I'm increasingly spending most of my radio listening time to BBC Radio 3--uncompromisingly traditional and high modernist classical music rounded off with first class world music every night--since I came back online. Radio 4's relentless anti-Blair, anti-Bush, anti-Israel take on just about any news story they can shoehorn it into has got beyond my listening tolerance. The final straw was the very prominent platformm the Today programme gave to the raving fringe Islamist extremist Abu Izzadeen through an interview last week.
Tonight, Radio 3 has been running a wonderful extended feature commemorating the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and its crushing by the Soviet Union in the November of that year. The link takes you to a page which should enable you to listen to the whole 2 hours and 45 minutes of it. Listen in if you can.
I remember those events of 1956 so vividly. I was just twelve at the time, and my limited political sensibility had already been given a radical shock by the Suez invasion, the spectacular Israeli victory over Nasser's Egypt and the consequent withdrawal under threat from the US Eisenhower administration.
Hungary was something else, because in the climate of 1956 it disturbed my then sense of a stable Europe divided into a free west and a grim and deadened Soviet sphere, which included all the countries of central Europe. My mother's stories of her summer visits as a child to interwar Czechoslovakia had evoked an image of that country as a sort of paradise, with peasants coming out to sell wild strawberries on the platforms of the stations that the train went through as the family travelled to Marienbad. She carried a sense of indignation that the Czechoslovakia of Masaryk, who she much admired, apolitical though she was, had been crushed by a Soviet-engineered coup.
My father's take on the Soviet Union and its satellites was much more paradoxical and ambiguous. He'd grown up in a Polish shtetl, where his comment on Polish anti-semitism was a laconic born-of-experience "they drink it in with their mothers' milk". He had a sympathetic affection for Communism, though I doubt he ever voted Communist.But he kept pretty quiet about it, because it appalled my mother, and it was at the height of the McCarthy campaign against Communist subversion in the US and the west.
He used to take me as a child to the radical "Workers' Circle" Jewish workingmen's club in the East End where we lived. Yet each year, he avidly read the account in the Jewish Chronicle of how many brave Jews had turned up at the Moscow Synagogue to celebrate the Jewish New Year--and inevitably attract the attention of the KGB.
Hungary 1956 was the first sense I had of the headiness of what a genuine popular revolution feels like. It was electrifying to listen in to the daily radio reports of people on the streets facing down tanks, even destroying tanks. And the people seemed to be winning. The Soviet tanks were retreating. Students were defeating soldiers. Spontaneous street meetings, newspapers appearing, revealing the creativity and energy that had been hidden behind the uniformly predictable cliches of the Soviet controlled media.
It was uncanny listening to tonight's broadcast, because I recognised so many of the news broadcasts that I had listened to fifty years ago. It had all left its traces in my mind over half a century. And then there were the accounts given by the Hungarian emigres of their experiences of being right in the middle of it. Yet the things they remembered were exactly what I remembered from the radio broadcasts.
And then there was the catastrophe of the Soviet reversal of policy, the massing of tanks and troop reinforcements, the crushing reinvasion of November and the cynical arrests and betrayals of the Hungarian politicians who tried to negotiate with them. It was utterly depressing at the time, like seeing those patients of Oliver Sacks who'd awakened from decades of semi-comatose existence ultimately lapsing right back into their previous state.
The saddest memory I have of that time was right at the end, where the doomed Prime Minister of the abortive new Hungary, Imre Nagy, made an impassioned broadcast to the west, crying out for them to come to Hungary's aid. I knew they wouldn't, and the broadcast quality was terrible, as I listened to this plaintive voice, followed by the playing of the melancholy and dirge-like Hungarian national anthem, of which the translated line, "Here you will live, and here you must die" were what stuck in my memory.
I kept remembering that broadcast as the Hungarian exiles spoke on tonight's programme of the last days of the revolution and their dawning and devastating realization that they were beaten. And then they too spoke of the same Imre Nagy broadcast, and quoted the same words from the anthem.
I found that so touching and moving. For I had been a twelve year old in Stepney, admittedly surrounded by the debris of the worst of World War II's bombing raids of London, but with no real awareness of what it was to live under a totalitarian regime that promoted itself as a people's democracy, and with even less of an understanding of what it was to glimpse, and then lose a revolution into freedom. Yet I shared and retained the same memories across thousands of miles and years of time.
We were the winners even then. For the UK opened its doors to the Hungarian refugees with a generosity that it never again showed. And this evening's programme showed the wealth of brilliance and talent that flowed into this country and the US from the borders of Hungary.
Ironic uptake: when my daughter was in the early years of the secondary school, the class had to prepare individual surveys of the places their family had come from, for their geography lesson. It was a highly selective, very elite school. There was virtually no-one in the class who was from a solidly ethnically English background. That was obvious, anyway, from just looking at the names on the register. But then there were two girls, both of them mathematical geniuses and general all-round paragons of excellence. Both had very English names, like the equivalent of Jane Smith and Helen Brown.
In the music lessons, the girls were asked to sing songs from their home cultures.
Both those girls sang Hungarian folk songs.
Turns out their mothers were Hungarian refugees of 1956.