Minority Vote

Quote of the Week

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755)

In this court decisions are made by majority vote; however, experience has shown it is better to go by the opinion of the minority, which is perfectly natural, for the number of righteous judges is very small, and every one agrees that those with poor judgment are too numerous to count.

(Montesquieu: Persian Letters, Letter 84)

La fe (Faith)

La cita del día / Quote of the Day

Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-)

Pero un día perdí la fe y nunca más la he recobrado. Creo que la perdí apenas empecé a pensar. Para ser creyente no conviene pensar mucho.

(Mario Vargas Llosa: El héroe discreto)

But one day I lost my faith and never got it back again. I think I lost it as soon as I began to think. To be a believer, you can’t think too much.

(Mario Vargas Llosa: The Discreet Hero)

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 7: A Miserable Christmas

What with people not being allowed to visit their loved ones for Christmas – except if the loved one was dying – and, while we’re at it, not being allowed to get marry either – except if the bride or the groom was dying – coronavirus made for a pretty miserable Christmas for lot of people.

(Like those lorry drivers for example stuck in the UK in their lorries.)

Recommended Reading for a Miserable Chrismas:

So… here’s a reading list to consider while you’re stuck in your freezing lorry, in a hospital/hospice/care home without visiting hours or alone in a flat with the enormous turkey that the family who were meant to eat it can only admire via Facetime…

  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo 
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 
  • Father Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  • Germinal by Émile Zola

As a particular favour to all those trapped lorry drivers who cannot just pick a book off the shelves, most of these books are old enough and famous enough to be available for free online reading on Project Gutenberg! 🙂

In a State of Grace?

Quote of the Day


There is a narrow passage between the sepulchre and the wall nearest to it, so that he who would pass through it can only do so with difficulty, and has to drag himself through the stone work. There is a common fable that no one who is living in mortal sin can pass through this place. This I consider to be a fable, for all of us passed through it; whether we were all in a state of grace, God only knows.

(Felix Fabri: The Wanderings of Felix Fabri)

Note About the Author Picture

No known image exists of Felix Fabri (1441-1502), the Swiss/German monk who made a two pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the 1480s and kept a detailed diary of his journeys.

The image above, therefore, is of another unknown monk, known in Hungarian history as Anonymus, which is Latin for ‘nameless’; he was the notary of King Béla III and author of the Gesta Hungarorum, the first history of Hungary in the beginning of the 13th century.

Life Flies (La vida es muy breve)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 A.D.)

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

(Omar Khayyam: Rubaiyat)

Dejemos que los sabios parloteen
Nada de lo que dicen es cierto, excepto que la vida es muy breve.
Se fue la flor marchita para siempre;
el resto es mentira y locura.

(Omar Jayam: Las Rubaiyat)

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 3: View from the Forbidden Island

Photo by Kelli McClintock via Unsplash

Since we became the pariahs of the world, with countries refusing flights and ferries from the UK, there developed a long queue of lorries outside Dover – all those lorries that can no longer drive onto the ferries that no longer sail… The hardship for the British drivers is one thing but I’m really sorry for those foreign drivers who were on the last leg of the journey back home in time for Christmas and instead look set to spend their Christmas in the freezing cabins of their lorries, far from home and lacking even basic amenities, like toilets, although one would like to hope that the authorities will sort something out for the stranded drivers ASAP, if they haven’t done so yet!

Recommended Reading from the Forbidden Island:

It seems appropriate to read books about miserable castaways, shipwrecked and marooned sailors and the like and luckily world literature has plenty to choose from!

  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe 
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (set aside some cheese for Ben Gunn this Christmas)
  • The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
  • Two Years Vacation by Jules Verne
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding 
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Island by Robert Merle
  • The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez
Ten of the most vivid accounts of being marooned in literature (The Guardian)
6 Famous Castaways (History)

Lockdown Diaries III, Day 1: Christmas Cancelled

Here we go again.

The government actually had to invent a tier 4, so that we could be put into it.

Christmas is officially cancelled and the rats are flying the sinking ship. Er… I mean people are abandoning London (and taking the virus with them), although personally I’m not willing to criticise anybody without knowing their circumstances – let each settle with their own conscience whether their journey is justified. I can imagine circumstances in which it would be; like visiting your dying mother, for example.

The government is disgusted, of course. I’m not sure what they expected, announcing at 4 pm yesterday that nobody is allowed to go and see their family for Christmas, with the rule coming into effect from midnight: Predictably, everybody mobile enough packed their suitcase and boarded the next train out. 

Recommended Reading for the Latest Lockdown:

  • A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (I’d say the title speaks for itself)
  • The Decameron by Boccaccio (people entertaining themselves in a 14th century lockdown in Italy)
  • Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (for those who can’t do Christmas without soppy stories)
⇒ You can read the official rules for this latest lockdown here. (And yes, it does say you can still visit your dying mother. That's about the only thing you can do, in fact.)

The Greek Language (La lengua griega)

Quote of the Day / La cita del día

Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996)

I was given the Greek language;
a poor house on Homer’s beaches.
My only care my language on Homer’s beaches.
Seabream there and perch
windbeaten verbs
green sea-currents amid the azure currents
which I felt light up in my viscera
sponges, medusae
with the first words of the Sirens
pink shells with their first black shivers.
My only care my language with the first black shivers.

(Odysseas Elytis: Psalm II)

La lengua me la dieron griega;
la casa pobre en las arenas de Homero.
Unica cuita me lengua en las arenas de Homero.
Allí sargos y percas
verbos sacudidos por el viento
corrientes verdes entre las azules
cuanto vi que se iba encendiendo en mis entrañas
esponjas, medusas
con las primeras palabras de las Sirenas
conchas rosadas con los primeros estremecimientos negros
Unica cuita me lengua con los primeros estremecimientos negros.

(Odysseas Elytis: Salmo II)

Open Letter To My Oncologist

Dear Doctor,

I spent the last week organising the photos I took in the summer and early autumn. My husband and I went hiking and we took the children to a couple of short holiday breaks: to Lyme Regis, to Jersey and to Gibraltar.

On our last fling in the October half-term I still managed to chalk up 18 kms on the Rock in one day and got to see the monkeys and the tunnels, the cave and the view towards Africa – the closest I’ve ever got to another continent… 18 kms, over the course of a whole day, with lots of rest; I was quite impressed with myself although it’s a far cry from the times when I could hike 30 kilometres a day on the South West Coast Path, only three years ago, without collapsing at the end. Of course, that had been before I met you. Just two months before I was diagnosed with final stage cancer.

Jersey was beautiful. We hiked the north coast ending on the beach in Plémont Bay, going for a swim and rinsing off the sea salt from our skin under the waterfall in a cave. There were some beautiful sunny days and we saw dolphins in the sea jumping around our boat. This is the one thing we can thank coronavirus for: we’d never have gone to Jersey if we could have gone to Spain or Italy instead.

Coronavirus was a real blow for us this year, as you can imagine. I was relatively well and I knew I was running out of time, yet I couldn’t do what I wanted to do: couldn’t travel, couldn’t visit my family, couldn’t even go a museum or to eat out. I was stuck in our house in London, in lockdown for months; so much about enjoying the last year of my life. The November lockdown was particularly galling: after we returned from Gibraltar, I had literally nothing else left for me in life but going swimming while I still could. Instead, once again I was forced to sit at home, while my strength slowly ebbed away. I watched the leaves on the trees in the garden turning rusty; mellow hues of yellow and red mingling with the still surviving bright green reminded you that autumn was here. I listened to the horrid screeching of the crows. Nature was slowly dying, just like I am; I would have liked to see the snowdrops come out next year.

The swimming pool has since reopened but I’m no longer able to go to swim. So I’m sitting here, listening to the rain, trying to organise the photos and remembering Jersey and Gibraltar, the fossil coast in Lyme Regis and swimming in the sea. Remembering the laughter of my daughters.

Our last holidays.

Doctor, I would really like to thank you for these holidays because without the treatments that you prescribed me in the last three years I would not have been alive to go on them. 

I would like to thank you; but the words stick in my throat. Because if it was up to you, I wouldn’t have been able to hike along the north coast of Jersey; I would have not been able to swim in the sea. I would have been in hospital, choking while I was being administered a chemotherapy agent that I became dangerously allergic to many months ago; I would have been lying in bed, looking out at the sky through my bedroom window, unable to get up; or I would have been vomiting convulsively into the blue wash up bowl that three years ago found its way from under the kitchen sink to under our bed and never had a chance to go back. Or, possibly, I’d be screaming hysterically at my husband or my daughters, half crazed with this unspeakable suffering that your treatments had repeatedly inflicted on me.

Each time when your treatments reduced me to a quivering helpless blob of jelly, I scraped myself off the floor, rebuilt my muscles and forced my dying brain cells to reanimate themselves. Fourteen times through fourteen rounds of chemotherapy. Fourteen weeks when I was too weak to rise from bed, to hold a book or to sit without support on the toilet. Twenty-eight weeks when I could only negotiate the stairs in our house on all fours. And in between? Trying to raise the children, trying to pretend that I was still a wife, working beyond my strength trying not to lose my job. Because even with the NHS, cancer is expensive. And if you’re under 55, you’re not even entitled to ill health pension although your boss is entitled to dismiss you if you’re too ill to go to work.

When we started all this, you told me that all my hair would fall out due to the chemo but it would grow back. You were right: it did grow back. Sort of. I always had thick, abundant, healthy hair; what grew back was not its original colour, not its original texture – and incidentally, was only half as much. The second course of chemo thinned that out to only a third of the original amount of hair; and it’s nearly all grey now. You forgot to mention that my eyebrows, eyelashes, and all other body hair would also fall out, including the hair inside my nostrils; like my hair, they didn’t grow back fully either. Have you ever thought about how useful eyelashes are? They keep dust and rain out of your eyes. And the hair in your nostrils! Such a laughable thing but when you haven’t got any, you constantly have snot drooling down onto your lips because no matter how fast you whipped that tissue out, you were too slow. 

Chemotherapy kills all fast growing cells; that’s why my hair fell out. That’s why my muscles were destroyed. That’s also why my brain cells died. That is why, while writing to you, I have to keep going back and look in the dictionary for the correct spelling of all those words that the spell checker underlines with little red dots. I used to be a linguist, you know. I taught myself several languages but now I regularly mix up their and they’re and there

It wasn’t just the chemotherapy: you gave me other treatments in between. You told me I couldn’t have immunotherapy as it had a high chance – 2 or 3 % I think it was – of killing me outright. I did wonder why that mattered given that you had told me five minutes earlier that you couldn’t cure me? Instead, you prescribed me hormone therapy: you said on the average it gave people two years of life, with hardly any side effects. It lasted just about half a year, but it wrecked my knee joints and my back, aged me about five years physically, and in company with the steroids, it made me grow a faint beard and a moustache. 

The day after receiving the death sentence from you, I joined a local gym which had a swimming pool and signed the one-year contract. I’m afraid I lied to the gym manager; I claimed to be healthy. I was wearing a wig at the time, but there was no reason for her to suspect; I looked so young. And lying saved so much hassle; I’ve became quite adept in it since this ridiculous coronavirus hysteria started, so that I would not be denied entry to hotels, pools and restaurants on account of being ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’. Not that you would have minded me returning to taking exercise. And you were always willing to accommodate me when I asked if I could fit a short family holiday in between appointments, for which I cannot thank you enough – those holidays were what kept me sane. 

In the past three years I had been through some horrible suffering caused by the cancer; and some quite as horrible suffering caused by your various therapies. I don’t blame you for my suffering: you did your best. It’s just your best wasn’t good enough. 

I’ve got genetic cancer. I was diagnosed within ten days of the first symptoms manifesting and yet by then it was metastatic and in its final stage. You should have called it terminal from day one but you doctors seem very reticent of using that word. It’s only terminal when the patient’s got less than six months to live. Of course, I had less than six months to live at that point, but you had treatments to offer, so the word didn’t appear until this June. Thinking about it, you still haven’t used it.

We’ve got three years of history together: longer than some marriages last. I remember some inconsequential little details that you probably don’t recall. Like when you told me in the beginning that I had 50 % chance to survive for five years. I looked it up since: it’s 17 %. Or when you asked the nurse in the hospital why I was crying after you casually told me that my cancer was almost certainly final stage and almost certainly genetic. Or when you told me that you couldn’t cure me. I remember that quite well, because it was my husband’s birthday; I’m afraid the news quite spoilt it. It was at the usual pre-chemo appointment; this was to be my eighth round of chemo; I thought I knew the routine by then. But you just came out with there being no point in me having the chemo as it had stopped working… And do you remember when I turned up for my appointment and waited 4 hours in your waiting room, only for you to decide that you didn’t need to see me and not even having the courtesy to come and explain why not? I was rather annoyed then; life is so short and time is so precious. My time especially.

But the real disappoint was my last treatment. The PARP inhibitor: a brand new treatment barely licensed and supposedly particularly effective for genetic cancers. Not that it cures them, of course. But it bought some people on the clinical trial three years of life. Three years! You can almost finish bringing up your children on that.

You first told me of the PARP inhibitor when I asked for genetic testing back in December 2017. I remember the occasion well, because I had to insist to get that genetic testing; you told me that it’s not done unless there were two previous cases of the cancer in the family and I only had my mother. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of her family; for all I know, all the females died young of the same cancer. But I have two daughters and I insisted that I be tested; and when I told you that my mother died aged 39, you agreed. I myself was 49 then and my younger daughter 12. The same age I was when my mother became ill.

The PARP inhibitor was supposed to give me one to three years of good quality life. I went through so much to become eligible to receive it!… It’s very well tolerated, you said; but within two days of starting on it, I experienced chemotherapy levels of nausea which took over a month to get under control. Nobody in our hospital ever had to come off the PARP inhibitor on account of anaemia, you said a month later, when I first presented with a life threatening level of anaemia. We’ll find you the right dose, you said, and it’ll be just as effective. I expect you to be on it for years, you said.

Less than six months, several dose reductions and blood transfusions later, you had to conclude that not only the PARP inhibitor nearly killed me and made my life a misery but apparently it never worked at all. Oops. 

That was when you recommended more chemotherapy. A third course because I responded “well” to the previous two. You said it could give me a year; maybe more. It was June 2020, two years after you told me my cancer was incurable, almost to the day.

“Well” of course is a relative term both when we’re talking about ‘responding well to treatment’ and ‘the treatment being well-tolerated’.

The first chemotherapy you gave me had 80 % chance of working. I remember this because I asked you what if I was one of the 20 % and you said we were not going to talk about that now. You said that often in the past three years; we never talked about what would happen when your treatment didn’t work. You always simply said that you had lots of other treatments. I was never an assertive person; and although it did rather bother me that I was expected to make treatment decisions without having the full picture, I never rebelled.

The second chemotherapy, which I had to undergo when I became disqualified for the clinical trial to get the PARP inhibitor owing to a very nasty complication that you forgot even to warn me about, only had 60 % chance to work. 

But I was lucky. I responded “well” to both: that’s to say, each chemotherapy bought me just about half a year, which is the minimum for it to be considered a success. Not that the cancer ever went into remission, oh no, not that; but it was knocked back and stopped growing for half a year. I could have even enjoyed those half years if I was ever allowed to recover from the side effects of chemotherapy. Instead, each time I immediately had to go onto another debilitating therapy: hormone therapy first, then the PARP inhibitor.

And so you now recommended me a third course of chemotherapy. You said that if I didn’t take it, I had less than half a year to live; but if I did, you were confident I could live at least a year; it could be followed by a fourth and a fifth – yes, there’s even a fifth! – course of chemotherapy. You described this third course of chemo as well tolerated and with a good success rate. 

Well, the ‘good’ success rate is 30 %. 

As for well tolerated: unfortunately you described every treatment I underwent so far as well tolerated. Perhaps you’d tolerate them well; for myself, I can see little difference in the amount of suffering the cancer caused me and the amount of suffering your treatments caused me.  

When I objected that I’m now seriously allergic to one of the chemotherapy agents involved, you said I could be admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy, instead of having the chemo as an outpatient. 

Well, I’ve been on the oncology ward before; I know what it’s like. There’s always somebody screaming in pain or having hysterics at 4 o’clock in the morning; I get woken up every 3 hours throughout the night to have my blood pressure taken although never in my entire life, and that includes the moment when I was told that I had incurable cancer, was there anything wrong with my blood pressure. And when I said to the nurse, I don’t mind you taking my blood pressure if I’m awake but if by some miracle I’m actually managing to get some sleep please, please don’t wake me up to take it – well, then I got woken up so that I could confirm that I really didn’t want my blood pressure taken at 3 o’clock in the morning. Kafka wouldn’t have been able to think it up.

You said on day 1 I would go to hospital and have my first drug and be ill for a week; on day 8 I‘d have the second and be ill for another week; on day 21 we’d start all over again. To repeat six times; as a minimum I’d be very unwell for two weeks out of every three for the next half year. And I know from experience that chemotherapy side effects are cumulative: I finished the second course of chemotherapy more than a year ago now and I still continue getting stupider. My brain cells are still dying.

So I said, thank you, doctor, but no, thank you.

You seemed to take it quite well, at first. We agreed I would think about it and discuss it with my family, and you’d phone in a week’s time. You phoned a day later than you said you would, when I was not expecting the call and as a consequence I had difficulty to collect my thoughts but my decision was unchanged. When I explained I wanted this summer without doctors, you tolerantly agreed; then tried to schedule me for a scan and another appointment in mid-August. After some haggling, we agreed to put it off till September.

I didn’t really want to have the scan or the appointment in September. By now I’m allergic to the dye used in the scan too and I expected that at the appointment you would try to pressure me into accepting chemotherapy – but my husband persuaded me to do this one more thing. For all of the family’s sake, including myself, of course.

At this last appointment, everything turned out to be as I expected. The “could live a year” from June became “years” practically guaranteed by September. You were very persuasive; gentle but firm. I came out of your office totally bewildered and wondering if I fatally misunderstood something in June. If I had thrown away years of good quality life. If in fact I could have lived three more years to see my older daughter to gain her master’s and to bring my younger daughter to the brink of adulthood before I keeled over.

I didn’t of course. I checked with my husband as to what you said to him in June; I checked with my GP; I checked online in medical studies. The chances of me living years, no matter how much chemotherapy I agree to, are negligible. But you would happily give me chemotherapy till the day I die. 

Doctor, you cannot cure me. Admit it and move on; that patient sitting outside your office right now – perhaps you can cure him.

There are studies about this, you know. About doctors misleading patients intentionally or unintentionally. Doctors in denial. Doctors unable to tell the patient that she’s dying and that there is no more they can do. Doctors interpreting everything in the light of the most possibly positive outcome and ignoring all the negative statistics.

Doctor, I say this not with anger but with the best intentions: get some training in how to deal with terminally ill patients. I know your job is hard but believe me, it’s not as hard as being terminally ill. Between you and me, you are the lucky one.

Had you been honest with me from the beginning and gave me a genuine say in my own treatment, perhaps I’d have accepted your advice for one more course of chemotherapy. And if it worked, perhaps I’d have lived a year longer. But you have never been honest, and I don’t trust you any more.

Doctor, please listen carefully: you can’t treat a terminally ill patient the same way as you’d treat somebody who has a chance to survive. The terminally ill have different priorities. Survival is no longer an option. I told you what I wanted in so many words; why didn’t you listen?

If I took your advice in June, I would have been robbed of four months of happiness. Four months without needles; four months when I could sit out in the garden in the sun instead of sitting in your waiting room, four months when I could swim in the sea, go hiking and play Scrabble with my family. Four months of parenting… Four months of life, doctor. That’s what you would have taken away from me; and that was all that I had.

If I accepted your recommended third – and fourth, and fifth – course of chemotherapy, I would be left completely destroyed both physically and mentally. Living with chronic cancer is already bad enough: it destroys both the patient’s personality and her body. It puts unbearable strain on her relationships: even the strongest family members, friends and colleagues can crumble in the end and have to abandon the patient to preserve their own sanity. 

For me, it’s important to die while I’m still me: while I can still laugh, with hair on my head, with my face recognisable. I want my daughters to remember me mooching around the Greek temples of Agrigento in Sicily and climbing to the crater or Vulcano, a mere two weeks after my last dose of chemotherapy – a triumph of will despite my destroyed muscles; I want them to remember me as I stood on the cliff overlooking Plémont Bay in Jersey, at the end of a day’s hike, in walking boots, with rucksack on my back, the last September of my life. I don’t want them to remember me as a hairless, wrinkled, shrivelled shapeless form on a hospital bed, with tubes leading out of every orifice or as a shrieking, intolerant harpy.

You told me I should expect to die before Christmas; at the moment it looks as if I might make it into January. For my family’s sake, I hope I will; dying at Christmas is shit timing. And we both know that I will suffer a lot more before I die. If I was a dog, you wouldn’t hesitate to put me down to spare me suffering but because I’m a human being, I’m denied euthanasia. 

Have you thought about that yet, doctor?

Wishing you a long and healthy life,

Your Dying Patient

Religion Transmuted into Art (La religión convertida en arte)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

There are paintings, statues, retables, altarpieces, from small, forsaken churches scattered all over the provincial and diocesan museums in Spain. How can something that was originally in a sense utilitarian turn into a work of art? Utilitarian: an image that served to instruct people about their faith. The frescoes recounted the Bible to the faithful who came to the church and who could not read, the statues were there to be adored, to be invoked in prayer. So now they have been pu ton display in art galleries, side by side with comparable specimens. The content of the story told by the paintings has evaporated for most visitors, only the form counts now. Few people, except students of art history, can still distinguish the symbols of the evangelists, still know about the Old Men of the Apocalypse, are still familiar with the attributes of the martyrs. Religion is transmuted into art, because stories become images that signify only themselves. The twentieth-century viewer observes a narrative that he can no longer interpret, to which he has grown blind.

Por todas partes, en museos provinciales y diocesanos hay pinturas, esculturas, retablos, cuadros de altares de iglesias pequeñas y abandonadas. ¿Cómo puede cambiar algo que seguramente fue un objeto de uso corriente y convertirse en un objeto artístico? Objeto de uso corriente: una imagen para explicar algo a los hombres sobre su fe. Estos cuadros contaban una historia a los hombres que venían a la iglesia y no podían leer, las imágenes estaban allí para ser adoradas, para suplicar algo. Ahora están en salas, acompañadas por otras imágenes del mismo estilo y colocadas en fila. La historia en los cuadros ha perdido ya para la mayoría de los visitantes su significado, ahora cuenta sólo la forma. Únicamente el estudiante de arte conoce aún los símbolos de los cuatro evangelistas, aún sabe algo de los Antiguos, del Final de los Tiempos, aún conoce lost atributos de los mártires. La religión se convierte en arte, el significado se convierte en forma, las historias se convierten en imágenes que sólo se significan a sí mismas. El observador del siglo XX ve una historia que ya no puede leer, porque está ciego para ella.

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

Update to Mondays’ Weekly Quote / Noticia sobre la cita de la semana de los lunes:

These will continue to go ahead as usual but… for the rest of this month you can expect additional quotes on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays as well. This is because I’m very busy with Christmas and other things (as I’m sure you all are), and as a consequence I’m making very slow progress on some longer posts I’m currently working on. I’ll fit them in between the quotes as and when they get ready but in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy the quotes!

Las citas de la semana seguirán adelante como de costumbre los lunes, pero … durante el resto de diciembre, también publicaré citas adicionales los miércoles, viernes y domingos. Eso porque estoy muy ocupada con la Navidad y otras cosas (cómo todos) y, en consecuencia, hago un progreso muy lento con algunas posts larguísimos en los que estoy trabajando en el momento. Los publicaré entre las citas a medida que estén listos, pero mientras tanto, ¡espero que disfrutéis de las citas!

Poetry Underfoot

In London, you can come across random poetry in the most unexpected places. Poetry on the Tube is well known by now and has been copied by the public transport systems of other cities, such as Budapest. But how often do you walk down a pavement and find that you’re walking over poetry?

London South Bank:

Richard Sheridan was a playwright at the end of the 18th century; and his comedies still play on London’s stages… well, when they are not closed for coronavirus, that is.

Brother Julianus: The Quest for the Lost Homeland

Or the How the Window on the Origins of the Hungarians Slammed Shut in the 13th Century

I have recently finished a post, The History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, and while writing it I’ve done a bit of research on the travels of a Dominican friar, Brother Julianus in the 13th century. Originally I was going to include it all in the post but I quickly realised that it was going to be long enough without this kind of detail. And yet, the story of Brother Julianus is worth to be told – it’s the story of setting off into the unknown, of encountering great hardships and coming back with great discoveries. A little bit like the story of Marco Polo, who only fifty years later went all the way to China. Marco Polo was a merchant; Brother Julianus was… a historian? a dreamer? a missionary? or perhaps a Papal spy? We don’t really know. What we do know is that Julianus set out to look for the ancient Hungarian homeland, found it and came back with the news of the rising Mongol Empire. 

Note: If you're not familiar with early Hungarian history, you might want to read A History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, at least the part which relates to the migration of the Hungarians towards the Carpathian Basin, before reading on.

Brother Julianus’s Quest for the Ancient Hungarian Homeland (1235-1237 A.D.)

Brother Julianus (with Brother Gerhardus) points towards the ancient Hungarian homeland, statue in Budapest [Photo via Wikipedia]

We don’t know much about Brother Julianus, apart from his travels. We don’t know where he was born, or how old he was when he went travelling. We have no picture of him to show us what he looked like. He was a Dominican friar, and he set out from Hungary in 1235 in search of the Hungarians who according to the historical knowledge of the time had been left behind during the wanderings at one of the earlier homelands. 

Julianus was actually not the first Dominican friar setting out from Hungary towards the east. The Dominican order in Hungary sent out missionaries beyond the Carpathians in the east to work among the neighbouring Cumans during the 1220s. The Cumans, originally not keen on the foreign missionaries, changed their minds after a Mongol attack, coming even to accept Hungarian suzerainty. Perhaps this was the moment when King Béla and the Dominicans started to contemplate seriously to start a search for their Hungarian kindred, further east. The old chronicles rather vaguely put the old Hungarian homeland somewhere called Meótisz, an area north of the Sea of Azov. King Béla sent out Brother Ottó with three companions towards the east, probably in 1231 or around. Three years later Ottó returned alone, in the guise of a merchant and terminally ill. He died within eight days of arriving home and if he said anything about where he’d been, no records survived.

The First Journey of Brother Julianus (1235-1236)

In 1235, possibly only after a year of Brother Ottó’s return, four more Dominican friars set off from Hungary: Brother Julianus, Brother Gerhardus and two other friars whose names we do not know. Searching, like Brother Ottó must have been, for the ancient homeland and their kindred folk living there.

Julianus and his companions made their way to Constantinople where they took passage on a ship crossing the Black Sea. From here they went on towards east and arriving in the lands of the Alans, around the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, where they stayed for about half a year. They found no Hungarians and their situation was difficult; the decision was made for two of the friars to turn back from here while Julianus and Gerhardus set off north.

Julianus and Gerhardus, ill equipped and uncertain of the way, crossed a desert area, only just about managing to reach the Muslim town of Bunda on the other side. They walked through the desert for thirty-seven days; by the time they arrived in Bunda, Gerhardus was very ill. Exhausted by the journey, he died within days. Still Julianus did not give up: he took service with a travelling Muslim priest in order to continue his journey. He finally arrived to Volga Bulgaria where…

In one of the towns of that country, which – as they say – can mobilise fifty thousand warriors, the friar found a Hungarian woman who had been given in marriage into this town from just that land which he was seeking. This [woman] explained to the friar which road to take and stated that at the distance of two days’ walking he would certainly find the Hungarians…

The first journey of Brother Julianus. [Photo credit unknown, retrieved via Google Search from tortenelmiportre.blog.hu, now inaccessible]

Incredibly, Brother Julianus found the descendants of those Hungarians who chose to stay behind some four or more centuries earlier – and they could still speak to each other without needing an interpreter! He named their land Magna Hungaria, Great Hungary.

[These Hungarians] Are pagans. They have no idea of God, although neither do they worship idols; they live like wild animals. They do not till the land, they eat horse, wolf and similar meats, they drink mare’s milk and blood. They rich in horses and weapons and very brave in warfare. From the traditions of old they know that the other Hungarians are their descendants but they don’t know where they live now.

Julianus only stayed with the Hungarians in Magna Hungaria for a month; being alone, he feared that should anything befall him, his discovery would be lost. He left Magna Hungaria on 21 June 1236 and instead of returning via Constantinople, he followed a northern trade route recommended to him by his fellow Hungarians; a trade route of the merchants of Kiev. He arrived safely back to Hungary on 27 December 1236.

In addition to bringing news of of our Hungarian kinsfolk in Magna Hungaria, he also brought news of the rising Mongol Empire:

The Tatar [Mongol] nation is their neighbour. When these Tatars attacked them, they could not overcome them in battle, in fact, in the first battle [the Hungarians] defeated them. Therefore they offered them to become their allies and so together they destroyed fifteen countries completely.

This named friar met some Tatars on the land of the Hungarians, and including the envoy of the ruling prince of the Tatars. This could speak in Hungarian, Russian, Cuman, German, Bulgarian and Tatar, and this same man said that the Tatar army, which was then at the distance of five days’ walking, wanted to march against Germany and that they were only waiting for another army which had been sent by the ruling prince to destroy the Persians. This same man also said that on the land of the Tatars there was a large nation which was bigger and taller than all other people and they had such large heads that their heads were out of proportion to their bodies. This nation wanted to break out of his country and intended to wage war on all who dared to resist, and they wanted to destroy every country that they could conquer. 

(Relatio fratris Ricardi,
the report of Father Ricardus to the Papal Court about Julianus’s first journey)  

Julianus’s first journey was written down by Father Ricardus after his return to Hungary, who reported on the journey to the Papal Court.

The Second Journey of Brother Julianus (1237)

A year later, in 1237, Brother Julianus tried to return to Magna Hungaria but was unable to reach it – it had already been overrun and destroyed by the Tatars (Mongols) and of the Hungarians who had lived there no trace remains.

That’s how we lost the opportunity to ever learn more about our origins…

Julianus recounted this second journey himself in a letter to Salvius de Salvis, the Bishop of Perugia, a Papal legate. The story he told included relatively little information about the Hungarians of the east, and none of them really new; which is not surprising as on this second journey he never reached Magna Hungaria, only heard about its destruction. So the letter mostly talked about how the Tatars rose to power and what wars they fought, including their campaign against Persia, their defeat of the Cumans, their fifteen years of war with the Hungarians of the east… As his source Julianus cited Pagan Hungarians, Bulgarians and others, who fleeing the Tatars had told him these things ‘in their own words’. 

The letter also includes an entertaining description of the Khan’s palace, clearly based on hearsay, which, frankly, could have come straight out of the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights

He [the Khan] has such a huge palace that a thousand horsemen can enter through one gate, and having bowed to him, the horsemen can also leave, staying on horseback. The aforementioned leader had himself made a huge and high bed, resting on golden pillars, a golden bed, I say, with the costliest ceiling; on which he sits proudly and glorified, covered in expensive clothes. The gates of the palace too are all made of gold, and his horsemen pass through it safe and sound. But if foreign envoys, whether they enter through the gate on horseback or on foot, if they touch the threshold with their feet, are cut down by sword on the spot; all foreigners have to enter with showing the greatest respect.

Julianus’s most valuable information, and one that history proved reasonably accurate, however, was his description of the Tatar campaign plan against Europe – how the Tatar army had been divided into different parts and sent against different countries, and what was the Tatar mode of fighting:

… it is said that they fire their arrows for longer distances than other nations. At the first encounter, it looks as if they were not merely firing arrows but as if a rain of arrows was falling from the sky. With their swords and their lances they are less skilful in combat. They organise their army so that every ten man is led by a Tatar, and every hundred by a captain…

The kings, princes and nobles of every conquered country, who are likely to organise resistance, are killed without delay. Then they send the soldiers and strong peasants into battle in front of themselves, giving them weapons and forcing them to fight. They leave other peasants, less fit to fight, to till the land, and they distribute the wives, daughters and female relatives of all the men forced into battle or killed among the peasants left to work the land…

Those soldiers who are forced to fight get little reward if they fight well and win – but if they fall in battle, they are no longer a problem. If, however, they retreat in battle, the Tatars kill them immediately; and so the fighters prefer to die in battle, rather than be massacred by the Tatars… 

They do not besiege strong castles; they first destroy the land and rob the people, then collecting these people, they drive them into battle and to the siege of their own castles. I cannot write anything else of the multitude of this army but that the soldiers of all conquered countries are driven in the front and are forced to fight.

The Khan’s Ultimatum to Hungary

Julianus finished his letter with describing the plans of the Tatars against Europe and quoting the text of the Tatar ultimatum to Béla IV, King of Hungary. 

It said by many, as a certain thing, and the Prince of Susdal had sent a message through me to the king of Hungary, that the Tatars are holding council night and day over how to defeat and conquer Christian Hungary. They are alleged to have decided to march on afterwards, to conquer Rome and the lands beyond Rome.

Therefore they [the Tatars] sent envoys to the king of Hungary, whom – as they crossed the country of Susdal – the prince of Susdal captured, and the prince took from the letter addressed to the king [of Hungary].

I and my companions saw these envoys. The prince of Susdal gave me the aforesaid letter, which I carried to the king of Hungary. The letter was written in Pagan characters but in the Tatar language. Therefore the king found many who could read it but none who could understand it. But as we travelled through Kerman, a big Pagan town, we found a man who translated it for us. 

And the translation is the following:

“I, the Khan, the envoy of the Heavenly King, to whom power was given on earth to raise those who submit to me and to oppress those who resist me, am much surprised about you, king of Hungary; that when I have already sent envoys to you for the thirtieth time, why are you not sending any of them back; nor do you send me your own envoy and a letter in reply.

I know that you are a rich and powerful king, that you have many soldiers and you rule a big country alone. For this reason you find it difficult to submit yourself to me out of your own will; yet it would be better and more beneficial to you if you submitted to me willingly. I have found out also that you are protecting my Cuman servants. Therefore I order you not to keep these [the Cumans] with you in the future, and do not oppose me on their behalf. They find it easier to flee than you do, as they have no houses, and wandering with their tents perhaps they can escape me; but you, who dwell in houses, who have your castles and your towns, how will you escape from my hands?”


The Aftermath: The Tatar [Mongol] Invasion of Hungary in 1241

You would have thought that King Béla IV, having been amply forewarned by the Tatar ultimatum, had as good a chance to defend his kingdom against the Tatars as anybody could wish for. The Tatar manner of fighting too wasn’t that different from that of the Hungarians of some three centuries earlier. Nevertheless, when the Tatars broke into Hungary in 1241, in the battle of Muhi by the River Sajó, the king’s knights suffered a devastating defeat. Béla IV managed to escape with his life but he was pursued all the way to the Adriatic Sea; the Tatars then devastated the country, killing and capturing the population. The Tatar rule in Hungary only lasted a year but the loss of life and the material damage was tremendous. 

Further Reading (sorry but not in English):
Relatio Fratris Ricardi, the report of Father Ricardus, held in the Vatican Library
⇒ The letter of Brother Julianus about his second journey to the Bishop of Perugia (Hungarian translation available here)
⇒ The chronicle of Bishop Rogerius, survivor of the Battle of Muhi, who escaped from captivity as the Mongols left the country

Lockdown Diaries II, Day 27: Biased

After an inordinate delay, the bus at last turned the corner and pulled up alongside the pavement. A few people got off, a few others got on. I was among the latter. I got shoved onto the platform, the conductor vehemently pulled a noise plug and the vehicle started off again. Whiel I was engaged in tearing out of a little book the number of tickets that the man with the little box was about to obliterate on his stomach, I started to inspect my neighbours…

(Biased from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau)

And here’s my effort:

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Thank God! The bloody lockdown is finally over! Well, sort of. But I am declaring it to be over, and never mind the remaining restrictions. The main thing is, as far as I’m concerned, that tomorrow my swimming pool will open again and I don’t care about the rest. Of course, the government – idiots, the lot of them – might yet change their mind and put us back under lock and key again.

But I’ll deal with that when it happens!

Over to you. 🙂

Writing Challenge:
Just a reminder that you can join in this writing challenge, based on Exercises in Style by French author Raymond Queneau, by writing an entry (post it in the comments section below or, if you prefer, on your own blog and link to my relevant post) using the prompt from Queneau each day.
More information in the original post here:
Lockdown Diaries II, Day 6: With Raymond Queneau
Have fun!
Recommended reading:
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau


Show Offs

Quote of the Week

George Mikes (1912-1987)

On the Continent learned persons love to quote Aristotle, Horace, Montaigne and show off their knowledge; in England only uneducated people show off their knowledge, and nobody quotes Latin and Greek authors in the course of the conversation, unless he has never read them.

(George Mikes: How To Be An Alien)


Photo credit: Fortepan/Becságh István/Forgács Károly, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lockdown Diaries II, Day 25: Official Letter

I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness.

Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus which was proceeding up the rue de Courcelles in the direction of Place Champerret. The aforementioned bus was fully laden – more than fully laden, I might even venture to say, since the conductor had accepted an overload of several candidates without valid reason and actuated by an exaggerated kindness of heart which caused him to exceed the regulations…

(Official Letter from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau)

And here’s my effort:

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Dear Sir,

I wish to bring to your notice the following facts relating to the – shop selling ethnic food in the neighbourhood of -.

Sir, this shop occupies an extremely small floor space and in accordance with the COVID restrictions currently in place in the said locality, is forced to limit the number of shoppers on the premises. On the 29th of November, this resulted in an exceedingly long queue outside of the aforementioned shop.

I’m happy to inform you that all customers, none of whom were English, queued outside in an exemplary British manner, waiting for their turn without grumbling. I myself witnessed this, being part of said queue for fifteen minutes, with my younger daughter, whose behaviour upon this occasion proved a credit to her upbringing.

In the sincere hope that the COVID restrictions will ease in the very near future, 

Mrs So-and-So

Over to you. 🙂

Writing Challenge:
Just a reminder that you can join in this writing challenge, based on Exercises in Style by French author Raymond Queneau, by writing an entry (post it in the comments section below or, if you prefer, on your own blog and link to my relevant post) using the prompt from Queneau each day.
More information in the original post here:
Lockdown Diaries II, Day 6: With Raymond Queneau
Have fun!
Recommended reading:
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau


Lockdown Diaries II, Day 24: Visual

The general effect is green with a white roof, oblong, with windows. It isn’t as easy as all that to do with windows. The platform isn’t any colour: it’s half grey, half brown if it must be something. The most important things is it’s full of curves, lots of esses as you might say…

(Visual from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau)

And here’s my effort:

Saturday, 28 November 2020

From my bed the first thing I see in the morning is the curtains. They are red and the light, even winter light, makes them translucent, making the whole bedroom glow in soft warm red. 

The room I spent most of the day on other hand was anything but softly glowing red. It is a little dark, because the window is partially obscured by the furniture; it’s such a small room that it only has room for one item of furniture, which is a high bed, with the desk and a one-seater sofa fixed underneath and this is straight in front of the window. The sofa is blue as are the curtains.

It was such a grey day outside that I had the desk light on most of the day and in the afternoon, when I curled up with a book on the sofa, I turned on the colourful LED lights that are stringed along under the bed. It cheered the room up a bit.

Over to you. 🙂

Writing Challenge:
Just a reminder that you can join in this writing challenge, based on Exercises in Style by French author Raymond Queneau, by writing an entry (post it in the comments section below or, if you prefer, on your own blog and link to my relevant post) using the prompt from Queneau each day.
More information in the original post here:
Lockdown Diaries II, Day 6: With Raymond Queneau
Have fun!
Recommended reading:
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau


Lockdown Diaries II, Day 23: Retrograde

You ought to put another button on your overcoat, his friend told him. I came across him in the middle of the Coeur de Rome, after having left him rushing avidly towards a seat. He had just protested against being pushed by another passenger who, he said, was jostling him every time anyone got off…

(Retrograde from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau)

And here’s my effort:

Friday, 27 November 2020

I had just spent a couple of hours this afternoon tagging family photos in the computer, before I settled down to write today’s diary entry. It took longer than planned because this had been a holiday in Seville at Easter, a few years ago and I got seduced by some of the videos. I remember we got up at 3:30 am on the last day in order to see the procession of Jesús del Gran Poder go by – and the evening before we had been out till late at a flamenco show…

Earlier the postman brought a pushy letter from our health service, telling me – yet again – to protect them by not being ill. Yes, sir! I’ll just snuff it then and trouble the undertaker instead!

Before I got annoyed by the letter, I had spent the morning going through the motions of a boring weekday in lockdown. Yawn. The most interesting event of the morning was, frankly, seeing Young Friend of the Elephants off to school…

Over to you. 🙂

Writing Challenge:
Just a reminder that you can join in this writing challenge, based on Exercises in Style by French author Raymond Queneau, by writing an entry (post it in the comments section below or, if you prefer, on your own blog and link to my relevant post) using the prompt from Queneau each day.
More information in the original post here:
Lockdown Diaries II, Day 6: With Raymond Queneau
Have fun!
Recommended reading:
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau