Discover the first act in the life of an extraordinary theater critic
John Peter defected to the West at the age of 18 in 1956, later becoming the Sunday Times’ chief theater critic
As a student, I sometimes used to choke on my weekly essay at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. And every time I went there, I noticed another student still there. He would be seated as motionless as a statue, his gaze fixed firmly on his book; nothing ever disturbed his concentration, which he maintained hour after hour, week after week.
Five years later, I ran into him at a party in London: John Peter, a tense Hungarian who had defected to the West in 1956. I had become a radically vehement school teacher, and he suggested that i might like to work at The Times Educational Supplement, where he was employed. I found a job there, and after a few years I found myself editing the arts pages, for which he was the theater critic.
He was funny, a good imitator and a brilliant writer, exceptionally quick to deliver his copy. Nothing seemed to disturb her sunny mood, other than one event that struck me as significant. We were watching an experimental play in a small basement downtown, and the sound of over-amplified bass drums was deafening: John got panicked and had to step outside, saying darkly that it brought back memories. From Budapest? Yes, he said, but then calmed down.
It wasn’t a surprise when he moved on to bigger things: as the chief theater critic of Sunday Times he has become one of the most respected voices in the industry. He’s made his mark in other ways as well, by co-launching the Ian Charleson Awards for Young Actors who have given a boost to many aspiring stars including Dominic West, Geraldine James, Toby Stephens, Jude Law, Helen McCrory, Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston. .
It was tragic that John, who lived many happy years at Angel, and whose parties were always filled with writers and comedians, finally succumbed to dementia. But it was heartwarming that he ended his days in the profession he loved, at the Denville Hall home for retired actors. He died in July of last year, at the age of 81.
How i became english answers all the questions I wanted to ask him about his life before 1956, but I didn’t have the courage. I am now sad not to have pierced this shell: to read this book, which his wife Judith Burnley helped him to put on paper, is to follow a story crossed at the same time by a terrible pathos and a courage. extraordinary. He was my kind and caring friend but, like almost everyone he knew, I only knew him a little.
It’s an exceptionally short book, but it seems written in fiery letters. As John himself puts it, until two years old he was the pampered baby of a wealthy and well-respected family. But his flamboyant, theatrical mother suddenly decided to go on an adventure by running away with him: the deal made was that when John – originally Janos – was six years old, he would be returned to his father and his children. Grand parents.
But there was a war, and they were Jews. Born in 1938, John was in the thick of it, always on the move with his mother, attending school after school, and she forced to survive through manual labor.
John had adored his father Andras, an art historian, and the tragedy of his life was that he never saw him again. In 1944 Andras was arrested in Budapest along with hundreds of other Jews, and all were taken down a few steps to the Chain Bridge over the Danube, shot and their bodies pushed into the river.
John never recovered from the knowledge of this horror, and for many years he never even believed it.
“Every time I go to Budapest, I go down those steps and stand by the river where he was pushed,” he says. “But I could never force myself to cross the Chain Bridge.”
For many years he dreamed that Andras was still alive: “It’s hard to bear, this dream, this eternal hope. Have I failed it? Maybe he’s still waiting for me, as I always wait for him.
John describes his astonished childhood discovery that his family and friends were called Jews, and that he himself was one of those creatures. And he was sometimes in great danger as the Nazi extermination policy developed. Once, his mother left him in a convent, but the Mother Superior, who warmed him, sent him to friends; that same night, the convent was attacked by the Nazis, and all the children were taken away and killed.
There are too many fascinating details in this book for a review to do it justice, as John describes his zigzag progress from school to school, and his conversion first to Stalinism and then to the democratic revolution.
In the uprising itself, inspired by a fiery production of Richard III, he was at the forefront of the protests, and consequently had to flee the country. The story of his defection – hidden at one point with his mother in a hay wagon, with soldiers pushing him with bayonets to verify that no humans were escaping across the border – is captivating ; the only asset he took with him of any importance was his father’s two-volume study of Hungarian art.
The story of his induction into Oxford life – initially as a servant under the stairs at Jesuit college, Campion Hall – is touching in his determination.
When John got to 18 he had hardly any English, but reading Time every day he got to a point where, in his early twenties, he could compete as a writer with the brightest young Oxonians and do the best. This is where we started …
• How i became english. By John Peter, told to Judith Burnley. Rue de la Salamandre, £ 7.99