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

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.

Climate Change March, Budapest, 29 November 2015

Well I went on the Climate Change March in Budapest.

I liked:

The friendly informal atmosphere, with everyone walking along and nobody trying to get in front of anyone else. There were leaders, mostly young students and the traditional mysterious Frenchman (Sartre? Camus?) but they weren’t too full of themselves. They pushed the sound system along on a bike and tried valiantly to get some chants started (but see below).

The organisation. At first I was worried we might be outnumbered by the cops, but in the end there was quite a respectable number of us, mostly youngsters and expats, with a few old hippies and punks (like me). I get a real thrill when they hold up the traffic for us as we walk past. Sorry, drivers, you must hate us… But it’s great!

I loved the samba drums – we could have done with more of them but the ones we had were great. I must get into samba drumming, it’s wonderful.

A beautiful final image – we were asked to pick up and carry autumn leaves and then at the end of the march, drop them in the Danube to symbolise the letters they’ve sent to the government (leaf and letter are the same word in Hungarian). Watching them fluttering down to land on the surface of the river was strangely satisfying, like playing Poohsticks.

I didn’t like:

The arguments I had with friends before the march – all saying, oh it’s not worth it, we’re doomed but not till I’m dead, what’s the point, one person can’t do anything, I’m sick of recycling, but I like eating meat… etc etc. I will get into the Competitive Austerity problem another time, but this really annoys me. The only thing that excuses you from a climate change march is having kids – and there were families with kids there. It’s important. Until we have sorted out the climate change problem, nothing else matters because climate change will KILL US ALL if we carry on ignoring it.

The speeches. Part of the problem was that they were mainly in Hungarian, valiantly translated into English as they went along. Now I’ve been here for two years, nearly, and even allowing 6 months off for having a stroke, I still don’t understand Hungarian very well. I can cope with a normal conversation, usually, but sooner or later the sentences will lengthen, the words will acquire a forest of endings and I will completely lose track. This despite a lot of work, may I say, so it depresses me. So bear that in mind when I say that I found the speeches too long and too complex, even when translated into English. Even worse were the points from an interminable pompous letter they had sent to the government. Honestly, I even felt sorry for Viktor Orban, though I’m sure he didn’t read it.

You need three points only, not ten. You need short punchy sentences. Like this. You need a poet’s ear for what people will actually hear.

When you’re shouting slogans, they need to be short and rhythmical, not long and well… lame. That’s why none of them really got going. Find a poet. There are lots of poets in Hungary, or there were. Chuck a rock into a kavezo and you’ll probably hit two. Even I can tell Hungarian poetry is wonderful, so I know you can do better.

See you next year!

The Mum, the Phone and the Baby

She was a nice-looking woman, with a loving smile for her toddler as they sat down in Miskolc station waiting room. He was clutching some pastry and sat next to her philosophically munching on it, with his little legs kicking high above the floor.

And then she took out her phone. Her toddler looked at it and his face sort of set. It was a patient weary look, but also somehow very lonely. He sat beside her, eating his pastry and dropping crumbs while she went on Facebook, texted her friends and played one of those addictive phone games, maybe Farm Story 2 which a friend of mine loves.

The minutes passed and all the mum’s focus was on the phone. She noticed when the toddler started scattering lumps of pastry everywhere, told him off gently, mopped up the worst of the crumbs and went to the bin with the toddler to throw out the remains.

Then she went back to the bench and focussed on her phone again. The toddler looked at her, looked at me. I smiled at him but he didn’t smile back, probably because I was a stranger. He looked at his mum again. Then he struggled his little fat body onto the bench face down, and started rocking to and fro on his tummy, rubbing himself on the bench.

We were up to 20 minutes now and his mum was still playing her game, hadn’t said a word to him. My heart bled for the little boy. She didn’t notice her baby comforting himself in the best way he could.

He stopped, tried to go to sleep but the bench was too hard. I really wanted to shout at the woman, tell her to pay attention to her baby, not her bloody phone, but I didn’t know how to express it in Hungarian pungently enough. Also in a long and loud career of tactlessness, I have eventually learned that people build walls of defense and pay no attention to what you say.

At last, after half an hour, the mum noticed the time and at last put her phone away. She put his little coat on and I used my useful position as a “néni” in Hungary – it translates as Auntie but basically means any woman over forty can talk to a mum about her baby.

I smiled and asked how old he was. “Two years old,” she said. “He’s very well-behaved.” I said and she smiled and picked up the toddler, gave him a kiss and rushed off to her train with him in her arms.

She was not a bad mum, in fact, I think that without her phone she would have been doing what I did when my kids were that age, talking to him, singing, playing games, going to look at engines – anything to keep the little bugger quiet, in fact. And considering how easily I get addicted to Facebook and games, I wouldn’t claim I would be any better than her now.

But oh it made me sad to see the little boy comforting himself all alone, next to his mum on the bench in Miskolc railway station waiting room.

Why I love Hungary.

I’ve now been in Hungary for 18 months – and I love it. Here are a few reasons why.

Men offer to carry my bag for me. I’m not Scandinavian so I don’t tell them off. I just give them my backpack and laugh as they stagger.

They have palinka.

Women say nice things about your clothes and hairstyle, shoes etc – perfectly genuinely. This is great because women are far more likely to notice those things anyway.

They kiss on two cheeks and the men do too, but in a properly distant way.

They have wonderful cakes. No, really, they do. Old fashioned cake shops are a little bit heavy, modern ones are heavenly (Central Kavezo).

Everywhere you go, even in the ciggy shop in a little village near Miskolc, they have excellent coffee.

They have an absolutely wonderful public transport system in Budapest (BKK) and a berlet (monthly pass) which you can use everywhere, even the Danube boats, for about 25 quid.

The trains have been known to run on time away from Budapest too.

They have Tokaji.

All the children I have met have wonderful manners.

People are generally, habitually polite. They say “koszonom” (thank you), “szivesen” (you’re welcome), “bocsanat” (excuse me), a lot. They say “Jo etvagyot” (Bon appetit – there IS no English translation) whenever they see you eating, even if it’s just a Twix.

They have four different ways of saying “you” both singular and plural: friendly, formal, friendly-formal and courteous. So eight. I’m still disentangling how this works and despite experience with French, I haven’t got the hang of it yet.

When two adults decide to stop addressing each other in the formal mode and use the “te” form they entwine their arms and drink palinka.

They do have dumb politicians who put up posters telling immigrants to go home (in very complicated official Hungarian). But they also have civil rights groups who put up posters in exactly the same style and colour, except these say in English: “We’re sorry about our prime minister.”

They are very affectionate and family-loving.

They are also capable of acting with amazing courage – as in 1956 when they took on the old Soviet Union and also in 1989 when they did it again… And won. Theirs was the honour of the first major breach in the Iron Curtain.

Boy, do Hungarians know how to party.

They genuinely love guests and although they’ve stopped taking the wheels off your coach so you’ll stay longer, if you can walk after a proper Hungarian dinner you’re… well, you’re a freak.

They are extremely good at the fighting sports like fencing, taekwondo and judo. However I have never felt the least bit threatened anywhere in Hungary.

They are very musical and have no snobbery about classical concerts only being for old rich people.

Their countryside is beautiful and so is Budapest.

Slouchy sullen young men with piercings in every pierceable bit of their face, get up immediately for old ladies on trams and offer them their seat.

They also do handicrafts at parties – very well. This is surprisingly fun.

They have a national health service which has similar problems to ours but worked very well when I had to use it.

They are brutally honest about themselves and will be brutally honest with you if you show you won’t be offended.

 

Why I don’t like Hungary.

The food is a bit heavy and can be a bit salty for an English wuss.

The children speak much better Hungarian than I do.

They have a special official government way of writing that is totally opaque, even to a lot of Hungarians. However the actual bureaucrats are often quite nice.

People in Budapest, when you ask them anything in Hungarian, immediately respond with a flood of excellent English which is a tad depressing when you’re trying to learn the language and have been told that your accent is really good.

I’m on the train (again)

This is a rant. I’ve said how great BKK is in Budapest, how punctual, clean and genuinely useful it is. I’ve said nice things about Hungarian trains (they have lovely clean toilets on them, when they’re new rolling stock).
This is not nice. Because it’s not nice to advertise a train as arriving in Miskolc at 8.30 am when it’s really going to arrive at 9.00 am. It’s not nice to do this when a lot of the people on the train will be relying on connecting with a local train going to Kazincbarcika which leaves at 8.41 am – me, for example. It’s really unnice to do this with the last train at 19.30 on a Sunday which is supposed to connect with the Kazincbarcika train at 21.40 but doesn’t. I had to be rescued from Miskolc that time because it was that or an overnight stay on a bench in the station yard.
In fact I have never experienced a train to Miskolc which got in on time. Which is pathetic.
I’ve experienced similar lameness with trains in Cornwall although at least they usually hold the branchline train to Falmouth if the Truro train is late.
It’s more important to have punctual trains in country areas because in the countryside very often the next train after the one you missed is the next day. In some places buses only happen a couple of times a day, if that (in Sajokaza for instance). These areas are poor so people can’t just switch to a car. They’re stuck. In fact they’re worse off than their grandparents were because they aren’t such good walkers and they have to walk along the verges of busy roads, not pleasant country lanes. Footpaths? Don’t be silly, the area’s much too poor for that.
It’s worth pointing out that it makes it much more difficult to get a job if you’re stuck in the depths of the country with two buses a day and no car – a fact that probably hasn’t occurred to any politician because he’s got a car, of course.
Things like train networks always make rich-bubble people cross and they say nonsensical things like “it’s time to streamline the rail network” and “public services should pay for themselves.”
You can streamline a fish, you can’t streamline a network because it’s supposed to have lots of little twigs on it. If your body streamlined your blood system, your hands and feet would turn black and drop off.
And public services can not pay for themselves because they deal in distributed goods which benefit the whole of society but are not economic for an individual to pay for. Practically no train services make an actual profit because they can’t charge enough to the individuals – this is why every time South Eastern trains hike the ticket prices again, the roads get fuller of cars and people start muttering darkly about moving back to London to live in the broom cupboard that is all you can afford now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m waiting to replace the stray R.

**

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

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

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

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

When we left the waiting room was even more crowded.

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

Very few things make me anxious – but two of them are anything new involving computers and anything at all to do with tax.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when the Hungarian tax people told me I had to fill in my Hungarian tax statement for 2014 online. It was only available online. There was no way of doing it offline, on paper for instance. No. Shiny stylish computers only.
We logged onto the general tax site which took a lot of doing because the tax people had sent me an email with a link in it and I’d parked the email in my keeper file and forgotten about it. Why? Well it was in very very complicated Hungarian bureaucratese which made my brain go numb at the first word, so I missed the sentence in the middle of it all which said it was only valid for five days.
So we got to the right page to change the password and made obeisance to the computer gods and got another link and put in a password which the computer didn’t like because not enough numbers and we did it again and finally got into the bloody system.
Now we needed the 14KATA form. Hokay.
We typed 14KATA into the search box and hit enter.
Computer had never heard of it. Variations? Nope. Look through the dozens of menus and submenus. Nope.
As I write this, there are small business people all over Hungary, searching desperately for this form because they can’t afford an accountant and, like me, they have suddenly realised they only have a week to the deadline for filing the thing. All over Hungary, people are peering at computer screens and wishing and wishing they could find the 14KATA form, somehow, somewhere. Some of them are probably in tears.
Yes, we rang them. After the usual rigmarole with the computerised switchboard, we got through to a human. It’s on the .gov website not the tax website. Of course. Why would it be on the tax website when it’s a tax form? How silly of us!
My friend has now sent me out of her office because she can’t cope with bureaucratese and the computer as well as having me sitting there vibrating and dry handwashing over the bloody form. When I left she had found 14KATA through three different submenus, though she had to install a specially wonderful automatic formfiller first.
Ladies and gentlemen of tax authorities everywhere. I have some wise words for any of you who bother to read this. So pay attention.
You need to make tax paying very EASY and SIMPLE. Why? So people will do it and you will get their money. Just because you have a PhD in Informatics, Taxation Obfuscation & Complexification, doesn’t mean they do.
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?

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

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

What it feels like to have a stroke.

There I was, teaching up a storm at a business in Budapest when I started to feel funny. Sort of not quite there. The English words that had been so easy to say fifteen minutes earlier, suddenly got difficult. I could hear it in my voice, a sort of mushiness. Then my right arm and right leg stopped obeying me. I didn\’t have a headache, could see perfectly well – but something odd was definitely happening.

Could I be having a stroke, I wondered.  I\’d seen the public service announcements that seemed quite hot on things like one arm and one leg having their own ideas about what would be fun to do. I\’d read a brilliant book called \”My Stroke of Insight\” by Jill Bolte Taylor which seemed to be saying the same things.

Nah, I thought. I\’m fine. This is just… a bit odd.

A deeper part seemed to be trying to get my attention. You are having a stroke, you twerp, it said.

Around then my relationship with words seemed to break down. \”I\’m very sorry,\” I explained to my round eyed students, \”I\’ll have to stop the lesson. I\’m having a stroke.\” I think I said more but I don\’t remember what, the words had gone.

I then spent a lot of time putting my pen in my bag. It took about eight goes to get my right hand to pick up my pen and put it in my bag. My right side sagged. I wonder what\’s going to happen next? asked a perkily independent part of me.

Ambulance men arrived and strapped me into a chair, then a stretcher. Interesting, said the perky part. They did things with tubes and needles.

I was much more concerned with what was going on inside. The right side of my field of vision was full of fascinating hallucinations: golden lists of words swirled by, numbers, splendid geometric shapes. In amongst it all, I felt a cat arrive and crawl along my right side.

Don\’t be bloody stupid, snarled my left side, it\’s just a hallucination.

The cat looked smug and curled deeper along my right side where a ghost arm had somehow liberated itself from its physical twin. The ghost arm took the chance to demonstrate some very interesting moves, the cat disappeared, while my left side told my right side to stop acting like a bloody fool.

I was in intensive care by now. Electric stickies decorated my chest and a snarl of wires, something went in a needle on my left side, my right side had decided not to work at all. At some stage while I had been concerned with ghost arms and cats they had taken all my clothes off and put me in a nappy.

I was quite happy. Ah look, I thought fondly as I blinked up at the vital signs moniter, I remember you when you were just a twinkle in a \”Star Trek\” designer\’s eye.

And then I went to sleep.