Blog posts

Sorry, South Cornwall doesn’t exist.

You know there isn’t actually a place called South Cornwall, don’t you?

I made it up so I wouldn’t get chased down the street by any Cornish lynch mobs – and also so I could make stuff up whenever I wanted to. That’s what I do. I’m hoping it’s going to grow and acquire its own geography and become so famous they’ll rename Falmouth after Lyonesse – though of course Lyonesse is a mixture of Falmouth, Penzance, Fowey and St Ives. The countryside is beautiful, there are lovely little coves with exciting smuggling history, and even old RAF bases and prehistoric remains. I think it would be great if we could make South Cornwall a famous literary tourist place like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and do something for the Cornish tourist industry.

Here’s a short video about it in relation to my book LUCKY WOMAN and also I, JACK because that’s also set in South Cornwall.

Lucky Woman and South Cornwall

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Death’s Dark Sieve – child mortality and the futurologists

 

One of the many Dance of Death pictures

I won’t name the two famous and wealthy futurologists who were telling us about the wonderful world of AI and self-driving cars due to hit us in 10 to 15 years. I’m being kind and saving their blushes because as they chatted on the video about how terrible everything was in 1000 AD (or CE), they were making an elementary and annoyingly common statistical mistake about history. I mean, I understand that they’re Futurologists and don’t care all that much about history before 2000 or know much about it that isn’t from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But still! I admired these guys and it was painful to hear them.

I forget which one repeated the old fictional chestnut about people dying at age 20 in AD 1000 and girls having babies at 13 and being old grannies at 26. I know they want to make the figures for modern life expectancy look even better than they in fact are by exaggerating the awfulness of medieval life. It’s an old trick, also used by Mark Twain. He just couldn’t be bothered to do any research (he admits it in the Forward to A CONNECTICUT YANKEE AT THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR). They were trying to reassure themselves that they could make it to immortality, which is, as always, about 30 years away.

I understand, really I do. But this is not good enough, chaps, and undermines everything you tell me about the wonderful future you’re hoping to live in.

OK, so was everyone old when they got to age 20 in AD 1000? No, of course not. According to the BBC, the average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. But even that was starting from birth. It included the enormously high (by our standards) infant and child mortality and that skewed the life expectancy.

Imagine a giant sieve, held by a nasty-looking skeleton with a scythe. Imagine 100 medieval babies falling into it, all wrapped in swaddling clothes. Come on, you can do it. Think Hieronymus Bosch.

Around one in four of the babies, 25%, died before the age of one, most of them around birth and the first six weeks. It was probably one in three babies, but let’s be optimistic and one in four is easier to calculate. So 75 babies slip through the sieve and Death goes off with an evil laff to tip out the 25 that died. According to Medieval theology, all these babies went straight to Heaven providing they had been christened into the Catholic church. If not, they went to Limbo along with all the heathens, pagans and Jews born before Christ.

They died of all sorts of things – infections, congenital problems and malnutrition (as in my book A CLASH OF SPHERES). Often a baby that died wouldn’t even be named or the cause of death noted – it died of being a baby.

After that, around one in five, 20%, of the remaining children died before they reached puberty. Death’s next sieve was a little better but of the 75 babies that got through the first one, 15 died and maybe went to Heaven. They died mainly of infections and violence and accidents.

So of the initial 100 babies, 60 were left by the age of 10, dancing Ring-a-ring-a-rosie in their cute tunics. 40% had been tipped away by Death, cackling and dancing. Do you think their parents didn’t care? They did, but at least the deaths could be blamed on God so there was none of the terrible guilt modern parents feel if their children die.

But that enormous child mortality means that the lifetime mortality figures were badly skewed. If you pull the child mortality figures out of the figures, men have an average life expectancy in AD 1000 of around 40-45 years (longer if you were an aristocrat). It was fairly similar by AD 1800 but after that date the child mortality slowly started to reduce. First came the smallpox vaccine and hygiene, then came more vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, later, measles, mumps, rubella. Doctors were even able to help congenital problems. By the beginning of the 21st century global child mortality had dropped to under 5% and overall child mortality in the UK to 0.5% (one child in every 200). The death of a child has gone from being a normal part of life to a huge and horrifying surprise.

Child mortality has turned out to be the low hanging fruit. It’s comparatively easy to stop most children from dying of infections and accidents and violence. It’s going to be considerably harder to stop old people dying of old age.

Sorry, futurologists.

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How I found a 14th century supernova in a medieval Latin hymn.

This is of an 11th century supernova but gives you a feel.

I’m really excited! I think I’ve found the only historical reference to a supernova in c 1320. It’s in a Latin hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known to Catholics as the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady.

The hymn is called Stella splendens in monte and it’s from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat which was written in 1399 near Barcelona, and is one of the earliest collections of written music ever. The hymn is quite well-known and has a very pretty tune – two tunes, actually, since it’s polyphony.

It’s a bit of a mystery, is the 14th century supernova. Nobody saw it. They saw the supernova in CE 1081 and two famous later supernovas in 1572 (Kepler’s star) and 1604 (Tycho’s star). And yet there was definitely another supernova in our galaxy in c 1320. The remnants have been found and there’s a spike in nitrates in an ice core from Antarctica, which shows when the ionising radiation arrived – along with three more spikes for the other supernovae. It happened in the constellation Vela, the star was about 15 times bigger than the sun and it was a type II supernova – and it was only 600 light years away which means it should have been brighter than all the other stars. Yet nobody has found a record of it anywhere in Europe. There is no reference in China or Japan either but this is less surprising because the supernova would have been on their horizon.

KABOOM! (I know, no sound in space.) This is what’s left.

It was the words that caught my attention. There we were in the Törökbálint church choir, near Budapest, singing this lovely Latin hymn (I adore singing Latin hymns and tend to break out into Salve Regina quite frequently.) Suddenly I noticed the words. “Stella splendens in monte, ut solis radium…”

My Latin has never been very good and there’s not a lot of it left, but I could make this out. Roughly the words mean “A star in splendour on the mountain, radiant like the sun.” Or more accurately (thank you, Adam Key, a Latin teacher and my cousin): “Star shining like a ray of sun in the mountain notched-by-miracles, hear the people!”

Eh?

Then there were lots of verses describing how everybody ran to see it, old and young, rich and poor, repenting of their sins, beating their breasts and singing Ave Maria. There’s a Latin pun in the first lines – monte and serrato – that refers to Montserrat near Barcelona, probably where the wonder was seen (and where the Llibre Vermell was written). Since the mountain of Montserrat was already sacred to the Virgin Mary, the star was obviously her doing. Later there’s a reference to her “jewelled shrine.”

It’s the enthusiasm of the people that stands out. The star is captured in a few lines – most of the hymn is about how absolutely everybody ran to see it and how they sang to the Virgin on their knees. You get the feeling that the writer of the hymn was actually in the crowds, singing “Ave Maria” to the amazing light in the sky.

Now when I first noticed the words I immediately thought of a supernova – but as I didn’t know of any 14th century stellar explosion, I assumed it was a comet or Venus low in the sky. The next day I hit Google – and there it was, an article in New Scientist [14 November 1998, by Hazel Muir] called “Medieval Mystery.” This wondered why nobody in Europe noticed the very bright supernova that would have appeared suddenly and faded in a short time – days to months – in the early 14th century.

Given the ice core evidence [On Ice by Robert Matthews New Scientist 18 Sept 1999] which puts the supernova around 1320 +/- 20 years, there’s a possible easy answer. 1315 and 1317 were notorious as years without summer, when it was cloudy and pouring with rain from May to October. Those two years were so bad, there was a serious pan-European famine afterwards that lasted until 1322. So the weather was probably just too terrible for Europeans to see it.

But I think they saw it near Barcelona where the weather might have been clearer. And I’ll bet that with so many people running to see the amazing star, there will be other mentions in the record that haven’t been properly understood. Sort of “Monday, saw Virgin Mary’s house above Montserrat. It was really bright and shiny and we had lentil stew for dinner.”

So send astronomers, send medieval historians to Barcelona! There may be other details about the supernova to be found there. I’m curious about the “jewelled shrine” for instance which might refer to colours. You might be able to narrow the date down a bit more. I’m betting on the rain-soaked year of 1317.

I did a little dance when I found the New Scientist article and sang Stella splendens very loudly. For a writer of historical novels, finding a supernova in a Latin hymn is just as exciting as finding the stellar remnants must have been for the astronomers.

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Tech meltdown (again)

I had another tech meltdown the other day. It wasn’t quite as bad as it’s been in the past, but it was still pretty bad and very embarrassing because somebody I like saw it. I have meltdowns when I’m on my own which are also bad and embarrassing but at least there’s no collateral damage.

I should have known better than even to touch my laptop that day, because I woke feeling grumpy for no reason I could make out. I felt better after a walk but then I was encouraged to make a little video about the book of mine that’s coming out on Kindle (LUCKY WOMAN, new title, rewritten).

Well, I made one video and frankly it was awful. So I bounced around and jumped up and down to get my blood moving, put some lippy on my cheekbones so I didn’t look so grey and tried again. A bit better but it was too long.

So I tried to trim the thing. A perfectly simple operation. Make two copies of the video. It took me ages to work out how to do that, which should have warned me that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Then trim the back end from one copy and the front end from the other and voilá. Two little videos where there had been one before.

I couldn’t do it. I’d done it once before but I couldn’t remember the exact sequence. Meanwhile an appointment with a kinesiologist was getting closer and closer which stressed me more because I hate being late for anything.

So I started panicking. Why couldn’t I do it? It was a perfectly simple operation. Why wasn’t the laptop co-operating? Why did it hate me? Why? Oh my god. Why am I so stupid? Why couldn’t I remember how to do it? Etc. and so on.

Of course, at that point what I should have done was stop, close the laptop and gone off to my appointment.

I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me. I started swearing and muttering and sweating and clicking randomly over the screen and told the friend who was only trying to help by telling me what an intelligent woman I am, to fuck off. I’m not proud of that. Understandably my friend lost their temper and told me off, also pointing out I was going to be late for my appointment.

At least that made me shut the fucking piece-of-shit laptop. I fled out the door and ran most of the way to the kinesiologist – which of course burned off most of the stupid-making cortisol.  I got there in good time and felt much better.

I wish I could find a reliable way of stopping these stupid tantrums. It really isn’t good for a woman of (ahem) mature years to start behaving like a three year old who’s been told she can’t have a go on mummy’s iPad.

Yes, I know it’s because my amygdala gets swamped with stress hormones and my reptile brain takes over, ready to roar at the evil laptop and chomp it to bits along with anybody else in the area. I’ve had some success with Tapping/EFT in the past, which calmed me down enough so I could shut the laptop and go for a walk. When I come back I can usually do whatever it was I couldn’t before, or at least realise it isn’t so important.

Shut the laptop, walk away. That’s all I need to do. Why is it so hard to think of when I’m locked in unwinnable combat with a Totally Obedient Moron piece of tech?

 

 

 

Talking about Sir Robert Carey

My book GUNS IN THE NORTH is out now – a triple helping of Sir Robert Carey, with the first three books of the series in a handsome omnibus edition (Head of Zeus).

That’s A FAMINE OF HORSES (Sir Robert Carey arrives at Carlisle and wonders why there are so few horses available.)

A SEASON OF KNIVES (Sir Robert’s servant Barnabus is accused of murder)

A SURFEIT OF GUNS (Sir Robert travels to Dumfries to meet King James VI of Scotland where he gets into a lot of trouble)

So I’m going to be at Waterstones Kew, London UK, on Wednesday 26th July at 6.30 pm talking about it. I’m hoping the trains to Carlisle will be running the next day (27th July), because I’ll be at Waterstones Carlisle, UK, at 6.30 pm, talking about Sir Robert Carey’s adventures and the awfulness of the Border reivers.

Now I really enjoy doing these events – and I’ve been doing them since I was 18 which is (mumble mumble) years ago. A long time anyway. And if you’re called Armstrong, Graham or Fenwick or any other Border name, I’ve got some interesting news about your 16th century ancestors.

However this blog is really all about me having proudly made a little video about my events this week and trying to work out how to put it in my blog. It seems to take ages to  upload videos so I’ll try a Youtube link.

Good god, it seems to have worked. Amazing!

I’ll see you at Waterstones.

Please, Mr Corbyn…

9th May 2017

Budapest

Dear Mr Corbyn,

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to kick the Tory Corporates out of power on 8th June, with a hefty landslide. Nothing else will do.

Now you probably won’t achieve that without doing some things that may be against your ideology. Not against your honour – it’s clear that you are an honourable man, but ideology is different from honour. Please have the courage to dump it.

If you want to beat the Tories, Labour must ally with the Greens and the LibDems. If you don’t do this, wherever the Left fields multiple candidates, its vote will be split and it will lose. In the noble cause of removing Mrs May before she does any more damage, hold your nose and do it. Let the new Progressive Alliance do what they’re doing without any apparatchiks from Labour expelling them from the party. Puhleese! What are you thinking of? Don’t be Stalinist. It’s old-fashioned and embarrassing.

If you want to beat the Tories, you also have to hire better speechwriters. Pretty please?  You need to inspire people, you need to bring them clapping and shouting to their feet. In other words you need to stop addressing audiences as if they were a committee at midnight. OK, I understand that after a lifetime of doing just that, you may find it hard. But at least get some inspiring wordsmiths, get some slogans, punchy memorable phrases, soundbites if you will. I’ll do it for nothing if you ask, but I’m sure you can find someone better than me. Do it.

If you want to beat the Tories, you have to hammer away at how the appalling inequality in Britain is pulling our society apart at the seams. You have to save the NHS. You have to save the schools. You have to end Food Banks due to lack of demand.

You can have three core statements: you don’t have to go as bovinely stupid as Mrs May’s “strong and stable” mantra, designed to appeal to the frightened old people who are now the Tories’ main supporters. Every time she repeats it, have someone pop up and say “weak and stagnant”.

You see, if you want power, you have to show your feelings. Don’t tell lies. Don’t lose that wonderful old-school dignity of yours. I know you’ve got passion in there somewhere, because you are genuinely a champion of ordinary people and nobody does that if they don’t give a toss. Let your passion show.

I know it’s going to be hard on you. But could you try, please? The UK seems to be lurching backwards into the Seventies, except this time with a lot of incompetent smug millionaires in charge, backed by billionaires. The troubles of the Seventies were caused by runaway unconsidered socialism. Our present troubles are caused by another economic ideology, that of runaway unconsidered neo-liberalism (neither new nor liberal). We need to find a better economic theory – but not now (now is not the time…) Now we have to win.

I’m not even a member of the Labour party because I don’t think writers should align themselves with any party. But I honestly think you would make a good, possibly great, Prime Minister.

We need a landslide to dislodge the Tory Corporates. Think how lovely it’ll be to watch the needle swing far into red territory, think how lovely it’ll be to watch their faces and the faces of the pundits as the great British electorate administers another massive kicking to the Tories and hauls them out of their cosy trough!

Somebody has to step forward and stop the rot as we slide steadily into being a much smaller, poorer, one-party-state version of Trump’s America. This may be the last chance. It could be you. Would you give it a try, please?

Please?

Best wishes and good luck,

Yours sincerely,

Patricia Finney

Diana Gabaldon’s lovely review of A CLASH OF SPHERES

To say I’m happy about this review from Diana Gabaldon is like saying that “War and Peace” is about fighting or that a blue whale is quite big. I’m beaming. Thank you so much, Diana! (this comes from my US publishers’ website at Poisoned Pen Press.)

The following essay is by New York Times best-selling author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon.

This is one of the most entertaining, elegant and deeply emotional books I’ve read in years. (I’m tempted just to write “EEEEEEEEE!” to sum up my response to it, but that seems inadequate, if heartfelt.)

I’ve loved the Robert Carey series since the first book (A Famine of Horses), and every one thereafter has had all the elements that made the first so engaging: a fascinating look at little-known parts of Elizabethan history, wonderfully immersive details, hilarious dialogue, adventurous situations, and—above all—characters drawn with a deftness that catches the essence of a soul in a few words.

Sir Robert is the center of it all, of course, but the story certainly doesn’t stop with him. He’s surrounded by a constantly evolving (and revolving) constellation of courtiers, reivers, Borderers (often synonymous with reivers), Sergeant Dodd (his surly, dour, stubborn, honorable sidekick), scholars, assassins, spies, royalty, and (to be sure) women. One woman in particular; the unattainable Elizabeth Widdrington, unhappily married to a cruel older husband and much too honorable to take Robert Carey as her lover, much as she wants to.

This one’s not an ordinary historical novel

All of this would be more than enough for your ordinary historical novel…but this one’s not an ordinary historical novel: it’s an orrery—you’ve doubtless seen one, even if you didn’t know what it’s called—it’s a mechanical model of the solar system. And those you’ve seen have undoubtedly been designed to fit the Copernican theory of astronomy: to wit, with the sun in the center and the various planets orbiting it at varying distances. But it was not always thus…

Back in Sir Robert’s day—i.e., the late sixteenth century—there were competing views of the stars and their movements, and scholars who espoused the Ptolemaic system, in which the planets and the Sun all (naturally) circled the Earth, were more popular than the upstart (and obviously deluded) Copernicans. Only in a P.F. Chisholm novel will you have a delayed-fuse plot that centers (you should pardon the expression) on a formal scientific disputation regarding the position of the Sun in the solar system, held at the Royal Court of Scotland, between the King and an itinerant Jewish healer.

Not that there aren’t plenty of other plots orbiting that one: religious persecution, murder in several shades, rejected lovers of all stripes and persuasions, and the head-butting politics of the constantly feuding Border surnames.

Passing without touching

The novel is an orrery, though; the underlying structure of the book reflects all the intricacies with which people orbit each other, mostly passing without touching, turning a light face or a dark as they travel through their personal space, their orbits influenced by love, jealousy, ambition, greed, insecurity, fear, revenge, longing, frustration, friendship and its loss—and the soul-wrenching effects of being responsible for other people.

And at the center of it all is a tenderly human compassion that sheds its light through this system of moving bodies, for everyone from the King of Scotland to Sergeant Dodd’s horse.

I finished reading the book, and immediately read it again. Been a long time since that’s happened.

Diana Gabaldon (2017)

To learn more, read an excerpt, or to purchase, visit: A Clash of Spheres.

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My brother Mark Finney’s eulogy of our mother – Daisy Gizella Emőke Finney née Vészy

DAISY FINNEY EULOGY

Today I would like to say a little to celebrate the life of the quietly extraordinary woman who was my mother.

There are too many stories for just twelve or so minutes. They could fill a book and thankfully my sister, Patricia, is currently working on one. All I can do is to provide a few highlights and describe some of the people who shared her life.

Daisy grew up in Hungary in a well-to-do, highly intellectual family. Her father was a lawyer and a decorated hero of the first world war, her mother a writer and novelist who later became a psychoanalyst. She was an only child and was doted upon. Here is a brief extract from a beautiful tribute written by her cousin and friend: Vivian Foti-Wagner:

“Our greatest pleasure was when we could have sleepovers and spend the night together as well, either in our apartment or in their house. During these times we were chatting non-stop, probably until dawn if one of the strict grownups didn’t come in and turn off the lights. We never ran out of topics to talk about: the chatting and the giggling started at bath time in the evening and wouldn’t stop even while washing and getting dressed in the morning.

Emőke was a fundamental person in shaping my personality and my identity. I thank the Lord that He has gilded my childhood with her presence, which is radiating into my whole life.”

When, despite the avoidance tactics of the Regent, Miklos Horthy, the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Daisy Emoke was sent away to relatives in the country near Lake Balaton. Her parents stayed behind in Budapest and worked in the Resistance Movement against the Nazis. They were arrested by the secret police, miraculously released and eventually joined Emoke.

Then they were arrested again, in the spring in front of Emoke during a roundup of “undesirables” and taken away to be shot. On being led away, her father said to her. “Don’t worry, Emoke, we will be back for Easter.” She could not understand why everyone seemed so sad. Her father had promised something. He would keep that promise. And he and his wife did, through their own series of extraordinary adventures. As she was triumphantly reunited with her parents she rebuked the grown-ups for their doubts saying they, as adults, ought to know better.

One story best describes for me the gulf between my lucky generation which has known an enduring European peace and those who were caught up in that global conflict and, for that matter those who to this day throughout the world have had to flee their homes and their countries and become refugees.

This is what she told us. “We were travelling back after the end of the war to Budapest. We had walked across battlefields ankle deep in spent cartridges and I had seen sights not meant for a 12 year old girl. But it was alright. My father was with me. He had escaped the Nazis and had evaded the Russians and we were now going home to our beautiful house…if it was still there.

Now we were stuck at a station on a train going nowhere a few miles outside Budapest. We watched a train puff past and it became apparent that it was bound for Budapest and we had missed it. There were Russian soldiers about, which made everyone nervous and a railway worker said that the best thing would be to walk to the next station. The other passengers started setting off across the fields but my father, instead of following them, decided it would be easier going along the railway track where he (with his terrible sense of direction) could not get lost. Our path led along an embankment and people were gesticulating at us but we ignored them.

It was then that I noticed the unburied bodies from a recent skirmish , still with their boots on. This was unusual. Generally boots were the first things taken. I told my father who looked worried. I then pointed out some metal spikes I had seen sticking out of the ground. My father, who was a few steps ahead of me with my mother, went quiet and stopped. He could loudly lose his temper when faced with a miscalculated invoice but was always icy calm when it mattered, as it did now. We were standing in a minefield. “Don’t touch them, Csillagom (my little star)” he said using his endearment for me. “Just walk in my footsteps, only in my footsteps.” And so I did.

After the war, with the political situation becoming ever more dire, my mother escaped to Switzerland using, unbeknownst to her, a forged passport, where she attended a finishing school in Lausanne. There, she made many friends, learned fluent French and broke a few hearts of students attending a nearby boys’ school.

Despite my mother’s world being turned upside down she never lost her faith in her father’s miraculous ability to solve anything, do anything, find anything but it was a shock when as a student in England she met her parents at Victoria station on their arrival after their escape from Hungary . She didn’t at first recognize them as all she saw was a little old couple struggling with their suitcase.

Daisy’s first few years in London were not happy. It was so strange to witness her parents’ poverty as they subsisted in a tiny bedsit in Herne Hill. Thanks to her great friend, Anita, Daisy lived in a service flat in Bayswater. Her mother worked as a librarian and Daisy assisted her father with his work on émigré politics. She was relieved when her father’s unerring ability to spot a good location and to know the right people secured them a flat in St. Johns Wood.

In 1956 she worked assiduously with the British Council for Aid to Refugees helping to deal with the huge influx of refugees from the Hungarian Uprising which had been brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union tanks. At that time refugees were welcomed with open arms by this country.

Despite English not being her first language and being away from her parents, staying with a variety of her mother’s friends in England since her mid teens, Daisy had done well in all her exams and was able to study law in preparation for becoming a barrister. At Grays Inn she was worshipped by a number of young men. On the periphery of her little coterie was a tall, dark, handsome man whom she had noticed but whom she did not really know very well. Late one afternoon after a pleasant time spent in the Students common room she announced that she was off to buy some typewriter ribbon. “I’ll come with you” said one Jarlath Finney and indeed he did, as she said herself at his memorial, for the next 45 years.

Just before her marriage, Daisy was asked to join a particular organization. This organisation’s public persona was as a charitable foundation which received donations of books from publishers and organized their distribution to countries behind the iron curtain. It was, in fact, a CIA front. The subtle operation, which ran for 37 years, was dubbed in one article “the Marshall Plan of the mind” and was run by George Minden a Romanian intellectual and refugee. He said, perceptively, that the main thing the West was up against was “not Marxist obstacles but a vacuum” and that “what is needed is something against frustration and stultification, against a life full of omissions.” The communist authorities, while resisting direct attempts at propaganda, could not stop these mass charitable gifts of books – of the great literature otherwise denied to the populace, of ideas and information that they would never otherwise see and of an alternative world out there, just across the barbed wire. When the breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellites took place, it was in no small part due to the ability of the people to think, to see beyond what was fed to them by the state and to choose and demand freedom when the moment came. My mother worked quietly and efficiently for that organisation, charming and wheedling from publishers and running the London office single handed for eighteen years. To quote from an article by John Matthews:

“Daisy Veszy, a young upper class émigré from Hungary, whose Oxbridge English, together with her soon-to-be-acquired name, Finney, disguised her foreign origin, was a person whom Free Europe had earlier tried to recruit. She had luxuriant dark hair surrounding a pale and pretty face, from which flowed a mellifluent contralto voice… In the all-male bastion of British publishing, she found her femininity raising eyebrows, but the fact that she was charming, attractive and had a law degree of her own, invariably broke the ice.”

Daisy adored Jarlath. In supporting him and his career, she subsumed her own. She never practised as a barrister but, had she done so, her determination and intelligence would no doubt have carried her to success. In those days, however, she chose to bring up a family – as well as the work of running the London end of a CIA operation, which she was able to do largely at home, while she acted as referee, mediator, comforter and enforcer to four children. She did, however, find time to become a magistrate and was a mainstay of the lay bench at Horseferry Road magistrates court where she greatly enjoyed the challenge of dispensing justice in this most important historical bastion of the English legal system.

I knew my mother dressed well but it was with the selfish eye of a son that I saw her and I did not really notice…until going through some old photographs recently restored by Gavin, it struck me quite forcefully that, whether as a twenty-something posing on a stone seat in Edinburgh, a young mother going for a walk in Devon with her toddler children, sitting in a deckchair in our garden or attending Vicky’s first holy communion, she always looked effortlessly glamorous. Her outfits were beautifully matched and generally set off by a pair of elegant high-heeled shoes. Even in her later life I recall my daughters noting with respectful awe at a family get-together that my mother was wearing a Chanel suit.

Daisy was, to use her own words, utterly bereft when Jarlath died. We all fretted for her as she sat alone in her house and eschewed activities where she would be able to socialize and meet people, although she did venture out to attend this church from which she derived great solace. “You need to get out of the house more” we said. “People will not come to you!”

We were wrong…people did come…in particular…

John Freeborn was an acquaintance and neighbour. He had lost his wife, tragically to cancer some time before and he started spending time with Daisy. He soon became a firm friend and her close companion who took her on the holidays she always wanted to go on but never did, who went with her to the theatre, the cinema, restaurants and cafes, the houses of friends and relations; even to visit Hungary again for the first time since she had left as a child. It was John who organized the transport of a stained glass window showing Jesus calming the storm which had been dedicated to her father’s memory but had languished in a box after its church had been demolished. It was he who enabled it to be placed in the church which her father and a friend had planned many years before and which had finally been built, and he took her to Hungary to unveil the window and to meet friends and relatives, some of whom she had not seen since childhood.

It was John who gave her back her zest for life and it is thanks to him with his quiet, good humoured determination, calm nature and often wicked sense of humour that until dementia took her, and in fact beyond, Daisy enjoyed several most happy years. As Altzheimer’s took an ever more malicious hold, he cared for her, at increasing emotional cost to himself as he tried to maintain for her a sense of comfort, security and normality. Patricia then stepped in to look after Daisy for nine months but still he was always on hand to help… every day. Even when we had to move her to a wonderful care home near me in Farnham , John battled with the M25 traffic at least once a week to visit her.

We all owe John such a debt of gratitude for all he has done for our mother and he has demonstrated how one should behave as a friend, a companion, a Christian and a gentleman of honour.

So – an extraordinary eventful life. Often a difficult one. But above all, the life of a woman determined to be brave, to survive no matter what obstacles were thrown in her path, to love the country of her birth and the country which took her in, to do the best for people who needed her help, to love life, provided it was interesting, and, of course, at all times to be dressed with impeccable style and élan wherever she happened to be and whatever she happened to be doing. We all miss her.

Mark Finney 22 February 2017

Time to chuck out the old Right/Left dualism.

We need a completely new way of thinking about politics and we need to throw out the old Right/Left dualism.

It’s finished. It’s had its day, caused untold death and destruction throughout the 20th century and needs shooting in the head.

Yes, it was quite a useful tool because we humans are dualistic thinkers and we have a visceral need to split things into two categories – right/left, bad/good, up/down etc. But it doesn’t work any more. Partly because as the Right becomes more and more extreme, the Left is floundering, having lost its founding myth of Marxist thought. Partly because there are important political groupings that don’t fit into it at all – is the Daesh/ISIS death cult leftist or rightist? Neither, it’s a religious fundamentalism. Partly because a lot of political thought has become as sclerotic as the thinkers, tinkering with unimportant things.

We need a new axis to help us think about politics.

Here’s one.

 

<____________________________________>

Extremist                                                                     Moderate

 

It’s really about finding political similarities. Although people with leftist convictions often feel more comfortable with other lefties and rightwingers with other righties, there are a whole bunch of people who are completely excluded. What about Libertarians? You usually find them lumped with rightwingers, yet Libertarians are usually neither racist nor sexist nor interested in controlling what drugs people take. They are as anti-government control as any dyed-in-the-wool Anarchist. So where do they go?

Simple. On the Finney axis, moderate Libertarians go with other moderates like old fashioned liberals. Extreme Libertarians go with the extremists. Tea Party republicans obviously go on the Extremist end, moderate Rupublicans stay moderate. Where do we put the radical Evangelical Right? With the Extremists.

Like this.

<____________________________________>

Extremists                                                                                        Moderates

Communists                                                                                     normal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans                                                                     normal Republicans

Anarchists                                                                                        Liberals

Daesh/ISIS                                                                                        Episcopalians

Creationists                                                                                      Reform Judaism

 

Etcetera. By all means tinker with the lists but remember, this axis is about a willingness v. an unwillingness to listen, awareness of v. obliviousness to confirmation bias, ability to have civilized debate v. insistence that your viewpoint, is the only one.

Just in case you’re worried, in fact there are relatively few Extremists in the world. Most people are instinctively Moderate. The trouble is, a few Extremists with their passion and hatred and noise can have a truly massive effect on everyone else – as shown by the Tea Party and Daesh/Isis. They can convince unthinking Moderates that racism is fine and sexism is funny.

On the other hand, sometimes the Extremists’ passion and hatred and noise are what you need to change a bad status quo – for instance, the people who destroyed the Slave Trade were the Extremists of their time, while most white people were just toddling along comfortably, never thinking about slavery.

So we need both styles of thought. That’s worth remembering. It’s worth repeating. WE NEED BOTH STYLES OF THOUGHT.

Personally, I’m an Extreme Moderate, which is a whole other ballgame.

 

Big Fat Fail, Lidl Supermarkets

I’m going to be persnickety. Two things about Lidl (a European discount supermarket for my American readers) are seriously annoying me. One is kind of petty. The other is actually pretty important.

Let’s start with the petty one. Lidl in Hungary has normal trolleys and also smaller baskets on wheels. I like to use the smaller baskets on wheels, mainly because you don’t have to fiddle around finding a coin (100 forints or 1 euro) to put in the slot so you can release the trolley from its chains and start trundling it round. I never never have a 100 forint piece when I need one, or I have it in the form of two 50 forint coins etc.

Hungarian supermarkets also generally have a nice custom whereby they provide a small shelf near the checkout where you can put your basket after you’ve paid so you can sort out your plastic bag and avoid putting the eggs under the cabbage, while not holding up the queue.

All was fine with Lidl until this year when some kind of order clearly came down from on high, saying that you could no longer keep your little basket when you went through the checkout, you had to leave your basket before the checkout. So you couldn’t just put your shopping back in your basket after you’d paid for it, and trot over to the shelf to sort yourself out. No, after you’ve paid, you have to either a) put all your shopping in your bag immediately at the checkout which slows down the queue a lot and can be stressful for people who worry about that kind of thing; or b) you have to carry your shopping over to the shelf, requiring several trips, meaning you might drop the eggs, and anyway slows down the queue.

I told you this was petty, didn’t I?

It’s one of those stupid little rules that higher management love to invent. Probably they don’t want to pay the lad who collected up the baskets and took them to the entrance. Maybe it’s a fire hazard. Whatever. The fact that this rule is encouraging the Gauleiter element among the checkout girls and boys, is also irritating. I had a snotty girl order me to take my basket back to the other end of the queue the other day. Instantly reverting to childhood, I put the basket on my head, shouted “coming through!” to the uncomprehending queue and did my best to damage the basket when I dropped it into the pile. Then it took me a remarkably long time to put all my shopping in my plastic bag after I’d paid for it, while the girl sat back and rolled her eyes, the way Hungarian checkout girls often do. I’m not proud of this, by the way. But what do they expect? It’s a stupid irritating petty rule, impacts old ladies more than anyone else, plus you slow down the queue whatever happens and the queues are slow enough already because Lidl clearly doesn’t believe in making it easy to pay.

Remove this silly rule, Lidl. Find another way to save the basket-collecting lad’s wages.

So that’s the petty complaint. Here’s the far more serious complaint and here I’m really being unfair to Lidl because every single supermarket does it. But Lidl have pissed me off, so it’s them.

Do you have to put sugar in everything? I mean, the chocolate and the creamy puddings, that’s fine. I’m trying to cut down the sugar I eat and I’ve taken to reading ingredients lists. Ye gods. EVERYTHING has sugar (or artificial sweeteners which are worse) in it. Not just breakfast cereal and meusli and salami and tinned sweetcorn and sauces and seasonings and pickled cucumbers and bread and coconut milk and…

Frozen seafood? OSTRICH STEAKS? Why in the name of the gods of food do you feel the urge to put sugar in ostrich steaks? Aren’t they sold as healthy meat because low fat? Seafood is ALREADY sweet, do you have to put sugar in that? Why?

Well, I know why – it’s because sugar is addictive and you want us consumers to come back for more ostrich steaks and that’s the quickest and cheapest way to do it.

That’s not good enough, Lidl (and all the rest of you cheating crowd of big grocers). People are wising up to the dangers of sugar and in particular the dangers of sugar that you don’t know is there (ostrich steaks!) I’m not the only person cutting down on sugar. Sugar is quickly becoming the Supervillain of food, not poor old fat. It’s implicated in heart disease, high blood pressure and the pandemic of obesity sweeping the globe, not to mention it causes Type 2 Diabetes. And possibly Alzheimer’s, since it may be that Alzheimer’s is just Type 3 Diabetes of the brain.

You’re going to say you only put a teensy amount in the ostrich steaks. Well it mounts up. Take a look at the USA if you want an awful warning on what happens when you add a little sugar here and a little there. Their obesity levels are at 1 in 3 and their Type 2 Diabetes stats are following up the curve into the stratosphere.

Here’s my suggestion, Lidl. Be at the forefront of the grocery revolution. Introduce a line of products which have neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners in them. Like ostrich steaks and seafood without sugar, vitamin pills without sweeteners. Don’t add anything else like fructose and maltose which are also sugars. Just guaranteed no-sugar no-sweetener food. You can charge a bit more for them, I realise it’s going to be hard NOT adding sugar.

You remember. Like food used to be. No sugar in it unless it’s a pudding. Do it Lidl, your competitors will laugh and then they’ll follow you.

Oh and let  us keep our baskets, eh?

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