(This essay begins with two paragraphs that were published in Four Fields.)
In the autumn of 1986, four months after the disaster at Chernobyl, I moved to Budapest to study for a year. In the Nagycsarnok, the big covered market on the Pest bank of the Danube, a white-coated man with thick-rimmed glasses was often stationed behind a table covered in a white cloth. You could show this mushroom doctor what you had collected in the Buda hills and he would identify the species and separate the edible from the poisonous. He wrote authenticating chits so that the old men and women who got off the trams and trolley buses with baskets of mushrooms might sell them from the small tables at the back of the market. This little area was one of the best things I saw in the workers’ state: a capitalist concession to the last peasants in the communist city. I liked the little altars of honey and herbs, of two eggs and ten mushrooms, and the ancients steadying themselves behind their tables. I bought jars of honey and its gloopy sunshine to light the winter, but I was always wary of the mushrooms, even with the doctor’s notes. The first autumn after the explosion, and nearer to Chernobyl than I had ever been before, I wrote in my diary wondering about radiation and how it might be laid invisibly into everything that was banked so richly through the market: glistening seams of pig fat, carp like old shoes lying in tanks of dirty water, headcheese, huge bruised apples, collapsing curds, strings of hot paprika looking like dried tongues, barrels of chopped, vinegary cabbage that made you wince as you passed, and buckets and baths of plums and grapes smoking in their own bloom.
I didn’t know at the time, but the radiation had blown north and west of Budapest and the food I’d left behind in Britain was probably more at risk of contamination, but in any case my fears moved on and landed elsewhere. A mix of curiosity and trepidation had drawn me to Hungary. It was a European country but one that had made me a target through the Cold War and that had the wherewithal to kill me. I half knew this was crazy but I also knew that I wanted something from the same angled light that had cast these distortions and refractions. What was that curtain drawn across Europe made of? I went east to see myself more sharply, but of course I carried my own bent light with me. A vagrant, even a vagabond, even a master’s student, always comes from somewhere. The novelty and remoteness of Hungary then – I heard no English spoken except in my head for weeks at a time – revived and refocused two almost invisible madnesses that had clouded my childhood and teenage years. These were not my madness – they were the world’s: the fear of poison and the fear of the bomb, bad stuff forged from the dust of life, brightness falling from the air turning everything dark.
I was lonely in Budapest that winter. The cold pointed it out. Never, before or since, has my breath been so continuously visible. Never has it dropped to the ground so unwanted by anyone else. A girlfriend I had miraculously found in England after several monkish years came to visit six weeks after I had started in Hungary. I showed her the market and the mushroom doctor and a black woodpecker hacking a hole in a beech tree and everything else that I had noticed but we had already lost our touch and gone wrong. Walking together along the Danube and into its hills through wet meadows in the autumn’s dripping mist we could have spoken to one another as if in a hushed room. We didn’t and she didn’t quite have the nerve to finish with me then. We had to do that over a weekend of failed telephone talk once she’d gone back to England; me trying to ration my increasingly desperate steps to the call box at the metro station and then, red eyed and winded, kneeling to the floor of my landlady’s corridor, weighed down by the heavy black handset she’d let me borrow for one emergency call, and stunned by the cool and final voice in it coming, as it seemed, from the far side of Pluto.
Three things saved me that year: oranges, music and birds. The winter came in quickly from the east, very cold and very grey. A thick, felted sky blockaded the country for six weeks. The smoke of the chimneystacks along the Danube snagged under the clouds and gritted the city’s head. My throat felt as if a chain-harrow was being dragged across it day and night. People stayed inside whenever they could and lived on bottled things. I didn’t have anything saved, tried the floury apples from the market, and started taking honey as medicine. Then one day the sun, as it might appear through winter cloud, was suddenly for sale on the streets in the form of Cuban oranges. Special stalls were set up outside the city’s central supermarkets and stations. Queues formed for the novelties. I bought my ration, a bag of six. They were cold, almost frozen in my hand, but they had trapped the light of summer even more than the honey had and when I cut through their old skins they bled. The next day the stalls had gone and the winter resumed. Over one empty weekend a heavy shudder of cloud sank over the river and froze it. All day was dusk and in the half-light I watched the Danube’s water turn thick like vodka. The next morning the river was sealed and it stayed that way for a month.
In my room I listened to the BBC World Service from London with the warmth of the African sounds of Andy Kershaw’s World Music programme drifting in swirls and hisses through the short wave. All things had become east or west to me but here was south, like the oranges, and I loved it for that: Sona Diabaté from Guinea singing like an oracle; the Kilimambogo Brothers making misery danceable; Diblo, genius Congolese guitarist, turning electric strings into a kind of woodwind; Kanté Manfila and his balafon player Ibrahim Diawara taking watery xylophone music and playing it through the Sahara’s sand. I stood to a kind of encouraging attention to one side of my radio trying to fix the bellying signal through my body. The reception improved as the winter clamped itself in place and the ionosphere lowered to the level of the ice on the river.
As well as draining the plasma of the World Service, I started making cassette recordings from Hungarian radio when it broadcast entire and uninterrupted records of western artists. I still have them. One week it was the new album by The Pretenders, the next a concert by McCoy Tyner. I liked these gifts from the People’s Republic to its people, the collusion in the snubbing of copyright and hard currency, the hours of rhythm and blues rubbing at the frozen earth, one record playing one song by Chrissie Hynde making the winter bearable for thousands of people. I imagined half the country, like me in the dark, poised for the announcer to finish his cue, holding down Play and Record on their Soviet machines; all of us little Bartóks intent on collecting these precious arrivals from the other side of world.
Hungarian records were cheap. The shops along the Lenin körút stocked only vinyl and almost exclusively communist vinyl. Hungaroton, the state record label, was especially cheap and though living on a grant of £30 a month I could still buy an album most weeks. I didn’t have a record player but filled a box under my bed with disc after disc to ship home. I bought lots of Bartók and Kodály. I bought a few records by the licensed pop groups the state allowed into its studios. These albums had lyrics written with unwanted listeners in mind. Hearing them again now – the singer-songwriter Zsusza Koncz or the faux gruff-rock band Edda – they sound almost unbearably sad: their tiny stabs for freedom, their aping of corny western idioms that carried a inflated value in the straitened east, their studied avoidance of saying what they meant. Listening to them today reminds me – Coleridge writes about a similar feeling in ‘Christabel’ – of watching my children, when young, laughing at appallingly ropey has-been comedians, and my being moved to tears by their innocent happiness and by how all the horrors of life seemed held off by their giggles. The jokes are rubbish, of course, but how could you – why should you? – dissent from the happiness they bring.
Most of all I bought folk records. New accounts of traditional Hungarian music seemed more exciting than anything else to me, though I may well have been over-reading its meanings just as my Hungarian friends did the other way. I was often asked to transcribe songs by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and spent hours repeatedly writing out the lyrics to ‘Imagine.’ In return my new friends tried to explain to me the songs their grandparents knew. We built and dismantled our respective utopias and arcadias in this way, working through our flawed understandings, whilst reaching across the borders no one admitted to wanting.
In the mid 1980s Hungarian traditional music was widely played live in Budapest. I heard it performed most often in Dance Houses where my friends tried to teach me some appropriate steps for the loose and sawing strings that had been fetched out of the hay meadows and villages of Transylvania by brilliant young musicians from the cities of Hungary. They travelled, transcribed and learned, just as Bartók and Kodály had at the beginning of the century. The state sanctioned this revival of folk music thinking it a sort of peasant pop, neither western nor market-focussed. But listening to traditional songs, especially those lovingly taken from the isolated and vulnerable Hungarian population in Ceauşescu’s Romania didn’t keep young people especially compliant in Budapest or Szeged or Miskolc. If anything it nurtured a strange kind of melancholic nationalism in an audience who ought to have been too young to be affected by such things.
I learned about some of the politics behind the music and its various values to its various makers, encouragers and listeners, but mostly I just liked it. I liked it as soon as I heard it and began to tease at the sense of the words, also loving the walking rhythms, the pounding feet of the bass, the way the instruments scraped at the experience of the song over and again: loss restated, love returned, leavings and dyings, the sour scratch of life and its fleeting joys. It was wonderful to watch too and to feel yourself overtaken and repaired by the music wherever or whatever you had been before it started. Never had I felt so included in movement whether I consented or not. I was lifted from the floor of a Dance House in Mohács first by the stamp of the musicians and the watching crowd and then by the joined throng of dancers that the crowd became. I didn’t know the words and didn’t know the steps but I was never happier in Hungary.
The musicians I watched were playing other people’s tunes, singing other people’s lives. Sometimes they even did it dressed up in smocked shirts, waistcoats and leather boots, and then they went home after their performances in taxis or on the metro. The smocking wasn’t essential yet very little of this felt ersatz to me. There was saccharine gypsy fiddle music crying into tourist gulyás in one or two Budapest restaurants but that was only a sad sideshow with its grinning performers like chained bears. Dance House music was something else. The players were transformed by what they played regardless of what they were wearing. I watched the musicians join a tune, stepping into its river, the equivalent of finding an opening in water, blowing or bowing low and quiet behind it before rising to meet and fuse with its current. They kept time, the players, and so could join the swim. In that joining you sensed a past animated and running towards you across the old earth through all its weathers. A fiddle tune was taken from the fields to the city like grass forked aloft as music. My friends and I were students and teachers not peasants but we couldn’t but move in the way the music made us. At our feet the antic hay.
From their relatives who still lived and farmed in Transylvania my friends brought back to Budapest cuts of bacon, jars of berries pressed to jam, and bottles of mind-warping ‘kosher’ pálinka, clear spirit drenched in fruit (apricot, pear, or plum) and as thickly viscous as the freezing Danube. The music from Transylvania, Erdély in Hungarian (it also means Beyond-the-Forest), imported the same to the city: versions of food and warmth, the life and labours of the fields captured and held, songs cut by people from the bigger stuff of the world. In them there was open-air work, bows cutting like scythes, instruments made like implements, hand-worked and hard-worn, with coincident delicacy and heft. The tunes could be hard as well as sweet. The violin slobbered with tears as often as it forked grass. The songs were bitter at times and cruel. In the winter in the city they released the smell of hay like a bale prised apart but also the acrid stench of a dung-heap turned over.
When all else seemed to have left the city the music kept the river flowing beneath the ice. The Budapest winter was almost without birds. Rooks went south in October and fieldfares followed in loose stepped flocks calling above the Danube as they steered down its length towards warmer hedges. I remember the end of one near birdless day in particular. I had walked until dusk on old snow under bare grey limes around Jánoshegy in the Buda hills, seeing nothing, shivering and trying not to think myself ill. I had hurried to cancel the broken affair. At a Dance House I met a Hungarian girl called Márta and we’d kissed after she had helped me with a csárdás. She drove her tongue into my mouth just as she had pulled me around the floor and by the end of the evening we were scrabbling at one another in the lift to my flat. There was an understanding, I was learning, that if you had the fleeting privacy of a room to yourselves, you took it. Hold the space, slip into the little pool of time, and close the curtains. The city was crowded with children living with their parents and sharing rooms deep into their adult years. There was always a grandmother somewhere. And there were only these rare opportunities. But within hours, I felt guilty and then sick. This went on all the way to an AIDS test.
As I waited at the bus stop to leave the woods seventy waxwings flew into a tree just above me, whistling themselves warm. The bus came and as its doors opened for me the birds flew on in a brown arrowhead. They had never meant to stay. There was a song I had heard sung by Márta Sebestyén with the folk band Muzsikás whose words I had begun to learn and like: ‘Repülj madár repülj’, fly bird fly. The singer is languishing in a ‘love prison,’ szerelemtömlöcben, and urges the bird to carry news of heartbreak out to the wider world. I thought of the song that night back in my room but I took a different record from my unheard collection, slipped it from its sleeve, and perching it on my finger, peered at its grooves, trying to catch the trapped sounds. It was called The Unknown Music of Birds and had been compiled earlier in the 1980s by a Budapest musicologist, Péter Szőke. Of all the records I hadn’t heard it was the one I knew I had to listen to.
The next evening, after making rough duets playing ropey tenor sax to my Hungarian friend József’s far more plausible trumpet, I asked, if instead of listening to John Coltrane, our customary sorbet, we could put on the record that I’d brought with me. In his flat we sat and listened, drinking the end of last year’s wine, the házibor grown and made by his father on the south shore of Balaton in a season and under a sun impossible then either to recollect or to anticipate. The record began ordinarily with recordings of Hungarian birds. Between them a slow and deliberate announcer’s voice gave their scientific names: Alauda arvensis, Oriolus oriolus, Luscinia megarhynchos, Parus major, skylark, golden oriole, nightingale, great tit. The birds sang. It was summer where they were. Then, after the great tit as we know it and as we think it knows itself, came a great tit slowed down, then slower still, then even slower. Deeper and deeper the sounds came, heavier and heavier. And, with them, József’s cloudy wine and the warmth from his tiled stove I was all but taken under. Trills slowed to barks, sonic trawls came from beyond the horizon, and a tearing at the night more raw than any folk bassist could make. I heard Albert Ayler in a great tit, and then, like a sound from a foghorn across the sand wastes of the puszta, the saddest bugling ever heard. A heart’s journey in winter. Lullula arborea. Teevo cheevo cheevio chee, as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it. The woodlark: perpetual sprinkler of sweet blues on its song flights overhead but here slowed down and down and put into the mouth of a man. I succumbed. Bird song doesn’t have to be manipulated to pull us apart but the baritone soloist from the Hungarian State Opera singing the woodlark, as Orpheus might, made it so sad it was hard not to cry. I heard some far away gone or buried world brought up from a time when we all might have sung the same tune.
I fainted at my AIDS test but it was negative, the girl from the Dance House disappeared, and one day I heard the ice cracking on the Danube beneath me as I walked over the Chain Bridge. The spring hurried in. In the gutters there were still lingering bergs of ice, rusted with thawing dog shit, but I looked from my window and saw a hoopoe flying north over the rooftops of the city. Like a waving hand it raised its crest as it thought about landing. Quickly the rest followed the scout from the south, with swallow song and bridal lilac moving up towards the hills, and in the woods on the tops collared flycatchers appeared, the males perfect in their black and white wedding suits, piping their slender metallic songs like smart blacksmiths. Nearby, after a black woodpecker lolloped away through the trees purring its far-carrying call, I picked up a splinter of beech wood that it had just hacked from a hole sixty feet above me, intent on digging itself out of the season.
In early April I went with Markus, a birdwatching friend, to the far east corner of Hungary where around the narrow knuckle of a pulled punch the country meets the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) and Romania. I had never been further away from Britain. We ate slabs of chocolate embedded with whole cherries and, in an abandoned quarry, watched a pair of huge eagle owls blinking in slanting light, looking like old generals in dressing gowns. We walked towards Moscow along a minor road out from Nyíregyháza and I peered towards the borders as Markus told me a story about how, as the Prague Spring of 1968 was being done to death, Dubček was summoned on a train that took him east. The train, driven under instructions that were not the Czech ruler’s, straddled the border not far to the north of where we were and then stopped, half in Czechoslovakia and half in the USSR. Dubček was told to walk to the front of the train. There, having crossed the border onto Soviet territory, he met Brezhnev who gave him an almighty telling off before sending him back down the carriages to what he had once hoped might have been his own country.
It grew dark as we walked and we arrived at our destination: a weather station. Markus had a friend who worked there and he ushered us into a room of radar receivers lit in glow-worm green. As we watched the bar strobing around one screen the drift of light behind it was studded with brighter spots. Antennae were angled towards the Soviet border and we were seeing clouds of night-migrating birds moving north-east across Hungary and towards the Soviet Union. They were coming back, caring neither for wire nor radiation. In the cave dark of the room we sat at the desks and craned into the screens. As I looked down I came close to fainting for a second time. The pools swarmed and swam in front of me, like a sky of stars, as distant but also as touching. The night had rolled out of the east but we could see into it. All borders were open. The winter was finished, defrosted by smudges of birds made into green light.
Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields (Jonathan Cape). He also wrote The Running Sky a memoir of his life as a birdwatcher and is the co-editor (with Simon Armitage) of The Poetry of Birds. He has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty-five years. He is at work on a book about the Spring.
The waxwing image was taken by Emmy and Bafta award-winning photographer and filmmaker Ian McCarthy. Ian has worked on many of the BBC’s landmark nature programs, including Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life in the Freezer, Autumn Watch and Frozen Planet. www.ianmccarthy.co.uk