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Susan’s Bookshelves: How I Became an Englishman by John Peter as told to Judith Burnley

I met John Peter, who died last year, once or twice at Critics’ Circle events in London and of course I read his outstandingly well informed and perceptive theatre reviews in The Sunday Times.

I had no idea, however, of his dramatic and dangerous Hungarian background and his arrival in Britain as a teenaged refugee after the 1956 Uprising. His widow Judith Burnley, herself a writer, has now set down the whole story as a first person narrative. One presumes he talked about all this a lot and/or that she coaxed it out of him with a view to recording it. Either way the book, published earlier this year, reads very well.

John – that’s his Anglicised name – lived his entire childhood in danger,  under the fiercely totalitarian Soviet regime. His father had been murdered (tortured, shot and then pushed into the river next to the Chain Bridge in Budapest) by the Nazis in 1944. His mother led a flighty life of comings and goings and her young son was often left in orphangages and convents or with family in the country where he did some manual jobs. Narrow escapes were commonplace. Eventually, after he’d nailed his colours to the mast in the Uprising he really had to leave – heading for Austria concealed in a hay wagon with his mother and other family members including a pretty useless ex of hers and his current girlfriend.

The thing which strikes me most forcibly about all this is that there was a time – not all that long ago – when refugees were made welcome in this country and willingly supported. The WI made them cups of tea when they arrived at an RAF base on Salisbury Plain. They were given clothes, food and a small allowance along with a lot of help in learning English and getting jobs. There were even free places at university set aside for them.  It was very enlightened.

John Peter was a bit late to get one of those university places but although he’d arrived knowing only two words of English: “Cowboys” and “Times” he was soon accepted – maybe because of his native Catholicism – at Campion Hall, Oxford. He read history but then switched to English Literature “paying” for his place by helping out in the kitchen and waiting at table. And of course, he started seeing plays and writing about them during the seven years he remained at Oxford.

Given where his future lay it’s a nice touch that “Times” was one of his two English words. He arrived already knowing that The Times one of Britain’s most respected newspapers.

I was sent this book, complete with foreword by Jeremy Irons, by its author who wanted me to read it along with the poems she wrote about her husband’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I’m so glad she contacted me because it’s as uplifting as it is informative. It’s available via Amazon as a paperback or Kindle download.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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