Civilisation

Quote of the Week

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)

A civilisation is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

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People of the Puszta

When you come from a family of the ultimate not-haves, just how cool is it to be able to hold up a book and say: “This has been written about us.”?

And a good book at that?

People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (English translation)

Well, you can take it from me: it is cool. Precious, in fact. So much so that I wanted to make sure to pass this book on to my children.

Gyula Illyés

Gyula Illyés came from a piss-poor family in a puszta in the middle of Transdanubia, within a few kilometres of where my family comes from. By talent and hard work, he somehow managed to rise from the world of the puszta to become a famous writer and intellectual. He was only a few years older than my great-grandfather – who too was from a piss-poor family. The childhood Illyés describes was still pretty much the childhood my grandmother had; she remembered some of the events described in the book. I myself spent the long summer vacations of my childhood right there where many of these events happened; my grandparents, aunts and uncles speak with the same accent Illyés did. I used to drop into the same accent within days of arriving to my grandma’s house, every time.

The Puszta & its People

To understand where Illyés and my family come from, you have to understand the concept of the puszta as it then was in Transdanubia, Western-Hungary, because  generally in Hungarian and in the world this word is better known to mean big sweeping plains (like the steppes of Russia, say). A Transdanubian puszta on the other hand was a kind of a hamlet (if you can call the handful of buildings a hamlet) on the big farm estate.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when this book is set, most land in Transdanubia was held by a few big families who hardly ever even went near their estates but employed a farm manager or agent, who then managed the work force. This work force was invariably composed of the landless peasantry of which there was ample supply (despite of high rates of emigration to America). The peasants were hired as day labourers and if they managed to get a more permanent position, such as a coachman or a wheelwright, they were given some huts to live in right there on the puszta. Their life was very much like the life of a medieaval serf; their prospects to better themselves practically non-existent.

My great-grandfather was one of the lucky people: he had a permanent position. Moreover, he was employed as a coachman by the local landowner at a time when he couldn’t get any other work. He had come back from a Russian POW camp in the aftermath of World War I and as such he was ‘tainted’ by communist ideas and nobody would employ him. Thankfully the local land manager knew the family well and was not worried that my great-grandfather would want to start a communist agitation on the estate! (Nor did he.)

The people, my family included, lived in low single story houses which consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. These were strung out in a row:

room 1 – shared kitchen – room 2

Each family had a room to themselves, that sometimes meant twenty people in the same room: several generations. The families decorated their room as best as they could which was nothing much. They were often short of having enough furniture even. The floor was a dirt floor, ie. just the ground trampled solidly underfoot. This was the same in the kitchen which was shared with the neighbouring family. Each family had its side of the kitchen, so to speak, where they kept their pots and pans and their meagre supplies – having to borrow a spoonful of sugar or a few potatoes from the fellow kitchen user or the neighbours in the next building was common. No bathrooms of course; outhouses were built instead well away from the living spaces.

… I can remember only the house with its two tiny rooms adn the earth-floored kitchen in between. The yard stretched as far as the eye could see. When I first struggled over the well-worn threshold, the infinite world lay at my faltering feet. The house stood on a hill. Beneath it in the valley lay the puszta, which conformed to the usual pattern. To the right lived the steward, the farm foreman, the mason and the wheelwright; in the same block of buildings were the forge and the wheel-shop. To the left were three or four rows of long farm servants’ quarters, then there ws the manor-house among its age old trees, the the famr manager’s dwelling. Immediately opposite was a large cart-shed in Empire style, behind which on a little rise stood the granary and the ox-stables. All around lay the endless fields, speckled with the white smudges of distant villages.

The puszta families lived in a sort of timelessness. It’s not that area had no history (it has plenty and varied, all the way back to the Romans) but they themselves, being uneducated knew nothing much about it. Their life was ordained by the seasons.

It was something of a disgrace to be a puszta-dweller; it implied having no roots, no native land and no fixed above – which of course is true.

…If you want to know where a puszta-dweller comes from, you do not ask him where he lives or even less where he was born, but who his master is. My own family served mostly the Apponyis, then the Zichys, Wurms, Strassers and Königs and their relations – for the landed gentry were apt to exchange their servants for with their relatives: thus a clever cowman, a good-looking coachman or a deft-fingered gelder would be transferred or even presented to one of the relations, this being regarded by the servants themselves as a mark of special disctinction.

The lives of the families were mostly directed by the local landowner or his agent: it mattered little which puszta a child was born since the administrative arrangements kept changing (ie. which nearby village the puszta happened to be belonging) and the families could be uprooted from one day to another and transferred to another estate owned by the same land owner.

So we wandered from place to place, sometimes taking all our odds and ends, our collapsible hen-houses, our hens and the cow; sometimes it was only to visit relatives, a brother or sister-in-law who had suddenly been snatched away after living nearby for five or six years. Sometimes we drove all night and all morning in the wagon, but we were never away from a puszta, and felt at home everywhere. The house were I was born did not belong to my father, bu in the land of my birth, I received an unrivalled inheritance. I can call half a county my own.

The Gentle Back of Beyond

The Sió near Simontornya [Photo by blatniczky via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0]
If the lives of the puszta people sounds bleak, it is because it was. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t beauty or joy in it. Families were tightly knit and supported each other. The landscape was gentle and is captured by Illyés in a beautiful, lyrical manner.

It’s a landscape of gently rolling hills, covered in wheat and corn fields, or sunflowers bowing heavily with full heads. Rows and clumps of trees break up the fields here and there, together with streams and small ponds in clearings, where nothing stirs the surface of the water and the vegetation around is lush and fresh green even in the hight of summer. The smell of hay and manure wafts across the roads which lead to the villages. The roads are edged with rows of poplars and acacias, and in their shade in August you often see camping tables set out piled high with fresh watermelons for sale. A large number of the puszta hamlets had a name prefixed with mud (as in Sárszentlőrinc, Mud St Lawrence); not so surprising perhaps because the the nearby Sió (a river and canal in one which connects Lake Balaton to the River Danube) supplies abundant water in the area. There is even the odd castle or castle ruin: for example Simontornya castle (hardly more than a keep) still has cannon balls embedded in the walls; whether fired by the Turks or the Labanc (Austrians during the Rákóczi War of Independence) the locals no longer remember; it was just another siege they withstood.

Everybody knew everybody among the puszta folk in Illyés’s time, and that still applies a hundred years later. When I walk down the street in the village (there are hardly any pusztas that still exist), sooner or later I’m bound to be hailed “You, my child! Are you not the daughter of So-and-so?… How does it go with you?” And you find yourself answering deferentially to an old birdlike hag whose name you don’t know, and who is dressed in full black from the hand-embroidered kerchief tied around her head to the buttons on her sensible shoes. Because however far you have risen out of the puszta, you are still one of them. In the end, I’m only the second generation, the second person of the family to have let. I might not remember the old people are, but they sure remember me and this provides me with a strange reassurance that I, as an individual, matter.

Conclusion

All this and more Gyula Illyés writes about in his wonderful book. People of the puszta is a part an auto-biography, part sociography (of a society that has now mostly disappeared), part a description a landscape, meshed with bits of the cultural heritage of the people who inhabit that landscape. Overall, it’s a wonderful concoction of a book and I can only recommend it, even if you have zero interest in the topic as such. I leave you with this recommendation:

A beautifully written, moving work of art.

(The Times Literary Supplement)

The Books that (Literally) Changed My Life

Not necessarily good books, you understand! 🙂

Life Changing Books

Have you ever thought about the books that changed your life? If you haven’t, try now: I guess that immediately a handful of books will pop up in your mind. But these are not the books you want. These are the good books, the memorable books that you read and re-read and cherished over the years, the ones you talk about so much that your long suffering friends and family can finish your sentences for you. No, these are not the books that changed your life; or at least, not in most cases.

But the books that changed your life? Truly changed your life? The ones that helped form your personality and beliefs, the ones that led you to pick your career, that led you to the chance encounter with the love of your life, the ones that helped you through a personal crisis? What are the books that changed your life? They’re surprisingly hard to pin down.

Girl with a Book by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior. Source: Wikipedia

The Books that Changed My Life

Here come mine (and they might turn out to be quite a bizarre collection):

Lassie Come Home

The endearing story of a faithful dog by Eric Knight, the ultimate animal adventure that has been turned into innumerable cutesy film series absolutely nothing to do with the original story. 

What it did for me:

It taught me to be honest. It taught me to be honest in a way that you can actually keep it up for an entire lifetime. As the elder Carraclough demonstrates to his son, Joe, there often is a tiny wriggle room.

But only a tiny one.

Swallows and Amazons

The kids in this Arthur Ransome book are let loose outdoors – in a way that hardly any children nowadays are. In my time, we were still not as corralled, and were allowed out to explore and have fun. And we made our friendships and fought our own fights, instead of attending play dates organised by our mothers two weeks ahead.

How it changed me:

It turned me from a book reader hiding in a room into an outdoors kid, who went out to climb trees and rocks, explored the woods, crawled among the metre tall grass pretending to be an Apache sneaking up on the pale faces, swam in the river and went down to the boating lake and taught herself to row. Reading about adventures is good but living them is better. And let’s not forget what made it all possible: What would have become of the Swallows without Susan’s sturdy common sense and ability to organise? I know people who are incapable of packing a rucksack, or indeed wouldn’t even dream of carrying one.

Don’t Panic

(And always know where your towel is!

One of the many self-help books out there on the market; in no way remarkable (which is why I’m not bothering giving you the author). But it was the first I ever self-help book I read and it made me realise how stress or long term abuse affects us, how it can generate physical symptoms, and how the effects maybe only appear years later.

What it did for me:

I learned to stop my hiccups! 🙂 (Seriously.)

Stopping hiccups was actually just a side effect of my reading this particular self-help book about stress. What the book really taught me was that from learning how to stop hiccups to overcoming panic attacks, the answer is as much in our minds as in the pills our GP can prescribe us. 

There are self-help books on practically everything – and obviously, some are better than others. They are worth considering as a resource when you’re up against something new. As they say, wise people learn from other people’s mistakes, while fools keep committing the same ones. Knowledge is power: once you understand what’s going on in your mind and body, in your work place or your family life, you can devise strategies to cope and to improve the situation. 

Mike at Wrykin

One of those P.G. Wodehouse books that almost nobody reads or even heard of: an English boarding school story which introduces us to the character of Psmith. But it was the cricket mad title character Mike who was responsible for changing my life.

How this book changed my life:

The chapter in question contains a long cryptic description of a school cricket match which awoke an interest in me for the game. This interest led me to dedicate my MA thesis to the intertwining of cricket and nationalism in the British Empire; and the research I had to carry out to be able to write it brought me in contact with a certain number of Englishmen. 

I ended up marrying one of them.

Winnie-the-Pooh

An endearing story of a silly bear  that I cherished through childhood – and one that like Lassie Come Home was bastardised by the film industry – but it’s not here on its merit as a children’s book. I really, really came to appreciate Pooh Bear’s philosophy as an adult in a time of adversity, after I became terminally ill.

What it did for me:

It reminded me to try living life simply, immersing myself in the precious moment, enjoying the simple things in life, like a bit of fresh bread, the sunshine on my skin, the spring breeze in my hair, refusing to worry about something that might never come to pass.

The Japanese call this Zen and surround it with rituals and teachings that are meant to help you to acquire the habit of living the good life.  I wish I cultivated the skill earlier; I would have had a happier life, with less worries. But it’s never too late and you don’t have to learn to meditate either…

On Liberty

Well, now, a political-philosophical essay, and I don’t like either politics, or philosophy… 

But I grew up in a Communist country where access to information was limited and a free discussion of political opinions was not recommended if you wanted a quiet life. The result was that at the famous ‘change of the system’, as the fall of communism is referred to in Hungary, my political views were hazy in the extreme. I knew what I disagreed with but was unable to articulate what I believed to be right; I had no coherent picture in my mind as to what the world should look like. And then I picked up this slim volume in a foreign language bookshop in Budapest, in the early 1990s. And the world suddenly fell into place. The 19th century English philosopher and member of parliament (and an early champion of women’s suffrage), John Stuart Mill, knew how to put into words the ideas which I was only groping for.

What it did for me:

It provides the ethical background to everything I do and believe in. It gave me a yardstick too against which to measure if I come across a particularly puzzling ethical dilemma. I try to live my life according the principles John Stuart Mill articulated so clearly: live and let live.

Others

There might be others; in fact, I’m sure there are. But these came to mind for now; a strange little collection.  

Have you got any books that you feel that had a lasting impact on how you live your life? Please leave a comment below and explain why.

Links (Lists of life changing books):
10 Life Changing Books That Stay With You
27 Books That Can Change Your Life Forever
30 Classic Books That May Change Your Life

Victory in Defeat

Quote of the Week

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)

Defeat… Victory… Terms I do not know what to make of. One victory exalts, another corrupts. One defeat kills, another brings life. Tell me what seed is lodged in your victory or your defeat, and I will tell you its future. Life is not definable by situations but by mutations. There is but one victory that I know is sure, and that is the victory that is lodged in the energy of the seed. Sow the seed in the wide black earth and already the seed is victorious, though time must contribute to the triumph of wheat.

This morning France was a shattered army and a chaotic population. But if in a chaotic population there is a single consciousness animated by a sense of responsibility, the chaos vanishes. A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing wishing him the image of a cathedral. I shall not fret about the loam if somewhere in it a seed lies buried. The seed will drain the loam and the wheat will blaze.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 29: Stargazing

I always loved to sit out in our garden at night and gaze at the stars. I would sit out even in winter, wrapped up in mountains of blankets.

When we first went into lockdown in the spring, stargazing proved a great escape and I decided to improve the experience by creating a classical playlist on Spotify.

Photo by theartofsounds2001 via Pixabay [public domain]

I now remember the evenings of last summer. I listen to my stargazing music and seek solace communing with the stars in spirit… 

stars in my eyes
wishing to see blossoms
on weeping cherries

(Matsuo Basho)

 

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 28: Terminally Fabulous

Death Bed Diaries? 

I can only apologise again for the way I’m neglecting Lockdown Diaries III. But the progress of my illness made me unable to do anything much, and that includes blogging. Today is a ‘good’ morning – may it last more than a couple of hours-  so here I am with another entry. 

In the last couple of weeks, during the hours of suffering, my thoughts sometimes toyed with the idea of changing focus and reconfiguring Lockdown Diaries III into Death Bed Diaries: at least it would allow me to vent and so give myself psychological relief, even if no physical relief. And I thought of others in the same situation, and their families and how it could help them to know they’re not alone.

There was a blog out there once that I used to read, Terminally Fabulous, written by an Australian girl in her 30s. It was brutally honest in her description of cancer, the horrific treatments she underwent, the sufferings at the end when the doctors could do no more for her. She had a wicked sense of humour and many a times she made laugh while I cried for her at the same time. I used to read it when I was really in the dumps with the treatments and it helped me. Her name was Lisa Magill and she died a few years ago. Her blog has been published posthumously (in 2019) in a book form under the title of:

Terminally Fabulous: A young woman’s fight for dignity and fabulousness on her terminal cancer journey by Lisa Magill and Geraldine Violet Magill

I recommend it to you all. You can buy it on Amazon (and elsewhere).

But when it comes to me…

Death Bed Diaries? No, thank you.

Lisa was inspirational and I wish I had the kind of talent that she put into her writing. But regardless of my lack of talent, the truth is that being that brutally honest and putting out my whole soul for all of you to see is just a step too far for me. So do not fear: Waterblogged was always a book blog and a book blog will remain to the day I die. We’ll keep the death talk to minimum. 🙂

Thought for the Day: Euthanasia (Assisted Death)

There is one controversial question that I would mention though. Euthanasia, or if you will, assisted death. This is legal in some countries; but not in England. Regardless of your personal stance – ie. regardless whether you would choose to take advantage of it, were it available for you – I ask you all to consider: should not it be available for people who wish to avail themselves of it?

I’m under the care of an excellent and dedicated palliative team but despite of that I have suffered a tremendous amount in the last couple of months. The last few weeks and days were particularly brutal. My palliative doctor recently had to admit that she’s already given me everything and there’s nothing more she can do to make me any more comfortable. I don’t want to distress you with the details but death is vastly preferable to the hours when the suffering is most acute, and every day there are endless hours like that. Palliative care, with all the brilliant medications it has, still cannot control all pain and discomfort and cannot therefore stop terrible suffering. I cannot be the only one, and death is not expected for weeks yet because, despite of the cancer, the rest of my body is still young and healthy and refuses to give itself for beaten. This leaves me in a prolonged limbo between life and death, drags out my suffering and there is nothing anybody can do. Only if you witness it (may you never have to), can you understand what I’m talking about.

I repeat it again:

Palliative care, despite of their best efforts, is not able to control all symptoms, all pain, all distress and discomfort for all patients, and cannot therefore stop terrible suffering. I’m the living, suffering evidence of it.

As a society, we pride ourselves of on our humanity. If you had a pet, a dog or a cat, in similar position as I am, you would not hesitate to put it down, to spare the animal unnecessary weeks or months of suffering. Should we not have the mercy to offer the choice to people who are terminally ill and whose symptoms cannot be controlled sufficiently to spare them pain and suffering? It is not beyond the wit of man to devise sufficient safeguards to ensure that this right to choose would not be abused. Nor are we talking about making people undergo euthanasia against their will.

But I think it should be a basic human right to be able to say: enough.

Dignity in Dying

To be able to go into a hospice, surrounded by your family, to whom you could say goodbye while you’re still coherent, while you can still cry and smile for the last time together and while you can give them a last hug. And then when you said goodbye, to be given that one shot (or be allowed to administer it to yourself), that will put you to death, painlessly. So that you can die tranquilly, in dignity, surrounded by love – instead of alone, screaming in pain.

Is that too much to ask?

The Purpose of Drinking Wine

Quote of the Day

John Mortimer (1923-2009)

“The purpose of drinking wine is not intoxication, Rumpole.”

Erskine-Brown looked as pain as a prelate who is told that his congregation only came to church because of the central heating.

“The point is to get in touch with one of the major influences of western civilization, to taste sunlight trapped in a bottle and to remember some stony slope in Tuscany or by the Gironde.”

(John Mortimer: The Collected Stories of Rumpole)

The Story of My Life in n Books

When I first thought of this post, I knew I was dying but time was still on my side; in consequence, I didn’t even get past the first sentence before I pushed it aside. Time was too precious to be writing something this final; I preferred to concentrate on living.

That’s been last summer and early autumn. It is winter now, and time is no longer on my side. I frittered it away, living it up, doing rather than writing, enjoying rather than philosophising. I took my moments in the sun, I plunged into the waves of the sea, I sipped golden margaritas at sunset savouring the taste of tequila over the salt, bit into lavishly buttered freshly baked bread in the morning. The miles still melted away under my walking boots and the horizons were still open although I knew I would never now reach them. And I had the company of my loved ones.

It’s winter now and my strength is spent; my horizons have closed. And I’m no longer well enough to write a good post perhaps. Merely sitting up tires me so much;  typing is a physical effort. Yet I before I die, I’d like to leave this summary of my life in books behind. I hope you’ll find some good books among them to consider and if you’ve ever enjoyed my blog, you can learn a little bit about me.

But it’s not chiefly for you, the casual reader. I dedicate…

My Life in n Books: The Books That Made Me

To Sophisticated Young Lady & Young Friend of the Elephants
Both of whom inherited my love of good books

I hope you’ll find it interesting.

I. In the Land of Magic

  • The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
  • The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen
  • Seventy-seven Hungarian Folk Tales by Gyula Illyés

I don’t know how much you remember about the books you read – or rather, were read to you – before you reached school age. In my case it’s easy. I’ve still got them on the shelf.

From toddlerhood to age 6, when I entered primary school, I lived in a magical land of iron-nosed witches and gingerbread houses. In the land of dark forests, where princesses turned into ravens, frogs had to be kissed, valiant tailors won the hand of the king’s only daughter for saving his kingdom and animals talked. Sounds familiar? These are the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Their enchantment never wore off although I haven’t picked them up for a few years now. 🙂

The Brothers Grimm were ably accompanied by the heartbreakingly beautiful tales of Hans Christian Andersen – the Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen were my particular favourites – and by a totally different read: down-to-earth Hungarian folk tales, full of worldly wisdom. These were tales about smart farm yard animals, beginning with the one about the little cockerel who outwitted the Turkish emperor, all the way to the dog that got bested by the cat, about smart peasants outwitting the devil, and many tales of of the type of ‘one good turn deserves another’.

The story of the three golden hairs of the devil, for example, anyone? 🙂

II. The Years of Innocence & Wonder

  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  • Mondák könyve (Book of Legends) by István Komjáthy

When you go to school, the world opens up. Like most children in Hungary, between age three and six, I attended kindergarten (a type of nursery school) all day, so being in a community and having to conform to rules was not the big change. The change came in that in big school we sat in pairs in benches, facing forward towards the teachers, with textbooks and exercise books crowding our heavy school bags and instead of playing, we now had formal lessons. Silence ruled in the classroom from day one of year one, the teacher alone spoke. Kindergarten was small – a couple of classes in each year group; big school was big: four classes in each year group, and multiply that by eight year groups, thirty-two classes. The oldest kids were fourteen, and we were more scared of them than we were of the teachers. The headteacher was higher than god; I didn’t got to see him until I was in year eight and even then his mere physical presence scared the living daylight out of us.

I remember getting repeatedly lost in the building while trying to find my way across paved courtyards from the dining hall back to class; I remember walking down endless white-washed corridors with closed doors on both sides from behind which came the quiet hum of the lesson going on, I remember everything being so big and mysterious and full of promise. Because in big school we were introduced to the mysterious world of letters and numbers which spoke a secret language which you had to decipher and master, for some not quite clear reason – and then when you did…

When you did, the world opened up as a completely different place. It was as if you just saw the world for the first time ever. On the way home from school I was endlessly fascinated by all the things I could now read: shop signs, street names, the number on the trolleybus, the price of the ice-cream. Instead of a jumble of confusing pavements, Budapest was becoming a city with structure, with a transport network, with places of entertainment… Mastering reading and counting meant pocket money, which in turn meant ice-cream and cake-shops and buying books and toys that I chose – not my mum.

Winnie-the-Pooh, with its simple beautiful philosophy, was my particular favourite that accompanied me to adulthood and to which I can still turn for comfort and peace; while the the enchanting Book of Legends about the origins of the Huns and the Hungarians stretched my imagination and formed my identity, leaving such an impact on me that thirty years later I took the trouble to translate it, albeit in an abbreviated form, for my own children.

III. Life Is An Adventure

  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom
  • Karl May and his ilk
  • The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  • Two Years Vacation by Jules Verne
  • The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl

By the time I hit age ten, I was living in books. The real world – school, home, parents, what friends I had – was just an illusion, a figment of my imagination. I passed through it unscathed, unaffected, uninterested even. Inside the cover of whichever book I chose was the real life which I wished to live and did live. A life of adventure. I walked the book landscape talking to book characters and played my part in their adventures as myself or as taking on one of their characters. I was sensible Susan cooking breakfast over the campfire on Swallow Island; I was Wah-ta-Wah fleeing from the Hurons; I was Jim in the apple barrel overhearing the plans of the mutineers on board the Hispaniola… I rode into battle behind Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn, I sailed under the seas in the Nautilus with Captain Nemo, and Athos, Porthos and Aramis (not to mention D’Artagnan) gave me my first fencing lessons.

Life as an adventure was good – it made the difficulties in real life less important. I was in a new school which I hated: but school bullies, complicated maths problems, scary teachers and being forced to eat spinach sauce with boiled egg for lunch could be survived. Even my dad being away for a whole year working abroad and my mother’s illness… I coped with it all, hardly noticing.

IV. Life Lessons

  • Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Of course, eventually I had to return from inside the pages of my books and start taking part in real life.

Lassie Come-Home and The Little Prince were both compulsory reading in year 5; and were the only ones I liked. They are also the books, together with Winnie-the-Pooh, which helped me form my first notions on what is right and what is wrong, what is important and what is not. They served as my first compasses in the complicated situations that real life threw up.

Lassie’s story taught me two things: that love and loyalty mattered above all and that honesty was something non-negotiable. When Joe’s dad explained to his son that he couldn’t have the dog anymore because they sold it to buy food, that was that. No matter how many times Lassie returned home, she had to be given back to the new owner. Keeping her would have been dishonest. When you’re poor, and have nothing, not even enough food, you still can have honesty. Nobody can take that away from you. This simple concept defined my moral stance for the rest of my life. (It helped that my grandmother taught me the same life lesson.)

The Little Prince taught me slightly different life lessons but they too stayed with me to this day. To be open-hearted and kind, to begin with. To look for good in others. To understand that you have to dedicate time and effort to achieve something. To believe in the power of love and in friendship. To understand that you have to nurture love and friendship otherwise they might wither. That it’s important to savour the moment… And to understand that what’s really important is inside, in our thoughts and our hearts.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince)

Every child should read The Little Prince – one of the most beautiful books on love and friendship – written by a French pilot who was playing a deadly hide-and-seek among the clouds against the Germans in World War II even as he wrote this tale of humanity.

V. Cinderella & the Wicked Stepmother

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My mum died when I was thirteen, after a long illness. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a genetic illness and it’s the same that’s killing me now. My father, who loved her very much, went to pieces, and within months, brought another woman home to live with us, soon marrying her. I never found out why the new wife hated me but for the next five years I lived the life of Cinderella, minus the protective fairy god mother, while she alternated in the roles of various wicked fairy tale stepmothers, depending on the mood she was in. She stopped short of acting out Snow White’s stepmum but that’s about all the good I can say of her. Perhaps this is why I was reading the rather disturbing stories of the Brontë sisters over and over during those years.

VI. On the Road towards Adulthood

  • Catcher in the Rye by D. J. Salinger
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Day of the Dolphin by Robert Merle
  • The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Modern day Cinderellas still go to school and my great place of safety in my teenage years was, in fact, my grammar school, where I made some life-long friends and where my teachers attempted to make a creditable human being out of me, despite of the terrible situation I had at home.

I had a great literature teacher and even if I hadn’t, I’d have read a tremendous amount. The list above shows the books which made the deepest impression on me in the four years of grammar school while I was trying to learn to make sense of growing up and the adult world around me. They helped to form my political opinions, my artistic opinions and my literary taste in general.

In every book I was reading during these years, I was also, invariably, looking for an answer to my wicked stepmother problem. I had particularly high hopes when I embarked on Hamlet – can you imagine my total disappointment then, when I found that Shakespeare’s solution to the problem was to massacre everybody at the end? Couldn’t see how I could benefit from that! I just had to soldier on, until I managed to grow up and move away.

VII. Out Of This World

  • The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett
  • The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Tales of Pirx the Pilot by Stanislaw Lem

The years of growing up under the proverbial wicked stepmother were hard, as you can understand. I needed escape and frequently. Books remained my friends and I immersed myself in fantasy and sci-fi.

VIII. Long Summers in the Country

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My physical escape was the summer holidays, when I was often sent down to my grandmother’s house in the countryside for a few weeks. Life there was quiet, with nothing much to do (at least for me). My grandmother was not well educated but she liked to read, especially in winter and had an interesting collection of books, mostly given to her by other family members. I worked my way through them all.

Repeatedly.

The most noteworthy among them is People of the Puszta: a part sociography, part autobiography by the Hungarian poet and writer, Gyula Illyés. Illyés was roughly contemporary with my great-grandfather and he was brought up in the same tiny area of Transdanubia where my family lived and still lives. The people of the puszta are Illyés’s people; and my people. My grandma spoke the same accent, lived in exactly the same way as Illyés has described in his book. The events that took place in this tiny area (a few square kilometres, no more) of Transdanubia, in the first half of the 20th century are all true as described by Illyés; my grandma bore testimony to it to the last letter, including the crucifixion of the unpopular local policeman on the pub door of Ozora by the drunken peasants one Easter Sunday…

When I consider how poor a family I come from, a family of real not-haves, to be able to hold up a book and a good book at that, and be able to say: “this has been written about us!” is a wonderful piece of good fortune.

IX. The World is Your Oyster

As we know, Cinderella escaped in the end. I turned 18, moved out, went to university, took a degree in literature and started to learn English. My reading horizons became very wide open indeed… as they remain ever since. Can’t possibly list all my favourite readings and authors over the years but here are some of the very best:

  • The Honour and the Glory by Graham Greene
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • La morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
  • The Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
  • No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forester
  • Ransom by David Malouf
  • The Samurai by Shusaku Endo
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

X. Whenever It Got Too Much

Adult life of course was not without its vicissitudes. And whenever things got too much, I had a trusty band of prolific writers to turn to:

  • Pigs Have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse
  • The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair Maclean
  • Sindzse szeme (The Eye of Sinje) Leslie L. Lawrence
  • The Last Place God Made by Jack Higgins
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
  • Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson
  • Happy Return by C. S. Forester
  • Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian
  • On Basilisk Station by David Weber

I took Pigs Have Wings into the hospital with me when I gave birth to Sophisticated Young Lady, since it’s such an entertaining book and hospitals are gloomy places even if you’re only there for childbirth. But Sophisticated Young Lady was born by emergency caesarean, and when I tried to read my book during my recovery, it made me laugh so much, it hurt. I had to send it home and get my husband bring me something a lot more boring… Can’t remember what he found.

XI. Nothing New Under the Sun

As I became older, I turned away from novels a little bit and started to read more history. Travel narratives, from ages long bygone, can be particularly fascinating. I discovered a couple of historians who can spin a good tale (and discarded by the wayside others who might have an encyclopaedic knowledge but they would bore the hind legs off a donkey with their narrative). Most of this reading seeped into Waterblogged – the blog I only started because I got fed up with my family pulling faces at me at the dinner table whenever I got overenthusiastic about Herodotus…

  • The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford
  • Historical travel diaries (Felix Fabri, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Francis Drake…)
  • The Histories by Herodotus
  • Anabasis (The March of the Ten Thousand) by Xenophon
  • The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras
  • City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

The Artist’s Business

Quote of the Week

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

… In conversation with my literary colleagues I always insist that it is not the artist’s business to solve problems that require a specialist’s knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing  with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women.

An artist must only judge of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist I repeat this and insist on it always. That in his sphere there are no questions, but only answers, can only be maintained by those who have never written and have had no experience of thinking in images. An artist observes, selects, guesses, combines and this in itself presupposes a problem: unless he had set himself a problem from the very first there would be nothing to conjecture and nothing to select. To put it briefly, I will end by using the language of psychiatry: if one denies that creative work involves problems and purposes, one must admit that an artist creates without premeditation or intention, in a state of aberration; therefore, if an author boasted to me of having written a novel without a preconceived design, under a sudden inspiration, I should call him mad.

You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In “Anna Karenin” and “Evgeny Onyegin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.

(Anton Chekhov: Letters.
To A. S. Suvorin, Moscow, October 27, 1888)

The Posts I’ll Never Get To Write

I had always more ideas for posts than time to write them and now I have run out of time completely. I always assumed that my writing output would eventually catch up with the constant influx of ideas during my retirement but as it turns out I will not live to retire¹. So if you’ve ever enjoyed this blog, here are some of the topics that I was going to write about had I lived longer: you might enjoy delving into them in your free time. You know – some not so well-known books to read, the unlikely life stories of some historical persons of whom you’ve never heard, commentary on poetry, life advice from a distance of millenia… the sort of stuff Waterblogged is all about. 

1. Advice from Ancient Rome & Advice from Ancient Greece

Ancient authors have given us many bons mots. A collection of snappy lines, practical advice or philosophical statements, from the inscriptions over the temple of Apollo in Delphi to the speeches of Seneca would make an entertaining, thought-provoking reading.

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
The Master of Cold Mountain
The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)

Quotes from Great Travellers in History

If you like travelling and you like history, then reading the diaries of travellers from earlier times is a real treat. To be sure, some of them would make climbing Mount Everest sound dull, but there were plenty out there who could tell a tale. Some of them have been frequently cited on this blog and I intended to write an introductory post to bring great travellers’ tales together.

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
The Burning Mountain of Huexotzingo
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Felix in the Bath

A Walk with Gerald Brennan in the Sierra Nevada

Gerald Brennan was an English author who wrote several very good books about life in Spain in the first half of 20th century and about Spanish history, as well, as the 1936-39 Civil War. After he was demobbed at the end of World War I, Brennan lived in Andalusia for several years and he’s very picturesque descriptions of the area as it then was, not to mention the people and the customs, is well worth reading. I particularly recommend South from Granada. As Brennan also maintained himself on the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group, the visits of his London friends to his house in Spain, occasionally provide a somewhat unexpected and bizarre counterpoint to the rest of the book.  

For this particular post I had in mind chapter 14 of Brennan’s South from Granada. The title should speak for itself. 🙂 A treat for hikers.

Lost in a Book

Literally or metaphorically – which book would it be for you?

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
They that Go Down to the Sea in Ships
Books That Transport You

The Unlikely but True Story of Móric Benyovszky, the Hungarian King of Madagascar

The title says it all: it’s a very unlikely but true story of a minor Hungarian nobleman who had to flee home in the 18th century and ended up becoming king of Madagascar.

Similars Posts that I Did Write:
Brother Julianus: Quest for the Lost Homeland
Implacabile: The Corvette that Never Was

Stories in the Dark

A reading list upon the theme of – dark. 🙂

There could be so many variations on this… Night time stories, space stories, gothic horror… the darkness of the man’s soul.

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
Dark & Moody
Submarine!

The Man Who Foresaw the Future

The stories of Jules Verne were not simply cracking adventures but he also described things as yet uninvented: travelling by submarine, going to the Moon, flying aeroplanes…

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
The Three (Spanish) Musketeers
Who's Who (Obscure Authors)

The Dictionary 

A poor lonely Hungarian, without applause or money but inspired with enthusiasm sought the Hungarian native country but in the end broke down under the burden.

Count István Széchenyi

Back in the beginning a 19th century, there was a very poor young man from Transylvania who wanted to find out about the origins of the Hungarians. Where? In Tibet, of all places. He made his way to Ladakh and ended up writing the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar. Today, he is considered the founding father of Tibetology… and in 1933, he was declared a boddhisattva (a Buddhist saint, in effect).

The strange and ascetic life of a brilliant and obsessed recluse scholar, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma.

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
Part of the Folk Process
The View from the Ivory Tower
Beats Working in a Bank

The Final Days of Suleyman the Magnificent

If you bothered to read my recent History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, then you should have an idea of what this post would have been about! 🙂

Ten Proverbs To Live Your Life By

Could you think of ten proverbs that sums up your beliefs and would work as life advice for your children?

A Similar Post that I Did Write:
Seven Quasi-Religious Sayings to Annoy Your Children With

The Sea! The Sea!

One of my favourite military history books is Anabasis, also known as The March of the Ten Thousand by Xenophon. It tells the story of ten thousand Greek mercenaries fleeing all the way from the heart of the Persian Empire after a lost battle, marching across hostile territory, fighting their ways through hostile mountain tribes, suffering hunger and cold, relentlessly pursued by the Persian army. It’s a great story of endurance, of landscapes and of everything ancient Greek. I was really hoping to get the Landmark edition of Xenophon to accompany my Landmark Herodotus – with maps and notes and illustrations and essays in the appendices. It was to be published last November but, perhaps because of coronavirus, it’s now not going to published till next November. Too late for me… but not for you.

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)
Hero Under the Death Sentence
The (Novel) Life of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain

The Definitive Reading Guide to the Best Stories of Herodotus

More best of Herodotus – Of course! 

Don’t be frightened by the size of the Histories. I bet you read lots of longer books (which were a lot worse too, like perhaps, Game of Thrones?) All the good stories are there in the Histories, you just have to find them. The trick is to pick it up and dip into it every now and then. But how I would have liked to have written the definite reading guide to the most entertaining stories of Herodotus! 

Similar Posts that I Did Write:
The Best Stories of Herodotus (And Why You're Going to Read Them)
An Evening with Herodotus

And the Best Stories of…. 

…many others.

There are authors you just have to keep going back to. Like Herodotus above. The likes of Felix Fabri, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), and others. Some of them had appeared on the blog already, some, like John Smith, never got beyond my notes. But I would have liked to write more about them all, because they tell cracking tales!

Hungarian Historical Legends

We’ve got so many really entertaining ones – and they are so little known!

Notes:
¹ I'm terminally ill and have only a very short time left. You can read a little about it in my post Open Letter To My Oncologist

La importancia de libros (The Importance of Books)

La cita del día / Quote of the Day

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Pues yo soy con el Quijote en eso. 🙂

Well, I’m with Don Quixote on this one. 🙂

De allí a dos días se levantó don Quijote, y lo primero que hizo fue ir a ver sus libros…


Two days later Don Quixote got up, and the first thing he did was to go and look at his books…

(Miguel de Cervantes: El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha / Don Quixote)

History (La historia)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

But does history look like history while it is in the making? Isn’t it true that the common names are always expunged? For surely history is about ideas, vested interests and celebrated names (later to become street names), the names listed in indexes and encyclopaedias? Because no matter how much oral history is set down, the victims of world-shattering events are doomed to disappear. Their interchangeable names appear on monuments and memorials that hardly anyone notices any more, not only their bodies but also their identities are relegated to oblivion.


Pero ¿aparece la historia, mientras sucede, ya como historia? ¿No ocurre que los pequeños nombres siempre se obscurecen? ¿Se trata de las ideas, los intereses y los grandes nombres, los posteriores nombres de calles, los nombres de los índices y las enciclopedias? Porque por muchos libros que hayan aparecido llenos de oral history, todavía es normal que las víctimas desaparezcan tras los acontecimientos. Ves sus nombres cambiantes en monumentos de piedra que ya nadie contempla, no han desaparecido sólo sus cuerpos, también han desaparecido sus nombres.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)

The Injustice of Defeat

Quote of the Day

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)

The injustice of defeat lies in the fact that its most innocent victims are made to look like heartless accomplices. It is impossible to see behind defeat, the sacrifices, the austere performance of duty, the self-discipline and the vigilance that are there — those things the god of battle does not take account of… Defeat shows up generals without authority, men without organization, crowds that are passive.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)

 

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 18: Beds without Patients

My apologies: Lockdown Diaries III went a shameless eleven days without posting about the latest miseries caused by coronavirus. This, (surprisingly!), was not due to the lack of happenings: we’ve now got a Tier 5 introduced now on top of all the other tiers, we cycled through several reopening date for schools until they will now only reopen after February half-term… and so on.

There was also the whole delightful shebang known as Brexit; with or without an agreement, by now I’m not sure which it came out in the end, nor do I care any  more. We can’t do anything and go anywhere anyway. Life has ground to another complete halt and for some more of us, it will never start up again.

Last March, as the coronavirus cases started to rise, we all had to put our lives on hold – to protect the NHS.

As a society, we went through a lot in order to protect the NHS: People lost their jobs, children didn’t go to school, non-urgent¹ medical procedures were postponed, holidays were cancelled, weddings repeatedly rescheduled. We let our loved ones die alone and unvisited in hospitals, care homes and hospices; we let funerals pared down to such brutal basics that they provided absolutely no comfort to the mourners.

But for what? Coronavirus is still rising. We’re no better off than we were last March. We’ve undergone all this s**t for no benefit whatsoever. Except of course – we did protect the NHS.

For whose benefit, I’d like to know?

Because it’s not for the benefit of the dying, who are facing, on a daily basis, the unpalatable choice between receiving palliative care at the cost of never seeing their loved ones again  or struggling with their end-of-life symptoms alone at home, under  palliative remote control.

Which do you prefer, my dear:

      • to have your family around you while you’re still well enough to be able to see their faces, touch their hands, listen to their voices
      • or to have your pain and other horrible symptoms be brought under control so that you suffer less but never see them again?

The crisp, white, empty beds in hospices all over the country bear mute testimony to the answer.  

On top of all the months they have already spent shielding alone in their bedrooms, wistfully gazing out of their windows, the terminally ill do not want to continue to also die alone.

Notes:
¹ What is a non-urgent medical procedure anyway? Surely, you either need the procedure (in which case it's urgent, so that you can stop suffering and be healed), or you don't need the procedure at all (in which case it should have never been suggested to you in the first place).

La historia de Hungría en doce mapas

Read this in English

Después de las historias de Inglaterra y España, aquí viene la historia de unos de los estados nacionales más antiguos de Europa que existen continuamente – Hungría. Ya sabes: uno de esos países de los que nadie ha oído hablar nunca.

La poca gente que sí que ha oído de Hungría puede dar fe de que Hungría destaca en el mundo por tres cosas: 

  1. Hablamos un idioma insoportable (uno que ningún extranjero sabe dominar)
  2. El emperador Solimán, conocido por algunas almas equivocadas como el Magnífico, ha sido, literalmente, fastidiado hasta la muerte por los húngaros¹
  3. El cubo de Rubik

Por supuesto, hay otras cosas de las que Hungría puede estar orgullosa: como ser el país con la peor hiperinflación del mundo (1946), o, para ser más positivo, tener más premios Nobel, campeones olímpicos, e incluso Gran Maestros de ajedrez per cápita que la mayoría de los otros países… ²

Pero pasemos a las mapas!

Continue reading “La historia de Hungría en doce mapas”

Government (El gobierno)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

We start the new year with England out of the EU and most of the governments of the world clueless…

Empezamos el año nuevo con Inglaterra fuera de la UE y con muchos de los gobiernos del mundo despistados…

Lao Tzu (6th century BC)

The government that seems the most unwise,
Oft goodness to the people best supplies,
That which is meddling, touching everything,
Will work but ill, and disappointment bring.

(Tao Te King, 58:1)


Cuando el gobierno es inactivo, el pueblo es diligente. Cuando el gobierno es activo, el pueblo es indolente. 

(Tao Te King: LVIII)

Mi biblioteca (My Library)

La cita del día / Quote of the Day

Juan Eslava Galán (1948-)

En mi biblioteca se resume toda mi vida. Hay libros que no he leído nunca y quizá ya no lea; pero hay otros muy manoseados y anotados. Todos me traen recuerdos de lo que fui y de lo que fueron en el momento en que los leí, de las circunstancias en que llegaron a mis manos, en un viaje, en una librería de viejo, olvidados en el banco de un parque, regalados…

(Juan Eslava Galán: De bibliotecas y libros, Zenda 7 junio 2017)


My whole life is summed up in my library. There are books which I have never read and perhaps never will now; others are well-thumbed and annotated. They all remind me of who I was and what they were in the moment when I read them, of the circumstances in which I acquired them: during a trip, in an old bookshop, forgotten on a bench in a park, given as presents…

(Juan Eslava Galán: Of Libraries and Books, Zenda 7 June 2017)