Contributor corner: Penny Bailey

Penny Bailey studied French and German at Oxford and spent two years working in Mannheim and Munich. She worked as a copywriter/translator for various companies and agencies including the Bradford Exchange, Reader’s Digest and Jane’s International, and has been a science writer at the Wellcome Trust since 2000.

What is your feature about?

It’s the story of polio in Hungary during the Cold War, through the eyes of one small boy, György Vargha. Gÿorgy was paralysed from the waist down by polio, and spent a large part of his childhood in a hospital in Budapest with other paralysed children and adults. The hospital became a second home: the children had their lessons together, played together, and endured operation after operation followed by gruelling physiotherapy together.

It’s also the story how a small country at the heart of Europe – where it has been buffeted by the turbulent winds blowing between external superpowers for over a thousand years – struggled to defeat a new enemy: polio. The disease couldn’t have struck at a worse time. Hungary, like the rest of the world, was trying to build a bright new society out of the ashes of the second world war and resources were scarce. There was as yet no vaccine to prevent polio, and no really effective treatment that could prevent or reverse paralysis. That previously untold story has been uncovered by Gÿorgy’s daughter, historian Dora Vargha.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

That polio devastates not once but twice. Twenty or 30 years after the original infection, polio survivors start experiencing severe fatigue and muscle weakness, something now called post polio syndrome. We don’t know the exact cause but it’s likely to be a result of the motor neurons that weren’t damaged by the original infection over-compensating to promote muscle recovery. Over the years, the stress may be more than the neuron can handle and it deteriorates. This means that the people who strove the hardest to overcome polio’s damage by exercising and working their muscles, ironically end up with a severer form of post polio syndrome. This double whammy is why polio is now sometimes called ‘the disease that keeps on giving’.

I also learnt how incredibly twisted Cold War thinking was on both sides of the Iron Curtain. I was struck by how rarely Hungary has been free from external occupiers – be it Mongols, Ottomans, Austrians, Nazis or Russians – since the Magyars first made it their home in 895 CE. And how torn it has been between East and West ever since it first aligned itself with the West by choosing Roman Catholicism over the eastern Orthodox Church in the eleventh century. 

And I was struck by its resilience. One modern-day Hungarian Marxist told me that as part of the Cold War Eastern Bloc, “Hungary was still a barrack, but we say it was the happiest barrack. We also have a saying that long as they have enough to eat, Hungarians can cope with oppression. You can oppress them all you like, but beware if you let them go hungry.” That made me recall an interview with the Hungarian writer György Konrad I had read. Embracing the shadow of the Caparthian mountains that encircle Hungary – as its oppressors and enemies did for a thousand years – he claimed to be a ‘claustromanian’ (a word he invented). “I like the feeling of being surrounded,” he said.

I also learnt more about the vagaries of the writer's craft from Lóránt Czigány’s brilliant and comprehensive history of Hungarian literature. I was particularly taken with this quote from Hungarian writer Miklós Szentkuthy: “There is an impenetrable, desperate difference between my thoughts and my writing. Late in the night I walk hurriedly among the trees of Mount St. Gerard: there are thousands of sensitive impressions, thousands of metaphors and logical flashes of inspiration. I experience the whole gamut of ethos, I play long parts in tragedy and comedy, I plan murders, I offend lovers, I create rich parents, I outline theories, and when I return home, when I take up the pen, I have in my hands the most unfamiliar, the most deceptive, the most ineffectual clichés.”

Read Penny's feature in Mosaic, publishing 15 April 2014.