[The writing here constitutes just over half of the contents of a diary I’ve kept since 1994, which doesn’t deserve to be called a diary in the exact sense — and journal is no better, etymologically — since sometimes great spans of time have passed and I’ve written nothing in it. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve written at length about personal experiences or political events. Occasionally, events described here also appear in ‘My Life in Prose’.],

Book One

Calais-Dover ferry1 February 1994

I left our house in Brittany, a place I love, on a February Sunday evening with the nearly new moon in a sharp sky. I left it with the stove alight, the glass doors closed, the ventilator shut so it would go more slowly, a wood fire burning for no-one in a locked house, lasting a few more hours into the time between now and when we come back. And took my melancholy away with me. You feel the muscle pulling and it hurts, but at least it shows you’ve achieved a connection with a place, there’s a hectare and a half of France you care about in a long-term way, in all weathers, at all seasons, in all moods.

Kerfontaine31 December 1994

The last day of ’94 marks the beginning of my first serious attempt to write a regular diary. I’m 43, time is passing, and so many things happen, small and large, which seem noteworthy at the time, but then, through my laziness or the press of other concerns, get forgotten about and wasted. I’ve no idea how the diary will turn out, whether I shall manage to keep it regularly, nor quite how frank it’s going to be. You’re supposed to be able to write exactly what you like in a diary, but some of my private thoughts are unprintable — I expect most people are the same — and would embarrass me and/or hurt other people if they read them. I definitely don’t want the diary to be an act of auto-analysis or auto-confession, therefore, and I’m probably accepting, before I’ve even started, that a measure of self-censorship will operate much of the time. One thing I’m sure about is style. This is going to be off-duty writing. The rest of the writing I do, at work or when I get round to producing a poem, is above all careful. People congratulate me sometimes on the finished-ness of what I write; not much drafting apparent, and it’s tight and well made. I know that’s true, and I want this to be different. I want to turn it out quickly, with concentration, yes, but without the constant self-monitoring of the other writing. It won’t matter if I use the same word accidentally in successive sentences, or if I use a cliché because I can’t think of a more original or individual way of saying something. If you’re supposed to be writing a diary but in fact it’s an attempt at belles-lettres, you can’t possibly be sincere. You’re constantly thinking about a potential public readership, and the joke in The Importance of Being Earnest about the young girl’s private thoughts and feelings applies. (Also Wilde’s remark about taking his diary with him everywhere in order to have something sensational to read on the train.)

I planted three trees in the wood this afternoon with Albert, my friend and gardener: an oak, a beech and a fir. Albert remarked, when we’d finished, that that was enough work for one year, and it was too late for anyone who hadn’t done enough work this year to make up for it now.

This has been the year of liberation in South Africa — the most important positive political event of the year, a defining moment in my politically conscious lifetime, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89. There is a four-month-old ceasefire in Northern Ireland. Continuing inter-ethnic slaughter in Bosnia shows how ineffective are the actions of outsiders — UN, USA or EU — when the combatants haven’t finished their quarrel. There has been a similar but briefer and much bloodier slaughter in Rwanda. Boris Yeltsin has stupidly been killing people whom he claims to be Russian, in Chechnya, because some of them want to be independent. The most fragile and flawed peace treaty is just holding together in Israel and Palestine. There is peace between Israel and Jordan. The political system in the USA has been seen at its most ineffective and wasteful; two years ago the people voted for a president offering more interventionist government, proposing to reduce inequality, to have a national health service, to restrict the sale of guns to private citizens, and now they vote for a majority in Congress who are against all of these things. The Conservative government in the UK is as disreputable and unpopular as any British government has ever been, stumbling from corruption scandal to sex scandal to internal warfare over Britain’s place in Europe. The Labour Party is enjoying great popularity, especially under its new leader Tony Blair, who looks and talks like a person able to persuade the undecided, the crucial proportion of those who voted Conservative when Neil Kinnock was Labour leader in ’92, to vote Labour next time.

In Italy, a nightmare of Orwellian proportions almost became reality. Disgusted by the corruption and ineptitude of the leaders and parties who represented the post-war settlement, the electorate jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, and brought into power Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul with an immense business empire which includes control of half the country’s television stations and several of its newspapers. The people took his bait, just as they took Mussolini’s bait, in a naïve longing for a strong man to sort out their problems. Into the coalition government with Berlusconi’s newly formed party came the fascists and the populist/separatist Northern League. It was a recipe for disaster, but fortunately Berlusconi’s own corruption, plus his inexperience in governing, plus the steadfastness of the judges investigating corruption in the country, plus the fact that now, in an advanced EU, it’s not as easy to run an autarchic, brain-washing strong state as it was in the ’30s, all combined to bring down the Berlusconi government just before Christmas. It’s impossible to say what will happen next. The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be, yet, an attractive, well organised, untainted centre-left grouping big enough to provide an alternative potential government.

Calais2 January 1995

This is written in the car park on the French side of the Channel Tunnel. We’re waiting to be called on to the midnight shuttle. We came over in the tunnel last week, five days after the car service had opened for business. My appreciation of the technical magnificence of the achievement was diminished by the persistent, noisy efforts of the operators to make you leave your car and buy duty-free goods before boarding the train, which was delayed by an hour with no explanation given. The French grammar and accent of the ‘bilingual’ train driver welcoming us aboard were tremendously entertaining, really the worst French I’ve ever heard used in a public announcement. Then we were mysteriously told, in English, that ‘due to adverse weather conditions, you will be travelling back to front’. No French translation of this information was attempted.

Today we’ve driven for seven and a half hours from Kerfontaine. A long way, but not too much of a strain, with so many big, well-engineered, dual-carriageway roads in France now. What a distance France has come since 1969, when I first drove here, when the routes nationales, roads of romance and expectation, straight, lined with poplars, had nonetheless a murderous effect on springs and shock absorbers, and signs reminded you every few kilometres of the danger of nids de poule. Whenever I see and use the latest improvement in the road system, I’m torn between gratitude that it gets me somewhere more quickly, with less strain, and regret for the latest swathe of countryside which has disappeared under the concrete and tarmac. At least France is so big that it can take the expansion of the road system without making me fear that there will be nothing left of rural remoteness when this great period of building is finished. That is what I fear in England, especially in the south, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m sure I won’t grow old there. Too many bad decisions have been made. Too many roads lead to too many retail parks, as Larkin gloomily predicted in his poem Going, Going.

We’ve boarded the shuttle, and now we’re under the sea. The chef de train this time is French, and I must try to be fair to my English chef de train last week, and decide whether tonight’s English grammar and accent are worse or better than last week’s French. I have to discount the fact that to me, an Englishman, a bad French accent in the mouth of an English person is gross and embarrassing, whereas the reverse sounds charming and a good try. Are the French equivalently charmed by my compatriot having a good try? Or nauseated? It ought to be possible to answer this question with a degree of sociolinguistic objectivity, and perhaps someone has already done so. Subjectively, I think the Frenchman is making a better stab at bilingualism, as he races us between land masses last united in the most recent ice age, than did the Englishman.

The train ride is utterly smooth and almost silent, swaying a little on a continuous rail. The only sound is the breath of the air supply.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town3 January 1995

Russia stupidly and criminally continues to attack Chechnya, with hundreds dead on both sides in the fighting and bombing. Yeltsin must be finished, surely, after this display. Meanwhile, Clinton faces an all-Republican congress determined to undo everything he stands for in 100 days. We shall see, but the pinnacles of power in Russia and the USA seem draughty and dangerous places at the moment.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town1 February 1995

It rained almost constantly in January, and the new month begins with more rain. There are very bad floods on the Continent; they’re moving 250,000 people out of their homes in Holland. Here we have lesser but still severe flood problems. And a political crisis has appeared out of nowhere.

Someone has leaked to The Times the details of the still secret proposals being discussed between London and Dublin for the future government of Northern Ireland. The proposals envisage Dublin having more say over Northern Ireland’s affairs than the Unionists would like. Predictable outrage from the Unionists over what they see as betrayal. Major is clearly and understandably fearful that this will destroy the whole peace process, so he went on television and radio this evening for five minutes with an appeal to the people of Northern Ireland not to panic, and promising that no deal will be done without their consent. Support from all parties in parliament except the Unionists. We have to keep our fingers crossed. The leaker looks like someone who wants to derail the peace process. I’m sympathetic to Major about this. It’s the only policy he’s got which I agree with, and he knows it would do a great deal for his otherwise dreadful standing if he could secure a permanent, agreed peace. But it also shows how habitual it is for governments to mislead. The current proposals are further-reaching than any which the Government was previously prepared to admit they were contemplating. About a year ago, the Government had to admit they’d been talking to the IRA, when they had previously denied that they were.

London to Melbourne plane10 March 1995

It’s morning London time, but it’s 5.30 in the afternoon where we are, skirting down the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula at 893 kph. There’s a wonderful computerised map system on the little television monitor you can pull out from your seat. It shows you exactly where you are. The map progressively changes all the way. Then it tells you how fast you’re going, height, air temperature outside (currently –39ºC, even though we’re in the tropics), distance from departure (we’re 10,142 kilometres from London) and amount of time left before arrival. In 45 minutes we shall reach Singapore. A brief stop there, then on to Melbourne, arriving at six o’clock in the morning tomorrow. The passage of time, accelerated going this way round the earth, means that meals get combined. We’ve just been given brunch, but I only had the br bit, and not the unch. Last night’s supper was excellent — smoked salmon, good beef, salad with proper French dressing, champagne all the way. And champagne this morning with the br. How will they keep me down on the farm once I have seen Paree? Having travelled business class on a long-haul flight for the first time, going back to economy in future suddenly seems unthinkable.

It’s nice to be going to a conference (about children’s television) with the speeches already written. I might fiddle with them a bit depending on the mood I pick up and the kind of audience it looks likely to be, but they won’t throw tomatoes if I deliver them as they are. So I can enjoy myself.

Conferencing — one of the great scams of the privileged. The Straits of Molucca narrow beneath us.

Perth to London plane25 March 1995

Here I am on the Perth-Singapore hop of the journey home. 35,000 feet, well out over the Indian Ocean, heading towards Indonesia. The brilliant map on my little TV screen shows us pointing at Djakarta, with 1,696 km already covered from Perth. We flew up the WA coast for about an hour, before leaving it at a place called Shark Bay, where the coastline becomes complicated and fractured, with long spits of land, islands, and huge inlets of the sea. I have a wonderful window seat: loads of leg-room, champagne, the newspapers. It’s a lovely afternoon. Small clouds 20,000 feet below cast shadows on a calm, flat, lightly wrinkled sea…

It’s now dark over the forests of Sumatra. There are few lights. I can see big swollen rivers with swampy brown flood plains. Some areas must be plantations — rubber, perhaps — because there are regular grids of straight dirt roads enclosing rectangles of dark green. Sumatra used to seem to me, as a child, the final exotic place. You couldn’t get further away from Hampshire or Bromley, Kent. There be tigers. Now here it is: quartered, connected by local flights, our position above it pinpointed. Global technology is the latest and greatest coloniser. It will change the world more completely than the British or the Dutch ever did.

Perth to London plane26 March 1995

Slept long over the Bay of Bengal, India, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Turkey, and woke up on the Black Sea coast north of Ankara. While crossing Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium and now the English Channel I’ve been reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with its intense sense of locality. Strange to be skipping so lightly over countries and continents while Tess and Angel Clare move only from field to dairy and back. Dorset is a little unidentified bit on my computerised TV map.

A Hotel in Berkshire30 March 1995

Conferencing again, this time with my commissioning colleagues at Channel 4. The huge, nearly new hotel building on the edge of Bracknell is execrable: everything disastrous and irretrievable that we’ve done to southern England. In the car park this morning were dozens of brand-new models of a 24-valve Ford sports car called Probe. It was as if a platoon of Martians had landed on this God-forsaken square of tarmac. In the hotel, Ford Credit was having a conference. Squads of young men, all looking the same, all dressed the same in sweatshirts with the company logo on, were discussing how to sell more Fords, preferably ones with 24 valves to use up the earth’s oil as quickly as possible. When I went out for some fresh air at five o’clock, they’d all taken off again to their home planet.

Belfast to London plane9 April 1995

I’ve had a day in Belfast. Flying back now over the southern tip of the Isle of Man. A beautiful afternoon, broken cloud, the Irish Sea deep blue and calm.

At Aldegrove airport when we landed this morning, there was a group of about ten hares playing on one of the grass patches in between the runways. They squared up to each other and did indeed seem to box, as they are supposed to. I wonder if their ears are affected by the aircraft noise. Saw only one, and a rabbit, as we took off this afternoon.

Belfast continues to feel more peaceful, more normal, every time I go there, thank God. Long may it last. Peter Logue, my friend and Channel 4’s education officer in Northern Ireland, said that a man was shot in the head in west Belfast last night, but the police were anxious to say that it was an ‘ordinary’ gangster shooting, not paramilitary. Everyone is hoping that the longer normality persists, the harder it will be for hardliners on both sides to resume hostilities.

KerfontaineEaster Sunday, 16 April 1995

Easter holidays. Left London at six on Tuesday morning. Kent looked superb in spring green, with morning mist in all the valleys. The easiest of crossings through the tunnel, smooth, quiet, quick and, above all, requiring no contact with the other humans in transit, and then the French countryside looking equally glorious all the way to Paris. Every tree in leaf or blossom. The new Eurostar trains raced past us along the stretch where the line runs next to the autoroute. Wonderful technological confidence — and there were cowslips growing profusely in the few metres of grass between road and railway. At one moment, I glanced across at a First World War cemetery — a French one, the crosses in tight rows, the tricolore hanging over them, the neat surrounding wall, and then, above the cemetery, a train slipped by at 300 kilometres per hour. The tragic beginning and optimistic ending of France’s 20th century, framed in the same window.

After four magnificently indulgent days in Paris, we drove down here yesterday, and were immediately invited out to the poshest hotel in the area, the Château Locguénolé near Hennebont, where Mike Raleigh and Sue Goldie, and their friends Jo and Huw, who’d been staying at Kerfontaine last week, had gone for the night once we arrived. Ate another dinner in the grand manner. Home at 1.30 in a taxi.

Today has passed in that getting-to-know-you-again way I go through on arriving at Kerfontaine. Two slow, detailed walks around the gardens, one in the morning with Helen, one in the afternoon with Albert. Discussion of the improvements since I was here last. The place looks sensational. Wild flowers everywhere, the fruit trees coming into blossom, the vegetable garden half planted already. At lunchtime it was properly, seriously warm, and we ate outside, an unusually healthy lunch accompanied by mineral water, and including radishes from the garden (grown by Albert sous le tunnel — his early-season construction of flexible rods and plastic sheeting) and watercress from a trickle stream in the wood. Radishes always remind me of the poem by Wallace Stevens about Sainte Ursule, the one where God feels sexy, and eating wild watercress reminds me of Sweeney Astray in Seamus Heaney’s translation.

Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vièrges

Ursula, in a garden, found
A bed of radishes.
She kneeled upon the ground
And gathered them,
With flowers around,
Blue, gold, pink, and green.

She dressed in red and gold brocade
And in the grass an offering made
Of radishes and flowers.

She said, “My dear,
Upon your altars,
I have placed
The marguerite and coquelicot,
And roses
Frail as April snow;
But here,” she said,
“Where none can see,
I make an offering, in the grass,
Of radishes and flowers.”
And then she wept
For fear the Lord would not accept.
The good Lord in His garden sought
New leaf and shadowy tinct,
And they were all His thought.
He heard her low accord,
Half prayer and half ditty,
And He felt a subtle quiver,
That was not heavenly love,
Or pity.

This is not writ
In any book.

Wallace Stevens

[Sweeney] remained in that state in Glen Bolcain until at last he mustered his strength and flew to Cloonkill on the borders of Bannagh and Tyrconnell. That night he went to the edge of the well for a drink of water and a bite of watercress and after that he went into the old tree by the church. That was a very bad night for Sweeney. There was a terrible storm and he despaired, saying: “It is a pity I wasn’t killed at Moira instead of having to put up with hardship like this.”

Seamus Heaney, from Sweeney Astray

Belfast to London plane24 April 1995

Today to Belfast, to approve the last of the Irish Scientists and Inventors series which David Hammond is making for us. David said he went to a wake last night. Though the dead man was there, being paid dutiful respect, the main focus of attention, particularly from the women, was a double pram containing two beautiful bonny twin baby boys.  Their blushing and proud young parents stood next to them. Appropriate gushings and cooings.  At last an old farmer came over, who had managed cattle all his life.  He looked down into the pram, and said to the father, ‘Twin boys, are they?’  The young man nodded.  The farmer asked, ‘Are ye thinking of keeping both of them?’ David said that the humour was a bit dry for the proud father, who became confused.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town29 April 1995

Yesterday I was preoccupied with the Labour party special conference on Clause 4. By the time the day arrived, the result was not in doubt, and Blair got his big majority (65%) for replacing Clause 4. He won the vote in the constituencies by 27% to 3%; equally satisfyingly, he won the union vote by 38% to 31%. The Tories and the Liberals went around trying to pretend that the affair was of no great significance, but (as Andrew Rawnsley said in today’s Observer) just imagine what they would have been saying if Blair had lost, or won with a bare majority. It is an historic moment, despite the fact that the new statement of aims and values is linguistically undistinguished (I could have written a much more memorable statement saying the same thing), because Labour’s philosophical statement is now realistic. I think that terrifies the Tories in their hearts.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town7 May 1995

An extraordinary week has gone by. The most extraordinary thing has been the weather. It’s been hot — a glorious, full, premature heat, bursting through the windows, climbing up the walls, radiating from the buildings and the traffic, making everyone feel the lassitude of summer when it’s still spring. This has continued, day after day, from 1 May — as if on cue — to today when it is still fine but cooler than the first seven days.

There have been two big political events in the past week. On 4 May, Labour won a crushing victory in local elections in England and Wales, annihilating the Tories on a scale never seen before, turning them into the marginal party of local government. They now control only eight district councils, four London boroughs and one county in England. In Wales and Scotland, they control nothing at all. The scale and the joy of it are awesome — the Tories are clearly numbed and ashamed in a way they’ve never been before. Of course, they’re still holed up in the Palace of Westminster with a small majority, but they’re seriously contemplating defeat in a general election within two years, and Labour are looking relaxed and confident under Blair, as they have rarely done during my politically conscious lifetime.

The second event was the election of Chirac yesterday as president of France. It was the result that most people had predicted in recent weeks, but still a disappointment after Jospin had done so unexpectedly well in the first round. Chirac got just over 52%, Jospin just under 48%, so in the end it was an old-fashioned right/left fight. Jospin comes out of it very well, no longer the dull figure I thought him to be when he first emerged as the socialist candidate. He has vigour, integrity and humour, and will certainly now be the commanding figure in the French socialist party through to the next Assemblée elections in three years’ time. It’s not impossible to envisage a cohabitation in reverse then, with a socialist-dominated Assemblée, possibly under a Jospin premiership, living with a Gaullist president. Chirac remains for me the most untrustworthy of politicians, willing to say anything to suit the turn of the times, unclear about detail, and profoundly uncaring about the poor, the unemployed, the marginal. But you have to admit that Mitterrand, on whom I pinned such high hopes in ’81, has failed to help these groups too. He hasn’t been, for years, a socialist in any meaningful sense, and the terrible rate of unemployment (12% of the active population), the 15% vote for Le Pen, the cynicism of the electorate about the morality of the governing class, are legacies of his presidency. There was a long and depressing piece in Saturday’s Guardian suggesting, in effect, that we were looking at the end of a politician who has always been an opportunist, from his association in the ’30s with far-right Catholic groups through to the scandals which overtook his second term.

Today has been a bank holiday, and the three-day weekend a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of victory in Europe. The Queen Mother appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her daughters, just as she did on 8 May 1945, at precisely the same time of day (twenty to one). Helen and I were in Regent’s Park at the time, pushing her aunt Eva round in her wheelchair, causing her to become less grumpy than she was when we went round to see her. We saw the fly-past of the famous aeroplanes of the Second World War — Swordfishes, Spitfires, Lancasters, Wellingtons — and then a formation of modern jets spewing red, white and blue smoke. This evening I caught the six o’clock news on the radio, and was moved by the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘There’ll be bluebirds over …’ from the palace balcony. If I had been of fighting age at the time of the war I would certainly have fought, though I’m grateful that I’ve never had to and it doesn’t look as if I ever will.

Inverness to London plane9 May 1995

Flying from Inverness to London after two days on the island of Lewis and Harris. It was the first time I’d been to the Hebrides. I was looking at some programmes in Gaelic made by Calum Ferguson. When I arrived at Stornoway, Calum took me straight to his office where, with a break for lunch, we got through the business by four. Then he drove me up through the north of the island. It is austere and bare. The modern houses are not charming. They are functional. The crofts often look a mess, with rubbish and rusting machinery lying around them. You can see that the people have had a hard history, and that prettification is not important. We visited the Callanish Stones, a wonderful Stonehenge-like group of standing stones, in the shape of a Celtic cross, erected about 5,000 years ago. Then the remains of a beautiful double-walled tapering dry-stone tower called a broch, many examples of which were built in the west of Scotland and on the islands, probably as fortified defences against the Romans. Beautiful double-walled tapering tower. Then we saw a black house, one of a few remaining examples of the traditional dwelling house of the people, made of stone, wooden rafters with a thatched roof, held down by a fishing net weighted with stones. This one was open to the public. I paid £1.50 to see how the poor people used to live. It gave me a powerful impression of the simplicity, the bareness, the closeness of their lives. Then on to the Butt of Lewis, made famous by its inclusion in the litany of the shipping forecast. The sea and the cliffs were awesome, even on a quiet spring evening. I don’t think I’ve ever had a clearer impression of the wild Atlantic, and I can imagine it would be stupendous to try to get close to the edge when a winter storm was blowing. The rocks were black, with hundreds of gulls nesting, and the sea washed menacingly between them. The lighthouse is of brick and the buildings behind it are beautifully kept, newly painted in white and yellow.

This morning Calum drove me down to the south of the island. It was spectacularly beautiful. After getting to Tairbeart, we went on around Harris on the Golden Road, with wonderful views across the sea to Skye, and the magical sight of the little inland freshwater lochs. There were sheep and lambs everywhere on the road, some black-faced and some all white. Through Leverburgh (so named in 1923 in honour of Cheshire soap manufacturer Lord Leverhulme, who bought Lewis-with-Harris in 1918), and then up the west coast road, past luminous white sandy beaches, deserted. Lunched at the Harris Hotel at Tairbeart, then drove back up the east coast of Lewis, past Loch Seaforth, a big sea loch, via a deviation to a tiny seaside village where until a few years ago there was no road at all. The only access had been by sea or by a precipitous path from Tairbeart over a mountain and around a cliff, where at one place the path hung right over the sea. The postman came from Tairbeart every two days with letters, and after a few years applied to head office in Edinburgh for a rise in pay, in view of the exceptionally arduous nature of his round. Application refused. After much protest locally, Edinburgh sent a man to walk the path with the postman. Halfway along the path, at the particularly terrifying point, the Edinburgh man was transfixed with fear, and could go neither forward nor back. The postman went on to the village, arranged for a boat to sail round to a place below where the unfortunate official was, returned with a rope, and lowered the official on the rope to the boat, which then sailed back to Tairbeart. The postman got his rise.

On the road up from the village to rejoin the main road, as we were looking down at Loch Seaforth, the car was suddenly surrounded by sheep. Calum turned the engine off, and began a conversation in Gaelic with the shepherd, who leaned in through my window. Sitting between them, I turned my head back and forth from one to the other. I speak no Gaelic, but I could tell that there was some robustness in the exchange, and both men pointed at the sea from time to time. After a while, the talk ended, the sheep and the shepherd moved on, and we drove on. ‘What were you saying?’ I asked. Calum said, ‘I said to him, “Have the salmon arrived in the loch yet?” He said to me, “There are no salmon in this loch, except those in cages. The wild ones haven’t been seen since they put the cages there for the farming.” I said to him, “Yes, they have. Last July, I was at this place with my wife, and we counted the dorsal fins of twenty wild salmon in a short space below.” He said to me, “No, you couldn’t have.” I said to him, “Well, we did.”’ Calum said no more, as if that were sufficient explanation. I said to Calum, ‘Why didn’t he believe you?’ Calum looked at me as if I were a bit dim. ‘The locals don’t want to share the wild salmon with visitors.’

I pointed to some islets off the coast, and asked what they were called. ‘The Shiant Islands,’ said Calum. ‘Shiant means blessed.’ ‘Are they inhabited?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes, and it’s a wonderful place to live. There’s no baldness there.’

It was a beautiful slow flight from Stornoway to Inverness, across the sea and the Western Highlands. I walked straight off that little plane on to the London plane. The Scottish mountains are magnificent from the air — still with patches of snow on the tops and in the crevices.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town16 May 1995

On Sunday I went with Helen to see mum and dad. In the evening we went for a walk in Wootton Wood to look at the bluebells, fading now, but still impressive in their masses everywhere. I remembered that when I was 17 I had walked in that wood at this time of year with Dan Dickey, an inspirational teacher at school. Dan was driving me back from the annual black-tie dinner in Cambridge to which old boys of the school who were studying there invited the headmaster, some of the teachers and the head boy (me in 1969). It was well after midnight by the time we got back to Wootton. Dan said he used to go to Wootton Wood as a young man to hear the nightingales. He suggested we do the same. (Dan was evidently heterosexual, married with children he adored, deeply in love with his wife; no question of anything other than the pure idealistic romance of hearing birdsong.) We stumbled about the wood at one in the morning in our tuxedos, a man in his 50s and a boy of 17. We squatted on the ground and said nothing for half an hour. Eventually we gave it up as a bad job. Dan laughed as we drove away — ‘Nothing but a fucking creaking gate, John. Typical. Should have known better than to try to reinvent lost youth’ — before he dropped me home.

I told Paul Ashton this story and he gave me back the following story of Edward Lucie-Smith, the poet, who worked for a long time at the BBC. Lucie-Smith was an expert ornithologist, and he was always complaining about the inadequacy of the BBC’s standard sound recording of a nightingale’s song. One May, he persuaded the head of BBC sound archives to let him take a two-man crew plus tape-recorder out to a wood in Oxfordshire where he knew that nightingales sang reliably. The three men waited for hours in the wood in the night. Nothing. Eventually, Lucie-Smith said he needed to take a leak. Off he went into the dark. A few moments after he had disappeared, the sound recordists heard the most exquisite birdsong, and had the presence of mind — though neither was an ornithologist — to switch on the tape recorder. Soon after the song had ceased, Lucie-Smith reappeared, buttoning up his fly, and asking excitedly, ‘Did you get that? Wasn’t it wonderful? The perfect nightingale song.’ They drove back to London, pleased with their night’s work, and that recording replaced the discredited previous recording as the BBC’s standard nightingale song. It was only years later, when Lucie-Smith retired from the BBC, that he let it be known that, weary of waiting, he had provided a more-than-plausible human imitation of the nightingale’s song while supposedly having gone off for a piss.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town19 May 1995

The government is in grotesque difficulties over the report of the Nolan Committee into standards of behaviour in Parliament. Most Conservatives can’t seem to understand that the majority of the public regards it as immoral that MPs should have jobs besides that for which the taxpayer pays them. They think it impertinent that the public should want to know what these extra jobs are and how much they earn from them. They produce astonishing arguments to the effect that it won’t be possible to get high-calibre people into Parliament unless they’re allowed to go on earning multiple salaries. It shows how far out of touch most Tory MPs, young and old, are with the working conditions and attitudes of most of the people they govern. I would give MPs a substantial straightforward pay rise, from the £32,000 spot salary they get at the moment to a starting salary of £45,000, rising on an incremental scale from there. They would then be earning about what the head of a large comprehensive school earns. I would stop the ridiculous practice of giving them money to employ their own secretaries and researchers, and simply say that MPs are entitled to so much secretarial and research help each, paid directly and not through the MP. And I would ban the holding of continuous paid jobs in addition to the job of being an MP. I don’t think you can stop people being paid for writing books or articles or giving lectures or appearing on TV. I get paid a few hundred a year for my visiting professorship at Nottingham, and I go there about three times a year on C4’s time, and I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. But it ought simply to be regarded as a breach of contract for MPs to be doing continuous day jobs in addition to that for which they were elected.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town28 May 1995

In Tusla in Bosnia last Thursday evening a Serb shell exploded in the street, killing 71 people, many of them young people sitting outside cafés, enjoying the sunshine. An act of casual barbarity. The Bosnian Serbs have also taken to kidnapping UN soldiers and using them as hostages to deter UN raids against their weapons drops. The EU, the UN and NATO meet frantically to try to agree policy and to issue declarations, but it has been clear for a long time now (maybe it was obvious in ’92, when the war in Bosnia started) that international troop deployments are helpless to prevent the crimes against humanity which are being committed in Bosnia, overwhelmingly by the Serbs against the rest. I’ve come to the conclusion in the last few days that there should be full-scale military action in Bosnia — an international invasion, if you want to call it that — to halt the fighting immediately, to impose an international government, a sort of UN protectorate, for the time being, following by discussion about how Bosnia can be governed as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country which is a whole country, where the different ethnic groups (who will each no doubt continue to be concentrated in particular areas of the country) can nonetheless participate in the democratic processes of a single civil state. The attempt to chop Bosnia up into ethnically defined cantons is absurd; it amounts to the outsider countries, with David Owen as their representative, doing with good intentions what the Serbs have been doing with evil intentions in their ethnic cleansing.

I’m halfway through Zlata’s Diary, written between 1991 and 1993 in Sarejevo, a simple and touching account by Zlata Filipovic of events leading up to and during the siege. She was aged 11 and 12 when she wrote it; it describes the horrors she and her parents experienced there. She frequently asks, in effect, ‘Why don’t those with the power do something?’ There is no satisfactory answer to that question at the moment.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town4 June 1995

Politically, the dreadful situation in Serbia continues, with the Serbs taking hundreds of UN soldiers hostage. It shows how helpless the UN is in the face of true ferocity. The Serbs kill small numbers of civilians almost daily as they shell towns. Western diplomacy is concentrating on trying to prise Milosevic of Serbia away from the Bosnian Serbs, in return for lifting sanctions against Serbia. Educated and expert opinion is completely split over whether UN troops, including the British contingent, should remain or withdraw. We haven’t yet got to the point where an international force like the UN can act decisively, with moral authority, when there is a flagrant and sustained violation of human rights, recognised by almost everybody in the world except the group committing it. There is still the feeling that this is a private matter which we shouldn’t interfere with, rather as there used to be in the days when the police wouldn’t intervene to stop husbands beating up their wives because it was ‘a matter between husband and wife’.

An intriguing piece of news which I caught while driving to the pub: Scott of the Scott Inquiry into arms sales to Iraq has felt the need to make a statement insisting on the independence and propriety of his inquiry, and saying that it wouldn’t be blown off course by pressure from any quarter; in other words, this executive is doing all it can to discredit an inquiry which it can see is likely to cause a scandal as big as anything during these recent corrupt years. At the other end of the scale of political significance, a Tory MP, Nicholas Scott (no relation to Scott of the Scott Inquiry), drove his car into another car which hit a third car, which ran over a little boy. Scott ran away, was later arrested, breathalysed, and detained overnight. A lot of the population, me included, believe that’s how you can expect most (not all) Tory MPs to behave. It’s the reality behind ‘back to basics’ and family values.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town12 June 1995

Politically, things are moving fast. Labour continues unceremoniously to drop old baggage: it wants to get rid of trade union sponsorship of MPs, it will reduce the union share of conference votes to 50% by next year’s conference, and there is talk today of it changing its policy on grant-maintained schools so that instead of taking them back into LEA control, it effectively turns all schools into grant-maintained schools, at which point presumably their name would change. I don’t know what I think about that, because then the responsibility which LEAs would have for local education would be so narrow in scope that it hardly seems worth having local political machinery to control it. Might as well have a national educational bureaucracy with local offices.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives lurch even deeper into division and scandal. The latest tonight: Jonathan Aitken, wealthy friend of gun runners, member of the Cabinet, was a director of a company which supplied Iran, indirectly through Singapore, with weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, despite a British embargo. There’s one of these major revelations almost every week at the moment; it is only their frequency which dulls the power to shock.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town23 June 1995

John Major dropped a bombshell on Thursday. He resigned a leader of the Tory party — though not as Prime Minister — in order to have a ‘back-me or sack-me’ confrontation with the malcontents on his own benches. It was a genuine surprise, a political coup de théatre, which gained him much praise in the media and in popular opinion. But no-one outside parliament knows what the outcome will be. He might: win handsomely, and lead the Tories into the next general election, which I think he will still lose; win meagrely in the first round, face a challenge from Michael Heseltine (whose last chance it is), win against Heseltine in the second round, unconvincingly, and limp to the next election, losing even more heavily; lose against Heseltine in the second round, in which case Heseltine would narrow the Labour lead (but I think Labour would still win the election). Those are the only options I can see. Portillo daren’t risk losing the ’97 general election as leader, and would rather the Tories lost then, so that he could stand as a political saviour after that loss, and contest the election in 2002 or whenever. So I don’t see a leadership challenge from Portillo in ’95. The good thing from our point of view is that Portillo is such an unattractive figure to the undecided middle ground of voters that he will have difficulty winning a general election, though he might win the party leadership. This is Blair’s great talent; he’s a party leader, with the confidence of most (by no means all) of the committed, who has an appeal beyond the committed into the shifting affections of those who decide elections in the UK.

Then, yesterday, Douglas Hurd announced his retirement as Foreign Secretary when the new leader’s re-shuffle comes in July, ‘so as not to entangle my future with that of the Prime Minister’. What did he mean? Was he nobly sacrificing himself, so that Major’s chances wouldn’t be hurt too much by his association with a known wet and toff? Anyhow, we’re in for a pantomime between now and 5 July, and it’s wonderful to see a Government which has inflicted so much damage on our country since 1979 in such a state of confusion and self-destructiveness. The whirligigs of time...

Spread Eagle, Camden Town27 June 1995

On Monday, John Redwood, a Thatcherite ideologue, resigned as Secretary of State for Wales and opened a leadership campaign against Major. His appeal is: never join a single European currency, provide immediate tax cuts ‘by cutting waste’, bring back hanging, stop the sell-off of the Royal Yacht, improve the state of the housing market by restoring tax breaks on mortgages. In other words, he thinks that clear leadership, however innumerate economically, together with immediate benefits for the kinds of people who voted Thatcher in ’79, ’83 and ’87, will restore the party’s fortunes. Cleverly mixed into the package are nods in the direction of small hospitals and schools, having more teachers, nurses and doctors and fewer administrators. It’s a ragbag of populist appeals, and couldn’t possibly constitute a programme for government. Some of the far-right Conservatives — the sort who would be in the National Front in France or the MSI in Italy — have clustered around Redwood. I think his bid will fail, despite the attraction of hanging and yachting to a certain kind of Conservative. So my three options in last Saturday’s entry are still in place, though I admit I didn’t envisage a member of the cabinet standing against Major in the first round. The irritating thing from our point of view is that you see much less of Labour on the television screen, and I think that does us harm, even though the Tories may well be doing themselves even more harm with this extraordinary display of internecine loathing.

Three solid days at the office. Lots of detailed business. Outside, the days have been the most perfect an English summer has to offer: very warm, but with a breeze all day, strengthening at evening, the sky a delicate blue with a little grey in it, and all the trees and flowers still looking fresh and vigorous after the winter rain and the cold weather in the first half of this month.

Home1 July 1995

The contest between Major and Redwood continues. If you look into the minds and eyes of the Redwood camp, you see a fascist party in waiting. There isn’t any danger that a fascist party will come to power in the UK, but I can see how, if events fell out in a particular way and the Conservative party split, with the pro-Europeans and the wets forming one faction (and perhaps combining with the Liberals), the other faction would be free to reveal itself in its true colours, which are fascist. A British version of fascism, of course, but with all fascism’s essential characteristics: extreme nationalism, hatred of foreigners (Portillo’s speech of a few months ago about foreigners buying their A-levels), brandishing of the symbols of national glory (the Royal Yacht), and socially violent and repressive legislation (hanging, slashing of the welfare state). I still think Major will win on Tuesday, and things will be just the same as they were before he resigned as leader, except that Redwood will be one more prick outside the tent pissing in.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town11 July 1995

Politically, the main event of last week was John Major’s success in being re-elected leader of the Conservative party. It was the result we wanted. The serious danger to us was the election of Heseltine in a second round. Major won 66% of the vote, and has seen off that common-sense wisdom about Tory leaders being ‘fatally wounded’ if a substantial minority doesn’t give its support. In future, a win by the rules will be regarded as a win. Major then conducted a clever re-shuffle the next day, in which he gave his right wing nothing, and invented a special job for Heseltine as his deputy and ‘First Secretary of State’. It’s pretty hard to understand what Heseltine will do, and it’s an obvious move to try to benefit from Heseltine’s popularity by offering two for the price of one at the top. It won’t work. There’s lots of trouble up ahead in the autumn, notably the report of the Scott Inquiry into government duplicity over selling arms to Iraq while officially branding Saddam Hussein an evil dictator and a bully who should be stood up to.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town24 July 1995

The situation in Bosnia remains a deep source of shame and embarrassment to the powerful Western governments. The Serbs have now overrun all the UN ‘safe areas’ except one; so the pretence that the UN was making the areas safe from invasion by the Serbs has been shown to be false. The Serbs have committed countless vile acts against the population of Bosnia, far outnumbering the vile acts committed against them. Meanwhile, the Bosnian government is prevented from obtaining arms to defend itself properly and to have a chance of taking back the land it has lost. It seems that the UN and NATO can’t decide on the command structure for the troops they have in Bosnia. In a future period, when the concept of international responsibility to challenge genocide is more easily accepted, I hope we will never allow the equivalent of the Serbs to get away with what the Serbs have done in Bosnia. But we are now still constrained by the idea that because it’s a foreign country, it’s none of our business. And of course none of our vital interests are at stake, so we shrug. I don’t deny that the presence of international troops there has saved many lives and alleviated much suffering. But the limitations on their actions show the hypocritical halfway stage of international responsibility we’re at. Either Bosnia is full of savages, and they should be allowed to slaughter each other to their hearts’ content: or, when genocide is beyond doubt, an overwhelming international force should go in to prevent further atrocity, impose a peace, and sit there until a stable political solution can be negotiated.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town4 August 1995

The English summer will have surpassed itself, even if it stops now. Day has succeeded day in a brilliant progression of sun and heat, all day, every day. Each morning promises more of the same as I walk to the bus stop. By lunchtime, and throughout the afternoon, there is the serious Mediterranean-style heat which reminds me of July and August in Italy in the 80s. You can sit out all evening, and at night I lie naked, uncovered on the top of the bed, with the window wide open, and don’t wake up feeling chilly until dawn, if at all. There are humid days which make people ill-tempered and oppressed, but most of the days are of dry heat, with a little breeze occasionally, and they are perfect. It’s the best summer I can remember since 1975 and 1976: a privilege, a blessing, unlimited, pressed down and running over, and I salute it as such.

Last Monday, Helen went to John Lewis to look for one of those café-table parasols for us to take to France. They had the umbrella part, which she bought, but no base.

This morning Helen and I drove to Brixton, picked up her niece Evania, and I dropped the two of them at Waterloo, where they took the train to France. I then made the mistake of deciding that I would complete the purchase of the parasol which Helen had started last Monday, by looking for the base that she hadn’t been able to get. I toured London in the great heat, chasing after this absurd piece of leisure junk — a parasol base to fit the 36mm post which I had measured. After three hours, I thought I’d found what I wanted at Harrods. It was weighty. When I got it home, the post was too thick for the base. I must have measured it wrongly. Back to Harrods. I carried this great lump of concrete encased in white plastic back up to the second floor, together with the post this time so as to make no further mistake, and eventually, with the help of the entire staff of the garden furniture department, found a base with a larger hole, shop-soiled and therefore with a mean 10% discount, which fitted. Stumbled back to the car with base and post, resting the base on convenient flat surfaces whenever they presented themselves, with thoughts of ‘44-year-old heart-attack man collapses in heat carrying heavy weight’ running through my mind, but with that pig-headed determination which comes over me when I find myself engaged in a piece of stupid and unnecessary consumerism, wasting an exquisite summer Saturday: at least get what you went out for.

The Balkan war has developed significantly, with the powerful Croatian army retaking a section of territory called Krajina, which the Serbs had invaded. I’m relieved. The Bosnian Serbs have begun quarrelling amongst themselves, with their leader sacking his military commander and the commander refusing to be sacked. The Bosnian government is trying to retake Bihac, a little pocket of land in the west of the country: good. I’d like to see Croatia resuming most if not all of its former borders, Bosnia asserting its sovereignty by force if necessary, and Serbia retreating to borders close to where it was before the war started. Many lives will have been lost, much misery caused, much hatred stored up for the future perhaps; but at least Serbian expansionism and atrocities will not have been rewarded. I understand how the Serbs hate the Croats because of their puppet Nazi government during the Second World War, but that doesn’t excuse their actions since 1991.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb. At a ceremony in the city, the mayor of Hiroshima is going to apologise for Japanese actions during the war. He’s a hero.

El Parador Restaurant, Camden Town5 August 1995

There was something on the radio yesterday about Croatia, which I should have put in yesterday’s entry. The tourist trade on the coast of Croatia — on the Istrian peninsula, and on the islands — is doing fine. British tourists fly in and out on their package holidays and enjoy themselves and rub factor 15 sun block into each other and go to discos. The only complaint is that it’s a bit too hot, so wonderful is the summer Europe is having. Seven hours’ drive away — but not very far as the crow flies — the ancient hatreds are being exercised, and bodies litter the streets of Knin. It looks as if the Croats will retake the whole of Krajina, though with great difficulty. The Bosnian forces in Bihac have punched outwards through Krajina, cutting it in two. I’m interested to know what will happen now to the huge area of Bosnia reoccupied by the Serbs. And another thing (especially after what I’ve written recently about the arms embargo): why are all parties except the Bosnian government apparently able to bypass the embargo? I read today that the Croat attack is equipped with weapons bought from the old Warsaw Pact countries. No effective embargo there. The Bosnian Serb leadership looks as if it may be about to self-destruct through internal rivalry, as I wrote yesterday, but they seem able to get their hands on weapons. Only the Bosnian government is incapacitated by inadequate fire power. It seems quite hypocritical to insist on the official maintenance of an embargo when the party which has been least guilty of atrocities and which has greatest cause for complaint is the only party which is denied the means to defend itself and to reclaim land which it legitimately owns.

Tapas bar, Stan Getz on the tape machine, diary to write, poetry to read, espresso, brandy… ¿qué tal, hombre, qué tal? The answer is: not bad at all.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town7 August 1995

A satisfying, end-of-termish feel at work today. Paul and I finished the annual round of letters to production companies about next year’s commissions, and cleared out redundant tapes, paper and books. The three-week holiday is coming up.

Croatia has virtually finished re-taking the Krajina. Thousands of Serb refugees are travelling across Serb-held Bosnia, hoping to find a refuge in Serbia itself. Croatia is speaking in bellicose terms about re-taking eastern Slavonia, the area of rich farmland and oil wells west of the Danube. The Serbs seized it in 1991. There’s no moral reason why the Croats shouldn’t take it back. The Croat leadership is fiercely nationalist, and the scenes of marching soldiers on the news this evening — and the way the soldiers marched — reminded us of whose side they were on 50 years ago, but there’s no doubt that Serbia violated established and internationally recognised borders in 1991. The big question is: what will happen to Bosnia? Will the Croats help the Bosnian government to force the Serbs back to Serbia? Or will they do a deal with their great enemy, a kind of miniature Hitler-Stalin pact (not that that lasted) and dismember most of Bosnia?

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente19 August 1995

I drove to Kerfontaine with Anne Seeley on the 12th, arriving at the tunnel at six in the morning. The bilingual driver this time spoke estuary English and tunnel French. We reached Kerfontaine at eight in the evening. The three of us have had a week of heat, leisure and pleasure. Kerfontaine looks magnificent; Albert has laboured to impressive effect in the garden and the wood. We are in the midst of a luxurious, fully mature summer that strides into the second half of August with no sign of breaking. Tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, melons, onions, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, beans are all in ripe profusion, though I’m glad to say that the situation is more under control than in previous summers because we’ve halved the size of the vegetable garden: slightly smaller quantities, and more emphasis on vegetables that will keep. It used to be like the wonderful passage in one of Garrison Keillor’s pieces in Lake Woebegone Days, where he describes the season of glut, and tomatoes and courgettes take on a sinister character in the minds of the inhabitants of the town, threatening to break into houses and swaggering around the streets in mobs.

Today we drove to Nantes airport with Annie. She flew back to London and we continued down to the Charente, to Stephen Eyers’s house near Aubeterre.

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente20 August 1995

Stephen’s house, a 300-year-old double-fronted stone farmhouse, is gracious and substantial, and in need of a lot of work. Later this afternoon he and I are going to discuss with a builder arrangements for putting in a bathroom and kitchen. This morning we strolled around Aubeterre, a pretty little town which looks more Italian than French. It’s on a hillside. The houses are in sandy brown stone under clay-tiled roofs. The place has presence and poise. I like to see small, cared-for walled gardens, full of flowers, fruit trees, lines of tomatoes: that sense of huddle and contiguity you get in these ancient places, as if every available square metre of space has been put to use. And I like the variation of levels: to admire the square while standing in it at one moment, and a few minutes later to look up at the back gardens of the shops bordering the square from a pathway below, their wooden verandahs covered with bright plants in hanging baskets.

Kerfontaine1 September 1995

This is our last night of the summer in Kerfontaine. It has been a magnificent, no-holds-barred, cup-runneth-over summer, as splendid a season as I can remember in my lifetime, as good as ’76, ’75 and my remote eight-year-old memory of ’59. Yesterday evening was entrancing as we drove up the lane in the direction of Lorient for a meal at Arnaud’s restaurant. A waxing, falling half moon stood over a stripped corn field, with a few crows circling, and the sun, red and full, was there too, further down the field and at about half the moon’s height. The relaxed countryside, dry and cool, fell away towards the Scorff and rose again on the other side of the river. Brittany is an exquisitely beautiful, bucolic part of France. There have been times when I have wondered whether we have played too safe in buying a house here, and thought perhaps that we should have gone for something more remote and truly la France profonde — the Auvergne or the Lot or the south-west — but this summer I have felt quite content to be here. Brittany is both beautiful and culturally and ethnically complex and interesting.

Wootton, Bedfordshire16 September 1995

Yesterday, Helen and I came to Wootton for mum’s and my brother Mark’s birthdays. We had a good, jolly meal last night. Dad made me laugh a lot after dinner, telling us about the time he and our uncle Bill sailed a dinghy from Calais to Dover, in dense fog in September 1951. They were making way in a light wind, but unable to see anything, and alarmed by the heavy hootings of big ships not far away, when they passed Florence Chadwick, swimming in the opposite direction. Florence Chadwick’s minders, in a little boat behind her, asked dad and Bill whether they were all right for Calais. Dad and Bill were able to reassure them. It was the co-incidence, in all that sea and in a fog so thick you could hardly see beyond the tip of your finger, of passing so close to a cross-channel swimmer that you could talk to her minders for a moment, and, even more, of knowing immediately who she was. I’d never heard of her. ‘Florence Chadwick, oh yes, she was always crossing the channel at that time, well known for it.’ Made her sound like a ferry. Dad had wisely bought a compass in the Tottenham Court Road before going to Dover, crossing the channel on a real ferry, and finding Bill in Calais. He used it so skilfully in the fog that, after sailing all day, ‘We got to a point where the fog seemed thicker than ever, until I realised it was Dover harbour wall.’

Interesting development in Bosnia, with the Americans proudly announcing that a resolution of the conflict is near, on the basis of a 51%/49% confederal division of the country: the 49% being the Serb area. All parties agreed to this at a meeting in Geneva. However, the Bosnian government is now making dramatic territorial gains in the west of the country, and may soon be in a position to take Banya Luka, the Serb stronghold in the central north. NATO and the UN need to decide tonight whether to resume air strikes against the Serbs in the east, for not withdrawing enough weapons 20 kilometres from Sarajevo. The Serb military leadership is in some confusion, with their chief thug, Mladic, in hospital having kidney stones removed (how banality intervenes in these huge tragedies). If I were the Bosnian government I would want to keep the impetus to regain territory going as long and as far as I could. There is only one right answer for Bosnia, which is a unified, multi-ethnic state, as a man, about my age, sitting on a hospital bed without a right arm, said on the Channel 4 News.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town18 September 1995

In Bosnia, the tables have been turned completely, with the Muslims and the Croats continuing to retake huge chunks of territory rapidly, and the Serbs in confusion. There’s a dangerous moment coming, when the Bosnian government will rightly feel the desire to retake all the remaining territory held by the Serbs, risking an invasion by Serbia itself. The Americans continue dashing back and forth between the parties, claiming agreements and compromises, but nothing is sure.

Monticello, Corsica24 October 1995

We’re having a week’s holiday in the village of Monticello, above L’Ile Rousse, in the north-west of Corsica. The village has definition and coherence, the sense of something made and remade over centuries, so it all looks a piece even though it’s many pieces. The apartment is in a building at one end of the square. At the other end is the church; the square also has fountains, a bar/hotel/restaurant and a shop. Monticello is spectacularly situated, with a wonderful view down to L’Ile Rousse and the sea, and equally impressive views around and behind to the hills. It seems a prosperous little place, and I should think quite a number of the houses and flats are holiday homes, but there was no sense of out-of-season desolation here today. People came and went on their business, children climbed the hill to the school in a big chattering group at ten past eight. We were up early this morning because there was no water when we arrived yesterday, and Gilbert the plumber came first thing to see what the trouble was. By a piece of good luck, just as we were agreeing that the problem was probably with the stopcocks in the road (responsibility of the water company), the man from the water company (well known to the plumber, of course) drove by. The plumber flagged him down, and he investigated. It turned out that some builders who had recently been working in a neighbouring apartment, and who had needed to turn off the water supply there, not knowing which stopcock was for which flat, had simply turned off all four of a group in the road outside the house. So the man from the water company turned them all on again, and that was it. We had showers, and went to the shop and bought breakfast, which we ate on the terrace in the warm sunshine. Then Helen’s brother Adam and I walked up through the village, admiring every building and in particular the school with its high playground connected to the schoolroom by a little bridge, before coming out above the village at the cemetery. The cemetery was of the sort which makes you think, ‘Well, if I have to die, I wouldn’t mind ending up here,’ and I said as much aloud to the woman who, with her husband, was tending the place. She, anxious to be helpful, said, ‘Well, monsieur, that may be possible. You would need to register. Apply to the mairie.’ Then we scrambled up above the cemetery through the maquis to a high rock overlooking everything, and the scents for which Corsica is famous were suddenly all around us, every time we brushed against or trod on a bush.

This afternoon I swam in the Mediterranean from a deserted beach. Wonderfully invigorating, with waves. Two years ago I swam in the Mediterranean at this time of year. That was off the north coast of Cyprus, where the water was warmer but didn’t do anything. Today was perfect.

This apartment belongs to Frank and Polly Muir, and I’m writing this at Frank Muir’s writing desk. As you somehow might expect from the man’s public persona, the desk is a beautiful piece of antique furniture, with a leather top and a blotting sheet, and with two lamps casting the perfect amount of light on to the page.

Monticello, Corsica25 October 1995

Today was another day of clear autumn sunshine, and after breakfast we drove inland, into the hills, through villages called Belgodère, Palasca, Occhiatana, Ville-di-Paraso, Olmi-Cappella, Speloncato. The scenery is spectacular: jagged mountains rise suddenly out of green valleys, the hillsides are covered with wild herbs and flowering bushes, eagles circle overhead. The villages all look as villages in wild places should look. The buildings are vernacular and right for their place — they charm as well as serve. There is no sense of loss, as alas I feel so often in England about the damage inflicted by the buildings of the last 50 years. And there was no-one about! We found a romantic place for lunch, and ate outside, under sweet chestnut trees which dropped their fruit all around us. We consumed thick soupe Corse (bacon, potatoes, cabbage, basil), sirloin steak and chips or, in my case, wild boar and gratin de pommes de terre, with two bottles of the wonderful local red. The pièce de resistance came at the end of the meal. A bottle of grappa was brought, unrequested, to the table with the coffee, contained in a solid block of ice with only its neck sticking out, with various fruits and flowers trapped in the ice for decoration. We were advised to pour the grappa into our coffee cups once we had finished the coffee. Sensational. The block of ice sat there on the table amid the debris of the meal, losing its frosted exterior where my hands had held it, but still quite solid after half an hour in the admittedly gentle sunshine.

To try to deal with the food we had taken on, we walked straight up the hillside above the restaurant, and were immediately in terraced fields amid mature oaks widely spaced out, where cows grazed. The land rose, walled field after walled field, a sort of mystical parkland, until we broke out above the tree line into a meadow of wild thyme, and turned back and looked straight across the valley to the dramatic steep mountain ridge opposite. Then we descended to the car and took a tiny road up over the mountains which we had circumnavigated earlier in the day, and crossed a high pass which gave us a vertiginous view back to L’Ile Rousse and the coast. We drove down and home through the enchanted countryside in the dusk, saying nothing.

Monticello, Corsica27 October 1995

Had a good long swim in the sea this morning, before lunching on mussels and chips in L'Ile Rousse. Then we drove to Lumio, a village most of the way towards Calvi, with a wonderful view over the bay of Calvi. We walked around, admiring the genius of building, little stepped streets winding under tiny pedestrian bridges joining one house to another, brilliant flowering plants hanging down walls, and on one slope, facing south-west over the bay, orange and lemon trees with good crops of nearly ripe fruit. Back to Monticello about five and, for the first time this week, I yielded to the sweet temptation of a siesta, waking in the dark when the church clock struck seven.

Monticello, Corsica28 October 1995

Today is our last day in Monticello. This morning I walked over the back of the hill and climbed up a ridge until I had a place with a full-scale view of the first inland valley. It was as hot as it has been all week. A pair of eagles circled overhead, calling to each other. A little train, its rattle announcing its arrival across great distances and at a volume out of all proportion to the train’s size (one coach), made its circuitous way along the remarkable single-track railway which goes to places in the mountains you wouldn’t think railways could get to. Then I walked back to Monticello, where a funeral had taken place and the mourners stood about in groups, dressed with a minimum of formality (the occasional black jacket and tie, but mostly just their best jeans and smart casual shirts), while the bell rang continually. I drove down to our beach to meet the others, who had walked down earlier, and took my last swim in the sea for 1995. A south-westerly on-shore wind brought waves big enough to make the swim energetic, and I went a long way out and enjoyed the sun on the water and sight of the sand and the rocks far below me. Then we came back and ate a cold lunch on the terrace, and did the housework. Now the weather is changing — perhaps a significant seasonal change, with low clouds drifting over from the south, and no horizon out at sea. Plane tomorrow at 11.30.

Occurrences: Book Two

Wootton, Bedfordshire14 September 1996

I’ve come to my parents’ house for the day.

I’m changing to a different shape and size of notebook for a bad reason. On the afternoon of Monday 2 September, having come back from our Brittany holiday the previous Friday, I took the 5.15pm Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris, so that I could watch the filming of part of a new French series the following day. For most of the journey, I just looked out of the window, and when we emerged from the tunnel and accelerated to 300 kilometres per hour, I was content to let the villages and fields and roads fly by as we hurtled across the northern French plain. During the long section when the line runs beside the autoroute, I enjoyed overtaking even the fastest cars at double their speed. About half an hour before we arrived at the Gare du Nord, I picked up my notebook and wrote a few pages about the last days of the holiday and why I was returning to France so soon. When we arrived in Paris, bang on time, I gathered up my belongings — case, newspapers, novel, pens, passport, ticket, jacket. I put the newspapers, novel, pens, passport and tickets in the case. I donned the jacket and left the train. I must have left the notebook on the seat. I took a taxi to the hotel where I always stay in Paris, on the Boulevard Berthier in the 17th. They gave me an attic room, perfectly comfortable, with a large bathroom containing a writing table and with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I had a bath, thinking about where I would go for dinner, and opened the case for a clean shirt, socks, underwear. I noticed that the notebook wasn’t there.

I checked the room carefully, trying to restrain panic. I ran down eight flights of stairs and along to the taxi rank. Back to the Gare du Nord. The driver chose a route which took us ten minutes longer than the first journey had taken. Red lights all the way. At the station, the staff on the barrier said that the train had just left to go to the sidings to be cleaned. They showed me up to an office in the rafters of the building. Sympathetic staff there telephoned the sidings, and described a black notebook containing écritures anglaises in coach 2 seat 55. The cleaners, they told me, were mainly illiterate immigrants, and there was a danger one of them would throw the notebook away with the discarded newspapers. They suggested I telephone the next day.

I took my third taxi of the evening back to the hotel. I walked up to the room and lay on the bed, in despair. My appetite had gone. After an hour, I switched the light off.

The notebook had been new at the beginning of last November. It was three quarters full, and contained all my off-duty writing (diary entries and poetry) since getting back from Corsica at the end of last October. I remember the first entry in it, written cheerfully in a bar in Dublin, discussing among other things the pleasure of beginning to write in a new book, joking about the brand: ‘The Alwych notebook, with its proudly announced “all-weather cover”, is designed for the intrepid observer of life who needs to be able to record an aperçu in a cloudburst.’ Since then, I had taken the book to Rio de Janeiro in March and written about that amazing place. It had come with me on five trips to France and on numerous business jaunts around Britain and Ireland. I had tried to sort out what I had thought about political events domestic and foreign. I had recorded fair days and foul. I had worked on about nine poems, some new, most old and in need of improvement. During the three-week summer holiday in France I had spent whole days with it at the writing table in the bedroom. It was a companion, and only the second notebook I had had since I commenced writing a diary on New Year’s Eve 1994. There was a hole where it had been, and my own carelessness was responsible for the loss.

I telephoned twice the next day. Nothing. The work which had brought me to Paris was to watch the recording of some French/English sketches starring two very good comedians, Antoine de Caunes and Eddie Izzard. I wasn’t in the mood to go, but I went anyway, and found myself laughing even though I was miserable. At the Gare du Nord that evening, I left my name and address with the same office staff from the night before, who were full of kindness. I sat down on the concourse, with an hour to wait before the London train departed, and opened this notebook, which I was carrying for business notes, and began to write out the poems which had been in the lost notebook. They were all there in the memory, and by the time I was halfway back to London they were on paper again. Then I worked on the last poem, which I had left unfinished in Brittany, until we reached Waterloo.

From now on, I’m going to put off-duty writing into these big Black n’ Red notebooks, which will, I hope, be harder to lose because clumsier to carry round. Another advantage is that you can write a longer line in a freer hand with less sense of cramp. The left-hand page early on in the Alwych is particularly awkward.

To say that the loss of the notebook is one of the worst things that has happened to me is to admit that nothing very bad has ever happened to me. But the experience was, briefly, a minor bereavement, however absurd that may sound. It was the physical separation and the sense of waste, the idea of my book being tossed into a plastic bag with beer cans and sandwich packaging and that day’s newspapers, it was that which hurt, and the thought that I had abandoned the physical object which above all I valued.

One co-incidence: in the last entry in the lost notebook I wrote about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a novel I had read during the summer holiday which moved me so much that I cried. During my second telephone call to the Gare du Nord from the television studio, the man in the office raised my hopes momentarily by saying yes, there was a book there written in English, and then dashed them when he brought the book to the phone. It had a blue cover, he said, and was a printed novel: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town17 October 1996

Current political news. Bill Clinton will win the US presidential election at a walk. Thank goodness. It’s remarkable that the Republican Party managed to put up such a catastrophic candidate. Boris Yeltsin, gravely ill, has sacked Alexander Lebed, the egomaniac security chief and former rival he bought off after the first round of the presidential elections in June. Lebed is too big for his boots. He says he will challenge all comers for the presidency next time round. He might win. I don’t think he’ll stage a coup in the meantime. If he does win the presidency, we’ll see whether he is another tsar or a Western-influenced pragmatic politician. I suspect the latter. It’s more difficult for big countries to ignore world opinion these days, although China and Indonesia are two cases where scandalous human rights abuses are winked at by the Western democracies because of the huge business we’re doing with them. Anyway, Russia is a terrifyingly unstable country: part Mafia fiefdom, part gigantic Harvard Business School economic experiment, part sullen no-longer-imperial no-longer-super power, with a restless army which the state can’t afford to pay.

Last week was the memorial service for the victims of the tragedy at Dunblane, and this week Lord Cullen published his recommendations on gun control, school security and pooling information on dangerous people who want to work with children. The Government’s proposals, announced immediately after the Cullen Report was published, go further even than Cullen’s radical recommendations. All handguns will be banned, except .22 pistols, which must be kept in secure armouries in gun clubs. Labour wants to go further, and ban handguns outright. The Government’s position is startling for a party so deeply associated with shooting, and shows how powerful public opinion, once aroused and (nearly) united, can be when exerted a few months before an election.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town26 October 1996

Karen Brown, my friend and boss at Channel 4, lost her mother a fortnight ago, so she was away from work for a week. I went to see her last Wednesday to say I was sorry for her trouble. She told me that the death had been expected and prepared for, that the family had been there when it happened, and that the funeral, in a simple Low Church in Scotland, had been what it should have been. She said that her mother had been a keen horsewoman, but hadn’t been able to ride for months. Her horse had spent the year grazing in a field, and had always stayed away from the house. As Karen’s mother was dying, the horse for the first time came right up to the house, under the bedroom window, and offered a great snort, so loud that Karen asked her mother if she had heard it. Her mother said yes, she had, and then the horse snorted again, just as loud, so there was no doubt that the mother heard it. Then the horse went away back to the far end of the field, where it had stayed for months, and a couple of hours later Karen’s mother died.

I’m getting tired of friends telling me that there’s no difference between the policies of the Conservative and Labour parties, now that (as they put it) New Labour is so right-wing. So I’m going to list, for my own satisfaction and so that I can win the argument next time it comes up, the Labour policies for government which the Conservatives would never implement.

  1. Abolition of hereditary peers’ right to sit in the House of Lords
  2. Introduction of a Freedom of Information Act
  3. Incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law
  4. Introduction of a minimum wage
  5. Participation in the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty
  6. Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales
  7. Allowing local authorities to spend capital receipts from sale of council houses on buying or building more council houses
  8. Reducing the size of infant classes
  9. Increasing nursery provision while abolishing the current voucher system
  10. Maintaining the comprehensive principle, however flawed in practice, for secondary education, rather than moving further towards selection
  11. Getting rid of the internal market in the NHS
  12. Taxing the privatised utilities, over and above the standard level of corporation tax, on the enormous profits they’ve made since privatisation
  13. Halting the privatisation programme (including the Tory plan to privatise C4) (and maybe reversing it here and there?)
  14. Active participation in the EU, with a predisposition towards having a single currency if convergence criteria are met
  15. Abolition of most of the quangos which have taken over many of the functions of local government; reviving local government.

That’s 15. I’d hoped I could get to 20. There are other areas, such as laws on refugees, industrial investment, regional policy, public transport, where I could hardly imagine Labour being as disastrous as the Tories have been, but where I can’t name particular policies. I might add to this list between now and the election.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town28 October 1996

It is a wild night. ‘Gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights’ — Wallace Stevens. I’ve driven to the pub. The wind is strong enough to pull at the steering wheel on the short trip down St Pancras Way, along Crowndale Road, up Camden High Street and left into Delancey Street, and great heaps of plane leaves cover the gutters and pavements. The pub is pleasantly quiet because of the weather.

World news is grim at the moment. A fearful catastrophe threatens in central Africa, where eastern Zaire is now touched by the tribal conflicts which brought genocide to Rwanda two years ago and have damaged Burundi since. In Afghanistan, a fundamentalist Islamic group, the Taliban, controls Kabul and is oppressing the women, mediaeval style. There are also clashes in Pakistan between the government and Muslim fundamentalists. Same trouble in Algeria. A dreadful political deadlock between the Israeli government and the Palestinians has brought many unnecessary deaths since Likud won the elections in the summer.

Here, debate and legislation about banning handguns has been followed by similar debate about banning knives being sold as weapons. The news tells us that some schools are out of control. All the political parties have discovered religion; all are publicly concerned about a decline in morality, drawing attention to specific atrocities such as that of the 15-year-old schoolgirl who was kidnapped in Birmingham and raped by three Asian men. The Government’s legislative programme between now and the election is more concerned to try to identify differences between it and Labour, for example over minimum jail sentences for specified crimes, than to legislate where legislation is needed, for example over controlling paedophiles (which Labour would of course support). It’s engaged in end-of-term, exhausted, desperate throws of the dice which even it suspects are too late. Its only real hope lies in the improving state of the economy, which will give Kenneth Clarke the opportunity to knock another penny off income tax on 26 November. Meanwhile, the state totters.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town30 October 1996

Heavy but satisfactory office day. Nothing much to report. Today the government published an education bill proposing more selection in secondary schools. Its advisory body on the curriculum published proposals designed to improve the teaching of morality in schools. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Education said on the Today programme that she was in favour of corporal punishment in schools. She had forgotten that this is now against the law. Within an hour, the prime minister phoned her to say she was out of line, and issued a statement implicitly rebuking her. By the evening, the Secretary of State was reduced to saying that there was a difference of personal view between her and the PM, but that this would not affect government policy.

A government whose policies have done more to destroy social cohesion and individuals’ sense of mutual social responsibility than any in my lifetime is trying at the eleventh hour to find tokens of morality to distract the public’s attention from its destructiveness.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town17 November 1996

Last week was boring but generally cheerful at work. Friday was an exquisite bright day in London. Paul and I went to lunch with Norman Burrows, whose office is in the South Lambeth Road. Norman always supplies industrial quantities of delicious smoked salmon and a very good white wine, and we walked back across Vauxhall Bridge in high good humour, Paul pointing out the great bronze statues on the outside of the bridge, four on either side, which I’d never noticed before. They looked like muses of the arts and one of them held on her palm a beautiful and sexy miniature of a female nude — a sculpture held by a sculpture. So many times I have walked or driven over that bridge, unaware of the beauties to be beheld by leaning over the parapet. Helen’s brother Adam, who teaches sailing on the river just by there, knew the statues well when I spoke to him about them in the evening.

An article about Adam appeared in the travel section of The Sunday Times a few weeks ago, written by a man whom he had taught to drive a powerboat. It was funny, and its highlight was the description of an emergency stop which Adam was teaching his pupil to do. The pupil’s first attempt was so sudden, complete and effective that Adam was projected out of the boat and into the water. For a moment, the pupil, who was looking away from Adam when he performed the manoeuvre, had no idea where his teacher had disappeared to. Then he had to rescue him, using procedures that Adam had taught him only a few minutes earlier.

After admiring the statues, Paul and I spent half an hour in The Tate Gallery. We intended to look at only two paintings, one each. Mine was Samuel Palmer’s Coming from Evening Church. His was Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Teller’s Masterstroke. Both paintings, viewed close up and on impulse, are works of awesome genius, as are one or two other things we were distracted by, like Epstein’s statue of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and we walked out of the gallery and back to the office in a state of exhilaration.

This week about 350 people perished when two aeroplanes collided in the air near Delhi. The situation in Zaire and Rwanda continues perilous, with thousands of people dying of hunger and disease or at the hands of murderous armed gangs. But an unexpected event occurred on Friday when the Hutu militia, who had been responsible for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and who were holding other, non-extremist Hutus hostage in the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, were defeated by rebels from the Zairean army, and fled. The Hutu hostages were able to go home, which they have since been doing in their hundreds of thousands. So the immense catastrophe which was feared may be avoided.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town23 November 1996

I’m in the pub early on Saturday evening, surrounded by young people. This place used to be a quiet extension sitting room for old guys like me who like peace. It is now a style venue. There were even bouncers on the door the other night (one male, one female, dress identical [black fatigues and an earring]).

Labour has won two important rounds in the pre-election jousting. Last weekend, they announced that they would have a referendum on the single currency, if in government they wanted to recommend it to the public. This put the Tories on the defensive, because it’s now not easy for them to distinguish themselves from Labour on the issue, except in the respect that Labour is more positive in principle about the single currency. Major is getting himself into deep difficulties by denying the House of Commons the right to debate the single currency, his own right wing having ambushed a committee where some technical Euro-papers about monetary union were being considered, an act which has raised the level of the argument about the single currency to a stand-off between the executive and the legislature. Labour is delighted, of course, having just got its own policy on the single currency clarified. Secondly, Labour now has a formidable propaganda and media-relations machine in high gear in Millbank Tower, which was able largely to neutralise a preposterous set of Tory claims that Labour was about to spend £30 billion as soon as it got into power. There’s a cold-eyed cunning about Labour which I whole-heartedly admire, because I’ve had enough of us being the good guys who lose.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town25 November 1996

The great Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean has died. Reading the obituary reminded me of that focused pride in language and community which I always encounter in Scotland, Ireland and Wales when I go there, and which doesn’t exist in the same way in England, because the English have been the uneasy victors in the struggles which have racked these islands over centuries. And because there are more of us English, getting the focus is more difficult.

Dublin Airport29 November 1996

I’ve had a short day in Dublin. Came over this morning to look at five little programmes about animals, for infants, each featuring an animated story about an animal (wren, bull, spider, cat, worm [as in the laidly worm]) and scientific film about the animal in its habitat. All very good.

Tuesday was budget day. Kenneth Clarke knocked a penny off income tax as from next April, and then disguised the depth of the Government’s debt difficulties with a confusing and contradictory mixture of rises and cuts. The most unfair part of it was the announcement of extra expenditure on education, most of which will have to be raised by local councils (nearly all Labour controlled) through the council tax. Blair and Brown have been very good in response, banging home the message that the Tories have eroded our public services and industrial base, and have claimed to be reducing taxation so as to set enterprise free, while in fact putting taxes up both as a proportion of GDP and as a proportion of most individuals’ incomes. I like to see us not being outwitted in the propaganda war on tax like we were last time.

Yesterday evening an Irishman called Ned Price came and repaired some plumbing in our kitchen. I’ve known him since 1975, when he worked on my uncle’s house in Albert Street, where I lived then. I told him I was coming to Dublin today. He said he has a house at Bray, south of the city. He had recently been there, attending to the funeral of his aunt. ‘Did she live over there?’ I asked. ‘No, no, she lived in Camden Town.’ He then explained 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 you can easily arrange in London. ‘You know, John,’ he said, ‘it costs a thousand pounds to travel over there if you’re dead. You can go for £59 Ryanair if you’re living. The body doesn’t even take up a seat. They stow it in the hold with the baggage.’ He did a brilliant job and asked for £10. The part must have cost him more than that. I gave him £20, and brought him and his wife a drink in the Spread Eagle later on.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town1 December 1996

I must write down a story which David James told me the other week, before I forget it. A middle-aged, childless, married couple of limited imagination, who live in the village in Herefordshire where his parents live, went to Blackpool for a second honeymoon. This event caused comment in the village, because the couple had never been anywhere on holiday. They had little money. No-one had any memory of their first honeymoon. People had privately speculated on their sex life, and decided it was likely to be uneventful or even non-existent. Going to Blackpool for a second honeymoon was a brave if embarrassingly kitsch thing to do. It seemed they were making a dash for something. A few days after their departure, but more than a week before they were expected back, they returned to the village in a taxi from Hereford station, she with a broken leg in plaster from ankle to thigh. Somehow (and how these details emerged I don’t know) the following story got about. They had taken their reserved room in Blackpool. It was modestly comfortable, with a double bed but no bathroom. The two bathrooms which the residents shared were down the corridor. On their first evening there, before dinner, the husband went to take a bath. A few minutes later, the wife followed him in her dressing gown, thinking perhaps that they might take the bath together. She opened the bathroom door, and saw the naked man she took to be her husband leaning over the bath testing the temperature of the water with his hand. She went quietly up to him, slipped her hand between his legs, bounced his testicles on her fingers and was just playfully saying ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells,’ when he rapidly turned round, and was not her husband. The stranger’s expression of astonishment and indignation met hers of astonishment and shame, and she ran out of the bathroom, along the corridor and down the stairs, in the irrational belief that he was following her. While descending the stairs at too great a speed, she lost her footing, fell, and broke her leg. Her husband, who was in the bath in the bathroom next door to that where the awful encounter had occurred, had to get out in response to the boarding-house manager’s knock and be told that his wife had suffered an accident. He quickly dried himself and dressed, by which time the ambulance had arrived to take her and him to the hospital. He slept alone in the boarding house for two or three nights while she remained in the hospital. When she was able to travel, they went straight from the hospital to Blackpool station, he having checked out of the boarding house first, to spare her the embarrassment of returning there.

Basel, Switzerland7 December 1996

In Basel, staying at the Hilton Hotel, writing this at a comfortable desk in my room on the seventh floor, and looking straight out of the window over the city. The afternoon is heavily overcast, without wind, and the temperature about zero. I arrived this morning from London for an education conference of the European Broadcasting Union. These events are almost completely valueless in helping me to do my job better, but they do offer the enjoyable opportunity to visit foreign cities at my employer’s expense. Sometimes, we do a co-production deal which means we can make programmes which we wouldn’t have been able to afford by ourselves.

This week has been gloriously catastrophic for the government. It may come to be regarded as the week when the Conservatives irredeemably lost their chance of winning the next election. On Monday The Daily Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister was about to rule out joining a single European currency during the lifetime of the next parliament. The Chancellor, who was in Brussels that day negotiating to keep the government’s current wait-and-see policy in place, is reported to have been surprised and enraged to hear this. Secret comings and goings between Major, Clarke and Heseltine culminated in a crisp and unambiguous answer by Major to Tony Blair’s question the next day: yes, the current wait-and-see policy is still definitely in place. Eurosceptics’ turn to be enraged. It seems that Mawhinney, the party chairman, and some of his young men at Conservative Central Office had been briefing journalists in such a way as to promote the rule-it-out line, and to destabilise Clarke. None of Mawhinney’s business, of course. Clarke went to lunch with a journalist on Wednesday, and two bottles of red wine were drunk. Clarke told the journalist he had told Mawhinney to tell his kids to get their scooters off his lawn. Off the record or not, this remark got into the public domain the next day. Much laughter all round for the Europhiles, the media and us. Thursday night’s meeting of the 1922 Committee saw a spectacular row between the two wings of backbenchers.

Meanwhile, scrutiny of Clarke’s budget had turned up the startling fact that the government was proposing to cut the pensions of ex-servicemen, especially those who are going deaf. A letter from Peter Lilley, the normally very dry Secretary of State for Social Services, to William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was leaked. It said, ‘This is going to look terribly bad. Can’t we stop it? How am I supposed to present this?’ No answer from Waldegrave. Tony Blair had a brilliant outing at Question Time on Thursday, pummelling Major to the point where the PM was reduced to incoherent and shrill abuse of his attacker. Deep gloom on the benches behind Major. ‘What a policy for the patriotic party to be offering its old soldiers and their widows,’ the knights of the shires were thinking. Then, yesterday, one of the knights of the shires, or rather of a bit of Middlesex which was long ago overrun by semi-detached houses, flipped. He had enough of the Department of Health’s prevarications and broken promises about whether or not they were going to close the casualty department of Edgware Hospital. They are. So he said he wouldn’t consider himself subject to the whip, though he didn’t formally resign the whip because that would have meant he couldn’t stand as a Tory MP at the next election. He is now officially counted with the opposition, so Major heads a minority government. Next week, Labour will win the Barnsley by-election. There needs to be a by-election in a Tory seat by February or March. The budget has not done the Tories any good in the polls — rather the reverse. David Willetts, the Postmaster General and party brainbox, may have to resign if a Select Committee decides that, when he was a whip, he tried improperly to influence a previous Select Committee on MPs’ behaviour when it was debating what should be done about Neil Hamilton’s habit of accepting money to ask questions in parliament, and enjoying the lavish hospitality at the Paris Ritz of a rich man with an axe to grind that he wanted grinding at Westminster. (Hamilton was a trade minister when he resigned.)

All in all, it’s a profoundly satisfying spectacle. (But steady on the moralising, here in the Basel Hilton.)

A woman from French Swiss TV told me the French word for what we in British television call a rough-cut. They call it un ours, a bear. Wonderful.

Basel, Switzerland9 December 1996

Been Euro-debating for two days. I haven’t seen the sun since last Friday. The grey cloud has stayed put.

Basel has the best public transport system of any European city I know. There are so many trams, seemingly going in all directions all the time, that the private traffic is always light. And the system works on honesty. We were given a four-day pass, so we can hop on and off at will, but no-one ever seems to check. I remarked as much to Zofia, an immense Polish woman who has worked for Polish TV for 34 years, as we were travelling downtown to eat last night. She said it wouldn’t work in Warsaw. ‘When I was a child in the war, there was no point in being honest to the Germans. Later, there was no point in being honest to the Communists. We’ve got out of the habit.’ ‘Is there any point in being honest to the current government?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps. It’s too early to say.’

Belfast to London plane11 December 1996

Came back from Basel yesterday, and went to Belfast today.

How do you sustain any sense of the mystery of life when you live on an estate of semi-detached houses in the crook of the M4 and M25, surrounded by light industrial workshops? As I fly over that place, I’m looking at hutches.

Wootton, Bedfordshire25 December 1996

Christmas morning at my parents’ house. A bright, cold day. The weather has been shining and frozen hard since Saturday. I enjoy the pleasant leisure of this morning every year: get up about 10, have a bath, do some light food preparation (on this occasion, cleaning the sprouts) while mum and dad are in church. The turkey is gurgling in the oven. Last night my sister Mary made two kinds of stuffing for it, and I made brandy butter for the Christmas pudding.

Two days ago I was standing at the flower stall on the corner of Parkway and Camden High Street, buying some yellow tulips. A man whom I’ve known by sight for 20 years greeted me cheerily. ‘Do you get in there much these days?’ he asked (meaning The Spread Eagle). ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘but I’ve been away a lot recently.’ Then we talked and laughed about how the pub has become a noisy meeting place for the young, whereas — as I wrote a few days ago — it used to be an extension sitting room for the middle-aged. He: ‘I looked around the other night, there was about a hundred people in there, and I thought, I’m the oldest person in here.’ I: ‘I was going in the other day, early on Saturday evening, and these two bouncers, one male, one female, looked me up and down. 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 is 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.

Kerfontaine28 December 1996

We arrived at Kerfontaine this morning. Have just been for a marvellous walk round the place, on a bright, still, frozen-hard afternoon. The ground underfoot crackles with frost. The piles of dead leaves which Albert has heaped up here and there have the solidity of stone. Kerfontaine looks terrific: beautifully cared for, ordered yet constantly surprising. As he said he would in the summer, Albert has cut down several of the unproductive trees, which year after year yielded half a dozen wrinkly and unappetising apples, and replaced them with saplings of old French varieties he has been raising in the potager. He has continued his task, now several years old, of clearing the dead stumps of trees blown down in the ’87 hurricane. He explodes the stumps with home-made gunpowder concocted of sugar and fertiliser. The work is nearly finished, and as you gaze across the wood you see how handsome his management has made it. The low sun dazzled us as we looked from the top of the wood down to the stream. On the clump of rocks in the far corner of the wood there were crops of icicles — the spring, now frozen, which usually flows out of cracks in the rocks — each making its magic, haphazard shape.

Kerfontaine29 December 1996

Today was dazzling, freezing cold. We went to lunch by the sea at Guidel-Plages. Fish, a bottle of Quincy, cheese, half a bottle of Bordeaux, then (in my case) an old Armagnac with the coffee, and the sun blazing in over the estuary. Afterwards we walked by the sea. The puddles of sea water on the rocks had frozen. No wind. Minimal waves. The sand gripped our boots in the below-zero cold while the red sun dipped below the horizon out to sea. Then we drove home in the twilight and made a fire and read. I’m reading Alec Guinness’s diary My Name Escapes Me, which Helen gave me as one of my Christmas presents and which I also gave to Stephen Eyers for his. I shall finish it because it’s entertaining, but Sir Alec turns out to be a crotchety right-wing Catholic, and not the older version of his good friend Alan Bennett which I hoped he would be. Alec, you shouldn’t mope when you’re old, about failing eyesight and hearing and needing to pee often, not and get paid royalties for it, at any rate.

Because of my bereavement as referred to in the entry of 15 September, I have no record of the first eight months of this year, so I’m going to try to summarise those months over the next few days. I can deal quickly with January and February, because I can’t remember anything about them apart from my very enjoyable trip to France in mid-February with Stephen Eyers. We rented a van and took stuff down from our London houses to our French houses: a triangular trip. When we drove off the overnight boat at Ouistrahem, there was thick snow. We were two hours getting from Ouistrahem into Caen and out the other side. The road signs were all covered with snow. We chanced our arm beyond Caen and took a small road which seemed to be pointing south, all the main roads being clogged with traffic, and it worked. We drove slowly but unhindered between beautiful wind-blown sculptures of snow on the hedges. About 10 kilometres south of Caen the snow thinned, and thereafter we drove at normal speed all the way down to the Charente. We spent two nights staying with a neighbour of Stephen’s while we bought building materials for Stephen’s house. Then we drove up here, stopping at Jarnac to see Mitterrand’s grave. Whatever manoeuvres, compromises and even corruption Mitterrand was involved in during his political career, he remains a hero of mine because he was a statesman who believed firmly in the state, national and local, and in our responsibilities to each other in the communities in which we live and are active. He was the opposite of Mrs Thatcher in that respect; she only believed in our right as individuals to become wealthier. Also Mitterrand once very clearly said, in response to the recent rise of racism in France, that the French must respect the diversity of people who had the right to call themselves French, and must love the children of immigrants as they loved their own. He said this a few years after Thatcher had said how she could understand the fears of the British people at being swamped by an alien tide. His grave in the family vault is simple: his name and his dates.

The main event in March was my trip to Rio de Janeiro. I was there for a week, helping the Ministry of Education to develop their schools television service. The city overwhelmed me with its beauty and its grotesque social divisions. My hotel was on Copacabana Beach, and on the Friday night, late, I strolled the length of the beach, entranced by the groups of young people at drinks kiosks sambaing gently and elegantly to music from radios, or energetically playing volleyball on the sand. I rapidly learned to enjoy a drink called caipirinha, made with cachaça, lemons, crushed ice and sugar. On the Saturday lunchtime I was taken to a posh hotel on Ipanema Beach and given a wonderful lunch called feijoida, which means beans, but which is more than that: an enormous buffet of many stewed meats in sauces, most spicy, with bean stews, relishes and rice. You help yourself. I drank several caipirinhas with it and looked through the window at the world-famous beach, full of nearly nude people enjoying their weekend. A samba band played for us. Later that afternoon one of my hosts, Lia, the Latin American women’s bridge champion, took me up the Corcovado mountain to see the great statue of Christ the Redeemer. Magnificent. I had previously thought of it as gigantic and nothing more, but it’s a piece of pure modernism, with clean and noble lines. The view over the city is spectacular. You see why Rio is one of the world’s great ports, with the narrow neck into the harbour and a huge expanse of calm inland water. The Sugar Loaf mountain stands at the south end of the harbour entrance, and a couple of days later I went up that too. The Sugar Loaf is just one of the mountains and hills, still partly covered with tropical rain forest, in the midst of the city.

On the Sunday, another of my hosts, Sueli, took me out of town and down the coast to lunch at a quiet fishing village. We sat by the water, had delicious fresh spiced fish with cold beers, and watched the many fishing boats riding at anchor on the rest day, while little egrets sat on them or dived for food. It was the sort of spot you don’t get anywhere in western Europe now, because it still had complete authenticity as a working village, and was simply pretty rather than prettified. I knew I was somewhere special and of itself.

They made me work pretty hard in return for these delights. I thought I was going to be doing business around a table with about a dozen people. When I got there I found that about a hundred people had been invited to a four-day conference in a small theatre, and that I was to lecture to them non-stop. I sat up late every night in the hotel room in my underpants, night temperature 26 degrees, scribbling speeches. I didn’t have enough words of my own to fill so many hours, so on two or three occasions I made the conference discuss in small groups some ideas I gave them. Standard stuff for me, but they thought it was revolutionary. ‘Where did you get this method from?’ they asked. I searched back among the many influences of 20 years ago, and named one: ‘Paulo Freire’. Of course Paulo Freire is one of their national heroes, and has recently been minister of education in São Paulo. But none of them knew anything about these teaching methods.

On the last night I essayed one of Rio’s night clubs, hoping to see some stylish nudity. I chose something too much on the main tourist circuit, because it was jolly rather than sexy. There were some very beautiful brown girls, with shapely breasts and loins and long legs, but they kept their breasts and loins firmly covered with diamante bikinis, and their legs enclosed in fine but visible nylon tights. Afterwards I took a taxi back to the hotel. The driver drove the length of Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches ignoring dozens of red lights along the way.

On the final day, to my great relief, my hosts decided that work could stop at lunchtime. So I just did one session (transmissional rather than Paulo Freire method — showing a selection of programmes I’d brought from London) and was then given a delicious farewell meal before being taken to the airport by Claudio, my driver. The next morning I was at Channel 4.

Rio represents the choice that so many great cities and countries in the poorer world face. Either they will slowly and painfully pursue the social democratic path, putting in place education and health systems, improving housing, roads and sewers, trying to enforce fair taxation, investing in industry and farming; or they will be overwhelmed by the incoherent but legitimate rage of the millions crammed into the favelas or sleeping on mats under road bridges, their children walking between the lines of clogged traffic all day, selling cigarettes, lighters, oranges, nuts, anything; by the rage of these people at the vast gap between them and those sitting with me in the restaurants and bars of Copacabana and Ipanema. In this second case, military power would once again replace the elected government, and the future would be dreadful. You realise in Rio what a side-show rich Europe is likely to be in the 21st century. The epoch-making decisions will concern Latin America, Africa, Asia, and they will be decisions about reduction of inequalities, control of population, and care of the environment.

Kerfontaine1 January 1997

Happy New Year! Today and yesterday have been freezing cold bright days, frost permanently in the grass and hedges. The icicles are solid on the rocks in the corner of the wood. The stream runs energetically enough, but there are globules of ice attached to rocks where the water makes a detour through a narrow mouth by the little island. Where brambles hang in the stream, trails of ice, sometimes clear, sometimes frosted, hang with them.

Last night we dined here, the two of us, as usual. I cooked (insofar as cooking was necessary): oysters, coquilles St. Jacques ready prepared from the fishmonger, lamb cutlets with peas and mashed potatoes, cheese and salad, Christmas pudding and brandy butter. Champagne with the first two courses, claret with the next two, brandy with the last. To bed about one, in the dark, because the electricity unexpectedly cut out. This morning I established, with our neighbour Jean’s help, that there’s nothing wrong with our fuses, so I rang EdF and they’re sending someone. Unfortunately we have to cancel the New Year’s Day lunch which we were hoping to have at Guidel-Plages, so we can be in for the EdF man. The open fire tries its best against the cold, but you feel the difference instantly when there are no electric radiators working. I write by the light from the windows, and hope the EdF man will be here before dark.

Yesterday, while I was buying oysters from my man next to the church in Plouay, I had one of those spiritual moments where you are beside yourself, moments of ecstasy in the strict etymological sense. It was provoked by some music they were playing on the public address system. It was romantic but serious and quite modern violin music, of the sort you might get in a film by Eric Rohmer. The temperature was well below zero, my man’s red hands, the end of one finger missing, were counting out the flat oysters three by three, and there was a sense of bustle and excitement around as people shopped for their St Sylvestre supper. Here was I, aged 45, in the middle of life, standing where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do. The moment being marked by music. Driving home in the dark, we turned right into the long lane that runs down to our house, and saw a man up a ladder shining a strong torch into one of the old cider-apple trees which stand in the middle of the field. I suppose he was cutting some mistletoe for the party later.

The man from EdF has come and fixed the electricity. A main fuse had blown inside one of the boxes with a lead seal. The call-out system has worked well, as it so often does in a country not yet completely overrun by privatisation and artificially constructed competition enabling us all to play shops with each other. My chances of getting London Electricity to come to our flat in London on New Year’s Day, within a few hours of being called out, and replace a part for no charge and with great civility, are nil. And I’m not

‘The idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone
Every century but this and every country but his own.’

More catching up: there was loads and loads of C4 work when I got back from Brazil. Soon after that it was Easter and Helen and I came to Kerfontaine for nine days. The spring flowers were profuse; brighter and more various than I can remember before. On Easter Tuesday, we drove to the extreme south-western tip of Finistère, to a village called St Guénolé, where after a good lunch in the Hôtel de la Mer we watched immense Atlantic waves crashing against the rocks, while the wind blew and a warm sun made it easy and delightful to stand for the best part of an hour and be awed.

We came again for a week at the end of May, which is perhaps the best of all seasons to be here; the weather already warm, the bluebells out in the wood, the light evenings seemingly endless in this most westerly part of the central European time zone.

In June I went with Paul to Lugano for another EBU conference. (In the summer the venue moves around Europe; in December it’s always Basel.) The flight on a small Swissair plane over the Alps from Zurich to Lugano was spectacular: the great brown mountains below and around us, a cloudless blue sky, comfortable leather seats in an uncrowded plane, glasses of champagne and cheese straws brought to us by delightful young women. The canton of Ticino seems ideally to combine Swiss orderliness and wealth with the style and gaiety of Italianate culture and the Italian language. The weather was hot. The hotel had a swimming pool. I drank neat little cold beers out of slim glasses and gazed up at the chestnut forests. There have been times when I have worked harder. On the last evening the whole company went to Bellinzona to dine in a restaurant in the ancient castle which presides over one of the great north-south Alpine routes. A fresh wind blew down from the mountains around the castle keep where we had apéritifs; I can’t remember anything about the content of the dinner, but it was all delicious, and accompanied by the local Merlots, red and white, also delicious, with grappa afterwards. The flight back over the Alps the next day, this time to Basel, was just as magnificent as the flight down, and adorned by similar pleasures.

Kerfontaine4 January 1997

The situation in Serbia is at a critical point. Milosevic and his wife are being exposed as the last of the East European dictators, most of whom fell in 1989. There are daily and nightly demonstrations by the opposition, looking very much like those in Prague and Bucharest seven years ago. Milosevic has a large and potentially violent police under his control, and it’s too early to say whether he will crush the protestors or they will topple him. But there’s a feeling in the country that the arrival of a proper democracy is a piece of unfinished business in the region, business which was interrupted by the falling apart of Yugoslavia and the wars accompanying that. Milosevic, of course, is the principal villain in igniting the hatred that has cost so many thousands of lives and caused such unspeakable misery and loss. His megalomania for a greater Serbia, with him in charge, makes him in effect the most evil leader in contemporary Europe. Having failed in his objective, he is trying to preserve Serbia and Montenegro as a pre-’89 Communist dictatorship. I find myself feeling that he and his wife deserve the summary executions that Ceausescu and his wife suffered, although the better part of me knows that he should be given a fair trial (which will take years and cost enormous amounts of money) is he is toppled and arrested.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town10 March 1997

Since I last wrote about politics, Labour has achieved a position where, seven and a half weeks before the election (which will be on 1 May, though there’s been no official announcement yet) all commentators expect them to win. Discussion turns on the size of the majority. The upper limit of speculation is not far short of 300, which would be astonishing. For some reason I have the figure of 110 in my head. There could yet be more catastrophes for the Conservatives between now and the election, in that there is still plenty of scandal, sexual and financial, which hasn’t come out, and there are some disgruntled people (ex-Tory establishment) who want to settle scores while they can still hurt their enemies (who were formerly their collaborators). Blair is anxious to stop Labour sounding complacent. Cook made a minor mistake last week when he spoke of a forthcoming landslide victory. I don’t think it’ll matter too much, set next to the mistakes the Tories are making. Tebbit heaps foul and personal abuse on Heseltine in print. Every day brings more examples of the comic incompetence of Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister. Sir George Gardiner, the wildly right-wing MP for Reigate, who has been deselected by his constituency party as the candidate for the next election, has joined the Referendum Party, a small group of xenophobes held together by the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith. Despite all this, there’s still a fear in me that the deep traditional rightward bias of the UK electorate will reassert itself at the eleventh hour. God, I hope not. I don’t think so. In my calm, lucid periods, in the daylight, I don’t think so.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town16 March 1997

Major has called the election. An campaign of six and a half weeks, twice as long as necessary, will now follow.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town22 April 1997

Just back from a week in France, which was enchanting. The wonderful weather gave a strange, trance-like feel to our stay there. It was hot day after day. Primroses abounded in the meadow. We went to eat in the usual places. It was quiet in the week after Easter — no French people on holiday. An idyll. I rearranged some poems.

Since we've been back, my obsession has been the election. It’s the most important of my lifetime, in the sense that the outcome will set a direction for the rest of my active life. If Labour wins with a big majority, there’s the possibility that it will have at least 10 years in power, enough time to make a defining shift in the country’s politics. If Labour loses, it would be a sign that the group of uncommitted voters who decide UK elections remains stubbornly stupid, forgetful or selfish, and that the mildest social democratic alternative has no chance of prevailing, even given the most favourable of circumstances at election time. I had a moment this morning, when one poll showed Labour’s lead collapsing in a week from 14 to five points, when I thought my nightmare was coming true. The poll was for The Guardian; the report was on its front page. I ran back into the newsagent and bought The Daily Telegraph, because The Guardian report said that a poll in the Telegraph showed Labour’s lead extended to 21 points. I needed the consolation — something I never thought the Telegraph would give me.

Tonight’s polls give Labour leads of 19 and 20 points.

The Conservative rally, such as it has been, came out of a complete catastrophe from their point of view: a rebellion among about 200 backbenchers and a handful of junior ministers, who said in their manifesto addresses that they would never accept a single European currency. This contradicted the party line, which is to decide nearer the time when a decision has to be made. Major was forced to plead with his own party for unity at a morning press conference and then, in a hastily recorded election broadcast replacing that planned last Wednesday evening, appeal to Conservative voters to trust him. A shambles. But the unexpected revelation of the extent of Europhobia in the party seemed to excite the same latent feeling in a section of the electorate, and the Conservatives, having done everything they could up to that point to avoid talking about Europe, knowing the depth of their divisions, suddenly began to talk about it constantly. Blair was obliged to try to limit the damage by presenting himself as much more Eurosceptic and nationalistic than I think he actually is.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town29 April 1997

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 canvas 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.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town2 May 1997

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.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town3 May 1997

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.

Blair has named his cabinet. Brown and Darling at the Treasury, Cook at the Foreign Office, Mo Mowlam in Northern Ireland, Dewar in Scotland, Frank Dobson at Health, Chris Smith at National Heritage (grotesque name - should be changed to Arts, Culture and Media), Blunkett at Education, Robertson at Defence, Clare Short fully rehabilitated as Secretary of State for International Development: all these will be excellent. I retain my doubts about Straw’s ability to speak or act with imagination and style: he’s Home Secretary. Cunningham, one of the last of an older generation of machine politicians who really shouldn’t encumber us, is at Agriculture. Blair has been a good boy and followed the rules which say that an incoming Labour PM should only appoint the Cabinet from the membership of the Shadow Cabinet. The big risk is the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. His great value is that he represents Labour’s link with working-class people, and in that respect he is a necessary counter-weight to Blair. He did a brilliant job during the campaign. He has every right to be Deputy Prime Minister, but I would have combined that title with Chairman of the Party and simply put him in charge of the continuing reform of the Party’s structures: membership, conference, NEC, policy groups. Blair has combined Environment and Transport, and thrown in the English regions, and put Prescott in charge of all that, with numerous ministers under him. I fear the new ministry may be too vast and clumsy to be effective, and I don’t know whether or not Prescott has the brain power to make it work properly. I admit he was excellent as Shadow Minister for Transport. Harriet Harman has Social Security, as expected, but the really imaginative move is to make Frank Field her number two. He is a maverick thinker about all aspects of pension and benefits, and he understands and cares deeply about the causes and effects of poverty. A brilliant choice.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town15 May 1997

Since last I wrote, Labour has been getting on with the business of governing at an exhilarating rate. How foolish were they who said there would be no difference in government between the Tories and a reformed Labour Party. In no particular order other than as they come to mind: they’ve restored trade union rights at GCHQ; they’ve said that a Nepali boy who lives with a millionaire foster-father who brought him to England in fulfilment of a promise to the boy’s dead father, who saved the man’s life, can stay here (Michael Howard was on the point of sending him back to Nepal); they’ve reformed Prime Minister’s question time (one half-hour session on Wednesdays instead of two 15-minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with none of the nonsense about asking the PM for his engagements that day); to the amazement of the City, they’ve given virtual independence to the Bank of England to set interest rates; they’ve said that foreign policy must take account of ethical and environmental considerations; they published 22 (or is it 24 or 26?) bills in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, all pointing in the right direction, which will keep Parliament fully occupied for the next 18 months; they’ve said they’ll rejoin UNESCO.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town20 May 1997

And it goes on. They’re going to ban tobacco advertising, including the sponsorship of sports by tobacco companies. Gordon Brown yesterday stunned the financial world for the second time; he’s going to have one overarching body enforcing the statutory regulation of all financial services, including banks and Lloyd’s. An immense change. I watched the first new-style Prime Minister’s Question Time live this afternoon. Blair took the opportunity of a no doubt planted question from one of his back-benchers to announce that at last we’re going to stop selling landmines…

Spread Eagle, Camden Town21 May 1997

… and we’re going to stop the nursery voucher scheme at the end of this term and supply a free nursery place for every four-year-old from September, whether in state, voluntary or private nurseries. I shall become boring if I go on like this. It’s just the exhilaration of living under a government which keeps doing the right things, and doing them with such relish and élan.

And I forgot: we’re going to join the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, ban the use and ownership of handguns, have a minimum wage. Blair’s officials are talking to Sinn Fein, but Blair himself said last week that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK for the foreseeable future. It he can reassure both sides sufficiently, and introduce some sort of joint sovereignty for the Province, there’s just a chance he may be able to pull off a settlement.

London to Budapest plane24 June 1997

It’s a rainy evening at Heathrow and the plane is backing out from Gate 20 at Terminal 1. We’re going to Budapest. It’ll be my second visit to that amazing city, an Austro-Hungarian, art-nouveau treasure with Stalinist brutalism and now capitalist modernism and post-modernism tacked on. It’s a place racing as fast as possible towards its dream of being one of the stars of the new Europe, switched into the global network. I’m going to look at the work of an animation studio, one of the many in Eastern Europe which fell idle when Communism ended, whose impressive skill and cheapness the West has been happy to exploit. It’s making three programmes in a series of ten about the world’s main religions.

A young man called Waheed Alli rang me up about three weeks ago. Karen Brown gave him my name. He’s part of that jeunesse dorée in the inner circles of New Labour, with access to Tony Blair’s private office and to several Cabinet ministers. He’s also rich, and said he had paid for all the transport for Blair and his entourage during the election campaign. He wanted to pick my brains about education policy, so I said I’d write him a paper, which I’ve done. I was encouraged to think the unthinkable, but I found that the unthinkable wasn’t generally within my scope. I wrote down a set of simple suggestions — 30 pages or so — on curriculum, assessment, standards and resources. I sent the paper to Waheed, and to Liz Allen, my good friend who’s the education policy officer in the Labour Party. We’ll see if anything happens which bears any resemblance to what I wrote.

Good things the government has done since the last entry: passed the law which will allow local councils to spend their receipts from sales of council houses on buying and/or repairing more council houses; promised to honour the commitment at the Rio summit five years ago to reduce by 2010 carbon dioxide emissions to a level 20% below their 1990 level (a tall order — most countries aren’t promising anything like that); inched closer to peace in Northern Ireland (despite the dreadful murder by the IRA of two policemen last week), by getting the Ulster Unionists to agree to parallel decommissioning of paramilitary weapons while inclusive talks take place; mooted the possibility of making the London Underground some kind of trust, so it can borrow on the capital markets for investment without getting into trouble with the Treasury; given a boost to the British film industry by providing money from the Lottery and offering a new tax deal, like the one in Ireland which has so stimulated film production there.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Aitken, ex-Cabinet minister in the last government and ex-MP, has fallen into disgrace almost as deep as that which into which John Profumo fell at the end of the previous long period of Tory power. He started a libel action against The Guardian and Granada Television, which had accused him of accepting lavish hospitality at the Paris Ritz from rich Saudi businessmen when he was a minister in the defence department. Saudi Arabia is of course a big buyer of British arms. Last week he withdrew the libel action, and was shown to be a persistent liar, prepared to perjure himself under oath in the High Court, prepared to implicate his wife and even his teenage daughter in his evasions. His wife left him. He has resigned from the Privy Council. The police are considering whether to prosecute him for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It is sweet that such a symbol of Tory arrogance in power should be brought so publicly low. The Conservatives have elected a new leader, William Hague. I have nothing against the man; he is a political pygmy. I don’t imagine he frightens Blair at all. It’s a measure of the Tories’ disarray that they couldn’t see that the only leader who might rescue them from oblivion was Kenneth Clarke. But Clarke made the fatal miscalculation of announcing a preposterous alliance with Redwood, his sworn enemy over Europe, on the day before the third round of voting. He would have done better to have gone it alone, though he probably still wouldn’t have won.

Poznan, Poland15 July 1997

I’m in Poznan, a city in the west of Poland, to look at more rough-cuts of animated programmes about the major religions of the world. It’s a co-production with S4C, the Welsh-language channel. We flew over last night from Heathrow, changing planes at Warsaw. It’s a beautiful day: summer on the central European plain, although there have been dreadful floods with dozens of deaths in the south of the country. Poland was invited to join NATO last week. It wants to join the EU at the earliest opportunity. Like Hungary, it is a country changing at breakneck speed, lunging towards a market-driven, globally open economy. The people I’ve met are full of hope, excitement and relief, scarcely able to believe that some dreadful catastrophe will not overtake them again after a brief period of freedom. From 1945 to 1989 the Poles were governed by Communists. The period is remembered with contempt, as a time when immense sacrifices were asked of the people in return for an eventual bright future which never arrived. Meanwhile, the countries of Western Europe were transforming themselves from the drab ruins of the Second World War into the brightly coloured, flawed but confident social democracies I know so well. ‘For us, all the colours were grey,’ said my host André today. Between 1939 and 1945 the country was under the tyranny of the Nazis. Between 1919 and 1939 there was independence. Before that, stretching far back into the nineteenth century, the country was carved up between the Russians, the Germans and the Austrians. Poland has been bartered, dismembered, redefined, used by others. Auschwitz is on its soil. The major current democratic political contest is between the former Communists (now a modernising, internationally-minded free-market government) and Solidarity (the former independent trade-union movement, now a nationalist, Catholic, socially authoritarian and reactionary opposition). Conventional left/right definitions and associations of social attitude with political position don’t work here.

Poznan, Poland16 July 1997

Yesterday I visited the animation studio. Part of one of the programmes is being done in salt animation — an unusual technique in which beautiful designs of coloured salt are changed a little every photo-frame by being brushed, stroked or blown. I stared at one of the several salt portraits which had completed its purpose. A man held a bow at full stretch, the arrow about to shoot. Hundreds of photographs had been taken as the panel had been infinitesimally moved hundreds of times through a few seconds of action. The animator, who had taken ten hours to produce the original design, and then many more to see it through its passage of movement, shook the panel when I had finished admiring it, and it was suddenly just a scattering of coloured salt. I was shocked.

In the evening we visited the splendid square in the middle of the old town, enclosed by beautiful 17th-century houses painted in subtle but contrasting colours. Sitting on the steps of the church, playing a guitar and singing through a microphone, was a poet whom our hosts immediately recognised as one of the great rebel artists of Poland. His songs had been banned during the time of the Communists. Now he continued to criticise hypocrisy, greed and corruption in capitalist Poland. ‘Always the outsider,’ said André. I couldn’t understand a word, but the man was clearly a master performer, singing his own songs with perfect clarity and with tenderness, anger or humour. He had complete control of the guitar, which he played simply. You had the impression he could have impressed with a show of virtuosity in his playing, but chose not to. A big crowd stood listening, moved. They knew what he was saying.

Poznan to Warsaw plane17 July 1997

Last night my friends Chris Grace and Penelope Middelboe from S4C took me out to dinner, in the same beautiful square we went to the night before. Eggs with caviar, stuffed roast duck with dumplings, fruit and ice cream. Beer, wine and vodka. After half a lifetime ignoring vodka, I discover that a freezing cold Polish brand called Bison is delicious. And another discovery: why had I had an ignorant stereotype all my life of the eastern European woman as dumpy and dour? As we sat on the terrace in the evening sunshine, a succession of gorgeous, tall, leggy, laughing women passed us, until Chris and I could no longer forbear comment. For the rest of the evening, Penelope kept look-out: ‘Here comes another one, boys.’

I’m on the six o’clock morning flight from Poznan to Warsaw. On my left, a river shines in the morning sun. It has swollen and burst. The land for a few kilometres on either side of the river has unexpected lakes and pools of water. The floods in the south of the country have been truly disastrous. Everywhere in Poznan there have been collecting points for food, water and blankets, and people have been coming round asking for money for the relief effort. One of my hosts said to me two nights ago, ‘It is terrible, but we accept this disaster as something which happens in all countries. We hope we never again see the other kind of disaster. Of those we have had enough.’

Letheringham Mill, Suffolk25 July 1997

The government announced devolution proposals for Wales and Scotland this week. The Scottish ones are truly historic: the most significant change in the relationship between Scotland and England since the 1707 Act of Union. Sir Ron Dearing produced his third mighty report on the education system. He’s done schools, further education and now higher education. The most controversial proposal is to introduce tuition fees and to remove maintenance grants. Students will take out loans, repayable over up to 23 years, to pay for their maintenance and up to £1000 per year of tuition fees. I’m sorry about it, but I think it’s inevitable, given the number of students in higher education and the cost. I disapprove of the means-tested element in the calculation of the tuition fee. I would have made everybody pay the same, rich or poor, but arrange for early repayment at 0% interest of an affordable proportion of a graduate’s salary. So teachers or priests could pay less than merchant bankers or barristers.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town26 July 1997

We’ve been in Suffolk for the weekend. Today was a beautiful English summer day: warm not hot, a little breeze, high white clouds moving irregularly across the wide sky. We walked around the lanes of Letheringham after lunch. Two swans sat quietly on the weedy stream which runs through the parish. The wheat is ripe and turning from brown toward grey. We returned to London easily and swiftly on the train.

Stephen Eyers rang when I got home. He’s bought a mobile phone and wanted to tell me the number. He’s taking it to France next week so he can be in easy contact with his elderly mum in Bournemouth. He was amused by the romantic word which the mobile phone companies use for when you take the phone out of the national jurisdiction where you bought it. They call it roaming. We agreed that the companies should have a special cheap evening tariff for phoning when abroad, called roaming in the gloaming.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town4 August 1997

On Saturday evening Helen and I drove down to Wells to hear Graham Caldbeck conduct the Somerset Chamber Choir in its annual concert in the cathedral. Amid some beautiful seventeenth-century Venetian church music, there were two unforgettable modern British pieces: Sacred Songs by James McMillan, using poetic texts about political oppression in South America; and Thunder Entered Her by John Tavener, about Mary’s conception of Christ. A mystical study of a significant bonk, as I said to Helen. We drove straight back to London after the concert in the lovely mothy cool night.

Occurrences: Book Three

Spread Eagle, Camden Town9 September 1997

I’ve been back at work since 1 September. Before that, Helen and I had three weeks in France. Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor were with us at Kerfontaine for five days. We went down to Stephen Eyers’s house in the Charente for four days. The last 12 days we were back at Kerfontaine alone. Beautiful weather: the calm, steady, quiet days of later summer. I did very little. A great bout of idleness came on me. Afternoon sleeps downstairs with the door open and the birds singing outside. Afternoon sleeps on a rug on the lawn with the Test match droning on at the edge of consciousness. The usual evening meals in the usual places. The most spiritual experience was in the river Dronne down at Aubeterre when we were with Stephen and Theresa. It was just a long swim down a reedy river, for the best part of an hour, and in that time, in the middle of the holiday, with not a care, I completely lost touch with the practicalities and obligations which preoccupy and discipline the mind normally, and I dreamt. You could say I meditated, though without the prior intention to do so. Anyhow, the mind came out of the river relaxed, and remained so for the rest of the holiday.

It got a big jolt at precisely 10 o’clock French time on the morning of Sunday 31 August, a few kilometres south of Boulogne, when we turned on the 9 o’clock BBC news. Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash in Paris the night before. The BBC was broadcasting in the special solemn mode reserved for rare occasions. The national anthem was played immediately after the simple announcement of the event, and before more details were given. Whether the anthem should have been played, according to strict protocol, for a divorced princess who no longer held a royal title, I cannot say. The days since Diana’s death have been filled with constitutional dilemmas for those whose job or whose perceived expertise it is to say what should be done. These days have been amongst the most extraordinary in my and many millions of people’s lives. A sense of shock, grief, anger and loss has engulfed the entire United Kingdom, me included. When we got home at lunchtime on that Sunday I turned on the television and watched it for about six hours. Last Saturday, the day of the funeral, I watched from the moment the horse-drawn gun carriage came out of Kensington Palace to the moment, nearly seven hours later, when the hearse disappeared into the grounds of Althorp House in Northamptonshire.

It became clear last week that Diana, with all her faults, stood for a way of being which millions loved and admired, and by which they were fascinated. They lined up with her, in death: with spontaneity, with affection, with classless style, with openness. She was a multi-millionairess who kept company with presidents, princes (though not, latterly, the Prince of Wales), pop stars, arbiters of international fashion. She also cared for AIDS sufferers, land-mine victims, lepers, the homeless, drug addicts. The scale of her good actions, privately carried out, became apparent as more and more people testified to them. Soon we realised that she was the royal figure whom the royalist majority would have wanted to represent them if they had ever been offered the choice. Thinking back to the troubled marriage and the divorce, doubters and those who had never thought much about the matter before suddenly saw an innocent naïve genius of the heart on whom the House of Windsor had brought nothing but sorrow, a beautiful woman whom most of our media had cruelly hunted and exposed, a challenger to a stiff, outdated, class-obsessed, repressed, unimaginative ancien régime.

It has been the common folk who have grieved most openly, and who have called most insistently for proper remembrance. Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square, and most of all Kensington Palace have been clogged and adorned by millions of flowers, messages and tokens of love.

The funeral saw the starkest open challenge to the monarchy and to the monarch that has occurred in my lifetime. Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, stood in the pulpit in Westminster Abbey and rebuked the Queen, sitting a few feet from him, for having deprived Diana of her royal title at the time of divorce. He contrasted the dull dutifulness and fixed traditions which the House of Windsor represents with his dead sister’s free and generous spirit. He promised, vainly no doubt, to protect his nephews, including the heir to the throne, from the too heavy influence of the family of his ex-in-laws. He also, savagely but less controversially, attacked the newspapers which he believes effectively hunted his sister to death. At the end of the speech, the congregation clapped — inspired, it is said, by the sound of clapping from outside the cathedral and in Hyde Park, where thousands were watching on giant television screens. Astonishing. The monarch was criticised and challenged to her face in Westminster Abbey, and then the people clapped. The fact that Charles Spencer turns out to have as dysfunctional a private life as any in the family he was attacking, that the Queen is his godmother, that he sold photographs of his baby son and heir to Hello! magazine for a lot of money: none of this blurred the clarity of his message in the minds of the people. The people had already voiced their impatience with the royal family’s slowness and apparent reluctance to pay tribute to Diana, to make symbolic gestures of grief. On the day before the funeral, the Queen made a short live broadcast from Buckingham Palace. On the day of the funeral, the Union Jack flew at half-mast over the Palace for the first time ever. It had taken the royal household that long since the death to reverse a convention whereby the Union Jack is not permitted to hang at half-mast over the royal palaces, since monarchy is supposed to be continuous. The Queen walked out to a gate of Buckingham Palace with others of her family and bowed her head as the coffin passed. These acts satisfied some people completely, most people only partially. But when they clapped as Charles Spencer resumed his place in the Abbey nave after his speech of tribute to his sister, they were saying, ‘Not enough. Change significantly, permanently, or we may call for a republic more quickly than you have ever imagined.’

Writing this, I realise why I, a republican, have become so emotionally caught up in Diana’s death and its aftermath. It is because of my sister. My sister Mary committed herself at the age of 19 to a much older man. Her decision caused her profound and prolonged unhappiness. Diana made the same wrong move at the same age to an older man, who was from the start unfaithful to her. (I will grant Charles that he was only 12 years older than Diana, not more than 20, as with my sister and her husband, and I fully grant that marriages with big age gaps can be as happy as any.) But Diana was unhappy throughout her marriage, and is now dead. Psycho-babblers would say that I projected on to her my feelings of protectiveness for my sister, and I guess they would be right.

Cannes25 September 1997

The onerous demands of my job bring me to Cannes on an exquisite late-summer afternoon. It is just after five, the temperature between warm and hot, the climate made perfect by a light breeze off the sea. I have walked around La Croisette, and am now sitting on one of the blue municipal chairs at the eastern end of the bay, by one of the ports de plaisance, looking across the water towards the Palais des Festivals. I’m here for MIPCOM, the twice-yearly international television market. Tonight, I’m going to help launch the series of 10 animated films telling stories from the world’s great religions, which I wrote about earlier in the summer. The series is selling well already inside the market hall.

Conditions at this moment are just about perfect. It remains an astonishment to me that I, a comprehensive-school English teacher, should find myself in a place such as this, with my time, my transport, my board and lodging paid by my employer, watching the lucky people of the Côte d’Azur continuing to enjoy their long summer while all Europe north of here has settled for autumn and gone back to work.

I’ve had a busy four weeks. The most touching moment of the month arose from two programmes which Paul had commissioned about ecstasy, featuring the true story of a lovely boy called Daniel Ashton (no relation of Paul’s), who died at the age of 17 after taking ecstasy and amphetamines in a night-club in Blackpool. We gave the boy’s mother, sister and brother a private screening before transmission. I’ve never before seen real life and a representation of real life so poignantly brought together at such close quarters. The first of the programmes was a drama written by Paula Milne, and at the end of it the mother and sister wept. ‘It was so like him,’ said the mother. ‘I couldn’t believe it wasn’t him.’ They approved of the drama whole-heartedly. The second programme, a documentary, they liked too with the reservation that in their opinion one sequence seemed to condone the use of the drug. We changed the section, in consideration of their feelings, even though the programme didn’t condone the use of ecstasy, but was trying to be realistic about the fact that between five and 20 million tablets are taken in the UK every month.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town19 October 1997

After 24 hours in Cannes, I drove across to see my sister, who’s now living in the village of Viens, the next commune to where she used to be. It’s a quiet, compact hilltop place, looking across the valley to the Lubéron. The house is about 200 years old, and much of the village is older. Narrow streets and tiny alleys, little traffic within the walls. A grocer, a baker, a bar/restaurant, a shop selling honey.

Viens, Provence31 October 1997

We’ve come to Viens for four days. It’s Friday afternoon. The weather is perfect: blue sky, little or no wind, and the temperature high enough for me to sit outside with comfort during the afternoons. This morning we went for a walk in the Gorge d’Opedette, a ravine in the next commune where you scramble straight down with the help of chains and handrails, and then walk along the almost dry river bed for a couple of kilometres before ascending as abruptly as you descended. The grey rock is covered with little oaks and sycamores, their leaves deep yellow and bright red in the sunshine. Afterwards we had cold rosé and a ham sandwich at the bar in the village of Opedette.

The main political event at home in the last month has been a bit of confusion in the Government over the single currency. It’s the first serious mistake Labour has made, and it was all completely avoidable. Gordon Brown was first quoted in the press as hinting that he was keen on joining a single currency sooner rather than later. The stock market soared and the pound fell. Three weeks later, he was quoted as hinting the opposite: there were major economic reasons whey we wouldn’t join a single currency during this parliament. The stock market fell and the pound soared. The Conservatives awoke from their gloom and torpor and briefly scored a few points in accusing the government of irresponsible inconsistency. Finally, Brown made a statement to the Commons last Monday — the first day back after the summer recess — which settled the matter. We won’t go in during this parliament, but we want to go in early in the next, assuming the euro is proving a success in Europe, and we’ll have a referendum with a Government recommendation to vote yes. The Conservatives collapsed back into their post-election half-life, the Government having spoken definitely and with confidence. But the problem was press secretaries, briefing newspapers off the record and seeming to contradict themselves from one week to the next. I don’t like the system of unattributable briefing. It smacks of the bad old politics. I don’t care much for the characters of Blair’s and Brown’s press secretaries either. They’re cunning and plausible wide boys, hustlers who were useful when Labour was in opposition and was trying to ingratiate itself with the right-wing press, but who are not using the right methods now we are the Government with an enormous majority. There’s not enough dignity. Charlie Whelan, Brown’s press secretary, was overheard by some Liberal Democrats barking policy into his mobile phone in the Red Lion pub opposite the Treasury.

Each Government department should have a press secretary who announces policy, on the record, orally or in writing, and who can be quoted. No press secretary should make any statement unless authorised by a minister, who should also be named in the statement. I don’t understand why we don’t do things openly. I read on Wednesday that Blair has initiated a review of press briefings. Good. I hope the decision is to abolish unattributable briefings completely. We nearly tripped over our own shoelaces about this, and the galling thing is that the Government was actually doing everything right so far as proper policy-making is concerned. As soon as we won the election, Brown asked the Treasury to do a detailed study on our prospects for joining the single currency. The Treasury reported about a fortnight ago. Brown’s Commons statement was largely based on the findings of the report, and on the correct political realisation that there’s so much else to do which is important that we don’t want to risk our popularity over the single currency until we’ve won another election.

Mary has a pretty black kitten called Midnight. It’s about two months old, full of playfulness and curiosity. It watches the particles of dust in the air by the window when the sun shines though the glass. It plays with everything which rolls or dangles or waggles, like naked toes coming down the stairs in the morning. It loves company and interaction. It begins to purr loudly, like a little engine, as soon I touch it. It’s a complete awestruck intelligence, finding the world and all that’s in it just profoundly interesting.

Viens, Provence2 November 1997

Sunday morning in Viens. I’m on a stone seat just outside the village walls, next to the château. There is a wonderful view to the south-east, down into a valley of lavender fields, of fields of ploughed earth, of oak woods, a quarry. Then up past the Gorge d’Opedette where we were on Friday, through thick woodland more remote from here, to high hills forming the horizon. The sun is warm. To my left, oaks, sloes and crab apples along the side of the road are heavy with fruit. A wasp buzzes around my feet. I’ve heard of midwinter spring. This is more like mid-autumn summer, or the St Martin’s summer described in The Leopard, that wonderful book.

On Friday evening we went to dine with friends of Mary’s, and saw, on the drives there and back, a hare, a fox, an owl, and five wild boar. On the way there, the hare was sitting at the side of the road and leapt into the hedge. A few minutes later the fox did the same thing. A few minutes later the owl flew from bough to bough of a tree overhanging the road. On the way back, the first boar, an adult male, crossed the road in front of us, followed by two young boars, followed by an adult female, followed after a short pause by another adult male, the largest and oldest. Spectacular. As Mary said, it was like a scene from Jean de la Fontaine. I’d only seen a boar once before, in Umbria in 1989, and that was just a small one.

Yesterday Helen and I went to the weekly market at Apt. It’s a wonderful event, which I remember from January when I was here during Mary’s crisis. Stalls fill the whole town, all its squares and alleys, selling sausages, cheeses, olives, vegetables, fish, flowers, plants, crockery, wine, second-hand books, music, linen. We bought a sausage to take home, and some crevettes and lasagne with truffles for lunch. Four lettuces for 10 francs. A bottle of red and a bottle of white, local. The lunch was delicious and I had an hour’s siesta afterwards, with the kitten sleeping on my neck.

A man with a travelling alembic is at Viens. It’s parked just outside the walls, and there’s a heap of discarded grape skins beside it, sometimes still steaming from the distilling process. A strong smell of spirit hangs in the air around. People bring their grape skins and get their allowance of eau de vie. This is an ancient custom, which will die when the owner of the alembic dies, because the right to distil in this way may no longer be transferred to the next generation.

London to New York plane22 November 1997

On the way to New York for the International Emmys, in which one of the programmes I’ve been looking after — Wise Up, produced by my good friend Mick Robertson — is nominated for best children’s programme.

The Government has experienced its worst crisis since being elected. Before the election, it said it would ban tobacco advertising. Good. After the election, it said it would include sponsorship in its definition of advertising. Better. Then it said it would exempt motor racing from the sponsorship ban, claiming that the sport would only go elsewhere if prohibited from relying on tobacco sponsorship in the UK, and that television viewers would see the same amount of tobacco advertising being broadcast from abroad. Then it emerged that the man who controls motor racing in the UK had given Labour a million pounds and wanted to give it some more. The sleaze-free new Labour dawn suddenly looked a grubby morning. Tony Blair appeared on television last Sunday and apologised for the way the information had come to the public. He insisted there was no corruption. The events were coincidences in time, not causally connected.

I want to believe him. But it has been a bad, bad mess. I don’t understand why it wasn’t possible to say that all sports would eventually have to look to sources other than tobacco companies for sponsorship, but that some sports would take longer to achieve this than others. The word ‘exemption’ was the problem, before the news about Bernie Ecclestone’s donation. Richard Branson, in whose aeroplane I am flying, is the epitome of the glamorous classless modern businessman who has come round to supporting Labour, and Blair gave him the task of finding alternative sources of sports sponsorship, to replace tobacco. Branson said that he would withdraw from the job unless the Government clarified its intentions and satisfied him that there had been no corruption. The affair has accelerated investigations into the best way of funding political parties, but it hasn’t itself been properly resolved yet, because no-one has said that motor racing will eventually be tobacco-free, even if later than other sports.

Fortunately, the two by-elections last Thursday give no comfort to the Conservatives whatever. In Winchester, their candidate Gerry Malone lost on 1 May by two votes. He complained that there had been improper practices. Bad loser, thought the people, and when a judge said the contest could be re-run, they waited and voted for the Liberal Democrat by a majority of over 20,000. In Beckenham, where the Tory MP resigned because he had persistently been having an affair with a 19-year-old, his replacement scraped in by just over 1,000 votes. Beckenham! Labour was second in that contest, and we might have won it but for the tobacco sponsorship business.

KerfontaineNew Year's Day, 1 January 1998

A long gap since I last wrote. I had two excellent days in New York, and one in Connecticut. Spent Sunday walking miles and miles around the city. In the morning, I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the upper west side, to see if my old Cambridge friend Paul Halley were still the organist there. He had left five years ago, but they gave me his telephone number in Connecticut. I rang and there he was! We arranged to meet on the Tuesday. Mick Robertson arrived on Sunday evening, and we went up to Harlem and ate Hispanic food. In fact, we had gone up looking for a soul-food restaurant I thought I remembered from 12 years ago, but I couldn’t find it. The Croatian taxi driver wondered what two Englishmen were doing in a rough part of town, when there were so many perfectly reputable places to eat in safer vicinities. The restaurant we settled for was cheap, friendly and noisy, staffed entirely by boys and girls who looked like the cast of West Side Story, as logically they might.

On Monday more walking, and I bought Helen an Italian sweater in Saks Fifth Avenue. In the evening we went to the Emmy ceremony, and we won. It was an exhilarating moment. Afterwards we went to a bar at 52nd Street and 2nd Avenue where the drinks were free all night. People kept coming up and wanting to stroke the bauble, to lift it. Someone told me a funny story about how he was in a lift in Los Angeles with a colleague who had won an Oscar the night before. They were on their way to bed. The colleague was carrying the trophy in his hand, quite casually now, having owned it for several hours. An elderly American couple got into the lift. When the woman noticed the Oscar, she asked if it were a real one. When told that it was, she fainted. The lift had to return to the ground floor so that staff could revive her.

I went to bed about 3.30 and got up four hours later. I took the train from Penn Station to Hudson, a little town in upstate New York. It was a two-hour ride, following the magnificent Hudson River all the way. I waited for five minutes outside the station building, and then Paul turned up. We drove for an hour through the snowy wooded countryside to his house in Norfolk, Connecticut.

Paul and I were very close friends at Cambridge. Then we went our separate ways, and didn’t meet up again until 1985, in New York. He was then living in a flat next to the cathedral with his wife Penny and three children. I spent a day or two there, and a day with them in their beautiful house in another part of Connecticut. It was late May, and hot. There was a lake nearby for swimming and sailing. I remember our time together with perfect pleasure.

Now Paul and Penny have separated, and he is with another woman called Meg. They live in a large, gracious clapboard house in woodland. Paul is becoming well known as a composer. He gave me three of his CDs. He also plays piano with a group called the Paul Winter Consort. He conducts an adult chamber choir and a children’s choir. He and Meg are starting a music publishing business. I was only with him for about four hours: an hour driving to the house, two hours there, and an hour driving to another town where I got on a bus which took me to JFK airport. But we rediscovered as relaxed and direct a friendship as ever.

Paul wears his immense musical talent easily, and is as interested in my world as I am in his. It was a beautiful meeting.

The overnight flight from JFK to Heathrow was uncomfortable. I switched from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1, where I met Paul Ashton, and we went straight off to Ireland to look at the rough cut of a film. I stayed in Dublin that night, slept well, flew to Glasgow the next morning for the annual C4 meeting with producers from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and got home finally on the Thursday night.

Kerfontaine2 January 1998

The week at Kerfontaine has passed too quickly, as these short holidays always do. Last night there was a mighty storm. I’ve never heard anything like it. (I was out of London during the great storm of October ’87.) The damage this morning was nowhere near as severe as it was, here and in the south of England, 10 years ago. But we have lost one handsome mature fir tree, uprooted completely, and a large pine is without the upper half of its trunk. It was a shock to walk out this morning and see these great plants lying in the meadow. The noise last night was so great at the height of the storm that it was impossible to distinguish individual sounds. It was unlike a violent storm of lesser ferocity. For a moment it was as if a huge aeroplane, engines at full throttle, was passing just overhead. There was a sensation of pure power. That was the wind. Then rain in solid sheets. Then hail. Then explosions of brilliant lightning and claps of thunder which shook the house, solid granite as it is. But not a single tile has been dislodged from the roof, and it’s as dry as a bone inside. The electricity came back on at about 4.30 this afternoon. So our suffering has been slight. I don’t like to lose trees, though. When you own land where much of the beauty is in the trees, you’re jealous of all of them.

Tomorrow we’re going home, but via a night in Paris at our favourite hotel, to sugar the pill. The last time I was at that hotel was when I left my diary in the train at the Gare du Nord. I’ll try to avoid a repeat performance.

Wolverhampton to Euston train, and Spread Eagle, Camden Town11 and 12 January 1998

We had an exquisite night in Paris. Arrived about 8, were shown to one of our favourite rooms in the Hôtel de Banville, bathed. Then took a brief walk in the mild, clear evening, the quarter moon bright above us, before deciding to dine at Petrus, one of the fish restaurants on the Place Péreire. Delicious food, a splendid pink champagne called Philipponnat, a ’65 Armagnac at the end. Then back to the exquisite sexiness of the bedroom, marred only by the fact that the supposed grand lit in fact contained two single mattresses pushed together, instead of one double mattress. The split down the middle inconveniences love-making and sleeping. I complained about it the next morning to my old friend the manager, much to Helen’s embarrassment. He said that about half the rooms had such an arrangement, enabling the hotel to offer twin beds when customers asked for that. I said that, notwithstanding, un grand lit should imply un grand matelas, and we agreed that I should be very specific in stating my requirements in future.

The conversation made me think of a story I heard on the radio years ago, about an English woman travelling alone in France. She stopped for the night at a small hotel in the remote countryside. The owner showed her a room, which she accepted. He went downstairs, returned with her luggage, and left her. A few minutes later, she came down unhappily to the lobby, and spoke to the owner in her best French: ‘S’il vous plaît, monsieur, il n’y a pas de matelot sur mon lit.’ The owner was tempted to smile, but knew exactly what the woman meant, so restrained himself and courteously explained that the beds in this hotel didn’t have separate mattresses; the part you lay down on was made in a single piece. The woman was still not happy. ‘Oui, monsieur, mais en Angleterre il y a toujours un matelot sur le lit.’ And off she went upstairs. Once she was out of earshot, an old lady, the owner’s mother, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, knitting, looked at her son and said, ‘Ah, les Anglais! Quelle nation maritime!’

We got home at lunchtime on Sunday, the tunnel whisking us painlessly under a tempestuous channel.

On Friday afternoon, I took the train from Liverpool (where I had been at the annual conference of the Association for Science Education) to Shrewsbury, changing at Crewe. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I felt my old love for the Shropshire countryside rekindled as we ambled between the flooded fields with the sun streaming horizontally through the windows. I was reading the Lyrical Ballads, because yesterday I performed, with Andrew Bannerman, a selection of them which he had made, linked by a commentary he had written. The occasion was the 200th anniversary of Coleridge’s visit to Shrewsbury, and of the sermon he preached on the second Sunday of January 1798 in the Unitarian chapel there. The train stopped at Wem, where Coleridge stayed with Hazlitt at Hazlitt’s father’s house, the elder Hazlitt being the Unitarian minister in the town. Looking out of the window, I thought how little the place had changed these two centuries. Wem always looks scruffy and forlorn, with a few pretty brick houses trying unsuccessfully to cheer the place up. The younger Hazlitt and Coleridge walked to Shrewsbury, and Hazlitt heard Coleridge preach. He was amazed at Coleridge’s eloquence. He wrote: ‘As he gave out his text [which was “And he went up into the mountain to pray Himself alone”], his voice rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes, and when he came to the last words, which he pronounced loud, deep and distinct, it seems to me as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe.’

To commemorate this event, some of Shrewsbury’s most active citizens, including Andrew, had organised a weekend of lectures and performances. Michael Foot was the guest of honour; he was booked to speak in the Unitarian chapel on the Friday night, and again on the Sunday morning, as part of a special service there.

I rehearsed with Andrew all Friday evening and all day Saturday. Our performance on the Saturday evening, though I say it myself, was something of a triumph. About 100 people received it enthusiastically. We did ‘The Ancient Mariner’ (complete), ‘Lines written at a Small Distance from my House’, ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, ‘We are Seven’, ‘The Idiot Boy’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’. Andrew’s commentary was informative, apt and beautifully composed. Michael Foot was in the front row, with his ancient dog Disraeli, from whom he is inseparable. Whether out of eccentricity, or simple desire to encourage, or (as I wondered then but don’t think now) as a result of some kind of speech palsy, Michael punctuated our entire performance with grunts and murmurs, expressions of support and approval which we soon got used to, as did the rest of the audience, but which were a bit distracting to begin with. Disraeli stood up a few times and shifted his 18-year-old hindquarters worryingly. When he did this, Michael simply wrapped the dog’s lead more tightly around his own leg.

After the performance, Andrew and I went out to meet some of our admiring audience. Michael had left a message, saying how much he had enjoyed the performance, but that he had gone back to his hotel, being tired and anticipating the effort of his work the next morning. He hoped to see us there. We went back to Andrew’s for a delicious supper; to bed about three, feeling terribly pleased with ourselves.

At the service the next morning, before a full congregation, made up I guess of about one third regulars and two thirds visitors, Michael gave a short lecture, mainly about Hazlitt. But in the middle of it he mentioned the Lyrical Ballads, and then declared that never, in all his life, had he heard any of the poems performed as well as he had the previous evening; in fact, it was highly unlikely that they had ever been so well performed since they were written; in fact, it was very probable that the previous evening’s performers had rendered the poems better than had Wordsworth and Coleridge themselves (‘for poets are often not the best performers of their own work’). Andrew shed tears. After the service, over refreshments in the chapel meeting room upstairs, I told Michael that he had been a hero of mine for 30 years, and that never, if I lived to be as old as he was now, or older, would anyone pay me a compliment I valued as highly as that he had paid us.

‘Bannerman and Richmond better readers than Wordsworth and Coleridge — Foot.’

I got on the train on the Sunday evening, tired out. I kept thinking I ought to write this diary, train journeys being ideal circumstances for diary writing, but I couldn’t summon up the energy. After we changed at Wolverhampton, a young woman got on and sat down opposite me. She immediately pulled out an exercise book and began to write, at high speed and without hesitation. I could see from reading upside down that it was some kind of love diary, or perhaps a novel in love letters. At the beginning of every entry, she wrote ‘Baby’ or ‘Hey baby’ or ‘Ooh baby’. Inspired by her fluency, I pulled out my diary and began to write myself, though I couldn’t match her rate of words per minute. Thus until Euston.

Hilton Hotel, Rotterdam29 March 1998

Here at a European market for educational television.

The series of animated programmes about world religions, some of which I saw in preparation in Hungary and Poland last summer, was first broadcast in its Welsh-language version by S4C last Christmas and New Year. In making a programme about some of the events in the life of Mohammed, we had been careful to take advice from experts on Islam, including Muslim clerics, so as not to show or say anything which would give offence to Muslims. At about the time of the S4C transmission, a group of zealots based at the Finsbury Park mosque heard about the programme, made contact with Chris Grace, the director of animation at S4C, and asked to see a tape of its English-language version. Chris, in a spirit of open-minded liberality which he recognises, in retrospect, was perhaps naïve, sent them one. Once the zealots had seen the programme, they forbade us to broadcast it, declaring it blasphemous, and threatened to bomb Channel 4 on the day of its first transmission if we did go ahead. They then obtained from a university in Egypt, a centre of Islamic learning, a fatwa reinforcing their ban. Paul discussed the problem with the bosses at Channel 4, who were unanimous that the broadcast should go ahead. We told the police. In the days leading up to broadcast, the viewer enquiries line at Channel 4 received many calls, especially from Muslim women, imploring us not to show the programme. It was clear that an information network involving some of the mosques with fundamentalist leaders was working efficiently, and that imams there had been instructing the faithful to protest.

I wasn’t in the Channel 4 building on the day of broadcast. No bomb went off. In the days after broadcast, we received a few phone calls from brave women, some of whom who had phoned beforehand, congratulating us on the programme, saying how glad they were that their religion had been presented in such a knowledgeable and sympathetic way, and apologising for their previous call. They had been misled, they said. We received no phone call criticising the programme.

So far as I know, the fatwa still stands.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town3 April 1998

The best moment of today was between 4.30 and 5.15. I’d gone to Tullio’s for a haircut. He was busy and told me to come back in an hour. I walked up to the park. It was so green after last night’s solid rain, and bright. I just wandered amongst the wonderful trees near the Parkway entrance, admiring chestnuts, ashes, beeches. How the chestnut flowers are tight and hard. How the ash flowers are spindly, frothy with magenta points at the ends of their fronds. How you can stroke the smooth trunk of a young beech, feel its sturdiness, its health. There are alders, oaks. All the trees stand in the deep green spread of grass, and the wind was strong today, the clouds moved fast.

Hôtel de Banville, ParisGood Friday, 9 April 1998

Today is an historic day in Ireland. It’s now seven o’clock in the evening UK time, and about an hour and a half ago the negotiating parties in Northern Ireland announced an agreement on a text, 67 pages long, outlining the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, including arrangements for an elected assembly in the province, for a North-South Council of Ministers, for a ‘Council of the Isles’ linking the NI assembly with the future Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, UK and Irish governments, for the release of paramilitary prisoners and the decommissioning of weapons, for changes to the policing system, for amendments to the UK’s Government of Ireland Act 1920 and to the Irish Republic’s constitution. The document will be sent to every household in both parts of Ireland. There will be a referendum on it on 22 May, and elections to the new assembly in June. The parties stayed up all night, and there were moments when it looked as if the talks would break down. But there it is, agreed. Amazing.

It is quite the most remarkable political achievement for the Blair government since it came to power. More importantly, it is one of those moments in an adult lifetime when you know that history is being made before your eyes. If the agreement holds — and I think it will — the most grievous site of violence, pain and division in UK domestic politics this century could become a place where people can get on with their lives, bring up their children, have their moments of joy and sadness, just like the rest of us.

The negotiations have been going on for months, but the official deadline for their conclusion was midnight between Thursday and Friday. Blair was there from Tuesday, as was Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister. It looks as if they shuttled back and forth between the parties as they debated the text which George Mitchell, the chairman of the talks, produced. I think the Unionists had the hardest time accepting the document, in particular the idea that, through the North-South assembly, the Republic would have some say, however limited, in the affairs of the province. I imagine that Blair did a lot to persuade David Trimble, the Unionist leader, to take the political gamble of displeasing some of his hard-line colleagues, risking a revolt even. There were a couple of moments on Thursday when it looked as if the Unionists might walk away. The midnight deadline came and went, and they all went on talking most of the night, and came to an agreement I think about five in the morning. When I turned on the radio at 8.00am UK time, the BBC was reporting that the deal was done, though there was no official pronouncement. I think there must have been further difficulties during the day, while they printed the document, because the official statement by all of the parties didn’t come until after five. But in the end they all stood up and said, ‘Yes, we’ll do this.’ It’s the most wonderful triumph for peace and common sense over bigotry and violence. It’s a constitutional compromise, and a complex one, but there is no other way through.

Hôtel de Banville, Paris10 April 1998

The agreement cleared its first and perhaps its most difficult hurdle this afternoon when the Ulster Unionist party executive approved it, despite dissent.

The scale of the triumph for Blair personally is enormous. It doesn’t fall to many of us, even to political leaders, to evidently change the world for the better, and I think he has done that.

We went to the Musée Marmottan this morning to look at the Monets, lunched in the 16th, walked in the Bois de Boulogne, went into the Jardins de la Bagatelle, admired the tulips, daffodils, cherry blossom, the trees all in leaf. I fell asleep in front of the orangerie, with Lindsay James. David and she are with us here. They’re expecting a baby, and are very happy.

KerfontaineEaster Sunday, 11 April 1998

We drove down to Kerfontaine this afternoon. French countryside looking wonderful; bright green after all the rain, cowslips and primroses everywhere in the verges. Not much traffic — everyone who had gone away for Easter had got there. The weather the full April mixture. It’s freezing cold when the clouds cover the sun, with blasts of rain and hail. When the sun comes out it’s warm and everything shines like paradise.

I read an English paper when I got here. The thing that held up the agreement on Friday afternoon was the Unionists’ worry that Gerry Adams might be allowed on to the executive of the new Northern Ireland Assembly before the IRA had started decommissioning its arms stock. Trimble wanted a piece of linkage to be put into the agreement specifically denying Adams a place on the executive until the weapons were being handed in. Blair said no: the same rules would apply to Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, and the presumption was that decommissioning would be simultaneous with the setting up of the Assembly and the appointment of the executive. He gave Trimble a letter promising to press for a change in the rules of the Assembly if Adams participated in the business of the executive before decommissioning was under way. And he phoned Bill Clinton and asked him to phone Trimble to encourage him to make the final step. Which Clinton did, and Trimble did.

I find myself exhilarated, as an outsider with a close interest in and deep love for both parts of Ireland. We’ve made one series promoting Education for Mutual Understanding (as they call it in the province), and we’re going to make three more for next school year. I’ve been to Northern Ireland many times on business, and I count Peter Logue, the C4 Schools education officer there, a close friend. I’m delighted for him, and looking forward to talking to him about it all.

The newspaper said that the mood of ordinary people in Northern Ireland is not one of exhilaration, more of deep wariness, a reluctance to believe that peace has really arrived. I can understand that. There will be a bitterly fought referendum campaign, with the DUP, disaffected sections of the UUP and small extremist groups on both sides against. But I think there will be a resounding yes to the proposals. It needs to be resounding — at least 70%, I would say — to give full legitimacy to the agreement, and to marginalise those who would wreck it. I’m afraid there will still be some deaths. But the achievement this Easter is hope, and I can’t help thinking about the symbolism of it: Easter 1916, Easter 1998. Two kinds of Christian belief agreeing to try to live together in peace, as the great Christian feast of hope and regeneration passes.

Kerfontaine12 April 1998

An Apprentice Boys march in Derry today passed off peacefully — a good sign. The question of handing in weapons is becoming important now, with the Unionists worried that the IRA’s obligation to hand in its weapons is too vaguely expressed in the agreement. They don’t want their leader sitting down in any executive with Sinn Fein until some decommissioning has been seen to take place. But as John Hume said on the radio at lunchtime, the important question is whether anybody will use weapons, not whether they are rusting in a loft or in a field somewhere. It’s going to be a difficult few months, with the biggest doubt being whether the majority of Unionist opinion will support the deal. Strange really, because the Unionists have had to give up a great deal less than have the Nationalists.

Seamus Heaney, writing in the Irish Times on Saturday: ‘If revolution is the kicking down of a rotten door, evolution is more like pushing the stone from the mouth of the tomb. There is an Easter energy about it, a sense of arrival rather than wreckage. And what is nonpareil about the new conditions is the promise they offer of a new covenant between people living in this country. For once, and at long last, the language of the Bible can be appropriated by those with a vision of the future rather than those who sing the battle hymns of the past.’

Glasgow to London plane28 April 1998

The situation in Ireland is holding. The two largest Protestant paramilitary organisations voted for the peace deal. Sinn Fein has another conference on 10 May to decide its official position. It’s obvious that Adams and McGuinness want the party to say yes, but there are a lot of uncompromising republicans who have to be placated, if not convinced. Meanwhile, extremist Protestant paramilitaries have killed two or three Catholics since Good Friday, in a dreadful stupid effort to provoke a backlash which could bring the deal down. So far, there has been no revenge from equivalent Catholic organisations.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town26 May 1998

The referendum held in Northern Ireland last Friday produced a vote in favour of the Good Friday agreement, by a percentage of 71.12% to 28.88%, on a turn-out of about 81%. It was a wonderful result. It gives authority to the agreement and it opens up the possibility that the basis of politics in Northern Ireland might become non-sectarian, like politics in Britain. Most important, if the assembly which will be elected on 25 June proves effective, if arms are given up, if prisoners are released without provoking violent revenge from victims’ friends and families (three big ifs), there is the extraordinary prospect of the people of Northern Ireland coming to live ordinary lives, with ordinary joys and sorrows, like the rest of us. On the same day as the Northern Ireland referendum, the Republic of Ireland voted by a huge percentage (94.5% to 5.5%), on a lower turn-out of about 55%, to abandon its territorial claim to the North. That was an equally impressive result, and shows how much the Republic has grown up these 25 years, since it’s been in the EU. It’s moving fast in a modern, secular direction, and cares less for old tribal wars or fixed definitions of nationhood.

We spent the late May bank holiday weekend in Shrewsbury, with Andrew and Annie Bannerman. The county looked entrancing in its unofficial beauty, its sense of lostness, just when you thought everywhere had been completely discovered and organised. A lane in the south of the county, somewhere near Bishop’s Castle, had campion, stitchwort and wild geranium, as well as cow parsley and buttercup.

Stockholm to London plane11 June 1998

On the way back from Stockholm, where Paul and I have been since Tuesday, at the annual European Broadcasting Union education conference. This afternoon, before coming to the airport, we went to the Historical Museum, where I bought a necklace in the Viking style for Helen, and to the Vasa Museum, where there is an enormous wooden war ship with that name. On 10 August 1628 it sank in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage. It must have been one of the biggest ships in the world at the time. The king wanted it huge and high. The shipwright told the king it was dangerously unbalanced, especially with the new heavy cannon aboard. The king insisted. Down it went. In the 1950s, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of one man, it was raised. It is a splendid, awe-inspiring vessel, its great wooden hull adorned with wooden sculptures, the wood preserved for 330 years in the brackish waters of the harbour. Splendid and awe-inspiring, and fatally flawed.

From 35,000 feet the clouds at half our height cast their oblique shadows on the calm, wrinkled sea.

When you’re in an airport people are at their least attractive. They’re anxious, sweating lumps of need, creatures whose requirement to eat, drink, urinate, defecate, spend money, telephone and flick through magazines makes you see them as a planner, an actuary or a mortuary technician might see them; not as a priest might see them, or a lover.

Wootton, Bedfordshire11 July 1998

The first elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly were held on 22 June. Via a complex system of proportional representation, the people elected an Assembly of 108 people. Of these, an adequate majority wants the Assembly and the Good Friday agreement to work. That majority should be able to pass all votes, however much Paisley and the other nay-sayers may protest and filibuster. So far, so good. However, for several days now Orangemen have been trying to march down the Catholic Garvaghy Road on their way back from a church parade at Drumcree. The Parades Commission has forbidden them from taking this route. There is a huge gathering of loyalists in the fields around Portadown and Drumcree. Amongst them are some who see this as their chance to cripple the agreement, and reverse all the political progress (to them, betrayal) of recent months. It’s a momentous challenge for Blair, Mowlem and everybody on the ‘Yes’ side. Because the political achievement so far has been so exhilarating, the Government knows it cannot yield to this pressure. Meanwhile, three young boys, brothers, were burnt to death last night in a house on a Protestant estate at Ballymoney. They were killed by Protestant rioters who knew that their mother was a Catholic, although they were being brought up as Protestants. It’s the most gruesome extreme of a regular pattern of intimidation of Catholics at this time of year. For the yea-sayers, it’s a matter of holding on grimly to the gains.

To the outsider, the whole fuss leading up to 12 July each year looks so bizarre, so completely outmoded as a form of cultural statement. ‘I want to continue, symbolically, to remind you that we’re top dogs, we run this show, we beat you in 1690, we’ll beat you again now if you give us an excuse.’

I’m at my parents’ house, writing at a desk looking out over the back garden. There’s a violent wind blowing; more a wind of March or November than of July. It poured with rain most of yesterday and until about four o’clock this afternoon. Since the beginning of June there’s been no summer. There have been two or three bright days here and there, but no steady settled period of heat and calm. No mood of summer. I have a vague feeling that this is one of the eccentric weather patterns occurring all over the world, and our fault.

London to Wickham Market train16 July 1998

A good effect of the dreadful murders I wrote about last Sunday has been to destroy the momentum of the Orange demonstration at Drumcree. Until last Saturday night, the marching of Orangemen looked capable of challenging the consensus around the agreement and the new Assembly (though not destroying it). Now, there’s little stomach for the fight. Several of the Orangemen’s own leaders have told them to go home.

Peter Logue told me on the phone the other day that he, a man of nearly 50, was stopped by 15-year-olds at a roadblock. They demanded to know his name and his business. Madness. The astonishing arrogance of ignorant children who think, wrongly, that history is on their side.

Nha Trang, Vietnam3 August 1998

I finished work last Friday 31 July, and the next morning we came, via the Channel Tunnel and Charles de Gaulle Airport, to Vietnam. Slept surprisingly well on the plane. Touched down at Bangkok for an hour, and then on to Ho Chi Minh City, over the plains of Cambodia, where the world’s worst genocide since the Second World War took place. An hour’s hop, a tomato juice, a curious gaze from the window. Taxiing at Ho Chi Minh, we passed the extensive ugly remnants (bunkers, concrete helicopter shelters) of what must have been a huge American base during the war and, in a corner, abandoned and rusting Russian civil aircraft from the immediate post-war period. Put not your trust in princes.

An alert taxi driver in the crowd outside the airport took us effortlessly to his car, and drove us to the Hotel Majestic. The drive was one of those experiences of rarity, novelty. There are few private cars in Vietnam, and a profusion of bicycles and motorcycles. The motorcycles are mainly not the speed machines of the West, but the Honda 50 and equivalent. There are a few of the newly-chic Piaggios and Lambrettas. So everyone moves at about 20mph. It’s companionable. People converse. The few four-wheeled vehicles — lorries, buses, taxis including ours, the very rare imported BMW — hoot all the time, not as a rebuke but as a warning. Remarkable feats of steering and last-second avoidance of collision are achieved constantly, and as normal. You might see a family of four on one bicycle, as long as the children are still small. Exquisite girls and young women, on the backs of motorcycles driven by men, sit astride if wearing trousers — either Western-style, or with the trouser part of the Vietnamese women’s costume, and an upper tunic — or side-saddle and cross-legged if wearing a dress. Exquisite single girls and women driving their own motorcycles often wear long gloves up to and above the elbow, and masks over their faces up to the eyes. Protection from the sun, not modesty. The women seem liberated. Straw hats, not rustic but elegantly styled with a flower motif at the back, are common.

The Majestic deserves its name. It’s true art deco inside and out, on a grand scale, overlooking the Saigon river. They’ve restored it recently. Occupying our room was like moving into a museum of furniture and décor. The high-backed wooden chairs, the neat modern leather armchairs, were 60 or 70 years old, not just good imitations of that period. Ditto the coloured tiles around the mirrors in the bathroom, and the bath itself. There was a curved writing table, of good size, with a brass and frosted-glass lamp standing on its marqueterie top, that made me want to check in for six months and write an important novel, working regular hours, six a day, six days a week. The balcony gave on to the boulevard beside the river, fully flowing in both directions with two-wheeled traffic. We dined in the open-air restaurant on the top floor (same view) and then went walking along the boulevard. There are parks with hundreds of benches between the road and the river. On each of them sat a courting couple, hand in hand, or his arm round her waist, or — very occasionally — in an embrace, but not moving, simply sitting close in a pose of longing. And in front of each couple, often with the boy’s feet resting on it, the motorcycle. A little bit further down the boulevard, there are cafés with hundreds of outside seats like double deck-chairs, all facing the river. Because we were behind the seats, and Vietnamese are generally small people, the deck-chairs seemed empty. But standing next to each was the tell-tale motorcycle. The cafés were full, but the lighting was poor and there was almost no noise. We went back to our splendid room with its bed wide enough for at least three of the courting couples, the bed surrounded by a large deco motif of an heroic woman driving a chariot, and slept until eight.

Later that morning, the taxi back to the airport, paid for in local currency (about 13,000 dong to the dollar, 20,000 to the pound), cost a third of that the previous day, when we had paid in dollars. The flight from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang — 75 minutes in a modern Fokker propeller plane, not flying too high — was magnificent, on a clear day with small white clouds below us. First we saw the Mekong delta, a huge network of silver rivers and canals threading the thousands of rice fields. Later, we crossed high, forested hills, some with neat terracing on their lower slopes. At the end of the flight, we descended the hills to the coastal plain, flew over Nha Trang and out to sea, made a turn over the islands in the bay, the sea a general deep blue but green turquoise at the islands’ shores, and landed.

The Ana Mandara Beach Resort is top-of-the-range tasteful ‘vernacular’. A complex of low pavilions faces the sea. Ours gives straight on to the beach. We have every luxury. Bright orange flowers blossom in the little garden in front of me. Huge butterflies feed on the flowers. Conical thatched canopies provide shade on the beach for lounging Japanese, French, Italians, English. The Vietnamese staff are charmingly attentive but not excessively deferential. On Monday evening we took cyclos (pedal-cycle taxis, one person per taxi) into town, which is at the north end of the beach, and where the reality of ordinary life in a medium-sized town in a poor country intrudes. It was exciting to be pedalled around in the flux of the traffic, smiling back at the curious, friendly gazes of townspeople on the move or sitting outside their houses and shops in family groups. Our drivers gave us a tour of the town before depositing us at the Lac Canh restaurant, where we ate crab soup with asparagus, sizzled beef cubes in black bean sauce, big prawns in chilli sauce, rice, mangoes and dragon fruit, with Vietnamese beer, for 100,000 dong — a fiver. The drivers waited at the end of the street while we ate. It was raining when we’d finished, and they pedalled us home protected by the cyclos’ waterproof covering, with a narrow peep-hole to see ahead. It was like being a baby in a pram.

Nha Trang, Vietnam4 August 1998

Yesterday was Helen’s 50th birthday. We rose at nine, breakfasted. Then Helen had a long massage, from which she emerged slightly pale and sticky with baby oil. The masseuse had probed sites of tension Helen didn’t know she had. After that we had fresh coconut juice at the bar, and walked 100 yards to the Italian restaurant next door to the hotel, also overlooking the beach, where the bruschetta and pasta are excellent. We said to each other how nice it would be to go out around the islands on a boat, so after lunch I enquired at reception, and ten minutes later we were off, just the two of us, on a blue boat with two crew. We sailed for four hours around the islands, passing little shoreline villages. Most of the houses are the simplest of shacks, but there are some solider, nicely designed, attractively painted houses. I pointed these out to Dung, who was in charge of the boat. ‘These people have children overseas,’ he said. Near the villages are family graves, again brightly painted. Boys played football on each beach. Electricity comes from wind generators. Most of the houses, including the simplest, have television masts. Dung said that there is a school on each of the larger islands. The teacher sails across from Nha Trang every day. But there are no roads, only paths over the hills. No motor vehicles of any kind, except the fishing boats which provide the islanders’ income. I noticed also that some of the slopes above the villages had been partly cleared of the wild growth, and eucalyptus, banana and coconut trees had been planted. During the afternoon we saw flying fish, zebra fish and jellyfish. Dung taught me some words of Vietnamese, which he wrote in this book when we got back to shore. It was the most perfect, thrilling and romantic time. We landed on the shore by the hotel as it was getting dark. I was so pleased to have arranged an exceptional experience for Helen on her birthday. We had baths and dined on seafood around the swimming pool, by the light of flares.

Nha Trang, Vietnam5 August 1998

And the next day, we did more or less the same thing! This time Dung and his boat driver took us the other way, north along the coastline. We passed the shacks crowded around the mouth of the river at Nha Trang, and on around headlands which we can see from the hotel, which hide deep inlets of sea. Then we sailed straight across the mouth of the bay to the back of the island where we had been the day before. We stopped in a little bay where there was another village — same thing as yesterday, including boys playing football — and Dung and I climbed off the boat to swim. Both of us were immediately stung by jellyfish, so it wasn’t quite the idyllic moment of natural pleasure I had been planning. But we sailed back to the hotel cheerfully enough, again landing in the dusk.

We dined on Thai food in the evening, which was very hot, so we drank several cans of beer with it. Feeling rather heavy afterwards, we went for a walk along the seafront road outside the hotel. The walk reminded me of the story of the Buddha as a young prince, whose father ordered that he be kept inside the walled grounds of the palace, and experience only pleasure in the beauty of his surroundings. Even the dying flowers on bushes were to be removed by servants every day, so the prince only saw flowers in bud or full bloom. One day the prince, seeing the gate of the palace compound, insisted that his personal servant drive him outside. In the town beyond the walls, the prince saw poverty, ugliness, old age and death. Ana Mandara is as close to the prince’s father’s palace as I am ever likely to get. The seafront road outside had plenty of poverty and ugliness, though we saw no death and little old age (the people on the streets were mainly young). Piles of rubbish left on patches of waste ground. An ancient diesel lorry, stationary, engine running and pumping black fumes into the night air. People by the roadside trying to make a living, at ten o’clock at night, selling a can of Pepsi or a packet of soap.

Kerfontaine18 August 1998

The rest of the holiday passed happily and memorably. One day we hired a taxi and drove to a place called Doc Let, about 40 kilometres north of Nha Trang. Here was the perfect tropical beach: an arc of bay; clear, warm turquoise water; white, soft, gently shelving sand. It was Saturday, and there were busloads of Vietnamese families who’d come for a day out by the sea. We walked up the beach a little, and found a spot in the shade of a palm, and I went swimming. Exquisite. As I was swimming, I looked back and saw that a group of Vietnamese women in their conical straw hats had come and sat next to Helen. When I emerged from the water, they offered me a massage, which I accepted. There was a little boy with them, selling two coconuts. I bought them both, one after the other. Coconut juice and an all-over massage, administered by three women at once, on Doc Let beach, is an experience of multiple pleasure. Then it came on to rain, and we took the taxi back to Nha Trang, with the oldest of the masseuses sitting in the front seat, delighted with her luck in getting a lift to her house.

The next day, our last full day before flying back to Ho Chi Minh, I went out alone on Dung’s boat. Just him and me. It had rained, and was overcast, and Helen didn’t fancy it. We went straight out to two little islands on the horizon, uninhabited except by birds. Most of the birds are swifts, thousands of them wheeling and screaming around the islands’ rocky faces. They supply the nests which go into bird’s nest soup, an expensive delicacy in the region. I think men only go there at one or perhaps two seasons of the year to collect the nests: a precipitous feat. There were little shacks where the collectors shelter. The islands have a magical wildness, surrounded by deep, black water. Dung stopped the boat behind the second island and I dived in naked and swam around for ten minutes. It was a perfect moment. I kept thinking, ‘This is it. This is what you came here for. Experiences don’t come better than this, swimming naked off a boat in the black, warm water, in the lee of the island, with the swifts crying overhead.’

I had underestimated the time it would take to get back to Nha Trang, so it was dark when we arrived. Helen was angry because she was worried. I had missed an appointment for drinks with the hotel manager at seven. He had been very good and kept her spirits up.

The next afternoon we flew back to Ho Chi Minh, and stayed once again at the Majestic. On this occasion they gave us a suite. The interior was as on the previous occasion: just three times the size. I have never experienced such Babylonian luxury. We walked out to eat at a restaurant called The Lemon Grass: very good, hot Vietnamese food. On the way there I bought a copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, his novel set in the city, from a disabled street vendor. Life had not dealt this man many high cards, I thought as I unwrapped it from its plastic in the restaurant. It was a cheaply pirated copy of the Penguin paperback edition, legible but not attractive to read. I put it on one side and then forgot it when we left. It had cost me 50,000 dong (£2.50), and probably represented a very good sale for the man.

The next day our plane to Paris didn’t leave until the evening, so we had all day in the city. We hired two cyclos and rode around. The drivers took us to Cholon Market, in the Chinese area some five kilometres from downtown Ho Chi Minh. It is a huge warren of alleys selling everything edible, wearable and useable. A Western health and safety inspector would regard it as a disaster. I had an overwhelming sense of the imperative of commerce. Thousands of people, in tiny spaces, making a living. On the way back from the market were endless streets where people were doing a similar thing, but one step up the economic ladder. Rows of shops selling electrical goods. Dozens of bored young men sitting next to their piles of boxed-up television sets and food mixers, waiting for the one sale that would make their day.

We went to the Revolutionary Museum, which told the story of the fight for independence from the French, the war against the Americans, and the achievements of the government since. Because the building was being repaired and the ground floor was temporarily empty, we had to content ourselves with post-1954 history, on the first floor. The display was poor, the text only in Vietnamese, but the message of struggle and eventual triumph was clear. A thought struck me while I was in there, arising from two separate pieces of information I’d read in our guidebook. Ho Chi Minh, a man I broadly regard as a hero, developed his anti-colonial and communist thesis whilst travelling the world, and particularly in London and then Paris, where he contributed articles to L’Humanité, and moved in socialist and communist circles. I regard him as a hero because, despite the evident failure of Marxism-Leninism as a viable permanent means of organising societies, Ho Chi Minh’s achievement against the French and then the Americans is one of the century’s great examples of leadership against oppression. Elsewhere in the guidebook, it says that a younger man, Pol Pot, was also profoundly impressed by the orthodox Marxism of the French Communist Party when he was on a scholarship in Paris between 1949 and 1953. He returned to Cambodia with the intention of leading his country in the struggle for freedom, and we know what happened between 1975 and 1979. The Vietnamese army, after their final triumph against the Americans, had to invade Cambodia to put a stop to the slaughter. Two leaders, same ideological inspiration, different results. Of course, this is to say nothing of the catastrophic role which America played in the region from 1954 until 1975, but the comparison is still a fair one. The limits of ideology. The need for ideology to be realised with humanity.

Then we went back to the hotel for lunch. A little shopping in the afternoon — silk wearables for Helen — and the taxi to the airport. 14 hours later, we were in Paris.

It was an unforgettable trip. I carry with me three strong impressions: the beauty and fertility of the land; the kindness and the spirit of the people; and the daunting challenge facing the Vietnamese government in the immediate future. Marxism-Leninism is no match these days for Panasonic and Philips. The younger people see very clearly on their televisions the opportunities for self-improvement, and the strides that their neighbours in Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan are making. Children working abroad send or bring back surplus income which must look like a fortune to those stuck on incomes of the equivalent of 40 dollars a month, as my boatman was. (And he regarded himself as above the middle range of income.) And yet Ho Chi Minh City is not the polluted, grid-locked chaos of Bangkok, Djakarta or Manila. Vietnam hasn’t destroyed the beauty of its coastline by allowing foreign companies to build as they wish. The paternalistic, outmoded ideology maybe has a chance of steering balanced development slowly and without bottlenecks. The country needs the usual things: a good health service, decent affordable housing, more investment in the education system and the transport infrastructure. It needs steady growth in responsible exploitation of raw materials and in agriculture, where it should retain more added value in the country. In tourism, it should continue to cater for a smaller number of richer foreigners, like us. And it needs more factories turning out advanced products, or components for advanced products, to absorb some of the young people coming on to the labour market and to give families the opportunity of a second income. All this sounds like a World Bank report, but I reckon it’s true. I noticed in the English-language newspaper on our last day that Brian Wilson, one of our DTI ministers, was in town, doing some business on oil and gas and setting up a subsidiary of the Prudential. In the same paper, I saw that Volvo is selling its modern buses to the country for the first time. In poorer countries all over the world (I remember feeling exactly the same thing in Brazil) the choice is clear: go for the social democratic entitlements — education, health care, housing, transport, employment; reduce inequalities; care for the environment; or face disaster. Easier said than done.

Kerfontaine20 August 1998

Last Saturday a bomb exploded in Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 28 people who were going about their ordinary business. It was planted by a lunatic fringe Republican group called the Real IRA. It was the most destructive single atrocity since the troubles began. All we can hope is that the political structures put in place this year will hold, and in particular that the Republicans within the peace deal — the IRA itself and Sinn Fein — will use their contacts to expose the remaining murderers on the outer flanks of the Republican movement. Even so, this autumn in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be difficult, with Paisley and his coalition of nay-sayers doing their best to obstruct progress and to undermine trust.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town25 September 1998

Yesterday Andrew Bannerman and I did our second performance of the Lyrical Ballads show, in London to an audience of about 120 people, and it was again a success. This time Michael Foot came out with us when we appeared, and did an introduction in which he linked the dissenting, anti-establishment, pro-freedom-of-thought achievement of Coleridge and Wordsworth, at least in their early careers, with the importance of defending Salman Rushdie’s right to publish The Satanic Verses. The day before, Iran had substantially modified, though not withdrawn, the threat to kill Rushdie, and Michael had appeared on Channel 4 News, opposite a scowling Muslim cleric (who’d probably been involved, I thought, in that business over our schools programme about the life of Mohammed), with Jon Snow in between. I had seen the interview, and suggested the connection to Michael as we were waiting to go on. He made it work beautifully in his speech, with flashes of that mixture of learning and rhetorical power for which he is famous and will be remembered.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town29 September 1998

Last Friday afternoon Helen’s aunt Eva fell in her flat and broke her hip. She was taken into hospital, diagnosed, and operated on the next day. A large steel screw was put in. It was the NHS at its best; an expensive operation, promptly and skilfully performed by a team of experts, on an old woman with no money. She’s recovering in a ward high up in the new block of St Mary’s Hospital, with a splendid view south over the city.

New York23 November 1998

A long gap. It is a brilliant day in New York. For the second year running, I’m here for the International Emmy awards; our drama Blabber Mouth and Sticky Beak is nominated. I’ve been promoted; I’m now commissioning editor, English regions, in addition to my schools job. In my new role, I’m supposed to increase production for C4 in England outside the M25. I’ve got too much work, but I’m cheerful. On Friday one of our primary science programmes won the Ministry of Education prize at the Japan Prize: best programme for primary schools. Blabber Mouth and Sticky Beak won best children’s drama at the Australian Film Institute awards two Fridays before that.

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I tried to skate, on Central Park lake. It was a disaster. I just kept falling over, again and again. Around me, children nonchalantly sped by, chatting, performing elegant turns and tricks like skating backwards. Humiliating. I stuck at it for about two hours, but had to retire, bruised.

This afternoon I walked down the Hudson River shore from the end of 46th Street to the World Trade Centre. It was a perfect sunny afternoon, and mild like spring. They’re slowly creating a long thin park all the way from 59th Street to the Battery. It’ll be excellent when finished. At the moment, there are still great slabs of desolation where once were harbours.

New York24 November 1998

We won the Emmy. It was, once again, an exhilarating experience: a moment of intense joy and relief when you hear the first syllables of the name of your show! And briefly you’re famous. Photo-opportunities. People coming up to you in bars to shake your hand and touch the trophy. Andrew Bethell and Sandy Balfour, the producers, Julian Kemp, the director, and I partied until four. Mick Robertson was there too, and gallantly joined in, even though this year his Wise Up programme — which I’d also commissioned — hadn’t won. (He’d won the International Emmy for Best Children’s Programme for the previous three years running, which is I should think an unrepeatable feat, and he took defeat on the chin. But I could see he wanted a fourth, as I would have done.)

Spread Eagle, Camden Town30 November 1998

Eva’s recuperation, by contrast with the operation, has showed the NHS at its least impressive. From St Mary’s, she was moved to St Charles, off Ladbroke Grove. There she was placed in a ward with a dozen other very old, frail and sometimes mad women, and abandoned. She was minded rather than nursed. On Sunday afternoon, we arrived to find her shivering and ill. Helen recognised the familiar symptoms of her chronic chest infection. No, no, said the staff nurse, nothing wrong with her. Helen insisted, so the nurse called the doctor, who immediately diagnosed a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics.

It’s true that Eva can be rude and peremptory. I think she may have tried to order the nurses hither and yon, in her large voice and small English, and they had taken against her.

Helen has been wonderful all autumn, a model of commitment and loving concern, but the daily visits to the hospital, the boredom, the narrow round of actions and conversations, are taking their toll on her. Eva is now well enough to leave the hospital if we can find the right place for her to go, and we both think that a return to her flat is too dangerous. We have visited two residential homes so far, and Helen’s been told of a third. In the second that we visited, in Barnet, about half of the residents are Greek Cypriot. It’s run by a charming Indian man called Raj, who has learned a commendable amount of Greek. It would be fine, but it’s a long way from Camden Town, through the traffic, for frequent visits. The third house is at Finsbury Park; much closer.

KerfontaineNew Year's Day, 1 January 1999

The old year has run away in a mass of work and Christmas festivities. 10 days before Christmas, Eva went into the residential home at Finsbury Park. It’s only 10 minutes’ drive from our flat. Several of the residents are Cypriot (Greek or Turkish). Some of the staff are Cypriot. They’re nice to Eva, and the place is clean and comfortable, though not luxurious. It’s definitely the best solution for a 91-year-old who is no longer safe in her own flat. But it has caused Helen much organisational trouble and emotional turmoil. For the first time, she and I spent Christmas in our flat together, with Eva. We managed, although a moody and confused old woman who needs to go the toilet every half hour is a sobering companion. On Boxing Day morning, I went out to visit Paul and Vicki, and then Martina, and came back to find that Helen had had enough of Eva, who had just launched a verbal assault on her because of our decision to visit France for a few days over New Year, so we took Eva back to Finsbury Park. She seemed relieved to be there, though worried in case someone might have taken her room. We left her. (We heard yesterday that she had fallen in her room and bruised the side of her face, and was suffering from a chest infection again, so they had taken her to the Whittington Hospital, where she was comfortable.)

All of this has taken its toll on Helen, who became ill as we drove to Paris on the 27th. We had a good day there with Glenda and Julian Walton (who had flown over from Birmingham that morning), culminating in supper at Bofinger. But it was a sick woman I drove to Brittany on the 28th, in pouring rain most of the way, and we went straight to the doctor in Plouay. Traccheitis: antibiotics, throat syrup, paracetemol, go to bed. So she did, and stayed there for three days, eating little, sleeping a lot. She’s much better today, though still coughing.

It’s been a beautiful day, after the wild, gloomy weather of recent weeks. This morning as I drove to Plouay, the winter corn was brilliant green against the deep brown of the sodden fields. The little stream by the road as you enter the town was full, splashing round its curves, and a local mist hung a metre or two above it. At lunchtime you could say that the sun was warm on the cheek. I went for a walk this afternoon, following our stream, the Ruisseau du Saint Sauveur, up past three water mills in the space of about two kilometres. Yesterday’s technology. You can see the mill-races and the systems of sluices which force some water in a narrow, straightish line to the mill, while the rest takes its time and its own way through fields below. One mill is still working (though not today) but it uses electricity. At the other two, the wheel, made of stone with iron spokes, was leaning against the wall where it had been left years ago.

Kerfontaine4 January 1999

This afternoon I helped Albert cut and wash leeks: his champion production. Then Helen and I drove down to Guidel-Plages. The sea was a massive, gruesome sight after the strong winds of the last few days, great rollers following one another to shore, the water the colour of dull jade and the foam atop the waves a dirty white. But the astonishing sight, which I don’t recall ever seeing before, was in the constitution and accumulation of that foam. It was like the foam in an enormous washing machine, or on the top of a giant’s pint of Guinness; more air than water, so that it stuck against the rocks and sand dunes, and was blown in flecks and gobbets by the strong wind off the sea, and glued to the sides of walls. All the way along the beach I walked beside and through an ethereal bedroll of wriggling, shifting whipped foam. Walking through it provoked almost no wetness. And the strangest of all was that the waves made of this foam crashed silently on to the beach. The quantity and depth of the waves was such that in a normal sea you would hurry up the beach away from them, half excited, half scared. But here, though the usual sound of a wild winter sea was audible about 50 metres distant, you stood in a silent turbulence of accumulated airy waves, the air in which left them still standing once the force of each wave had passed.

Kerfontaine2 April 1999

And here we are again at Easter.

A list of things which the Government has done or is legislating for since coming to power, which I approve of and which wouldn’t have happened under a Conservative government.

  1. The introduction of a minimum wage. It started two days ago and will benefit about two million people, mainly women, immediately.
  2. The promise of legislation to give ramblers the right to roam over vast tracts of privately owned land.
  3. The granting of full UK passports to all the remaining overseas territories.
  4. The abolition of the voting and sitting rights of most of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
  5. The guarantee of an adequate minimum income, through the minimum wage and the tax systems, for families where at least one member is working.
  6. The guarantee of an adequate minimum income for pensioners.
  7. Devolved governments for Scotland and Wales.
  8. The extraordinary progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. (Still not quite there, and to be fair to John Major, he was moving in the right direction, much more slowly.)
  9. The bringing of grant-maintained schools back into a local education authority framework.
  10. The huge extra sums being spent on education and health.
  11. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English law.
  12. Independence for the Bank of England, and the establishment of a single Financial Services Agency.
  13. The abolition, from next April, of mortgage tax relief.
  14. Support for the principle of the UK adopting the euro.
  15. Abolition of GP fund-holding and its replacement by a fairer system.
  16. Signing the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, which will improve workers’ rights.
  17. Sorting out the disgusting scandal of the mis-selling of private pension schemes during the Thatcher years.
  18. Holding General Pinochet for as long as we have. Jack Straw still has to make a final decision.
  19. Jack Straw’s decision to hold the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, with all the revelations that has produced.
  20. Bringing the rights of part-time workers much closer to those of full-time workers.
  21. Making the age for consent for homosexual men the same as that for heterosexual people.
  22. Much greater financial support for the British film industry.
  23. John Prescott’s decision that the great majority of new house building will be in urban areas.
  24. The windfall tax on the privatised utilities, and the spending of it on a welfare-to-work scheme for the young and long-term unemployed. (I’m not sure yet how effective the scheme is proving, but it’s worth trying.)
  25. The agreement of a total ban, over the next few years, on tobacco advertising, including sponsorship, in the EU (despite the dreadful cock-up over Bernie Ecclestone’s gift to the Labour Party).

The reason I find myself making this list — a longer version of one I made when Labour was still in opposition — is that I’m continually in conversation with people ready to criticise the Blair government, ready to say it has sold out, that things aren’t much different from what they were under the Tories. I remain convinced that, perhaps prosaically and perhaps piecemeal, things are becoming different. If politics is the attempt to give organised reality to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason, Labour has made significant headway in that attempt. It’s not that I’m uncritical. Blair shouldn’t have given such glib and ready support to Clinton over the bombings in Sudan and Afghanistan last summer. I think Irvine is a liability. So is Mandelson, who I think will have to be sacked before long. When is the Freedom of Information Act coming? Why have we delayed banning fox hunting? But overall, the progress has been remarkable, and commentators too easily forget that governing is difficult. Organising a darts match or a one-day conference is difficult. Governing a country, even with a big parliamentary majority, must be fiendishly difficult.

NATO is currently engaged in a just but terrible war against Milosevic of Serbia, whose forces have committed dreadful atrocities against the Albanian people of Kosovo. Milosevic’s long-term aim is to remove all Albanians from Kosovo, either by killing them or forcing them into exile. NATO forces are bombing military targets in Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. Milosevic’s response has been to accelerate the terror in Kosovo. It is likely that his force has committed many massacres there in the last 10 days, to add to the dreadful record of the previous year. Bad weather has interrupted and slowed NATO’s bombing campaign. That has given the Serb forces an advantage in pursuing their work. The refugee crisis in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro is the largest seen in Europe since the Second World War. I hope and expect that NATO will eventually expel all Serb forces from Kosovo, whether by air attack alone or with an invasion on the ground, will allow the Albanian Kosovans to reclaim their houses, or the ruins of their houses, in security, and that Kosovo will become an independent state. It will probably be necessary for NATO, or perhaps the UN, to declare it an international protectorate first, and leave a sufficient force there to prevent further attack from Serbia. I think Montenegro may need to claim independence from Serbia too.

Critics of NATO’s action have pointed to equally awful situations in recent times — in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Chechnia, with the Kurds in Turkey — where those with the power to intervene have not used that power. To criticise the present action because of past failures to act seems to me an elementary failure of logic. Of course we should have intervened in Rwanda, and more effectively in Bosnia. It might have been just to intervene in Chechnia, but the danger of challenging an ex-superpower still in shaky possession of nuclear weapons made it impossible. As for the Kurds in Turkey, I don’t know. At least we have intervened to challenge Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds in Iraq. The point is that our failure sometimes in the past to act where we could and should have is not an argument against acting where we can and should now.

I’m sorry that the UN hasn’t explicitly authorised military action. I guess it couldn’t persuade Russia not to use its veto. But there have been numerous Security Council resolutions this year and last, 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…’ There is slowly coming into being an internationalist understanding that barbarity is not to be tolerated just because it occurs within the borders of a sovereign state. There are occasions, very rare occasions, on which international forces must intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in order to challenge barbarity and to reverse barbaric actions. This is one of them.

The main event in Helen’s and my personal lives since January, when I last wrote in this book, is her aunt Eva’s death. Eve died in her sleep, in a nursing home in Finsbury Park, on the evening of 20 February, between 9 and 10. At 9 she was sleeping. At 10 she was dead. We were in Marseille, staying with Mary and her beautiful new man Jacques, who have moved there from Viens, and we didn’t know until we got back to London the following evening.

Eva was at Oak Lodge only for about two months. She was reduced, mentally and physically, to a point where life no longer held pleasure for her, nor for Helen in her effort to keep contact with her. It was hard to know whether or not she recognised Helen and me when we visited. She half-sat, half-lay in a chair. She was taken to bed early every evening, and given a sleeping pill. We couldn’t tell whether she was suffering from dementia, or whether she had taken a deliberate decision, which she stubbornly adhered to, to withdraw from normal human communication, as a statement of helpless rage at the choices we had made on her behalf.

Helen was very upset for a few days after Eva’s death, but then broke through to the correct realisation that Eva had had a long life, and that most of it had been happy and effective. Helen had fully repaid to Eva, over many years, the care she received from her as a child and young person. Now Helen is freer than she has been for a long time. No more daily, sometimes hourly, phone calls. No need to visit three or four times a week. No longer the sense of obligation, of never being able to do enough to satisfy Eva’s need for attention, which occupied the last years. Eva’s death is the end of a long chapter in Helen’s life, and of quite a long one in mine.

Kerfontaine4 April 1999

The war in Kosovo makes slow progress. (But it hasn’t yet been going a fortnight; how strange that remark would have sounded in the Second World War.) The refugees continue to flood into neighbouring countries. Some NATO states are arranging to give the refugees temporary asylum, but all are anxious not to appear to be helping Milosevic solve the problem he has created. I get the impression that the attitudes of the Western leaders have hardened to the point where only a complete withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo will now do. The NATO countries cannot afford to allow NATO to fail. I think they will have to put in ground troops to protect the returning Albanians. Whether those ground troops will need to fight their way in, or whether they’ll go in once the air bombardment has shattered Serb resistance, is too early to tell. I just hope the leaders don’t end up doing some kind of deal with the bastard, as was done in Bosnia. Milosevic’s eventual plan, whose fulfilment may finally have been prevented by the events of the last ten days, has always been a greater Serbia, ethnically pure, and consisting of Serbia proper, Montenegro, part or all of Kosovo, and the Serb statelet in Bosnia which he was allowed under the Dayton peace accord. Lebensraum for the heroic Serb race. I fear that ordinary Serbs will be led to disaster by the ambitions of their leader, as were ordinary Germans sixty years ago.

Kerfontaine6 April 1999

Last Thursday night, in the queer old-fashioned Hôtel Meurice in Calais, there was this nice touch when we went back up to the room after dinner: instead of After Eight mints, some stanzas from a poem by Gautier on the dressing table.

Le Merle

Un oiseau siffle dans les branches
Et sautille gai, plein d’espoir,
Sur les herbes, de givre blanches,
En bottes jaunes, en frac noir.

C’est un merle, chanteur crédule,
Ignorant du calendrier,
Qui rêve soleil, et module
L’hymne d’avril en février…

Lustrant son aile qu’il essuie,
L’oiseau persiste en sa chanson:
Malgré neige, brouillard et pluie,
Il croit à la jeune saison…

Il gronde l’aube paresseuse
De rester au lit si longtemps
Et, gourmandant la fleur frileuse,
Met en demeure le printemps.

I thought I’d have a go at translating it.

The Blackbird

A bird is whistling in the branches,
Full of hope. He’s practising his scales.
And now on grass which hoar-front blanches
He hops in yellow boots, black tails.

This optimist with no concern for dates —
A blackbird in full throat.
He dreams of sun, and modulates
In February, April’s note.

His fluffed-out wing is glistening wet
As he carries his song, and insists
That the new-born season will overcome yet
Snow, rain, mists.

He pipes a rebuke to the wintry dawn
For sluggardly sleeping in
Then gobbles a shivering flower on the lawn
And gives notice for spring to begin.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town13 April 1999

The situation in Kosovo is awful. I fear that the massacre of Kosovans, overwhelmingly men, in the weeks since the NATO bombardment began, will be measured, when the truth is discovered, in hundreds of thousands. I think about 2,000 Kosovans were killed before that, from the time when Milosevic began his pogrom. I don’t doubt that we were right to challenge barbarism by force. If it turns out that Milosevic’s response to our action was to kill many times more people, more quickly, than he would have killed if we hadn’t intervened, we will be presented with the desperate truth that only immediate intervention on the ground, accepting many casualties on our side, would have stopped him straight away. Of course we shall stop him eventually, but in the meantime… Apart from that, a NATO bomber killed about 10 civilians by accident yesterday, trying to hit a bridge. The pilot had already triggered the mechanism to release his bomb on to the bridge when he saw that a train was approaching it. And today, bombing by one side or the other killed refugees (between 20 and 70) trying to reach Albania in carts. Serbia says it was NATO. NATO is tight-lipped this evening. It might have been the Serbs, or it might have been us by accident. It might have been that Serbia was putting the refugees deliberately close to a military convoy in the hope that NATO would kill them by accident, giving Serbia a big propaganda coup. We are in darkness in that part of Europe at the moment, though I think there will be a dramatic political solution of some kind when Milosevic has to give in. (An EU protectorate, guaranteed by NATO?)

Camden Town16 April 1999

As I feared three days ago, the refugees were killed by an American pilot who says he saw and fired at a military vehicle. Whether or not there was a military vehicle there too, the fact is that the missile hit a convoy of carts, and killed about 60 of the people we are trying to help. It is the worst moment, from NATO’s point of view, in the war so far. But the pilot’s own account of the devastation he saw before deciding to release the missile is an indication of the dreadful simplicity of Milosevic’s plan. His forces are simply burning all property belonging to Albanians in Kosovo, and killing, raping or expelling all the people. He wants to empty Kosovo of Albanians, so that he can then rebuild it and fill it with Serbs.

NATO will reverse this action. It is a matter of course that the most powerful military alliance in the world will have its way, given that there is no military opposition to it from outside Serbia, and given that the cause is just. But the longer we delay sending a ground force into Kosovo, and the longer the air bombardment is delayed by the cloudy weather, the worse will be the destruction and slaughter inflicted before Milosevic’s action can begin to be reversed.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town8 May 1999

On Friday morning I went to the funeral of Eddie Rosen, my friend Michael Rosen’s second son. Eddie died of meningitis at the age of 18. A dreadful event: fickle and brutal. There were at least 200 people there, and it was the most intense funeral I’ve been to. Very moving contributions — poems and reminiscences — from Eddie’s family and friends. A deep collective outpouring of grief. I haven’t seen Eddie since he was a baby, when we used to go to Michael and Susannah on Saturday evenings.

The funeral was at the City of London crematorium, and we went back to Michael’s home afterwards.

I said to Susannah that I remembered the baby, how he laughed all the time and how she had predicted, correctly, that he was going to be a joker. All the tributes said that he was a great wit. He left school (Haverstock) at 16, and went to work in stage crews at West End theatres. He was at Drury Lane when he died. He had written comedy scripts, which good judges said were truly funny, and that is perhaps what he would have gone on to do.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town10 May 1999

Kosovo continues in catastrophe. Milosevic’s forces continue to murder, rape and expel Albanians. NATO continues to bomb, and its targets have moved progressively away from the purely military to the civilian with some military significance. So they bombed the television station. They have bombed bridges and roads. And they continue, inevitably, to make dreadful errors from time to time. The other night they hit the Chinese embassy by accident, and killed three or four people. It was just about as bad a diplomatic blunder as they could have made. There have been big anti-British and anti-American demonstrations in China.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees are now in Macedonia, Albania and Croatia. A few tens of thousands have been flown to western European countries. Germany has taken the most. We’ve taken very few so far, though we say we’re willing to take more.

Milosevic is edging towards NATO’s demands, very slowly. He doesn’t seem to realise that NATO, for its own reasons, can’t afford to compromise. It will eject Serbian forces, it will put in an armed international force, and it will see that the refugees return to their homes. If it doesn’t achieve these things, the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world will be shown to be impotent. The only questions are: will a ground invasion, contested, be necessary, and when? Or will diplomacy and Milosevic’s weakness mean that forces will eventually go in unchallenged?

Camden Town15 May 1999

Another dreadful apparent blunder in Kosovo. NATO bombed a place which they said was a military command centre. Serbia said they’d bombed a village. 82 people have been killed. Journalists arriving on the scene could see no sign that this could have been a legitimate military target. So the two versions are incompatible. After the bombing of the Chinese embassy, when NATO eventually admitted that they’d used an out-of-date map, the inclination to believe NATO’s version is weaker. Mary Robinson, the UN’s human rights commissioner, yesterday hit exactly the right note when she said that the NATO campaign had lost its moral focus. Too many mistakes. Too much blurring of military and civilian targets. She didn’t fail to put the major blame for the tragedy where it belongs — with Milosevic. But we’re in a grim period at the moment, where innocents are being slaughtered by both sides, and NATO’s promised outcomes are not in sight.

The Western European Union merged with the EU last week. Nobody much noticed. But it was significant, in that there now exists the European pillar of what could become the worldwide network of defence and security alliances about which I’ve sometimes written before. At its best, these alliances, some time well into the next century, could act decisively against tyranny of the sort we’ve seen in Iraq, in Rwanda, in East Timor, in Kosovo; equally important, the existence of the alliances could mean that potential tyrants would realise that they were not free to commit atrocities, without fear of punishment, just because they ruled a sovereign state.

Yesterday was my brother Mark’s wedding to his new wife Gill. The service, in a church in Bristol called The Ark, was charismatic, with a rock band. The congregation greeted the announcement that the couple were man and wife with prolonged applause and the letting off of exploding streamers. The band played When I’m 64 as the couple walked out. The reception was held in a girls’ private school near the Severn. We had provided the champagne, and had stowed 46 bottles in the fridge there the night before. When we arrived at the school after the wedding, the fridge turned out to not have been working. A large quantity of champagne was at the temperature of the warm spring day. On realising the trouble, we jammed the bottles into a chest freezer, which was working, and they were cold enough after 90 minutes. Thereafter, they had their effect, adding to the existing general atmosphere of charisma. There was a good band, and Helen and I jived all evening. Drove back to London on an empty motorway. Home about 1.30.

Camden Town26 May 1999

The Kosovo war has got to the stage where the Serbs are almost beaten as a military force, but NATO either can’t quite agree what to do next, or they’re keeping their intentions a secret under cover of apparent irresolution. Milosevic was today indicted as a war criminal by the UN. That’s significant. I think it must mean that Kosovo could never return to his governance. So either he must go or Kosovo must be severed from Yugoslavia, or both. Good. But the refugee crisis in the neighbouring states is very grave. There are great tented cities on the plains of both countries: lines and lines of stout canvas dwellings. Well organised. The people queue for food patiently, expecting to be served. They are served. Macedonia and Albania, poor countries both, have coped heroically overall, whatever local difficulties and anger there have been. It amazes me really that there has been no rioting by resentful local people.

Camden Town10 June 1999

The war in Kosovo may well have ended. The Serbs eventually signed an agreement under which their forces will withdraw to Serbia, and an international UN-approved force will move into Kosovo in order to protect returning refugees. There will then be a huge task of reconstruction. No doubt evidence of dreadful acts committed by the Serbs during the 11 weeks of the air war will be discovered. But the strategy has been successful. The answer to the question I asked on 11 May — whether ground forces will go in unchallenged — is: they will. So, though it was a tragedy that we had to go to war and though we killed some innocents accidentally in the war, we did insist that barbarism would not prevail in Europe. I hope it’s the last time in my lifetime that anyone tries it on our continent. And I hope the action sets a precedent which international organisations will follow increasingly. The fact that a state is sovereign should give no protection to those wishing to commit barbarism within that state.

Camden Town22 June 1999

All Serbian forces have now left Kosovo, and the war is officially over. Large teams of investigators are now studying the evidence of a rampage of evil, in which some Serbs killed, mutilated, wounded, raped, robbed, terrorised and expelled many Albanian Kosovans. The dreadful truth seems to be that the pace and intensity of the violence increased once the air war began. Current estimates are of about 10,000 murders, far fewer than I had feared. But it is the case that because of the air war, more Albanians have suffered during the period of the war than would have been the case if we hadn’t bombed. But if we hadn’t intervened, Milosevic would certainly have gone on to commit full-scale genocide against an entire people. It’s a cold calculation, but we have drawn a line.

Sheffield to London train24 June 1999

It’s a perfect afternoon of early summer. The English countryside is lovely: fully in bloom, but young yet. From time to time, breathtaking quantities of poppies stain whole fields red. A simple, explicit thought occurred to me as I was coming up to Sheffield this morning, and I realise now that it's a thought I’ve been half-having all my life, but was always reluctant to say absolutely explicitly to myself. Most new (post-1900) building in this country is ugly. An assault on the landscape. Mostly, we build shelters as economically as possible, no matter what they look like. There are exceptions, thank God, but that’s not the point. The point is that the mass-produced building of this closing century, better of course in terms of comfort and amenity than any previous building for the common people, lacks charm. Somehow, it’s a relief to say that, like getting bad news out into the open. Britain industrialised first, has a large population on a small island, has a more liberal (in the market-versus-state sense) political system than do some other European countries, notably France. The result: much ugliness. In addition, and less tangibly, I wonder whether our builders and their workers, and the planners and committees standing behind them, have less of a sense of the comely than do their equivalents in other countries. Something in our culture and history, whatever our genius in other fields, equips us ill for the simple, central task of building shelters for the people which please the eye as well as keep the occupants warm and dry.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town18 July 1999

We’re in the midst of a spell of lovely hot weather. Helen and I spent the weekend in Suffolk with Peter Adams, as ever about this time of year. On Saturday afternoon we walked out along the salt marshes from Orford: the sun bright, the breeze strong and invigorating. Joyful. A good deal of the newer building in Framlingham, Aldeburgh, Southwold and the villages around there is fine, contradicting my gloomy pronouncement in the previous entry. I felt consoled. And of course the older building is wonderful. I shouldn’t forget that the older building which survives is, for the most part, the better building for richer people. The hovels have gone. Perhaps I would have felt the same about the hovels, if I had been travelling on a train in the 19th century, as I feel about the 20th-century housing estates now.

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente16 August 1999

13 days into my holiday, and I’m feeling properly détendu. We’ve come down from Brittany to the Charente to stay with Stephen and Theresa, as we did two years ago. A perfect sense of summer calm, of being in the midst of rest. Last year’s work has dipped below the horizon. Next year’s has not yet appeared. (See how, for me, ‘year’ still means school year more than calendar year.) Today we went to Brantôme, a beautiful town in the Dordogne, encircled by the River Dronne. We lunched very well on the terrace of the Hôtel Chabrol, overlooking the river. I’ve just swum in the Dronne at Aubeterre, as I did two years ago. A cool green river, at evening. A kingfisher accompanied me all the way.

In front of me, the neighbour’s scruffy farmyard contains an astonishing profusion of poultry: hens in great variety, and an equal diversity of ducks, including the extraordinary Muscovy. All day they circulate around the shambolic outbuildings and rusting machinery, pecking, following each other in lines, fighting, fucking. Yesterday evening, drinking a Pimms and waiting to go out to dinner, I watched as several of the hens took lumps of flesh off a dead rat: not necessarily what the consumer has in mind when choosing free-range eggs in the supermarket.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town3 September 1999

The last days of the holiday brought the dreadful news that Ros Moger has died. She was a lovely person, one of our circle of ex-ILEA English teachers, a comrade. She was with her lover, Martin Buck, in Australia, and they stayed a few days with Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor in Perth before flying back home.

Bronwyn and Stephen saw them off at the airport. On the flight, I think about four hours from London, Ros suffered a coronary embolism, and died within a few minutes. Martin sat next to her body laid out along the back row of seats for the rest of the flight.

It is a truly dreadful event. Those long-haul 747s sum up everything democratic but banal about the modern world. The idea of your loved one dying, in front of you, while people fiddle with their in-flight entertainment systems or struggle to eat meals off plastic trays, is heart-breaking. Martin and Ros only met three or four years ago. For many years, while the rest of us had chosen our partners and settled down, Ros lived alone. She was tall, auburn-haired, beautiful, but she never met anybody she wanted to be with, so far as I know, until she met Martin. So they were only together briefly, and were very happy. Bronwyn said on the phone today that Ros had been radiant: in love, at the end of a good holiday, looking forward to what she would do when she got back. She would have been 50 in October, and was planning her birthday party. She came from a Wiltshire farming family, and was buried last Tuesday in the village churchyard, next to her father. Her mother survives her.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town12 September 1999

For the second time in the year, an international military force is being assembled in order to intervene in a country to put a stop to dreadful violations of human rights. This time it’s in East Timor, which voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a UN referendum the other week. After that vote, militias opposed to independence, organised, encouraged, aided or connived at by the Indonesian military, committed atrocities against the civilian population. (The Indonesian military has been a big purchaser of arms from Britain in recent years. Since Labour came to power, we’ve reduced the supply significantly, but not comprehensively, as we should have done.) It’s another example of the arrogant assumption of military men that they can do what they like in their own country. There’s a slow awakening, around the world, that there are international coalitions which will put their weight in the balance against that assumption. Despite the horrors, events in both Kosovo and East Timor have optimistic implications. Only three and four months ago, some opposed to intervention in Kosovo were saying, ‘Why don’t they intervene in East Timor?’ Well, now it looks as though ‘they’ will.

There was an excellent long piece in The Guardian on Saturday by Edward Said, about Israel and Palestine. Said is 64 years old now, one of the West’s finest progressive intellectuals, struggling against leukaemia. I hadn’t realised how strongly he opposes the Oslo and Wye River peace accords. I was struck by the position he has now come to, which I have thought myself, that the only just answer in Israel and Palestine is a unified, secular, multi-confessional state in which Jews, Arabs and Christians live together across the whole area of present-day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Currently, we have apartheid and the prospect of an absurd misshapen Palestinian state: two lumps of territory joined only by a motorway. But I fear that the just answer is beyond hope, at least for many years, and that the compromise which Said rejects is the only step forward available.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town25 September 1999

Sunday evening, five to nine. Yesterday afternoon, we drove up to north Essex to stay with Alex McLeod and his partner Richard Beckley. Alex and Richard have been together now for 11 years. Richard has had a cottage near Finchingfield since 1962. It’s a corner of East Anglia I’ve never visited before, except that I went to Saffron Walden a few times when I was at Cambridge. Remote, open countryside, with the big East Anglian skies, but gently rolling too — the only bit of East Anglia that rolls. Alex and Richard are both in their 70s, and frailer than they were. Richard had a heart operation two years ago, and his sight is very poor. Alex doesn’t see well either, and has Parkinson’s Disease in its early stages. So they both live with bodies which are failing. I said to Helen as we drove up that the two physical attributes for which I am most grateful are a good strong bladder and excellent eyesight. I see people all around me now, including my own parents, facing old age and its woes. It induces in me a fervent gratitude that I’m in mid-life, still good-looking, and as fit as a fiddle.

Douglas, Isle of Man8 October 1999

I’m in the Isle of Man to look at the shooting of our film of Cinderella. Leslie Phillips is in the film, playing the aged retainer in the house which the step-mother invades. He was on the same plane coming over, and I went and said hello to him while we were waiting for our baggage at the airport. I took him out to dinner that evening. We had a great chat; he was charming. I thought how funny it was that I should be buying dinner and champagne for a man who had brought me such mirth as a child when I’d heard him on The Navy Lark all those years ago.

Last Tuesday, there was a rail accident at Ladbroke Grove, two miles outside Paddington. Two trains collided, because an outgoing stopping train to Wiltshire had crossed a signal at red and was travelling at 30 miles an hour down the line on which an express from Cheltenham was approaching Paddington at 70 miles an hour. At that moment I was driving along the elevated bit of the A40 on my way to Alperton to get the car serviced. A thick column of black smoke suddenly shot into the beautiful clear blue air about two miles away. I thought it must be an explosion at a factory. It was the diesel oil catching fire. It burnt at such a temperature (I read 1000 or 1200 degrees) that it reduced everyone and everything in one carriage to ash. Other carriages on both trains were also destroyed.

After wildly fluctuating estimates of the number of people dead, with some speculating that it may be as high as 170, it now looks as if the death toll will be about 40. Many others are injured, some critically, and some will be maimed for the rest of their lives. It will be impossible to identify the remains of many of the dead.

The event has had a traumatic effect on the nation. Most immediately, it has caused the public to resent the private, profit-making companies which run the rail system. The public always hated the privatisation of British Rail, but John Major’s government forced it through, and Labour decided it would be too expensive and time-consuming to reverse it. The national mood now is such that the most popular thing the government could do would be to announce the re-nationalisation of the railway. It finds itself with a big problem over its proposal to let Railtrack, which runs the railway track, signals and stations, take over several lines on the London Underground. It has a similar problem with its proposal to sell 51% of the air traffic control system to private owners.

Of the many poignant images and stories which have been seen and reported in the last few days, the most touching for me was one which I suppose will become a commonplace when these dreadful events occur, now that mobile phones are in widespread use. In the broken carriages — not, I presume, the incinerated carriage, but the others where the dead lay — all that could be heard, once the rescue services had given up hope of finding anyone else alive, was the warbling of telephones as friends and families hopelessly called people who would no longer press the green button and say ‘Hello?’.

This afternoon we’ve been up on a moor, shooting a scene which will be the last in the film. The wicked step-mother and her daughters, having been found out and banished, are seen walking away from the camera up a long track. Halfway along the track, as a final indignity, the step-mother breaks the heel on one of her high-heeled shoes. She takes it off, examines it, says, ‘Damn, I’ve broken a heel’, puts the shoe back on, and limps off up the track, supported by her daughters, one on either side.

It was freezing cold on the moor, with a strong wind. Kathleen Turner, who plays the step-mother, arrived after lunch in her cream Mercedes, its wheels slipping on the wet ground and its undercarriage scraping on the bumps. She will I think be wonderful in the finished film, but she has all the faults of which stars are often guilty, including a bloated ego and a short temper. She has given Beeban Kidron, the director, and Trevor Eve, the producer, a hard time. I’m told that she is also inclined to have a few drinks with lunch.

The scene took a long time to set up, and then we had to wait until the light was right. At last, Beeban shouted ‘Action!’ Off the three of them went. The heel of the doctored shoe obediently broke. Kathleen took the shoe off and examined it, said the line, put the shoe back on, and stumbled further up the track between Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge. I think, but I don’t know, that Beeban had decided to take a little revenge on her spoilt star, because the take just went on and on and on. The wind was howling, and the three actors must have limped two hundred yards uphill away from us while the camera turned over. After what seemed an outrageous length of time, Beeban yelled ‘Cut!’ into the wind. Kathleen turned round immediately and yelled back, ‘Was that supposed to be some kind of a fucking joke?’ I was standing next to the sound man, a Mancunian who’d been in the business for 30 years, a real pro. He said, ‘She shouldn’t a’ joined if she couldn’t take a joke.’

Spread Eagle, Camden Town23 January 2000

A long time since I last wrote. On 1 November I took over from Paul Ashton as commissioning editor for schools programmes. Paul has moved sideways and now has responsibility for a number of big special projects, particularly in the rapidly growing area of digital media on the internet.

The seven weeks leading up to Christmas were the busiest of my working life so far. Cinderella was eventually broadcast on 1 January. I think it’s a beautiful piece of work. But the production seriously overspent in the autumn and the film had to be taken over by the bond company which had underwritten it. So it brought high stress with it right up to 17 December, when I took the finished tape from Trevor Eve in a rainy street in Soho, and personally delivered it to C4.

On Christmas Eve we drove to Paris, arriving about 11 in the evening. We spent a week there with Bronwyn and Stephen, in a capacious flat at 69 Boulevard de Courcelles, 8th arrondisement, near the Arc de Triomphe. They’ve swapped their house in Perth with the owners of the flat. We had a great time. I thought how very stylish it would be to be a resident of Paris. It’s a serious possibility for retirement. Everything is so available, and so well organised. Right opposite us was a branch of Hédiard, the posh épicerie fine. Down the street is a branch of Nicolas. Five minutes’ walk away there is a wonderful street market just off the Avenue des Ternes, with everything you could desire by the way of meat, fish, fruits de mer, vegetables and fruit. Numerous excellent bakers. Numerous wonderful florists. Splendid restaurants at all prices. The Parc Monceau 300 metres away. The Métro 100 metres away. The pleasure of being in Paris in a flat is quite different from that of being there in a hotel. You feel less of a tourist.

On 31 December, we went to Verdi’s Falstaff at the Bastille Opéra. Lots of fun, beautifully sung in that magnificent house. Then we took the Métro, packed with New Year/New Millennium revellers, up to Argentine, and walked by small roads round to the Trocadéro, where we found a perfect position gazing straight across the river at the Eiffel Tower, between the two parts of the Palais Chaillot. A friendly crowd of all generations waited in the mild dry night. At two minutes to midnight there began a firework display on the Eiffel Tower, the like of which I have never seen before and don’t expect to see again. Starting at the bottom, moving slowly up the tower, the display was of an accumulating scope and brilliance which sent the crowd into rapture. It lasted for about 12 minutes, and when it was over there was a moment of childish wonderment felt by everyone. Then four women of our age turned and embraced us, wishing us Bonne année, bonne santé! Everyone around was embracing. We made our way home through the back streets, replying Bonne année! to people calling down to us from the balconies. We consumed a supper of champagne, foie gras and smoked salmon, and went to bed about three.

The next day we said goodbye to Bronwyn and Stephen, and drove to Kerfontaine, where for another week we enjoyed the delights of that place in winter: log fires, and much civilian reading, as Harold Rosen likes to call it. I read the magnificent and dreadful Stalingrad, by Antony Beevor, and then finished ’Tis, Frank McCourt’s sequel to Angela’s Ashes, which isn’t as good as his first book.

Two catastrophic storms hit France while we were in Paris. The first, on Boxing Day, caused devastation along a swathe of the country from the Normandy coast across to Lorraine and into Germany. It passed through Paris at about seven in the morning. The second, two days later, struck the coast of France further south, in the Charente Maritime, and did equivalent damage roaring inland at that latitude. About 70 people died in the two storms. Millions of trees have been destroyed.

Kerfontaine was fortunate. It was at the southern edge of the first storm and the northern edge of the second. Only one tree was blown down, a four-trunked birch in the wood, which had already been blown down once, a year ago, and then had been blown back up again when a strong wind blew the other way. The tree has no deep roots, and is easily swayed, like certain persons I know. This time it will have to be chopped up.

Brittany has suffered a great catastrophe, however, in the pollution of its beaches by the fuel oil escaping from the wrecked tanker Erika. We lunched at Guidel-Plages on the first Thursday of the New Year, and Madame Cadieu told us how impressive had been the volunteer effort, co-ordinated by the local police and fire brigade, to clean up the Guidel beaches the week before. We walked on the beaches after lunch. There was one dead cormorant, covered in oil, and some dead starfish and sea anemones, but the sand was clean. There were stains of oil on all the rocks, which will have to be scrubbed off with detergent. That evening, however, watching the television news at Albert’s, we saw what it was like at a beach near La Baule, and what it had been like at Guidel and Fort Bloqué: a thick sticky carpet of oil, about eight inches thick, being pulled off the sand and dumped in lumps into trailers towed by tractors. Disgusting, and brought about by the desire of the rich oil companies, in this case Total/Elf/Fina, to save money by shipping its oil in old ships, flying flags of convenience, with poorly paid, non-unionised, non-European crews. The Erika didn’t collide with anything. It simply broke up in a rough sea because it was no longer seaworthy. The loss of life amongst seabirds has been the worst to have resulted from an oil spill since this scourge of the modern world began.

The extreme global fuss over the new millennium is all nonsense, because the new millennium won’t start until 1 January 2001. Hardy’s great poem The Darkling Thrush, dated 31 December 1900 and referring to ‘the Century’s corpse outleant’, had it right.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town9 February 2000

Paul’s birthday today. We lunched at L’Aubergine in Fulham — George, Stephanie, Sarah, Paul and me. Beautiful food and a nice big quiet table in the corner.

There’s been an interesting political development. Labour has lost a no-confidence vote in the Welsh Assembly, and Alun Michael has resigned as First Minister there. Rhodri Morgan, the man whom Labour’s high command prevented from becoming First Minister last year, will replace Michael. An educative jolt for Blair, I hope. You can’t control everything, and if you try to do so, people will take their revenge somehow. Labour refused to enter into a coalition in Wales either with the Liberals or with Plaid Cymru, and so were vulnerable. The fact that they didn’t get a commanding overall majority in the first place, so that they had even to contemplate a coalition or minority administration in a country where they are overwhelmingly the strongest party, was the result of the wrong choice of leader. They’re in a much weaker position there than they needed to be. But I don’t think it’ll hurt them in the long term, because with a more popular leader, and with the electorate seeing that overweening power has been taught a lesson, Labour’s natural popularity in Wales should reassert itself.

Unfortunately, it’s been the same story in London. Blair was so determined not to have Ken Livingstone as the first executive mayor of London that he made poor Frank Dobson stand against Livingstone in the contest for the Labour nomination. Frank narrowly won the nomination, and then resigned as Secretary of State for Health. I presume Blair forced him to. At this point Livingstone left the Labour Party and stood for election as an independent. I voted to nominate Frank because I know and admire him — he’s our local MP — and I think he would make the better mayor. I don’t think Livingstone, whatever his achievements at the GLC, is a collegiate politician. At the moment the polls say that it’s neck and neck between Dobson and Livingstone, but I think Livingstone will win handsomely. His campaign has been highly effective — articulate, well-judged — and Frank’s has been inept, as if he couldn’t say what he wanted to say. If he loses, he will have given up being a cabinet minister, for what? The back benches until the next election, and then the House of Lords? What a waste. You’re allowed two votes in this mayoral election, so I shall vote for Frank first, Ken second.

I was in Dublin for two days last week. We’re putting £800,000 into a magnificent project: filming all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s stage plays. RTE is putting in about £1 million, and the production company needs to find about another £2 million yet. Going forward in hope, they’ve already started filming. They’ve done What Where and Endgame. I met Michael Gambon and David Thewlis, who are Hamm and Clov in Endgame, and Conor McPherson, who directs it. He wrote The Weir, which I saw in London about a year ago. I told him it was one of the best experiences I’d had in the theatre in recent years. ‘Cheers,’ he said. He’s 28. Anyway, I’m looking after the project editorially for C4, and proud to be doing it.

Northern Ireland is very dicey at the moment. The IRA hasn’t handed in any weapons. The Unionists will not continue in the Assembly unless the IRA makes at least a gesture. Sinn Fein and the IRA say there was no requirement in the Good Friday agreement to hand over weapons, at least until May, and that the Unionists have created the crisis by imposing a unilateral ultimatum. David Trimble, on the other hand, would never have got his party to agree to take part in the Assembly without the safeguard of the ultimatum. So there’s a stand-off. Westminster will suspend the Assembly on Friday unless there’s some handing in of weapons, because it would rather the whole Assembly be suspended than that the Unionists resign from it. That way, there would be some stumbling progress towards decommissioning, and the Assembly could resume later. So runs the (only relatively) optimistic projection. The other way is back to darkness.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town29 February 2000

On the bus going to work today, I read a small piece in The Financial Times saying there was a worry that there might be a world-wide computer crash on this day. There had been an equivalent worry when the year 2000 started, since 1 January 2000 was the first day since the invention of computers when the year hadn’t begun with a 1. In the event, there had been no problem. Today, leap year day, they were worried because it was exceptional to have a leap year when the year ended with 00.

The article stirred a memory in me of something I had learned in primary school but hadn’t thought about since. Years ending in 00 are not leap years, even though they are divisible by 4. So why was today the 29th February?

When I got to work, I went into Paul’s office and put the problem to him. He is far in advance of me in the use of the internet (for one thing, he hath children), and within 10 minutes all was explained. We had printed out the Papal Bull, together with modern translations from the Latin into French and English, which required ‘all Christian kings and princes’ in Europe to introduce the Gregorian calendar as from autumn 1582, or as soon as possible thereafter. The Bull specified the 10 days to be lost from 1582, and the arrangements for the remembering of saints who would normally have been celebrated on those days. Most wonderfully, there was a precise instruction about years in the future ending in 00. Three in every four of these would henceforward not be leap years, but 1600, 2000, 2400 and so on would be. 29 February 2000, today, was actually named in the Bull. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the genius of the astronomers who had made so precise a calculation, and for the power of this new technology which had brought such an arcane and satisfying piece of information to us so speedily and effortlessly.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town6 March 2000

I went back to the internet today because last week’s revelations about leap years in the Gregorian calendar had stirred another primary-school memory: that of English people, a long time ago, marching and shouting, ‘Give us back our 11 days!’ I was immediately offered an embarrass de richesse of articles describing how, in 1752, people in London and several other English towns had taken to the streets in protest at what they thought was a shortening of their lives. In 1582, Protestant England had not been about to take orders from the Bishop of Rome, and so had carried on for another 170 years on the old Julian calendar. By the time the English government bowed to the mathematically inevitable, the problem of the distancing of the solar year from the calendar year had got worse, so that 11 days had to be taken out of the calendar instead of 10.

The thought strikes me that English people’s habitual suspicion of ‘Europe’ now has taken the place of our hatred of the Pope four hundred years ago.

Kerfontaine16 April 2000

It’s the week before Easter. The proper April in Brittany — sunshine and showers.

Last Friday I had one of the experiences of my life, in the course of the Beckett project. They 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 Friday 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 re-shooting, 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 Gielgud 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. 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.

My great aunt Margaret broke her hip on her 86th birthday, 28 March. She was coming downstairs at about 7.00am as usual, to make tea, and she slipped on the third step from the bottom. Fortunately, mum and dad were staying, intending to help her celebrate her birthday, so they got her into the ambulance and to hospital with less distress than if she had been alone apart from my aunt Evelyn, who suffers from advanced multiple sclerosis and was waiting in bed for the carer to arrive.

Margaret had nearly a fortnight in hospital. I went down to see her one afternoon. She was as talkative as ever, with her usual lengthy retrospective grip on history, of the sort which regards the early 19th century as a few days ago. There was only one moment when I thought I detected a slight chink in the mental armour. We were in a familiar passage of conversation where she describes Ann Boleyn being courted by Henry the Eighth at Hever — ‘Of course, it was just a farm in those days’ — (I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not). She likes to connect Ann Boleyn with a person called Dorothy Bullen, whom she met about 30 years ago, who lived at Hever, and who had said in response to Margaret’s enquiry that she was indeed a relation. So when Margaret said, ‘And Henry used to like going down to Hever because there was a girl there he’d taken a fancy to,’ and I said, on cue, ‘That was Ann Boleyn, wasn’t it?’ she said, to my surprise, ‘I don’t know. It was some time ago.’

But she recovered herself and told me, as if for the first time, how her grandfather (born 1836, in the reign of William the Fourth, died 1930, and well remembered by her) used to tell her that his father (perhaps born about 1810?) used to tell him how, when he was a child, his father (perhaps born about 1785?), who was on the outdoor staff at Hever Castle, once brought home an orange, grown in the greenhouse at Hever and generously given to him by the head gardener, and how Margaret’s grandfather’s father’s father had rolled the orange the length of the little cottage where they lived, into the hands of his astonished son, who was playing on the floor.

Royal York Hotel, Toronto14 May 2000

At a conference. I’m in the bar of the Royal York Hotel: old-fashioned and comfortable. It’s 9.40 in the evening, and I’ve been writing solidly since 7.45 this morning. I’ve done a long talk to be delivered personally here tomorrow afternoon, and a shorter one to be delivered on my behalf in London tomorrow morning, which I’ve just sent over by fax. I don’t do as much uninterrupted discursive writing as I used to, and I must say it’s invigorating to remind myself I can still do it, still go through the travails and come out the other side saying to myself, ‘Hmm, you’re not a bad writer.’ You experience wretchedness when you lose your way for an hour, and have to double back and see where you went wrong (in my case it’s usually because I get too fancy in the argument). Then there’s the wonderful feeling of achievement and pride when you know you’re on the home straight.

This bar boasts that it has the best martinis in the city. I’m halfway down a classic gin and vermouth straight up with a twist of lemon, and it’s certainly the genuine article.

Cannes20 May 2000

As soon as I got back from Toronto, Helen and I came to Cannes for the Film Festival. One of the Beckett films, Not I, directed by Neil Jordan and performed by Julianne Moore, was in competition in the Directors’ Fortnight. That evening we were in a little village above Cannes, where Not I was being shown to a local audience before a longer, more conventional narrative film. The audience didn’t get it. Most of them had probably never heard of Beckett. They were completely perplexed by the repetitive, incantatory monologue, in English with French sub-titles. After about 10 minutes they began to laugh and then to whistle. By the end of the film, Julianne Moore’s words were being drowned by a continuous barrage of hoots and jeers of derision.

I had been told by someone working at the Film Festival to be ready, as the representative of the Beckett project at this screening, to answer questions at the end of the film. Luckily for me, the organisation had failed to provide anyone to act as host for the evening, so there was no-one to call me on to the stage. We left the cinema before the main feature, and went and had dinner across the road. I felt proprietorial and hurt.

We had a wonderful time for the next two days in Cannes. Not I didn’t win the Directors’ Fortnight. I think both play and film are masterpieces.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town1 September 2000

Last Sunday, Paul and I watched the fourth day of the last Test between England and West Indies, from the C4 box at The Oval. This was a wonderful day, in which Atherton completed a long, watchful century against the best that Walsh and Ambrose could pitch to him, and in which we later saw those two great bowlers, arms across each other’s shoulders, leaving an English cricket field, as bowlers, for the last time. Atherton’s century set up the England win which came the next day, and which completed a truly wonderful series. The bowlers had predominated, for two Tests were won within three days and one within two, but it was tremendously exciting and played in the right spirit. When Ambrose and then Walsh came to the wicket on the Monday afternoon, as batsmen, with the West Indies position hopeless, the England team stood as a guard of honour and applauded them. It was a moving and heartening sight, for it showed that sport can still be played at the highest level of competitiveness and skill, without loss of respect for the opponent.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town14 October 2000

The last fortnight has seen dreadful blood-letting in Israel and the Palestinian lands. About 100 people have died, of whom nine tenths have been Palestinians. The peace process has halted. It is mainly Israel’s fault. I see no end to the conflict, as long as the Israeli government continues to operate apartheid policies in Gaza and the West Bank, and within Israel itself. The only immediate solution being considered is for the creation of a wretched divided Palestinian state, joined by motorway flyovers and corridors, with privileged reserves for the Jewish settlers on the most favoured parts of the West Bank. Neither side can contemplate compromise on the status of east Jerusalem. Arafat is corrupt, and his grip on power seems frailer by the day. The only long-term solution I can see, as I’ve written before, is one which I quite understand is not within the scope of real politics: to have a unified secular state, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians have equal rights, guaranteed by the state’s constitution, and whose boundaries would include Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and all of Jerusalem. Give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Stay out of Lebanon for ever. Invite the Palestinian diaspora to return, or pay them out of international funds to begin new permanent lives in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt or any other country they wish to go to. Guarantee rights of religious observance for all three faiths in Jerusalem and impose obligations on them to respect the observances of the other faiths.

It’s a pipe dream, I know. The cruellest political lesson of my lifetime is that of the agony brought about when religious difference and social injustice combine. That the Jews in Israel should be systematically promoting social injustice in a context of religious difference, in their own interest as they foolishly imagine, is the most dreadful of ironies after the Holocaust, even though the scale of their oppression of the Palestinians is only a tiny fraction of that which the Jewish people suffered in the Holocaust.

When you look back hundreds and thousands of years in that part of the world, what do you see? You see ethnically similar tribes of people inhabiting a parallelogram of land, and you see three of the world’s great religions emerging from that land. The three religions are all monotheistic, and have much else in common too, good and bad. And you see blood. As the wise and moderate Israeli justice minister said on the radio the other night: ‘In the end, we and the Palestinians have no option but to be neighbours.’ But the end is nowhere in sight.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town27 October 2000

This week on the morning bus I sat behind a young couple. They talked quietly and stroked each other. He got off at Cambridge Circus and looked up at her from the pavement, in the incessant rain, the bus standing at red lights, with such a clear smile of hope and love. And she smiled down. Then he crossed the road and began to walk up by the Palace Theatre, and turned round and smiled again and waved. The bus was still stationary in a traffic jam. She waved back with a little, shy movement of the hand, and then the bus moved off, and she settled into the seat, more room now, and turned her head away from him, looking east up Shaftesbury Avenue, and smiled an (as she thought) secret smile.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town30 October 2000

Last night England and Wales experienced their worst weather since the 1987 hurricane. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as ’87 had been in the areas where that hurricane struck. But the effect last night was over a wider area. Tonight’s Channel 4 News took it for granted that extreme weather of this kind, occurring more and more frequently as it does, is the result of global warming. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, said so on the programme. It will need a few more serious shocks — catastrophes which will kill people, bring industrial societies to a halt, cost billions of pounds — to turn the tide of apathetic, individualistic public opinion towards support of strong international intervention to save the planet.

During September, there was a blockade of oil refineries, ostensibly by farmers and hauliers protesting about the high price of fuel. The blockade almost paralysed the country within days. Some of the farmers have genuine grievances about the poverty pay they now get for their work. Their woes stem from the grotesque effects of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and from the BSE crisis, not from the price of diesel. The hauliers have a market problem, again not caused by government taxes: there are too many of them, so the price they can command for their labour has been diminishing. The protest was a new kind of direct action (new in this country — common enough in France), co-ordinated by mobile phones, and showed itself far more effective than constitutional dissent. A large section of public opinion supported the protest. Parliament, of course, was on holiday. And the most depressing thing was that Labour’s previously large, durable lead over the Conservatives disappeared overnight. Labour has since recovered a little, but the lead they’ve had since the last election will not, I think, be restored before the next.

Governing is difficult. The electorate is stupid and self-interested; at least, an electorally significant section of the electorate is. The government did exactly the right thing. It said it would not be held to ransom by direct action of this kind by an unrepresentative minority. It suffered a huge loss of popularity as a result. The protestors announced, as they called off their blockade following negotiations with officials of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, that they would resume it after 60 days if there were not a cut in fuel duty within that time. The 60 days will expire in about a fortnight. Next week, Gordon Brown will make his autumn financial statement. An armed forces minister announced today that the government is training soldiers to drive oil tankers. We may be in for a ‘Who governs Britain?’ stand-off. Will the Chancellor make concessions to those who want cheaper fuel, to buy peace and to prevent further loss of popularity? Or will he reflect that, unless we restrain our childish desire to burn the earth’s fossil fuels as fast as possible, we may be bringing upon ourselves disasters which will make a few days of queuing at petrol stations look like a trivial inconvenience?

I strongly suspect that, mixed in with farmers and hauliers whose feelings, however self-interested, were sincere, there were present in the mid-September blockade the following groups: racist organisations; oil companies enjoying the discomfort of a previously popular Labour government, and wishing to distract attention from their own huge profits, made whatever the price of crude oil; small-scale Conservative activists and sympathisers — Poujadistes in French political terminology — relishing the experience of fomenting civil strife, of causing the state to totter. I hope the government stands firm, whatever the immediate electoral consequences. There are things it could do, like substantially increasing pensioners’ incomes, re-nationalising the railways and abandoning the sale of 51% of air traffic control, which would be electorally popular (though expensive), and not hurt the planet.

Thessaloniki to London plane27 March 2001

Flying home from a conference. We’ve got to the point, somewhere over Croatia I think, where the cloud is thickening and there’s not much to see. We took off from Thessaloniki and soon crossed a mountain range which falls away abruptly into a valley, where a line of villages runs along the bottom of the further side of the mountains. The mountains mark the border between Greece and Macedonia (which the Greeks still unhelpfully insist on calling the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — FYROM in my in-flight magazine). For about 20 minutes we flew over villages and towns, in Macedonia and then Albania, with a perfect view down, and I wasn’t able to make out a single moving vehicle. There must have been some, but after the economic frenzy of Greece, it was extraordinary to see how quiet these places are. Roads yellow, not black. Down there people are fighting, Slav versus Albanian, the old ethnic hatreds festering even in Macedonia, the former Yugoslav republic worthy of most credit for moving beyond the break-up of Yugoslavia without great bloodshed. (Of course there was no bloodshed in Slovenia either, but it was easier for the Slovenians as an ethnically homogenous people with no great historic hatreds.) It’s amazing, given the scale of the influx of Albanian refugees which Macedonia had to accommodate as a result of Milosevic’s barbarism in Kosovo in 1999, that it has managed to avoid war until now.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town5 May 2001

Bank Holiday weekend Sunday evening. The pleasant emotional confusion caused by the fact that Sunday evening doesn’t mean work tomorrow. The brain has habitual ways of feeling, states of humour, depending on whether it’s Friday night, Monday morning, the drive going on holiday, the drive coming back from holiday. It might be the same place, the same weather, the other circumstances of life might be the same, but you feel different. I know what I normally feel like on a Sunday at this time. Each moment tonight, when I think, This is how you should be feeling because it’s Sunday night, a reminder voice says, Yes, but tomorrow’s another day off. It doesn’t make me feel like I do when it’s Saturday or Friday night, but like it’s a time to itself, a rarity.

Tony Blair will announce the date of the general election this week. Everyone assumes 7 June. He has been proved right in his decision to postpone the election from 3 May, even by a short time, to allow the foot-and-mouth epidemic to diminish. It’s very hard to predict what will be the next Labour majority. The chance of us repeating a majority of a similar size is diminished by the fact that some people will stay at home because they assume that a Labour victory is certain anyway. But the chance of us retaining a majority of a similar size is increased by the fact that the Conservatives are in a wonderfully woeful state. They can’t wait to ditch their leader. They are demonstrably riven on the question of race, vainly trying to assert that they are an inclusive and tolerant party when some of their representatives will insist on saying racist things in public. So in the end, I think we’ll do very well again.

There are old know-alls like Roy Hattersley, Brian Gould and Peter Shore, whom I just caught on the C4 News complaining that Labour hadn’t been radical enough it its first term. Shore even said that it had been a miserable performance. How little these professionals seem to have learned about the realities of winning and keeping power. You can’t win and keep power as a centre-left government in the UK unless you pay attention to the concerns of the section of the electorate which decides elections. It’s obvious to me. We shall win the next election essentially because Gordon Brown has managed the economy brilliantly.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town8 June 2001

Labour won again, with one fewer seat than last time. The pleasure was intense, but it wasn’t the blissful dawn of 2 May 1997. William Hague immediately resigned as Conservative leader. So the Conservatives will now engage in another agonising leadership contest. Staring them in the face is the fact that, once again, if they choose Kenneth Clarke they’ll do better than with anyone else. But I bet they won’t have him.

Camden Town 16 June 2001

Yesterday, a Saturday, was my 50th birthday. Helen organised a party for 50 people in a restaurant on the canal at Maida Vale. It was a wonderful do, with presents and good wishes and fuss. Helen had commissioned a series of speeches to be made in my honour: first from my father, then from my mother (both of these on my childhood), then from Peter Adams (university), then from Stephen Eyers (teaching together), then from Anne Seeley (long friendship), then from Andrew Bannerman (Shropshire), then from Paul Ashton (Channel 4). Paul is in Finland at the moment, so Andrew Bethell read Paul’s speech. I had known nothing of these plans, but I had written my own speech that afternoon, which I gave as a kind of reply.

Thank you very much for coming this evening to help me celebrate my 50th birthday, and thank you for so showering me with your cards, presents, kind words and good wishes.

I always think it’s nice when one’s birthday falls on the weekend, so one can celebrate amid that sweetest of all luxuries, a little leisure. One of the first presents I received from Helen this morning was a facsimile copy of The Times for 16 June 1951, which was also a Saturday. My dear mother, on the telephone this morning, reminded me that it was already 11.30 at night when I arrived in the world, and that she’d been in St Mary’s Hospital, Fratton, Portsmouth since the early hours of that day. I’d like to take this public opportunity of apologising to her for inconveniencing her for such a long time. I don’t know whether or not they brought her The Times to read during the wait; she’s always been a Telegraph reader, at least until a dreadful day almost exactly ten years ago, in the week leading up to my 40th birthday, when she opened its pages one morning over coffee and digestive biscuit, to find my name and reputation traduced as the main item on the leader page. She and my father took the deeply honourable course of cancelling their subscription to the Telegraph, a course they have stuck to even though I have several times given them permission to resume if they wished to.

Anyhow, The Times for exactly 50 years ago tells us, among other things, of the two-millionth visitor to the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. He was Alan Fowler, a 12-year-old pupil at Tennyson Road County School, Rushden, Northants. He was accompanied by his mother and father. The boy was met by officials and presented with the freedom of the exhibition and a five-shilling piece, and the family was given lunch. Meanwhile, in contrast to today with its downpours, an anticyclone was centred between the British Isles and the Azores and a ridge of high pressure covered southern districts. A preposterous man called Dr Sichel, who was president of the British Medical Association, deplored the uncontrollable growth of demand for spectacles in Britain, particularly from women. When he had begin to practise 30 years previously, he said, ‘…it was a matter of difficulty to persuade a comely young lady to disfigure herself, even when the need for wearing spectacles was apparent. To-day many of the fair sex are frankly disappointed when informed that glasses are unnecessary.’ The Times was known as the thunderer in those days, and Dr Sichel also had thunderous things to say against the practice of eyebrow-plucking. His presidential speech to the BMA, still reeling from the recent introduction of the NHS, was the second most important piece of home news on that day.

In the House of Commons, there was indiscipline equal to that which the women were showing in the matter of their eyes and eyebrows. The Speaker had the previous day referred to recent demonstrations in the public gallery ‘of clapping’, and gave notice that if such clapping occurred again he would clear the whole gallery, or those parts of the gallery whence it came. He regretted that this would mean punishing the innocent as well as the guilty, but clapping was not allowed in the public galleries, and if it did occur again he would take notice of it.

It was into such a dangerously unstable world that I was born.

I want to mention two other 16ths of June, one from the world of literature and one from the world of political struggle. When I first read James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, I was an 18-year-old at a university in the flat lands of the east of England, still awestruck by the realisation that civilisation had advanced so far as to allow me, at the taxpayer’s and my parents’ expense, to get up late every day and sit around reading long novels, before going off to see my dear friend Peter Adams, here tonight, then the chaplain of the college, responsible, then as now, for my spiritual well-being, in order to make serious inroads into his drinks cabinet.

Anyhow, my delight in coming upon Ulysses all those years ago was only enhanced when I read that the long day which the book records in such truthful detail is 16 June 1904: Bloomsday. Dublin has since become one of the cities I love the most, and I was there last Tuesday with my dear friend David James, also here tonight, attending a first-night performance of a memorable new production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. At the end of a long evening in that city of wonders we walked up O’Connell Street in the dawn back to the hotel, and David presented me with this wonderful edition of Ulysses as a memento. It includes the historic judgment, given in 1933 by a wise American judge, that Ulysses is not an obscene book and could therefore be imported into the United States. The judgment, written in beautiful, plain English juridical prose, contains a couple of paragraphs which caused me to laugh out loud on the aeroplane coming back on Wednesday. I’m going to read those paragraphs to you. I dedicate them to my dear friend Mike Raleigh, a lover of Irish literature, to my dear friend Anne Seeley, to my good new friend Deirdre Finan, and to anyone else here with Irish connections.

‘It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture to say, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.’

That judgment is about freedom of a particular kind: the integrity of expression of the artist. Another, tougher form of freedom was fought for with blood on 16 June 1976, my 25th birthday, exactly halfway between the day of my birth and today, when the children and students of Soweto defied the evil might of apartheid to proclaim their right to a decent education, and paid for their defiance with many lives. South Africa has been, for so many of us on the left, the defining symbol of the struggle for political freedom and for human dignity, and the fact that South Africa now has freedom, whatever difficulties it still faces, is a good reason to believe that the lives we have been privileged to lead must above all be journeys of hope.

I’m going to end with two tributes and two poems. My first tribute is to my mother and father, who have loved me since 16 June 1951 through thick and thin, and who taught me above all the importance of practical love, and that the important values are not those of money, although we all need a sufficiency. It is entirely my own fault that I learned the second lesson too well, so that my father once, in a moment of exasperation, said to me, ‘My boy, you’re an aristocrat in all but income.’ I thank him for playing cricket with me in the park on Saturdays and Sundays in the summers of the 1950s and ’60s.

The first poem is a verse from one of the songs of Bob Dylan. It sums up everything I would say about youthfulness of spirit, and I offer it to everyone here.

‘May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds are changing shift.
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young.’

My second tribute is of course to Helen Savva, my lover and companion for more than 26 years now, who has been for all that time my joy and inspiration, whom I have loved sincerely, and to whom, quite simply, I owe everything. Last August, at the end of a hot afternoon driving through the French countryside at its most beautiful, I tried to put into a brief lyric, not for the first time, what I feel for Helen, physically, emotionally, and as a friend, and here it is, a poem called ‘Strawberries’.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth

This afternoon of youth.

The sun is hot, the road is clear

And we are heading south.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth:

Food of a long romance.

The corn is ageing in the fields

This harvest time in France.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth.

Agree not to arrive.

I’ll suck them off your fingers’ ends

As long as I can drive.

Thank you all for coming. An extra course will be served now, of strawberries.

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire10 July 2001

At precisely seven o’clock this evening, I got out of a car outside the Castle Hotel, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, having watched a day’s filming of Double Act, our dramatisation of Jacqueline Wilson’s novel, which is being shot in and around Clun. The town clock struck its tinny notes. A cool day, blustery and with rain squalls, had softened to a sunny evening where the broken clouds drew their shadows across the surrounding hills. I stood and looked and listened. Peace.

Occurrences: Book Four

[Book 4 didn't begin soon after book 3 ended, as it should have done. There is no legitimate excuse. One can always plead overwork, but I had been working very hard throughout the period when I managed to write something at least every few days or every few weeks. Developments at Channel 4, announced in summer 2001, which affected me until 16 June 2003, the day I left the channel, which I describe in the chapter called Educational Broadcaster in ‘My Life in Prose’, are I think responsible for my abandonment of the diary for over two years. I became dispirited. For the first time in my working life, I felt a bad kind of stress, which I knew was hurting me: a stress which comes from a loss of power.

During the period when I wasn’t writing the diary, two close friends died prematurely. The first was Terry Furlong. Terry and his partner Gabriel Genest had a house close to ours in Brittany. We bought Kerfontaine on impulse while staying with Terry and Gabriel for a week in February 1990. Terry was a significant figure in English teaching in the UK, someone whose words and actions influenced thousands of teachers and children for good. He was a comrade and a leader of comrades. He died of cancer on 29 May 2002. I wrote an obituary which appeared in The Guardian the following Saturday.

Terry Furlong, who has died aged 59 of cancer, was a major force in English teaching in this country for 35 years, a key part of which he spent as head of English (and later head of the faculty of languages and humanities) at Holland Park School, west London, then one of the most famous comprehensive schools in Britain.

For those of us who shared his vision of the purpose of education, the 1970s and early 1980s were a time of optimism. We were determined to make the curriculum more relevant to children’s lives; we would show children literature which previous generations of teachers had thought them too stupid to understand; under our guidance, they would become makers and shapers of language, and therefore of their lives.

In the years before a legally required curriculum was introduced, the major institutional obstacle to the fulfilment of such thinking was the examination system. Terry led the movement 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. Initially, he did this through the CSE, an examination which had been introduced in 1963, at a time when four out of five children left school with no paper qualification whatever; but he saw the need for a common examination for students at 16, to provide a richer experience for all. This aim was achieved when CSE and O-levels were replaced by the GCSE.

What educational reactionaries, for whom Terry later became something of a target, refused to understand was that the purpose always was to raise standards, to marry the old concerns about correctness and a conventional canon of literature with a new excitement about broadening and diversifying students’ experience and mastery of language, in particular making sure that working-class and black and ethnic-minority children were given the opportunity to share in that experience and gain that mastery.

Under the Thatcher government, it became clear that stamina and political judgement would be needed if the national curriculum for English, introduced from 1989, were to manifest at least something of this vision. Terry was one of the people who saw to it that, broadly, the vision can be discerned in the law.

When it became clear that the Blair administration was hardly less reactionary, in terms strictly of curriculum and examinations, than its predecessor, his view was pragmatic. It would be possible, he thought, still to defend the best of what had been gained, as government policy traversed an arid, utilitarian phase. There are some slight signs — the government’s rediscovery of the importance of creativity, for example — that he may, in the longer perspective, have been right.

Terry was born and brought up in Cardiff, and excelled academically at Cardiff High School, where he began to study for A-levels in physics, chemistry and maths before switching to English, French and German. Between 1962 and 1966, he took his first degree, in English, at King’s College, London. After experimental starts to his career, in advertising and as a chef, he turned to teaching.

His first job was at Spencer Park School, in south-west London, from where he went to Holland Park in 1973, remaining there until 1986. From 1979 to 1981, he had a two-year secondment as advisory teacher for English with the Inner London Education Authority. He then became English adviser for Brent (1986-94), with a secondment from 1989 to 1991, to lead a team designing the first national tests in English for 14-year-olds.

During his career, Terry was also Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, of the International Federation for the Teaching of English, and of numerous advisory committees to examination boards. For a time, he was chair of governors at Holland Park. When he took early retirement from Brent, he set up his own consultancy.

Terry had an awesome quantity of energy. He was a deeply human man — funny, irreverent, loving, emotional. At the risk of corniness, one could describe him as a renaissance person: he could install plumbing, lay a patio, speak several languages, explain quantum mechanics, embroider, play the flute and the piano, and do the things for which he is honoured by the profession of English teachers.

His personal life owed everything to his partner, Gabriel Genest. They lived together for more than 30 years, and depended utterly on each other. Gabriel nursed Terry with humorous and practical devotion through his final illness.

One summer night 20 years ago, I stayed up late with Terry, in a garden in Kent, during a weekend organised by the London Association for the Teaching of English. After everyone else had gone to bed, we drank plenty; Terry then produced his flute and played until the dawn had fully come, when we went to bed for a couple of hours.

We happened to come down to breakfast at the same time. More sensible souls, who had rested well, remarked what a beautiful morning it was. “I know,” said Terry. “I’ve seen it twice.” If ever a man got double value out of life, and gave double value to it, it was he.

The other friend who died prematurely was Mike Harrisson. He and his wife Judith went to Barcelona for a long weekend at the beginning of May 2003. On Sunday 4 May, as he and Judith were returning to their hotel after lunch, Mike stepped into the road and was knocked down by a speeding van. Judith saw everything. The ambulance came, but Mike was dead within a quarter of an hour. Judith then had the agonising experience of flying back that night on the first available flight to the north of England, to be met at Liverpool airport by friends whom she had telephoned, who took her home to Huddersfield, where she woke her two children, Clare and Christopher, and told them the news. The following day she telephoned us. It was the early May bank holiday, and Helen and I were at my parents’ house in Bedfordshire. We went straight up to Huddersfield. Over the next few days we did all we could to comfort Judith and the children, to help with the arrangements for the return of Mike’s body to England, and to plan the funeral.

I made a speech in tribute to Mike at a party in the Slaithwaite Civic Hall after the funeral. I spoke of his brilliance as an English teacher, his influential role in the reform of English examinations, his work as a senior examiner in English, his exceptional talent as a cook, his energetic support of the Labour Party, and his labours as a school governor. I mentioned the restaurant he and Judith had opened (brilliant food, but a commercial failure), the novels he had written, the CD-ROM publishing enterprise he had founded. Mike was, as I said, one of the best read, best informed, most widely cultured people I’ve known.]

Near Franschoek, Western Cape, South Africa12 November 2003

I’ve been in South Africa a week now. It has been an astonishing experience. I’ve travelled only in one part of one province — the Western Cape — but the physical beauty of the place, and the diversity of that beauty, are breathtaking. Meanwhile, because South Africa has such political significance for me and for all my generation of the British left, I am viewing all this beauty in a particular way; asking myself what progress has been made in the nine and a half years since the country achieved democracy. That South Africa remains a place of deep divisions and disparities is all too obvious. The spacious, gracious, often stylish or, at the very least, comfortable housing belongs to white people. And I must say, knowing as I do that money alone is no guarantee of grace or style (witness most ‘executive’ developments in England), white South Africans in this part of the country have managed, mostly, to build with style and grace as well as on a scale which you would expect an elite to allow themselves. The housing for black people ranges from corrugated metal shacks, to wooden huts, to small dwellings made of bare breeze blocks, to — at the best, and obviously one of the achievements of the government since 1994 — small but pretty bungalows, in whitewashed breeze block, with roofs either tiled or in painted corrugated metal, having electricity, running water, little gardens and some space between one house and the next. But the ideal just described is rare, and even this is modest in the extreme by comparison with white people’s houses. The continuing reality for millions of black people is a tiny shack, one of hundreds or thousands packed together in great grim camps with narrow dirt tracks for streets, with no running water except from an external standpipe shared with scores of other families, and with toilets similarly shared.

I say that South Africa’s continuing divisions are all too obvious. Often they are, but sometimes you have to look for them. One of the most sinister aspects of the apartheid plan was the attempt to make black people’s housing invisible to the user of the country’s official roads (excellent, in my brief experience). Even today, the traveller is puzzled by the fact that there are huge settlements, glimpsed briefly from a road when its contour lets slip the reality, with no signs to them: no slip-roads with the names of these places properly displayed. You pass a place which must house tens of thousands of people, and think, ‘Where was that, then? How do I get to there?’ The answer was, ‘You’re not supposed to get to there. You’ve no need to.’ The scale of the challenge facing the government is formidable in all areas of social good for the majority: education, health care, employment, transport. But the physical task of constructing millions of acceptable dwellings, and their infrastructure, is the one which has struck me with awe.

I landed at Cape Town airport eight days ago. I had ordered, in advance, a Volkswagen Golf from a car rental firm. When I arrived at the firm’s desk, it had run out of Golfs, and offered me a Mercedes for the same price. I accepted. I nosed this great, comfortable, reassuring piece of rich man’s engineering around the car park, opening the windows and letting the warm wind blow through. A warm wind and a bright light on a November morning! I cruised into Cape Town on a fine dual carriageway, past some of the worst of the slums I’ve described above. There was Table Mountain, the sharp point of Signal Hill, and then I came over a rise and got a view of the great docks and Table Bay, with Robben Island in the distance. How extraordinary that this dreadful place is now a tourist attraction, with some of the former prisoners as guides. How bizarre history can be, and how sudden can be its twists. Friends in England had recommended that I visit the island while I was in Cape Town, but I didn’t.

The elevated road passed the city centre and descended to the seafront. Then I followed the sea for a few kilometres to Camps Bay, realising as I arrived that John Haycock, who had arranged my travel, had put me into one of the most beautiful and chic suburbs of the city. It has a brilliant white beach and luminous turquoise water. The guesthouse was perfect: comfortable without being luxurious, and when I opened the wooden doors of my room on to the terrace, there was the sea 300 metres away. I walked down to the strip of restaurants across the road from the beach and had lunch. Then I went back to the guesthouse and slept for three hours, having hardly slept at all on the plane. I woke up and showered, and had a beer on the terrace and watched the sun go down into the sea. I went out to another restaurant where the food was magnificent if over-generous, and walked back again and went to sleep.

The next morning, Friday, a taxi took me to Observatory, a district on the other side of the city. I sat for nine hours with four other people while we decided which 204 applicants for bursaries for university study, awarded by the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, would be successful. (The Trust’s work, since the liberation of South Africa, is to offer black and brown students in the country, and in some other countries in southern Africa, the opportunity to pursue higher education, something they would not otherwise be able to afford.) There had been 1500 applicants originally, and we were choosing from a short list of about 400. I was there because I and a group of friends in England administer two small funds, one in memory of Ros Moger, who died in 1999, and one in memory of Terry Furlong, who died in 2002. Our funds shelter within the Canon Collins Trust, and benefit from its charitable status. It gives a sense of how small we are within the Trust’s operation to say that seven of the 204 bursaries awarded were paid for from our funds. Still, it’s a good thing to be doing, and my day in Observatory was the business reason why I’m here.

That evening the same taxi returned me to Camps Bay. More seaside dining. When you turn round from the beach, there is a row of bare, sudden mountains called The Twelve Apostles. It is a place of wonderful beauty and immense privilege.

On Saturday I drove into the city centre, parked by the station, and wandered around. It was interesting to see an ordinary, busy Saturday in town: the market stalls, the open-air hairdressers doing good business, a mainly black community full of energy and seemingly thriving. I walked for about two hours, decided to skip lunch, and drove the car around Table Bay and up the coast northward. The dunes went on and on, the roads dead straight. After about half an hour I turned left to the sea at Silwerstroomstrand, and found a bleak esplanade stuck in the middle of nowhere. But the beach is beautiful, with white waves processing on to the sand, which is indeed silver. Black families were barbecuing sausages and steaks on fires lit in little concrete boxes provided for the purpose. Not much swimming. Probably South Africans think the sea is far too cold, especially so early in the summer. But it was a good sight to see: families enjoying themselves in an ordinary way at the weekend. I drove inland to the towns of Mamre and Atlantis — my first deliberate attempt to look at places off the tourist route. Both towns were depressing. When you see the tiny tin shacks near the airport you think, well, I hope one day soon they’ll demolish these completely, and it won’t take long to do. But the housing in these two towns is more substantial, while being deeply dreary and unloved. People will have to go on living there for years. Atlantis in particular looked like the very worst, most isolated council estate on the edge of Glasgow or Liverpool. But people waved cheerfully whenever I waved, and the white Mercedes didn’t attract a second glance.

I drove back to Camps Bay — an hour in time and a world apart. I sought out a restaurant not offering me immense quantities of fresh protein, of which I had had a surfeit since arriving, and found a kind-of-Greek place which was comfortable and quiet. I had a nice big wooden table to myself, and ate the old favourites of houmus, taramasalata and tsatsiki (half portions), followed by moussaka and salad. It was a relief to be able to finish the plates. The only problem was the excessive kindly attention. Two different people told me they would be my personal waiter for the evening, and the staff asked me I should think a dozen times if everything was all right.

The next day, Sunday, I left Camps Bay and drove down the Cape Peninsula. After Houts Bay, the road over Chapman’s Peak was closed. (I read all about it yesterday in the Cape Times. The dramatic cliff road was first opened in 1922. In recent years there have been dangerous rock falls which have required serious engineering. The road is due to reopen next month.) So I crossed the peninsula through Constantia, and then turned right over a mountain pass and came down to the coast on the eastern side of the peninsula, north of Simons Town, a little naval base which I drove through thinking of my grandfather, who used to come there with the Royal Navy. I carried on south on a beautiful mountain road, with wonderful views east across False Bay to the next headland at Hangklip. The southernmost part of Cape Peninsula is a national park and nature reserve, and you have to pay to get in. It is worth it. I don’t know whether I have ever seen a place so naturally beautiful. The Afrikaans name for the wild bushes which cover great expanses of the land is fynbos, ‘fine bush’, and the closest comparison I have seen in Europe is the maquis in Corsica, famously hauntingly scented, as is the fynbos. There was a deep blue sky; there were wild flighted birds of startling colours, ostriches, and the occasional group of baboons causing cars to stop and people to leap out and take photographs, despite notices saying that baboons are dangerous. I hadn’t realised before that the Cape of Good Hope is not the very bottom of the peninsula, but a couple of kilometres above that on the west side. Cape Point is the very bottom, and there are high sheer cliffs of the most wonderful beauty, where sea birds — maybe a kind of cormorant — were making nests on precipitous ledges. I walked up from the car park to the former lighthouse, and then down and round to the extreme tip of the peninsula, just above the present-day lighthouse. The whole place is a model of the correct management of beautiful and ecologically sensitive but popular tourist sites, down to the choice of material for the pathways and the benches. I was entranced. The sun shone and I felt great. I bought a sandwich and a bottle of water and sat on a rock and looked down at a little bay where there were penguins.

Then I drove back up the eastern side of the peninsula, back through Simons Town to Fishhoek and along False Bay towards Hermanus. It was while driving along that road that I kept looking to my left and seeing the settlements, over embankments beside the road, which told the other side of the story of this country. I passed through Hermanus and kept going towards Stanford. I gave a lift to an old man who talked non-stop in a language I didn’t recognise (not Afrikaans and it didn’t sound like Khosa — no clicks), but who was happy to be riding in a Mercedes. After half an hour he made a sign for me to stop, got out, bowed low, and walked away into the bush. I couldn’t see a house anywhere.

At about six I came to my second guest house, where I was to be for two nights. I tapped a code which I’d been given into a panel at the gate, and then drove on a sandy track across fynbos for about a kilometre. Wind moved the bushes. Apart from that there was complete silence. The place felt extraordinarily remote. Then the house came into view.

I was the only guest, and was served dinner in solitude by Val, the owner.

The next day, Monday, I retraced my drive along the sandy track, turned right outside the gate, drove down the road a few kilometres, turned right again, and came to the sea at a place called De Kelders. I was on one side of Walker Bay, which stretches right back round to Hermanus and beyond, and is perhaps the most beautiful sea bay I have ever seen. Continual processions of white waves followed each other to shore, the water blue with the opaque look which rough gems have when caught in lumps of rock. There were two whales, perhaps a hundred metres from shore, not more. The whales come in large numbers from Antarctica in the southern winter, to breed and give birth in the bays of this part of the South African coast. Almost all of them had left by the time I got there, but two were enough for me, and one in particular twisted and played in the water, holding its tail upright from time to time. I stood and watched until my wonderment and curiosity were satisfied. Then I walked along the bay, past the seaside houses awaiting their summer occupants, a few being painted and repaired by groups of workers in blue overalls. I went out on to the rocks as close as I could to the crashing water. I sat there for an hour and then walked back to the car and drove on south and east, on a straight road which just went on and on across bush, the only diversion being the sight, shocking to my eyes, of snakes squashed on the tarmac. I read that snakes seek out the tarred roads when it’s hot, because they like the intense heat that the tar gives off once the sun has been on it for a while, and so are often killed. I also heard that many drivers deliberately drive over the snakes, whether poisonous or not, for sport.

After about an hour on the tarred road, I came to a junction where the only choice was to turn back or proceed on dirt roads, so I carried on, more slowly, creating clouds of red dust behind me, and drove through wide expanses of farmland, where cattle and sheep grazed, with stands of eucalyptus trees which had extracted so much water from the ground that the earth below them was bare. Then I came out on to a tarred road again north of Struis Bay, and stopped on the edge of the town for petrol. I ate a pizza in the café next door, and read the Cape Times, which was encouraging national mourning and self-reproach because the Springboks had been easily beaten by the All Blacks the previous day in the quarter-finals of the rugby World Cup in Australia.

I went on down through L’Agulhas to Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa, and stood on the rocks there and again watched the waves processing steadily in, made bigger and fiercer by a strong wind off the sea. Then I drove back inland to Bredasdorp, across flat farmland, and turned left up into beautiful hilly country, where wheat was being harvested. Wheat is a winter crop in South Africa, and most of it had already been cut, the swathes of the harvester blades making regular, curving stripes on the vast hillsides. At Napier, white ladies in white clothing with broad-brimmed hats were playing bowls on a well-tended green. The bungalows were neat. Beyond the town were the shacks where the black people live. I carried on in the heat of late afternoon, up and up through high wheat fields, descended into a river valley where there was a vineyard and where onions were growing with the help of generous amounts of sprinkled water, and came back to Stanford.

That evening, before dinner, I had a conversation with Val in which I explained what I had been doing in Cape Town the previous Friday, and through that made it clear what my position had been towards the apartheid regime, and where my political sympathies now lay as the South African government struggles to address its immense inheritance of poverty and division. Val listened politely, but I could tell that she had been quite content to live and prosper under apartheid, and had no sense that she and her kind had been complicit in the perpetuation of an evil system. After dinner, I met her husband Tim for the first time, and encountered a male version of the same myopia. He was a handsome, tall, bearded man, with something of a Hemingway face, and he ran the South African branch of an American-owned firm which makes heat extractors. We started on the rugby, then switched to the state of the British and South African economies, and I was soon listening to him telling me that the difficulties facing the South African economy were principally to do with the inability of black people to show initiative, to respond to the wonderful opportunities they were now being offered. He cited numerous examples of the generosity of white-owned businesses such as his in funding amenities for black people — football stadiums complete with changing facilities and social clubs, for instance — which thrived as long as white people organised them, but which fell into disuse, amid factional rancour, as soon as the whites withdrew.

I became blunter and blunter in my contributions to the conversation, telling him finally that the poverty of the majority was a scandal for which the whites, whatever gestures some might now be making, carried full responsibility. He took this in his stride, telling me that if I thought black housing was bad here I should go to India, where the housing was even worse, because the brown people had been running the government for more than fifty years already. We shook hands and I went to bed.

The next morning Val drove me in their Land Rover around the sandy dunes of their nature reserve, and I saw tortoises, cape harriers and Val’s own little family of eland as we bumped through the grasses. She is a well-informed and thoughtful conservationist, with an admirable love of beauty and diversity in nature. When I remarked that a Land Rover must be an essential vehicle in this kind of terrain, she agreed of course, and added, ‘And it’s very useful for carrying labour around.’ By that impersonal noun she meant the black workers who were rebuilding another house on the reserve which she and Tim hoped to sell to rich Germans as a holiday home. At the end of our drive, before I took my leave, I asked her whether there was anyone in the current government for whom she had respect. She named Trevor Samuels, the finance minister, and two others whose names I have forgotten, including I think the minister for tourism. She was scornful of Mbeki and contemptuous of the health minister, stumbling over her double-barrelled African name with a ‘…or whatever her name is’. She mentioned particularly Mbeki’s initial refusal to admit that South Africa has a huge HIV and AIDS problem, a refusal which, I agreed, had been unstatesmanlike and foolish. I said that I thought the government had changed its position since. I had read an article by the health minister in the Cape Times the previous day (it appeared after the laments about the rugby), fully acknowledging the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Val said that Mbeki knew that South Africa had too many people, and that he had hoped that, by pretending that HIV/AIDS was not a big problem, many of them would die quickly, easing the demand for housing and water. He had had to change his position because of the international outcry at what he had originally said.

I left, amazed that Val could impute to the president of her country such wickedness of motive. It was that remark, more than any other which Val and Tim had made over the previous two days, which gave me a sense of the gulf between the previously ascendant white community and the inclusive government under which that community is now obliged — most of them reluctantly — to live.

I drove that day to Franschoek, back over breathtakingly beautiful rolling hills, the last of the wheat being harvested, up and up until I came to a great dam, the largest of the dams supplying Cape Town. The huge lake is surrounded by fruit orchards and vineyards. Mountains rise above the cultivated slopes, and in the hot sunshine, under a deep blue sky, the place could be the Garden of Eden, until you see little groups of black workers busy picking fruit while a white overseer stands right beside them, belly hanging over belt, doing nothing except sometimes talking on a mobile phone, just making sure that ‘the labour’ doesn’t slack. After the lake I drove higher still, over a mountain pass where I stopped and admired the great grey peaks, the upland meadows, the cape harriers soaring, before descending to the Franschoek valley. Franschoek is a privileged, pretty town, too complacent and cute for my liking. Famous vineyards line the roads of the valley. I’m staying at a guesthouse belonging to one such, between Franschoek and Paarl. I have a comfortable suite of three rooms, including a substantial living room with writing table and good light, where I’ve written this.

Cape Town Airport14 November 2003

After two nights and the intervening day in the vineyard guesthouse, I went on through Paarl and Wellington. It was strange to me, going through Wellington in the heat, to see municipal workers slinging the town’s Christmas decorations between the lamp-posts. Then up over another wonderful mountain pass, describing a semi-circle until I was heading south towards Hermon. The farm where I was to stay on my last night, Bartholomeus Klip, is nearby. About 20 kilometres north of Hermon I picked up a hitch-hiker, perhaps my sixth (all black — I didn’t see a white hitch-hiker) since the monologuist last Sunday. The others had all been friendly, but it had been hard to get a proper conversation going, even if their English had been good. I had asked one woman whether life was better for black people than it had been 10 years ago. ‘I think so,’ she had said doubtfully, ‘but things are very expensive.’

This man was different. He was a water treatment engineer. He had been working since six that morning at a dam nearby (a smaller dam than the one I had passed on Tuesday, but still substantial, and also supplying Cape Town). It was about 2.30 in the afternoon when I picked him up. The temperature was 33º. He was a skilled man doing an important job: making sure that the inhabitants of Cape Town had clean water. Despite this, he was required to depend on the occasional and unreliable shared taxi service to get to and from his place of work, or to hitch lifts. He told me that if I hadn’t come along, he might have got a lift from someone else. Failing that, a shared taxi would arrive about four. He was articulate about the political situation in his country. An ANC member himself, he recognised that the government had made mistakes, and included some ‘not very good’ ministers. Corruption did exist, he admitted. But the ANC was nonetheless the only party which, in the foreseeable future, would be able to give the country a sense of unity, make any progress on the huge tasks facing it, and ‘control violence’. I knew this already, but it was reassuring to have an impressive representative of the new South Africa confirm it.

I left him at his tiny but gracious house outside Hermon. We shook hands and he invited me to come and see him there again. I wondered how long it would be before a water treatment engineer, an employee of the water supply company for the Western Cape, had his own van to drive.

Ten minutes later I was on a dirt road leading across wide plains of cut wheat and fynbos to Bartholomeus Klip. The original farmhouse has been made into guest rooms offering a high standard of old-fashioned comfort, verging on the luxurious. I was in time for tea, and I’m not sure whether I’ve ever drunk better tea, from a large silver teapot, or eaten more delicious buttered scones with home-made jam. At 4.30 I climbed into the back of an open-topped Land Rover and was driven, in the company of two other tourists — a couple from Camberley, Surrey, self-made successes in the double-glazing business, and experienced, even blasé safari-goers — around the huge expanse of fynbos which the farm includes. We narrowly avoided squashing a cape cobra about two metres long, which then made off through the grass. We saw a secretary bird, gnus, ostriches, antelopes various, and five geometric tortoises. The geometric is South Africa’s rarest tortoise. I had read at Val’s farm that there are only about 5,000 geometrics in existence. Bartholomeus Klip claims to have 3,000 on its land. Even so, our guide and driver, a young woman with a qualification in ecologically responsible land management, and obviously well informed, said we were very fortunate to see five geometrics in the space of two hours. She had never seen so many on one outing before. She told us not to pick them up. They urinate as a defence mechanism, and can become badly dehydrated and even die as a result.

The flat land is bordered to the east by an abrupt range of mountains, where there are leopards. We got back to the farmhouse in time to watch the effect of the sunset on the mountains, which turn an intense shade of pink for about five minutes. This while drinking a local and delicious Sauvignon Blanc, gazing across a lake as flocks of white birds flew in strict formations to their roosts. Then bath, then dinner, which was easily the best I’d eaten in South Africa, and I’d had some good ones.

This morning I drove slowly towards the airport, stopping at Paarl to find a present for Helen. None of the jewellers, in this land of gold and diamonds, had anything I liked. It was all the fussy, over-ornate stuff I remember adorning the fingers of ladies (not my mother’s) in England in the 1950s. I was about to give up when I came across a shop selling antique jewellery, and bought a pendant in rose gold, with little rubies and diamonds, about a hundred years old.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town16 November 2003

Then the airport, then twelve hours of acute discomfort, then English rain.

I shall go back to South Africa, and I must visit Johannesburg and some of the other cities. I’m well aware that I’ve done the equivalent of flying to Nice, driving along the coast and up into the hills of Provence for a few days, and then making generalisations about France. But I’ve seen enough to understand the scale of the challenge facing government and people, and to sense the terrifying possibility that it could still all go wrong. If ever a country needed great statesmanship at home, and permanent, sympathetic, practical engagement and support from abroad, South Africa needs these for decades to come. It is the economic powerhouse and it could be the political beacon for the whole region of southern and central Africa. Probably, it will maintain its economic role and develop its political role. That is what we must hope for, while not complacently assuming that, once a nation moves from darkness into light, it will stay there. There are too many examples — among them Zimbabwe — to the contrary.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town26 February 2004

Peter Adams on the phone. In retirement now as a priest, he still helps out with services when asked, as retired priests usually do. Yesterday he did the Ash Wednesday services, 11.30 and 8, at a parish somewhere in south London, because his friend the Revd Anthony Quartermain had gone to Portugal for a week’s golf, to get away from the wretched weather, and had forgotten that Lent was beginning!

I’ve been reading two or three poems, chosen at random from an anthology, aloud to Helen each night in bed before we go to sleep. I know that she hates Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ with ferocious intensity, not I think because she has a worked-out feminist objection to the poem (legitimate as that position might be) on the grounds that it does seem to suggest that Leda began to acquiesce in, even to enjoy, the rape, but because she finds the description of the act physically revolting, and in particular the lines

‘How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from the loosening thighs?’

The poem makes her shudder, and not as in ‘A shudder in the loins’. The other night, coming upon it as I flicked through the book, out of pure mischief I began to read, in a sing-song, bedtime-story voice:

‘A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl…’

and that was as far as I got before howls of protest curtailed the reading, and I looked for something more suitable. As a penance, I’ve written a sonnet called ‘Leda Ponders Yeats’s Sonnet’, in which Leda comprehensively demolishes Yeats’s suggestion that she consented to the rape.

Flight from Rio to Belém23 April 2004

This is a Saturday evening flight from Rio de Janeiro to Belém, a city on the estuary of the Amazon. It will take three hours. My friends Len Brown, Jay Johnston and I have comfortable seats with the extra leg room by the emergency exit, so we’re cheerful. The plane is no more than half full.

Belém is just south of the equator, on the southern bank of the southern branch of the river. The island which divides the two branches is about the size of Belgium, and each of the branches about the width of the English Channel between Dover and Calais.

Although we took off only ten minutes ago, there are absolutely no lights below us now. Brazil is a country of huge activity and huger empty spaces.

We arrived in Rio last Sunday morning. It’s my second trip to Brazil. Len’s friend Roger, an English inhabitant of the city for 25 years, picked us up at the airport and took us to his house, right under Corcovado. We ate a leisurely breakfast in his beautiful garden, and then he drove us to the Copacabana Palace Hotel, where we’ve been for the last six nights. The Copacabana Palace is, I should think, the best hotel in Rio; certainly the most stylish. We have experienced luxury.

My business reason for being here is the 4th World Summit on Media for Children and Adolescents. I’ve been to all four of these events: Melbourne in ’95, London (which I helped to organise) in ’98, Thessaloniki in ’01 and now this. About 2,000 people were there. The conferences are a focus for people involved in the production of television and other media for children and young people who want in some way to resist the homogeneity and cultural narrowness which purely market-driven productions, mainly coming from America, would impose on the world. Diversity, relevance to local cultures and needs, indigenous production: these are the watchwords. It’s bound to be a campaign with many defeats, but there are some victories too. I was at this conference to give two talks: one about dramas I have commissioned in and about Northern Ireland; and one about Making It, a co-produced series of short films celebrating children’s creative ingenuity in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica and the UK.

In the evenings we’ve started with caiparinhas, then eaten magnificently, with a heavy emphasis on roast meat, and then gone to night clubs. On Tuesday we visited a samba place in Lapa called Carioca da Gema (Rio to the Core), where a five-piece band — large and small guitar, drums, keyboard and clarinet — played with dazzling skill, rather intellectually with a jazz influence. The dancing was perfect, proper samba, performed by some couples of exquisite beauty, but also by others on whom the years had taken their toll. All achieved heights of elegance and sensuality at which one could only gape.

On Thursday we were at another place in Lapa (name forgotten) where the music was more basic and popular, and where freer forms of dancing were tolerated. There we joined in with no embarrassment. The pleasure was at its height when a two-man camera crew invaded the place, presumably with the consent of the management, perhaps filming for some travelogue to be shown by an airline. The atmosphere of uninhibited night life they hoped to capture immediately shrivelled and died. The only dancers left on the floor were foreigners. We left. Roger and I went on to a great rough dance hall, where we stood and watched a big crowd, on the eve of a public holiday, enjoying a very loud band playing what Roger called ‘heavy metal forró’. Forró is a style of music from the north-east of the country, properly played with accordion, triangle and one drum. This band had big amplification, saxophones, guitars, electric accordion, full drum set and no triangle. Couples danced wildly but skilfully between the tables.

Today I flew in a helicopter for the first time in my life. We took off from Barra, a huge suburb of Rio to the west, followed the coast back to Leblón, Ipanema, Copacabana, around the Sugar Loaf, up to Corcovado where we flew twice round Christ the Redeemer, then straight over the forest behind Rio back to Barra. It was an exhilarating, beautiful experience. The aircraft was small — only four seats — with perfect views and a smooth ride. I sat in the front next to the pilot. Breathtaking.

Then we went to a cachaça shop in Leblón and tasted a few samples. Len and I bought a bottle each for ourselves and I bought one for Roger. After that we went to eat feijoada at the Cesar Park on Ipanema beach, as I did last time I was in Rio. Delicious. Like Mr Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, I love all the base parts of animals. In feijoada, tripe, pigs’ ears, pigs’ trotters and ox tongues are stewed to perfect tenderness.

We have two nights in Belém, and on Monday fly about 800 kilometres inland to Santarém, a smaller town on the Amazon, where its mighty tributary the Tapajós joins the main river. We have five nights there, with trips on the Amazon and into the forest. It’s going to be a serious adventure.

Santarém26 April 2004

We landed at Belém and walked through its beautiful new airport: the height of architectural style and confidence. It stands for the coming world, one can hope. It was a rainy night. The taxi took us into town along a road stuck in the present world of poverty and limitation. Lines of ugly shacks, built without any kind of plan; rusting and peeling signs for shops and garages and workshops; poor people simply squatting or standing by the road, with nothing to do late on a Saturday night other than be there; frequent tiny bars where two or three men gathered at the counter under a single light. Our hotel was drab, with dark wood fittings, furniture which had aspired to modernity forty years ago, and economy in the use of electricity. But the rooms (suites rather — we could afford them) were clean, and the showers and air-conditioning worked.

It was after eleven by the time we had dumped our stuff. We went round the corner, looking for a livelier place than the hotel for a drink, and immediately came upon a bar belonging to the coming world. Well-dressed people, smart casual, mainly young but with some older ones there too, were enjoying a Saturday night of a kind familiar to us. We stayed until two.

The next day I slept late, and met Len and Jay at the Resto das Docas, where I got my first view of the Amazon. Brown. The piece of river where Belém is situated is not even the main southern channel, I now discover; this inlet runs round into that channel a little to the north; but the water I was looking at was still wider than any river I have ever seen. A long forested island is visible seven or eight kilometres across it.

A section of the old dock buildings has been beautifully restored and turned into restaurants, cafés and a museum. Again, the coming world. We went back there for lunch later, and the place was full of our kind of people, economically; their children well dressed, at leisure on Sunday, with enough money to eat out, and new cars — nothing extravagant — in the car park outside.

Between coffee and lunch we walked through the markets next to the restored buildings, and saw the old world which is still the reality for most. At scores of tiny stalls, people had cereals, spices, fruit, meat and fish for sale. There wasn’t much custom, but they needed to stay open for what they could get. Round the side of the covered fish market was a little wharf, surrounded by painted houses and shops which had been pretty once, and could be again, but suffered from lack of money. Some poor people lay around in the shade, on benches or sacks, with nothing to do. Several kindly passers-by warned us that it was dangerous to stroll too far from what they called ‘movement’. While we were amongst people, we were safe. If we began exploring remoter streets where no-one was, we might be unlucky and meet thugs with knives or guns. We took the advice.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel for showers and siestas, and then returned to the river at 5.30 for a boat trip. We sailed around the promontory of Belém, looking at the wharves and the houses of the very poor sticking out into the river on stilts. It began to rain quite hard, and when the boat turned round after three quarters of an hour and sailed further out into the channel for the return leg of the trip, it was possible, looking across in the direction of the now invisible long island, to experience total darkness in a way I almost never do: thick cloud, so no moon or stars, heavy rain in big drops, no lights beyond our boat; just soft black night pressing in.

We flew to Santarém yesterday morning. It took an hour. Before the plane got above the clouds, you could see the complexity of the river system: tributaries and tributaries of tributaries, winding creeks, and every island covered in green forest, except for tiny isolated settlements, one house here, two or three there, next to the water and with only the water for transport.

At Santarém airport we hired a Toyota Hilux, a strong vehicle with four-wheel drive, to make possible some exploration on dirt roads. Our hotel, the Amazon Park, is a grotesque edifice on the edge of the town, opened in 1974 and then owned by Varig, Brazil’s major airline. The hotel was a symbol of the government’s determination to open up the Amazon to agriculture, mining and business generally. There are hundreds of rooms, ranged in an arc, all facing the river. The place looks to have had almost no maintenance since it was opened. My room is like a generously proportioned cell in an open prison. There is no decoration. Lino tiles peel from the floor. There are three single beds of basic design. The fridge and the air-conditioning make a lot of noise between them. But they work, and so does the shower, and the sheets are clean.

Last night we drove into town and parked on the waterfront. Scores of wooden boats were moored there, filling with people on their way to outlying villages up, down and across the river. I thought how experienced the pilots must be to navigate the boats in complete darkness between islands and along narrow channels to their destinations. On one boat, a boy lay with his head in his girlfriend’s lap, sending a text message. The display of his mobile phone glowed in the dark.

We ate what we could of a delicious but too large fish supper in the air-conditioned Mascote restaurant, and finished with ice-cream and cachaça on the terrace outside. A shoe-shine boy came to us. None of us wanted our suede boots cleaned, but we gave him some coins and asked him about his life. He was one of seven children, he told us, of whom the eldest was 23. He was ten, and not the youngest. He would work until ten o’clock, and then go home to bed. He attended school in the mornings. Schooling is provided on a shift system. He studied arithmetic, Portuguese and geography.

He was a beautiful boy: cheerful, humorous and well nourished. He didn’t feel exploited because he was walking around at night with his shoe-shine box, trying to earn some money. He was glad to be helping his family.

Today we drove out of Santarém in a south-westerly direction on a good tarmac road which was once part of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. After a few kilometres, big pot-holes slowed our progress. We came to a sign announcing the immense distances to Rio, São Paulo, Brasilia, Porto Alegre and other places. Len remembered the sign from when he was here 26 years ago. The roads which did for a while link the Amazon to the great cities of the south have not been maintained. The tarmac runs out, the dirt roads are only passable in the dry season, and there are places where the forest has begun to cover them over again.

The irony for tourists like us, in a car, and wishing to see the rain forest, is that the very fact that we are on a road means that the rain forest has been pushed back. Up and down the road, on both sides, are shacks, bars, shops, churches and petrol stations — a long thin ribbon of clearance. The effect of the clearance is generally ugly. The cultivation behind and between the buildings does not look to be a success. There is little sign, from the road, of substantial crops.

We turned off the tarmac road and drove along dirt roads to Bel Terra. We approached the town along an avenue of shacks, each with its yard. In each yard is a satellite dish. The principal means of transport are bicycles, motorbikes, buses and, still, a few horses and carts. We saw two or three cars only. The town was founded in the 1930s, the second of two experimental settlements built by the Ford Motor Company to house the workers and managers at the rubber plantations which the company had established nearby. The plantations were failures. They lost Ford a lot of money, and it sold them to the Brazilian government in 1945.

At the centre of Bel Terra, the former managers’ dwellings are proper clapboard houses. The road is paved, there is a park with concrete benches, and the main church is far bigger than a place of this size would normally merit. You are in the ghost of a paternalist capitalist experiment. It’s as if a small town in America had suffered a draining-away of money, so all the Americans left. Time passed and the weeds grew. In the Americans’ place came poor people from another country.

We descended to the bank of the Tapajós, where we had a picnic. I got a bottle of beer from a bar near the river. In this most remote place, the woman greeted me as if she saw me every day.

Santarém27 April 2004

Today we took a light aeroplane — a four-seat Cessna — and flew across the Amazon. It was possible to see clearly the point where the waters of the Tapajós join those of the Amazon. The Tapajós is steely blue and the Amazon reddish brown. At the point where we crossed, the Amazon must be a hundred kilometres wide. There are islands, slicks of land, and places in this rainy season where you’re not sure whether you’re looking at land or water. There is a broad central channel, itself perhaps forty kilometres wide. I only really understood the Amazon, as a geographical phenomenon, in seeing it from the air this morning. It is a water world, a huge slow force containing its own masses of land, not — as smaller rivers are — a channel of water contained by land. The land within the water was intensely green. There were occasional single houses, utterly remote. There were solitary eagles, flocks of buzzards, and one dramatically white flock of egrets, turning itself inside out, bright against the brighter green below. It was all a spectacular example of the physical beauty of the world.

We buzzed around the town of Alenquer, on the north bank, with its grid pattern of dirt streets, and looked down at the church, the public buildings, the waterfront, the houses, the football field, the very few cars, the larger number of motorbikes, a bus or two; then flew east to Monte Alegre, where we landed. A man drove us in an ancient car down to the waterfront, where we had juice in the bar of the brand new and immensely stylish boat station: a small but brilliant example of the best contemporary public architecture. Brasil avança, said the construction notice board. ‘Not yet inaugurated,’ said our driver proudly. He drove us back up through the town, through the market, past the bus station, where very old buses were waiting to take people to villages along the north bank of the Amazon and inland.

We recrossed the river, coming again to the south bank perhaps twenty kilometres east of Santarém, and kept flying south. Now we saw, with a perfect clarity which hadn’t been possible during our road trip yesterday, evidence of what is happening to the Amazon rain forest. It is still there, in enormous quantity, but the scale and effectiveness of the invasion by agribusiness is terrifying. Where we flew, soya fields are everywhere. This land, which was once forest, has been cleared completely. It is nude. It might be in East Anglia or northern France. The soya producers are serious; they intend to make their investment pay. On the other hand, the clearances which have been made by peasant farmers, such as those we saw yesterday, look mostly to have failed. There are rectangles of land where secondary wild growth is returning; nowhere near the height of the original forest yet, but growing. I don’t know whether the returning growth, left alone, can eventually become forest again, with the full bio-diversity of the original.

Nor do I know, I’m afraid, who’s winning the struggle of words and actions between the federal and state governments, the big-money, industrial-scale invaders of the forest, the representatives of the people of the Amazon region, and the international organisations concerned about the forest’s destruction. I don’t know whether we’re heading relentlessly for a global environmental disaster, or whether a sustainable compromise can be agreed. Poor people need work. They have a right to prosper and enjoy their lives, like the young families in Belém who were enjoying theirs, like we enjoy ours. Governments in rich countries, as well as international organisations, have a responsibility to help them do this without destroying a mighty piece of nature on whose continuing existence we all depend.

Santarém28 April 2004

This morning we went to a travel agent in Santarém and arranged an afternoon boat trip out amongst the islands. Then we drove to Alter do Chao, a pretty village on the Tapajós, which is obviously popular with Brazilian tourists and weekenders. It’s about 45 minutes from Santarém, on a good road. There are numerous shops offering craftwork and ecological information.

After a bowl of soup back at the hotel, we boarded our boat. It was big enough for a dozen people, so it was very comfortable with only three of us there, plus Neles our guide, who spoke excellent English, plus a boy who drove the boat. We sailed into the channel, and immediately saw clearly the line where the waters of the Tapajós meet those of the Amazon, as we had seen yesterday from the air. The line is absolutely abrupt: the grey-blue Tapajós side by side with the red-brown Amazon. Neles said that the waters slide along side by side like this for several kilometres before they begin to mix. The Amazon is colder than the Tapajós, which keeps the waters apart. (I’m not sure of the physics of this, but I took his word for it.)

After admiring the phenomenon for a few minutes, we went further out into the river and sailed between two long islands. It being the rainy season, the islands were flooded. The houses we had seen from the air yesterday are built on stilts. Some are simple shacks; some quite spacious dwellings. Neles told us that the people keep cattle on the islands in the dry season. Now, the cattle are on the high land behind Santarém. Most of the people are with them there; only a few continue to live on the islands in the wet season. We saw a little church and a community centre which also serves as a school. The tables and chairs were roped up near the ceiling, out of the water.

The islands are places of quiet but intense beauty at this time of the year. Green is everywhere. There are white and grey egrets, small green parrots, grey herons, black herons with yellow stripes (these called tiger herons), weaver birds, and bright red and yellow waders shaped like moorhens.

We stopped the boat, moored it to a tree, and proceeded by canoe. Flowering weed was thick on the water, and Neles and the boy had to paddle hard. We came to a thick grove of trees, the water covering perhaps two metres of their trunks, and paddled underneath them. In the course of the next hour we saw an anaconda, four sloths and a family of marmoset monkeys. Others in the boat saw a racoon; I missed it. We heard but did not see two iguanas falling from branches into the water, one narrowly missing the canoe. This in the stealthy quiet as we pushed our way between the flooded trees.

The anaconda was at the top of a tree, wrapped around its uppermost branches. It was not big by anaconda standards; it was big by any other snake standards. It had eaten quite recently, and would remain up the tree for about two weeks, out of harm’s way, digesting. The sloths were also up trees, doing nothing. Their name and reputation are deserved. They eat the leaves of the trees in which they sit, when they need to. They come down every few days to relieve themselves, and then go up again. I asked how often they mate. Neles said that they mate as often as necessary to maintain the species, but not more. ‘Unlike people,’ I said. ‘Unlike Brazilians,’ he said. ‘I don’t know about Europeans.’

The monkeys swung noisily through the trees. The boy imitated the call of a baby monkey in distress, which brought them closer for a minute, puzzled. Then they moved on, performing astonishing feats of agility, as if gravity doesn’t exist for them.

We left the grove of trees, paddled across more thick weed and rejoined the channel between the two islands. We stopped by some giant water lilies. I felt how strong they are, pressing down on one with my hand. They will support a small alligator. Alligators are plentiful here, though one is much more likely to see them by night than by day. They are not generally dangerous; they tend to flee from people. Crocodiles are rarer. They will attack unprovoked, so people shoot them.

We passed a house, and Neles and the boy spoke to a man sitting there. He was not well. He had been across to the town a few weeks ago. Being unused to traffic, he had been hit by a car. They had taken him to hospital for an operation, and released blood from his stomach. But he could not move his shoulder. His wife sat beside him, saying nothing. The voices carried softly and clearly across the water.

We found the bigger boat again, and crossed back to Santarém in the twilight. The meeting of the waters was not visible by colour in this light, but a line of bubbles and some turbulence showed where it was.

Santarém29 April 2004

Today, with Neles again and a driver called Chico, we drove south from Santarém to a huge chunk of rain forest, called the Tapajós Forest, which is conserved as a national park. The trip on the tarmac road took about 75 minutes. Then we turned right and followed a good earth road for about five kilometres through the forest. We came to a clearing, where there was one substantial house and some shacks. A forest guide was waiting for us. He led us off into the forest, where we walked for three hours.

Neles used the words jungle and forest interchangeably. To me, the word jungle has always connoted a place of impassably dense vegetation. This jungle was not like that. Because the top canopy of great trees reduces light below, the lowest vegetation is not especially thick. It would be possible to walk, or at least scramble, in any direction. An inexperienced walker would become lost in the forest immediately. Everywhere the light is that of the interior of a cathedral in daytime. It filters and shoots from above, sometimes hitting the forest floor, usually not.

The ground was wet everywhere. The place was quiet. A few birds called, and we saw monkeys once. The forest guide showed us the tracks of wild pigs. There are jaguars, but you would be very fortunate, or unfortunate, to see one, and an encounter would be most likely at night. (My guidebook says that when Santarém was first settled by the Portuguese in the 17th century, its inhabitants closed their doors and remained inside at night, while jaguars prowled the streets.) The forest guide did carry a pistol as well as a knife. The knife he used for cutting overhanging branches and harvesting fruit. He filled a plastic bag with large brown fruit which Neles called butter fruit. It needs cooking, and is then delicious, so Neles said, though fatty. The forest guide also cut a large slab of bark from one tree. Neles said that the bark would be boiled, and its essence made into an infusion which, when drunk, shrinks and removes tumours, including cancerous ones. He offered the striking piece of information that when the Portuguese arrived in the Brazilian forest for the first time, European medicine knew about a hundred effective cures for illnesses. The people they encountered knew about four hundred. Many of those four hundred are now amongst the stock-in-trade of first-world medicine.

We admired several enormous trees which are two and three hundred years old, and one giant which may be a thousand years old. We saw some brightly coloured caterpillars. The forest guide picked up one large armoured beetle, about two centimetres square, which performs the useful task of eating faeces, and turning them into sweet soil. Cattle farmers pay good money for these beetles. They leave them to breed in their fields, where they eat the cattle dung, preventing flies from hatching and attacking the cattle.

Overall, the forest is not a place of bright colour. The shades are of green and brown. Occasionally, you see a red or white flower, which is striking for its rarity. There are dark-blue butterflies, about four times the size of the largest butterfly I’ve seen in Europe. We ate several fruits offered by the forest guide. One had an intense concentration of vitamin C; another was full of calcium and zinc.

So we took a short walk in the world’s largest rain forest; a place on whose survival the world’s future as a hospitable place for humans probably depends.

Flights from Santarém to Rio30 April 2004

We’re now on our way back from the Amazon back to Rio. Santarém to Manaus; change of planes; Manaus to Rio via Brasilia. It has been an amazing week. The people of the Amazon whom we have met have been, without exception, welcoming, courteous, humorous and relaxed. I saw, thanks to our trips by air, water and land, enough of the place to understand its essentials, geographically, ecologically and economically.

One is left with a sense of awe at the challenge Brazil, and the Amazon region in particular, face in balancing the country’s legitimate desire to enrich its poor people, to create a larger middle class, to become the great power in the world which it could be, given its wealth in natural resources, the diversity and scale of its industry and agriculture, and the size of its population; against the single, central fact that it possesses, in the Amazon rain forest and river system, a unique and precious place which must not be much more damaged than it is already, or catastrophe will ensue.

A Garota de Ipanema, Rio2 May 2004

Here I am in the bar where Vinícius de Moraes wrote (or had the inspiration for writing?) one of the most famous popular songs in history. The place is on a corner; the street outside which goes to the sea is named after the writer. Until this trip, I had an image of two middle-aged men, de Moraes and Antonio Jobim, the composer, sitting in the bar together, with a beer each, and seeing the vision of insouciant loveliness passing them without a sideways glance on her way to the beach (the sea is only a short block from here; I can see it from where I’m sitting), and both being filled with the melancholy of age and hopeless sexual longing. But I heard the other day that de Moraes was in here alone, and only gave the words to Jobim two years after he wrote them. No doubt the truth is documented somewhere. Anyhow, considering the fame of the song, the place is admirably restrained in its exploitation of the association. It bears the song’s name, changed from something else; the song’s first verse — score and words — is on a plaque on the wall outside and on a board inside, and you can buy a tee-shirt displaying the same words and music. There are a few framed black-and-white photographs. But that’s it. Somehow, the restraint is part of the style, which in my little experience is true of samba and bossa nova generally. The music, and the dancing that goes with it, are demonstrations of controlled intensity conducted in a small space.

Anyhow, the girls still pass, and sometimes I see one who has the same quality of self-possession, of beauty carried casually, as that which disarmed de Moraes; and I feel similarly disarmed.

I’ve had a wonderful time in Brazil. I’ll be back.

Kerfontaine5 September 2004

It is early autumn in Brittany, but still hot. It rained throughout August. Now it is perfect weather; calm, steady sunshine, but with a breeze to take off the full force of the heat. On each of the last few days, I have said to myself, ‘This is the perfect day. They don’t come better than this.’

On 15 August, while we were in England, Rosa phoned to say that Albert had died. [See the chapter called Kerfontaine and Albert in ‘My Life in Prose’.]

Kerfontaine10 September 2004

We went back to Britain for eleven days in August. First we flew to Edinburgh, rented a car and drove up to Inverness-shire, for the wedding of our friends Carol Blake and David Mellor. We spent six nights in a comfortable hotel near Grantown-on-Spey. I’d never been to the highlands of Scotland before, apart from a 24-hour trip to Cromarty on Channel 4 business. I was quite enchanted by its beauty, and by its emptiness. We drove around every day except the wedding day, including one long day when we crossed to Wester Ross, and saw the magical sight, in the rain, of the Cuillin mountains on Skye rising above a level of cloud which hung over the island across the sea. On another day, we drove around the Black Isle in the sunshine, the fields full of ripe oats, barley and wheat, and stopped and admired Cromarty, and looked at the oil rigs standing in a row down the Cromarty Firth, about to be or having been maintained or repaired. On another day we went east, and another day south, up and down and around in Moray and Aberdeenshire. The combination of true wildness on the heather-clad moors, and the fields of crops, waiting to be cut, stirring in the warm breeze lower down the hills, was beautiful and satisfying.

We stopped and studied two bridges. One crosses the Spey at Craigellachie. It was built by Thomas Telford, no less, in 1814. It has a single iron arch, and two stone castellated pillars at each end. Of course it reminded me of the iron bridge at Ironbridge, and I wondered how many iron bridges had been built in the interval between the construction of the very first and that of Craigellachie bridge. The other bridge crosses the Don at Strathdon. It has a single narrow stone arch, and there is an inscription at the apex of the arch: Built 1715 by John Forbes of Inverernan. Both bridges are perfectly beautiful, simple structures, ‘strong through tension’, as Seamus Heaney puts it in a little poem in Electric Light.

After seeing something of the Highlands, we flew from Inverness to Luton, rented another car, and spent four days celebrating my father’s 80th birthday in Wootton. All five children turned up, plus partners and children, so there were about 20 people there for the main meal on the Saturday evening. We gave dad a bicycle. He had had his old one for a very long time, and it was worn out, unlike him.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town2 December 2004

Twelve days ago, I went to New York, because The Illustrated Mum, the drama I commissioned in my last months at Channel 4, had been nominated for an International Emmy. This was the third time I’d been to the Emmy ceremony. I took a Saturday morning plane with some colleagues who had worked on the film. About an hour into the flight I was taken suddenly and violently ill. I thought the plane had lurched, because I lost any sense of balance, but it hadn’t. I began to vomit, and continued to do so regularly for the remaining six hours of the flight, even when there was nothing left in me but stomach bile. I had no strength in my legs; couldn’t stand up. My head lolled. Every time I tried to lift it up, I desired to vomit again. I remained leaning forward in something like the brace position, with a big plastic bag hooked on to my wrists.

My friends feared that I might have had a heart attack. I knew that I hadn’t, because I had no pains in my chest. But the experience was awful. I just about staggered off the plane at JFK, two friends holding me before and behind, and collapsed into a wheel-chair. I was whisked along private corridors, head still lolling, friends following. Doors were unlocked and re-locked. We emerged at the front of the customs and immigration queue, where despite my condition I was fingerprinted and photographed like everyone else. Outside the terminal building, an ambulance waited. I was laid out on the stretcher in the ambulance, and an oxygen mask was clamped over my mouth.

Had this misfortune not overtaken me, I would have gone with the others straight to Manhattan to give a seminar about the making of the film. The producer, the director and Michelle Collins, the principal actor, were essential to this session. So we agreed that Michelle’s fiancé Parry, whom I hadn’t met before, would come with me in the ambulance, while the others went on to Manhattan.

We were at the local hospital in Queen’s within ten minutes. I was wheeled into the ER, which was just like ER in the television series of that name, except that I didn’t hear any high-speed shouting of medical instructions. People walked, not ran. But the physical environment, with its functional surfaces, bare of adornment; the sense of a multiplicity of tasks being undertaken simultaneously by many doctors, nurses, technicians, cleaners, all coming and going, criss-crossing each other; the constant, delicate and sometimes fraught interactions with patients, in pain, under stress, angry, frightened or just plain awkward and rude: that was all there.

For the next five hours I was sampled and examined by a succession of doctors and nurses. After about two hours I ceased to vomit. Once the doctors had established that there was nothing wrong with my heart, they offered two diagnoses. Either I had a virus in that part of the head which controls balance — apparently a common condition which people don’t much notice except when being shaken about on some means of transport; or, more likely, I had been poisoned. I agreed that the poison had probably been in a large can of tomato juice I had drunk on the plane, having refused the dreadful meal American Airlines offered me. I had vaguely thought at the time that the taste wasn’t the freshest, but I was writing something, not paying much attention to the drink, and had finished it anyway.

Parry stayed faithfully with me throughout this time; or rather, he stayed as long as he was permitted to, since the rules of the ER were that visitors could only remain with their friends or family for 15 minutes in every hour. I guess the staff have to do some pretty unpleasant things to people in there, and they don’t want the laity fainting all over the place. During one of Parry’s 45-minute absences, the doctors decided to keep me in the hospital overnight. So all my clothes and other belongings, which had been dumped on the lower shelf of my trolley when I had been admitted and undressed, were put into three large plastic bags, each marked ‘Personal Property’ in big black capital letters. At about that time, I became desperate for a pee, but was still not able to walk. So a nurse brought me a urine bottle, and then closed the curtains around the place where they had parked the trolley, for modesty. At the same time, she put the plastic bags outside the curtains, to be collected by the porters who were going to move me. Just after this, Parry came back, to see the curtains closed around me, and the worldly possessions I had had with me stacked outside. He assumed the worst. As I was trying, completely unsuccessfully, to pee sideways into a urine bottle, his white face appeared between the curtains. ‘Thank God you’re all right,’ he said. ‘I hardly know you.’ Even the mirth this provoked in me was not enough to set the urine flowing, and I had to wait another hour or so, until the ability to walk returned to me, before relieving my agonised bladder.

Some time later, I was wheeled upstairs to an ordinary ward, and Parry went on to the hotel. Having eaten nothing for a night and a day, and having expelled absolutely everything from the system from the day before that, I was ravenous. The tuna sandwich waiting for me by my bed tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten.

The next day a doctor came to see me and told me I could leave. I was well. It must have been food poisoning. Two other friends who had worked on The Illustrated Mum, who had arrived in New York a few days earlier, came to get me. I stepped out with them into a quiet Sunday morning in a part of New York I might never otherwise have seen in my life. I was wobbly but fine. We took the subway to Manhattan. My luggage from the plane was in the hotel room. I had a bath, washed my hair, put on clean clothes and went out to lunch, feeling that I had rejoined the living.

We won the Emmy. Afterwards, we went to the New York branch of Soho House and drank champagne until late. The next day, I walked around by myself, savouring the quiet feeling of achievement, and gave myself a delicious solitary lunch at a comfortable, old-world restaurant next to the Museum of Modern Art. Gazpacho was on the menu, and I thought I’d try it, to dispel any lingering fear of tomatoes (and to check that I hadn’t suddenly become allergic to them). Delicious, and no ill effects.

There was no malaise on the flight back that night. I mentioned to a steward the problem I had had on the way across, and asked for some extra sick bags to reassure myself. A kind man across the cabin, overhearing what I said and seeing my height, offered to swap seats with me, so I had a seat in the aisle in front of an emergency exit, with the extra leg room. I read and wrote all the way to London. I have always loved the names of the navigation points which you are shown on the TV screens on planes, and which guide the flight. I wrote them all down, approximately in the order they appeared: New York, Halifax, Godlhab (which is in Greenland), Goose Bay, Madrid, St John’s, San Juan, Miami, Casablanca, St George, Dakar, Ungava Bay, Bogotá, Lima, Rekyavik, Freetown, Boston, Fortaleza, Panama, Belém (which I visited in April), Luanda, Glasgow, Dublin, London, Lisbon, Berlin, Kinshasa, Cork, Athens, Belfast, Vienna, Cairo, Exeter, Shannon, Turin, Algiers, Milan, Brest, St Helier, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bournemouth, Rome, Tunis, Killarney, Berlin, Addis Ababa, Rennes, Wexford, Tours, Caen, Plymouth, Stockholm, Munich, Naples, Aberystwyth, Le Havre, Lille, Liverpool, Coventry, Oxford, Bristol, Luton, Brighton, Gwent, Windsor, Marseille, Amsterdam, Norwich, Chartwell, Cambridge, Rotterdam, Cologne, Zurich, Stonehenge, Winchester. What a mixture of the famous and the unheard-of, the romantic and the banal! Names across a hemisphere helping to squeeze a lemon pip on an exact flight path through the night. I thought I might try to turn them into some kind of found poem, but I haven’t done anything about it.

Manchester to London train 26 April 2005

It’s been a beautiful day. Green is everywhere. Cherry blossom is at its brightest, and the lilac is out. Clouds travel in unique, never repeated formations across a sky which is deeper blue overhead, paler blue towards the horizon. We’ve just passed that place near Rugby where the railway, the canal and the M1 run side by side. There’s a little yellow stone church squashed between the canal and the railway. First, in the 1780s, the navvies came by and built the canal, raised on an embankment so close to the church that travellers on boats could and can peer through the east window. Fifty years later, the navvies’ grandsons came by and built the railway, raised on another embankment so close to the church that travellers on trains could and can glance through the west window, although — even when the railway was new — they were travelling too fast to peer. 120 years after that, the navvies’ grandsons’ descendants and their machines came and built the M1 on a third embankment 200 yards east of the canal. Drivers and their passengers could and can glance at the church, but are too far away and moving too fast to see anything through the east window.

Although the objective impact of the M1’s arrival on the peace of the place was far greater than those of the railway and the canal, the earlier arrivals must I suppose have been a greater shock to the feelings and habits of mind of the people there at the time. Rural England had never known anything like it. By the 1950s, sensibilities were callused.

Kerfontaine27 September 2005

Over the last two years, we’ve had major works done at Kerfontaine, and last week they were completed. At the back of the house, there is now a beautiful new study, with an oak parquet floor and French windows looking out over a wooden terrasse and down the garden. The French windows and the Velux in the roof let in lots of light. The two armchairs which my great-aunt Margaret gave me 30 years ago have been splendidly restored by a local ébéniste working in partnership with a tapissier. The chairs are about 115 years old, in walnut, a wedding present to my great-grandparents.

The room occupies the space which once was the cave where Albert stored Kerfontaine’s fruit and vegetables and kept his tools. The inner wall is the cave wall, cleaned up and with the joints re-pointed in a honey-coloured cement mortar. I have a stout big writing table, nothing fussy, easily accommodating the computer, papers, notebooks and dictionaries. There is a phone point next to me, so the internet is at hand, though we’re still on the old dial-up system. ‘Le haut débit [broadband] n’est pas encore arrivé dans les communes rurales,’ says my man at France Télécom. (I remember how I allowed myself to become irritated at the slowness of dial-up one afternoon in an internet café at Santarém, 500 miles up the Amazon, until I bethought myself.) Albert’s vegetable garden has become a lawn. We’ve kept the hedge. In the winter it’ll be planted with flowering trees and shrubs. I have no desire to grow vegetables myself; too much work, and in any case I like buying them at Plouay market on Mondays.

Next year I’ll put a plaque carrying Albert’s name, dates and a sentence on the wall which he built around the spring in the wood.

Kerfontaine29 December 2005

We arrived at Kerfontaine yesterday. We stayed on Tuesday night in a hotel near Rouen. Yesterday we drove through Normandy on a brilliant freezing day, with snow all around. The landscape was spectacular: woodland and fields and half-timbered farms all shining white. Each branch of each tree carried its thick load of snow: Every branch big with it, as Hardy wrote. But his poem is called Snow in the Suburbs. This was snow in the full, open, sweeping countryside, with great uninterrupted rectangles dazzling the eye.

Occurrences: Book Five

Camden Town27 April 2006

I’m recovering from a major operation. At the beginning of January, I began to feel an intense, burning pain in the left leg, from buttock down to the back of the ankle. It was particularly bad in the mornings, when I had difficulty getting out of bed and stepping into the bath-tub to have a shower. The doctor gave me a fortnight’s course of anti-inflammatory pills, thinking that I might have an inflamed nerve. I took these, but they did no good. Rather than go back to the doctor, I went to a chiropractor in Paddington, to whom Helen had gone about five years ago with sciatica, and who had cured her by manipulation. He is a jovial South African called Ashton Vice. He manipulated me, quite robustly, over about eight sessions in four weeks. On two occasions he put acupuncture needles into me. (I had no idea they were so long — about three inches — and he pushed them all the way in at various points on my left buttock and leg. I felt nothing, except once, when I had a sensation like a sharp electric shock.)

These treatments did not help either, or only marginally. Ashton and I agreed that if he had been going to cure me, I would already have started to feel better. He was sure that the problem lay in the lumbar region of the spine, where something was transferring pain down the nerves of my left leg. I should have an MRI scan.

I decided that I was going to use private medicine, if I could afford it, and get the condition diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. (Ashton was private, of course, but his charges were modest — £40 a session.) I went to an MRI centre in Harley Street, recommended by Ashton, and climbed into the machine. For 25 minutes it took pictures of my body from the neck down to the tops of the legs. As I lay there, I thought with pride that my father had played a major part in the development of MRI in the 1960s and 1970s, though he had worked on smaller machines, called quantity analysers, which measured certain constituents of foodstuffs. He could put a small piece of chocolate in the machine, for example, and it would tell him immediately how much fat was in it. Peter Mansfield and his team at Nottingham University (my father’s old university) had gone on to invent the MRI machine which has so revolutionised the diagnosis of the ills of the body, for which Mansfield quite rightly received a knighthood and the Nobel Prize. My father took Mansfield one of his own magnets to try in one of the early prototypes of Mansfield’s machine, but Mansfield needed more powerful electro-magnets than were available to my father. Nonetheless, I thought, I might not be lying in this machine now if my father hadn’t done that early work. Charge: £350.

The MRI report and pictures told Ashton and me that I had a major extrusion of the L4/L5 disc — the disc between the fourth and fifth vertebrae of the lumbar section of the spine — which was pushing into the theca, the sac containing the roots of the nerves which run down my left leg. Ashton said I should consult a certain neurosurgeon, a Mr Afshar, also in Harley Street, immediately. I visited Mr Afshar a few days later. He examined me, made me try to push my left big toe against his hand (I had no force there, unlike in my right big toe), and tapped me with a reflex hammer below the knee cap (immediate reflex) and on the Achilles tendon (no reflex at all). He read the MRI report. Then we looked together at the pictures. The problem was obvious. The discal hernia was sticking so far out into my spinal canal that it looked like the Pont d’Avignon from the air.

Mr Afshar told me it was likely, leaving aside the pain I was in, that if I didn’t do anything about the hernia, it would in the next year begin to cause permanent damage to the nerves in my left leg. They would atrophy, and I would lose mobility in that leg. He recommended a micro-endoscopic discectomy. He personally performs about 100 of these operations a year. He told me that there is a very high chance of complete recovery. Complications occur in about 2% of cases.

This conversation took place on Thursday 23 March. We went to see his secretary. If I wished, he could do the operation the following Wednesday evening. He would charge £1500. The anaesthetist would charge £500. Five nights in The London Clinic, a private hospital adjacent to his consulting rooms, would cost £5400; each subsequent 24 hours would be another £640. I walked back to my office at Teachers TV in Berners Street and thought about the matter for an hour. Then I phoned and said I would have it done.

During the days between the decision and the operation I was frightened. I knew I was doing the right thing; I had absolute confidence in Mr Afshar, who, apart from being evidently at the top of his profession, was a charming man, with none of that overbearing arrogance which afflicts some of those with consulting rooms in Harley Street. Nonetheless, someone was going to be messing about in my spine with a sharp instrument, and I kept having the thought that a grave-faced Mr Afshar would come to me in my room the day after the operation and tell me, with great regret, that something had gone wrong and I would never walk again.

I didn’t want to tell Helen that I was frightened. I told her simply that I was worried. On the Monday afternoon, at work, I told Vanessa Linden that I was frightened, and once I had used the word aloud to someone else, the fear diminished and then departed.

I went into The London Clinic on the Wednesday afternoon. At about 6.30, Mr Afshar appeared with the consent form. I signed. I donned a gown, and walked down to the operating theatre, in the basement of the building, with a nurse. I lay on a trolley, and the anaesthetist, Dr Devros, put opiates in my arm. I thought about the last time I had had an anaesthetic, in Farnborough Hospital, Kent, in 1962, when my appendix had been removed. On that occasion, the surgeon had told me to count to ten. I had got to three…

The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the trolley, and Mr Afshar was smiling and saying that the operation had been a complete success. I waggled my left leg, and I could tell immediately that he was right. I had been unconscious for no more than 90 minutes. I made roguish remarks to the nurses who were putting morphine into one arm, a saline drip into the other, and oxygen up my nose. They smiled indulgently, having seen and heard such nonsense many times before. With childish pride, I began telling them how my father had invented the MRI machine. They smiled some more. Once fully hooked up to my life-support systems, I was pushed out of the operating theatre to the lift, and taken to my room on the sixth floor. I felt good. I spoke to Helen on the phone.

I don’t think I slept at all that night, but I didn’t mind. I just lay there, knowing that the anaesthetics were still in me, and that the morphine must be having some effect, and thought how wonderful it was that I had just had this done, so quickly, and that I was going to be all right.

Mr Afshar had made a vertical cut in my flesh, about three inches long, following the lumbar section of the spine. Then, using a microscopic probe remotely controlled, he had pushed aside the nerves and muscles in the vicinity of the extrusion. Once the probe was at the site of the extrusion, it simply dug it away, I imagine like a tiny JCB shovel. The consistency of the matter which had herniated, said Mr Afshar, was like that of crab meat. (Dr Vice had described it as toothpaste.) The discs in the spine have two parts. There is the tough outer ring, known as the annulus fibrosus, and the crab-meat- or toothpaste-like inner core, known as the nucleus pulposus. My problem had been that the nucleus pulposus of my L4/L5 disc had been squeezed under or over or through its annulus fibrosus. When Mr Afshar’s probe had taken away the extrusion, it ventured inside the annulus fibrosus (I think he said that it got in through a tiny hole in the ring) and removed the remaining nucleus pulposus too, to avoid the possibility that that might herniate in the future.

I recovered rapidly. On the Thursday afternoon, Mr Afshar visited and said that I could manage without morphine, saline drip or oxygen. I was disconnected. On the Friday, I went for my first walk, along the corridor with a physiotherapist. On the Saturday morning, joy of joys, a nurse took me to a walk-in shower room, and I had a shower and washed my hair. On the Sunday morning, after three days of constipation brought about by the anaesthetics, the morphine and my lack of mobility, I had such an enormous bowel movement that I found myself humming the Hallelujah Chorus immediately afterwards. These acts made me feel l’homme moyen sensuel once again.

The only cause for concern during this period was that my temperature kept shooting up during the evenings. The doctors and nurses worried that an infection might have got into the body during the operation. They gave me antibiotic pills. These made me nauseous, and I was sick in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday. I took no more antibiotics on Saturday, but during that evening my temperature went up again. I said to Rosie the nurse that I’d really rather avoid the pills. Was there some other way I could take antibiotics? Well, she said, I could put them into your bottom. I thought about this for a few minutes, and then rang for her and said all right. While she was away getting the equipment, I thought how unpleasant it must be for a nurse to put something into a patient’s rectum when that part wasn’t completely clean, so just to be sure I got up and washed myself. I was lying back on the bed when Rosie reappeared. She told me to lie on my side. I did so and, to be helpful, raised my upper leg away from my lower, so the anus was more accessible. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘you don’t need to do that.’ I lowered the leg, puzzled, and the next thing I knew was an intense pain as she pressed a syringe into my buttock, a long, long way, until she found a muscle. My reactions were mixed at this point. There was the relief at my misunderstanding, and at the knowledge that I wasn’t going to have to suffer the indignity of a suppository introduced into my anus. And there was the recognition that this injection was causing me worse pain than anything I had suffered since arriving in the hospital. I felt like a horse being put down. I told Rosie what I thought she had been going to do to me, and we had a good laugh.

I slept well that night, and after the triumph of the bowels the following morning, I felt ready for anything. But then Rosie came in prepared to give me another injection. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I thought one would be it!’ ‘Four times a day,’ she said, ‘just like the pills.’ ‘I’ll go back on the pills,’ I said, ‘and see if I tolerate them any better.’ ‘OK,’ she said. I did, and this time I felt no sickness, thank God.

The care I received during my six days and nights in The London Clinic was superb. I knew I was jumping the NHS queue, but I just decided to do it. All the staff — doctors, nurses, the providers of the excellent food, the cleaners — were cheerful and unstressed. They had enough work, but not too much. They had time to talk. They were enthusiastic observers of and participants in my recovery. I had my own room, looking out over the Marylebone Road towards Regents Park, with bathroom ensuite (though the walk-in shower was down the corridor), so I had precious privacy. My own television and radio. Visitors welcome at any time of day. I could turn out the light when I wanted to sleep at night, not when someone else decided it was bedtime. It was the way things ought to be — and could be in a rich country like ours — for all sick people, but aren’t.

Helen was simply wonderful. She came every day, bringing newspapers and books, and stayed for hours, feeding me when I was still horizontal, not talking when there was nothing to talk about, just being there, reading or writing or arranging the constantly arriving bouquets of flowers. The best book she brought was Seamus Heaney’s new collection District and Circle, which I read with intense pleasure and admiration, a gift, a blessing, lying on my back and holding it up as if to the light.

Stephen Eyers came and took me home on the Tuesday morning. I lowered myself stiffly into the front passenger seat of a hired saloon car for the short trip to Camden Town, and hauled myself stiffly out at the street door of our flats. Helen was there, and I walked up the two flights of stairs slowly but without difficulty. The three of us had coffee, toast and jam, which tasted exquisite.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasant, enforced regime of convalescence. Every day I’ve walked around Regents Park, watching as the spring has gathered momentum. The chestnut leaves stick up into the air for a day or two after birth, and then fall downwards, intensely green and limp with life. Chestnut flowers are stiff green cones of bud to begin with. Then the florets open, from the bottom upwards, their colour between white and the palest of yellows, with tiny pink lines on them. Sycamore flowers are green even when open — the only green flowers I know. As April has passed, limes, planes, oaks and ashes have stirred in turn. Once a tree is minded to put forth its leaves, the process is quick — three days at the most. If the weather is warm, leaves can appear between one day’s visit and the next.

I’m in good shape.

Kerfontaine31 December 2006

On Christmas Eve, the day we arrived here, I walked down into the wood and cut branches of holly, which I intertwined in the old wooden plate-racks above the fireplace in the house. It felt significant. For the first time, we were spending Christmas in our own place, rather than — as nearly always throughout my adult life — with my parents.

It was a relief and a liberation: no fixed traditions (must have turkey, must listen to King’s College, Cambridge carol service), no management of difficult emotional weather, none of the melancholy which always assails me at Christmas because I find the carols unbearably sad, because my parents have invested their whole lives, now coming to an end, in a religious fancy whose most intense celebration is at Christmas, and of course I love them while knowing that none of it is true. For once I could be what I am: a grown-up who is now sure that Darwin was right, sure that the whole of religion is an invention of humans once they got to a stage of evolution where self-consciousness was possible, and who, appalled by the realisation that there is birth, life and death and that is all, turned away from such a dreadful truth and invented comforts in the form of saviours and an afterlife (and, in the case of Christianity, a choice of heaven and hell to keep people in order). Last year I looked up yule on the internet, and was glad to read about the ancients, who had a more permanent reason, in the northern hemisphere, for a celebration in late December; the days had arrived at their shortest and would now lengthen. The sun would recover its strength. They sat around their fires with the beer they had brewed, and told stories. That seems to me a reasonable thing to do. One can celebrate the winter solstice, 1500 and more years later, even though the mighty superstructure of Christianity and now commerce sits on top of it.

On Christmas Day we got up late, had a lovely ordinary breakfast, and went up to greet our neighbours and give them presents. (When we had arrived the previous day, there was a card, an orchid and a bottle of Côteaux du Layon from them waiting for us in the fireplace. The card was written in perfect English, and said ‘Welcome to your first Christmas at Kerfontaine’.) Then we drove down to the sea at Fort Bloqué, and walked along the beach. The drive was like a dream; we were the only car on the road. The entirety of France was at lunch. The weather was overcast and perfectly still. Tiny waves. Not a breath of wind. Cold but not freezing. We walked for a couple of hours, I marvelling at how happy I was because, whatever I was feeling, I was allowed to feel it. No obligations of any kind. And what I was feeling was simply self-possession, self-awareness, gratitude at being fit and well after illness, an adult in love with my surroundings and the person next to me. Little grey and black seabirds wheeled and screamed in groups, feeding at the water’s edge. Millions of tiny mussels clung to the rocks. A few people began to appear after their lunches. We drove home, banked up the fire, poured glasses of sherry and opened our presents. Then we made and ate the meal: oysters, foie gras, guinea-fowl, Christmas pudding; champagne, claret and the Côteaux du Layon. We sat and read until about one o’clock. It was a wonderful day; easily the best Christmas Day I have had.

KerfontaineNew Year's Day, 1 January 2007

The poetry harvest in 2006 was pretty good by my modest standards. I make it 17, including translations: ‘Away for the Week — One More Thing’ (originally called ‘Difficulties of Translation’), ‘Rough Winds’, ‘Up All Night’, ‘Aloft’, ‘Arts Minister Briefs Journalists’, ‘Car Wash’, a translation of Montale’s ‘I limoni’ (finished finally after many years), ‘Cut Cornfield’, a translation of Dante’s ‘Guido i’ vorrei’, ‘Paul, I should like’ (a sonnet to Paul Ashton which I hope will be the first in a series, each addressed to a friend after the manner of ‘Guido i’ vorrei’ — an idea Paul suggested to me a couple of years ago), ‘Epiphany 2006’, ‘The Twelfth of July’, ‘The Squirrel and the Conkers’, ‘Desolate’, a tribute to my friend Alex McLeod, who died in November, ‘Christmas Atheist’ and ‘Pupil to Teacher’.

The last-mentioned poem, which I wrote in the summer, refers to one of the best things I did this year. In early July, just before we came away, I finally resumed contact with my English teacher Peter Hetherington, the person who, more than anybody, created the person I have been as an adult, through his inspirational influence on me between the ages of 14 and 18. I telephoned. There he was. The conversation was easy. I went round to his house at Bletsoe in Bedfordshire one warm evening. When he had taught me he had been a bachelor. He has married since. I didn’t meet his wife Monica that evening; she was out at a sixth-form dance at Bedford Modern School, the school where Peter and I met, where Peter and she met later when she went to teach there, which she still does. (The four of us are going out together in January.) I met Peter’s son and son’s girlfriend: both delightful. Then Peter and I walked down to the pub and spent three hours talking over a meal. It was the most perfect example of how no barriers exist between truly kindred spirits, even though nearly 40 years had passed since our last proper conversation. (I have seen him a couple of times in the interim, but with others at old boys’ get-togethers — not real meetings.) I told him, soberly and seriously at the beginning of the evening, that he had been a great, great teacher, and that I owed him, intellectually and in terms of the stance on life I had taken since I had left school, more than I owed to anyone else. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that is a heavy responsibility. You were a great pupil.’ The wonderful thing about the content of our conversation that evening is that though it was of course partly retrospective, filling in essential information about events in the ‘great gap of time since first we were dissever’d’ (he quoted the line; I had been Florizel in his production of The Winter’s Tale in 1967), the talk was mainly about now. And our beliefs, our sensibilities, just chimed and chimed.

I gave Peter two presents that night. One was a DVD set of Beckett on Film. [As I wrote in the first chapter of ‘My Life in Prose’,] Peter had introduced me to Beckett in autumn 1966, near the beginning of the A-Level English course. We had first read King Lear, which was on the syllabus. Then he said, ‘Right, now we’re going to read a play which isn’t on the syllabus. It’s called Waiting for Godot. I believe that it and Lear are the two greatest plays written in English in the last 500 years.’ This was an extraordinary and thrilling thing to be told at the age of 15. Later, I realised what a bold judgement it had been, only 11 years after the play had first been performed in England, to overwhelming critical derision (the exception being Harold Hobson, who — I read in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of Peter Hall’s production — wrote in support of the play and the production week after week in The Sunday Times).

The second present was my poems. Later that summer, Peter wrote to me in France to say that he had really enjoyed them, and that it was a very fine collection. This made me immensely proud, and I wrote back to tell him so, enclosing the poem Pupil to Teacher, which I had written in tribute to him.

Alex McLeod died on 4 November. The Parkinson’s Disease from which he had suffered for about 10 years had reduced him to virtual helplessness at the end. I had power of attorney over his affairs. He was in a nursing home at Great Dunmow, the fourth he had been in during the two and a half years since he gave up his flat in Hackney and stopped living independently. Richard Beckley was with him in the home until the last few weeks, when Richard quite rightly accepted the offer of a flat in sheltered accommodation round the corner. He still saw Alex for long periods every day. Richard was Alex’s partner for 15 years, and you would not find a more shining example of practical, caring and constant love during Alex’s illness. It wasn’t just that Richard attended to Alex’s personal needs, making sure that he had the kind of extra food and drink that he liked, buying his clothes, arranging trips out; it was also that he fought endless battles with the management of the homes Alex was in, against laziness, inefficiency and forgetfulness in the provision of the routine care Alex was supposed to get, and — amazingly — sometimes the actual unkindness of some of the staff. Alex was paying an enormous amount of money for his care — around £800 a week — and I don’t think he ever got value for what he paid. As ever in organisations, some of the staff were wonderful. But one home in particular, the newest and shiniest of them, at Sawbridgeworth, which at a cursory glance seemed to represent exactly what care of the elderly and infirm should be like — nice rooms with plenty of light, wide corridors, no smell of age or piss — and which supposedly specialised in looking after people with neurological illnesses, was in fact guilty of scandalous neglect of Alex. The medication on which he depended rarely arrived on time; the food was disgusting. Richard battled every day to get the place to do for Alex what it had contracted to do, and was charging him so much for.

The Great Dunmow home was easily the best, though not perfect. Several of the staff there really loved Alex, and he appreciated that.

At the funeral, Alex’s wife Miriam read the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, beginning ‘To everything there is a season…’ Andrew, Alex’s son, delivered a moving tribute. I read a poem I had written:

In Memoriam Alex McLeod

Born 31 December 1921, died 4 November 2006

He loved long-distance walks. He knew the River Lea
from Three Mill Island, over Hackney Marshes,
on past locks and once-were-villages as the city’s grip loosened
until fields which did his heart good.

He knew the upstream Thames and Oxfordshire’s canals:
adopted hinterland for this arrivant Londoner
who stayed and served so many London schools,
their learners and their teachers, for so long, so well,
you’d number in their thousands those he taught and touched.

Mind you, Home Counties towpaths were a dawdle in the park
for one who’d climbed New Zealand’s mountains in his youth.
The student Tramping Club — all communists, all singers —
crossed the Kaimanawa Range, the Tongariro, Rangitoto:
ancient nation names a gift to music and to metricality.
And followed sea coasts: Coromandel, Taranaki Bight, Cape Turnagain.
He did, a lifetime later, clambering and pacing,
carrying the years behind him like a lunch-stop knapsack, nothing to it.

I see him peering at a map the summer night
before we climbed Mont Vallier. The planning of the route;
the pleasure in the prospect. Then the long, long day
which started in the dark, which finished in the dark,
containing at its height the fierce blue flames
of Pyrenean flowers burning through mist.

Later, on a tide-smoothed strand in Brittany,
small to my tall, his stride is matching mine
despite the thirty years between us
and the Parkinson’s which hinders him already.

Teacher, writer, organiser, arch-encourager; and husband, parent, lover;
one for whom the point of living was to change a world which, crying
out for change, still yielded, and in armfuls, joy;
whose life scorned easy rides;
whose years, he said right to the end, were worth the trip:
he goes before us, that alert, neat gait, light in his eye, and leaning into hope.

Kerfontaine31 August 2007

My mother has been suffering for about 10 years now from a distressing and progressively worsening condition called systemic scleroderma. This means that the inner digestive tract, all the way through the body, is hardening and losing its porosity. The most grievous effect of the degeneration is that food, when arriving in the gut, isn’t broken down by enzymes as it should be; it sits there and rots, causing pain and bloating of the stomach, and provoking frequent episodes of diarrhoea. Mother gets much of her nutrition now in liquid form, through a tube into the stomach, though she can take some food in the usual way as long as she’s very careful about what and how much she eats. She is weak and thin, and spends more and more time in bed. My father has cared for her with patient devotion all this time. Meanwhile, he is beginning to show early signs of some kind of dementia, in occasional loss of short-term memory and periods of confusion. Last month, he fainted while he was in church, and was taken to hospital. He stayed in for one night. The doctors diagnosed an aortic aneurism: as I understand it, a ballooning of the aorta, the main artery carrying blood from the heart. I flew back to England for a few days. An aneurism of the aorta is a serious condition which can mean sudden death if the aneurism bursts. Dad’s going to see two heart specialists, next week and the week after, and he’ll know then whether an operation is possible or desirable, or whether he must take medicine, or just live quietly.

It must be because of my parents’ failing powers that I think a lot about death these days. It’s a complete waste of time, but I can’t stop doing it. When I light the fire here, which I have done a few times this cold summer, I think about my own body in the crematorium oven. I imagine it yielding to the flames, boiling and bursting. It will happen on a particular date in the not-too-distant future. When I’m driving along by myself, I dwell dolefully on how insignificant are the achievements of my life so far, and on how little of lasting worth I am likely to achieve in the years left to me. I was never like this before. I was always a practical, positive person. Perhaps it’s also because — as must happen when you get to middle age — serious or mortal illness sometimes seems to be all around: my parents; Alex McLeod, who died last November; his partner Richard Beckley, who now has lung cancer; Harold Rosen, who’s just has an operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon, and is very poorly; and friends of my own age with non-Hodgkin’s lyphoma and myeloma. Another reason is that, when I see my parents being irritable with each other, despite the deep love between them, stuck together as they are in a narrow space of habit and routine, I suspect that doubt must be in even their minds about whether there is anything after death. All the joyous certainty of 40 and 50 years ago is falling away. Are they really going to meet Jesus the moment their heart stops beating, or on the Last Day? Of course they’re not. I read a beautiful article in Le Monde yesterday about a bee, fossilised in amber, bearing the pollen of orchids on its back. The bee lived between 15 and 20 million years ago, in the Dominican Republic, which wasn’t a republic then. The scientists who have studied it now believe that orchids appeared on earth between 76 and 84 million years ago. There was an enlarged photograph of the bee. The specks of orchid pollen were quite clear on its back. Breathtaking. It’s that kind of knowledge that I want, bracing knowledge that makes me face up to my fate, get on with my life and enjoy it and do the things I want to do, not mope about with gloomy bits of philosophising, still tainted by all the religious rubbish which I thought I had got rid of good and proper.

Camden Town30 November 2007

In a moment of wild and foolish optimism in September, I began to write a post-script to the chapter on politics in ‘My Life in Prose’.

‘To descend from the grand and general to the personal and particular, Gordon Brown’s performance since he took over as prime minister from Tony Blair at the end of June makes me sure I was right to stick with the Labour Party. He’s been brilliant. Since he took over, he’s had to deal with and respond to attempted terrorist outrages, widespread flooding, a foot-and-mouth outbreak and the continuing tragedy of children being killed by other children in the poorer parts of our cities. It hasn’t been a quiet summer. His actions and his tone have been just right. He sounds like a statesman. Apart from unforeseen events, he has made some planned announcements, notably to give more power to parliament vis-à-vis the executive, which are wise and truly democratic. I like his cabinet appointments. He has given some ministerial and advisory posts to people outside the Labour Party, which not everybody approved of, but which I think was imaginative and inclusive. He made the Liberals look foolish by offering to give Paddy Ashdown a Cabinet post, only for Ming Campbell to refuse the offer (the best recent example I know in politics of a drowning man refusing the offer of a lifebelt). He took his family holiday in Dorset, England, rather than in Italy with the Berlusconis, as the Blairs once did, to their shame. I heard a Conservative woman activist, with the kind of cut-glass accent which it’s easy to forget still exists in parts of the shires, describe him as having gravitas, in sorrowful contrast, so far as she was concerned, to the leader of her own party. If I were a Conservative, I’d be worried.’

I didn’t get any further than that before events overtook me. How wrong can you be? It just shows that I can’t bear to abandon myself to the kind of political scepticism — ‘a plague on all their houses’ — which is the position so many of my friends have come to. But in the light of events since I wrote that paragraph, I can justly be accused of terminal political naivety, of wanting my leaders to be better people than they are.

In October, the lunatic idea began to be discussed that Gordon Brown might call a snap general election, which — it was suggested — would take advantage of the honeymoon he was enjoying with the electorate, and give him his own five-year term. It was obvious to me that the one way in which Brown might throw away his popularity would be to do just that. The electorate would conclude that, despite the brave words Brown had said about humility and service when he entered Number 10, here was another prime minister just toying with them. Instead of crushing talk of an election immediately, Brown allowed the chatter to continue until it overwhelmed Labour’s party conference. At the Conservative conference the following week, Cameron gave a very good speech, in which he told Brown he was ready to take him on. Brown made the terrible decision to go to Iraq during the Tory conference, which — whatever his real motives for going there — looked as if he was visiting the soldiers simply in order to attract media attention away from the Tories. Then an opinion poll gave the Conservatives their best showing for a long time, and Brown was forced to announce that there wouldn’t be an election after all. Nobody believed him when he said his decision hadn’t been affected by the Conservatives’ good conference and good poll showing. He managed to look weak and calculating at the same time; the opposite of the way he had looked only a month previously.

Meanwhile, the difficulties in the summer of the Northern Rock bank — certainly not the fault of the government — have become graver and graver. In order to keep the bank afloat, the Bank of England has been lending it money. So far, we the taxpayers have lent a bank, whose difficulties were the result of reckless management by already rich men who wanted to make themselves richer, about £25 billion. People better informed than I, like Will Hutton, say the government should have nationalised the bank for a while in order to straighten it out. That sounds sensible to me. Instead, the government is trying to find a private bidder for Northern Rock. This isn’t proving easy. And there is now an enormous amount of money owing to the exchequer, with no certainty about when or even whether it’s going to be paid back. This has made the government a sitting duck for partisan attacks from the Tories on grounds of economic incompetence.

Next, a different kind of incompetence — culpable but farcical — came to light when we heard that a junior civil servant in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had sent two CDs containing the names, addresses and bank details of the 25 million people in households receiving child benefit to the National Audit Office, in the ordinary internal mail, with no special care to protect them, and that the CDs had gone missing. Again, definitely not the government’s fault, but a significant emergency nonetheless. So far I haven’t heard of anyone suffering as a result of their personal details falling into the wrong hands. But it’s the kind of cock-up which makes a government look inept; and it’s easy — though probably nonsense — for the opposition to say that government cuts to HMRC make this sort of thing more likely to happen.

But now to the worst. The ‘cash for honours’ police enquiry in the last months of the Blair government failed to bring a case to court. Cash had changed hands; honours had been handed out. But to legally prove a causal connection between those two events, for any individual donor or lender, would have been too difficult. I’m sure that a few people close to Blair were mighty relieved.

Brown was going to be a new broom; his government would be clean. The people would be able to trust their leaders at last.

Last Monday, the general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, resigned. A rich property developer had been giving money to the party through proxies, which is illegal. Watt claimed that, although he knew this was going on, he did not know it was illegal. Nobody believes this. Watt was one of the handful of people in the country whose job it was to know what political parties are and are not allowed to do by way of accepting donations.

Jon Mendelsohn, the man whom Gordon Brown had appointed to be Labour’s general election fund-raiser, replacing Tony Blair’s Lord Levy, then admitted that he had known what the property developer, David Abrahams, had been doing. He pleaded that he was ‘unhappy’ with the arrangement, though he had been assured by Watt that it was legal, and that he had been going to meet Abrahams to tell him that he wanted the proxy payments to stop. Again, nobody believes this.

What is certain is that Labour has been accepting illegal gifts. This is a disastrous state of affairs. There will be a police enquiry. Labour has been breaking its own law — the law which it passed in 2000 to try to clean up the funding of political parties in the light of the profound corruption of the Thatcher and Major years.

The government has gone from an absolutely dominating position in the three months since Brown became prime minister to a position where, if there were to be an election tomorrow, there would be a big Tory victory. Of course, Brown doesn’t have to call an election until the spring of 2010, and a lot can happen between then and now. But whereas I was sure, a year ago, that once Brown became PM, the electorate would give him the rest of the uncompleted parliament and then one more full one — in other words, a clear run until 2013 at the earliest — I now think he’ll struggle to retain power after 2010.

Camden Town3 December 2007

We had a good weekend in Norfolk, staying with Adam and Hazel, who’ve moved up there in retirement, having greatly enlarged and improved the cottage they’ve owned for 25 years. On Saturday, a beautiful bright cold day, we walked on the huge beach at Holkham, and then admired the countless thousands of migrating geese feeding and resting on the marshes inland from the dunes: an extraordinary sight and sound.

Kerfontaine2 January 2008

We came here last Saturday.

In November and December, I took my father three times to St George’s Hospital, Tooting. He needed an operation on the abdominal aortic aneurism which had been discovered in August. The first visit was to meet the surgeon, who explained that there was a one in twenty chance that dad would die during the operation; but that there was, in any one year, a one in three chance that the aneurism would burst, which would be fatal. So it was an easy choice to make. The second visit was for preliminary tests and to tie off blood to one of dad’s buttocks; he stayed in one night. The third visit was for the main operation, when he stayed in six nights. I visited him every evening during this visit. We read poetry to each other. He had taken two books into hospital: the Bible and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I wondered, but didn’t ask him, whether the choice of those two amounted to an each-way bet on the existence of a hereafter.

The operation was successful. It was performed in Tooting because that hospital is at the moment the only place in the country which does a micro-surgical version of the procedure to replace an aneurised abdominal aorta with a stent. I was shown a stent; shaped like a diviner’s rod, it’s a cylinder about a centimetre in diameter and about five long, made of I’m not sure what material (it looked like compressed cardboard, but can’t be), enclosed by a metal mesh which reminded me of fish-net stockings. The top attaches to the tissue of the aorta coming down from the heart; the two openings at the bottom attach to the main arteries going down into each leg. The really clever thing about it is that when it is introduced into the body, through a small cut in the groin, and then guided into position with the help of a wire poked through a small cut in the other groin, it’s tightly compressed. When it’s in exactly the right place (the manoeuvre is remotely observed on a TV screen), it’s somehow twisted and expands to its full width. At each of the three ends, the metal mesh pops outward diagonally to form wings which press against the interior of the good tissue, creating a blood-tight seal. Thereafter, the blood flows through the stent, and the aneurised tissue outside it is redundant. At least, I think that’s it. Amazing.

In the early hours of 16 December, Richard Beckley died in St Clare’s Hospice in Harlow. His lung cancer had progressed, and the radiotherapy he had borne during the autumn hadn’t had much effect. I had seen him on the afternoon of the 15th. He was perfectly clear in his mind, although he could hardly talk. He was on oxygen, and all his effort was going into breathing. The breath was thick and noisy. His eyes were closed most of the time. I told him everything I could think to say, and reminded him of some good times we had had together; especially the week last April he had spent with us at Kerfontaine. I recounted a few of the funny bits from a biography of Tennyson I was reading. He laughed. I read him a poem of Rilke, Frühling ist wiedergekommen, in the German, then the English translation, then the German again. We had been going to have a seminar on Rilke, so he could explain to me some of the poems I can’t understand. (He taught German at King’s College, London all his career.) Then I held his hand for an hour. Once he opened his eyes, and smiled intensely at me. At last I left, because I had to get back to Tooting. I told Richard I would be round to see him early the following week, and he nodded and smiled, but we both knew that was unlikely. That evening, his godson Peter phoned to say that the hospice had told him to come urgently if he wished to be with Richard at the end. Peter went with his wife Maria, and they sat with Richard for the few hours until he died.

Later that morning, I took dad home. I was standing at the foot of his bed, waiting for him to be discharged, when a consultant and his junior, a young woman, came round. While the consultant was looking at dad, the junior came over to me and said, ‘We lost a couple last night in here. But this one should be all right,’ pointing at dad. ‘He’s pretty fit for his age.’ ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ I replied. ‘What do you think?’ she asked. I said that I didn’t have a medical opinion, but that speaking as the patient’s son, I knew he’d always looked after himself. She blushed violently, having taken me for another doctor, and apologised in some confusion. I told her how flattered I was that I looked like a consultant. I suppose I was wearing the sort of smart casual clothes that doctors wear when doing rounds at the weekend.

Helen and I went to Wootton for Christmas, which was the usual mixture of feelings I’ve described in the past, the absence of which I so celebrated a year ago. The best part was Boxing Day morning, when Helen stayed with mum, and dad and I went for a circular drive around the north Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire villages in the bright sunlight: Bromham, Oakley, Pavenham, Carlton, Harrold, Lavendon, Cold Brayfield, Turvey, Newton Blossomville, Hardmead (nothing there but a little church, a rectory certainly not lived in by the rector, and a row of council houses), Astwood, Cranfield, and home.

Straight after Richard’s funeral on 28 December, we drove to the Channel Tunnel and stopped the night at a hotel in Montreuil-sur-Mer. It was already half past ten, but our host said we could have a meal if we chose quickly, which we did. There, in the lovely dining room before a bright fire, I had tournedos and Helen had veal kidneys, with a bottle of Beaujolais. When I asked for un petit cognac after the meal, our host said, ‘Petit ou normale? Vous ne conduisez plus ce soir.’ Normale was enormous. We slept until ten, and then spent an hour getting food in the Saturday market in that wonderful big square in the town. We bought a guinea-fowl from the smallest stall; the woman had two birds left, plucked but still bloody, and a choice of three or four vegetables with damp mud on them: about as far from supermarket presentation standards as conceivable. Then we drove here, arriving about half past seven.

All the food was delicious.

Angers3 February 2008

I’m here at this time of year for the second year running, for an utterly foolish and self-indulgent reason. I accompany Arnaud Beauvais, our restaurateur friend in Lorient, to the annual trade exhibition of Loire wines, held at the Parc des Expositions, a great shed at the edge of the town. Last year we tasted about 200 wines in the course of two days, spitting as we went. This year I expect it’ll be the same: gargling and expectorating samples of Fiefs Vendéens, Vouvray, Sancerre, Quincy, Savennières, Chinon… up and down the river and its tributaries. We start in the morning on dry whites, move to rosés just before lunch, then on to reds in the early afternoon, finishing with sweet wines about four o’clock. We eat only a sandwich at lunchtime. By the end of the working day, although not at all drunk, we are high on the fumes of the wines which have entered the chambers of our brains. And, despite our best intentions, the sweet wines are generally so delicious that it’s impossible to resist swallowing a few mouthfuls. So we hardly require an apéritif before dinner, though we have one anyway, in a different restaurant each night, each place carefully chosen by Arnaud, where of course we do go on to drink the wine, pleasurably uncorseting ourselves after the day’s restraint.

For Arnaud, this is serious business. He makes written notes on every wine he tastes, and gives each a star rating out of five. He has a stock of about 11,000 bottles back in Lorient, constantly being depleted by the restaurant’s customers, and needing to be topped up. He has regular and trusted suppliers, so he knows where he’s going amongst the 500 or so stands. We are not grazing randomly. The vignerons he meets greet him as a friend and colleague. On se tutoie. After tasting each supplier’s full range, starting with last year’s hopeful and immature offering, and moving back through tongue sensations of greater and greater complexity and distinction, the purchasing is done with perfect informality. Arnaud says how many bottles he would like of each of his chosen vintages, and approximately when he wants the goods delivered. The vigneron writes his order down. That’s it. No money will change hands until the wine arrives in Lorient. Trust is everything. My good fortune is that I’m allowed to buy at the same prices that he pays. My wine is delivered to the restaurant, in separate boxes, and I pick it up at Easter or in the summer, and send off my cheques then. The mark-up on wine bought in a restaurant by the diner is enormous, as is well known. I buy perhaps 50 bottles of the best wines of the region, to Arnaud’s several hundred, and pay between three and seven euros a bottle, delivery included. Arnaud generously asks me for my opinion on each wine, although the gesture is like my asking for his views on endogenous growth theory or the state of leg-spin bowling in England. I do my best to vary the short series of adjectives I produce on each occasion, but by mid-afternoon my stock of reasonable descriptors is exhausted, even in a foreign language I speak rather well, and if I’m not careful I lurch into absurd poeticisms, especially about the demi-secs and the moëlleux, which cause Arnaud to look at me with an expression of smiling tolerance, but not to be able to concur with and build on my contributions in the way that companions in conversation usually do.

One thing I almost never do: criticise a wine. I did make an exception last year, when Arnaud allowed himself to stray from his usual well-trodden paths to visit the stand of a friend of a friend, who flattered himself that he was a pioneer in challenging France’s image as the stuffy grande dame of world wine-making, and in promoting un look more likely to appeal to the young and unsophisticated consumer. The result was a red called Vin Rude, sporting a label which would not have been out of place on the top shelf at a newsagent. Arnaud was polite to the friend of the friend, but for once made no written record of the tasting. When we were well out of earshot we agreed that Vin Rude had been disgusting. Whether it will become the tipple of enough former lager drinkers to help reverse France’s steadily declining share of world wine sales, I doubt.

This morning I walked down from the flat to the magnificent St Pancras International station: ten minutes. I passed through check-in and passport control: two minutes. I stood in the beautiful, spare, spacious undercroft (a word I didn’t know until ten days ago, when I read it in an article describing the project; the internet told me in seconds that croft here is nothing to do with small Scottish farms, but is a shift from crypt, subterranean room), had a coffee, and escalated to the platform. The mighty arch has been superbly restored and painted. The central part of its span has new clear glass, so this morning’s blue sky beamed luminously through. Brilliant. The train left bang on time, of course. It almost immediately goes into a series of tunnels, travelling at such speed that when you emerge at the first recognisable place, after only a few minutes, you are already at Dagenham. Travellers’ horses in flat fields. Then you’re under the ascending carriageway of the Dartford Bridge, then in another tunnel under the Thames before a brief stop at the newly-built Ebbsfleet station (there’s no there there), then you charge through Kent, then you’re under the sea, and it’s France and Gare du Nord seemingly in no time, such is the wonderment of it. Straight under Paris in the métro, and I was at Gare Montparnasse in time to be able to leave the crushing, gloomy place and have a glass of wine and a croque monsieur in a proper bar across the road. Then on to a TGV which delivered me to Angers in an hour and 35 minutes, bang on time of course. At one moment I looked up from reading and saw great white wind turbines, their sails turning in the stiff wind, standing in a wide field of green winter corn, the sky gently azure above, with high cloud, and I felt briefly optimistic about the world after I’m dead.

The most notable thing to have occurred since I last wrote is that in the late evening of Monday 14 January, dad was again taken seriously ill, this time at home. He fell over and couldn’t get up. His speech was incoherent. The following morning, after a visit from the doctor, he was taken into hospital in Bedford with a suspected stroke. Mary flew over from Marseille that day. I met her in London and we drove straight to the hospital.

Dad was in hospital for eight days. It turned out that he’d suffered only a TIA, a transient ischaemic attack, commonly known as a mini-stroke. He was for two or three days deeply confused, and there was some loss of mobility in his right arm. But a TIA doesn’t leave any permanent damage in the brain; once the little blood clot which had briefly denied oxygen to the brain has dispersed, the patient is no worse off than before the attack. There is no treatment: only the prescription of precautionary drugs which thin the blood, making future clotting less likely.

I brought dad home on Wednesday 23 January. That day, we had a lengthy meeting with a social worker and a district nurse. The result is that mum will get an enhanced level of publicly-provided care, which will take the pressure off dad. This extra care hasn’t actually turned up yet, the wheels of administration turning as slowly as they do, but it is promised. However, the best development with regard to care has occurred as a result of a suggestion which my brother Andy made. A recently retired nurse called Joyce Bavington, known to Andy, who lives in the village and who has known of mum and dad for a long time, is happy to earn a bit of money to enhance her pension. She now comes in twice a day, morning and evening. In the morning she prepares breakfast; in the evening she helps mum and dad to get to bed. She makes sure they’re both taking the right pills at the right time. She gives them steady emotional support, and they know they can ring her any time if there’s an emergency. She, plus the carer who comes in later in the morning to help mum shower and get dressed, plus the five volunteer ladies from the church who come in at tea-time Monday to Friday to make tea, plus Judy who cleans on Friday mornings, constitute an adequate amount of care. The extra publicly-funded care which should come soon will provide someone to make lunch. I hope all of this will allow mum and dad to stay in their house, at least for the time being and possibly for the rest of their lives, which is what they want.

Gare du Nord6 February 2008

Here I am at the Gare du Nord, on my way back from the wine-tasting. This place and my notebooks are for ever associated in my mind because of the catastrophe which befell me in 1996, when I left a precious notebook full of writing on the train, having arrived here from London. I am now neurotically careful whenever travelling with notebooks.

The last two days have been, as they were last year, immensely pleasurable and self-indulgent. Arnaud and I remained stringently sober throughout our perambulations at the exhibition, spitting as we went. Mainly, we visited the same stands as last year: all small independent growers, all Arnaud’s friends. We tasted Vouvray, Savennières, Cheverny, Côteaux du Layon, Chaume, Mareuil, Haut-Poitou, Sancerre, Reuilly, Saumur-Champigny. I think I spent just short of 1500 euros, though I’ve only had to shell out a third of that on the spot. The rest I’ll pay in April or in the summer. It sounds a lot. It is a lot. But over the course of a year it may constitute a kind a saving, since I won’t be buying much wine at high street prices. Thus I justify my extravagance to myself.

On all three evenings we ate in good restaurants in Angers, Arnaud generously paying for two of the three meals and, as I discovered this morning when leaving the hotel, settling the hotel bill as well. He was away by seven o’clock, we having got to bed about half past one. I slept until nearly ten, and awoke to find that the rains of the last two days had cleared away, leaving a washed blue sky with a few small clouds. Standing on the platform at Angers, the sun was agreeably warm on my face: the earliest stirrings of spring.

Now we’re tearing across the northern French plain at 180 mph. Everyone in this full carriage is quiet. What is it about French TGVs which, on the whole and leaving rugby and stag weekends on one side, cause people to behave so much more considerately with regard to others’ peace than they tend to on English trains? Perhaps it’s wonderment at the sheer speed. Perhaps the continuous low roar of the wheels on the track is effective in muffling voices.

The flat quiet countryside slips by. In stands of deciduous woodland, the leafless branches are precise against the sky…

I fell asleep after Lille (it must have been the little carafe of Côtes du Rhône I had with the plat du jour in the brasserie at the Gard du Nord) and woke up in England. After a short stop at Ashford, the train is now galloping towards London. We cross over the Medway as the sun descends towards the slack fired water. We slide under the Thames next to the Dartford Bridge. The guard welcomes us to London and wishes us a good evening with the train still in sight of the bridge. Extraordinary. Now comes the long tunnel, taken at full speed, and we’re there, under the arch of St Pancras. Suburbia negated in a twinkling. It’s one of the great engineering achievements of the world. Telford, Brunel and the Stephensons would have approved. We’re on time, of course.

London Library14 February 2008

I’m sitting in the Reading Room of the London Library. I’ve been a member here for two or three years. Until now, Paul Ashton has paid for my membership as a very generous annual birthday present, in response to my having bought him three years’ membership (with a bit of help from Channel 4 colleagues) when he left the channel in 2002. Before Christmas, there was a big increase in the Library’s annual subscription fee, causing Tom Stoppard, the president, to write an apologetic letter to members. Paul asked me whether he might from now on choose a different birthday present for me. I said of course. But then, when my subscription came up for renewal, the question arose: was I willing to pay £375 a year myself to continue my membership? I almost decided that this was a ridiculous luxury; I threw the papers in the bin at work. But then I pulled them out again, realised that I could pay in monthly instalments at no extra charge, decided that £31.25 a month to have a place in central London where I am absolutely guaranteed silence (not to mention access to a few thousand good books) is a modest cost, filled in the papers and sent them off. I then recalled that my membership card had been in the wallet which I lost in the autumn, so I came down this morning and was given a replacement. Here I am.

I like it here. I approve of the silence which all in the room maintain. The slight traffic noise from St James’s Square doesn’t bother me at all. The light is good, and the simple pleasure of having a writing desk, uncluttered, at the right height, with a comfortable but firm upright chair to sit on, is worth much.

As soon as I have written the paragraph above, a young woman sits down next to me, causing a certain amount of disturbance as she deposits three library books, her handbag and a bottle of mineral water on her desk. The last of these, as I know from the ‘Reading Room Etiquette’ notice stuck on each desk, is the only form of food or drink allowed in the RR. Then the young woman takes from her handbag a tin containing, as I see when she opens it, some kind of sweetmeat — it might be Turkish Delight and nuts, covered in powdered sugar — which she begins to eat with a spoon which she has also taken from the bag. I glance at her with the mildest and briefest expression of disapproval, as if I have been a regular in the RR since the time of Tennyson and Carlyle. My glance is sufficient censure to cause her to move, with handbag, snack, water and books, to another part of the room. She settles herself there with further minor disturbance. Looking across, I can see that she is continuing furtively to eat. In addition, she has begun to write on a lap-top computer, also produced from the handbag. It is a big bag. According to the rules of the Library, electronic writing machines may only be used in the RR’s North Bay, which is straight ahead of me through double doors with glass panels. I can see people tapping away in there. Writers in the RR proper must use older means of making marks. So this woman is simultaneously guilty of one breach of RR etiquette and one of Library rules. I decide against reporting her to the young attendant, who would have to go across and reprove the member, risking bad feeling and possibly a scene: an unwelcome duty amid the tranquillity of the morning. The woman is not really distracting me (except that she obviously is, or why would I have written so much about her?) despite the occasional clink of spoon on tin.

Now that I’m paying for my membership by direct debit, I expect I shall remain a member for ever, unless I become so poor in retirement that I can’t even afford silence (or, as this morning, the next thing to it). The older you get, the lower the one-off price of life membership. I’m grateful that I’m still young enough for life membership to be way beyond my means, but I imagine that a time comes, for an older person with some savings, when it’s worth making an optimistic gamble on longevity, reflecting perhaps that the outlay of those few thousand pounds is a good reason, in moments of despair, to go on living.

Camden Town18 February 2008

We’re enjoying a series of days of perfect sunshine. Each day is cold, clear and blue. The nights are still and frosty, with a gibbous moon. The trees stand calmly straight, accepting the afternoon warmth and the night chill. They wait for longer light and higher temperatures, but I expect that this interval of midwinter spring will hasten the arrival of leaf in March or April.

My niece Tess, aged 8, arrived from Marseille on Friday evening. She’s going to stay with us for a week: the last week of Mary’s and Jacques’s three-week honeymoon in India. She is a delight. She has exquisite manners; she is easy to please; she will eat anything; she is interested in everything; she has an unexpected gift for comic mime and improvisation. We love her.

On Saturday we walked in the park and spent half an hour in the children’s playground: something that parents of young children spend great slabs of their lives doing, but a novelty for us. Noticeable in the playground were single fathers with their offspring. I guess we were looking at divorcees’ access: Saturday morning, pick up child, go to park, let child play, move on later to Macdonald’s or Pizza Express. The small sample of fathers who were there on Saturday were not impressive parents. They spent the time on the phone to adult friends, making social arrangements not related to their children. When the children interrupted them with a perfectly reasonable request (‘Daddy, push me on the swings’), they were irritable at being distracted from their call. Minor pieces of misbehaviour (child scuffs trainers through soft-landing material under climbing frame) were scolded aggressively or with a light cuff to the head. There was one obviously caring dad there; unfortunately he didn’t have much grasp of the laws of physics. His little boy wanted a go on the roundabout, which was spinning round as fast as another adult, a mum, had been able to push it for her child, who was already aboard. The dad carried his boy to the roundabout, leaned over it and dropped the boy on, expecting him to grab one of the rails. The little boy, of course, couldn’t get a grip immediately, and was catapulted straight off on to the surrounding soft-landing material by the centrifugal force. He didn’t cry, to his great credit and possibly to that of the soft-landing material (although I know there’s a debate about whether we’ve made children’s playgrounds too safe — ‘We need to let them discover their own limits,’ some say). He got up and declared in a public voice, ‘I’m not doing that again.’

Then we walked on and admired the ducks, moorhens, geese and herons on the lake. Tess was interested to see the great unwieldy herons manoeuvring on to their wide shallow nests in the tops of the trees, carrying sticks in their beaks. We walked all round the park in the freezing sunshine. Tess from Marseille wasn’t fully equipped for these temperatures, so we went to Marks and Spencer and bought her a hat, gloves and scarf to go with the coat and boots she already had. We shopped for food and went home and had lunch. We watched a football game (FA Cup 5th round — Manchester United 4, Arsenal 0 — Helen needed counselling) and later we went to Daphne’s Restaurant for dinner. Anna, who owns Daphne’s with her son Nicholas, speaks very good French, having been a French teacher at Pimlico School for many years. When she discovered that Tess is from Marseille, she brought Marcel Berlins, journalist, broadcaster and regular diner at Daphne’s, also born in Marseille, over to meet her. Marcel was charming, and exchanged words with Tess about places in Marseille they both knew.

The government will nationalise the Northern Rock bank. Good. I don’t know enough about the details of the private bids which have been made for the bank, nor of the bank’s robustness in terms of assets and liabilities, to be absolutely sure that the government has wasted several months, and should have done this in the autumn; but that’s my guess. The Tories, of course, are trying to present this as final proof of the government’s economic incompetence. It’s nothing of the kind. There’s no comparison with 16 September 1992. The incompetence, as I’ve written before, is with the greedy rich men who ran Northern Rock, and who wanted to make even more money by relying on wholesale international borrowing to get the funds to lend for mortgages, rather than getting their income from savings and from steady existing mortgage payments, as Building Societies used to do.

Yesterday, Kosovo declared independence. Again, good. Serbia and Russia are howling, predictably. Some countries with minorities calling for their own independence have objected. But most of the EU countries, plus America, will recognise an independent Kosovo. Comparisons with other situations where provinces or minorities want to secede from an existing state are inappropriate, unless those provinces or minorities have recently experienced genocide, as the Kosovan Albanians have. Yes, there has been some dreadful abuse of the Serbian minority in Kosovo; but nothing compared to what Milosevic did in 1999 to the Albanian majority, and less than nothing compared to what he would have done if NATO hadn’t stopped him. We just have to hope that the new government will keep its promise to run a secular, democratic state, tolerant of minority rights. I think it will sincerely try to, with EU, UN and NATO help. The problem, I think, will come from the other side, with the Kosovan Serbs taking orders from Serbia not to co-operate, and using violence to foment inter-communal hatred. On the other hand, Serbia recently elected, thank God, a pro-European president; there must be a majority opinion in Serbia which wants to get on with the social-democratic life which the rest of us enjoy, join the EU, join the euro (which Kosovo already has done, de facto), and move beyond the disasters into which Milosevic led them. His grand, brutal dream of being the master of all Yugoslavia has shrunk, now he’s dead, to the reality that Serbia is merely Serbia: not Serbia-with-Montenegro and now not even Serbia-with-Kosovo.

Train from London to StaffordPalm Sunday, 16 March 2008

The starkest possible contrast with the Eurostar experience I described last month: I’m travelling up England by train, at the speed of an 18th-century stage-coach. Such is the parlous state of our railways, and so desperate and overdue is the need to repair them on Sundays. I’m going to spend what will remain of the day, when I get there, with David, Lindsay and Tom James. David’s coming over to Stafford to pick me up. I shall have to phone him in a minute and try to estimate how late I’ll be. The alternative would have been to drive; not a viable alternative on a day when they’ve closed the M1 completely to demolish a bridge. So, the usual travelling misery, caused by a mixture of chronic under-investment in public transport over decades; the confusion in the division of responsibility as between public and private entities in the running of the railways; and, in the case of the roads, the simple problem of wealth. Too many of us have cars which we want to drive too often, too far. The infrastructure can’t cope. Meanwhile, the planet bleeds.

On Friday, I drove dad from Wootton to Tooting for a check-up on his aneurism operation. It took nearly three hours to drive the 60 miles there; about two and a quarter to drive back. 38 years ago, I used to do an almost identical journey — Wootton to Richmond, to visit Jenny — in an hour and a half. Where they’re widening the M1 to four lanes south of Luton is an apocalyptic scene of mud and metal, a great brown stain on Hertfordshire. I remember Forster’s fear in Howard’s End of the creep of the city and the machine into that county: ‘a red rust’.

I had a terrible day yesterday. I spent several hours speaking to courteous people in India, trying in vain to get our internet connection fixed. ‘Only connect.’ Failed. The sense of the waste of time, of a precious day of my life flushed down the toilet (Larkin’s wonderful phrase — ‘time torn off unused’) weighed more and more heavily on me, and brought down the gloom I have to try to stave off often in this phase of my life: the fear that, for all the assortment of achievements I can point to in my 35 years of adult life, it doesn’t add up to much. I’ve been a utility player: a bit of this, a bit of that. And the growing feeling that this is how it’s going to be. Everyone of my age who’s going to make a run has made it by now. I’m not one of them. It’s not about money, of course. It’s about making a mark of greater longevity than the length of your own working lifetime; causing a stir which goes beyond your immediate circle of friends and professional colleagues. I haven’t done that.

England is covered with water. The vile, charmless shelters about which I’ve written in the past — the houses and bungalows in their crowded thousands which accommodate the great mass of the population — scar the landscape and grieve the eye everywhere. They look worse than ever in a dull light and drizzle.

The train has taken a long deviation around the western edge of Birmingham. We slide past the feet of the stilts which carry the M6 and M5 as they intersect. Indescribable ugliness everywhere. Piles of rubbish. Meaningless graffiti. Two swans preen one another by a canal. There is blossom in the most unexpected places.

Wootton, BedfordshireEaster Sunday, 23 March 2008

With mum and dad. We came up this morning, bringing the lunch. This afternoon we walked round the village while mum and dad rested. It’s a wintry Easter: freezing cold, with snow flurries and occasional sunny intervals. It could be Christmas. The over-committed buds and flowers are on hold; some are drying and shrivelling in the icy wind.

Today is the earliest Easter for many years. It will not fall as early as this again, I read, until 2160. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox or, as will very occasionally happen, after the full moon at the spring equinox. So it could fall one day earlier than this, on 22 March. On Friday night, the night of the equinox, there was a beautiful full moon in the indigo sky, the clouds racing, obscuring and revealing it. It was the Council of Nicaea in 365 which decided when Easter should be celebrated. Why they decided to make it a moveable feast, following the moon, I don’t know. Christmas, after all, is a fixed feast. I’m sure the reason is known. Perhaps, just as the decision on Christmas was to piggy-back on the pagan festival of Yule, there was an existing spring festival, date governed by the moon, and the Christian fathers decided to piggy-back on that. Then, of course, there was the schism between Rome and Byzantium, causing Easter usually to be celebrated on different Sundays in the two spheres of influence. This year the Orthodox Easter isn’t until 27 April — five weeks away.

Camden Town30 April 2008

May Day and Ascension Day on the same day: extremely rare. I’ve just rung Rosa and she tells me that these feasts — one humanistic, one religious — haven’t coincided since 1913.

We’re off to Portugal this afternoon, to spend the long weekend with Glenda and Julian Walton. Julian is teaching in an international school in Lisbon. Glenda retired from Shropshire’s education service at Christmas, and is simply enjoying her new-found leisure in the douce climate down there. What fun.

My best recent news is that I’m putting my poems on a website — www.myproperlife.com. I’ve struck up a friendship with a wonderful man called Mark Leicester, who until recently worked in the web team at Teachers TV. I’ve always liked him, but we didn’t have much to do with each other until the week before Easter. When our internet access at home failed, I asked Mark whether he would mind coming to look at it. He came round on Maundy Thursday evening, even though this kind of maintenance work is well below his usual plane of operation; he’s a web designer and programmer, with advanced conceptual, even philosophical, ideas about what the web can do, and how this new medium is changing our sense of the potential of content. It’s too boring to describe our struggles over the Easter weekend to restore internet access to 77 Weavers Way; many hours were spent on the phone to India. Success was eventually achieved on Easter Monday at 10.00pm. In the course of our trials, we got to know each other, and I said that I had been thinking of putting my poems on the web. (Mike Raleigh has been encouraging me to do this for some time, and I was just coming round to the decision to take Mike’s advice when I met Mark.) Mark said he’d do it for me, and he has! The site looks wonderful already, even though it’s still being built, and all sorts of extra embellishments will be added before it goes live (at the moment it’s password-protected, but I haven’t been able to resist giving the password to a few friends, who’ve all been impressed).

There’s something about the existence of this website which has released me, poetically. I’m going to stop looking back, fiddling, wondering whether some other kind of configuration of the work might tempt an editor to write me an acceptance rather than a rejection letter. I’m going to put the stuff out there, and I can say that I have published it. I’ll tell friends and acquaintances about its existence, and we’ll see if some kind of audience builds. I’m going to give people permission to use the poems for their own purposes, non-commercially, as long as they attribute me. There will be an invitation to visitors to give some money to Sight Savers International if they want to show appreciation in a practical way. It’s terribly exciting.

Not much is different with mum and dad. Mary and Tess spent a week with them in April, while Helen and I were in France. There was an absurd emergency when the hospital rang up one evening to say that mum must go in immediately; the values which they’d just read in a sample of her blood (taken two weeks previously) meant that she was on the point of death. An ambulance arrived, which Mary followed to the hospital. Mum and Mary sat in there for several hours, only to be told that it was a false alarm; someone had muddled up mum’s blood readings with another person’s. Several more hours passed before an ambulance came to take mum home. Relying on satellite navigation, the driver and his mate (both French) managed to take mum to the wrong village. She heaved herself up from the bed and identified the village as Kempston Church End; they were outside the school where she’d been headmistress for all those years. She was able to direct them home by means of local human knowledge. Mary was just about to phone the hospital to report a lost ambulance when they arrived. We don’t know whether the person who really was at risk of imminent death did die because they weren’t got into hospital in time, or not.

I’ve just finished a translation of Booz Endormi by Victor Hugo. I’m very pleased with what I’ve done, and Peter Hetherington, David James, Mike Raleigh and Helen have all been highly complimentary. In an email David sent me last week, with his thanks for the translation, he included an entertaining detail which he remembered from a biography of Victor Hugo:

‘For some reason I treasure the thought, as reported in Graham Robb's biography, of Hugo in old age, building a small greenhouse on the roof of his Jersey home, in which, of a morning, he would shave naked and then expel over his head, through a kind of Thomas Crapper device, a large gush of rosewater. This was preparatory to his later stroll down to the port area, where he would visit various ladies of the night, or, in his case, afternoon.’

It’s caused me to want to go out and buy the biography this afternoon before we go to the airport.

Helen and I went to vote in the London mayoral elections this morning. It’ll be a close-run thing between Ken Livingstone and the Tory Boris Johnson. Nationally, Labour is in deep difficulties; Brown’s nightmare continues. The latest fiasco is over tax on poor people: not the poorest, but people on modest incomes, as the genteel phrase has it. In March 2007, in his final budget as chancellor, Brown abolished the 10p rate of income tax which he had himself introduced ten years previously; the abolition was not to take effect, however, until April 2008. I don’t know why he abolished the 10p rate, from his own point of view. If it had been a good progressive thing to introduce it in 1997, why was it no longer a good progressive thing in 2007? The headline-grabbing part of Brown’s tax changes in that budget was the reduction in the basic rate from 22p to 20p. Perhaps Brown thought, wrongly, that even the people who had been beneficiaries of the 10p rate would be net gainers as a result of the cut in the basic rate. Anyhow, I was on the train to Bristol on the March morning after Alastair Darling’s first budget as chancellor. I read every word in The Guardian’s budget supplement. I was very pleased to see what this supposedly boring chancellor, with his supposedly boring budget, has done to reduce the number of children living in poverty (real poverty — not modest incomes). I then looked at the table showing how different people, on different incomes and in different circumstances, would be affected by the tax changes legislated for a year ago, and now about to take effect. I could see at first glance that there was a blip around the £15,000 mark, where the changes would actually make people poorer. I thought, ‘Can that be right?’ and went on reading.

Our legislators — the people we pay to scrutinise our forthcoming laws — hadn’t noticed this anomaly in debating the budget last year. (Someone told me that Frank Field had noticed it then, had pointed it out, but had been ignored.) Anyhow, Frank Field — a man I admire deeply — has led a Labour rebellion this year on the point, which has caused the government to have to design a complex and expensive means of compensating the losers for their loss, as the price extracted to persuade the rebels not to vote against the Finance Bill. There were enough rebels, and Labour’s majority is small enough, for the government to have lost the vote. If a government loses a vote on a Finance Bill, it usually faces a vote of no confidence. That wouldn’t have meant the government falling, because the rebels would presumably have supported the government in the no-confidence vote. But it would have been a disaster in terms of the government’s standing with the electorate, which is already very bad. The Tories have, in any case, had a field day. It’s a bitter irony that the party which, when last in power, was in practice the enemy of poorer people, managing for example to double child poverty between 1979 and 1997, has been able to present itself as the champion of a group for which it has no real sympathy whatever.

I expect that Labour will do very badly in local elections around the country today. Boris Johnson may win in London. There is no sign of Brown being able to recover the authority he had until the shambles of last autumn’s election-that-wasn’t.

Anthony Minghella has died since I last wrote in this diary. It’s a dreadful loss of a wonderful man and a brilliant film director. He was still young (two and a half years younger than I). His film of Beckett’s short play Play is a masterpiece; that’s how I came to meet him. When I went into the cutting-room to view Play with him, I thought to myself, ‘Whatever you say, it had better not be stupid.’ I made three small suggestions to Anthony, all of which he adopted. I was terribly sad, and diminished, when I heard.

I have recently read a very good new biography of John Donne, by John Stubbs.

‘Who casts not up his Eie to the Sunne when it rises? but who takes off his Eie from a Comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his eare to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a peece of himselfe out of this world? No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were: any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; It tolls for thee.’

Camden Town15 May 2008

From Victor Hugo’s poem ‘Puisque je suis étrange au milieu de la ville…’: ‘…il est moins urgent / De punir les effets que de guérir les causes’. Nothing more needs to be said about the heartbreaking and apparently irresolvable conflicts disfiguring the face of the world.

Train from London to Bedford, and back18 and 19 June 2008

I strolled down to St Pancras International (admired previously, I know) and took a humble train to Bedford. I shall stay tonight in Wootton, and tomorrow drive dad to Tooting, in his car, for a check-up on the stent in his aorta. Then back to Wootton, then the train again to London. I’ve done this four-way trip several times in the last few months. I find it much less tiring if I’m doing only two of the stints in the car.

The poetry website is nearly there. I shall launch it in the next few days with an electronic postcard to about 140 people, asking that they pass the postcard on to anyone they think might be interested. I must say, I’m very proud of the site. Mark has done a wonderful job. We shall see what the response will be.

You can listen to the poems. Peter Hetherington, Zawe Ashton (Paul’s daughter, a very good young actor) and I recorded the readings in the course of one day in the sound suite at Teachers TV. It was a great day. Of course, professional recording facilities make almost anything sound wonderful. That taken into consideration, there were some moments when the editor and the other listeners were moved by what they were hearing. As I like to say, ‘If it makes people cry, it must be literature.’

I decided to put some prose on to the site too: the autobiography as it stands at the moment and the first four Madame Granic stories. So it’s quite chunky now.

The long weekend in Portugal with Glenda and Julian at the beginning of May was delightful. Julian picked us up at the airport on Thursday evening, and drove us to their comfortable flat in the Lisbon suburb of Parede. We ate a delicious fish stew which Glenda had prepared, and talked until late. The next day Glenda, Helen and I took the train to Estoril and then walked on the boardwalk to Cascais. We wandered around the town, admiring the particular beauty of Portuguese domestic architecture (especially the use of ornamental tile work on the walls of the houses). About three, Julian joined us with the car, having done his morning’s teaching, and we drove to Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of mainland Europe. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, with vertiginous drops to the sea, which was flat calm that day. The promontory was covered with wild flowers, of which the most profuse was the hottentot fig, a purplish succulent invader from Africa.

That evening we dined in Parede, at a sea-food restaurant called Eduardo. The food was spectacularly simple and fresh: dose after dose of protein. The climax of the meal was crabs for four. The brown meat in the body of each great beast had been scooped out, mixed with egg and pepper, and put back. Superb. However, the legs and the claws were unbroken. Each of us was supplied with a wooden hammer and block. Most of the other diners in this packed Friday-night venue were eating the same thing. So the place sounded more like a carpenter’s workshop than an eatery. It would not have been the right place to make romantic or sexy proposals, nor to negotiate a delicate diplomatic agreement.

On the Saturday, we went to Cintra. I’d read about the place, but had no real idea of its eccentric beauty, sweeping up and down the steep wooded hills. We walked around the Moorish castle at the top of one of the hills, and looked across at the extraordinary fairy-tale Ludwig-of-Bavaria-style castle on the top of another hill, and gazed down at the lesser but still astonishing fantasy palaces below. We visited the luxuriant Monserrate gardens, created by the English millionaire Sir Francis Cook. His summer pavilion, at the top of the garden, is being renovated. There was a photograph of him and his family, taken on a hot afternoon about 120 years go. The clothes they wore! How lust must have weighed on the minds and bodies of the young men and women, looking away from the camera and at each other, under all that fabric. Old Francis, gazing straight at the camera, seemed content with his cigar.

That evening we crossed the magnificent 25 April bridge over the Tagus, and drove south-east for half an hour to the hilltop town of Palmela, where there is another castle and a former monastery, now in use as a pousada, one of Portugal’s luxury hotels. A wedding party had taken over the dining-room, so we dined in the cloisters, consuming whatever we wanted from a huge hot and cold buffet, while a viola-and-flute duet played classical snippets to us.

On the Sunday we drove into central Lisbon and walked around. It’s a wonderful city, rising and falling steeply, its houses clambering up and down over each other. We climbed all over the castle of St George, our third castle in two days, and admired the views of the city, the Tagus and its great lagoon inland from Lisbon, and the countryside to the south. We found one of those old-fashioned, solid, unfussy restaurants where you know everything is going to be right the moment you walk in. Dark wood panelling; stiffly starched tablecloths and napkins; serious waiters in equally stiffly starched white cotton jackets. We ate a superb meal, of which the highlight for me was lamphreys. I’d never eaten them before, and knew nothing about them, other than the factoid everybody knows, that King John died after eating a surfeit of them. They are a sea and fresh-water creature sui generis, not — as is often supposed — related to the eel. They live by sucking the blood of other fish. They reminded me slightly of crayfish, in that they can operate in both kinds of water, and that there’s something faintly disgusting about them: crayfish will eat anything; lamphreys are blood-suckers. Anyhow, they were delicious, served up in a thick, strong, black sauce.

On the Monday, our last day, Julian had to work. Glenda and Helen were in the mood for some shopping and a ladies’ lunch. I took the train to Lisbon again. The terminus in the city is also the river station for boats across the Tagus, so I walked straight from the train to the first departing boat, which was going to Seixal. It was a fifteen-minute crossing, with beautiful views in all directions. When we got to Seixal I could see that there once had been a railway station there, bringing people in from the countryside south of the river. The railway line was no more, and the station building abandoned, alas. There was a huge car park full of cars: daily commuters. I walked along an unprepossessing strip of new road, next to an enormous building site: hundreds of new flats. After five minutes I came to the old village of Seixal. It is quite beautiful, essentially unchanged by the centuries. It has three parallel streets, of which the first faces out over the water, which is either a tributary or an inlet of the Tagus. I wandered about in the quiet of a Monday morning, alone, enjoying being alone, and sat down outside a café and had a coffee and one of those exquisite cakes called bolos. Then I wandered about some more, and soon it was time for lunch, which I ate in the narrow central square, under a holm-oak which, I noticed, had been planted in 1907 by the arboreal friends of Seixal. It was bliss. The lunch cost almost nothing. Everyone was charming. It felt a million miles away from Lisbon, a great modern city bursting with pride and ambition, although I was only a short ride across the water. I sat there until about 2.30, took the boat back across the water, then the train to Parede. Glenda and Helen arrived from their lunch just after I did, and we packed and Julian took us to the airport. We were home about midnight.

Camden Town24 June 2008

Since the trip to Portugal, we’ve had the second long May weekend in Shropshire with Andrew and Annie Bannerman (deeply pleasurable, though pouring wet on the Sunday when we drove around beautiful Corvedale), and the following weekend I went over to Northern Ireland to see Peter Logue. On the Saturday, we drove over Tor Head on the north Antrim coast. The weather in Northern Ireland had been beautiful for a month, unlike that in southern England. On this day it was perfect. There is a place high up on the little lane which clings to the side of the hill where we stopped the car. Far below was the deep, calm blue sea. Only a few miles across the water was the Mull of Kintyre, with the mountains of Scotland in the distance behind it. Near the tip of the Mull were little islands. Further south was England and the hills of the Lake District. In the opposite direction were the Hebrides, with the jagged mountains of Skye showing in the haze. Around us were hawthorn, fuschia and gorse in flower. Birds sang. Nobody came and nobody went. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, the only witnesses, just then, of this scene of exalted and spectacular beauty.

My birthday was properly marked, as I like it to be. Helen took me out to the Connaught for dinner, which was superb in a straightforwardly English sort of way: leek and potato soup, lamb chops with spinach and mash, apple crumble. I broke the alcohol fast I’m currently undergoing: champagne, claret, sauternes. Helen gave me a lovely little limited-edition Miro print, and I had lots of cards.

Today I’m feeling great because www.myproperlife.com went live yesterday. Lots of people have written in response to the electronic postcard to say well done and how good the site looks. Of course, the only thing to do now is to write some more, but having done what I’ve done I can leave all those poems and that prose behind and let the world make of them what it will. There may be feminist friends who will be disappointed about the frank descriptions of male sexuality. There may be friends more left-wing than I who will find absurd my justification in the last chapter of the autobiography for still being a member of the Labour Party. There may be Christian friends who will be sorry to read that I’m an atheist. I don’t care. I’ve said in public what I want to say, and I feel better for it. I’m fulfilled.

Tomorrow we go to Cambridge for Clare Harrisson’s graduation. She got a 2:1 in history. The ceremony is at 10 o’clock at the Senate House, so we start early. I expect there will be some refreshment at Trinity afterwards, and then Helen and I will drive across to Suffolk for our annual weekend with Peter Adams. Rod Allen, Peter’s host at Letheringham Mill for the last 20 years or so, died last August, so it won’t be quite the same.

I think I’m going to New York on Teachers TV business for a fortnight in July, but the trip still isn’t finally confirmed.

Camden Town3 July 2008

We went to Cambridge, and then on to Suffolk. The graduation ceremony was splendid and very moving. Judith and I had the best seats in the Senate House, right next to the chair in which Martin Rees, the Master of Trinity, sat to confer the degrees. Clare, by pure coincidence, was the first of the 80 or so in her batch, so she got the full Latin paragraph both from the praelector and from the Master, the others having to be content with the abbreviated version. Of course we all thought of Mike, of how proud he would have been. It’s over five years since he was killed.

Then we stood about and chatted on the Senate House lawn before strolling by the back lane to Trinity, where lunch was served in Neville’s Court. It felt very pleasing to be there again, on a much warmer day than that of my own graduation 36 years ago.

About half past two we left Clare and Judith and drove across to Suffolk, for a longer-than-usual weekend with Peter. That evening we went to eat at the Fox and Goose in Fressingfield, a place new to us, though I was told later by Tim Miller that it had been a cut-above sort of pub/restaurant for decades: in the 60s it was run by a Belgian who was a passionate anti-smoker, before his time; if he caught a diner smoking in the dining-room, he would seize the cigarette from the person’s hand, walk to the door with it, open the door and throw it out, before turning to the offender and inviting him to follow it.

On the Friday afternoon we visited The Red House, where Britten and Pears lived from 1957, which is now owned by the Trust which carries their names. Very interesting: the house full of the paintings which Pears collected over the years.

We went to an Aldeburgh Festival concert on the Saturday afternoon: Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, performed by the young people of the Britten-Pears Orchestra. I’d never been in the Maltings Concert Hall at Snape before: a beautiful, plain interior, brown and restrained, the old brick and the new wood.

Peter and I went to church at Melton at eight o’clock on Sunday. Tim joined us. Afterwards he showed us the grand house above the village where he had been born and grown up: Foxboro Hall. We looked at it from the lane at the bottom of the park. His parents sold it about 30 years ago, when the children had long gone and they were old and rattling about in it and couldn’t afford to keep it up any longer.

I like Tim very much. We got to know him through Peter. He used to be churchwarden at St Anne’s, Soho, where a friend of Peter’s, Fred Stevens, used to be vicar. He’s gentry: he went to Eton; he was in the Guards. Then he became a documentary film-maker. Then for 15 years he was a probation officer, working with young offenders who had committed some of the worst crimes. Then went to the Royal College of Art as head of the film department. Now he’s retired, but he’s got a new occupation: screenplay writer. One of his former students, Asif Kapadia, has directed the films The Warrior and Far North. Tim and Asif write the screenplays together. They’re working on a sequel to The Warrior. Tim has an apartment in Albany, a house at Shingle Street, and a house in the Pyrenees which he shares with his cousin. He’s deeply in love with Suffolk, and knows an immense amount about its history. He’s rooted. We had drinks at Shingle Street before going to Orford. I love to stand on that beach, with the valerian and sea-cabbage in bloom, and look out at the great container ships making for Felixstowe.

We drove back to London on Sunday evening.

Herald Square Hotel, New York9 July 2008

I’ve been here since Sunday with Andrew Bethell, and he’s flying back tonight. I’m staying another eight days to help Ron Thorpe, the director of education at the PBS television station Thirteen, and his colleague Margaret Honey produce a document which they will take to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, no less, asking for a large sum of money to establish Teachers TV in the USA. If Gates grants the money, I may be spending more time here.

It’s hot. It was unpleasantly humid and overcast for the first couple of days here, but now the air is clear and there’s a pleasant breeze mornings and evenings. The Empire State Building, three blocks from this hotel, is a great straight grey pencil marking, not scraping, the sky. Ron’s office at Thirteen looks out over the Pennsylvania Station sidings, then the Hudson, then the New Jersey shore. The walk from hotel to workplace takes an informative 15 minutes. I could happily envisage six months or a year here, helping to set TTVUSA going, getting to know the city properly.

I shall go down now to the laundromat to pick up shirts, socks and underwear, bring them back here, then go out again and find somewhere nice for dinner. I may go to the restaurant near the Museum of Modern Art where I ate lunch the day after we won the Emmy in 2004, when I tried the delicious gazpacho to make sure that American Airlines hadn’t rendered me allergic to tomatoes.

Herald Square Hotel, New York16 July 2008

This is my last evening here. I’ve worked solidly every day since Andrew left, including Saturday and Sunday. I get up about 7.30, have a shower, leave the hotel about 8.15, and I’m at Thirteen, on W33rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, a quarter of an hour later.

It’s been relentlessly hot — in the 80s and 90s (they still have Fahrenheit here) — and I haven’t minded that. As I say to taxi drivers and anyone else who wants to complain about the weather, I’m from England, I spend most of my life being cold, I can take a little of this. I work in the great ugly brown air-conditioned building until six, then switch off the computer, walk back to the hotel, have a shower, and go out for the evening.

I haven’t read much — one slim early novel by John McGahern, called The Leave-Taking, which covers some of the same ground as his beautiful late (last?) book, simply called Memoir, which I read recently, given to me by Peter Logue. The Leave-Taking isn’t as good.

Peter Logue once met McGahern, who told him the following story. During Charlie Haughey’s time, there was a scandal — one of the many in Haughey’s corrupt administrations — in which the minister responsible for development was in the pocket of a rich developer, who wanted to turn a beautiful auld decency house on the banks of the Liffey into an exclusive hotel, with golf courses, swimming pools, fake 18th-century extensions, etcetera. McGahern, who lived nearby, led an effective, well-publicised campaign of opposition to the plan. So noticeable did the campaign become that the matter was discussed in cabinet. Haughey asked the minister for his comment on the situation. The cabinet note-taker had his pen poised as usual. The minister said, ‘Taoiseach, I’m very sorry about it, but that fucking writer cunt above has them all ris.’

Yesterday I was stopped and asked for money by a black man, aged about 35, who had been in the marines in Iraq and had been shot. He pulled up his shirt to show me the bullet holes. I gave him money. He was the kind a beggar who always moves me and to whom I always give. That is, he hadn’t passed over to the other side, to a hopeless state of intoxication and sub-humanity. He was still one of us, but he knew how desperate was his plight, how close he was to a place beyond help. It was only three dollars I gave him, pulled randomly out of a wallet containing hundreds, but he thanked me with tears in his eyes. I said I was from London, and he said he had a buddy in Gloucester. Did I know Gloucester? I said it had a beautiful cathedral. He said he hoped we would meet again some day, and jerked his finger heavenwards. We shook hands once, and as we parted he wanted to shake again, by which time I had transferred my bag to my right hand, so I offered him my left. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the right hand, the right hand.’ We shook properly, and he was gone.

Camden Town3 September 2008

I got back from NY on 19 July in the morning. The following Wednesday we went to France, stopping overnight at our hotel near Avranches and arriving at Kerfontaine on Thursday lunchtime. Five and a half weeks then slipped pleasantly by. We drove down to the Gers on 29 July, in order to celebrate Mike Raleigh’s 60th birthday the following day, which we did in fine style, a party of 10 in a beautiful large restored manoir. I took a walk alone on the afternoon of Mike’s birthday, in the great heat, through exquisite countryside, gently hilly, with fields of young sunflowers glowing everywhere, and vineyards. In the tiny bourg of the commune, there was a moving memorial to a battle fought between the Germans and the French resistance, aided by some Spanish republicans and, I’m glad to say, a unit of Special Operations Executive. The Germans won in the end, only by bringing up greatly superior firepower, and the village was totally destroyed. The houses there now don’t look new, to the casual glance; they must have been rebuilt soon after the war with traditional materials in the traditional style.

The day after Mike’s birthday we departed and drove up to the Charente, to stay three nights with Stephen and Theresa. I love being there, and they’ve made big progress on the house since our last visit. The kitchen is almost finished, and the ceilings of the bedrooms have plasterboard and paint, so the danger of an insect falling into the open mouth of the snoring sleeper has passed. Just as I was drying myself by the pool after my first swim, the phone rang. Harold Rosen had died that morning. I wasn’t completely surprised. I’d seen him for the last time the day before I went to New York. We had a good long talk. His physical infirmity was depressing to him. It seemed to me he was gazing at the probability of death, but refusing to accept it. There was no philosophical quiescence. He wasn’t going gently into that good night. That was his nature; and as was his nature, after the briefest of medical conversations, he said, ‘What’s new, John?’ and I told him about my work.

I spoke to Betty on the phone straight away. The next day, as I had expected, she rang and asked me to do the obituary for The Guardian. I rang The Guardian obituary desk. Yes, they would definitely run a piece. Could they have it by Sunday? It was Friday morning. I sat down in one of the spare bedrooms and wrote the piece on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, with the help of phone calls to Michael and Brian Rosen, Harold’s sons, for factual information and for guidance on the political side of Harold’s life: essentially, his membership of the Communist Party and his leaving of it. The educational part I could do unaided. Then I read the finished thing, still in handwriting, on the phone to Michael and Brian, listening together, and then to Betty. We both cried a lot as I was reading it to Betty. I said, ‘A man should no more cry at his own writing than he should laugh at his own jokes.’ All three of them liked what I had done, so on Saturday afternoon Stephen and I went to an internet café in Chalais and I hammered it in and sent it off. Such is the wondrous technological world now.

The obituary appeared on Monday 4 August, with a lovely picture of Harold which The Guardian had got from Betty. I didn’t actually see the newspaper until 10 days later. They’d fiddled with what I’d written, quite unnecessarily, and made it about 10% worse. (They did exactly the same with my obituary for Terry Furlong in 2002.) I was cross, as I had been with Terry’s piece, but at moments like that there’s no point in getting uppity, and many people have been complimentary about what they read. Here’s what I wrote (not quite what was printed).

Harold Rosen

A Leader of Thought in the World of English Teaching

Harold Rosen, who has died aged 89, was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the purpose and possibilities of the subject English within the school curriculum. Beyond the constituency of English teachers — people teaching that subject in secondary schools — Harold's teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people's understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

Harold was born in 1919 in Brockton, Massachusetts to Jewish parents. At the age of two, he came to the East End of London with his mother, an active communist and inspirational woman whose influence remained with him all his life. He attended local elementary and grammar schools. In 1935, he joined the Young Communist League, where he met Connie Isakofsky. Their emotional partnership, marriage and intellectual collaboration lasted 41 years, until Connie's early death from cancer. In 1936, they took part in the Battle of Cable Street. It was the urgent clarity of the needs of those years — to defeat fascism and to liberate working-class people from every sort of poverty — which formed Harold politically.

In 1937, Harold went to University College, London to study English. He was a college rugby player, middle-distance runner and political activist. He graduated in 1940. He took short-term teaching jobs in England during the rest of the war. Having been born in the USA, he was officially an American citizen (and remained so throughout his life), so it was the US army he joined when called up in 1945. He served in the Education Corps for two years, with the rank of captain, working in Frankfurt and Berlin. Returning to civilian life in 1947, it was clear to him, as to so many people politically committed on the left, that the defeat of fascism must be only the necessary beginning of a shift towards more open and egalitarian societies in the victorious as well as the defeated nations.

Harold took a teaching qualification at the University of London Institute of Education, and began his teaching career proper in schools in Leicestershire and Middlesex. The first of the Middlesex schools was Harrow Weald Grammar, where he met James Britton and Nancy Martin, who became his great teachers. Elsewhere in Middlesex, however, his career was impeded by the black-listing of communists then practised in some circles of that Local Authority. When the London County Council made its pioneering move towards comprehensive education, with the setting-up of pilot comprehensives, Harold went to one of them, Walworth School, as head of English.

The work of the Walworth English department in the 1950s has filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and the English-speaking world. Briefly put, this theory and practice insists that the content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the class must respect the culture and experience which the learner brings there. It sees the making of meaning in and through language as the essential act in which learners engage and which teachers help to bring about. It says that the best learning is a collaboration between teacher and learner, and between learner and learner. It was the effort to make this theory and to put it into practice which Harold joined and helped to lead for 40 years.

Harold was a founder member of the London Association for the Teaching of English, the first local organisation dedicated to the improvement of English teaching by practitioners. LATE was the spur to the setting-up of other local English teachers' associations, and to the establishment of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

When he left Walworth, Harold began his long career in teacher education, first at Borough Road Teacher Training College in Isleworth, and then in the English department of the London Institute of Education, where he had trained. James Britton and Nancy Martin were by then the senior figures there. Beginning under their leadership, and later when he rose to be head of the department and a professor of the university, Harold and his colleagues made the department a place of national and international fame and impact in the professional education of English teachers, and a centre of thought about language and learning.

Harold had the intellectual apparatus necessary for a conventional academic career of great distinction. This wasn't the choice he made. His list of educational publications is long, but those for which he is best known are all collaborative efforts addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners: for example The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18, with James Britton and others; Language, the Learner and the School, with James Britton and Douglas Barnes — a book which emerged from an LATE conference and which launched the idea of 'language across the curriculum'; and The Language of Primary-School Children, written with Connie, herself an inspiring figure in progressive primary education.

Harold left the British Communist Party in 1957, having decided that the party was no longer likely to help bring about the social change he desired in Britain. Its Stalinism was increasingly at odds with the direction and tenor of his educational activities and beliefs. He remained all his life a socialist, as fiercely critical of the evils which American imperialism has brought upon the world, sometimes with British assistance, as he was sorrowful at the dashing of the hopes of his youth with regard to the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

In the politics of education, Harold fiercely resented — and, when he was still working, fought — the attacks on progressivism from within the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, and lived long enough to see, very recently, the irony that some of the principles and practices which he helped to develop are being re-adopted as official government policy in England, without of course any sense on the part of the policy-makers of the origins and history of those ideas.

Harold's second wife Betty was, until her retirement, also an English teacher. She is the author of books on narrative and story-telling, and it was partly under her influence that Harold's later educational writing focussed on the nature and role of narrative in our ability to conceptualise and communicate.

Harold loved to watch England play rugby on television, especially when I was in the armchair next to him. He was an ardent Arsenal fan. Betty cared for him with deep devotion in the physical infirmity of his last years. Mentally, Harold remained trenchant and analytical, and joyful at news of gains in the long educational revolution in which he had played so prominent a part, until the end.

Betty survives him, as do Brian and Michael, his sons by his marriage to Connie, his step-children Ian, Joanna and Rosalind, 10 grand-children and one great-grand-child.

Harold Rosen, educator
Born 25 June 1919
Died 31 July 2008

The funeral was arranged for 13 August, and the family asked me to be the master of ceremonies, since it was to be a non-religious occasion. It was a proper and fitting ceremony, with about 200 people there.

Jumping back, 4 August was Helen’s 60th birthday. By this time we were back at Kerfontaine, and David, Lindsay and Tom James were in their usual gîte at Moëlan-sur-Mer. They came over on the day, and Lindsay, with a bit of sous-chef help from me, cooked a magnificent dinner. Jean and Annick came down for it too. It was a sublimely happy occasion. I gave Helen an emerald ring in white gold, which I knew she wanted; and she had many other presents, and scores of cards.

Yesterday I was due to meet our bank manager, who’s in Shrewsbury, where we still keep our accounts. I’ve never seen her. She doesn’t call herself a bank manager but a ‘relationship adviser’, and she’s replaced the excellent bank manager we used to have, who called himself a bank manager. I had no special business with her, but she wanted a meeting, and was prepared to come to London for it. At nine o’clock yesterday morning, the mobile rang: she was so sorry, she wouldn’t be able to make the meeting; the National Westminster Bank couldn’t afford to send its relationship advisers on train journeys at the moment.

Camden Town7 October 2008

On 1 September, my first day back at Teachers TV after the summer, Andrew Bethell told me that he could only afford to employ me for seven days in September. So I did five of those straight away, and then went back to France for most of the rest of the month.

On 10 September, I met Peter Adams at Stansted Airport and we flew to Dinard, where I had left the car. We drove to Rennes, and met Helen, who had just stepped off the TGV from Marseille, having had a wonderful 10 days there with Mary, Jacques and Tess. Peter had four days with us. On his last day (a Sunday), I took him back to the airport via Mont Saint Michel, which he had never seen. We climbed up to the top (we had to pay to get into the abbey itself) and arrived there in the midst of high mass. It’s a spectacular building, soaring and light, and the service in full swing, organ music, incense and all, made it exhilarating. We went up to the altar rail. Peter didn't take communion. He didn't think it right to, as an Anglican priest. He received a blessing. I did take communion, even though I'm an atheist. Afterwards, the view from the square outside the west doors, over the great bay at low tide, was breathtakingly lovely: reflections of clouds moving across the sheen of water on the mud, and the empty winding creeks showing where the tide would later enter.

After that, Helen and I had a peaceful two weeks together alone at Kerfontaine. The weather was the best of the summer: a succession of steady, golden days. On Monday 22nd we picked the apples. Rosa came down to help us. I have a useful new tool for apple-picking: a long extendible metal pole, to which is attached a short fitment with a cloth bag at its end. With a bit of practice, and as long as an apple is ripe, you can cause it to fall into the bag by holding the bag under the apple and banging the metal ring at the bag’s mouth against the stalk. You can get four or five apples like this before bringing the pole to earth. A lot of apples fell to the ground as the trees were disturbed, but the ground was so soft after all the rain earlier in the summer that they didn’t bruise. We gave most of them to Rosa; they’re a winter boon for her.

On the way back to London, we stayed in a delightful auberge, called the Auberge d’Inxent, an hour south of Calais. It is completely old-fashioned. We were shown to our room via an outside staircase where we had to push aside great yellow daisies to walk up. The village of Inxent is in the valley of the perfectly named River Course; the Course is a fresh stream, flowing fast over the chalk. Dinner was simple — a four-courser for 28 euros, with lots of regional specialities which I hadn’t heard of. The wine list was quite spectacular for such an unpretentious place. We had a half-bottle of white Rhône (Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe) but I couldn’t choose amongst the clarets, so I asked the owner to pick one for me for about 50 euros. He came back with a Saint-Estèphe which was ten years old and wonderful.

The next morning the sun was bursting through the mist as we threaded the lanes, past churches which might almost but not quite have been in Kent or Sussex, before rejoining the old RN1 (now demoted, because of the motorway, to the D901). We took a boat across the water, because the tunnel was still catching up on bookings after the recent fire, and were in London about six.

I have guaranteed work two days a week until further notice.

Meanwhile, the world has been convulsed by a financial crisis. As I write at the computer, I keep watching the behaviour of the stock markets on the BBC’s website. So much has happened in the last few days and weeks that it’s hard to know where to start, and how much detail to go into. Essentially, very greedy and stupid people running banks, encouraged by the light regulatory regimes which were put in place in the 1980s in America, Britain and elsewhere (less so in Continental Europe), lent enormous sums of money, irresponsibly, gambling that they would get their money back at a handsome profit. This irresponsibility was further encouraged by the fact that there always seemed to be another bank or financial institution which would buy a particular bank’s debts (called assets, in the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass world of banking) from it. Now this never-never delusion has been revealed for the catastrophe that it was. In America, most spectacularly, but also in Britain and other countries, governments have had to step in to buy up or at least guarantee banks’ debts. In America, after a huge hiccup when the House of Representatives first voted down a measure which the leadership of both parties thought they had agreed, which caused the measure to be revised before finally being agreed in the House last Friday, the government has agreed to spend a sum which may turn out to be around a trillion dollars (they’re saying $700 billion at the moment, but I expect it’ll go up) buying up banks’ bad assets. Ordinary Americans, caught up in all this chaos either because many of them have lost their houses, unable to keep up payments on mortgages sold to them by smooth-tongued salespeople; or because banks suddenly won’t lend them any money, even if they’re credit-worthy and their small business needs immediate funds; or because they’re out of work now that the financial crisis, which has been going on in America for 18 months, has spilled over into the real economy, are angry at the grotesque behaviour of the super-rich on Wall Street. Barack Obama, I’m very glad to say, is benefiting from this anger, a month before the presidential election.

This morning in Britain, before the markets opened, the government made available around £500 billion to the banking system. Some of that money will buy shares in banks — part-nationalising them. Some will be used to guarantee that if banks lend to each other, they will be paid back. Some will be lent to banks in exchange for assets which the banks would like to get rid of. At around lunchtime in the UK, the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB cut interest rates by half a percent. These actions have come about after days of wild fluctuations, mainly precipitous falls, on stock markets. Bank shares in particular have collapsed. The RBS Group, which owns NatWest, which has Helen’s and my money, is worth about a sixth of what it was worth at its high point earlier this year. Recently, the government had to nationalise the Bradford and Bingley’s bad debts, while getting Santander to take on its viable assets. It persuaded Lloyds to buy HBOS, although that deal hasn’t been concluded and isn’t certain; I think a lot depends on what happens to the share prices of the two banks after today’s events.

The people who have made me angry fall into two groups. In the first group are some bankers, who have gone on television to blame the government for the mess we’re in: a mess which is entirely of their own making. It’s true that the government should have acted more swiftly last year over Northern Rock, a bank run by the greediest and most stupid of bankers, and which had to be nationalised as a measure of last resort. But since then, Brown and Darling have done as well as anyone could have been expected to, considering the scale, speed and complexity of the crisis. On Monday night, Darling met the bosses of the big banks, in what was supposed to be a private meeting. Somehow, the fact that the meeting was taking place leaked out, as did the (true) rumour that the Treasury was planning this morning’s package. Bank shares collapsed yesterday. This is supposed to be the Chancellor’s fault, even though it’s either the bankers themselves, or the Governor of the Bank of England being too candid with the Conservatives, who then blabbed, who fanned the rumour.

The second group I hate are opinion journalists, like Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian, who sneeringly say that the Chancellor’s performance has been hopeless. Jenkins and commentators like him would not have remained continent had they been confronted with such a crisis. Darling has kept his cool, maintained his tone, been himself — boring, some might say, but one doesn’t want an entertainer at a time like this — and done the right things.

The political ironies of recent months are sharp. The most right-wing, free-market government in American history (though perhaps Reagan’s government, which started the rot, ran it close) discovers that the state has a life-saving role to play in the country’s affairs. A Conservative opposition here, which until recently loudly preached the virtues of laissez-faire economics, whose members are the inheritors of Thatcher’s view that the state is bad, or at least not to be trusted, and that the private sector always knows best, now speaks about the need for stronger regulation and about the virtues of fairness. A Labour government which, unlike any previous Labour government, has been, in the words of Peter Mandelson (restored to the Cabinet last Friday, to everyone’s astonishment) ‘seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ (I think I’ve got that right), is being attacked by the Conservative opposition for not being tough enough on the City! Cameron’s biggest backers include people who have got rich by pulling the most disreputable levers of the fruit machines of capitalism in the hedge funds. But Labour also has supporters amongst hedge-fund managers and short-sellers of vulnerable stocks; one was made a junior minister at the weekend.

The only thing we can hope for is that the scare which governments have had in recent days and weeks will make them impose sterner regulation on their financial sectors, in exchange for lifting them out of the sea at the point of drowning. Governments must require banks not to lend more than they’ve got; to lend responsibly, to those who, according to their best judgement, can afford to repay; to lend to people who make things and do things in the real material world, not to people who only want to borrow money to lubricate arcane financial instruments in the unreal world; and to stop paying themselves obscene amounts of money.

My father’s brother, my uncle Peter (I prefer to call him Peter, even though for years he has called himself Miles, or Miles Peter) died yesterday. He was 85 and had cancer. He was a serious painter; he painted single-mindedly and with passion all his life. He had been a student of David Bomberg. With all his devotion to his art, he was never famous. I remember him most affectionately from the 1970s; Mark and I lived in his house in Albert Street while he was in Spain. I visited him and his family at their huerta near Ronda in 1975 (twice) and 1976. During the two summers, I watched farmers threshing corn on a circular floor of cobbles, using a horse and a mule yoked together, the horse for spirit and the mule for stamina: a way of working which has gone for ever. Fiestas in white walled villages high up in the mountains went on all night; we drank and danced in the square for hours, until the dawn had fully come, and then bought sweet pastries for breakfast from stalls in the street and went home to sleep until noon. I swam in the stream across the field from the house every day. One day, Peter suggested that he and I go for a ride on horses. I had never ridden a horse before. We mounted and galloped, I following him, until we arrived at an abandoned house. It was midday, and burning hot. This had been the house, Peter told me, where Bomberg and his wife had lived. As I knew, Peter had come to Ronda, with his wife, to be with Bomberg. We stood for a while as Peter talked about his life in painting, about the importance of taking your art seriously, whether anybody else notices or not. Then we galloped home, dangerously, near-suicidally in my case, as my horse repeatedly swerved under the low branches of trees to try to knock me off. I flattened myself along its back and held on.

I wrote lots of poems when I was in Spain in those years. A very few of them have survived, often much changed, in the current collection.

Camden Town18 October 2008

Friday was Peter’s funeral. (I shall call him Miles from now on, because everyone there did, and that was the name on his coffin.) I went up on the train from Kings Cross to Northallerton. Some cars met the dozen or so of us who’d been on that train, and we were driven to the village of East Rounton, about 12 miles away. I met Mark there; he had flown up from Bristol to Newcastle and rented a car.

The little church was quite beautiful, and the service appropriate. About 80 people were there. The priest, who had known Miles well, described his intense, unorthodox spirituality perfectly. Three of his children gave tributes: Philip very movingly recounted memories of his father; Georgina read a short Lorca poem, first in her lovely translation, then in the original; Bob read some brief diary entries which his father had written in the last weeks of his life. The hymns were good, ending with ‘Jerusalem’, which was right for a passionate English mystic whose hero Blake had been. Then we followed the coffin outside and laid Miles to rest in the corner of the churchyard. The sun shone and sycamore leaves floated to the ground in and around the grave.

Afterwards there were refreshments in the village hall. On a stand in the room was one of Miles’s last paintings: a view of the North Yorkshire hills from exactly the spot where he knew he would be buried. After an hour of conversations, Georgina and Philip took Mark and me to the studio where Miles had worked until the end. On an easel was another view of the same hills, from the same spot; this time there was a purple mark in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, which was, we were told, Miles’s spirit crawling into its grave. We wouldn’t have known.

There was an excellent obituary in The Guardian last Wednesday. It described how Miles had struggled all his life to paint and draw in a way which acknowledged the physical world but did not simply represent it. His art was not abstract — it did not ignore nature — but nor was it a slave to nature. There was a story in the piece about a painting called ‘The Red Studio’, a reproduction of which took up about half the full page given to Miles, which I’ll quote. ‘… in the 1970s he found that his work had taken the long route through drawing to the discovery of light and colour. It is probably no coincidence that one of this new sequence of paintings is called “The Red Studio”, the very title Matisse used in 1911 for one of the most important breakthrough paintings of the age, in which colour gives the impression of both light and spatial depth. Richmond had moved to London and was working in a studio in Camden Town; in his telling, he painted non-stop for three days, during which he experienced a quasi-mystical experience when he seemed to travel through the sun; as he emerged, he heard a voice saying, “Now you are connected.”’

I would say there was no quasi- about the mystical experience. Mark and I lived in that studio for five years, from 1974 to 1979, when Miles was in Spain. ‘The Red Studio’ stood on an easel in the room. I looked at it every day, with admiration, but I didn’t know until now that the doing of it had been so significant an event in Miles’s artistic life.

Yesterday I went to Portsmouth to see my aunts Evelyn and Margaret and my cousin Ceri. Lovely lunch, cooked by Ceri, and then I walked on the down as usual. The weather was glorious. I lay on the grass and looked at the city, the harbours, the Isle of Wight. All the complex connections kept crowding in on me, overwhelming me: there (Tennyson Down, on the island) my parents courted, there (the Church of the Resurrection, just down the hill) they were married, there (in Fratton) I was born, there (in Solent Road, opposite my aunts) I first went to school, there (somewhere on the other side of the Havant Road, down a street of quiet bungalows) I accompanied my father to the little Plymouth Brethren chapel, and here where I was lying we walked home from the service, my hand in his, on summer Sunday evenings. To these well known connections I added another that Philip had told me on Friday: my father’s father’s father had come from Hartlepool to Portsmouth as a poor man, a labourer, and had found work in the dockyard. I had known that my father’s side of the family as well as my mother’s had been established in Portsmouth, and that it was a coincidence that my father, whose own father had moved to London with his wife, had come back to Portsmouth when he joined the Admiralty after university. But I hadn’t known how the Portsmouth connection on my father’s side had started. So down there in the docks, on the west shore of Portsea Island, starting at some date in the 1880s, alongside thousands of other men, a man with a northern accent had moored and unmoored warships. On Friday I had been not far from Hartlepool, in a church on whose walls the plaques commemorated Bells and Trevelyans, the lords of that part of the world, Miles’s first wife’s relations, who’d made their money as owners of factories and foundries in the coastal towns of the north-east. Philip told me that the labourer had been very proud of his son, who became an engineer in the Admiralty and did important and secret work designing ships’ engines (he got an MBE). (A generation later, my father also worked for the Admiralty as a scientific researcher, developing radar.) Philip said that our father’s mother’s family had thought nonetheless that our grandmother married beneath her. Her father, a Mr Winterbottom, owned a printing business, and was well off; his daughter had trained as a classical singer. I remember my great-aunt Margaret telling me that Mr Winterbottom — one of my great-grandfathers — had known the only great-grandfather I knew, the one I loved and who played draughts and cribbage with me. He had worked as a commissionaire in a bank after he and his family had moved to Portsmouth in (I think) 1925. Mr Winterbottom had his account at that bank. This slight connection between the two families came long before my father met my mother.

I walked down the hill and across the Havant Road, looking for the Plymouth Brethren chapel. I found it in South Road. A man was up a ladder fixing to the front wall a banner proclaiming a verse of scripture. His two little children, a boy and a girl, played in front of the building (now simply called South Road Church). I thought about going over to ask the man if the church was still Plymouth Brethren. I might tell him that I had attended it 50 years ago: information which would certainly lead to friendly enquiries about the state of my soul now. I went on.

Vantage Point

In October sunshine, high on the down, with a view of the city, the harbour, the sea, I sit and ponder the place where I started, which I cannot disown, whose birthmarks are printed in me like spots on these fallen sycamore leaves, like flukes in the bark of this whistling hawthorn which leans with the wind down the hill into the huge deep bowl of air below me. I am panoptic, exalted.

What have I retained of what I was given here, then? First, love; next, education: two gifts out of three. The third, which was faith, I’ve handed back for good.

The boy who walked with his father on this grass, bending his curious but believing brain to hard truths wrung from texts containing all heaven and earth in fine, clear print, is no more and never will be. Instead, here sits a man certain that we, and we only, can do good; that ‘to be born is best’; that our days supply infinite occasion for joy; and that the dead know nothing at all.

Camden Town9 November 2008

Listened to Anthony Sher’s excellent programme on Radio 4 about Isaac Rosenberg. Heart-breaking: the difference, amongst the great poets of that war, between being a Jew and a private soldier and a Christian and an officer. In one of his letters home to his mother, he cries out: ‘Mother, send me a pencil.’ In another, he writes that for the moment he’s able to write, ‘being lucky enough to bag an inch of candle’.

Century Club, Soho11 November 2008

Junction of Berners Street and Oxford Street: look left on this clear dry afternoon to Centre Point, and beyond it to the calm azure sky. There to the left of the building, large and level with its upper floors, is the full moon, its mountains and seas sharply delineated. It hangs, a quiet new person in the room, waiting for our notice without calling for our attention. A miracle. Gravity holding us together and apart. Just below the smudged but gleaming disc, an aeroplane crosses the sky, disappears behind Centre Point, reappears, disappears.

Camden Town14 November 2008

On Saturday 1 November dad had a heart attack. Joyce Bavington, who goes in early mornings and late evenings to help mum and dad, arrived about ten that evening to find him lying on the couch in the front room downstairs. He said he felt weak. Joyce took his pulse and called NHS Direct. An hour later, dad was in hospital. I went up the next morning. The doctors said that the attack had been mild; nonetheless, some of the heart muscle was now dead. When heart muscle dies, it isn’t renewed. So the rest of dad’s heart muscle will have to take over the work of the dead part. I stayed in Wootton until the following Thursday, looking after mum and visiting dad twice a day. On Thursday my brother Peter came to take over from me. Dad left hospital on Friday. Mary arrived two days ago to take over from Peter. She will stay until the 23rd. Between us, we’ve been putting in place enhanced care arrangements for after that.

At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last weekend, we had very good readings from Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Alan Brownjohn, Tiffany Atkinson and a Chinese poet called Yi Sha. Dennis O’Driscoll also delivered an excellent lecture about Seamus Heaney, on Heaney’s stance as a public and political figure, mainly with regard to the Troubles but also to other conflicts (he spoke very well about ‘Anything Can Happen’, Heaney’s wonderful translation of the Horace ode, which refers to the Twin Towers). Then last Monday we heard Heaney and O’Driscoll being interviewed by Mark Lawson in Wyndham’s Theatre. Stepping Stones, a fat book of O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney, has just been published. I bought it at Aldeburgh. Both men were excellent. An edited version of the conversation is on Front Row on Radio 4 this evening.

Ten days ago, Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States. I sat up all night in Wootton and watched. It was a wonderful triumph. I felt as elated as I did on 1 and 2 May 1997. The better part of America won. Obama’s administration faces gigantic tasks: fix the collapsing global financial system; revive America’s dying economy; save the planet from environmental disaster; engage with the outside world instead of bullying it; in particular, get out of Iraq. At the moment it looks as if Obama wants to send more troops to Afghanistan, to properly finish off the Taliban and Al-Qaida. While I have nothing but hatred for those forces of barbarism, backwardness and cruelty, and while I reluctantly supported the original invasion in 2001, there’s every chance that an increased Western military force will get bogged down in Afghanistan for years, with many deaths on all sides, and will become Obama’s albatross. Meanwhile, Pakistan is looking increasingly shaky as a democracy. People with disgusting attitudes, willing to defend the selling of girls as property, or the execution of women who have been raped, have joined the government. There’s no doubt that Taliban and Al-Qaida fanatics are being trained in Pakistan. The whole area represents a huge problem for the next US government. The only thing I can say, weakly, is that the problem won’t be solved by force alone. It needs intensive diplomacy, including negotiations with some of the most unpleasant people in the world — the kind of people who shoot women who run girls’ schools.

Obama’s victory speech was one of the finest pieces of political rhetoric I have ever heard: up there with the best of JFK and Martin Luther King, but delivered in a style appropriate to modern mass communication, so that, at its heights, it was almost conversational, as if he were speaking to each listener one by one. ‘Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared.’ Every so often in life, despite the inevitable long process of disappointment which a political idealist like me is bound to experience, comes a flaring up of hope, a sense of the possibility of how things could be if a few good, intelligent, imaginative men and women coincided as world leaders. Hope flared up in me again as I listened and watched this remarkable man, ten years younger than me, holding an audience in the palm of his hand at about 5.30 GMT on the morning of 5 November 2008.

Camden Town25 November 2008

Update on the financial crisis and the recession: there’s a lot of noise from the Tories and the right-wing press about burgeoning UK government debt. In fact, the UK’s debt is 50th in the CIA’s world rankings, according to the league table I’ve just looked at, at 43.6% of GDP, lower than (in ascending order) Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, Cyprus, the United States, Portugal, France, Canada, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Japan, to list only other EU countries and non-EU first-world countries. It’s true that the debt is projected to increase significantly, perhaps towards 60% of GDP in 2013/14, but I imagine that these other countries’ debt will increase equivalently. So far as I can see, Alistair Darling’s proposals in yesterday’s pre-budget report (which is in fact a full-scale budget, and much more significant than many full budgets are) are sensible Keynesian action in a recession. The government’s prediction for the depth and length of this recession is that it will be shallower and shorter than the two recessions of the Tory years. We shall see. The difference between the situation today and those prevailing during the Tory recessions is that there is currently a global banking crisis of exceptional — possibly unique — proportions. The one fair criticism of Gordon Brown’s time as chancellor doesn’t relate to his management of the ‘normal’ economy; it relates to his failure to impose tighter regulation on the banks. But that would probably have required global agreement to reverse the light-touch regulation of the Thatcher/Reagan inheritance, at a time when other governments, notably in the US, would have laughed at him for suggesting it. He could, had he been endowed with second sight and phenomenal courage, have tightened control alone. Had he done that, in a globalised finance system, a lot of money would have left the UK.

Camden Town12 December 2008

I’ve just finished reading all of Milton’s English poems (except ‘Comus’, which I skipped after a couple of pages because it seemed too silly). Milton was born 400 years ago last Tuesday. Somehow I avoided him when I was young; I didn’t study him extensively either at school or at Cambridge. I may have been prejudiced against him by the information that Keats had given up writing ‘Hyperion’ because there were ‘too many Miltonic inversions in it’. The only poems I have certainly read before are the famous sonnets ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ and ‘Methought I saw my late espoused Saint’; both are utterly wonderful, though the syntax of the first four-and-a-bit lines of ‘When I consider…’ takes a lot of conning.

To utter heresy, I don't think ‘Paradise Lost’ is a great poem. It's a long poem. Milton was a great man. There are some passages of great poetry in ‘Paradise Lost’, notably — and this is also the glory of Dante — when he makes a comparison between something religious and high-flown, and a common, down-to-earth, human experience. Examples are the lines near the end of the last book, where Adam and Eve are being expelled from Eden:

‘…all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as Ev’ning Mist
Ris’n from a river o’re the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Labourers heel
Homeward returning.’

Or, describing Satan’s secret entry into Eden in book 4:

‘Or as a Thief bent to unhoord the cash
Of some rich Burgher, whose substantial dores,
Cross-barrd and bolted fast, fear no assault,
In at the window climbes, or o’re the tiles:
So clomb this first grand Thief into Gods Fould:’

(And, just after this passage, I love the quirkiness — not Biblical — that Satan’s first manifestation in the Garden is as a cormorant sitting on top of the Tree of Life.)

Occasionally, Milton achieves simple, sublime lyrical beauty, as in the description in book 1 of Satan’s fall:

‘…from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th' Ægean Ile:’

And there are grandeurs such as the description towards the end of book 2 of the abyss of Chaos which Satan contemplates before he launches into it, including the phrase ‘His dark materials’ now made famous by Philip Pullman.

But there are excessive longueurs, where the prolix iambic pentameters jog on just above the level of rhythmical prose; and stately but predictable and tedious conversations. I love Dr Johnson’s remark: ‘“Paradise Lost” is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is…’

If I had to, I would exchange the whole of ‘Paradise Lost’ for the two great sonnets.

‘Lycidas’ is very beautiful, and a political poem, and the rhymes are enchanting. (The preface to the second edition of ‘Paradise Lost’, where Milton justifies his decision to have written the poem without rhyme, protests a bit too much, though it is very interesting. The thought of doing something on that scale, dictated orally in blindness, and rhyming it too, boggles the mind.) ‘Samson Agonistes’ is absurd in that it’s one of numerous examples of great poets trying to write plays, which turn out static (I know Milton didn’t intend this one to be performed). Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy are other culprits. But there are some memorable lines, my appreciation of them probably enhanced by a 21st-century sensibility. Dalila to Samson, during their row:

‘In argument with men a woman ever
Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause.’

And Samson to Dalila:

‘At distance I forgive thee, go with that;’

I can think of a few people to whom, esprit d’escalier, I would like to have quoted that line.

Kerfontaine24 December 2008

Here we are again: our second Christmas at Kerfontaine. Dad has been pretty well since his heart attack. It was Mary’s turn to be with mum and dad this Christmas, and she, Jacques and Tess arrived there on Sunday. So we have been liberated. This afternoon, as two years ago, I went into the wood and cut holly, which is now scruffily but pleasingly plaited above the fireplace. The garden and the wood are beautiful, in the spare, contained way of winter. In particular, Jean-Paul has done a great job with the strimmer in the wood. It's easy and pleasant to walk between the trees. The stream is full but not overflowing.

We crossed Dover-Calais yesterday lunchtime, and stopped last night at Le Manoir de l’Archerie, near Villedieu-les-Poêles. We ate a wonderful Norman country meal, with only two other diners in the room. We woke up the next morning to thick mist, and drove on down the old N175 (‘la Route de la Liberté’, with the special kilometre posts carrying the embossed hand holding the flaming torch of freedom, which I noticed the first time I drove down that road more than 30 years ago) to Avranches. The ghostly silhouettes of the rooftops and church spires of the town looked spectacular. Mont Saint Michel not to be seen. A quarter of an hour later, the mist suddenly cleared, and we were in blazing sunshine, which has lasted the rest of the day. Brittany looked splendid: well cared-for and trim, with winter corn beginning to show. We stopped for our Christmas food in the supermarket at Plouay, bought flowers for the house at Le Nay and two dozen flat oysters for tonight from my man by the church, who explained that he wouldn’t sing me another English sea shanty today, as he had in the summer, because he has ‘something like sciatica’ which is causing him a lot of pain. He prefers to be up, moving and working, despite the pain; lying in bed is worse. I’ve been buying oysters from him for 18 years.

As two years ago, I most definitely didn’t listen to the carol service from King’s College, Cambridge on the radio. Its very beauty always fills me with profound melancholy: an inheritance from childhood. Consequently, I don’t need cheering up on the evening of Christmas Eve, because I’m already cheerful. I shall go and open the oysters; the flat ones are much easier to deal with than the hollow.

KerfontaineChristmas Day, 25 December 2008

A clear sky at sunset. The day started overcast. We rose about 10.30, Helen having discovered, as usual, a present to wake up to at the end of the bed, enclosed in one of her own stockings: La Perla perfume. We had a larger-than-usual, longer-than-usual breakfast: coffee, the pear juice we bought yesterday at the hotel, two boiled eggs each, toast, yoghurt. We took a hamper up to our neighbours. We left them preparing for lunch and drove down to the sea. The roads were deserted, as on Christmas Day 2006. We walked along the same stretch of shore as then. To our amazement, about half a mile out at sea, causing surf where no surf usually is, were what must have been either porpoises or dolphins, their black forms partially appearing briefly and tantalisingly before disappearing under the water before appearing again. Just as we watched, the sky cleared and the sun came out. On the walk back, this time along the water’s edge, oyster-catchers were running comically and fast on the wet sand and through the shallowest water, their legs moving at top speed like cartoon legs, their bills pecking the sand in sudden, jerky, irregular movements, but confident, sure that there, exactly there was a tiny tit-bit of food: nothing so large as an oyster.

Then we drove back and ate a plate of goat’s cheese and salad with a glass of Madame Laroche’s magnificent Savennières. We opened our presents. Helen gave me a biography of Milton, which I’d asked for, and four beautiful second-hand first editions of poetry: Tony Harrison’s V, Stephen Spender, Robert Lowell and R.S. Thomas. I gave her more cosmetics. She had named four brands she currently likes (Tom Ford, Estée Lauder, Dolce e Gabbana and a Japanese name I can’t remember). I got her one of each. Extravagant, but we have got £100,000 in the bank and we do own two properties outright, combined value about £500,000, and we have no dependents, so there’s no need to practise economy too diligently.

Then we went for a walk around the grounds, admiring everything in its pared-back winter state. But the viburnum was in full flower, its pinky-white florets offering a peppery scent when you put your nose right up to them in the cold air, the flowers standing out brightly from the dark pointed leaves. That bush is about 10 feet high, and it’s been standing there since we bought the place. One year I thought it was going to die, and lopped off several already dead branches, but it’s recovered completely.

Our Christmas meal tonight: smoked salmon, coquille St Jacques, guinea fowl with sprouts and roast potatoes, cheese, Christmas pudding. This morning, Helen also gave me small presents in a hand-made paper stocking, including — as every year — Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide. Hugh tells me that the Brane-Cantenac 2002 which I’ve been keeping may now be drunk, so I’ve decanted it into the claret jug which Stephen gave me years ago. It smells sensational.

Kerfontaine29 December 2008

This fleeting privilege at freezing twilight:
bright Jupiter, and Venus, and the last new moon of the old year,
assembled where the vivid afterthought of the departed sun
is losing its prismatic contest with the night.

Kerfontaine30 December 2008

Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve. I heard on Boxing Day. As when Anthony Minghella died earlier this year, the loss caused a deep, unsettling shift in me; I can do no better than return once more to Donne. It was the Beckett project which brought me into personal contact with both men. Anthony’s death was both a surprise and a shock, in that he was young and I had no idea he was ill. Everyone knew that Harold has undergone treatment for cancer of the oesophagus; the last-but-one time I met him was in the pavilion at Lord’s where the BBC was launching a season of films of some of his plays. He made a short speech saying that he had recovered well from the illness and the treatment, and that it was good to be alive. I saw him by chance one more time in the Festival Hall. We exchanged a few words. When you’ve had cancer, as I know from Albert’s experience, it doesn’t necessarily ever go away. The appreciation for Harold in Le Monde put it well when it said that his death wasn’t a surprise but it was a shock. He was a truly great playwright — I think, after Arthur Miller’s death, the greatest living playwright in English, and I’m not saying he was a lesser talent than Miller, just different — and it isn’t excessive to discuss his achievement in the same terms as Beckett’s and Brecht’s. I admire all his plays: the great early ones obviously, but also the terrible, shocking political statements in his later work. I must say I think he was a dreadful poet, and that it would have been better for him not to have published any of the poems I’ve seen in print. They’re formless rants, inchoate splutterings of rage against the wicked masters of the world, which for him principally meant the leaders of America and Britain. And there I do disagree with the emphasis of some of his polemics. Of course it’s right to condemn and protest against the misery which American military might, with British help, has visited on the world in recent decades. But to pass so briefly over the tyrannies which have caused the West, rightly or wrongly, to intervene in some regions of the world seems to me one-eyed. On the wrongness of the invasion of Iraq, I agree with Pinter completely. But in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, his efforts to defend Milosevic were preposterous. He said in 2001, ‘I believe [Milosevic’s] arrest and detention by the international criminal tribunal is unconstitutional, and goes against Yugoslav and international law. They have no right to try him.’ He thought Milosevic had been unfairly demonised. How can he have thought so? The political part of his Nobel acceptance speech was nine-tenths anti-America; it had one short paragraph acknowledging the tyrannies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc before 1990. I don't believe that Pinter would have survived in those societies.

But to return to his greatness: it’s something to do with the way he ratchets language and human communication a few degrees from true (in the sense of realistically, ordinarily true) while retaining in his dramatic situations a masterful ability to portray the apparently ordinary, the apparently real. This produces a sense of the thinness of the ice on which humans skate as they continue to do business with each other; of the closeness of the silence which is behind the sounds and gestures we make to each other. More simply, as a Londoner (though not born and bred like him) I love his grip of the speech style of Londoners, especially working-class Londoners. And, as with Beckett, I love the comedy which bubbles up through his choices of language. ‘That’s not equivocal. That’s unequivocal.’ ‘Why don’t you just pop off?’ ‘She had no wish for full consummation. She was content with her particular predilection. Consuming the male member.’ ‘Nearby is an Indian restaurant of excellent standing, at which you would be the guest of my committee.’ ‘Have you been to Carrickmacross? / I’ve been to King’s Cross.’

For six days, from Christmas Eve until yesterday, the weather has been wonderful: freezing cold, with bright sunshine in the days, exquisite coloured twilights and profound black star-crowded nights. No moon until yesterday, and then the thinnest shaving of the new. No wind. We’ve had good long walks every day except today. Today I did leaf-clearing from the lawn, which I knew I should do while the leaves were dry and the ground hard. I worked well and felt good. Then I went for a meditative mooch down in the wood, admiring again Jean-Paul’s excellent work there. It’s deeply satisfying to be the owner of a well-husbanded and beautiful parcel of the earth.

Occurrences: Book Six

Kerfontaine2 January 2009

Poom! The glass-panelled front door took the blow, and we saw feathers stuck to the glass outside, and opened the door. There lay a greenfinch on its back, its mouth gasping, its breast heaving. I picked it up. Contained in the palm of one hand, it was a living vessel of softness and warmth, desperate to fly, and not apparently injured. It stretched its wings once, twice; but no lift-off. I wondered whether to throw it aloft, but feared it might not be ready, might still be in shock, would fall straight to earth and be further damaged.

We put soaked bread and a saucer of tepid water on a dinner plate, and placed the bird on the plate next to them. It put its head on the bread, but seemed not to know it for food. It stretched its wings again; frustrating its instinct to fly was the fact that something somewhere was wrong. I took it up again, held it up, offered it up. A tiny drop of blood ran from its beak on to my palm. With all its might it desired to live. It shuddered in my hand. Its eyes were bright. Then it laid its head on my fingers and departed from this world.

Camden Town10 February 2009

On 22 January my aunt Evelyn died. Her daughter Ceri, my cousin, asked me to speak at her funeral, which was held yesterday. This is what I said.

I remember my aunt Evelyn first through the eyes of a boy. By the time I was conscious of her, she was a young woman in her early twenties. She seemed to me very beautiful, quick, vivacious and fun. I remember excursions to Cosham market in the 1950s, in the days before Christmas, to buy nuts, dates, tangerines, chocolate and other special fare: the excitement of it, and her pleasure in organising and leading the expedition. I remember specifically her 26th birthday — I know it was her 26th because her father, my grandfather, mentioned her age when proposing a toast to her. That was August 1958. She shone at the lunch table, full of jokes and stories and laughter.

Later, when I was a teenager, she took me to the theatre. As we all know, Evelyn had a life-long passion for the theatre, and participated, as performer or designer, in many memorable productions on Portsmouth’s stages. I went with her to Chichester several times in the 1960s, driving there with her in her Mini on early summer evenings; I remember in particular a splendid production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, featuring Millicent Martin among other stars. I shall always be grateful to Evelyn for those nights out. Later, as an adult, I was able to return the compliment by inviting her to some London productions. The one I know she enjoyed the most was Chekhov’s Wild Honey, starring one of her heroes, Ian McKellen. We sat in the middle of the front row. Evelyn cheered at the end.

Apart from her commitment to the theatre, Evelyn was a gifted painter, a brilliant art teacher, a valued colleague in the schools where she worked, a wide-ranging reader; in short, she was a woman of culture. In the prime of her life she was struck down by multiple sclerosis, a cruel condition which progressively robbed her of independence of body. My visits to Drayton have been occasional these last 20 years, but on every occasion, as I saw the illness taking its toll, I also saw a woman who maintained her good humour, her pleasure in life, her interest in the outside world. She kept alive her love of theatre through television and video, and she continued to read extensively. She was an inspiring model of courage in adversity, courage never more tested than when her beloved son Huw died in 1995, at the age of 34.

Evelyn would have wished me to pay public tribute here to two people in particular. The first is her own aunt Margaret, my great-aunt, who is at home this afternoon, but who is here in spirit. Margaret is 94. Throughout Evelyn’s illness, Margaret — at an age when most people can justly expect to be looked after by other people — cared for Evelyn with saintly and cheerful devotion. She was Evelyn’s constant companion, providing unfailing practical and emotional support. Margaret has been love in action, down to the detail of turning the page of the book Evelyn was reading when Evelyn could no longer do it herself.

The other person Evelyn would have wished me to honour publicly is her daughter Ceri. Ceri has been love in action too. Only five minutes’ drive away from Evelyn and Margaret, Ceri has been an ever-present joy, strength and stay in their lives: their organiser, their champion, helping and sustaining them through the days, bringing the vigour and optimism of her life into theirs. No mother could have wished for a better or — in every sense — more beautiful daughter.

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.’

Evelyn, sleep well.

Camden Town13 March 2009

An event to commemorate Harold Rosen’s life was held at the Institute yesterday. It was a great occasion: I should think 200 people were there, representing all the overlapping constituencies in which Harold had been so inspiring and influential. I was one of the speakers. I’ve put the speech, some of which was taken from the tribute I gave at his funeral, on to my website, at the end of chapter 3 of the autobiography.

Wootton, Bedfordshire22 March 2009

I’m here for Mothering Sunday. I expect this will be my last. Mum is very frail. She stays in bed, but she’s still bright, and was pleased with my flowers. I brought such a big bunch that dad and I divided them into five vases, two in her bedroom.

On Friday I went to my aunt Aase’s funeral in Kent. I didn’t like her, and hadn’t seen her for many years. My brother Peter has been very good to her in recent times, living not far away as he does, and recognising a priestly responsibility for a member of the family, however peculiar and ungrateful. Aase was carried off quickly by cancer. She chose not to tell anyone she was ill, even when she was in hospital and near the end. I’m not sure how the news got out; when it did, Peter went to visit her. Anyway, on Friday I picked up my cousin James (who did like Aase) and his girlfriend Bernadette from Covent Garden very early, and we drove down to the crematorium near Sittingbourne. We arrived more than an hour before the coffin was due at ten o’clock, so we found a greasy spoon café and had the sort of unhealthy, delicious breakfast which should really be avoided by a middle-aged man with high cholesterol. Then we went back to the crematorium and met Peter. The hearse arrived. The four of us plus Aase’s gardener followed the coffin into the chapel and stood in the front row for ten minutes in silence. That was it. That was what she had wanted.

We drove back to Peter’s vicarage at St Nicholas-at-Wade and had coffee. We talked a lot about mental illness, because James suffers from bi-polar disorder, which I still prefer to call manic depression, a much more accurate and vivid description of the condition; and Peter works with mentally ill people. Then we walked to the village pub for lunch. Peter drove back to the crematorium to collect Aase’s ashes. In the afternoon, we all gathered at the farmhouse in the little beautiful valley south of Faversham where Bill and Aase had lived. We buried the ashes beneath a clump of flowering snowdrops, under a young oak tree, next to where Bill’s ashes had been buried a few years before.

Camden Town22 May 2009

On 6 April my father died. On 6 May my mother died. So the last few weeks have been extraordinary, both emotionally and practically.

We were in Shropshire on the weekend of 3 to 5 April, staying with David and Lindsay. On the Friday evening, we had been to dinner with Mike and Sue. Sue is coping bravely with secondary liver cancer, the first cancer having been found in the bowel. She’s having courses of chemotherapy, and the latest news I have is that the treatment has slowed and possibly even reversed the growth of the lesions, and that it may at some time be possible to operate to remove the infected part of the liver, while leaving enough of it in place for the organ to continue to work. If the operation happens, the doctors will afterwards attend to the original cancer in the bowel. But I haven’t spoken to Mike or Sue for about a fortnight, so there may be more up-to-date news.

Anyhow, as we were preparing to leave David and Lindsay on the Sunday afternoon, I had a phone message from my mother to say that dad had been taken into hospital at lunchtime. He had been at church in the morning (Palm Sunday) as usual. He had not felt well, and someone had walked across from church to the house with him after the service. He had gone upstairs, lain down on the bed next to mum, and lost consciousness. He had then regained consciousness and tried to get up, but had fallen over again and didn’t know anyone. Julie Kennedy, one of the carers, was there getting lunch, and mum phoned Joyce Bavington, their other carer, who came round straight away. They phoned the ambulance.

Dad was given a CT scan as soon as he arrived at A and E at Bedford Hospital. The scan revealed a major brain haemorrhage, too big to be operated on. The hospital sent the picture electronically to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who confirmed the diagnosis.

I arrived at the hospital at about 7.30 that evening. My brother Peter was already there. Dad was breathing steadily with the help of an oxygen mask, but his eyes were closed and it wasn’t possible to tell whether he was aware of us or of anything outside himself. Peter said that he had seemed to shed a tear when he had spoken to him and prayed with him. The nurse said that dad would not recover, although it was impossible to say whether he would live for hours or for days.

I went home and told mum the news. She took it very calmly. She wasn’t distraught. She didn’t weep. I then went back to the hospital. Peter returned to Wootton. At about eleven, Peter Ackroyd, the vicar at Wootton, came and prayed with dad. I stayed with dad until about quarter past one in the morning. Then I went to Wootton to sleep, asking the nurses to phone me immediately if dad died in the night.

Helen and I returned to the hospital at about eleven the next morning. The curtains were drawn around dad’s bed. We went through. Dad had died a few minutes before. The sister came; she was sorry; she had been about to phone us. Earlier that morning, the doctors had decided that there was no purpose in prolonging dad’s life artificially, so they had taken away the oxygen. It was the correct decision.

Helen and I stood with dad for about two hours, until a doctor came to confirm the death.

There then began the intense period of organisation and decision-taking that always follows a death. By the end of the day, we had arranged the date, time and place of the funeral (21 April at eleven o’clock at St Mary’s Church, Wootton, followed by a cremation at Bedford Crematorium), and told everybody in the immediate family. Mark and Gill, who were on holiday in Cornwall, drove up. Mary, who had been intending to come from France to Wootton on 25 April to look after mum so dad could have a break with Mark and Gill, brought her arrival forward to 18 April. Peter, Mark and I agreed to divide the time between then and 18 April between us, so mum would have someone with her all the time. Dad had been mum’s principal carer, although she also received paid care from Julie and Joyce, until the day he departed.

Over the next few days, I drafted about 30 letters giving news of dad’s death, some personal, some business, which mum signed. I was greatly helped by mum’s lap-top computer and the printer which Peter had connected to it. Peter and I went to Bedford to register the death, and to the funeral director in Kempston to agree details for the funeral. I planned the order of service. I put dad’s car into my name, so it could be used by any of us when we were at Wootton. On the Thursday morning, I think, Peter went back to Kent.

Mum was deeply grateful for all our efforts, but all the time her scleroderma was worsening. She just had the strength to heave herself from the bed on to the commode next to the bed and back again. She produced great quantities of liquid faeces at hourly intervals. She never troubled me during the night, but every morning early I emptied a pot near to overflowing. It was a matter of simply overcoming, going straight through, a revulsion at seeing and smelling your mother’s shit. Beckett should have written a play about it. There were a couple of times in the bathroom when I nearly retched, but after that I simply kept the windows open to clear the smell as quickly as possible, and made extravagant use of hot water and Dettol wipes, for which invention I thank the Lord (metaphorically speaking).

I went to church on Good Friday, to hear the moving tributes to dad made during the service, and because it was proper.

On Easter Eve in the afternoon, mum began to be more than usually ill. Besides the diarrhoea, she vomited, was dizzy, had a painful headache and difficulty in breathing. This last was because the swelling of her abdomen, brought about by gas produced by undigested food rotting in her gut, was pushing up against her lungs. Joyce came round. She had seen mum many times in distress, and as a retired nurse knew what to do to ease the pain a little. But this was worse than usual, and at about eight o’clock that evening I called an ambulance. While we were waiting for it to come, I helped mum on to the commode one last time. When she had finished, I tried to get her back into bed, but she was a dead weight in my arms as I held her under the armpits. I managed to lay her across the bed. She began praying to God to help her. God seemed to be otherwise engaged (Easter Eve is a busy time). I said, ‘Mum, for goodness’ sake don’t die now. Leave dad in peace for a few days. He’s just getting to know the place.’ She laughed as well as she was able to.

The ambulance came quickly, and with some difficulty we got mum downstairs and on board. The paramedics, who were excellent, put her straight on to oxygen and a drip, and off we went to A and E, six days after dad had arrived there. The doctors and nurses were quite brilliant. Essentially, mum had nearly died of dehydration, collapse of blood pressure and loss of essential minerals and blood sugar. Pumped up with emergency supplies of everything she had lost, she began to feel more comfortable, although there was nothing immediate anyone could do about her bleeding and pustulating sacral sore, the result of many years of lying in bed and constant attacks of diarrhoea.

To her and my great relief, she was taken to a room of her own in the acute assessment unit. I left her there at about midnight, and went back to Wootton for a late supper.

I went to church again on Easter Sunday morning. There were more generous and moving tributes to dad for all the work he had done for the church over 44 years, and prayers for mum.

Mum was in hospital for three weeks and four days. During that time, the surgeons twice considered whether any kind of operation on the gut or the bowel might be possible, but of course had such an operation been feasible it would have been done a long time previously. So the only hope was to deliberately starve mum for a while, to clean her out completely and thus stop the diarrhoea, in the hope that the gut and the bowel might then begin to work a little. Mum just had a saline and/or glucose drip, oxygen and sips of water. This regime of course weakened her. When she was given a little food, either through the mouth or through the tube into her stomach which she had had for several years, the diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting resumed. There was a fear that faeces might get into the lungs.

I returned to London on Thursday 16 April in the morning. Mark was with mum until the Friday afternoon. Mum knew that I would arrive with Mary on the Saturday afternoon.

On Friday 17 April, I was at home with Helen, Bronwyn and Stephen. We were having champagne before dinner when the phone rang. It was the sister from the acute assessment unit. Mum was ‘deteriorating’. I left immediately and drove up the motorway, planning what to do if mum died over the weekend. Maybe there would be just enough time, getting the formalities through and the order of service reprinted at top speed, to have a double funeral. If not, it might be possible to make the service both a formal funeral for dad and a thanksgiving for mum’s life, and then have mum’s funeral as a small family affair later.

When I reached the ward I knew immediately that mum wasn’t about to die in the next few hours. She looked awful, and was vomiting brown fluid into a bowl, but she still had some strength and all her wits, and was pleased to see me. I stayed until about midnight and then went to Wootton to sleep. The next morning I drove to Luton Airport and met Mary, Jacques, Tess and Sophie. I explained what had happened as we drove back to Wootton. Mary went to see mum that afternoon.

Mary and I shared the visiting on the Saturday and Sunday. On the Sunday evening I drove back to London, and went to work on the Monday.

Tuesday 21 April was the day of dad’s funeral. Helen and I left London at seven, and drove through mist on the motorway, arriving at Wootton at about half past eight. The mist cleared during the morning, and there followed a perfect spring day: cloudless, very warm by the afternoon, but with all the freshness of April.

The service was at 11. I stood at the church door from about 10.30 and greeted everyone. At 10.55 precisely the hearse arrived. Peter Ackroyd and I walked down the path and greeted the funeral attendants. The four pall-bearers took the coffin out of the hearse. The little group processed to the church: Peter, Steve the chief attendant, the pall-bearers with the coffin, me. As the coffin entered the church, Peter began to read the sentences: ‘“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord…’ The coffin was placed on a trestle in front of the screen. I took my place at the end of the front row, next to Mark.

This is the order of service.


18 August, 1924 — 6 April, 2009

‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’

Funeral Service
St. Mary’s Church, Wootton
21st April, 2009


Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt his name;
When in distress to Him I called,
He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Deliverance He affords to all
Who on His succour trust.

Oh make but trial of His love,
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they
Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.

by Mark Richmond

by Alfred Tennyson
read by John Richmond

by Norma Smith

by the Reverend Peter Ackroyd

When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love and praise.

Unnumbered comforts to my soul
Thy tender care bestowed,
Before my infant heart conceived
From whom these comforts flowed.

When worn with sickness, oft hast Thou
With health renewed my face;
And when in sins and sorrows sunk,
Revived my soul with grace.

Ten thousand thousand precious gifts
My daily thanks employ;
Nor is the least a cheerful heart,
That tastes those gifts with joy.

Through every period of my life
Thy goodness I’ll pursue;
And after death, in distant worlds,
The glorious theme renew.

Through all eternity to Thee
A joyful song I’ll raise;
For O eternity’s too short
To utter all Thy praise!

led by the Reverend Peter Richmond


From Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan,
in which Mr Valiant-for-truth comes into his reward
read by John Richmond


Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise;
Sing to God a hymn of gladness, sing to God a hymn of praise;
He who on the cross a victim for the world’s salvation bled,
Jesus Christ, the King of glory, now is risen from the dead.

Christ is risen, Christ the first-fruits of the holy harvest field,
Which will all its full abundance at His second coming yield;
Then the golden ears of harvest will their heads before Him wave,
Ripened by His glorious sunshine from the furrows of the grave.

Christ is risen; we are risen; shed upon us heavenly grace,
Rain and dew and gleams of glory from the brightness of Thy face,
That we, Lord, with hearts in heaven, here on earth may fruitful be,
And by angel-hands be gathered, and be ever safe with Thee.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory be to God on high;
Alleluia to the Saviour, who has gained the victory;
Alleluia to the Spirit, fount of love and sanctity;
Alleluia! Alleluia to the Triune Majesty.


It was a magnificent service. I should think there were about 140 people there. Mark’s tribute was splendid: beautifully composed, quietly but confidently delivered, recounting the key events in dad’s personal, religious and working life lovingly and humorously. I had to struggle to get through my two readings (which I had privately chosen at least two years previously), but get through them I did, and I think the fact that I was visibly moved while reading moved the congregation.

Here are the readings, with my introductions.


‘Crossing the Bar’ is a poem of Christian hope. Tennyson wrote it in 1889, near the end of his life, composing it almost in one go as he crossed on the ferry from Lymington in Hampshire to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, where he had lived for many years.

The poem is so famous, and has been so often quoted and misquoted, that it’s worth reminding ourselves that the bar to which it refers is not some kind of saloon bar, and that the moaning of the bar is not the sound of disgruntled drinkers. The bar is the sand bar at Lymington, which divides the quiet waters of the harbour from the open sea. Sometimes, a certain conjunction of winds and tide causes a strange moaning sound over and around the sand bar. In Tennyson’s poem, the waters of the harbour are a metaphor for the life we know here; the open sea a metaphor for the life beyond.

My parents met in Hampshire, along the coast from Lymington, in Portsmouth. My father was sitting behind my mother in the Church of the Resurrection, Drayton. He said that he liked the look of the back of her neck. They courted on the Isle of Wight, especially on the down which now bears Tennyson’s name. My father, who cared little for ceremony, did make one request of me a couple of years ago: he would like his ashes to be scattered on Tennyson Down, where he and my mother had been so happy. This we shall do.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.


This extract from the great Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress has of course a close local connection. John Bunyan began to write The Pilgrim’s Progress some time after 1660, while in Bedfordshire county gaol, where he was held for violations of the Conventicle Act, which prohibited the holding of religious services outside the auspices of the established Church of England. So I think the passage has an appropriacy to the memory of my father, a loyal but restless Anglican.

If Tennyson’s poem is a quiet statement of Christian hope, Bunyan’s prose is an emphatic one.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, and had this for a token that the summons was true, ‘that his pitcher was broken at the fountain’. When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder.” When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

After the service, the coffin was carried out to the hearse, which I followed as it drove at walking pace as far as the house. It paused there, and then drove on, with Mark and Peter following in Peter’s car to Bedford Crematorium.

There then followed a splendid lunch at the house, with most people eating, drinking and talking in the garden. I should think about 80 people came across from the service. Mary and Jacques had cooked a huge joint of beef and an equally impressive piece of gammon, which were served cold with salads and savoury tarts. I stood by the array of dishes telling people what was in them. I described one particularly delicious dish as ‘spinach from the garden, cheese and olives’. ‘Oh no,’ said the first five polite Wootton folk, ‘not olives for me, thanks, no.’ I noticed that the olives, which were black, hardly showed up at all against the dark green of the spinach, so I stopped mentioning them in my description. After that, everyone ate that tart, with no complaints. For pudding there was raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant meringue; the fruit had come from dad’s fruit cage last summer, and had been in the freezer since. I provided red and white burgundy and apple juice. The sun shone.

Mark and Peter went to the hospital after the brief ceremony at the crematorium, to tell mum how it had all gone.

Camden Town11 June 2009

The remaining two weeks of mum’s life were an agony for her. It isn’t true that, in a rich country with access to the best medical knowledge and equipment and pain-reducing drugs, death is always somewhat bearable. Essentially, mum died of starvation, not through any fault of the doctors and nurses, but because her dreadful condition defied their best efforts.

There was one unsympathetic and brusque nurse among dozens of nurses who combined great skill with evident humanity. There was one foolish young doctor who, coming to examine mum for the first time, was so shocked by the quantity of diarrhoea she found under mum’s sheets that she first reached from some floor wipes on the side cupboard and would have applied one to mum’s anus had Mary, who was standing there, not prevented her, and who then scuttled away saying that cleaning up patients was nurses’ work, not doctors’, and was never seen again. But the severe criticisms of the NHS which I have as a result of the experience of watching my mother die relate to the capacity of the system, not to individual failings.

First, once the surgeons had finally decided that they could not operate, and the assessment of mother as a patient was at an end, she was moved to an ordinary, open ward, crammed into a bay with five other very sick women, even though it was well understood that she was going to die. Mother at least had a place by the window, so she could look out across the car park and see the trees in leaf, but the side of her bed was perhaps three feet from the side of the next bed, in which a severely demented but physically strong woman shouted, screamed and struggled day and night. To face death in the close proximity of that woman must have made the experience even worse than it had to be anyway.

Secondly, over the bank holiday weekend before mum died, doctors were invisible. I was told that there was one doctor on call for several full wards. For three days, none of us saw a doctor. It is not that a doctor could have brought about any change to the situation, but it would have been comforting to have had a medical conversation with a doctor during those days. Patients continue to be sick during public holidays.

When mum was first taken to the open ward, and I saw how little room she had, I asked the staff whether it was possible, as I think is the case in some NHS hospitals, for a person to pay to have a room of their own. Not in Bedford Hospital, I was told, and I respect the principle. I rang the nearest private hospital, at Biddenham. A bed there costs more than £500 a night, plus the cost of medicines and consultancy fees: around £4000 a week. The next day I told mum this, and said that if she wished I would try to arrange a move, and we would worry about arrangements for payment later. She didn’t want to spend that kind of money, which — depending on how long she remained at Biddenham — would have involved borrowing against the equity in the house.

Jacques, who visited mum several times, was shocked to see how poorly patients’ accommodation in a British hospital compares with that in France. In France, no hospital patient, however minor the reason for their stay, is in a room with more than one other patient; and many patients have rooms of their own. That was certainly the case with Albert during his cancer operation and recuperation, and when he went back to hospital to die after the cancer returned. It was also true for Rosa during both her knee operations. I know the two health systems are funded differently (in France, people are individually insured), but the blunt fact must be that France spends more on health, one way or another, than the UK does, and the difference shows at times of greatest need.

Mum was lucid until about 36 hours before she died. The last sensible thing she said to me was, ‘I’ve never felt this way before.’ Eventually her extreme weakness meant that she didn’t seem to see us even when her eyes were open, and she didn’t respond to my squeezing her hand. The nurses had to come every two hours or so to clean her up, and the cleansing of her sacral sore must have caused her terrible pain. When I returned to her side after these attentions, her face wore a fixed, staring grimace, as if she had just been assaulted or tortured, though of course the nurses were only doing what they had to do.

On the afternoon of 5 May, a doctor finally appeared, and Mary, Mark and I accompanied him to a room where we rapidly agreed to stop all attempts at further feeding, to stop the drips, to turn off the oxygen, and to give mum morphine. It was an easy decision. The morphine was injected straight into an artery in mum’s thigh, and a little box called a driver pumped the drug into her at regular intervals.

I phoned Peter Ackroyd that evening, and he came and talked to mum, read some passages from the Bible and prayed with her, as he had done for dad. Mark and I were with mum until about half past midnight, when I went home. Mark said he would stay for a couple of hours and then come home himself. I was back in Wootton about twenty minutes later, and the phone rang almost immediately. Mum had just died, at ten to one on Wednesday 6 May. I told Peter and Mary, and went back to the hospital. The sister had taken off mum’s rings, and put them in an envelope. Mark and I gathered the few things from around the bed, kissed mum on the forehead, and departed. When I got back to Wootton, I gave mum’s rings straight to Mary.

The next few days were a close but not identical copy of the days after dad’s death. Mum’s funeral in Wootton church was a sister event to dad’s. It was held on 14 May at 2.00. Here is the order of service.


16 September, 1927 — 6 May, 2009

‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’

Funeral Service
St. Mary’s Church, Wootton
14th May, 2009


Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt his name;
When in distress to Him I called,
He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Deliverance He affords to all
Who on His succour trust.

Oh make but trial of His love,
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they
Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.

by Mark Richmond

by Gerard Manley Hopkins
read by John Richmond

by Norma Smith

by the Reverend Peter Ackroyd

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine for ever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Thou spreadst a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And, O, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.

led by the Reverend Peter Richmond


‘When one person dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book,
but translated into a better language’
from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
read by John Richmond


For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesu, be for ever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might:
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victors’crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west:
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes the rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia! Alleluia!


The service was as fine as dad’s had been. Mark’s tribute was once again apt, humorous and beautifully delivered. Once again, I found myself almost but not quite overcome during my readings. Here they are, with my introductions.


Our mother took deep joy in the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. She saw nature at all seasons, especially during her bicycle rides, over many years, from Wootton to and from Kempston Rural Primary School, where she was deputy head teacher and then head teacher. She was also a knowledgeable and accomplished gardener. She and my father created a garden across the road from here that had something in flower almost all the year round.

For her 80th birthday, we bought our mother a lap-top computer. She sat up in bed and took to the internet like a duck to water, as you would expect from a former teacher. She began to order plants for the garden on-line. Sometimes we feared that her enthusiasm for buying plants in this way would exceed the capacity of the garden to accommodate them. But somehow, usually thanks to our father’s ingenuity, space was found.

Gerard Manley Hopkins lived a short life in the second half of the 19th century. He was a great original poet and a Christian priest. This is his poem ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.


As our mother was gently lifted into the ambulance on Easter Eve in the evening, the church clock struck. I’m not sure now whether it struck eight or nine. I said, out loud, ‘…for whom the bell tolls’. Mother smiled, in great pain as she was, because she knew this passage from John Donne. Donne was another great English poet and prose writer, and also a Christian priest. As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, he preached in the open air, outside the cathedral, to hundreds of people on most Sundays. The passage is from one of his meditations, written in 1623, in which he reminds us of the interlinkedness of our humanity, and of the effect of God’s hand upon us all.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? Who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? And who can remove his ear from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one person dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

After the service, Mark and I walked behind the hearse from the church gate to the house before letting the car go. This time, the cremation wasn’t until the following morning. There was tea and cake for guests. It was a quieter occasion than for mum, but equally convivial. That evening the family ate dinner together, which Gill had cooked. I provided champagne. The next morning, Peter, Mark and I went to the crematorium early, and saw mum off. Peter said some prayers. As the curtain closed around the coffin, the organist played ‘Somewhere, over the rainbow’: a quirkily a-religious and somehow cheering choice.

Back at the house, Mary supervised the division of mum’s jewellery amongst the women. We decided to sell the house as quickly as we could. Peter had been wondering whether to buy it himself, but had changed his mind: the right decision in my opinion. We agreed to take away immediately those few things which had either financial or emotional value. We drove Mary and family to the station; they took the train to Gatwick. Peter (my fellow executor) and I went to our parents’ solicitor in Ampthill. We applied for probate, and began the process of winding up the estate. Our parents’ financial affairs were not complicated.

Last Saturday, I shook hands with Paul Lowe, who lives next door to our parents’ house and is a property developer, and agreed to sell him the house for £230,000. I like Paul, and I think the deal will go through quickly. The total value of our parents’ estate after deductions will I think be about £250,000: £50,000 each.

I haven’t at any point since my parents died felt disabling grief. There have been times when I have been moved to tears, mainly by literature and music associated with memories of my parents; but literature and music can move me to tears at any time. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to deal with the experience as calmly as I have, and I don’t think I’m denying any deep-lying feeling. I have been fortunate to have both parents until the age of nearly 58. There was no unfinished business between us, apart from the unfinishable business of their religious faith and my lack of it, and they were immensely grateful for everything that we did for them in their last years. I took comfort from my leading role in the organisation of affairs after each death, and from the care I gave mother after dad died, both at home and when she went into hospital. I feel good, and pleased that now nothing is stopping me, for the rest of my life, from being myself completely.

Mum’s and dad’s ashes are currently sitting side by side under my writing desk here, in identical discreet black carrier bags. On 15 July, we shall scatter them on Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight, as dad requested. Then we shall have dinner in the Highdown Inn (researched on the internet by Mary and, in a reassuring coincidence, warmly praised by a friend yesterday) and stay the night. That’ll be it.

Camden Town11 June 2009

Everything I’ve written in the diary this year has been about death, including the first entry about the death of a greenfinch. This can’t be healthy. Am I becoming maudlin as my default mood, I who always thought of myself as an essentially cheerful and positive person? I don’t think so, although I confess that some mornings when I look into the mirror I am struck by the likeness between my face now and the face I kissed and stroked in Bedford Hospital on 5 and 6 April. That is, I can fast-forward in my mind along the route that my face will take during my remaining years, if I live as long as my father, until the day I look very much like my father looked in his last hours.

Meanwhile, the world has been getting on with business. In May 1995, I wrote in revengeful joy of the Conservatives’ comprehensive defeat in local elections: a disaster for them which was the prelude to their near-annihilation in the general election two years later. Eight days ago, Labour suffered a similar catastrophe. They were routed in county- and unitary-council elections in England. They now control nothing in England outside the big cities, most of which were not voting. Their share of the total vote was 23%. It has never been as low as that in a nationwide local election. Of the 34 councils elected that day, 30 are now Conservative, one (Bristol) is Liberal Democrat, two (Cornwall and Cumbria) have the Conservatives as the largest party but without overall control, and one (Bedford) has the Liberal Democrats as the largest party but without overall control.

On the same day, the elections for the European Parliament were held. In these, Labour did even worse. It won 15.8% of the overall popular vote. In Wales, it was pushed into second place by the Tories for the first time since 1918. It suffered its lowest vote in Scotland since before the first world war. It finished in third place across the UK, after the United Kingdom Independence Party. Perhaps worst of all, the collapse of the Labour vote allowed the racist thugs of the British National Party to gain their first two European seats.

Labour’s humiliation has several causes. First, The Daily Telegraph has for weeks now been reporting on the abuses of the parliamentary allowances and expenses system which some MPs and ministers have been committing. It seems that a source in the fees office at Westminster sold the information to the paper for a large sum of money. The rest of the media has had to run with the story; it is a journalistic coup. Members of all the major parties have been exposed, but the Telegraph started on Labour MPs and ministers first. There is a mood in the country of righteous outrage at the venality, greed and arrogance of our representatives. Labour, as the incumbent government nationally, was punished at the elections more severely than the other parties, even though allowances and expenses at Westminster have nothing to do with local nor European issues, and Labour’s sins, though grievous, were not more grievous than those committed by other parties.

Secondly, the international financial crisis has hurt lots of people in a way that it hasn’t hurt me. Those who’ve lost jobs, seen businesses go bust, watched the interest on their savings shrink to almost nothing (actually, that has happened to us), or found it impossible to get a mortgage blame the government, even though it was Brown’s and Darling’s swift actions last autumn which stopped the crisis turning into the complete collapse of the financial system which might have meant that all the money in our bank accounts disappeared. There’s nothing fair in politics.

Thirdly, Labour has returned to the habit of fratricidal strife which in the joyful years immediately after 1997 I so naively hoped it might have shaken off for ever. On 30 November 2007 I wrote: ‘The government has gone from an absolutely dominating position in the three months since Brown became prime minister to a position where, if there were to be an election tomorrow, there would be a big Tory victory.’ This woeful state of affairs has persisted since. In the days before the elections, it became known that a group of Labour MPs was plotting to oust Brown immediately after the expected heavy defeat. Eight ministers, including three cabinet ministers, resigned in the run-up to and immediately after the elections; the more honest among them said frankly and publicly that Brown was leading the party to electoral disaster next year. There was a moment on Friday 5 June when Brown’s hold on the premiership looked shaky, but he conducted a hurried reshuffle that day with the help of Peter Mandelson, who’s playing a role rather like that which Heseltine played for Major after Major’s back-me-or-sack-me resignation of the party leadership in June 1995. The new cabinet was thus bound to be loyal to Brown (anyone who accepted a post only to resign it within days would look a fool), and the MPs’ revolt petered out over the weekend. So Brown is secure until the election next year; but the sight of Labour tearing itself apart before the elections, just as in the bad old days, did us more damage.

So I expect that the Conservatives will win the next general election, some time next year. At the least, I expect them to be the largest party. This despite the fact that there isn’t the active hunger for a change that there was in the years before 1997. The truth is that Labour, although one has to acknowledge that it will have had the longest period in government in the party’s history, has inflicted deep wounds on itself through the unceasing conflict between the Brownite and Blairite factions in the parliamentary party, and through the inability of some of its dominating personalities to subordinate their interests and egos to the interests of the party and therefore of the country: behaviour which seems inexplicable and arcane to most ordinary Labour supporters like me. If Labour in government had been able to do the simple things well, as I had hoped in the early years that it might, we would be looking forward to at least one more parliamentary term after this one. The Tories were in power for 18 years; Labour looks as if it will manage 13.

On 3 May 1997, I wrote: ‘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.’

On 5 June 2009 at about half past ten in the morning, I was walking past the back of the Foreign Office and Downing Street just as Brown was conducting his reshuffle (though I didn’t know he was doing that until later in the day). I said to the person I was with that if I were Brown, I would call in Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. I would offer Clegg the Home Office and Cable the Exchequer, and one or two other cabinet jobs to Liberals. After further conversation, I would hold a press conference announcing the coalition, and making the following statement.

‘The date of the next general election will be 22 May 2010. That is a Saturday. We hope for a better turn-out on Saturdays than we have been getting on Thursdays. Additionally, anyone who wants a postal vote can have one. Parliament will have six weeks’ holiday this year. We’ll stop work on Friday 7 August and start again on Monday 21 September. The first three weeks of September will be enough time for the party conferences. During the autumn, the coalition government will bring in a bill to establish proportional representation as from that election (the form to be decided before we introduce the bill); to establish fixed-term five-year parliaments as from that date, dissolvable only by a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons; to reconstitute the House of Lords as an 80%-elected, 20%-appointed revising chamber with a fixed number of members, those first elections to occur at the same time as the Commons elections; and to prepare a written constitution for the UK.

There will be another bill going through Parliament at the same time, proposing the complete overhaul of the expenses and allowances system: notably, MPs who have constituencies outside London will be given a flat nightly rate for being in London, which they can spend on their accommodation however they like; and MPs will not be allowed to have continuous other jobs.

We shall abandon ID cards. We shall abandon the plan to record and keep on computer all phone calls, emails and other electronic communications made by people in the UK; we shall abandon the part-privatisation of the Post Office, since if we can afford to spend hundreds of billions saving the banks we can afford to keep a much-loved service in public ownership, even if it is losing money.

Thank you. I’m now going to get on with governing the country.’

Total fantasy, of course. That afternoon, Brown held a press conference to announce his reshuffle. Completely tribal, making the best of a diminishing pool of talent, heavily reliant on the House of Lords, acknowledging his debt to Mandelson by making him First Secretary of State (the title Major invented for Heseltine) and giving him other titles and a huge department. It won’t stop the rot.

Kerfontaine2 August 2009

Since I last wrote, we’ve been fast-moving. Two days after my birthday, we flew to Malta. Taxi to the ferry for Gozo. Short ride across the straits between the two islands. Our friend Juginder Lamba met us off the ferry, and drove us to the north-western tip of the island, where he and Lesley Lancaster have their house. It’s a gracious, spacious structure, built of the honey-coloured limestone which is everywhere on the island. Like all the traditional buildings there, the house feels Arab. The walls are thick. The rooms on two storeys surround a courtyard. We had four days of heat. I swam in the pool every day and in the sea once, at a place called St Blas, which you get to by descending a steep pathway. The sand is rust-coloured. The water was turquoise, and at a perfect temperature: welcoming but invigorating. I swam for a long time, as I love to; but these days I’m more careful about going out too far, after my frightening experience in Brittany a couple of years ago.

Gozo is little, and more sparsely populated than Malta. The most striking sights, architecturally, are the churches in every town and village. They’re huge, and in the baroque style of St Peter’s, Rome.

While I was there, I read a biography of Bunyan by Christopher Hill (out of print) which Helen had found for me second-hand on the internet, and Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress in a combined volume, which Paul had given me for my birthday. My interest in Bunyan had been stirred by the famous extract from The Pilgrim’s Progress (Mr Valiant-for-Truth coming into his reward) which I read at dad’s funeral. I realised that I knew very little about Bunyan, despite the Bedfordshire connection. Hill’s book (as usual, immense learning lightly carried) presents Bunyan as a true political radical in his time, despite the dogmatic conservatism of his religious convictions. I found myself skip-reading both the Bunyan books; partly because the religious territory is so familiar to me (I know what’s coming), but also because there is much repetitiveness in both. The thing that saves them, and the thing, probably, which has made The Pilgrim’s Progress one of the most popular books ever written, is the wonderful blunt use of language, grounded in the familiar.

Nothing within Christianity could be further from Bunyan’s psychological self-torturings — essentially, the struggle for salvation of the individual soul — than the devout but communal and habitual Catholicism of the people of Gozo.

On our last morning on the island, Juginder and I walked on the high cliffs not far from their house, amid tiny walled fields where corn had already been cut. The Mediterranean was calm three hundred feet below us. Spectacular.

After Gozo, we were back in London for a couple of weeks, in the middle of which we had our annual weekend in Suffolk with Peter Adams: the usual, enduring pleasures. Then we took another short trip abroad, this time to Lisbon to stay with Glenda and Julian Walton. We were there last year, and had intended to repeat the trip at the beginning of this May, but postponed it because my mother was dying. As last year, we had lots of fun with Glenda and Julian — lovely meals, swimming from the town beach in the Lisbon suburb where they lived, a trip north to the beautiful little walled town of Óbidos. They’re leaving Lisbon this month, and going to Bangkok, where Julian has a job for a year teaching in an English-medium private school linked to Shrewsbury School, where he used to teach.

Back to England, and the following week Mary, Jacques, Mark, Helen and I went to the Isle of Wight to scatter dad’s and mum’s ashes on Tennyson Down. Dad had requested this of me for himself about two years before he died, so we did them both together. It was the most beautiful afternoon, with sunshine and a light breeze, the sea calm, the turf a giving pleasure to stride on. Despite it being July, there was hardly anyone about on this Wednesday afternoon, so we had the down to ourselves for the few minutes it took to scatter the contents of the two plastic urns. Dad’s ashes almost filled his container; mum’s barely half-filled hers, so skeletal had she become when she died. The act could not have been better done. We walked along to the Needles, then retraced our steps up to the Tennyson Monument, before returning to The Highdown Inn, where we were to stay the night. Mark, Helen and I drove down to Tennyson’s house, Farringford, which is now a hotel, where they kindly let us walk around the rooms, whose walls are covered with photographs and paintings of the poet, and illustrations of scenes in his poems. I was particularly struck by an amazingly sexy engraving of the Lady of Shalott; hair flying wildly up from her head, her body revealed to best effect through the drapes of her dress.

That evening, we drank champagne in the garden of the pub to mark the end of our parents’ lives, and ate well in the little dining room. The next morning, Mark biked off to Yarmouth (he had crossed from Lymington with his bike, having left the car there; he had noticed, at my request, the sand bar of ‘Crossing the Bar’) and the rest of us drove to Fishbourne. Crossed to Portsmouth and to Sainsbury’s on the Eastern Road to buy a picnic lunch to have with Margaret. While the others were in the shop, I simply dumped the two empty plastic urns in the appropriate recycling bin in the car park. I wasn’t sure why, sentimentally, I felt a bit guilty about doing so. What else was I going to do with them? And, after church attendance, loyalty to Sainsbury’s had been my parents’ steadiest observance.

Then we went to Margaret’s house and had lunch with her. She is 95 now, in fit form, and was glad at what we had done the previous day. She told me the story, which I knew, of how when Tennyson and his wife were unpacking their things on the day they moved into Farringford, with furniture parked on the lawn and everything in confusion, Prince Albert turned up unannounced, having driven over in a pony and trap from Osborne. A minimum of formality; they got him something to drink, and he went to pick cowslips, and left soon, because he could see they were busy. He was going to make cowslip wine for the queen. (Personally?) I said, ‘There are no cowslips there now, but there is a golf course and there was a helicopter parked on the lawn.’ She said, ‘My dear, you’ve said it all.’

Towards the end of the lunch, as Mary was saying something and Margaret was looking at her, Margaret suddenly asked Mary, ‘What’s that locket round your neck?’ Mary said that mum had given it to her, and that she thought granny (Margaret’s elder sister) had had it before her. ‘Yes,’ said Margaret, ‘it was a wedding present to our grandparents [probably married about 1870] and our mother had it after that. She was holding me in her arms one day when I was a baby, and I bit it. Take a look.’ Mary took off the locket and, sure enough, there were baby bite marks in it, made by Margaret in about 1915.

After lunch, we left Mary and Jacques, who were taking the train to Gatwick later, and drove back to London.

A week later, on Thursday 23 July, we took the last of our brief summer jaunts, this time by first-class rail to Penzance, for the wedding of a young teacher whom Helen has worked with at Churchill Gardens Primary School. We stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, where the wedding reception was to be held on the Saturday. The Queen’s is everything that is awful about seaside hotels in Britain. Arrangements of artificial flowers, dust-laden, adorn the staircase. Our room sported wallpaper of the kind that Oscar Wilde is supposed to have deplored in his famous last words. The perfectly good stout oak doors to all the rooms had been improved about 40 years ago by the addition of plywood fascias. Dinner on the first night was abominable to the point of laughter. A kind young obese man, our waiter, dicky-bowed, anxious to please, brought the menu. In case of doubt in these situations, it’s always best to go for the plainest offerings. Fish and chips and pies were available. ‘What kind of pies go with the fish and chips?’ I asked. He looked perplexed, then said, ‘Oh, peas, you know, the green things.’ Silly of me. Why should I expect the most expensive hotel in Penzance to know how to spell, let alone cook, peas?

The only good thing about the Queen’s, and it was wonderful, was the view from our bedroom window out across the bay, taking in St Michael’s Mount as you look down to the distant Lizard to the east, and round past Newlyn towards Mousehole to the west. On the Friday afternoon, while Helen went shopping, I sat at the open window and read the complete Dylan Thomas poems, which Stephen Eyers had given me for my birthday. Reading all the poems Thomas had published in his short life made me think that, usually, anthologisers and selectors of poetry get it right. The 20 or so poems which are famous are the best ones, by a distance. Scores of others are attention-seeking, flashy in their imagery, perverse in their obscurity: the bard giving himself room. But the 20 or so great ones are great. I found myself reading ‘Fern Hill’ out loud, over and over again. It’s a hard poem to read aloud well. Then Helen came back and I began to read it out loud to her, but I couldn’t finish it; I wept and wept. I knew why it was. Here was I on the south coast of England, the coast where, a couple of hundred miles to the east, I had started. As a child, the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight seemed to me a territory of romance. My parents had met there. They had been happy there, before the disappointments came. ‘Fern Hill’ remembers a place where the poet had been lyrically happy as a child; had enjoyed a secure joy now departed. My father, a young scientist working for the Admiralty, had traveled all along the south coast, by land and sea, testing the radar stations at Spithead, Portland Bill, the Lizard. He had had hope, a good job, a growing family, untroubled faith…

The wedding day was great. A good service in St Mary’s Church (high), presided over by a sympathetic and humorous priest, was followed by one of those afternoon-merges-into-evening drinking and eating sessions. The wedding breakfast was miles better than the Thursday-night dinner. Back to London the next morning.

And we came here last Wednesday.

Kerfontaine24 August 2009

We’ve been here a month now, apart from a six-day tour down south, first to see Stephen and Theresa at Barraud in the Charente as usual, and then to visit David, Lindsay and Tom, staying in a gîte with Lindsay’s brother and sister-in-law near Beaumont de Périgord in the Dordogne. Lots of fun in both places. My essential annual swim in the Dronne; more swimming in pools. When I’m at Barraud, I like to have a project. This year it was to free the prolific plum tree from the grip of the ivy choking it. The plums were ripe and delicious. I get moments of pure happiness doing something like that.

Here, friends and family have come and gone on short visits, and we are alone. It’s the steady good weather of late August. Until today, I haven’t written anything since the last diary entry. Today I did a fifth in a series of little poems commemorating, for good and ill, my parents’ lives. I’ve worked in the garden, especially with Jean our carpenter, who has made and installed some beautiful gates for the gaps in the hedge around the ex-potager. Now that the deer won’t get in to eat the flowers, I’ve taken the wire netting off the trunks of the young trees. After Jean had finished, I spent a day varnishing the gates while listening to the first day of the last Test between England and Australia. For the next three days, until last Sunday afternoon, I mainly just sat and listened. (Paul and Vikki were here overnight on Friday.) I can still get utterly absorbed in a big Test match. England won back the Ashes by two games to one over a five-game series, after the humiliation of losing five-nil in 2006-7. I’m 60/40 pleased when we win, and 60/40 sorry when we lose, but the result isn’t really important to me. It’s the contest, and the achievements along the way, which I enjoy. When it’s over, I always feel sad, and have to go for a walk.

Early in August, I spent three days reading my father’s journals, which we found in a cupboard in their house, not carefully hidden, after his funeral and before my mother died. They fill 12 school exercise books, numbered. The entries begin on 17 February 1986 and end on 18 June 2001. (Mary tells me that she found a thirteenth book at the house when she was there earlier this month, with intermittent entries continuing until recently. I shall read it and add it to the pile when I get back.) The writing is a terrible, heart-breaking confession of misery. Here is a man, aged 61 when he begins to write, an Anglican lay-reader, married to one of the churchwardens of the church they have already been attending for 21 years. They are senior figures there. He was made redundant from Oxford Instruments in Newport Pagnell six years previously, and is now retired; she, in the final years of her teaching career, is headmistress of Kempston Rural Primary School. Their five children are all grown up now; the youngest is 22.

The journal entries are usually addressed to God. Most of them start with ‘Father…’ Across 15 years, they confess, with little variation or progression, to the complete failure of my father’s marriage to my mother. A major reason for the failure is that, at 61, he is still sexually hungry. She has no interest in sex at all. He quotes her as saying, ‘Why did God have to make it such an animal business?’ After the birth of their last child in 1963, she sees no reason for sex, although she accepts, reluctantly and with some distaste, that the need is still implanted in my father.

Dad admits that the reason he married my mother was so that he could have sex without shame. The religion and the sex began to confuse with each other right at the beginning. When dad met mum, she was already an evangelical Christian, having been converted at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union some time during the two years she was at Homerton. Dad was a sexually frustrated young man with vague religious leanings, who visited the local church in Drayton, Portsmouth, at the encouragement of his friend (and later best man) Ron Fischbacher, who was already a convinced believer (how evangelical I don’t know). Dad met mum at the church, and began to court her seriously. She told him (he quotes her): ‘If this is going to carry on, you must become a Christian.’ So he did. He became a Christian so he could marry my mother. He knelt down by his bed and said, ‘God, I’ve made a mess of my life so far. Please take it over.’ Pathetically, he makes the same appeal to God, in virtually the same words, repeatedly in the journals. He still sees his life, at any point between 36 and 51 years after that first prayer, as a mess he has made.

Mum’s firmness in insisting on dad becoming a Christian before giving herself to him is an early warning of the imbalance of power between them throughout their married life. Imbalance of power between married couples is, I would guess, much more often in favour of the man. In my parents’ case, mum dominated and dad submitted in all areas except theology. Her domination was reinforced by a ferocious temper, which on countless occasions through my childhood and youth led to scenes of anger and hurt within the family, most usually during Sunday lunchtimes. Dad confesses to his journal sometimes that he is seething with anger at the way she has just spoken to him. He is ashamed of the way that, during family rows in previous years, he allowed his children (notably me) to stand up to mum, to say harsh, true things to her about her behaviour which he didn’t have the courage to say. Most sadly, he often writes, after a bad encounter with her, that he feels like ‘a nasty, dirty little boy’: nasty and dirty partly because he wants sex and she only grants it to him as an act of resignation, partly because he senses that he hasn’t ever really grown up. He is still the boy in his first pair of long trousers going to see his mother in hospital on the night she died of cancer, and hearing a sympathetic stranger say of him as he left her bedside, ‘Poor little chap.’ The poor little chap, who had been badly bullied by his older brothers for being mother’s pet, had no mother throughout his teenage years. The desire for a mother morphed into the desire for a woman, a strong woman, and that’s what he got. Because of his religious belief, the idea that he might relieve his sexual feelings in mature manhood by any means other than penetrative sex in the missionary position with his wife was unacceptable, though he hints frequently at the temptation. Once he suggests that he has committed adultery. I hope he did, actually; and there was one occasion, a long time ago, when he went to America on business, and afterwards spoke to me admiringly about a woman he’d met at a conference, I think in Dallas, who ‘loved life’. This was such an unusual phrase for my father to use that it stuck with me. But probably, dad’s confession that he’d committed adultery was no more than a reference to the verse in the New Testament (Jesus or St Paul? I can’t remember) which says that ‘whoso looketh at a woman to lust hath already committed adultery with her in his heart’.

From having been behind mum in religious conviction when they met, dad went far ahead of her as a result of an experience which he dates and times precisely to 7pm on 7 July 1971. He was praying alone at home (this was in the first house they owned in Wootton, the one they had built in Keeley Lane), when he had the sensation of being filled with the Holy Spirit. He began to speak in tongues. (He writes towards the end of the journals that he spoke in tongues almost every day of his life thereafter.) He became, in theological jargon, a charismatic. This meant that the conventional forms of belief and worship, even those as dogmatic, prayer-filled and Bible-based as practised in a regular evangelical church such as St Mary’s, Wootton, became unsatisfying to him. He longed for the church to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. He sought out like-minded people in the area, based in churches of a variety of denominations, who wished to worship and pray in a Spirit-filled way.

In practical terms, this meant: praying extempore rather than using set written forms; the possibility of bursting into tongues at any moment, should the Spirit so lead; entering into mildly trance-like states of joy, often with hands raised above the head, when praising God; dancing in the Spirit; prophesying; healing the physically and mentally sick by the power of the Spirit; being willing and able from time to time to confront the devil and evil spirits which had entered into people and places, and to exorcise them by the power of Jesus and the Spirit.

My mother hated all this with a loathing. She was a conventional, repressed, loyal (though sometimes angry) servant of the Church of England. She believed that prayer and praise should be conducted in a restrained, generally formal way. Arms should never be raised above the waist. Faith-healing: highly suspicious. So after 7 July 1971, a further difference opened up between her and my father, exacerbating those to do with sex and power already evident: a cruel difference which they might never have expected. Both born-again Christians, how could they disagree so deeply about faith, and the practice of faith? But they did. Dad often laments to his journal, and to God, that ‘Daphne hates the way I pray’. He is referring to their daily, early-morning prayer sessions in the bedroom. She attacks him for this too.

So, in dad’s own words, it was a failed marriage. It would be impossible to publicly divorce or separate; the shame would be too great. In 1988, mother retired from teaching. Her younger sister Evelyn in Portsmouth was beginning to suffer severely from the multiple sclerosis which would eventually kill her three months before mother died. Mother frequently spent Mondays to Fridays with Evelyn and Margaret, going down on the train, leaving dad in Wootton. These separations were a blessed relief to him. He wished that the arrangement could informally become permanent, so that they would see each other only occasionally, without the need for any public announcement of their separation. He writes that he finds the atmosphere at Portsmouth stultifying anyway. But mother is back every weekend, to fulfil her responsibilities as churchwarden, and usually to criticise him over Sunday lunch for his shortcomings (not enough achieved in the house or garden while she’s been away, or the way he prayed or preached in church not to her liking).

As a lay-reader in the Church of England, dad was required to conduct services in the conventional manner, and asked by the vicar of Wootton to preach sometimes in the village church and in the daughter church at Stewartby. (He was also often invited to take services and preach in other churches around Bedfordshire.) The folk in Wootton and Stewartby are not naturally charismatic. Outbursts of religious emotion are embarrassing to them. The three vicars under whom dad served during the 39 years he was a licensed lay-reader expected him to ‘preach about God and preach about twenty minutes’, as the cliché goes. They all valued his loyalty and hard work, they admired the sincerity of his spirituality, but they found him unpredictable, worrying, hard to control. This was especially true of the first of the three, a conventional evangelical, in personality and in preaching devoid of any spark of inspiration, whose principal pleasure was his round of golf on Mondays. The second and third were more sympathetic, and much more interesting people, but not uncritical of dad. He was liable to preach too long, too spontaneously, and too confessionally in the sense that passages of religious disquisition and textual exegesis were frequently followed by true confessions about his life, the state of his soul, and the lives and souls of his wife and family. He reports that one Sunday lunchtime mum told him to ‘leave our family out of your sermons’. I am sympathetic to her about that.

(I need in fairness to record how wonderful Peter Ackroyd, the present vicar of Wootton and the third under whom dad served, was at the time of both my parents’ deaths.)

So, to add to his other unhappinesses, dad was an Anglican no longer really at home in the Anglican church, but unable or unwilling to leave it. The charismatic movement touched Anglicanism (and not just low-church Anglicanism), perhaps not as much as it did the non-conformist churches, but significantly here and there. Dad was attracted by activities at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, not far away. There they had received the Toronto Blessing, an extreme form of visitation by the Holy Spirit, in which respectably dressed people fall down and writhe on the floor. Sicknesses were instantly healed. God was moving in our generation in Hertfordshire; why not in Bedfordshire? I think my mother accompanied dad to Chorleywood once. She was appalled. During another unhappy Sunday lunchtime, she said (and again I sympathise), ‘I don’t want to hear any more about St Andrew’s, Chorleywood.’ (I’ve just checked the internet; the obsessive could spend hours reading the violent polemics for and against the church and the activities and morals of some of its recent pastors.)

Weekly, dad asks God to show him what to say in his next sermon at Wootton, Stewartby or another village. Sometimes, on a Monday, the journal records thanks to God that some people seemed to appreciate what he had said. Mostly, there is sadness, self-criticism or hurt that mother or one of the vicars has criticised his preaching. Sometimes, in his darkest moments, he takes a walk to ‘the rejection tree’. This was the tree he went to (I think it’s on the lane to Bourne End) on the day many years ago (mid-60s) when he heard that his application to be ordained had been rejected: a rejection which hurt him profoundly, and as a result of which he became a lay-reader — the nearest to priesthood he would come.

The overall tone of the journals is one of despair and self-loathing. He has wasted his life. The fact that four of his five children have divorced, and the fifth has chosen to live with a woman without marrying her, must be blamed on the failure of his marriage and the bad example he and mother set. So must the fact that only one child, Mark, is the kind of Christian who for him counts as the real thing. Three of us are outside the faith completely, and Peter — an ordained Anglican priest — is merely ‘an ecclesiastic’. He worries about me working for such a godless organisation as Channel 4; how could I have made that choice? And, again and again: ‘Please Father, I’ve made a mess of my life. Please take it over for me, such of it as remains. In Jesus’ name. Amen.’

About the achievements of dad’s working life, notably the pioneering work he did on MRI between 1965 and 1980: nothing. About the beauty of the natural world, which he appreciated so much: a little. About poetry, which he loved and read frequently: nothing.

Next to sorrow, my strongest feeling on reading the journals was one of disappointment at narrowness. When you spoke to dad, you didn’t get a sense of bigotry and small-mindedness. He seemed a gentle, humorous, loving and grateful person. But in his writing, we discover someone who is unhappy if he’s away from his church (whatever pains he experienced within it) for even one Sunday. He didn’t enjoy the trips to the south of France which Mary arranged for them, or the trip to Brittany which I arranged for them, because ‘France is a godless place; there are more astrologers than priests’. It hurt him that he had to be at table with people who didn’t say grace at the beginning of meals. He and mum did take one holiday to Scotland, during which mum unfortunately experienced the first symptoms (then undiagnosed) of her illness. They seemed to have a moderately good time. The conservatism of the cooking in Scottish bed-and-breakfast places was a plus. (Dad was notoriously unadventurous about food and drink.) A significant blessing was granted them in Nairn when they overheard another couple saying grace before their meal. So they were able to have fellowship with them.

On more important matters, dad is fixedly opposed to the ordination of women, and almost obsessed with homosexuality, which poses for him a terrible threat to the church and society. He quotes someone (he doesn’t say who) with approval: ‘“Liberalism is the slow road to agnosticism; feminism is the short way to paganism.”’ It never seemed to occur to him, not once, that his form of belief, with its petty, self-referencing, self-mortifying outpourings to a silent and unresponsive God, might not be the only way of salvation, after all.

Camden Town5 November 2009

Nothing written for well over two months! Nothing to be done; no point in remorse or apology; just write some more.

I started back at work at Teachers TV on 1 September: earlier than usual for these recent years. Next year is going to be a year of change; Helen will retire, probably at the end of May, and so will I unless I get a ‘foreign posting’ to help set up a branch or version of Teachers TV in some other country, in which case Helen will come with me. I think that prospect unlikely. The most probable thing is that, early next June, we’ll begin a new lifestyle, spending half the year in France, half in London, and seeing something more of the world. We’ll be able to afford it, although we’ll have to live more simply than has been our habit for many years. For this reason, I didn’t mind starting back to work earlier than usual this autumn.

I’ve had plenty to do: in particular managing a project called Social Care TV, which was launched on 21 October. It’s a website which aims in a small way to do for people working in social care what Teachers TV does for teachers. There will soon be about 50 short films on the site, covering 16 topics, commissioned from four production companies. It’s been a long and at times frustrating business, trying to park the urgent, can-do culture of television production up against the slow, indecisive, risk-averse culture of the agency of the Department of Health called the Social Care Institute for Excellence. (SCIE is actually a registered charity, which is curious, given that it depends entirely on government funding and seems to be answerable to ministers.) Anyhow, now that the site exists, everyone seems to be very proud of it, and SCIE has just found money to fund the production of about 40 more films.

I’ve also completed a project funded by the British Council. Connecting Classrooms is a Council initiative linking good schools and head teachers in different countries. We’ve made eight programmes — three in Brazil, three in Mexico and two in England — which we’ve broadcast and put on our website, and which the Council can distribute around the world as it likes.

With Paul, I’m looking after the making of about 30 programmes for pupils. This is refreshingly reminiscent of what we used to do at Channel 4, though with smaller budgets.

Teachers TV continues to see international partnerships as a potential source of new revenue, although so far the money actually received from other countries has been insignificant. We’re still hoping that the Gates Foundation will fund the setting up of Teachers TV in America. The Thai government has voted the equivalent of £10 million a year for three years to have a Teachers TV there. The wildly eccentric Berlusconi government keeps makes noises about doing the same thing in Italy, but so far nothing practical has resulted. More seriously, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would like to persuade the Australian government to fund an educational channel, which it would carry. It has seen Teachers TV, and admires it. So last week I was in Australia. I had a great week. I did seven presentations about Teachers TV, in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, to executives at the ABC, to curriculum agencies, and to advisers and officials in the government. They seemed impressed. I was escorted round by Kim Dalton, the director of television at the ABC, whom I liked very much and who became a friend immediately. I also did a short presentation about our arts output to a conference, held in a studio at the ABC in Sydney, where 200 people were discussing how to forge mutually profitable links between traditional arts organisations and the electronic media.

And I enjoyed myself. On the Monday night, Kim hosted a dinner for about 16 of the contributors to the arts conference, at a restaurant called Marque in Surry Hills: a 12-course tasting menu, delicious. On the Tuesday night, I took a cab down to the Sydney Opera House, to be simply overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene there: the Opera House lit up, the harbour bridge, the dark waters of the harbour. I had dinner with two friends from England who by coincidence were in Sydney on holiday. On Wednesday night, by which time Kim and I were in Melbourne, he took me to dinner with his father, aged 90, in an Italian restaurant in the suburb of Carlton: lovely food, and wonderful conversation with a man in full possession of his faculties, a life-long socialist, still interested and analytical. He had been an organic chemist, and had worked in government scientific institutes in Australia and Britain, mainly on the development of polymers. Politically, he reminded me of Harold Rosen; in terms of his scientific interests, he reminded me of my father.

On Thursday I had my one day off. I just wandered around Melbourne in the warm spring sunshine, taking the place in. I bought Helen an opal necklace at a jewellers in Collins Street. I strolled by the Yarra. I lunched at another Italian restaurant, called Scusami, on the south side of the river. Splendid: a dozen oysters with two little pots of balsamic vinegar sorbet, risotto del giorno (I’ve forgotten what was in it, but it was lovely), half a bottle of Semillon from the Barossa Valley.

Two final presentations on Friday morning, then Kim and I flew back to Sydney. He drove us straight to the Opera House; he was going to a play in the theatre there, and I was going to Peter Grimes. I had a seat in the third row of the stalls. It’s a magnificent auditorium, and the production was superb. Stuart Skelton played Grimes as near-autistic, almost the village idiot of 200 years ago, rubbing his palms neurotically on his fisherman’s overalls. Of course he has a wonderful voice, but it was his acting which moved me the most. The wall of sound hitting the third row of the stalls from chorus and orchestra was electrifying.

Afterwards I dined again with the same two friends in the same restaurant as Tuesday. They had been to a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in another auditorium of the Opera House building.

On Saturday I walked out to the Sydney Cricket Ground, hoping that there might be a game on which I could watch for a couple of hours. There wasn’t, so I walked back to Surry Hills — a suburb just on the fringe of the city which I like very much and could imagine living in — and sat outside a café and had breakfast in the morning sunshine and felt good. Then I went back to the hotel and packed. Michael Ward, one of the directors of the ABC, whom I had met at a drinks party on Tuesday evening at the end of the arts conference, came and picked me up and took me out to Newington College, the school where his sons go, and we sat and watched his son Reuben playing cricket for the under 16s. A warm Saturday afternoon, playing fields with numerous games of cricket in progress, a sense of leisure at the end of the week: it reminded me of Dulwich College 1962-5. When the game was over, Michael drove me back to the hotel. I had a spare hour before I needed to go to the airport, so I walked back to Surry Hills a last time, and had a drink in a bar I had noticed and liked the look of earlier in the day. It was Hallowe’en, and it seemed odd, but not entirely disagreeable, to be served in the warmth of a spring evening by a cheerful young woman in a black corset with blood from a Dracula bite running down her neck.

Then the airport, then the long ride (14 hours) to Dubai, then a strange alienated four hours in the huge terminal there, then what seemed a short hop (only seven hours) to London. Business class these days means chairs which convert properly to flat beds, which is an immense mercy. And I was grateful for the Mercedes which whisked me home from the airport. So I haven’t felt too bad this week.

My parents’ house was finally sold to Paul Lowe, their next-door neighbour, on 9 October. The estate was wound up, and we five children received about £50,000 each, on 21 October. It could have happened much more quickly than that. I had decided to put the job into the hands of my parents’ solicitor in Ampthill, because he was local and he held the deeds to the house. It was a mistake. He turned out to be incompetent, so I sacked him in late August, he having allowed three months to be wasted by not communicating with the Probate Registry as he should have done. I turned the job over to Peter Stewart, who is Helen’s and my solicitor in Shrewsbury. He was brilliant, and all went well thereafter.

I’ve been reading French history lately: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, highly entertaining, about the 18th and 19th centuries, whose thesis is that France as we understand it now, a centralised single state with a proud language and a strong sense of itself, hardly existed then; Occupation by Ian Ousby, about France 1940-1944; France since 1870 by Charles Sowerwine, a straight consecutive account which includes cultural developments and women’s history step by step with political events (and which disagrees with Graham Robb’s thesis); Paris after the Liberation by Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper (an easy read, because the political stuff is mixed in with bonbons about the doings of the elites); La Vie en Bleu – France and the French since 1900 by Rod Kedward, dense but excellent, which I’m halfway through; and finally Graham Robb’s biography of Balzac, which I’m also halfway through, and which is as good as his biography of Victor Hugo.

When I was in Melbourne, I bought a copy of Judith Wright’s Selected Poems, because I thought I really ought to read a major Australian poet while I was there. Magnificent, my kind of poetry: controlled, crafted, deeply felt, often entertaining, a not uncritical tribute to her country and its people, especially troubled and troubling about the despoliation of the land by those who have come there so recently.

This afternoon Helen and I are going down to Portsmouth to have tea with Margaret. Tomorrow I go to Peter Hetherington’s house in Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, where seven school friends from 40 years ago will gather for tea, then apéritifs, then go with Peter to The Plough at Bolnhurst for dinner, then back to Peter’s for digestifs, then stay the night in a bed-and-breakfast place in the village. We haven’t all met together for about 20 years. Who knows whether we shall ever all meet again? I hope it’ll be fun and relaxed, despite the great differences in character, political views and outlook on life which have emerged since we were schoolboys.

Camden Town27 December 2009

The schoolboys’ reunion was a success.

At the end of November, Helen and I gave ourselves a long weekend in Paris. Train from St Pancras, of course; two and a quarter hours later, arrive at the Gare du Nord. Taxi to our hotel in the Rue St Honoré. For four nights and three days, taste the reliable pleasures the great city offers: random walking; not too much culture; eating and drinking in the old familiar places.

On 11 December, Helen went into hospital for an operation on her right foot. She had had a bunion growing on the inside of the foot, at the broadest part near the big toe, for years. It was unsightly and uncomfortable, but the main problem was that it had already begun to deform the bones and tendons inside the foot, especially the main bone which runs down to the big toe. Unattended to, it would eventually cripple her. So it had to be removed. Such are the wonders of surgical science in rich countries these days that she went in at noon, was operated on that afternoon under a general anaesthetic, with a lot of local anaesthetic in the foot, and was available to be discharged at half past seven that evening.

We are nearly halfway through the recuperation period. For the first ten days Helen could only move on crutches, and spent all day on the sofa with her foot up. Last Tuesday, we went to the hospital (UCH, in its beautiful new building) for the bandages to be taken off. The wound had already healed remarkably. The surgeon explained what he (or rather his assistant, under his supervision) had done. As I understand it (and I always need doctors to explain something two or three times, but am shy after the first explanation), the distorted bone was deliberately broken where the distortion was. The distorted part was removed. Possibly with the help of a part of the bunion which was closest to the break (but are bunions made of bone? I don’t think so), the bone was made straight again, and two steel screws put in to secure it where the breaks had been made. The rest of the bunion was removed, and the wound sewn up with soluble stitches. I may have got some of this wrong. What is not in doubt is that we saw an X-ray of Helen’s foot, with the bone beautifully straight, and the two screws securing it. Amazing. Everyone at UCH, from surgeons to nurses to receptionists, was charming. It was the NHS at its wonderful best, making one proud to live in this country.

(And early on Christmas Eve Barack Obama got his health bill through the Senate: a great achievement. It still has to pass the House of Representatives, but most commentators think it will become law next year. Compromise as it is, it is the most significant piece of progressive legislation passed in any area of domestic social policy in the USA for many years, and probably the most important piece of health legislation ever achieved there. And done in the teeth of brutal opposition from vested interests in the medical profession and the drugs companies, and the protests of those many Americans whose minds are incomprehensible to me, who howled that the measure amounted to ‘Godless socialism’. 30 million Americans, who previously had no health insurance, will now have that security.)

Helen must wear a high protective shoe until 19 January. She can now walk without crutches, and is allowed to put weight on to the foot. She had her first bath this morning, with the foot lodged on the rim of the bath, out of the water.

I have been more than usually active in the kitchen. I hate washing and ironing, so the dry cleaner near my office, which also has a laundry service, has done brisk business with me lately. I don’t mind cleaning, but my standard of work as a cleaner, and my sense of when something really does need to be cleaned, can never meet Helen’s expectations: the one area of tension between us.

We haven’t gone to France this Christmas. Simpler to stay here. The only way Helen could have travelled would have been in the car through the tunnel. On 18 December, trains entering the tunnel from France broke down when snow which had accumulated on the tops of the trains in the extreme conditions then prevailing in northern France melted in the warmth of the tunnel and broke the electrics. Complete chaos, and great distress for thousands of people who had to be rescued from the tunnel and were then stranded in France. No deaths or injuries. But once the tunnel was open again, there was a huge backlog of travellers who had booked places (which we hadn’t, not knowing what the hospital’s advice would be last Tuesday), so here we are in London for Christmas and New Year. We went to Stephen and Theresa on Christmas Day, and stayed until after lunch yesterday. Great fun, lovely food and drink, and good walks.

Some time next year, Helen must have her left foot done, because she has a similar problem there.

At Copenhagen between 7 and 19 December, the countries of the world failed to agree legally binding international action to limit global warming. It seems that the villain of the piece in the last two days of the conference was China, exercising its muscle as the world’s pre-eminent superpower-to-be. Although willing to agree a statement of intention in the right direction, China would not agree to specific targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, nor to a system of verification by inspection of its power stations. It would not even allow the other countries to publish their own targets; if they had done so, it would have removed its name from the bland final communiqué. The idea of Obama, Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel being dictated to in this way by a Chinese representative who wasn’t even the Chinese leader, and who had to keep leaving the room to get instructions from his boss, is extraordinary and shows how global politics is changing. The Chinese behaviour reminded me of Amartya Sen’s thesis that famines don’t happen in democracies, because where there is a flow of information, and where leaders have some kind of respect for public opinion, ways are found of avoiding famines (unlike in China during The Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of people starved to death). Chinese leaders need not worry what their people think about climate change; in any case (and perhaps in opposition to Sen’s thesis) I imagine that most Chinese who are benefiting materially from China’s growth rates in recent years are simply happy no longer to be poor. Who knows whether China’s leaders will have the wisdom in future years to recognise that prosperity achieved at the cost of wrecking the planet is a poor bargain? Of course, hanging over Copenhagen was the legacy of Bush’s disastrous policies: initially denying that climate change existed as a man-made phenomenon, and withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty. Although a completely different person now leads America, that damage persists. China can argue that it’s hypocritical of America to make such large climate-related demands on it only a few years after denying that man-made climate change existed.

It may be that if China really behaves badly in the next few years, continuing to go for coal-driven growth regardless of the consequences, the other major powers will have to agree legally binding limits for as much of the world as will accept them, and then impose quotas or tariffs on Chinese imports to try to make China change its policy. That would be ugly and confrontational; I imagine that the climate-change deal-makers are already thinking about ways of bringing all the significant players back together for a more successful bargaining round soon. The fact that Copenhagen was a failure doesn’t mean the world is doomed. But the world will be a much more hostile place for great sections of humanity in a few years’ time if we have too many more failures. As I think I’ve written before, we just have to face the fact that the developing world can’t do what the rich world did to enrich itself. It seems unjust, but there it is. Such historical understanding requires great statesmanship on the part of the leaders of the developing world: understanding which wasn’t apparent in the Chinese position at Copenhagen.

In some recognition of its historic guilt, the rich world must give the developing world huge sums of money to help it develop without hurting the planet beyond repair. A modest success at Copenhagen was the agreement of the rich nations to begin to do this. The number of billions of pounds or dollars promised sounds impressive; it’s tiny by comparison with what the rich countries spent in autumn 2008 to rescue their banks.

After great struggle, I’ve completed a third longish translation from Victor Hugo: the first part of ‘L’Expiation’, his poem about Napoleon, which describes the retreat from Moscow.

Camden Town31 December 2009

Since my parents died, I’ve been receiving mail redirected from their address to ours. Most of it has been junk mail: firms offering my father Christmas claret with his name printed on the label, or suggesting to my mother that she might be able to claim compensation for accidents she has suffered which were not her fault. (Does death count as an accident that was not her fault?) I have also written to numerous religious organisations to which my parents subscribed, the most hopeful of which is engaged in the long task of converting France to evangelical Protestantism. The main headline on the front page of France Mission’s leaflet announced a baptism near Toulouse.

A few people haven’t heard of my parents’ deaths, and sent Christmas cards. These people aren’t in my mother’s address book; I wrote in May to everyone in the book who didn’t already know about the deaths. Because there are no senders’ addresses on the cards, I have no way of telling the people that their good wishes for Christmas and the New Year fell on deaf ears. I will quote in its entirety one accompanying letter from a person who was evidently at school with my mother.

‘I hope that your health problems are well under control and that life is quite tolerable for both of you. It is a good job that you have adequate care for your daily needs since the family are so dispersed.

In August Alice Hilton died: she was the last link with Staff at the ‘Northern Grammar’. She arrived in September 1946 to teach Geography when I was in L6th. In 1959 she joined Fareham Girls Grammar School where I was working and we had remained friends.

We’ve had quite a ‘smooth’ year with no crises on either the health or domestic fronts. Derek’s diabetes seems under control and he is busy in the garden — when the weather allows! Despite the oddities of rainfall and temperature which affected some of the vegetables, our big freezer is comfortably full again this year.

I had a very pleasant holiday in the Isle of Man in August, having found a firm offering taxi/coach/flight transport — eliminating umpteen rail changes from here. The Isle was SO CLEAN, litter and graffiti free and transport all ran to time.

Best wishes


[Then there is a postscript, in different handwriting and written with a different pen, so presumably Derek’s.]

Lost £5m in the cash crisis. Apologies for the SIZE of the card — we like to support Naomi House’

There is something about this message which encapsulates an attitude to life which I am so glad to have eluded. The details are the give-aways: the inverted commas around ‘Northern Grammar’ and ‘smooth’ — let us not allow the informal to creep in without inverted commas to corral it; the sense that health and home are battlegrounds — ‘health and domestic fronts’; the British jollity of ‘when the weather allows!’ with its exclamation mark; the complacency in ‘our big freezer is comfortably full again this year’; most significant of all, the capital letters for ‘SO CLEAN’ in describing the Isle of Man. This woman is saying, ‘We have everything under control, and we are going to keep it that way. We will not allow life to spring any nasty surprises on us.’

But then, life did. There’s that astonishing postscript. I had these people summed up as retired teachers living in a bungalow or a semi-detached house with a garden. How did they come to have £5 million to lose? I didn’t think my parents knew any millionaires. The apology which follows ‘for the SIZE of the card’ made me laugh out loud. People who’ve just lost £5 million, you might think, would confine themselves to small cards, or perhaps not send any cards at all. This was a very big card. I can see from the back of the card that it’s sold in support of the best and most touching of causes: a children’s hospice. I have no wish to mock that. But why apologise?

I leap from the little to the large, this last day of the year. Some African countries, at the urging of their religious leaders, are passing or trying to pass legislation to criminalise homosexuality, or to impose even stricter punishments (including, in the case of Uganda, the death penalty) on homosexuals. Iran’s leaders are at an extreme of theocratic authoritarianism, which led them (I believe) to consider it right to pervert the outcome of the presidential election this year. America has millions of born-again Christian citizens who are sure their way of life is ‘God’s way’ (and who, as I wrote a few days ago, believe that a national health service amounts to ‘Godless socialism’). Outside the religious sphere, China’s behaviour so far, as the world’s next superpower, is not encouraging to people like me who hope that in a world no longer bi-polar, the great powers will be able to co-operate in ascendancy rather than compete for supremacy. Nor is Russia’s.

We have Obama: the great political plus of the year. He is that extraordinary rarity amongst national leaders: a true statesman, and — a further bonus — a great orator. Let us hope we have him until 2017. So much, too much, is expected of him. Because of him, American and British troops are withdrawing from Iraq. They should never have gone there, but it is good that they are leaving. It remains to be seen whether, once they’ve departed, Iraq can avoid a civil war which will show even more blatantly the murderous pointlessness of the invasion. Afghanistan and Pakistan remain desperate; good secular governance is nowhere in sight, and outrages committed by Islamist fundamentalists, in Afghanistan often linked to common criminality funded by the drugs trade, are everyday occurrences. These two countries are Obama’s big gamble; he has increased his country’s military commitment in Afghanistan (and, as a result, so has Gordon Brown, by a small amount) in the hope that Allied forces can speed up the process of preparing the Afghan government to assume normal power, the Taliban having either been defeated or, in the case of their more moderate members, co-opted into government and civil society. I fear that this is a remote hope.

A young Nigerian man tried to blow up an American aeroplane over Detroit on Christmas Day. He failed. He had been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The world, in this period, faces a severe threat from a tiny but determined group who would impose an Islamist theocracy on all of us, by violence if necessary (a project doomed to failure). While I feel the need to make the unremarkable statement that I am respectful of moderate Islam (and moderate Judaism, moderate Christianity, moderate Hinduism…), my real belief is that all religions are attempts to distract ourselves from recognising the terrible truth of our condition: we inhabit this world for a little space; then nothing.

Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’: ‘We must love one another or die.’

The struggle between enlightenment and certainty continues.

Occurrences: Book Seven

Camden Town6 January 2010

The weather has been freezing for several days, with snow and ice all over the country. London is nearly always less affected by snow than elsewhere, but this afternoon there was a moment when it fell outside the office window as snow should fall: in big, slow-moving, drifting flakes. But then it changed to smaller, wetter flakes, falling faster, and by the time I left for home it had stopped. There are fewer people and cars. Some people haven’t come back from their holidays; some haven’t been able to get into London from places where the snow is much thicker than here; some, who probably could have got in if they’d had to, have decided to ‘work from home’, which generally means stay in bed late, drink several coffees, read the paper more thoroughly than usual, and check emails every three hours. So the town is pleasant.

Helen is making a steady recovery from her foot operation. It’s a good time for her to be confined to the flat.

Today there has been another outburst of fratricidal strife in the parliamentary Labour Party. Two former Cabinet ministers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, sent an email or a text to every MP at about midday asking them to say whether they would support a secret ballot for the leadership. They’d been plotting this since the week between Christmas and New Year. Charles Clarke, that recidivist back-stabber, was also involved. The rebellion is fizzling out as I write (10.45 pm); no serving Cabinet minister will support it. But it’s another self-inflicted wound. I feel nothing but contempt for people who can’t see, a few months before the election, that to replace the leader now would be a disaster, whoever took over. The last chance to replace the leader, assuming (which I don’t) that that would have been the right thing to do in order to restore the government’s fortunes, was last summer, at the time of the dreadful local and European elections. It didn’t happen. That should have been the end of the matter until after the general election. Hoon, Hewitt and Clarke are doing this, I can only conclude, out of spite, to take revenge on perceived or actual wrongs done to them in the past, or because they can’t see beyond the Blairite/Brownite ideological cleavage which has weakened the government so sorely and unnecessarily since 1997. No-one who sincerely wants Labour to win in May, or least to limit the damage done to it, would have done what they did today. The anger of Labour back-benchers on the Channel 4 News tonight was bluntly expressed. The episode is a present to the Tories.

Camden Town18 January 2010

Six days ago, on 12 January, at about this time (9.53 in the evening GMT, 4.53 in the afternoon EST) an earthquake struck Haiti. The epicentre was a few miles to the west of Port-au-Prince. The magnitude was 7.0. It was a shallow earthquake — the movement of the crust descending only about six miles below the earth’s surface — which made it more destructive. It was the first major earthquake to hit Haiti since 1860.

The destruction has been unimaginable. No-one knows how many people have died, nor how many will yet die from sicknesses and untreated injuries. 200,000 is a current guess by those best informed. Three million people are homeless, out of a population of between nine and 10 million. It is true that the total death toll of the tsunami of 26 December 2004 was a little higher, at about 250,000; but those deaths were spread across several countries. These are all concentrated in one.

An enormous international relief effort is under way. It is hampered by the complete collapse of the infrastructure and machinery of government of what was already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In recent days, the excellent television and internet reporting of the catastrophe has tended to suggest that not enough is being done to co-ordinate the relief effectively. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated by governments, international agencies and individuals. There is no sense yet that generosity on this scale is getting to the people and places where it is most needed. I expect (but how would I know?) that the UN, the NGOs, the US and the other countries which have sent military and civilian personnel are doing the best they can. The UN, which already had a large peace-keeping force in the country under the terms of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, was itself shattered by the loss of many of its staff, including the head of the mission, Hédi Annabi, when its headquarters building collapsed. There is a fear that unless food, water and medical help arrives in the next day or two in much larger quantity than at present, usual civil behaviour may break down completely in many places, with armed gangs terrorising the traumatised population. I am glad that large numbers of US and UN troops are or will soon be there to combat the threat.

Jon Snow was magnificent on the Channel 4 News tonight, his journalistic professionalism once or twice almost overwhelmed by his feelings as a man who has done so much for and with the poorer world over so many years. All I can do is receive news and give money.

I’m sure architects and engineers are working on this, but I was thinking last night that there must be a quick way of building good, cheap, earthquake- and hurricane-resistant houses. Drill a dozen or 20 holes in the ground at the perimeter of the eventual house. Fill the holes with reinforced concrete, but leave in the middle of each a core of some kind of rubberised material, which absorbs shaking, into which steel stanchions are placed which stick up above ground level. Then bring in, from anywhere in the world which will supply them, houses in pre-fabricated kit form, with steel loops attached to the underside of the floor which are hooked and bolted on to the tops of the stanchions. The floor of the house doesn’t actually touch the ground. You have four steps or a ramp up to the front door. Something like this must be the best solution to the problem of replacing the destroyed dwellings — a problem which will face Haiti and international aid donors for many years.

And Haiti must replant its forests. Deforestation is the principal reason why hurricanes in recent years have been so destructive (though even the damage and loss of life in the dreadful 2008 hurricane season was as nothing in comparison with this earthquake). There are no trees to hold the land together; hence landslides and floods. There are no trees because poor people cut them down for fuel or as a way of making money.

Haiti is at the bottom of a deep vicious spiral of brutal poverty, grotesque inequality, political corruption, incompetence and wickedness, and environmental self-harm. Two hundred years ago, it enraged the European colonial powers, and especially France, for which liberté, fraternité, égalité were brave ideals for the emancipation of white people, by becoming the first independent republic in the Caribbean. Colonial societies based on slavery surrounded it. Now, it is trammelled in a different kind of servitude from which there will be no release for many years, even if those with power act with exceptional speed in a spirit of exceptional enlightenment.

Camden Town29 April 2010

Here we are with spring in full cry. It has been the most beautiful season I can remember since… since the last time I wrote in ecstatic tones about the beauty of the world. We went to France at Easter, and everything was as lovely there as ever: primroses and cowslips in abundance, the first cuckoo call, skylarks hovering above the big open fields of green corn. The streams and rivers were in spate with the water from the snow and rain of the exceptionally long winter just past. In the last fortnight back here, the cherries, blackthorn, hawthorn, limes and now chestnuts and beeches have opened their flowers and leaves in procession. I find the sight of a cherry tree in flower, before it has put forth its leaves, one of the most extravagantly wonderful sights of all, because of the stark, minimalist contrast between wood and flower, with no diluting effect of leaf.

We have had plenty of opportunity to admire the English and Welsh countryside in the last fortnight, for a sad reason. Sue Goldie, Mike Raleigh’s wife, died of liver cancer on 11 April. I’ve just checked and I see that we visited Mike and Sue on the first weekend of April 2009, and that the disease had already been diagnosed then. So she struggled against it for more than a year, enduring one whole course of chemotherapy. That restrained the tumours for a while, but they came back and the doctors said that her liver wasn’t strong enough to withstand another course. We saw Sue for the last time on the first weekend of this March, when we stayed with her and Mike at the Little Stone House. On the Sunday, nine of us drank champagne and lunched at the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, on a brilliant, still, blue, cold day. The lake, with its little Ludwig-of-Bavaria pumping station, the hills and the sky looked as spectacular as I’ve ever seen them. We kissed Sue in the car park before driving back to London. She lived for another five weeks. She died at home, quietly and without great pain. Mike says that the care she received from the health service throughout her illness, and from the Macmillan Nurses at the end, was excellent.

We went to be with Mike on the Wednesday after Sue died, and stayed until the Sunday. Then we returned for the funeral on 21 April (by coincidence, a year to the day after my father’s funeral). It was held at Shrewsbury Crematorium. More than 100 people were there. It was a moving and uplifting occasion. I had written a poem, which I read towards the end of the service.


In Memoriam Sue Goldie, 1939-2010

‘My golden girl has gone.’ Mike gave me that first line
the Monday morning when he phoned. The afternoon before
she’d travelled quietly beyond us. In his voice
I heard the full acknowledgement of absence, loss.

No poem, eulogy, not music even is equipped
to make of absence, presence; to restore the loss.
We’re here to bolster with our love those most bereft,
and with what instruments we have, to say:

We knew a woman rare in beauty, great of heart.
No truer spirit of conviviality
inhabited the earth; no-one more open-handedly
imparted gladness. She was laughter given flesh.

Sister, mother, lover, wife and friend:
she lived life as intended, to our benefit;
and children in their thousands whom she taught
are living tributes walking in the world today.

If memory needs something physical to cling to, it could be:
her eyes, in which the light of holiday was always shining;
or her hair, an outward glory of her nature, which was golden.

Then we sang ‘Jerusalem’, and went out to Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’, turned up loud.

There was a reception at The Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham. The next day, a smaller group of us, about 20 this time, lunched at Lake Vyrnwy again.

While Helen and I were in France, Lindsay rang to tell us that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer, five years after her supposedly successful recovery from bowel cancer. She has an operation next week to remove a small part of the infected lung for tests. Then she will know whether the doctors propose to remove a larger part of the lung later, or to give her chemotherapy. It seems, surprisingly, that if the new cancer turns out to be a secondary development from the original bowel cancer, the prognosis is better than if it’s a new kind, because they’ll know exactly how to treat it. We will support Lindsay, David and Tom, my godson, whatever happens.

Lung cancer is the biggest killer amongst the cancers; bowel cancer the second biggest. By coincidence, the papers yesterday reported a remarkable new diagnostic test and treatment for bowel cancer, which uses a tool called a Flexi-Scope — reassuringly plain name — to look for and if necessary remove polyps, the potential sites of cancer, in five minutes. It seems extraordinary. If it’s as good as it sounds, everyone should have the test by the time they get to my age.

We are a week away from the general election. Labour has been in power for 13 years, and it seems very unlikely, in fact impossible, that it will be given an overall majority in the House of Commons for another five.

I’ve written before about how we got into this mess. Since the events of January (Hoon, Hewitt and Clarke trying to unseat Brown), there have been two more spectacular own goals. In March, the selfsame Hoon and Hewitt, plus Stephen Byers, all three former Cabinet ministers, all standing down at the election, were entrapped by journalists pretending to be lobbyists into saying that they could and would use their powers of access to influence government policy once they left Parliament. Their fee: between £3000 and £5000 a day. They were secretly recorded saying this, and the dreadful, embarrassing footage was shown in a Dispatches programme on Channel 4. The three were suspended from the Labour Party, as was Margaret Moran, who’d done the same thing. The spectacle was so disgusting, so entirely the opposite of everything that Labour is supposed to stand for, that it will have done deep damage in the minds of wavering voters. I hate those four people.

The second own goal was scored yesterday. Gordon Brown was campaigning in Rochdale when he was approached by a 65-year-old woman, a lifelong Labour supporter, who asked him challenging questions about the national debt, pensions and immigration. She had gone out for a loaf and heard that Brown was down the road. It was a classic encounter between a good woman who doesn’t know very much and a good man who knows a lot: a friendly if robust exchange which ended with a handshake and smiles, despite the gulf between those two people. If the incident had ended there, the pictures shown would have, on balance, worked in Brown’s favour. He got back into his car and forgot to remove his radio microphone. (Question: why do politicians wear microphones on occasions like that? He didn’t need a microphone to have a conversation with a member of the public. Answer: because politicians like television viewers to see how normal and likeable they are on informal occasions.) In the car, the microphone transmitted his voice remarking to his aide that the encounter had been a disaster, ridiculous, asking who had put him with the woman — ‘Was it Sue?’ — as if to blame someone else for it, and then, worst of all, saying that his interlocutor had been ‘just a bigoted woman’.

Cruellest of ironies, the microphone belonged to Sky News. The Murdoch empire — the same people who tried to destroy Labour’s autumn conference by having The Sun announce its support for the Conservatives on the day of Brown’s speech there, the same people who stitched Brown up by arranging for the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to record his telephone conversation with her when he rang to apologise for apparently having spelt her name wrong in a personal, hand-written letter of condolence he had written — couldn’t believe its luck. The letter-writing episode backfired on The Sun. Most people were impressed and surprised that the Prime Minister wrote letters of condolence himself, in his own hand, and understood that a man who sees with only one eye might not have the most beautiful handwriting.

There was no backfiring this time. The private conversation was replayed repeatedly on all the networks, notably Sky, and was soon being listened to on the internet in offices all over the country, including mine. Brown did an interview on BBC Radio 2 shortly after his remarks had become public property. The tape was replayed on air. Though it was a radio interview, someone was pointing a camera at him, so we later saw the sight of the Prime Minister putting his head in his hands in a gesture of despair.

Meanwhile, the woman — Gillian Duffy — was told what Brown had said about her. The Sky News journalists, like sharks with blood in the water, detained her, holding on to her arm to discourage her from walking away, squeezing every drop of damage out of her distress and sense of offence. Had the event changed her mind about Brown? Yes. Would she now be voting Labour, as she had done all her life? She would probably not vote. That afternoon, Brown changed his schedule and, extraordinarily, drove back to Mrs Duffy’s house and spent 40 minutes alone in there with her. To her credit, she has not so far revealed anything about what was said (although that may change with this Sunday’s papers). He came out with the broad official smile on his face, saying that he was ‘a penitent sinner’, that he had apologised fully, and — less persuasively — that he had misunderstood what Mrs Duffy had said in the original conversation.

The enduring trouble is that the suspicion has been confirmed in the minds of many people, including the crucial undecided voters, that Brown is one thing in public — humane, personable, fallible, approachable — but ruthless, calculating and domineering in private.

So much for own goals. In fact, the election campaign has been dominated by a development which dwarfs their significance. Perhaps I should have written about it first. We have had three live televised debates, each lasting 90 minutes, in which the leaders of the three main parties have answered questions from a studio audience. These events have suddenly made traditional electioneering methods — putting up posters, knocking on doors, even telephone canvassing — redundant, or at least much less influential than they used to be. The first debate, broadcast on 15 April on ITV, was watched by 10 million people. A week later, on Sky, the second debate attracted 4 million viewers. Last night the third pulled in eight million on the BBC. (Eight million is rather a disappointing figure, given the historic novelty of these occasions. There will be more actual viewers than that, it’s true; I watched the debate after midnight on the BBC’s i-Player. But I imagine the BBC was hoping for something closer to 15 million live viewers.) Nonetheless, all future election campaigns will be dominated by the performances of the party leaders on these three occasions under the most unforgiving of spotlights.

The fascinating, extraordinary thing has been that, given the full public exposure which no Liberal leader has had since Lloyd George, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats suddenly looked to a lot of people like a potential party of government. Clegg performed very well in the first debate. He was more relaxed and fluent than the other two, and he made the case well that UK politics does not automatically and for ever have to be a duopoly. The opinion polls instantly registered scores that made a hung parliament likely. While the Conservatives have retained their lead in the polls throughout the campaign, the lead has diminished because of the Liberals’ surge.

Naturally, as soon as Clegg emerged as the principal threat to an overall Conservative majority, the right-wing newspapers turned their fire on him in the kind of character assassination which only they know how to perform: the combination of insinuation and downright lies which Brown has had to endure for years. But it doesn’t seem to have worked. The Liberal surge has held so far.

From my point of view, and given the quirkiness of our current electoral system, the best thing to hope for after next Thursday is a Lib/Lab coalition, or at least an agreement that the lesser party in terms of number of seats, which I still think will be the Liberals, will support a Labour government on crucial votes. I must say, in fairness, that if the Conservatives win the greatest number of seats although not an overall majority, they should be given a chance to form a government, but I can’t see them succeeding. In that case, a coalition or agreement between the Liberals and Labour would be able to change the electoral system before the following general election, which would have the highly satisfactory result of keeping the Conservatives out of power for a further lengthy period. I remember writing something like this in the full flood of joy after the 1997 election, imagining a time when Labour would need the Liberals to continue to govern. Of course, with a change in the voting system, it could be that the Liberals, not Labour, come to be the larger progressive party in terms of seats in the House of Commons.

Why does the possibility of a Conservative government so fill me with alarm? In a way, that’s a silly question to ask myself; I’m a lifelong socialist, that’s why. But analyse a bit, in just one area, the area where epic things have happened since Brown became Prime Minister: finance and economics. In the perspective of the last 30 years, here is what has happened in economic policy. Thatcher and Reagan and their financial advisers changed the world so that bankers could do what they liked. Blair and Brown inherited that world, and stayed with it because they were riding high. The Conservatives wished the government to go even further down the road of deregulation. When the crash happened, and with the Bush government still in place in the US, Brown and Darling made some heroically correct moves which persuaded others to work together to prevent the world’s financial system from collapsing completely, which saved millions of people like us from losing all the money in our bank accounts. The Conservatives were helpless and wrong in their analysis of the problem at that moment. However, they have managed to twist the argument since, so that they now offer themselves as the party of economic competence as the country confronts its large national debt and its need for a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts in the next few years. Brown and Darling will get no credit from the electorate next Thursday for what they did in the autumn of 2008. The Conservatives lurch incoherently from masochism (let’s have deep cuts now) to populism (let’s not raise National Insurance next year). They try to frighten voters by suggesting that, if a party or parties other than they form the next government, the financial markets — the people primarily responsible for the economic mess we’re in — will punish us. It seems that we must accept the right of the richest, stupidest and greediest people in society so go on being rich, stupid and greedy. I can’t wait for some kind of internationally agreed measure which takes serious money from these people in the form of taxes or levies and gives it back to the societies they have exploited. They’d still be rich. National debt could be paid back more quickly. Public services wouldn’t be hurt so badly. Only a progressive government will take this kind of action.

The Conservatives want to raise the inheritance tax threshold so that a group of already wealthy people won’t have to pay it. How emblematic. Macro-economically, as I’ve said, they’re incoherent, although of course they would expect and get an easier ride from their friends in the City than Labour or the Liberals would get.

Briston, Norfolk30 April 2010

May Day! And a beautiful day it has been. We came up here yesterday, to spend the long weekend with Adam and Hazel. Today Adam and I left Helen and Hazel in Holt, to shop, while we walked on the salt marshes at Morston. Skylarks sang high in the air; kestrels hovered; in the little pools left by the diminishing tide, shoals of tiny fish dashed. Beside the lanes between Holt and the coast, the coming flowers of the young cow parsley are still green buds. Shining patches of blackthorn flower are everywhere.

Camden Town3 May 2010

Gloomily studying the opinion polls, and facing the possibility of a small overall majority for the Tories on Friday, I realise that another of Labour’s failures in the election campaign is not to have trumpeted the numerous real achievements since 1997 which have made millions of people’s lives better. Put aside for a moment the errors — the Blairite/Brownite schism, Iraq, the decade in which Brown was happy to let the banks do what they liked, the 2007 election that never happened, the abolition of the 10p tax, the attempts to pull Brown down since he became Prime Minister, Labour’s full share of wickedness in the expenses scandal. Those are grievous errors, and if they hadn’t been committed Labour would I think be heading for a fourth term. But in the 13 years of Labour government, a number of wonderful things have happened. The NHS has gone from being a grossly under-funded organisation to being a world-class service, according to a report from the Kings Fund, the independent think-tank on health, published during the course of the campaign. The report went on to say, quite rightly, that the next step is to spend much more on preventive medicine and on health education, to stop people getting ill in the first place. The improvements in schools are immense, both in academic achievement and in quality of buildings and equipment. I say this while knowing, as an educator, that Labour ministers have made all kinds of stupid mistakes in detail — too much testing, getting obsessive about methods of teaching reading. In grand terms, nonetheless, the transformation has been remarkable. Then there’s the minimum wage, against the introduction of which the Tories fought tooth and nail; the tax credits for families on lower incomes; the significant though still incomplete progress in reducing the number of children living in poverty. I could go back to the lists I used to make to clear my mind when having arguments with friends who said that Labour was no different from the Tories. The trouble is, we haven’t heard much about these great steps forward. The television debates, ground-breaking as they were, didn’t give Brown the opportunity to speak about them, or perhaps he just didn’t make the opportunity by turning some of his answers in that direction. Elsewhere, I’ve heard almost nothing. I understand the difficulties, and they make me weary to report them, they’re so familiar: the difficulty of getting a positive message across when the newspapers are overwhelmingly and malignantly hostile; the huge sums of money — much of it provided by tax cheats like Lord Ashcroft — which the Tories can spend on negative poster campaigns, which Labour can’t match. Nonetheless, senior Labour politicians haven’t until yesterday spoken up about the things Labour has done as they should have, at least not when I’ve been paying attention, and I’ve been paying a lot of attention. Yesterday, at an event in Westminster Central Hall organised by Citizens UK, Brown recounted Labour’s achievements and values cogently and passionately. But, I fear, too late.

I read something in the paper last night which depressed me beyond measure, although the great majority of the population won’t notice it. The futures market in government bonds and foreign exchange will open at one o’clock in the morning on Friday, exceptionally. This will allow financial speculators to make money through the night, particularly if the prospect of a hung parliament causes the City to get jumpy about government debt. In other words, people who brought the country to its current financial difficulties will be allowed to profit from those difficulties seven hours earlier than usual.

Camden Town4 May 2010

Gordon Brown spoke again yesterday, at a rally in Manchester, admittedly to Labour Party faithful but addressing the whole country, using terms and taking a tone which should have been present from the start of the campaign: health, schools, Sure Start, minimum wage, tax credits for poorer people, Northern Ireland… he read out a list of 55 achievements. These reminders of the true purpose of politics should have been given much, much earlier. Elsewhere, Tony Blair popped up to say: ‘You look at the largest investment in public services since the second world war, the creation of whole new services like Sure Start, the minimum wage, progress on gay rights, changes on paternity leave, the right to join a union, even things that have been difficult that used to cause me problems in government like the Human Rights Act — that is a massive progressive agenda we have delivered.’ And he was eloquent about the vacuity of Cameron’s notion of a big society. ‘No one wants an over-heavy state, but there is an element of what the Conservatives are saying that almost suggests that government has no role to play, or that it is down to volunteering.’

It’s this simply expressed combination of celebration and analysis that we have been lacking. Cameron has been allowed to get away with the lie that our society is broken. It isn’t broken. The Tories nearly broke our society in the 18 years in which they doubled child poverty, engendered mass unemployment and glorified greed. Society in 2010 is profoundly imperfect, and there are forces at work that may be stronger than any government can counteract, but the effort which the Labour government has made, taken as a whole, has been to mend society, not to break it.

I’ve just read the excellent at-a-glance comparison of the three main parties’ manifestos on the BBC’s website. It shows how far the parties’ policies, as officially announced, are from the way they are presented in the newspapers, and indeed from the shorthand caricatures which politicians construct to promote their own policies and to attack their opponents’. It would be an instructive game to cut up the one-line accounts of the policies, throw them into a hat, pull them out one at a time at random, and ask players to say which of the parties (one, or more than one) had each policy. So: ‘Support party funding reform, including caps on individual donations’. Who proposes this measure? Why, the Conservatives, of course, the party bankrolled by Lord Ashcroft’s millions. (The proposal doesn’t specify the level of the cap.) Or: ‘Push for an international agreement to stop banks engaging in large-scale trading using their own money and a global levy on banks’ (not grammatical, but we get the drift)? Conservatives again, the party which has managed to persuade a large chunk of the electorate that the current level of UK government debt is all Labour’s fault. (I admit that the other two parties have similar but not identical proposals in both these areas.) Or — a different kind of difference between presentation and reality — what would we find if we checked the detail of the Conservatives’ promise to reward marriage through the tax system? First, we’d find that the tax break applies to civil partnerships as well as to marriage; secondly, that it’s an offer to let one partner transfer £750 of his or her personal allowance to the other partner so long as the higher-earning of the two partners is paying the basic rate of tax. So it’s a much more nuanced proposal, benefiting homosexual as well as heterosexual couples, and excluding the middle class and the wealthy. Rather progressive, you might say, if you had any time for a proposal which chooses to favour certain emotional and sexual choices through the tax system, and thereby to penalise others, which I don’t. Its value to the Conservatives is not in the detail, but in the headline: ‘Tories back marriage’.

There are policy areas where the parties’ announced intentions confuse my basic allegiance. The Tories wish to end mixed-sex wards and to increase the number of single rooms in hospitals. I can only applaud, having spent a good deal of time in hospitals in the last years of my parents’ lives. The Tories and, unsurprisingly, the Liberals wish to scrap ID cards and the national identity database. I agree. Labour limps on with its now voluntary ID card scheme for UK nationals, while insisting that every time someone applies for a new passport his or her details will go on to a national identity database. I can’t see why you need a national identity database as a separate thing; surely, if you have people’s passport details, you have a de facto database. Compulsory ID cards were an affront to civil liberties in the first place; the affront, it was argued, was a price worth paying in order to increase our security. The voluntary version is no use as a way of stopping terrorism (what terrorist who is a UK national is going to ask for an ID card, or rely on a legitimate passport when travelling?). The only reason for not scrapping the scheme completely is to save political face; Labour has lost the argument. Speaking of databases, Labour wants to keep for six years the DNA of criminal suspects arrested but not convicted. The Tories would destroy the DNA of every suspect found innocent in a court of law. I agree with the Tories’ policy, while recognising that the police and the courts might prefer Labour’s. But ask a random sample of voters which party is strongest on law and order, and most will tell you it’s the Conservatives.

These ruminations are a world away from the popular language and imagery of an election campaign. People make their voting choice either because newspapers, most of them owned by very rich people who want a Conservative government, influence that choice, while claiming not to; or because of tribal loyalties; or because they ‘just think it’s time for a change’; or on the basis of their preferred gladiatorial performance by one or other party leader on television. I don’t think that the cool study of the parties’ manifesto commitments comes into it that much.

Camden Town5 May 2010

It’s a beautiful, calm, warm afternoon, and the nation is voting. There was a queue at my polling station this morning; later, people arriving at the office who had already voted had queued at theirs. I hope for a high turnout. I fear that a Conservative government with a small overall majority will be elected. The combination of Labour’s mistakes, its failure until these last days to remind people of the good it has done, the global financial crisis, the ‘give the other lot a go’ mentality and — decisively — the lies bellowed into people’s ears by and on behalf of the Conservatives, will do its work. The Liberals’ surge won’t be quite enough to give them the king-making power which might have led before the next election to a change in the voting system and to other constitutional reforms. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

It’s the first anniversary of my mother’s death.

Camden Town7 May 2010

Well, I was wrong. The Conservatives don’t have the small overall majority that I feared. They have easily the largest number of seats (306) and the largest share of the votes (36.1%). (They’ll win a 307th seat on 27 May in a safe constituency where the election was postponed because of the death of a candidate.) But 326 is the number they needed if they were to have an absolute overall majority. Labour has 258 seats, with 29% of the vote. The Liberals have 57 seats, with 23% of the vote. The other parties put together have 28 seats, with 12% of the vote.

The most surprising thing is the Liberals’ disappointing performance. Only a few days ago, I was writing about the Liberal surge, about the way that Nick Clegg’s performance in the TV debates had given the Liberals a popularity they hadn’t had since Lloyd George. In the event, they have five fewer seats than they had before. They can, legitimately, point to the iniquity of a voting system which gave them less than a tenth of the seats available when they had polled just under a quarter of the votes. But their vote share hardly increased either; it went up by about one percentage point, which is a paltry result after such optimistic predictions.

I don’t know how this happened; nor, I suspect, do expert psephologists. Perhaps more natural Liberal voters voted Labour tactically than the reverse; or perhaps the perversities of the current system meant that even had there been equal amounts of Lib/Lab tactical voting, the Liberals couldn’t have greatly benefited. One thing not in doubt is that the Liberals haemorrhaged support in the last days of the campaign. The combined findings of the final polls taken before 6 May gave them 27%. Four of those percentage points disappeared when people went into the voting booth.

There was little overall pattern to the results as they came in on Friday, apart from the generalisation that the south and midlands of England shifted significantly towards the Tories, while the north of England and Scotland didn’t. In Scotland, Labour actually increased its share of the vote, although the allocations of seats between the parties remained exactly as before. The Tories did a lot better in Wales than in 2005: eight seats instead of three.

Yesterday at 1.30 in the afternoon, Gordon Brown said that the Conservatives and the Liberals together should have the first chance to try to form a government. He also said that he would be willing to talk to any other party. He obviously meant that if Con/Lib talks failed, he might be able to put together a government with the Liberals, presumably relying on the support of some of the smaller parties. An hour later, David Cameron said that he would enter negotiations with the Liberals.

Camden Town8 May 2010

The Conservatives and Liberals are talking. There seems to be an expectation that the talks will succeed; that somehow the circle of the Liberals’ insistence on electoral reform and the Conservatives refusal of it will be squared. I can’t see it.

There have been contemptible calls for Brown to get out of Downing Street immediately, not just from the usual newspapers, but also from some Labour MPs. Brown is doing exactly the right thing, constitutionally and morally, by staying put until someone is in a position to form a new government. Alastair Darling is in Brussels with other European finance ministers, discussing how best to prop up Greece and other eurozone countries in financial difficulties. Everyone agrees that we’re lucky not to be in the euro at the moment, but I expect that some of our banks are owed loads of money by some of the more troubled eurozone countries. Anyhow, the point is that the business of government goes on.

Everywhere, people are saying that the measures that will have to be taken to reduce our deficit and restore the public finances to good order will be unbelievably awful; and that whoever takes these measures will risk extreme unpopularity. I don’t agree with either of those positions. Taxes will and should go up dramatically; but as long as that is done progressively (which one shouldn’t expect with a Conservative-led government) most people in this rich country can easily take the hit. The middle classes will just have to go out to dinner less often, and take cheaper holidays. And we’re in a strange, masochistic moment, where a Mr or Ms Whiplash (it’ll be Mr) Chancellor can do things ‘for the good of the country’ without the negative political consequences which would follow in normal times. My fear, with a Conservative-led financial regime, is that the tax cuts will be lighter, especially for the better-off, and the cuts to public services deeper than they should be; in personal terms, that George Osborne, not Vince Cable, will win the argument about how the balance is struck.

Harmer Hill, Shropshire13 May 2010

We came to Shropshire yesterday for Tom James’s confirmation. The Bishop of Shrewsbury conducted a cheerful ceremony in the chapel of Prestfelde School. Life is passing when bishops begin to look young; this one was born, he revealed, in 1961.

A week ago, Lindsay had the operation on her lung. The surgeon removed a little piece for a biopsy, which was done while Lindsay was still under the anaesthetic. With the information gained from the biopsy, the surgeon removed two lesions from one lung. Lindsay came home from hospital two days later. She cannot tolerate morphine, so is relying on other and less effective pain-killers. Neither can she tolerate hospital food, which was one reason for her early discharge. There she was at the confirmation. She is an extraordinary person.

Politics has been tumultuous since last I wrote. And I was wrong again about the outcome. The Conservatives and the Liberals talked and talked until Monday afternoon. They kept saying that the talks were going well, it was all very productive. But no product. Then, on Monday afternoon, Gordon Brown came out of number 10 and announced that the Liberals, while continuing to talk to the Tories, had indicated that they would also like to talk, officially, to Labour. (I think secret conversations had been going on over the weekend.) And Brown said that he was going to stand down as Labour leader; a new leader would be in place in time for the party conference. This bombshell immediately shifted the game on. The Conservatives, having until then refused the Liberals their cherished referendum on some kind of electoral reform, suddenly yielded. At that point, the thing that I thought so unlikely on Sunday became likely. Parallel sets of talks continued on Monday night and into Tuesday. A Lib/Lab coalition, with the support or acquiescence of some of the minor parties, was just a possibility in terms of votes in the Commons. But a Lib/Con coalition, if policy differences could be overcome or at least accommodated, would have an overall majority in the Commons of about 80: comfortable.

At some point on Tuesday the Lib/Lab talks stopped. The Lib/Con talks continued. By mid-afternoon, most people could sense what was going to happen. It was just a matter of the machinery. Late in the afternoon, Brown emerged again to say that he was going to Buckingham Palace, immediately, to resign as Prime Minister, and that he was also immediately standing down as Labour leader. He wished the new government well. He was proud of what Labour had achieved in its 13 years in government. He was proud to have been Prime Minister, but still prouder to be a husband and father. It was very moving. His wife stood beside him, and then the door of number 10 opened and out came their two little boys, and the family walked hand in hand down to the car to go to the palace.

An hour or so later, David Cameron entered Downing Street as Prime Minister.

The following morning, in another piece of choreography, Nick Clegg walked up Downing Street. Just as he got to the door of number 10, it was opened by the Prime Minister himself. Handshakes and waves and pats on the back; after you, no, after you. And in they went. In the next few hours, the full scale of what the Liberals had gained during the talks emerged. Nick Clegg is deputy Prime Minister. There are four more Liberals in a cabinet of, I think, 23: Vince Cable is the Business Secretary; David Laws is Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Chris Huhne is at Energy and Climate Change; Douglas Alexander is Scottish Secretary. There will be a further 15 Liberals in junior government posts.

That afternoon, Cameron and Clegg strolled out together to give a press conference in the garden behind number 10. The pair of them exuded relaxed bonhomie, but were also grandiloquent. This wasn’t just a new government; it was a new kind of government. Cameron generously described the government he was about to lead as ‘Liberal-Conservative’. Or was the written form ‘liberal Conservative’? Was he saying something to the right wing of his own party about the particular Conservative tradition he wished to inherit? He and Nick had considered some kind of ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby the Liberals, in exchange for some political concessions, would stand aside at votes to let the Tories get their business through, but had decided that they could do a whole lot better than that. They were going to govern for a full five years, and together bring the country out of its current financial difficulties. The journalists were fascinated. One of them reminded Cameron that he had once said, when asked what was his favourite political joke, ‘Nick Clegg.’ Clegg said, ‘Did you really say that?’ and pretended to storm off. Cameron cried, ‘Don’t go.’ He would be happy to eat his words. It was kiss-and-make-up time after a lovers’ tiff, in the Downing Street garden, in front of millions of people, with the birds singing. Then they strolled back inside.

Shortly afterwards, the text of the agreement between the two governing parties was published. It does seem to be evidence of a genuine conversation, with give and take on both sides. I’m afraid — though how would I know? — that my own party probably said to the Liberals on Monday and Tuesday, from a much weaker position than the Conservatives, ‘This is our manifesto. Do you want to sign up to it?’ And the Liberals said, ‘No thanks. We’ve had a better offer.’

There will be an acceleration in the reduction in the budget deficit, with an emphasis on cuts in public spending rather than tax rises. People earning less than £10,000 a year will be taken out of income tax. The proposal to increase the inheritance tax threshold to a million pounds has been dropped. The tax break for married couples will be postponed. There will be a serious look at the possibility of taxing financial transactions. A committee will be set up to see if banks can be broken up, so that high-street and casino operations are separated. Trident will be renewed, though the government will look for cost savings in the process. There will be five-year fixed-term parliaments. There will be an elected House of Lords. There will be a referendum on the alternative vote system for the House of Commons, with the parties free to argue for or against changing the current system during the campaign. ID cards and the national identity database will be scrapped. People found innocent after a criminal investigation or trial won’t have their DNA kept. There will be new nuclear power stations, but the Liberals will be allowed to abstain when the vote comes. There will be several unambiguously green measures on energy generation and conservation. Schools teaching poor children will get more money. The Tories will pursue their policy of letting people set up their own ‘free’ schools, outside local-authority control.

Seven pages like that. A remarkable hotch-potch of measures, some enlightened, libertarian and long overdue, some crazy (‘free’ schools, more nuclear power when safe green technologies are now available and viable). The key to the success or failure of this government will be the impact of the actual measures taken to reduce the budget deficit. If ordinary people in their millions seriously suffer, while bankers in the end are allowed to go on living their grotesque lives with no discernible inconvenience, the new-government gloss will come off quickly. A rejuvenated Labour opposition, led in all probability by David Miliband, will easily find its range, presenting itself as the only large progressive party in the UK, with the Liberals so tainted. But if the Liberal influence can see to it that the pain to come is inflicted with a sense of social justice, a coalition government which can point to major achievements in the areas of civil liberties and constitutional reform, areas which Labour so shamefully neglected or opposed, could well last the full five years, and get a second term.

Just as a matter of interest, here’s what I wrote in the diary on 12 June last year:

‘On 5 June 2009 [the day after the local and European elections in which Labour performed so catastrophically] at about half past ten in the morning, I was walking past the back of the Foreign Office and Downing Street just as Brown was conducting his reshuffle (though I didn’t know he was doing that until later in the day). I said to the person I was with that if I were Brown, I would call in Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. I would offer Clegg the Home Office and Cable the Exchequer, and one or two other cabinet jobs to Liberals. After further conversation, I would hold a press conference announcing the coalition, and making the following statement.

“The date of the next general election will be 22 May 2010. That is a Saturday. We hope for a better turn-out on Saturdays than we have been getting on Thursdays. Additionally, anyone who wants a postal vote can have one. Parliament will have six weeks’ holiday this year. We’ll stop work on Friday 7 August and start again on Monday 21 September. The first three weeks of September will be enough time for the party conferences. During the autumn, the coalition government will bring in a bill to establish proportional representation as from that election (the form to be decided before we introduce the bill); to establish fixed-term five-year parliaments as from that date, dissolvable only by a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons; to reconstitute the House of Lords as an 80%-elected, 20%-appointed revising chamber with a fixed number of members, those first elections to occur at the same time as the Commons elections; and to prepare a written constitution for the UK.

There will be another bill going through Parliament at the same time, proposing the complete overhaul of the expenses and allowances system: notably, MPs who have constituencies outside London will be given a flat nightly rate for being in London, which they can spend on their accommodation however they like; and MPs will not be allowed to have continuous other jobs.

We shall abandon ID cards. We shall abandon the plan to record and keep on computer all phone calls, emails and other electronic communications made by people in the UK; we shall abandon the part-privatisation of the Post Office, since if we can afford to spend hundreds of billions saving the banks we can afford to keep a much-loved service in public ownership, even if it is losing money.

Thank you. I’m now going to get on with governing the country.”

Total fantasy, of course. That afternoon, Brown held a press conference to announce his reshuffle. Completely tribal, making the best of a diminishing pool of talent, heavily reliant on the House of Lords, acknowledging his debt to Mandelson by making him First Secretary of State (the title Major invented for Heseltine) and giving him other titles and a huge department. It won’t stop the rot.’

Quite a lot of my fantasy looks like becoming reality — under the Conservatives.

Kerfontaine28 June 2010

We came here on 3 June. The weather is currently glorious, and has been so for over a week. This afternoon, it’s seriously hot outside. The place looks wonderful. Jean-Paul cut the grass last Thursday. We’ve bought lots of flowers, planted in pots or in the ground, and I’ve even started edible gardening in a miniscule way — four tomato plants and nine lettuces. It’s a kind of tribute to Albert. Maybe I shall be more ambitious next year.

At the end of May, Helen and I both sort-of retired. I say ‘sort-of’, because I think Helen will do a day or two a week in schools in London in the winter, and I’m available for foreign trips on behalf of Teachers TV if Andrew Bethell wants me to do that; also, I’ve done three days’ writing work for Mike Raleigh’s little educational consultancy firm, Owen Ltd (named after Robert Owen, who was born in Newtown, down the road from where Mike lives), and I’m happy to do more — £600 a day is good pay. Even if we continue to work a bit, our lives have changed completely. We intend to be here until the end of October, apart from a trip down to Italy at the end of August to stay in a villa near Pienza which Bronwyn and Stephen have hired, and in London from November to March, apart from a fortnight back here for Christmas and New Year. We’ll be back here again next spring. That’ll be the pattern.

At the moment, it still feels strange and delightful to get up every morning and then decide what to do. And the sense of this holiday stretching indefinitely into the future, to the end of our lives… Naturally, the constant voice in my head is saying, ‘Don’t fritter it. Use it. Apply seat of pants to seat of chair.’

In late May and early June, Mike Raleigh took a solitary journey to north-west Spain, driving the little sports car which he bought as a surprise for Sue last October. He stayed in Santiago de Compostela, León, Salamanca, Segovia and Bilbao, where Kate Myers joined him. They went on to San Sebastián, then crossed into France and walked for a day or two in the Pyrenees. Mike dropped Kate at Bergerac airport, and then stayed with two different couples in the Gers and the Vendée before arriving here for two nights. I think the trip was consoling for him, and he was glad to know that he could confront the melancholy that comes with being alone. Anyhow, we gave him a good time here; he enjoyed this bedroom where I’m writing, with its view down the garden, and the lovely terrasse where he could smoke (his only vice, and this is not the moment to nag him about it). In Galicia, he had discovered the 19th-century poet Rosalía de Castro (who wrote in Gallego). I hadn’t heard of her, but by the time he arrived two copies of her collected poems had been delivered by the excellent Amazon. His telling me about her caused me to tell him about Machado, and I ordered Campos de Castilla at the same time. Mike asked me to translate En abril, las aguas mil, which I’ve done.

Antonio Machado — In April, a Thousand Waters

April brings its thousand waters.
On the wind the storm clouds blow.
Up amongst their bleak procession,
rents of sky are indigo.

On the sky a rainbow glistens.
Water, sun; the world’s awash.
In a distant cloud, the yellow
zigzag of a lightning flash.

Rain is beating on the window.
Glass is chiming in reply.

I can just see one green meadow
through the drizzle and the mist.
But the holm-oak wood has melted
and the grey sierra’s lost.

Threads of water in a downpour
bend the growing season’s leaves,
whip the eddies of the Duero
into choppy, muddy waves.

Rain falls on the greening bean fields,
on the brown where corn seed hides.
Now the sun is on the holm-oaks.
Puddles shine along the roads.

Rain and sun. The landscape darkens
now; now blazes into light.
There a hillside re-emerges.
Here a hill is lost to sight.

Rolling to the leaden mountains
— balls of cotton, lumps of ash —
rain cloud after rain cloud lours.

Now in sunshine, now in shadow,
scattered farms and distant towers.

En abril, las aguas mil

Son de abril las aguas mil.
Sopla el viento achubascado,
y entre nublado y nublado
hay trozos de cielo añil.

Agua y sol. El iris brilla.
En una nube lejana,
una centella amarilla.

La lluvia da en la ventana
y el cristal repiquetea.

A través de la neblina
que forma la lluvia fina,
se divisa un prado verde,
y un encinar se esfumina,
y una sierra gris se pierde.

Los hilos del aguacero
sesgan las nacientes frondas,
y agitan las turbias ondas
en el remanso del Duero.

Lloviendo está en los habares
y en las pardas sementeras;
hay sol en los encinares,
charcos por las carreteras.

Lluvia y sol. Ya se obscurece
el campo, ya se ilumina;
allí un cerro desparece,
allá surge una colina.

Ya son claros, ya sombríos
los dispersos caseríos,
los lejanos torreones.

Hacia la sierra plomiza
van rodando en pelotones
nubes de guata y ceniza.

That’s the only serious literary brainwork I’ve done this month. A delightful divertissement has been to edit and proof-read Paul Ashton’s splendid emerging Dictionary of Artists and Designers. There will eventually be some 500 entries in the dictionary, ranging over three millennia, the entire world, and all forms of art and design. The writing is authoritative in tone — expert to layperson — and the background research impeccable. None of the artists or designers exists or existed.

I’ve made good progress towards getting Becoming our own Experts on line. The wonderful Vanessa has found a firm that will do the electronic scanning (the book has about 450 pages) and send the scanned pages electronically to Mark Leicester in New Zealand for not much more than £100. Mark will then do the design. So www.becomingourownexperts.com should be on the internet soon. I’ll then need to alert a few people in the world of educational research to its existence.

George Osborne, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, presented his first budget last Tuesday.

VAT will go up to 20% from 17.5% next January. Capital gains tax for higher-rate taxpayers will rise from 18% to 28% immediately. Child benefit will be frozen for the next three years. There will be a two-year pay freeze for public-sector workers, but those earning less than £21,000 will be paid £250 extra each year for the next two years. From April next year, the basic state pension will rise in line with earnings, prices or by 2.5%, whichever is the greatest. The government will accelerate the increase in the state pension age to 66. The personal income-tax allowance will be increased by £1,000 from next April to £7,475. There will be welfare cuts worth £11bn by 2014/15: tax credits for families earning more than £40,000 will be reduced; housing benefit will be restricted to a maximum of £400 a week; from 2013, there will be a medical assessment for Disability Living Allowance for new and existing claimants. The child element of the child tax credit will be increased by £150 above inflation.

Corporation tax will be cut to 27% next year, and by a further 1% a year for the next three years to 24%. The small companies tax rate will be cut to 20%. From 2011, there will be a levy on UK banks and building societies, and on the UK operations of foreign banks. The levy is expected to raise more than £2bn a year. Smaller banks will not pay the levy.

The government will sell its shareholding in the air traffic control agency, the student loan book and, if it can, the Tote.

Taken together, these measures are projected to bring the budget deficit down to 1.1% of GDP by 2015/16 from 10.1% at the moment. The deficit is expected to be £149bn in 2010/11 (lower than Alastair Darling predicted in his budget in March) and £116bn in 2011/12.

Government spending will be £637bn in 2010/11, and is predicted to be £711bn in 2015/16. The UK economy is expected to grow by 1.2% in 2010, 2.3% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012. Unemployment is expected to peak at 8.1% in 2010/11, and then to fall each year to 6.1% in 2015/16.

In macro-economic terms, the question is: is the overall deflationary effect of the budget measures on the economy, an effect which will be accelerated by public-spending cuts to be announced in the autumn, going to push us into a double-dip recession? Joseph Stiglitz, my favourite economist, thinks so. In an interview with The Independent, he says: ‘If you have a household that can't pay its debts, you tell it to cut back on spending to free up the cash to pay the debts. But in a national economy, if you cut back on your spending, then economic activity goes down, nobody invests, the amount of tax you take goes down, the amount you pay out in unemployment benefits goes up — and you don't have enough money to pay your debts… The lesson is not that you cut back spending, but that you redirect it. You cut out the war in Afghanistan. You cut a couple of hundred billion dollars of wasteful military expenditure. You cut out oil subsidies. There's a long list of things we can cut. But you increase spending in other areas, such as research and development, infrastructure, education… I haven't done the calculation for Britain, but, for the US, all you need is a return on government investment of 5 to 6 per cent and the long-term deficit debt is lowered.’ The article refers to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which suggests that the budget will cost the poor 2.5% of their income, while the rich will lose 1%. So it could be that the budget is both macro-economically wrong and socially unjust.

I’ve said my piece before about the hypocrisy in the Conservatives’ accusation that Labour is responsible for the size of the deficit now. If the Conservatives had been in power in the years when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than he was. Brown and Darling pretty much saved the world’s financial system in the autumn of 2008; they get no credit for that. But the deficit does need to be brought down, and Labour lost the election; so it can be blamed for its size.

The main progressive measures in the package, which show the Liberal influence in the coalition, are the new arrangements for increasing the state pension each year, the increase in the personal allowance for income tax, and the increase in capital gains tax for higher-rate taxpayers. (This last was a blatant split-the-difference fudge. The just thing to do would have been to tax capital gains at the same rate as income, but Cameron and Osborne would have upset too many of their supporters.) The increase in VAT was expected and inevitable. The freezing of public-sector pay is harsh, but the £250 extra a year for lower-paid workers slightly takes the edge off the harshness. Just how harsh the freeze will be depends on inflation, of course; there may well be strikes in the public sector over the next two years.

It’s very unfair that private-sector workers won’t suffer any freeze on their wages, but governments of left and right have long given up trying to have any kind of incomes policy to cover the whole workforce. At least this government has kept Labour’s increase in the rate of tax on incomes over £150,000 at 50%. The key thing will be the details on the bank levy. If the levy really hits the banks, really makes them cough up money on a scale to make some kind of amends for their crimes up to 2008, there will be some public sense of justice being done.

I don’t know enough to have an opinion about benefit cuts. I believe that there are plenty of people who claim Incapacity Benefit falsely, for example; but there are more people who claim it legitimately, and whose already curtailed lives would be made unjustly worse by a cut in their benefit. It will all depend on how fair the assessments are.

In the week before the budget, Osborne announced a reform of banking regulation. The Bank of England gets much more power in the supervision of banks; the Financial Services Authority, which Gordon Brown created in 1997, has its power greatly reduced.

The one big political casualty in the coalition government since the election is David Laws, a Liberal who was for a few days Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and who would have had a major influence on government economic and financial policies. It emerged that he had been claiming for rent he was paying to his long-term partner, a man, when the rules say that MPs can’t claim for rent paid to spouses, including partners in gay relationships. Laws resigned. I’m not very sympathetic. Laws is gay: fine, of course. He didn’t want anyone, his family especially, to know about his sexuality: fine, of course, although such secrecy is difficult to maintain. He’s the MP for Yeovil, so he had a right to claim for accommodation in London: fine, of course. So why didn’t he rent accommodation from anyone with whom he wasn’t having a relationship, claim for that, leave some of his stuff there, use it as a kind of office, and then go and live with his partner? He could have given some of the money he was claiming to his partner on an informal basis. If Laws had been a person dependent on his MP’s salary, I could see the argument that it might be beyond his means to claim for accommodation he wasn’t living in; but he’s a millionaire, having made his fortune in the City before he went into politics.

The Saville Report into the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry (‘Bloody Sunday’) has at last been published. It is unequivocal in its condemnation of the actions of some of the British soldiers in firing on innocent, unarmed people who posed no threat to them, and of the orders given to the soldiers by some officers. The effect of the publication of the report on the Catholic community in Derry, and in Northern Ireland generally, has been dramatic. I think many of those people expected some kind of a fudge, or even a whitewash of the army’s actions. The frankness and explicitness of the report’s language was therefore unexpected and welcome. My friend Joe Mahon, who lives in Derry, confirmed what I had already seen from the live pictures of relatives of the dead speaking in public in the Guildhall there, that the report has given them the immense emotional relief that comes when justice is done and the truth told. David Cameron in the House of Commons was eloquent in his unreserved apology to the families of the bereaved, and in his full acceptance of the report’s findings. Harriet Harman for Labour was merely competent; she read what she needed to say from a paper. It was a moment when oratory was called for; Cameron had it, she didn’t.

Apart from its judgment on the soldiers’ actions on Bloody Sunday, the report condemns some of the soldiers for lying persistently to the enquiry. In my opinion, no soldier should be prosecuted for the killings, because of the extraordinary history of Northern Ireland since then. Republican and Loyalist murderers have in effect been forgiven their crimes in the effort to bring this dreadful chapter in the province’s history to a close. The soldiers should be treated similarly. However, I would vigorously prosecute those who lied to the enquiry in the cynical belief that the passage of time would make it impossible for their actions on that day to be accurately identified.

Kerfontaine24 July 2010

I’ve recently read, 20 years after I should have done, The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’s wonderful book about the transportation of convicts from Britain and Ireland to Australia. It is an account of brutality so extreme that there are passages which are hard to read; but also of the relative liberality of some governors who had a notion of punishment as rehabilitation, and could see that the future of the colony depended on the efforts and skills of the rehabilitated. It is shocking to be reminded of the triviality of the crimes for which many convicts were transported, although Hughes rejects the romantic notion that Australia’s first white settlers were mainly heroic fighters for the freedoms which we now enjoy, who had been expelled from Britain and Ireland for political reasons; only a tiny minority were Tolpuddle Martyrs and their like. White settlement in Tasmania brought about the genocide of the entire Aboriginal population there; Hughes says that this is the only example of genocide in the full sense in the history of British imperialism. I don’t think that’s right. We committed genocide against the Carib and Arawak peoples of the Caribbean (no doubt with the help of other European nations). I don’t know enough in detail about the slaughters in Africa to say whether or not any of them counted as genocide. Hughes suggests, at any rate, that the dreadful actions in Tasmania gave other nations an example of the extermination of an entire people, which some of them later followed.

Then I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, which brilliantly recounts the major scientific achievements of the late 18th- and early 19th-century in Britain, principally featuring Joseph Banks, the Herschels (brother and sister and, later, William Herschel’s son John) and Humphrey Davy. I didn’t know that Keats’s line in ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ —

‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken’

— is a reference to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus. It’s a beautiful book: a reminder that greatness generally is accompanied by obsessiveness, a driven determination to discover and do more and more, to go on, undistracted.

Now I’m reading Hazlitt. There are times when his relentless rhetoric, his piling of conceit upon conceit, tires me, but overall he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest prose writers in English. It is easy to praise the wonderful relaxed vigour of his style in the famous account of the boxing match at Hungerford, or in his tribute to Cavanagh, the fives player. I admire equally the profundity of the wisdom in his political writing. On the French Revolution: ‘— it was not the Revolution that produced the change in the face of society, but the change in the texture of society that produced the Revolution, and brought its outward appearance into a nearer correspondence with its inward sentiments.’ On violent revolutions in general: ‘That the people are rash in trusting to the promises of their friends, is true; they are more rash in believing their enemies. If they are led to expect too much in theory, they are satisfied with too little in reality. Their anger is sometimes fatal while it lasts, but it is not roused very soon, nor does it last very long. Of all dynasties, anarchy is the shortest lived. They are violent in their revenge, no doubt; but it is because justice has been long denied them, and they have to pay off a very long score at a very short notice.’

In mid-June I popped back to England on the plane, to join Andrew Bannerman in another performance of his Lyrical Ballads show, this time in support of the restoration fund for St Alkmund’s church in Shrewsbury. In Andrew’s prose commentary linking the poems, he quotes several times from Hazlitt’s lovely essay ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’. I didn’t read the full essay until last night. When Hazlitt describes walking six miles with Coleridge from Wem back towards Shrewsbury after Coleridge had stayed the night with his family (where Coleridge received the letter from Tom Wedgwood offering him an annuity of £150 a year, which caused him instantly to abandon his plan to become the Unitarian minister in Shrewsbury — ‘Coleridge seemed to make up his mind to close with this proposal in the act of tying on one of his shoes’), I thought to myself, ‘Well, those two men would have walked through Harmer Hill, where David, Lindsay and Tom live.’ And sure enough, after a couple of pages describing the topics Coleridge had discoursed on during the walk, come the sentences: ‘If I had the quaint muse of Sir Philip Sidney to assist me, I would write a Sonnet to the Road between W—m and Shrewsbury, and immortalise every step of it by some fond enigmatical conceit. I would swear that the very milestones had ears, and that Harmer-hill stooped with all its pines, to listen to a poet, as he passed!’ Wonderful! I wonder why Hazlitt felt the need to leave the ‘e’ out of ‘Wem’. It isn’t a swear word or the name of a person one wants to protect.

Michael Foot died earlier this year. I gave a tribute to his connection with our Lyrical Ballads show at the beginning of the second half of the performance last month:

‘Andrew and I first performed this evening’s programme in January 1998, the year of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lyrical Ballads. A distinguished member of the audience that night was Michael Foot. Michael sat in the front row, and punctuated our performance with most audible and frequent grunts of approval. He had with him his dog Disraeli, who was of a great age, as was Michael. Disraeli too made his appreciation heard, in counterpoint with Michael’s, while moving his ancient hindquarters from side to side in a way which worried Andrew and me as readers, but didn’t in the event cause any embarrassing distraction. Michael was unconcerned; he simply wound the dog’s lead more and more tightly around his own leg.

For our second performance, a few months later in London, Michael kindly agreed to introduce us to the audience, and made a brilliant short improvised speech in which he linked the radical, dissenting tradition to which Coleridge and Wordsworth belonged, at least in their early lives, with events in our own day. Andrew and I were very honoured to have such a great man as one of our supporters, and we dedicate this evening’s performance to his memory.’

Since I last wrote, I’ve done another translation from Machado: ‘To a Dry Elm’. The circumstances in which Machado wrote the poem are very touching.  He met his future wife Leonor in 1907 in Soria, in Castille.  They married in 1909, when she was 15 and he was 34.  He was a schoolteacher.  In 1911, he was awarded a grant to study in Paris with Henri Bergson, and Leonor went with him.  In July of that year, she vomited blood and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  They returned to Soria.  The poem is dated May 1912, and Leonor’s recovery is the miracle Machado hopes for at the end of the poem.  She died on 1 August of that year, and was buried close to the elm tree.

I’ve written three original poems. I finished ‘The Vernacular’, a little thing based on another Irish story which Peter Logue told me. I wrote ‘Prayer before Death’, in the manner of MacNeice’s ‘Prayer before Birth’. Something Peter Hetherington wrote to me in the course of his essential criticism of that poem caused me to re-read MacNeice’s ‘The sunlight on the garden’, and I tried to copy its form in a mildly erotic fantasy, spoken by a woman, called ‘Her Night Thoughts’, one line of which had been suggested to me by a woman friend. I couldn’t manage MacNeice’s rhymes linking the last syllable of the first line with the first of the second and the last of the third with the first of the fourth, as well as everything else, but the piece is skilful enough.

Stephen and Theresa came last Monday and stayed three nights, on the their way down to the Charente. We had the happiest and most relaxed time with them. On Friday we went up to Saint Brieuc and spent 24 hours with Jim and Jacqui Payne. We drove to the Pointe du Roselier and admired the magnificent bay, then visited an old brickworks which has been turned into an industrial museum. Yesterday morning we wandered in the market, and bought the most echt, warty, split, multi-coloured tomatoes I’ve ever seen. Delicious they were when we got home last night. At a stall selling crabs and lobsters, an old man bought two large spider crabs. The digits on the weighing machine had almost come to a stop at eleven euros. The woman took the crabs off the machine and said, ‘Onze euros.’ This didn’t satisfy the man. ‘Pesez-les encore,’ he said. When the digits had come to a complete stop, they read 10.99. He was happy to receive his extra centime in change. Later we found the only old-fashioned bar in the town, and sat outside in the sunshine. I had two glasses of delicious Corsican rosé. Then Jim kindly bought us lunch: a very good steack tartare in my case. We drove home through the deserted interior of Brittany on a Saturday in July. (The RN12 on its spectacular high bridge by-passing Saint Brieuc had been stationary with traffic.)

On Wednesday, David, Lindsay and Tom will come and stay for a fortnight. Lindsay has had unwelcome news about her lung cancer. The operation did not permanently remove all the lesions. They have reappeared (I’m not sure whether on one or both lungs) and the condition is incurable, although it can and will be restrained by chemotherapy. She is being admirably positive about the situation, determined to get on with life whatever happens and however long she has. As I’ve written before, we will support her, David and Tom emotionally and practically through the coming years.

I’m just about to finish a love poem for Helen, called ‘The Stalker’.

Rodellosso, between Pienza and San Quirico31 August 2010

We are in southern Tuscany, in a converted farmhouse next to the road which runs between Pienza and San Quirico. Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor have rented three of the five apartments in the house for a fortnight, and we are their guests. Their daughter Alix and her boyfriend Jeremy arrived from Australia yesterday.

The country around here, as I know from our summers in the 1980s, is breathtakingly beautiful. The earth is between blonde and grey. At this time of year, the corn has long been harvested, and tractors with caterpillar tracks are pulling ploughs up and down the hilly fields. Big bunches of black grapes hang for a few weeks more along severe straight lines of vines. The views in all directions, at any time of day, are magnificent: Monte Amiata to the south, Montalcino on its high hill to the west, the undulating lands towards Siena northward, Pienza close by to the east. In the mornings the sunlight is lemon. At evening, the low sun creates dapples, dimples of shadow in the hollows of the fields. The days are hot but not unbearable, the nights cool.

After David, Lindsay and Tom left us on 10 August, our friend Deirdre Finan came to stay for a few days. Then we started southward on 21 August, and stayed three nights with Stephen and Theresa in the Charente; as pleasurable as ever. I like to do something physical on the property with Stephen when I’m there. This time we cleared the drain at the back of the house, cut back hedges, and rescued an oak from the clutches of ivy which had grown a trunk almost as thick as the oak’s. I missed my swim in the river this year, working too late on our last day, but enjoyed many swims in the pool, always nude. I become semi-feral at Barraud. Stephen and Theresa came with us as far as Ribérac on the morning of our departure. We had coffee in the Café des Colonnes, and said goodbye. Then Helen and I took two slow days to drive through the Dordogne, the Lot, the Aveyron, the Tarn and the Hérault: la France profonde at its loveliest and emptiest. We stayed the first night at the Hôtel Le Belle Rive below Najac, by the Aveyron river. From the opposite bank, a steep cliff covered in deciduous trees rises to the castle which dominates the high town. When night fell, the illuminated castle’s walls and towers seemed to float in the black. On the second night, after more quiet wandering down D roads over high plains, through thick forests, across rivers low amongst their rocks after this dry summer, we came down to Lozère, blazing hot, and stayed at the Hôtel de la Paix. The next day we had a short, fast drive on the motorway to Marseille, where we stayed a night with Mary and Jacques. We shall stay longer with them on the way back to Brittany.

We came into Italy on Friday last week, zooming round the sensational autostrada which follows the arc of the riviera. I first drove that road more than 30 years ago. It’s showing its age now, and must be very expensive to maintain. The succession of viaducts and tunnels, taken at speed and in close proximity to other flying metal objects, induces a dangerous exhilaration after three or four hours. We stayed at a hotel in Moneglia. The room was comfortable, but the restaurant looked dreary to me — too many tables laid out for pensione guests going through the eat/swim/laze/eat motions of their holiday, as last year, as next year — so, after a bit of research in the Michelin, I found a restaurant high up above the town, and phoned. No, he regretted, he was full — well, almost full. There was a little table outside, but the weather was bad. It might rain. I said I would come and recce the place, while Helen was washing her hair. I snaked up the mountainside, sometimes needing to stop and reverse in order to get round tight corners, and arrived. The table outside was on a little balcony of its own. I said yes, we’ll take it and bring pullovers. Manoeuvred back down to the hotel, picked up Helen, manoeuvred back up to the restaurant, and we sat down in the humid night, the cloud low above us on the mountain.

We were then presented with one of the most delicious and excessive meals I’ve ever eaten. All fish, no choice: langoustine tails in tempura with orange; a boiled white fish (name forgotten), warm, with potatoes and mayonnaise; tuna with tomatoes, onions and croutons; linguine in a lobster sauce; a whole sea bass, baked in salt; langoustines and dressed crab, hot (of which, when we had finished, we were offered a second helping, which we declined); hot crêpes containing ice cream; hot dark chocolate with bitter cherries and more ice cream. Two bottles of dry white wine: one good and local; one unfiltered, from near the Slovenian border, its name Slovenian not Italian, sensational. Sweet wine left on the table with the dolci. What about a digestivo? ‘No grazie, I must drive, downhill, and judge those bends.’ Coffee.

I cleared my head in the hotel swimming pool the next morning, and we eased on down to Pisa, where we met Bronwyn and Stephen, and came here.

Rodellosso2 September 2010

On Wednesday the joint owner of this property, Claudio Barbi, took us to Montalcino to visit the vineyard of San Lorenzo, belonging to his friend Luciano Ciolfi. We drove up past the famous little town and kept climbing before turning right down a small road which soon becomes a strada bianca. Luciano’s farm is 500 metres above sea level. He’s quite young — I would say about 35 — and has revolutionised production since taking the place over from his parents. Previously, the vines produced table grapes. 11 years ago, Luciano planted the Sangiovese vines from which Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino are made. 2004 was his first vintage. We admired the disciplined rows of plants and the dark fruit hanging from each. Because there are maximum limits in Montalcino for volume of wine per hectare (80 quintals for Brunello and 90 for Rosso), there is much pruning of the less favoured bunches throughout the growing season. Luciano said that there would be more pruning later this month. September, he said, is the crucial month for quality: a good warm September, and there will be more and better Brunello; a mixed or poor September, and there will be less Brunello and more Rosso. He will know for sure in December how much of each he can make. At this altitude and on south-facing slopes, the vines get maximum sunshine and few parasites. From where we stood, we could see the mountains of Corsica.

We went into the shed housing the oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks. Luciano explained the process: from harvest in mid-October to tank, then to barrel (in his case for much longer than the regulation minimum time for Brunello and Rosso respectively), then back to tank, then by tube and pump to the bottling machine. Then a minimum of four months in bottle for the Brunello, which may be sold from 1 January of the fifth year after the harvest. We tasted the 2008 Rosso, the 2005 Brunello and (a surprise) a rare Brunello Riserva (2006 I think) still in barrel and not able to be sold until 2012. Luciano had provided bread, cheese and sausage. Over the bread he poured some of his own olive oil. Grappa, both white and yellow, is made from the skins and pips of his grapes. These days wine-makers are not allowed also to make grappa; the skins and pips go off to a distillery near Siena. But the spirit which comes back bears the name San Lorenzo, and we tried both kinds. All the drinks were superb. We bought a case of the Brunello, three bottles of the yellow grappa and one of the white. I might go back for a case of the Rosso. [I did.] We would have bought some oil, but it had all been sold. Claudio has since given us a can; he uses Luciano’s oil at home.

The visit was a wonderful experience.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the enormous pale fields are being ploughed. Only tractors with caterpillar tracks can make progress on land that rises and falls so steeply. After the first ploughing, the earth lies in huge dry clods, tumbling over each other, such that it seems impossible that seeds could ever take root in it. But there will be harrowing later, and I guess that winter wheat will be planted before Christmas. The skill of the ploughman is impressive. Early this morning, he started on the hillside immediately next to our house southward. He ploughed all round the extreme edge, once. I suppose he was giving himself turning room for the ends of the furrows, but it also seemed to me, sentimentally, that he was cutting out his work like a tailor: ‘Right, this is the size of it.’ All day since then (it’s now half past four), the diesel engine has been growling away. The ploughman takes the field in sections, changing gear up and down depending on the gradient. The cracked stubbled land narrows as the stiff grey waves broaden. I’m sure there is knowledge informing the directions he takes — up and down, or back and across — perhaps to do with the way the water runs off earth turned this way or that, perhaps to economise on diesel. There are gradients too steep to plough upward even in first gear. Here he ploughs downhill, then climbs back to the top with the plough lifted. Such slow work must be dispiriting. The eventual effect is extraordinarily beautiful. Newly ploughed earth, even in a dry region like this, is of course darker for a few hours than that ploughed yesterday. There is still an enormous area to be done, in all directions, and the tractors are slower and the ploughs narrower than on easier land.

(Having stopped writing, and gone to view my ploughman’s progress, I see that, having done the smaller segment of the hillside up and down or back and across, he is taking the larger segment in diminishing concentric circles, so no need for turning space at the ends of furrows. Maybe my thought about the tailor sizing up his garment wasn’t completely sentimental.)

(Later still, Claudio tells me that circular ploughing on a hill is always done anti-clockwise, so that the ground is turned uphill, against the slope.)

The house has a swimming pool large enough for me to get up steam properly before turning round. I swim two or three times a day. Others find the water too cold, now the summer is ending. I make noises about being thrown into the English Channel at two, and told to get on with it. (Not completely true, of course.)

Rodellosso7 September 2010

On Monday, the ploughman finished the job. After two days of circling, the remaining circle became too small to conveniently turn in, so he changed back to straight up and down, as with the earlier, smaller segment. The gentle contrast between three shades — the previous day’s ploughing, that day’s work, and the stubble still to be done — was lovely. He came up to see Claudio when he had finished. I congratulated him. He laughed and said it was easy work; in any case he had been ploughing since he was 14, and he was now 63, so he had got the hang of it.

I know more about the next stages of the work than I did. Once the rain has softened the ploughed earth, it will be harrowed, and then in November wheat will be sown, for bread. Frumento is the word Claudio used; I had trigo in my head, but that must be Spanish. [It is.] Froment is the grain from which the sweet French crêpes are made; and in the first chapter of the The Mayor of Casterbridge, before the shocking event of the sale of the wife for five guineas, the husband and she are drinking furmity, ‘a mixture of corn in the grain, milk, raisins, currants, and what not’, laced heavily with rum in his case, more lightly in hers.

There is one more enormous field to be turned, but that will be planted with broad beans, fave. To be prepared for beans, the ground only needs harrowing, not deep ploughing. The day after the ploughman finished, Claudio’s father, the owner of the farm and the farmhouse together with his wife and Claudio, began harrowing, and did half the field in a day. He is 82, and a few weeks ago had a heart operation and a pacemaker fitted. When I saw him first, ten days ago, moving slowly and leaning on a stick, I assumed that his working days were over. He drives here with his wife twice a day in a little Ford, but it is she who does all the routine work of emptying the dustbins, feeding the hens, watering the flowers and herbs. I was wrong; here he was, back on the tractor for the first time since the operation and, so his wife and Claudio said, happy. They had both warned him against overtaxing himself but, said Claudio, ‘He is a man who will do what he will do.’

On Saturday Helen, Alix, Jeremy and I drove up Monte Amiata. Above a certain altitude, you are in the cool of chestnut forests. Higher still, the chestnut gives way to beech. There is skiing in the winter, and we parked as close to the summit as we could get, by the closed-up hotels, and walked to the very top. The day was quite misty, but there was still a spectacular view to the east, across to Lake Trasimeno and the mountains of the Marches. We walked down and drove home in a complete silence deepened by our blocked ears. When we arrived back at the house, Helen fell on the gravel and sprained the ankle of the foot which was operated on last December. She hasn’t left the house since, but is slowly recovering. She has swum twice.

From Thursday to Sunday there was the annual cheese festival in Pienza. The climax was a cheese-rolling competition on Sunday afternoon in the cathedral piazza. Representatives of the six contrade of the town rolled pecorino cheeses across the cobbles towards a stick. Concentric circles around the stick carry different values: the closer to the stick, the more points. A great crowd watched. There were two referees to judge matters of doubt. The winner was loudly cheered. I had asked Claudio what the prize would be: ‘A year’s supply of pecorino?’ ‘The honour,’ he said.

That evening all of us except Helen ate in a restaurant still proud of the fact that some of the scenes in The English Patient had been filmed in the street outside. There were photographs of Anthony Minghella with the staff, and copies of an interview with him in which he praised the roast pork (excellent, according to Stephen and Jeremy; I had duck, also delicious). It reawakened my great sadness at Anthony’s death.

On Monday I took everyone except Helen to Siena, and came straight back. The four of them then spent the day there — the first time for all except Stephen — before Alix and Jeremy caught the train to Florence, again for their first visit. Stephen and Bronwyn caught the bus back. I shall go and pick up Alix and Jeremy at Siena station later this afternoon.

Marseille12 September 2010

It’s Monday morning at the end of summer or beginning of autumn in Marseille. I’m in the Place Jean Jaurès, known as La Plaine. The weather is perfect — the easy shirt-sleeves temperature which leaves you in your own skin, lets you feel more alert than does the somnolence of high summer in the south. Marseille is an extraordinary place. It has immense charm and a relaxed friendliness which seduce me every time I come here. It’s also, in some respects, a mess. Rubbish lies around everywhere. There is barely a surface — be it park bench, metro station or doorway — not covered in graffiti. The pavements are so cluttered with cars that it’s difficult to know where to walk. Somehow this huge number of people, of all sorts, crammed together in this tight space, manages to get on together most of the time, indeed co-exist stylishly, as long as everyone keeps their good humour. Last night we ate on the little terrasse at the back of Mary’s and Jacques’s apartment. In the dozens of apartments around us were other families quietly eating dinner, on their terrasse if they have one, inside with the window open if not. It worked. But I should think — in fact I know from Mary — that Marseille can be a tiring place to live. And the part of me that feels and admires civic pride would like to do something radical to clean the place up, starting with the imposition of savage penalties for graffiti writers. What is it that causes people, with no other talent, to want to write obscenities and secret signatures on walls? To leave your mark; to urinate on your territory; to remind us optimists, us believers in the possibility of good government, of the dog beneath the skin?

Bruère-Allichamps, Cher14 September 2010

Here we are in a gloomy little hotel on the bank of the Cher (not that you can see the river, hidden behind trees), having driven all the way from Marseille in about seven hours. The principal distinction of Bruère-Allichamps is that it is at the exact centre of France. In the village an old stone post surmounted by a tiny limp tricolore announces this geographical curiosity, as if it represented an achievement of some kind. Ten départments we have crossed today: Bouches du Rhône, Gard, Hérault, Aveyron, Lozère, Cantal, Haute-Loire, Puy de Dôme, Allier, Cher. The drive over the Massif Central was spectacularly lovely: France’s landscape at its grandest. The superbly engineered A75 autoroute whisks you through it, exposing grey mountain villages which must have been extreme in their remoteness before the road was built. The Viaduc de Millau is one of the modern wonders of the world. It’s the second time we’ve been over it — the first was on the way down to Mary’s wedding three years ago — and this time we stopped at the aire on the north side of the valley to look back and admire it.

Last night we went to a restaurant by one of the calanques of Marseille. Jacques drove. We descended the precipitous tiny winding road, with no barriers in case of error, amid a blazing sunset which for ten minutes turned the white rocks an intense pink. The water in the calanque was quite still. There was no wind, and no sound outside the clatter of the restaurant. With the sun gone, the light held for a few minutes on the vertical white cliffs hemming in the little square bay.

The meal was delicious: mainly fish. I had a sea-urchin flan in a sauce made of soft-shelled green crabs, followed by a marmite des pêcheurs. Others had grilled bass or bream. Very good white Cassis. The food was served in that friendly but direct, take-it-or-leave-it way characteristic of Marseille: they don’t do deference here.

The weather changed abruptly as we came off the massif about two hours ago. It’s cool and overcast now, with patches of mist hanging over the river.

Kerfontaine19 September 2010

Even as I was writing the last entry, I was experiencing unsettling premonitions about the hotel we had chosen to stay in. We had picked it out of the Michelin, as usual, because the description promised pleasant surroundings and had the little red icon of the Michelin man licking his lips, which means ‘good food at moderate prices’. When we arrived, the look of the place already disappointed us, and I almost suggested to Helen that we phone and make up a story about having broken down (they had my mobile phone number) and go elsewhere, but I was tired from the long drive and — more significant — Helen still had her sprained ankle and didn’t want to walk around. If only I had followed my instinct, and trusted the 40 years of experience I have of French hotels!

I can hardly bring myself to write in English about the experience of that evening and — worse — of the next morning, and fortunately I don’t have to, because it’s all recounted in a letter I wrote in French to the Guide Michelin, and sent off on Friday:

Cher monsieur, chère madame

Je suis un Anglais qui voyage en France depuis 40 ans. Pendant tout cette période, je me suis servi de votre Guide Rouge. Normalement, les recommandations que j’ai suivies là ont été fiables.

Il y a deux jours, ma femme et moi ont passé la nuit à l’hôtel-restaurant ‘Les Tilleuls’ à Bruère-Allichamps, que vous trouverez dans le guide à St Amand-Montrond. Sur la carte de la région du Centre, ‘Les Tilleuls’ est indiqué comme établissement offrant, en anglais, ‘good food at moderate prices’. Quelle déception!

Les chambres, que le guide qualifie comme ‘small, well-kept rooms’ ressemblent à une caserne. Sous le drap sur le lit, il y a un couvre-matelas ou en plastique ou en caoutchouc qui servirait bien les besoins des bébés ou de ceux qui ont le malheur de souffrir d’incontinence. (On le sent toute la nuit.) Mais notre chambre était propre, et il y avait beaucoup d’eau chaude. On survivrait une nuit…

Nous sommes descendus au restaurant. Le menu est difficile à comprendre même pour ceux qui comprennent bien le français, mais enfin j’ai commandé une entrée, un poisson et une viande de la formule à 38 euros. ‘Fromage, dessert?’ a demandé la propriétaire peu agréable. J’ai répondu que j’allais attendre; je ne savais pas quel appétit j’aurais après avoir mangé trois plats. ‘Non,’ fut la réponse, ‘vous devez commander maintenant.’ J’ai répondu que je m’arrêterais alors après la viande. ‘Vous payerez à la carte,’ a dit-elle. J’ai dit que j’étais préparé à faire ainsi. Ma femme a pris la même formule, et a commandé entrée, poisson, viande, fromage et dessert.

Les trois plats étaient acceptables — pas plus — au niveau du goût, mais inacceptable au niveau de la quantité. Le ‘pot au feu’, par exemple, a consisté en trois petits bouts de langue de boeuf avec deux carottes et deux navets, tous miniscules, et une tache de sauce.

Le vin était bon, au moins. Les deux autres serveuses étaient aimables.

Le matin, j’ai été étonné, en regardant la facture; le prix de mes trois petits plats atteignait 45 euros (15 euros par plat), tandis que ma femme, qui avait mangé les cinq plats, devait payer les 38 euros attendus. Je me suis plaint, en disant que je comprenais bien que, si on choisissait des plats hors formule, le prix pouvait dépasser le prix de la formule, mais que dans le cas présent je n’avais fait que choisir trois d’entre cinq plats de la même formule. La propriétaire, pas plus agréable que la veille, a prétendu que je devais payer 45 euros parce que les quantités de mes plats avaient été plus copieuses qu’elles n’auraient été si j’avais pris la formule entière! J’ai répondu que dans ce cas la nourriture aurait été invisible.

Nous avons échangé quelques mots vifs. J’ai offert maintes fois à payer les 38 euros. Elle a refusé. Craignant que nous ne partions sans rien payer, elle a pris le numéro de la plaque d’immatriculation de notre voiture. Elle a commencé à téléphoner à quelqu’un (la police, je suppose). Enfin, j’ai payé la somme demandé, parce que je ne pouvais pas réfuter l’affirmation ridicule de la propriétaire que j’avais été régalé au niveau du volume de mes mets. (Ma femme, par hasard, avait fait l’autre choix d’entre deux aux trois premières étapes de la formule; je ne pouvais pas donc comparer.)

Ce fut un épisode tout à fait lamentable. Je me sens la victime d’une sorte de tromperie. Nous ne serions point allés à cet hôtel sans la forte recommandation de votre guide. Malheureusement, je me méfierai un peu plus du guide à l’avenir. Et je suis sûr que vous devriez enlever des ‘Tilleuls’ la qualification ‘good food at moderate prices’ de la prochaine édition du Guide Rouge, et de votre site-web.

Nous avons pris le chemin de retour pour la Bretagne. Normalement, nous ne mangeons pas grand-chose à midi quand nous sommes en route, mais ce midi j’avais grande faim, ayant dédaigné de prendre le petit déjeuner aux ‘Tilleuls’; en plus, nous avions besoin de quelque soulagement qui nous aiderait à oublier la catastrophe. Après quatre heures sur l’autoroute, nous passions au nord de Nantes. Nous avons quitté la grande route et, tout à fait par hasard et sans consulter votre guide, nous avons trouvé ‘Le Romarin’ à Sautron. Nous avons été reçu par une souriante propriétaire et sa charmante assistante dans une belle salle à manger, et nous avons mangé comme roi et reine. Notre nourriture a coûté à peu près 34 euros chacun. Je ne trouve aucune mention du ‘Romarin’ dans votre guide 2010…

Veuillez agréer, cher monsieur, chère madame, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

We shall see if I get any response from Michelin. Still angry and still wanting revenge, I posted shorter versions of the account, omitting references to the Michelin guide and the happy paragraph at the end, on two big French websites carrying people’s opinions about restaurants where they’ve eaten. I hope I do some damage. The business is almost but not quite out of my system. [I did get a detailed, courteous reply about a month later.]

But to complete a day in which, to stoop to a terrible cliché, I experienced a roller-coaster of emotions, I opened my emails on Thursday evening to read that I had won first prize in the open category of this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation, for my translation of the first section of Victor Hugo’s ‘L’Expiation’, which I called ‘The Retreat from Moscow’. So I was thrilled. The prize-giving ceremony is on 10 November in London, and I pocket £750.

Brest to Southampton plane20 September 2010

Quick hop back to England for a Poetry Society trustees’ meeting. Exquisite coastline east of Brest — the rivers, estuaries and the domino-like dark shapes of oyster and mussel beds visible through the sapphire water; then Guernsey, where Victor Hugo wrote ‘L’Expiation’; before long, the western tip of the Isle of Wight, where my parents’ ashes lie, dust on the down; the Solent, and a big loop into Hampshire, county of my birth, turning back towards Southampton Airport over Winchester, with a beautiful view of the cathedral, of Saint Cross, where my mother was happy living as an evacuee with Mr and Mrs Mattingley, who were kind to her, and of the water meadows where she used to walk and gather buttercups.

(My mother’s first billet as an evacuee in Winchester was a disaster. The woman of the house had two daughters in their late teens or early twenties, and mum, as the most innocent of 13-year-olds, couldn’t understand why so many men clumped up the stairs during the evenings and nights and went into their bedrooms for half an hour or so. She must have described these strange carryings-on to her mother, who removed her instantly from this informal brothel. Apart from her hostess’s lack of common kindness, mum also suffered in that the principal food she was given was seed cake, in great lumps with no sugar [which was rationed, of course, but a kinder woman would have put a little in].)

Kerfontaine24 September 2010

Hopped back here yesterday, a day later than planned, because on Thursday the French air-traffic controllers had gone on strike, together with many other workers, over the government’s plans to raise the state retirement age. So I had an unscheduled day and night in Southampton.

I’m not especially sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. They live within a vision, which the leaders of the French left have promoted over the years, of endless progress: better pay and pensions, earlier retirement, shorter working hours, kinder conditions. The French left is always talking about les droits acquis; they never talk about les responsabilités acquises. The strikers are right to point to some of the disgraceful measures taken by Sarkozy’s government to benefit the already rich; only a socialist government would reverse those measures. But even if the tax system were strictly fair and progressive, the French state can’t go on paying pensions from age 60, as it has since Mitterrand’s first septannat, while people are living so much longer than ever before, unless the working population is prepared to be more heavily taxed, which no political party has been courageous or foolish enough to propose in its manifesto before an election. So the only alternative is to raise the age at which people receive their state pension. Under the draft law, people can receive at least a partial pension from age 62; if they’ve already worked their full quota of trimestres, as most workers who start work in their teens will have done, they’ll get the full pension then or earlier. People will in any case get a full pension, whether or not they’ve worked their full quota, at 67.

That seems reasonable to me, and it’s clear that unless something like this is done, France’s pension fund will be bankrupt in a few years. I do understand that French workers rely much more on the state pension than do British workers; for many of us with professional pensions, the state pension is a handy top-up rather than something we depend on. But the grand French tradition of descent into the streets whenever the government wants to do something one group or another doesn’t quite like is irritating to me; how the French love to think they’re different from and better than the rest of us! In the UK, the state pensionable age is going to increase, I think, to 66, with no early payments, and we won’t be descending into the streets to protest (although we may on other matters). I despise Sarkozy, but I hope the measure passes.

Today the Labour Party has elected its new leader: Ed Miliband. He beat his older brother David by the narrowest of margins. Under the alternative vote system used for the election, the candidate with least votes in each round of counting is excluded until one of the candidates receives more than 50% of the vote. David was ahead in every round until the last; in every round, including the last, he had the most first-preference votes of MPs and MEPs and of ordinary party members: two thirds of the electoral college. But Ed always led in the one third of the college given to the unions’ vote, and he took more second-preference votes from defeated candidates, and so was just ahead in the last round.

It was an impeccably democratic and comradely contest. One can debate the rights and wrongs of giving such weight to the union vote when it represents people who pay a levy to Labour through their union dues rather than being full individual members. On the one hand, I’d rather that everyone who wants to be a member of the Labour Party pay a full subscription, even if it were necessary to reduce the price so as to avoid the possible charge that some people can’t afford it; on the other hand, the trade unions are where Labour was born. I can’t criticise the alternative vote system, and I hope it will be introduced for the Westminster parliament in time for the next general election (it will if the referendum to be held next May produces a majority in favour of the change). But I think Labour has elected the wrong Miliband. Ed is a nice and very bright man; he did a good job at the Department for Energy and Climate Change; but I don’t think he has the stature, the natural eloquence, the quality of potential statesmanship that his brother has. I imagine the Tories are rather happy this afternoon. With a coalition government which will undergo severe strains of its own between now and 2015, it’s too early to make any predictions about such a remote date; but I just have a feeling that Labour will lose again then, that Ed will stand down, and that his brother, who will still only be 50 and will have had a good rest, will take over.

Kerfontaine16 October 2010

Andrew Bethell rang on Friday to say that the government is going to stop funding Teachers TV as from the end of April next year. The (once again renamed) Department for Education communicated this news by email: no warning, no invitation to a face-to-face meeting, no thanks for what has been achieved; just the usual brutal bad manners which has been the style of most of the civil servants there since the start. It was Labour’s bad decision to take Teachers TV off air from the end of August, even though two thirds of the viewing was still being done on television, so that now it’s just a website; it is the Tories’ even worse decision to abandon completely a service which is evidently appreciated by hundreds of thousands of educators. Andrew’s shocked, of course. He will see if the service can be maintained on some kind of commercial basis, by which individual schools and training institutions would pay an annual subscription; and perhaps some not-for-profit foundation might want to help.

Stopping the government funding is an act of pure vandalism, dressed up as a necessity under the current financial conditions. Teachers TV costs very little money (£10 million a year), and you would have thought that, even in the government’s own terms, even taking account of whatever ambitions they may have for improving the quality of teaching, it’s proved its worth.

Kerfontaine20 October 2010

Yesterday George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the results of the comprehensive spending review 2010: what the UK will spend in the four years beginning in April 2011. For most government departments, and for many people in the UK, the news is harsh. About 490,000 public sector jobs are likely to be lost. On average, departmental budgets will be cut by 19% over four years.

The structural deficit — that is, the exceptional debt the government has taken on in the face of the financial crisis — is intended to be eliminated by 2015. People on various welfare and unemployment benefits face cuts of £7 billion in addition to those of £11 billion announced earlier. Funding for the police will be cut by 4% a year; this will mainly affect civilian support staff. The retirement age will rise from 65 to 66 by 2020. Rail fares will be allowed to rise by 3% above inflation every year. The English schools’ regular expenditure budget will be protected, but spending on new school buildings — one of Labour’s best achievements — will be cut by 60%. The NHS budget for England will rise every year until 2015, which is good, and there will be an extra £2 billion for social care, which I don’t think will be enough. The Department for International Development will receive extra funding year by year until the UK’s contribution to international development finally arrives at the UN target of 0.7% of GDP, which is excellent. I can’t but be ashamed that Labour didn’t get to the target during its 13 years. I remember that the 0.7% target had already been set when I used to go to bread-and-cheese War on Want lunches at Cambridge, 40 years ago! The levy on the banks, forcing them to make amends for the near-catastrophe into which they led us through their stupidity and greed, will be made permanent, which is a good thing in itself, but it remains to be seen whether the banks will use their lobbying power with the Tories and their clever accountancy to diminish what they actually pay, while continuing to reward their top staff with obscene salaries and bonuses for performing socially useless and sometimes destructive activities.

Life will be very difficult for local authorities, which face an annual cut in their budgets of 7.1% for four years. They’ve never had to make cuts on anything like this scale before, and the effect on the users of council services in poorer areas will be grim.

Naturally, the City and the bond markets think that all this, apart from the bank levy, is wonderful. If there were no history, if the UK’s economic story had started yesterday, I might say that these measures were necessary if unwelcome. But I continue to be outraged by the Tories’ hypocritical lying over the recent past, presenting themselves as the fiscally responsible party brought in to clean up the mess left by a spendthrift previous government, when they know in their hearts — at least, the more intelligent of them do — that the mess was caused by people who, on the whole, would support conservative rather than social democratic administrations around the world, and that if they, the British Conservatives, had been in power in the years leading up to the financial crisis, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than Brown was. (I know I’ve written this before, but it still cries out in me to be said.)

It’s the most beautiful day here: bright warm sunshine, of the sort that, in autumn, I perceive as a gift, an act of grace, rather than a right; but a strong fresh wind, which is snatching the leaves from trees and whirling them horizontally across the air. There are horse- and sweet-chestnut trees within sight; and, with the French windows open, the thump of both kinds of chestnut on the ground is frequent.

Camden Town and London to Bangkok plane22 November 2010

We’ve been back in London since 31 October. From the writing point of view, it was a good productive five months away, at least by my standards. 20 new pieces: 13 originals and seven translations or imitations. Some are very short, I admit; but there are also more substantial poems there, notably ‘Prayer before Death’, ‘Mission Sundays’ and ‘Evening Visitor’ among the originals, and the two Machados plus Montale’s ‘The Eel’ amongst the translations. They’re all up on the website. I’m afraid I’ve been breaking my rule about not revisiting anything after I’ve sent it to Mark in New Zealand; in particular, ‘Evening Visitor’, about a conversation between my father’s ghost and me, has been changed at least twice. I sent Mark what I know is the final version this morning, to paste over the version currently on the site. As I wrote to him, I don’t know whether my hesitations have to do with the emotional closeness I still feel to my father; I don’t think so. They have been more to do with form. I wrote the first version — about 80 lines — in not much more than half an hour: a dangerously high speed for me (maybe for anybody). Formally, the poem is free-ish, but there is some iambic rhythm and some rhyme. It affected Helen very much when I showed it to her, and Mark said that he and his wife had been moved by it when I unwisely sent it to him only a day or so later. A month after that, in London, I looked at it on the site and there were some lines that just seemed to me lazy and aimless, not poetry at all. So I tightened it up: more rhymes, more regularly rhythmical lines.

Last Thursday evening, Peter and Monica Hetherington came down from Bedford and the four of us went to the theatre, but to two different plays: Peter and I to Krapp’s Last Tape, performed by Michael Gambon and directed by Michael Colgan (and I shall write to Michael C shortly telling him how wonderful it was); Helen and Monica to Passion by Stephen Sondheim. (Helen had double-booked us at the theatre that night; the accident worked out very well, because Monica loves Sondheim and of course Peter reveres Beckett as much as I.) Anyway, while Peter and I were having a drink after the very short Krapp, I gave him the two versions of ‘Evening Visitor’ and asked him to compare them and tell me where the better efforts lay. He came back to me on Saturday with his usual marvellous, detailed judgement: on the whole, though not entirely, he thought my first thoughts had been best. So the thing went about two thirds of the way back to the first version. It’s done now, and I’m pleased with it. It’s harder to know when a looser poem is finished than when a tighter poem is. I’ve done two tight funny poems recently, one called ‘One in a Bed’, about Helen’s snoring, and one called ‘Vacheries’, a conversation between two cows. They’re clever and neat (‘neat’ an accidental pun with regard to the second), and I knew as soon as they were done that they were finished.

I’ve just finished reading Ian Hamilton’s biography of Robert Lowell. I’ll say a bit more about it in a minute, but the relevance here is Lowell’s wonderful distinction between ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ poetry. When he proposed those metaphors, I think he was thinking of himself as the chief cook of American poetry, and Ginsberg as the chief purveyor of raw American poetic food. I’ve always been suspicious of raw, even though some of my poems are free-ish (I don’t think any, apart perhaps from the prose poem ‘Funeral Oration, by the Deceased’, is untouched by some attempt at prosody). But it’s a matter of how much rope you allow yourself. When I write free-ish, I always have a bad conscience; a voice in my head is saying, ‘This is a bit too easy, too slack. It’s not poetry yet.’ And then I think: Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, D.H. Lawrence’s unrhyming poems, Walt Whitman…

To go back to this summer’s output: the thing I’m most pleased about is that, having had a run at writing — lots of days when nothing happened other than that we got up, never early, and I started writing around ten and carried on until about seven in the evening, with a half-hour break for a cold lunch — I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, I can be moderately productive. Most important of all, ideas do come. I’ve always said to myself, and to anyone else who asked, that with poetry (it’s probably true of all kinds of imaginative writing), getting the idea in the first place is the hardest thing. The more I write, the more the ideas come, and when a good idea comes, I can usually do something with it.

I have to report, however, that getting down to writing has been almost impossible in the three weeks since we’ve been back in England. Life is suddenly choc-a-bloc with pleasant and worthwhile distractions. The diary (not this diary, alas) has something in it almost every day. A lot of it is social, because I’m a sociable person, and some of it is good works (the Poetry Society and the Canon Collins Trust), but the great octopus work-for-money also still has a tentacle or two around my neck, which is probably just as well, since neither Helen nor I have the feeling that we’re spending less now that our income is smaller.

So I’ve now got on to the plane to Bangkok for Teachers TV, partly to give a ridiculously short talk (20 minutes) to a UNESCO/Intel conference for ministers of education in the Asia-Pacific region, and partly to spend two days talking to Pico, the firm which runs Teachers TV in Thailand. In December, I’m going to San Francisco with Andrew Bethell for a week. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a pilot Teachers TV in America; they’ve called it Teaching Channel. Unfortunately, according to Andrew, some rather major errors have been made right at the start, especially in key appointments. Two people have left their posts after short stays. When Andrew was in America a couple of weeks ago (he’s on the advisory board for all the Gates Foundation’s educational projects), he was asked to step in for a few months to right the ship. He said he’d do it as long as he could have me helping him. Agreed. So for this one week before Christmas, and for six weeks between Christmas and Easter, we shall be in the US, mainly in San Francisco at the NewSchools Venture Fund (no idea why there’s no space between ‘New’ and ‘Schools’), the organisation to which Gates has awarded the contract to run Teaching Channel. We'll be preparing for the launch of the pilot, I think in June 2011; it will be broadcast on some of the PBS stations and published on a website, and we hope it will lead to a full service later. Nice work if you can get it, and well paid. I said I was available for this kind of thing, so I’m not complaining. The PBS station which we hope will begin the broadcasts and offer them to other stations across America will be Thirteen in New York. In July 2008, Andrew and I spent time there (I wrote about it in book five of this diary). We worked with Ron Thorpe, the director of education at Thirteen, helping him to prepare a bid to the Gates Foundation, when it seemed possible that Gates might give Thirteen the job of running Teachers TV USA. That hasn’t happened, and there’s been some anger and confusion about it. But I hope that Thirteen will make several series for us, as well as carry the broadcasts, and that Ron can be involved in some way, as he deserves to, having had the idea for Teachers TV USA in the first place, and having worked hard to get it seriously considered by Gates.

I received my prize for ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ on 10 November. A jolly evening at Notre Dame University, just off Trafalgar Square: about 150 people there, including Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor, Stephen Eyers and Theresa Cato, Martina Thomson, Peter Hetherington, Paul Ashton and Helen. There were prizes in the under-14, under-18 and open categories. The prize-winners read their translations before receiving their cheques. I was on last, and I gave the reading the full theatrical works. Afterwards there were drinks, and Peter and I spent a quarter of an hour talking to Lizzie Spender, one of Stephen’s two children, and to her husband Barry Humphries. Natasha Spender, Stephen’s widow and Lizzie’s mother, had died only two weeks previously at the age of 91, so there was sadness in the occasion, since Natasha had been the founding spirit of the Stephen Spender Trust. Then all of our group except Peter, who had to get back to Bedfordshire, went to dinner at The Century. I was very happy.

I owe at least a chunk of the prize to Peter, because my first effort at translation was in blank verse. I sent it to him, and he said, in effect, ‘This is fine, but why haven’t you made it rhyme, like you did with “The Lions” and “Boaz Asleep”?’ I didn’t think I could do it until he provoked me. It turned out that I could. I’m pretty sure that the blank verse version wouldn’t have won anything.

I can’t like Robert Lowell as he appears in Ian Davidson’s biography. All right, he was mad, and that condition deserves sympathy. He was also a bully, domineering and selfish. His decision to use Elizabeth Hardwick’s private correspondence with him when their marriage was ending as matter for his collections For Lizzie and Harriet and Dolphin was contemptible, as many people said at the time. Adrienne Rich had it right: ‘There’s a kind of aggrandized and merciless masculinity at work in these books… what does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife?’ After quoting from the last of the poems in Dolphin, in which Lowell seems to be half-apologising for, half-justifying what he has done, Rich writes: ‘I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book…’ I agree with that.

And yet he was a great poet, for what he did in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean. I can’t sustain enthusiasm for the endless, endless 14-liners in History, though some of course are very good. I’m grateful for his choice of the term ‘imitations’ to describe and entitle his collection of loose English versions of poems originally written in Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French and Russian. It has helped me to be clear about when I’m doing a translation and when an imitation. But I find Lowell’s introduction to Imitations, ending with ‘I have been almost as free as the authors themselves in finding ways to make [the originals] ring right for me’, suspiciously close to an attempt to justify his not trying hard enough to get as close as possible to the original while remaining sure that the imitation is itself a poem. At any rate, I know that my translations (not imitations) of Montale’s ‘The Eel’ and the first section of Hugo’s ‘L’Expiation’ are better than his efforts.

I detect in myself a sort of no-nonsense lack of patience with those very male, very drunk, frequently mad American poets who regarded themselves somehow as a generation of doomed geniuses: Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Jarrell, Schwartz. What had they got to complain about, really? They didn’t come from materially deprived backgrounds, although in some cases their childhoods were psychologically damaged. They just fucked up their immensely brilliant brains with drink and drugs, and then wrote about it. Along the way, they hurt and inconvenienced the people who loved, admired and cared for them. This is very unfair and only a little true, but I still want to say it.

We’re just about to land at Bangkok. Flooded rice fields still abound amid the urbanisation. I can see some major new highways. Maybe the traffic won’t be quite as bad as it was when I was last here, 25 years ago.

Bangkok26 November 2010

The UNESCO conference has finished, and Teachers TV has caused a stir. My presentation went very well yesterday, although it’s not hard to be better than most of the rest when they simply read out the words written on over-complex PowerPoint slides which look like pages taken from economics textbooks, causing the receiving brain to decide after a minute or two to take a nap until it’s time to join in polite applause at the end. Martina Roth from Intel was excellent yesterday morning, saying everything that needed to be said about the role of ICT in advancing a knowledge-based economy; and although I wasn’t there this morning, Mario Franco from the Portuguese government evidently made an inspiring contribution about a scheme which gives every child a cheap unbreakable computer with access to all sorts of appropriate content. I’m pretty sure we shall collaborate with him in some way.

At this afternoon’s wind-up session, where government ministers and officials said what they wanted to do as a result of the conference, Teachers TV was mentioned numerous times. Eventually, the chairman asked me to make a statement to the gathering about how we could help in the future, which I did. I expect that more Teachers TVs will be springing up in the region.

I spent Wednesday at Pico, and this morning I sat in the hotel talking to Thai Teachers TV’s head of marketing. The channel looks great, on air and on line: a tremendous achievement to get it going, and to have had such an impact in the few months since launch. This afternoon I introduced Pornchai and Viriya, the people who run the channel, to the deputy minister for education in Laos, a lovely, laughing man who had been very complimentary about my presentation. Pico has the concession to extend Teachers TV to several countries in south-east Asia, including Laos, and I think they’ll do some business together, especially as Thai Teachers TV’s satellite footprint covers the whole of Laos as well.

Having been uncomplimentary about the presentational skills of many of the speakers at the conference, I need also to say that a visit to this region is the most salutary of experiences for the complacent Westerner. The countries represented here, containing — with India and China amongst them — 60% of the world’s population, are moving fast towards the future, and education and technology are at the heart of that change. There is enormous energy and ingenuity. If I live another 30 years, as I would like to, Europe and North America will be nothing more than two centres of economic activity within a network of equals. Indeed, the US could be in a state of decline unless it addresses the extreme inequalities in every kind of wealth, especially knowledge wealth, amongst its people. One statistic stuck out for me from Martina Roth’s presentation: if the US had performed as well as Finland in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment studies of the effectiveness of publicly-funded school systems (where Finland is the top performer) since those studies began, it would now have a GDP one trillion dollars a year greater than it has. Of course I know that GDP per head of population isn’t the only way, shouldn’t be the only way, of measuring a country’s greatness or value, and I understand the potential environmental downside of growth (which is beginning to be addressed, unevenly and slowly); but America’s problem is that its political system finds it almost impossible to encourage or even allow any moves towards the equalisation of wealth. Witness the lunacy of the opposition to Obama’s epoch-making reform of the health-care system; witness the ambition of the Republicans, now that they have control of the House and that the Democrats’ majority in the Senate is wafer-thin, to undo everything Obama has done (they won’t be able to, I don’t think, so long as he’s there, but nor will he be able to make any more forward progress unless he wins again in 2012 and Congress swings a bit back towards the Democrats). I guess Teaching Channel is a little tiny effort to address the problem of the inequality of teacher quality in America’s public schools, which the PISA studies continually report as chronic.

Last night, I didn’t feel like sitting down to dinner with my fellow conference-goers at six o’clock, straight after the last session. I never eat that early. (The lunch served had been absolutely delicious, as it was today: a buffet of every kind of exquisite Thai, Indian and Chinese food, plus roast meats for unadventurous Westerners.) So after a shower I walked out of the hotel and wandered along Wireless Road in the heat of the evening. I had no plans. Then I thought: eat at the Oriental, as Helen and I did 25 years ago. The taxi took a good 40 minutes to get there in the traffic. There was a perfect quiet table out on the terrace, just as we had had in 1985. The ferryboats criss-crossed the river; the disco boats passed and re-passed as they had then, playing the same pop tunes for the benefit of similar groups of gyrating lubricated Westerners. The only physical difference was that on the other side of the river there are now three high towers, of which one is the Peninsular Hotel, one looked like apartments and one isn’t quite finished. (Pornchai told me this afternoon that that side of the river is now a ‘green area’: no more big buildings allowed. These must have got their construction permits before the law was passed.)

Anyway, it was great to be there. I sat in the warmth and quiet and was happy. The service was as impeccably courteous and friendly, without being over-attentive, as before. I ate spring rolls, king prawns with rice, chilled sago with raspberry sauce. Two Singha beers. The waning moon hung above us. I confess that when I’ve been in the tropics before, which isn’t that often, I’ve never noticed that the moon wanes horizontally from the top, not from the side, as on my familiar latitude. I suppose it’s to do with the tilt of the earth, but it’s shameful that here am I, in my sixtieth year, almost certainly more than two thirds of the way through, and I still have to write ‘I suppose…’ I must, I will find out, so I know.

After the meal I walked back to the hotel, retracing the taxi driver’s route. It took me an hour. A walk of that length, in that heat and humidity, is an expenditure of effort and sweat that most people, Thai or Western, would dismiss as mad. But unless you take a walk in a place like Bangkok, you’re just another rich person in a rich person’s bubble of aeroplanes, taxis and air-conditioned hotels. I found, as I had in 1985, the crush and sociability of the street life exhilarating. On every pavement are mobile kitchens, the stoves powered by bottled gas, where the cook fries or grills the food that people eat at the plastic tables adjacent. There are stalls everywhere selling fruit, vegetables, clothes, hardware. The little shops are just beginning to close at eleven o’clock at night. Meanwhile the traffic sometimes roars, sometimes drags along: lorries, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks and motor scooters fill every inch of road space, with a surprising absence of hooting, much patience and a high degree of skill. People living the very simplest lives are still at work. Young men unload bricks from a lorry, teetering down a plank while carrying two rough frames, one on each shoulder, into which the bricks have been stacked. In the gloom a gang is sorting rubbish, opening black plastic bags and separating glass from polystyrene from other plastic from cardboard from paper. Better-paid young men, wearing uniforms issued by the construction firm for which they work, are only now leaving the job: an almost finished skyscraper, I should think of about 50 storeys. A train rattles past on the new (since I was last here) elevated railway, a mighty achievement in concrete which overshadows the six-lane highway beside which I make my way. Amid the noise and the close proximity of brutal machine power, young women walk in ones and twos, going about their business confidently and without fear, as is right, and I find myself thinking that, whatever sexual exploitation exists in some sections of this society — and Thailand still has a reputation as the preferred destination for sex tourists — the position of most women is enormously preferable to that which prevails in some Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East. (Of course I know that there is a significant Muslim minority in this predominantly Buddhist country.) Then I find myself reflecting that grotesque misogyny, the attempt to justify the oppression of women by appeal to religious dogma, has been a feature, at various times and to various extents, of some tendencies within all three monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whatever more enlightened tendencies also exist there.

As the walk continues the buildings become smarter. This is the embassy quarter: Australian, French, German, Dutch, American. The American ambassador’s residence, just along the road from the US embassy, looks to me, as I peer through the perimeter security wall, to be a traditional Thai house, of which there are very few left in Bangkok: wooden vernacular, with a sloping polychrome tiled roof and a surrounding veranda, set in an enormous green garden. Wireless Road, where Thailand’s radio station may once have been, is anything but wire-less. Wires loop in great black bunches from lamp-post to telegraph pole to lamp-post. And now here I am back at the hotel, drenched in sweat. I make straight for the bar: one more frosted Singha beer before bed.

London to San Francisco plane12 December 2010

Andrew’s and my first week with Teaching Channel begins tomorrow. There will be plenty to do, diplomatically unmaking mistakes that have been made, putting in place all the working systems that a TV channel and website need, and — most important — finding good people to make the programmes.

Helen and I had three days in Norfolk until last Tuesday, staying with Adam and Hazel. There has been heavy snow in Britain recently, and Norfolk was covered. On Monday we drove towards the coast, looking for an Iron Age fort. We took a fortunate wrong turning, and came upon a strange, beautiful, ruined church tower, rising alone from a white field. We stopped and crunched across the untouched, foot-deep snow. There was no sign by the tower, no information, no safety barrier preventing me from ascending the hazardous spiral staircase inside it; it just stood there with only its surroundings for context, a remnant, I would guess 600 years old, the flints in its masonry glinting in the sunlight, the blue sky framed in the open space of its Gothic west window.

Half an hour later we found the fort, near the village of Warham. By contrast with the mute tower, sufficient unto itself, an English Heritage information panel at the entrance to this field told us everything. The great earthworks are two thousand years old. There is a circular double ramp enclosing a deep ditch, except on the south side, where the immense labour of 1800 years before was undone 200 years ago in order to straighten the River Stiffkey, I suppose to meet agricultural needs. Previously, the fort followed the natural curve of the river. It encloses an area of, I guess, three acres. Within, the people of this settlement lived their lives; no-one could have made a greater effort to be safe from invasion. The huge silent place was as wonderful as the tower had been, clothed in the intense brilliance of thick snow.

We drove back to London on Tuesday. The day was again clear, after a night of (for England) extreme cold. I have never seen hoar frost so thick on the trees. It was especially lovely on the already white leafless birches. For two hours, until we neared London and the temperature rose, the scene was of entrancing beauty. I kept saying to myself, ‘You are witnessing a rarity. You might not see this too many more times.’

On Tuesday evening I had a jolly evening at the Century Club with some friends from Teachers TV. On Wednesday I went round to Paul’s to watch Arsenal play a European game; as ever on these occasions, he and Vicki provided a delicious Indian take-away. On Thursday, with Andrew, I talked to the deputy minister for education in Thailand and his senior official, who’d come over to see how we do Teachers TV in England. (Unnecessary, really; I could have seen them in Bangkok two weeks ago.) Pornchai was there too, and our real task was to tell the minister what a great job Pornchai and his colleagues at Pico are doing, while gently suggesting that, grateful as Pico is for the Thai government’s funding, it would be better if the government didn’t interfere so much.

While these civilised discussions were proceeding, there were riots in the streets of London. I don’t think I’ve written before about the coalition government’s decision to allow universities to dramatically increase their fees, and to replace Labour’s system of student loans with a calculation, for each student, of what they have racked up in fees and maintenance during their time at university, a sum which must be paid back, in whole or in part, once a graduate’s salary reaches a certain level.

When you read the fine print of the measures (which were passed in the Commons on Thursday by a small majority), you have to admit that, marginally, they are more progressive than was the student loans scheme. But they still attach a potentially huge debt — £30,000 and more — to an individual graduate, and there is no doubt that such a level of debt will discourage students from poorer backgrounds from going to university, as the student loans scheme has. But that was not the cause of the riots. In April and May, the Liberals campaigned on a pledge that they would abolish tuition fees. Many students, tired of authoritarian old New Labour, thought that the Liberals might offer a new kind of progressive politics, and voted for them. How surprised were they to discover that they had voted for the junior partner in a Conservative-led government, and that the excellent Vince Cable, whose understanding of the financial crisis in 2008 had been so impressive, was now in charge of the department which had designed the new system! They felt betrayed, and the feeling generated organised public dissent of the sort which UK students haven’t shown since I was a student.

During the autumn there have been several days of protest, with big marches. These have been impressive demonstrations, marred by the activities of small groups of hooligans, often not students at all, who have committed acts of violence, turning the demonstrations into violent confrontations between police and students. No-one has been killed.

Whether the protests will subside now that the measures will become law I don’t know. Amid the mess, I feel anger at my own party. If the Labour government had done the right thing when it came to power and introduced a graduate tax, paid only after graduation and when a person has achieved a certain minimum salary, none of this rage would have been necessary.  Then, the 35-year-old merchant banker earning £500,000 a year would have paid, say, 1%; and the 35-year-old primary-school teacher earning £30,000 a year would also have paid 1%. Crucially, no person would have taken on individual debt, so there wouldn’t have been the evident disincentive which there now is to the children of poorer families.  But Labour didn’t do it because the Treasury, under Gordon Brown, didn’t want to stump up the money for a few years until the tax started coming through.  Two years ago, Darling and Brown necessarily spent sums hundreds of times greater than the hypothetical cost of pump-priming the graduate tax, baling out the banks.

One of the wickedest of the coalition’s educational measures is closely related to the fees issue: the extraordinary decision to savagely reduce government support for humanities courses in the universities, while maintaining it for courses in science, engineering, maths and other areas of ‘hard’ knowledge. This means that the great majority of the cost of humanities courses will have to be borne, eventually, by the student as he or she repays debt incurred. The government is saying, ‘Be a scientist, be an engineer, and we’ll help you financially; be a historian or a student of literature, and we’ll hurt you financially.’ This is cultural barbarism, based on the benighted idea that a country’s GDP is all that matters, and on the mistaken belief that people with humanities degrees don’t contribute to a country’s wealth. What about those of us who teach children to read?

A second piece of wickedness is the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a Labour measure which gave 16- to 18-year-olds from poorer families a bit of money to encourage them to stay on in education. Gone, abolished. There’s going to be a thing called a pupil premium, which will give schools extra money for every child from a poorer background they take on. Good, in itself. But where’s the coherence between introducing the pupil premium and abolishing the EMA?

Kerfontaine30 December 2010

The week in America passed in a blur of activity. By the time I arrived at Heathrow from New York on the morning of 18 December and, three hours later, Andrew arrived from San Francisco, we had done most of the things necessary to get Teaching Channel started. We had chosen six independent production companies (I chose a seventh the following week). Our eighth and principal supplier will be Thirteen, as we had hoped, who will make three series for us. Thirteen will also broadcast the programmes (I have get used to writing ‘programs’ over there.) We had chosen a company to build the website. A start had been made on writing various documents, notably the contract which will go out to producers early next month. Overall, progress was rapid. The group of people who constitute the central team all seem good to me; in particular, I like Erin Crysdale, a lovely, energetic person who’ll in effect be my deputy for the next few months. It’s just that the team had been led, up to the point where Andrew took over, by someone who didn’t know what she was doing. Whose fault it was that she was appointed in the first place, I don’t know; water under the bridge. Apparently, about a million dollars has floated by, wasted in the water.

I think I’ll be back in the US for ten days in the second half of January. I have the grandiose title of Interim Vice-President — Production.

I had flown from San Francisco to New York on the Thursday of that week for a meeting the following day at Thirteen with Stephen Segaller, the director of programs there, which produced the successful results just mentioned. I stayed at the Paramount, and ate a good dinner that Thursday evening at Benoit’s on West 55th Street, which I always enjoy, and associate with my recovery from tomato-juice poisoning six years ago. Friday was a beautiful day, cold and clear. I walked across to Thirteen. After the meeting with Stephen, which Ron Thorpe joined, I had half an hour with Ron, eating some of the party food he had arranged for the company party later that afternoon, before stepping out on to the street, imagining that I would simply hail a cab to take me to JFK. No yellow cab wanted to go there on that Friday afternoon a week before Christmas. I guess they all thought they’d spend too much time in traffic and it wouldn’t be worth their while. Just as I was beginning to think I might miss the plane, and was cursing a city which, for all its wealth, doesn’t have an express train connection from the city centre to the airport, along came a big black saloon car whose driver offered to take me there for $145 plus tolls. That seemed to me a lot of money, but to miss the plane would have been even more expensive. The young Pakistani driver — in America ten years, and now a US citizen — got me there in good time, doing all sorts of complicated back doubles through parts of Queen’s that the tourist never sees.

I felt asleep over Newfoundland and woke up over Wales. Large parts of the UK, I knew, were covered with snow. The plane landed on time at eight o’clock. While I was eating breakfast in the arrivals lounge, waiting for Andrew (and I should own up to the reason why I had to wait for him — I had stupidly forgotten that my London door keys were in a bag I had deliberately left in San Francisco), it began to snow heavily outside. Five inches fell in an hour. After breakfast, to pass the time, I walked around Terminal 5, admiring the construction. In the departures lounge, about five thousand people were being told that all flights until five o’clock that afternoon had been cancelled, and that they should leave the building immediately. No other information was offered. Back in the serenity of the arrivals lounge, someone came in to say that police with machine guns were calming the atmosphere upstairs in departures. (Subsequently, British Airports Authority apologised for its mishandling of events that day.)

Andrew’s plane was I think the last to land before the airport was closed to arriving as well as departing planes. He said it skidded a bit on the runway. The Heathrow Express and the tube worked well, and we parted company at Kings Cross. The snow was thick on the walk up to the flat. Helen had gone up to Shropshire with Mike Raleigh two days previously, for our usual pre-Christmas weekend with David and Lindsay and other friends. My solo drive there that afternoon and evening took me seven and a half hours instead of the usual three and a half. A lorry had jack-knifed at the top of a hill just north of Newport Pagnell. We were stationary for three hours, giving me plenty of time to think about John Bunyan’s posting in the town with the parliamentary army during the Civil War, and about my father’s years at Newport Instruments there, doing his life’s most important work. Once we moved, it was exhilarating to drive on the familiar old M1, suddenly strange, a hard wide piste of white, no road-markings to be seen, between trees loaded with snow and hoar-frost. I had the heater full on and the windows wide open. Near Rugby the snow stopped, and there were no further interruptions until I was nearly at Shrewsbury, when fog descended so thickly that I had to crawl the last few miles. The dinner party was nearly over when I got to Harmer Hill, but they’d saved some food for me.

There was another jolly meal the next day, with Mike and Andrew and Annie Bannerman. On the Monday, Helen and I went to Shrewsbury to buy her Christmas presents, and then on to lunch with Juginder Lamba and Lesley Lancaster. The little unsalted lanes, in the freezing cold, were enchanting to drive along; it was like invading a Breughel in a four-by-four. We lunched in a pub in Ruyton XI Towns. Arriving back at David and Lindsay’s, we were surprised to find no one in, though the key was under the mat. Tom soon phoned to say that David had been taken ill on his way to work in Birmingham that morning; he was pissing blood. He’d got himself back to Shrewsbury station, where Lindsay and Tom had met him and taken him to hospital. Lindsay and Tom soon arrived at the house; Lindsay and I then returned to the hospital with an overnight bag, to find David in the treatment room of Accident and Emergency, with a catheter fitted. The liquid in the bag was bright red, and every time David passed water the pain was intense. As so often in NHS hospitals, the hardest thing was to extract information from the staff, but in the end we got David some pain-killers, and discovered that he would be taken to a ward overnight in order to have X-rays the next morning. When an Irish staff nurse called Colette arrived, things improved immediately. Up we went to the ward, to a bay which mercifully had only four beds, of which only one other was occupied (though the other two, so David said the next day, were filled during the night, causing him to sleep even less than he might have done anyway). We left him.

By the next morning, David’s urine was running clear. He had numerous X-rays (the results of which aren’t yet known); then they removed the catheter and told him he could go home. I went to collect him. He was exhausted and went straight to bed, where he stayed until the following morning, Wednesday.

We had intended to come to France on the Tuesday, through the Channel Tunnel. When David was taken ill, we were prepared to stay at Harmer Hill as long as necessary. Meanwhile, heavy snow had closed the tunnel. When David got up on Wednesday, he said he felt fine urically, though pissing was still irregular and unpredictable. He’d damaged his back getting off the hospital bed; he does have a weak back, but also an excellent chiropractor, with whom he made an appointment for the next day. We rang Brittany Ferries, who said they had a boat crossing from Plymouth to Roscoff that night, and that the roads down to Plymouth were clear. We decided to take the boat. We would have been very welcome to stay at Harmer Hill — in fact, I know David, Lindsay and Tom would have liked it — but the house would have been very crowded over Christmas, with David’s parents and Lindsay’s mother, brother and sister-in-law also staying, so with the emergency apparently past it seemed right to go.

We drove to Plymouth with no trouble. Brittany Ferries’ brand-new boat, the Armorique, shamefully does not have a proper restaurant, so the principal pleasure of using that firm to cross the channel was taken away. We made the best of it in the huge, shiny self-service canteen, with football matches being compulsorily screened at every eye-line. The cabin was fine; we arrived at Roscoff on time the following morning, to be told that the boat couldn’t dock because of strong winds. I went out on deck once; the gale was almost powerful enough to knock me over. We stood off Roscoff all day, finally docking at about four in the afternoon. We drove straight to Plouay and stocked up for Christmas.

Kerfontaine31 December 2010

The light is failing on the last afternoon of the year. It’s been the kind of day which New Year’s Eves seem often to be: grey, still and enclosed. I’ve just been for a mooch round the garden. In the fountain was the fourth salamander that I’ve ‘rescued’ this week. I put the word in scare quotes because I don’t know whether or not I’m doing the right thing to take salamanders off the vertical wall around the fountain where they always stand, and transfer them to the boggy ground on the other side of the path. I’m certainly not doing them any harm; if I walk away for a few minutes and then come back, they have nearly always burrowed under the mud. I’m guessing that, having been born in the water of the fountain, but being amphibians, they are happy to breathe air for a while, but that they could get tired after many hours clinging to a vertical surface, fall back into the water, and eventually exhaust themselves. Certainly, I’ve had to scoop drowned frogs out of the water quite often. Anyhow, photographic researches on the internet tell me that the yellow-and-black salamander which flourishes at Kerfontaine is the fire salamander (salamandra salamandra). (Now I notice that the French term is salamandre terrestre ou commune, so perhaps this is the commonest kind.) I love these creatures. I’ve learnt how to handle them; I don’t try to catch them in the fishing net which is there for frogs, living and dead, and drowned mice. I simply pick them up. They move very slowly; no sudden jumps. Their paws are almost human: the front paws have three fingers and a little stump of a thumb; the back paws four fingers and the thumb-stump. They await their fate patiently, perhaps expecting imminent death. Camouflaged they are not; their yellow patches, contrasting violently with their black bodies, are the most striking feature of their beauty. Further reading tells me that they are long-lived; one lived for more than 50 years in a natural history museum in Germany. Their colouring would be sufficient justification for their name; additionally, the ancient myth that salamanders are born of fire probably arose from the fact that they like to live in dead wood. When people took the wood into their houses to burn, the salamander naturally did its best to escape from the flame.

I’ve enjoyed a quiet week, after my recent rushing around. Christmas here is assuming its own traditions: on Christmas Eve in the afternoon I gathered holly to plait above the fireplace; that evening we ate oysters, foie gras, pork with prunes, Christmas pudding (the last supplied by Lindsay); on Christmas Day we got up late, took a hamper of food, wine and crackers up to Jean and Annick, drove down to the sea near Fort Bloqué and walked for a couple of hours before coming back for champagne and presents, followed by smoked salmon, more foie gras, duck with orange, more Christmas pudding. On Saint Stephen’s Day, which was bright and freezing cold, we took a long circular country walk, passing through the hamlet of Saint Etienne where, on the west wall of the chapel (late 16th- to early 17th-century), there is a bas-relief, much weathered now, of the stoning of Stephen. That evening we went to eat at L’Art Gourmand, the little restaurant we like at Pont Scorff. Tonight, we’re going back there for a grande bouffe, breaking our 20-year tradition (for we’ve nearly always — not last year — been here at New Year, though only recently at Christmas) of eating the Saint Sylvestre meal at home. Don’t arrive before nine, warned Agnès.

Occurrences: Book Eight

Kerfontaine3 January 2011

The Saint Sylvestre meal at Pont Scorff was lovely: delicious food, and not too much fuss. At midnight, everyone raised the glass of champagne we’d just been given, wished each other ‘Bonne année, bonne santé!’ and that was that.

New Year’s Day was beautiful: still, bright and — for the turn of the year — extraordinarily mild. We did the same walk we had done on Saint Stephen’s Day, but in the opposite direction.

I was saddened today to see that Pete Postlethwaite has died of cancer at the age of 64. He was a wonderful actor, on film, television and the stage; I’ll never forget his funny and poignant performance as the brass-band leader in Brassed Off. No age, 64: five years older than me. Don’t waste time. Get on with things. End of New Year resolution.

Birds seen this afternoon during my walk around the grounds: jays, numerous; a thrush with a patch of maroon on the right of his breast; a green woodpecker; an innocent, peace-loving heron being harassed and chased away by a mob of crows; two male robins who, against all the folklore I’ve been told, seemed to be coexisting quite happily within a few feet of each other on the lawn; blackbirds; wrens; a bullfinch. The place is clean and cut back; Jean-Paul has done a great job with the débroussailleuse in the wood. The buds of the early camellias are already bulging; the edges of the packed petals of the white one, which flowers first of all, can be seen pressing against their green casings.

I’ve been reading more Hazlitt since Christmas; Helen gave me a beautiful two-volume first edition of Table Talk, the first volume published in 1821, the second a year later. As I think I wrote last summer, there are times when Hazlitt’s relentless rhetoric, his determination to lay it on thick, to hammer the nail another dozen times after he’s already driven it home, can tire. But then, what wisdom he has, plainly but beautifully uttered! The essay ‘On Familiar Style’ is a description of and a set of instructions for good plain prose writing which I salute with enthusiasm and can only hope, humbly, to try to practise in my own prose. The essay ‘On Corporate Bodies’ says everything that needs to be said about the wickedness of the banks in the years leading up to 2008, for instance, though it was written about 200 years previously. And then there are the familiar and easier classics like ‘The Indian Jugglers’ and ‘Whether Actors Ought to Sit in the Boxes?’ You get the feeling that Hazlitt was something of an obsessive in his hatreds: he can’t get the Edinburgh Review out of his system. Injustice offended him so deeply that he had to attack its perpetrators time and time again. There is a deep sadness in ‘On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority’, born of his realisation of the impossibility of expecting the mass of the common people to do otherwise than think as they are told to think; he might have been writing about the readership of The Sun or the Daily Mail in the UK, or about those in America who watch Fox News every night for their dose of ignorant, self-righteous opinionation and prejudice. That sadness is contradicted by his occasional and, I think, excessive optimism about the ‘the People’. He ends ‘On Corporate Bodies’ hopefully thus: ‘In short, the only class of persons to whom the above courtly charge of sinister and corrupt motives [he’s been charging corporate bodies, notably in the City, with such motives throughout the essay] is not applicable, is that body of individuals, which usually goes by the name of the People!’ If only it were so. The German people voting for Hitler, the Italian people voting for Berlusconi, teach otherwise.

Fitzpatrick Grand Central Hotel, New York17 January 2011

I flew over yesterday for the second of these Teaching Channel visits. This time, after three days in New York, I’ll be in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Francisco again, before returning to London in 11 days’ time. I’ll be meeting all the production companies in their place of work.

Getting into America at JFK Airport always requires patience. I queued for a full hour yesterday. When I finally arrived at the desk, the officer was charming and full of jokes. It was as if we were having a beer in a bar. I couldn’t help but respond to the bonhomie, but I was thinking, as I glanced back at the snaking line of about 500 people waiting, that perhaps less chat and more action would be welcomed. It was freezing cold outside the terminal building, with snow piled up beside the road. About 200 people were queueing for taxis. This second wait was just short of an hour. A cheerful Ghanaian then brought me here at illegal speed. I have since discovered that there is a way of getting to JFK from Manhattan by train: Penn Station to the Jamaica hub, and then the Airtrain to the airport. I shall try that on Wednesday.

On 8 January, a deranged man shot in the head and critically injured a US congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who was holding an open-air constituency meeting outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. The man killed six people and wounded 13 others at the same time. Giffords seems to be making a remarkable recovery in hospital (90% of people shot in the head die), although it is too early to say whether or not she has suffered permanent brain damage. It would be amazing if she hasn’t; the bullet entered her head at the back and came out at the front.

Giffords is a Democrat in a largely Republican state. She supported Obama’s health-care reform. Before the mid-term elections last year, she was one of a number of Democrats whose names appeared, on the unspeakable Sarah Palin’s website, in the cross-hairs of a gun-sight icon. At the time, Giffords spoke prophetically about the danger of conducting political debate thus. After the shooting, the local sheriff lamented the atmosphere of hatred into which polarised American politics has descended. His testimony was eloquent; one should never make assumptions about a person’s politics on the basis of appearance, but when a stout Arizona law-enforcer begs for civility and respect instead of threatened violence in politics, it strikes a chord across the country in a way that a liberal Democrat from California or New York could not.

Republicans and conservatives outside the Republican Party have of course denied that there is any connection between the actions of a crazed young man and the tone of recent conservative polemic. But they know that there may be, and they know that many people think there is. Evidence gathered from the man’s history and from his rambling anti-government threats on the internet confirm that there is.

The good that has come out of this (though I doubt whether it will last) is that the extremists within and beyond the Republican Party have been given pause. Before, the lynch mob felt that the spirit of the times was with them. It was all right for presenters on Fox News night after night to plant in white Americans’ minds the thought that Obama hates white people. It was all right for activists in the Tea Party, grotesquely claiming an association with the heroes of 1773, to talk about ‘Second Amendment solutions’, meaning their right if necessary to take up arms against the federal government. Immediately after the shooting, Republicans of all sorts, including the most feral, were loud in their condemnation, and sick-making in their recourse to the usual clichés about keeping Ms Giffords in their prayers. They are, for the moment, rattled.

Barack Obama has been magnificent in the crisis. He is a statesman and an orator, as his words and actions have once again shown. He declines in public to make the connection between the individual act and its political context which I and thousands of others have made, though the temptation to do so must be strong. He behaves as a president should behave at a time like this; he unifies. I so hope that he will gain political benefit, though he would not have wished it to come this way. It’s probably too much to hope that at least part of middle America will realise that they have for once elected a president worthy of the office, and that he stands head and shoulders above any Republican competitor currently in sight. It’s extraordinary, in this extraordinary country, that the possibility of Sarah Palin getting the Republican nomination for president in 2012 still exists. I don’t think it’ll happen, but it’s a damning comment on the state of political discourse here that some people think that a person as stupid and dangerous as her could ever represent this country at the highest level.

Noe Valley, San Francisco27 March 2011

Helen and I are in America until mid-May. We flew to New York three weeks ago, stayed there for three nights, and came to San Francisco on 9 March. We’re settled in a delightful apartment in this quiet, well-heeled, slightly alternative district, where it’s easier to buy gluten-free food than food with gluten in it. The apartment has a private deck out the back, which it will be a pleasure to use once the weather improves. The locals keep saying the cold, wet, windy weather we’ve had this month is highly unusual.

I agreed with Andrew Bethell that it would be more satisfactory for me to be here full-time, with Helen, than to keep flying back and forth across the Atlantic without her. At the moment I’m being paid three days a week for doing a five- or six-days-a-week job, but it’s a good daily rate and I’m enjoying myself. The arrangement lasts until the end of May. I shall soon know whether I’ll be asked to return for a further period (in which case I shall want to be paid a full-time wage) or not. I shall be happy either way. If I come back, I shall be very well paid and I’ll have the chance to see Teaching Channel properly develop into the service to American teachers we want it to be. If I don’t, we shall have our usual pleasant summer in France and Italy, and I can resume the poetry writing which I’ve entirely deserted since Teaching Channel began to absorb my attention.

We return to England on 12 May because on the evening of Saturday 14 May we’re holding an event in the church in the Inner Temple to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ros Moger and Terry Furlong Scholarships which a group of us organise under the auspices of the Canon Collins Trust. We’ve helped more than 50 students from southern Africa to pursue higher education in South African universities. I’ve edited a booklet of testimonies by some of the students. It looks great (beautifully designed by a woman called Aine Cassidy, whom I haven’t yet met physically but who was recommended by Matthew Rudd — who did design work for me when I was at Channel 4 — just as I was leaving for America) and contains moving accounts of what small amounts of money, in our terms, can do to transform lives in that part of the world.

Two weeks after that, we shall be back at Rodellosso, where we were last summer. We decided then, impulsively, to book the place for three weeks, including the date of my 60th birthday, and maintaining that arrangement was the only condition I set when I agreed to come to America. It will be wonderful to see that same landscape at the green beginning of summer.

Most of the time I’m in Europe, I’ll continue to work, by phone, Skype and email, but I will have a proper holiday around the time of my birthday. That’ll give my deputy, Erin Crysdale, a good chance to hold the reins for a while. After Italy, we either return here or go to Kerfontaine.

Recently I’ve read a splendid biography of Flaubert, by Frederick Brown, which caused me then to reread Madame Bovary. It’s a magnificent and profoundly pessimistic book. It was interesting to read in the biography how even those who were sympathetic to it, who knew that Flaubert was a great writer and supported him at the time of the obscenity trial, nonetheless wished that the book might have contained some pointers to the morally good; might have had a character or two in it whom one could admire, and of whom one could say, ‘That’s how we should be.’ But of course the strength of the piece, in our modern terms, is precisely that it refuses to do that. (Actually, there are two characters in the book whom one can unequivocally admire, though they are minor: Emma’s good-hearted father and the boy Justin, who helplessly adores Emma sexually in her last desperate days, who is helplessly present when she eats rat poison, and who weeps by her grave at the very end, until the grave-digger who also grows potatoes in the graveyard surprises him and wrongly assumes that he has been stealing his potatoes.)

Writing the word ‘unequivocally’ reminds me that we went to see a production of Pinter’s The Homecoming on Thursday. (That’s not equivocal. That’s unequivocal.) It was easily the worst production I’ve seen, but it didn’t matter. As with Shakespeare, so long as the actors say the lines audibly, I’m satisfied. The greatness does its work. There were obviously lots of people in the audience who’d never seen the play, didn’t know what happens in it, and the sudden intakes of breath, the sighs of disbelief at what was being said and shown, the shrill, nervous bursts of laughter, were testament to the play’s unsettling power half a century after it was written.

I haven’t written anything during recent months about the extraordinary sequence of events in the Arab world. In Tunisia, there was a rebellion against the oppressive rule of the dictator there. The rebellion was led, not by Islamist fundamentalists, but by people simply demanding the same freedoms that we enjoy in the West, and aware of those freedoms because of the new technologies which have in recent years connected previously dispersed parts of the world, and have given oppressed peoples living under dictatorships easy ways of communicating with each other. The dictator fell.

Then the mood spread to Egypt, where Mubarak was a tougher nut to crack. Much blood was spilt when thugs employed by Mubarak tried to put down the rebellion, but in the end he departed. The army is ruling the country until September, when the people are promised the first free elections they have known. Those who made the revolution fear that the elections will bring success to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and to the rump of Mubarak’s puppet political party, rather than to the forces of secular openness and freedom that they represent. My hero in Egypt is Mohamed ElBaradei, who was for 12 years Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and who justly, together with the IAEA, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He has said that he will run in the Egyptian presidential elections, but I have no idea what are his chances of success. He is exactly the kind of wise, open-minded, internationalist leader that Egypt needs. To be sure of his qualities one need look no further than the fact that the Bush administration did everything it could to prevent him from gaining a third four-year term in charge of the IAEA in 2005. John Bolton, one of the vilest of the underlings in that administration, was given the job of trying to discredit ElBaradei. His efforts failed.

The spirit of rebellion then spread to Yemen, to Bahrain, to Algeria, to Syria, to Libya… In Bahrain, forces loyal to the royal family which controls that little island, which represents the Sunni minority and has kept the Shia majority in subjection for decades, brutally suppressed an uprising calling for the same democratic rights as were being demanded elsewhere in the Arab world. This was embarrassing for America, which stations its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Indeed, the whole chain of events in these Arab countries has exposed the hypocrisy of the West, which has happily sold arms to oppressive governments in the region, speaking publicly of the need for security there while congratulating itself privately on the profits its arms manufacturers have been making, only to discover that the arms were being used to put down the very democratic values the West claims to treasure.

And then, Libya. Same story to begin with: the people had had enough of Gaddafi’s brutal and quixotic 41-year reign. They rebelled. Different response from the regime: whereas in Tunisia and Egypt the dictators left, having killed some people but not changed the overall outcome, Gaddafi made it clear that he was willing to destroy his own people in whatever numbers necessary in order to maintain his hold on power. He began to use aeroplanes and tanks to attack the rebels, and looked certain eventually to impose a temporary bloody peace at the cost of thousands of deaths and full-scale destruction of towns and cities, especially Benghazi, which had proclaimed its rejection of his regime early on, and had declared itself the cradle of a potential new government. Gaddafi’s rhetoric is similar to that used by another monstrous African leader, Robert Mugabe: he presents himself as a valiant opponent of colonialism. The West only wants us for our oil, he says. Being a maverick Muslim, he is also able to declare that challenges to his power come from ‘Crusaders’ (us, the West) and Islamist fundamentalists.

Anyhow, the United Nations has done something which I applaud and which will, I hope, restore its reputation as the only international agency with the right to authorise violence in order to prevent greater violence. That reputation was disastrously damaged by Bush and Blair when they went to war in Iraq in 2003 without a UN mandate and against the advice of the wisest voices at the time (including ElBaradei, who described the invasion of Iraq as ‘a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than [solves] it’). This time, after long debate, the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution (Russia and China abstaining rather than voting against) authorising the use of force to prevent Gaddafi attacking his own citizens. The resolution came just in time; Gaddafi’s tanks were close to Benghazi. Suddenly, the game changed. Gaddafi’s counter-revolution was stopped in its tracks. As I write, it looks as if his regime will come to an end, either by military defeat or by a palace coup to drive him from power, leading to some kind of arrangement with the provisional government established by the rebels.

The micro-history of revolutions is extraordinary. A young man called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010. I simply quote from Wikipedia: ‘Twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole income earner in his extended family of eight. He operated a purportedly unlicensed vegetable cart for seven years in Sidi Bouzid 190 miles (300 km) south of Tunis. On 17 December 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi, who had such an event happen to him before, tried to pay the 10-dinar fine (a day's wages, equivalent to 7USD). In response the policewoman slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his deceased father. A humiliated Bouazizi then went to the provincial headquarters in an attempt to complain to local municipality officials. He was refused an audience. Without alerting his family, at 11:30 am and within an hour of the initial confrontation, Bouazizi returned to the headquarters, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. Public outrage quickly grew over the incident, leading to protests. This immolation and the subsequent heavy-handed response by the police to peaceful marchers caused riots the next day in Sidi Bouzid that went largely unnoticed, although social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube featured images of police dispersing youths who attacked shop windows and damaged cars. Bouazizi was subsequently transferred to a hospital near Tunis. In an attempt to quell the unrest President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in hospital on 28 December 2010. Bouazizi died on 4 January 2011.’

And look what has happened as a result.

Noe Valley, San Francisco 2 April 2011

A week has passed. Last Monday the weather changed; it has been warm and sunny since. This morning we ate breakfast out on the deck (as they call it in America — terrasse as I would call it at Kerfontaine). Spring is fully here, and for a European it’s spring on speed. Flowers are in bloom that I would expect to see in June and July in England or Brittany.

Yesterday we took a long walk, up and down the hills along Castro Street, left on Oak Street until we got to the park called the Panhandle, which leads to Golden Gate Park, then all the way along Golden Gate Park (stopping for an hour in the De Young Museum) to the Pacific Ocean. The great booming breakers were urged on by a strong wind off the sea which blew sand in our eyes.

Golden Gate Park is a magnificent example of what a park should be in a great city. The site, on sand dunes, was chosen in 1870. After trial and error, the designers discovered a variety of European grass that would take root in the sand and stabilise it. Tree planting soon followed, so now there are magnificent mature trees of many varieties, deciduous and coniferous, and countless kinds of wild flowers, I imagine at their best at this season. There are special attractions for which you pay, like the De Young, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Were I a native of the city or were I here for a long time, I would come to love this park as much as I love Regents Park.

We took the N tram all the way back from Ocean Beach into the city, then changed to the J to get home, sitting together pleasantly tired and quiet.

Work is going well. The programmes (‘programs’ in American) are coming in now, and tomorrow we make the website available to an invited audience, for user testing.

Last week I didn’t get round to writing about the other immense event which has shaken the world in recent weeks. On 11 March, an earthquake under the sea off the north-east coast of Japan triggered a tsunami which by current estimates killed 27,000 people. This is a small number by comparison with the death toll in last year’s earthquake in Haiti or that in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but still represents a terrible catastrophe. And there has been a consequent disaster which didn’t occur in either of the other two cases: a nuclear power station was badly damaged and has been leaking radiation into the earth, the air and the sea. No-one knows to what extent more people’s lives have been or will be cut short by radiation poisoning. For the moment, the debate about the wisdom of using nuclear fission to generate electricity has entered another doubtful phase, as it did after the disaster at Chernobyl and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. In particular, people are asking why the authorities allow nuclear power stations to be built in earthquake zones.

There is universal admiration for the calm, mutually supportive way that the Japanese people are enduring the agony. I read yesterday that Tokyo, which is 400 kilometres south of the devastated area but which is greatly affected by the shortage of electricity caused by the damage to the power station, is in a state of self-denial; people consider it inappropriate to enjoy themselves in public, or to consume too freely, while their compatriots are suffering so terribly up north. And of course, in a country which has known nuclear annihilation and then the effects of radiation poisoning for many decades after 1945, the fear of what is in the wind must be ever-present.

In Libya, much blood has been spilled this week as the civil war continues. Gaddafi’s better equipped forces have retaliated against the rebels, who have enthusiasm and moral right on their side, but who are struggling to get organised and who need better weapons. The coalition forces, empowered by the UN resolution to protect Libyan civilians, aren’t sure to what extent they should use that resolution to proactively attack Gaddafi, with the risk of causing civilian casualties. I’m sure the West is doing some things in secret to help the rebels. What France, the UK and the US want more than anything else is for Gaddafi’s closest associates to recognise that the game is up and to betray him. His foreign minister managed to get out of the country to Tunisia this week, and then defected to Britain. That was a big propaganda coup, but there hasn’t been another since.

Meanwhile, in other Arab states where the people’s desire for the same rights and freedoms that we enjoy in the West has expressed itself in protest, the dictators have resorted to familiar and contemptible arguments to justify their repression. As convenient, they announce that the protests are promoted by sinister foreign elements (which might include Shias if you’re a Sunni autocrat, or Sunnis if you’re a Shia autocrat), by Al-Qaida, by ‘Crusaders’, by the West’s greed for oil, by European powers nostalgic for their former colonial dominance. There’s a little bit of truth in some of these accusations in some cases, but overwhelmingly they miss the point, which the autocrats can’t or don’t want to see: their people know the kind of world they’re living in, because of the unstoppable spread of communications technology, and they want their human rights.

Assad in Syria is one of the nastiest of the Arab leaders; either that or he lacks power himself — former eye doctor turned head of state when his father died — and is a puppet of brutes around him. He’s been promising the Syrians reform for the ten years he’s been president, but it hasn’t come. His speech on television this week was like one of Mubarak’s speeches early in the Egyptian crisis: ‘I’m not giving an inch’. I fear that, if the protest movement in Syria continues to gain courage and strength, there will be another blood bath, and another dilemma for the UN and the world’s big powers.

Two unspeakable ‘Christian pastors’ in Florida, who staged a mock trial of the Koran and then burnt a copy of the book, are responsible for numerous deaths in Afghanistan, including those of several UN workers. Predictably, the Taliban took up the provocation intended by the pastors, and have committed murders in revenge. And today the Taliban have slaughtered Sufi Muslims in Pakistan.

The barbarity is endless, and of two kinds: secular barbarity, as in Syria, where the regime’s desire is simply to retain power; and religious barbarity, as in Florida, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the Ivory Coast, a struggle for dominance is in its final stages, with the forces of President-elect Ouattara, who won the country’s election last year, about to overcome those of the tragically foolish President Gbagbo, who has refused to accept his defeat. Thousands of people have died in the conflict which has followed Ouattara’s eventual and understandable decision to take his legitimate power by violent means. Gbagbo won’t last much longer.

All in all, not a good week for the brotherhood of man.

Rodellosso, between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza, province of Siena11 June 2011

We’re staying in the same house as in August and September of last year. At that time, months before I knew that I was going to be working in America, Helen proposed the idea that we should return for a three-week holiday, with friends coming and going, to include my 60th birthday, which is next Thursday.

It’s the first time I’ve been in Tuscany at this season. The place is, if anything, even more enchantingly beautiful than it is at any other season. The fields are green with wheat, barley, oats and rye; wild flowers abound at the roadsides; as the long light evenings draw to an end, the sun sets next to the silhouette of Montalcino on its hilltop.

As I probably wrote last year, we are exactly equidistant from San Quirico and Pienza: 4.5 kilometres in each case. To compare them properly, I turn to Yeats: ‘Both beautiful, one a gazelle.’ The gazelle is Pienza, above us to the east, named — or renamed — after Pope Pius II, a native of the place, who gave much money to re-establish it as a civitas, a place where the virtues of urban living could be practised and developed, where men and women could come to realise that life can be more than grubbing from the soil. In short, unlike Mrs Thatcher, Pius II believed that there is such a thing as society. This morning we stood outside the Bar Casello, between the Via d’Amore and the Via del Bacio (and couples do stand under the street sign to kiss), on a stone pathway, leaning on a balustrade and gazing southward across the immense scoop of the green and blonde valley towards Radicofani and Monte Amiata.

Being a gazelle, Pienza is besieged with tourists, even so early in the season. It has too many shops containing things that a sensible person can do without. If I had to make a choice, my heart would belong to the sister who doesn’t quite achieve gazelle status, but who is lovely enough to satisfy the longings of any reasonable homme moyen sensuel. San Quirico, below us to the west, stands quietly within its walls, outside which little vegetable gardens are thriving almost visibly, given the combination of rain and heat that we’ve had. A church and a chapel, each about a thousand years old, mark the two ends of the town, linked by a straight street about half a mile in length. Halfway up the street is the Piazza della Libertà, where a very good cappuccino can be had at the Bar Centrale. Last night we dined handsomely at the Osteria del Cardinale. I eat as much tripe as I can get when I’m here; it’s almost impossible to find in restaurants in England, now we’ve all become so bourgeois — and how strange that that word has come to mean what it does, when it started out simply meaning people who lived in bourgs, borghi, like San Quirico and Pienza. Anyhow, my tripe, covered with a spicy tomato sauce, was delicious. ‘Eat like a peasant, drink like a nobleman’: I did, on a Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004. Afterwards we wandered in the town, which was celebrating the Festa di Barbarossa, commemorating a meeting there between the Emperor of Germany, he of the red beard, and representatives of the pope of the day, at which the two great powers tried to reach an accord. I haven’t studied hard enough to know whether or not an accord was in fact reached; nor, I think, had the young men who entertained the crowd in the quartiere next to the chapel with dazzling performances of 50s American pop numbers — Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like — causing wild outbreaks of rocking and rolling on the uneven ancient stone slabs.

During our first week here, we rented all five apartments in the house, and the friends who joined us then — Mike Raleigh, Kate Myers and David, Lindsay and Tom James — gave me a wonderful and appropriate early birthday present: a 1766 two-volume first edition of Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy. I’m halfway through the second volume, which is about Italy. He’s a bad-tempered so-and-so, and occasionally tedious, but often wonderfully informative about the details of daily life in France and Italy 250 years ago. For example: ‘With all their pride, however, the nobles of Florence are humble enough to enter into partnership with shopkeepers, and even to sell wine by retail. It is an undoubted fact, that in every palace or great house in this city, there is a little window fronting the street, provided with an iron-knocker, and over it hangs an empty flask, by way of sign-post. Thither you send your servant to buy a bottle of wine. He knocks at the little wicket, which is opened immediately by a domestic, who supplies him with what he wants, and receives the money like the waiter of any other cabaret. It is pretty extraordinary, that it should not be deemed a disparagement in a nobleman to sell half a pound of figs, or a palm of ribbon or tape, or to take money for a flask of sour wine; and yet be counted infamous to match his daughter in the family of a person who has distinguished himself in any one of the learned professions.’

Smollett’s way from Florence to Rome passed, as it had to, along the Via Cassia, right next to where we are staying. His carriage broke an axle-tree just south of Buonconvento, which is 15 kilometres north of San Quirico; our Land Rover, at about the same place, developed serious trouble in its cooling system, and is currently being attended to in a garage in San Quirico. I think Smollett paid less for the repair than I shall, even allowing for inflation; but I am of opinion (to use that lovely 18th-century phrase) quite opposite to his, on the character of Italian people on whom the traveller is obliged to depend. Smollett says (not for the first time in the book): ‘I repeat it again; of all the people I ever knew, the Italians are the most villainously rapacious.’ My mechanic Valerio gave me the use of a little rental car for almost no money, and supplied me with two bottles of wine because the next day was the Festa della Repubblica. It remains to be seen how efficient he will be in repairing the Land Rover; but he’s made a good start in terms of customer relations.

After a week more of this idyll, we shall drive to Marseille (in a fully repaired car, I trust), stay three nights with Mary, leave the car there for her to drive it in convoy with Jacques to Kerfontaine in July. They are going to re-paint the outside of the house. We shall take the train to Paris on 21 June, stay a night there, then fly back to America. My contract has been extended to the end of August, although I’ve negotiated to spend the second half of that month working by internet and phone from Brittany. Despite my previous determination to ask for a full week’s pay for a full week’s work, I’ve accepted a continuation of the three-days-a-week compromise I’ve had up to now, because the daily rate is good, and I’m enjoying myself over there. After the end of August, I don’t know. I shall be quite content if that’s the end of the matter; there will be a permanent, American chief executive in place by then, and he or she may or may not want me. If he or she does, and if I like him or her, I’ll go back one more time, until the end of the year. But that’ll be it. I’m a European, not an American. They tend to eat dinner too early, for one thing. But I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved at Teaching Channel so far. The trouble is, there’s too little content; we won’t turn the heads of millions of American teachers with 35 hours of commissioned programmes, whatever the quality. Funding decisions are, as the Americans say, above my pay-grade. On the other hand, as the Americans also say, in life you have to see the doughnut, not the hole.

Rodellosso, between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza, province of Siena15 June 2011

Today I am 60. I feel melancholy. It’s nothing to do with the passage of time, reflections on my mortality, anything like that. I think I have a little of Leopardi’s sadness in ‘Il sabato nel villaggio’:

‘Questo di sette [that is, Saturday] è il più gradito giorno,
pien di speme e di goia:
diman tristezza e noia
recheran l’ore, ed al travalgio usato
ciascuno in suo pensier farà ritorno.’

It’s not that I’m thinking about work tomorrow. I won’t be working until Monday, and in any case the prospect of work doesn’t sadden me. It’s the sense that once a looked-for day arrives, it doesn’t carry the charm which it promised in anticipation. I experienced this feeling every Christmas Day when I was a child. It will pass.

San Francisco9 July 2011

Leaving our apartment in Noe Valley, I walked up the steep — and then precipitously steep — slope through quiet streets of pretty, wooden houses, each painted differently in a pleasing mix of colours, then crossed a bridge over a highway, then climbed further through a more modern estate of apartments and houses, not so attractive, until I came up to Twin Peaks, high above the city. From either one of this pair of hills is the most wonderful view: to the east, San Francisco and its bay, looking across to Berkeley and Oakland, with the traffic on the Bay Bridge twinkling in the twilight; to the north, the Golden Gate Bridge and the hills of Marin County; to the south, the Saint Bruno mountain; to the west, the Pacific. Watching the sun descend into the sea on a clear evening, bracing yourself against the high wind which nearly always blows up there, then turning slowly around 360 degrees and taking everything in — the planes taking off and landing at SFO and Oakland Airports, the stars appearing one by one in the darkening sky, a new moon getting up behind the Berkeley Hills — has been one of the great, panoptic experiences of my life. I’ve done this about five times since I’ve been here.

Kerfontaine25 August 2011

Much has happened in the ten weeks since my birthday. We flew back to New York on 22 June, and spent five days there. Then on to San Francisco for what turned out to be my last stint at Teaching Channel. A new chief executive, Alan Arkatov, took up his post on 1 July. We met and talked a few days later. I told him that I would stay on beyond 31 August, if he wanted me to, on two conditions: that I remained the second-in-command of the organisation, and that the daily rate I had been receiving for my fictional three days’ work per week should be paid to me for the five days a week I was actually working.

I returned to New York on 11 July. Arriving back in San Francisco on 15 July, I spoke on the phone to Alan. He was very complimentary about what I’d done for Teaching Channel so far, but he said didn’t need a second-in-command at the moment, and he didn’t like the idea of my being in France, while still working, in the latter half of August. We didn’t get on to money. So I suggested that I should finish, definitively, on 11 August, the day before we had booked flights to return to Europe once more, and that Erin Crysdale, who had been my deputy since December, should take over my post on 12 August. Alan thought about the idea, phoned Erin twice, and on the second occasion offered her the job. She accepted.

My strongest feeling after the phone call with Alan was that of relief. As soon as we met, I knew that we were very different characters, and I wasn’t sure that I would retain the freedom of action in my role that I had had with Andrew. By the time I left, Alan had — I think and hope — come to realise that Teaching Channel would prosper only if it regarded the continuation of the kind of work I had started as its central task: to use the art and craft of high-quality narrative television to show American teachers engaging and sometimes inspiring examples of their collleagues at work. He has a number of other ideas for promoting and extending the service, some good, some in my opinion distractions from the central task. He was very gracious in his thanks to me when I left. His principal task is to secure regular funding, from the Gates Foundation or whomever, which would among other things enable Erin to commission in larger quantity than I was able to. $5 million a year would be an adequate commissioning budget. We shall see.

The other Teaching Channel colleagues were sad to see me go. We had a party on a boat belonging to Mark Cattell, a close friend of Erin’s — and now a good friend of mine — on my last evening. The boat is moored at Sausalito, and we chugged around the bay near there, drinking champagne and eating sushi. There was a beautiful sunset and an almost full moon.

The chance to work in America has been wonderful. It may well not happen again. I’ve made some friends who will, I think, be friends for life, however often or however rarely we see each other in future.

The next day Helen and I packed and took a taxi to the airport in mid-afternoon for the overnight flight to Heathrow. I slept well on the plane after dinner, so didn’t feel too bad as we changed planes and flew to Charles de Gaulle on Saturday afternoon. I’d hired a car, and we drove down empty motorways to Kerfontaine, arriving about eleven. David, Lindsay and Tom were here to greet us. They had been staying for a fortnight already. Mike Raleigh and Kate Myers had joined them for a few days and had already departed.

Mary, Jacques, Tess, Sophie and Jacques’ mother Lucille had been here earlier. Jacques painted the outside of the house. It shines like a wedding cake now. The guests following had done a great job weeding and replanting the overgrown borders: tedious work to me, for which I’m very grateful. David, Lindsay and Tom left the following Wednesday, and I spent then three days mowing lawns and clipping bushes. The place looks fine now, although the big hedges will need cutting soon. I’ll do that with Jean-Paul. So, je cultive mon jardin (with a little help from my friends).

In the world outside, the major current event is the endgame of the conflict in Libya, about which I first wrote in March. There has been a full-scale civil war, which Gaddafi is just about to lose. Many thousands have died. The rebels, whose administration is called the National Transitional Council, have had increasingly decisive help from the NATO bombardments of Gaddafi positions and facilities which the UN authorised. It’s becoming clear that outside countries, notably the UK and France, have provided secret support to the rebels in terms of training and equipment, and in the co-ordination of the final advance on Tripoli. Gaddafi loyalists are resisting strenuously, but not for much longer. The whereabouts of Gaddafi himself are unknown at the moment.

Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of resistance in Syria continues. Again, thousands are dead. Unlike in Libya, it will be impossible to get UN backing for any kind of military intervention there unless — God forbid — the suppression were to get dramatically worse, and possibly not even then. Russia and China would veto it. So the West is left with lesser weapons such as a ban on the purchase of Syria’s oil, freezing of some of its assets abroad, and visa restrictions. I just hope that events in Libya, which has been the toughest liberation struggle yet in north Africa, will embolden Syrian people to believe that what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and will shortly happen in Libya, really could happen in their country. But the violence will be dreadful. The Assad regime is just as vicious, in a more calculating, less crazy way, as the Gaddafi regime has been.

World capitalism has been experiencing one of its periodic fits of unreason, made worse by palpable political failings on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, there was an almost complete breakdown of communication in Congress, which was only resolved a few hours before a deadline — midnight on 2/3 August — which would have meant that, theoretically, America would have defaulted on its enormous government debt. The problem was that the legal debt ceiling needed to be raised, to deal with the immediate danger of default, as part of a longer-term plan to bring the budget deficit down. The budget deficit had been brought about, first, by the ruinous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; secondly by the Obama administration’s evident need to borrow money after the 2008 crisis, to avoid the possibility of a complete collapse of America’s financial and industrial system.

The mid-term elections last November brought into Congress extremists in the Republican party not prepared to countenance tax rises of any kind as a contribution to lowering the budget deficit. This despite the fact the some of the tax cuts and tax breaks introduced by the Bush administration defy justification by any reasonable criterion. It cannot be right that the billionaire bosses of hedge funds pay a lower effective rate of tax than the humblest secretaries working in their organisations. It cannot be right that oil companies get generous tax breaks when they continue to post multi-billion-dollar profits every quarter. All the Democrats in Congress, the whole Obama administration, and quite a few of the more moderate Republicans understand that. But the zealots don’t, or won’t. America has needed to borrow so much because of the wars and the disastrous results of laissez-faire attitudes to financial institutions introduced in the Reagan and Thatcher period; that is, because of essentially Republican attitudes and actions (though I admit that it was under Clinton that the Republican-dominated congress took the fateful decision to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, a decision which theoretically he could have vetoed). America had a budget surplus when Clinton left office. It’s extremist Republicans who have refused to apply sensible remedies, involving a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts, to a problem their own ideology and party has created.

In the end, at the last minute, a compromise was reached, but a far less satisfactory compromise, attending less radically to the problem, than could have been reached if Washington were anything other than a dysfunctional site of governance at the moment.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the problems of countries in the eurozone with large public debts, principally Greece, but also Portugal, Ireland and then more worryingly Italy and Spain, have meant that the governments of all the eurozone countries, plus the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, have been struggling to protect Europe’s weaker brethren, and have faced the possibility that some countries might need to leave the euro and re-establish their own currencies, and the outside possibility that the euro itself might collapse.

It’s here that one sees the wickedness of the power of unbridled private money. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about bad or incompetent politicians and political systems. The previous government in Greece lied about the public finances; Papandreou has had to clear up the mess. The previous government in Ireland allowed an unsustainable property boom to develop, based on borrowed money. Berlusconi (whom the Italian electorate will, I think, finally reject at the next elections) has brought the whole government machine in Italy into disrepute as a result of the evident corruption and illegality of so many of his actions. It’s true that in too many countries of southern Europe it’s too easy not to pay tax. But so powerful are the centres of private money in the world, and so easy is it for money holders to enrich themselves even further by taking advantage of the weaknesses and problems of states, that the heads of government in Europe find themselves in constant crisis mode to outwit the activities of people in front of computer screens who gamble on the movement of debt and debt interest with no regard at all to the damage in the real world which their casino games cause.

It is possible, I’m sure, to redress the balance of advantage in the lending and borrowing of money towards states and away from private finance, even within the system of international capitalism which is here to stay. But it requires international consensus, and since 2008 such consensus has been so hard to achieve, decisions in the right direction so feeble, that unless there’s another scare on the scale of 2008 or worse, I fear that states will continue to be the mongoose and private money the snake.

Earlier this month, there were riots in London and other English cities of a kind and on a scale that has not happened in my lifetime. The riots of the 70s and 80s were essentially race riots, to put it crudely; black and brown people, especially young men, expressed their rage at the abuse and harassment they had over many years received from the police. It is true that this month’s riots were sparked by the shooting dead of a 29-year-old man of colour in Tottenham. He was in a minicab; he had a loaded gun with him; he was confronted by armed policemen who shot first. The remaining details have not yet been published. The following day there was a peaceful demonstration to protest at his killing. Then, quite unexpectedly, anarchy took over. People with no connection to the dead man, people of various ethnic backgrounds including many whites, young women as well as young men, began to loot, break and burn property all over London, and later in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and other cities. The violence continued night after night. The police were initially overwhelmed. The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London rushed backed from their holidays. Parliament was recalled for the second time this summer recess (the first was because of the News of the World scandal, which I haven’t written about yet). After five nights, and with greatly increased police presence at all the trouble spots, the violence ceased.

The most dreadful individual incident occurred in Birmingham. Three young men, Asian Muslims, who were standing defending their property, were run down and killed by a man in a car. I haven’t read whether the driver was a racist, or drunk, or simply lost control of the vehicle. The father of one of the men made a heroic and successful appeal for calm in a context where there could have been full-scale intercommunal fighting and more deaths.

Some of the magistrates’ courts stayed open all night, and through the following weekend, to deal with those arrested, whose number I think was more than two thousand. Many of the hearings were adjourned so that trials could take place at higher courts, where harsher sentences could be imposed. It’s clear from the sentences already passed that there’s an element of exemplary justice in the punishments, which I approve of.

Of course, the riots provoked a spate of agonised or enraged sociological questions and suggested answers about why they happened. Within an inevitably complex set of reasons, this is what I think.

There has been for a generation now now an underclass in British society created by the upheavals of the Thatcher government. These people aren't necessarily poor in the sense that the unemployed were poor in the 1930s; they have some material goods that the poor of the 30s couldn’t have dreamed of, notably the hand-held electronic devices which the rioters used to communicate information about where to gather next to loot and burn. But they have no sense of a stake in the society, no pride, however rarely spoken or thought, in being citizens. Quite often, their parents have been completely ineffective as models of right behaviour and attitude. They’re out for themselves, because they reason that no-one else will care for them or value them. Of this hopeless group of people, only a small minority will actually commit crimes, but that minority made up the majority of those who went out into the streets on those nights. I admit that, among the rioters, there were some who weren’t poor at all, in any sense: young people from middle-class families about to go to university; people with paying jobs and cars who succumbed to greed in the madness of the moment. The press made much of these cases. But, from what I’ve read, most of the criminal acts were committed by people of the kind I’ve described: almost entirely young (30 and under), mainly but not entirely male, of many ethnicities, outside the social consensus in which the comfortable majority of British people live.

What examples are these footloose people, living in a less deferential, less hierarchical society than two generations ago, a society with less fear built into its structures: what examples from public life are these people offered in our instant-communication world? The bankers of 2008, still obscenely rich and apparently beyond sanction for their acts of greed and stupidity which often came close to criminality, and should in some cases have been pursued through the courts; the members of parliament who routinely robbed those who had elected them through their abuse of the expenses system; journalists who hacked the phones of the murdered and the bereaved, and were paid well for doing so; footballers and their hangers-on who, normally quite legally as a result of the absurdities of the market for their talent, live lives of Babylonian luxury whose details are constantly offered to the underclass through the internet, gossip magazines and trash TV. And the footloose say, ‘I’ll have some of that if the chance presents itself.’

I must say that I don’t know what we can do about this. Labour, despite sincere efforts, made only the smallest dent on the inequalities it inherited in 1997, of which the most grievous was that twice as many children in Britain were poor in that year as had been poor in 1979. It had Sure Start, the minimum wage, the tax credits for low-income families, and other measures. But it committed its own dreadful errors too, with its excessive courting of and admiration for the wealthy and powerful. I’ve written before about the hypocrisy of Cameron’s ‘broken society’ mantra; it was his political forebears, not Blair and Brown, whatever their shortcomings, who almost broke British society. I really think that the only solutions are the old, practical, prosaic ones: more apprenticeships, a good variety of training schemes leading to worthwhile work in trades and professions, job creation in areas of greatest unemployment, a balancing of the rewards of work against benefits to make work the more attractive option, where it exists.

Meanwhile, more young people than ever want to go to university, and are qualified by their A-level results to do so. Conservative ministers, in power, congratulate these young people and their teachers; they don’t say on radio and television, as they did in opposition, that results are better only because exams are easier.

Cameron and — to a lesser extent — the Home Secretary, Theresa May, made contemptible statements at the height of the crisis criticising the police, and suggesting that it was only when they intervened that the problems of inadequate police numbers were solved. Their desire to get political credit out of the affair disgusted me. Certainly, the police were overwhelmed at the beginning; the riots were sudden, unpredictable and, because of the use of hand-held communications gadgets, unprecedented in the speed at which they spread. But it was a police decision to rapidly increase the numbers on the streets of London on, I think, the third and fourth nights; nothing to do with Cameron coming back from Tuscany to chair a meeting. As one of the police chiefs said, pointedly (I paraphrase), ‘We’ve had to take some unfair criticism from people who weren’t there.’ Everyone knew who he meant.

Brest airport12 September 2011

Not for the first time, my short flight from Brest to Southampton is delayed, so what better way to fill the time than to write the diary? Actually, I’ve just been finishing the first English poem I’ve written since leaving Teaching Channel and re-applying the brain to the old art. It’s called ‘Internal Eclogue at 60’. The first voice is bucolic and full of philosophic melancholy about mortality, driven by Ecclesiastes chapter 9 verse 5, which I’ve paraphrased as ‘The living know that they have to die / and the dead know nothing at all’. The second voice brusquely tells the first to stop whingeing, be grateful that he’s had such a lovely life so far, and just get on with it. I’m pleased with the piece. The first part could almost stand by itself, but only almost; it drifts too close to a world-weariness which has been a theme for thousands of poets for thousands of years. Just when you think that’s all there is, the metre changes (from dactyls to iambic fourteeners) along with the bucket of cold water from the new voice.

I say ‘the first English poem’, because I’ve also written my second French poem (the first being the short tribute to Albert which is on his grave). This is a version (closer to an imitation than a translation) of last year’s comic poem ‘Vacheries’. I did it because on 4 September I went to the Fête de Saint Guénaël, as I always like to when I’m at Kerfontaine on the first Sunday in September. Annick had given a copy of the English poem to Dominique Gragnic, the farmer at Saint Guénaël who’s a good friend and the main organiser of the fête, and whose cows had given me the idea for the poem in the first place. Dominique asked me to read out the poem, in English followed by a rough prose French translation, as part of the entertainment after lunch (squeezed between a display of wood-chopping by lumberjacks from Finistère and an illustrated talk by an enthusiast for traditional Breton games). A crowd of about 300 listened, smiled very slightly at what I thought were quite good jokes, and applauded politely. I determined to do a proper French version, complete with rhythm and rhyme. Annick helped me, as she always does when I try anything difficult in French.

The Libyan revolution is almost complete. The head of the National Transitional Council made a good speech today, promising a democracy within ‘moderate Islam’, and appealing to his supporters not to take individual revenge on Gaddafi loyalists. There have been some revenge killings, but on a small scale by comparison with Gaddafi’s atrocities. Many of Gaddafi’s close allies have fled to Niger. Some of his family are in Algeria. No-one knows where he is. His whereabouts matter less than the establishment of a new government in Libya, and a final end to the war. I hope that he will be captured at some point and sent to the International Criminal Court, where his trial will go on for years. Of course it would be cheaper and more straightforward if someone would kill him (I remember feeling the same way about Milosevic), but that would make him a martyr in his supporters’ eyes, and the important job that the ICC does is to continually remind potential and actual tyrants that they are not beyond the law.

Camden Town13 September 2011

Yesterday’s delayed 40-minute flight to Southampton was notable for its ending. After crossing the Isle of Wight and the Solent, the plane travelled inland, did its usual 180-degree turn and approached the airport via Winchester, giving me a beautiful view of the town and the cathedral. There were rain clouds about and the ride was bumpy. We skimmed over the perimeter fence. I always sit up straight in my seat just before the moment of impact on landing; I have a — probably wrong — idea that in the event of a crash I might sustain less damage in that position. The plane hit the ground with one violent bump, and then another. I looked out of the window to see that we were heading for the sky again. The air hostess announced that the captain had ‘discontinued the landing, and that there was no cause for alarm’. We did another circuit of the Solent, and the captain came on in reassuring tones: the wind had changed at the last moment; it might have been difficult to bring the plane to a halt; the safest thing was to take off again. Everyone was calm. There were a few British jokes about learner drivers. The second landing, after exactly the same approach, was successful. There was light applause. But I noticed four fire engines in attendance as we taxied.

I’m briefly in London on Poetry Society business. There has been full-scale war in the organisation in recent months. The war’s causes are too tedious too recount in detail, even to myself. The main facts are that, early this year, the chair of trustees took some actions, I think sincerely intended for the director’s benefit, without — according to the director — having consulted her. (He insisted he did consult her.) The director resigned, citing wrong treatment by the trustees. There was a fear that she might sue the trustees for constructive dismissal. The trustees took their own legal advice. The chair, only in post since last November, resigned. The dispute became public knowledge, and eventually led to the holding of an extraordinary general meeting, at which the members of the Society by a large majority declared that they had no confidence in the trustees. The trustees decided to resign as a body. The annual general meeting of the Society, usually held in November, was brought forward to tonight. The director resumed her post, as announced by an email from the acting chair of trustees, which included an apology from the trustees. A new board will be voted in tonight (in marked contrast to the usual situation, where it is difficult to find enough people to serve as trustees, there are more than 30 nominations for about a dozen places) and then, as the next item of business on the agenda, we shall resign.

While all the blood was being spilt, I was in America. I tried, completely unsuccessfully, by phone calls and emails, to bring the director and the then chair of trustees to an understanding before their positions became irreconcilable.

I’m sorry that I won’t be a trustee of the Society any more. I think I did a bit of good in the educational area. I can’t help reflecting that I was on the panel which appointed the director, so I take some responsibility for that; then, when the director told me that she couldn’t work with a previous chair of trustees, I had a hand in getting a new chair appointed at last year’s AGM. He was the person she said she wanted. The Society then made a successful bid to the Arts Council for a three-year funding award, to everyone’s great satisfaction, before the trouble broke out, causing the Arts Council to say that its promised funding couldn’t be guaranteed unless the Society got its governance in order.

Part of the difficulty has been that poets and people interested in poetry are too well educated and too self-important. At the height of the dispute, around 40 emails a day were clogging up my inbox. People weighed in from all sides with prolix, exquisitely turned expressions of rage, contempt and self-importance. Well known poets, with honorary positions on the Society’s notepaper, announced their resignations, evidently without knowledge of the prosaic reasons which had brought about the dispute. It has all been a bloody and unnecessary mess, causing me to recall my old law of inverse proportionality: the nobler the cause which brings a group of people together, the more vicious can be the actual behaviour of those people towards each other.

London is exquisite today: the welcoming, breezy, invigorating air of early autumn. The rowans carry great bunches of full ripe berries.

I haven’t written about my reading recently. In America, I went on from Madame Bovary to three of Balzac’s novels: Cousine Bette, Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet. I hadn’t read any Balzac until now, although I read Graham Robb’s biography of Balzac last year. I have the feeling that three Balzacs are enough. I get the idea: a savage, cynical account of the pettiness, insincerity and self-interestedness of most French people, at least of the upper class and the ‘respectable’ bourgeoisie. You have to imagine how some of the scenes would have played to the contemporary audience: for example, the encounter at the beginning of Cousine Bette between the vile man (forgotten his name for the moment) and the respectable wife, where he straightforwardly proposes adultery, and then the pathetic turning of the tables later in the novel where she goes to him to offer her honour, by which time he is no longer interested. The novels are easy to read, and offer wonderfully detailed portraits of Paris and (in Eugénie Grandet) provincial France in the first half of the 19th century, but somehow they didn’t deeply engage me, I think because the author’s unchanging attitude to the characters he had created seemed to me to be represented by a sneer.

Being in America, I thought I should read some Faulkner, and here the rewards were great. I started, by lucky chance, with something easy by Faulkner standards: The Unvanquished. Then I opened Absalom, Absalom! I stuck with it, steadily, night after night, skipping nothing, making my eyes take in the unrelieved pages of solid narrative print even when there were long sections I couldn’t understand. When I got to the end, I started at the beginning again straight away. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with a book before. This time, it yielded itself. The last 50 pages felt like an exaltation second time round. I had taken it in; I had got it — the whole extraordinary portrait of the South, with its unspeakable racism accepted as normal life, the codes of behaviour which bound people and which one can only reach now by an extreme effort of imagination, the brutality. It is an epic masterpiece by the highest standards of world literature. Then I went on to the easier but equally astonishing As I Lay Dying. I love the line where the husband, once his wife has breathed her last, says, ‘The Lord’s will be done. Now I can get them teeth.’ When the carpenter son narrowly escapes drowning in the flooded river, the main thing the family is concerned about is retrieving his tools. They put cement on his broken leg, without greasing it first. Characteristically, the climax of the action — to bury the decomposing corpse in the graveyard of the town where the mother was born — is thrown away in a subordinate clause. By then, we are more concerned about the fate of the pregnant teenage daughter who wants to have her baby aborted, and her encounter with the corrupt chemist. The husband gets his false teeth in the end. It looks as if he may have found another woman too, the same day as (or is it the day after?) he’s buried his wife.

Now I’m in the middle of the long short stories in Go Down, Moses. Faulkner is a great writer. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get to him.

Since we’ve been in France, I’ve read the biography of De Gaulle which Stephen Eyers gave me for a recent birthday or Christmas. Very good. The General was an impossible, unreasonable, vain, stiff, deeply honourable, great and courageous man. And the night before last, I finished Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a wonderful account of those astonishing talents of the second half of the eighteenth century, who saw everything as interesting and were constantly inventing, and who helped to make the Midlands the cradle of the industrial revolution.

Kerfontaine28 September 2011

The annual general meeting of the Poetry Society passed off without violence. About 150 people were present in St Giles in the Fields church. The meeting lasted nearly three hours. Unnecessarily long speeches were made by a few self-appointed consitutionalists. The acting chair of the outgoing board of trustees handled the gathering very well. It could have descended into chaos with someone less firm and clear in the chair (metaphorical chair — she stood throughout). The former finance manager of the Society explained the financial position clearly. 12 new trustees were elected, the counting of the votes being scrutinised by a high-court judge. And that was it. It may be that other members of the outgoing board were present in the crowd, but I didn’t see any. There was no need at all for me to have been at the meeting, but in some sort of virtuous way I had thought I ought to be, having been absent throughout the most difficult months of the dispute.

I flew back to Brest two days later. A smooth landing this time. Since then, we’ve had Peter Adams to stay for five days; on the last of those, my brother Mark and his wife Gill arrived in their newly acquired 20-year-old mobile home. I must confess that I’m not a fan of mobile homes; they seem to me to manifest a right-little-tight-little individualism, a desire to stay in a comforting, familiar bubble while travelling through Here Be Strangers Land. They’re everywhere now; they infest Europe. On the weekend of the big bicycle race in Plouay at the end of August, about 200 of them — huge, vulgar things with names suggestive of daring and adventure (the opposite of the characteristics of the people inside them) — are parked by the finish line.

But I love my brother and his wife, and they love their mobile home, so that’s that.

Earlier this month, I helped my brother Andrew and his wife Beryl buy a 10-year-old Mercedes Sprinter van, French-registered and therefore left-hand-drive, so that they could drive it to Bulgaria, where they’ve just bought a hectare and a half of land in a village, with two houses on it, one 300 years old and one 50 years old, for the equivalent of £12,000. Admittedly, the houses need some work. The encounter with bureaucracy on both sides of the channel was instructive. The vehicle couldn’t be insured in France, because Andrew doesn’t live here. It couldn’t be insured in the UK, because it’s French-registered. Having told the truth about Andrew’s residence (currently a tent in Wales) to two insurance companies in Plouay, I decided that the only way to enable him to drive the van legally was to lie about his residence, saying that he lives here with us. This I did at a third insurance company, which agreed to insure him. Arranging for the van to have a new carte grise (the French equivalent of the logbook) entailed two trips to the sous-préfecture in Lorient and the payment of more than 200 euros. Then the registration plates had to be changed; I hadn’t realised, in all the years I’ve been driving in France, that until two years ago registration plates stayed with the driver whenever he or she changed vehicles. In 2009, France went over to the system we’ve always had in the UK. So vehicles registered before then are issued with a new, permanent nombre d’immatriculation the first time they change hands after 2009. This all required further negotiation and expense. I think Andrew’s going to leave the van in Bulgaria, and re-register it there, so its identity will change once again.

Andrew’s great skill in carpentry has turned the van into another mobile home, in the sense that there’s now an upper and a lower storey in the back, the upper storey perhaps 18 inches below the roof, allowing for comfortable sleeping for two but not a great deal of other activity. Somehow, I feel more sympathetic to this hand-made mobile home than I do to ready-made ones. And of course, 38 years ago, Martyn Coles, Pamela Dix and I set off from London on a supposedly round-the-world tour in a Ford Transit van with a mattress in the back wide enough for three. We cooked on a Calor-gas stove. So enough high-mindedness about mobile homes.

I’ve done two more poems. ‘The Squirrels and the Nut Trees’ is about the entertaining raids on our walnut and hazelnut trees which the red squirrels have been making this month. ‘An Argument of Fowls’ was suggested by a sight we saw last Friday, at about eight o’clock in the evening, just before going into Brice’s restaurant in Lorient. There’s a building site nearby (I think it’s for the redevelopment of a school). On the arm of the huge yellow crane dominating the site were perched thousands of starlings. Against the background of the clear sky at dusk, each bird was perfectly, individually visible. Their collective noise was loud and raucous over the traffic. I wondered whether they would roost there. After we had eaten the first course in the restaurant, I went out again, to see them descending in great dark clouds to the planes and sycamores below. And then I remembered how I had enjoyed learning the collective noun for starlings — a murmuration — when I was at primary school. So I had a poem. I’m sure I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: the hardest thing, for me, is to get a worthwhile idea in the first place. Once I’ve got that, I can usually make a presentable poem. I think ‘An Argument of Fowls’ is one of the best I’ve written.

The Libyan revolution is still not complete; two pro-Gaddafi towns are holding out. But they will eventually fall, and then the huge task of rebuilding the shattered country will begin. A major challenge for the new government will be to hold together the various factions and tribes which have overthrown Gaddafi. I’m not optimistic that this will be achieved without strife. But at least the new government has the support of almost all the major countries of the world, and of the UN.

Today, the German parliament voted to approve the rescue plan for Greece which the eurozone’s leaders agreed in July. 10 of the 17 countries in the eurozone have now agreed to the plan. Expert opinions of all kinds about what will happen to Greece, and to Europe, can be found in the newspapers, on radio and television, on the internet. Here is a selection.

Greece will default, leave the euro, reintroduce the drachma, and heavily devalue. Greece’s default will bring down several banks. Portugal, Italy and Spain will find it increasingly difficult to meet their commitments to creditors, and may have the leave the euro too. The euro will collapse. The euro will be reinvented as the currency for the richer, more disciplined countries of northern Europe. None of this will happen. The eurozone leaders, with great difficulty, will save Greece, which is rapidly putting its economic house in order amid savage self-flagellation, and will ride out the waves of strikes and other popular protests. The European Financial Stability Fund will be quadrupled in size, to about 1.6 trillion euros, which will be more than enough to calm the markets.

I’ve read articles which say all of these things. I don’t suppose that even national leaders and their close officials know exactly what will happen. If I had to bet, I would bet on the most boring scenario: that the euro will be saved, and that the countries in the eurozone which have been most fiscally irresponsible will be brought into line for the time being. The question then will be: will it be politically possible to extend and permanently maintain fiscal similarity, which is the natural corollary of monetary union, in all the eurozone countries?

I have to admit to a growing sense of euroscepticism in recent months: not a position usually held by a socialist. For a long time, I’ve taken the rather exalted view that, after two terrible wars, the European Union has been the instrument — clumsy, expensive but necessary — to guarantee peace and prosperity on the continent. I’m not so sure now. I can see, easily, the need for legally binding international treaties on matters which cross national boundaries, such as the protection and repair of the environment and the fight against transnational criminals. I can see the desirability of reciprocal arrangements on health care for foreign travellers and foreign residents (such as we now are for about half the year). Despite the eurozone’s current difficulties, I can quite see the advantages of a single currency for a group of countries whose economies and fiscal arrangements are similar. And I can easily agree to the idea of free trade between as many countries as consent to it. But I find myself asking whether these important examples of international collaboration require the great lumbering machine of the EU. Couldn’t agreements be concluded bi- or multilaterally? Do we need a European Commission, a European Council of Ministers and a European Parliament? I read the serious newspapers most days, and I do my best to remain politically informed, but I can’t name a single thing that the European Parliament has done which has had a beneficial effect on my country, my family or me. (Was there some agreement on maximum charges for mobile phone calls made abroad?) Of course, the stories about the corruption and luxury lifestyles of some of those on the European payroll are meat and drink to the right-wing papers in the UK, and those excesses should be curbed; but we had our own Westminster scandal two years ago, and no-one is suggesting closing down the Westminster parliament. That’s not the main point. The main point is: do we need all that machinery in order that countries on the same continent should come to agreements on matters which mutually affect them?

When the EU invented the post of President of the European Council, I assumed that this would see the end of the six-monthly rotation of that presidency by the head of state or government of one of the EU countries. But no; Herman Van Rompuy is President of the European Council, at least until the end of May 2012, and possibly for another 30 months beyond that. Simultaneously, the six-monthly rotation continues. Currently, Poland holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. How could I have been so foolish as to confuse the Presidency of the Council of the European Union with the President of the European Council? Every dog in the street knows the difference.

Nonetheless, countries are still queuing up to join. If you’ve been through an intercommunal war in the Balkans, or the upheavals associated with the end of Communism in eastern Europe, the EU must look like a safe haven, and membership must seem the certificate of arrival in the haven, whatever I think.

Camden Town10 November 2011

We’ve been back in London for 10 days. Last weekend we went to Aldeburgh for the poetry festival. The usual mixed bag: Roger McGough was the best for me; he performed his witty, touching lyrics like a man who knows how to work an audience. Too many poets choose the wrong poems for performance — poems which are too dense to be appreciated properly on one hearing. And too many poets don’t know how to perform anyway. Heather Loxton, as ever, had booked a lovely house, right by the sea, for the eight of us. We lunched at The Lighhouse on the Saturday. Afterwards, Stephen and I took our annual walk to Thorpeness, on the shingle by the waves going, on the easier higher hard path coming back. On the Sunday afternoon, Helen and I drove on to Norfolk, and spent three nights with Adam and Hazel, belatedly celebrating Adam’s 70th birthday, which had occurred on 3 October. We took them out for a posh dinner at Morston Hall. We twice visited Sheringham Park, which I really enjoyed. We climbed up the gazebo (a modern construction, which I suppose replaced an earlier tower) for a view above the tops of the oaks to the nearby coast. Humphrey Repton laid out the park. I learnt that it was he who invented the phrase ‘landscape gardener’.

European affairs lurch on. Today, Greece has a new prime minister. He is Lucas Papademos, who used to be a vice-president of the European Central Bank. I’ve greatly admired George Papandreou’s efforts to clean up the mess left by the previous New Democracy government, which had simply lied to Greece, Europe and the world about the state of the country’s finances. It may be that Papandreou’s policies were excessively deflationary, but the situation he inherited was dire. However, he completely astonished his European allies, and notably France and Germany, by announcing that he would put the latest agreement forged between him, the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF to a referendum. Apparently, none of his own cabinet colleagues knew that he was going to do this. There was no coherence to such a proposal; none of the previous bitter medicine he was asking the Greek people to swallow had been prefaced by an invitation to them to say whether they wanted to swallow it or not. It’s not clear to me whether the announcement was politically calculating (I can’t see how it would have been from his point of view) or just the desperate act of an exhausted man who wanted to commit political suicide. Or perhaps he was too tired to think straight. Anyhow, it has led to his downfall. Papademos is a non-party technocrat who will attempt to put together a coalition government.

Camden Town12 November 2011

Something to celebrate: the end of Berlusconi. He resigned today, having brought his country close to ruin through corruption and incompetence. If ever a man gave politics a bad name, if ever an already rich and powerful person, once he had added political to his existing media power, used the new levers at his disposal to benefit himself and to hurt his country, it was he. There are plenty of other leaders across the world who have done and are doing the same thing, I know. But Italy is particularly close to home; and the sorrow is, Italians voted for him time and again, like trusting children. I remember writing that the thing that finally caused me to abandon my faith in Blair — a faith I stuck with for pragmatic reasons long after most of my friends had abandoned him — was his decision to take his family summer holiday with the Berlusconis, at Silvio’s expense.

User of under-age prostitutes; evader of tax; creator — via the links between the governance of Italy and the control of opinion he exercised through his media empire — of the closest thing to a monopoly of thought which has recently existed in western Europe; racist (‘I like President Obama’s suntan.’); disastrous failure as Italy’s chief minister: farewell. Or rather, fare ill. People came out to shout abuse at him as he left office; he was apparently shocked. He should have been grateful that they didn’t string him up, as their forebears did a previous leader in whom they had unwisely put their trust.

An academic economist and former European Commissioner, Mario Monti, has been invited by the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, to form a new government. One can hear the sighs of relief from a thousand miles away. A person of great intelligence and fierce honesty is going to govern Italy, for a change. Interestingly, as a younger man Monti studied at Yale University under James Tobin, the Nobel Prize-winning economist now most famous for his proposal of a financial transactions tax, an idea which in recent years has been nicknamed after him, and which every major economy should introduce as soon as possible. Which of our leaders will have the courage to do so, and to face down the inevitable howls of protest from the bankers, remains to be seen. Certainly no-one in the current UK government.

So, within two days, Athens and Rome, two cities which were experimenting with advanced systems of government when the rest of us Europeans hadn’t progressed beyond local tribal warfare, have realised the limitations of the very representative democracy which they taught us.

Camden Town25 November 2011

It’s a beautiful, almost spring-like day here in London in late November. The weather since we returned from France has been abnormally mild.

Last weekend we spent with David, Lindsay and Tom in Shropshire. Delightful. Climbing up the gazebo in Norfolk two weekends previously had made me wonder, not for the first time, about the etymology of that word. (I suppose the first time I wondered was when I came across it in Yeats’s poem about Lissadell and the two girls in silk kimonos.) I thought, ‘Surely it can’t be the case that someone just took the word ‘gaze’ — what you do when you get to the top of a gazebo — and added the inflection for the first person singular of the future tense of a second conjugation Latin verb?’ Then, when I was in Shrewsbury with David on Saturday, I bought an almost new copy of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The entry for ‘gazebo’ says: ‘1752, supposedly derived from gaze, on the pattern of Latin future tenses in ‑bo, such as videbo I shall see, placebo I shall please; but the earliest quotation of gazebo calls it a Chinese Tower, suggesting an altered form of an Oriental word.’ Amazing!

We’ve been to the theatre twice. First we saw a splendid production of Juno and the Paycock at the National, brought over from the Abbey in Dublin (speaking of Yeats). Sinead Cusack was Juno. There was a moment of splendid confusion towards the end of the second act, reminding one that things can go seriously wrong even in the most distinguished theatres. The door at the back of the tenement room, giving on to the staircase, was closed. Mrs Tancred, whose son has been killed in the Civil War and is about to be buried, is supposed to knock on the door, be admitted, be supported emotionally by the women already in the room, and utter the heart-rending speech which includes the cry: ‘Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!’ Mrs Tancred knocked, Juno went to the door and turned the handle, but it didn’t open. She tried again. It was stuck. The actors improvised as best they could, one by one trying the door. Eventually Ciaran Hinds, who played Captain Jack Boyle, gave up the pretence and said ‘Has anyone got a key?’, which brought gales of laughter from the audience. A technician came on stage and frankly apologised for the problem with the door. The curtain closed and the house lights came on. We chattered cheerfully for five minutes. The house lights went down again, the curtain opened and the play resumed at a point a few seconds before the knock. But of course when the knock came again and Juno went to the door and it opened easily, there was more laughter and a tremendous cheer from the audience, giving the actor playing Mrs Tancred, Bernadette McKenna, an almost impossible task with her speech. She did well but it was a bit wooden. I expect it was better the next night.

Last Tuesday we saw The Comedy of Errors, also at the National. It was, I think, the first preview, and there were actors on the stage who weren’t sure of their lines. But the set is spectacular, and the two Antipholus’s, the two Dromios (each wearing Arsenal replica shirts) and Adriana and her sister, played as Essex girls, were all very good.

I was quite ill with the flu during our last week in France. I didn’t want to do anything except sleep and eat, and then sleep, read and eat. It was strange how strong my appetite was, even though I couldn’t taste anything. I stumbled out of bed to the kitchen, wolfed a large plate of food, and stumbled back. When I got to the reading stage, I read Nicholas Murray’s biography of Matthew Arnold, which has caused me to read and re-read much of Arnold’s poetry and some of his prose since. I have added him to my list of heroes, because he combined a long career in the service of state education with an imaginative life; he believed in the importance of state education as a civilising and unifying force in society, which was part of his belief in an active state, at a time when most opinion was for a minimal state, and let the market do the rest (plus ça change…); he was a modern European when most of his educated contemporaries were, in their heads, in ancient Greece or Rome, otherwise not venturing beyond Calais; and he was a determined Liberal when that was as progressive as you could be within the spectrum of realistic politics. Unlike almost all the people he dined and corresponded with, he actually knew and saw every working day the condition of the poor, through visiting and inspecting elementary schools. One morning he was at a school, I think in Bethnal Green; that evening he was placed opposite Disraeli at the dinner table of his friend Lady Rothschild at Mentmore. He had some views which you just have to say were wrong, such as that Shakespeare isn’t improved by being staged or, worse, that the sooner the Welsh language dies out, the better; and there’s an unfortunate remark in an early letter complaining about the inability of women to teach — a piece of stupidity I hope he regretted later, for he was loved and respected by the teachers and head teachers of the schools he visited, many (most?) of whom must have been women.

I’ve always reluctantly agreed with Arnold’s theory of the remnant: that in each of the three classes of society (in his terms, barbarians [upper class], philistines [middle class] and populace) the majority is a lump; they just do what their upbringing and socialisation has taught them to do. But within each class there is a minority which is self-aware, which understands that the world doesn’t have to be as it is; it could be a better place. I suppose a Marxist would say that Arnold’s idealising was just wind, and didn’t actually change anything. Who can say whether that’s true or not with regard to Arnold’s criticism? But his work in the schools did make a difference; he was courageous in his opposition to payment by results and excessive testing, and was an eloquent supporter of the kind of humanistic, exploratory, broadly-based curriculum which we know works. And, of course, he has left us a small number of very beautiful poems (as well as quite a few which seem impossibly mannered and remote now). My affection for ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ and admiration for ‘Dover Beach’ are enhanced by the memory of my father’s love of them, and his ability to quote extensively from them. ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ and ‘Balder Dead’ are fine, exotic narrative pieces. One criticism I have of them is that they often try to do something which Homer does splendidly and Dante does with genius: employ what Seamus Heaney brilliantly calls ‘head-clearing similes’ — the comparison between an epic or awe-inspiring sight or event in the mythical or supernatural world of the poem and a happening in common everyday life. In Arnold, these nearly always seem forced. They never do in Dante.

When Arnold met Disraeli, the latter (I’m not sure whether he was Prime Minister or leader of the opposition at the time), in explaining why he didn’t write novels any more, said something like, ‘I am one of those fellows who can only do one thing at a time’ — a remark with which I am in sympathy, since I didn’t write a single poem during the nine months I was working for Teaching Channel. But I’m moderately pleased with the output this autumn. Since the four poems, three English and one French, about which I’ve written earlier, I’ve done six more, of which the best are a tribute to Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’, called ‘After “After Apple-Picking”’, written in the same manner as the original; and ‘“The Leaving It”’, which speculates on my own death in a rueful, part-comic way, using good irregularly occurring rhymes. And I’m pleased with two comic efforts: a tribute to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the master-engineer of London’s sewage system; and a complete remaking of the ‘poem’ I wrote in about 1984, just after Betjeman died, playing on the fact that he had said ‘fuck’ on television (admittedly, he was quoting Larkin’s ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but still) and then, later in the same valedictory series, regretting that he hadn’t had enough sex in his life. My first effort rather wasted a good idea; it was a sort of prose-poem which just about limps into verse at the end. The new version is quatrains in iambic tetrameters rhyming ABAB, a form which Betjeman used a lot, and it’s much better.

Peter Hetherington didn’t much like the first version of ‘The Squirrels and the Nut Trees’. He thought it prosaic, and he didn’t approve of the self-referential beginning (‘The squirrel in my other squirrel poem…’). So I remade that too yesterday. It’s shorter, not self-referential, and much more poetic (four triplets, iambic pentameters, half-rhymes across the three lines of each triplet; although I know that such technicalities don’t in themselves make anything poetic). I hope he likes it better.

Since the last time I wrote about the Arab revolutions, Gaddafi has been found and killed. Most members of his family have been killed or captured, or have fled into exile. The new government has made a good start, with a cabinet of ministers representing a range of the factions which overthrew the Gaddafi regime, and no place for extreme Islamists. Tunisia has held its first elections. David, Lindsay and Tom were in Tunisia for their usual autumn holiday on the day the elections took place. They said how proud were the people they spoke to about what had happened since they were there last year. In Egypt, just as I write, there is much confusion. A huge popular movement, whose point of focus is Tahrir Square, wants the military to stand down immediately, and the postponement of parliamentary elections, due to start on Monday, which the protestors believe will be rigged by the soldiers. One prime minister resigned earlier this week, to be replaced by another who is no more acceptable to the protestors. Terrible brutality has been committed against them either by the military itself or by the riot police who are supposed to take their orders from the military — brutality not on the scale committed by the Mubarak regime in its dying days, but still terrible. At least 40 people have died; hundreds more have been injured; the torturing of detainees continues. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Egyptians who do want the elections to go ahead, and seem to think that the military is sincere in its statement that it is only an interim force until presidential elections are held next year (at a date brought forward also in response to the Tahrir Square protests). It would be wrong to say that the revolution has descended into chaos, but it’s certainly true that the army has mistaken the mood of a large section of the people. It should have moved much more quickly in the democratic direction, as happened in Tunisia. In Syria, where the repression has been worse than anywhere else in the region, the forces of opposition are organising, and there is a real chance of a civil war here too, unless Assad stands down — an unlikely prospect — as the Turkish prime minister and the King of Jordan have publicly advised him too. The Turkish prime minister compared Assad to Hitler and Gaddafi: a remarkable change of tune from a man who was recently an ally of the Assad regime. That regime is the most evil, the most brutal, the most implacable of all the tyrannies that have been or are being overthrown at the moment.

There will be a big strike here in the UK next Wednesday, bringing together several million public-service workers whose pensions will be cut, pension contributions increased, and working lives made compulsorily longer as part of the government’s programme of debt reduction. The government has offered some concessions as the likely size of the strike has become clear, but not enough to persuade unions to call it off. Essentially, the unions don’t see why they should pay the price for the greed and stupidity of the banks and the financial markets whose actions have brought us to this pass. Nor do I. Nothing more clearly illustrates for me the gulf which exists between most people in this country and those who make the government’s economic and fiscal policy than George Osborne’s refusal to contemplate a Tobin tax — a tiny tax on all financial transactions, perhaps at the rate of one two-hundredth of their value — which would bring ten of billions of pounds into the exchequer every year. Other European countries are seriously discussing how to make it work. Osborne says it would be a blow to the heart of the City. John Major is wheeled out to agree with him. Meanwhile, the folk in the City are beginning to lick their lips at the prospect of another massive New Year bonus, as the unemployment figure rises to a height not seen since the last time the Conservatives were in power. Of course it would be best if the whole world were to agree to a financial transaction tax at the same time, but that’s not going to happen. Occasionally, a country has to be courageous enough to do something because it’s the right thing to do, and let the others come along later. The notion that the City would close down, or lose its pre-eminence in the financial world, because of a tiny tax on share and foreign-exchange dealings, and on the exotica of casino banking which almost broke the world’s financial system three years ago, is nonsense. I remember, when Labour brought in the minimum wage, how many millionaires in Parliament and in the City there were saying that we could never afford such a luxury…

Camden Town26 November 2011

Skimming back through the diary entries this year, I notice that I promised myself that I would write something about the News of the World affair, and that I haven’t done that. A public inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson is currently being held into disgusting practices which senior figures in the Murdoch newspaper empire condoned and even encouraged, and into similar misbehaviour, but on a lesser scale, within other newspaper groups. Essentially, journalists at the News of the World, whether on the staff or freelancers, routinely invaded the lives of private citizens and were well paid for doing so because the stories such invasions generated, whether true or false, sold more newspapers. They hacked into people’s phones, stalked them as they walked down the street, camped outside their houses, used deceitful means of gaining private information. To some extent these practices, deplorable and — in the case of the phone-hacking — illegal as they were, were tolerated by the public when the victims were celebrities. There was a vague feeling that footballers, actors and pop stars were complicit with the journalists and photographers in perpetuating the cult of celebrity. That all changed when it became known that a teenager called Milly Dowler, who had been sexually assaulted and murdered, had had her phone hacked into after her death. At about the same time, the claims by senior people at News International, the part of Murdoch’s empire which runs its UK newspapers, that phone-hacking had been the anomalous work of the odd ‘rogue reporter’, were shown not to be true. The public mood changed. The Murdochs — Rupert and his son James — then did an extraordinary thing: they announced that they would close the News of the World after its edition of Sunday 10 July. The reason publicly given — deep regret at the discovery of these deplorable practices — was nothing to do with the truth. The truth was that at this time, Murdoch was hoping to buy all the shares in BSkyB, the UK’s main satellite broadcaster, which he didn’t already own. Murdoch’s newspapers, especially The Sun, have bought him influence over governments Conservative and Labour which I don’t think any newspaper tycoon has ever had in this country. Not Northcliffe, not Beaverbrook. But by Murdoch’s standards they don’t make huge amounts of money. Their value has been the political influence they give him. The money-maker in the UK has been and is BSkyB. So the Murdochs closed the News of the World in the hope that this gesture would persuade the government to continue to look kindly on their bid for 100% control of BSkyB. There had been a deeply embarrassing incident just before Christmas last year when poor innocent Vince Cable had been tricked into telling journalists posing as citizens in his constituency that he had ‘declared war on Murdoch’, when it was his decision whether or not to refer the bid to the competition authorities. It looked as if Cable might have to resign; he kept his job, just, but the right to make the decision was taken away from him. Murdoch must have chortled at Cable’s embarrassment. However, now the boot was on the other foot. Parliament was asked to work an extra day in order to ‘debate public confidence in the media’. This meant: should we allow the Murdoch bid to go ahead? Remarkably, MPs agreed, I think unanimously, that it shouldn’t. In fact, Murdoch bowed to the inevitable a few hours before the Commons voted, and withdrew the bid. I hope Cable chortled in his turn. I also hoped at the time that the government would go further and declare that Murdoch was not a proper person to run a television service, which it has the right to do. That would have meant that Murdoch would have had to sell his share in BSkyB completely. This hasn’t happened, although it might still, as more and more revelations about News International’s practices are made to the Leveson Inquiry. The most affecting testimony this week came from the parents of Madeleine McCann, the little girl who was snatched from her bed while they were having dinner on holiday in Portugal. These were not celebrities; at least, not until they were forced to be. Their treatment by the press, and the lies about them they were obliged to read, are dreadful.

I’ve said that Labour in government was as culpable in sucking up to Murdoch as the Conservatives had been previously and have been since — until this summer. A significant difference between the two parties in their relationship with Murdoch, however, lies in the fact that the current Prime Minister actually hired a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, to be his director of communications. It’s extraordinary that a person so mired in the filthiest tactics of tabloid journalism should have been regarded as an appropriate person to act as spokesperson for the highest office in the land. Every toff needs his thug, I suppose. Cameron had to sack Coulson, of course, but it did him only passing political damage.

The Press Complaints Commission, the means by which the press supposedly regulates itself, has failed completely. It should be replaced by a body with statutory powers.

I remember writing in September 2010 about the Labour Party’s wrong judgment in electing Ed Miliband as leader rather than his elder brother David. It was the the union vote which caused Ed to squeak past David by the tiniest of margins. Here we are, four days before the biggest and most morally justified strike held in this country for decades, and what have the unions got for their support for a clever, likeable man who simply doesn’t have the qualities necessary to lead his party and to make a future Prime Minister? The most tongue-tied, facing-both-ways, faint-hearted responses to the legitimate question: ‘Do you support this strike?’. The Conservatives must be so much enjoying Miliband junior’s complete failure to lay a finger on their leader.

Camden Town28 November 2011

I’ve just been for a walk along the canal through the midst of the enormous building site behind Kings Cross. Huge works are being accomplished there. I walked back along the road and crossed the new pedestrian bridge across the canal to a huge, refurbished warehouse which is the new home of Central Saint Martin’s School of Arts and Design. It’s a magnificent achievement, a splicing of the old building in front with a new structure behind. They’ve enclosed what was once an open space and created a great atrium for displays. Outside, in all directions, hundreds of workers and scores of machines were busy. It was an encouraging sight on a dry evening with a new moon in the sky. Unfortunately, energy and investment like that are the exception, not the rule, across the country as a whole. I wait to see whether the government has any significant proposals to address the problem of the mass unemployment which its excessively deflationary policies have brought about in the short time it has been in power. The Chancellor makes his Autumn Statement tomorrow.

Camden Town29 November 2011

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and the report from the Office of Budget Responsibility contain great quantities of bad news. Rises in public-sector pay will be capped at 1% for two further years from 2013. The growth forecast for 2011 is revised down from 1.7%, as predicted last March, to 0.9%. The forecast for 2012 is revised down from 2.5% to 0.7%. The possibility of another actual recession cannot be discounted. The prediction as to the number of public servants who will lose their jobs rises from 400,000 to 710,000. Government borrowing over the next five years will be £111 billion higher than predicted last March, although the cost of servicing the debt is lower than predicted because of the low yields on gilts (a small piece of good news). The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the structural deficit for 2014/5 will be 2.8% of GDP; only eight months ago, it predicted that the structural debt for that year would be 1%! The couple and lone-parent elements of the working tax credit will not be uprated with inflation in 2012–13, so many poorer working people will see an actual fall in the value of their income. A previously promised increase in the child element of the working tax credit of £110 above inflation will now not take place. The Treasury admits that the overall effect of the changes in working tax credit mean that an extra 100,000 children are likely to be classified, by the government’s own measure, as living in poverty.

The levy on banks will be increased, which is a blessing in itself, but by a paltry amount, meaning that the levy will continue to yield only about £2.5 billion a year. The Chancellor explicitly ruled out a financial transaction tax, which would yield tens of billions a year; he said that it would be a tax on pensioners, not on banks, presumably employing the argument that share dealings often involve huge amounts of money invested in pension funds. Such an argument carries exquisite hypocrisy (a Tobin tax might be set at half of 1% of the value of each transaction) as the government prepares to damage the pensions of public-sector workers by making them pay more, work longer and eventually get less than at present.

The proposals to do something about youth employment, welcome in themselves, have simply revived, under other names, the efforts Labour was making when it left office, efforts which the new government immediately cancelled. So the effect is that time has been wasted doing nothing. The Chancellor hopes that pension and insurance funds can be tapped for serious sums of money (tens of billions) to invest in infrastructure projects. There is no guarantee that this will happen. I suppose the government would underwrite the risk. The idea is remarkably similar to Labour’s private finance initiative. Meanwhile, the government’s proposal to spend an additional £5 billion of its own on infrastructure projects is pathetically unambitious.

I can see that, in a world held in thrall to the financial markets, confidence in a government’s fiscal rectitude is essential. It just offends me that obvious major sources of new income — the Tobin Tax, taxing capital gains at the same rate as income, and serious efforts to combat tax avoidance and evasion by companies and wealthy individuals — are ignored. The poor and the moderately well off will pay the price, for the next few years at least, of the government’s policies. As unemployment rises to levels not seen since Thatcher’s time, their suffering will intensify. And the pain won’t even be justified in the government’s own terms: its income will diminish further as poverty and unemployment bring diminished income from tax and increased outgoings in benefits.

Yesterday, millions of Egyptians voted for the first time in their lives in something approximating to free elections. As ever when this happens after the overthrow of tyranny, most memorably in South Africa in 1994, the sight is deeply moving. There is a long and complicated process to be gone through, with three stages, before a parliament will be formed. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do well; perhaps it will be the largest party. If it does in the end wield a decisive influence on the composition of the parliament, the question will be: will it respect the values of openness and toleration of difference which are the best features of Western democracies, or will it attempt to impose a benighted theocracy based on Sharia law, as the Taliban, I fear, will attempt to do again in Afghanistan once the West has pulled out?

Camden Town30 November 2011

Today was held the largest and most morally justified strike the UK has seen for at least 30 years. Local government workers, civil servants, teachers and NHS workers walked out to protest at government proposals to damage their pensions by making them work longer, pay more into their schemes, and get less pension at the end. The government justifies this robbery by saying that we’re living longer and that, in any case, we have to tighten our belts in order to get the state’s finances back in order. Of course the unions recognise that we’re living longer; in at least two of the four sectors which went on strike today, recent negotiations (that is, in the last three or four years) with the employers were successfully concluded, taking account of this welcome fact. The government’s proposals are not a belated attempt to rescue a situation which had become fiscally unsustainable because of the improvidence of the previous government; they are simply a raid on the living standards of public-service workers. The government also says that public-service pensions are ‘beyond the dreams’ of most workers in the private sector. The average annual pension in the NHS is £5,000 a year; and that average includes the high pensions that top doctors and surgeons get. If private-sector pensions are worse than that, the answer is to do something about those pensions, not to hurt public-service pensions in a kind of race to the bottom. Major sources of funding are available to the exchequer, as I wrote yesterday; there is no chance that the government will take advantage of them, because they would slightly inconvenience the rich and the comfortably off. The Camden street cleaner and dinner lady will, if the government gets its way, pay for the follies of the bankers.

I accept that the government made some concessions to the unions once it saw that the strike was going to be big and had widespread support. They are welcome but inadequate. I hope the unions will continue to take action, including more strike action in 2012 if necessary, to annul or at least seriously amend the government’s proposals, which it has said it will impose in any case.

Camden Town10 December 2011

In Brussels in the early hours of yesterday morning, David Cameron employed the UK’s veto to prevent the European Union amending the Lisbon Treaty so as to impose much greater fiscal discipline on the 17 EU countries which use the euro and on any of the other 10 countries in the EU which wished voluntarily to accept that discipline; the amendments would also have brought about a greater degree of supervision and regulation of the financial affairs of all 27 member states, including those not in the euro-plus-volunteers group.

The eurosceptics in the Conservative party are of course triumphant, as is the right-wing press. The Liberal Democrats are enraged and embarrassed; it is a mark of their helplessness as the junior member of the governing coalition that they, the most straightforwardly pro-European party in parliament, have to swallow this. Labour says that Cameron has made a historic error; that our influence in Europe will be irrevocably diminished henceforth.

I find myself in a peculiar position, especially after the eurosceptic thoughts I allowed myself a few weeks ago. I am not going to join the chorus of know-alls who say that Cameron’s decision marks the end of our significant role as a European power. I can see that, if you have the only internationally traded currency in Europe which is not the euro, you don’t want that currency supervised and regulated anywhere other than London. To that extent, I think that Cameron did the right thing. I guess (but who can say?) that Gordon Brown would have done the same. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Cameron did the right thing for very mixed motives. He asked the other Europeans, notably France and Germany, for something which he knew they would not give him — a treaty change imposing disciplines on 27 countries, but with a complete opt-out from those disciplines for one country. Knowing that he was making an unacceptable demand, he also knew that when the demand was refused and he employed the veto, he would be cheered in many quarters as a conquering hero when he returned home, as he has been today and as he will be again in the House of Commons on Monday.

Sarkozy and Merkel got exactly what they wanted: fiscal discipline for the euro group plus non-euro volunteers (who might be all the other countries but the UK) without the tedium of dragging a large, unwilling member through the legalities which will now follow. I read this morning that Cameron, having used the veto and having heard that the other Europeans were going to construct an agreement outside the Lisbon Treaty, petulantly said that the euro-plus-volunteers group wouldn’t be able to use the institutions of the EU to police the agreement, because the agreement wouldn’t strictly be a piece of EU law. ‘I’m taking my ball home; not only that, but I’m forbidding you to play football in this playground, even if you get another ball.’ Merkel apparently said something like, ‘We’re going to do it anyway,’ which shut him up.

The irony here, and the reason why my position is peculiar, is that the UK does need exactly the kind of control over its financial sector which the treaty change would have brought about and which the euro-plus-volunteers agreement will bring about; it’s just that we need to do it ourselves.

Camden Town15 December 2011

Today, a French court found former president Jacques Chirac guilty of embezzling public funds when he was mayor of Paris, and gave him a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges. Very good. The old man won’t go to jail, but a point has been made; no-one, even a former head of state, is above the law. Chirac wasn’t in court to hear the verdict; he’s discovered recently that there’s something wrong with his memory, and standing trial can be so stressful for a character as sensitive as his. I imagine that, starting tomorrow, he’ll make a remarkable recovery, though he won’t publicise this welcome and unexpected change too widely.

Kerfontaine29 December 2011

We’ve been here for a week. Before that, we made our usual pre-Christmas visit to Shropshire. We were there for longer than in previous years: Helen for eight days, I for four. One joy of quasi-retirement is that there’s no need to race down dark motorways on winter Sunday evenings along with everybody else. We saw all our Shropshire friends.

Stephen and Theresa joined us on Christmas Eve, and left yesterday morning. It’s the first time we’ve had company here at Christmas. It was a wonderful merry time. I know how much our guests appreciated it, after the hard year they’ve had. Theresa’s mother died in February, Stephen’s in October.

As Theresa was leaving, she described these quiet days between Christmas and New Year as 'unspoken for'.  I thought that was beautifully put.

In Brittany of old, this week was a favourite for weddings.  For the rural working class, it was the year's only holiday; contracts with farmers were annual, finishing on Christmas Eve.  A new contract began on the day after New Year's Day.  So there was time even for a three-day celebration, which some weddings were. Talking of farm labourers, Stephen, who was born and brought up in Bournemouth and who's eight years older than I am, remembers an old man in rural Dorset telling him in about 1950, 'Farmer's paying I for not working.' He was referring to the paid holidays which the Labour government brought in after the war, 10 years after Léon Blum's Popular Front government introduced them here. A point on which the Breton labourers insisted in their contracts was that they shouldn't be fed salmon (that's wild salmon of course, straight out of the river) more than twice a week.  They wanted meat, and didn't see why 'farmer' should get away with providing food too often which it hadn't cost him anything to produce.

Kerfontaine30 December 2011

At the end of a year which has seen astonishing changes in other Arab countries, the plight of the Syrian people remains heart-breaking. Assad’s forces have killed at least 5,000 civilians, the great majority of whom were unarmed. Mass imprisonment and torture remain a routine weapon of repression by the forces of the state. The Arab League has sent a delegation to inspect the situation. This is a welcome development in itself; I can’t remember a previous occasion on which a pan-Arab body showed any particular concern for human rights in an Arab country. But I don’t have any great hopes for the effect which the inspection will have. I expect that the delegation will mildly chide the regime, offer the pious hope that it will behave better in future, and go away. During the last four days, according to the BBC’s website, about 120 protestors have been killed. I expect that many more deaths are occurring as I write, since Friday has become the traditional day of principal protest in the Arab countries whose people have been demanding the rights and freedoms which we so complacently enjoy in the West. I can see no future for the country other than a civil war, as happened in Libya. The Syrian opposition is divided. It can only win a civil war, and overthrow the Assad regime, if it unites behind the best organised military force in the opposition, which I think is the Free Syrian Army. And it will probably need the help of the outside world, through the UN if possible, as the Libyan opposition did. That will be much harder to get than was the case in Libya, since Russia still obstinately refuses unequivocally to condemn the Syrian government, and would probably veto any kind of intervention, rather than abstain in the vote, as it and China did over Libya.

It isn’t very long — certainly less than two years — since I sat in a Syrian restaurant in London, in my capacity as International Development Executive (an absurd title which I made up myself) at Teachers TV, in the company of the Syrian Minister of Education, the head of the British Council, various people from the Syrian Embassy and from United Kingdom Trade and Industry. The minister spoke little English; he had brought along his daughter, an extraordinarily beautiful young woman who was studying for a PhD at Edinburgh University and who of course spoke perfect English, as translator. We discussed the possibility that Syria might set up a pan-Arab equivalent of Teachers TV. The minister told me that President Assad’s wife has a great passion for education. (During my time as International Development Executive at Teachers TV, all the Arab countries which with I had contact had autocratic leaders with trophy wives who were a) gorgeous to look at and b) had a passion for education. Often, the wives were given a few billion dollars to go away and set up an educational foundation of some kind. This arrangement got the wives off their husbands’ hands and gave them something appropriately female to do once they’d had children. I never heard of a leader’s wife who had a passion for economics or for the geology of oil exploration.) The head of the British Council made an elegant, optimistic speech saying that though political differences might divide our countries, surely we could find common ground on the cultural front. How misplaced such optimism seems now! At the end of the evening, there were the usual enthusiastic exchanges of business cards and eyeball-to-eyeball promises that we were going to do something great together. During the following weeks, I wrote repeatedly to the minister’s office, the British Council, the Syrian Embassy and UKTI, trying to push forward our good intentions in practical ways. There were two or three half-hearted replies; then further communication ceased. Mind you, that was par for the course after these privileged international get-togethers; practical outcomes were exceptional.

Once we had stopped talking business, the minister’s daughter told me how she missed the shady gardens of Damascus where she could drink cool drinks on summer evenings. She spoke so lyrically that I became for a moment another of those educated European men for whom the Orient has exercised such a fascination over the centuries, with sexual desire lurking not far below the surface of cultural curiosity.

Kerfontaine31 December 2011

Outside, the light is failing on this drizzly, grey last day of the year. As Albert used to say at about this time (I’ve probably written this before), ‘That’s enough work for one year. If people haven’t done enough by now, it’s too late to make up for it.’

We’re going to the same restaurant in Pont Scorff that we went to last year.

Occurrences: Book Nine

Kerfontaine9 January 2012

The Saint Sylvestre meal at Pont-Scorff on New Year’s Eve was as delightful and delicious as it had been the previous year. Once again, champagne was poured at ten minutes to midnight. At midnight this year, for some reason, all the diners stood up and walked around the restaurant for kissing and handshaking, which was very enjoyable. I tried to work out mathematically how many kisses were exchanged: 24 diners plus Agnès and Marc, the owners; 13 women in the company; two kisses per embrace exchanged woman to woman and man to woman (handshakes of course between the men); therefore, how many kisses? I gave up after a minute or two of mental effort. The problem reminded me of those practical applications of maths to supposedly real-life situations which we used to do in primary school: ‘A bath is being filled at the rate of three gallons a minute. Unfortunately, Johnny has been careless and hasn’t fitted the plug properly. Water is escaping at the rate of three-quarters of a gallon a minute. When full to the top, the bath holds 30 gallons. Johnny is watching his favourite programme on TV. If he doesn’t come back in time, how long will it be before the bath overflows?’ I didn’t enjoy problems (that’s what they were called). I could do them, but they were laborious. I much preferred the pure abstraction of numbers, algebra and geometry.

Reading last year’s Occurrences before sending them to Mark Leicester so he could post them on my website, I thought they were rather heavy. The balance between political thinking-out-loud and observations about things that had happened to me and not to anyone else seemed too much tilted towards the former. I shall try to redress that balance this year.

The weather since we’ve been here has been extraordinarily mild. Everyone says it’s bizarre, not right. The plants will get going far too soon, then there will be a cold spell with sharp frosts which will kill the blossom, then there will be no fruit… Anyhow, working in the garden these last few days has been a pleasure. Yesterday Helen and I did a massive leaf-clearing job. Usually, most of the leaves fall before Jean-Paul cuts the grass for the last time in the autumn, so he picks them up with his machine. This autumn, most of the trees still had their leaves by the time he had to cut the grass (before the ground became too soft). They then fell during the course of one night in December when there was a violent storm. So we spent several hours making dozens of little piles and then barrowing these to huge heaps at the edge of the wood. Today, for a change of activity, we cleared out the shed and I drove the detritus to the déchetterie — always a satisfying task.

Becoming Our Own Experts, the collection of studies of classroom language which a group of us at Vauxhall Manor School made during the 1970s, and which we published ourselves, is about to go online as www.becomingourownexperts.org. The book has been out of print for many years. Mark Leicester, the designer of www.myproperlife.com, is also designing this website, with his wife Nicola. I’m sure it’ll look great. I can summarise best the reasons for giving the book an electronic afterlife by quoting the preface I’ve written to the online edition.

Becoming Our Own Experts was first published as a fat printed book with a red cover in 1982. It is the bringing-together of papers written between 1974 and 1979 by a group of teachers, self-styled the Talk Workshop Group, at Vauxhall Manor School, an 11-18 girls’ comprehensive school whose buildings were on two sites in Vauxhall and Kennington, south London. The papers constituted an example of teachers researching the interactions of language and learning in their own classrooms, a process sometimes known as “action research”.

The book was published in an edition of 4,000, with the help of a generous no-interest loan from the Schools Council (a long-dead organisation, superseded by more bureaucratic and more centrally controlled agencies known by sets of initials which have changed — and continue to change — with bewildering frequency). The edition sold out within two years. The publication caused considerable interest and enjoyed a little fame in the worlds of teacher education and educational research for some years, in that it showed that classroom practitioners could reflect productively on their teaching, and teach better as a result. If a group of people in one school could do this, why could not a group in any school?

The educational world in the UK, and notably in England, is unrecognisable from that which prevailed in the 1970s. Essentially, teacher autonomy has been overtaken by government control, a process which has brought some benefits and done much harm. There is no doubt that, overall, standards of student achievement in schools have improved significantly in the last 30 years. Most of this improvement has come about independently of government action, as a result of the continuing efforts of teachers, and of those who advise and support them, to understand better how to teach effectively. However, we should also acknowledge that, though government initiatives in education, beginning with the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1979, have been a mixed blessing, there has been a considerable amount of blessing in the mix. While brilliant and inspirational teaching always existed in the system, there were also large areas of complacent and poor practice. The government argument, to put it in its most generous light, was that if it were possible to understand how good teachers worked, if it were possible to agree on a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum in all school subjects, the complacent and the poor could perhaps be brought up to the level of the good and the brilliant, and everyone’s loss of autonomy would be a price worth paying.

There were — and are — struggles between governments and educators as to what “good teachers” and “a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum” actually look like; the educators, we are glad to say, have prevailed more often in these struggles, in terms of what actually happens in classrooms, than governments of either colour since 1979 would care to admit. There is the official story and the unofficial story: the latter always closer to the truth.

The harm done in the undermining of teacher autonomy has been seen in an excessively atomistic approach to curriculum design (in other words, the prescription as to what should be taught), most notoriously in the early versions of the National Curriculum, and by an excessively mechanistic approach to assessment: both the assessment of student progress by teachers and the assessment of teacher performance by senior colleagues and outsiders. Essentially, teachers were and are not trusted to make professional judgments to the extent that members of comparable professions were and are so trusted. The balance which should be struck between the autonomy of a proud profession and a recognition of the fact that teachers spend taxpayers’ money and should be answerable as such has shifted too much in the latter direction, driven often — under the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 as much as under the Conservative government of 1979 to 1997 and the Conservative-led coalition presently in power — by reactionary ideology which politicians and their advisers have imposed or attempted to impose, in ignorance of how learning happens most effectively. The result has been a loss of morale, an undervaluing of the use of the imagination in teaching, a draining-away of the essential pleasure, more days than not, that the calling should bring with it.

Despite the fact that the educational past is as much “another country”, where we “did things differently” as any other kind of past, there remains an interest in “action research” and in the concept of the “reflexive practitioner”. The arrival of the internet has given those members of the Talk Workshop Group who are still alive and still in touch with each other the opportunity to republish Becoming Our Own Experts electronically. Although much of the content of the book is of its time and place, the spirit of enquiry which it represents, the notion of the teacher as an autonomous self-critical professional, not simply a deliverer to learners of educational content pre-formulated elsewhere, is independent of time and place, we believe. Hence www.becomingourownexperts.org.’

Kerfontaine12 January 2012

It’s a beautiful day. There’s no wind. The sun shines steadily from across the valley. At lunchtime we could have sat outside, though that would have meant getting furniture out of the shed, so we didn’t. This morning we took the short circular walk up the road, turned right, through Saint Guénaël, home through the wood. The birds sang as if spring had come. We passed one fruit tree which already sported dark pink flowers. I didn’t know what kind it was. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can report that it was a quince. (Google ‘fruit blossoms’, click on ‘Images’, study the postage-stamp-sized pictures, click on the one I recognised from this morning and, hey presto!: ‘There are two distinctive types of quince tree: the one that bears large fruit and the ornamental one that is more of a shrub and has beautiful dark pink blossoms in spring. Quince is one of the first fruit trees to bloom in the year. The Chinese consider quince blossom as a symbol of good fortune. So you may see the blossoms used in celebration bouquets for Chinese New Year.’ And the internet tells me that Chinese New Year 2012 falls on 23 January. So everything makes sense.)

There is a further reason for my pleasure in this discovery. My father loved quinces, and he had a quince tree in his garden. After he and mother died, and just before the house was sold, I asked the woman who had looked after the garden during my parents’ last years to take a cutting for me. I brought it to France. Rosa looked after it for two years. Now it is planted in the garden here, and I must just go up to see if it has any flowers yet. (It doesn’t, but it looks healthy.) I’m very much hoping that eventually it will yield quinces and I’ll cook and eat them and think of my dad. I also like the fact that marmalade was originally a preserve made from quinces, not oranges. The Portuguese for quince is marmelo.

Camden Town27 February 2012

We returned to London in mid-January. Reading the biography of Matthew Arnold when I was ill last October led me on to reading some of his essays, including that ‘On Translating Homer’. Arnold has four things to say in admiration of Homer. They are: that Homer is rapid; that he is plain and direct in his syntax and words; that he is equally plain and direct in his matter and ideas; and that he is noble. These compliments are just, but Arnold repeats them too frequently, like a teacher or preacher doubting his hearer’s powers of recall. All of Homer’s previous translators are, in one way or another, unsatisfactory to Arnold; but the offender for whom he reserves his cruellest scorn had the misfortune still to be alive. The essay ridicules Francis Newman’s Iliad and Odyssey. (Francis Newman was the brother of John Henry Newman.) Reading the extracts from Newman’s translations which Arnold quotes, I can’t help but agree with him. Newman went for a kind of ballad metre, but without rhyme:

‘Great Hector of the motley helm then spake to her responsive…’

‘O, brother thou of me, who am a mischief-working vixen…’

Newman protests a bit too much against the use of rhyme, like Milton in the preface to Paradise Lost. Apparently, he started out intending that each second and fourth line should end on a stressed syllable, as in a conventional ballad, but then, having doubled up pairs of lines into long lines, as in the examples above, found that the last syllable of each long line (the equivalent of two lines in the normal setting-out of a ballad) contained ‘an unpleasant void until he gave a double ending to the verse’, as in ‘resPONS…ive’ and ‘VIX…en’. Arnold sarcastically quotes ‘a recent American writer’ who says that this rhythm ‘has a disadvantage in being like the rhythm of the American national air Yankee Doodle’.

Arnold offers a few samples of the way he thought Homer should be translated. His preference is for hexameters. ‘Applied to Homer, this metre affords to the translator the immense support of keeping him more nearly than any other metre to Homer’s movement…’ After all, the original poems are in hexameters. (The mnemonic I use to remind myself of Homer’s metre is ‘DOWN by a DEEP DARK HOLE sat an OLD TOAD MUNCHing a CORN STALK’; I forget where I read it. I know there are allowed variations in the use of dactyls and spondees.) So Arnold proposes, for example:

‘So shone forth, in front of Troy, by the bed of Xanthus,
Between that and the ships, the Trojans’ numerous fires.’

One might suppose that there wasn’t much left of poor Newman by the time Arnold had finished with him. But the offended scholar writes an angry ‘Reply to Matthew Arnold’, equally long and even more learned, in its turn pouring scorn on Arnold’s hexameters. Then Arnold writes a response to the response called ‘Last Words on Translating Homer’.

Anyhow, all this hyper-educated bile has caused me to read The Iliad and The Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald’s wonderful modern translations. These use loose iambic pentameter, the default metre of English poetry, and I don’t think anyone could do much better for the English reader. Like countless readers before me, I became engrossed in and then entranced by the stories, and amazed by the mixture of exalted epic sentiment and down-to-earth detail which they contain. Achilles tosses and turns on his bed as he grieves for Patroclus; he tries various positions, but he can’t get comfortable. About 2,800 years before I built sandcastles on the beach, one of the analogies somewhere in The Iliad is with boys doing just that. When Penelope says:

‘…many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.’

— I think of most of my own dreams, how they seem to lack any significance. Why should I last night have dreamed that I was making love to the wife of a good friend of mine, a woman I have known for 30 years and always liked and admired as a person, but for whom, in my conscious mind, I can honestly say that I have never entertained the faintest sensation of desire, and about whom I haven’t thought for months?

The scene where the old nurse recognises Odysseus by the scar on his leg while bathing him when he is still disguised as a beggar is electrifying. Odysseus had forgotten about the scar. I love the fact that none of the heroes is perfect: Achilles and Agamemnon of course not — their faults, leading to such disasters, are huge; but even Odysseus, who has neither thoughtless arrogance on Agamemnon’s scale, nor offended pride on Achilles’ scale, makes mistakes. His wrong judgment undoubtedly led to some of his men being eaten alive by Polyphemus. They’d begged him to get going out of the cave with a few cheeses before the giant returned in the evening:

‘Why not
take those cheeses, get them stowed, come back,
throw open all the pens, and make a run for it?
We’ll drive the kids and lambs aboard. We say
put out again on good salt water!’

But Odysseus wouldn’t:

how sound that was! Yet I refused. I wished
to see the caveman, what he had to offer —
no pretty sight, it turned out, for my friends.’

Later, when they’re tangling with Circe, the faithful second-in-command Eurylochus is right to challenge what he sees as Odysseus’ foolhardiness, reminding the sailors:

‘Remember those the Kyklops held, remember
shipmates who made that visit with Odysseus!
The daring man! They died for his foolishness!’

Odysseus is so angry at this insubordination that he thinks of killing Eurylochus, but is dissuaded by the other men. In Polyphemus’ cave he was pig-headed. Now he is a thin-skinned rank-puller, like a few unimpressive people I have known in my working life.

The scene in book 23 of The Odyssey, after the slaughter, where Odysseus and Penelope sit opposite one another in the great hall of their home, not speaking, is profoundly moving:

leaning against a pillar, sat the man
and never lifted up his eyes, but only waited
for what his wife would say when she had seen him.
And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment — for sometimes as she gazed
she found him — yes, clearly — like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.’

I’ve had my reader’s head in Homer and my writer’s (translator’s) head in Petrarch. I can’t remember what train of thought it was that made me realise that I knew virtually nothing about one of the fathers of European lyric verse. He was Italian; he was in love with Laura; he invented the Petrarchan sonnet, which is different from the Shakespearean sonnet: that was about it. The internet brought me to Love Songs of Petrarch, translated by William Dudley Foulke and published in 1915. The translations — a selection from Petrarch’s oeuvre — are archaic and mannered, which is a relief when you’re trying to be neither. They don’t tempt you away from your own thoughts. But each has a helpful introduction, and there is an excellent long biographical essay, for which I was very grateful. Then I bought the Harvard edition of the complete Rime sparse, edited by Robert Durling. His translations are in prose, so again there was no interference.

Petrarch first saw Laura on 6 April 1327. Foulke says that on this day, ‘a day which according to mediaeval tradition was the anniversary of the Crucifixion of our Lord (and which fell in that year, not on Good Friday, but on Monday of Holy Week)… Petrarch first saw Laura, in the church of Santa Clara at Avignon. He at once became enamoured of her beauty, but she gave no sign of responding to his passion.’ Durling confirms that ‘April 6, 1327 was not Good Friday; it was the historical anniversary of the Crucifixion, as its date was calculated in Petrarch’s day.’ (The information that in 1327 the anniversary of the crucifixion wasn’t celebrated on Good Friday surprises and perplexes me; I haven’t gone further into how this came about in the practice of the church.)

Petrarch’s passion for Laura lasted for the remaining 21 years of her life (she died on 6 April 1348, on the same day and at the same hour that he had first seen her, so he leads us to believe; my father also died on 6 April, at about that hour, though according to the Gregorian not the Julian calendar) and for 10 years after her death. Of the 366 poems included in his Rime sparse, I would guess (I haven’t counted) that about 300 are addressed to or are about Laura. His love for her seems to me to have been a real, visceral feeling for these 31 years; different from Dante’s love for Beatrice, which has more of a quality of beatification about it, as her name is intended to suggest. The love was never consummated sexually. Laura either was married when he first saw her, or soon became so; and he was in minor holy orders (a decision he’d taken for reasons of career, the Pope residing in Avignon, rather than of vocation). His officially celibate state, and his obsession with Laura, didn’t stop him fathering two children by another, unnamed woman. He became a successful public poet, author and diplomat, moving frequently between France (his father, a lawyer, had moved to Avignon from Arezzo when Petrarch was a boy), Italy, Germany and the Low Countries, ambassador to dukes, emperors and popes. He had a house in the Vaucluse, at the source of the river Sorgue, which was the retreat to which he returned from his travels.

Petrarch is credited with being one of the scholars who laid the foundations of the renaissance, by rediscovering the works of classical authors and reintroducing them to contemporary readers.

With all his success, literary and political, Petrarch remained under Laura’s spell. Although he often uses familiar conceits to describe his state (fires being drenched by tears, the lover being shot by the loved one’s dart or being entangled in her snares like a limed bird), and although his poems are full of the classical allusions that he assumed his readers would understand, I don’t get any sense that the expression of his feelings is merely conventional. He’s hot, to use a vulgarism. He’s truly wretched. He really does think that he’s wasted his life on a hopeless cause. He frequently attempts the religious sublimation of his feelings, but he always comes back to statements of sexual desire and frustration.

I’ve done 11 translations so far (a number which suddenly sounds terribly puny), choosing poems where the metaphors or the argument seemed most concrete or original: not just elegant moping. Many have said it, and I may have written it before, but it always amazes me how approachable is the Italian poetic vocabulary of 700 years ago. I work with a modern Italian-English dictionary, a grammar and a book of verbs with their conjugations; I’ve never failed to find a word of Petrarch’s in the dictionary, though sometimes the spelling has changed.

I may do another batch later. For the moment, I’m in danger of only being able to think in iambics with full rhymes. I have completely failed so far to imitate the Italian metre with its eleven syllables. I keep saying to myself that I must try, but I fall back into iambic pentameter or hexameter, like a cyclist getting his wheel stuck in a tramline. So I’ve translated the first stanza of the third rima, which commemorates the event of 6 April 1327, and whose original is:

‘Era il giorno ch’al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,

quando i’ fui preso, et non me ne guardai,

ché i be’ vostr’occhi, donna, mi legaro.’

— as:

‘It was the day the sun’s rays hid their light
for pity of their maker’s agony.
Lady, your lovely eyes caught hold of me
and I had no defence; they bound me tight.’

Peter Hetherington, who knows Italian well, apart from being simply the best critic any poet or translator could hope to have, has helped me immensely, saving me from several elementary errors in translation, and guiding me towards the balance between dignity and informality of diction which is, I think, the hallmark of a good translation.

The online edition of Becoming Our Own Experts went live on 15 February. It’s been a lot of work and a long time coming; the idea of doing it came to me in the autumn of 2008, before Mark and Nicola Leicester went back to New Zealand. I’m very pleased with it now it’s here, and I’m doing my best to publicise it to people who should be interested.

Camden Town6 March 2012

To start with a statement of helplessness: in Syria, at this moment, acts of barbarism are taking place, unchecked, which compare in nature with the worst human cruelties we have seen in the world in recent decades. In scale, the wickedness doesn’t match Rwanda or Cambodia, but it certainly matches disintegrating Yugoslavia in the ’90s, and it exceeds the worst we’ve seen since the people of several Arab countries began calling for normal human rights and freedoms fifteen months ago. The outside world does little but wail. The UN is helpless, because Russia and China won’t support any kind of military intervention. A conservative estimate of Syrian civilians killed by their own government would be 7,500. Countless have been maimed, imprisoned, tortured. We read reports of boys aged 12 having their throats cut by soldiers. We see pictures, secretly filmed, of injured men being tortured in hospitals where they are supposedly being treated. After the rebel fighters withdrew from the Baba Amr district of Homs last Friday, hopelessly outgunned by the regime’s forces, the government refused to allow the Red Cross or the Red Crescent access to the area to provide humanitarian aid, saying that the area was too dangerous to enter. The truth was that they wanted a free hand and no prying eyes while they carried out atrocities of revengeful slaughter.

And here I am in a quandary (not that it matters to anyone else — least of all to those who are suffering). I steadfastly opposed the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that the UN came nowhere near to authorising it. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, on the same grounds: anyone reading the resolutions passed by the Security Council at the time can see that there was, if not in explicit detail, at least in overwhelming spirit, a consensus that al-Qaeda and the Taliban should not go unpunished. For the same reasons, I supported the UN-approved NATO intervention in Libya. How can I support military action against Assad’s disgusting regime when I would not support military action against Saddam Hussein’s equally disgusting regime? I have the purest contempt for Russia’s position on Syria; it tries to pretend that equal blame for the violence can be assigned to the regime and to those challenging it, while supplying the regime with the arms it’s using to slaughter Syrian people. (Putin won a flawed election on Sunday, as everyone knew he would. Unless the Russian people rise up in the same way that some Arab peoples have — unlikely — he will be president for at least six years, and possibly for twelve.)

I can’t see my way out of this quandary. I find myself thinking that we should covertly supply arms to the rebels to give them a chance to win a civil war, since moral right is so clearly on their side. That would increase the bloodshed, but at least there would be a chance of a just outcome. I say ‘a chance’, because I’m not aware of anyone in the Syrian opposition with the stature to lead Syria in the direction it needs to go, towards a tolerant secular democracy within a largely Islamic but not Islamist country. Of course, the Assad regime has been secular in the sense that it hasn’t been theocratic. So was Saddam’s regime. Unfortunately, you can have secular butchers as well as religious butchers.

Meanwhile, we are edging dangerously close to a war in Iran. Neutral, specialist observers remain convinced that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, despite its insistence that it is only interested in civil nuclear power. Israel, which has nuclear weapons but won’t say so, is making belligerent noises about a pre-emptive strike on Iran, in ‘self-defence’. America is calling for restraint, for giving diplomacy more time to work, which is the right policy. Unfortunately, Obama cannot ignore the Zionist lobby in an election year. He is saying that if diplomacy fails and the Iranian government continues to ignore warnings, America will intervene militarily to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. (I suppose US intelligence, aided by the official investigations of the International Atomic Energy Authority, knows where the significant nuclear installations are.)

The only bright spot in this dark picture is that there is in Iran, unlike in Syria, a coherent opposition to the regime of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Iran has had since 1979 a theoretically valid democratic system; apart, that is, from the major fact that ultimate power in the country doesn’t lie with the president but with the supreme leader, who is an Islamist cleric, which means that the country is a theocracy. When Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the 2009 presidential election, Khamenei described his victory as ‘a divine assessment’. Mousavi, who probably did win the election, and who would, if he were president, attempt to guide the country away from the disastrous course it is currently taking, is under house arrest. But as president he would still have to work within a theocratic system, unless there were another revolution giving ultimate power to elected politicians rather than priests.

There’s an essential divide between the West and most of the East over the meaning of democracy. Governments in Russia, China, Iran, most of the ‘…stan’ countries which were part of the Soviet Union, and those Arab countries which haven’t had popular revolutions, or which have suppressed revolts before they’ve become revolutions, simply don’t believe that individual civil rights and freedoms, or fairly fought elections, are that important. What is important to them is stability, economic development and their own ascendancy, and they will sponsor whatever corruption or repression is necessary to maintain them. Ironically, one manifestation of economic development is technology. The computers and smart phones designed in the West but manufactured in China, contributing to that country’s vast sovereign wealth (some of which it’s investing in Africa, Latin America and now, with Europe’s economic difficulties, even here) are the tools by which the people of the East see things in the West which they want to have: not just material things (though they certainly and understandably want those), but intangible things like freedom of speech and dignity of citizenship.

The last paragraph could easily have been written by a British Conservative or an American Republican. The thing I need to add, which most Conservatives or Republicans probably wouldn’t, is that the West doesn’t stand on moral high ground over these difficult matters. We have nuclear weapons, and we’re not going to give them up, notwithstanding Obama’s heroic efforts to reduce the size of the arsenals. In all probability, the UK government will spend about £25 billion replacing Trident after 2015, whoever wins the election in that year. It’s not easy, therefore, to say to developing countries that they can’t have these things, as if they are children and we’re grown-ups, even though no rational government in a developing country would waste precious resources on them. The disastrous decision to invade Iraq means that the West has recently broken international law. Russia’s contemptible refusal to act against the Assad regime is in part a reaction to America’s long refusal seriously to challenge Israel’s illegal expropriation of Palestinian land and its oppression of the Palestinian people.

To come back to a word in the first sentence today: helplessness. There’s nothing I can do but watch, and perhaps give some money to humanitarian organisations which may be able to bring succour to the Syrian innocents. I’m an appalled spectator.

In an hour’s time, I’m going to Oxford to hear Geoffrey Hill give one of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. His topic is ‘Poetry, Policing and Public Order’: alliterative, certainly. Until yesterday, I’d never read a word he’d written, even though I’d known for years that he is a major figure in English poetry, and that some people think he’s the best living poet born in England. Yesterday I read Hill’s Selected Poems, A Treatise of Civil Power and Clavics, which were the three books of his I found in Foyle’s on Saturday. In the first of these, I could mostly understand the selections from For the Unfallen, King Log, Mercian Hymns, Tenebrae and Canaan, and I pretty much got The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, which appears complete. I am unashamed to say that in order to understand his references I consulted the internet, usually Wikipedia, about 50 times (and it never failed me); and a Latin dictionary about 10 times. I kept going through the selections from The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, but here my patience, or perhaps stamina, began to fail. A voice in me was asking, ‘Why are you wasting your time on this cleverness?’ and quoting the old saw about how most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. One of the eulogistic blurb writers on the back of the book is A.N. Wilson. We know what kind of position he represents: a regretful elitism. He’s the man who writes, in the last book of his I read (and the last, in the other sense, that I will read), that clever children shouldn’t be educated with stupid children. In the introduction to his social history of Britain under the present queen, which was as far as I got before giving the book away to Oxfam, he tells us that the British gained their empire mainly out of a genuine desire to help the native peoples there. So Wilson’s admiration of Hill didn’t help me to an impartial judgment of Hill’s poetry. I fall back on the thought, which has often occurred to me when reading poetry that has inspired me, moved me, made me wish that I could ever write a fraction as well as that, that the great don’t need the protection of obscurity or advanced and specialised learning. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Heaney: they can sometimes be difficult, they don’t always surrender immediately, but it’s not an assault course. They’re not deliberately placing obstacles in the way of the common reader. And in speaking of those that I also consider great, but with reservation (Auden, Lowell, for instance), the reservation is always to do with their over-production of assault-course verse. I think I’ve written before that anthologisers nearly always get it right: they sort out the 10% of simple (not necessarily easy) greatness