To A Bird Another Bird

Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.

When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.

British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?

Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’

His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.

There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.

I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.

All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.

If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.

Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018

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  • 4 Responses

    1. Dear Mary: I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and thoroughly enjoyed and have shared. Your writing is superb, and coupled with your insight is educational, humorous, sensitive and informative. It has been extraordinarily helpful as an ex-pat. We have traveled here for 10 years on business and 3 years ago finally purchased a flat, D9, which my husband did about 50% of renovation himself. An experience of near epic proportions. We are US boomers and have the aging perspective-needless to say, interesting. I appreciate how busy you are especially upon your decision to limit your energies and exposure. For that I laud you after having lived a power career inUS- which I would not repeat. Regardless, I was hoping to meet you someday, briefly, to get your perspective on a writing project I am working on re: our decision at this late life stage to consider this move. Obviously recent political events both in US and HU make us feel like refugees. If ever possible, I would be most gratefuL. I am older, but have a lot of spirit and feel my zeitgeist is fluid. Thanks again for your commitment routine posts.

    2. Dear Mary

      I’ve been reading your blog for about a year, having both ancestral and more current ties to Hungary and the immediate region. You write very well, and it’s usually a pleasure to follow all the many things which interest and fascinate you in your new ‘home’.

      Your sensitivity and kindness shine through, and I have no doubt you deservedly have many, many friends wherever you go. I imagine we would get on like a house on fire – especially over a beer or three!

      Just one little thing… and it’s becoming more frequent a complaint: please, if you must take the seemingly obligatory swipe at Trump and/or the recent Hungarian election outcome every week, it would be helpful if you could also elaborate on what you actually disagree with, and why. This way we (the readers) can understand your viewpoint better. Just like your friend Cockburn acknowledges he needs to understand the locals. You may even find new understanding or perspectives from potential exchanges.

      I look forward to your sharing a little more on that front. Until then, all the best, and keep up the good work!

      Mario
      (in Doha)

      1. Thanks for reading, Mario, and for commenting. I’ve not been to Doha yet but hope to get there later this year. You piqued my curiosity. So, I went looking for that weekly obligatory swipe at Trump and/or the recent Hungarian election outcome. I went back 9 or 10 posts without seeing either. I’ve been working on my sense of obligation and feel none at all regarding Mr T 🙂 My position on the election outcome I thought I’d made clear (or as clear as I care to be in this current watchful climate) in my post In a state of shock on Mars. Please, please, ask questions on specific posts and I’ll be happy to answer. And thank you for the heads up – I will read what I write from this perspective going forward.

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