Occurrences: Book Eighteen

Camden Town12 January 2022

I’m just back from a walk in Regent’s Park. It has been the most beautiful afternoon. Yesterday was dank and miserable. Today the pathways in the park were dry and there was a peach-coloured sky after sunset and a gibbous moon. I generally feel cheerful on these unremarkable days after the festivities have worn off. As I walked round, I thought, ‘I’m still here. I’m fit and healthy and there’s plenty to do.’

Today I sent Keir Starmer the Children’s Media Foundation report which I mentioned in the Christmas Eve entry in the last book. By chance I met Ben Nunn last night in the Prince Albert. He’s a friend and neighbour, and until last year he was Keir’s director of communications. He offered to forward the report to Lucy Powell, who’s the shadow culture secretary, and to Bridget Phillipson, who’s the shadow education secretary. We’ll see if anyone replies.

I’m wondering about publishing another book of my poems. I’ve put the collection together, and included a few prose pieces with the poems. Helen is going to read it and tell me what she thinks.

The government is now in even deeper difficulties than it was in the weeks before Christmas. The latest revelation, which severely threatens Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister, is of an email sent on 20 May 2020, at a time when the country was in the most extreme form of lockdown, by Johnson’s personal private secretary (so an official, not an politician) inviting over 100 people to a drinks party in the garden of 10 Downing Street, to enjoy ‘the lovely weather’. People were told to ‘bring their own booze’. Apparently, between 30 and 40 people responded to the invitation. Johnson attended the party, with his fiancée, for about 25 minutes. He was forced to admit this at Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons at noon today. He came to the House making abject and repeated apologies, but laughably claimed that he hadn’t realised that the gathering wasn’t a work meeting, and contemptibly suggested that ‘in purely technical terms’, it might have been legal. I can’t see that. The crunch point for him is that in December, when the video of the mock press conference was leaked, he came to the House claiming to have been shocked and disgusted that parties of that kind were going on. Having attended such a party himself 18 months previously, I can’t see how he can now escape the charge that he knowingly misled the House of Commons from the dispatch box. And that is, or should be, a resigning matter. Many Conservatives have expressed their anger at Johnson’s actions and evasions; some have explicitly called for him to go. A senior civil servant is currently investigating all the alleged rule-breakings (she’s the one who took over when the Cabinet Secretary, having previously been given the job, admitted that a party had been held in his office too, so he was implicated in the wrongdoing). Johnson is hoping to buy time; he repeatedly said that we must wait to see the findings of Sue Gray’s report. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’ll be forced to resign, that he’ll stay on in a caretaker capacity, and that there will be a new Prime Minister before the local elections in May. If I’m wrong, I promise not to come back and correct my prediction retrospectively.

Keir Starmer was excellent with his six questions today: his outrage was forensic and controlled. The Conservatives listened in near silence.

Camden Town13 January 2022

I need to correct something I wrote on 7 December in the last book. Then, I wondered why the World Health Organization had gone straight from Delta to Omicron in its naming of the variants of SARS-CoV-2. I was wrong. The WHO has used every letter between delta and omicron except two. It’s just that the general public (or, at least, this member of the general public) hadn’t heard about these variants. Perhaps they weren’t as widespread or as dangerous as the more notorious ones. But epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda and mu have all been pressed into service. The two not used are nu and xi. Mark Leicester, to whose researches I am indebted for this information, writes: ‘WHO says, “Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ and xi was not used because it is a common surname”.’ In thanking Mark, I suggested that another reason for not using xi might be that it’s the first name of the president of China, and the WHO might have thought it impolitic to link a SARS-CoV-2 variant with the second most powerful man in the world, and the leader of the country which in all probability spawned the virus, even if accidentally. Anyway, there are now only nine letters left: pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi and omega, and perhaps they’ll skip pi because of its role in mathematics. What will they do after that?

Talking of mu, here’s a limerick which my father used to love reciting:

There was a young curate of Kew
who kept his tomcat in a pew.
He taught it to speak
alphabetical Greek
but it never got further than mu.

I’ve just been out to the doctor to try to get a certificate proving that we had our booster jabs here in London on 9 December. Because we had our first two jabs in France, we represent a slight difficulty to the system. I provided evidence of the French vaccinations. That information now needs to be coded, and I am asked to go back in a week’s time for the certificates. We’ll need them when we return to France in the spring.

Today is a day as beautiful as yesterday, but much milder. Winter-flowering cherries are in blossom, and there are even some daffodil spears poking up in the borders around the car park here.

Camden Town16 January 2022

Helen and I are just back from a walk together in Regent’s Park. It’s another beautiful, unseasonably mild day. We saw our first clump of snowdrops beside one of the less frequented paths. Usually it’s the end of January before I see them.

The stench of government corruption got even stronger last Thursday when it was revealed that two parties were held at 10 Downing Street last April, on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. They seem to have been rather wild affairs, with someone being sent out with a suitcase to the Co-op in the Strand to buy extra booze, and a DJ playing dance music in the basement. The two parties coalesced into one as the evening wore on, and people spilled out into the garden. The stark contrast between this behaviour and that of the Queen, photographed the following morning sitting alone and masked in the chapel of St George’s, Windsor, attending the funeral of her husband of 73 years, has intensified the already widespread public anger. And there may be more revelations to come. I can’t see how Johnson can survive the crisis. I say this not because I credit most of the Conservatives with any sense of decency or morality — though I exempt a few — but because they are now calculating that he has become a liability rather than an asset in their desire to hold onto power. On the other hand, my political predictions have so often proved wrong in the past that even now I hesitate to state with certainty that his time is up. The one thing I am sure of is that he will use every conceivable device, prevarication, distraction, outright lie, to hang on to his position. If he can shift onto senior officials the blame for the outrages committed, he will.

I’ve finished Julian Jackson’s biography of De Gaulle. It’s a masterly account. To repeat, more or less, something which I wrote at the end of last year: I now understand much better why France is such a volatile nation politically. It’s because they really have come close, in the recent past, to full-scale authoritarian rule, to the overthrow of democracy. In 1961, French soldiers were close to a coup d’état organised from Algeria. De Gaulle kept his cool and saw off the threat. He then allowed Algeria its independence by breaking the promises which the European population of the country thought he had made to them. But only three years before that, he undoubtedly encouraged, however delicately and evasively, the possibility of a coup d’état by those same forces in order to hasten the end of the Fourth Republic and his own return to power. That helps to explain why, still, 60 years later, it’s likely that a third of those who vote in the second round of the presidential elections in April will vote for a fascist. Far-right authoritarianism isn’t the preserve of tiny groups of discontented and ignorant white men, as it is in England; it’s a significant part of France’s body politic. And when politicians of the official, consensual parties seem powerless to improve the lot of France’s large white working class, those people turn to ‘leaders’ like Le Pen or Zemmour who offer simple solutions. Many of the white working class who now vote for fascists are former Communist voters.

Some of De Gaulle’s prophetic insights are remarkable. He told the Americans to get out of Vietnam: ‘You won’t do any better there than we did.’ He foresaw the rise of China to global dominance. He faced accusations of anti-Semitism (and there were moments in his life when he did say or write anti-Semitic things) by predicting that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would bring enduring trouble for Jews and Arabs alike. He was a would-be monarch, an egoist, a bully, and — in 1968 — a man utterly out of his time, unable to understand or sympathise with significant sections of French society as it had evolved during his lifetime. As an Englishman, I can never quite forgive him for his ingratitude, complete and unashamed, for what Britain did for him between 1940 and 1944, and for his refusal to acknowledge the primacy of the American, British and other non-French Allied forces in the liberation of France. So far as he was concerned, the French did it all by themselves. Nonetheless, as the book correctly concludes, ‘there cannot be a French citizen who… does not feel justifiably prouder of their country as a result of what de Gaulle achieved between 1940 and 1944. He saved the honour of France.’

I’ve also just finished R.F. Foster’s On Seamus Heaney. It was serialised, in abridged form, on Radio 4 before Christmas. I’ve read all my hero’s published poems many times, of course; but I was very glad of Foster’s critical insights, and of numerous bits of biographical and background information which helped me to understand some of the poems better. I didn’t realise, for instance, that in the first of Heaney’s poems in ‘Clearances’, the wonderful series dedicated to the memory of his mother, his great-grandmother was attacked because she had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism on her marriage. On the other hand, I was puzzled that Foster, writing about Heaney’s poem ‘Casualty’, which broods on the murder of a Catholic fisherman, supposes that he was ‘probably’ killed ‘by Protestant paramilitaries’. I had always assumed, given that ‘most pubs had closed early as a tribute to the funerals of the demonstrators killed in Derry on Bloody Sunday’, and that the IRA had ordered this curfew, that the murderers were IRA men, punishing one of their own kind for his disobedience. That makes sense of the lines ‘How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?’.

A while ago I finished Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (I’m making slow progress through all the Brontë novels.) I thought this one was marvelous. It’s less florid, less romantic, than Charlotte’s books. It’s the account of an abusive marriage. It’s quite extraordinary that Anne, who would die at the age of 29, could have had such insight. The young woman at the centre of the novel is desperate to marry an attractive man who turns out to be a brute. She does so against the clear advice of her aunt and uncle, who are her guardians. But the brute isn’t a brute from the start. There are moments of ease, of forgiveness, even of affection, early on. So the account of the abuse is subtle; crises come and go. It’s like many a marriage that eventually ends in divorce; the failure isn’t certain from the beginning. It’s true that the book has a conventional happy ending: brute dies; formerly abused widow becomes rich; good-hearted lover marries her. But it’s the long description of cruelty which makes the book so memorable. There are critics who say — and some who said at the time of the book’s publication — that structurally it’s unsatisfactory, in that the story is entirely recounted by letters from Gilbert, the good-hearted lover, to a friend, written many years after the events they describe, and by a lengthy series of diary entries which the young woman has shown to Gilbert. I don’t agree. I think the narrative devices are bold and satisfyingly unusual.

Since then, I’ve read Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë’s first novel. It’s simpler than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but equally effective in describing a different kind of abuse: that concerning the status and treatment by wealthy families of the governesses they employ to educate their children. In the first family to which Agnes goes, the children in her charge are unspeakable. I would have reverted to corporal punishment. The parents fail to see anything to criticise in the behaviour of their offspring. In the second family, there is less outright defiance on the part of the children, merely snobbery, condescension and empty-headed vanity. As with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, all comes right for our heroine in the end; she marries happily. The same is true of the two heroines in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley; and, as is well known, of Jane Eyre. I remember reading Jane Eyre in early 1974 when I was severely ill with gastroenteritis in Tehran. It cheered me up no end. I shall read it again shortly.

Camden Town22 January 2022

Two days ago I went to Ossie, the hairdresser in Parkway whom I visit when we’re here. My hair was too long, and I hadn’t shaved for several days. I only visit a hairdresser two or three times a year, and we were in France for sixteen months, so I realised in talking to Ossie that as a result I hadn’t made use of his services for nearly two years. I asked for a shampoo and a haircut, which he was happy to provide. Part way through the cut, he said, ‘Would you like a nice hot towel and shave?’ It’s many years since I’ve been shaved by a professional. I think the last time was in Aosta. I said yes. It was a most luxurious, sensual experience. First he covered my face with the hot towel, and pressed me firmly through the towel. Then he shaved me with a cut-throat razor, very carefully, squeezing parts of the flesh of my face so that the blade caught the whiskers properly. Then he massaged the face and neck. Then he put another hot towel on me, and repeated the process. It was marvelous. He has a special machine with a little conical top and a tiny circling blade to remove nasal hair. He trimmed my eyebrows. All this was done with what Seamus Heaney wonderfully called ‘the unfussy ease of a good tradesman’, but there was a degree of love in it too, as if this intimate ritual were something special, private, between us. He dried my hair and sprayed eau de cologne on my face and neck. He is Turkish, so I told him my story about being scrubbed by Ahmed in the Old Turkish Baths in Istanbul in 1974. I left the place feeling terrific, and determined to avail myself of the experience more often, even when I don’t need a haircut. As he said, ‘Women go to the hairdresser sometimes once a week. It’s good for their morale. Why shouldn’t men have the same pleasure from time to time?’

I walked down to the main NW1 post office in Eversholt Street in order to catch the last evening post. On the way back I passed no fewer than three more barber’s shops, all attending to customers, and three nail bars, ditto. Care of the head and hands is a thriving business in Camden.

Camden Town31 January 2022

There’s still light in the sky at half past five. I’ve just done several circuits of St Pancras Gardens. Looking across at a patch of ground where there is more mud than grass, I noticed a few tiny crocuses, and walked over to admire them more closely. This little park is for ever associated in my mind with Thomas Hardy, who as a young man working for a London architect was responsible for leveling the churchyard here. The ‘Hardy tree’, an ash, still stands, with dozens of uprooted gravestones stacked around its base. So I thought about Hardy’s poem ‘The Year’s Awakening’, whose second stanza goes:

‘How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;      
O crocus root, how do you know,
How do you know?’

Since I last wrote about UK politics, the crisis around Johnson has deepened. Today, Sue Gray finally published a version of her report — she describes it as ‘an update’ — into sixteen apparently lockdown-breaking gatherings: fifteen at 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and one at the Department of Education. If they did break the lockdown regulations in force at the time they were held, they were illegal. It’s only an interim report, because Ms Gray had passed details of the gatherings to the police. The police have decided that twelve of the sixteen merit further investigation, as potentially involving criminal acts. In order not to prejudice the police investigation, the report has nothing specific to say either about the twelve, or about the four which the police have decided don’t merit further enquiry. She justifies her decision not to say anything specific even about the four on the grounds that she doesn’t want to upset the overall balance of her full report. However, Johnson has admitted having been present at one of the twelve gatherings — the ‘bring your own booze’ party which he attended for about 25 minutes and preposterously suggested he had thought was a work event — and another of the twelve took place in his flat. So this looks pretty bad for him. And even the version of the report we have makes some highly critical remarks about the culture in Downing Street over which Johnson has presided. He is trying to bluster it out, of course. He made a contemptible statement to the Commons this afternoon, sort-of apologising while continuing to shift the blame elsewhere. He said he was going to reorganise 10 Downing Street, creating an Office of the Prime Minister with a Permanent Secretary. Keir Starmer was merciless in response. The police say that they have received more than 300 photos and more than 500 pages of documents about the parties. Sue Gray says she has the full version of her report, with supporting evidence, under lock and key. I expect that this will finally be published once the police investigation is complete and any sanctions announced.

Camden Town19 February 2022

Just to continue where the last paragraph of the last entry left off: Johnson descended to a new low when, in his desperate attempt to fend off Starmer’s forensic attack on his behaviour, he accused Starmer of not having prosecuted the serial sex offender Jimmy Savile when Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions. He can only have got this lie from the wilder shores of far-right conspiracy theories peddled on the internet, where apparently it circulates, but he thought it apt to utter it in the House of Commons. There are no words adequate to describe my contempt for Johnson. It is true that Keir was DPP, at the head of an organisation with 5,000 staff, some of whom are better at their job than others, as he once told me, when someone in that organisation culpably failed to pursue a prosecution of Savile, and that Keir apologised on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service when Savile’s crimes came to light. Johnson’s dragging this out, however, meant that a few days later Keir and two other prominent Labour politicians were attacked in the street as they were walking back to Parliament after a briefing about the situation in Ukraine at the Ministry of Defence. The attackers screamed abuse, accusing Keir of being a paedophile himself who had protected Savile. This is the UK version of the qanon conspiracy theory in the USA, which claims that Trump has been fighting against a ring of paedophiles of whom Hillary Clinton is a prominent member. Keir and his colleagues were bundled away in a police car. Johnson has refused to apologise for his words.

About 50 people working in Downing Street, including Johnson, have received letters from the police asking them to explain their apparently illegal participation in the twelve events the police are investigating. I read today that Johnson has now handed his in. I’m quite sure that he will have denied doing anything illegal. How this can be squared with the evident facts I don’t know. If the police do decide to fine him, I can’t see how he can survive. But he will try.

While this pitiful domestic soap opera has been playing out, Europe faces one of the gravest crises to confront it since the Second World War. (Some commentators say ‘the gravest crisis’, but I think of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which was also pretty grave in terms of death and destruction.) I have no doubt that Putin is planning to invade Ukraine. I should say that he is planning to continue to invade Ukraine, since he began to do so in 2014 with the invasion of the Crimea and parts of two provinces in the east of the country. He is employing his usual confection of lies. Huge numbers of troops and vast quantities of matériel are paraded very close to Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia and in the puppet state of Belarus. Putin, possibly even today, will invent an excuse for invasion. He might arrange for an ‘attack’ on some ethnic Russians in one of the two eastern provinces, which, he will claim, will justify invasion in order to protect ‘his’ people there. That’s exactly what he did in the Crimea. He has already made the preposterous assertion that genocide has been committed against the Russian-speaking population in the east. If he does invade, there will be terrible bloodshed, because the Ukrainians will fight. It’s true that amongst the ethnic-Russian population there are some who would prefer to be part of Russia; and Putin has encouraged their sense of alienation from Ukraine by handing out hundreds of thousands of Russian passports.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is not part of NATO. I wish it were. It’s clear to me that sovereign states have the right to choose whichever security group they wish to belong to; or to decide not to belong to any such group. I absolutely understand why many of the former Soviet satellite countries joined NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had had enough of oppression. But given that Ukraine is not in NATO, there’s no chance that the West will send troops to expel Russian invaders from the country. The best we can do is to send equipment, and perhaps advisers, though I don’t know whether Ukraine’s military needs the West’s advice. Meanwhile, there are crisis meetings of NATO and the EU, and Putin’s vanity has been flattered by the stream of Western leaders flying to Moscow to talk to him. The other thing we can do is to impose the most extreme sanctions on Russia. Germany must definitively close the new pipeline which has been built to bring gas from Russia. All Western countries must actively look elsewhere than from Russia for their continuing gas supplies. Russia must be excluded from the system for international inter-bank payments. And senior people in Putin’s regime must be forbidden access to Western countries.

The last paragraph may be whistling in the wind. We did nothing when Putin acted in 2014. 14,000 people have been killed as a result of his actions then. Getting unanimity in the EU is notoriously difficult, especially when the bloc includes states like Hungary, led at the moment by a populist thug who is an admirer of Putin. So I don’t know. Like millions of others, I helplessly await events.

As so often in this diary, I now lurch from the grand sweep of history to my own minute affairs. I am going to publish a third book of my poems and translations (also including some bits of prose). It’s to be called Another Kind of Seeing. There are 117 pieces. Helen, Peter and Monica Hetherington and Paul Ashton have read it and approved of it. Yesterday I spoke to Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor on FaceTime, and they will publish it in the same format as for my two books in 2017. So I’m very pleased about that. In re-reading the poems on my website, I found a few in need of small revisions, which my long-suffering friend Mark Leicester will attend to. And the other day, Mark forwarded to me a request from a Spanish glassware company, who want to use sections of my translation of Machado’s poem ‘En abril, las aguas mil’ on their English-language website. Of course I said yes. I think it’s the first time that my work has been used to advertise anything solid.

Nine days ago I met my friend Arturo Tosi, who helped me with my translations of Montale’s stories. He and his wife have been in London for several weeks. I mentioned that though I was perfectly content for those translations just to sit on my website, I would be very pleased if anyone were interested in publishing them in print. I had thought of sending them to the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, but hesitated to cold-call in that way. Arturo told me that he’s a friend of the director of the London branch of the Istituto, so that has emboldened me, and I’ve sent her the spiral-bound collection with a covering letter. No response so far.

Yesterday a violent storm tore across Ireland and Britain: I think the most destructive since the great storm of 1987. At least four people were killed. Hundreds of thousands of homes are still without power. Many trees have been blown down. A slightly less violent but still severe storm arrived on Thursday. Extreme events like these (and much more destructive examples around the world, like the wildfires in Australia and California) will become more frequent until we stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A link with the Ukraine crisis is that if we can swiftly stop using oil, coal and gas (and by ‘swiftly’ I mean in the next twenty years, in other words during my lifetime, because I do intend to live until at least 90), autocracies like Russia will no longer be able to use their ownership of fossil fuels as a political weapon.

Camden Town26 February 2022

In the early hours of 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine. For the last 48 hours, I, like millions of others across the world, have been in a state of rage. Just now, at last, I managed to focus some of that rage by finding a means to send money to the National Bank of Ukraine, which has opened a special account in support of Ukraine’s army. It would have been easy to send money to several of the humanitarian charities no doubt already doing wonderful work supporting refugees fleeing the country. But at the moment I actually want my pitifully small donation ($150) to go towards buying a gun for a Ukrainian. I have never felt this way before. It’s perfectly clear to me that if Putin is allowed to take Ukraine, and the West reluctantly accepts his atrocity as a fait accompli, that will not be the end of it. He will then go for Moldova, or the whole of Georgia, or even some of the eastern European states now part of NATO. Meanwhile, the Chinese president, with whom Putin had a friendly chat at the Beijing Winter Olympics last week, is considering when would be the best moment to invade Taiwan. Then there’s the host of other authoritarian countries of different kinds who would happily accept a future based straightforwardly on the use of force. For me at the moment, Ukraine’s suffering is the symbol of a worldwide struggle between the enlightenment which, throughout my life, I have hoped and believed would ultimately prevail over tyranny, and that very tyranny which is now extending its writ.

The West’s initial response to the threat of invasion was pathetically inadequate. I really do think comparisons with Hitler are apt. Like Hitler with the Allies, Putin has strung the West along, uttering evasive ambiguities and enjoying the attention he has been getting from imploring visiting leaders, with no intention other than to invade when the moment suited him. However, in the two days since the invasion, the West has got its act together a bit better. The most important thing is that weapons are being sent to Ukraine. There is a barrage of sanctions. It looks, at last, as if Russia is about to be excluded from the SWIFT inter-bank payments system. Germany has suspended the use of the new gas pipeline from Russia. A number of symbolic decisions have been taken to do with sports, which may have an effect on Russian public opinion beyond their strategic significance. And so far as I can see, Russia isn’t finding it as easy to subjugate its neighbour as Putin had hoped. It may well be that eventually the sheer might of Russia’s military machine will succeed in crushing resistance. But then, a nation of 40 million people, with a land area larger than France, will have to be governed by a hated invader. There will be continuing guerilla warfare. I think that all Western countries should expel Russian embassies and should close their own embassies and consulates in Russia. Countries that will be hurt by the cutting off of supplies of Russian oil and gas must be compensated, either financially or by getting rapid access to alternative sources of fuel. Same thing for broken contracts: if countries have sent money to Russian banks and haven’t yet received goods or raw materials in return, they must be compensated. The recent pandemic, and the financial crisis of 2007/8, showed that, when necessary, unthinkably large sums of money suddenly become thinkable. This must happen now. Then, Ukraine must rapidly be admitted to the EU, as its president requested this morning.

It is now certain that a new Iron Curtain will descend across Europe, though in a different place from that which descended after the Second World War. If Russia then turns eastward, selling its oil and gas and other minerals to China in exchange for China’s manufactured goods, so be it. Let the East, alas, be a place where dictators, kleptocrats, Islamist extremists (Afghanistan) or soldiers (Myanmar) hold sway. I weep for those places. But we must not allow those models of governance to move westward, and if we have to fight to prevent them, we should.

Camden Town3 March 2022

It’s a week since Russia began its outrage in Ukraine. In this time, it has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in that country. It is now routinely bombing civilian targets in all the major cities. The Ukrainian resistance has been heroic, and the Russian assault certainly has not gone according to Putin’s plan.

It’s quite clear to me that the conflict in Ukraine is the symbol of a broader struggle between enlightenment and tyranny. Having seen what Putin has done in Chechnya, in Syria, in the Crimea and in the eastern provinces of Ukraine in the years before last week, and having effectively let him get away with it, the West has suddenly woken up. If we do not drive Putin out of Ukraine — the whole of Ukraine, including the Crimea and the eastern provinces — we are complicit in the failure of the whole democratic ideal.

I’m glad that NATO, the EU, the USA, Canada and the UK have discovered a unity which didn’t seem much in evidence before this. I’m glad that we are now supplying arms to Ukrainian forces in significant quantity. Sanctions of many kinds have been applied to Russia on an unprecedented scale. But I fear that Russia may use ever more terrifyingly destructive weapons to try to flatten Ukraine, to break its immediate resistance. If Russia does that, it will be engaged in guerilla warfare with Ukrainian fighters which will go on for years. That’s why, whatever the risks of escalation of the conflict, I think that NATO should intervene more decisively than it is apparently prepared to do at the moment. We should put NATO planes into the skies over Ukraine to stop Russian planes operating there. If that means shooting some down, so be it. We did that in Kosovo in 1999 when Milosevic was trying to commit genocide against the Albanian population there. There is no difference of principle between what we did then and what needs to be done now. The difference of fact, of course, is that Russia is not Serbia, and it has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons.

And there is one large hole in our sanctions policy. Europe is still importing Russian oil and gas, and paying for it! This must stop. We must urgently seek sources of energy elsewhere. If Russia turns to China and other authoritarian regimes in the East as customers for its raw materials, so be it.

The sober reality, I’m afraid, is that there won’t be a no-fly zone over Ukraine and we won’t allow NATO soldiers to enter the country. Short of that, the best that can hoped for is that the supply of arms into the country increases dramatically, giving the Ukrainian forces some chance of destroying the enemy’s matériel and damaging the morale of its forces.

I wrote to Keir Starmer yesterday asking him to argue publicly for a no-fly zone in Ukraine, as several times requested by the Ukrainian president. Keir is an international lawyer, as is the admirable Philippe Sands, who has said that there is no doubt that Russia has committed war crimes. Surely, I wrote, there are provisions in international treaties allowing intervention in a country when there is clear evidence of atrocities being committed. My email will have landed along with hundreds or thousands of others in his inbox. I don’t suppose it will have any effect. The only other practical thing I’ve done is to give another £100 to Ukraine, this time direct to the Ukrainian embassy in London.

Absurd lurch from these fateful concerns to my own insignificant ones: for about three years now, I’ve had a little growth on my chest. It's a cutaneous horn, made of compact keratin. It has itched, especially at night. Finally, about three weeks ago, I went to the doctor about it, was referred to a dermatologist, Rachel Pierce, who this morning removed it under a local anaesthetic. A surgeon and a nurse were there too. It looked to me as if the surgeon is the top expert on procedures like this, and Rachel did the job under her supervision. Anyway, it was the NHS at its most wonderful, as I told the three of them when I left. Rachel will do a biopsy on the growth, to make sure that it isn’t malignant, and she’ll write to me in any case.

Helen’s medical difficulties are more complex than mine. She has gastritis, stones in her gall bladder, and contusions or cysts on her pancreas. The contusions or cysts are not malignant. She awaits an appointment at the HPB (hepato-pancreato-biliar) clinic, to see if anything can be done about them and about the stones. Her recent experience is that, when she gets attention from a medical professional, the advice is excellent and its delivery humane. But sometimes communication systems fail. The other day she had a text instructing her to attend our local hospital at a precise time and at a specified outpatients’ clinic. We turned up. No, we were told, there was going to be a telephone consultation at this time, not a face-to-face meeting. We should go home. We went home, and no consultation came, and it still hasn’t come two weeks later. So it’s worrying. Helen supposes that her condition is not regarded as urgent, hence the delays. And of course the NHS is under immense pressure as it tries to catch up after the Covid-19 pandemic, which does now seem to be on the wane. But that doesn’t excuse mistakes such as the one I’ve mentioned.

Camden Town9 March 2022

It’s nearly two weeks now since Russia invaded Ukraine. The death and destruction has been terrible, but Ukraine at the moment is undefeated. Western sanctions, and the withdrawal of increasing numbers of major Western companies from Russia, are clearly hurting Putin, but his rage and frustration is such that I fear he will order continuing criminal acts in the hope of being able eventually to declare some kind of victory.

A bright spot in this dark landscape is that Ukrainian fighters really do seem to be resisting the Russian advance on several fronts. Some thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed. I imagine that weapons are now getting into the hands of the Ukrainians, given the large sums committed by the EU, UK and US, and I understand that we’re not hearing about the practicalities of that, for security reasons: don’t tell the enemy what you’re doing. But it’s now urgently necessary that Ukraine is supplied with more aircraft, and that NATO reverses its policy of not allowing a no-fly zone. President Zelenskiy has this morning repeated his appeal for a no-fly zone. Here’s The Guardian on-line’s report of his statement: ‘the international community would be responsible for a mass humanitarian catastrophe if it does not agree a no-fly zone… The country is at maximum threat level. Russia uses missiles, aircraft and helicopters against us, against civilians, against our cities, against our infrastructure… It is the humanitarian duty of the world to respond… Ukrainians have shown throughout the last two weeks that they will never give in.’

Yesterday there seemed to be a possibility that Poland would give Ukraine its Russian-made jets, which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly, as long as the US gave Poland some used aircraft in return. Part of Poland’s plan was that it would deliver its planes to an American air base in Germany. America has rejected the proposal, I suppose because it looks too much like an explicit intervention in the conflict. Surely there must be a simple way of providing aircraft, which after all are weapons like any other kind of matériel. Let Ukrainian pilots go direct to Poland and fly the aircraft to safer areas in the west of Ukraine. Arrange some sort of financial compensation to Poland. The West is proudly, and rightly, selling or giving all manner of other arms to Ukraine. I don’t see the difference when it comes to second-hand aeroplanes.

The US has said that it will immediately stop buying Russian oil and gas. The UK has said that it will do the same by the end of the year. These are significant acts. Several EU countries have far greater dependence on Russian supplies of energy than do the US and the UK, and I can understand their difficulty. But they too must take urgent and if necessary painful steps to stop buying Russian oil and gas. At the moment, millions of dollars are flowing into Putin’s coffers every day from several European countries, shoring up his tottering economy.

Zelenskiy yesterday spoke by video link to the House of Commons. It was the first time that any foreign leader has done such a thing. He paraphrased Shakespeare: ‘The question for us now is to be or not to be. Oh no, this Shakespearian question. For 13 days this question could have been asked, but now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be.’ And he echoed one of Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches: ‘We will fight until the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forest, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.’ It was a historic, emotionally charged occasion, greeted by lengthy applause (something strictly not allowed in Parliament). But he needs more than applause.

I’ve just sent another £100 to the Ukrainian embassy. The humanitarian charities, so far as I can see, are awash with money, and of course that’s a good thing. But I desperately want my pittance to go straight to Ukraine’s government, to contribute to its military struggle.

Thanks to Stephen Mellor’s fast work, we’re nearly at the point where Another Kind of Seeing can go to print. I’ve ordered 300 copies.

Camden Town12 March 2022

We are sitting here in the West allowing the annihilation of a European country to be achieved by a tyrant. I am in despair. There is talk of the possibility of Putin using chemical weapons if, as we now expect, he realises that he will not be able to cow the Ukrainians into submission by conventional means. Yes, he can bomb cities flat. Yes, he can cause the evacuation of large sections of the civilian population (though, as a matter of deliberate policy, his forces shell fleeing civilians a short time after a so-called ceasefire has been declared). But when his soldiers have to go into the centres of the cities for street-by-street fighting with the defenders, they will suffer heavy losses. At that point, chemical weapons might be used.

There used to be a time when I thought, and wrote, that the only legitimate reason for a country to be invaded in order to stop atrocities being committed there is that the United Nations has approved the action. We have now got to the point where the whole architecture of the UN Security Council, set up in the aftermath of the Second World War, is useless: caught between tragedy and farce. Yesterday, Russia called a special session of the Security Council in order to claim that the Americans had secretly been manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine. The outrageousness of this lie, and Russia’s willingness to peddle it in the supposedly highest international political forum in the world, means that the Security Council is now morally bankrupt as the final arbiter of what should or should not be done in moments of international crisis like this. Russia will always veto what the Western permanent members want to do, and China will support Russia or abstain. When it abstains, it unconvincingly parades its neutral stance while covertly helping Russia and turning a blind eye to Russia’s crimes.

If Putin does use chemical weapons, my helpless position is the same as when they were used in Syria.  Obama’s only major foreign policy error was to threaten Assad with US intervention if he used chemical weapons, and then not to intervene when he did.  At that point Putin saw his opportunity, and we know the rest: the utter destruction of Aleppo and other cities, and hundreds of thousands more deaths.

I was firmly opposed to the Western invasion of Iraq, and events since 2003 in that country have proved me and millions of others right. But if the announced casus belli for that intervention had been that Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own people, I would have supported it.

So, if Putin, having driven women and children out of the cities, but finding that conventional urban warfare against determined resistance isn’t working, resorts to chemical attacks to kill Ukrainian fighters, NATO should go in with full force.  I’ll say it again: I’m in despair at NATO’s failure to intervene more effectively than we are.  Yes, we are supplying weapons, and that’s good.  I hope that we are secretly supplying intelligence to the Ukrainians about Russian movements, and I don’t expect to be told about that.  But I can’t for the life of me see why those Russian-built aeroplanes, which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly, are stuck in Poland.  Aeroplanes are weapons like any other weapon.  To talk about a no-fly zone is perhaps to use the wrong term.  Why can’t those planes be given to Ukraine, just as Western countries are giving other weapons, flown to a safe airbase in the west of the country, and then put to use like other weapons? Meanwhile, the atrocities continue.

This is a binary struggle between freedom and tyranny.  We cannot allow Putin to imagine that he can continue to gobble up chunks of Europe, laying waste as he does so.  In a dreadful kind of way, I sort of hope that he does something that finally provokes the West to use full force against him, to drive him out of the whole of Ukraine, including the Crimea and the eastern provinces.  Of course that would mean telling him to shift his navy from Sevastopol, and if he refuses to do so, destroying it.  A full-scale war, I know.  But at the moment Russia and China think that they’re in the ascendant in promoting authoritarian governance and total manipulation of people’s minds as the dominant polity for the 21st century. We can’t allow that.

Camden Town6 April 2022

Since I last wrote, further evidence of atrocities committed by Russian troops accumulates daily. There is no doubt that multiple war crimes have been committed, and the systematic attempt to exterminate large sections of the civilian population may amount to genocide. The thing that enrages me is that there is constant appalled talk of the necessity of documenting these war crimes, of bringing the perpetrators to justice — an outcome, even if it happens, which will take years to bring about — while we continue to refuse to take the necessary actions to drive Russia out of the whole of Ukraine now.

Zelenskiy addressed the UN Security Council yesterday, and was magnificent in condemning its ineffectiveness. The entity which was supposed to guarantee the security of independent sovereign states in the aftermath of the Second World War now guarantees nothing. He suggested that after the war a conference be held in Kyiv to rewrite the rules of the UN, first written in San Francisco in 1945. At the moment, the only rewriting I can envisage is one that excludes Russia from all international forums until Putin is deposed and some kind of non-aggressive governance (I won’t say democratic governance — that would be too much to hope for) is restored in Russia. Yes, Ukraine is winning the war in some parts of the country. Yes, the weapons we are supplying are helping. But thousands of Ukrainians, mainly civilians, are being tortured, raped, murdered by Russian troops while we sit at home and refuse to supply the truly lethal weaponry, especially aeroplanes, which would turn the tide decisively. There is only one acceptable outcome, which is that the whole of Ukraine, including the Crimea and the whole of the eastern provinces, is rid of Russia.

‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ — a line of Auden’s which I quote in my poem ‘Auden versus Shelley’. Apart from giving the Ukrainian embassy some money, I’ve done nothing except rant and rage and write three short poems, which will make nothing happen. Here they are.



A murderer invades his neighbours’ house. And we,
the decent burghers of the town, condemn the deed.
Of course we’d love to stop the villain, but we fear
the size and shape of weapons hidden in his hand.
We hope that his resisters — bless them — understand
our truly agonising difficulties here.
To them, ‘This murder’s unacceptable,’ we plead.
‘We stand by you, applaud you, fly your flag, you see?’
The blood meanwhile is washing on the neighbours’ floor.
The murderer, encouraged, tries the house next door.


When I was five, I knew Hungarians were good
and Russians bad: my entry into politics.
How much the world has changed since 1956!
Now Russia spills Ukrainian, not Hungarian, blood.

A lifetime since the tanks rolled into Budapest
my childish certainty is changed to adult rage
that we allow a gangster to command the stage.
He tests our resolution, and we fail the test.

Our leaders, masters of diplomacy, explain:
‘We’re doing all we can. And here’s your chance to see
how freedom’s plucky underdog fights tyranny
with one hand tied behind her back. Come on, Ukraine!’


The gangster, ‘in Aleppo once’, reduced to dust
a place where there had been a city. Now he’s come
to try his hand on peaceful targets nearer home.

Our masters of diplomacy again: ‘We must
at all costs not provoke him to a wider war.
Supplying aeroplanes would be a bridge too far.’

The wider war put off until another day,
the gambler gangster’s luck is in, and ‘Bombs away!’,
mass murder drops unchallenged from an open sky.
‘Stand by Ukraine!’’s a tired chorus. We stand by.

My new book of poems and prose is now being printed. I expect it’ll be out in two or three weeks’ time. I was able to squeeze these poems into it at the last minute.

On 13 March, a Sunday, I lay in bed all day, drained of energy. I tested myself for Covid-19 that afternoon. Two bright red lines. For eleven days after that, I lurched between continuing to operate normally, though with a bad head cold, and periods of lassitude and deep depression. In the second week, I noticed that the T line on the lateral flow test reader was changing each day from scarlet through various shades of pink, which gave me an idea for a poem, which I was also able to squeeze into the book at the last minute. On 24 March I went to the chemist in the high street and at the scandalous price of £149 took a PCR test whose result I would receive within eight hours. It was negative. This meant that we were able to go to Manchester two days later, to stay with Judith Harrisson for the weekend. It also meant that I was able to help Myra Barrs prepare for her lecture about her Vygotsky book at the Institute of Education the following Tuesday. It went very well; about 70 people were there in person, with another 30 watching on Zoom. It was filmed too, so people can watch it whenever they like in the future. The lecture was one in the series in Harold Rosen’s memory. I had previously had the depressing news that the book of Harold’s writings which I edited and which was published in 2017 was about to go out of print. Betty Rosen and I have between us saved 60 copies from the pulping machine for £4 each. At Myra’s lecture we sold 21 copies of Harold’s book as well as 20 copies of her book. I now have the copyright of Harold’s book and can do whatever I like with it. The publisher sent me the electronic versions, and I’ve passed one of those on to various friends in teacher education who I hope may be able to use it.

Last weekend we had another of our Bedford Modern School play-reading reunions at Peter and Monica Hetherington’s house in Bletsoe. This time — the first since November 2019, because of the pandemic — we read Much Ado about Nothing. Great fun, with beautiful live music supplied by Kate Hetherington, Peter and Monica’s daughter. Afterwards we all had dinner at The Bedford Arms in Oakley, and most of us then stayed overnight at The Queen’s Head in Milton Ernest. Coffee the next morning in Bletsoe, and back here by lunchtime.

Yesterday I went to Canterbury to see my brother Peter. He was in good spirits, and took me out for an excellent pub lunch. He’d got into a bit of anxiety over a large electricity bill, money which after investigation it did look as if he owed (through no fault of his own; confusing behaviour on the part of a former supplier which he’d left and which had subsequently gone bust, as so many firms in our ridiculous privatised energy sector have recently done), and we sorted that out.

Tomorrow I’m going up to Shropshire to see Andrew Bannerman’s final production as director of the Shrewsbury Youth Theatre. It’s The Tempest. Andrew was 80 last month, and he’s hanging up his hat after many years of wonderful work with generations of young people. I suppose I’ve seen about ten of his productions. He himself was the best Prospero I’ve ever seen — and I’ve watched some famous professionals in the role — in an adult amateur open-air performance one July about 30 years ago. I sent him my translation of Rilke’s ‘The Spirit Ariel’, which will be in the new book. I’m back here on Friday, and then to Hove on Saturday for two days of Sussex cricket-watching with Mick Robertson.

More frustration for poor Helen to do with her health. She thought she was going to UCLH for a consultation about her gall bladder and pancreas next Tuesday, but yesterday someone rang up to cancel it. On top of that, she has pain and weakness in her shoulders and upper arms. The results of an X-ray, which separately she finally received yesterday, revealed osteopenia, an early form of osteoporosis, and some evidence of calcification. The doctor is arranging some physiotherapy sessions, and after consulting the NHS website about these two conditions, Helen’s going to take vitamin D and magnesium supplements for a while. The uncertainty means that we’re not sure when we’re going to France. When we do go, at least we know an excellent physiotherapist in Pont-Scorff who treated Helen last autumn, and to whom she could return.

Camden Town11 April 2022

The performance of The Tempest in Shrewsbury was wonderful. I wept through most of the second half. The power of Shakespeare’s verse, its timeless wisdom delivered in iambic pentameters of astonishing beauty, grew slowly on me throughout the first half, and finally overwhelmed me after the interval. I think somehow that hearing the lines so well spoken by young people — people with all their lives before them, with the right to hope for many years of useful and pleasurable life to come — was a factor in my response. And in the context of the world’s current difficulties and tragedies — Ukraine, the climate crisis, the increasing inequalities within and between countries — a statement of hope seemed all the more necessary and welcome. Of all the great lines in the play, Prospero’s profound observation, very near the end, that ‘the rarer action / is in virtue than in vengeance’ sums up what the world needs now, and what it has too little of.

Back to London on Friday, then down to Hove on Saturday. I returned last night. Here’s an account of the trip.

The Perils of WhatsApp

I’ve just come back from two April days of quiet pleasure, watching early-season cricket at Hove in the company of my dear friend Mick Robertson. Most of the time, I wore a winter coat, scarf and woolly hat, but I also managed to return to London after the trip with a sunburnt face. I must pack some high-factor sun cream next time I go down there.

I saw the last two days of a four-day game between Sussex and Nottinghamshire. Sussex had done very well in the first two days, but weaknesses in their bowling attack on the third day allowed Nottinghamshire to post a large first-innings lead, including two impressive centuries which effectively turned the match. The visitors won by ten wickets just after tea on the Sunday.

Mick often sits with his friend Tony Doctors in front of the pavilion. Both are longstanding and faithful members of Sussex County Cricket Club. Both have detailed memories of Sussex’s achievements going back many decades. When on the second day Mick mentioned to Tony that I was going to be joining the party the following day, Tony was kind enough to buy some delicious pastries for us to consume with our tea during the Saturday tea interval. As we drank and munched, Tony was studying his phone. He had in fact been studying his phone through much of the afternoon session, since Brighton and Hove Albion, another of his passions, were playing Arsenal, away from home, in the Premier League. Much to his delight, the Albion won. But it was another matter which claimed Tony’s attention during this tea interval.

One of Sussex’s best young players, 17-year-old Dan Ibrahim, had unfortunately injured his shoulder earlier in the game. An X-ray had showed that no bones were broken, but there was significant swelling, and the damage meant that Dan would play no further part in this game, and might be out of the team for several weeks.

Tony himself enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a bowler in club cricket, first as a seam bowler, opening the attack; later, as the years rolled on, turning to guileful spin. By the time he unlaced his boots after his last game, he had taken the astonishing total of almost 4,000 wickets for his club, Preston Nomads, which was founded in Brighton in 1927. He is now the club’s secretary. Tony’s responsibilities and his network of contacts both at Sussex CCC and at Preston Nomads have meant that, as modern information technology has advanced, he has found WhatsApp a useful tool of communication. So it was natural, when he was concerned about Dan’s injury, that he should write to Dan’s mother, a member of a WhatsApp group of Sussex supporters, asking how the boy was doing. Her reply was reassuring, and before lunch on the Saturday Tony wrote a reply in return.

Over at Preston Nomads, there was much sadder news on the same day. One of the club’s longest-serving players, who when his playing days were done had for many years served the club as one of its Vice Presidents, had died. Naturally, the club’s group WhatsApp, keeping its some 200 participants in instant and regular contact, was full of messages of sadness, condolence and affectionate reminiscence.

I was halfway through the Eccles cake that Tony had bought me when Mick and I saw Tony’s brow darken over his phone. He remained calm, but he said, in a commendable understatement, ‘I think I’ve made a bit of a mistake.’ It turned out that 200 members of Preston Nomads, in sorrow that one of their own had taken off his pads in that great pavilion in the sky, were surprised to read a jarringly cheerful post from their secretary: ‘That’s good news. I hope he will be back playing asap.’ The message sat there for three hours until, urgently putting down his own Eccles cake, Tony was able, with many apologies, to post a correction for the Nomads’ WhatsApp group, before redirecting to Dan’s mother his unfortunately nomadic message.

Tony’s enormous popularity at Preston Nomads, and the esteem in which he is held there, meant of course that the members knew, after their initial surprise, that there had indeed been some mistake. But on a weekend when we learned that one of Sussex’s greatest former players, Imran Khan, the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, had been ousted from power, I reflected on the accidents and misfortunes which can await those in our world who shoulder responsibilities, small and large.

When I got home, I saw with enormous relief that Macron had won the first round of the French presidential elections, with a four-point advantage over Le Pen. I expect now that he will win on 24 April, though with a much smaller margin of victory over her than five years ago.  For the next two weeks, he and his supporters need to roll up their sleeves and concentrate on what the supporters of his principal opponent are aggrieved about.

Le Pen is Pétain for the 21st century.  Pétain’s speeches in 1940 were full of consensual stuff about community, family, security, ‘traditional’ French values.  Then his government enthusiastically aided the Germans in promoting the Holocaust.  Then it was the Jews; now it is Muslims of North African origin, people whose roots go back to the empire which France so blindly tried to hang on to, and which De Gaulle finally and correctly let go.  If Le Pen were ever to gain power, there would be a similar targeting of scapegoats for the country’s difficulties as there were in the 1930s and early 1940s.  Yes, Le Pen the daughter has successfully presented herself as a more moderate person than her father, who used to speak with pleasure about putting immigrants and leftists into ovens, but at bottom her view of the country’s problems, and its solutions, is the same: blame foreigners.  And she is economically illiterate.  Anyone who proposes that no one under 30 will pay any income tax will of course get support from some people under 30 who like that idea, but it isn’t a responsible policy, and I very much doubt that she could put the policy into effect if she were ever elected.

Le Pen, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Salvini: these are all fifth columnists in democratic countries.  They would like the democratic order to be broken and for a wave of populist violence, fuelled by social media, to be unleashed.  That’s what happened in Washington on 6 January last year.

Meanwhile, the representatives of the legitimate right and left in France need urgently to address the concerns which have led so many ordinary voters to support toxic candidates with impossibilist oppositional programmes. Essentially, the forces of globalisation, which in one sense are unstoppable, need to be challenged at the national level by policies which mean that those ordinary voters don’t feel powerless, taken for granted.  Decent jobs, decent wages, decent pensions: I think that’s about it, for many people.  Macron has brought unemployment down to its lowest level for 20 years, not that he’s getting much credit for the achievement.

Mélenchon, whom I don’t like at all as a person, did very well, with 22% of the vote. I was pleased that he told his supporters, three times, not to vote for Le Pen. Of course, if the left had been able to bring itself to unite around a single candidate, that candidate, probably Mélenchon, would be facing Macron in the second round now: a far healthier prospect for French democracy.

Camden Town14 April 2022

The Prime Minister, his wife and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have all been issued with fines for breaking the law forbidding social gatherings at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both men have refused to resign. There is some speculation that the Prime Minister may face one or more further fines, and that these may be more serious for him, in that the offence which he has committed and for which he has already paid his fine was the relatively innocent one of attending a ten-minute unexpected gathering of people wishing him a happy birthday. He is thought also to have attended gatherings lasting much longer, where alcohol was consumed. If one or more of these attendances is proved, I think his position will become more difficult. As it is, he is the first serving Prime Minister in British history proven to have broken the law while in office.

Russian atrocities in Ukraine continue, but Ukrainian forces, helped — though still inadequately, in my opinion — by Western weapons, are defending their country heroically. More and more commentators, political and military, are saying that we should send aircraft. I’ve been saying that from the beginning. It looks now as if Russia is hoping to settle for gaining and keeping a chunk of land which would link the entirety of two eastern provinces, via Mariupol, a city which Russia has utterly destroyed and where many thousands of civilians have been killed, with Crimea. So the task for Ukraine, in the coming bloody weeks, is to drive Russia out of the whole of Ukraine, including the parts which it illegally annexed in 2014. I’m glad to see that today Ukraine has done significant damage to the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It shows that Ukraine isn’t content that Russia should maintain a fleet at Sevastopol; that it does intend that Crimea should be liberated, however remote that possibility is at the moment.

At home, Boris Johnson has just announced the utterly contemptible and ridiculous policy of sending illegal immigrants to Rwanda for processing. It is perhaps the most striking example of our government’s moral bankruptcy. We seem to be saying that the United Kingdom, one of the richest countries in the world, is not capable itself of dealing with the problem of legal and illegal immigration. It prefers to outsource the problem to an emerging African country in exchange for money.

Here is the UNHCR’s response: ‘UNHCR does not support the externalisation of asylum states’ obligations. This includes measures taken by states to transfer asylum seekers and refugees to other countries, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect refugees.’

And this is what the Bishop of Durham thinks: ‘Asylum seekers who arrive on our shores are our international responsibility and should be dealt with in our own land with the human dignity to which they are entitled. There are many questions about the parameters of any offshoring proposal that remain unanswered, including the financial cost, but primarily around the question of dignity.’

The depth of my contempt for Johnson and almost all the crew of chancers around him in the Cabinet is unfathomable. On a topic closer to my own professional experience, the government now proposes, in a completely unnecessary act of cultural vandalism, to privatise Channel 4.

Kerfontaine11 May 2022

We drove here in one go on 24 April. The decision to come was made as soon as Helen took a call from a doctor at the HPB clinic, who told her that at some time in the next few months she will be offered an ultrasound examination of her pancreas and an operation to remove her gall bladder. He couldn’t be more precise than that. She now has access to all communications from the hospital on-line, so there’s no danger of an old-fashioned letter lying on the mat in London while we’re here. (Two days ago, she received a date for the ultrasound: 17 August. So we’ll go back for that.)

An hour after our arrival, we were hugely relieved to hear on the radio that Emmanuel Macron had emphatically won the second round of the French presidential election. The final result, confirmed a few days later, gave him 58.5% of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s 41.5%. I was hoping for a gap between them of at least 10%; this is much better. But Le Pen has still significantly increased her share of the vote from 2017, and it continues to appal me that more than four out of ten of the people who bothered to vote, and who expressed an opinion when they got into the voting booth, chose a fascist. As I’ve already written, Macron, together with whatever kind of government is elected in June, needs to get on and address some of the legitimate concerns which disillusioned, cynical, poorer people in France have, without yielding any ground to Le Pen’s racism and anti-Europeanism. Our neighbours Jean and Annick, and our gardener Jean-Paul, are sure that Macron’s grouping will win a majority in June; Mary and Jacques aren’t so sure.

It entertains me how easily the names of political parties change in France. La République en Marche, the party that Macron launched only in 2016, last week changed its name to Renaissance. It’s been the same with the Gaullist right over the years (UNR, UDR, RPR, UMP, Les Républicains). The fascist right has tried to soften its image by changing its name from Front National to Rassemblement National. On the left, four parties have agreed an electoral alliance for the parliamentary elections next month, and given themselves the portmanteau name NUPES: Nouvelle Union Populaire Économique et Sociale. It’s true that there have been a few name changes in UK politics in my lifetime — the Liberals became the Liberal Democrats after the Social Democrats merged with them — and more recently UKIP, formed to campaign for Brexit, later changed its name twice, but for most of this and the previous century political parties in the UK have stuck to familiar labels. The ease with which French parties and groupings change their names says something about the relative volatility of French politics compared with the UK.

David James came here two days after we arrived. Two days after that, to his great delight, he became the owner of 28 Place de la Maison des Princes in Pont-Scorff. While he was here, I helped him insure the house and open a bank account. Since he left, Mary, Jacques and I have found an architect who will visit the house with me with a view to doing an étude préliminaire. There’s a huge amount of work to do to make the place habitable.

Mary and Jacques have been in their house in Priziac twice since the beginning of the year. They’ve already made much improvement there. Yesterday I drove them to Nantes airport for a flight back to Marseille. Jacques has to undergo an operation next Tuesday to remove a small growth on his right lung, which may be cancerous. The surgeon hopes that the operation can be performed using keyhole surgery, but apparently the growth is in an awkward place, so it may be necessary to go in through the rib cage. We hope not. In any case, Jacques will need several weeks of recovery before he and Mary come back here.

The weather has been sublimely beautiful and unseasonably hot since we’ve been here, though it is cooler, cloudy and windy today. (And it’s just started to rain: a good thing.) Jean-Paul came to cut the hedge on Monday and yesterday. I followed him round, sweeping up the cuttings. He’s coming to mow the meadow and the lawn on Friday.

Next week I’m going back to London for four nights. On 19 May there will be a launch at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education of Michael Rosen’s book What is a Bong Tree?, which I edited. By a good coincidence, I had an email this morning from the printer of my new book, Another Kind of Seeing, saying that it’s ready for delivery. So I’ve arranged to be with Betty Rosen in Muswell Hill next Tuesday afternoon to receive it. Betty stores my poetry books in her spare bedroom.

The vile Tory press have made much of the fact that Keir Starmer, his deputy Angela Rayner, some of their staff and the MP for Durham were eating curry and, in Keir’s case, drinking a beer in the MP’s office in April of the last year. They were filmed doing so through the window. The reptiles at the Daily Mail have been trying to create an equivalence of wrongdoing between this event and the multiple law-breaking which went on in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. So far as I can see, the event in Durham was a legitimate break for food and drink in the course of work by politicians and their staff. Additionally, it took place when Tier Two lockdown restrictions were in place: not the most stringent. In February, the Durham police said that they had investigated the gathering and that it had taken place within the law. But last week, just as the local election results were coming in around the country (disastrous for the Tories, good but only partly good for Labour, good for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Sinn Fein), the Durham police said that they were going to re-open the investigation since ‘new information has come to light’.

There’s some murky business going on here. What was the motivation of the person who snooped through the window? Were any left-wing discontents in the Labour Party, infuriated by the direction in which Keir has taken the party in the last two years, willing to give potentially damaging information to the Durham police if perhaps one or two members of staff had had a drink or two more than was strictly necessary for refreshment? Whatever the truth of the matter, Keir and his deputy have done exactly the right thing: said that they are sure that the gathering took place within the rules in force at the time; but also said that if the Durham police come to a different view, and find either of them personally guilty of an offence, they would resign. This is a high-risk strategy, but I think the only thing they could have done. Of course I hope that the police will exonerate them, in which case they will both be in commanding positions morally, in stark contrast to Johnson, especially if, as many people believe, the fine Johnson has received is not the last he’s going to get. If Keir does resign, his departure will complete a shambolic twelve years for Labour: two wrong choices of leader, then one right choice, brought down on the merest technicality. At that point, as some people are obviously thinking, the next leader will have to be someone who more naturally appeals to traditional working-class voters in the Midlands and the North of England, but who isn’t far left. The two obvious candidates are Lisa Nandy, who also has the advantage of being a woman and a sitting MP, and Andy Burnham, who’d have to get himself a seat. But I fervently hope it doesn’t come to that. Further, an exoneration might do something to boost Keir’s standing with those voters who didn’t flock to Labour in the Midlands and the North last week. Labour did brilliantly in London, in Wales, and in Cumberland, and they forced their way back to second place after the SNP in Scotland; but we also need parts of the ‘red wall’ to fall back in our direction.

It’s been Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ and Starmer’s ‘Beergate’ so far as the press is concerned. I feel like saying that the moderate consumption of beer has been a legal activity in Britain for considerably more than a thousand years.

The heartbreaking tragedy in Ukraine continues, and the only thing I can say by way of comforting myself is that Putin is definitely not winning. He made scant reference to the war during Russia’s annual Victory Parade two days ago. I’ve just looked at The Guardian’s live coverage of Ukraine, to see that Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died. Jonathan Steele’s excellent piece reminds me that in December 1991 ‘Some 92% of the Ukrainian electorate, including a majority of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, voted for independence’. So much for Putin’s lies about ‘saving’ the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives in the US has voted for a huge $40 billion-worth of aid to Ukraine. The measure needs also to be approved by the Senate, but I don’t think it needs a super-majority there, so even if all 50 Republicans vote against it, and assuming that all 50 Democrats vote for it, it should go through with the casting vote of the Vice-President. I might be wrong; there might be some wrecking filibustering. We’ll see. If Biden does get to sign the measure into law, that should give Ukraine a big arms boost. They need it quickly. Russia continues to kill large numbers of people with bombs dropped from aeroplanes, and we continue to let them do it.

Kerfontaine6 June 2022

The trip back to London was a success. The launch of Michael Rosen’s book went well. About 80 people were there, Michael spoke entertainingly as ever, and we sold precisely as many books as we’d taken: none were left over, and no one was disappointed.

That evening the Evening Standard reported that Boris Johnson would not be fined for any further offences committed in Downing Street during the period of lockdown. It’s an exoneration I find incredible, given the documentary proof that he was present at various events also attended by civil servants who were fined for being there. While attending at least one of those events, Johnson was photographed pouring drinks.

Two days before that, I took delivery of Another Kind of Seeing. I’m very pleased with it. My three books published by Chalkface now make a handsome set. I posted a few off from London, and I’ll post some more when we’re back there at the end of the month.

I recently had a bit of good news about my book of Harold Rosen’s writings: my friend Andrew McCallum, who runs the English and Media Centre, said he would buy all the remaining copies of the book, and sell them through the Centre’s website. So none were pulped, and Andrew now has 129 copies, which I hope will do a bit of good here and there.

Mary came to London for two nights while I was there. She had given notice to the tenants of her house in Camberwell to move out. I think she intends to repair the place, which shows a good deal of wear and tear in the ten years since she and Jacques renovated it, and then sell it.

Just before leaving for London, I had a request from University College London Hospital, where I was treated after my stroke in 2016. As I expect I’ve written in previous books, after my initial treatment I willingly joined two research projects which required the participation of surviving stroke sufferers. The request this time was for a photo, a short video (which Mary filmed on her phone) and a bit of writing about my experience as a participant in the research. Here’s the writing.

My Small Part in Health Research

In April 2016, at the age of 64, I suffered a stroke. It was a proper stroke, not a TIA, and I was aware of it because I woke up one morning with a strange gauze-like covering over my right eye. I wondered if I’d drunk too much the night before (a very rare occurrence with me, of course) but went shopping as usual in Camden High Street. I kept bumping into people, which I don’t normally do. So I went to my optician in Oxford Street, who immediately saw that something was wrong and who, most sweetly, gave me £10 and told me to get into a taxi and go to the Western Ophthalmic Hospital in the Marylebone Road. Which I did. They were wonderful there, put me through some tests, and told me that I’d probably had a stroke and should go immediately to UCLH. It was rush hour by then, so I walked there along the Marylebone Road, which becomes the Euston Road. The phone call from one hospital to the other meant that a wonderful doctor was waiting for me when I arrived. I was taken straight to a ward, put in a bed, and assessed. It was agreed that I should stay in for one night. The next morning yet another wonderful doctor, more senior this time, accompanied by a phalanx of assistants and students noting his every word, confirmed that I had indeed suffered a stroke in the rear left side of my brain, thus affecting the vision in my right eye. The treatment I received was impeccable. I left the hospital later that day.

After that, I willingly agreed to participate in two trials. The first was international research examining the relative efficiency and safety of two drugs in helping to reduce the likelihood of further strokes in patients who had already suffered them. The research was intended to last three years. I was rather disappointed when after 18 months the project was abandoned, since the researchers by then had their answer: the traditional drug, Clopidogrel, was found to be equally efficient and somewhat safer than its more recently developed competitor.

The other trial in which I participated intended to find out whether the stroke had adversely affected my cerebral functions. I was asked questions which reminded me of those I had answered as an 11-year-old when taking the 11-plus examination (now mercifully abandoned in most schools in England), which used to divide children into those who would, in future, work with their heads, and those who would work with their hands. It was decided that I would work with my head, so I was sent to a selective secondary school. I happen to be an expert on the teaching of reading to young children, so I was amused that one of the tests to which I submitted (the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability) had been dismissed as early as 1974 by the government-commissioned Bullock Report, as an inadequate test of what children can or cannot do as early readers.

I was also asked, on three successive occasions, to tell the researcher as many words beginning with the letter F as I could enunciate in one minute, while she held her stopwatch. The first time this happened, I and the researcher were in a hot windowless room in Queen Square in midsummer. I was a man declining into old age; she was a woman in the bloom of youth. Only one word beginning with F came into my mind, and I knew that if I uttered it she would in all probability press a panic button and two men in brown coats would appear and drag me away. So I hesitated, and then produced a small number of arcane polysyllabic words beginning with F: ferromagnetism, filibuster, firmament, flamboyant, fundamentalism… The researcher looked at me curiously at the end of the minute, but told me I had passed the test. I did the same sort of thing on the second occasion, six months later, but when on the third occasion the letter F was still proposed, despite my begging to be tested with another letter, I asked the researcher whether she would be very much offended if I uttered the monosyllable which was shrieking in my brain. She broad-mindedly told me that she would not be offended in the slightest, so I spoke the word, and then a flood of monosyllables beginning with F followed it: frog, fall, flood, for, four, fore…

Towards the end of this trial, I was very happy to have my brain examined by an MRI machine, particularly as my father, God rest his soul, was one of the pioneers of MRI technology. The researchers told me, as I emerged from the machine, that I had ‘a very pretty brain’. It’s a compliment I treasure. They also kindly gave me a print-out of what the machine had identified. It is extraordinary to look at the physical evidence of the piece of our bodies which is responsible for everything we do and are: our loves, thoughts, memories, desires, reflexes, concepts, competences. In fact, our souls.

So thank you, UCLH, for the opportunity you gave me to contribute in some small way to the advancement of knowledge, as a result of an event which of course I wish hadn't happened. UCLH is a world-leading hospital, combining human kindness with intellectual and practical brilliance, and I’m so lucky to happen to live nearby.

The day after I came back here, 21 May, was our neighbour Jean’s 80th birthday. His family gave him a surprise party, which we attended: a long lunch, with delicious wines. He had had no inkling; his sons, their wives and children brought the food and drink over about one o’clock, with much hooting of horns as they arrived.

Jacques’ lung operation was a success. The surgeon was able to remove the small tumour by keyhole surgery, and is sure that no cancerous matter is left inside. But there was then a secondary crisis, in that the anaesthetic exacerbated a problem with Jacques’ enlarging prostate, which has been giving him trouble for two or three years. The swollen gland suddenly prevented him from urinating at all, so the unrelieved bladder was full to bursting. A urologist fitted him with a catheter (an experience which Jacques said was far more painful than anything done to his lung), and since then he’s been attached to a urine bag. Tomorrow he’ll have an operation to shave the prostate (the French charmingly use the verb raboter, meaning ‘to plane’, as with the carpenter’s tool), and the surgeon promises that after that he’ll be back to normal, ‘pissing like an 18-year-old’. We hope so. If all goes well, he and Mary expect to come back to Brittany on 15 June, when Jacques will need a good rest.

Last week David James came for three days, and he and I met the architect at the house in Pont-Scorff. David liked Jérôme Hertzog very much, as do I. He’s a serious person, and he’ll take charge of the job. There’s a huge amount to do to make the place structurally sound. Much of the woodwork in the cellar, ground and first floors is rotten, consumed by insects and dry rot. The roof is in a doubtful state. Before anything else happens, Jérôme is going to get experts from a bureau de contrôle (something like buildings inspectors?) to assess what needs to be done to make the house sound, and to say approximately how much that work should cost, before Jérôme seeks quotations from artisans. All this before anything can be done about new wiring, new plumbing, removal of horrible old sanitary ware, of rubbishy fake polystyrene beams, and of other offences committed at various times in the house’s history. Then there’s the problem of the façade. It may well be necessary to remove some of the newer features which, contrary to regulations concerning listed buildings, have somehow been allowed, and to return the façade to its original form. Even the colours allowed for paintwork are prescribed. Apparently, the state will pay 20% of the cost of repairing the façades of historic buildings. All in all, this is going to be a long and expensive job, but David knew what he was letting himself in for, and we’ve made a good start with Jérôme.

I’ve just finished reading, or re-reading, all Donne’s poems. I had to plough through quite a lot of the understandably less well-known work: the Letters to Severall Personages, The Anniversaries, the Epicedes and Obsequies. Even the Satyres I found tough going. The third satire, about religion, is the best, I think, with its marvellous famous passage:

‘doubt wisely, in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleepe, or runne wrong, is: on a huge hill
Cragg’d, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe;’

I’ve just re-read the poem a fourth or fifth time. I take ‘in strange way / To stand inquiring right’ to mean something like ‘in uncertainty to stand, wishing to know what is right’. I think Donne is pleading for a kind of religious tolerance: there’s no one vessel or institution which contains the whole Christian truth. I love the instruction to ‘doubt wisely’.

Metempsycosis is an extraordinary production: a sort of comic tale about the progress of a soul through a variety of creatures. The most entertaining stage in the soul’s journey, for me, is when it enters an egg

‘which a poore
Warme bird orespread, and sat still evermore,
Till the inclos’d child kickt, and pick’d it selfe a dore.’

A sparrow then emerges. Within a month the baby has grown, and proceeds lecherously to copulate with whichever female takes his fancy:

‘He asks her not, who did so last, nor when,
Nor if his sister, or his neece shee be;
Nor doth she pule for his inconstancie
If in her sight he change, nor doth refuse
The next that calls; both liberty doe use,
Where store is of both kinds, both kindes may freely chuse.’

Donne then allows himself the opinion that

‘Men, till they tooke laws which made freedome lesse,
Their daughters, and their sisters did ingresse;’

I’m not sure how he can know this, though of course there is the story in Genesis of Lot’s daughters making him drunk and then having sex with him while he was asleep (anatomically just about possible, I suppose; maybe Lot thought he was having a wet dream).

Anyway, the joy of revisiting the Songs and Sonets, the Elegies and the Divine Poems is undiminished. It’s the concreteness of his comparisons, the sometimes outrageous daring of his paradoxes, that appeal to me.

One example, from ‘Loves growth’:

‘If, as in water stir’d more circles bee
Produc’d by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheares, but one heaven make,
For, they are all concentrique unto thee,
And though each spring doe adde to love new heate,
As princes doe in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the springs increase.’

Images from simple terrestrial physics (the expanding circles after a pebble has been dropped in a pond), from astronomy (the pre-Copernican notion of concentric spheres around the earth), and from politics (taxes levied for war are not paid back in peace time) all work towards the idea of love as something which develops, grows, is not fixed at the lover’s first sight.

Of the ‘Holy Sonnets’ within Divine Poems, ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’, ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’, and ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you’ are of course very famous. But I was amazed, shocked even, by a conceit in the penultimate sonnet, which begins ‘Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and clear.’ The idea that the Christian church is Christ’s bride is familiar enough. But Donne takes it further, to the point of saying that the husband, Christ, should prostitute his wife, the church, to whoever wants to take her, using again the argument of religious tolerance: neither Calvinism, nor Catholicism, nor Anglicanism has exclusive access to her favours:

‘Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights,
And let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she’s embrac’d and open to most men.’

It’s extraordinary, blasphemous. Donne’s sexual references are certainly not those of a 21st-century ‘new man’. I tried to justify my admiration for Donne’s famous striptease poem, ‘Elegy XIX, To his Mistress Going to Bed’, in the last two stanzas of my response poem, ‘Pleasure’s Bargain’, in My Proper Life.

Here are two contrasting images, the first by the lover, the second by the priest. Towards the end of ‘The Extasie’ Donne writes:

‘To our bodies turn wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal’d may looke;
Loves mysteries in soules do grow,
But yet the body is his booke.’

The physical weight and bulk of a book: something you can hold, hold on to. Seamus Heaney uses the last two of those lines as the epigraph to his ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, the poem about his stroke, in Human Chain. And at the end of the first section of that poem, he writes:

‘…we might, O my love, have quoted Donne
On love on hold, body and soul apart.’

In ‘Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse’, anticipating his death, Donne writes:

‘Since I am comming to that Holy roome,
Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy Musique; As I come
I tune the instrument here at the doore,
And what I must doe then, thinke here before.’

You don’t have to be a believer to marvel at the conceit of a musician practising in an anteroom before entering a concert hall to perform, or perhaps a chamber to play chamber music; ‘chamber’ means ‘room’, ‘Holy roome’.

Two other, smaller things. Amongst the Epigrams, I was amused, having myself translated some of Martial’s epigrams for Another Kind of Seeing (and having found some of them so disgusting that I wasn’t prepared to put them in print), to find an epigram about Matthew Rader, who — the editor tells me — was ‘the German editor of an expurgated edition of Martial’s works’.

‘Why this man gelded Martiall I muse,
Except himself alone his tricks would use,
As Katherine, for the Courts sake, put down Stewes.’

In other words, perhaps Rader left out some of Martial’s more extreme sexual references because he wanted to do those things himself. The editor doesn't know who Katherine was. She must have been influential: perhaps a king’s mistress? She seems to have banned public brothels so that courtiers could more freely engage in hanky-panky, though I don’t quite see how to forbid one thing would facilitate the other.

Finally, the editor quotes a critic as stating that Donne’s ‘Sapho to Philænis’ is ‘the first female homosexual love poem in English’. Having imitated 21 of Sappho’s lyrics in Bring Me the Sunflower, I’m pleased about that, and I love the poem’s humorous eroticism. Speaking to Philænis, Sapho says:

‘Thy body is a naturall Paradise,
In whose selfe, unmanur’d, all pleasure lies,
Nor needs perfection; why shouldst thou than
Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man?
Men leave behind them that which their sin shows,
And are, as theeves trac’d, which rob when it snows.
But of our dalliance no more signs there are,
Then fishes leave in streames, or Birds in aire.’

‘unmanur’d’ sounds odd now, but it means ‘unfertilised’. I think ‘Nor needs perfection’ means ‘is already perfect, therefore can’t be perfected’. And the distaste for the male, leaving his sperm all over the shop, is brilliantly compared to the thief’s footprints in the snow.

As darkness was falling this evening, a beautiful green woodpecker flew into the garden and helped itself, undisturbed, to insects in the bark of the peach trees.

The fighting in the east of Ukraine drags miserably on. Russia has superior fire power, but Ukraine has fierce determination and moral right on its side. Russia has made large parts of the region uninhabitable, killed thousands of people, and destroyed much infrastructure. Whole towns and cities are smoking ruins. The USA and Britain have promised to deliver high-tech artillery which can precisely target enemy positions at great distance; these are superior weapons, so I read, to anything the Russians have. I don’t need to know how, where or when they are arriving. I just hope it’s soon. Then, slowly, the tide might turn, halting the Russian advance, driving the invaders back, and eventually expelling them entirely from the country. There is no alternative. No diplomatic solution is possible. If, in contradiction to this last sentence, some sort of compromise is agreed — land for peace — that will be a dreadful admission of failure by the so-called civilised world. Brute force will have been seen to work, and Putin won’t stop at that point. Essentially, in the name of freedom and democracy, our present task is to help the Ukrainians kill as many Russians, and destroy as much of their matériel, as possible.

This morning, after four days during which the UK was celebrating the Queen’s 70 years on the throne, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservatives’ 1922 committee, announced that at least 54 Tory MPs had written to him saying that had no confidence in the Prime Minister. So there was a confidence vote this evening. All 359 Tory MPs voted. 211 had confidence; 148 did not. So 41% of Johnson’s own MPs have no confidence in him. This is a larger percentage than Theresa May suffered when she won her confidence vote; and she was gone within a few months. It’s likely that the Conservatives will lose two by-elections on 23 June: one to Labour and one to the Liberal Democrats. I don’t think Johnson can last long, although there are three big differences between the situation now and that which May faced. First, there is no obvious challenger; Johnson was the obvious challenger in 2019. Secondly, there is no one big issue around which rebels can unite; in 2019 the rebels, led by Johnson, had just such an issue, gleefully voting against their own party over Brexit. Thirdly, in 2019 we weren’t contributing to a war effort whose heroic protagonists, the Ukrainians, have been enthusiastically thanking Britain, and Johnson himself, for the help we have been providing, thus giving Johnson a prestige on the international stage which he lacks at home.

Kerfontaine22 June 2022

I had a wonderful birthday. The weather all last week, until yesterday morning, was exceptionally hot, so my day was bathed in sunshine from start to finish. We went shopping in the morning, both had haircuts, enjoyed a light cold lunch and then prepared dinner for six. Mary, Jacques, Jean and Annick came. Champagne on the terrasse in front of the house (it was in shade by then, and the terrasse at the back was still too hot), dinner inside — smoked salmon with Quincy, lamb cutlets with good claret, cheese with better claret, Eton mess with Bonnezeaux — and coffee and digestifs outside again, sitting and talking late, with light in the sky until well after eleven. Helen gave me brandy and Calvados; Mary and Jacques gave me grappa (and a book of French poetry); Jean and Annick gave me six bottles of Picpoul de Pinet. Is there a connection here? And I had lots of phone messages and texts and emails. There was a postal strike until yesterday, when a heap of cards arrived. So I was properly looked after.

The previous day, the Wednesday, I went to the station at Hennebont to collect Mary and Jacques, who had come by plane to Nantes and by train from there. They’re very pleased to be back here. Jacques so far has made a remarkable recovery from his two operations, but he needs to rest properly, and in particular not do any strenuous lifting while his shaved prostate recovers.

I’ve been improving my Italian by reading about Vygotsky. Myra Barrs has the idea that we might publish a selection of the great man’s writings in the best translations now available. We wrote to Alison Foyle at Routledge to suggest the idea, and she was encouraging, while warning us about the complexities and cost of getting permissions. Luciano Mecacci, a major Vygotsky expert and friend of Myra’s, has just published his own translations of five of Vygotsky’s essays and talks, ‘I sistemi psicologici’, ‘L’analisi pedologica del processo psicologico’, ‘Il problema dell’insegnamento/apprendimento e dello sviluppo mentale nell’età scolare’, ‘Il gioco e il suo ruolo nello sviluppo psichico infantile’ and ‘Il problema del ritardo mentale’. I’ve read them, and also Mecacci’s book Lev Vygotskij: Sviluppo, Educazione e Patologia della Mente. I’ve had this for about a year, since Myra sent it to me. It has the most authoritative bibliography of Vygotsky’s works in existence. I consulted that frequently when helping Myra with her book, but I hadn’t read the main text of Mecacci’s book. It’s excellent. He writes beautiful clear Italian, with the result that, at the beginning, I was consulting the dictionary and the grammar book several times a page, and by the end hardly at all. Gratifying. Myra wants our proposed selection not to be longer than about 50,000 words (her book is a bit over 100,000). I think it’ll be quite difficult to squeeze the best of Vygotsky into such a small space. We’ll see.

Kerfontaine27 June 2022

The French parliamentary elections on 12 and 19 June delivered an inconclusive and troubling result. Macron’s centrist grouping remains the largest, with 245 seats, but he has lost his overall majority. The left grouping is the second-largest, with 131 seats. Both groupings are made up of several parties. The Rassemblement National, the far-right party, won 89 seats. The Gaullist right won 64 seats. Various other smaller parties accumulated 48 seats between them. The terrifying fact is that the Rassemblement National is the largest single party of opposition. (La France Insoumise, easily the largest of the parties in the left grouping, won 75 seats.)

It may be that France learns to govern itself by cross-party compromise, as do several other European countries. It is certain that Macron’s period of unquestioned authority is over. He (and his Prime Minister, Élisabeth Borne) will have to seek agreements with particular opposition parties, bill by bill. They might invite the Greens, for example, to support them in a bill to do with climate change and la transition écologique. They might turn to the right, to the much diminished Gaullists, to get through an unpopular measure such as raising the age at which pensions are paid. Those parties will want something in return, of course. Much will depend on how willing the different opposition groupings will be to participate in governing the country, rather than just making the government’s life uncomfortable. It will be messy. It may be that the government will be able to prise the Greens and the Socialists away from the left grouping on particular measures. I predict that La France Insoumise will be obstructive in all circumstances.

The two most troubling thoughts I take away from these elections are the rise and rise of the far right, and the abstention rate. Fewer than 50% of those entitled to vote bothered to do so. The abstention rate in the second round, at 53.77%, was even worse than in the first, at 52.49%. This in a world where more and more countries are dictatorships or sham democracies of one kind or another, whether religious, military or kleptocratic: China, Russia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Egypt, numerous other African countries, Belarus, North Korea, Turkey, Hungary… The French run the risk of not knowing what they’ve got until it’s taken away from them.

Two by-elections in England last Thursday were satisfyingly disastrous for the Conservatives. Labour regained Wakefield with a 12.7% swing from the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats gained Tiverton and Honiton with a remarkable 29.9% swing from the Conservatives. Both by-elections were brought about by the resignation of the constituencies’ MPs. In Wakefield, the MP was convicted of sexually assaulting a child. In Tiverton and Honiton, the MP was caught (by his own colleagues) watching pornography on his phone while sitting in the Commons chamber. Early on Friday morning, the co-chair of the Conservative Party resigned, making it clear that the party needed a new leader. On radio that lunchtime, a former leader of the party, Michael Howard, said the same thing. Johnson won’t leave Downing Street unless forced. But as we get closer to a general election, the Tories will find a way to dispose of him if they’re sure, as many of them already are, that they’ll lose that election unless they change the leader.

We’re flying to London this evening, for a week. Tomorrow, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, there will be a celebration of 40 years of the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, and 20 years of the Ros Moger Terry Furlong Scholarships, our group’s contribution to the work of the trust. The event should have occurred last year, but was postponed because of Covid-19.

Kerfontaine8 July 2022

The St Paul’s celebration went very well. About 200 people crowded into the OBE Chapel in the crypt of the cathedral. There were speeches, a short film, and wonderful singing by a South African opera singer and two of his students. Then we had drinks and canapés and talked. I saw old friends and comrades I hadn’t seen for years. I don’t know whether the event will bring more money into the coffers; Martin Buck, who made the first speech on behalf of our scholarships fund, certainly asked for it, and everyone took away the 20th-anniversary booklet which we produced last year. Gillian Attwood and Kgadi Mathabathe, two former scholars who came from South Africa for the occasion, also spoke for us.

The next night a little group of us, including Gillian, Kgadi and her husband, had drinks at Sue Davidson’s house, followed by a meal in a Spanish restaurant round the corner.

And Helen and I did a few other things. On Thursday we saw two exhibitions (Munch at the Courtald and Sickert at Tate Britain), and had dinner with Deirdre at Daphne’s. On Friday I took the train to Bedfordshire for lunch with Peter and Monica. On Saturday I went to Betty Rosen’s, had coffee and lunch with her and posted off a few more copies of the new book. On Sunday I was with Myra Barrs, planning her select anthology of Vygotsky’s best writings.

We flew back here on Monday afternoon. Since then, the UK news has been dominated by the collapse of the Conservative government. The long series of scandals and duplicities which has characterised the Johnson administration ended with one too many. The Conservative deputy chief whip, supposedly in charge of party discipline, got very drunk in the Carlton Club and began feeling men’s bottoms and testicles. He resigned his position the next day, in a grovelling letter of apology to Johnson, but for a while remained a member of the parliamentary party. Eventually the whip was removed (from a former whip!), but then Downing Street was unable to answer a straightforward question: did Johnson know about this man’s proclivities when he promoted him — a close ally — to such an influential position? To begin with the answer was no, then no, not specifically, then well yes, perhaps, but he had forgotten about it, he had heard about it a long time ago, when he was foreign secretary… It was the usual mixture of evasions, half-truths and downright lies to which we have become accustomed. On Tuesday evening the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the health secretary resigned. Then the floodgates opened. About 50 other ministers, including two more cabinet ministers, resigned over the next 24 hours. A group of cabinet ministers went to 10 Downing Street on Wednesday evening to tell Johnson to resign. He wasn’t going to. He sacked Michael Gove, his ‘levelling-up’ secretary, and Downing Street put out an astonishing official statement describing Gove as a snake. (Gove was accused of having told Johnson to resign, and then having told the media that he had told him. Whether Gove had in fact done the second of these things, Downing Street’s description of Gove was a rare case of it telling the unvarnished truth.) Earlier, Johnson had moved the education secretary to the treasury, and appointed a new education secretary. Soon after dawn yesterday morning she resigned, having been in post for about 35 hours. (Apparently, when cabinet ministers leave office they get £17,000. She says she’s going to give it to charity.) Finally, just after nine o’clock yesterday morning, Downing Street announced that Johnson would resign as party leader, but stay on as caretaker prime minister until his successor is appointed. The resignation speech he made at midday was as graceless as ever; he described his colleagues, those who had brought him down, as a herd. He has since managed to cobble together some sort of caretaker cabinet, and has promised not to do anything dramatic while he sees his time out. Given the value of his promises throughout his political career, we should not expect this one to be kept any more than were the scores of others.

Early this year, I predicted that Johnson would be gone before the May local elections. I was wrong as usual, but only on the timing.

So now there will be weeks of electioneering within the Conservative party. There is no obvious candidate. Meanwhile, Labour has a bigger lead in the opinion polls than it has had for a long time, and today — excellent timing — brought the welcome news that the Durham police have finally concluded that there is no case to answer in the matter of the event (curry eaten, beer drunk) in which Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and fifteen other people participated in April last year, while campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election. It was a work-related event, as Keir has always insisted, and was reasonably necessary. This outcome gives Keir, Angela and Labour generally admirable moral high ground, and although they wouldn’t have wanted the business to hang over them for so long, the contrast between their behaviour and that of the Tories, in this week of all weeks, is particularly and sweetly stark. And it shows the grubbiness of those who went to such lengths to try to demonstrate any kind of equivalence between the event in Durham and the proven, many-times-repeated criminal actions in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

Kerfontaine13 July 2022

The Conservatives are getting a move on. Eight candidates are bidding to replace Johnson, and the party intends to get that number down to two by this time next week. Then, after parliament has gone off for its summer holidays, the membership of the party in the country will be asked to choose between the two. That is, of course, unless something similar occurs to what happened when Theresa May became prime minister; her remaining competitor, Andrea Leadsom, who had spectacularly shot herself in the foot by saying that she’d make a better prime minister than Theresa because she’d had children, withdrew, so there was only one candidate, and no need to bother the foot soldiers out in the shires. I think this time they will consult Colonel and Mrs Blimp, because most of the Blimps are exasperated by Johnson’s behaviour in the last three years, and rather ashamed that they voted for him with such enthusiasm so recently. In fact, that’s the strange and unlovely thing. If Johnson had stuck to policy, however much people like me would have hated it (that is, we’ll leave the EU, then, er, what shall we do next?), he would still be there. Although we know what a dreadful mess the government made of the pandemic crisis in its early stages, he claims credit for the vaccination programme, and his former chancellor claims credit for the furlough scheme. Those who wanted us out of the EU got what they wanted, although Johnson’s willingness to renege on an international agreement he had himself signed means that Northern Ireland, as ever, remains a problem.

But it was the sequence of episodes which made it abundantly clear that Johnson was prepared to trash every convention of good government that did for him: the illegal attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks; the obscene sums of money spent on new wallpaper for the Johnson family’s flat, initially paid for by a wealthy Conservative donor; the attempt to protect Owen Paterson, followed by the attempt to force Conservative MPs to vote to change the rules governing the committee which had ruled that Paterson had lobbied ministers on behalf of a company paying him handsomely, followed by the abandonment of that attempt the next day; the numerous illegal parties in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office during lockdown, with, at the start, the confident denials that any such parties took place, and ending with an actual police fine for Johnson and his chancellor and a coruscating report by Sue Gray; and finally the Chris Pincher affair about which I wrote the other day. That’s what has finished Johnson; not policy. Incidentally, Andrea Leadsom might now be wondering whether fertility is indeed an indicator of potential leadership qualities, given that Johnson has debased the office of prime minister in a way that no other prime minister in my lifetime has, while being unable to reveal how many children he has. He may be unsure himself. Meanwhile, I heard on the radio this morning that, on the febrile evening last week when Johnson was hanging on by his fingertips, he tried to dissuade two ministers from resigning by offering them promotions. Once they got out of Downing Street, they compared notes and found that they’d been offered the same job. Then they resigned. As the cliché goes, you couldn’t make it up.

I have to return to England in ten days’ time for the saddest of reasons. My friend and comrade Peter Traves has died. We’ve known each other for about 45 years. We taught together at Hackney Downs School for the two years I was there. Then we were both advisory teachers in the ILEA. Then Peter went to Waltham Forest as English adviser, and I worked on the National Writing Project before going to Shropshire as English and drama adviser. When I left Shropshire, Peter took my job. He went on to be a head teacher in Shrewsbury, before moving to Staffordshire as chief education officer, also responsible for children’s social services when those two responsibilities were combined. After he retired, he was active in the village community of Pontesbury, running U3A groups. His wife Merle is a wonderful person and a brilliant teacher; they have three sons. Peter and Merle came more than once to Rodellosso with us. In recent years, Peter suffered from a terrible disease called IBM (‘inclusion body myositis… a progressive muscle disorder characterized by muscle inflammation, weakness, and atrophy [wasting]’). We could see how this was weakening him, but he never complained, and never gave up his programme of local teaching and omnivorous reading. It must have been the disease which meant that, alas, as he was beginning to climb the stairs at home on 2 July, he missed his footing, fell back and smashed his head on the corner of an oak table. He was probably effectively dead then, from a brain haemorrhage, but a helicopter got him to hospital in Stoke, where he was put onto a life support machine. He donated at least one organ, as he had instructed, before the machine was turned off on 5 July. Merle and at least one of their sons were there at that moment. The funeral will be held on 25 July. I’ve just booked a flight back to London, and I’ll return here the day after the funeral with David and Tom James, who in any case were coming here then for a week.

We’re having a heatwave, a tropical heatwave… Temperatures are in the mid-30s here, and likely to remain high for several days yet. On Monday Helen, Mary, my great-nephew Paul and I went to the recently re-opened zoo at Pont-Scorff. (Mary had flown to Marseille and brought Paul back to their house for a few days.) This evening Mary, Jacques and Paul are coming to eat. We’ll have a cold collation. Mary and Paul return to Marseille tomorrow, poor things, where it’s even hotter than here.

Kerfontaine14 July 2022

Eight candidates made it onto the ballot paper for the Tory leadership contest. Two were knocked out last night; at least one more will be knocked out today. Almost all of them have been making preposterous economic offers; I think the only one living in the real world economically is the outsider Kemi Badenoch. Even Rishi Sunak, the front runner at the moment, says that tax cuts are a matter of when not if.

If you want to fund the NHS properly; if you want to introduce a national care service in parallel with, and as good as, the NHS; if you want to help poorer people through the current terrible increase in the cost of living; if you want to improve the lamentable state of the transport system and other infrastructure outside London and the south-east of England; then you have two choices: either tax or borrow. You can’t fight your way out of fiscal difficulties by cutting taxes. Given the UK’s low levels of business investment and productivity growth, if you cut taxes, you simply give people more money to spend, which then gives a boost to inflation by increasing demand, which then causes the Bank of England to raise interest rates, which hurts those who have mortgages and other debts. The long-term answer to the problem is incentives to businesses to invest in machinery and skills which will increase productivity.

The UK doesn’t have exceptional levels of tax. There’s an excellent article by Larry Elliott on The Guardian’s website today. Here are a couple of quotes: ‘International comparisons produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that last year tax revenues as a share of national income across its rich-country members stood at 32.9%. The figure for the UK was 32.8%... A quick glance at the OECD international tax table shows the range of options. Countries that have generous welfare states are high-tax. Countries that have rudimentary welfare states can be low-tax. No countries have Swedish levels of public spending and US levels of tax.’

As Elliott points out, if Labour were conducting a leadership contest now, and if the candidates were offering the economic fantasies which most of the Tory candidates are currently offering, there would be headlines in the Tory papers along the lines of ‘Loony left plans to bankrupt the UK’.

We had a lovely evening with Mary, Jacques and Paul yesterday. Towards the end, I read a couple of books to Paul. One of them was the Ahlbergs’ The Jolly Postman. Even though he was listening to my rough French translation of the English text, he immediately recognised the underlying stories (Goldilocks and the three bears, Little Red Riding Hood…) as I read the letters contained in the envelopes in that wonderful book. Earlier in the evening, he had told me that his mother and father had separated. A few days ago, when we went up to Priziac for the evening, Mary told me that, on the first night after their arrival, she and Jacques slept separately, so she could be closer to Paul so he wouldn’t be frightened. On waking up, and seeing that Mary wasn’t in bed with Jacques, he said to himself, musingly, ‘Ni l’un ni l’autre…’ Mary thinks that, having seen his parents sleeping separately for weeks or months until his father moved out, Paul was trying to work out why and when grown-ups do or do not sleep together, and was hoping that Mary and Jacques weren’t in the same position as his mum and dad had been. Mary made sure to be sleeping with Jacques the next night.

France is suffering from a shortage of mustard. A combination of climate change and the war in Ukraine is drastically reducing the supply of mustard seeds. Jacques went to the little grocer in Priziac the other day and remarked to the shopkeeper that there was no mustard on the shelves. She winked at him and produced a jar from under the counter, just like a wartime black-market seller of precious goods. And of course it is wartime now. When we returned from London on 4 July, we brought a tin of Colman’s mustard powder. I must ask Jacques whether he’s tried it yet.

Kerfontaine18 July 2022

Over the last few days, I’ve been reading Vygotsky’s final masterpiece, Thought and Language or Thinking and Speech, in two versions side by side: the 1986 English translation by Alex Kozulin and the 1990 Italian translation by Luciano Mecacci, entitled Pensiero e Linguaggio. Myra thinks that the Kozulin translation is the best English one so far. In Mecacci’s introduction to his much fuller translation, he writes of the Kozulin version: ‘È un’ottima revisione della prima traduzione americana sulla base dell’Ed. 1934, ma si tratta ancora di una traduzione parziale.’ The 1934 edition is the version that Vygotsky finished just before he died; it was published in Moscow six months after his death. Kozulin, in his introduction, writes: ‘This new translation is based on the 1934 edition of Myshlenie I rech, the only one actually prepared — although imperfectly — by Vygotsky himself. In it I have sought to follow Vygotsky’s line of thought as closely and fully as possible, departing from it only when it repeats itself or when the logic of Russian discourse cannot be directly rendered in English. Substantial portions of the 1962 translation made by the late Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar have been retained.’ It was the 1962 translation which first introduced me, and most of the people I know who know about Vygotsky, to his work.

Mecacci has told Myra that Vygotsky’s daughter gave him a copy of the 1934 original when they met in a Moscow hotel during his stay in the city in 1972. He was there in order to work with Alexander Luria. Myra thinks that Pensiero e Linguaggio is the only complete translation of the 1934 book into another European language. That became pretty obvious when I started comparing the lengths of the two versions in front of me. Kozulin is about 140 pages shorter than Mecacci, and there are more words on each page in the Italian than in the English. Also, I translated the first page and a half of Vygotsky’s first chapter from Meccaci’s Italian into English, and it was substantially different from Kozulin’s version. The result, I think, is that when Myra gets to the point of choosing the passages from Vygotsky that she wants for her anthology, we’ll see how difficult, and possibly expensive, it might be to do our own English translations from the Italian. Of course that means that we’re two distances away from the original, but Myra thinks that Mecacci is the ultimate reliable source.

About the English title of Vygotsky’s book: it was Thought and Language in 1962 and 1986. However, in Volume 1 of the English version of Vygotsky’s Collected Works (1987) the book is called Thinking and Speech, which is closer to the original Russian, as is Mecacci’s Pensiero e Linguaggio. Of the 1987 translation, Mecacci writes: ‘Buona traduzione, talvolta un po’ libera, basata sull’Ed. 1982.’ The reference to the 1982 edition is to the first collection of Vygotsky’s works in Russian. Mecacci is highly critical of it. It was based, he says, on the 1956 version, edited by Leontiev and Luria. Without going too far into the academic details, the simple truth is that the 1956 version was heavily cut and amended by those two ‘followers’ of Vygotsky who, even during the period of destalinisation, were acutely aware of the fact that Vygotsky had been a banned writer for most of the time since his death. They may have been worried about their own careers and perhaps even for their physical safety. I fear that, if tuberculosis hadn’t got Vygotsky first, Stalin’s tyranny would have.

In Mecacci’s explanation of Vygotsky’s terminology, he says that Vygotsky used two related words for ‘thought’ and ‘thinking’. Mysl’ means ‘thought’: the completed thought, the abstract definition of that process. Myšlenie means ‘thinking’. ‘Myšlenie è la funzione del pensare… e mysl’ è il prodotto di tale pensare.’ Mecacci says that in Italian there’s no way of distinguishing between these two things, so he uses pensiero for both, but he always puts either myšlenie or mysl’ in square brackets after each use of pensiero. He is also clear that linguaggio is the right translation of Vygotsky’s reč’. In Russian, reč’ is to jazyk what Saussure’s parole is to langue. So ‘speech’ is a better English translation than ‘language’. In the case of both these key words, Vygotsky intended the active, the dynamic, the verb, rather than the static, the settled, the noun.

I’m going to put down a few of the insights which I have gained from reading, and in a partial sense re-reading, this great book.

First, Vygotsky’s famous intellectual dispute with Piaget. Piaget believed that a child goes through three stages of thought and of speech. The first stage is ‘autistic’. This term is now unfortunate, because it refers to a mental illness. Piaget didn’t mean it in that sense. He simply meant that the very young child is utterly absorbed in herself or himself. Piaget’s ‘autism’ is very close to Freud’s ‘pleasure principle’. The child is only concerned with getting satisfaction. The second stage is ‘egocentricity’. Here, both in thought and in speech, the child is engaged in mental activity (thoughts and words) which are barely comprehensible to the adult standing by, but which are an intermediate stage of a process which will eventually lead to full socialisation, usually by the school, although other representatives of the adult world could also play a part. For Piaget, egocentric speech simply operates as an attribute of egocentric thought, like a descant on top of a piece of orchestrated music. Over time, the child’s egocentricity struggles against the implacable demands of an adult understanding of the world, but eventually admits defeat, and dies away.

That, so far as I understand it, is what Piaget said.

Vygotsky turned the whole thing on its head. He said (and, although his book has few details about the experiments he and his colleagues had carried out, he was sure that his statements were backed up by exhaustive research) that the very young child is immediately social. And of course, when I think about my contact with very young children, I know this to be true. In happy circumstances, the child is bombarded with social initiatives from the adults and the older children around her or him. Yes, the very young child has desires which must be satisfied; yes, a painful point comes in a child’s understanding of the world, which is that the world wasn’t created specifically to fulfil her or his every desire; but the environment is still social. Vygotsky agreed with Piaget that there is such a thing as an egocentric stage in a child’s development, but for Vygotsky that stage represents the beginning of a process of internalisation of thought and speech. That dynamic process continues to the point at which full internalisation has taken place, and the child — by now of school age — is able to think, plan, imagine, fantasise, abstract, generalise, with the help of what Vygotsky called inner speech. The younger child’s egocentric speech, which is largely external, doesn’t die away, battered down by the implacable adult world; it goes underground, and becomes that essential part of own consciousness which we use for the rest of our lives. And while egocentric speech is in operation, it is definitely not, for Vygotsky, simply an attribute of egocentric thought. At the egocentric stage, as at every stage which Vygotsky considers in his work, speech and thought are in interaction with each other, each affecting the other.

That, so far as I understand it, is what Vygotsky said, and once again I am struck by the evident truth of the insight when I think about how I use inner speech at most moments of my waking life (and possibly also when I’m dreaming — not sure about that). I was particularly struck by Vygotsky’s understanding of inner speech’s function in the drafting of writing. It’s drenched with meaning, maximally condensed, and takes predication to an extreme. I didn’t previously understand what this word means in a psychological sense, though since schooldays I’ve known what it means syntactically. In fact, the psychological sense is an analogy of the syntactic. The predicate of a sentence is what happens: the business end. In the mind, inner speech takes you to the essence of a problem, intention, fantasy, fear, desire or whatever manifestation of emotion or will, and doesn’t worry about how you got there.

In his discussion of inner speech, Vygotsky makes a distinction between ‘sense’ (smysl) and ‘meaning’ (znac’enie). For him, sense is a broader, more shifting thing than meaning. ‘Our investigation established three main semantic peculiarities of inner speech. The first and basic one is the preponderance of the sense [smysl] of a word over its meaning [znac’enie] — a distinction we owe to Frederic Paulhan. The sense of a word, according to him, is the sum of all the psychological events aroused in our consciousness by the word. It is a dynamic, fluid, complex whole, which has several zones of unequal stability. Meaning is only one of the zones of sense, the most stable and precise zone. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense. Meaning remains stable throughout the changes of sense. The dictionary meaning of a word is no more than a stone in the edifice of sense, no more than a potentiality that finds diversified realization in speech.’ Funnily enough, in Mecacci’s translation of this passage, he doesn’t put the two Russian words in square brackets after the Italian words, as he does so conscientiously elsewhere to indicate variant meanings in the Russian.

Of course, even dictionary meanings change, though not in a matter of moments. I was a bit puzzled, given the importance for Vygotsky of the difference between sense and meaning, that the phrase ‘word meaning’, not ‘word sense’, is a central concept in this part of the discussion. ‘In inner speech, the syntactic and phonetic aspects of speech are reduced to a minimum… Word meaning advances to the forefront.’ So maybe there’s something lost in translation here.

Here’s an example of the fluidity of sense [smysl] from an old Roy Hudd sketch. A corrupt police officer is trying to incriminate an innocent citizen. He takes out his notebook and says that he is about to arrest the citizen. The citizen asks, ‘What have I done?’ (genuine enraged enquiry). The police officer writes down the words in the notebook, while repeating them with satisfaction as ‘What have I done?’ (rhetorical statement of remorse).

Everything in Vygotsky’s view of the world is dynamic, process-driven. This is true of the relationship between thinking and speech, and between spontaneous and scientific concepts (more about that in a moment). It’s true, longitudinally, of the relationship between stages of development. There isn’t a place, in his upending of Piaget’s three stages, where there is no social and all internal, or no internal and all social; there are greater or lesser amounts of social and internal at all stages of our lives, and that relationship can vary from moment to moment, not just from day to day or from year to year. He got that sense of the dynamic from Marx, with his upending of Hegel’s dialectic; one of the great tragedies of the last century is the speed with which Marx’s insights as a philosopher and sociologist were pressed into service as the theoretical justification for a tyranny.

Here are two of Mecacci’s translations to do with the relationship between thinking and speech: ‘La relazione del pensiero con la parola è prima di tutto non una cosa, ma un processo.’ ‘Il pensiero non si esprime, ma si realizza in una parola.

As an educator, the bits of Vygotsky which excite me most are those to do with learning. Chapter six of the book, to do with the child’s acquisition of scientific concepts, is a fundamental text underpinning the understanding of pedagogy to which I and people of my persuasion in education have given our professional careers. At the moment, there’s a piece of nonsense going round in UK educational circles called ‘the knowledge curriculum’. It’s peddled by the Conservative Party and by reactionary commentators as a kind of sneer, implying that limp-wristed progressives like me haven’t been interested in giving children any knowledge. I’ve been passionately concerned to give children knowledge since I started teaching in 1974. It was just that I understood from the beginning (and I’m not quite sure how I knew this then, given that I’d had no training when I started) that knowledge transmitted has to be accompanied by an understanding of and a concern for how the knowledge transmitted will be acquired, incorporated, in the child’s mind. Piaget saw the withering away of egocentrism as the loser in a battle with adult knowledge. Vygotsky saw scientific and spontaneous concepts as mutually interacting, with the scientific tending downwards from above, and the spontaneous tending upwards from below. When the interaction works well, it’s wonderful. The child’s existing understanding of something (why the planets go round the sun, what algebra does in mathematics, why a character in a poem or play or story acts as he or she does) is enhanced, strengthened, transformed by its grappling with the scientific understanding of those things. (I should probably say that, in the case of the last of my examples, ‘scientific’ doesn’t have to mean ‘exact’.) The reason why so much education is still a dreary and alienating experience for many children is that there is no positive interaction between spontaneous and scientific. The UK government’s obsession with phonics as the only method of teaching young children to read is a case in point. In chapter one of the book, Vygotsky writes: ‘A word without meaning is an empty sound, no longer a part of human speech.’ And: ‘sound detached from meaning immediately loses all the characteristics that make it a sound of human speech.’ Ninety years after he wrote those words, we have six-year-olds in England being forced by government diktat to learn words that don’t exist, supposedly to reinforce their grasp of sound/symbol correspondences. Sound has been utterly detached from meaning.

I was pretty familiar with Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal (should be ‘proximate’) development already. It’s his most famous idea, though not necessarily his most important. But it is profound. What a child can do with the help of others (adults and/or other students) is a surer measure of her or his ability than what he or she can do alone. Instruction should always run ahead (but not too far ahead) of what a child can do. ‘What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow. Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions.’ The huge significance for pedagogy of that insight is obvious, and twofold. First, instruction must involve dialogue, not just one-way transmission. Learning is a group activity. Secondly, the level of instruction must be properly demanding. It should lead the learner out (which, I think, is what the etymological meaning of ‘education’ is).

I found chapter five, ‘An Experimental Study of the Development of Concepts’, hard going, with its minutely detailed progression of phases and stages from syncretism to mature concepts. (Until I began to help Myra with her book, syncretism meant something different but analogous to me. My evangelical religious upbringing had taught me to be deeply suspicious of syncretists: people who, lacking any degree of dogmatic rigour, imagine that there are many ways of getting to heaven, and that we can pick and choose the best bits of various religions. ‘No,’ I was told, ‘there’s only one way, and we have found it.’) In Vygotsky’s terms, the word refers to the apparently random, unorganised way in which young children group things together when asked to perform sorting tasks in experimental conditions. Although this chapter required stamina, there were wonderful moments: ‘Analysis of reality with the help of concepts precedes analysis of the concepts themselves.’ It echoes my ‘competence precedes analysis’ mantra when I’ve written about grammar teaching. Or I should say that I echo it.

I can’t be sure whether or not I disagree with the great man about the place of grammar teaching. There are moments, when he refers to the astonishing achievement of young children in mastering the syntactic and phonetic complexities of their language (and in Russian, they learn to decline nouns as well as to conjugate verbs), that I’m sure we’re on the same page. But then there’s the following passage in chapter six: ‘Grammar is a subject that seems to be of little practical use. Unlike other school subjects, it does not give the child new skills. He conjugates and declines before he enters school. The opinion has even been voiced that school instruction in grammar could be dispensed with. We can only reply that our analysis clearly showed the study of grammar to be of paramount importance for the mental development of the child.’ You couldn’t put it more strongly than that. In the next paragraph, Vygotsky continues: ‘The child will use the correct case or tense within a sentence, but cannot decline or conjugate a word on request. He may not acquire new grammatical or syntactic forms in school, but thanks to instruction in grammar and writing, he does become aware of what he is doing and learns to use his skills consciously. Just as the child realizes for the first time in learning to write that the word Moscow consists of the sounds m-o-s-k-ow and learns to pronounce each one separately, he also learns to construct sentences, to do consciously what he has been doing unconsciously in speaking. Grammar and writing help the child to rise to a higher level of speech development.’

If Vygotsky is saying that to have an abstract understanding of a fronted adverbial or a non-finite subordinate clause, to use two examples currently bandied around on news programmes in the UK, leads to more appropriate use of fronted adverbials and non-finite subordinate clauses in writing, I simply disagree. Almost all the research evidence is to the contrary, and even the piece of good research at Exeter University by Deborah Myhill and her colleagues, which found that, in certain favourable circumstances and with certain groups of already higher-achieving students in Year 8 in secondary schools, there was a positive impact on writing of prior grammar teaching, is carefully hedged about with conditionality. It’s also unfortunate, for me, that Vygotsky’s Moscow example seems to fall straight into the phonics trap I was writing about earlier.

On the other hand, if Vygotsky is saying that the learning of grammar, at appropriate levels of difficulty for a given stage of a child’s development, gives the child a metalanguage, a language with which to talk about language, of course I agree, and it may be that in some way the confidence given by the handling of that metalanguage does benefit the quality of the child’s writing. But no one, not even a genius, will convince me that as a child writes a story or a play or an essay or a poem, he or she says (in inner speech, perhaps), ‘Now I shall use the second person singular of the past tense (or the passive voice, or the subjunctive mood, or an adverbial phrase of manner) which we learnt about last week.’

Vygotsky has that Marxist tendency (Harold Rosen had it too, although I don’t know to what extent he would still have called himself a Marxist in his latter years) of being prepared to attack intellectual opponents robustly, while expecting that the opponents would simply take the attack on the chin: nothing personal. Piaget is the most obvious recipient of such a battering, but so is Stern. Poor old Stern gets a right hammering in chapter three, but then, in the wonderful chapter four, ‘The Genetic Roots of Thought and Speech’, Vygotsky says, ‘…the most important discovery [that a child makes] is that at a certain moment at about the age of two the curves of development of thought and speech, till then separate, meet and join to initiate a new form of behaviour. Stern’s account of this momentous event was the first and the best. He showed how the will to conquer language follows the first dim realization of the purpose of speech, when the child “makes the greatest discovery of his life,” that “each thing has its name”.’ Vygotsky concludes the second section of the chapter thus: ‘In brief, we must conclude that 1) In their ontogenetic development, thought and speech have different roots; 2) In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a preintellectual stage, and in his thought development, a prelinguistic stage; 3) Up to a certain point in time, the two follow different lines, independently of each other; 4) At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal, and speech rational.’

That sums it up for me.

That’s enough. And I’ve only written a few things about this one book. Then there’s all the rest of the work: the essay on play; ‘The Pre-history of the Development of Written Language’; Imagination and Creativity in Childhood; ‘On Psychological Systems’ (another example of Vygotsky’s insistence on dynamism: not only are the various elements of a person’s psychological being in dynamic interaction with each other, but the nature of those interactions is itself subject to constant change); ‘The Problem of Teaching and Mental Development at School Age’; and lots more. Enough for a lifetime of admiration and inspiration.

Kerfontaine2 August 2022

My trip to London and then Shropshire for Peter Traves’s funeral went as well as these things ever can. The ceremony itself, at Shrewsbury crematorium on Monday 25 July, where I have now said goodbye to four friends, was an impressive and moving event: a series of tributes covering Peter’s life from his childhood, through his university days and then his long career in education, to his retirement, when he founded the local U3A network and ran three of its groups. There were touching personal tributes from his three sons. Two repeated themes were Peter’s steadfastness as a friend and his love of literature. About 200 people attended, some of whom weren’t even allowed into the building (restrictions have become tighter since Covid) but who listened via loudspeaker outside. The event was streamed on the internet. One viewer, Peter Rowlands, who had begun his teaching career at Hackney Downs School under Peter Traves’s guidance more than forty years ago, was watching in New Zealand at 2.30 in the morning. Merle Traves had asked me to read something which John Hirst, a close friend of Peter’s, had written. John could easily have read it himself, but preferred me to do it. Here it is.

John Hirst, for many years Director of Community Services in Shropshire, is here today, and I’m speaking on his behalf. John writes: ‘Peter and I became close friends partly because of a shared delight in Proust. He mentioned one day that he’d been reading and re-reading Proust for 30 years. In Search of Time Past had been a leaving present from Hackney Downs School in 1983. I loved the books too and we agreed that, amongst so much else, they make up one of the great comic novels.

I became friends with Merle too, staying with them at Holly Cottage, and they stayed with me where I live in Harlech. They were with me earlier in the week that Peter died. His mobility was poor, but he was absolutely undimmed and whilst Merle was taking stormy walks along the beach we talked and talked. He radiated sheer joy in books. Did I agree that Great Expectations was a darker novel than David Copperfield? Had I read Tess’s Lament?  No, so out it came. What about Gillian Clarke’s Miracle on St David’s Day?  Another no, so Peter recited it, more or less from memory. And he was re-reading Joyce’s Dubliners. He would say, ‘Just listen to this,’ and read a passage he’d especially relished.

But it was Proust that brought us together again and again — Charlus, Swann, the Verdurins, Odette, St Loup, Françoise, Balbec, Combray — a world which Peter inhabited like no one else I know. 

He wrote that In Search of Time Past was “the book I return to most often and at each visit find new things to admire”. He loved the meditation on time and memory, the huge cast of characters, the comedy and Proust’s “extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity” about the arts and about writing in particular. Here’s a short passage which expresses Proust’s belief in the transformative power of art. It stands too for the impact that Peter had on so many lives.

“Victor Hugo says, ‘Grass must grow and children must die.’ To me it seems more correct to say that the cruel law of art is that people die and we ourselves die after exhausting every form of suffering, so that over our heads may grow the grass not of oblivion but of eternal life, the vigorous and luxuriant growth of a true work of art, and so that thither, gaily and without a thought for those who are sleeping beneath them, future generations may come to enjoy their déjeuner sur l'herbe.”’

After the ceremony we drove to the village hall in Pontesbury, near where Peter and Merle live, for a high tea and much conversation with old friends. It’s a sad and inevitable fact that these reunions more and more occur while bidding farewell to one of our own.

I stayed at Harmer Hill with David James. The next day, he, his son Tom and I drove to Plymouth. We crossed to Roscoff overnight, and were here by breakfast on 27 July, six days ago.

On 21 July, I had met David’s architect, together with a structural engineer and a quantity surveyor, at the house in Pont-Scorff. The upshot of the meeting is that everything behind the façade, apart from the exterior walls, needs to be demolished. The combination of rot, fungus, damp, asbestos and general decline is so severe that there’s no chance of saving any of the rest. I’m relieved; I thought that would be the case. David was shocked. We had a long talk as soon as we got here. We considered his options, one of which was to abandon the project, cut his losses, and try to sell the place only three months after he had bought it. Fortunately, that won’t be necessary. We went to see the architect the following day. The approximate cost of demolition plus installing a new roof and two new floors is 200,000 euros. David has that money, and he’s going to go at least that far. Thereafter, the approximate cost of rehabilitating each floor so that it becomes a living space with everything we expect of modern life is 100,000 euros per floor. At the moment, the house is on three floors, so a new third floor would cost a bit more. But David could decide just to rehabilitate one floor, or two floors, depending on his budget. Then there’s the façade. The historic buildings department will require that it be returned to its original state. So the architect will need to find, somewhere in the town’s archives, photographs of the house as it was about a hundred years ago. I’ve written before that the state will provide a grant for a percentage of the cost of that work; perhaps 20%. At any rate, David will have to borrow money in order to have a house that he can eventually live in, but I think he’ll be able to do that at a reasonable rate of interest, given his assets in England. The architect, Jérôme Hertzog, is an admirable and reassuring person, evidently competent, who will guide us at every stage. So un grand projet is under way.

David and Tom have just left. They’ll stay in Roscoff tonight, cross to Plymouth tomorrow during the day, and be home in Shropshire by evening.

I hadn’t heard a cuckoo all spring and summer until Sunday, the last day of July. I was in Plouay, going to buy bread, when I heard one calling, again and again, somewhere over the roofs of the town. ‘The cuckoo comes in April / He sings his song in May / In the middle of June he changes his tune / In July he flies away.’ Extraordinary; perhaps the bird was packing its bags.

The next Conservative leader and prime minister will either be Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak. Members of the party are being balloted now, and the winner will be known on 5 September. Truss is currently the favourite. She is a person, so far as I can see, with no vision, intelligence or integrity. Vaulting ambition is all she possesses. Both candidates are making increasingly implausible promises in their attempt to attract votes. There is no doubt that, of the two, Sunak is the less bad, the more competent. Writing as a patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom, I would prefer him to be prime minister. Writing as a member of the Labour Party, I can see that our chances of winning a general election in 2024 are enhanced if Truss wins, because I’m sure her inadequacy in the top job will soon become apparent.

The hot summer continues. It’s glorious, but the countryside is parched and there’s a severe shortage of water.

Mary, Sophie, Paul and Anna arrived in Priziac on Sunday. They’re coming round for tea tomorrow, and on Thursday, Helen’s birthday, we’ll go there for dinner.

Kerfontaine6 August 2022

We celebrated Helen’s birthday properly. She wasn’t sure what she wanted for a present, so as a holding operation I bought her a stock of unguents of her favourite brand, Nuxe, and a flowering succulent called kalanchoë. I took her to the hairdresser in the morning, and we lunched quietly on coquilles Saint Jacques. She had cards, phone messages, emails and texts from everyone she might have expected to remember the day. Aurélie and Jérôme and their children came down in the afternoon with a bunch of flowers, and Jean and Annick gave her an expensive bar of soap in a pretty soap dish. Then we drove up to Priziac for dinner: champagne and amuse-gueules in the garden, then inside for ham and melon, a fish pie (both of these with Quincy), cheese (with a very good 2016 Pessac-Léognan), apple and blackberry crumble, coffee, whisky. Home about eleven.

Today I’ve been at the beach with Mary, Jacques, Sophie and the children. The Plage du Kérou is idyllic, with its fine sand and rock outcrops with pools supplying endless interest by way of starfish, sea anemones and little darting fish which hide under the sand when the human hand tries to catch them. The brilliant blue sea seemed cold, despite the weeks and weeks of hot weather, probably because of the contrast with the air temperature. But it was exhilarating once you’re in. I swam for about half an hour and then played with the children. First we built sandcastles. And I must admit that these children, unlike some others I’ve played with in Brittany, didn’t get bored and wander off, leaving me to continue the heavy construction work alone. After a while, a change of activity: they wanted clamber all over the rocks, with me standing close by to prevent injury. Whenever they came upon a rock pool (which they called ‘une piscine’) containing sea anemones, they ‘fed’ the creatures with tiny bigorneaux they’d prised off the rocks. I think it highly unlikely that winkles are part of the sea anemone’s diet. And so on for several hours. Remarkably, there were few people there for most of the time. As we left, streams of French holidaymakers were only then descending to the beach. I suppose the tyranny of lunch, followed by siesta, means that the ‘proper’ time to go to the beach is the late afternoon. But it was cooler and less crowded earlier.

Kerfontaine8 August 2022

I’ve just read Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza was Vygotsky’s favourite philosopher, and Myra refers to his influence on Vygotsky several times in her book. So I thought I’d better have a go. The going, as they say in horse racing circles, was hard. I have no training at all in philosophy, any more than in sub-nuclear physics or cosmology. In all three of these areas, I’ve started off reading books with bright enthusiasm, but almost immediately been ambushed by unfamiliar terms or ungraspable concepts, by the fact that the author, however much he or she may make allowances for ‘the general reader’, takes for granted a level of prior understanding ‘which in my case I have not got’ (Henry Reed’s wonderful ‘Naming of Parts’). Spinoza makes no allowance for the general reader. On top of that, his book uses the Euclidean proof method (which I just about understand when applied to mathematics) to present his understanding of God, the universe, humanity, society, the emotions and the intellect. So the first part, ‘Concerning God’, begins with eight definitions and seven axioms. Then come the propositions, with their proofs. There are 36 propositions in this part. The first is: ‘A substance is prior in its nature to its modifications.’ And the proof? ‘This is obvious from definitions 3 and 5.’ So I go back to definitions 3 and 5. Definition 3: ‘I understand SUBSTANCE (substantia) to be that which is in itself and is conceived through itself: I mean that, the conception of which does not depend on the conception of another thing from which it must be formed.’ Definition 5: ‘By MODE (modus) I understand the Modifications (affectiones) of a substance or that which is in something else through which it may be conceived.’ I’m hanging on by my fingertips here. Substance is a primary thing. Mode is dependent on, is a feature or characteristic or, perhaps, a consequence of substance. OK. So I go back to the first proposition. Then I have this funny feeling that I’m being told the bleeding obvious, to be vulgar. If you’ve set out your definitions that way, then obviously substance is prior to mode.

Anyway, the book is in five parts and I’ve read all 224 pages. I skipped nothing. But most of the time (because I know a lot about early reading) I was in the position of the child whose eye and brain are perceiving marks on a page, but not inferring meaning from them. Here, for what it’s worth, is what I think Spinoza is saying.

Part 1, ‘Concerning God’: God is, and is everything. You could call God Nature, or Nature God. God does not exist as a creator or benefactor or judge of Nature or humanity. He (He remains male, for Spinoza, though in my Everyman’s Library English translation the capital H comes and goes) has no moral qualities. He is simply coterminous with the state of things everywhere and always.

I can see how radical, heretical, it would have been for a Jewish man to write that in the seventeenth century. He was expelled from his synagogue (and the internet tells me that even now, unbelievably, the same synagogue in Amsterdam refuses to readmit him posthumously to its congregation), and Ethics, which wasn’t published until after Spinoza’s death, soon and rather predictably was banned by the Catholic Church. But for me, an atheist inclined to the view, beautifully put in another book I’m reading by way of light relief, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers, a biography of her remarkable father and his remarkable three brothers, that Christianity is a two-thousand-year-old swindle which teaches people to fear when there are no grounds to be afraid and to hope when there is nothing to hope for, it seems that you could call the state of things everywhere and always by whatever name you wanted. ‘Dog’ instead of ‘God’? No, because ‘dog’ means something else in English. ‘Yog’, ‘splog’, ‘undak’: any meaningless term, not tied to a referent, would do equally well.

Part 2, ‘Concerning the Nature and Origin of the Mind’: the mind and the body are the same thing. I was previously aware that Descartes is a dualist, arguing that the mind and the body are two different things. So Spinoza is a monist. I get that, and I can see why Vygotsky was excited by the idea. He knew that the brain is just a highly complex piece of physical kit, if I can put it that way, whatever astonishing ideas it generates, and there is no reason to promote a piece of physical kit to a metaphysical plane. After Vygotsky died, his friend, colleague and disciple Luria spent most of the rest of his life researching the particular jobs that particular parts of the brain do.

There are three kinds of knowledge. The first is simply an expression of the way our bodies work; it is sensory perception. The second is knowledge derived from reason. The third is knowledge of God.

Part 3, ‘Concerning the Origin and Nature of the Emotions’: there are only three main classes of emotion. They are pleasure, pain and desire. Within these three main classes, Spinoza names many specific emotions: love, hate, hope, fear, confidence, despair, joy, disappointment… I can understand this, and the internet tells me that the catalogue of definitions and distinctions here is a classic of psychology. Some emotions are active (which is good), some passive (less good). Spinoza seems to me to contradict himself a bit when he writes, at the beginning of proposition 58: ‘Besides pleasure and desire, which are passions, there are other emotions of pleasure and pain which refer to us in so far as we are active.’ So I understand him to be saying that, with regard to pleasure and desire, we are driven to do things whether we want to or not, and whether it’s a good thing to do them or not. But he already, in the same proposition, has conceded that ‘other emotions of pleasure… refer to us in so far as we are active’, and towards the end of the proof which follows the proposition he writes: ‘…by endeavour we understand desire… Therefore desire also has reference to us in so far as we understand, or… in so far as we are active.’

This part also contains Spinoza’s distinction between ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ ideas. I think he means that if a person is moved by an adequate idea, the emotions accompanying that idea are active and honourable. The person is in charge. But if a person is moved by an inadequate idea, the emotions accompanying that idea are passive and dishonourable. The person is not in charge; something else is driving him or her. (Might this be what Freud called the id?) Several times in the book Spinoza quotes or refers to Ovid’s famous remark: ‘Video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor. — I see and approve of better things, but I follow the worse.’ I was amused that Spinoza regards drunkenness as an emotion. So far as I’m concerned, drunkenness might well bring about the unusual or extreme expression of emotions, but is in itself simply a chemical poisoning of the brain. But I suppose, if you regard the mind and the body as the same thing, you could just about say that drunkenness (or gluttony) are emotions. I’m not convinced.

Part 4, ‘On Human Servitude, or the Strength of the Emotions’: if human passions dominate us, we are slaves to them. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to be guided by reason, we are free. And here I began to read things which really did carry meaning for me (or perhaps I was just being rewarded for my persistence). So, ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.’ This reminded me of Montaigne’s wonderful remark, which I quoted in my eulogy at Mike Raleigh’s funeral: ‘I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can; I want Death to find me planting cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.’ And (back to Spinoza): ‘Only free men are truly grateful one to the other.’ And: ‘Minds are conquered not by arms, but by love and magnanimity.’ Spinoza thinks that we should enjoy ourselves. He has no time for religious observance which over-emphasises self-denial: ‘There is in self-despising a false kind of piety and religion; and although self-despising is contrary to pride, yet one who despises himself is the nearest to a proud man.’

And here Spinoza gets close to saying something political, about the role of the state, which — given my own political persuasion — makes perfect sense to me. ‘It is above all things useful to men that they unite their habits of life (consuetudines) and bind themselves together with such bonds by which they can most easily make one individual of them all, and to do those things especially which serve for the purpose of confirming friendship.’ And: ‘Therefore, although men are as a rule governed in everything by their desire or lust, yet from their common society or association many more advantages than disadvantages arise or follow. Wherefore it is but right to bear the injuries arising therefrom with equanimity, and to be zealous for those who serve to keep peace and friendship.’ I don’t know to what extent Spinoza was thinking about the state here, or whether he merely had some optimistic anarchistic idea of loosely linked groups of like-minded people. But the fact that he uses the term ‘society’ inclines me to put him firmly in my camp politically. All Thatcher’s and Reagan’s pronouncements and actions, the pronouncements and actions of the neo-Conservatives in America under Bush junior, right up to the terrifying array of far-right forces so dominant in the world today, have denied ‘society or association’. Thatcher explicitly said that there is no such thing as society. For me, it is only if the state, locally and nationally, and supra-national bodies like the UN or the international committee of experts on climate change, are strong enough to restrain the worst effects of men’s ‘desire or lust’, that will we properly harness the wealth-generating effects of endeavour, and save ourselves.

Part 5, ‘Concerning the Power of the Intellect or Human Freedom’: ‘I shall endeavour to show what power reason has over the emotions.’ By the aid of reason, humans can be truly free. But it almost never happens that humans operate according to the dictates of reason; very often, even the best men (Spinoza is lamentable on the gender question) are driven by passions.

Mysteriously, given his monist position, Spinoza writes (proposition 23): ‘The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the human body, but there is some part of it that remains eternal.’ His proof has to do with the nature of God: ‘as there is nevertheless something else [other than the human body] which is conceived under a certain eternal necessity through the essence of God, this something will be necessarily the eternal part which appertains to the essence of the mind.’ That’s irrational mysticism for me. The closest I can get to it is to acknowledge, which of course I do freely, that the efforts of the minds of people who are now dead live on. The idea that they are eternal is more of a stretch, logically and temporally.

Spinoza comes back to his three kinds of knowledge. ‘From this third class of knowledge [that is, of God] the greatest possible mental satisfaction arises.’ ‘The endeavour or desire of knowing things according to the third class of knowledge cannot arise from the first but the second class of knowledge.’ So you get closer to God (or Nature, or yog, splog or undak in my vulgar terminology) via reason. No chance of getting closer via passion or mere sensory perception. It’s rather a long way from the idea, dear to so many before, during and after Spinoza and delicately but decisively challenged by Darwin, that the observation of the exquisite complex beauty of things in the universe — a passion-fruit flower is my favourite example — provokes belief in a creator’s existence.

At the very end of this extraordinary and very difficult book, which so many better-equipped people than me say is one of the great texts of philosophy, Spinoza admits that the achievement of true freedom is hard. ‘…the wise man… is conscious of himself, of God, and things by a certain eternal necessity, he never ceases to be [I suppose because the mind is eternal], and always enjoys satisfaction of mind. If the road I have shown to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be very hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that it is neglected practically by all, if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.’ Strangely, this last passage, written by an unorthodox (anti-orthodox?) Jew 350 years ago, reminds me of nothing so much as the plangent appeals from evangelical pulpits which assailed my ears too often in my childhood and youth: ‘Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ There’s a note of desperation, of whistling in the wind, in both.

I was interested to read on the internet that the first English translation of Ethics was by George Eliot. I can see how Spinoza’s bold heterodoxy would have appealed to her, as perhaps did his Jewishness, given that she wrote Daniel Deronda, as I remember from that book’s introduction, partly as expiation for the casual anti-Semitism of her younger years. The second English translation was by the novelist William Hale White, nom de plume Mark Rutherford, like me a pupil at Bedford Modern School. The debating society at the school, where I sometimes gave voice to opinions more confidently than I felt them internally, was named after him.

The only thing I knew, or thought I knew, about Spinoza when I was a teenager, apart from the fact that he was Jewish and a lens grinder, was that he was supposed to have said, or written, ‘A man is never the better for having a finer gown.’ May God (or Nature or whatever you want to call it, her or him) forgive me: I used to quote this bon mot glibly to my poor mother, God (or Nature or whatever you want to call it, her or him) rest her soul, when, as happened often, she criticised what she saw as my deplorably sloppy and inappropriate choices in the matter of dress. There were particularly tense moments at about ten o’clock on a Sunday, as the family prepared to depart for church.

Kerfontaine6 September 2022

August has come and gone. The weather remained hot and dry until the middle of the month, but then became unsettled and cooler, and now we’re having welcome rain. But the length and intensity of the drought has been such that there are still tight restrictions on water use in many parts of France and England.

We went back to London for a week from the 14th to the 21st, so Helen could attend two hospital appointments. Both were reassuring. The ultrasound at UCLH showed that the lesions on her pancreas are stable and not malign, and that her gall bladder is in much better shape than it was six months ago. Helen has another appointment at UCLH on 1 November. I think they will decide then whether to remove her gall bladder, as the specialist told her in April that they would, or to leave it where it is, given its improvement. Two days later we went to Moorfields. Helen had eye tests for glaucoma, which is in her family. She hasn’t yet had the results — they’ll come in a letter — but she seemed to feel that she’d passed the tests satisfactorily. She does have developing cataracts, but they’re not yet ripe enough to warrant surgery.

And we did various other bits of business. We now have a document confirming the extended lease on our flat, which runs until 2196. So the resale value of the flat is secured, and we no longer pay ground rent.

I went to see Myra Barrs. Alison Foyle at Routledge has said that she is ‘interested’ in the possibility of publishing an anthology of extracts from Vygotsky’s writings, which Myra would choose. I think the anthology, in twelve chapters, would roughly parallel the contents of the twelve chapters of Vygotsky the Teacher. Myra has provisionally decided on the extracts for the first five chapters. I’ve taken those away and typed them up, either by laborious copy typing or by using the scans which Raj at Prontaprint in Camden took from the printed pages. He has a machine that turns print or typescript into Word documents. We’ll do the remaining seven chapters in the next few months. If Alison Foyle’s interest becomes a formal acceptance of our proposal, Myra will employ her friend Cathy to do the hard work of seeking permissions from copyright holders, and negotiating prices.

Over the last few days I’ve been busy with the fête de Saint Guénaël. It’s the first time we’ve held it in its full form since 2019, because of Covid-19. I washed cutlery, crockery and glassware on Thursday, peeled potatoes (with Helen) on Saturday, sold wine and cider at the fête itself on Sunday, and helped to clear up yesterday. The event was a great success. There were slightly fewer people there than three years ago, but we still sold about 550 lunches, I took about a thousand euros in sales, and the overall chiffre d’affaires was a bit more than 10,000 euros, of which I should think about half is profit, all of which goes to the upkeep of the chapel. You could see how happy people were to be together again after the enforced isolation of the last two years. It’s true that we had an outdoor mass followed by drinks last year, but it was all over by lunchtime and people were still wearing masks, apart from when consuming the body of Christ.

The United Kingdom has a new prime minister: Liz Truss. She won about 57% of the votes cast by members of the Tory party. She will now, I imagine, appoint a cabinet of ultra-right-wing, free-market ideologues. The UK might be in for another dose of Thatcher’s economic experiment, 43 years after the first one, except that Truss has an immediate problem: reality is staring her in the face. If she doesn’t do something utterly at variance with her free-market instincts, there may well be civil riot and social breakdown in the coming weeks. People are facing huge, crippling rises in the cost of their electricity and gas. So I hear that, despite Truss’s reluctance to question the profound wisdom of the markets, electricity and gas prices may well be capped at their current levels until some time in 2024. The first version of the scheme, from what I read a few hours ago, would have seen privatised retail energy suppliers borrowing from commercial banks to meet the difference between what they’re allowed to charge their customers and what they have to pay the energy producers or wholesale suppliers to get the gas and electricity. The government would have guaranteed the loans, so the commercial banks wouldn’t be taking a risk. The cost of servicing the loans would then be added to consumers’ bills over the next fifteen to twenty years. So, to use the cliché, kick the can down the road. But I now read that the government has a simpler idea: just borrow the money and give it to the retail suppliers so they can stay afloat. It’s another version of kicking the can down the road. If this is indeed what happens, the effect of the measure, so far as ordinary consumers are concerned, will be exactly the same as Keir Starmer’s proposal of several weeks ago. Truss of course will deny that she has adopted a Labour idea. And there is one big difference: Labour wanted to fund such a measure, at least in part, by a windfall tax on the extraordinary profits which energy producers have made recently. Truss wants to do it by borrowing. The party which used to believe in sound money prefers long-term borrowing to imposing some slight constraints on the ability of its friends in the boardrooms of energy companies to make risk-free mega-profits.

Labour should make the following set of simple proposals as we move closer to a general election: re-nationalise electricity, gas, water and the railways. This would be popular in the country and the right thing to do (two things which rarely go together in politics). Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation is largely responsible for the inability of the UK government, up to this point in the crisis, to do anything on a scale sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge brought about by the combination of greatly increased demand for energy as the world recovers from Covid-19, and greatly reduced supply of energy as a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Gorbachev died a week ago. If you take a tragic view of human history, which I’m often tempted to do, you would say that Russia’s rejection of Gorbachev, a great statesman, in favour of a drunk followed by a tyrant, confirms that view. Had Gorbachev stayed, Russia might now be one of a family of nations broadly representing freedom and peace. The opposite is the case. If you take an optimistic, or at least non-tragic, view, we can at least say that there are millions of people in eastern European countries who will always be grateful that Gorbachev did what he did. It will have been dreadful for him to watch what Putin and his cronies have done to Russia in recent years; the invasion of Ukraine must have brought the great statesman to despair in his last months.

Kerfontaine17 September 2022

Queen Elizabeth II died nine days ago, at the age of 96. Since then, the United Kingdom has engaged in an excessive display of national mourning, with individuals and institutions trying to outdo each other in expressions of grief. This will continue until Monday evening, which is the day of the state funeral and a bank holiday. I am immensely relieved not to be in London at the moment. Friends there tell me that all the news media, and especially the BBC, are given over to wall-to-wall coverage of every aspect of the event: the lying-in-state in Edinburgh and at Westminster, the length of the queues waiting to file past the coffin, Charles’s accession as king, the reassignment of titles to the lesser royals, the sometimes absurd gestures undertaken ‘as a mark of respect’, of which the choicest is the supermarket Morrisons’ decision to reduce the volume of the beeps which its tills sound when they read the bar code on items at the checkouts. Normally we listen to the BBC news on Radio 4 Long Wave once or twice a day, but I can’t bear it at the moment.

An honourable but immensely privileged woman did her duty for 70 years, and for that I respect her. But for the institution of monarchy, and for the Mountbatten-Windsor (or is it Windsor-Mountbatten?) family, immoderately wealthy but very moderately talented, I have no special respect. The United Kingdom’s obsession with that family’s doings keeps a large proportion of the population in a state of intellectual and emotional adolescence. I’m aware that this is a minority opinion, and that even under King Charles III, who won’t be as popular as his mother, the monarchy looks secure. Next year, I imagine, Charles’s coronation will give the nation another opportunity to return to its favourite obsession. I thank him for one thing, though: a bathroom. When he went to Trinity College, Cambridge (with only two A-levels, a B in history and a C in French, and no need to do the seventh-term entrance examination like the rest of us), all the publicity insisted that he would be treated exactly like any other student. I can understand that he needed to have a detective discreetly following him around, and I don’t blame him for that. But he did receive certain special privileges, one of which was that in his third and final year, when he inhabited P staircase in Great Court (it would have been P3 or P4, on the first floor), a special bathroom was installed for him on the second floor, between P5 and P6. At that time, very few of the students’ rooms had their own bathrooms. Students would wander across the court in their dressing gowns, clutching their toilet bag, to bathe in a communal bathroom. This was not considered suitable for Charles. All he had to do to get a bath was to climb one flight of stairs. His last year was my first. Two years later, in my final year, my set of rooms was the beautiful and historic P6, with its high-backed settle around the gas fire and an oak beam dating from 1598 crossing the air in the bedroom. Right next to the main room was the bathroom. The student inhabiting P5 was a mathematical genius who never seemed to wash, so after a few weeks I took to leaving my toiletries in the bathroom, and throughout that year no one else made use of the facility. King Charles, thanks for that; our bottoms have touched the same porcelain (or was it plastic?). And I will say this for him: his concern for the future of the planet is genuine, not a fashionable pretence. If during his reign he can use his influence to persuade governments to accelerate the actions essential to save us and future generations from disaster, good. (Little chance of that under the Truss government, however.) About some of his other opinions, notably on architecture and education, the less said the better.

Mike Raleigh was once witness to the late Queen’s sense of humour. He was then very senior in HMI (I think number two or three in the hierarchy). One day he attended the Privy Council in order to propose to Her Majesty some new names to join ‘Your Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools’ — the only occasion on which HMIs were referred to as YMIs. He was halfway through his list when a mobile phone began ringing in the handbag of one of the female ministers standing there (I think it was Hilary Armstrong). She scrabbled frantically in the bag as the ringing became louder and louder, finally found it, looked at it and turned the wretched thing off. Deeply embarrassed, she turned to the Queen and offered profound apologies. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Her Majesty. ‘Was it someone important?’ A touch of lemon juice in with the mirth.

Since Another Kind of Seeing came out, I hadn’t written a poem until this week. I’ve recently been re-reading the poems of Thomas Wyatt (and been amused and appalled by the marginal comments of student Richmond in The Muses Library edition I bought in Bowes and Bowes in Cambridge more than fifty years ago). I’d forgotten that many of the poems are translations or imitations, and that Petrarch is the original for most of these. So I’ve been comparing Wyatt’s versions with Petrarch’s. (In one case, Petrarch’s sonnet 19, Son animali al mondo de sì altera vista, which Wyatt translates as ‘Som fowles there be that have so perfaict sight,’ I’ve had a go at the same poem, beginning ‘Some animals enjoy such special powers of sight’.) No one who knows anything about poetry and the Italian language can fail to be in awe of Petrarch’s control of forms: the sonnet of course, but also the madrigal, the ballata, the canzone and the sestina. So I thought I’d try a sestina, which Robert Durling, the editor of my edition of Petrarch, tells me ‘was probably invented by Arnaut Daniel’. Daniel, Wikipedia says, ‘was an Occitan troubadour of the 12th century, praised by Dante as “the best smith” (miglior fabbro) and called “a grand master of love” (gran maestro d’amore) by Petrarch.’ The sestina is a difficult form: six stanzas of six lines each, followed by an envoi of three lines. The final words of the lines of the first stanza run ABCDEF: i.e. they don’t rhyme at all. But either those whole words or (more difficult still) rhymes for those first six words follow in the remaining five stanzas in a strict but not obvious mathematical order, one feature of which is that the word or rhyme which ends the last line of each stanza is the same as or must rhyme with the word or rhyme which ends the first line of the next stanza. Then the envoi must use all six words, or the six rhymes, two per line. I’ve gone the whole hog and done the most difficult version, using rhymes rather than repeated whole words. (Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Two Lorries’ is a beautiful sestina using repeated whole words, with occasional slight departures from the exact words.) ‘Unwelcome Visitor’ is about one of my occasional bouts of depression, and I’m pretty pleased with it. Its last words are ‘the better cheer that writing can provoke’.

One important piece of good news: Ukraine has made some remarkable advances in recent days, taking back large swathes of the territory Russia had invaded. Russian troops seem demoralised; many of them have simply retreated over the border, leaving large quantities of equipment behind them. The Ukrainian advance has exposed more evidence of Russian war crimes, including the torture and execution of civilians in towns they had occupied.

Kerfontaine24 September 2022

It’s been a pretty good week. On the day of the Queen’s funeral I gardened, and kept well away from the radio. It was a beautiful late-summer day, warm but not hot. I cleared all the undergrowth from the lane and from the track behind the house. And I cut the grass in the little triangle next to our neighbours’ house. It belongs neither to them nor to us, but to the commune; the commune never comes to attend to it, and we don’t mind. Jean came out and said, ‘Nous avons un jardinier anglais et républicain! Il ne regarde pas la télé.

On Tuesday Jean-Paul came with his big lawnmower, and between us we cut all the grass on the property, he doing the big swathes and me the tricky little bits which are too tight for his machine. He came again on Thursday. In the morning he cut the hedge and I swept up the cuttings. In the afternoon he chopped wood with his little electric chainsaw, and we filled the wood store for the winter. Satisfying. The place looks well cared for now.

On top of that, I’ve done two more poems; or rather, one more new poem and one revision. My mild republicanism became rather less mild when I read in The Guardian on-line that Charles will pay no inheritance tax on the vast private fortune he inherits from his mother. (I don’t know whether his siblings are also similarly fortunate.) I’m realistic enough to accept that the monarchy looks secure in the UK at least for the rest of my lifetime, and probably well beyond that. (In some other countries of the Commonwealth, it may be a different story.) The royal family receives a sovereign grant of many millions of pounds — I think a quarter of the profits yielded by the Crown Estate — as payment for the public functions they perform. The grant keeps them in high style. That ought to be enough. But no: under an agreement made with John Major in 1992, the Queen and the then Prince Charles ‘volunteered’ to pay income tax — how gracious — in return for exemption from inheritance tax. A smart move on their part. So now, Charles pays nothing as he inherits, alone, the Duchy of Lancaster, with its vast portfolio of land and property; and I presume that he inherits with his siblings a share of the £70 million which the Queen Mother left to the Queen, her only surviving child, when she died in 2002. To repeat, this is private wealth: nothing to do with the sovereign grant. Of course, once upon a time the Crown Estate was literally the property of the monarch and the royal family. That wealth was gained in remote centuries, usually by violent means. In 1760, says Wikipedia, ‘George III surrendered control over the Estate’s revenues to the Treasury, thus relieving him of the responsibility of paying for the costs of the civil service, defence costs, the national debt, and his own personal debts. In return, he received an annual grant known as the Civil List.’ In 2012, the Civil List was abolished and replaced by the sovereign grant.

The rest of us pay 40% inheritance tax on the value of estates over £325,000 (double that for couples on the death of the second spouse or partner). The naked injustice of Charles’s exemption from paying inheritance tax on his private wealth is breath-taking. So breath-taking that I wrote the following little squib.

A Humble Petition

‘King Charles III will not pay tax on the fortune he has inherited from the late Queen’ — The Guardian, 13 September 2022

King Charles the First, ordained by God
to be his country’s head,
was personally shortened by
an axe’s stroke instead.

A tyrant who deserved it? Still,
it seems extreme to us
that he — a stubborn royal fool —
should be diminished thus.

‘A sovereign and his subjects each
have duties to fulfil,’
so he believed: his to command
and theirs to foot the bill.

How different is King Charles the Third,
our modern head of state!
To him fall heavy tasks at last
(he’s had so long to wait):

the dishing out of titles,
the choosing where to stay;
his castles all have ‘pleasant seats’
for which the people pay.

Although in these enlightened times
we’ve put away the axe,
is it too much to ask the man
to pay his share of tax?

I wrote this on Wednesday. While I was sweeping up hedge cuttings on Thursday, a poem I wrote many years ago, called ‘Second Chance’, about a romantic encounter I had with a beautiful French girl, came into my mind, because it is in the same common measure as ‘A Humble Petition’. ‘Second Chance’ has been on the website from the beginning, but I never thought it quite good enough to include in a book. So I went back to it, made some changes, and now it’s much tighter.

Second Chance

The last, slow train from Guildford
is lurching through the night.

She reads her smart French novel
in the dim and flickering light.

Her smile, on him once only,
is slow to turn away.
He longs to interrupt the book;
what can he find to say?

Too soon, with creaks and flashes,
the train’s at Waterloo.
He’s wishing that he’d said to her
what faint hearts never do.

She walks straight on before him
down the platform, through the gates,
lost to view across the concourse
as his hopes he terminates.

Remorsefully he wanders
down dark tunnels of the mind:
if he had asked her out for lunch
she might not have declined.

The last, slow train to Edgware
is following its breath.
He stands, a world away from love,
a step away from death.

He boards, turns round — and sees her.
‘Please, is this the Barnet train?’
Then his face she recognises
and jumps on, and smiles again.

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a financial statement containing measures on a scale vaster than in many a recent full budget statement. Essentially, nakedly, the new Truss government will give much more money to those who are already wealthy. There’s no attempt to disguise this; it’s the new administration’s article of faith. It’s trickle-down economics, extreme version: much more extreme than even that which Thatcher and Lawson introduced in the 1980s. Tax cuts will, the government imagines, stimulate growth and pay for themselves. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that tax cuts of this kind will do any such thing. Trickle-down economics failed in the 1980s and 1990s, and almost brought the world’s financial system to collapse in 2007 and 2008.

Conservative economic policy since 2010 is utterly incoherent. It began with Cameron’s and Osborne’s austerity, which imposed misery while failing in its stated intention to drag the UK out of recession, while Obama’s policy of borrowing to invest brought the USA out of recession much more quickly. At the time, the Tories were sneering at Labour for being tax-and-spend obsessives. After a disastrous period in which poorer and middle-income people in the UK were paying for the greed and stupidity of the rich in the years before the crash, the policy lurched violently in the other direction under Johnson, with all concern for sound money and ‘balancing the books’ thrown to the winds. I accept of course that Covid-19 brought with it exceptional costs, and that any government would have had to borrow to meet these; and I accept that any government would have had to borrow to shield people from the energy crisis brought about by Putin’s war (although the fact that we have privatised all our energy firms puts the government in a far weaker position than in countries like France, Sweden and Norway, and in parts of Germany, where there is a large publicly owned energy company). The kind of tax cuts we need are those better described as investment incentives, encouraging businesses to invest in new plant, in more advanced technology, in better training for their employees. We need that and also substantial investment in public infrastructure like roads, railways and broadband. Investment incentives of this kind would bring growth and would do something about the UK’s notoriously low levels of productivity. What we don’t need are tax cuts which, I read, will save the poorest 5% of households £22.12p over the next year, and will save the richest 5% £9,187. And while the Chancellor was at it, he abolished the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

All this should be a gift to Labour as it gathers in Liverpool for its annual conference. We’ll see. The markets, not known for any great sympathy for social justice, were not impressed by the Chancellor’s statement. The pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar for 37 years. The FTSE 100 index lost 1.97% of its value during the day.

Kerfontaine25 September 2022

At the moment, to my amazement, a young greater spotted woodpecker is attacking a walnut in the tree about ten yards from where I’m sitting. I heard rustling and knocking, assumed it was the kleptomaniac squirrel as usual, looked up to see, and yes, the squirrel was there, but so was the woodpecker. I’ve never seen that before.

I’ve just finished comparing Wyatt’s translations and imitations of Petrarch with the originals. I thought I’d record the pairings.

Wyatt 1: Behold, love, thy power how she dispiseth! Petrarch 121: Or vedi, Amor, che giovenetta donna / tuo regno sprezza

W 3: Caesar, when that the traytor of Egipt P 102: Cesare, poi che ’l traditor d’Egitto

W 4: The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbar P 140: Amor, che nel penser mio vive et regna

W 7: Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde P 190: Una candida cerva sopra l’erba

W 8: Myne olde dere En’mye, my forward master P 360: Quel antique mio dolce empio signore

W 9: Was I never yet of your love greved P 82: Io non fu’ d’amar voi lassato unquanco

W 12: Yf amours faith, an hert unfayned P 224: S’ una fede amorosa, un cor non finto

W 20: Goo burnyng sighes unto the frosen hert! P 153: Ite, caldi sospiri, al freddo core

W 24: Som fowles there be that have so perfaict sight P 19: Son animali al mondo de sì altera / vista

W 25: Bicause I have the still kept fro lyes and blame P 49: Perch’ io t’abbia guardata di menzogna

W 26: I fynde no peace and all my warr is done P 134: Pace non trovo e non ò da far guerra

W 28: My galy charged with forgetfulnes P 189: Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio

W 29: Auysing the bright bemes of these fayer Iyes P 173: Mirando ’l sol de’ begli occhi sereno

W 30: Ever myn happe is slack and slo in commyng P 57: Mie venture al venir son tarde et pigre

W 31: Love and fortune and my mynde, remembre P 124: Amor, Fortuna, et la mia mente, schiva

W 32: How oft have I, my dere and cruell foo P 21: Mille fiate, o dolce mia guerrera

W 47: The lylely sperkes that issue from those Iyes P 258: Vive faville uscian de’ duo bei lumi

W 81: Off Cathage he, that worthie warier P 103: Vinse Anibàl, et no seppe usar poi

W 86: O goodely hand / Wherein doeth stand / Myn herte distrast in payne P 199: O bella man che mi destringi ’l core

W 96: So feble is the threde that doth the burden stay P 37: Si è debile il filo a cui s’attene

W 173: The piller pearisht is whearto I lent P 269: Rotta è l’alta Colonna e ’l verde lauro

I have this list from the editor of The Muses Library edition, Kenneth Muir. I couldn’t find the originals for two of Wyatt’s poems that Muir says are translations from Petrarch: Wyatt’s 56, ‘Suche vayne thought as wonted to myslede me’, and 73, ‘Hevyn and erth and all that here me plain’.

Marseille30 September 2022

We’re in the first stages of a holiday. On Tuesday we drove to Agen, and stayed with our old friend Stéphane in the Château des Jacobins. On Wednesday we arrived in Marseille, and are staying in Mary’s and Jacques’s flat. That evening we dined with Sophie and Tess in Sam’s and Céline’s new flat. Céline is expecting their first baby around the end of January. She and Sam seem very happy together, and are prospering in the property business. Similarly, Sophie is now well established as a gynaecological surgeon, working mainly in a hospital in Aubagne. Tess seems to be enjoying her job as a waitress in an Italian restaurant, Bambino, in the Boulevard Eugène Pierre. The five of us ate there last night, being served by Tess. This evening Sophie will bring her children here before flying to London with friends for a long weekend, and Mary will arrive by plane from La Rochelle. She and Jacques have been doing a painting job on the Île de Ré. Jacques will drive up to their house in Priziac, where Mary will join him soon, I think after doing another painting job here. Tomorrow Helen and I will head for Italy. So much for family comings and goings.

In Ukraine, Russian atrocities continue. This morning, shells killed at least 23 civilians near the city of Zaporizhzhia, and injured many more. A convoy of cars was about to enter the Russian-held part of Zaporizhzhia province, to rescue relatives, when it was attacked. Today, Putin will announce the formal annexation by Russia of four Ukrainian provinces, or oblasts: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Over four days from last Friday to last Tuesday, sham ‘referenda’ were held there, with the predictable result that about 97% of the voters apparently opted to become part of Russia. No one outside Russia has anything but contempt for what was obviously a fake consultation, conducted with threats of violence against those who wished to stay away, and involving fraudulent manipulation of the results. The supposed annexation won’t make any difference to Ukraine’s and the West’s determination to liberate all four oblasts in their entirety (at the moment Russia is claiming sovereignty over the whole of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia when it doesn’t even control large parts of them) and then retake Crimea. Although the death and destruction are heart-breaking, Ukrainian forces, with the help of Western weapons, are steadily reclaiming territory. Russian forces are ill equipped and demoralised. There has been a huge exodus of men from Russia since Putin announced a mobilisation of reservists. Inevitably, those who’ve been able to escape are better educated, wealthier, more mobile and mainly from European Russia. The men who will go to be killed in Ukraine are less well educated, poorer, less mobile and mainly from Asian Russia.

Meanwhile, we have seen extraordinary repercussions in the UK following the Chancellor’s catastrophic ‘fiscal event’ — in fact a hugely significant budget statement — a week ago. The pound has slumped against the dollar and the euro, and the interest demanded by lenders on UK government bonds has shot up. On Tuesday, the Bank of England spent about £65 billion buying government bonds! The UK’s central bank buys its own country’s debt! Extraordinary. I struggled for a while to understand why this would help. I think I get it: if big institutions are buying a government’s debt, this gives the other lenders confidence that they will eventually get their money back, and so they’re prepared to lend at lower rates of interest. The Bank has said that that it will certainly need to raise interest rates further at the next scheduled meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee, which for some reason isn’t until early November. (I thought that the MPC meets every month.) The government must be desperately hoping that the pound won’t slide any further in the meantime, causing the Bank to call an emergency meeting of the MPC. The uncertainty about the future of interest rates has meant that mortgage lenders have in the last few days withdrawn about 1,600 of their fixed-rate offers; that’s out of a total of about 4,000 which were on the market. There’s no doubt that millions of people who have mortgages will pay a lot more for them in the coming months and years. As someone who jointly owns two properties, with mortgages on both of them long paid off, I can do nothing more useful than feel immense sympathy for a young couple with two or three children, working hard, doing their best to pay the mortgage and to meet all the other rising bills. I’ve never been able to understand why the UK doesn’t introduce the same system as operates in France. When we took out a mortgage in 1990 to buy Kerfontaine, and then two bank loans in 2003 to extend the house, we knew exactly how much we would be paying each month. The element of risk involved was accommodated by either shortening or extending the period over which we would pay back the debt. So there was no anxiety about sudden increases in monthly outgoings. In fact, we were lucky: interest-rate movements were such that our repayment periods were shorter than predicted, but even if they had been longer, we wouldn’t have needed to worry.

At the moment, the UK is in the unfortunate position of having fiscal policy at variance with monetary policy. The government has proposed huge tax cuts, mainly benefiting the already wealthy. The Bank will be raising interest rates, which will counteract the ‘benefit’ of the tax cuts, and will mainly hit the less wealthy. That is an absurd and unjust way to run an economy.

The Labour Party’s conference this week was a great success, helped of course by the total mess which the Prime Minister and Chancellor have just made of the country’s economic prospects. I feel a certain smug satisfaction that I’ve defended Keir Starmer in numerous conversations with friends who said he wasn’t radical enough, or eloquent enough, or Northern enough, or working-class enough. Keir’s evident competence, clarity and integrity shine out now in stark contrast to the fixed ideological lunacy represented by the government. There was a terrific practical proposal in Keir’s speech too: to set up a large publicly owned energy company, to invest in new sustainable sources of energy, and to wean the UK off its dependence on fossil fuels. I hope this could be the beginning of the eventual nationalisation of electricity and gas (and the ending of the use of gas by consumers and for electricity generation). Contrast this with Truss’s desire to restart fracking, just at the moment when it’s obvious that we must stop using oil, gas and coal as soon as possible. At the moment, one opinion poll gives Labour a 33% lead over the Conservatives. We’ve seen nothing like that since the dying days of the Major government. That lead won’t last, but there is now a serious possibility that Labour could overturn the Tories’ majority in 2024. Tribally, I’d love to see a further run on the pound next week, just as Truss gets up to make her first speech as Prime Minister to the Conservatives’ party conference. That’s probably too much to hope for.

Podere Fornace, near Buonconvento13 October 2022

We’re near the end of a wonderful stay as guests of our friend Arturo Tosi. He and his wife have a beautiful house in the hills to the east of Buonconvento, just off the road to Asciano. Next to the house is an equally beautiful and cosy barn, equipped with every comfort, where Helen and I are accommodated. Arturo is alone at the moment; his wife Judi, whom we haven’t yet met, is in their flat in London. Arturo is a linguist. He worked for many years in universities in England and at the University of Siena. I first met him about forty years ago, when I used to help to organise twice-yearly conferences at the University of London Institute of Education under the title Language in Inner-City Schools. Arturo gave a fascinating talk about the language situation of Italians settled in Bedford. In the early 1950s, the London Brick Company went to southern Italy to recruit workers for its brickfields, in an initiative rather similar to that undertaken by London Transport in the Caribbean. Arturo’s research thirty years later, funded by the European Community, discovered among other things that the vernacular spoken by the Italians in Bedford had changed little or not at all from the language which they or their parents had brought with them from Calabria, Basilicata and Sicily, whereas Italians who had remained in the villages there had changed linguistically, moving towards standard Italian as a result of the influence of state education and particularly television. Arturo became great friends with Harold and Betty Rosen as a result of meeting Harold, who was on the advisory board for the research project. Naturally, I was especially interested in Arturo’s work, having spent most of my teenage years in a village five miles from Bedford, and having worked with some of those Italians at Kempston Hardwick brickworks during some of the university vacations. I also did a stint there after I left Cambridge, when I was saving up money ‘to go round the world’.

All these years later, Arturo has helped me enormously in my translation of Montale’s short stories, and we’ve become great friends. When we visited Myra Barrs in her house in Lucca on our way down here (more of that in a moment), she lent me The Italian Language Today by Anna Laura Lepschy and Giulio Lepschy. It’s quite an old book now, first published in 1977, but brilliantly informative, and it was only when I got here that I realised that Giulio the co-author, now very old, is a former colleague of Arturo’s and someone he has been trying to help amid some deep personal difficulties which, since this will eventually appear on the internet (not that I have a mass readership) I won’t go into further. Arturo lent me another book by Giulio, Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language, which is a collection of essays written when Giulio was Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto in 2000. As a result of reading these two books, and after conversations with Arturo, I understand much more about the history of Italian, and in particular the relationship between standard Italian, of the sort that I try to speak, and the many regional vernaculars in the country. The last chapter in Mother Tongues is a memoir of and tribute to Carlo Dionisotti (1908-1998), a major Italian linguist who spent most of his working life in English universities, whom evidently Giulio knew and admired. Of all Dionisotti’s many works, Giulio in particular mentions The Geography and History of Italian Literature, which Arturo says is a classic and which I should get. Arturo has also given me an offprint of Giulio’s long essay for an Italian encyclopaedia on the subject of translation, which for obvious reasons interests me very much.

We saw Myra on 2 October. The previous day we had had a long but exhilarating drive from Marseille. We had booked ourselves into bed and breakfast accommodation in a village called Tereglio, in the mountains above Lucca, convenient for visiting Myra the next day. By the time we left the motorway at Lucca, the night was already drawing in. We started up the SS12 in a northerly direction, and with the help of the GPS found a sign for the village. By now it was dark. We then followed a long series of upward hairpin bends, bringing us to a small car park at the edge of the village. We had no idea where La Fagiana (The Pheasant) was, and there was no one about. I found a house with a light on, and called out. A woman emerged, who gave me helpful instructions which I misunderstood. I took her to be saying that we should drive further on. So we left the car park and tried to turn sharp right. A van was in the way, its owner unloading some firewood. He said that it was impossible to take the car further, and at this point the helpful woman, who had seen us driving away, came running down to say that we should proceed on foot. So back to the car park, unload our stuff for the night, and make off through a mediaeval arch and down a long narrow street between stone built houses of extraordinary beauty, but with no one about. At a certain point I told Helen to stop, went on, and again called out. This time, to my relief, the owner of La Fagiana, Giovanna, heard my voice and came out. I went back up the street to collect Helen. In we went. La Fagiana’s website had given the owners as Massimo and Giovanna. A man emerged beside Giovanna. ‘È Massimo?’ I asked. ‘No,’ said Giovanna, ‘Massimo non c’è piu.’ He had died two years previously and she hadn’t changed the website.

La Fagiana is a splendidly but simply converted grand house which in the Middle Ages was the property of the head of the army for the whole area (principality? duchy?) of Lucca, at a time when all the little nation states which now constitute Italy were fighting one another. Others had owned it in the centuries since, but it was abandoned and a ruin when Massimo and Giovanna bought it.

Giovanna showed us two rooms. We chose one, dumped our stuff there, and made off in the car in the dark to a restaurant called Da Michele, Giovanna having phoned ahead for us, where we ate an excellent meal which began with an aperitivo della casa consisting of gin, vermouth and Aperol. Giovanna and two younger women came to eat there too. Back in the room, which had two single beds, we were soon semi-asleep, but before long Helen said, ‘I’m cold,’ so she climbed in with me and we clung to each other like a couple of teenagers. The room was indeed very cold, high up in the mountains and with the radiator definitely not on. In the morning we noticed several extra blankets on the top of the wardrobe, and the next night we both slept better.

In the intervening day we found our way to Myra’s house, which we had last visited many years ago. I had forgotten how to find the place, and the GPS wasn’t up to getting us closer than the general area of her spread-out village, Gugliano. We asked two people, one after the other, and they directed us. Myra is in the process of selling the house to Sue and Richard Ellis and their daughter Grace. Sue is a close friend and former colleague of Myra’s. This is a good arrangement, which means that Myra will be able, for the rest of her life, to revisit the dwelling she has loved for the last forty years. The three of us went out for an enjoyable little lunch. Then back to Tereglio, followed by a walk around the village with its spectacular mountain views, followed by another dinner Da Michele.

The next day, a Monday, we drove down here in a leisurely fashion, including taking the SS222 between Florence and Siena, one of the most beautiful roads in the world. We stopped for lunch at the Ristorante Sotto le Volte in Castellina in Chianti: calamari fritti for me, spaghetti alle vongole for Helen. I told the waitress that my first visit to the town had been 52 years previously, when I was nineteen.

Arturo has been a marvellous host, cooking for us on several nights, and absolutely refusing to accept any money by way of rent. We are reduced to insisting that we pay for meals in restaurants when the three of us go out together, and of course we have benefited from his local knowledge of the best places to go. Meanwhile, we have our own familiarity with the area, after our frequent stays at Rodellosso, which is only about half an hour from here. So we’ve been back to San Quirico several times, and had coffee and drinks in the garden of our favourite bar, where we were glad to see the five tortoises still thriving. And we went up to San Lorenzo at Montalcino to see our old friend Luciano Ciolfi, and bought rather a lot of his delicious wine. The Rosso is now 20 euros a bottle, the Brunello 40, and the Brunello Riserva 80. Helen was a bit shocked at these prices. We came away with eighteen bottles of Rosso and two of Brunello. As we parted, Luciano gave us a bottle of the Riserva — such generosity — and suggested that we should drink it in memory of Claudio. He told us that Rodellosso is still going strong under the management of Claudio’s son Jacopo. Perhaps we shall stay there again next year.

Podere Fornace, near Buonconvento14 October 2022

Yesterday we went to Siena, and particularly benefited from three bits of Arturo’s advice. First, he told us that there is one bar, and only one, which has a little balcony accommodating no more than four people, looking out over the Piazza del Campo. We found it — La Costarella — and indeed it was wonderful to sit there all alone with coffee and spremuta di arancie and gaze out at the piazza in the autumn sunshine. Then, we went in search of braces. Until this moment in my life, I have never considered wearing braces to keep my trousers up. I’ve always thought of them somehow as old man’s gear, despite the fact that Michael Grade used to sport them dashingly when he was my boss at Channel 4. But recently I’ve had increasing difficulty with trousers which want to descend below my hips, which is particularly dangerous when I’m not wearing underpants, which I don’t in the summer (and the summer has gone on and on this year). Somehow, the leather belt I bought four years ago in Padua doesn’t seem to do the job. When we arrived here Arturo came to greet us wearing braces. I admired them, so yesterday morning he directed me to a tiny shop called Merceria dei Nonni (Granddad’s and Grandma’s Haberdashery). There we were offered a huge choice of braces, many of them patterned. I chose a pair in plain burgundy. (Several days ago, Helen bought me a beautiful pair of green suede shoes from Pianigiani in Buonconvento. They are for indoor wear only. About eight years ago, I bought a similar pair from a shop in Montepulciano. They have now almost reached the end of their lives, sporting large holes which have however given good ventilation during this exceptionally hot summer. The charming shop assistant also persuaded us to buy a green suede belt to go with the green suede shoes, so now I have — literally not metaphorically — belt and braces.) After that we wandered up the main shopping street of Siena, and found a shop selling stylish leather goods. I bought a bag for Helen and a purse for Mary, whose birthday it was yesterday. We rang her later in the day, and we’ll have her and Jacques to dinner when we get back to Kerfontaine next week. Then we made our way towards Arturo’s third recommendation. If you walk behind the Palazzo Pubblico, through the Piazza Mercato and you descend the hill, you get to the Orto dei Pecci. Part of Siena’s genius, even in these days when, like every other city, it has suburbs sprawling outside its walls, is that the countryside still abuts large sections of the walls. So, five minutes from the Piazza del Campo, you’re walking through vegetable gardens and orchards down to a restaurant which really is rus in urbe, or rus barely outside the mediaeval urbs. There we ate a vegetarian antipasto, followed by pici all’aglione in my case and pappa al pomodoro in Helen’s. Half a litre of light white wine. All delicious. Then we walked back up the hill, bought panforte for presents from Naninni, the poshest bar in Siena, and indulged in another session on the balcony of La Costarella. Back here about four, very happy, and Arturo cooked for us last evening. We’re taking him out to Ristorante da Ciacco in San Quirico tonight.

While we’ve been thus engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, there have been graver developments in Ukraine and the UK. Earlier this week, by an overwhelming majority, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war crimes it has committed there, and its sham ‘annexations’ of the four eastern provinces. Only five countries voted against the motion, and they were the usual suspects: Russia itself, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Nicaragua. (If ever there were an example of ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’, it is Nicaragua. The Sandinistas who overthrew the appalling Somoza regime, thereby winning the support of leftist opinion, including mine, throughout the world, are now, in the persons of Daniel Ortega and his wife, among the most terrifying and brutal of autocrats, having alienated and persecuted many of their former comrades.) Last Saturday, to my great pleasure, the 12-mile-long bridge linking Russia to Crimea, constructed on Putin’s orders after his illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was severely damaged. It has been a key route for the supply of soldiers and weapons into Crimea and thence to the invaded parts of eastern Ukraine. I hope that soon it will be possible for this legitimate military target to be damaged further, or even destroyed completely. Putin’s response, on Monday morning, was to kill many innocent civilians by bombing numerous Ukrainian cities during the morning rush hour, often using drones manufactured in an allied autocracy of a different kind, Iran. Despite this setback, Ukraine’s army continues slowly to force the invaders back from the territory they have seized. The West must continue to provide Ukraine with whatever weapons and defensive material it needs, until Russia has left the entirety of Ukraine, including Crimea. The day after Russia announced its sham annexations of the four provinces, Ukraine applied to join NATO. It must be allowed to become a member as soon as possible. I know that this will be the first time that a former part of the Soviet Union will have joined the West’s military alliance, but it is the only way that Ukraine’s future integrity can be guaranteed. A new iron curtain is falling across eastern Europe, in a different place this time. With all our many imperfections, the West’s systems of government represent a brighter hope for humanity than the various autocracies of the East: Belarus, Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar… Whether the tyranny is religious (Iran, Afghanistan), military (Myanmar), ideological (China) or kleptomaniac (Russia), the brutality of those wielding the tyranny is similar.

Meanwhile, to the mixture of soap opera, pantomime and disaster movie which is the UK government. There has never been such utter economic incompetence on the part of any administration in the UK in my lifetime, and possibly ever. As I write, I have The Guardian’s excellent on-line service on my computer screen at the same time. The turbulence on the financial markets as a result of the Chancellor’s mini- (but maxi-) budget has continued. The Bank of England has had to buy large quantities of UK government bonds to try to slow the collapse in their value. The reason why this matters is that pension funds have been selling bonds for cash as the value of the bonds sank; some of the funds had (unwisely in my ignorant view) been offering the bonds as collateral against riskier investments they had been making; once the reliability of that collateral was in doubt, the riskier investments demanded greater reliability elsewhere, which was cash, which meant mass selling of the bonds, which of course meant that their value decreased. At least, I think that’s how it works. The pound has lurched up and down against the dollar and the euro, but mainly down. Kwasi Kwarteng has just been sacked as Chancellor. So has Chris Philp, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Jeremy Hunt will be the new Chancellor: a clear sign of Truss’s desperation. She has just appointed a person far removed from the like-minded, goggle-eyed ideologues with whom she has surrounded herself since becoming Prime Minister. She is about to announce a reversal of several of the measures which Kwarteng, with her full-hearted support, trumpeted on 23 September.

Many Conservative MPs and numerous right-wing advisers, policy wonks and commentators in Tory-supporting newspaper are now calling for Truss to resign. It may be that she will be forced out in a few days. Then there will be the tricky business of changing the rules for the selection of the next leader so as not to give the ordinary members of the party the remotest chance of making such a disastrous choice next time. It won’t be all the way back to dinners at Simpson’s, where over bloody roast beef and old claret a leader ‘emerged’, but it’ll certainly be a step away from popular democracy. Still, I shouldn’t be too smug: Labour’s excessively ‘democratic’ system of choosing a leader got us Corbyn before it got us Starmer.

Kerfontaine21 October 2020

Here we are back in rainy autumnal Brittany after our three weeks of delightful and indulgent holiday. Leaving Arturo last Saturday, we again took the SS222 up through Chianti, again lunched at Ristorante Sotto le Volte in Castellina, where the waitress was again pleased to see us, and we again consumed calamari fritti and spaghetti alle vongole, with the same excellent Chianti. Such creatures of habit! And we spent the weekend at Tereglio, again. On the Sunday we took a little tour of the area, wandering along precipitous mountain roads. We visited the Grotta del Vento, in the company of about twenty other people and an excellent guide. I think I have visited a cave with stalactites and stalagmites before, nearly fifty years ago in the south of Spain, but I have only a vague memory of it. This was very impressive. We were led on a concrete walkway perhaps half a kilometre into the mountain. Water dripped everywhere, amid long galleries of fantastic natural sculptures. There were deep caverns and chimneys and pools, and places where a stalactite had met a stalagmite and formed a column. All this had been going on for many thousands of years. After an hour we came out into the sunshine and had a picnic. Then more hairpin bends on hair-raising roads until we descended to the valley of the Serchio, and climbed again to Barga. We went into the cathedral, where there is a spectacularly impressive painted wooden sculpture, more than life size, of Saint Christopher holding the child Jesus. When I first looked at it, I thought it was modern, so bold and vigorous is its design. I then read that it’s about 900 years old. There is also a beautiful marble pulpit, supported on four carved legs, at the base of one of which an old man is understandably buckling under the strain, while the animals at the bases of the other three are having less trouble; and an exquisite thirteenth-century fresco of Santa Lucia. We walked out onto the esplanade (that may be the wrong word), from which there’s a marvellous view back across to the Apuan Alps, where we had been earlier in the day.

On Monday we crossed back into France, to a lovely little apartment in a farmhouse on the edge of Vence. Alas, the Côte d’Azur is grotesquely over-developed; too much private money plus developers’ greed plus politicians’ corruption have spoiled paradise. But we found our way to the old town, where the evening was warm enough for us to have dinner outside in the Place Georges-Clémenceau. On Tuesday we had a long drive to Agen, to the Château des Jacobins, as ever. By Wednesday evening we were back here.

An update on the political chaos in the UK. The only element of stability has been provided by Jeremy Hunt, the new Chancellor, who has introduced a degree of fiscal rectitude where previously there was fiscal fantasy. But all around him, chaos reigns. On Wednesday, the Home Secretary resigned, supposedly over a minor indiscretion to do with having used her personal email account to send an official document to another MP, but in fact because she believed that Truss had ‘gone soft’: that is, she hadn’t stuck to the hard-right agenda on the basis of which she had been elected. In fact, Truss had made unpleasant (for her) contact with reality, which is why she had had to abandon almost all of her previous economic policies. That evening, there was a debate in the Commons on a Labour motion which would have put into law a ban on fracking (a policy which had been in the Tories’ 2019 manifesto, but which Truss wanted to dump). Truss, in a move of extraordinary political ineptitude, decided to treat this important but rather specific debate as a matter of confidence in the government, so that if any Conservatives — many of whom hate the idea of fracking and don’t want it in their constituencies — voted with Labour or abstained, they would no longer be regarded as Conservative MPs. But as the debate was taking place, it became less and less clear to MPs on the government benches that this was, in fact, a confidence matter. A minister got up and said at least twice that it wasn’t. When the time came for voting, no one knew what was going on, and there was shouting, swearing and intimidation in the No lobby, where Tory MPs were being herded and — so witnesses said — physically pushed through. The Chief Whip and her deputy were said to have resigned. Later they were said not to have resigned. No Tory voted with Labour, the government had a majority of nearly a hundred, but its last remaining shred of reputation for competence was gone. At 1.30 the following morning a WhatsApp message from Downing Street maintained that the debate had been a confidence matter and that disciplinary action would be taken against those who had abstained or who hadn’t turned up to vote without a good reason. One of those 30 or 40 people was the Prime Minister herself. Another was a former Prime Minister, Theresa May. So far, to my knowledge, no disciplinary action has been taken. The probable reason for that is that the next day, yesterday, Truss resigned. Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, had gone to see her and told her that she no longer had the confidence of the party. She came out of Number 10 and made a short, graceless speech, ending the shortest premiership in British history and surely one of the most abjectly incompetent.

Conservatives are good at making up rules as they go along. Sir Graham’s new rules for choosing the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years will see the business done by the end of next week at the latest. There will be no more than three candidates, since a candidate has to get at least 100 endorsements from fellow MPs to get on the ballot paper, and there are 357 Tory MPs. If only one person gets to 100 or more, he or she will become PM by the end of next Monday. If two get to 100 or more, there will be an indicative vote of MPs, to show the balance of feeling in the parliamentary party. If three get there, there will first be a vote to exclude the person with the least votes, before the indicative vote. In either of the last two cases, the membership — the same group which catastrophically imposed Truss on the country a few weeks ago — will then vote on-line. Result by next Friday evening.

It’s virtually certain that no one other than Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson will get at least 100 endorsements, and perhaps not all of those three will. But the fact that I can even write that sentence shows how completely off the scale the Conservative Party has gone. In July, they ejected Johnson. More than 60 members of the government, from cabinet ministers down, resigned in order to get rid of him. He had trashed the dignity of the office of Prime Minister in a way that no one in my lifetime, even those like Thatcher with whom I profoundly disagreed, had done. And now a significant number of Tories want him back! If I am thinking as a citizen of the UK who wants the best, or the least bad, for my country, I want anyone other than Johnson to be PM for the short period until Labour wins the next general election, as I now think we will. If I am thinking simply as a member of the Labour Party, I say, ‘Bring Johnson back on; he’ll dig a hole yet deeper, if that’s possible, than the Tories are already in.’ A journalist on The Times said on the radio this afternoon, ‘Many of the Tories hate each other.’ People out there in the country are paying the price for that hatred. And here’s what William Hague has just said on the radio: ‘The idea of [Johnson] returning as the solution, that would be going around in circles, circles that become the death spiral of the Conservative party, and I think it’s the worst idea I’ve heard in the 46 years I’ve been a member of the Conservative party.’

Kerfontaine22 October 2022

It’s Saturday afternoon and Sunak’s advantage in endorsements from Tory MPs is growing. Meanwhile, Johnson has returned from a holiday in the Dominican Republic. Why, ordinary folk may ask, can someone take a foreign holiday when he’s being paid to represent the constituents of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and parliament is sitting? No answer to that. I think, overnight, that my national patriotism has trumped my Labour tribalism; I do hope Sunak is the next Prime Minister, albeit for no more than two-and-a-bit years. (The Conservatives could go on until January 2025, but I can’t see them wanting an election campaign over a Christmas period.) Penny Mordaunt would be acceptable too, on that short-term basis, but at the moment I don’t think she’s going to get to 100 endorsements. Johnson is thought to have about 50 endorsements now; if he can squeeze up to 100, which he might, and Mordaunt can’t, there’s the terrifying possibility that, although Sunak will soundly beat him in the indicative vote of MPs, the deluded Tory members out in the country will return this corrupt, lazy liar to 10 Downing Street, because they have a fondness for plausible roguery, and because he ‘got Brexit done’. The fact that Brexit has already substantially damaged the UK’s prosperity doesn’t seem to occur them; in fact, prosperity — still less a kind of prosperity which is spread more equally across the population — matters less to them than a retrospective fantasy about greatness in isolation, which was the emotional, irrational heart of the Leave campaign.

Kerfontaine25 October 2022

Sunak will become Prime Minister this morning. Johnson retired from the contest on Sunday afternoon, telling lies as usual. He claimed that he had got 102 endorsements, but for the good of the country and the party had decided not to stand. I don’t believe for a moment the number he quoted; 101 would have been just too convenient, so he made it 102. A bit like Trump telling his people to find him votes. Sunak was piling on endorsements well above 100. Meanwhile, Mordaunt was struggling to get more than 25 public endorsements, but still insisted late yesterday morning that she would get to 100. By this time Sunak had accumulated over 200. Just before the two o’clock deadline, Mordaunt withdrew. Sir Graham Brady emerged to make the briefest of statements: he had received one valid application to become leader of the party. So Mordaunt hadn’t got to 100. The Conservatives, and the markets, and the pound, all breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m breathing a sigh of relief too, because for several weeks I have been almost pornographically addicted to the breaking news, minute by minute, drip by drip, of the most chaotic, catastrophic display of political ineptitude, intra-party factional hatred and economic incompetence to have occurred in the UK in my lifetime. The challenges facing Sunak, his Chancellor (who I assume will still be Jeremy Hunt) and the rest of his Cabinet are enormous. Whether the Conservative Party is capable now of uniting behind its young leader remains to be seen. It has been contemptible to see people turning their coats, sometimes within a day, according to their judgement of who was likely to come out on top in the latest bout of infighting. Gove and Patel, two of the nastiest people in the nasty party, discovered yesterday morning that they were great supporters of Sunak. Nothing to do with wanting a job, of course. There won’t now be a general election, because the Conservatives know that they would be savagely beaten if one were held before Christmas. They hope that defeat might be less severe in two years’ time, especially if Sunak and his government make a better fist of governing than Johnson and Truss did (not hard, one might think). Some Conservatives even imagine they still have a chance of winning in 2024. I doubt it.

We’re off to London this afternoon for a couple of weeks. Helen has a hospital appointment on 1 November, and we’ve both got various other bits of business to do. I want to stop gazing obsessively at the extended tragi-comedy which the UK’s political leaders have played out before us.

A tiny little wren, its feathers all fluffed out, has just come to sit on the table on the terrasse in front of me.

Kerfontaine24 November 2022

All went well in London. Helen doesn’t have to have her gall bladder removed. She was told this by telephone; face-to-face meetings with medical specialists are becoming rare now that the NHS is under such pressure. We saw various friends. We went to the magnificent Cézanne exhibition at Tate Modern. I worked with Myra Barrs on the Vygotsky anthology. I went up to Bedfordshire and had lunch in The Plough at Bolnhurst with Peter and Monica Hetherington.

We returned on 9 November. The next afternoon I drove down to the Vendée, to the little town of Sainte-Hermine. The following day, 11 November and a public holiday in France, there was to be a special commemoration in the town. I arrived about five and found the church, the war memorial and the hôtel de ville. Then I drove about twenty kilometres north to an appalling hotel by a lake. The building reminded me of the worst brutalist architecture of the Communist bloc. I could imagine overweight party apparatchiks with their wives or mistresses sunning themselves on the terrasse. Except that here we were in democratic France in 2022, not on the Black Sea coast in the 1950s. The hotel has 60 rooms. I think three were occupied. I must admit that my room was comfortable, and the plumbing up to date. I went down to the bar for a drink before dinner. I drank a Ricard alone for a few minutes before entering the enormous restaurant. The very young waitress invited me to sit at any one of the scores of tables which disappeared, rank by rank, into the distance. I ordered another aperitif, this time a kir. As the young woman was bringing it to me, her boss publicly scolded her, in my hearing, for serving a kir royale, with fizzy white wine, instead of a straight kir with still white wine. I insisted that I was very happy with a kir royale; in fact I preferred it. Once the boss was out of earshot, the waitress complained bitterly to me about her treatment. I felt so sorry for her, just out of school as she was, in her first job, stuck in this miserable place with these miserable employers. The meal which followed was virtually inedible. Knowing that I was close to the birthplace of Clémenceau, I chose a Saumur-Champigny, Clémenceau’s favourite wine, to help me get as much of the food down my throat as I could without seeming to reject it all. Three other tables were occupied during the short time I was there: one by a solitary woman, one by a married couple, and one by three criminals of different nationalities using English as a lingua franca, who lowered their voices whenever a particularly sensitive matter was under discussion. I retreated to my room as soon as I could, with the remains of the bottle.

The next morning was fine, with a thick mist rising from the lake. I breakfasted in the bar, alone until one of the criminals came in and began talking to his mobile phone, with the loudspeaker on, so I could hear everything being said. No criminality this time. It was with joy that I left the place and headed back to Saint-Hermine.

I was there because Martin Rosen, Michael Rosen’s great-uncle and Harold Rosen’s uncle, had been a citizen of the town. One day in 1943 he was taken away by the police, transferred first to La Roche-sur-Yon, the principal town of the Vendée, thence to Drancy and thence to Auschwitz. Michael’s researches had uncovered the story. He had made contact with the mayor of Saint-Hermine, who turns out to be a wonderful person. Between them they had agreed that Martin Rosen’s name should be engraved on the war memorial (this was done in time for the 8 May commemoration of the end of the Second World War), and that a new park being designed next to the hôtel de ville would be called Parc Martin Rosen.

There were three ceremonies that day. The first, at eleven o’clock, was at the war memorial. A crowd of perhaps a hundred people had gathered. A small orchestra played. Uniformed soldiers, police and members of the fire brigade dipped their flags as the church clock struck. We stood in the beautiful sunshine for the two minutes’ silence. Then La Marseillaise. Being a friend of Michael’s, I had immediately been enrolled as a member of the VIP party, so I went forward with Michael, the mayor and the other dignitaries to lay wreaths at the memorial. The mayor read a good speech, about the importance of collective memory, before presenting a group of old soldiers with certificates thanking them, on behalf of the town, for their service to the nation.

Then we walked through the town to the Clémenceau memorial. Père la victoire had consented that a sculpture in his honour be erected at Sainte-Hermine after the 1914-1918 war. It shows him, with his famous battered hat, rising from rocks with soldiers behind him, looking up at him. This second ceremony was similar to the first. This time, the mayor suggested that Michael, a local girl and I carry the wreath which had been donated by the mayor of Paris. It was quite heavy. Michael and I took one end each, the girl holding it in the middle. More music, more dipped flags, two minutes’ more silence, and La Marseillaise again.

After that we walked in procession up the road past the hôtel de ville to the park. By now I should think that the crowd numbered two hundred. Michael was invited to pull a cord, the tricolore fell away, and the large plaque bearing Martin Rosen’s name was revealed. Applause. Then we stepped inside, and Michael cut a tricolore ribbon which several of us held. More applause. We walked around the park, admiring its beauty and stopping at trenches, imitations of those dug in the First World War, which carried information about France’s three European wars since 1870 and about the life of Clémenceau. Then we gathered in the main reception room of the hôtel de ville for a verre d’amitié, as the mayor put it. He made another speech, outstanding this time and delivered without notes, courageously linking the atrocity which had taken Martin Rosen to the gas ovens of Auschwitz with certain political tendencies in present-day Europe. Everyone in the room seemed to agree with him, and applauded loudly, but he must have been aware that a sizeable minority of the voters of Sainte-Hermine voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections in May. (I’ve just checked on-line: she got 40.21% in one voting station, 44.66% in another and 48.24% in a third.) Yes, she has softened her image by comparison with that of her disgusting father, who enjoyed making ‘jokes’ about putting immigrants in furnaces, but on that very same day, 11 November, France accepted at Toulon a boat with several hundred desperate migrants on board. It had been sailing around the Mediterranean for three weeks because the explicitly neo-fascist government of Italy had not allowed it to dock. Marine Le Pen had already condemned this action by the French government before eleven o’clock struck.

After the mayor’s speech, a cousin of Michael’s, so also a relation of Martin Rosen’s, read a good short speech, towards the end of which he told us that he is German (he spoke very good French and I think he lives in the USA most of the time). The statement of his nationality added to the poignancy of what he said. Finally, Michael made an excellent speech, in fluent French and without notes, thanking the people of Sainte-Hermine, and especially their mayor, for the honour which had been conferred on his relation, and saying that the Holocaust has been, first, an attempt to destroy an entire people and, secondly, an attempt to extirpate the existence of those people from the collective memory of the world. It was very moving. More warm applause, then drinks.

By this time it was one o’clock, and I asked the mayor what he was doing for lunch. He had no plans, so we invited him to eat with us. His first suggestion was an English pub in the town. We vetoed this. So he rang the town’s one French restaurant, and asked whether, on this public holiday, there was any chance of a table. I overheard the reply: ‘Pour vous, monsieur le maire, naturellement.’ So we went there. Directly across the road from the restaurant is a building now occupied by a branch of Crédit Agricole. In 1943 it was a private house. Michael pointed out the left-hand first-floor window of the building: the window of the room which Martin Rosen had rented and was living in when the police — the French police — came for him.

The food was as delicious as the previous night’s meal has been horrible. In the course of conversation, the mayor mentioned that, in commissioning the metal worker who made the plaque, he’d asked him to treat it with some kind of product which would make it easy to remove graffiti. Sobering, and very impressive.

Then I drove back here in the still beautiful autumn sunshine.

Kerfontaine26 November 2022

For three days last week Sue Davidson and I, plus three colleagues from the Canon Collins Trust, interviewed 23 candidates for scholarships to be paid for from the Ros Moger / Terry Furlong fund. We found 11 very impressive people from Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini who will study for higher degrees at universities in South Africa. (The reason why we now focus on countries in southern Africa other than South Africa and Zimbabwe is that there are other funds whose terms confine them to those countries.) There’s a selection meeting on 9 December at which final decisions will be taken about scholarships to be awarded from all the Canon Collins funding streams, including ours.

For two days after that I worked on the Vygotsky anthology. Myra and I now have a draft of chapters 1 to 8 of the book. I think there will be twelve chapters in total. At the moment, the draft is greatly over-length, but we think it’s best to put everything in that we’d ideally like included, and cut later. There may now be a pause until I get back to London in January. Myra is trying to get another book, this time an anthology of the writings of James Britton, finished first. She and a group of colleagues have been working on it for a long time.

On Monday of this week Jean-Paul and I drove up to Mary and Jacques’s house with a load of firewood. They have gone to Marseille; I think they’ll be back between Christmas and New Year. On Tuesday and Wednesday Jean-Paul cut the grass here for the last time. He retires at the end of the year. He’s found a younger man who visited with him while we were away in Italy, and who has offered to do four cuts a year from next year. We haven’t agreed a price yet, but I hope that it will work out. Jean-Paul, I’m glad to say, will continue to cut the hedges and to do various other small jobs in the garden. He’s been with us for eighteen years, since Albert died, and he and his wife Christine have become good friends.

On Thursday morning I went to David James’s house in Pont-Scorff. Jérôme the architect was there, with two colleagues and the expert on building materials. They worked all morning. By mid-December we hope to have a full report on the demolition and reconstruction to be done; sometime after that an estimate of what it’s going to cost. Jérôme thought that demolition would happen next March or April, and take about a month. There are all sorts of legal requirements to be satisfied first: permission to fence off several parking places in front of the house to accommodate skips for the refuse; permission to close the road for a day to allow a crane to be installed; a bailiff to visit the two neighbouring houses, which each share a party wall, to take photographs of their side of the wall so that if there is any damage caused by the works in David’s house they will only be able legitimately to complain if the damage has appeared after the photographs have been taken. It’s a huge project that David has taken on, and in the end I don’t think he’ll have much change from half a million euros.

It has rained heavily and persistently for weeks now; everything is sodden. There are occasional breaks in the cloud; yesterday as I drove into Plouay there was a spectacular double rainbow, the full thing from end to end, glowing brighter and brighter as I approached the town. Today I thought about doing some more autumnal gardening, but I would just end up rolling about in mud. A drier period will surely come soon.

Ukraine continues its heroic resistance to Putin’s barbarism. Tom James yesterday sent me a link to a piece by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian, which I had missed. Anything that Garton Ash writes about Europe I admire and agree with. In this article, he writes that the only acceptable outcome of the war is Russia’s complete withdrawal, by force if necessary, from the entire territory of Ukraine, including the Crimea. Nothing else will do. If Putin is allowed to keep bits of the east of the country, plus the Crimea, in return for peace, that will be to admit that behaviour which was frequent in Europe before 1945 — aggressive land grabs and the murder of civilian populations on an industrial scale — has become acceptable again. We can’t allow that. Ukraine must be provided with everything it needs, notably modern armaments, so it can protect itself and drive out the invader.

Kerfontaine3 December 2022

The dry, bright, cold days which I was hoping for last week have arrived. We have had some beautiful clear mornings, with mist rising from the valleys and the laps of the fields. On Wednesday I went for a walk in the dark. There was a half moon, many stars and no wind. It seems to me that the owls call more loudly and persistently on clear and cold nights than on wet, cloudy and mild ones. There’s probably no scientific basis for that opinion. It is certain, however, that the wood fire goes better when the air outside the house is cold and dry. We light it about six o’clock every evening, and yesterday and today, with a raw cutting wind making our afternoon walk particularly bone-chilling, we lit it two hours earlier. We have plenty of dry wood.

On Thursday we gave ourselves a treat, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. In September we had a splendid meal with Graham Caldbeck and his partner Jane at Le Gavrinis just outside Baden, near Auray. They had rented a gîte nearby for a week. We decided to go to Le Gavrinis again, and to stay a night in the hotel. The food was excellent: haute cuisine, but not fiddly and with enough to eat. After several delicious mises en bouche accompanying the champagne, we both had coquilles Saint Jacques done two ways, one cooked, one marinaded and raw, then nuggets of veal with sliced mushrooms, then cheese from an old-fashioned trolley (the cheese trolley increasingly a rarity these days — French restaurateurs blame greedy English tourists who used commonly to scoff eight or nine pieces), then a soufflé. The wine was a yellow Anjou, no sulphur, organic, at a perfect temperature. Coffee and two 1984 cognacs. I sound like a restaurant critic. When Helen was packing for the overnight stay, she had asked whether she should include a change of underwear for me. I said yes please; if we were going somewhere posh to renew our vows, the least I could do was to renew my knickers.

We had a good breakfast the next morning, and drove into Baden to admire its centre. Then down to Larmor Baden on the Golfe du Morbihan. As I’ve said, the morning was fine and clear, and we stood and admired the mystical beauty of the gulf, with its scattering of islands.

Poems are frustratingly hard to come by at the moment. For the second time recently, I’ve resorted to improving a poem which has been on the website for years, but which I knew wasn’t quite good enough to put in a printed book. This time it’s ‘Penelope was Right…’, about my chaotic, confusing and apparently meaningless dreams. For a while, I’ve tried to compare what I remember of the previous night’s dreams on the mornings when I’d drunk alcohol the evening before, with what I remember when I’d abstained (two evenings a week at the moment). No difference; no sense. Anyway, I’m pleased with the poem in its new form, and thanks to Mark Leicester the final version is already on the website. If somehow or other I get together enough good poems for a fourth book, it’ll go in.

Kerfontaine14 December 2022

More evidence of the senselessness of my dreams: last night I dreamt that David James — like me a graduate in and an enthusiast for English literature — was telling me that the best contemporary English poet is Decimus Trouble, and that Trouble’s latest and best collection is called ‘I am Decimus Trouble’. Complete madness. There’s no connection that I can see with anything that David and I have talked about recently, apart from the remote possibility that David’s purchase of the house in Pont-Scorff may yet give him a lot of trouble, and might cost him ten times as much to repair as he initially hoped.

The year ebbs. I’ve done a fair bit of gardening with Jean-Paul: the last mowing of the year, and the sweeping up of leaves in the lane running down to the house and in the meadow. Jean-Paul says that in the past most of the leaves were off the trees by 11 November; now some of them hang on, especially on the oaks, until New Year. More evidence of climate change.

I’ve been up to Priziac twice. Last Thursday I was there to open the house so a man could install Mary and Jacques’s new wood-burning stove. It took him three and a half hours. Then he showed me how to light it: the complete opposite of what you do with our ancient model. He first put a large log at the bottom of the stove, then middle-sized logs in the middle, then small at the top. He lit a couple of laines de bois (little round balls of wood shavings imbued with wax) on top of everything, and away it went. There’s some technique of circulation of air in these new machines which means that the wood burns more slowly and efficiently. The man told me that the stove needs two hot burns, with the doors of the house open, to get rid of the toxic surface coatings on the inside of the stove. So we stood in the freezing cold while the odours drifted outdoors. Yesterday I went up there again and repeated the process. I hope that when Mary and Jacques arrive after Christmas the stove will be healthy to use. Our stove generates more of a cheerful blaze than theirs, although it is surely less efficient in terms of heat generated per weight of wood burned.

I’ve just read, for the first time in my life, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It’s an extraordinary book. The bits I enjoyed most are the actual descriptions of Lawrence’s achievements with the Arabs; he was obviously a person capable of feats of astonishing physical endurance. His achievement in pulling together the numerous faction-prone Arab groups, and his identification of Feisal as the Arab most likely to be accepted as an overall leader, were decisive in the eventual defeat of the Turks. His organisational powers in the few days after the triumphant Arabs entered Damascus were remarkable. Less interesting to me are his introspective musings on his own character, and his racial generalisations. I’m sympathetic, however, to the mental pain he felt in knowing that Britain and France had no intention of allowing the Arabs to establish an independent and united Arab state, with its capital in Damascus, after the war, while he was maintaining the pretence with his Arab fellow warriors that their dream was alive. Whether, given the notoriously fissiparous nature of Arab politics, there would have been a unified Arab state even without the intentions of the imperial powers, is a doubtful question.

I’m re-reading Tom Keneally’s wonderful A Commonweath of Thieves, about the first European invasion of and settlement in Australia. He writes beautifully, within himself. I’ve written before how I hate writers who show off. Keneally doesn’t need to show off. There’s an adequacy in his choice of language which only adds to the power of his description. This book and Lawrence’s book cause me to reflect on the tragedies in Australia and the Middle East in our own time resulting, at least in part, from the mixture of brutalities, misunderstandings, racial ignorance and imperial vanity of the past.

Kerfontaine19 December 2022

After a few days of biting cold, with a wind from the north and early-morning temperatures of minus 4 or 5, the weather changed completely yesterday morning. It rained non-stop for 24 hours, and the thermometer showed plus 12.

This afternoon the rain stopped, and I got out to complete the last bit of gardening of the year: weeding the flowerbed in front of the house. Some time before we return to London in January I’ll give all the flowering plants a dose of strong fertiliser, probably horse manure mixed with our compost. They haven’t had proper feeding for years.

Yesterday I wrote a little poem which I’m pleased with, about the robin which accompanied my work of pruning and leaf-sweeping all Saturday afternoon, when the ground was still frozen hard. I think that makes six poems, new or revised, which pass muster since Another Kind of Seeing: ‘Unwelcome Visitor’, ‘A Humble Petition’, ‘Second Chance’, ‘Ubiquity’, ‘Penelope was Right’ and this one, ‘Late Season Clear-up’. Small beginnings of a new heap.

Last night we gave ourselves another gastronomic treat, not long after the last one: a visit to Le Tire-Bouchon, a smart restaurant in Lorient that we’ve got to know this year. Lovely, beautifully presented food, with a cool, delicious white (or rather yellow) Costières de Nîmes. And the tables spaced wide enough apart so we don’t hear other people’s conversation and they don’t hear ours.

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to see my old friend Jean Le Vouëdec. He used to be our carpenter, and his firm did all the woodwork on the house when we bought it in 1990, and when it was extended in 2003/4. Jean himself made the beautiful staircase up to the bedroom. His son Yves now runs the business. Jean is in his late eighties, and isn’t very well. He has had cancer of the jaw, which required an operation to cut into his mouth and face. So understandably he’s a bit depressed. The sudden death of his wife and his equally sudden later romance are the basis of my fictional story ‘The Lovestruck Carpenter’ in the Madame Menez series.

Kerfontaine23 December 2022

The solstice has passed. The days have ceased to shorten, as the ancients in the northern hemisphere noticed at this time, giving them a good reason to brew beer and tell stories as they celebrated Yule. Stephen Eyers, like me an atheist recovering from a Christian upbringing, used to call Christmas ‘the feast of the undefeated sun’. I wonder whether there’s any record of the ancients in the southern hemisphere doing something similar soon after 21 June. I must ask some of my friends who live there. It fascinates me that the leaders of the early Christian church so pragmatically piggybacked on existing pagan feasts in order to achieve widespread acceptance of the new Christian ones.

Almost all the pre-Christmas shopping is done. Tomorrow morning I choose a fish from the fishmonger in Pont-Scorff for Christmas Eve (turbot or brill if I can get it), then pick up a chicken from the grocer in the village for Christmas Day. We have all the vegetables, the smoked salmon, the foie gras (which we still eat though perhaps we shouldn’t), the Christmas puddings, the mince pies, the chutneys and every other delicacy that the heart of man and woman could desire. I make the brandy butter to go with Christmas pudding tomorrow afternoon, using the simplest of recipes which even I can remember without going to a book, but I still go to the cookbook which was one of my mother’s, and which I had re-bound for her about twenty years ago when it was falling apart.

I walked through the wood and round by Saint Guénaël this afternoon. There has been a lot more rain since I last wrote, but it has stopped again and the walk was pleasant in the mild, windless air. Winter wheat is beginning to show in the sodden fields. A green woodpecker chirped in a tree as I passed, and flew away. I love woodpeckers, and we get two kinds here — the green and the greater spotted. It’s possible that we also get the lesser spotted, but I read that those are rare, and I’m not expert enough to distinguish the lesser from the greater.

I had an email from Arturo Tosi today, thanking us for our Christmas card and sending news from Tuscany. I wrote back, thanking him again for the wonderful twelve days we had in his converted and very comfortable barn in October. I’ve written before that Arturo is one of the two Italian people who helped me with my translations of Montale’s short stories. I told him that, with the help of someone at the Society of Authors, which I joined at the beginning of November, I had the address of the Italian Literary Agency, which (I think) deals with Montale’s estate. I wrote to the ILA on 1 November, in Italian, saying that I want to publish my translations in an edition of 300 hardbacks. Could I have permission to do this, and how much would the estate charge? No reply. So I’ve pinged off the same request today, in English this time. I think, but I’m not sure, that if I were to print the books and give them away free, I wouldn’t need to ask permission, any more than I do to have the stories on my website. But I would like to charge for them, at least nominally, although I’ll probably give most of them away, as I have done with Another Kind of Seeing.

Morgan, the lovely boy who’s the son of Jérôme and Aurélie, has just come round with a packet of homemade sablés, sweet biscuits like shortbreads. Helen teaches him and his sister Olivia English once a week. The result is that they’re both top of their respective classes in the subject, he at the collège in Plouay now, she still at primary school in Cléguer. Helen has a low opinion of the English teaching they receive, so far as she can discern it from their exercise books. There’s a lot of sticking in and, so the children tell her, not much conversation.

Kerfontaine30 December 2022

Christmas passed pleasantly. We did all the things we usually do when we’re here: on Christmas morning we took hampers of British and Irish delicacies up to our two sets of neighbours — Jean and Annick and family, and Jérôme and Aurélie and family — before driving down to Fort Bloqué for a long walk along the beach. Then home for the exchange of presents, accompanied by champagne. I opened the weighty package I had asked for: an up-to-date big Italian/English dictionary. My smaller dictionary has served me well for many years, but while I was translating the Montale stories I often came across words that weren’t in it, and had to refer to the internet or to my two Italian helpers. Helen opened her presents from me: mohair jumpers from a smart shop in Lorient called Maison Un Deux Trois. In recent years, she has increased the occasions of present-giving to three, so that in addition to ‘the main present’, there’s an exchange on Christmas Eve, also with champagne, as well as something in the stocking which appears at the end of our bed when she wakes up on 25 December. On Christmas Eve I gave her a set of cosmetics from one of her favourite suppliers, Nuxe, beautifully wrapped by a chemist in Lorient. In her stocking was a balaclava, or cagoule as the French call these things, made from goats’ wool by a firm in the Pyrenees. She looks very fetching in it when we’re out for walks.

After the main presents, there were cheese straws, smoked salmon on blinis, foie gras with salad and, in my case, raw onion, the chicken with sprouts and roast potatoes, cheeses various, Christmas pudding with my brandy butter. The champagne accompanied us as far as the foie gras; Luciano Ciolfi’s Rosso di Montalcino, bought from him at San Lorenzo in October, enhanced the meat and the cheese; then a five-puttonyos Tokay was just the thing with the pudding. I should have mentioned Helen’s other presents to me: Hugh Johnson’s 2023 little reference book of wine, something I get every year; cotton socks and chocolate; and a splendid XO Tariquet Armagnac. After the washing-up we read until bedtime. I was re-reading, and have since finished, a book which I first read about fifty years ago: David Jones’s In Parenthesis. It’s the best account of the experiences of the ordinary infantry soldier in the trenches of the First World War I know. It’s also frequently obscure; or rather, it requires familiarity with ancient heroic Welsh poems (which I don’t have) and some acquaintance with English literature of the last 800 years (which to a certain extent I do have) to make full sense. The extensive notes help a lot. The book is written, I would say, in loose prose, although there’s a lot of line-shortening which inclines the reader to read it sometimes as free verse. The bits which describe the lot of the soldier are absolutely apt: the extreme physical discomfort, the camaraderie and determined cheerfulness despite everything, the constant swearing, the brutal enforcement of discipline, the contempt for ‘Staff’ comfortably planning the war from a safe distance, the moments of sudden violent death and mutilation. And occasionally it’s very funny. Young officers with posh accents (the sort of person I would have been) are another butt of the ordinary soldier’s ill-liking: ‘A young man in a British warm, his fleecy muffler cosy to his ears, enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord.’

Mary and Jacques arrived on Tuesday evening, after one long drive from Marseille. I had gone up to their house in the afternoon to turn the radiators on and light the stove. We had a happy dinner here before they went home. They’re coming for New Year’s Eve tomorrow, and will stay the night.

My brother Andy in Bulgaria continues heroically to care for his wife Beryl, now far gone in dementia and also utterly physically helpless. She won't live long; he is applying humane palliative care as best he can. He has already arranged a plot for her in the village cemetery. The village is part-Muslim, majority Romany, and burials are conducted within a day of death. We speak on the phone often. I may well go over there early next year.

While we were eating lunch today, we had the wonderful sight through the window of a spotted woodpecker, greater or lesser, hammering at the dead branch of a spindly oak tree about ten metres away. Bits of moss and dead wood flew into the air and fell to the ground as he attacked. He continued for five or six minutes, then took a rest, then resumed.

Near the beginning of this year, I wrote about ‘the Hardy tree’ in St Pancras Gardens. Alas, it has come to the end of its life. I had this email today from the man in Camden council who looks after trees: ‘Sadly, I am writing to let you know that the Hardy tree has succumbed to the decay in its root system and fell around 26th-27th December. As planned, the tree fell within the area we had fenced off reducing any risk of injury to people using the park. A few of the headstones around the base of the tree have been damaged but the mound is largely intact.’

I hope they plant a new ash tree. And here are Larkin’s lines in his poem ‘The Trees’:

‘Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.’

Kerfontaine31 December 2022

I’ve only one thing to say as the year ends. Mostly, human history is complex, nuanced. There are usually things to be said on both sides, on all sides. Occasionally, human history is simple. 2022 has been one of those moments. The political-historical catastrophe which is Russia — the brutality of feudalism followed by brutality in the name of communism followed by the briefest moment of light under Gorbachev, followed by wild-west capitalism under a drunk, followed by tyranny, lies and repression under a paranoid thug — has attempted to extend its tragic story by attempting to obliterate a neighbouring country. There is, for once, a straightforward binary choice here: between Western-style democracy and freedom, with all our faults, and with a fair number of unsavoury and downright dangerous characters in charge of democracies (Italy, Poland, Hungary, Israel, US until two years ago, Brazil until today…) and the tyrannies of the East. And Ukraine is the testing ground for that choice. Unless the West continues to support Ukraine in its effort to drive Russia from the four eastern provinces which it has invaded, and from the Crimea which it invaded in 2014 along with parts of two of the eastern provinces, we are complicit in reverting to a pre-1945 world where might is right, where strong states feel impunity in invading weaker ones. Every day now, in frustration at the military failure of its invading forces, Russia rains down destructive missiles on Ukraine’s civilian population. And we allow these war crimes to occur. Ukraine needs far more practical support than we have so far offered, not that what we have done so far has been negligible. It urgently needs the advanced air defence system which Biden has promised, and it needs the most up-to-date tanks and other armoured vehicles. We must stop buying Russian oil, gas and other commodities, completely and as quickly as possible. If Russia wishes to forge closer alliances with the other tyrannies of the East, let it do so. Ukraine must be allowed to join the EU and NATO. Russia can howl as much as it likes about the presence of NATO at its borders. NATO is a defensive alliance, and no NATO member has the faintest interest in invading Russia. It’s true that individual members of NATO have done tragically stupid things elsewhere in the world since 1945, notably the US in Vietnam and, more recently, the US and the UK in Iraq. These errors are a gift to Putin’s rhetoric, while his forces continue to commit atrocities in support of the monster Assad in Syria. But so far as NATO’s raison d’être is concerned — the protection of Western democracies against the threat from the Soviet Union and now Russia — the matter is straightforward. Finland and Sweden suddenly feel the need to join NATO, and not a single Russian soldier has crossed their borders. Ukraine’s case for joining is a thousand times more compelling.

For now, a new Iron Curtain must descend in Europe, further east than the old one. One can always hope for the emergence in Russia of some kind of liberation movement which would overthrow the present tyrant. Such a movement would need a leader who shares our values and could command popular support. Potential leaders of that kind are in jail. I fear that, if Putin’s position is under any threat, it’s more from nationalist hardliners and military commanders advocating, in the name of glorious Mother Russia, greater aggression towards Ukraine and other bordering countries. Only decisive force will defeat these people. Meanwhile, most of the common folk in Russia continue to believe the lies which Putin and his regime peddle in their attempt to justify the atrocities committed in Ukraine since 24 February, and, to a lesser but still grievous extent, since 2014. There is no need to idealise the governance of Ukraine since its independence in 1991; there have been failings; there has been corruption, mainly associated with previous leaders who wished to stay close to Putin; horrible ultra-nationalist minority groups have existed, rather as horrible ultra-nationalist groups, not so small, thrive in Russia today. But ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the east of the country do not need protection from annihilation by the ‘xenophobes and fascists’ of Putin’s invention. The same lie was told in 2014 to justify the invasion of the Crimea. The physical destruction in Ukraine goes forward without mass protest in Russian cities because of the psychological destruction which Putin’s regime has wrought on so many people’s minds.

By comparison with this epic struggle, the lazy, deep-seated corruption (in the first half of this year), followed by the political and economic incompetence (in the third quarter of this year), of the UK’s Conservative government have been a small, farcical sideshow.