LIVES AND TIMES: A revolution brought them to Bradford where they settled and made a new life. Now the part played by Hungarians in the city is being recalled in a photographic display in the club that they set up when they arrived in the city. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Diane Bielik’s father Attila was not in Budapest when the Hungarian people rose up against their Soviet oppressors in the last week of October 1956.
Attila was in the air force at the time and went back to Budapest to join his older brother Laszlo who had taken up arms.
“The two of them were teaching the freedom fighters how to use guns and they were stationed in the Radio Station for a while helping people to work the equipment,” explains Diane. The rattled Soviet forces withdrew from the capital and other parts of the country in the face of the attacks and the hostility. But then the hard men in the Kremlin changed their minds. They sent their tanks back into Budapest determined to defy world opinion and crush the revolt on their doorstep come what may. Eventually some 2,500 Hungarians died and 200,000 fled as refugees.
For some, Bradford offered a safe haven although in many cases it meant young men having to adjust their sights downwards from the life they might have expected to lead in their homeland.
From this weekend part of a new photography festival called Ways of Looking, explores the Hungarians’ experience through Diane Bielik’s photographs of the Old Hungarian Club in her exhibition Makeshift Monuments.
Inspired by the closure of the club in August last year after 53 years due to dwindling membership, Diane has created a series of images capturing the club – a place with which she has strong personal connections.
Her father Attila and his older brother Laszlo were active members of the club for many years. Diane, who was born in Halifax, grew up in Brighouse and is now London-based, says: “It has always been very much part of my life.
“It was a place where my dad had been a member for a long time and if I was ever up North I would visit – it was a constant in my life.
“I had an instinctive response when I heard it was closing that I wanted to document it before it went. So I started going back to Bradford and photographing it – the rooms, the textures, the decorations and the people.”
It proved to be both an emotional and rewarding project for her and brought back many happy childhood memories. “More than anything I remember being quite spoilt when we went there,” she says. “Being bought Coca-Cola and bags of crisps – more than you would usually get – being quite high on sugar probably and hearing the voices and how interesting it was to me that my dad had this ‘other thing’ and becoming more aware of it as I got older. Another, quite exotic, world existed in the club.”
It also enabled her to understand more fully the value of the club for the newly arrived Hungarians fleeing the aftermath of the failed uprising. “They used it initially for coming together and communicating, speaking Hungarian, and to share their experiences.
“Like many of the people at the Hungarian Club, my dad doesn’t really go into much detail about the things they have seen and done.”
Arriving in Bradford in the late 1950s, the émigrés settled quickly. “Because of the textile industry there was a lot of manual work for them to do,” says Bielik. “My dad was a trained engineer but he didn’t speak any English. A group of them got a place to stay on Manningham Lane and the next day most of them had a job in the mills.
“Bradford was a buoyant place at that time – everyone could start their new life very quickly. My dad had quite a bad accident in one of the mills and he lost two fingers, so he spent six months in hospital – that was where he learnt to speak English; the nurses taught him.”
About 2,000 Hungarians settled in Bradford in the late 1950s and the club enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and 70s, attracting people from across the local community to its social events. But by 2002 the committee decided that the building, which the club owned, was costing them too much money. Eventually, after much discussion, they decided to sell the property on condition that they could rent it back from the new owners.
This continued for some years but that too became unviable. Member numbers continued to decline and the club was only opening twice a week on Fridays and Sundays or for the occasional dance. There was a glimmer of hope that it might be revitalised when Hungary joined the EU in 2004 and there was a new influx of Hungarian immigrants. But very few came to live in Bradford.
“Most of the people who were still going to the club were in their Seventies and there weren’t any younger people coming in,” says Diane.
“From a practical point of view it was getting harder for them to physically maintain the place, so they decided to give the club up and move out.
“I started photographing it in all sorts of different ways – taking photographs of the people and some documentary work, but often there was nobody there so the project went from having a documentary approach to a more staged approach.
“I realised that I couldn’t save the place by photographing it but I wanted to celebrate it and its sense of community.”
The result is a body of work that is affectionate, nostalgic, moving and yet uplifting in its quirkiness and playfulness.
Objects have been deliberately placed at unusual angles or precariously balanced – it is sometimes difficult to decide what is up and what is down so that the viewer has to question the reality of what is being viewed.
As the project progressed, Diane realised that the best place to exhibit the work would be in the club itself; transforming it into a makeshift gallery with viewers invited to move through the rooms of the disused club, taking in the old dancehall, dining room, billiard room and bar.
“The size of the work is dictated by the size of the rooms and the architectural features of the building,” she says. “So I used the club to make the final decisions about the work.”
She says the building represents for her “the tug of war between photography’s ability to capture and life’s necessity to move on”.
Working on the project has brought her a deeper understanding.
“It was always a very busy place and full of people, so it is a bit poignant to see it empty but it was the right time for it to close. It’s about moving forward – by the end of the project I really felt as though I understood the people I had met there better and why the club had to close.”