Murphy's Law

For most of my adult life, by virtue of the family name I was born into, I’ve been an unintentional victim of Murphy’s Law, that adage asserts that if anything that can go wrong, it will go wrong. I was curious enough at one point to check to see which of my ancestors might be blamed for saddling me with this rather pessimistic outlook and discovered, much to my surprise, that it wasn’t a Murphy at all.

200px-De_Morgan_AugustusOne hundred years before I was born, mathematician Augustus De Morgan apparently wrote: ‘The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.’

Those in the know reckon that Murphy was born when the name De Morgan was lost in an international game of Chinese whispers, misremembered, misreported, and generally mistaken for Murphy. And so we have Murphy’s Law.

Last week, I came across a more contemporary law – Godwin’s Law – which states: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ So, no matter what the topic under discussion, Godwin, an American lawyer, reckons that if it goes on long enough, eventually someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. What an interesting observation.

Two other things happened last week that got me thinking.

bookFirst, I finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. In it, author Erik Larson, a noted historian and able writer, gives ‘a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.’ [I couldn’t have said it better myself so I’ve borrowed the words of an anonymous reviewer – were I to add a descriptive to it, I’d choose ‘chilling’.]

Second, I found myself in conversation with three people who regularly visit Budapest for various reasons. All three (none of whom know each other to my knowledge), in answer to my question as to whether or not they thought the city had changed, said yes. One, a musician who has been coming here for twelve years to play a gig, said they noticed that people seemed to be more on edge. They mentioned a pervasive sense that something (and not something good) is about to happen. Another, who has come back a few times since moving home, said it didn’t feel quite as safe as it used to be. They couldn’t point to anything specific; it was simply a feeling. But the comfortable familiarity that they once enjoyed had been replaced by a sense of no longer really knowing the place. And the third commented on the public attitude and a welcome that wasn’t a great as it used to be, infused as it was this time with a certain wariness, peppered with a degree of resignation.

New laws (I’d be all for shops not opening on Sunday were it a vote on whether to introduce it or not, but to rescind?), new taxes (I still can’t fathom the logic of a tax on solar panels!), and new proclamations from on high might, when taken individually, amount to nothing, but if added together, could they weave a different story? And while, for the record, I’m not drawing any comparison between 1930’s Berlin and Budapest in 2015, there is a tiny, niggling something at work in my heart that says tomorrow might be a better place if, collectively, we paid more attention to what is going on today. Could I make that the new Murphy’s Law or has someone else already snagged it?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 January 2015

Who’s been in my bed lately?

Yesterday, apparently, was International Translators’ Day.  I missed it. It’s not a UN International Day so it wasn’t on my list of observances. It was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who happens to be  translator; he sent me this rather charming picture in the post. (Trans: How many authors do you take to bed with you?)

irish I have to fess up and admit to be a bookslut, shamelessly sharing my bed with two or three or even four at a time. Right now, I’m on the verge of what looks like a promising relationship with one Erik Larson (him of Time magazine fame). I have two of his books waiting to be read: The devil in the white city and In the garden of beasts. And, curiously, I decided that before reading the books, I’d get to know the author a little. That’s a first for me – usually I rush hastily in and often find myself repenting at leisure. Larson seems like a nice chap; he, too, reads aloud to spot grammar errors and voices that are somewhat off and does so to a specially composed soundtrack that suits the mood of whatever book he’s working on. What a novel approach (excuse the pun).

Markus Zusak is also hogging the sheets with his novel narrated by Death – The Book Thief. The French translation has the title/strapline: la voleuse de livres ; quand la mort vous raconte une histoire, vous avez tout intérêt à l’écouter – which, if my schoolgirl French still holds, means something like – The Book Thief – when death tells you a story, you want to listen. Zusak’s book is the result of stories he heard as a child in his mum’s kitchen, of her experiences growing up during the War. When asked in an interview what makes him write now, Zusak had this to say: To me the question is always this: if a ray of light came out of the sky and said, “Your next book will never be published – would you still write it?” If the answer is yes, the book is worth writing. I quite like him. We’ll get on well.

West Indian novelist Jean Rhys summarised this love affair with books beautifully: Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds home for us everywhere. I get lonely at times, despite being blessed with good friends all over the world. And when I do, I find refuge in my books. I simply can’t imagine a world without them and wonder if my recent stockpiling has anything to do with a subconscious fear that the life of the printed book is coming to an end; will it be supplanted by odorless, intangible electronic text? Not in my lifetime, I hope.