Across the country, and indeed the world, life has changed for millions of people. These changes have been forced upon us, driven by a silent killer that has no respect for colour or creed. There have been many articles written, many news items broadcast, about whether these changes will remain a part of our everyday lives.
Working from home, taking more exercise, cycling on empty streets. The list goes on. We have been able to connect with nature, to listen to birdsong, to breathe fresh air, to be spared the blight of vehicle noise from our overused roads.
For some, a crisis is both an opportunity and a threat. For those with initiative and curiosity, the lockdown has presented us with a chance to do things differently. We have seen some brilliantly novel ideas, from ordinary people, put into action to help get us through lockdown.
So is initiative the preserve of private citizens? Of course not. In some cities, roads have been permanently closed to traffic, to cater for the rise in people who have taken to the streets in their thousands to exercise. Right across the UK, local authorities have been using the lockdown to improve the lives of its citizens. Initiatives have included such simple ideas as placing large flower pots across roads to prevent access. This has brought with it improved safety for pedestrians, it has reduced road noise, and it has brought with it greatly improved air quality.
So what changes have taken place in Bedford? What decisions have been taken to use this defining period in many people’s lives for the better? The answer is nothing. The Borough Council has not even held a public (virtual) meeting since 23rd March. Bedford has not closed any roads, even when vehicle usage has dropped so dramatically. And by failing to seize the initiative, Bedford has missed the opportunity for us to imagine a different, much improved environment.
For example, why has the Embankment remained a thoroughfare for drivers? Why couldn’t we have ‘joined’ together Russell Park and the Embankment, without the interruption of traffic. Imagine how that would have been. This type of initiative could have been repeated across the Borough. Life could have changed for the better.
We are administered by the Borough Council, but we are certainly not led by it. So many ideas could have been put into action, but not in Bedford.
I have deliberately waited a few days before concluding this short series of posts about my meeting with Sandor. I think in part to allow the event to really sink in, rather than allowing it to be something that needed to be reported instantly. The current trend to photograph or video everything in real time, watching life through a small screen, or blogging ‘live’ prevents people from thinking about events in a more reflective way.
Seeing Sandor walk into the hotel lobby was like watching an old friend arrive for a coffee meeting. Shaking hands with him was a great relief and we soon fell into an easy conversation, discussing what I wanted to do for the day. I soon learned that Sandor does a lot of walking and he was concerned that I would not be able to keep up with him throughout the day; he is 82. I tried to reassure him that I was pretty fit and liked walking but I don’t think I convinced him at all!
We walked all day, with little let up save a break for coffee and lunch. I must confess that I was quite tired by the end of the day although Sandor appeared to be ready for more. In so many ways he is an extraordinary man. When we broke for a coffee in a traditional cafe in a central square, we talked about some sensitive memories from his childhood. He talked about how his Aunt returned to the Monastery in 1945 to find him and eventually to tell him of his family’s fate (later confirmed by other letters). He talked about how he stayed in the Monastery, principally because he wanted to be a priest but he realised over the next few years that this was not in fact his destiny. When he explained his decision to the Priest in 1948, he was asked to leave.
He described how he and his Aunt struggled in post war Hungary, living together with other families in the same room, sharing communal facilities after he left the monastery. How Sandor went to university where he studied for a degree, a masters and finally a PhD. I learned how Sandor joined the resistance just as the uprising against the communist regime reached its peak; how he was ‘arrested’ by the university and charged with membership of a proscribed group. Newly married and with a new born baby, how he was ejected from the one place that he felt most at home – the university environment. He realised that his academic career was at an end so he stepped into the pharmaceutical industry and forged a distinguished career (he is still working). He admitted that the period around 1956-58 was the hardest in his life; I bet.
The irony is that he returned to academia later in life where his contribution to science through his love of chemistry led to international recognition and presidential awards.
Sandor’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Hungarian history gave me a unique insight into Budapest and the beautiful monuments throughout the city. Sandor said to his wife later that we had covered about 80% of the main tourist sites (I can believe that!). The day also gave me a renewed respect for a man who has been through so much in his life. From such a difficult childhood after the age of ten, he had faced many challenges in his adult life that lesser men who have failed to overcome. He was a true intellectual and I knew I was in the company of a very special son of Hungary.
Finally, with the sun setting in a clear sky, we climbed up to Buda Castle to look across the Danube at the old city of Pest and the impressive Parliament building. We also managed to enter the beautiful Matthias Church just as it was closing and even though it was a short visit, it was a perfect way to end our day. By 5pm we were in a taxi heading to his home (I suspect he chose a cab to save me having to walk). At his apartment I met his wife and daughter; we had dinner together and talked a lot more. I could not have been happier.
He also translated the page in his autobiography where he described my initial email back in 2007 that I sent to him asking if he was the boy in the book. To have been included in his autobiography was a great privilege. After travelling to Auschwitz and reading a book about its horrors and reading about Sandor, as a young boy hidden in a Monastery to save his life, I feel like my initial curiosity has been repaid in a way I could never have imagined; becoming friends with Sandor means a great deal to me.
I am now content and also inspired to make as much of my life as I can.
I decided to stand as a Borough Council candidate for the Conservatives over Christmas and was endorsed in early January. I started knocking on doors immediately and it has been a wonderful experience so far. OK, so some people are rude and ignorant and close the door very quickly, but the vast majority of people are intrigued by my approach.
I always introduce myself and explain that you now have a choice on 7th May for the person you want to elect as your Borough Councillor; this has not been the case for many years as nobody has ever seriously stood against the sitting councillor. In 2011 the Conservative party did not even put forward a candidate. This makes benchmarking my progress difficult but I have been encouraged by so much support and intelligent conversation on the streets of Oakley, Pavenham and Stevington. One of the most talked about subjects is crime; like all of us who live in villages, burglaries and robberies have the potential to change people’s lives in a split second. The Police need to reassure the residents of these villages that they are actively hunting for those behind the rising number of these types of crimes.
If you see me, stop and have a chat. I may well be knocking on your door soon as well. I want to represent you in the Borough Council and I want to listen to your views. I have been leading and listening to people for my entire career and representing you would be one of my greatest achievements.
I spent a couple of hours canvassing with Alistair Burt earlier in the year. To make changes in the Ward and the Borough, it is essential to have good relationships in Westminster. If Alistair is re-elected in the General Election, I am confident that he will do all he can to support me as your Borough Councillor if you elect me on 7th May.
‘Promoted by Katherine Arnold on behalf of Ade Clewlow and Alistair Burt, all of NEBCA, Biggleswade Conservative Club, St Andrews St, Biggleswade SG18 8BA’