Walking downstream along the Pest side of the Danube near the Hungarian Parliament, you’ll see 60 pairs of shoes at the edge of the river as if the owners had just gone in for a swim.
There are working men’s boots, high heels, pumps, little children’s shoes. When you get close, you notice that all these shoes are slightly rusted. They’ve been cast in metal.
At first you think this is a clever, whimsical piece of art to entertain you on your riverside stroll. But there’s something not quite right about that thought. You look again. The shoes are worn-out and misshapen. They’re not modern shoes at all. In fact they look like a collection of footwear from the 1940s. Some have flowers in them. Others have burnt-out candles beside them. It’s round about now that you come across the metal plaque set into the footpath and the full horror dawns on you. The plaque says: “To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”
When the Nazis invaded Hungary during the Second World War, they recruited and armed an army of violently anti-semitic Hungarians who called themselves the Arrow Cross Militia.
They were happy to do the Nazis’ dirty work. During these days of horror, the Danube was known as “the Jewish cemetery”.
Shoes were a valuable commodity in the Forties. They could be sold or traded. So the Arrow Cross always made their victims take off their shoes first and face the river. That way they didn’t have to dispose of the bodies. The current did that for them.
Look closely at the shoes and you’ll notice that many of the children’s shoes have the laces removed. The militiamen used the laces to tie their victims’ hands together.
Sometimes they would tie three Jews together and shoot just one of them. The person shot would fall into the river pulling the other two still-living victims in with them. It saved bullets.
It might just be the most moving memorial in the world because it forces you to consider each victim as an individual human being.
For a moment, you walk in their shoes.
Nobody pushes me around now
There are a few disadvantages to growing older. The weight doesn’t burn off so fast. You make a funny little noise every time you sit down and another funny little noise when you get back up again. The gaps between your visits to Specsavers get shorter and your hangovers get longer.
Apart from that, it’s all good. By my age, you’ve learned not to take any crap from people. You know that you need to stand up to bullies right away and not let them bring you down. When I was just 24, barely started in advertising, I found myself on my first glamorous TV shoot in Mijas in Spain with a cast of thousands. I thought I was the bees knees until the wardrobe lady, a woman in her 30s, decided to pick on me.
“I don’t know what it is about you,” she would say out of nowhere in front of other people, “but I just don’t like you.” If I replied, she would say “Why don’t you just shut the f*** up?” Looking back, it was very odd behaviour from a grown woman and she obviously had some issues she was taking out on me. If I’d been the age I am now I would have nipped it in the bud. Instead, I let it eat me up and found it difficult to enjoy my week in the sunshine.
When I was younger, I got bullied in the office too. I had one boss who would appear to pay you a compliment then immediately undercut it. “I really like your new suit,” he’d say. “It’s a shame the shirt doesn’t match.”
At first I thought it was just me then I noticed he made a point of doing it to all the young people in the building.
It’s even harder to know how to react when you’re young and it’s a client that’s doing the bullying. I wrote a commercial for The Scotsman once and commissioned the then-unknown-but-now-world-famous David Eustace to do some stills of Glasgow for the campaign.
I had to present the work to the young editor in the old Scotsman building on North Bridge. The notorious Andrew Neil was the editor’s boss back then. He wasn’t attending the meeting but at the back of my mind there was a niggle that he would somehow ambush me. That night I dreamed I was waiting at the jetty at South Queensferry behind the wheel of a speedboat. Andrew Neil and some Scotsman executives in suits came aboard. Once they were seated, I revved up the outboard. The speedboat shot backwards and zoomed under the Forth Bridge, zig-zagging wildly through the waves. I woke up in a cold sweat.
Next day I was up at The Scotsman, showing the work to the editor. He was very pleased and things were going well. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity and in walked Neil and his henchmen.
He was wearing a white shirt with bright yellow braces and his half-moon specs were perched right on the end of his nose. He asked me to talk him through the work.
When I got to Eustace’s stills he raised a warning finger “What the hell’s this? It’s a photo of a guy walking past the Barrowlands on a wet night.” I said I wanted a shot that would capture the real spirit of Glasgow.
“Well let me tell you, I don’t want any of this left-wing rubbish in my paper. We’re selling The Scotsman to middle-class people.” “Listen,” I stupidly said as he walked way, “it’s a great shot of Glasgow, that’s all.”
He swung round to face me, squinted down his half-moon glasses and said “That’s enough out of you, laddie,” and turned on his heel. What would I have done these days? Probably been delighted that he called me “laddie”.
E-BOOKS AN OPEN AND SHUT CASE
I like stories. Long ones, short ones, happy ones and sad ones. The place I hunt for them is in books. I like the weight of a book in my hand. I particularly like charity shop books. If you find an author you love it’s like discovering a hoard of Roman gold for 50p. The new medium for reading is electronic. You can’t draw in the margins or turn the corner down to mark your place. E-books would excite me if they did something innovative. Why doesn’t the typography turn into animation? Why does an E-story not incorporate music or little pieces of film?
Until that happens, I’m sticking with papyrus.