Artillery Row

Letter from Budapest

Tibor Fischer discovers the first of many Roger Scruton cafés

After their deaths, Julius Caesar and Augustus were honoured with deification (and indeed the late Duke of Edinburgh got that rank in the South Pacific during his lifetime). It’s not quite the same as apotheosis, but I imagine Roger Scruton would be touched that a café has opened in Budapest giving him a powerful launch into posterity. The café bears his name, offers allegiance to his ideas, and indeed boasts many of his possessions, generously donated by his wife. And finally, what better tribute to a philosopher than a place where you can sit down, have a glass of wine and discuss ideas? It’s so symposium.

Intended to be the first of a nationwide chain, (something that neither Plato or Descartes achieved), the “Scruton” has a prime central location, in Zoltán utca, near the Hungarian parliament. The many books and records dotted around the premises reflect Roger Scruton’s eclectic interests, prolific output, and knowledge of languages, and give an inviting atmosphere of erudition worn lightly. I admired Roger greatly for his industry, his kindness and because he bothered to think, something that seems very out of fashion. Maybe it always has been.

I enjoyed everything he wrote, although I never had the guts to tell him that while I found his books on Wagner fascinating, I’m never going to buy into the “Wagner, the deep mystic thinker” thesis. I just like to whistle the tunes. The best part of the Wagner books, for me, is the intellectual history, which I’d argue was Roger’s greatest talent.

 The “Scruton” also boasts a small meeting room for events, and who knows, perhaps Budapest will be the last place in Europe where right-wing ideas are allowed? The coffee and grub are great, but then you can’t get away with less than that in the centre of Budapest now.

That Hungary has “caught up” doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, they’re just the same problems as the rest of Europe

I’ve been visiting Budapest for forty years. When I first came the centre of town was still riddled with bulletholes and damage from the Second World War or the revolution of 1956. That’s all gone. It was always an agreeable place to visit, even with the manacles of Communism, but I’ve been marking it every visit. I’d say they’ve caught up. My female acquaintances assure me that the shopping, in terms of variety and value for money, still lags behind London or New York, but when I sit down to a delicious, delivered Pad Thai and switch on Netflix, I might be back in Blighty. You can get everything now, but you pay, and, of course, not everyone here can pay.

However, there are now things you can get here that will never be seen in London. McDonalds in Budapest currently offers the “Goosey Gustav”, a burger with foie gras (and sorry vegans and animal rightists but it tasted great). Quite what the Gustav reference is, I have no idea, but the “Goosey Gustav” strikes me as a symbol of a newly confident Hungary (one that doesn’t care that the rest of Europe, apart from France with its own considerable goose-stuffing industry, has banned foie gras).

That Hungary has “caught up” doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, they’re just the same problems as the rest of Europe. Every doctor I’ve met here recently has the thousand-yard stare, and it’s not entirely down to COVID. The health system, like everywhere in Europe, is badly creaking. One doctor explained he can exceed his weekly state salary, by sitting around a film set for a few hours in case a stuntman breaks something.

Hungary still gets a bad press. Commentators like Timothy Garton Ash repeatedly write that Hungary is “no longer a democracy”. Obviously, there is a venerable tradition of Oxford dons making fools of themselves, but you would hope that the Guardian might have gently led Garton Ash away from the Op Ed page.

Perhaps this news will “trigger” Garton Ash, in which case I apologise, but there will have to be a general election by April 2022. So, Hungary is, unofficially, already in campaign mode. The opposition parties have formed an unlikely coalition in an attempt to oust Viktor Orbán. However, they are having terrible trouble agreeing on their candidate for prime minister. Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest is one of the names being considered.

If you are at a pedestrian crossing and see a high-end Mercedes approaching don’t attempt to cross

Karácsony recently gave an interview to The Economist, in which Karácsony described Orbán as “short and fat” and pointed out he was “tall”. It demonstrates just how amateurish the opposition is here. Whether it was meant as a joke or an off-the-record remark, you don’t do that if you’re a pro. And then have to apologise and remind everyone you made a gaffe. I’d also suggest Karácsony should read my monograph on Orbán, “The Hungarian Tiger” where I detail a long list of tall politicians whom Orbán has left dead in a ditch.

A “Goosey Gustav” self-confidence permeates Hungary now that wasn’t always there. For a long time, they looked up to the “West”, perhaps a little too easily. What the Washington Post, the Guardian or a German Chancellor said about Hungary was examined closely.  But then, of course there have always been some very self-confident individuals in Hungary: the nouveau riche.

If you are at a pedestrian crossing and see a high-end Mercedes or BMW approaching (yes, the Germans have just about cornered it here), don’t attempt to cross because the driver won’t be stopping for you.

Some friends of mine who live on the Márton hill, one of Buda’s greenest districts (pine martens, owls), were woken up at four, one spring morning by some buzzing. They went out onto their balcony to see a drone hovering around. At first they thought it was raining lightly, but then they realized the drone was spraying something onto the five chestnut trees in their garden. These were huge, magnificent eighty-year-old chestnut trees planted by a grandfather.

The next day, it did rain and their garden turned into a mess of white suds. They called in the environmental authorities who established that the substance in their garden was glyphosate, a heavy-duty herbicide, banned in many countries. The trees nearly died and had to be cut back. Other bushes in the garden were badly damaged. It should be added that their home is next to a primary school.

Did they have any suspicions as to who was behind the drone? Oh, yes, they did. The son of one of Hungary’s richest men had recently bought the house next door, a little further up the hill. One day his lawyer turned up saying it was a pity their chestnut trees were in such a “diseased state” but that his client would be willing to pay for them to be cut back. My friends were convinced this wasn’t a neighbourly offer, but a desire to enjoy a better view of Budapest. The tall pine trees in their new neighbour’s garden had already been drastically cut, illegally. But when you’re rolling in it, a piffling council fine doesn’t matter. My friends declined the offer. Then the lawyer reappeared with an offer of two million forints to have the chestnut trees cut. That’s big money, even in the hills of Buda. They declined again. A week later the drone appeared.

What happened about the chemical attack? Nothing. Although my friends got a good picture of the drone (it was a whopper), the snap didn’t show the drone actually spraying and they couldn’t spot the drone operator, let alone prove whom he was working for. The police made their excuses and left.

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