Why didn't I listen?

Few could accuse me of not knowing my own mind. I’m rarely short of an opinion or three and, depending on the mood I’m in, I’m usually happy to share said opinions, whether asked to or not. My mind, normally in a made-up state, occasionally dithers and when that happens I take the first suggestion that comes my way. But if my mind is set on something, there’s no budging me.

More than six years ago, when I was in the midst of the angst that is spelled R-E-N-O-V-A-T-I-O-N, the Job-like VL suggested that I install water meters in my flat so that I would only pay for water used rather than a flat fee every two months. I fast-forwarded in my mind’s eye to the deluge of visitors I was expecting and the heartburn it might cause me if they spent more than their allotted three minutes in the shower. I decided to go with the fixed rate.


Three years later, I recanted. I finally got that I was being charged per square meter and that I simply wasn’t using even half of what I was being charged for. It might take me a while, but I eventually get there 🙂 I went, cap in hand, and asked VL to arrange it. Excessive pride isn’t one of my faults. I can admit to having made a mistake. I’ve had lots of practice.

The same VL also suggested that I install some plug sockets in the hall. But the floor is tiled, I reasoned, so I won’t be using a vacuum. And I have runway lights, so I won’t be needing standard lamps. So let’s not bother. Mind made up, I refused to budge. And that was a stupid decision indeed.

Today, after years of cursing my own stupidity, I’ve had an electrician in. He’s been in my flat all morning looking for connectors as he tries to install said plug sockets. There’s dust everywhere, my pictures are down, the place is a mess, and I have visitors arriving this evening. My Hungarian is as good as his English and I have no clue  what I’ve agreed to. Job almost done, I’m left wondering why the sockets can’t be closer to the ground… but still, a socket is a socket.


The next time you want to persuade me to do something, Napoleon, and my mind seems firmly made up, just mention plug sockets to me – it might make me rethink.


Hands up!

What is it about the human race that makes it so hard for us to admit that we were wrong? Why do we go to the ends of the Earth to justify our behaviour and to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? When will we learn that putting our hands up and publicly owning our mistakes – admittedly the road less travelled – is by far the easiest path forward? As eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope is said to have said: ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.’

 Taking a perverse pleasure in prevaricating

Many of us are experts at ferreting out the mistakes that others make. We’re quite capable of criticizing their errors and, to our shame, quite often take delight in it all. (Remember that old saying: gossip is when we hear something we like about someone we don’t?). We become armchair experts, convincing ourselves that if we were on that putting green, or facing that goalpost, or in front of that particular press cabal, we’d not have made the same mistake. In our own minds, we make better golfers, better footballers, and better politicians than those who are paid for their talent (or lack thereof). And yet, when it comes to engaging in some self-reflection and being honest with ourselves and those around us, we have a litany of excuses to draw from which explain what we did wrong, and why.

Academics and scientists have a label for it: cognitive dissonance. Behaviourists believe that we mainly do things for reward; economists believe that we are capable of making calculated and rational decisions. But the theory of cognitive dissonance upsets both.  As we mere mortals find it incredibly uncomfortable to have two opposing opinions at the same time, we often resolve this sorry state by digging our heels in and refusing to admit that we are wrong, despite evidence to the contrary.

 Sorry … a step in the right direction

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is on record as stating that ‘one of the hardest things in this world is to admit you are wrong. And nothing is more helpful in resolving a situation than its frank admission.’ Here in Budapest in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen plenty of examples of excuses begetting excuses. Instead of fessing up and taking responsibility and apologising for returning  convicted murderer Ramil Safarov to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he received a full pardon, pay rise, and promotion for killing Armenian Gurgen Margarjan with an axe in Budapest in 2004, our elected leaders are trotting out one excuse after the other – we had assurances, we believed, we never thought… Admittedly, an apology littered with excuses would do little to right the wrong, but it would be a start.

When the now famous audio recording surfaced in September of 2006, then newly elected Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány apparently admitted to his party: Nyilvánvalóan végig hazudtuk az utolsó másfél, két évet [we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years]. Again, little consolation for the damage done by two years of lying, but it was (in my mind) a step in the right direction. Admission. Ownership. Accountability.

How does it feel to be wrong?

The list of descriptors that come to mind to describe how we feel when we are wrong is practically endless: annoyed, brainless, chastised, disappointed, embarrassed, foolish, gullible, half-witted, idiotic…  Is it any wonder that we see being wrong as something to be avoided at all costs. Who among us would voluntarily choose to lumber ourselves with any of these tags? While few of us will admit to always being right, fewer still would be able to remember ten examples of when we were, in fact, wrong. We don’t want to remember. We want to forget. We want to move on. Get over it. Get past it. And yet if we’d only own up to it, life would be so much easier.

If we detonate our detractors’ thunder, then what have we left to fear? By admitting we were wrong, that we made a mistake, we effectively disarm those who desperately want to rain on our parade. We leave them with little to beat us with. And while our friends and supporters (being the imperfect human souls that they are) might take a little private pleasure from our discomfort, it will be private. It is our imperfect selves that we need to learn to live with. And our politicians need to resign their Napoleonic stance of never retreating, retracting, or admitting a mistake and instead, be the first ones to put their hands up and fess up. Perhaps then, to avoid such public confessions, they will put more thought into the consequences of their actions. Way too simplistic, I hear you say… but then, in my little world, life is a lot less complicated.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2012

Ethnic cleansing in Ireland?

Driving down to Wexford some time ago, I came across this memorial stone on the outskirts of The Rower, a small village in Co. Kilkenny. I stopped to read the inscription and remember being quite taken aback at how direct it was.

A memorial for the three million native gaelic poor who through death by starvation and despairing emigration under the racist foreigners mis-rule, were ethnically cleansed from this their homeland, in that famine decade.

Heady words indeed. Is there a case for the famine being a form of ethnic cleansing? The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is ‘rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.’

According to singer Sínead O’Connor in her song  Famine there was no famine – there was plenty of food; what was missing was the access to it. It was only the potato crop that failed in Ireland. Wheat, oats, beef, mutton, pork, and poultry were all in excellent supply. Irish folk memory is long and stories are still told about ships leaving Irish ports loaded with food for the UK and Europe when native Irish were eating grass to survive. Would that amount to force?

Author C.W.Smith, an Englishwoman, wondered at the behaviour of her compatriots during the famine years: It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they behaved in Ireland. As a nation, the English have proved themselves of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity, but not when Ireland is concerned. The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots. But were they racist?

Isn’t history a wonderful thing? Or is it, as Napolean put it,  ‘a set of lies agreed upon’? I had a piece sub-edited recently to better reflect the editor’s view of history than my own – i.e. my certainty was traded for his skepticism. I wonder how much our views on history shape our understanding of what’s going on in the world today – and what happens when those long-held beliefs are rubbished? Does our essence change as we recalibrate all we hold real?


Seven islands in the Med

No. I couldn’t have heard him correctly. A history spanning 7000 years? Malta? It seems like just a couple of years ago that I first heard of the place. Could it be that old? So I checked. And the guide was right. Malta was first settled in 5200 BC. So then I checked Ireland. It was first settled in 8000 BC. Conclusion: I have no clue about history and even less about geography. How sad is that?

St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta

Some trivia for you: Malta is a group of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Only the three largest are inhabited:  Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They stand on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily (which is about 100 km north – you can get there by hovercraft and it’s high on my list of things to do). The islands were once submerged and the bones of elephants and hippopotami have been found in caverns along the coast. Phoenicians, Cathaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans all came and stayed awhile before the King of Spain gave it to the Knights Hospitaller of St John in 1530. Verdi’s opera Sicilian Vespers immortalised the 1283 naval battle of the same name, a battle that ended French/Norman control of Sicily and the Maltese Islands. The Turks made a bid for the islands in 1565 but the Knights saw them off. In 1607, a young painter by the name of Michaelangelo Merisi was vested as official painter of the Knights of St John – you might know him as Caravaggio. Two of his greatest works – St Jerome writing and The beheading of John the Baptist still hang in the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valetta. There’s another new one for me: co-cathedral. The Bishop of Malta had his cathedral in Mdina; the Knights had theirs in Valetta. In 1820, the Knights allowed the Bishop (was chess invented in Malta???) to use their cathedral as an alternative see – hence the ‘co’ in co-cathedral.

Napoleon stopped by in 1798 on his way to Egypt but didn’t get a great reception. When he was refused water, he sent in the troops and the Grand Master capitulated. He stayed only a few days but spent his time pilfering anything worth taking. Before he left, he established an administration to run the place in his absence. During his tenure, he freed 2000 muslim slaves and established a liberal lay system to replace the existing feudal one.  The locals welcomed the French… for a while… but when they started closing convents and seizing church treasures, a line was drawn. They asked the British for help and Nelson arrived, blockaded the place, and in 1800 the French surrendered.

Malta then voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but sort of forgot to leave. Although small in size and not initially given much importance, Malta’s harbours soon became a jewel in the Empire’s crown, headquarters to the British Mediterranean fleet. While Home Rule effectively started in Ireland in 1870 (but it was a long and arduous process), the Maltese had to wait until 1921 (interestingly, the same year as Northern Ireland).  Malta got its independence in 1964 and joined the EU in 2004.

Before the British arrived, the Maltese spoke Italian and had done so since 1530. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the official languages. On 21st September 1964 Maltese officially became the national language of Malta, although English and Italian are also spoken. Their accent is unique and a joy to listen to. Now that I have my head around the 7000 years, and have overcome my shame at being so ignorant, I’m looking forward to seeing a little more of these seven islands in the Med with Air Malta.