharged from the Opera House staged whole operas and the musicians organised such an orchestra that their concerts attracted personalities like Sergio Failoni, Aladar Toth and Zoltan Kodaly, who came with his unforgettable wife, the grouchy, forthright and genial Mrs Kodaly, or Emma neni, (Aunt Emma). Their appearance at these concerts was, of course, not only a matter of artistic enjoyment but a political protest. These people - we may as well call them heroes - gave evidence that no prejudice could stop them."

2. "God Almighty, what a school it was! Where Bence Szabolcsi [a great historian of music, particularly Hungarian music] would just drop by, silently, as a guest! But in spite of his modest, reserved conduct the invisible flame of his glorious spirit was there with him, burning like a sanctuary lamp. The minute he entered the largest room, which was now turned into a concert hall, the air started blistering around him - it was the presence of Spirit and Knowledge, of the kind of curiosity which makes man human ... He spoke gently, in a faint voice, which kept his students quiet too. He spoke of the Goldmark school, of Hungarian music. In his spontaneous talk there was no hint of the prevailing brutal laws, no trace of resentment or accusations, as if this coarse, hostile world did not exist out there. He did not refer to it with a single word, yet it was clear: these few years of yellow armbands, Jewish Laws and forced labour seem like a short intermezzo, a tiny fragment of time compared to the millennia through which Hungarian melodies have been flowing from the Siberian desert to the Great Hungarian Plain, to the banks of the Danube and the Tisza, like a flag torn a thousand times, though ultimately glorious ... On the second occasion Szabolcsi came with a guest, Maria Basilides, and they gave an improvised concert ... Not only did they recall old tunes, but the landscape too where they were born, the people who created these tunes, the plains and hills, which carried the tunes further, and a whole people who had been struck and imprisoned by fate ever so often and who could dream and sing even amidst the greatest poverty."

There is so much to be admired and so much poignance in the collective efforts that went into maintaining artistic life in the face of concerted attempts to shut artists of a particular race out of creative life. I will not walk down that part of Wesselenyi utca again without thinking of those people and those dark days.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Not Distant, Just British

I had some English friends to stay the other day and was rather embarrassed as I felt one of them had been a little chilly to one of my good Hungarian friends.

When I saw this Hungarian friend again, I apologised for my English friend's somewhat icy manner toward her.

"Oh, I didn't think that she was being chilly", my friend said and then proceeded to tell me a story about a Spanish man who was found on a beach madly making love to a dead woman. When the police asked what the hell he was doing and told him how wrong it was to commit necrophilia, he exclaimed in surprise. "Dead?" he said, "I didn't know she was dead; I thought she was just English."

In the same way - well no, not exactly the same way, I suppose, but in a similar way - my Hungarian friend assumed my English friend was not being chilly, but merely very British.

So I suppose you could say I was saved by a stereotype.

Speaking of which, it turns out that, whereas some Australians claim to believe that the best place to hide £20 from a "Pom" is under the soap, some Hungarians have the same illusion regarding the citizens of France.