Back in the bad, dark days of a single-party state, of censorship and the freedom only to express our views in the privacy of our own – or a friend’s – home, we were pitied by our English friends and regarded as quasi-lunatic by our Hungarian ones. Why would anyone volunteer to leave the ‘home of democracy’ to live in a country where the press was anything but free? A land where every piece of information had been sifted and shaded, paraphrased and polished? As a friend so aptly put it: in England you read the papers to know what is true; we read them to know what is not true!
Arriving with a miscellany of possessions in 1982, we sat in a sea of twenty-six large boxes, forbidden from opening them until the Hungarian customs officials had been to satisfy themselves that we had brought nothing illegal with us. The Hungarian embassy in London had been quite clear: no pornography, no political tracts, no photocopier. Our papers showed we had, nevertheless, brought an electric typewriter. Before they left, the officials required we provide them with a sample of the type so (were we to begin bashing out anti-communist propaganda) we could be identified.
Self-censorship was the order of the day – we were all well aware of approximately how far we might go, in what contexts we could speak freely, and those where some circumspection was to be advised. Yet the reality was that then, in the 80s, there was much satirical reference to that which could not be mentioned directly – as for example, in films like A Tanu, and in the lyrics of countless pop songs. No-one took these things entirely seriously (other than those whose job it was to do so).
One important difference now separates our present situation from the one of thirty years ago. At that time there was no choice: we were living in a communist regime, we had not been asked what we wanted, and what our neighbours to the west thought or said, was quite simply irrelevant. But today, as Hungary takes over the leadership of the E.U., some 53% of Hungary’s population have voted for a government that has brought in media laws that have been commented on at length, both by those in the E.U., and in the international press. This was a free and democratic choice. Whether the newly-appointed guardians of the spoken and printed word (I will refrain from using the word censors) will exercise the draconian powers they have been granted, remains to be seen.
But, as I write these words, I am aware they could, theoretically, be among my last. I did not think I would be in Hungary long enough to see history repeat itself.