My very first visit to Hungary was when I touched down in Budapest airport on Monday 17th February 2014. For many other passengers it seemed as if it was just another flight. But for me it was imbued with huge personal significance.
The reason is that it was as a nine year old boy on 23rd October 1956 that I first asked my father if I could go to Hungary. In case you do not recall the events of that year, it was during the autumn that there was an uprising in Hungary against the Soviet-backed communist regime. There was a broadcast from Radio Free Hungary asking all those who could, to come and join the revolution. Strange as it may seem this went to my heart, and I was more than ready and willing to go. Day by day I listened to the news until by November 5th, Guy Fawkes night (in the UK) it was becoming clear that the plea for help was in vain: no one seemed to be willing to go, or allow me to come to the aid of these freedom fighters.
I was not only crestfallen: it provoked a crisis of seismic proportions in my heart and soul. I was young enough for heart, mind and soul to be closely connected, and I had been brought up on a version of world history that stressed the importance of doing what was right, whatever the odds and whatever the cost. My consituency MP was Winston Churchill, and I even had the privilege of seeing him just down the road from my house on what was to be his last election campaign. I had been told of his stirring speeches, and the way the British commonwealth had come together in its finest hour, and eventually defeated the cruel and evil Nazi tyranny. We had been prepared, so I was told, to fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, in the streets, and never to surrender.
Now was the first time since the end of World War Two that something was happening in the world that I could in some way understand (I was not able to grasp what happened at Suez until later), and which bore some resemblance to that conflict. Here was a David standing up to Goliath (I knew that story too!) and he surely had God on his side. But no one responded: the freedom fighters fled or died, and Hungary endured at least three more decades of communist dictatorship. My father tried to explain the differences between the two historical situations, but nothing could shake my conviction that I, and the world at large, had been cowards, and should hang our heads with shame.
This conviction intensified considerably when groups of Hungarian refugees began to arrive at Mill Grove. I remember their dark, well-combed, hair, and clean white shirts, their impenetrable language, their courtesy, and the stories that they told through a translato. She was a Hungarian named Esther who lived at Mill Grove. I was, to put it bluntly, inconsolable. I felt as if I had been let down completely by my family, my country, and the whole civilised world.
In time I came to understand a little more about realpolitic (which is what it was all about), and I had the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union during the communist era and to play a very, very small part in encouraging and supporting those who were standing up against the barren, corrupt and lie-founded dictatorship there. I know that, however small or tokenistic, I was at least doing something to combat the tyranny: but it was for me much too little and much too late.
With that background in mind it may be a little easier to understand why when I touched down on a mild, damp Monday evening in Budapest I felt like kissing the ground. On the very next day, which was clear and sunny, I had the privilege of seeing much of the great city of Budapest. Along with Prague it appeared to me one of the most beautiful capital cities in Europe that I had ever seen. We started with Buda castle, the site of one of the earliest settlements in Hungary, and then as we approached the residence of the president of Hungary I saw walls pock-marked with bullet holes. Yes, you have got it: they were remnants of the fight of the doomed resistance movement in October/November 1956. I paused and for a brief moment history seemed to have stopped still: I was standing in the very place where I had wanted to be at the age of nine! I was so late as to merit nothing but laughter or scorn. But I had come. And in the meantime history had revealed that there are as many twists and turns in its unfolding drama, as there are in the River Danube (which flows between the part of the city that was Buda, and the other part that was Pest).
I gave the paper to the conference that I was asked to give, and then I visited a kindergarten. It was part of the ministry of a Reformed Church, and was in a remarkable new building in the shape of a fish. Difficult to explain without a diagram, but there were three classes down one side of the curving fish, and three down the other, with an open space for parents and children in the very belly of the fish. I noticed that the building had been supported by the European Union.
So although the rest of Europe did not come to the aid of the Hungarian people in 1953, at least there was a willingness to help the next generations. The pastor’s wife was the leader of the kindergarten, and it was she who showed us round and introduced us to pupils, teachers and parents. One child embraced her, and I assumed that this might be her grand-daughter, but I later discovered that she was “just an ordinary child”. There was much else to drink in: curved staircases to an upper platform in each classroom; toys, books and many resources, a gymnasium just like the one we had at my grammar school, ample space for play outside, and lots of Christian symbols.
I drank it all in, I absorbed it like blotting paper: somehow other nations in Europe had found a way of expressing their solidarity with the Hungarian people. And I was profoundly grateful. The bullet holes and the kindergarten will remain my most vivid recollections of the trip.
It was not until I started putting pen to paper and reflected on all this that I realised how deeply it had affected my political philosophy: in fact my whole way of thinking. Perhaps all children have such moments or occasions which alter the way they see the world and even beyond. It certainly behoves us to listen to them carefully, lest we underestimate the sheer scale of the upheavals and challenges they are facing to their existing frames of reference and cherished beliefs.
And leads me to share with you the reason that the conference organisers had for inviting me (given that they had no idea of this very personal part of my relationship with Hungary). They knew of my book, The Growth of Love, and had asked me to apply its main principles to Christian schools, including kindergarten, in Hungary. I set myself the question: Is Love the Basis of Christian Education? And as I pondered it, it became overwhelmingly clear that it was, or rather, should be. I won’t try to outline the paper here, but it was a great pleasure to discover that among the educational mentors upon whose philosophies I drew, Michael Polanyi, was in fact Hungarian! He, you may recall, was the person who argued that all knowledge is personal. It is not a million miles from this to realise that love of nature, of human beings, of music, of literature, art, dance, mathematics, place, culture, is somewhere near the heart of things.
When adults recall and speak of special teachers who helped them discover a subject or a personal gift, there is always a hint of something more than clinical dissemination of information or data, rote-learning and the like. And it is not just in films like Dead Poets Society, Goodbye Mr Chips, To Sir with Love, that there are intimations of love: it is implicit in every story.
And I suppose that you could say that it was as a nine year old boy that I fell in love with freedom. That love has shown no signs of waning, and when I finally got to Hungary, it all became clear. Had I been given the time and oppoortunity to do so, I think I might still have been in the kindergarten!