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.

 

B*gg*r, we have to Brexit.

It’s very annoying when someone on Facebook makes a point from the other side of the Brexit/Remain argument which is not only valid but blows your argument out of the water. For the avoidance of doubt he was a Brexiteer but I’ll keep his name out of this until he gives me permission to use it.

I was banging on about parliamentary sovereignty, which I happen to believe in strongly. It was the only thing that tempted me to vote Brexit in the teeth of Farage, Boris and Gove (for people reading this in 2018, they were prominent politicians who lied their way through the campaign on the side of Brexit. Yes, I do mean Boris Johnson, the reality show star). Parliamentary sovereignty was being steadily watered down by the EU and the highest appeal court in the land was no longer in the land but in Luxemburg. I don’t like that.

My Facebook interlocutor (friend would be a bit strong) basically said, paraphrased: Cameron delegated parliamentary sovereignty to the referendum, making no mention of a two-thirds majority, which he should have, nor that it was advisory. In fact, he said it would be binding. He is the PM, or he was (2018ers, you can look him up). In the UK we live in what is really an elective dictatorship so he could do that, however stupid it was in retrospect. Obviously he thought that Remain would win.

This blew my argument about a general election and a vote in Parliament on grounds of Parliamentary sovereignty out of the water. Even the constitutional lawyers (Mishcon Reya) riding to the rescue of Remain are going to have trouble with that, especially if the Brexiteers get their own constitutional lawyers saddled up and galloping out.

I still think that a general election on the subject would be a very good idea but it’s no longer possible to say it’s essential.

Bugger.

So we are now going to have to crash out of the EU somehow, a vast change that will take years and billions of quid to achieve. The EU MEPs are saying “Goodbye, don’t let the door hit you in the ass,” only a bit politer. We’ve always been the awkward squad and as a result we probably had the best deal of anyone in the EU, but hey! What does it matter when you’ve now got that extra 350 million quid a week to spend on the NHS?

Oh we don’t. Oh dear.

There is also the nasty sight of English xenophobia crawling out from under its rock. I suspect that many ardent Brexiteers genuinely though that by voting “Leave” they were voting against horrid brown and yellow people and people who don’t speak English but insist on rudely speaking their nonsense garble where proper English people can hear them. They thought this because Farage told them so. In fact I suspect quite a few of them thought that voting “Leave!” was an imperative addressed to the horrid foreigners – as in, Leave, you bloody foreigners!

Of course, the idiots are now wondering why the bloody foreigners won’t Leave immediately so they torch Polish homes and shout “Go home!” on buses to third generation Englishmen and women who happen to be brown.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so disgusting and tragic.

How was Cameron so stupid? Well, he’s sloppy, of course, always has been. But it’s mainly that he and all the other Remainers, including closet Remainers like Boris, simply forget the people who live in the rest of England. If he thought of them at all, it was as a distant noisy crowd of people, all watching TOWIE and necking beer and doners (traditional English food, that). The oiks, as he probably called them at Oxford. Rather awful people, in fact. And the old, of course. A bit set in their ways. Not many of them. Surely the nice people outnumber the poor and the old? Don’t they?

No, you twat, they don’t. Especially in a neoliberal extreme capitalist system, the Poor VASTLY outnumber the Nice. A lot of them are often ex-Nice themselves and extremely angry about it. They were the cohort who voted Leave as a way to kick you in the balls, by the way.

And so Cameron ran his referendum, no two-thirds majority, binding, and dropped us deep in the shit becase he’s sloppy and has lived in the Rich Bubble all his life. I’m sure he’ll be suffering terribly in his Dordogne/Provencal/Tuscan villa (can’t be bothered to look it up, there’s sloppy for you).

You may have noticed that my contempt for the man is epic, even exceeding my contempt for Tony Blair. He had a responsible position as Prime Minister and he had a duty of care to all the people of Britain, not just the Nice. He had a duty of care to the Poor as well, the people who are too busy coping with being poor to check out the clever arguments, weren’t sure what the EU is (but googled it afterwards), trusted Farage because he likes a pint, trusted Boris because he’s funny.

But the Brexiteers won and now we’re stuck with it. Well done, Cameron. Great job.

Hoo. Fracking. Ray.

The Hungarian Language Test

OK, so I’m trying to learn Hungarian at the moment, and may I say, it’s bloody hard. There are various reasons for this and one of them is that Magyar is very definitely not in the huge Indo-European language family. Pretty much all the other languages of Europe are in that family, with the exception of Basque and Finnish – and Hungarian. Its family is Finno-Ugric which means that there are some tribes around Lake Uigher in Siberia and the Finns who speak something similar, though not very.

The Hungarians are quite proud of this, of course, and have an unfortunate tendency to laugh if you tell them you’re trying to learn it. They then shake their heads and say “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” which means that Hungarian is very heavy, meaning difficult. Thank you, I know.

But this uniqueness means that Hungarian is perfect for a little test I am going to recommend to all language theorists.

If you’re talking about the original mother tongue, the ancestor to all living and dead human languages – yes, New Scientist 6 February2016 “The Eloquent Ape”, I’m looking at you – then you need a quick and easy test to make sure you’re not talking nonsense. Hungarian is a quick and easy test.

So, let’s say you’re searching for common sounds and similar-sounding words in languages all over the world. You find common sounds in all the languages you know like German and French and maybe even Sanskrit, and there it is. You proudly announce that this particular sound or word is universal, across all human languages and therefore part of the original ur-language.

You’re just being provincial. You haven’t ventured out of the comfortable branches of the Indo-European language group. That means you’re leaving out all sorts of languages like Mandarin or Qechua. But it’s hard to learn non-Indo-European languages and you need that test for non-Indo-European languages so you don’t waste time. Ta da! Hungarian is perfect. It’s indisputably spoken by humans and most of its words are very different. If you find your favourite candidate in Hungarian – well, maybe you’ve really found a proto-word. If you don’t, maybe you haven’t. Plus there are Hungarians everywhere and the educated ones seem to speak three or four languages. Every language lab needs at least one Hungarian, if only so there’ll be someone there who’s rock-solid on transitive and intransitive verbs (don’t ask).

There’s this researcher called Meritt Ruhlen at Stanford University, California, who contends that sounds like tik, tok, dik and tak mean “toe” in lots of languages and so must be from the ur-language.

Hungarian? The word for finger is “ujj” (ooee) and toes are “labujj” or leg-fingers. Ujj. Not very like toe, is it? You could argue even the concept of toe is sort of weak.

Numbers? Sure, in most Indo-European languages they all sound a bit similar up to ten. In Hungarian they go “egy, kettő, harom, négy, öt, hat, hét, nyolc, kilenc, tíz”. OK, so ten is similar. Oh and in Japan they apparently have different counting systems for people, long thin things and round things. So which one do you choose?

Ruhlen says social communication words like “who, what and where” and “he, she, it” are thought to be ur-words too.

Guess what you use for “he, she or it” in Hungarian? “Ő” That’s right. Just the one. “Ő” means “he,” “she” and “it”.

And that old favourite, Mama? Contentious. In Hungarian the word for mother is “anyu” – no “m”.

So Hungarian is a very special language, simple in some ways, fiendishly difficult in others. It’s quite young, having arrived in Europe with the fierce Magyar raiders only in the 9th century AD. Unlike Indo-European which reaches back to Persian, Hittite and Saskrit. Hungarian has an ancestry that’s lost in the roiling chaos of the nomad tribes on the eastern steppes. Also it got tidied up in the 19th century.

So if you’re looking for putative ur-words in Hungarian, and they’re totally different, maybe they’re not ur-words. Maybe you’re wasting your time looking for an ur-language before the Tower of Babel?

Personally I don’t think there was any such thing. Languages spoken by so-called primitive tribesmen aren’t simple, they’re complicated, even if they lack numbers after 5 or the idea of left and right. Simple is what you get when two languages like Anglo-Saxon and Old French crash into each other on an off-shore island and rub all the case-endings off (a sort of linguistic mating called a Creole which is what English is).

I think that the tribes that walked out of Africa all started with complicated languages of their own that had been evolving and developing since before we were human. The amazing social technology of language has continued to evolve and encourage sex between its enormous number of varieties right down to the present.

And when we get into space, languages will continue to flower and seed and change. Possibly something like a lingua franca will evolve from English or Spanish or Chinese but I bet that every habitat, every country on every planet will have its own complicated and irregular language. It’s a wonderful thought.

Why I stole a French textbook when I was 15 (and never gave it back)

Last week I talked about the three witches in class 11/12 and how they know everything already. And I said I was them, once upon a time.

Kier Salmon asked me on Facebook – what flipped the switch? What changed me from the sullen stroppy fifteen year old who failed all but two of her school summer exams into someone who went to Oxford, got a play produced on Radio 3 and her first book published at the age of 18?

The play and the book I’ve already explained – my Hungarian grandmother effectively gave me a Masters in Creative Writing from the age of 12. But Oxford? How did I do that from 25% in French, among other catastrophic marks, in the exams the year before my O levels.

The answer is simple. It’s sex.

I remember it very clearly. I woke up in my extremely messy attic bedroom one morning in early September, the year before my O levels and I thought: “I will never ever find an interesting intelligent man to have sex with here in Hampstead Garden Suburb.” Perhaps I said it aloud.

I was still a virgin but not because I hadn’t tried. It was just boys seemed to find me frightening and ran away. The most humiliating was the boy who took me to Burger King after taking me to the cinema (I insisted on actually watching most of the film too) and spent half an hour talking about football. I fell asleep. He left me to pay the bill.

“Therefore,” I thought, “if I want to have sex with anyone interesting, I have to go to university. In fact I have to go to Oxford, Cambridge or Durham.” That was because I hadn’t actually heard of any other universities, but being fifteen, it never occurred to me to check because I knew everything.

I thought a bit more, lying there while the sun streamed in with early morning. “In order to get into Oxford, Cambridge or Durham I have to get at least two A grades out of three A-levels. In order to be allowed to do A levels I have to get at least 5 O levels and the grades had better be good because they take them into account at university too.”

And then I thought, “Oh shit. It’s less than a year to the O levels and I know nothing at all. Ohshitohshitohshit.”

What happened after that was a sort of miracle. Once the connection between sex and university had been made and once I had stopped saying oh shit, I became… different. I planned my next year like a military campaign. First I assessed the state of my knowledge and realised that out of nine O levels I was due to take the next summer, I could count on getting an A in one, English Language. The rest – English Literature, French, Latin, Geography, History, Physics with Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics – I knew pretty much nothing about. Maths was terrible because if you failed it you had to take it again. I hated Maths (I may do another blog on the stupidities of the School Maths Project) so I asked my mother to get me a good maths tutor and she hired a lovely man who had worked with my brother. It’s entirely due to him that I didn’t fail Maths, him and my amazing memory. At that time in my life I could read something once and remember most of it – I had no idea this was anything special, mind you, I thought that reading things once was how you learned.

What about Latin, History, Geography etc etc and of course French, my bete noire, Mrs Wood’s class? I bought a Latin Made Simple book, found the text books that were buried in my lift top locker desk. French was a problem because we had a textbook that didn’t mention the grammar (a silly 70s fad that has caused an enormous amount of damage). I sank my pride and asked Mrs Wood if I could borrow a textbook from the next set down which had the grammar and the verbs all nicely set out.

“There’s no point,” said Mrs Wood, “You’ve left it too late. You can’t catch up before your O levels.”

Maybe she said this to spur me into action or maybe she meant it. I went off with rage in my heart, waited until a short-sighted and kindly teacher was in the locked textbook cupboard and stole the French textbook I wanted.

I don’t remember much of the next year because I spent it studying. Some teachers noticed that I’d woken up suddenly and encouraged me, explaining complicated horrible things like moles, DNA and atoms in lunch hours. Most of the time I just worked, feeling a strange thing like a mighty serpent inside me, that powered tirelessly through the textbooks and rammed its head against any obstacle until it dissolved or broke.

Mrs Wood didn’t notice because I didn’t let her. I continued to sleep through her lessons – and I needed the sleep because I was staying up till past midnight every night, plowing methodically through all the books. When we had classroom tests in French on Fridays I made sure I got at least half the questions wrong.

I remember being very surprised by how easy school work suddenly got in the spring as I filled in the holes and caught up with my peers. When we took our mocks, I had increased all my marks by about 50%. I was particularly happy about my French mocks. From 25% the previous summer, I got 64% in the spring.

Mrs Wood didn’t sound happy as she congratulated me on my marks. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said and I knew perfectly well that she thought I’d cheated somehow. I just gave her a long hard stare and left her to know that she had nothing whatever to do with my knowledge of French.

In the summer, the results came by post to where we were on holiday in Suffolk and in fact I’d forgotten about them. My brother came to where I was reading in bed (it was probably raining) and said dolefully that Daddy wanted to talk to me, my O level results had come.

I went downstairs, literally feeling my heart beating in my mouth, shaking all over. Oh shit, oh shit, what went wrong? I wondered, desolately. And also: “now I’ll never ever have sex with anyone interesting.”

My father looked up from the little slip of paper and said very seriously “You’ve got seven A grades.” For a moment I didn’t understand and then he laughed and hugged me and told me how magnificent I was. I had got A grades in everything except Physics with Chemistry, where I got a B and Mathematics which I just passed. There was family rejoicing and I think a special trip to the Orford Ness restaurant where I gorged on smoked salmon.

For the record, when I eventually got to Oxford, I did have sex with several interesting men and married the most interesting of them.

Apuka

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.

Anyuka

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.

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!

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.
EASY and SIMPLE.
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?

In Hungary at last!

At last I\’m in Hungary, marinating in Hungarian. It\’s a language I heard throughout my childhood when my mother used it as a kind of secret code so she could talk freely to her friends and her mother. She never taught it to us though it would have been so easy for her – the excuse she gave was that our father would have felt left out if we could talk a different language. My brother believes this, I don\’t. I think my father was a bigger man than that and also that he would have loved to show us off as brilliantly bilingual children.

***

I think my mother was secretive. There were things she didn\’t want us to know and denying us her mother-tongue kept the keys to certain locked boxes away from us.

***

Her excuse to us was that she wanted us to be completely English.

***

A silly idea. It\’s true that until her stroke and subsequent slow descent into Alzheimer\’s and vascular dementia, she spoke perfect English with no trace of an accent. She was so good at being English that English people would talk about \”bloody foreigners\” in front of her – which she told us with great pride. She believed she could pass for English despite being far too chic.

***

However our household world was not really very English. We had an exotic Christmas Eve with presents and smoked salmon, followed by a normal Christmas Day with more presents and turkey. We ate very different food from our friends; beef stroganoff and chicken marengo and gulyas (pronounced \”gooyarsh\” please, not \”goulash\”) were completely unknown in those far off pre-cookchill days. There would be emotion, shouting, intense arguments over politics and literature and pretty much any subject at all. Exotic foreign friends of my mother would turn up and talk Hungarian, Polish, French and this was regarded as normal.

***

I wasn\’t encouraged to invite school friends home to tea. That was after my best friend was presented with chicken marengo (the least exotic thing my mother could think of to cook), asked for ketchup, was asked why and burst into tears. I was blamed for this, of course, and it was my fault because I should have warned her.

***

Occasionally, I look around me at England, where I was born, and my fellow-English and wonder what on earth they can be thinking. I\’ve got better at being English as the rules on Englishness have relaxed and I\’ve got over the thing about having to feed anybody who comes to your house.

***

I still want to learn Hungarian, open those locked boxes if I can find them. In fact, all my life I\’ve tried to learn Hungarian. I\’ve bought at least six expensive Teach Yourself Hungarian courses, some dating back to the days when \”munkas = worker\” was the first word taught and Communism made any visiting very difficult and, in my mother\’s view, dangerous.

***

I failed to learn it because… Well, I\’m not that great at sustained application and to be honest the whole thing bewildered me. As all Hungarians tell you with apologetic pride, \”Magyarul nagyon nehez\” or \”Hungarian is very difficult.\” Perhaps I could have come in my twenties. I didn\’t and it wasn\’t only because that was when Communism was crumbling through its own dementia and everyone thought there would be a nuclear war before 1989. Instead Hungary was the country that made the first hole in the Iron Curtain. God, I wish I could have been there but I was busy with children by then.

***

And now it\’s all around me sounding both familiar and strange. Although I can take refuge in English whenever I want, thanks to the Internet, words here and there are starting to come clear.

***

I find I do better if I don\’t really listen. I perfectly understood the woman at the supermarket who had bought a tin of beans and forgotten to pack it, but I dried up completely when I tried to point out the vagrant tin at the check out.

***

Next step – dreaming in Hungarian.

***

After that – finding those locked boxes that may not even exist.