Or why you can’t let a historical novelist near your family history.
Last week I posted a blog about my grandmother, Dr Lilla Veszy Wagner (Anyuka). This has caused a certain amount of controversy in my family and on one particular point I think they are absolutely right.
I said that I thought my grandfather, Counsellor Matyas Veszy (Apuka), had kept kosher all his life – which would mean of course that his conversion to Christianity was not sincere and that in his heart he was still Jewish.
Well I’ve been told by my siblings in no uncertain terms that this is wrong: Apuka’s conversion to Christianity was as sincere and faith-based as Anyuka’s and there is plenty of family oral evidence to show that he ate bacon and pork and documentary evidence to show he was an active member of the Reformed Church in Hungary. It’s also clear from many of my mother’s stories that he felt he had a very special relationship with Jesus Christ, who would always look after him and his family.
Worse still, as my brother has pointed out, to have pretended to be a Christian would have been something he would have considered utterly dishonourable – and if my grandfather was anything, he was an honourable man. It was an integral and vital part of him. In Hungarian one word for “honour” is “tisztelet” which connects with “tiszta” which means “clean.” When he was asked to take the brief for Cardinal Mindszenty in the cardinal’s show trial under the Communists, that was the word Apuka used when he said (against the advice of his friends) that yes, it would be an honour. Mindszenty wasn’t allowed a lawyer in the show trial so Apuka didn’t appear. It was dangerous enough just to take the brief.
So I got that spectacularly wrong and I’m sorry.
Why did I get it so wrong? Well because I’m a novelist not a historian which means I dig around in the great and wonderful quarry of history and when I bring up something interesting or when I find a few little clues that might point to something interesting, I grab them and weave all sorts of speculations and stories around them which might later turn into a novel. I’m doing something similar at the moment with the character of Fr. John Gerrard – a 16th century Catholic priest. That’s fine: a 16th century Catholic priest doesn’t have any descendants to be upset by the stuff I’m making up about him (probably).
I can’t do that with my grandfather. So I’ll start digging and researching now, despite the fact that my Hungarian can’t even cope with children’s stories yet, and document everything as thoroughly as I can. Maybe I’ll write my mother’s story as non-fiction, maybe I’ll do it as fiction if I can’t find what I need – but it’ll be clearly labelled as one or the other.
No more half-arsed speculations.


That’s not what you call a grandmother in Hungarian – the word is “nagymama”. Anyuka means something like “mummy” though now it’s mostly used by older Hungarians. But we called my mother’s mother “Anyuka” because of course that’s what my mother called her in Hungarian. Apuka means ”daddy”.
She was small, quite bent, with birdlike bones. As a young woman she was pretty, with brown hair and eyes. When I knew her she kept her hair short by cutting off any bit that grew too long. Her face was no longer pretty, partly from age, partly because she was full of rage and bitterness and depression – some of it entirely understandable, some… not.
Her name was Lilla Veszy-Wagner. She knew seven langages including Hungarian (German, English, French, Latin and Ancient Greek). She had been the wealthy novelist wife of a successful Hungarian lawyer, living in a lovely house in Svabhegy, Budapest. Although both she and her husband were Protestants, all four of my mother’s grandparents were Jewish. Anyuka had converted during WWI and according to my mother, it was a genuine conversion and stemmed from a real faith. My grandfather’s was less heartfelt because he converted so he could marry Lilla – and also perhaps because it simplified his professional life. He certainly kept kosher for his whole life although my grandmother didn’t: he wouldn’t eat pork and claimed to be allergic to shellfish. Anyuka told me a very elaborate Freudian psycho-analytical tale about why he wouldn’t eat szekely gulyash which features pork, sauerkraut and sour cream. I’m not sure whether she believed it herself or whether she just didn’t want any of us to discover our Jewish heritage. By that time my grandfather had died of heart disease so we only heard one version of events. My mother was quite anti-semitic herself, in the unthinking way of children. She was 7 when she learnt of her Jewish ancestry from the servants – and 1940 was not a good time to discover something like that anyway.
Of course from March 1944 Anyuka, Apuka and my then 11 year old mother were in deadly danger. The Jews in the countryside were swept up and “deported” to the camps by the Nazis, where they died. The Jews in Budapest were luckier and sometimes recipients of extradordinary generosity and kindness. That great hero Raoul Wallenberg was working in Budapest at this exact time. Long before anyone else had heard of him, my mother told us we always had to remember him because he was a brave and good man. Did she know him or of him? I don’t know. There’s much much more to her story and that’s one reason why I’m in Hungary – to research and write a book about it.
Eventually Anyuka and Apuka came as penniless exiles to England in c 1950. My grandfather never really learned English but my grandmother retrained as a librarian while simultaneously studying to be a psycho-analyst. She already had a PhD in Psychology & Anthropology which helped. Just as she started to earn real money as a psycho-analyst, my grandfather died in 1959 – which basically broke her. She was always depressed after that and kept a scary looking death mask, a terrible portrait in oils and also a bronze sculpture of Apuka in her flat. For part of the story is the love affair between my grandparents, who married a scandalous three months after they met, but not, as my mother carefully explained, because they had to. It was a coup de foudre, a stroke of lightning, love at first sight.
Anyuka started writing an account of what she and Apuka were doing that dangerous autumn 1944 in Budapest, but then abandoned it because of her depression. She was so angry, manipulative and had at least a black belt in emotional blackmail. My father couldn’t stand her and every Christmas Eve, when she came to us for Hungarian Christmas, there would be an argument – or so it seemed to me. Once she asked him in her heavy Hungarian accent, “Vy do you hate me because I am old?” There’s no answer to that, as my father pointed out.
Yet she taught me how to write on those Tuesdays in school holidays. I got used to someone taking what I had written seriously enough to give me a written critique and her taste was excellent. Even in her third language she had an unerring nose for a cliché and never let me get away with anything. She died around the time my second book was published and although she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia just as my mother is now, I was devastated. It took me nine years after that to write anything but journalism.

My grandmother and novel-writing in my teens

The weird thing is, I’ve always told stories. One of my earliest memories is talking to my little brother who had just been moved from our parents’ room into ‘my’ room – so I was probably about three or four. I was telling him he was NOT to interrupt when I told stories and talked to invisible people –  or else. Another memory I can date is when I was in hospital to have my tonsils out at the age of 5. A nurse came into my room to find out why I was shouting – she thought I was having a bad dream. “I’m telling a story about a naughty hamster,” I informed her coldly. She told me to be quiet so I stuck my head under the blankets and went on with the naughty hamster story.

By the time I was seven I was writing several pages when we had to write compositions at school. It’s true that I usually left it until Sunday evening before I admitted I had to write something and my parents often had to shut me in the dining room which was full of encyclopedias and books so I’d get on with my homework. It was a waste of time sending me to my room because they knew I’d just read one of my many books. So I’d storm and yell that it wasn’t fair and then eventually settle down and start writing something.

This is when I got the story feeling – the feeling that something much larger than me that was also me was leaning down and pouring the story through my fingers and out through my pen. I always wrote a rough draft because I often had trouble keeping up with the story and so the first version was full of mistakes and words that turned into a scribble because I knew what they were. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical feeling and it’s still the reason why I write. Poetry made the story feeling as well and the sense that a poem was there, waiting to be written though I didn’t know what it was yet, was so exciting I couldn’t sit still and paced up and down for hours. I used to get a peculiar ache in the palm of my hand, around my thumb which was always the harbinger of a story and that still happens too.

When I was 12 I demanded a typewriter for my birthday. I got my grandmother’s old one and learned to touch type when I was 15 (I taught myself). I needed the typewriter, I explained, because I couldn’t keep up with the words otherwise. Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter, full of the story feeling but not knowing what to write; sometimes I’d be writing and writing late into the night, gripped by what I was reading as my fingers typed it.

Around then, when I was 12, my grandmother decided to take a hand. She had been a Hungarian novelist before WWII and what she gave me when I went to visit her on Tuesdays was essentially a writing apprenticeship.

Most of the time she just asked me to write a story or another chapter of a novel and then critiqued it very carefully, usually in writing. She was only a bit harsh with one story which was about a cat and which she thought was twee. I’m still trying to write the cat book in a non-twee way.

I kept on going to her until I was seventeen when she had another stroke that put her in a care home. At least she saw my book in draft form, and said she liked it. She helped me with some of the situations in the story which were too far out of my experience. She knew that my book would be published but I don’t think she saw it as an actual book. I visited her a couple of times – the nurses put my Hungarian grandmother next to an Italian lady so they’d have something in common! – but she couldn’t really talk any more. She died a couple of years later, after my second book was published. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I stopped writing fiction for about five years then because… well, because my grandmother wouldn’t be reading it. I did freelance journalism instead.

Firedrake’s Eye was the first thing I wrote after I realised this and came out of the dry period. I wrote it on my grandmother’s old typewriter in a garden shed while I was pregnant with my first child.

Proofs, proofs, proofs

Back in the Dark Ages, before word processing programs and emails, you sent your vast wad of paper off to the publishers and if it didn’t get lost in the post, they would send back a list of edits. And then you’d do the edits and eventually you would get a much vaster wad of paper, A3 size, called page-proofs which had in fact been printed off the physical typesetting. The first thing you would see when you looked at them was always an embarrassing mistake which you corrected immediately with a terrific sense of relief.
You would have two weeks to do all your corrections in, usually coinciding with the Easter holidays or, I think on one occasion, moving house and you had to use special very precise typesetters’ marks which I still use because… well, because I can.
Despite what the publishers told you about only correcting mistakes, you would take the opportunity to make as many corrections as you could. Mostly they let you unless it got outrageous at which point they would charge you for them.
Some time later you would get your bound proofs, which looked terribly smart because they actually looked like a book. You could still make corrections so long as they were small, and sure enough, the first thing you would see when you opened your very own book was always an embarrassing (and different) mistake you hadn’t spotted at the page-proof stage.
You’d get pulls of the cover which I have to say, I always found a terrific let-down in those far off days. Cover design has got several orders of magnitude better than it was when my first book A SHADOW OF GULLS came out.
Then you’d get your first copy of the actual bound hardback book. And it was always a thrill and a joy because there were the words you’d written, made actually official by print. You’d hug it and show it to your mum and dance around the sitting room.
Then, of course, you’d spot the hideously obvious and crashingly embarrassing mistake in the first few pages which you hadn’t spotted before and was now uncorrectable.
This happens with all books no matter how careful you are and I’m now hardened to it, but it still makes me wince.
I’m going through my nice bound proofs of A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS at the moment, going backwards and reading it aloud in the effort to find every single typo and mistake and I know I’ll miss something.
But I still love getting my bound proofs!

A bit behind with things…

Really, this blog is about excuses. First I am being plagued by a gremlin: I lost my beloved battered Hungarian/English dictionary on the bus on Saturday morning, just left it on the seat and waltzed off and didn’t remember it until too late. Then the power cable for my laptop went missing: I still have a couple of places to look but I’m mystified as to where it went because I’m usually hypercareful about things like that.

And then on Saturday afternoon a glass of water was spilled All. Over. The. Keyboard. Of. My. Laptop.

It was an accident and at least partly my fault for allowing any container of any liquid to be on the same surface as the laptop because you know, and I know, and the Computer Gods know that eventually liquid and laptop will meet.

So we tipped it on its side and switched it off and patted it with paper towels and dried it with a hairdryer and I didn’t start it up again until I could get it to the Computer Guys on Monday morning. It seems OK. The laptop needed to see the Computer Guys anyway.

Plus I’m being plagued by a nasty cold and chest infection that seems to be clearing up but veeerrrryyy slooooowly. I spent the whole of Sunday in bed with a pile of snotty tissues and a brilliant book by Alice Hogge called “God’s Secret Agents” and dozing off in the hope my chest would have stopped making strange creaking noises when I woke up.

So this is it, I’m afraid. I had sort of plans to publish a taster of my peculiar SF story featuring a futuristic Robin Carey and Henry Dodd, but I haven’t got round to anything like that. Maybe next week.

Leonard Nimoy – lived long, prospered, now he’s dead.

I’ve been crying because of an actor one year younger than my father – I mean Leonard Nimoy, of course, star of the original Star Trek series, as Mr Spock the Science officer of USS Enterprise.

Funnily enough, in the hotbed of hormones that was the Upper Fourth of the Henrietta Barnett School for Girls, I wasn’t a Spock groupie. No, I (ahem, this is quite hard to admit to) loved Captain Kirk. In all his chunky male glory, I had the hots for the one who keeps going off at the deep end and behaving in a very emotional manner. Mr Spock was cool. I didn’t like that. I also fancied Dr McCoy which was remarkable because he was really quite ugly – I liked him for his crustiness and medical know how.

But Spock. No. That didn’t stop me from writing two mildly pornographic Star Trek scripts and then blaming them on a friend (sorry, Katy, I still feel embarassed about that.) There was a daughter of Spock’s called Spockina, I dimly recall, and quite a lot of orgying, written by someone who had been kissed but nothing else. It was obviously ghastly crap and let’s hope it never turns up.

A year later we were all faithlessly hot on the trail of Alias Smith & Jones which was a knock off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was after the dark-haired gambler, Smith whereas most of my friends were hot for Jones. I wrote stories for those too – slightly better fanfic as it’s now called and one or two stories were actually quite good. I learned that if anything at all, including wrathful teachers, stopped my friends reading the stories, there was something wrong with the story. One story had them all in tears, to my utter delight.

But although I lost the lovely melty feelings in my tummy for Captain James T Kirk, I kept an interest. I was particularly fascinated by some articles about Star Trek in the very excellent science fiction mag Analog SF. They explained that Star Trek had a proper set of blueprints for the Enterprise and that writers were expected to know what each of McCoy’s magic medical thingies did (they were futuristic salt shakers, by the way). Making sure that you have specifications and a full set of Lore for TV series, games and fantasy novels is now so routine as to be banal. But back in the 1960s, the normal thing for an sf producer to do when the action flagged was chuck in another alien and an explosion. Nothing was logical. Star Trek was the first series to do that thoroughly which was one reason why it worked so well, despite occasional dismal Monsters of the Week episodes. There was an underpinning logic that held it all together. Gene Roddenberry, the series devisor, had served in the US Navy and also had a feel for how Starfleet Command might operate – which JJ Abrams doesn’t. You got the sense of an actual Starfleet behind the USS Enterprise in the old series.

Also could I just say that it’s nice that nobody in the original series ever went near a gym. They’re all positively weedy compared with the pumped up kids in the Star Trek reprise. They looked like real people. Mr Spock in particular had arms like spaghetti.

And of course we all looked at what they had in the Star Trek universe and we wanted it: we wanted communicators and we wanted sliding doors and we got them. I love the delicious story of Roddenberry being rung by a major door manufacturer and asked how they got the sliding doors to slide in Star Trek. “Oh, we have scene hands behind the scenery moving them…” I believe it was only 18 months later that the first real sliding doors appeared, without the scene hands. I’m very annoyed that we still haven’t got the dilithium crystals sorted.

Spock I now realise was many fascinating symbols, but let’s remember one crucial thing: at a time when it was still against the law in some southern states for black and white people to marry and have babies, here was a half-alien, half-human hybrid being alien and human on primetime tv. That the man playing him was Jewish, just added to the delicious stew.

My one complaint – I never liked his greeting. The Vulcan salute was fine – but “Live long and prosper.”? How dull. How small-minded.

I much preferred (and still prefer) Captain Kirk’s clarion call, complete with split infinitive. “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” Ta DAH dah dah dah dah DAH…

Hi tax people! This is why you can’t put it all online!

The computer said no. It didn’t like my 14KATA. It was meh. We tried again. Meh meh again, said the computer, in incredibly convoluted Hungarian.

While I did my world-famous imitation of a very cowardly jellyfish having a nervous breakdown, Dora tried to find out why. Ah, she said. It’s the name.

So here am I at 9.10 on Monday morning, back in the horribly crowded waiting room of Erd tax office (or NAV which means Nemzeti Ado es Vam hivatal which means National Tax and Customs. I told Dora about HMRC which means Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Dora thought that was very sweet.) We’re settling in for the long haul because there are at least 20 people already grimly waiting, many of them, guess what, with 14KATA forms which can only be filed online.

I’m here because somebody spelled my middle name wrong. By one letter. Where there should be an R, there isn’t. Deirdre became Deidre at some point in the form’s journey. They did it, not me. I filled in the form correctly and have the copy to prove it.

This is what has sodded up my attempts to be a good citizen and file my 14KATA form because the names don’t match.

Personally I don’t care that a Magyar, bewildered by a legendary Irish name, left out an R. Think what might have happened if I’d been called Siobhean, for instance? The personal tax number, the KATA tax number all match up, it’s just that pesky R. But the computer cares deeply about the R and won’t have it not matching.

So I’m waiting to replace the stray R.


We wait an hour and a half and then we go into the inner sanctum and a very nice young woman has me sign several forms, agrees the tax card is wrong (by an R) as well and says it’s now sorted. You can go home and file on line, she adds, it’s all working fine now.

Dora is too smart for that malarkey. No, she says, surely we can file it here now. We’ve brought the printed out form (with the R).

So we did. And I just got an email (in convoluted Hungarian) which agrees that I did that thing. It’s filed. Thank god.

And that, tax people, is why you can’t put everything online and then fire everybody except the chief executive and his minions. Humans are messy. Rs go wandering. Life happens. You still need humans – and enough of them.

When we left the waiting room was even more crowded.

Hello Taxpeople! Here’s a nice idea for you.

Very few things make me anxious – but two of them are anything new involving computers and anything at all to do with tax.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when the Hungarian tax people told me I had to fill in my Hungarian tax statement for 2014 online. It was only available online. There was no way of doing it offline, on paper for instance. No. Shiny stylish computers only.
We logged onto the general tax site which took a lot of doing because the tax people had sent me an email with a link in it and I’d parked the email in my keeper file and forgotten about it. Why? Well it was in very very complicated Hungarian bureaucratese which made my brain go numb at the first word, so I missed the sentence in the middle of it all which said it was only valid for five days.
So we got to the right page to change the password and made obeisance to the computer gods and got another link and put in a password which the computer didn’t like because not enough numbers and we did it again and finally got into the bloody system.
Now we needed the 14KATA form. Hokay.
We typed 14KATA into the search box and hit enter.
Computer had never heard of it. Variations? Nope. Look through the dozens of menus and submenus. Nope.
As I write this, there are small business people all over Hungary, searching desperately for this form because they can’t afford an accountant and, like me, they have suddenly realised they only have a week to the deadline for filing the thing. All over Hungary, people are peering at computer screens and wishing and wishing they could find the 14KATA form, somehow, somewhere. Some of them are probably in tears.
Yes, we rang them. After the usual rigmarole with the computerised switchboard, we got through to a human. It’s on the .gov website not the tax website. Of course. Why would it be on the tax website when it’s a tax form? How silly of us!
My friend has now sent me out of her office because she can’t cope with bureaucratese and the computer as well as having me sitting there vibrating and dry handwashing over the bloody form. When I left she had found 14KATA through three different submenus, though she had to install a specially wonderful automatic formfiller first.
Ladies and gentlemen of tax authorities everywhere. I have some wise words for any of you who bother to read this. So pay attention.
You need to make tax paying very EASY and SIMPLE. Why? So people will do it and you will get their money. Just because you have a PhD in Informatics, Taxation Obfuscation & Complexification, doesn’t mean they do.
So, for instance, when you can predict that lots of people, without a PhD in the above, will be wanting to file their tax statement, you make the form available under the search box as 14KATA. No, you can’t have fun playing with nesting submenus. Every search box anywhere in the system needs to be able to lead to the 14KATA page. That’s all.
Nice boring little link: searchbox – 14KATA – form.
That’s just to start with. I haven’t even got to the form itself yet.
Luckily my friend Dora is not only fluent in English but is a very good administrator and extremely patient. I don’t know where she’s got to on the actual form. I’m afraid to ask.
That’s all for the moment, tax people. Just think about it. We have to pay tax if we want to live in a civilized society because it costs money to supply one. One of the reasons why Americans live in a less civilized society than most of Europe is because they mostly believe that only suckers pay tax. One of the reasons why Scandinavians live in a more civilized society than most of Europe is because they seem to accept the need to pay tax.
But get this, taxpeople. It may be news to you, but nobody actually likes paying tax. And most people regard the time they spend dealing with tax forms, stupid government websites and madly complex bureaucratese in any language as an additional and very unwelcome tax on their time, on top of the tax they pay in money.
So make it SIMPLE and EASY.
Unless of course you’re relying on the fines for late filing to pay the wages of the taxpeople.
But that would be silly. Wouldn’t it?

What a nice surprise – thank you, easyjet!

I’m going over to the UK for a couple of days because my mother seems to be recovering from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Yes, I know that’s impossible. That’s why I want to see her for myself. Apparently she’s talking, she’s alert, she’s eating, she was explaining the difference between a magistrate and a judge to one of the staff at the nursing home, she even read something.
When I saw her at Christmas she was unresponsive, only seemed able to make strange wailing sounds, had gone down to 37 kilos despite the constant efforts of the staff to feed her up and spent most of the day I was with her, fast asleep. So I’m going to see for myself.
So I booked a flight with easyJet at only half the cost of exactly the same thing from B.A., hit the button after checking very carefully and only checked the boarding passes they sent me because I always have to check.
Good thing I did. Instead of a lightening trip of two days (2nd to 4th February), I’d managed to book myself a nice extended holiday from 2nd February to the 4th of March. How, I don’t know. Fat fingers? I didn’t spot it before because the 4th of March is also a Wednesday.
Aargh! I said (and other things). I banged off an email to easyJet, then found the button that lets you change flights and did that thing at the cost of 35 GBP.
It wasn’t quite as expensive as B.A. but still a fair bit more. I tried to be philosophical about it, but failed as usual. Would it be paranoid, I asked my Facebook friends, to wonder if easyJet set the thing to make that sort of mistake.
Yes, it would, said one of them. Don’t be daft, she didn’t say because she has heard of Tact.
And the next day, it turned out she was right.
This is the email I got from easyJet customer services.

Dear Patricia,
I can see you made a genuine mistake with your booking and made the changes yourself online then let us know shortly after making the booking.
As a goodwill gesture I’ve refunded the 35 GBP change fee… You’ll expect to receive this in the next 5-7 working days.
Thanks for choosing easyJet. I wish you a pleasant flight to London Gatwick on the 2nd February.
Kind regards,

Wow! To say I was gobsmacked doesn’t quite convey how smacked my gob was. A discount airline? Being nice?
Wow! RyanAir, eat your heart out.
So thank you very much, easyJet.

BKK – I love you. Budapest is the world’s best public transport city!

Now I’m really not a transit fan or a public transport nerd or a metrophiliac or whatever you call people who like to photograph buses and collect their registration numbers. But I have to tell you that Budapest is turning me into one.
Why? Because it has a wonderful transport system. Hungarians and Budapestis disagree with me on this, they tell me it’s terrible, it’s dirty etc. etc. They’re wrong. If you survived London Transport in the 1980s and have any experience of public transport in, say, Cornwall you will be gobsmacked at how good the system is here.
For a start there are eight (count them, 8!) different forms of public transport you can use here. There are the metro, the trams, the trolleybuses, the buses, the HEV (suburban trains), the funicular railway and the cogwheel railway and the boats. Boats! One of them is 95 years old and still works well, weaving up and down the Danube and providing a timetable service that costs almost nothing compared with the tourist boats (750 HUF or about 2 GBP).
You can buy a monthly berlet (season ticket) for less than the cost of a week’s limited travel on Transport for London. You can sit on a magnificent modern tram that is the longest in the world (4 and 6) or you can sit on a much older tram (19) and try to fathom the workings of the little ticket machines stuck near the doors where you punch your own ticket. Each ticket costs about a pound, by the way, if you don’t feel like getting a berlet. You can admire the super modern stations of the M4 metro line or sit in the cute little carriages on the M1 metro line, historically the second underground line in Europe after the one in London. You can also admire the noisy squealing of the M3 line trains which were built in Soviet times and look it.
By the way, Budapest often seems to check what London does first and then copy and do it better. Budapesti Kozlekedesi Kozpont claim to have modelled themselves on TfL, though they don’t have Oyster cards that continually drain of money, thank the Lord.
Budapestis to the contrary, the vehicles are mostly clean and they seem generally to run to time. Did I mention my berlet? I love my monthly berlet. It costs about 26 GBP and lets me travel on the metro, HEV, buses, trams and trolleybuses anywhere in Budapest, as much as I like, whenever I like. For a month.
Match that, Boris!