George Szirtes was born in Hungary in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in 1956 aged 8.
He was brought up in London and studied Fine Art in London and Leeds. ‘I began to write at the age of 17, utterly against my own and other people’s expectations,’ his author statement for the British Council notes. ‘Poetry was the form I instinctively moved to, perhaps because I was a reflective watcher of small things rather than a follower of grandly narrative events.’
George has written several collections of poetry – his poetry collection Reel (2004) was awarded the 2004 T.S.Eliot Prize. He has also edited poetry books and written many works of translation. He is also the author of sixteen plays, musicals, opera libretti and oratorios.
Here he speaks about his relationship with language:
‘The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. We spent nine months in Hungary in 1989 watching the state collapse around us and, under those circumstances, it became clear that I wasn’t truly Hungarian, but an observer – a visitor with privileges, who could be useful but not of the language or its poetry. In England, the rest of the time, a foreign-born poet is of the language until he isn’t; the point at which he hits the thick glass of English Words, where he will be deemed never quite to understand cricket or, say, John Betjeman, because these things are not in his DNA.
That may or may not be true. But there you are, with the exquisite zoology of both languages, slightly detached from the soil you tread on, and maybe you see some things that the soil-born cannot. Maybe you can see them at certain angles. And you can make a certain poetry out of this, if only because poetry only appears at the point at which language is both familiar and strange.’
– Excerpt from ‘George Szirtes: What being bilingual means for my writing and identity’ The Guardian, May 2014.
From 1945 Hungary was controlled by the Communist regime in Moscow. When Stalin died in 1953 people in the Eastern Bloc thought it might lead to greater freedom, but by 1956 they could see this wasn’t the case.
In October that year students and workers took to the streets of Budapest (the capital of Hungary ) and issued their Sixteen Points which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the secret police and the removal of Russian control. In November the Moscow government sent in tanks to regain control and around 30,000 people were killed. The revolution had failed. A further 200,000 fled to the West in fear of Soviet reprisals.
Throughout the 1950s new arrivals came to the UK from the colonies and commonwealth countries such as the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. The war was an important catalyst for migration as large numbers of people were uprooted from their homes in Europe and the Empire. Immigration policy was relatively welcoming, and asylum seekers were protected by the newly created 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This bound the UK to consider all asylum applications made in the UK, though not to give someone permission to travel to the UK specifically to claim asylum.