Magda’s Boy: How George Szirtes invented his mother

Magda’s Boy: How George Szirtes invented his mother


there’s another little thing about
Englishness, which is that there is a Literature Festival here, a poetry festival
and I was the chair of it in his first few years and one of these occasions we
decided to do a public reading of well-loved poems and other poems in the
Market Square just there and one of the poems that was read was John Betjemen’s Subaltern’s Lovesong, the one which goes ‘Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J
Hunter Dunn, furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun, What strenuous singles
we played after tea, We in the tournament – you against me’, and it absolutely reeks of
the social Englishness of the period and afterwards I was talking to the absolutely
nicest man on the committee and he said to me: I don’t suppose you’ll ever
understand what that means to us George. And I thought, what’s going on here? Fair enough maybe he’s right, maybe he’s right I’ll never understand, but I always thought I
did, maybe in the end I didn’t. The poet George Surtees was born in
Hungary in 1948. Here he is at the age of two in Budapest in a photograph taken by
his mother. This is in the Liszt square which we lived in just outside.
It’s incredibly smart. fortunately I wasn’t too aware of them at that time except that in one of
them the photographs in this album a rule that George carried with him when
on the 29th of November 1956 along with his mother father and younger brother
and thousands of others he crossed the border out of Hungary tears streamed
down the cheeks of grief-stricken refugees who must flee now for their
lives behind them the Soviet tanks were rolling through Budapest the prophetic procession makes its way
to the Austrian border we walk the cosa border
I’ve yet to abandon most of our things this is in the middle of the night and I
was given one thing to carry which is a little case which I’ve actually got
underneath here somewhere how much was full of photographs because
my mother was a photographer but we left very quickly so what she did she opened
the drawer and just took out what I was in the throw and threw it in that old
bag she said okay this you look of this your responsibility it’s a
responsibility surtees has taken far beyond that border crossing over the
past 40 years these photographs have been the inspiration for much of his
poetry now they formed the basis of a new memoir about his mother in prose
rather than verse I spent some time with Surtees to find out more about his
mother’s extraordinary story and about his life and work as a poet he’s
published 19 collections on the TS Eliot prize the Chumlee Award and many others
and translated numerous Hungarian works into English including novels by Laszlo
krasna or Kai he’s a prolific tweeter and face book or to even publish as much
of his poetry on those platforms sometimes tweeting several poems a day
where does all this work come from how does he approach it and how does a
Hungarian born poet living in England and writing in English go about
transforming his family’s traumatic past into a literature of the present George surtees lives in Windham in
Norfolk spelt like that but pronounced Windham it’s a small market town about
ten miles southwest of Norwich the journey a day I visited happened to be
what seemed like the wettest day in the history of the town what you’ve got
coming up here is what the market across there are not too many of those things
on stilts surtees moved here with his wife
Clarissa Upchurch about 30 years ago when he got a teaching post in Norwich
this is our street that we look like a shot so this is yours with their flowers
yeah versus my wife Studios behind this is a butcher’s Clarissa is a visual
artist and 30s used to want to be a painter too can you really explain these
paintings yeah yeah sure well you know I’m into art school and so the clear
said that’s what they mess about 47 years ago so we painted this scene and I
did the figures services vaguely figurative George yoni that’s a figure
at the pier della Francesca the dream of constant time there are the painting of
watching TV that’s not really my kind of painting I
wasn’t really what I used to paint that’s what I was painting in my second
year of article at beads so that was a painting like before it was the
decorative stuff on the wall soon his football in there yep and well yeah that
there’s I think a fantasy in this is I remember is that the Snowman who looks a
bit like a bottle and his football scarf tender on a missile and it’s a memory of
walking home after matches by myself when I was a kid because I used to go to
various lung and clubs and just sometimes we had one or two friends
sometimes just let’s see what but while he was at art school he was also
experimenting with poetry I wasn’t a formal writer to begin with at all my
earlier poems are kind of more they just surround all over the place and they’re
full of spectacular images and if the late but $0.75 and with the
death of my mother actually that’s when I began to write formal poetry because
the poem that was about her which is at the dressing table in Mira turned out to
be more or less a six beat line and it was much more convincing when it had
that sort of regularity I was very lucky I had Peter Porter as a mentor would see
me every few months and I could send him fibres exploded meet in a pub and talk
but when I started writing formally he almost gave up on me because I was
writing badly but I had you know I had to learn I suppose and I felt that the
learning was necessary and important and would be worth it in 1978 thirties was
included in one of Faber and Faber spirit reintroduction series and his
first collection soon followed but he only really found his voice as a
poet after a visit to Hungary in 1984 I said literally for three weeks going
around as though I were in a daze it’s touching thing smelling things I think I
hadn’t been back there since I left and suddenly everything is both familiar at
me and yet not a particular so you recognize the dimensions of the street
you know as a sort of noise that’s being made in a street by conversation you
recognize the smells but if somebody said to you where exactly was that house
I couldn’t find it and I was awfully overwhelmed by those three weeks and it
changed rest of my life because that’s when I started translating that’s when I
gave up the visual art that’s when I said this is now what I’m gonna do and
that there’s you could sense that there’s a whole lot of material in
Budapest so he knew that he were at the rim of something Surtees channeled this
material into several long poems and collections exploring the private and
public lives of both his family and the city during the turbulent middle decades
of the 20th century one of the things that going to hungrily did was he got me
writing longer because there was error mortis stuff so so writing short poems I
began to write sequences the first of these a photographer in winter concerns
the most hopeful and energetic period of his mother’s life after she’d moved to
Budapest in 1940 when she was just 16 years old
she was born in Cluj also known as kala spar in Romania in 1924 Cluj had been
part of the austro-hungarian Empire before the First World War but was given
to Romania after the Treaty of Trianon in 1921
Magda’s parents or middle-class Hungarian Jews Magda had an older
brother there sir whom she adored she was often sick as a child and spent a
lot of time at home with rheumatic fever at 14 she left school to study
photography and a few years later she set off for Budapest in the footsteps of
Curtis and brass I to make a living with her camera in the photographer in winter
thirties dramatizes this adventure so this is a route you take across the city
the tram goes rattling gone you touch your hair before you stand and will cut
down a street your hair is swinging loosely the snow breaks my picture up it
needs a few more takes to get this right your costume is correct historically
speaking they will expect immaculate appearances discreet camera angles
convincing details please cooperate with me and turn your head
smile vacantly as if he were not dead but walked through parallel worlds now
look at me as though you really meant it I think we could be good for each other
hold it right there freeze
it was through photography that she met George’s father Laszlo his sister Lily
was also a photographer and one day Magda took some negatives to her flat
she wasn’t in but lastly was there I open a front door and stood lost in
admiration of a girl holding a paper box and that is how I fell in love I’ve come
she said to bring you this some work from the photographer or rather it’s for
MSD would you pass it on to her she is my sister but she’s out you must wait
for her inside I’m expecting her all right now come in I held her front door
wide Magda soon moved into the flat where Laszlo’s mother and sister were
living but a few weeks into their relationship Magda and Laszlo watched
together from a cafe as German troops marched into Budapest Hitler had ordered
the occupation of Hungary in March 1944 allowing Adolf Eichmann to begin his
rapid program of deportations across the country he was assisted by the fascist
Hungarian militia the Arrow Cross lászló was sent to forced labour in
Ukraine and in November 1944 as Magda was returning to her flat she saw the
arrow cross pulling people out of buildings on her Street she ran home I
was on the fourth floor Bernard filled with uniforms and River called to order
an Iranian to the flat we shared the old woman a daughter and a child and all was
empty I whispered their names but they did not answer to our lasting shame they
should have answered me out of the pit like any prompter from his own hellhole
but they closed their mouth to my pitiful dough so I went down and here’s
the end of it those men have strolled at ease about our yard
but God will grant them fair reward and punish them according to their lot you said you’re not a formalist but you
do get described as that yes I do know I’ve loved understandable reasons what I
mean is I don’t have a set of formal principles and I don’t have a formal
manifesto what I have is it’s of series of apologia for form I ballistics of
describer I am as an accident waiting to happen
and it should be an accident waiting to happen and that’s the whole point of it
and you think well why is that interesting and then I would try and
explain it there would be no apology apology er there but it wouldn’t be out
of a sense of oh I must read the rest modernism or I must go back to something
traditional whatever that is I don’t even completely believe in that idea I
think one is looking to make some kind of dough to strike a point that is
halfway between the ordered and a chaotic and I think the idea of her time
as an accident waiting to happen is is kind of that I mean why should you why
should these two worth it have nothing to do with each other except they make
the same sound governed they did the process of a piece of writing
what makes poetry poetry is that which you were not completely expecting you’re
in a frame of expectation but then must make that out away but then something
extra happens something which you think oh and that’s where language takes at
the full jump which then the neuroscientist describes this is a
breaking of the pattern and I think rhyme is one of the ways of doing it
it’s not a way of doing it at all you can create all kinds of expectations
through diction through sharing music lots of other ways yeah but it’s but I
would defend it as one possible way of doing it should we move on
you connect a very narrow winding stair I wanted 30s to talk more about how he
comes up with his rhymes as an example he chose a poem from his collection real
in which he’s remembering an old book from childhood teacher is telling a tale
the books lie open like a pair of lungs breathing words ghosts in the graveyard
wail to other moons the Stars have moved so far beyond the page they’ve gone
right off the scale small crumbs of icing in an empty jar
now that small crumbs of icing in an empty jar I just met this thrill of
discovery and why is the jar there could he runs a farm had I not read to rhyme
is far no jar would have appeared I wouldn’t have had to invent something
and suddenly see this jar with little bit tiny little bits of icing left into
it anything that’s kind of what’s left of the childhood ghosts and you can kind
of feel it radiating through you and I think so that’s why it happens and it
happens because of some purely mechanistic constraint and have to do it
I could have said myself I’m not gonna join now and I’m going to change it to
all or ear or something permissible thus people’s Larkin has done it everybody’s
done it but if I go straight down the line straight down the line what I’m
just for car now I can’t get a car in here bar no if this cars like this boy
this boy’s not going to talk about a bar I’m something I could talk about
something a jar and then I’m thinking a jar and I was like no no no no charge I
never mind the Jar Jar what’s in it nothing what’s inside what
what’s left it’s absolutely nothing now there are
some few crumbs of icing and I think childhood
opening a book a ghost story and then out of nothing appears this jar with its
little crumbs of icing in it I know and I’m pleased as punch of it I’m delighted
with it so and I try to explain it sometimes to people and I think it’s
some kind of trick that I’m sort of making this up as it sort of excuse but
it’s the excitement of that and and not being in control because once you’ve
chosen your rules you live by them you live or die by them or at least you’ve
chosen your route my mother served time in to
concentration camps the first ones rather this brook from which she was
fortunate to be transferred when she was transferred and she went to his smaller
camp so many like Zig called penny so this little part I’m gonna read the
Americans have relieved the camp they’ve taken those who are sick and they were
ill today few left because everybody else had been sent off essentially in
the Death March so she was lucky in a way to stay behind
and they took her to a nearby hospital in a small town called okay I read to
you from here everyone leaves you are starving the dying around you continue
to die the Americans arrived there is a sensation of being lifted up of being
prodded and looked at of being carried by truck to hospital of being lowered
onto a clean bed a proper bed then medical examinations more careful more
human the voices quieted are like sweeter the sign of ever more healthy
bodies moving around the ward the dawning to consciousness of spring to
breeze and warmth and scent there is food the carefully created increase in
diet their tone of taste and smell a touch and feel of knife and fork and
spoon and plate the relative softness of cloth the simple cleanliness followed by
the slow rediscovery of the body as pleasure the rediscovery of the autonomy
of one’s self look dark hair and it may see a good face beginning to fill out a
body regaining its shape the sense of being a woman in a world of women and
men no longer a walking corpse I’m inventing her again but only to a degree
what I imagine here is not specific to her it is only gifts possibly a wrong
one about the process of recovery in general albeit in a specific place in
Altenburg Middlesex sunny spring 1945 it is an invention I can justify only by
claiming that any knowledge is partly invention
that memory is mostly invention and not knowledge or another is invention in the
highest degree then I must go on to claim that invention can be a form of
love I’m interested in her so I go on inventing her inventing a truth I can
believe in I invent nothing factual I don’t make you up but the person that
the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of
invention the trick is to invent the truth miraculously both Magda and Laszlo
survived the war and found their way back to Budapest where they were
reunited but when Magda went to Cluj to look for
her family she found they had all been killed last Lowe’s father was also dead and forever he was dead alas a socialist
playwright of the shopfloor swept off to Auschwitz in a cloud of gas my grandfather was one of the less lucky
members of that family which had parts which were in the middle class and
summer okay but he was working a ship for a shoe factory
and the reason he died in Auschwitz is because the raid was on the factories
not on the home so he was that lot worth taken away during the working day and he
was swept off and as a spun about green you know if you didn’t know the whole
poem I mean the begins with the idea is that this is something green about
wasn’t something and he wears green and then he goes off into his green gasps
and so he’s a very complicated feeling and again it’s not a matter of telling
something as it is but trying to if you like present to oneself a sort of
version of things that seems nothing consonant with the way things work so I don’t want
the big Holocaust violins where I want is a human being who is some who writes
plays was never published which is true laughter that is what my father told me
that his father was very dissatisfied and he was very very zaffinos socialist
and he wrote this place I will never performed we’re at a place who knows and
he says of in in the world’s terms completely insignificant man who is at
home and that comes home in a bad temper and he goes of noisy’s plays God knows
what they’re like nothing happens with them you know one
day is taken away March dove and then what happens happens he dies we know and
that there’s something so absurd about this it’s maybe that’s the word I’m
looking for it’s the sense of the absurd the comical
is what is human in it the big machine is what is inhuman it’s a big machine
that takes him away it’s a big machine that destroys him I can’t die I don’t
I’ve never felt the authority in the thing about matter of the poem with my
mother it stops dead at the gates of ravensberg it doesn’t go in there I
cannot do that I cannot the contemporary term people use all I don’t think it’s
particularly sorta misappropriation I cannot appropriate that experience what
I mean by that is I cannot imagine it with authority most of fiction is in a bedroom not all
I read it less more stuff here books books books did you always want to have
children I just assumed it would be the case I don’t know where there was a so
let’s do it but we’re just thinking yeah yeah it’ll
probably happen and it did quite quickly we’re just doing a talk yeah
keep writing yes yes yes the pram in the hall the enemy have promised I think
Cyril Coverley canal he said but my feeling was enough still kind of feel I
remember feeling this quite strongly then if the only way you can write is by
not living an ordinary life then I don’t want to do that I want to be living an
ordinary life and it should be possible because the ordinary life is what I’d
like to sing in a way you know I died I don’t I don’t think it’s a matter that
sort of exceptions and exceptions also huge dramatic kind of peculiarities or
exoticism there’s enough exoticism in the ordinary as I was saying earlier
with a bit of poetic it’s it’s a part of sir I mean enough dreadful things and
big things happen in the world and great things happen in the world which end to
you anyway Budapest was in ruins after the war its inhabitants faced a new kind
of chaos hyperinflation was even worse than in Germany in the 1920s
Russian troops patrol the streets this is the city where Magda and Laszlo
started building a life together so he goes back to the plumber he was working
for before he was called into labor and he when his worker play a place of work
his nationalised is recognized as a bright guy from a working-class
background so he’s picked up and brought into the Ministry building and they say
okay well you can hide up one of the departments but this happens very
quickly I don’t know quite what happens but that enables them to get this
central flat where I am brought up on the third floor near the lists Academy
with a grand piano over the baby grand piano so it’s a rapid chaotic transition
my mother who came from a slightly more middle-class family couldn’t be allowed
into the party because she was a class alien or the class enemy but a class
alien so she did find work with this beautiful evening paper and she was she
did go out on a couple of assignments but then she was restricted to the lab
now the reasons for that maybe her health the reasons for that maybe class
or reasons for that may have been her intractability in obeying the dictates
of the party these portraits of George taken in list Square and in the streets
around where they lived were pretty much the only photography she was able to do the Soviet war memorials come crashing
down oh the pest is in revolt with
uncontrolled fury crowds set fire to Russian flags and put Soviet books to
the torch the red star is sent tumbling into the gutter
when student protests sparked an uprising against the Soviet back regime
in 1956 lastly was in danger and everything under threat because of
things like this because he is killing a communist party address to some industry
somewhere shun tanks Rumble back into Budapest to turn that hope into
heartbreak eventually Moscow decided to act at one point a stray bullet
ricocheted into their flat from the street lascal came up with an escape
plan he arranged to be sent for work to gear a small town near the Austrian
border he took his family with him and from cure they went on to a smaller
village where a local man guided them towards the Austrian border it was an
arduous freezing journey through woods and ditches with George clutching his
little bag of photographs but eventually they saw the Austrian flag and joined
the 220,000 others who fled from Hungary in their case they ended up in England this is the letter center we can feel
its vibes from him I asked 30s to take me to the local leisure center he’s been
writing a series of encomiums to it in the voices of different poets larkin
dickinson byron bishop done all published on facebook i was hoping he
would treat me to an on-site recitation he chose one honoring the famously inept
Scottish poet William McGonagall I can’t guarantee to do a good Scots so William
mechanical goes to the gym Oh American FSN gymnasium of Wyndham leisure center
that is I a pleasure and of great benefit to enter for since I started
here in 2017 I have felt better than I have ever been the lockers are abundant
and the showers are hot so people stand in them for long hours and the treadmill
moves at such governor burrell pace that no man there will fall off them backward
sideways or forwards I flat on his face which makes the people
of Windham safer and fitter and share so it is in debatably better to be a walker
than a sitter did you achieve what you want Sturge you know oh I certainly sang
the magnificence the delicious center I wanted to sound like mechanical that’s
already and I think I’ve mostly done it I’m not entirely happy with the end when
I think their rhythm is maybe a little bit more regular than he would make it
the point is to remember to break the legs of tourism wherever you can but the
first four lines I’m genuinely pleased to it I think those have a certain
mechanical ask magnificence so it’s basically it’s there there’s sort of
five finger exercises and can I write something in which the original is
recognizable at some level so it is that’s the interest of it but that’s
more interested in making jokes and what’s the interest of putting on face
book because it’s immediate it’s there because I I have always worked fast and
almost incapable or writing slowly I need momentum when I do that and I
think who else is going to be interested in this I just I’m not looking for
magazine publishers what the parrot is and it’s the other way I look at this is
with a more serious work when I put it there it’s like hanging out something on
the line and then taking it in and then saying okay now I can see what it looks
like I can conceptualize in my head other people reading it and that’s
useful and I say that to students when I studied and read it aloud but read
hurler to somebody else as well even if they don’t know anything about it
because then you hear it through another set of years you become you begin to see
the object in another space and I think that can be useful but the social media
exercises have found their way back onto the printed page the Jim poems were
published last year and his tweets have also gone into print
George has created numerous ongoing characters on Twitter such as a lobster
called langoustine who has conversations with a doctor who’s turned into a crab
and uncle Zoltan a Central European with aristocratic pretensions who dishes out
often opaque and impenetrable wisdom this is another fixation Germania I just
invented hundreds of Germans in the sense that they’re come straight at a
mixture of Brothers Grimm and your idea a particular task put the eggs in the
back seat Horst and make sure they safely strapped in so doctor walled off
no need to worry yourself that the grass fell – water your marriage is just going
through a rocky period that dogs are in the post and yet but Julian’s thing you
ask yourself is am I being giving loads of hostages to fortune by appearing to
do lots of silly things will people stop thinking this – a serious sport because
you know silly things I think bugger it I don’t care just the
serious things gonna stand up for themselves if I want to do a silly thing
there’s serious things I’ll do them it is part of my humanity to do stuff which
i think is anything that comes into my head Britain’s offered to take in two
thousand five hundred refugees has quickly been implemented yellow some of
the first arrivals in this country the friendliest of welcomes is being
given to these people some of whom only narrowly escaped deportation from their
homeland into Russia was a party given for Refugees in December 1956 and it was
at the Dorchester by Park Lane because I even remember going there by bustling
carrying out and then being given little bits of party hats and things and little
little cheap presents for the presents anyway it was a very generous gesture
whoever did that everything possible will be done forward they go into exile
to start a new life in a foreign land when they may be able to return to their
own country none I can tell with help from the British Council Magda
and Laszlo eventually bought a small house in Kingsbury Northwest London last
Oh got a job with a plumbing company Magda at a photographic studio in Oxford
Street they soon found themselves settled into suburban middle-class
English life our very first television I wrote a poem about that which came like
this it’s called a picture of my parents with their first television and it’s a
memory of what they would have been watching and what happened to the people
they were watching every bloomin guy there was several
copies of this photograph because they sent his photograph home to be the
pastor let them know look life is good nobody in Hungary other television there
were holidays at the seaside and abroad none of the firth ever seen as see as I
think I’ve said they became fans of Tommy Steele in Tottenham Hotspur our
first car a Helmand links at one point they hide a cleaner an aspiring singer
with different colored eyes his name was David journalist they were reinventing
themselves at a time when England too was reinventing itself and leaving its
past behind but these relatively untroubled years
were short-lived the heart condition which had afflicted
Magda for most of her life began to get worse going out to work became more
difficult she had operations and was increasingly
housebound came depressed and talked of suicide
this is where George starts his memoir at the very end of her life the
ambulance was waiting at the junction she had taken an overdose and time was
short the driver thought he saw a gap moved forward and stopped because the
gap wasn’t big enough behind it hit the ambulance the
ambulance was damaged drivers got out and I must have died I had made up my mind that I would write
this memoir which is of my mother backwards from a moment of her death to
the moment of her birth or is near her birth as I could get and that was
primarily because I knew very little about the early part of her life I only
had about five photographs which related to that period and where is the first
part of a life going backwards of course I am a witness I’m there and I register
her presence and what she does so in a way that was a more confidence beginning
and of course she died in this tragic sort of way that it was both from taking
an overdose but also then the ambulance crashing and being held up just for long
enough for her to die I’m she might have died anyway it it has a certain
resonance with much of your life I thought so you go from there and this is
where this was a process where I began to discover her in the writing and this
picture which is which is the picture in the last kitchen which I find
extraordinary moving and so tragic because we moved to the house because of
the kitchen because she desperately wanted that kitchen and we had to pay
extra twice because he onizuka’s humped us twice and she finally got that
kitchen but this is a house in which she died and that was the kitchen in which
she became kind of ever more melancholy and she became ever more restricted in
the range of things that she could do where the operations took place there
she is in it this kind of rule 70 is modern I don’t even have that real wood
but I sell decrees a pen hanging on the wall and this gingham sort of colored
vinyl lining and when I look at her face in that it
looks exhausted to me but there she is sitting in the place which she shot was
a perfect kitchen so it ought to have been the place in which she was happiest
but it’s a place it is a most desolate photo I have of her and she’s holding a
subtitle a cup of coffee I think the thing with English is that it is a
complex class language that the understatement and the ire and a lot of
the irony of English comedy of English writing and I’ve been aware of this
actually for a very long time it so it’s almost like a weight which I cannot
quite carry how the social structure is so good into the poems and into the
language I don’t mean it’s knob is ‘m I think it’s just always negotiating what
there is and I’ve always kind of felt this is a slight romanticize that
essentially I’m a beautiful tenement building in a London suburb this kindly
can see you can do it you can put the fill team there and I can hear
everything that’s going on around me but it says the class name okay so sure eat what’s written on the
back I haven’t stuck in so I can’t do this yeah okay
devil tailor key should be Gastelum a bantu talk of fight ala me Chuck there
to tell Vegas Tony Chuck today at Tarleton vigor summit drag a quiche
Mukesh can you

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  1. I first encountered Szirtes In The London Magazine edited by Alan Ross ages ago. His short poems captivated me. I may have read and noted down some more poems by him from Encounter magazine. I looked up the unpronounceable name Szirtes in Daniel Jones Pronouncing Dictionary. No dice.

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