They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?