Postcard From Peter Hitchens, Part Three

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Mr Hitchens, retaliating by post to a salvo of railway annecdotes.
Peter Hitchens at debate on Eastern Europe,
Nigel Luckhurst
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

I might have offended Peter Hitchens by mentioning during a Question Time Review that he never replied to a letter of mine. After finding his response propped up and neglected in my hallway, I felt obliged to apologise and read it. We have been following each other about and have enough in common for a correspondence. Minor public school, Eastern Europe, hammer away with words, keen on church and trains – hence the urge to put pen to paper after reading one of his rail-orientated threads on X.

Both of us are married with grown-up broods. Peter is a father of three. Son Dan is also in publishing and a one-time editor of the Catholic Herald. There is another son and a thirty-year-old daughter. Wife? The interesting Rosa, a former solicitor.

Which gives the excuse, if one is needed, for a shout-out to the ladies. Mrs Hitchens went to Moscow when the Daily Express posted her husband to the USSR at the end of the Cold War. Her residency permit can still be found if you know where to look. Taps nose.

Mr Hitchens describes on behalf of his wife a Moscow Christmas of queuing and bartering with country types. Stalls at the great railway termini allowed a Moscovite’s Christmas dinner including Caspian dried fruits and Armenian brandy. The children’s presents were ‘pale, oddly coloured, faintly dangerous gifts’ hewn from the Central Children’s Store on the Lubyanka. Three and a half decades later the store survives but is reduced to a re-developed ‘mall’. Dear God.

As Mrs Hitchens went by choice and had to put up with three small children and a writer, Rosa is enrolled as an honourary (country) member of the Puffin’s Travel Club.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The Lubyanka’s Central Children’s Store.
The children’s store (Detsky Mir) in Moscow.,
Thomas Taylor Hammond
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Mrs AWS didn’t accompany me behind my part of the Iron Curtain but as the walls came down I became compelled to not only return but to go by train and take the family. As the good people of Hungary’s circumstances had improved, so had mine.

Not only was I married to Mrs AWS but, as if a pin-up boy for the Catholic Herald, we enjoyed four small children. Off we struck. Ferry overnight to Holland. Sleeper train to Munich.

A special offer on the Bundesbahn meant one adult and two children could travel dirt cheap. We split into two teams of three. At sunset, we rendezvoused in a couchette. These sleep six, yet more proof that God exists and smiles upon the traveller with a young family.

Austrian railways delivered us to Budapest via a Railjet train from Munich which passed through the Berchtesgaden and the likes of Salzburg and Vienna en route to the Hungarian capital. As one more reason to believe in the Almighty and the symmetry of His Creation, a journey of 1,234 miles by land from our house.

Also many decades ago, but on the other side of the world, I enjoyed first-hand experience of Philippine maritime safety. A learning curve which leads to becoming a bit of a nervous sailor. There were never enough life jackets. Even if you did survive the sinking, being a good swimmer might not help. Think of the sharks. Therefore, and since it’s me who pays for the tickets, when doing battle with the wavy wet stuff, I always book a pricey cabin for myself topside.

On the way to Holland, I paced out all the lefts and rights between my First Class suite and the lifeboats with a cardigan over my eyes, imagining myself a Gurkha major practising for the worst whilst Falklands-bound on the Canberra.

Content, I took the lift to visit the family. A helpful chap standing by the buttons asked which deck.

‘Two, please,’ I replied.

‘Crickey. Sleeping in the engine room?’

‘No, but my wife and children are.’

A day and a half later when arriving in the Austrian capital, I got a bit of a shock. If God exists so must the Devil. The block-sided post-war Westbahnhof and Sudbahnnof were gone and being replaced by an under-construction horrible-looking Vienna Hauptbahnhof. I think our Viennese stop might have been at a demolished Westbahnhof complete with temporary wooden platforms. Then again it might not have been as I didn’t get off the train before we thundered on to Budapest via Hegyshalom and Gyor.

If Puffins are new to Gyor, they were never sent by Mrs Thatcher to lie in the Warsaw Pact mud in a field beside the railway line counting wagons leaving the aluminium smelt for the Mig 29 factory.

An opp made more hazardous as outwith the activities of the Secret Police, the rustics still ploughed by hand. One could be trampled and cut in two while concentrating too hard on the depressed bogie springs (or not) visible through the spy-glass.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Return to Budapest Keleti.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

We arrived at Budapest Keleti on a boily hot evening. Back in the day, the welcome party included old gipsy women with facial hair selling matchsticks from shoulder-strung trays. Alas, no longer. More helpful people handed out free mineral water to gasping arrivals. We queued up in the familiar Warsaw Pact-looking bowels of Keleti for our cheap Budapest public transport pass. These allow a family of six to travel about the capital for a long time for not very much. At the booth, I encountered my old gipsy friend. Advice to travellers, count your change.

From Keleti, we took metro line number M2 to Deak Ter, a short wander from our apartment. En route, having devised a complex Cold Warrior plan to keep us fed, I spotted well-stocked shops now standing on every street corner.

At the far end of our apartment block, a narrow alley led to one of the great Habsburg boulevards. On that street corner sat my old lodgings. A courtyard rental palace split onto artisans’ flats, I’d kipped in the modest guest room of an old Mrs Insoros.

She’s the one with the giant goggle spectacles who took me to be a German and spoke German at me the whole time. Once she was my age, and before that even younger. In old Budapest during ‘better times’ she danced at the Hotel Majestic mess nights with the handsome soldiers in their smart uniforms. Afraid to enquire further, I didn’t. Over a breakfast table of see-through ham, the previous week’s stored tap water and small loaves with no bread inside the crust, I was the lucky traveller one degree of separation from Eichmann.

Revisiting, I presumed her long passed. Her old apartment appeared to be a dentist’s. On the boulevard front, re-named from Lenin Korut, a parade of shops remained. Although having changed hands, above the window of one there remained curling black and white photos of solemn-faced Soviet-style marrying couples left over from my day when it was a wedding dress hire shop.

Have Mr and Mrs Hitchens been back to the USSR? Possibly not. While Hungary gained lots of Tescos, running water seven days a week and an Audi sports car factory next to the smelt at Gyor, the Russians concentrated on a mafia, oligarchs and wars. Suitable to the Russian temperament perhaps but best avoided by English travelling gentlemen of a certain age and social class.

To be continued…

© Always Worth Saying 2024