Last week, Zsuzsa and I stole a few days holiday in the Hungarian countryside, near the shores of Lake Balaton. The temperature rarely fell beneath 30C. With my Scottish thermostat telling me it’s “taps aff” at 20, it made sense to get in the car, turn the air-conditioning up to Maximum Goosepimple and do some touring around to get a flavour of the places Zsuzsa used to go when she was knee-high to a grasshopper.
One of those childhood haunts was the tiny village of Salfold, set in green and gold rolling countryside, made up of a hundred or so Hobbit-houses with reed-thatched roofs. It was a baking hot day and we stopped the car under a spreading chestnut tree and listened to the engine-block ticking as it cooled down.
Zsuzsa said we could get a cup of tea here, although what I really wanted was a cup of beer. The sign on the gate said Pajta Gallery. It didn’t look like a tea-room, more like the courtyard of somebody’s private house. There were four tables outside, shaded by a canopy of ancient trees, looking very welcoming in the early autumn heat.
Four dogs of different shapes and sizes lay sprawled on the flagstones and on indoor chairs brought outdoors to lean against the whitewashed walls were two old men, one whose belly was about to burst his shirt- buttons and the other as skinny as a rake with twinkling eyes and a droopy moustache. Two berry-brown women in flowery housecoats sat exchanging quiet words with the two older men. They told Zsuzsa of course they could make her tea and even pour me a beer but first we should go inside and look at the photographic gallery. On the walls were a collection of artistic, experimentally-filtered photos of men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, often undressed. But what caught my eye was a pile of postcards featuring one particular family group.
At first glance it seemed to be a conventional family portrait, with a middle-aged couple and their son and daughter posing for that familiar picture of contentment families like to display on the mantelpiece. The striking thing was that while the couple and their son were wearing their Sunday best clothes, the “daughter” was completely naked. It was the work of celebrated Hungarian photographer Laszlo Torok. Although it was shot in 1972, it was sepia-coloured with a faded oval vignette that made it look like a late-19th century print.
I paid for my own postcard copy and we sat in the sun with our drinks. Still curious about the photo, Zsuzsa asked one of the women if she knew the story behind the photo. “Ask Laszlo,” she said “that’s him sitting there.”
Right enough, the skinny gent with the droopy moustache was Laszlo Torok himself. He must have told the same story a hundred times but he smiled happily as he explained in Hungarian: “I called it ‘Family’ but the truth is that none of the people in the photo were related. The little boy lived next door to me. The older couple were friends of my parents and the girl was a professional model.
“I chose them because there was a distinct family resemblance. The ‘parents’ and the ‘son’ are looking straight at the camera, smiling in the conventional way families smile. But the girl is looking away. Her mind is somewhere completely different. She was twenty-four, the same age as me when I took the shot. We felt like a completely different generation to our parents and this portrait captures that feeling.”
As we left the courtyard, out of a grove of trees burst a team of chestnut horses pulling a carriage. Just for that moment, we weren’t sure what century we were in.
Lifetime guarantees are so hard to come by in our throwaway society
In the year I’ve had the Macbook I’m typing this article on, the charger cable has begun to self-destruct, slowly unpeeling its insulating rubber from the bare wire right next to the charging port. A brand new Apple re-charging cable costs upwards of £60.
Last week, Zsuzsa’s two-year contract with 02 expired. Almost the next day they were on the phone to her, encouraging her to upgrade to a new Samsung phone. They were pushy but she told them she was happy with the old one. Suspiciously, the following week her old phone began to play up; it would switch itself off suddenly, despite a full battery, and the camera screen kept freezing.
We grumble about the life-cycle of the products we buy but we are conspirators in this throwaway society. The notion of buying something with a Lifetime Guarantee is almost unheard-of today.
I say ‘almost’ because I own a pair of Doc Marten shoes I fell in love with eight years ago, partly because they came with a Lifetime Guarantee. They weren’t any more expensive than a normal pair of shoes.
I’ve also got a Sage fly-rod. It’s been broken three times now but because of its lifetime guarantee, the company repairs it each time and sends it back to me as good as new. There’s even a brand in the States called Darn Tough Vermont who take back the socks you bought from them when they’re worn-out and replace them with new socks, no questions asked.
These are the exceptions that prove the rule, however. So it’s good to see so many initiatives aimed at changing our throwaway habits.
Last week was Recycle Week Scotland, a big communications push to help us realise that even very small-scale recycling can save a fortune. Putting all our used tea-bags in the food waste caddy instead of the mixed waste bin, for example, would save £500,000 a year in landfill tax.
The worst throwaway offenders are flytippers. Edinburgh council charges £26 to come and pick up as many as six bulky unwanted items but far too many Edinburgh folk simply chuck their mattress, sofa or sideboard out on to the pavement to slowly decay or attract other flytipped items until the council workers have to come and take it away for nothing.
Luckily, there’s an alternative: if you call The National Re-Use Phone Line on 0800 0665 820 they’ll arrange for a local re-use organisation to come and collect your item for free and pass it on to somebody who can make use of it.
I’ve gone to pot
Before we left Budapest, we popped in to see my two-year-old nephew Davidka. When I came in the door, he looked at me with a shocked expression on his face then turned to his mum and dad and said something in Hungarian. Everybody fell about laughing. “What did he say?” I asked. “He said look at Uncle Gerry’s huge belly.” Ouch.