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Norman Jope


There can surely be no connection between the sight of two great white egrets, taking off from the reed-bed at Dinnyés at the sound of the train on which I travelled back to the capital from a day-trip to Székesfehérvár, and the five-forint coin I’d discovered in my wallet on returning from my previous visit to Hungary.

It was the first time I'd seen great white egrets - streamlined, sharp-white creatures at least as large as the grey herons I’m used to and much larger than the egrets of Devon estuaries - and they were gone as soon as I noticed them, rising with dagger beaks under their umbrella wings. They flapped away to the south and the bright red train sped east, past Lake Velence to the suburbs of Budapest.

The five-forint coin has a heron - or a gém - on its face. With four hundred forint to the English pound, it's the lowest denomination and I've no idea why it features a heron, of all creatures - storks, after all, are more typically Hungarian, building their nests in the farms and villages of the puszta. But I look upon that humble coin with irrational sympathy, perhaps in anticipation of a life to come or in memory of one that‘s passed.

Indeed, I decided to return this one to its homeland, handing it over to a down-and-out in the underpass near my partner's home. This, in itself, was a political gesture in the current context - but it was also a liberation. Was it, then, my reward to see these egrets in flight - but which one, I also wonder, was mine and which one yours, O fellow-sentimentalist with a five-forint coin in his wallet at the airport? Unless, that is, I find another coin on my return to England, one for which I have already been paid in advance.



The rutted road is reaching into the puszta on a January day. There are so many puddles that it would be possible to leap from one to the next, all the way down, without touching dry land. On either side of the rutted road, anorexic aspens are fixed in a wind that is also fixed - in this permanent moment, it is completely without force.

On either side of the road, there are also tanya - isolated farmsteads - visible across wide, ploughed empty fields that the snow has either left or has not yet fallen on. It’s mild for January and the puszta is brown, not white. There's nothing to be seen, neither beast nor bird, and the silence is absolute - only yellow post boxes break the monotony, and fly-tipped garbage like entropic flowers.

At the far end of the road, the footage gives out and a muddy track continues to who knows where. For this is where the eyes turn back. They swivel full circle, taking in the emptiness and muteness on every side. They are as homeless as probes from another galaxy - landing on earth at random, drinking in what little evidence there is at the end of a long and rutted road.

That muddy track might lead, across the Carpathians and the Ukrainian steppe, into the very centre of Asia. And that baleful sky will certainly lead to constellations that hide from sight - as if everywhere were near and simultaneously thwarted. This still life comes to life once more as I watch it, turning one more circle before heading back to my desk.



Dunaujváros, April 2013

The rain's much worse than I‘d expected. Within a minute of disembarking from the bus, I’m soaked. It’s five degrees at noon, and I resolve to take as many photographs as I can before succumbing to hypothermia.

The Socreal architecture of this Stalinist New Town - ‘born’ in 1951, as Sztálinváros, to serve a steelworks itself the size of a town - reveals its faded crud-coloured stucco. Above all, the balconies stand out - as if each citizen had been a mini-Stalin, declaiming dialectically materialist truths to their neighbours. The balconies, after all, are too small to sit on comfortably.

The main streets are characterised by colonnades that cover the entrances to a couple of shops at the most - so, seeking shelter, I'm continually driven out into the rain. Exposed as equally in sunshine, this is a place that scorns the limitations of weather - there was no weather, after all, on the drawing-board of the proletariat.

My unopened notebook becomes a soggy dough as I wander, a bedraggled detective in a dissident's poem. ‘To the Danube!’ I command myself and, on a path without shelter, I stagger between rusted statues. If I were to encounter a pack of dogs I would get down on all fours and bark them into retreat, the betrayer of everything.

As I retreat - a rain-skinned body in search of warmth - I pass an assemblage of sculpted rustics with primitive tools. And rain, at least, replenishes the Danube.

Comrade Rain, in Stakhanovite mood, reminds me of the terror of absolutes - as much as the heroic murals and the four-square megalomania of this uncompromising, yet amenable town. I will toast him once I’m safe from him, I decide.


Copyright © Norman Jope, 2018