My Life in Prose

Here’s the short version.

I was born in Portsmouth in 1951.  I lived there with my family until 1958, when we moved to Bromley, Kent.  In 1965 we moved again to a village in Bedfordshire.  In 1969 I went to Trinity College, Cambridge for three years.  Then for eighteen months I worked on building sites, saving up money to go on a world tour in a Ford Transit van with two friends.  I got ill in Tehran, ran out of money, and returned to London in need of a job.  Between 1974 and 1992 I worked in English teaching, first as a classroom teacher in London comprehensive schools and then as an adviser of teachers.  I’ve published books and articles on English teaching and the role of language in learning.  Since 1992 I’ve worked in educational broadcasting, first at Channel 4 and now at Teachers TV.

I met Helen Savva in 1974.  We’ve been together ever since.  We live in Camden Town, north London.  We have a house in Brittany.

Reading and writing poetry has been a part-time occupation but psychologically essential preoccupation all my life.

John Richmond

Photo by Loïc Sans

Or you can read the long version…

1. Childhood and Youth

Only one thing about my childhood is extraordinary. The rest is ordinary.

I am the eldest of five children. I was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, on 16 June 1951. We lived at Farlington, on the edge of Portsmouth, in a house from whose upper windows you could see the city, the harbours on its either side, the Solent and the Isle of Wight. When I was seven, we moved to Bromley, Kent. When I was fourteen, we moved again to a village in Bedfordshire. Both these moves were brought about by my father’s change of job. He was a scientist, and my mother was a teacher, although she took a long break from teaching to bring us up. My parents loved me, and I loved them.

I was a keen reader from my earliest years. I learnt to read sitting on my father’s lap. He had a book called Amphibians of the British Isles. On each left-hand page was factual text about the creature illustrated on the right-hand page. My father pointed out the illustration of a natterjack toad or an edible frog, or of one of dozens of other amphibians. Imitating his voice, I spoke the words ‘natterjack toad’ or ‘edible frog’ while his finger was next to the illustration. Then he ran his finger under the words where they labelled the illustration, and I repeated the phrase after him. Then he read to me the paragraph on the left-hand page, which (as I confirmed years later when I was a mature reader) was written in good plain prose, aimed at the interested but non-specialist naturalist. After a few encounters with these paragraphs, in which I listened with physical pleasure to my father’s soft, reassuring reading voice, I began to read aloud words, phrases and whole sentences which I recognised. Each success in doing this was confirmed by my father kissing me on the top of my head. He used the same technique with other books too, mostly factual not fictional, and always illustrated, and within a few weeks I could read independently.

Thereafter, to read was (almost always — see below) pure joy. Reading consumed thousands of hours of my childhood and youth. I read anywhere, at any time of the day or night, in any position. If I had no book — a rare privation — any available newspaper or magazine would do. After we moved to Bromley, the presence nearby of a well-stocked public library both satisfied and further stimulated my appetite for books. I read fast and uncritically. There was no organised programme to my reading. I pursued enthusiasms: favourites in fiction were Jennings, Biggles and the Arthur Ransome books; in factual writing I loved Thor Heyerdahl’s account of crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft in The Kon-Tiki Expedition and his description of Easter Island in Aku-Aku, and Arthur Grimble’s memoirs of his time as a colonial administrator on The Solomon Islands in A Pattern of Islands and Return to the Islands. I can see now that I liked children’s fiction and adult fact. But I had no patience with the older fiction classics for children: R.M. Ballantyne or Robert Louis Stevenson. I found them too wordy; there was too much description in proportion to action. On the other hand, sometimes I enjoyed the theoretical and the arcane: during a dull sermon in church, when the only books to hand were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and a hymn book, I could under the guise of piety work out the date of Easter for the year 2083 by following the instructions and charts in the early pages of the Prayer Book.

Two experiences caused me to realise that books could hold terrors as well as pleasures. My great-grandparents — he born in 1870 and she in 1878 — had a straightforward but impressive collection of books in their home in Drayton, Portsmouth. There was a complete set of Dickens, several of the Arthur Mee series about the counties of England, some histories of Portsmouth, and a multi-volume illustrated encyclopaedia. I browsed for hours in the encyclopaedia, hoovering up chunks of information in a manner whose only organising principle was alphabetical. In the volume on C, there was an entry on crocodiles. I could read the text with equanimity, but there then followed a double-page black-and-white photograph of dozens of crocodiles taking their ease beside some tropical river. This photograph frightened me so extremely that I became adept at turning over in one movement the two pages which contained the photograph. But, as with all horrors, there was fascination as well as repugnance in my knowledge of what the photograph showed, and sometimes I would part the two pages a little, and squint into the crack, only to regret immediately what I had done.

My great-grandfather, incidentally, who had been a policeman and then a bank clerk in his working life, and who had been born in the year that Dickens died, read the set of Dickens continuously. That is, he began at the beginning of Sketches by Boz and finished at the end of Edwin Drood. Then he went straight back to Sketches by Boz. The only interruption to this routine was another routine; wherever he was in the canon on 24 December of each year, he would put that book down and take up A Christmas Carol, which, being short, he would always complete over the Christmas season. The set of Dickens which my great-grandparents owned had been acquired in the course of the circulation war between the Daily Express and the Daily Mail in the 1920s, when readers who cut out enough coupons from their newspaper (the Daily Mail, in my great-grandparents’ case) and sent them in, could receive the complete Dickens at a very attractive price.

The other occasion when a book brought terror with it will require a digression. An event which occurred to me when I was not quite 49 years old brought it back to my conscious mind.

In May 2000, I attended a conference in Toronto about children’s television. The conference lasted four days, and I had given myself a clear fifth day before a night flight back to London. On that fifth morning, I slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, and checked out of the Royal York Hotel where I had been staying. I had eight hours before I needed to check in at the airport. I walked across the road from the hotel to the train station, to look for a train to Niagara Falls. There were only two a day, one early morning, one early evening, and it was now nearly midday. I tried a car rental place. They needed to see a driving licence. I hadn’t brought mine with me. So, a decision: should I miss my chance to visit Niagara Falls for the first time, on this last day of my trip, a beautiful day after four days of cold and rain and conference, and seek out Toronto’s museums and parks instead? Or should I be extravagant? It was an easy decision, and within 10 minutes I was in the front passenger seat (cream leather) of a black Lincoln Continental, driven by Mark, a stout, cheerful Jamaican Canadian, dressed in his chauffeur’s uniform of black jacket, white shirt, black tie, sun glasses. My bags were in the trunk, my jacket was on the back seat, the window was down, and Lake Ontario sparkled to our left as we sped along the freeway. We chatted about Canada and Jamaica. Mark had arrived in Toronto from Jamaica at the age of 10. He was now in his mid-30s, and an enthusiastic Canadian. Canada had given him his opportunity; this handsome new car was his own property; Canada was a kinder and more tolerant society than the United States, where some of his relatives had fared less well.

After 90 minutes, we arrived at Niagara Falls town. Numerous people over the years who have told me about their visit to the Falls have warned of the crassness of the Niagara tourist industry. I was ready for the worst, but Mark managed to avoid the worst (or perhaps it’s mainly on the US side of the river). We drove the last mile or two through pleasant parkland, with the gorge of the river downstream of the Falls to our left, and came to the place. Mark drove past the facilities building and parked the car about 200 yards upstream of the Falls. I left him and walked by myself towards the spray and the thunder.

I give this detail because, in the course of the walk from the car to the viewing point, I realised something which had been building up in me, not just during the drive from Toronto but during the days I had been in Toronto, after I discovered that the Falls were close enough for a visit to be a possibility. I realised that Niagara Falls held a mysterious physical terror for me, a terror over and beyond the respect and awe one should feel for a wonder of the natural world. When I had ascended to the top of the CN tower in Toronto a few days previously, and had read that from that enormous height (which didn’t worry me at all) you can sometimes see the spray from the Falls across Lake Ontario, I had been afraid, though no spray was visible that dull evening. As Mark had driven into Niagara Falls town, and I had looked this way and that, wondering if I should be surprised by a sudden glimpse of the Falls, and listening for their roar under or over the traffic noise around me, I had been afraid. As we had driven next to the gorge, and I had worked out that the river here was downstream of the Falls, that the Falls must be up ahead, and then when I had seen the facilities building, and I had known exactly where the Falls were as we half-circled them, there was a stirring of long forgotten terror in me; under control, I had thought, being managed, I had thought, but there. And as I walked towards the spray and the thunder, the memory behind the terror jumped out of the unconscious, fully formed and as clear and intense as when I had last experienced it, 44 years before.

At the age of five, I had been impressed by a photograph of Niagara Falls in the N volume of my great-grandparents’ encyclopaedia. Soon afterwards, I was given for Christmas a story book recounting exploits of great pioneers of the West. In one of these stories, the hero is in a boat on a river. It is not clear where he is, other than in some part of North America. All is well. He is in control of the boat. Little by little the river widens and the speed of the water increases. His small boat moves more quickly, and he is no longer quite in control. Suppose there are rapids ahead? Suppose he hits a rock? On the other hand, he is making effortless, exhilarating progress. Then he begins to think he hears, faintly, a low boom, at first barely distinguishable from the background silence and from the immediate music of his boat in the water. As the minutes pass, the sound becomes clearer and louder. What can it be? Not the sea, surely. He knows he is many miles from the sea. He makes a decision; he will steer for the bank. But the decision comes too late. The bank is now distant, the river shallow and racing. In mid-stream, the boat sweeps around a wide curve, and there, in the distance, is a broad curtain of mist, reaching into the sky, and the thunder of water…

I can’t remember how the story finished. It may be that I shut the book, too frightened to read further. That seems probable to me now, because, without its resolution, the story entered my dreams, and became a recurring nightmare for a few years. The nightmare always took the same form: first the events exactly as I have described them in the story, but with me in the boat alone, and then a dreadful climax, as the boat and I were swept helplessly to the very edge of the Falls, where the water was clear and murderous, and then a final horrifying glimpse over the edge, into unimaginable heights and depths of cliff and foam and noise.

And then, as in the cliché to end all clichés, I woke up and it was all a dream. I never went over the edge, though I saw over the edge. And I never told anyone the dream, and when I was about nine I stopped having it.

This all came to me as I arrived at the granite wall on which you can lean your elbows while you contemplate perhaps two yards of river bank, just below you on the other side of the wall, then the edge of the river, where the water is indeed shallow (hard to guess its depth; between six and ten feet?), is indeed racing, clear and murderous, because if you lift your head, carefully, so as not to take in more than you want to at one look, you can see, only four or five yards from where you are standing, not more, the edge of the mighty horseshoe falls of Niagara, where there are unimaginable heights and depths of cliff and foam and noise.

For half an hour, I squinted sideways at the sight, not able to look the monster full in the face. The lovely day was now hot. On this weekday in May, visitors were not numerous, so I had the best (or the worst), at any rate the closest place to stand, with nobody between me and the monster. As the breeze shifted, I was alternately completely drenched and unsighted by the spray, and then dried out by the sun on my back. After half an hour, with a beating heart and gripping the handrail, I turned and gazed directly across to the other end of the horseshoe, in the United States, and then followed the deep interior curve of the horseshoe all around, slowly, back to where I was. I studied the edge. Then I looked to the right, to the immense width and speed of the river, running between the rocks and little islands until the very second when the clear water enters air and becomes foam. Then I looked to the left, down, where all you can see is white, white water, falling of course but also rising as spray, drifting on the breeze towards me, away from me, a few birds appearing and disappearing in the mist, and the outline only of a great brown rock rising from the river below. I looked and looked at it and it was all right. It was only a wide river falling over a horseshoe-shaped cliff. For two more hours I stood, my gaze uninterrupted, and took in the phenomenal beauty and power of the thing and the place.

Eventually I began to be distracted by the incidental: the boats that carry tourists in mackintoshes and sou’westers up the river as close as is safe to the base of the Falls; the way the river, only 300 yards downstream of the Falls, after the cataclysm it has experienced, is calm and quiet so quickly, until it encounters the American Falls tumbling into it from the opposite side; the American Falls an impressive sight in themselves but doomed always to be a supporting attraction after one has seen the horseshoe falls; and then how the river, after receiving the water from the American Falls, is quiet again as it flows on down the gorge and out of sight. Several couples asked me to take their photograph.

I walked back to the car. Mark had never known a visitor to stay so long. He could tell that something unusual had occurred. We drove for a few miles back down beside the gorge, until we turned off left and rejoined the freeway. Then I gave him the full story, memories, nightmares and all. I told him that he was the first person to hear it. He seemed complimented by a stranger’s frankness, and then he told me at length the story he wanted to tell, about the failure of his marriage, his separation from his wife, their divorce, his overwhelming love for their daughter (now living with her mother), and his shame and incomprehension that such a thing could have happened to them, without infidelity or cruelty on either side, just two people, young black Canadians, full of hope, wanting to be a family, to be respected, to be stable, to live in a good neighbourhood, finding that somehow, in choosing each other, they had made the wrong choice. Canada couldn’t be blamed. The fault was in themselves.

I listened and responded as best I could as Lake Ontario, now on our right, flashed by in the evening sunshine. Then the airport, an exchange of dollars, and we shook hands with a closeness and a warmth which we should have turned into an embrace, but didn’t quite. He drove away, waving with his free hand as the car joined the stream of limos and taxis and private cars which had dropped their departing travellers. I pushed my trolley towards the check-in desk, full of good cheer, a man with an income allowing me, if I chose, to hire a Lincoln Continental, with driver, for the day; and not afraid of anything.

I return from the man to the boy.

Between the ages of 11 and 14 I was an ardent train spotter. The heroic years of steam were almost at a close, so I was reduced to spotting the four-digit numbers on the front and back of the electric trains which ran in their hundreds on the complex network of lines serving suburban south London, Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Despite the prosaic nature of this research, it felt good to be standing at the extreme end of a platform at, say, New Malden station on a half-term Friday, with a one-day Rail Rover pass in my pocket and a notebook in my hand. When I got home at the end of a day’s spotting, I would transfer the information in the notebook to the printed reference books published by Ian Allen, and always welcome as Christmas and birthday presents, which contained the classifications and numbers of every train then operating on British Railways. I underlined in neat ink the numbers of the trains I had seen. As the sightings of trains in a particular classification increased, those not yet spotted assumed the glamour of rarity, and when there was only one number left unseen, that particular unremarkable four-carriage electric multiple unit came to carry such a charge of romance that it might have been the Orient Express.

There were one or two genuinely romantic trains still to be seen. At ten to eleven in the morning during the holidays, if I stood on a footbridge over the railway line between Shortlands and Bromley South, I could watch the Golden Arrow on its way to the English Channel and the Continent, one of the last of the fierce black steam locomotives hauling cream and brown Pullman coaches, each of which bore a woman’s name. The names were literary, classical and mythological. I knew that I would have difficulty pronouncing some of them correctly if I were ever called upon to do so. Daphne was easy, for that was my mother’s name.

And I had a chemistry set at about the same time. There was a tiny shop next to Bromley South station, hardly bigger than a tobacco kiosk, which supplied the needs of boys like me (and perhaps girls too, though I never saw a girl in there) for copper sulphate, potassium permanganate, magnesium ribbon, test tubes, splints and litmus paper. With equipment of this kind, I created coloured smoke and minor explosions in the cellar under the house. I don’t remember receiving any advice or feeling any concern about my health or safety as I undertook experiments. I was engaged in an educational hobby, as good children were supposed to be. My mother knew where I was as she prepared the lunch upstairs. On one occasion, a non-standard concoction of chemicals left the test tube which I was holding and deposited itself as a large dark stain on the underside of the sitting-room floorboards which formed the ceiling of the cellar. I was a little shaken by this evidence of elemental power, and resolved to hold the test tube further away from my face in future.

When we lived in Bromley and then Bedfordshire, we usually took our summer holidays back in Portsmouth, at my grandparents’ house (which was next to my great-grandparents’ house in Drayton), with daily excursions to the beach at Hayling Island. Occasionally we went to the east coast, near Lowestoft. Once we camped in the New Forest. Once we went as far as the Gower Peninsula. I am grateful to those seaside holidays for the indifference to cold which they induced in me. Nothing in my adult experience of cold compares with the uncontrollable shivering which overcame me as I emerged from the sea and felt the stiff wind attack my legs and ribs. We had of course hammered a wind-break into the pebbles at our chosen station on the beach, as the first act on arriving there at about eleven o’clock. Now, I had to regain the family encampment via a short trip of foot-curling agony. Once there, I crouched behind the wind-break, towelling myself, trying to chafe some feeling back into my system. As soon as I was dry, I gratefully put on my shirt and pullover and lay on the towel. I almost closed my eyes and watched the rapid clouds through my eyelashes as they constantly frustrated the sun, giving it a minute or two to warm us before cutting it off again. Then it was time for lunch, and I ate the delicious tomato sandwiches which my mother had made, in the same position, resisting her suggestion that it would be healthier for me to sit upright while eating. After that, unless the tide happened to be very high, it was time to play cricket on a stretch of hard sand. That was the best part of the day for me.

Three activities which I discovered as a child came to assume a special significance which they have never lost. They are playing cricket, playing the piano, and reading and writing poetry.

I did well at school from beginning to end. The affirmation which this brought, from my earliest days at nursery school writing my name and forming strings of letters across a page, meant that, overwhelmingly, my experience of schooling was one of ease. I think I worked hard, but it seemed easy to work hard, and the pleasure of success provoked the desire for more pleasure.

Playing cricket and the piano, however, were two activities in which I longed to excel, but in which my talent was meagre.

I played cricket with great pleasure on the beach or in the park with my father and brothers or with friends. My father was prepared to bowl at me, or let me bowl at him, or throw a cricket ball back and forth with me, for hours. Of all his gifts to me, that and teaching me to read are those for which I am most grateful. But when I played at school, and particularly at secondary school, in competitive games, I was racked with nerves and I usually failed. I had no talent at all as a bowler at school, and so my place in any team depended on my being able to score runs as one of the first six or seven batsmen. There should have been no great problem. I have excellent eyesight, and am naturally athletic. But as I walked to the wicket, batting at number five or six, a deep sense of foreboding and dread would overwhelm me. My hands were sweating in my gloves, and perspiration was falling into my eyes, whether the day were cool or hot. My occupation of the crease was always that of a soldier under siege, not a man in command of a space. When the bowler delivered the ball, I no longer saw it. I was playing by faith, not by sight. When I scored runs, it was because the ball had ricocheted off the bat, not because I had played a stroke. I had no fear of physical injury, but a terrible fear of failure, and that fear brought failure with it. Scores of four, nine or fifteen were typical for me. There were frequent ducks. And I was supposed to be a batsman. Once, in an inter-house match of no great significance, I got to 35, my highest ever score by a large margin.

Meanwhile, I could see that cricket was a truly beautiful game, whether as played by boys at school who really knew what they were doing, or by county and Test cricketers. I went to The Oval sometimes to watch Surrey. I saw, unforgettably, West Indies beat England there in 1963. The experience ignited in me a flame of admiration for cricket and its best players which has never been quenched. I will take another digression to describe a Saturday at Lord’s in 2000. The pleasure was as intense then as it had been 37 years previously.

I went with my friend Stephen Eyers to watch the third and (as it turned out) final day of the second Test against West Indies. I had watched the first day too, from the Channel 4 box, a privilege several times offered to me when Channel 4 was broadcasting home Test matches and I had a job commissioning schools television programmes there. That first day was absorbing, with England breaking through in the second half of the day and getting nine batsmen out by the close. Friday, when I was working, was extraordinary: the only day in the history of Test cricket when all four innings, in part or in whole, have been played on the same day. England took the last West Indian wicket straight away. West Indies’ first-innings score was 267. England then batted catastrophically: all out for 134. The batsmen simply didn’t play in a manner worthy of the efforts of the bowlers in the previous innings. At about tea-time, 133 behind on the first innings, there was the usual national gloom, except among West Indies supporters. I was standing on the concourse at Birmingham New Street station, waiting for my train and watching the beginning of the West Indies second innings on the big screen there. Then I boarded the train. Coming into Euston, Stephen rang me. West Indies had lost eight wickets while I had been travelling. Caddick had bowled magnificently. I went to the pub across the road and watched in astonishment as England took the remaining two wickets. West Indies all out for 54. Helen (of whom more later) came and picked me up — we were going to the theatre — and we drove to Covent Garden and found another pub and watched Atherton and Vaughan survive a few balls before bad light stopped play, luckily for them. Thus was the stage set for the Saturday.

Stephen and I had seats in the Mound Stand. The day was humid and overcast. It rained, twice, most conveniently, first just before lunch, which the teams took early, and then in the tea interval. So not much time was lost, not that time was the problem.

Atherton and Vaughan played beautifully all morning. England ‘only’ needed 188 to win. When I say the openers played beautifully, I admit they played and missed a lot. But Hobbs might have played and missed a few times, because Ambrose and Walsh were wonderful. I have never seen a bowler bowl so well with so little luck as did Ambrose, all day. If one could criticise him, it would be from the point of view that the movement he achieved was too much, too impressive. Walsh had the success, when it came after lunch, because his movement was smaller, he beat the bat less comprehensively, so he found edges. But until lunch it looked as if England were going to walk to victory, because the openers scored about 100 between them. Vaughan, whom I hadn’t seen before, looked calm and correct.

After lunch, there was another England collapse, but the batsmen were less culpable than usual, because the two great West Indian bowlers were simply superb, and Rose and King were good in support. By about tea-time, England had lost eight wickets, and were 28 short of the victory total. Cork was joined by Gough. It was a moment when character mattered as much as technique. Jimmy Adams, the West Indies captain, slowed the pace of the game almost to a standstill, to play on the batsmen’s nerves. The crowd paid attention in a way you almost never see any more. As the bowlers ran up, there was complete silence. Gough’s perfectly correct defensive strokes were individually and enthusiastically applauded. Singles were received with roars of delight. There was a decisive over, from Rose I think, in which Cork pulled a six into the grandstand, struck a straight four, and scored a single. The responses to the six and the four were at a level of delirious joy, of pleasure passing the imagination to describe, which we feel only occasionally in life. For the single, as I say, we descended to a mere roar of delight.

When England were 10 short of the target, it seemed to me that Cork and Gough had won the psychological contest. I would have been surprised if England had lost from there, though it has contrived to lose from more secure positions than that. Now it was the batsmen who played on the bowlers’ nerves, took their own time, chose their shots. And Cork’s match-winning four through cover point seemed to say, ‘This is an easy game, really.’ It was over.

The crowd streamed on to the grass, not cheering wildly, but aware that they had seen something extraordinary. The sun had hardly shown all day. I remember two brief bursts during the afternoon. Now it appeared again at evening, in a narrow gap of clouds, and it threw an intense, even, golden light on the scene. Each of the hundreds of people was suddenly accompanied by a stark black shadow on the green grass, and each moving or standing body was transfigured by the light. It was a religious scene, as if from a Stanley Spencer painting: the common people, at their innocent pleasure, carrying plastic bags and wearing baseball caps, momentarily lent the status of angels. Then the clouds closed over the sun for the last time that day.

Stephen and I walked out of the ground and down the Wellington Road, in wonderment, like everyone else.

To follow the complexities of a Test match, with its changes of mood and fortune, with the space it provides for numerous displays of skill and courage, with its genius for producing moments and passages of electrifying excitement just when the game, even to the most patient onlooker, is getting a little dull: this is to me the highest pleasure that sport affords. Vivien Richards, my exact contemporary, the greatest batsman I have seen play the game, and one of the greatest batsmen the game will ever produce, is my sporting hero. No-one else comes close. A few years ago, I commissioned a Channel 4 series teaching young people how to play the game, in which Sir Vivien appeared. I am the owner of a white cricket hat, on the broad brim of which is written: ‘To John. Great commission! Sir Vivien Richards’. It is one of my proudest possessions. I went to Manchester one day, to the indoor cricket school at Old Trafford, to watch the production of the series, and to meet its presenter Darren Gough, one of England’s best fast bowlers of recent years, and not a bad hand with the bat either, as his heroic performance that Saturday at Lord’s had shown. I arranged for Darren to bowl at me, and asked him to deliver the ball as fast as he could. The first went past my off stump, on a good length, before I had lifted the bat from the ground. The second was virtually identical. I just managed to move the bat this time, but hadn’t even considered playing a stroke by the time the ball had passed. The third ball was of fuller length, and on about middle stump. I lunged forward in self-defence, and the ball pinged off my bat and squirted away to the netting at the side of the arena. It was just the sort of shot from which I had accidentally scored runs as a schoolboy. Darren laughed and said, ‘We’ll call that a four.’ Later he sent me a postcard with his picture on it, inscribed ‘To John. One out of three in’t bad. Darren’. Again, I treasure it.

I understand the game very well, and I’m a good judge of players. But I was never any good at it myself.

It was the same with the piano. I took piano lessons, I practised dutifully between lessons, and I came to be able to play hymns in the simpler keys and elementary classical pieces reasonably correctly. But with no flair. To this day I cannot sit down at a piano and play even the simplest tune from memory. I must have the notes in front of me.

I knew that to play the piano well could be one of the most glorious achievements open to a person. I sensed that there must be planes of happiness which a successful pianist could attain which I would never reach. That sense filled me with hopeless longing, a feeling which assails me still, especially when I hear Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

During my teenage years, I learnt the organ as well as the piano, and by the time we moved to Bedfordshire I had achieved sufficient competence to be asked to play sometimes as a stand-in when our regular church organist was on holiday. In the summer months, I often mounted my bicycle on a Saturday and rode off to other country churches to play at weddings. To stumble through three hymns and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was an easy way of earning ten shillings. However, whenever I played the organ at church services I knew that my performance was embarrassingly bad.

And the third activity which has special significance for me is reading and writing poetry. To say that you love to read poetry is not to take any great risk. To say that you try to write poetry is, however, to place yourself in some danger (hence the self-protective ‘try to’). People’s response to this admission is usually one of simulated bright interest. They would love to see something that you’ve written. If you show them a few poems, they will of course be complimentary. They will find it convenient to say that they ‘particularly liked’ poems X, Y and Z. There the matter rests. Hanging about you thereafter, in the reader’s mind, is a faint aura of the odd, the other, as if they privately knew of a misdemeanour you had committed, such as stealing a book from Foyle’s or performing an act of minor indecency in a public toilet (I have done one of these things but not the other), but are of course too broad-minded to hold it against you. I have never got to the position of telling someone that I write poetry in the same casual tone in which I might tell them that I like going to the Arsenal or that I love to eat a Melton Mowbray pork pie with a can of Boddington’s bitter on a Saturday lunch-time.

For me, writing poetry, I am grateful and relieved to say, has been unlike playing the piano or playing cricket. However modest my talent and achievement may be, I do not feel that, as a writer of poems, I am a failure. The quantity of poems I have produced over the last 30 years is tiny, considering how much time has gone by. But I am not consumed by regret that I will never be Seamus Heaney or Ted Hughes or Carol Ann Duffy or Tony Harrison, because amongst the poems I have written are some in the course of whose composition I have experienced the authentic joy which is given to those who have the power to create, however humbly. When you have known that joy, you do not need any other justification for living. You are just glad to have had the good fortune to be conscious. You reflect that you might not have happened at all.

I began to write poems when I was fourteen. I wrote a lot of them over the next eight years, and it was a good thing I did. Some of them were lush remote imitations of Keats. Most were free-verse meanderings on the wickedness of the world and the littleness of my place in it. A few, all written during my Anglo-Catholic phase at university, were attempts to link Christian theology and imagery to a world where God had been pronounced dead by the great thinkers whose ideas had made and were making the twentieth century: Marx, Darwin, Freud and — most recently and fashionably to me in the early 1970s — Sartre.

One day when I was 22, I put all the poems except the recent religious ones into a dustbin at number 7 Vincent Square, London SW1, where I was then living with my girlfriend. They filled about half the dustbin, which was admittedly quite a small one, of the old galvanised iron sort. In the sixth form at the school I had attended when we moved to Bedfordshire, my wonderful English teacher Peter Hetherington had introduced us to the work of Samuel Beckett through a class reading of Waiting for Godot, which he described as one of the two greatest plays written in English in the last 500 years (the other being King Lear, which we had read first). I had since read several of Beckett’s other plays, and so the use of a dustbin seemed the most appropriate way of disposing of unwanted poems, so much more of the time than to burn them, which would have been a ridiculous, fake-romantic thing to do. When throwing away poetry now, I of course recycle the paper, but the environmental movement was in its infancy then.

I still have the religious poems. They are quite unpublishable, but they are interesting, at least to me, and mention of them brings me to the only extraordinary thing about my childhood.

We were brought up as evangelical Christians. My parents were not perverted or weird. They didn’t deny us love. Happiness, security and routine were the keynotes of my childhood. But throughout it, I was benevolently force-fed a set of ideas about life, death, the hereafter, how the universe came to be, and the nature and definition of truth, which all these years later fills me with an amazement usually expressed in laughter, occasionally (decreasingly) in anger.

My very first memories of religious meetings are of a hall in Drayton, Portsmouth where the Plymouth Brethren worshipped. My parents, young people fired as they were with Christian faith and a desire to hear and spread the gospel, had left the local Anglican church in which they had been married, because it seemed to them insufficiently clear and enthusiastic about doctrine. It was the lazy old middle-of-the-road established Church, more of a social club than a centre of teaching and evangelism.

At the Brethren meeting which I attended twice on a Sunday in the mid-1950s, a large man in a grey suit which had huge baggy trousers with deep turn-ups would stand up before the sermon to give out the notices. He would say, in his Hampshire accent, ‘On Tuesday afternoon at 2.15, if the Lord tarries, it will be the Ladies’ Circle. On Wednesday evening at 7.30, if the Lord should still tarry, there will be a prayer meeting to which all are welcome.’ And this seemed plausible to us. We believed it was quite possible that, before the Ladies’ Circle on Tuesday or, if not by then, before the prayer meeting on Wednesday, the world might end. Jesus might return to claim his own. The righteous, both those formerly dead and now suddenly brought back to life, and those still living, would rise up and meet Jesus in the air. My mind did its best to embrace the vision of the Second Coming frequently offered to us in the course of the sermon. I had a sense of exhilaration but also of vertigo. The air would be crowded with people floating over the South Downs. The Book of Revelation said that at the end of the world there would be no more sea. Living on the coast as we did, I thought this loss would be a shame, but supposed that the state of bliss I would be in would more than make up for its disappearance.

Fifty years later, it is difficult to credit that grown people actually believed those things as unquestioned truths, and taught them to their children, and sometimes had theological disagreements about the precise order of events to be expected at the end of the world, disagreements to which they would prayerfully seek resolution through the intent scrutiny of verses in the New Testament to which they would turn in their black, floppy-leather-bound Bibles, with fine gold-edged India-paper pages with thumbnail-sized half-moon cuts down the side, for easy access to a particular book.

Of course, there are people who still believe these things, and still teach them to their children. If one is to believe what one reads in the newspapers, some of these people are advisers to President George W. Bush.

Exhilarated vertigo may have been disconcerting to a five-year-old, but it wasn’t, overall, an unpleasant feeling. Far worse, for those children who suffered it, was the fear of hell. The evangelical Christianity we were taught was quite clear; heaven or hell was the eternal destiny of all human beings when they died. Whether a person went to heaven or to hell depended, for each individual, not on whether or not he or she had lived a good life (‘salvation through works’, to use St Paul’s language), but on whether he or she had committed his or her life to Christ, had asked to be forgiven for sins which, without God’s forgiveness, would certainly condemn him or her to hell, but which fortunately had been atoned for by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, granting each sinner an escape route to salvation during life and a place in heaven after death (‘salvation through grace’).

When we moved from Portsmouth to Bromley, my parents returned to Anglicanism, having found a church, far out on the evangelical wing of that tolerant institution, which was sound enough for them in terms of teaching, and enthusiastic enough in its efforts to bring souls to Christ. Though less exotic than the Plymouth Brethren in its manner of worship, its message on heaven and hell was identical. I came to realise, with every passing Sunday, that the simplicity of the choice facing each human being could not be starker.

The problem for me was not my own destiny; I had on numerous occasions, silently or aloud, uttered the form of words which, I was assured by my parents and other adults in the church, would guarantee my salvation. The problem was that, all around me, people were going about their lives in apparent ignorance of the urgent importance of doing the same thing as I had done. Some of these people were good friends of mine. Beyond my own circle, there were, I came to realise with mounting panic, millions of Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians, African animists and other assorted benighted ones, all facing the same awful and irrevocable agony, unless I got to them quickly and did something about it.

Our church supported a number of missionary societies which were already active in the world-wide campaign. Representatives of these organisations came to preach on particular Sundays of the year. Generally, they reported slow progress. The Bible Churchman’s Missionary Society alarmed us with accounts of the spread of Islam in Africa. The China Inland Mission had not been able to do much since the triumph of the Communists in that country in 1949. The Irish Church Missions had to admit that Roman Catholicism was stubbornly entrenched in Dublin. The Church Mission to the Jews could record only occasional successes in the East End of London in persuading Jews that the Messiah had indeed come. Still, I thought as I listened to these accounts, I must do my bit. Perhaps I would have better results.

It was not to be; after two or three of my approaches to friends in the playground at school, in which I pointed out to them the perilousness of their position, had been rebuffed with a mixture of incomprehension, indignation and derision, I fell into a kind of despair, like a person witnessing a dreadful accident about to happen — say a runaway train, loaded with people, on the point of tipping into a rushing river — but unable to do anything about it.

The despair lasted until I was thirteen. Although it was present in my mind for such a large part of my childhood, I would not wish to exaggerate its effect on my life. Most of the time I was the happy, normal, academically successful, head-in-a-book, tricycle-then-bicycle-riding, football-and-cricket-in-the-park-playing child I have described. But when I could not prevent the problem of heaven and hell, ever present in the back of my mind, from shifting to the front of it, often on Sunday nights, lying in bed before going to sleep, having had three doses of the eternal verities during the day, twice at church and once at Sunday school, the resulting unhappiness was so intense that I wished for oblivion. As a matter of fact, the prospect of the unending heaven which I faced frightened me almost as much as that of the unending hell which others faced. How could anything which never ended be other than horrifying?

Soon after my thirteenth birthday, while listening one Sunday to a sermon on the usual theme, reminding us one more time of the fateful choices we were all called upon to make, I suddenly thought, ‘Suppose none of this is true? Suppose the whole of Christianity, including the Bible, is something which has happened in history, just as many other things, including other religions, have happened in history, instead of being, as I have been told up to now, the thing that explains the whole of history?’ Once I had had that thought, I was overcome by a quiet but blissful sense of relief (relief being, as my friend Paul Ashton likes to say, the sincerest of human emotions). It was not that all the deepest questions concerning the human condition were solved for me on that Sunday morning; nor have they been solved up to this date; it was just that I saw, for the first time, a reasonable possibility of escape from the remorseless logic to which my parents and their friends in the churches which we had attended had subjected me, with the best of intentions, since I had known the use of language.

The sense of relief was followed immediately by a realisation that I would need diplomacy, even cunning, to get through the rest of my childhood, through the remaining years living in my parents’ house and depending on them financially, without being the cause of constant arguments and unpleasantness over my loss of faith. So, for the next five years, which included the move to Bedfordshire and another evangelical Anglican church, I was guileful. In both churches, I allowed myself to be regarded as one of the congregation’s great hopes for the future; I was a young, slim pillar of the church. A church elder in Bromley predicted that I would be a bishop at 40. Although, when we got to Bedfordshire, my musical performances were deplorable, people told me how beautifully I read the lesson, which the vicar there sometimes asked me to do. I ran the church bookstall. I went away to Christian summer camps, as I had done since the age of 11.

At a camp in the Lake District one summer when I was 15, the leaders decided that it was time we were told about sex. This was not sex education in the secular, biological or emotional sense, but an exposition of the evangelical Christian position on sex, which has the same quality of simplicity as that on heaven and hell. All sexual activity outside Christian marriage is sinful. Within marriage, sex is joyful and a gift from God. The speaker one evening in the marquee, as we sat under hurricane lamps after supper, had an arresting visual aid to reinforce his message. He had gone to see the cook earlier that day (the cook was the only female at the camp, young and comely, and of great interest to me) and had asked her, I imagine to her great surprise, to take a full pint bottle of milk, remove the cap, pour a little vinegar into it, replace the cap, and leave the bottle out in the sun for the afternoon. By the time he held the bottle up for us to see, the milk had obediently curdled to a revolting mixture of yellow and grey. The speaker removed the cap again, and invited the boys near him to smell the contents. There were obliging expressions of disgust. This, said the man, was what would happen to our souls and bodies if we engaged in sex before marriage. We filed out into the night to our tents, impressed.

While thoughts of this kind were being poured into one ear, I was coming under the influence of a few sane, rational, cultured teachers at school, who confirmed my growing realisation that I was in the process of leaving a small, automatic, self-referencing system of ideas, and that a wide world of thought awaited me. I had a close group of about six friends at the school who, by the nature of the conversations we had, told me the same thing. And suddenly, here was grown-up literature! Here was the whole of Penguin Modern Classics to gulp down, one paperback after another, several a week, always a book in the pocket or the school bag, read anywhere, but particularly on the bus to and from school, diesel engine toiling and gears crashing along the Bedfordshire lanes. I was glad when I arrived at the bus station at Bedford to find that the next bus home was one which took detours around hamlets before coming to my village. More reading time.

The bromide effect on me of the curdled milk image was short-lived. Although I didn’t achieve sexual intercourse until I was a few months short of my nineteenth birthday, all the preliminaries leading up to that moment, including walks up country lanes to discreet copses, lying down under trees or behind hedges and fumbling under a girl’s clothes while wishing that she would more enthusiastically fumble under mine, were conducted, so far as I was concerned, without guilt. It was as if, after the suffering I had already experienced as a result of religious indoctrination, a Providential Benevolence (I don’t believe this, of course) had decided I had suffered enough, and had decoupled the usual links between religion, sex and guilt. I knew that the evangelical Christian line on sex was nonsense. I had no difficulty reconciling the things I wanted to do sexually with the things I ought to do sexually, though of course a great deal of difficulty reconciling the things I wanted to do sexually with the things which girls permitted me to do sexually.

Angela, a girl from the village, with whom I came to full sexual knowledge, was the only person I have ever been in love with dependently, in the sense of being utterly in her thrall. I think the feeling was mutual for most of the time we were together. We experienced the intense happiness of a first frank, unapologetic sexual friendship. Her father was a second-hand car dealer, who generously lent me one old Morris Minor after another as soon as I passed my driving test, which transformed the scope of our opportunities for taking sexual pleasure. We told each other in moments of ardour how much we loved each other. We discussed marriage and having children.

From the age of 16, I had become a junior officer at the sort of summer camp I’d already been attending for five years. One year, Angela came with me to one of these camps, to help with the cooking, of course. We’d just turned 18. The tension between our public purpose there (to help save the souls of about 40 boys between the ages of 9 and 14) and our private desire to fondle each other’s bodies in the extensive Kentish woodland which surrounded the group of huts where the camp was held, was at once painful and exquisite. Angela distressed me one night, as we lay in each other’s arms under a beech tree, hoping that no-one would notice our regular simultaneous absence from our widely separated huts for an hour after the officer team had drunk cocoa, said a concluding prayer for the day, and in most cases gone to bed, by telling me that one of the two senior officers in charge of the camp, a man in his 40s, had told her that God had revealed to him that his wife would die soon, and that he would marry Angela, who would look after his existing children and bear him some new ones.

Nothing came of this prediction, but the moment marked the ending of the period of innocent ease in our relationship. After that, there were weeks and months when I could not sleep properly for thinking of Angela. My sexual fantasies about her were constant and intense. Later that year, when I went to university and she moved to London to work as an au pair, and I heard rumours that she was seeing another man (not the senior officer at the camp), I was consumed by jealousy. The feeling destroyed the possibility of peace and quiet in my mind. Throughout my first year at university, I spent hours in telephone boxes in Cambridge, wretchedly pushing old brown pennies into the machine, having inconsequential and inconclusive conversations with Angela, sensing that she was impatient to put the phone down.

On the other hand, we did both lose our virginity one night in March 1970 in Angela’s bedroom in the house where she worked, a dangerous coupling which I remember with intense gratitude. There have been more inept first times. I will go further and say we were quite skilful. We had, after all, been engaging in foreplay for about three years. And that summer, we and another couple went to Ireland for a week’s holiday, where Angela and I (I can’t speak for the other couple) experienced a full-scale sexual liberation whose pleasure remains with me.

When I went to university, I could for the first time openly abandon the whole apparatus of evangelical Christianity. And I immediately met people who, while calling themselves Christians, represented a strand of Christian thinking quite at variance with that from which I had emerged. I became a friend of Bishop John Robinson, who was Dean of Chapel at my college in Cambridge. When he had been Bishop of Woolwich and had published his book Honest to God, the vicar of our church in Bromley had denounced him from the pulpit as a spokesman of the devil. Suddenly, here I was in the devil’s spokesman’s rooms, drinking his port and Madeira, listening to him making a great deal of sense. John’s example enabled me to realise that I could, if I chose to, be a Christian and an open-minded, sexual, secular being in the world, able to respect myself and worthy of the respect of others. Peter Adams, one of the chaplains at the college, became a close friend as soon as we met. Our friendship will be life-long. Peter told me about the great nineteenth-century Christian socialist F.D. Maurice, amongst whose many achievements was the foundation of the Working Men’s College in Camden Town (still going strong for men and women, and with the historical good sense to have kept its original name), who had got into trouble with the church authorities for saying that he didn’t believe hell existed at all. So, I thought, that sweating in the dark all those years had been completely unnecessary! (Peter, with perfect appropriateness, was later F.D. Maurice Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral.)

I am now an atheist. Charles Darwin’s awesome genius has explained our condition to my satisfaction. In particular, I can quite see how, once the human species had evolved to the point of self-consciousness (an achievement probably unique, so far, amongst sentient beings); once humans had to face the fact that they and their kind are born, live for a little while and then die, the fact was unbearable to face. Religions were invented to console us. As T.S. Eliot — great Christian — puts it: ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ He must have been referring to some other aspect of human self-delusion.

On the other hand, John and Peter and other Christians in that tradition, especially Canon Eric James, gave me a part of my mature outlook on the world which I hope never to lose. I cannot believe in God as a separate, defined person, force or entity acting in and on the world. I don’t believe that Christ, who was undoubtedly an historical figure, was and is in some way related to the creator of the universe. But no-one has ever given a wiser instruction than that we should love our neighbours as ourselves; that I do believe. (Founders of other religions may have given equally wise instructions in other words.) The extent to which we follow this instruction will decide the future of our planet, and affects the happiness and fulfilment of billions of human beings, in encounters with each other trivial and profound, every day. The founder of the Christian religion gave the instruction as the second of two:

‘“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”’

In other words, Christ said 2000 years ago that the whole body of the new religion inherited from and moving beyond Judaism boils down to two essentials: love God; love your neighbour. Being literal and mathematical about it, you could say that, atheist as I am, I am also 50% a Christian: the human 50%.

In recognition of this 50%, I have my cake — or rather my wafer — and eat it, by taking Holy Communion once a year with Peter, when we visit him for a weekend in July in Suffolk, where he has his annual holiday. We go to one of several country churches, depending on which has the 1662 rite at eight o’clock in the morning. Usually, there are the priest and about ten communicants present. I am a hopeless case for those who actually have to manage the Anglican church and try to make it a popular institution in the face of the relentless march of secularism and consumerism, because I like the fact that there are so few of us in the church, and I love the language of the 1662 Prayer Book, whose qualities no modern effort that I have heard remotely approaches. I learnt from Peter about the politics which produced that book; how after the restoration of the monarchy the Savoy Conference reviewed Cranmer’s magnificent editorial achievement of more than a century before, and agreed revisions which aimed to balance the doctrinal convictions of High Anglican and Puritan parties, which had riven the interim and fuelled the fires of the Civil War. I’ve read since that the High Anglicans were better favoured in the outcome than were the Puritans; however that may be, the 1662 Prayer Book has stood the test of the centuries in England. I like the fact that some of the greatest cultural achievements are political or bureaucratic compromises. (Another is Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral.)

So I overcame the religious element of my childhood. I am still inclined to depression on Sunday evenings, but it passes.

My father’s career as a scientist included distinguished work on the technology of magnetic resonance imaging, whose applications have brought great benefit to society. My mother returned to teaching when her last child, my sister, was five years old. She was for many years the head teacher of a rural primary school in Bedfordshire, where she and her work commanded the admiration and respect of all who knew her.

Most of the poems I’ve written about my childhood and youth are straightforwardly biographical. Some contain reflections on childhood from the perspective of events in adulthood. In two of the poems, Offspring and Remains, factual truth has to some extent been sacrificed to imaginative truth.

Both my parents died in 2009: my father on 6 April, my mother on 6 May. I imagine that it would have hurt them to have read some of the poems in My Proper Life; the poems they knew about I had carefully selected, and I didn’t tell them of the existence of this website. I loved my father and mother throughout their lives as much as I did when I played in the garden with my brothers, and they looked on smiling from the kitchen window. On the other hand, when unhappiness is inflicted on a child, with the best of intentions, and he or she has the opportunity to purge the unhappiness through writing or any other kind of creative endeavour, a point comes when it is repressive not to take that opportunity.

2. Helen

I met Helen Savva in September 1974. She had come that autumn to teach English at Vauxhall Manor School, a girls’ comprehensive school in Vauxhall, south London, where I had already been working for a term. It was my first teaching job and her second. A degree in English literature from Cambridge University, with no subsequent teaching qualification, had ill prepared me to teach English and drama in an urban comprehensive, but so few people were willing to work in state schools in inner London in those years that I had been offered a huge choice of vacancies when I had applied to County Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority, the previous April.

I had just returned from what I had intended to be a round-the-world trip with two friends. The trip had been curtailed for me by a bad and expensive bout of gastro-enteritis in Tehran, which had brought me home gaunt and broke. The woman at County Hall who dealt with job applicants riffled through a thick stack of cards, each representing an English teaching vacancy in an ILEA secondary school. There being no particular educational criterion for my choice of school, we agreed that she should send me for interview to the school nearest to where I was then living. The next day I walked across Vauxhall Bridge from Vincent Square to the school, was briefly interviewed by the school’s headmistress, and offered a job on the spot. I accepted on the spot, and started work two days later, on the first day of the summer term.

I stumbled through that term. During the day intervening between my appointment and my first encounters with children, I had written out lesson plans for the classes I had been given. The documents distilled the whole of Western thought since the ancient Greeks, at different levels of difficulty for the different ages I was to teach. I expected that I would complete the courses by the summer holiday, and then decide what to do next. I regret very much that somehow I have lost these magnificent documents of unrealism.

The children’s response to the grandeur of my ideas was less than complimentary. None of them could understand what I was talking about. Some were surprisingly polite, and steered me to filing cabinets and cupboards in the English classrooms, where more appropriate teaching materials were to be found. I abandoned my literary and intellectual tours d’horizon as quickly as I had conceived them, and handed out sets of creased paperback novels, written in demotic contemporary English and telling everyday stories of multi-cultural urban folk. The children in most of the classes were happy to take turns round the class reading these novels aloud. This took up a gratifyingly large amount of time. Then they suggested that they write a story pretending to be one of the characters in the book. It had never occurred to me that you could do such a thing with a piece of literature, and I agreed to the suggestion immediately. The children next proposed that they should act out some of the scenes we were reading, by breaking up into small groups and improvising the scenes in the corridors or on the stairways of the three-storey pre-fabricated structure in which I was working, and which had been hastily erected a year or two previously, when the school leaving age had been raised from 15 to 16, a change which had brought with it an urgent need for extra accommodation. I agreed to the acting-out idea too, and here my difficulties began.

Although, to my amazement as I ran along the corridors and up and down the staircases checking on the progress of this small-group work, most of the children were actually inventing dramas which bore a relationship — often remote, I will admit — to the book we were reading, they did tend to prefer to enact scenes of violence, or at least of bad temper. This inevitably meant that voices needed to be raised. Not all of the teachers working in that building practised the teaching methods which I had so rapidly made my trade mark. Many of them believed that a teacher should keep his or her class confined in the classroom from beginning to end of a lesson. The materials which had been used for the partition walls of the building were lightweight and certainly not soundproof. When, in a moment of anger, a colleague would emerge from a classroom to demand what in God’s name a particular group of children was doing wrestling each other to the ground in the corridor outside, he or she was surprised to be told by those children, in a complacent tone, that they were doing drama for Mr Richmond. Before long, Jim Payne, my kind and sympathetic head of department, came to me to say that I would need to restrain this wildness. I realised that, whatever ideas I had half picked up from reading about A.S Neill’s methods at Summerhill School, or from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, I was going to have to make some compromises.

There was great resentment and almost open rebellion amongst the children when for the first time I forbade them to leave the class the better to express themselves dramatically. ‘But sir, we did it last week! We were good! Has that Miss Wilberforce [the deputy head] been telling you what to do?’ I couldn’t deny that a higher authority had indeed constrained me. I suggested that the class do some writing instead. Writing stories pretending to be a character in a book had been acceptable to the children until they had tasted the joys of uninterrupted drama every lesson. Now such a prospect was condemned as ‘boring’, a word they used more frequently than any other to describe an activity they didn’t want to do. In desperation, I suggested a spelling test, although I knew such an exercise to be a meaningless way of filling time. To my surprise, the children quite took to the proposal. The spelling test has game-like, repetitive qualities. It is like sucking habitually on a sweet. We had many spelling tests during the rest of the term.

Although, as I hope I have made clear, I was managing to work out rules of engagement with most of my classes, admittedly from a position of serious weakness on my side, there was one class over which I had no control whatever. Our encounters were grim attritional battles. By the end of May I had abandoned any thought of teaching the children in this class anything. My task was simply to keep to a minimum outbreaks of anarchic and anti-social behaviour. I did this by reading aloud to the class for whole lessons at a time, refusing to allow any of the children to take turns in reading, and by making the class copy out long passages from an anthology of factual writing, of which I had found an almost complete class set in the back of a cupboard. The imposition of this task was justified only by my overriding need to maintain control, but I would give the drill some small educational colour ten minutes before the end of each lesson by drawing attention to some of the features of grammar, spelling and punctuation in the passage just copied out.

There were children in that class who would, suddenly and for no good reason, run yelling from the room. More depressing were those who sat slumped in postures of despair, as if they had abandoned any expectation of relief from the collective atmosphere of anger and gloom.

As June gives way to July in a London secondary school, a teacher can expect, with reasonable luck, that quite a number of his or her classes will be cancelled because of sports days, week-long school journeys to the Isle of Wight, or day trips to Margate or London Zoo. I did have reasonable luck with my impossible class, but I was not pleased to be told by Miss Wilberforce that I would continue to be their English teacher in September. I briefly considered resigning, perhaps to do a proper teaching qualification at one of the London colleges, but abandoned the idea when comparing the value of a student grant (then £500 a year) with my handsome annual salary of £1870. (That remark is not intended to be ironic. A monthly pay cheque of more than £100, after tax and other deductions, enabled me to do anything I wanted that summer in London, and to go to France for four weeks in August.)

On the morning of the first Monday of September, the first day of the new school year, the English department convened in one of the classrooms. The children were not coming into school until the Tuesday, so there was an atmosphere of phoney war about the place. There were three new members of department at the meeting, all female, whom Jim Payne introduced to us one by one, and who were asked to say a word of two about their background and, where relevant, their previous job.

In those years, one of the advantages to the young heterosexual male of working in a girls’ school, with a predominantly female staff, was that female colleagues felt no great need to dress in a way which would discourage the lust of adolescent boys, as they would in a boys’ or a mixed school. The small number of male staff were thought of, insofar as they were thought of at all from the sexual point of view, as eunuchs in a harem. It was thus wonderful to lean across the table and shake the hand of an olive-skinned, raven-haired young woman whose shapely embonpoint was only partially concealed by what I later discovered to be a linen blouse with lace ornamentation of traditional Greek design. My pleasure was increased a few days later when Jim told me that, because of the great difficulties I had had with class 1R, now renamed class 2R — great but understandable difficulties, he hastened to add, generously but falsely claiming that he would have had as much trouble with them himself — the same young woman would come to teach the class with me on a Friday afternoon, when by a cruel quirk of Miss Wilberforce’s timetable I had those children for an uninterrupted two hours.

Helen was my senior in age by three years as well as my senior in status. In those years of rapid promotion, she had come to the school as second in the English department after only four years in her first job. She is a working-class Londoner of Greek Cypriot origin. She has the ability to quell the most extreme disorder in a class of children with the barely visible flicker of an eyebrow. Our jointly led lessons with 2R began to seem to me something other than agonising, and even to yield occasional educational benefit to the children. After school on a Friday, we would talk and smoke in the staff room, and then with other colleagues walk down to the pub as soon as it opened at 5.30. Before long we began to go for meals together after the pub. The following February, by which time I had parted company with the woman with whom I had been living in Vincent Square, and gone to live in a flat in Camden Town, I invited Helen round for lunch on the Tuesday of half-term week. I cooked her a Spanish omelette, which we ate with a bottle of Burgundy, and we didn’t leave the flat until that evening, when we went to see Stomu Yamashta, the Japanese drumming genius, perform at the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm. Then Helen got the number 3 bus back to Herne Hill, where she was living with another man called John, who was, most conveniently for all of us, just coming to the firm conclusion that he was gay, despite having lived happily with Helen for five years.

Thus began my connection with the person with whom I still live. We have never married, and for many years liked to regard our relationship as permanently provisional. It seemed more exciting that way. So it still is, although long ago we realised that it is more permanent than provisional.

3. English Teacher

Despite my uncertain start as a teacher, I did after a while get the hang of the job. This enlightenment owed much to the good fortune that Vauxhall Manor School was an excellent school. It was a place where a good number of the teachers saw the students — almost all of whom had working-class backgrounds, and many of whom were the children of people who had come to Britain from the Caribbean — not as problems because of who they were and where they’d come from, but as people bringing a complex, diverse cultural and linguistic experience to the school, which could, if properly recognised, interact with and enrich the curriculum. I don’t wish to be retrospectively dewy-eyed; there were teachers at the school who had the worst, the most negative, the most cynical view of the children; but they were few. I embraced the school’s overall ethos, and especially the ethos of the English department which I’d joined, immediately and with enthusiasm, and I learnt quickly there because of the friendship and professional support of older colleagues who gave me a sense of the political purpose of what we were doing. We believed that children of whatever background might, with the right encouragement, do things that would amaze us and them. As my friend Stephen Eyers used to say, ‘Anyone may be capable of anything.’ I knew that this was a cause worth serving.

None of this might have happened to me. The woman at County Hall who sent me to Vauxhall Manor on that day in April 1974 might have sent me to many a school which could correctly if cruelly be described as a sink school; there were plenty of them in inner London at the time. If she had, I might not have lasted in teaching beyond a term. I’m grateful to her.

I rapidly discovered that my immediate colleagues at the school were part of a network of like-minded teachers in London and beyond. The ILEA English Centre, the National and the London Associations for the Teaching of English, and the English Department at the University of London Institute of Education were the organisational centres of this network of thought, and it was through the exchange of ideas and practices which they sponsored, through reading the books and articles which people there told me about, some of which they had written or were writing themselves, through hearing people talk at meetings and conferences and in pubs and restaurants, that I came to formulate and practise the approach to teaching which I shall try to set down theoretically here.

This approach takes as its starting point belief in and respect for the experience of the learner, an attitude which characterises the work of all the good and great teachers I have known, including my own two great teachers, Peter Hetherington, whom I mentioned in chapter 1 and who taught me when I was a teenager at Bedford Modern School, and Harold Rosen, Professor of English at the Institute of Education, who profoundly influenced me when I began to work in London schools. This belief is not of course to be confused with a sentimental admiration and tolerance for everything a child says and does, however insignificant, banal or destructive. (Children, as my colleague Terry Minker used to say, bear a remarkable resemblance to human beings, for good and ill.) However, I don’t believe that a person can be even a good teacher, let alone a great teacher, without it.

Belief in and respect for the experience of the learner is more or less the same thing as recognition of the connectedness and wholeness of the cognitive and emotional state and the linguistic competence of the learner. A child who is being bullied at school or who is living with a violent parent will learn less well than a child, similar in other respects, not suffering in that way. A child who is enjoying a book he or she is reading, at the same time as absorbing whatever factual or fictional content the book offers, is gaining insights into grammatical, orthographic and rhetorical structures of written language, whether or not he or she has the metalinguistic terminology to name those structures. A child who senses, even occasionally, the joy of discovery and success in learning at school is agreeing to that extent to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt next time he or she asks the child to undertake a task. The joy of discovery and success has stimulated an appetite for more of the same; has increased in the learner’s mind the probability that more pleasure is available where the first pleasure came from.

These general truths apply to all learners at all times and in all situations. As an English teacher in an urban secondary school, I came gradually to apprehend them, first implicitly and then with increasing analytical focus, by working the territory of children’s growing mastery of spoken and written language. This growing mastery was evidenced in their own stories and poems (oral or written), plays (written, improvised or both), talks, songs, letters, reports, critical essays; and in their developing enthusiasm for books — chiefly books of imaginative literature, whether high art or popular fiction — and, along the way, their admiration for particular authors. This is to put the matter optimistically. I could say the same thing in a more problematic tone, by admitting that I taught many children for whom the phrase ‘growing mastery’ as a description of their classroom work with me would be misleading; ‘struggle to overcome difficulties’ would be more apt. The important thing to recognise (and I was fortunate in being helped to recognise this from the beginning of my teaching career) is the unity and continuity of effective teaching, whether I am helping a 15-year-old girl, already a confident reader, to embark on a piece of serious and demanding adult literature for the first time, or giving an 11-year-old girl, who has entered secondary school barely able to write, the intense pleasure of reading out loud to the class a coherent, interesting, properly spelt and punctuated paragraph of her own, and being applauded for doing so. The unity and continuity of effective teaching, as applied to English teaching, has for me its own local set of principles, and they are these.

First, the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. If it were not so, our lives would not be long enough for us to gain even the most rudimentary grasp of the language of our culture and community. Take any department of the scientific study of language; take phonetics or syntax or rhetoric or punctuation. The analytical study of these complex areas exercises the minds of expert and interested adults, whether as writers or readers of books, articles and theses on these subjects, as conference-goers, as members of learned societies. It exercises their minds as a never-ending quest for more sophisticated, more accurate, more elegant ways of grouping and distinguishing like and unlike things in these areas. The quest has been going on for centuries, and rightly, since language is perhaps the greatest of human achievements. Sometimes there are huge revolutions in linguistic science, as in other sciences; sometimes modern linguists make discoveries which they realise are close to discoveries which excited mediaeval or classical scholars.

All this is good. But what about me, sitting on my father’s lap at the age of three, taking in — with his essential help — Amphibians of the British Isles? My father, educated man, scientist as he was and is, had no training as a linguist or a teacher. He would have hesitated if asked to name the grammatical functions of each of the words in the phrases and paragraphs he was reading, though he would have managed some. He could not have discussed with me the discourse structures which meant that the description of the habits and habitat of the natterjack toad was a satisfying, accumulating snowball of meaning as he read it, not simply a collection of disjointed, if true, facts about the beast. If, having read to me the sentence Natterjack toads hibernate in winter., he had stopped to point out that the i in hibernate is pronounced differently from the i in winter because, often but not always, i when followed by a consonant followed by another vowel is pronounced long (pine or mile, but be careful about pigeon, pivot or pity, something different is going on there, those second vowels [apart from the y in pity] are not concluding vowels, that’s the difference, remember that) and, often but not always, i when followed by a double consonant is pronounced short (pill or miss, but be careful about sign or might, something different is going on there, those silent consonants are there for etymological reasons, those are not straightforward sound/symbol correspondences, remember that); if he had been foolish or half-informed enough to do these things, my attention might have wandered.

The principle holds for all areas of language learning, at all stages. However, I said that the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. Of course there is conscious language learning too, in every learner’s experience, at least in literate societies with formal schooling systems. I remember consciously learning the letters of the alphabet, and then practising writing those letters, in long strings of as, bs and cs, down to zs, across the page. To take a few other examples at random, from different areas of language learning and different stages of development, we may consciously remember being taught what is the ballad form in poetry, the meaning of the terms transitive and intransitive verb, how to set out dialogue and stage directions in a play script, or how to gain the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence in a ghost story. These random examples might well be small features of a planned curriculum; and I do believe that an organised programme of progressively more demanding encounters with language in a diversity of forms, and of opportunities to use language, spoken and written, in a diversity of forms and for a diversity of purposes, is the right of every school learner. I am not a romantic, in the sense that I don’t believe that any old rag-bag of language experiences, haphazardly provided, will serve the learner well, however respectful the teacher may be of the experience the learner brings into the classroom. Every school subject must have its planned curriculum; in the case of English, deciding the content of that curriculum has been contentious, as I shall mention again below.

But once the need for a consciously planned curriculum has been fully acknowledged, it remains true that all conscious learning and teaching of language within that curriculum, if it is to be effective, must draw on the immense store of unconscious learning which has already occurred, without which there would be no further conscious learning, no analytical ordering of and detailed focussing on parts of that great reality which the immensely powerful human brain, operating the big gears of unconscious apprehension and then generalisation, has already been tangling with.

The second local principle is an extrapolation of the first, and is more briefly put. The most effective way to teach is to show, not tell; or to show, then tell, not the other way round. The learner proceeds from accessible and pleasing models, in everything from early handwriting to composing essays which will be acceptable to A-Level examiners, by seeing and internalising how other people have done it, and then doing it for herself or himself, not as an exact copy of others’ achievements, but as a production carrying her or his own signature within the tradition which he or she has joined. Although, as I said in the description of my childhood, my overall experience of schooling was one of success and ease, there were within it some acute moments of difficulty, as for example in the first term of my first year in the sixth form, trying and failing to write essays about King Lear or A Passage to India, getting grades E and F with depressing regularity, because I had not grasped the curious compositional conventions which were — and to a large extent still are — regarded as the proper way to write about literature. Essentially, these involve the writer assuming a spoof objectivity about the work being discussed, so that he or she actually expresses opinions while appearing to convey received fact. Once my teacher showed me some examples of how it should be done, the E and F grades were transformed immediately into As and Bs. When, a few years later, I came to be teaching A-Level English myself, it took me some time with my struggling students to remember to do the same thing myself. When I did remember, the benefit was immediate.

The third local principle concerns learners who are having difficulty, particularly as readers and/or writers. There has in recent decades been an explosion of interest in and concern for children with what we now call special educational needs. This interest and concern is in itself humane and good. However, with it has come, from some quarters, the desire to pathologise all learners’ difficulties, and — to extend the medical metaphor — to pseudo-scientifically announce a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment, say for any child who has difficulty reading. I willingly and immediately acknowledge that there is a small group of children, intellectually damaged, disabled or unusual in a variety of ways, whose needs are so extreme or specific that the teacher’s approach to their learning will need to be specialist. But there is a much larger group of children who, for reasons likely to be socio-psychological rather than medico-psychological, have not so far in their lives experienced pleasure, success and confidence as readers and/or writers. This lack causes them to resist further encounters with written language, which only bring them despondency, embarrassment and frustration. Children of this kind do not need exceptional, arcane teaching routines, in which elements of language (learned holistically and unconsciously by more successful readers and writers) are first decontextualised and then presented to the struggling learner as repetitive sets, to be apprehended and learned slowly and painfully in the low gears of conscious learning. Children of this kind need more privileged access to the same range of experiences of written language which successful readers and writers have had, in which the high gears are at work, in which the affective, the cognitive and the linguistic areas of the mind are in interactive and mutually supportive operation, engaging with real language and getting the rewards — small to begin with, perhaps, but felt and accumulating — which encounters with real language bring.

This is why, when 11-year-olds supposed not to be readers, having scored abysmally on any of the standardised reading tests which they had attempted, were offered in my and my colleagues’ classes the opportunity to write their own stories, taped or scribed or written themselves and corrected, then typed up and stapled into booklets which became part of the whole class’s reading repertoire, they suddenly showed themselves capable of reading their own booklets at levels far beyond their given ‘reading age’. This is why they then went on to read similar booklets written by others in the class or by children in other classes. This is why they then, first with help from a teacher or a classmate who was a more confident reader and later independently, began to read printed books, so that before too long, as they said themselves, ‘they could read’.

Mary Warnock, in her famous report on children with special educational needs, estimated that my small group of children with extreme or specific needs constituted about 2% of the total school population, and that my larger group constituted about 18%. I believe these percentages still to be broadly right. Returning finally to the 2%, the specialist approach which I acknowledged to be necessary is likely to consist in the nature of a teacher’s address to the learner, or in the use of technology which is now available to help children with such difficulties; when we come to the actual encounter between a learner’s brain, however damaged, disabled or unusual, and knowledge mediated through language, spoken or written, the 2% is still part of the 100%, not in a universe of its own. Those children need to gain pleasure, to grasp and make meaning, in and from whole, real language, just like the rest of us.

Those were and are my three key principles of English teaching. I came to understand them, and then to be able to articulate them, over a period of perhaps three years from my first hapless encounters with children in the summer of 1974. I did this, as I have said, because of the supportive, collegiate, exploratory culture of which I had become a member. I was beginning to apply those principles in the context of the political idea that all children had the right to the same opportunities and experiences which I and my colleagues, most of us products of a selective and sometimes a privileged education, had had ourselves. When one understands the political context in which one’s day-to-day work takes place, the understanding provokes a desire for action across a wider sphere of influence than one can achieve solely in one’s own classroom. I joined that wider effort.

The 1970s and 1980s were years of optimism in the English teaching circles in which I moved. We were determined to make the curriculum more relevant to children’s lives; classrooms would be places where children’s own experience would be valued and made a part of that curriculum; children’s spoken language would be encouraged as a mode of learning; both talk and writing would be practised in a rich diversity of forms; we would show our students literature which previous generations of teachers had thought them too stupid to understand; under our guidance, children would become makers and shapers of language, and therefore of their lives. The purpose always was to raise standards, to include the traditional English teacher’s concerns about correctness in writing and about teaching a canon of literature within a new excitement in broadening and diversifying students’ experience and mastery of language, in particular making sure that working-class and black and ethnic-minority children, who constituted the overwhelming majority of those we taught, were given the opportunity to share in that experience and gain that mastery.

The major institutional obstacle to the fulfilment of such thinking in secondary schools was the examination system. So we set about trying to change examinations, so that spoken as well as written language was assessed, a wider range of texts was studied, and children produced a far greater diversity of kinds of writing than previously.

In 1989, the Thatcher government introduced a national curriculum. I supported and support this reform in principle, on the grounds of equality of entitlement of all children to the same range of experience and knowledge. Those of our way of thinking chosen to be members of drafting committees, or those who worked informally with committee members who then took drafts to the committees, did our best to see to it that the national curriculum for English manifested at least something of the vision I’ve described. This work needed stamina and some political cunning, for the Thatcher government’s vision of a national curriculum for the subject English was, from the outset, the opposite of ours. It wished to impose on the country a version of English teaching based on the sentimental public-school or grammar-school memories of some ministers and their advisers, in which — to caricature only slightly — rows of silent-until-spoken-to children would be shown the mysteries and beauties of a small number of pieces of great literature, would write neat essays on subjects such as ‘A Day in the Life of a Penny’ or ‘Travel Broadens the Mind’, would learn how to parse a sentence according to a Latinate model of grammar (a model discredited for the analysis of living languages by the most influential contemporary linguists), and would confine their use of continuous spoken language to formal debates on propositions such as ‘This House would Welcome the Return of Capital Punishment’.

It was here, in the narrower, cruder associations of the word political, that I realised what a political arena English teaching had become. I had for 15 years been expending my energies, as had scores and hundreds of like-minded colleagues, trying to produce more success in English classrooms across the country by applying and promoting methods which would work for the majority of children; methods which were in some respects extensions of, and in other respects sharply different from, the methods which had for the previous century served the minority well enough and lamentably failed the majority. We were hauling the children of our nation away from the state of affairs which had prevailed in the early 1960s, when eight out of 10 children left school with no paper qualification whatever. What could be more admirable than that? Who would not recognise the worth of that endeavour, whatever their political allegiance?

My naivety was short-lived. Effective English teaching is in fact a whole, complex set of practices which, when I was a classroom teacher, included: the good sense to say nothing, to draw no lessons, as a child wept gently in the corner of the room when I read aloud how Billy Casper discovered his hawk, dead, towards the end of Barry Hines’s novel Kes; and the skill of showing children how to punctuate speech in written stories. Despite this fact, it was convenient for the Thatcher government, its advisers and its supporters in the right-wing newspapers, to invent for the public a fictional image of my friends and me as a kind of fifth column, an enemy within, a group whose secret mission was to use the classroom to promote leftist ideologies, and who were in the process bringing about a catastrophic decline in standards of language, literacy, culture and even manners in the young. By a curious twist of political language, the phrase it coined to deride us was ‘the educational establishment’.

But the difficulty for any government wishing to bring about change in as detailed an area as the curriculum of a school subject is that it is obliged in the end to rely on the knowledge and experience of those who are actually expert in that area. The great majority of those actually expert in the area of language, literacy and English teaching knew that the Thatcher government’s regretfully retrospective vision for the nation’s classrooms was unworkable. Advanced democracies need populations of broadly informed, enquiring, confidently literate citizens, and need particularly to pay attention to the educational achievement of the children of its socio-economically poorer families. Our democracy was and is far more likely to achieve that desirable end by embracing the vision of classrooms which I first encountered in 1974, a vision which still holds good in thousands of schools throughout the land, despite reverses which the use of power for reactionary purposes in Conservative and Labour administrations since then has brought about in some aspects of curriculum and examinations. In the long revolution, our vision is winning.

I was for seven years a classroom English teacher (five at Vauxhall Manor School and two at Hackney Downs School). During the next eleven years, in various capacities, I was an adviser of teachers, in inner London, in the county of Shropshire, and on two national curriculum development projects. I helped to run courses and conferences, I gave talks, I wrote, edited and contributed to books and articles about English teaching and the role of language in learning. In 1992 I joined Channel 4’s schools broadcasting service (see chapter 5).

Harold Rosen, one of my two great teachers, died in 2008. This is what I said about him at an event held in March 2009 at the University of London Institute of Education to celebrate his life.

‘I knew Harold for the last 32 years of his life. I was never formally his student, and yet he was — as I told him not long before he died — one of my great teachers, for this reason: he showed how to combine intellectual effort with political purpose. Harold knew that a person’s achievement is only meaningful to the extent that it changes the lives of other people, the lives of organisations (like schools) and the life of society as a whole, for the better: a principle which holds for even as great a talent and as significant a contribution as his own. I never met anyone who more completely lived the idea that the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it.

Harold’s life in education exemplified his conviction that theory and practice, thinking and doing, are interpenetrating. He understood and taught that education is a supremely practical business, not a ‘pure’ science. In the years that I knew him, by which time he had already gained the eminence and reputation he so richly deserved, he was constant in his insistence that those whose job it is to help teachers teach better should apply their mental effort to that task, and not go off on academic frolics of their own.

One small outcome of this clarity of Harold’s vision was a visit he made with Tony Burgess to Vauxhall Manor School in south London, some time I think in 1976. A group of us at the school — teachers of several curriculum subjects — had begun to publish home-made papers describing research we had been doing into aspects of language and learning in our classrooms. Harold and Tony were excited at what we were doing. Youngsters as we teachers were, we were pleased and perhaps understandably flattered by this support. But Harold being Harold, this wasn’t just a pat on the head from the great. He took a detailed interest in the progress of the work, reading and commenting on every paper as it came out. He tried his hardest to get the papers published commercially by Ward Lock, and when that didn’t work out he wrote to the Schools Council about us. Partly as a result of his efforts, the Council advanced us a loan which enabled us to publish the papers in 1982 as a book called Becoming our own Experts.

Around 1980, Harold and some of his colleagues proposed that the Institute should host twice-yearly conferences for teachers, which would be opportunities for the exchange of research, theory and practice in language education so dear to his heart. These conferences came to be known as ‘Language in Inner-City Schools’. They were organised by a group of people inside and outside the Institute, of whom I was one. They turned into very large affairs; at their peak, around 500 people attended every January and June. More diligent archivists than I will know exactly how many conferences there were in total, but it was certainly more than 20, so they ran for more than 10 years. They covered every conceivable topic within urban language education. The summer 1984 conference, which coincided with Harold’s official though not of course actual retirement, was one of the best, and best attended. We called it ‘A Telling Exchange’. Harold’s keynote address to that conference was a magnificent fusion of his political beliefs with his lifetime’s accumulation of educational understanding; it was simply inspirational.

Harold’s lived principle — that those who have been raised up within any social structure, in his case the structure of the British education system, must use their advancement to support the efforts of those who work within the structure — came from his socialist understanding of a possible just society, and his work towards that goal. One of his favourite poems was Brecht’s Questions from a Worker who Reads. Most people in the room will know the poem well; I’ll just read out the first few lines.

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, so many times demolished,
who raised it up again so many times?
In what houses of gold-glittering Lima
did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China
was finished, did the masons go?

Harold validated, challenged and empowered the working lives of thousands of teachers, the builders of the structure of which he was a master mason. Many years ago I was one of those builders myself, and on behalf of thousands of us I salute his achievement and honour his memory.’

My other great teacher, Peter Hetherington, is still vigorously alive. We meet often, and continue to educate each other.

4. Living in London

I have lived in Camden Town, north London, for most of the years since I moved there first in the summer of 1974.

From 1974 to 1979, my brother Mark and I rented a flat on the top of a house in Albert Street, a street which had, even by the time we got there, almost completed its passage from shabbiness to elegance, a passage which had taken it, and other fortunate streets nearby, little more than a decade. The plumbing being installed in the house we lived in, and in houses up and down that street, was smarter and more reliable by far than that which John Betjeman had described in Business Girls:

From the geyser ventilators
Autumn winds are blowing down
On a thousand business women
Having baths in Camden Town.

Waste pipes chuckle into runnels,
Steam’s escaping here and there,
Morning trains through Camden cutting
Shake the Crescent and the Square.

Tradesmen of all kinds, not just plumbers, were profitably busy in Albert Street in the 70s. You could climb on to the asphalted roof of our wooden penthouse loft, and survey the street below. There were never fewer than a dozen skips to be seen at one time, such was the scale of the work in hand to convert houses from multi-occupancy by those without much money, who had paid rent for a single floor or a single room, to single occupancy by prosperous new owners. It was an entertainment to my brother and me to see how people — not the new owners — who wished to dispose of unwanted items would come apparently casually along beside a skip, carrying an old television set or a bag full of utility crockery, and at the last moment, after a quick furtive glance at the house whose owners had hired the skip, lob their waste into it, immediately accelerating away from the scene of their crime. Quite often, other people — also not the new owners — would then come dandering by, whistling and glancing into the skips, like men in a Soho street taking a peek into the doorways of the choice of strip clubs. After a reconnaissance up and down both pavements, having made their choice, these people would return to one or two of the skips and, with the same quick furtive glance at the house whose owners they were in a sense about to rob, would remove an item, more than once the very same thing that from our vantage point we had seen deposited only ten minutes previously.

London, like any city I think, is a wonderfully interesting, cluttered sight at roof-top level, where chimney pots and television aerials in their jagged multiplicity make the skyline. If you raise your eyes further and do a 360-degree turn, you can take in the great green slabs of Regent’s Park, Hampstead and Highgate, the Essex hills (these only on clear winter days with no heat haze), the tall blocks of the City and the Barbican with St Paul’s wedged between them, the southern hills of Sydenham and Norwood with their two television masts, the aeroplanes taking off and landing at Heathrow. You can concentrate on a thing as small as a starling, or as big as a city of eight million people. I would hate to live only at street level.

Frederick Seymour lived in the two-room flat below ours at number 63 Albert Street. He found it extraordinary that a flat which he and his wife had rented, back in the 1950s, for a few shillings a week, was now part of a house in a street where houses changed hands for six-figure sums. His accommodation remained basic. Apart from his two rooms, he had a toilet at the turn of the stairs. He kept his milk in a bowl of water on the landing. His heating in winter came from a paraffin stove. There was electric light, but no power points. He had no bathroom, and he courteously refused the offer of using a bath elsewhere in the house, preferring to go to Kentish Town, to the municipals, where he said hot water was ample. He resisted the installation of gas fires, whose fuel costs, he thought but did not say, would take too much of his old-age pension. He was an independent man, difficult to help.

He had been born not far away, in Somers Town, in 1895. I knew him for the last seven years of his life, in the course of which time I spent many hours in his living room, drinking his tea and hearing him talk. He was a great raconteur, and his speech was full of London mannerisms; not the same as dialect features (which he also used, though occasionally, not the full Cockney), which are easier to record, but choices of vocabulary and phraseology which signalled the pride but also the deference of a certain type of working-class Londoner of his generation: spirited, nobody’s fool, knowing his place. Harold Pinter has caught the tone of these mannerisms in his great early plays better than anyone else I know.

Mr Seymour told me how, when he was a boy, he often ran down in the morning from Somers Town to Oxford Street and queued with other children outside a high-class baker and confectioner for a pillowcase-full of stale loaves and cakes. This cost six pence. His mother, a widow with a large family, found the loaves and cakes useful in her household management. After returning with the pillowcase, Fred did a milk round before school. This work yielded two pence and a free pint every day. On Saturdays and Sundays the pay was double, and the milkman stood him a full breakfast, whatever he wanted, in the coffee house. These weekend rounds were the luxury of Fred’s week. He said he felt stylish up behind the pony. He groomed it in the stable after work.

His first job, after leaving school at 14, was as junior waiter at the Naval and Military Club, Pall Mall, where he helped the senior staff who waited on Churchill, Kitchener, Jellicoe and their like. He was taught about varieties of Havana cigar and different vintages of port. After a year he was promoted to the billiard room, where he kept the score for the waistcoated players. This was his favourite job. It required a good knowledge of the rules of billiards and snooker. He took pride in recording a score before a player had even turned to check that he’d done it. Tips were generous in that room, especially late in the evening.

Then the war came, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and survived in France for nearly three years. He was treated for the wound which brought him back to England in a hospital at St Leonard’s-on-Sea. ‘Glad to be out of it, I was, I don’t mind telling you. The lovely nurses, clean sheets every day. It felt like heaven after where I’d been.’

Once the simple fact of being still alive had lost its special glamour, he enquired about discharge. ‘No chance of that,’ he was told. ‘We’ll find a job for you.’ He was sent to another hospital, in the Nottinghamshire countryside, by the Trent, which housed some of the mental casualties of the war: men inside whose heads the most unbearable sights replayed themselves, time and again, which their imaginations, as if having eyeballs without eyelids, were compelled to see. On night shift by the telephone, he listened to the damage and the waste, revealed in weeping and howls of madness.

I often thought: to have been one of those to whom all that had happened by the age of 23; an ordinary board-school Londoner, to be plucked up and shown such sights.

His life after the war included: forty years as a bus conductor with London Transport; the General Strike, in support of which, he was proud to say, the crews at Chalk Farm garage were solid; the Blitz, in which he and his wife lost several friends, randomly annihilated by bombs happening to fall on their terraced house rather than someone else’s; a happy though childless marriage; enjoyment of days off from the buses when he and his wife would go to the West End, see a show, eat lunch and tea at a Lyons Corner House; a tendency to move from rented accommodation to rented accommodation because his wife liked a change of scene every so often; the death of his dear wife from cancer a year after he retired and just as they were looking forward to spending more time together; a largely solitary old age, made somewhat sociable by his willingness to serve whoever else was living in the house by giving them tea, cooking them breakfast, doing their laundry, feeding their cats.

‘Funny thing, these nights I find I dream a lot. There was this farm where I was billeted, not far from St Quentin, and a girl called Yvonne. She wanted me to stay and help them on the farm. I think she liked me, you know, lovely girl. But I was more or less engaged to Dolly and, well, it wouldn’t have been right. Anyway, last night I dreamt of both of them. There was Yvonne, crying her eyes out, telling me to come back when the war was over, and Dolly in her wedding dress kept coming in and saying, “Fred, I’ll never be a bride Fred, I’ll never be a bride.” Kept on saying it like that. Makes you think, don’t it, after all these years, to see their faces just as they were then.

And then I saw my sister. She was a lovely person my sister, kind, good hearted, do anything for you. She died of peritonitis in 1935. The doctor said the only chance for her would be a bottle of the best champagne. Course, that was before the NHS. Funny, you wouldn’t think champagne, but anyway, we went to Justerini and Brooks and bought the best. We didn’t study expense. We took it up the hospital, and it worked, well I say it worked, it bucked her up, she lived another ten days, never complained.

Yes, I dreamt about all three of them. When you get to be my age, dreams make you think about the things you done in life, and whether you was right, and what if you had acted different. You know. Here, sit down at the table and I’ll make a pot. You want a piece of toast? No extra charge!’

I moved away from Camden Town in 1979, so I saw Mr Seymour less frequently during the last two years of his life. He died at the good age of 86, of malnutrition, hypothermia, dehydration, gangrene of the right leg and other complications. During the last two weeks he was cared for in dignity and with love by the nurses of University College Hospital. For the costs of his funeral he had paid into a fund. Flowers brought to the funeral were sent to enliven a children’s home. Over refreshments in his room after the funeral, relatives who had made no contact with him for many years spoke familiarly of Uncle Fred. Those with uneasiest consciences gave out most noise.

For six and a half years, Helen and I lived on the thirteenth floor of a tower block in the East End. The flat was south facing, and gave an even more impressive view of London, in particular of the sweep of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Greenwich, than we had had from the Camden Town rooftop.

In January 1986, we bought a new flat back in Camden Town, on an estate built on reclaimed railway land north of St Pancras station. We still live there.

I like the fact that I am a long-term resident of one particular district of London. It takes years, in a great city, to build up a network of friends and acquaintances in an immediate locality; most fast-growing friendships spring from work, and we are prepared to travel all over the city and across the country in order to maintain them. To know simultaneously that you are known, and that in some cases your name is known, in local shops, restaurants, at the pub, at the dry cleaner, at the travel agent, at your hairdresser, is a complementary pleasure. This is my patch, my manor, you think to yourself with pride. People wave from across the street or through a shop window; not, of course, as frequently as they would if you lived in a village or small town; indeed, the ratio of people who greet you or even recognise you to people who ignore you during an average shopping trip in Camden Town on a Saturday must be one in several hundred, or less. But that one is all-important.

A particular joy of Camden Town is its proximity to Regent’s Park, which is the best urban park I know in the world. I also love the Jardin du Luxembourg, with its uncomfortable green metal chairs, its formality, its intense association, for me as for millions of others, with youth, our youth, with romance, the sense of being emotionally and sexually alive. Parc Guell delights me as an expression of Gaudi’s great and whimsical genius, and the bench seats, adorned with bright tessellation, are beautifully comfortable despite being made of concrete. (I remember reading that Gaudi asked a workman to take all his clothes off and sit down in a natural posture, so he could draw and then sculpt the ideal shape for receiving and holding the buttocks and the back.) I respect and admire Central Park and Hyde Park, the openness they offer to New Yorkers and Londoners, but they are both a bit too big for me, too straightforwardly rectangular. Regent’s Park is perfect: big enough, with a full diversity of spaces, places and ways. There is the open playing field to the north, by the zoo, and when I walk across it amongst teams of young men of all nationalities and ethnicities playing football, I allow a sentimental voice to murmur inside my head that the more parks there are in the world where teams of young men of all nationalities and ethnicities can play football, the less likely it is that we will obliterate ourselves some time this coming century, and then I think more sternly of Iraq and Afghanistan and Sudan and Israel and Palestine, and I’m not so sure, and I walk on. There is the rose garden, glorious of course from June onwards but somehow also satisfying in January, with its many beds of neatly pruned and manured rose bushes. There is the handsome Broad Walk, long enough for the sedentary flat-dweller and office-worker in need of exercise to get up a stride which makes the heart beat faster and harder. There are narrow, secret-feeling paths which lead nowhere, in spring and summer overhung with trailing, flowering plants. And, most wonderful of all for me, there are the trees.

I have wandered amongst the trees of Regent’s Park hundreds of times in the last 30 years. One of those hundreds of times was a Saturday afternoon in April 1998. I had gone to Tullio de Nardis, my hairdresser, for a haircut. He was busy and asked me to come back in an hour. I walked up to the park. It was intensely green after the previous night’s solid rain, and bright. I strayed amongst the chestnuts, ashes, beeches, alders and oaks near the Parkway entrance, seeing how the chestnut flowers were tight and hard, how the ash flowers were spindly and frothy, with magenta points at the ends of their fronds. The young beeches were in sturdy health, their trunks smooth to the touch. The trees stood in the deep green spread of new spring grass, and the wind was strong, the clouds moved fast.

A question to do with some of the trees in Regent’s Park, which perhaps a botanist could answer, but which I can’t, is this. How does it come about that two trees, of the same species, of the same age (to judge by the girth of their trunks), planted in the same kind of ground only a few yards from each other, can produce their buds, leaves, flowers and fruit, and lose the same, at widely different times? Not just a few days’ difference, but often three or four weeks’? My speculative suggestion is anthropocentric and probably foolish. Perhaps trees are individuals just as people are. Children learn to talk, to walk, to read at different ages. Some adults seem to age more quickly than others. At death, some yield easily, even willingly, while others cling determinedly to the last vestiges of life by their psychological fingernails.

One cold, clear night just before Christmas 1996 I was standing at the flower stall on the corner of Parkway and Camden High Street, buying some yellow tulips. A man whom I’d known by sight for 20 years greeted me cheerily. ‘Do you get in there much these days?’ he asked (meaning the Spread Eagle, which we both visited regularly). ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘but I’ve been away a lot recently.’ Then we talked and laughed about how the pub had become a noisy meeting place for the young, whereas it used to be an extension sitting room for the middle-aged. He said, ‘I looked around the other night, there were about a hundred people in there, and I thought, I’m the oldest person here.’ I said, ‘I went in early last Saturday evening, and these two bouncers, one male, one female, looked me up and down. They were wearing the same gear: black shirts, black trousers, black shoes, one gold earring each. They must have thought, “Old geyser wants to come in and read The Guardian. Won’t give us any trouble.”’ We had a good laugh. Standing there in the sharp winter night with our coats and hats on, I thought how satisfactory it was that I could have that conversation with a man whose name I didn’t even know, because we both qualify as old Camden Town hands who recognise each other.

The Spread Eagle, on the corner of Parkway and Albert Street, was for many years an extra sitting room for me. I could read books and the newspaper there, and write my diary without distraction, because there was no music, and the television in the corner, usually showing a football match, didn’t penetrate the pleasant, undifferentiated buzz of human conversation. There was a wooden shelf screwed to one of the walls, for people to put their drinks on; it also provided a solid rest for my notebook as I sat on a high stool and wrote.

There was always proper conversation to be had in the Spread Eagle, if I tired of reading or couldn’t think of anything else to put in the diary. A good companion was Ned Price, an Irish plumber, carpenter and all-round skilled man, whom I knew from 1975 until he died in about 2002. He used to be an absolute regular, coming in, usually with his wife Lil, at about ten o’clock. There was a period of a couple of weeks when he didn’t appear. Then there he was again, and I asked him where he had been. He had been over in Ireland; he had a house at Bray. He had been attending to the funeral of his aunt. ‘Did she live over there?’ I asked. ‘No, no, she lived in Camden Town.’ He said that a lot of London-based Irish people like to be buried in Ireland, partly for sentimental reasons and partly because the Catholic Church until quite recently disapproved of cremation, which is now the only means of disposal of bodies which can easily be arranged in London. ‘You know, John,’ he said, ‘you can go to Dublin for £59 Ryanair if you’re living. It costs a thousand pounds if you’re dead. And the body doesn’t even take up a seat. They stow it in the hold with the baggage.’

During the summer of 2005, the interior of the pub was transformed, so that it’s no longer a place for writing, and barely for reading. The television screens are brighter and more numerous, and there are vivid gambling machines. It’s hard to find a spot where they don’t distract the eye and ear. There’s more standing room, less sitting room. Crucially, the shelf has gone. It probably went into a skip, like the skips in Albert Street I used to look down on from the roof of number 63. I hope someone had the sense to come by and pull it out again, give it a next life.

5. Educational Broadcaster

In June 1992, I went to Channel 4 as deputy commissioning editor for schools television programmes, working for and with my friend Paul Ashton, who had been appointed the channel’s first commissioning editor the previous September. I knew almost nothing about how television is made. I had never (and have never) made a television programme myself. Fortunately for me, the channel needed someone who knew something about the school curriculum, and who could give advice on what programmes it should commission production companies to make. It decided that my want of knowledge about television could be rectified on the job.

There then followed nine years of intense pleasure. Schools broadcasting had been transferred from ITV to Channel 4 under the Communications Act 1990, and Paul and I had to set up the new service. Michael Grade, the channel’s chief executive, and John Willis, its director of programmes, were the best possible top bosses we could have had. Paul’s and my job combined considerable power with a breathtaking autonomy in the exercise of that power. Essentially, we were given about £10 million a year to spend on schools television, and left to get on and spend it. Almost never did anyone question our judgement. The job carried a modest glamour, a generous salary, and a sense of virtue that we were helping to educate the nation’s children while providing school teachers with resources which would make their lives easier and more satisfying.

Meanwhile, my friends and colleagues back in schools, local education authorities and university departments of education were being forced, by government legislation and edict, to submit to ever more stringent and mechanical forms of accountability, whose effect was to reduce the professional self-respect which should go with the highly honourable, often profoundly satisfying but rarely glamorous calling of teacher. So there was a touch of guilt in my pleasure. I had found a place to play.

The challenge which Paul and I undertook was to marry the prosaic written requirements of the school curriculum with the poetic visual possibilities of television. We wanted to use all the genres of television which educate, entertain and inform the general population, and put them to use for the benefit of teachers and their pupils. But we knew that if the programmes were not perceived by teachers as being relevant to their increasingly tightly constrained needs, they wouldn’t use them, so there would have been no point in making them. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, and we walked it.

When Channel 4 was started in 1982, it was the UK’s first ‘publisher-broadcaster’; that is, it made none of its own programmes. The job of its commissioning editors, in each department, was to spend their budgets wisely and imaginatively, choosing the independent companies best able to make the programmes, and supervising the production process from commission through to delivery of the finished programme or series. That, essentially, is what we did. We commissioned about 80 hours of new programmes a year. We had inherited from ITV some popular, long-running series supporting the big curriculum subjects; these we extended and improved. We invented new subject-specific series where there was a lack. We filmed on every continent on earth (Antarctica included). We commissioned dramas, historical, classic and contemporary; documentary programmes of all kinds; animation; a weekly news programme made in the Channel 4 News studio and presented by Jon Snow; arts programmes; a high-volume series for 3- to 5-year-olds which took a relaxed, play-based approach to early learning. We constructed the broadcast schedule of about 330 hours a year of new and repeat programmes (Monday to Friday mornings in the school terms). We had a team of education officers, each of them expert in a particular area or areas of the curriculum. They advised us on the content of future commissions, worked with the commissioned companies to make sure that the educational content of the programmes was sound, and promoted the service to schools. We had a small publishing house which sold videos of the programmes, and books, CD-ROMs and other resources to accompany them. When Channel 4 opened its website, we had a place on it, and began to commission audio-visual resources which would be available to teachers and pupils from the site.

In autumn 1999, Paul moved sideways to a post commissioning projects for schools in the new computer-based media, and I took over his position. We still worked closely together. Throughout the years of our collaboration, we never forgot how fortunate we were to be doing the job, even when the pressure of work was intense, and even when, as once or twice happened, we got angry with each other.

The principal highlight of my work in 2000 and 2001 was my involvement in the filming of all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s stage plays. Beckett on Film was a magnificent project, a co-production between Channel 4, the Irish broadcaster RTE, the Irish Film Board and Tyrone Films. In the course of my work as the channel’s commissioning editor on the project I met some of the best actors, directors and writers working in film, television and the theatre. I became good friends with the project’s two producers, Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney. Here’s an entry in my diary, describing one of the many wonderful experiences I had in course of the project.

17 April 2000 Kerfontaine

Last Friday I had one of the experiences of my life, in the course of the Beckett project we’re doing. We were filming a short, late play called Catastrophe, which is set in a theatre. The shoot was in Wilton’s Music Hall off Cable Street, near where Helen and I used to live. The action of Catastrophe has a theatre director and his assistant arranging the appearance on the stage of a silent, still figure, an actor somehow reduced to a stage prop, who is called the protagonist. David Mamet was the (real) director. The theatre director was played by Harold Pinter, and the protagonist by John Gielgud. I went down to the shoot on the last afternoon, and watched filming for about two hours. During the course of that time Michael Colgan, one of the producers, told me that Gielgud’s agent, Duncan Heath, had told him the previous day that Gielgud had decided that this would definitely be his last professional performance. Today was his 96th birthday.

The first hour involved takes which didn’t require Gielgud in person, and they used a stand-in. Then he appeared in a wheelchair. I had lost track, as so often happens when great people quietly disappear from regular view towards the end of their lives, of how old and frail he has become. They lifted his wheelchair on to the stage, and when he needed to he got out of the wheelchair, with help, and stood with a stick while they prepared the shot, and then managed without the stick while they filmed. He worked for about an hour. The feeling of nervousness and reverence in the crew was palpable. Two or three mistakes were made, necessitating reshooting, because the normally imperturbable riggers and electricians knew what a delicate and extraordinary moment this was. We were watching John Gielgud give the last performance of his career, a career which had spanned more than 80 years. We were witnessing the last representative of his great generation of actors saying goodnight. David Mamet directed him very gently, but with a precision which indicated that this was still a professional contract, not an old folks outing. When the shooting was done, there was a photo-session for a minute or two, with Gielgud back in his wheelchair, and Mamet, Pinter and the other actors standing around him. Then there was prolonged and spontaneous applause, and Sir John left. It was deeply moving, and I kept thinking how extraordinary it was that in some way I was connected with this man’s last professional engagement.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Michael Colgan brought Pinter over to meet me. We had a two-minute conversation, with nothing extraordinary said, but I simply told him what an honour it was to meet him, and how much I had enjoyed The Room and Celebration, the double bill of his first and most recent plays, which are on at the Almeida at the moment. As Pinter left the theatre when he had completed his part, David Mamet called out, in what must be an American convention, ‘It’s a work finish on Harold Pinter, ladies and gentlemen,’ and we all applauded. Mamet himself was charming when I met him, and his directing style was calm, confident and affirming. His wife Rebecca Pigeon, who played the director’s assistant, was nice too. All in all, it was an extraordinary afternoon, and I returned to C4 for a humdrum meeting at 4.30 in a state of elation.

Beckett on Film is the only work in the visual media in which I’ve been involved which will have any longevity; the only significant cultural landmark to which I’ve made a contribution.

At its foundation, Channel 4 was given a constitution which was then, and I think is still, unique in the world of broadcasting. It would be both a commercial and a public-service organisation. It would make money from advertising, but the money would go round in circles, paying for the best television programmes the commissioning editors and independent producers could think of, thus attracting more revenue. There would be no profits, in the sense of money needing to be paid out each year to shareholders, because there would be no shareholder other than the UK government. There would be a strict Chinese wall between the commissioning executives and the people collecting revenue from advertisers. Never let an advertising executive suggest to a commissioning executive what he or she should commission.

That was the bold conception. It was a vision still in active operation during the first years of Paul’s and my time at the channel. Then Michael Grade and John Willis left, and less impressive people took their places. In summer 2001, the Channel 4 directors made a dreadful error. They launched a new arm of the channel, called 4Ventures. This was to be an explicitly profit-making undertaking, which would contain the channel’s wonderful feature film production arm, its retail book sales operation, a new horse-racing venture, numerous other departments and… the schools service. For the first time, Paul and I would have our commissioning judgements checked by people who were looking not at how well we were serving the schools, but at how shrewd our ‘investments’ were, from a profit-making point of view.

The directors appointed City bankers to run 4Ventures. These men were deeply ignorant of the nature of our work. Some of the time they knew the price of everything and the value of nothing; most of the time they didn’t even know the price of anything. Young acolytes with recently acquired MBAs appeared. They kept making appointments to see us, so we could explain what we were doing. The idea that we were spending about £10 million a year of Channel 4’s money (a figure which had dropped from about 5% of the programme budget when we started in 1992 to about 2% now) trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the UK’s schools seemed as queer to them as a nine-pound note.

The person who had become my immediate boss, once Paul had moved sideways and I had been promoted, left. The top banker told us that head-hunters would be hired to find a replacement for her. I asked him whether internal candidates would be given the chance to apply for the position. The thought had obviously not occurred to him. In the event, the position was advertised on Channel 4’s internal website. It went up there on a Thursday evening, with a closing date of the following Monday for receipt of applications. I had an active weekend. I and one other internal candidate (not Paul) applied. We were both interviewed. Neither of us got the job.

Paul left Channel 4 in May 2002, I in June 2003. Our glorious long moment was over. We had been given the enormous privilege of spending a lot of money on doing some good in the world, working within an organisation whose spirit was close to ours: studiedly non-hierarchical, insouciant, but under cover of that tone determined to produce the very best. And we did. But now the people who thought they knew about management and money, but who didn’t actually know much about either, had caught up with us and decided that we were shambling do-gooders who could no longer be trusted, as once we had been under an old regime. So it was time to go. Our place to play had been found out.

During the two years between summer 2001 and the day I left the channel, I experienced, for the first time in my life, a bad kind of stress, which I knew was damaging me. It was a stress which comes from a loss of power, and from being directed by people for whom one feels no respect or, in some cases, active contempt.

Despite these bad feelings, in this last period I commissioned numerous projects of which I am proud, in particular a film of Twelfth Night starring Chewetel Ejiofor, Parminder Nagra, Claire Price, David Troughton and Michael Maloney, directed by Tim Supple; and a film based on Jacqueline Wilson’s novel The Illustrated Mum, directed by Cilla Ware and starring Michelle Collins. It took cunning, with both these films, to get to the point where they were legal contracts which couldn’t be cancelled. The people who thought they knew about money couldn’t see that they would make enough. I enjoyed the practice of that cunning. In each case, once shooting began, I had no anxiety at all; I knew the films would be good.

4Ventures turned out to be a financial catastrophe, and was closed down. The bankers left, clutching hundreds of thousands of pounds of severance pay. The schools service has returned to the main body of Channel 4. The only schools television programmes and other educational materials which have been profitable to the channel in the UK and abroad are those which Paul and I commissioned. The shambling do-gooders knew a thing or two about making money after all.

Since October 2004, I’ve been working part-time, and very happily, at Teachers TV.

6. Kerfontaine and Albert

During the 1970s and 1980s, Helen and I nearly always took our long teachers’ summer holidays in Spain or Italy. My memories of those Julys and Augusts are of heat, of the beauty of landscapes, of long lunches and late dinners with friends, of meetings and farewells at airports and railways stations, of visits to museums, churches and art galleries where I did my best to pay attention to the culture of previous centuries in temperatures which did not help that attention, of the exquisite pleasure of swimming in lakes, rivers and the warm Mediterranean, of lovely quiet, cool early mornings sitting outside a rented house with coffee while everyone else was still asleep.

In 1990, we bought a house and some land in the Morbihan, in southern Brittany. The place is called Kerfontaine. We have spent all our summers there since, and most of the shorter holidays at New Year and Easter.

Kerfontaine is a granite cottage standing in a hectare and a half of land which slopes down to a stream called the Ruisseau du Saint Sauveur, which later flows into the river Scorff, which reaches the sea at Lorient. The house is about twelve kilometres north of Lorient, in quiet countryside down a straight single-track two-kilometre road which ends at the front gate and becomes a track. It is secluded, but not remote. Cléguer, the nearest village with shops, is five minutes’ drive; Plouay, the nearest small town, with more shops, petrol, bars, restaurants and banks, is ten minutes’ drive.

The upper half of the land around the house has a lawn, a large vegetable garden, a meadow and an orchard. The lower half is a wood, whose trees are principally oak, sweet chestnut and beech. Such a substantial amount of ground requires constant knowledgeable attention. We had no idea when we bought the place who would give it such attention. Certainly not us. Luckily M. Peltier, the previous owner, a skilled gardener who had over a period of 19 years in his retirement created Kerfontaine as we saw it on a bright day in February 1990, but who now was growing too old to keep up with it, had foreseen the problem before we had, and introduced us that summer to an acquaintance of his: Albert Penhouët.

Albert and I were close friends for fourteen years. He worked at Kerfontaine almost every day, whether we were there or not. Over the course of a year, he spent far more time there than we did, and came to regard the place as his domaine. He had been a builder by trade, and in the early 1950s had built his own house, working every weekend and holiday for two years. It stood next to a road which now carried constant heavy traffic, and so Kerfontaine granted him peace, as well as an income to supplement his pension, and a challenge on a scale worthy of his exceptional talent as a gardener (and stone-mason; for example the fontaine of the place’s name was a muddy trickle straight out of the ground when he arrived; now it is a clear pool, a habitat for newts and frogs, surrounded by granite walls with flower beds let into their tops).

An event which I think contributed to M. Peltier’s decision to sell the place was the hurricane of October 1987, which tore through Brittany a couple of hours before it arrived at the south coast of England. It had left many fine mature trees uprooted in the wood. Although M. Peltier had chopped up the trunks for firewood, it was beyond his powers to remove the stumps, which littered the wood in a way which offended his sense of good order. The removal of the stumps was one of Albert’s first priorities. He blew them up, using home-made explosive — castor sugar and fertiliser — which he packed into a deep narrow hole which he had drilled into the trunk, and fuse wire he had obtained from a friend who worked in the dockyard supply store in Lorient. He told me not to tell his wife Rosa that he was doing this, but I knew that she knew. Sometimes I helped him. The method worked perfectly, with even the biggest stumps obligingly splitting into manageable pieces. The only worrying moments were when the explosive failed to go off. It was hard to know how long to wait before we could be certain that the flame in the fuse had already died, and could emerge safely from behind the tree where we had gone to hide. But there were no accidents.

Over a period of several years, Albert then replanted the wood with young trees which he had taken from other woods. Although this was technically stealing, he explained that the donor woods had long been abandoned by their owners, had become jungles where these saplings would never have come to anything, choked by the unmanaged growth around them. They would do much better in their new place. Once planted there, they needed immediately to be protected from the attentions of deer, who came in the early mornings and at evening twilight and would, left to their own devices, destroy every young tree in the place by stripping off the bark all round their thin trunks. So each new tree was protected with wire netting.

Albert was an indefatigable and perfectionist vegetable gardener, immediately impressed by the possibilities offered by a potager the size and proportions of a hockey pitch, surrounded by a neat laurel hedge which protected young plants from the wind. From 1991 onwards, the potager produced vegetables in industrial quantities: French beans, carrots, turnips, beetroot, peas, lettuces, radishes, endives, tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, onions, shallots, cucumbers, courgettes, gherkins (for pickling), leeks, potatoes. Of all these, Albert’s favourites were the two last. He admired the leek in that, once planted in the summer, it would grow and stand all autumn and winter in the ground, in all weathers, in fact preferring a cold winter to a wet, mild one, and could be cut as needed. It posed no storage problems. In late summer, he would cut the tops of his young growing leeks two or three times with a pair of shears, to encourage them to fatten.

Size mattered with Albert, and nowhere more so than with his potatoes. He would plant about 30 rows of potatoes every year at Kerfontaine, in addition to the smaller but still substantial quantity he planted in his own potager at home. Although of an organic turn of mind as a gardener (the fertiliser he put on the potager was either animal manure, wood ash, leaf mould or a mixture of fish meal and seaweed which we bought in sacks locally), he always sprayed his potatoes. Otherwise, he said, blight was certain. When harvest time came in August, the big question was: how big are the potatoes? If he were disappointed by their size, it was in vain that I pointed out to him how sweet was the flavour of the smaller potato; that small potatoes fetched a higher price in the shops than did large ones; that baby vegetables had become all the rage. For him, a small crop was a poor crop. He was never happier than when pulling six or eight large potatoes, each filling the grasp of his hand, from one plant.

For two years, I helped him lift the potatoes, using the tool specially made for that task, which has, attached to the bottom of the wooden haft, a double-ended metal piece. One end is rectangular, to pull away the earth of the raised potato beds from around the plants; the other is triangular, to ease the potatoes from the earth and the roots of the plants, and to raise them to hand height. Once in the hand of the harvester, the potatoes were put either into the wheelbarrow (these were the large potatoes, to be admired), or into one bucket (these the medium-sized potatoes, to be regretted but still consumed by humans), or into another bucket (small potatoes, to be flung disrespectfully into that bucket and destined to feed pigs and chickens). But I accidentally cut into too many potatoes for Albert’s liking. ‘Tu fais trop de frites,’ he said. I should think the number of potatoes where I made frites in the course of the three-day harvest was never more than twenty, and these could of course be eaten immediately, so there was no wastage, but it was too many for Albert. From 1993 onwards, to my relief, I was relegated to the task — pleasant, with regular breaks — of pushing the wheelbarrow full of large potatoes up to the cellar at the back of the house, where two stalls had been made ready to receive them, one for his share and one for ours. We divided all the produce fifty-fifty.

The size of our share of the potato crop, and that of our share of the apple harvest, which was waiting for us when we went to Kerfontaine after Christmas, the apples having been picked by Albert in late September and stacked in the cellar in dozens of boxes, were the most striking examples of the absurd situation we had got ourselves into by having such a productive garden and such an enthusiastic and beloved gardener. Albert had grown up and lived his life sharing the belief, correct for obvious economic reasons once but now declining amongst the young, even in the countryside, that self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables was a great good. Here we were, London apartment dwellers, utter city types, a childless couple, suddenly producing fruit and vegetables almost as if we were market gardeners, carting them back across the English Channel, risking my back carrying sacks and boxes up to our flat (no lift) with its small kitchen, fitted carpet and central heating, and becoming tedious in trying to palm the produce, delicious as it was, off on to any friend who would take it.

In 1995, we halved the problem by putting one side of the potager down to grass, with roses, dahlias and gladioli at the bottom. But the surplus was still excessive, and Albert’s productive desire undiminished. We eventually achieved a solution only by deceiving him; the one time I did such a thing. There is a nation-wide charity in France called Emmaüs, founded by a priest, which does excellent work in helping recovering alcoholics, drug addicts and others who have lost their way to rediscover a purpose in life. They learn craft skills, for example in the repair of furniture. People give unwanted goods of all kinds to the Emmaüs centres. They are sold there at very reasonable prices, having been repaired or reconditioned if necessary. At weekends, the centre a few kilometres from us is crowded with bargain-hunters. One day when I was there, I asked if they accepted food. They did indeed, having about forty people to feed every day.

I tentatively suggested to Albert that we might give a little of his delicious produce to this good cause. Although his political views were republican, in the French sense, emphasising the solidarity and égalité of all citizens, and although his habitual social instincts were generous, he was not keen on becoming a vegetable-growing charity worker. So we fell into the habit, on leaving Kerfontaine at the end of a holiday loaded to the shock-absorbers with fruit and vegetables, of making a short, furtive detour to Emmaüs, there to unload about nine tenths of what he had stacked so carefully into the car, to the great gratitude of the workers on the reception desk. I felt my moral status, as we drove away, to be mixed. Albert never found out, thank God.

He loved to graft trees, as well as plant them. He had regular success with apples, pears and plums. He would transplant a wild tree from a donor wood, and let it establish itself for a couple of years. Then he cut the trunk clean off about a metre from the ground, and made two incisions in the exposed wood with a short sharp knife. Into each incision he introduced a cutting from another tree, whose reputation for producing large and tasty fruit was already established. He surrounded the site of the operation with grafting mastic, easily available from gardening shops in the country. Then he squeezed the trunk tight where the cuttings were in it, bound it with heavy-duty sticky tape, and secured the tape with strong thin string. ‘On va voir,’ he said. ‘Rien n’est sûr.’ But about three quarters of his graftings of these trees worked. He tried exotic variations: two different kinds of apple grafted on to the same trunk, or even an apple and a pear together.

The one tree which he never managed to graft was the sweet chestnut. This tree is ubiquitous in Brittany, and valued as much for its excellent carpentry wood as for its fruit. Albert thought no garden complete without at least one grafted chestnut, and he made careful and repeated efforts to graft them at Kerfontaine, using a special mastic, but always failed. He said it was difficult, délicat. He thought he didn’t have the flair for it. At last he gave up, and I see from my diary that on 3 January 1999 we went and bought tall, already grafted chestnuts from a garden centre. We put them into deep holes, surrounded by good rotted leaf manure and with stout supporting posts, amid much philosophical musing about how they would be there in 200 years’ time, ‘après que nous sommes partis’.

Albert was always happy when he was doing something practical with me, his paysan moquer, which means, half French half Breton, something like ‘educated townie peasant’. When he mowed the lawn, the meadow and the orchard, I emptied the lawn-mower box when it was full and walked the wheelbarrow to and from the grass heap. One summer we built a flight of concrete steps down the side of the wood, to make it easier to descend to the stream. We carried the sacks of cement down to the bank of the stream, and made the concrete on a square of plywood, the stream providing the water and sand. We poured the concrete from buckets into the long descending series of shuttering which Albert had made, starting at the top. One winter he created an entire new hedge up the other side of the wood, using laurel cuttings taken from another hedge by the lane. He had planted the cuttings out for a season. I handed these to him one by one from the wheelbarrow. He stuck them into a trench of leaf-mould and peat which he had set into the top of the bank marking the boundary on that side. I should think there were about 200 of these, and every one took.

It was a ritual with us that when I arrived at the beginning of a holiday, we would walk the whole place, slowly and deliberately, commenting on every feature, and in particular on things that were different since last time: clearings, cuttings, plantings, graftings, growth. He was the genius of the place; his hand was everywhere.

Albert loved the humour of the chance event. One day he went to his usual barber for a haircut. The barber also sold fishing tackle, penknives, waterproof hats and other accessories for the outdoor male. The shop was unexpectedly closed. There was a notice on the door: Fermé à cause de l’ouverture. This was a reference — which the barber had taken it for granted that his customers would understand — to the opening of the fishing season. Albert treasured the phrase.

Early on in our acquaintance with Albert, Helen and I were invited to a wedding one summer Saturday. It had been a magnificent year for onions and shallots. Every day for a week now, Albert had put his harvested brown beauties out to dry in the sunshine once any dew had left the grass, hundreds of them in dozens of flat wooden boxes. I had brought them in at nightfall. On Saturday afternoons in spring and summer, Albert looked after another, much smaller garden. When he left Kerfontaine at 11.45 on this Saturday morning to go for his lunch, he put the boxes out in the sunshine, but strongly advised me to bring them in before going to the wedding, just in case there was a change in the weather while we were away. I forgot about this advice, and when we came out of the house three hours later, dressed in wedding-guest clothes, and I saw the boxes, I looked at the sky, which was an impeccable steely blue with not a cloud to be seen, and listened for the wind, of which there was not a breath, and decided to chance it.

After the ceremony at the mairie, we went to a school hall nearby to drink a vin d’honneur. After the vin d’honneur, we had a twenty-minute drive to the restaurant. Some clouds were crossing the sky, I noticed.

Once you are stuck into a long celebratory meal in France, there is really no way out of it. Course followed course in leisurely style, and proceedings were slowed further, once the wine had begun to have its effect, when people got up to sing songs and tell stories and jokes between courses. The wine must have had its effect on me, because my vanity allowed me to be easily persuaded to sing an English folk-song for the company, which, though I say it myself, stopped the show. There is a charming tradition at weddings in Brittany (and perhaps in other parts of France too) that if a singer has particularly pleased the party, all the members of the other gender, from oldest to youngest, queue up to kiss him or her. Pleasant as it was to be embraced by so many women and girls in such a short space of time, I noticed with concern that the room was growing dark. The lights were turned on. As I sat down, outwardly flushed with my success but inwardly deeply concerned about the well-being of several hundred onions and shallots, there was a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, and a downpour. The electricity was cut off for about half an hour, and candles were brought out. I thought of driving home, getting the boxes under cover, and returning to the party, but I knew that to leave now, even temporarily, while my profile was so high, would be a regrettable social gaffe.

The rain continued steadily for the rest of the evening. At about two the following morning, I stood on the lawn in my elegant clothes and surveyed the wreckage. A whole season’s efforts come to naught because of my fecklessness. I went to bed racked by guilt.

At daybreak, beautiful weather resumed. Soon after seven I sat down amongst the boxes with a pile of new kitchen cloths, of which fortunately we had a good stock. (I had asked Helen whether I might put her hair-dryer to an unconventional use, but she had refused the request.) By lunchtime I had dried every single onion and shallot with individual care. The sun was beginning to get to work on them again, but the soaking they had taken was too profound to be disguised in the course of a few hours. I knew that Albert and Rosa were likely to come down in the afternoon, not to work, it being Sunday, but because, quite rightly, they often came for a turn on Sunday afternoons, enjoying the place like their own private Fontainebleau.

When they arrived, Albert was initially impressed that I had thought to put the boxes out for the day. But I confessed the truth immediately, deeply apprehensive about how he would receive the news. So far from being angry or scornful, he was seized with a mirth which caused him to laugh uncontrollably for several minutes as he handled a few samples of the abused produce, and which continued to overtake him periodically for the rest of the afternoon and for weeks afterwards. ‘Toi, en smoking, devant la catastrophe!’ he would repeat, mock-heroically. And the image and the phrase became a motif of our relationship, the borrowed English word perfectly representing the difference between us.

The onions and shallots were none the worse for their experience, and lasted until the following Easter.

In August 2003, Albert discovered that he had cancer of the oesophagus. He had never smoked in his life, but in his 40 years as a builder, much of which time was spent working on the reconstruction of Lorient after the war, he must have inhaled a lot of dust, including asbestos dust. Perhaps that caused the cancer. At the end of September, he went into a clinic near Lorient for an operation to remove the cancerous section of his oesophagus. The surgeon pulled up his stomach, that elastic organ, and sewed it to the lower edge of the remaining healthy part of the oesophagus.

I had been with Albert for three months that summer, since we had gone to Kerfontaine at the beginning of July, two weeks after I had taken early retirement from my job at Channel 4. He continued to work at Kerfontaine until two days before the operation. At the end of his last day, having put all his tools away, he said, ‘Maintenant c’est tout propre avant mes congés.’

After the operation, he went to a recuperation hospital, where I visited him for several days in late October. He hoped then to make a full recovery, although he was still very weak. On New Year’s Eve, Helen and I celebrated with him and Rosa at their house. In early March of 2004, he came down to Kerfontaine and planted onions and shallots — the first vegetables of the new season. Soon after that, he went to hospital for a check-up, to be told that there was a cancerous spot on his liver. Later, the cancer spread to his bones.

In the midst of all this, he and Rosa moved house. The house he had built 50 years previously had been compulsorily purchased by the state and would be demolished, to allow for the road outside to be widened to a dual carriageway. He and Rosa found a house on a quiet estate in Plouay, which they bought with their compulsory-purchase money. But he only lived there for four months. Even so, he began to clear part of the front lawn there, which he intended to turn into a vegetable garden.

The last few weeks of Albert’s life were miserable for him and for everyone close to him, particularly Rosa. The increasingly heavy doses of morphine and other pain-reducing drugs made him verbally aggressive and sometimes deranged, though there were also periods of quiet and lucidity. In the end, it became impossible to care for him at home, and he went into hospital about four days before he died. The last words he said to Rosa were, ‘C’est fini pour moi, mais tu dois être courageuse.’

He died on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of course a holiday in the Catholic countries. I remember him coming down one year to dig potatoes on 15 August. I asked him what he was doing working on a holiday. ‘Je ne suis ni croyant ni pratiquant,’ he replied, with emphasis on the two significant words, and carried on digging. Nonetheless, when I went to see him in the funeral parlour on 16 August, a crucifix stood at his head and a string of rosary beads had been entwined in his fingers.

As I looked at him (only the third dead person I’d seen in 53 years), I suddenly and certainly knew that no part of him had gone to another place, and either now existed or would in the future exist in some different but recognisable, transcendent form. That farewell meeting took me in a quarter of an hour to complete atheism, rather than the agnosticism I’d always maintained since emerging from my religious childhood, which had been based on the argument that it’s arrogant to insist that our present state of consciousness is the only one that exists.

The church at Cléguer was full for his funeral on 17 August. The priest, who hadn’t known him, had been properly briefed and spoke well about his qualities: his skill as a builder, his love of gardening, his loyalty to family and friends, the reliability of his word. The priest had to admit that Albert’s journey through life hadn’t brought him by way of the church very often. But, he said with deep sentimentality, ‘In these days just after the feast of the Blessed Virgin, perhaps we can say that Albert, like Our Lady, kept these things in his heart.’ Albert would have snorted, and been gratified at the turnout for his farewell.

Albert was my good, close friend for 14 years, and Kerfontaine has been and always will be associated with him in my mind. I wrote a few lines of poetry in tribute to him, which were engraved on a plaque which stands on the family tomb in Cléguer cemetery, where his ashes are. He could have been buried in the vault; there is room. But he wanted to be cremated. ‘Plus pratique,’ he said.

Rosa gave me admirably clear instructions for the writing of the poem. ‘Six lines maximum,’ she said. ‘There isn’t space for more.’ When we went to the undertaker with the text, she (a female undertaker) counted up the letters and punctuation marks, and worked out on her calculator that, at the standard rate of four euros per letter or punctuation mark, the bill would come to more than a thousand euros, including the cost of the stone. I said I was happy to pay that. ‘Non, non, monsieur,’ she said. ‘C’est trop. Je vous ferai un prix.’ She gave me a 30% discount.

Rosa and I picked up the plaque one Saturday morning in September, took it straight to the cemetery and laid it on the tomb. It was a beautiful bright day, and there was no-one else there.

Albert Penhouët 1931–2004

Ci-gisent les cendres d’un maçon, d’un planteur.
Les pierres comme les arbres poussaient sous ses mains.
Les murs d’après guerre du pays de Lorient
Les feuilles qui, grâce à lui, feront parler le vent
Un amour précieux qui dura cinquante ans
Lui rendent honneur.

I thought how chancy it is to have your words inscribed in stone. Suppose the stone-cutter, in a moment of inattention or perhaps unused to such a non-standard job, made a mistake just before the end? The only ‘mistake’ in this job is one that no-one other than me will notice. I put a hyphen between après and guerre, since the phrase is a compound noun. The stone-cutter left it out. I suppose the omission saved me four euros minus 30%.

7. Politics

I remember my first political emotion. I was five; the year was 1956, and I knew that the Russians were bad and that I felt sorry for the poor, good Hungarians. I must have listened to my parents’ conversation or heard something on the radio. (The Suez crisis made no impression on me.) Despite the fact that this first feeling was, unwittingly, anti-Communist, my political instincts, well before I was able to articulate any kind of political opinion, were of the left. I was a supporter of whichever party would promote equality, challenge injustice and oppression, help the poor and the weak. When I was fourteen, I read most of George Orwell’s books, including The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalunya. They, and the example of Orwell’s life, were an inspiration. They said enough to me to confirm an attitude to the purpose of politics which will never leave me. I became, and have been ever since, a democratic socialist: a socialist because, without political attitudes and structures which build and strengthen people’s responsibilities to each other and care of each other, and which strive to reduce unjust inequalities of all kinds, ‘society’ is not worthy of the name; a democratic socialist because some disastrous things have happened in the name of socialism when its ideals have been co-opted and perverted by authoritarian regimes. The twentieth century saw mass murder take place in the name of socialism; mass murder was not, alas, the preserve of regimes based on fascist ideology or simply on military might.

When I went to university, and when I was teaching in London schools, I met plenty of people who had taken far-left positions and joined revolutionary organisations, Trotskyist, Stalinist or Maoist. Some of them possessed formidable powers of argument. They could discuss the ills of the capitalist system and catalogue the evils of American imperialism eloquently. Nor could the Trotskyists be accused of turning a blind eye to oppression within the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Their analysis was ferocious and forensic, whether of Stalinism (they called it state capitalism) or of Western capitalism.

The reason I was never tempted to join a far-left organisation was that the far-left people I met, however intelligent and well-informed their critical thinking, lived within a single, central self-delusion about the future. They actually thought that there was going to be a violent revolution across the Western world some time soon, and that they were going to play a leading part in it. This belief was so clearly at variance with reality that I began to avoid wasting my time in conversations with them. Then I realised that the hope and expectation of a revolution which they expressed was a secular equivalent of the millennarianism which I had encountered first in the Plymouth Brethren meeting hall in Drayton, Portsmouth in the mid-1950s. The Second Coming; the Revolution. Both expected at an uncertain date in the not-too-distant future. Thereafter, the establishment of a perfect and happy society, whether in heaven or on earth. Of course (as a revolutionary critic reading this would quickly point out) there have actually been violent revolutions in the recent history of the world, whereas the Second Coming remains within the realms of mystical speculation. There is no objective reason (objective — a favourite Marxist word which I remember often being used in arguments to prevent contradiction, rather as children in playground games at my primary school in the 1950s used to say fainites) why there should not be another revolution, anywhere, any time, if circumstances are favourable. But my revolutionary friends could not see that circumstances in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s were emphatically not favourable to revolution. It was obvious to me that, in Britain, only some form of gradualist progressive politics, grounded in imperfect reality and operating within the structures of parliamentary democracy, could bring about a more just society and improve the lot of people who had less — less money, less security, poorer education, worse housing, worse health care. I decided that the only organisation with any chance of forming a government to do these things was the Labour Party.

In passing, and having just been scornful of some people who called themselves Marxists, I should acknowledge the genius of Marx, who — like other epoch-making geniuses such as Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein — brought about a way of understanding the world and humans’ place in it which simply hadn’t been possible before. The recognition of the centrality of economic relations in human history; the idea of surplus value in the exploitation of labour; the profound practical but also philosophical wisdom of dialectical materialism: these are great bold beams of light.

But to acknowledge the genius of Marx is not to condone all the things that have been done with his ideas. The tragedy of Marxism is that, as a revolutionary doctrine, it began by being the informing ideology behind the emancipation of millions of people from serfdom, and ended up being the theoretical excuse for gigantic systems of oppression which had themselves to be overthrown. And Marx was wrong in predicting that capitalism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Capitalism has been immensely flexible in adapting its form so that, in most of the world, people of all levels of income prefer the freedoms which market economies and parliamentary democracies bring, as long as there is a social element to the organisation of nations to offset capitalism’s native cruelty. What would Marx have said had he seen capitalist West Germany ‘saving’ communist East Germany? Or had he known that in East Germany millions of people were spying on their neighbours for the state, in the name of socialism and freedom? Or had he seen that, immediately after the collapse of communism in Russia, the most disastrous excesses of capitalism would create billionaires in a tiny number of years, as if 70 years of the idea of the people owning the resources of a nation had been a fantasy or a dream? Or had he seen the only significant nation still calling itself communist, China, advancing rapidly, pulling millions of people out of poverty, because its economic system is in fact capitalist?

I joined the Labour Party soon after Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election. I came to hate, with every fibre of my being, the Conservative government that mutilated and divided our country between 1979 and 1997. The intensity of that feeling has never left me. Meanwhile, I watched Labour inflict the wounds on itself — the struggle over Militant, the emergence of the SDP — which gave the Conservatives such commanding majorities in three successive elections. When Labour lost a fourth election in 1992, I was close to political despair, even though this defeat was much narrower than the first three had been. Perhaps there never again would be a government in Britain whose values and ambitions would even approximate to my own, to those of hundreds of people known to me, to millions of others unknown to me, a group henceforth and for ever destined to be an honourable and ignored minority. Perhaps the acquisitiveness of each individual, contributing in his or her little way to the great clashes of unbridled market forces, was what would constitute society from now on. Society would be nothing more than that: the accretion and interaction of the acquisitive desires of many individuals, as Margaret Thatcher had more or less said.

Once the pain of the 1992 defeat had worn off, the years between 1992 and 1997 brought with them a mounting sense of excitement and anticipation, as the Labour Party made itself more and more electable, and the Conservative government, its already small majority diminishing with every by-election, got itself into deeper and deeper difficulties. I identified myself unequivocally with the modernisers and the pragmatists in the Labour Party, simply because I was tired of losing. I did not want to spend much more of my life being associated with the nice guys who come second. An imperfect Labour government would be better than a perfect Labour opposition. Neil Kinnock’s stand against Militant had been the first sign that Labour actually desired to govern Britain again; desired to govern Britain as it is, with its naturally conservative electorate and its overwhelmingly right-wing press, rather than as some Labour activists hopelessly wished that it would become. John Smith, had he lived, would I think have been a great Labour Prime Minister, of a more traditional kind than Tony Blair was. But it was the realism of the reforms which Blair ushered in, and particularly the abandonment of Clause 4, which made it increasingly likely, when the next opportunity came, that there would be a shift to Labour amongst those crucial, uncommitted, middle-ground voters who actually decide elections in Britain.

I’m going to include here some entries from my diary, made around the time of the 1997 election. The writing makes me wince now; I am certainly a sadder and possibly a wiser man. I’m putting the entries in to remind myself of the intensity of my feelings when Labour won. I’m not going to air-brush those feelings away to protect myself from embarrassment. The diary entries weren’t the outpourings of an innocent; as I wrote in the first entry, I was already 45 years old. I was just overjoyed that some good things were about to be done in my name and with my support.

30 April 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

Tomorrow we vote. I’m sure that Blair will be Prime Minister on Friday, and so is just about everyone else. It’s hard to believe that the socially wickedest and economically most incompetent government of my lifetime is about to end. I’m 45 and, by most definitions, middle-aged. When Thatcher won in 1979 I was 27. The most vigorous though not necessarily the most influential years of my life have been spent under a government I have hated, first and foremost because it has made Britain a more divided country. We have a new poor whose desperation and sense of isolation from mainstream society are unprecedented since the invention of the welfare state. Despite Thatcher’s, Major’s and their chancellors’ extravagant claims of economic renaissance, the average annual growth in GDP since 1979 is lower than in any other 18-year-period since 1945. That lowly average conceals the terrifying depths of two recessions, sandwiching the unsustainable heights of a credit-led boom. The acuteness of the economic incompetence is only apparent, however, when we remember that during this period we have had North Sea oil, and we have had privatisation: two enormous and unrepeatable financial bonuses — the second of them in most cases ideologically repugnant to me — which would have enabled any halfway competent administration to invest in the future of Britain’s wealth-creating effort without encountering the familiar devils of inflation, mass unemployment and balance of payments difficulties on too large a scale. Kenneth Clarke, easily the most able chancellor Thatcher or Major has had, has made a good fist of the situation he inherited since our summary ejection from the exchange rate mechanism on 16 September 1992, but only by increasing taxes by the largest amount seen in peacetime this century, and by doubling the national debt. And he can say on a television programme last Sunday that, really, there’s no such thing as deep poverty in this country any more. I watched him say that after having put in four hours of canvassing on the Maiden Lane estate during the afternoon. The Maiden Lane estate is a 15-minute walk from our flat, because you have to traverse three sides of a square on the road to get there. As the crow flies it’s a quarter of a mile, and easily visible from our kitchen window. Most of the people who live there exist in squalor and despair. It is a different planet, a planet not without tenderness, dignity, virtue and humour, but one which also speaks neglect, violence, ugliness, anger, the sense of a shambles, a shame, a waste, a dreadful fucking awful cock-up and shit-bag why have we come to this oh God why have we come to this? When I canvass for the Labour Party I try to explain to the people why they have come to this. And in my heart I am in a rage that they have come to this when there was no need.

3 May 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

We voted, and the most astonishing, wonderful thing happened. Labour has won a huge overall majority of 179. It holds 419 of the 659 seats in the new House of Commons. The Conservatives lost more than half their MPs. They are now down to 164. The Liberals have more than doubled their total, to 46. The scale of the change is awesome, potentially epoch-making. There is the possibility that, for a generation to come, Britain could be governed by a progressive party (or coalition of parties, if the Liberals were invited into government at a future election where Labour won a smaller majority) which will realise the proper purpose of politics: to give organised reality to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason. Not often in life have I been as excited or joyful as I was on Thursday night at about 10.30pm. I had been knocking up for Frank Dobson until 9. I went home and had some dinner. At 10 o’clock I turned on the BBC election programme to hear their exit poll announce a Labour landslide. I gazed at the words on the screen. Knowing that no results would be announced for a couple of hours, I came to the Spread Eagle and stood outside in the soft warm night, the night of May Day, and felt an exquisite combination of triumph and revenge. This is our moment, I kept thinking. This is it. Now Labour must govern well. Then I went back home and watched the television until 10 to 6 on Friday morning. It was a procession, a picaresque long play of wonderment. Labour and the Liberals just marched into Tory territory and kicked them out. There is not a Tory MP in Scotland, nor in Wales. There are only a handful of Tories in the English cities. The Tory party is now an English rural party, but not even wholly that. They’ve been driven out of the south-west of England, mainly by the Liberals. They’ve been driven out of small-town-and-some-countryside constituencies in the Midlands and south-east of England, mainly by Labour. Shrewsbury is Labour. Shrewsbury! Thatcher’s Essex went Labour. Worcester went Labour.

I predicted an overall majority of 110 on 10 March. I turn out to have been over-cautious, but I was closer than anyone else I’ve spoken to, and two or three newspaper articles I’ve read say that Blair and his circle thought the majority would be between 30 and 40. So I feel smug about my judgement.

It’s the long May Day weekend. The world has tilted in a good direction. I’m happy to be alive.

4 May 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

It’s Sunday evening of the May Day weekend, and the exhilaration hasn’t worn off yet. I keep thinking about Thursday’s victory again, and the pleasure comes flooding back. The despatch of seven Tory cabinet ministers, and especially Portillo. The arrival of over 100 women in the Commons, a critical mass which must change the culture of the place forever. The sense that renewal is possible, whatever negotiation, compromise and manoeuvre have been necessary to gain the power to achieve that renewal.

It is now July 2010, and the UK is governed by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition with a majority of about 80.

Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Labour leader and Prime Minister in June 2007. After a honeymoon period during the summer and early autumn of 2007, Brown suffered a series of political injuries, some self-inflicted, some inflicted by forces beyond his control, which made Labour deeply unpopular in its last years in power, although there was not at the same time the overwhelming hunger for a change of government that there had been in 1997. It also seemed, despite Brown’s towering intellect and evident passion for social justice, that he did not take pleasure in the job he had craved for so long. Macmillan’s advice to Wilson: ‘Enjoy the office.’ Brown seemed tortured by it, and his authority waned as a result.

In the autumn of 2007 came the first signs that the world was going to experience a financial crisis on a scale unknown since 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The climax of the crisis occurred in October 2008. Essentially, the greed and stupidity of the leaders of some banks and other financial institutions, and the lax financial supervision which had been exercised by governments and regulators since the Reagan/Thatcher years, during which time it was decided that markets know best, and that we would all benefit from a trickle-down effect if very rich people and organisations were simply allowed to go on getting richer, almost caused a complete collapse of the world’s financial system. This financial crisis brought about a wider economic recession in the world, from which we are now emerging. The recession in the UK, though deeper than the two recessions of the Conservative years, was quite different as to cause. The Tory recessions were caused by wrong government policies; the recession at the end of the Labour years was at heart caused by the irresponsible actions of financial institutions, particularly in the US.

One can criticise Brown for not seeing the crisis coming during the decade in which he was in charge of the UK’s finances. He was happy to inherit from the Conservatives their light-touch supervision philosophy, although he made significant changes in the system of supervision. He would argue, I expect, that with a free-market, right-wing government in power in the US for eight years from January 2001, he would have been laughed out of court if he had proposed tighter regulation, and that if he had decided to impose stricter supervision and control in the UK unilaterally, great waves of money would have left the UK for laxer regimes. Whatever the truth about that, Brown as Prime Minister and Alastair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer played a leading — I think the leading — role in saving the world’s financial system in October 2008. They persuaded other leaders to pump huge sums into the almost broken banks, partly or completely nationalising them if necessary. That had to be done over a matter of days. If it hadn’t happened, millions of ordinary people, with a few tens of thousands of pounds (or the equivalent in other currencies) in bank accounts, often the legitimate reward for a lifetime of work, would have lost most of their money. This would certainly have been the case with my partner Helen. In August 2008 she turned 60. She received just over £100,000 in two lump sums from pension schemes she had been paying into over the previous 38 years. Two months later, she might have lost most of that, because the money was in accounts with the National Westminster Bank, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which was one of the most irresponsible of the UK banks.

Brown got no credit from the British electorate for his actions in the autumn of 2008. A result of those actions was that government debt climbed rapidly to levels not seen for many decades. It had to. The alternative would have been immeasurably worse. The Conservatives, with huge but unsurprising hypocrisy, made effective attacks on Brown and Labour for economic profligacy. Had they been in power in the decade until 2008, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than Labour was. But electorates have short memories, and most people don’t understand economics. During the election campaign in April and May 2010, it was easy for the Conservatives to present themselves as the party which would bring financial order and discipline out of chaos and licence. Labour had had 13 years in power — easily the longest period in government in its history. The ‘time for a change’ factor was against them, and in any case no UK election is ever fairly fought, because of the preponderance of newspapers shrieking at voters to vote Conservative, and doing everything they can to discredit Labour.

Having a coalition government in power in the UK is a new experience for everyone younger than about 75. My feelings towards the government are not fully formed. I welcome the influence of the Liberal Democrats on its policies, and I readily admit that it has some policies I wish Labour had implemented or whose implementation Labour should have completed, and that the coalition has abandoned some policies which Labour should never have had in the first place, and of which it should be ashamed. There will be fixed-term parliaments; the reform of the House of Lords will be completed; there will be a referendum on the voting system. ID cards and the national identity database will be abandoned. DNA samples taken from accused people subsequently found innocent by the courts will be destroyed. There will be no third runway at Heathrow Airport. However bad, from my point of view, some of the Conservative-driven policies enacted by the new government turn out to be, I don’t think we are about to enter another dark age, as we did in 1979.

I am still a member of the Labour Party. The Labour government 1997-2010 has some immense achievements to its credit. A few examples: extra money for the poorest people, via tax credits and the minimum wage; the huge new sums poured into education and health care; the ending of the catastrophe of mass unemployment which we had under the Conservatives (although unemployment has inevitably risen with the financially-induced recession from which we are just emerging); the far lower inflation and interest rates than we had under the Conservatives; devolution for Scotland and Wales; the immense effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland; the various pieces of human rights legislation, notably those affecting gay people; the (incomplete) reform of the House of Lords. Or take an international achievement, far more important from the global perspective of reducing human misery on our planet. At the G8 conference which was interrupted by the London bombs in July 2005, Blair and Brown were finalising with the other leaders a proposal, which Britain had been principally responsible for bringing to the point of agreement, for reducing or cancelling the debt of the world’s poorest countries on an unprecedented scale. These deeds are not insignificant.

I acknowledge these achievements despite my simultaneous deep disappointments about Labour 1997-2010, of which the two most grievous are the handing over of large swathes of our public services to the private sector, a distraction which obscures the enormous extra resources which have been put into those services; and Tony Blair’s tragically wrong decision on Iraq. Amongst other wrong policies, I’ll only mention Labour’s pig-headed commitment to ID cards and a national identity database, which would have given the state unprecedented intrusive access to the private lives of millions of innocent citizens, and would have done nothing to restrain terrorists.

During the period of Labour government, when I talked with friends over drinks or in restaurants, enjoying our prosperous free lives, I was amazed at how little some of those friends seemed to sympathise with the extraordinary difficulty of governing. They were simply contemptuous of Labour and its leaders. They could have done the job better. I thought: organising a darts match is difficult. Governing Britain as it is, and taking it in a progressive direction, must be fiendishly difficult. These friends had shared my feelings as the Conservative years rolled on and the damage accumulated. They had short memories.

Despite being sadder than I was in 1997, I am not disillusioned with Labour 1997-2010, because I was never ‘illusioned’ about practical politics in the first place. To achieve actual change for the betterment of the majority of the people in our country would have been an arduous, prosaic, piecemeal task even if Labour’s leaders had been perfectly virtuous people. They were not. I feel immense sadness that Blair and Brown wasted so much energy and squandered so much goodwill in their contest for supremacy, allowing the impression of constant civil strife within the government and party to distract attention from Labour’s substantial actual achievements.

My other reason for sticking with Labour is that membership of a party is not the same as being a courtier of that party’s leader, despite the fact that a party leader’s personality has become so much more important in UK politics in recent years. Tony Blair may, for all I know, have been completely personally corrupted by his experience of power. To take a trivial but symbolic example, I found it incomprehensible that a Labour Prime Minister should have accepted the hospitality of Silvio Berlusconi for his family summer holiday in 2004. Berlusconi is one of the most disreputable and corrupt of western European politicians, a man whose beliefs, statements and actions place him on the extreme fringe of the democratic spectrum. In August 2004, when I thought of the Blairs and the Berlusconis on their sun lounges together, my heart sank. In March 2006, I had to swallow the news that wealthy donors or lenders to the Labour Party could effectively buy peerages, just as used to happen in the bad old Tory days. I decided to leave the party; I would henceforth be a political sceptic. But then I remembered government ministers and MPs (including Frank Dobson, my own MP) whom I did (and do) admire, who had done and were doing good work, honourably, making difficult decisions in less than ideal circumstances, trying to hold on to the reason why they joined in the first place, and I recalled that it’s the Labour Party I joined, not the Blair or the Brown Party. That’s the position I still hold, whoever wins the current contest to replace Brown as leader.

Having a vision in politics is one thing. I have a vision, which I wrote down in one sentence in the diary on 3 May 1997: that politics should bring organised realisation to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason. It is on the basis of the unromantic work done to bring that organised realisation that one should judge a government, bearing in mind what one imagines the available alternative would have done instead, and on that basis I am still willing to be a member of the Labour Party as it faces at least five years in opposition.

I feel the need to say something about the invasion of Iraq, and to make myself state what I think about the use of military force in today's world. Seven years after the invasion, a committee of inquiry is ponderously weighing the rights and wrongs of the UK’s actions, and trying to establish whether lessons can be learned for the future. My opposition to the invasion of Iraq is not based on a principled opposition to war in all circumstances. I am not a pacifist. Nor had I any illusions about the scale of Saddam’s barbarity towards his own people. Nor do I believe that it is always wrong to invade a foreign country, using the argument that a country’s internal affairs are a matter for it and it alone. On the contrary, I think that there are times when it is essential to invade a country, even if it seems to offer no threat to its neighbours, when there is overwhelming evidence that tyranny is at work there. We should no longer be willing quietly to forget atrocity in a nation-state, any more than we should overlook atrocity within a family. There have been occasions in recent years when it is to the world’s shame that it did not invade a country in order to prevent mass murder being continued there; the most notorious example being Rwanda in 1994. There have been occasions when an international invasion was inadequate in strength and unclear in purpose, as in Bosnia in the early 1990s. And there have been occasions when invasions have, on balance, reduced the scale of death, mutilation, destruction and oppression in an invaded country, despite the heart-breaking cases of innocents in that country being killed by mistake by the invaders who were supposedly trying to help them. The invasions have also caused tyrants in those countries to realise that they were not free to act unchallenged within their own borders, and may have given potential or actual tyrants in other countries pause before acting or continuing to act themselves. Examples are Kosovo and East Timor in 1999.

In Kosovo, Milosevic — encouraged by the pusillanimity of the outside world’s challenge to the barbarities he had committed and sponsored in Croatia and Bosnia — was going about the business of committing genocide against the province’s Albanian majority. He was prevented from doing so. East Timor is a country which deserved to and did regain the independence which had been taken from it by Indonesia.

For me, the single factor which causes me to support or oppose the fateful decision to attack a country, and pay the price in terms of innocent blood spilled — evil committed in the process of trying to achieve greater good — is: what was the attitude of the United Nations towards the action? The United Nations, whatever deep imperfections and anachronisms are contained in its structures and decision-making procedures, is the only organisation in the world which can give moral legitimacy to the decision to invade a country or bomb its territory in order to put down tyrants and right wrongs. If in the century which has just begun we are to move towards the acceptance of the principle that war is only justified by a multilateral agreement that, all other methods having failed, tyranny must be put down by force, then it is the United Nations or no-one which can grant that justification.

Having made this pronouncement, it is unfortunately not a simple matter to apply it to one of the two examples I’ve just given, where, for me, attack was justified. There was no specific UN authorisation of the intervention in Kosovo, which was a NATO operation. Russia and China would never have supported invasion at the UN. But there were numerous Security Council resolutions in 1998 and 1999 condemning Milosevic’s barbarism, for example Resolution 1199 (23 September 1998): ‘Gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties and, according to the estimate of the Secretary-General, the displacement of over 230,000 people from their homes…’ The operation had the support, through the UN, of the majority of the world’s democracies.

East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a UN referendum. After the vote, militias opposed to independence, organised, encouraged, aided or connived at by the Indonesian military, committed atrocities against the civilian population. An explicitly authorised UN-led invasion took place, which allowed the peacefully and democratically expressed wish of the people of East Timor to be secured. It was one of the UN’s rare successes. (But in May and June 2006, we saw how easily destructible is peace in that country; and maybe the UN will have to go back there to restore it.)

Comparable or greater loss of life than that seen in America on 11 September 2001 occurs regularly in other, poorer parts of the world, although admittedly not often on one day. Nonetheless, the audacious and murderous attacks of that day were exceptional in their impact and significance, because they were made on the world’s richest, most economically powerful and militarily mightiest country, and they came as a complete surprise. The images of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York smoking and blazing, then tumbling to the ground; of the poor desperate people throwing themselves from windows to almost certain death, rather than accept an absolutely certain death by fire; these will stay in the minds of the billions who saw them all their lives.

When it became clear that the attacks were the latest and most spectacular achievements of Al-Qaida, an informal but disciplined world-wide network of Islamist extremists who imagine that it will be possible to impose on the whole world a form of government based on their perversion of Islamic teaching, the American government felt no inhibition in going to the heart of the problem as it saw it. It invaded Afghanistan and unseated the Taliban government there. Britain and some other countries helped. (The Taliban, of course, were the successors of the very mujahadeen whom the Americans had encouraged and funded as opposition to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.) There has since been an only partially successful attempt to establish some kind of democratic government in the country, which has involved the immensely difficult task of getting the various factional and tribal leaders to sit down together to plan the future.

The Taliban government was one of wicked and backward brutality towards its own people. It ruled by methods of mediaeval cruelty in the name of a betrayal of Islamic doctrines. It also harboured and supported the most powerful members of the Al-Qaida network, including its leader Usama bin-Laden. On 12 September, the brief UN Security Council Resolution 1368, condemning the 11 September attacks, expressed the Security Council’s ‘readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001’. On 14 November, in Resolution 1378, specifically on Afghanistan, the Taliban were condemned for ‘allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for the export of terrorism by the Al-Qaida network and other terrorist groups’. Though neither of these resolutions, nor any others passed in the autumn of 2001, explicitly authorised military invasion, their tone towards the Taliban and Al-Qaida meant that there was broad international support at government level for the American-led invasion, except from countries whose governments are permanently convinced that every American act and thought emanates from Satan. The Americans were, I expect, glad of this support, though they were going to invade anyway.

In the UK and other Western democracies, there was significant opposition to the invasion, from honourable citizens who will never suffer summary arrest, torture and execution at the hands of their own governments, scorn them as they do; from women and their menfolk who would be simply outraged at the suggestion that the state should have any say whatsoever in a woman’s decision about what clothes she should normally wear, or that their daughters might be denied the same educational opportunities as their sons. These people protested about an action to overthrow a government which executed women for setting up girls’ schools.

Because the Taliban government was so evidently tyrannical and cruel towards its own people, I supported the invasion at the time, with a heavy heart, despite America’s bully-in-the-playground manner in foreign policy during the George W. Bush years, despite its contempt for the United Nations, whose authority it made use of to justify its actions when convenient and ignored when not. But then the Americans began to slaughter innocents in Afghanistan, casually and with the most grudging and non-committal of apologies, for example when two of their pilots mistook for hostile fire (so they said) celebratory firing into the air by members of a wedding party at a remote village, and bombed and rocketed the place, killing 48 people. (The Americans did something very similar in Iraq later.) How can a person of any sensibility continue to support an invader who does that? When the dreadful cold calculations are made, have fewer people around the world been killed or maimed, and are fewer people likely to be killed or maimed, now that the Taliban have been unseated than was the case when they were in government? The honest truth is that I don’t know. And, of course, the Taliban are still an immensely powerful force in the country, and continue to act barbarically. Hundreds of British soldiers have died at their hands.

Usama bin-Laden is a Saudi. The great majority of the men who committed the atrocities on 11 September were Saudis. Saudi Arabia is America’s best ally in the Middle East. The Bush family has close and mutually profitable oil connections with leading Saudis. It appears that, on the night of 11 September, when no flying at all was officially allowed in American airspace, one plane was nonetheless permitted to take off and leave America. It carried leading Saudi citizens, including relatives (I think distant) of Usama bin-Laden. Hmm. Of such are conspiracy theories made, and it’s easy enough to find on the internet polemics claiming that the American government organised the 11 September attacks itself, to justify its already taken decision to invade Afghanistan, Iraq, and who knows where else.

After Afghanistan, Iraq. Here everything went disastrously wrong, and Tony Blair took a fateful wrong decision to support George W. Bush in this invasion too.

Saddam Hussein in power was a monster, in the same league of brutality as the Taliban, Milosevic, the Hutu extremists in Rwanda, and not far behind Pol Pot. His departure from power and his subsequent death are in themselves to be welcomed. But all the premises on which we went to war in Iraq were wrong. Saddam was not harbouring Al-Qaida. He had had nothing to do with the 11 September attacks, nor with previous attacks by fundamentalist Islamist terrorists against American interests. (Al-Qaida regarded him as an apostate, for all the dealings he had happily done with the West in his early years in power; dealings which America, France, the UK and other Western powers had enthusiastically initiated. Amongst the American politicians and business people who had gone to Iraq to sell Saddam arms were men who were now, in Bush junior’s administration, leading the invasion of Iraq. Again, sow the wind…) Saddam no longer had the weapons of mass destruction which, so the American and British publics were told, he was ready and able to unleash. Hans Blix, the official in charge of inspecting Saddam’s weapons, reported this to the UN just before the invasion. His information was ignored. The sanctions the UN had imposed on Iraq after the war to reverse Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait were having their effect. Crucially, the UN Security Council came nowhere near passing a resolution, around the time of the 2003 invasion, which endorsed it, even in the most general terms. If it had done, I would have supported an invasion; morally, Saddam was in that league of evil which justified his toppling, without need of false excuses to do with weapons of mass destruction or the harbouring of Islamist terrorists. When the UN came nowhere near endorsing an invasion, and when Blair saw that Bush was determined to go to war in despite of the UN, he should have said, ‘Sorry George, I’m not with you on this one,’ whatever his thoughts about the internal politics of the UN.

There is a frequent claim, made by those on the left who condemn American-led military invasions (as, selectively, I do) that the West only invades countries when it fears a threat to its oil supplies. This is the reason, say these critics, why we didn’t intervene in Rwanda in 1994; why we’ve never intervened in Burma; why we won’t intervene in Zimbabwe. There’s no oil in these places, the critics say (I’m not sure whether that’s true or not, place by place); those with the power to invade don’t really care about the fate of the suffering people of those countries; when we do invade, it’s for the oil, and we find humanitarian excuses for our selfish actions. Today’s humanitarian excuses, they say, are the modern equivalent of the religious excuses given for the imperial conquests of the past.

It’s an attractively simple case, but generally it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Did we invade Afghanistan for its oil? I don’t think so. The fiercest critic of that invasion could not claim so. Did we intervene in Kosovo for its oil, rather than to protect the Muslim majority of its population from annihilation by Milosevic? We did not. Was Blair’s intervention in Sierra Leone a ploy to get our hands on the oil under its land or sea? Of course not.

Iraq is a more complex case. It has enormous quantities of oil. I cannot demonstrate that the desire to control Iraq’s oil was not the secret motivation behind the invasion, though the announced casus belli was other. Bush and many of his closest advisers were oil men. All I can say, as one who unreservedly condemns that invasion, is that if those people thought in 2003 that the cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a price worth paying in order to control its oil, even they — if they are capable of rational thought — must have changed their minds since. John McCain, the Republican nominee for the 2008 American presidential election, said that it would be worth staying in Iraq for 100 years. He was obviously not capable of rational thought.

Anyhow, we went, we did unseat Saddam, and scores of thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of people have died and been maimed since. That is far more than would have died and been maimed if we had continued with the approach we were adopting before the invasion. I am happy to acknowledge that slow, painful progress towards peace under a stable government in Iraq is being made, and that Western armies are leaving. But consider the country’s experience since the war supposedly ended. People have been slaughtered by terrorists, sometimes daily and often in large numbers. Some of the terrorists have been pro-Saddam thugs, Sunnis by religion, who have hated it that the hegemony they enjoyed under Saddam, despite the fact that Sunnis make up only 20% of Iraq’s population, exists no longer. As well as deaths caused by explosions, there has been a steady stream of sectarian executions, Shia on Sunni and Sunni on Shia. But the most bitter of ironies is that, whereas Islamist terrorists of the perverted theocratic kind were not active in Iraq before the invasion (because, as I’ve said, those people regarded Saddam as a traitor to their ‘pure’ vision of Islam, and preferred to operate from elsewhere), they have certainly been active there since 2003, entering the country in large numbers, especially from America’s best friend Saudi Arabia, because now Iraq has become available for conversion and to be recruited as a launch-pad for the export of terrorism elsewhere. America and Britain achieved by the invasion the fulfilment of a nightmare which was a false fear before it.

Meanwhile, and on a much smaller scale, London paid a price for Bush’s and Blair’s actions on 7 July 2005, when four young men, all British citizens, three of Pakistani and one of Jamaican origin, came from Leeds, each with a bomb in a rucksack. Three got into Underground trains; one mounted a bus. Each blew himself up, killing and maiming innocent passengers around him. The death toll was 56, including the bombers; about 700 people were injured, many of them for life. A fortnight later, four more young men tried to do the same thing, but this time the bombs didn’t explode.

There’s no doubt that the invasion of Iraq has made Britain more vulnerable to attack by Islamist terrorists, just as Spain’s support for the invasion must have encouraged the terrorists who killed nearly 200 people on suburban trains around Madrid in March 2004. But that’s not the whole story. If there were a just settlement in Israel and Palestine, with the establishment of a Palestinian state — a goal itself imperfect, but still remote; if all Western armies were to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan (as indeed they now are from Iraq); if every one of the excuses for ‘holy war’ which its promoters cite were removed: we are still living in a period when the delusion of world supremacy resides in the minds of a very few, but very dangerous, leaders of thought within the Islamic clerisy. It’s one of those quirks of history that thinking as backward as the idea that the whole world should be governed according to the tenets of a minority misinterpretation of one of the world’s great, peace-loving faiths coincides with the invention of means of instant global communication such as the internet, so that backwardness is no longer confined to a particular back yard of the world. The consequences of such backwardness are realised, tragically and gruesomely, in everyone’s front yard. Without pausing for breath, I need also to say that it terrified me that George W. Bush believed that God had told him to invade Iraq, and that Tony Blair said that he would happily answer to his maker for his decision to follow George. Flipping straight back from Christianity to Islam, I read that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran expects the end of the world soon, when Mohammed ibn Hasan, the Hidden Twelfth Imam, will return in the company of Jesus and establish an endless era of harmony and light. The president has repeatedly called for the destruction of the state of Israel. Meanwhile, Zionism has its fair share of fundamentalists, willing to justify, on religious grounds, the grotesque and illegal acts which Israel has committed against the Palestinians in recent decades, and which have provoked such dreadful, unforgivable revenges.

We draw a simple lesson from all this: religious certainty, combined with power and weapons, has always been and continues to be a scourge of humanity. Rational enlightenment has not yet made great progress on our planet.

I rejoiced at the outcome of the US presidential election in 2008. Barack Obama is that rarity, a great statesman with a coherent view of the world as an interdependent, fragile place, and with an understanding of the dangers of exercising what I earlier called a bully-in-the-playground approach to US foreign policy. He is also a genuine orator in and for the television and internet age; a master of an old political skill which one could be forgiven for thinking extinct now that most politicians can just about read, on a card or autocue in front of them, words written by someone else. Obama’s achievements in his own country on health care, on the environment and on control of the financial sector are already remarkable. He has posted these achievements in the teeth of furious opposition and expensive, wasteful lobbying from vested interests whose expectation that they should have the right always to satisfy their greed is threatened by reforms which tend to the greater good; and of course from the Republican Party.

Obama’s great international challenges are the Middle East, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the environment. Israel continues to act with brutal efficiency and a sense of moral impunity as it pursues its goal of a greater Jewish state, regarding the Palestinians only as obstacles to the fulfilment of its dream. I don’t believe there has been, on the part of any recent Israeli government, a true desire for an honourable and sustainable peace with the Palestinians, whatever official statements government spokespeople make. Meanwhile, America continues to send Israel a huge cheque every month, for it to spend as it wishes. Obama knows this. He also knows that there is no more powerful lobby in Congress than the pro-Israeli lobby. If the Israel/Palestine conflict could be solved, the success would stand as one of the great achievements in international diplomacy and statesmanship in modern history.

Obama has pursued the war in Afghanistan, and attacked those in Pakistan who support and supply the Taliban, with as great determination as Bush did. If during his presidency some kind of humane government, however different from Western democracies, could be said to be reliably in charge in Afghanistan, so that Western armies could leave, that would again be an immense achievement. But such success is nowhere in sight.

In Copenhagen in December 2009, an international conference on the environment, years in the preparation, was thought by most commentators to be an overall failure, despite some modest gains, principally because China would not agree to legally binding limits on its emission of greenhouse gases. China’s intransigence was a reminder that it is a superpower now; it will do as it likes, just at the moment when America, which for most of the 20th century did what it liked, has under Obama recognised that the most important decisions in the world have to be taken multilaterally. America has moved a long way in the few years since George W. Bush stated that he didn’t believe that human actions were contributing to global warming. By an irony, it may move further, faster as a result of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring and summer 2010, for which BP, a British oil company, is responsible. I would be surprised and delighted if the Americans elect a president of anything like Obama’s stature during the rest of my lifetime; if he gets a second term in 2012, he has six years from now to help to transform the disappointment of Copenhagen into a sustainable international deal to limit global warming, taking into account the legitimate ambitions of the economically developing countries to enjoy the same standards of living as we do in the West.

Globally, the important politics of the 21st century will not be enacted within conventional left/right alternatives in the advanced democracies of the North. They are already being enacted in the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, their huge populations emerging from centuries of poverty, isolation and colonial oppression into an awareness of the relative smallness and interconnectedness of the world as it now is. There are only three real political priorities for the world now. They are all essential, and each is intimately related to the others. They are: reduction of inequalities of all kinds between the countries of the North and the South, and between the rich and the poor within the countries of the South and the North; care for the earth as an environment, as I’ve just written; and control of the world’s population. If in the course of the century just begun we can make significant progress in meeting these priorities, the sum total of human happiness on the planet, to put the matter in plain utilitarian terms, will be very much very greater in a hundred years’ time than it is today. If we fail, the future could be a nightmare, as swarming billions compete for diminishing resources with which to sustain life, in a world where the notion of some kind of beauty and quiet in one’s surroundings will be a remote dream for all but a tiny elite, guarded from the hungry and angry masses by walls and wires and uniformed men with guns. This dreadful prospect will be rendered more dreadful by a dearth of clean air, limpid light and clean water, by regular episodes of weather of extreme destructiveness brought on by our stupid determination to continue to pollute our atmosphere and destroy our forests. Thousands of species of animals and plants will become extinct, at an accelerating rate. There will be no more wild fish in the sea. In the smaller countries there will be no more countryside between towns. The great killer diseases, born of poverty and ignorance and almost eradicated in the 20th century, will be rife again amongst the poor, and will be transmitted across the world more efficiently because of the speed of global travel and the great numbers travelling.

There is a temptation to despair. It’s there in the poem I began to write at Kerfontaine on 1 January 2005, where I describe myself as

…one of those
Whose task it is to populate a world
Which others make.
Which is the stronger force.

Despite the temptation, we have a moral and practical obligation to hope, and to act in support of the governments, multilateral organisations, pressure groups, charities, businesses and individuals trying to tilt the planet and its people in a good direction rather than a disastrous one. We have to protect and encourage points of light in a darkening landscape, remembering that nothing is inevitable; that we hold our fate in our own hands.