Occurrences: Book Nineteen

Kerfontaine2 January 2023

The New Year has begun with a terrible shock for the inhabitants of Cléguer. On New Year’s Eve, in the road poignantly named Rue de la Bonne Entente, in the hamlet equally poignantly named L’Enfer (because years ago there was a blacksmith there), two elderly and frail people, man and wife, were murdered with a knife by their daughter, who then tried and failed to kill herself. Jean-Paul and Christine live in the same road, and knew the couple well. No one has any idea how such a thing could have happened. The daughter is now in hospital.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to resume Italian lessons in the village. I attended the class once in 2020, before the course was suspended because of the pandemic. I may have written before about the fortunate coincidence, given my interest in the Italian language, that Cléguer is twinned with Arzano, a village south of Naples, and that Roberte Renaud, who used to be the head teacher of Cléguer’s state primary school, speaks good Italian and usually runs a fortnightly class. I had thought the lessons were still in abeyance until I met a member of the group recently who told me they had restarted.

Kerfontaine14 January 2023

I’ve not heard much more about the New Year’s Eve murders. A week ago the funeral of the couple was held in the village church. Jean-Paul and Christine were there. The church was full. Jean-Paul told me that Jean-Marc, the priest, conducted the ceremony with perfect dignity, finding the right words to say despite the tragic nature of the circumstances. Extraordinarily, the murderer’s husband attended, and was welcomed. The couple had had two children, a daughter and a son, who took it in turns to visit and care for their parents, one of whom was failing mentally and the other physically. The daughter is now in secure hospital accommodation. What drove her to her terrible act nobody that I have spoken to knows.

Putin’s continuing war crimes, the actions of an increasingly desperate tyrant who knows he’s losing, drove me to write another Ukraine poem, which Mark Leicester has kindly already posted on the website. I’ve always studied Auden’s handling of form with admiration; it’s a commonplace amongst literary folk that Auden was technically the best English poet of the twentieth century. I think that’s a bit extreme; certain others (Frost, MacNeice, Heaney) were pretty good too. But I found myself wanting to say something appropriate to the beginning of the year in the style which Auden used for ‘September 1, 1939’. So I copied out the first stanza of that poem, and tried to imitate it. Auden’s stanzas are 11 lines long, and his metre is loosely dactylic. There are frequent but not regular rhymes. His poem is three times longer than mine, and incomparably greater of course (though sometimes obscure, and sometimes wrong, I think: ‘all schoolchildren’ do not, alas, ‘learn’ that ‘Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.’). Probably because I’m not a technician with anything like Auden’s skill, my dactylics have dropped into too predictable a regularity. But still, I think ‘Ukraine 4’ is a pretty good poem, and it does focus the controlled rage that I feel about the conflict. A few days after I finished it, Putin proposed a truce over the Orthodox Christmas on 6 January, which his forces immediately broke.

(Not all Orthodox congregations celebrate Christmas on that date. Helen reminded me that the Greek Orthodox churches she attended in London as a child celebrated on 25 December. The reason for the choice of 6 January by the Ukrainian and Russian churches, and perhaps by some others, is that they decided to stick to the Julian calendar in 1582, when Pope Gregory commanded his famous change. With the passage of the centuries, the Julian calendar is now thirteen days away from the Gregorian. It was eleven in 1752 when England bowed to the inevitable and people marched round several towns calling ‘Give us back our eleven days’. Sticking strictly to the Julian calendar would mean moving Orthodox Christmas a day later every hundred years or so; I wonder if they’ll do that.)

Talking of large extents of time, I read in the paper the other day that a comet will be visible from Earth in the next few days. It passed the sun two days ago. But the thing which amazed me was that the last time anyone on Earth could have seen it was 50,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic period, when Neanderthals roamed the planet. Or rather, I should say that the thing that amazed me was that anyone could know this. What degree of mathematical brilliance and exactitude could have calculated with such certainty that this ball of ice flew past us then? I have always been impressed that Gregory’s astronomers could know that with the adjustments they proposed to the Pope, which he accepted, the solar and the calendar years will remain close for the next three thousand years. But knowing what happened 50,000 years ago is confidence on a different scale.

Kerfontaine18 January 2023

A terrible day in Ukraine. A helicopter has crashed near Kyiv, killing about 14 people, including Ukraine’s interior minister Denys Monastyrskiy and his deputy. The helicopter came down near a kindergarten in the suburb of Brovary, and one child is among the dead. At the moment it looks like an accident, rather than anything the Russians have done. At lunchtime on the BBC’s World at One, the former head of NATO and former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: ‘For far too long, we have followed what I would call a bureaucratic strategy, where we have gradually increased arms deliveries when Putin has escalated. And this step-by-step strategy should now be replaced by a surprise strategy where the Ukrainians push the Russians on the defensive.’ He also called for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Ukraine: ‘I think what is needed now is to close the skies over Ukraine to protect the Ukrainian population against the Russian attacks against civilian infrastructure. So we should deliver anti-aircraft, anti-missile, anti-drone and long-range missiles to hit the Russian missile launchers. But in addition to that, we should also deliver heavy battle tanks to give the Ukrainians the means to retake lost ground.’ Absolutely right, and it enrages me that either we’re not doing it (imposing a no-fly zone, something that I remember calling for last February) or we’re doing it too slowly (delivering tanks), although the rate of delivery of tanks does seem at last to be increasing.

Camden Town31 January 2023

We ‘ve been back here for nine days now. Today, the last day of the month, is beautifully mild and sunny. This morning we went to the Royal Academy to see the exhibition ‘Making Modernism’, which features the work of seven women artists active in Germany in the early years of the twentieth century. The clarity, simplicity and boldness of the work are wonderful. The star of the show for me was Paula Modersohn-Becker. I’d never heard of her, nor of any of the other artists, although, having bought a book about her from the RA shop, I can see that her achievement has long been recognised by people who know about art. The dust cover of the book tells me that she ‘is today hailed as one of the great pioneers of modernism’. I loved everything of hers there: portraits, self-portraits (including an extraordinary one of her pregnant), still lives and landscapes. She was prolific in her short life. She died of a post-partum embolism in November 1907 at the age of 31, eighteen days after giving birth to her first child, a daughter.

Germany and the USA have finally agreed to supply to Ukraine the tanks which the Ukrainian government has been asking for: Leopard 2 in the case of Germany, Abrams in the case of the USA. Germany has also said that it will allow other countries which have bought Leopards to sell or give them to Ukraine. A bit of progress. But the West is still refusing to provide aircraft, so Putin continues to slaughter Ukrainian civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure from the skies with impunity. The Ukrainians are begging for aeroplanes, and even for a submarine so they can attack the Russian fleet at Sevastopol. I suppose the West’s reluctance whole-heartedly to commit to Ukraine is fear of a third world war involving the use of nuclear weapons. My instinct is that Putin is bluffing, as he has done throughout his career, and that if we really gave the Ukrainians everything they need to expel Russia from their territory, the war would be over quickly.

We saw Arturo Tosi last week. On Thursday morning he went to see the director of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in London, who is a friend of his, and to whom I had sent a copy of The Dinard Butterfly last February. He had with him a copy of my covering letter and another copy of the typescript. It turns out that the original letter and typescript never got as far as her desk. According to Arturo, the director, Katia Pizzi, liked what I’d done. She recommended four publishers which specialise in English translations from the Italian, and gave him names of the people to contact there. So this afternoon I’ve sent The Dinard Butterfly to the first of those.

As I was sorting out my books and papers to bring back to London, I opened a little box and out fell a post-it sticker with the first two lines of a poem on it. Goodness knows how long it’s been there. It was a reminder to myself to write a poem about a detail of Helen’s childhood: in the 1950s and early 1960s she went with her parents to the cinema at least twice a week. We have talked about this often, entertained by the contrast between her childhood experience of the cinema and mine. She saw more films in the course of a fortnight or three weeks than I saw in my entire childhood and adolescence, since my parents believed that the cinema, with certain rare exceptions, was an invention of the devil. I think I can name all the films I saw up to the age of 18: Fantasia, the early Disney animation (my primary-school class walked one afternoon up to the Bromley Gaumont for a treat); a biopic of Churchill called His Finest Hour; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (acceptable, for obvious reasons); and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd. This last I went to see one afternoon with Peter Hetherington when we took a break from rehearsing for Murder in the Cathedral. A few months later I was in Cambridge, where the Arts Cinema offered me a smorgasbord of European art movies, on which I gorged for three years.

Anyway, in about two hours I wrote the little poem which I should have written years ago. It’s called ‘Intermission’. It twice mentions Helen’s childhood ambition to be a cinema usherette when she grew up.

Camden Town1 April 2023

Fully two months have gone by, and nothing written! There is a kind of excuse, although I remind myself of Disraeli, once he had become prime minister, who at dinner one evening in a country house found himself sitting next to some titled lady. ‘Oh, Mr Disraeli,’ she gushed, ‘I did so love those wonderful novels you used to write. Why have you stopped?’ ‘I am sorry, madam,’ replied the prime minister, ‘but I’m one of those fellows who can only do one thing at a time.’ The one thing this fellow has been doing is working hard with Myra Barrs on The Vygotsky anthology. By the end of this month, I want to be at the point where we can instruct the person who is going to negotiate with the rights holders of the extracts from Vygotsky’s texts that we want to reprint, and I want to have done the ‘busy work’ — mainly getting references and footnotes right — for which I need access to the volumes of Vygotsky’s Collected works in Myra’s house. We’re well on with the job; we’ve more or less done nine of the eleven chapters. Myra gave a talk on Friday, on Zoom, to people training English teachers in university departments of education. It was about Thinking and speech, Vygotsky’s last and best-known book, extracts from which will form our chapters 10 and 11. I read the talk for her, since her voice is weak at the moment. She’s battling her cancer most courageously. Routledge will publish the book, probably early next year, and of course we hope to get it into print while Myra is still alive. Apart from the editing and writing work, I’ve been helping her in practical ways, taking her to hospital appointments, to the shops, and — last Sunday — to the Quaker Meeting House in Muswell Hill, where she finds an hour of silent meditation valuable. Despite her illness, she hopes to go to Italy at the end of the month, to stay in the house she used to own and which she sold to the family of her close friend and former colleague Sue Ellis. About the same time, we expect to go back to Brittany.

We’ve had work done in this flat. It now has a smart oak floor in the living room, bedroom, hall and this little study, and new lino tiles in the bathroom and kitchen. The bathroom has a new shower and an extractor fan that works (the previous one was broken for, I should think, ten years). The hall, bathroom and kitchen have elegant new lights. One of the venetian blinds, which was broken, has been replaced. All this has been done by our good friend Reshat, who last year replaced the old gas boiler with an electric one. We’re very fond of him, and I’ve learnt quite a lot about Albania from conversations with him. He’s been in England since 1998, and has prospered as a highly skilled tradesman: he can do electrics, plumbing, central heating, carpentry and flooring, and no doubt other things too. So far as I can see, he works his socks off seven days a week.

I’ve just finished reading A.C. Grayling’s The history of philosophy, a Cook’s tour of the subject from the pre-Socratics to the present day. I’m grateful to the book for filling some of the vast empty spaces of my ignorance with at least a superficial knowledge of what’s what and who’s who. It confirmed my previous clear preference for philosophy which asks serious questions like, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What should we be doing here?’ ‘What is the good society?’, as against philosophy which spends its time (I would say wastes its time) trying to pin down the meaning of sentences. So I’m for metaphysics and ethical and political philosophy, and impatient of analytical philosophy. I can’t get excited about the Cretan paradox, in which a Cretan man says, ‘All Cretans are liars,’ so is he telling the truth or lying in making that statement? If the statement, ‘The present King of France is wise’ cannot be true because at present there is no King of France, does that make the statement, ‘The present King of France is not wise’ true? Of course not; neither statement is true or false; both are meaningless. So far as I can see, parlour games of this sort have occupied the logical positivists, the Vienna Circle and the Oxford ‘ordinary language’ philosophers for a century. I can accept that Russell made the heroic attempt to find a causal connection between logic and mathematics, and in the end gave it up. It seems that analytic philosophers who came after him persisted in trying to boil down human utterances — usually written sentences — until only the quintessence of pure logic remained: fiddling in their quiet universities while Rome burned, or rather while the catastrophes and atrocities of the twentieth century took place elsewhere.

I remember writing about Spinoza last year. I had read his Ethics because he was Vygotsky’s favourite philosopher. Grayling’s account confirms my admiration for that great man. Of the various other philosophers who seem to me to be doing what philosophers should be doing, I might pick out the Islamic philosopher Avicenna (980-1037). Grayling writes: ‘Avicenna wrote that he saw philosophy’s task as “determining the realities of things, so far as it is possible for human beings to do so”. Two tasks invite the philosopher, one theoretical, which aims at finding the truth, and the other practical, which aims at finding the good. Seeking the truth perfects the soul through knowledge as such; seeking the good perfects the soul through knowledge of what must be done. Whereas theoretical knowledge concerns what exists independently of our choices and actions, practical knowledge concerns how we choose and act.’ That will do for me.

Before Christmas I began to suffer an intense ache in my left testicle. I put up with it over the festive season, but went to the doctor in early January. The French health service swung impressively into action: I had a blood test and a urine test immediately, and an ultrasound a few days later. The woman who performed the ultrasound was most amusing. I removed my underpants at her instruction, and then I thought she said, ‘Tournez le zizi,’ which means ‘Turn the cock.’ I told her that it wouldn't turn the full 360 degrees. She said, ‘Non, tenez le zizi,’ meaning ‘Hold the cock.’ She wanted it out of the way while she examined the scrotum. We had a good laugh. When she had finished, I got dressed and sat in the waiting room. Twenty minutes later I was presented with an impressive piece of medical prose. I had been suffering from orchites (orchitis in English), an inflammation of the testicle. It can occur at any time in a man’s life, and is often the result of the persistence in the body of the mumps virus. I can just about remember having had mumps as a child. There was nothing to worry about, the report told me; the complaint would go away naturally. And it did.

The reason for writing this, months late, is that the blood test revealed that my blood was in excellent order apart from one thing: its level of gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT). This is the enzyme which is closely linked to a person’s intake of alcohol. I’ve had high GGT before, and have stopped drinking before. This time my GGT level was more than ten times higher than the maximum it should be (according to the French authorities, that is; according to the British and, even worse, according to the Americans, both of whom I consulted on the internet, it was higher than it should be by even greater multiples). So, on the day after Valentine’s Day, after having thought about the problem for a while, I decided to stop drinking alcohol completely for a while. In May, I shall go back to the doctor in Plouay with my January blood test and ask to be given another one, to see how far the GGT level will have gone down in the interim. Depending on that result, I shall either start drinking again, perhaps more moderately, or decide to be teetotal for the rest of my life. Either possibility seems a little bleak, since I have never drunk out of need, only ever out of joie de vivre. I’ve had no difficulty giving up. Day to day, I feel no difference at all from the way I felt until 14 February, the last day of a period of years — perhaps fifteen since the last time I gave up? — in which I had drunk a moderate quantity of alcohol almost every day. I say ‘moderate’; I think my intake each week was about double what the doctors recommend: a recommendation whose level depends on whether you’re in the USA (where they terrify you about your use or abuse of alcohol) or in the UK (where they lecture you sternly on the topic) or in France (where they’re remarkably relaxed about it).

One good thing has come of this. I’ve discovered that non-alcoholic or very low-alcohol (0.5%) beers have made great progress since the last time I was obliged to try them. There are lagers and ales which I don’t mind drinking at all. My favourite among the lagers is Moretti zero; among the ales, Adnam’s Ghost Ship. I’ve had a lot of practice over the years in drinking English beer, and I honestly can’t tell the difference between Ghost Ship and a beer of the same type with 4% or 5% alcohol. So things aren’t too bad. Non-alcoholic wine is a different matter; that really does seem to me a contradiction in terms, and I haven’t been tempted by such an unnatural concoction yet.

March was a wet month; the very opposite of Chaucer’s ‘droghte of March’. Whether we shall have ‘shoures soote’ this month I don’t know. But it’s nice to have the light evenings.

Yesterday I went to St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington to help Myra and her friend Debbie find a cab to take them back to Myra’s house in Highgate. Myra’s lungs are producing fluid which makes her breathing difficult. She was expecting to have a procedure which would have put some kind of container, or pouch, inside her chest, next to her left lung, to drain the fluid continuously, so she wouldn’t have to keep returning to the hospital; a district nurse would come to her house every few days to empty the container. In the end the doctors decided not to put the thing in, since the left lung wasn’t producing much fluid, though the right lung was. They drained that, and took X-rays. She has to go back to the hospital next Thursday. Perhaps they’ll put a container next to her right lung. Anyway, while I was waiting I read poems from an old edition of The Penguin Book of English Verse, making myself read some of the poets who aren’t my natural favourites (Pope, Dryden, Swift), and one or two I’d never heard of (Lovelace, Prior, Waller). Here are a few of the pleasures I got from those writers.

From Pope’s ‘An essay on criticism’:

‘’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.’

Less and less true of watches these days, alas, now that so many timepieces are controlled by satellites; still perfectly true of judgments.

Dryden’s touching short poem ‘The fire of London’, describing the distress of Londoners burnt out of their houses. The last stanza:

‘While by the motion of the flames they ghess
What streets are burning now, & what are near:
An infant, waking, to the paps would press,
And meets, instead of milk, a falling tear.’

Prior’s witty poem ‘A better answer’, in which he chides his girlfriend Cloe because he also writes poems praising other women:

‘So when I am weary’d with wand’ring all Day;
To Thee my Delight in the Evening I come:
No Matter what Beauties I saw in my Way:
They were but my visits; but thou art my Home.

Then finish, Dear Cloe, this Pastoral War;
And let us like HORACE and LYDIA agree:
For Thou art a Girl as much brighter than Her,
As He was a Poet sublimer than Me.’

Swift’s ‘A description of the morning’ (set in the streets and houses of London or Dublin, I suppose), in which, among other details:

‘Now Betty from her Master’s bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.’

I didn’t know that the famous lines:

‘Stone Walls doe not a Prison make,
Nor I’ron bars a Cage;’

are from Lovelace’s ‘To Althea, from prison’. Wikipedia now tells me that Richard Lovelace was imprisoned in 1642 for protesting against the Bishops Exclusion Bill, which ‘prevented those heavily involved with the Church of England from enacting any temporal control.’ Lovelace wanted the Anglican bishops’ right to sit in parliament to be restored.

Nor did I know that Edmund Waller wrote the beautiful but conventionally complaining ‘Song’, which begins with the famous stanza:

‘Goe lovely Rose,
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee
How sweet and fair she seems to be.’

Camden Town17 April 2023

On 6 April Helen took me to Covent Garden, where we saw a magnificent production (old, I think, but none the worse for that) of Turandot. The opera house offered an oasis in the desert of teetotalism in which I had been wandering since mid-February; we drank champagne. The next day, Good Friday, I took the train down to Hove for my annual treat: to watch a couple of days of county cricket in the company of Mick Robertson and his chums. It was the first match of the season: Sussex against Durham. The cricket was absorbing, competitive, and after my lay-off the Harvey’s best bitter tasted even better than it usually does.

Two days ago we had our annual play reading at Peter and Monica’s house in Bletsoe, Bedfordshire. It was The Tempest this year. Peter was wonderful as Prospero, Monica very touching as Ariel, and their son David highly entertaining crawling about the carpet as Caliban. Their daughter Kate improvised beautiful, atmospheric music on her electronic keyboard. Champagne after the reading, then an excellent dinner in The Horse and Jockey at Ravensden Church End, where my friend Tamara is now in charge. It was she who organised the evening in the Prince Albert in 2017 when I launched those two books of poetry. By a remarkable coincidence, the then manager of the Prince Albert later left, bought the Golden Lion a block away in Camden, plus two other pubs, one in Hertfordshire, and The Horse and Jockey. He invited Tamara to manage the latter. She’s a delightful person, Polish, firmly established here post-Brexit. I think her partner is the chef.

Peter is 92, and said that he thought Prospero’s line towards the end of the play, ‘Where every third thought shall be my grave,’ particularly appropriate to his situation. I said no; what about the other two thoughts?

Kerfontaine7 May 2023

We arrived here last Wednesday, after the usual pleasant two-day trip, with the usual pleasant stay in the hotel at Saint Quentin-sur-le-Homme.

Myra and I did manage to complete the task we’d set ourselves by the time we parted. The text of The Vygotsky anthology is very nearly complete. All the work requiring access to the volumes of Vygotsky’s collected writings has been done. Now we await the return from Australia, in the middle of this month, of the woman who will, we hope, negotiate reasonable terms with the rights holders of Vygotsky’s work (in both the English translations and the Russian originals). Of the 80,000 words the book will contain, about 60,000 will be his words and about 20,000 ours. We expect negotiations to take a few months.

Myra’s illness progresses. When we spoke to her on FaceTime yesterday, she was finding breathing difficult. I shall speak to her twice a week while we’re here. If her condition worsens to such an extent that her life is in danger, I’ll go back to London. I’m one of the executors of her will, and her literary executor. Fortunately, she has found a carer whom she likes very much, and who will start work immediately, going to the house once or twice a day. Myra’s friend Debbie is staying with her at the moment. Later this month, her sister-in-law Edith will come for a fortnight. And she has various other friends nearby. So she’s not without help and support. The doctors seem to have decided that there’s no value in inserting a pouch to collect fluid from the space between the lung casing and the pleura. I’m not sure why they’ve changed their minds about that.

Yesterday King Charles III was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The woman with whom he had carried on an adulterous relationship while he was married to Diana is now the Queen Consort. She triumphantly escorted him into the abbey, unlike a previous queen, Caroline of Brunswick, who turned up outside the building while her husband, George IV, was being crowned, and banged on the doors demanding entry, which was refused. Both she and her husband were serial adulterers. At her trial for adultery, her defence lawyer unwisely compared her to the woman in the Gospels taken in adultery, about to be stoned to death, and brought before Jesus, who said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ and then told the woman to ‘go away and sin no more’. The comparison prompted a wit to compose the famous verse:

‘Our gracious Queen, we thee implore
to go away and sin no more,
or, if the effort be too great,
to go away at any rate.’

My feelings about the monarchy are summed up by my own doggerel in imitation:

‘Our gracious King, take note that this
republican is glad to miss
your over-priced anointing day,
for which the common people pay.’

Charles has suggested that ‘for the common good’ we should all do a bit of volunteering tomorrow (a one-off public holiday to extend the celebrations). He could start by volunteering to pay inheritance tax on the vast fortune he has inherited from his mother.

On Thursday there were local elections in many parts of England, and I’m glad to say that the Tories did very badly indeed. I can remember writing about local elections in 1995, two years before the 1997 general election. I’ve just gone back to what I wrote then: ‘On 4 May, Labour won a crushing victory in local elections in England and Wales, annihilating the Tories on a scale never seen before, turning them into the marginal party of local government. They now control only eight district councils, four London boroughs and one county in England. In Wales and Scotland, they control nothing at all.’

There is a big gap between the last entry of Occurrences Book One, 28 October 1995, and the first entry in Book Two, 15 September 1996. The reason for that is the catastrophe of 2 September 1996, when I left my diary on the Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord. It must have contained my thoughts on the 1996 local elections too. Wikipedia tells me that things got even worse for the Tories then than they had been a year previously; they lost a further 607 councillors and one more council. The situation for them now isn’t as bad as it was in 1995 and 1996; they still control 33 councils in England, and it’s not a fair comparison anyway, because this time there were no elections in Wales, Scotland or London. But they have lost over a thousand councillors, and Labour is now the largest party of local government in England, surpassing the Tories for the first time since 2002.

My feelings about Labour’s prospects from here to the general election are calmer than they were in the heady months leading up to 1 May 1997. Keir Starmer is not Tony Blair. He’s competent, likeable, trustworthy (and I’m privileged to know him personally), but he doesn’t have the star quality that Blair then had. Many undecided voters still aren’t sure what he stands for. I’m pretty sure that the decision not to be too specific too early about policies is deliberate: don’t give the Tories and the right-wing media easy targets. Early next year there must be specific, easily understood policy promises which people can relate to.

It’s improbable that in 2024 (or, just possibly, January 2025) there will be anything like the victory which Labour had in 1997. Most commentators are more or less assuming that Starmer will be the next prime minister, but that either he will have only a small overall majority, or that he will need to form some kind of coalition with one or more other parties. I wouldn’t mind that in the least, although whether the Liberal Democrats would want to go into coalition with Labour, after their disastrous experience of coalition with the Tories, is uncertain. Certain it is that Starmer’s achievement in making Labour electable again, after the disaster of 2019 when we had the worst result since 1935, is remarkable. And star quality, such as Blair had, brings its own dangers: witness Iraq. I don’t think many people thought that Attlee had star quality, but look at what he was able to achieve for the country (admittedly with his large post-1945 majority). Scotland, with the SNP’s current deep difficulties, might provide enough of a boost to Labour to enable it to govern outright. At the moment there’s only one Labour MP in Scotland, thanks to the party’s suicidal decision to join with the Tories in the 2014 independence referendum campaign. Things can only get better for us there.

Kerfontaine8 May 2023

By coincidence, today is a public holiday in France as well as in the UK, though for a different reason: to mark the end of the Second World War and the victory over fascism. It’s a tragic irony that one of the countries which played a key part in that victory is now itself committing atrocities of the kind which the Nazis committed. Although it would be wrong to describe Russia as a fascist state in the exact sense of that word, its behaviour, and the crazed logic by which it attempts to justify that behaviour, are indistinguishable from those which Germany, Italy, Japan and their allies visited on the world.

Meanwhile, a dreadful conflict rages in Sudan. Violence continues to flare in Israel/Palestine. The Taliban in Afghanistan are unspeakable, as are the soldiers in Myanmar. China’s ambition to replace the USA as the planet’s dominant superpower bodes ill. All in all, the world is a dangerous place at the moment.

It has rained for most of the time since we’ve been here. Everywhere the grass is rife. Our new gardener, Florian, will come later in the week to cut the meadow. I shall ask him to leave some swathes of bluebells, primrose and cow parsley wild, to encourage the bees.

Kerfontaine22 May 2023

Florian did come, and did cut the meadow, and did leave the swathes of wild flowers for the bees. I like him very much, and feel sure that as long as he remains a gardener he will be our gardener, and we shall be friends. It’s strange, but inevitable, that increasingly I think in terms of finality: this young gardener will see me out; this hard-wearing coat will see me out; if I buy one more car it’ll be electric, and it will see me out.

On the day Florian came the weather changed, and since then it’s been paradisal: warm but not hot, with a gentle breeze, and the countryside everywhere an intense green after all the rain. The farmers are getting bonus quantities of hay from the fields, which they’ll need to feed the cattle if we get another drought later in the year.

Last week David James came, with his new partner Susan Harris. They stayed five nights. They seem very fond of each other, and we hope that this relationship will prosper and endure. David has been a widower now for ten years. The house he bought last year in Pont-Scorff remains in its ruined state. To turn it into a habitable dwelling will be a long and expensive job. I shall help him in every practical way, but although I think, and always have thought, that the project is a grand folly, I’m not going to worry about it on his behalf. And I have found for David a very good architect, in whom we have complete confidence. We had a long meeting with the architect last week. It’s true that in two or three years’ time, all being well, David will have a magnificent property in one of the most beautiful squares (in fact a triangle) in France.

I’ve recently re-read two English classics: Tom Jones and Wuthering Heights. Both wonderful in different ways. Tom Jones made me laugh out loud numerous times, but the thing I found most impressive was the plotting, which is brilliantly achieved. The relationship between Jones and Partridge is vastly entertaining, and reminded me of that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The brutality and violence in Wuthering Heights remains shocking. It’s an extraordinary, bold book, worrying in the sense that Heathcliff’s evil behaviour is not altogether dissociated from his non-white ethnicity, but nakedly honest about the depths to which humans can sink when cruelly treated, condescended to or deceived. Structurally it’s unusual, perhaps awkward: the majority of the text is related narrative, told to the minor character Mr Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, by the family’s faithful servant Ellen Dean. I remember that in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the narrative is also given at second hand, in that case via a series of letters. It’s extraordinary how the three Brontë sisters, but especially Anne and Emily, were able to penetrate to the heart of darkness of human nature. I’ve now read all the Brontë novels except Charlotte’s first one, The Professor, which I must get. So far, despite the depths of despair which the narratives traverse, there’s always a happy ending: in the case of Wuthering Heights, it’s the likelihood that young Cathy and young Hareton will marry and be happy, once she has taught him to read.

Kerfontaine24 May 2023

The fine weather continues, and is forecast to last for several days yet. It’s perfect haymaking weather. The big field to the left of the road as we drive up was mown four days ago, leaving the cut grass in long lines; three days ago a machine spread the grass to dry; two days ago the dried grass was once again gathered into lines; yesterday morning the baler gathered up the grass and wrapped it, load by load, into green plastic globes; yesterday afternoon most of the globes were loaded onto a trailer. Only a few remain to be picked up today. The field looks as clean as a new pin. There’s something deeply impressive about the power and swiftness of modern farming methods and equipment.

I mentioned in January that I was going to send my translations of Montale’s stories to publishers which Katia Pizzi had recommended. The first one, Fitzcarraldo Editions, has so far failed to offer any kind of reply, having had the manuscript for five months. In April I sent a copy to Sceptre, an imprint of Hachette UK. Stephen and Bronwyn Mellor are staying in our flat for a couple of nights, having lent theirs to friends from Australia, and Stephen rang last night to tell me that the man from Sceptre had had the decency to return the manuscript to me with a polite rejection. I shall send it to the third publisher on Signora Pizzi’s list next time I’m in London.

This year most of the pots on the terrasse contain antirrhinums, of which we bought twenty last week. They make a fine display. I’ve just looked up the word, to check the spelling; I see that the ‘anti’ particle comes from the Greek meaning ‘imitating’ (rather than ‘against’), and the rest of the word is derived from ‘rhis’, meaning ‘nose’. So these delicate flowers are related etymologically to the rhinoceros.

I’m re-reading the complete poems of Wallace Stevens. I’ve been reading him for the last fifty years, off and on, and I find him occasionally absolutely wonderful — my ultimate idea of what a poet should do and be — as well as frequently completely incomprehensible. I’ll do a list of my favourites shortly. In the meantime, I find the atheism of ‘Sunday Morning’ profoundly moving, for obvious reasons. Here’s the last stanza:

‘She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky.
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.’

‘We live in an old chaos of the sun’: that does it, for me.

Kerfontaine25 May 2023

I finished reading Wallace Stevens last night, with, I must admit, a certain amount of skipping of the long, obscure philosophical poems which seem to me hardly poems: more a jumble of thoughts put down in short lines. Here are my favourites.

From ‘Harmonium’:

‘Earthy Anecdote’, ‘Domination of Black’, ‘Ploughing on Sunday’, Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vièrges’, ‘The Place of the Solitaires’, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’, ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws’, ‘The Wind Shifts’, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’.

From ‘Ideas of Order’:

‘Ghosts as Cocoons’, ‘Some Friends from Pascagoula’, ‘Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu’, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, ‘Re-Statement of Romance’, ‘The Reader’, ‘Anglais Mort à Florence’.

None from ‘The Man with Blue Guitar’, whose title poem starts attractively but collapses into obscurity and goes on and on…

From ‘Parts of a World’:

‘The Poems of our Climate’, ‘A Dish of Peaches in Russia’.

From ‘Transport to Summer’:

‘God is Good. It is a Beautiful Night’, ‘Poésie Abrutie’, ‘Men Made out of Words’, ‘The House was Quiet and the World was Calm’, ‘Extraordinary References’.

From ‘The Auroras of Autumn’:

‘The Woman in Sunshine’.

From ‘The Rock’:

‘Vacancy in the Park’, ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’, ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’.

It looks to me that, on the whole, I prefer Stevens’ early work to his later, although ‘Men Made out of Words’ and ‘The House was Quiet and the World was Calm’ are short masterpieces which will always be with me. I may have written before that I think that if a poet has achieved thirty or so great poems in his or her career, he or she is by that qualification a great poet. By coincidence, the list above comes to thirty.

I shall for ever be grateful for the description of the late-night reader in ‘The House was Quiet…’, and the last lines of ‘Men Made out of Words’ —

‘The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.’

— sum up for me what we’re doing here. ‘Sunday Morning’, on my nth re-reading, still seems to me Stevens’ best longer poem. And ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ carries such a charge of romance, with its admiration for the singer by the sea in the heat of the southern night. The poet’s address to his friend Ramon Fernandez gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of those ‘fishing boats at anchor’. His exclamation ‘Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,’ always makes me laugh. What has Ramon’s skin colour got to do with it?

Kerfontaine28 May 2023

We’ve now had a whole week of beautiful, paradisal days. By afternoon, the sun is fierce on the green land, but there’s a breeze to take the edge off the heat. Perfect: a sense that we’re living in Arcadia. I’ve worked hard in the garden and in the lane by the house, and the place now looks as good as it ever has. (That’s not quite true; it looked even better when Albert was here, but I can’t compete with him.)

Last evening we drove up to Mary and Jacques and had a delicious dinner there, preceded by champagne outside the house. Their place looks beautiful too.

This morning an email from Andrew Bethell brought the sad news that his wife Claire Widgery died on Thursday. She had been ill with cancer, but she had also, for many years, suffered from lupus and other ailments. As Andrew writes, ‘…it was not just the cancer that got her but rather the fact that the many conditions that she had so bravely kept at bay for years and years finally ganged up on her immune system and she had nothing left to fight with.’ I wrote back, ‘I shall always remember Claire as a wonderful person, friend and colleague.  I remember her terrific singing, her inspirational drama teaching when we were together at Hackney Downs (and many years later she helped me enormously with the booklet on drama in that series I did with Mike Raleigh), and I remember that happy time we had together when you, she and Ben [their youngest child] were down the road from here in Brittany.’

Kerfontaine10 June 2023

The paradisal days are continuing, although we had a welcome dose of rain yesterday and the day before, which has refreshed the countryside.

Events in the greater world: Russia’s criminal desperation reached a new extreme this week when they exploded a huge dam on the Dnieper, a mastodon constructed in the 1950s. Large parts of the country downstream of the dam are now flooded, and large areas upstream, where farmers relied on the backed-up water to irrigate their crops, are threatened with drought. The Ukrainians, as ever, are responding quickly and intelligently to the crisis. The atrocity seems to have been an attempt by Russia to slow or frustrate Ukraine’s long-awaited military counteroffensive, which is now beginning. But it looks as if the act has inadvertently damaged the invaders too. The Russians have had to withdraw from positions they held until the waters rose. The counteroffensive is having some success, with Ukrainian forces advancing in a number of sections of the long front line. The Guardian tells me that a Ukrainian official reports that the country’s forces ‘had inflicted heavy Russian troop casualties and destroyed military hardware in the area.’ I hope that’s true. The UK Ministry of Defence says that while some Russian units have been ‘conducting credible manoeuvre defence operations’, other have been retreating in disorder, sustaining casualties from exploding mines which they themselves had planted.

I don’t need to say any more to myself than I’ve said frequently since February of last year: we must give Ukraine anything and everything it needs to drive Russia completely out of the whole of its territory. Terrible as it is to admit, the more I hear of Russians being killed, the happier I am.

Yesterday afternoon, Boris Johnson finally published his resignation honours list: a shameful roster of rewards for the most disreputable of his associates. Amusingly, one of the people who had been most consistently loyal to him, the appalling Nadine Dorries, had said earlier yesterday that the last thing her constituents needed was a by-election. I suppose this remark was a sort of nolo episcopari, on the assumption that when she was offered a peerage there would have to be one. When the list was published later in the day, there was no peerage nor any other honour for her. So she immediately announced that she would be standing down as an MP, thus potentially provoking a by-election, although, to add to the amusement, she didn’t actually carry out that terrible threat.

However, the news about the Johnson honours list was immediately overtaken, that same evening, by bigger news: he too was standing down as an MP. Unlike the comical Ms Dorries, he did resign, on the spot, thus definitely provoking a by-election. He had seen the report of the privileges committee (which none of the rest of us have yet — they say they’ll publish it on Monday), which apparently has concluded that he did, knowingly or recklessly, mislead parliament on the matter of illegal gatherings in Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown. The committee, we gather, has recommended a lengthy suspension from the Commons, which might well have provoked a recall petition which would have led to a by-election anyway, so Johnson went before he was pushed. Go gracefully he did not. He issued a thousand-word rant, full of self-justifying, paranoid, evidence-free claims, and so insulting to the integrity of the committee (which, though chaired by a Labour MP, Harriet Harman, has a majority of Tory members) that he may have a further case to answer for contempt of parliament.

The paranoid assertions, the references to a supposed witch-hunt, exactly echo the delusions of another megalomaniac politician with blonde hair across the Atlantic. And, sure enough (it’s funny how in politics a whole lot of things sometimes happen on the same day), Trump was ranting in those very terms yesterday after he had become the first former US president to be charged with a federal offence. (His appearance in New York recently for the alleged offence of secretly paying hush-money to a woman with whom he had had an affair was under that state’s legislature.) I’ve read through the 49-page charge sheet. Extraordinary, and complete with photographs. Boxes and boxes of top secret, secret and confidential documents stacked in his mansion in Florida. Clear evidence of his attempts, once he was no longer president, to frustrate the authorities’ attempts to retrieve the documents. Clear taped evidence of conversations he had had with people, when he was no longer president, in which he showed them some of these documents. All set out in refreshingly plain language. I can’t see how any fair jury could come to any conclusion other than that he and an associate charged with him (a servant, really), had indeed held onto material which should have been returned to the relevant government departments the moment Trump left office. The FBI had to go in last August to get their hands on it. So, of course, the FBI (the FBI!) becomes part of the witch-hunt, so far as Trump is concerned. Perhaps he really believes that he is still the president of the USA, in which case he may have convinced himself that he had the right to hold onto those boxes.

Both Trump and Johnson have adoring followers (many millions, in Trump’s case, fewer millions in Johnson’s) who will support their heroes whatever they do, however stark the evidence of their wrong-doing. Indeed, the deeper the pit into which the heroes fall, the more their supporters are convinced of the devilish nature of the conspiracy against them. Those of us who continue to believe that facts matter, that there are such things as truth and lies, that we don’t live in a world of alternative definitions of reality from which people are entitled to take their pick, will hope fervently that, even if Trump gets the Republican nomination next year, enough Republicans will see sense and vote Democrat while holding their nose, or not vote at all. The best news would be if a non-Trump Republican stood against him, so splitting the Republican vote and letting Biden have another term. That’s probably too much to hope for. Meanwhile, in the UK, I hope we’ve finally seen the back of the politician who, more than any other in my lifetime, and possibly ever, has undermined the dignity of the office of prime minister. One of his evidence-free claims last night (not the most egregious) was that he had been looking forward to giving the current prime minister his enthusiastic support from the backbenches. Since he left 10 Downing Street nearly a year ago, he has voted in the Commons four times.

Kerfontaine17 June 2023

Yesterday was my birthday. It was a more complicated day than it usually is, since David had asked me to be present at a meeting in the morning at his Pont-Scorff house with his architect and his quantity surveyor, and to meet a man who will quote for the cost of removing the asbestos. In the afternoon it was Claire Widgery’s funeral. Although, these days, it’s more or less routine to stream funerals on the internet so people who can’t be there physically can participate, some technological gremlin prevented me from watching the ceremony, despite my persistent efforts to connect. Frustrating. Still, in the evening we had a beautiful dinner here, joined by Mary and Jacques: champagne (on the terrasse, in the evening sunshine), smoked salmon, lamb chops, cheese, Eton mess, wines various.

Kerfontaine5 July 2023

I’m writing this in an upright chair with good support for my back, because last Saturday I did something stupid. The previous Tuesday we had bought a nice glass-fronted cherry-wood bookcase, second hand, from a shed at Caudan where used furniture of all kinds is for sale. (We also bought a sweet bedside table, with a drawer, also in cherry wood, which Helen is very pleased with.) Yes, they could deliver the following Saturday. When the van arrived, there was only one man in it and he wasn’t equipped to transport the thing across the lawn and into the room at the back. So I suggested that, faute de mieux, we put it onto my wheelbarrow to get it across the lawn. As I attempted to lift up one corner, I heard an awful crack and was immediately in something approaching agony. It was a dreadful moment. I’m sure I’ve never experienced pain like it. The man haplessly left the bookcase outside the house and left.

I rang Jean-Paul the following day. He immediately came round and considered the problem. He said he’d be back the next day with a friend. On the Monday evening he and his neighbour Thomas lifted the bookcase up bodily, carried it across the lawn, put it down on the deck, placed sheets under its feet and dragged it across the deck, and finally cleverly manoeuvred it over the threshold of the little back room and into the space which we had prepared for it. It looks very well there, and once I am better it will be filled with the books which are currently spilling all over the place.

On Tuesday I drove to Quimper airport to meet Bronwyn and Stephen, who are staying with us for a week. It’s lovely to see them for the first time for several years. Driving wasn’t too painful; I wore the lumbar belt that I wear anyway for long journeys. Standing is bearable; sitting, as now, is bearable; the agony is getting onto and up from bed. For three days I’ve been taking painkillers, but last night was awful, and today I finally decided to go to the doctor. Cindy Jouaux is wonderful. She felt my spine, and said that I have probably broken a vertebra. She arranged for me to have an X-ray tomorrow afternoon. If it is a break, there’s nothing to be done but take painkillers (Dolipran, 1000mg) three times a day for the next two months while it heals. If it isn’t — perhaps a severe muscle tear — I shall have physiotherapy. I must say, the French health service works brilliantly, as it did for me with my testicular problem at the beginning of the year. Today happens to be the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UK’s NHS. I fear that it’s no longer the case that the NHS is the envy of the world. Essentially, governments in the fifth-richest country in the world haven’t been prepared to spend what needs to be spent on our health service (though Labour has always been miles better than the Tories, and under Blair and Brown spending did actually increase significantly in real terms). There’s a technical discussion to be had about whether the UK’s system — free treatment at the point of use, paid for out of general taxation — works better than does the system here in France, which I think is similar to that in most other western European countries, and — so I’m told — to that in Australia, in which people are individually insured, pay at the point of use, and get the money back. Our comparative experience, UK versus France, despite being registered in the UK at a multi-disciplinary surgery in Kentish Town generally regarded as state-of-the art, is that the service is much better here. I phoned this morning for the GP appointment; I was in Cindy’s surgery at three o’clock. She phoned the local group of radiology centres and got me the appointment at Lanester tomorrow. I don’t think I would have been dealt with so speedily in London. Yes, it’s unfair to compare London with a small town in Brittany; on the other hand my sister’s and brother-in-law’s experiences of the health service in Marseille have been excellent too.

Since writing nearly a month ago, the world has been battered and astonished by extraordinary events. The thug Prigozhin, formerly one of Putin’s most reliable and dangerous allies, who runs (or ran, perhaps) the Wagner Group, a vast network of villains causing trouble in many parts of the world, has conducted a treasonous mutiny against the Russian military establishment, effectively challenging Putin’s authority. On 24 June, Wagner mercenaries captured a major military base at Rostov-on-Don and began an armed march towards Moscow. Defence forces in Moscow dug trenches in expectation of an attempted coup d’état. At some point that day, there seems to have been a conversation between Prigozhin and another thug, Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, at which it was agreed that the mercenaries would turn back, be forgiven this act of treason, as long as Prigozhin would go into exile in Belarus. Which, it seems, has happened. Various good things have come out of this emergency. It’s extraordinary that in the twenty-first century private armies still exist. One would have thought them a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. But they do exist, at least in Russia and in several African countries, and no doubt elsewhere. If the Wagner Group is weakened by its aborted show of defiance, good. If Putin is weakened by the fact that Prigozhin had the confidence to make such a show of defiance, good. If the internal confusion in Russia has helped Ukraine in its counter-offensive, good. Against that, there was for the moment, and perhaps still is, the terrifying idea that a nuclear-armed terrorist state, which Russia is, might fall into the hands of ultra-nationalists even more deluded and malevolent than Putin.

The destruction by the Russians of the huge dam in eastern Ukraine has caused immense ecological damage and many deaths. I read that the ecological damage will take generations to repair. And as I write, there are worries about explosive devices placed on top of two of the reactors at Europe’s largest nuclear power station, which Russia seized soon after its invasion. My view of what needs to happen hasn’t changed: give Ukraine every possible military aid so it can drive the Russians out of the whole of its territory; arrange for Ukraine join the EU and NATO as soon as possible; give it the economic aid to rebuild.

Eight days ago, in a suburb of Paris, a 17-year-old boy, French, of North African origin, driving a car without a licence (as he had done previously), was stopped by the Police Nationale. He refused to comply with the police officers’ instructions and began to drive away. A police officer shot him dead. In the immediate period after the event, there were conflicting accounts of what had happened. Somehow, as happens more and more frequently these days when everyone has a phone with a camera in it, a video emerged and immediately went viral on the internet, in which the police officer was heard saying, ‘We’re going to put a bullet through your head.’ This sounds dreadful, and is dreadful, but the fact is that since 2017 the law allows police officers to shoot at drivers who refuse to comply with police instructions at a traffic stop.

For five nights after that, large areas of France’s great cities went mad. There was an orgy of destruction: cars and buses were burnt, shops looted, public buildings torched, the local headquarters of all three kinds of police (Police Nationale, Gendarmerie, Police Municipale) assaulted. The rioters fought the security forces as if they were in a civil war. A firefighter has died while attempting to douse a blaze. The private homes of mayors were attacked with cars used as battering rams. There was no proportionate relationship between the appalling act of one panicked and possibly racist police officer and the destructive violence which followed. It’s calmer now. Thousands of arrests have been made; I read in Ouest France that only 2% of those arrested had any previous criminal record. An inchoate desire to wreck simply took over the brains of thousands of young people. The average age of those arrested is 17. Children as young as 12 and 13 were among the rioters and looters.

It seems obvious to me that the 2017 law is wrong, and should be amended or repealed. Yes, if a mouthy, abusive teenager refuses to comply with police instructions and drives away from a traffic stop he should be pursued, arrested and punished. But not killed. (And several young men have been killed in exactly these circumstances in France in the last year.) Why did the police officer not shoot at the car’s tyres rather than the boy’s body? The officer is currently in custody. Two support funds have been set up by citizens; the last time I read, the support fund for the officer and his family, launched by a well-known far-right figure, had raised six times as much money as that raised for the boy’s family, in particular for his mother, who had brought him up alone.

What to say? It’s a dangerous thing to do, but I will risk a nationalist generalisation. The French, and not just the children of immigrants in the poor, taken-for-granted suburbs of the great cities, are un peuple revolté (a rebellious people): witness the gilets jaunes, in which, in one incident among many others, violent protesters hacked lumps off the Arc de Triomphe; witness the huge recent demonstrations of outrage against the idea that most people will have to work until 64 before taking their pension (there will be exceptions, of course, and meanwhile the pensionable age in the UK is already 66); witness the blockages of oil refineries by tanker drivers if they’re unhappy about their pay; witness the dumping of loads of manure or piles of vegetables in front of the Ministry of Agriculture by farmers if they’re unhappy about the price they’re getting for their produce; witness the destruction by the so-called bonnets rouges, during the Hollande presidency, of cameras intended to tax lorries using free dual carriageways rather than paid-for autoroutes. Direct action is a reflex here, and usually (not always) it works. Pensions reform is the recent exception: Macron has won, if not the argument, at least the battle there, and people will begin to pay under the new system from September.

Meanwhile, the planet burns. This week, the earth has experienced the hottest days ever recorded. Wildfires are out of control in Canada, with the smoke blowing down over New York and drifting across the Atlantic as far as the west coast of Brittany. The oceans are warming dangerously, with disastrous consequences for fish stocks. Only precipitate action will avert an unprecedented global catastrophe. The tragic view of history, to which my head more and more inclines but which my will continues to resist, now looks the truer version. (The internet tells me that ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, the line so often attributed to Gramsci, was in fact borrowed by him from Romain Rolland’s review of Raymond Lefebvre’s novel The Sacrifice of Abraham.)

Kerfontaine8 July 2023

The radiology centre on Thursday confirmed that I have broken two vertebrae in my back: T8 and T4. T8 is the more serious of the two. As Dr Jouaux had predicted, there is nothing to be done but take painkillers and wait for the healing hand of time. At least neither of the vertebrae has been pushed out of place; the breaks are tassements, squashings. I definitely won’t be doing any kind of heavy lifting for a long time, if ever. In the strange way of these things, I’m relieved, because I feared a week ago that I had provoked a hernia such as I had in 2006, which would have required an operation.  So I’m in good spirits. And my treatment at the radiology centre was wonderful. I was seen as soon as I arrived; the X-ray took two minutes; a doctor came out five minutes later and gave me the news; five minutes after that, I was called to the reception desk and given a written report and the photographs. And charged 14 euros. Last month, we took out a mutuelle (the top-up option for health insurance which most French people have), which was a timely decision on our part, and may be the reason why the treatment was so cheap. The information will also have gone to Dr Jouaux. She had asked me in addition to phone her secretary with the news, which she wanted to have before she went on holiday at the weekend. I did that. I’ve been well looked after.

Bronwyn and Stephen are staying till next Tuesday. It’s lovely to see them and spend time with them. We’ve been friends for well over forty years now; and they are, of course, the publishers of my books of poetry. Bronwyn is an expert gardener. I had been looking at the flowerbeds and regretting that with my bad back I wouldn't be able to weed. She’s done all the weeding and the dead-heading of flowers. The resulting show could win an award now.

Kerfontaine12 July 2023

Confirmation of my nervous nationalist generalisation about French rebelliousness in the entry before last: that evening we drove up to Mary and Jacques for dinner. There’s a steep downward slope on the road before it crosses the Scorff. It’s difficult to keep to 80 kilometres an hour (the speed limit) on the descent, but I try to do so. At the bottom, there’s a speed camera. As we passed, I saw that it has recently been incinerated. The burning or spray-painting of speed cameras is a regular occurrence here in ‘peaceful’ rural Brittany. I hope I’m not being naïve in saying that, to my knowledge, the wilful destruction of speed cameras doesn’t happen in the UK to anything like the same extent.

Mary and Jacques have my great-nephew Paul with them at the moment. The poor little boy made the mistake of running beside the swimming pool at Le Faöuet on Sunday, slipped backwards and cut his head open. Mary and Jacques had to take him to hospital at Quimperlé, where he had two stitches put in. No concussion, thank goodness. We’re going up again this evening; I have a special box of chocolates for him. He enjoys a joke with me: I tell him that all the other little boys I know greatly prefer Brussels sprouts to chocolate; he is the only little boy I know who prefers chocolate to Brussels sprouts. He likes me to expatiate on my findings. When do children first come to have a sense of irony (a sense whose possession, or not, is presumably different from culture to culture): when do they know that there is a gap between an apparent and an underlying reality? When I tell him this evening that I have consulted with a doctor as to the best cure for boys who have cut their head open while running beside a swimming pool, and the doctor has recommended Brussels-sprout soup, he will say ‘No!’ while laughing. When I tell him that the doctor recommends chocolates with meringue toppings for those exceptional little boys who don’t like Brussels sprouts, and produce the box from behind my back, he will be very pleased, but he will also know that there has been no such doctor (particularly as his mother is a real doctor).

My back still hurts, especially when getting into and out of bed. Nothing to be done, as I’ve written before, but take the painkillers three times a day, avoid heavy lifting or awkward movements, and wait.

NATO leaders have been meeting in Vilnius today and yesterday. They haven’t, as they should have done, given Ukraine a firm timetable for that heroic and devastated country to join the alliance, but they have at least provided ‘security guarantees’ and promised to continue providing arms, including aeroplanes. Too slow, too slow, but better than nothing. If the West really does steadily increase its provision of modern weaponry, surely the tide must eventually turn in Ukraine’s favour. It’s unusual for one country to be acting as the defender of civilised values on behalf of an entire bloc of democracies. Perhaps the UK was in that position very early in the Second World War.

Kerfontaine20 July 2023

In recent days, the northern hemisphere has been confronted with the clearest, starkest evidence of climate breakdown caused by our heedless determination to destroy our planet. Unprecedented and unbearably high temperatures have been recorded in southern Europe, the southern states of the USA and parts of China. A few days ago I wrote about the smoke from wildfires burning out of control across huge swathes of Canada and drifting across the Atlantic to this part of Brittany. It veiled the evening sky here a few days ago. Torrential rainfall has caused flooding in South Korea in which people have drowned. Who knows if humanity’s famous ability to solve problems caused by the unforeseen consequences of our own ingenuity will be adequate to this task: a task requiring a degree of international co-operation and legally enforced restraint of private greed (I mean the greed of the big oil and gas companies, the logging companies, the plastics manufacturers, among others) never before achieved? I hope, but I doubt.

Kerfontaine12 August 2023

I haven’t written for nearly a month, mainly because the act of writing straight onto a computer is painful. Perhaps I should go back to longhand, as I did for the first few years of this diary. Until last Wednesday, I thought I was getting better, but then the pain returned intensely. I feared that I had stupidly been doing too much on the final editing of Myra’s and my book, even though I wasn’t aware of having made any false movements. Perhaps I had been sitting for too long. But when I went to the chemist yesterday to get some more painkillers, Chloë told me that pain at this stage is to be expected, since the fractured vertebrae are beginning to knit up. I hope that’s the reason for what seemed like a relapse.

In late July Andrew Bethell came to stay for two nights, on his way south to a gîte somewhere between Bordeaux and Agen where his son Matthew was holidaying with his family. It was good to see him; he was admirably stoical in his loss. I took him to see the two chapels near Le Faouët, Saint Fiacre and Sainte Barbe, which always impress visitors and which I don’t mind seeing again and again. Andrew took us out to an excellent new restaurant in Lorient called 26-28 (our two standbys, Le Vivier and Le Tire-Bouchon, both being fully booked). We shall go there again. Our friend Deirdre came for a week which included Helen’s birthday eight days ago. Helen had a good day, with lots of presents and cards (printed and electronic), texts and phone messages. She found a pair of earrings and a handbag in Pont-Scorff which she liked and which I bought her. In the evening I took her, Deirdre and Jacques (Mary had gone back to Marseille for a week) to Le Vivier for dinner. Yvan there gave us the best table, in the corner by the window. The tide was high, and the view across to the Île de Groix was beautiful as the ripples on the water slowly changed from sunlit yellow to opaque jade to gunmetal grey. The following morning I drove Deirdre to Quimper airport for her flight back to London, but British Airways had scandalously overbooked the flight, so even though she had paid for her ticket, and passengers on BA supposedly can choose whether to check in on-line or at the airport, so many people had already checked in on-line that there was no room for her. We came back and she stayed another three days. She departed successfully on Tuesday, having been upgraded and after we had submitted a demand for compensation. No word yet on BA’s response to the demand.

Helen’s birthday present to me in June was the English translation of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in the four-volume Everyman edition. I’m nearing the end of the second volume. So far, I don’t share the admiration which many people, including some of my friends, have for the book. If my metaphor (to paraphrase the Reverend Doctor Chasuble in The Importance of Being Ernest) were from walking, I would say that I’m making slow progress through knee-high mud. If it were from eating, I’d say that I’m being invited to consume bowl after bowl of double cream. The nearly page-long, massively convoluted sentences, equipped with parentheses which themselves go on for four or five lines: not my cup of tea (another metaphor). Then, I’m not sure I care about the life of this spoilt, rich, medically frail child and (so far) young man. Nor do I care at all for the milieu of haut bourgeoisie and aristocracy in which he moves. These are worthless people, vain, social parasites, so far as I am concerned.

Kerfontaine25 August 2023

Yesterday the thug Prigozhin, who briefly seemed to challenge Putin’s authority in Russia, was killed when his plane exploded after taking off from Moscow. Everyone on board died with him. If you’re a thug, don’t tangle with a greater thug. There was a good cartoon in today’s Ouest France. A third thug, the leader of North Korea, has just arrived in Russia by private luxurious train for a meeting with Putin (I think to discuss supplying more weapons to kill people in Ukraine). Emerging from his carriage to shake hands with Putin, he says, ‘I suffer from terrible air sickness.’ Putin replies, ‘Yes, flying can be dangerous.’

Kerfontaine7 September 2023

After a decidedly mixed July and August, from the point of view of the weather — a lot of rain and some really cold days — we’re now enjoying a period of intense heat, which is highly unusual in Brittany in late summer and early autumn. The plants in pots on the terrasse and the flowers in the flowerbeds seem to appreciate it.

The back pain is slowly receding, though it’s still there. I haven’t taken a painkiller for a couple of days. So far, everything the doctors predicted has turned out to be the case. While on the subject of my body, I need to report that Sophie, my niece, the gynaecological surgeon, was a bit worried that the GGT in my blood might still be high, given that I had returned to drinking alcohol in April and not stopped since. And I didn’t go back to the doctor in Plouay in May to request another blood test, as I should have done. So she wrote me a prescription for one. I had the test yesterday morning; the results arrived at the end of the afternoon. Everything in my blood, including cholesterol levels and the PSA count, is fine, except… GGT, which has now gone up to 801, when the maximum should be 60. So it’s worse than in January. Our wonderful Plouay doctor rang me within half an hour of my receiving the report, which had come to her too. We have a plan: as from tomorrow I’ll stop drinking alcohol completely for a month. That will be long enough, she told me, to see if there is a significant reduction in the GGT level; if there is, it shows that my raised GGT level is to do with drinking. If the level hasn’t come down significantly, the problem has another cause. She’s also going to send me for an ultrasound, I suppose of my liver, to see what state it’s in. Meanwhile I feel absolutely fine, apart from the back pain. Why am I going to stop drinking tomorrow and not today? Tonight Helen and I are going out to celebrate the 49th anniversary of our first meeting. In the past we have done this on the first Monday of September, but since for many years now the first Monday of September is always the clearing-up day after the Fête de Saint-Guénaël, when the thirty or so volunteers sit down to a large lunch after our morning’s work, I don’t feel ready for another big meal the same evening. So the anniversary celebration is tonight, in the restaurant in Lorient we discovered with Andrew Bethell in July.

The fête was a great success. The sun shone. About 700 people were there, as usual, sitting down to lunch in the marquee. Philippe, Georges and I took just over 1,000 euros in sales of wine, cider and water. The overall chiffre d’affaires was more than 12,000 euros, of which I should think that 4,000 or 5,000 euros is profit, which goes to the upkeep of the chapel. But aside from that, it’s a wonderful social occasion.

The Vygotsky book is virtually finished. I’m going back to London on 20 September for eleven days. I’ll be with Myra on most of those days. I hope we can get the book off to the publisher while we’re there. The one remaining obstacle is another publisher, John Wiley, who owns the copyright of a book from which we want to reprint extracts, but for reasons we can’t understand won’t take responsibility for that ownership and propose a fee for the use of the extracts. Our friend Cathy Johns has been corresponding with people at Wiley for months now, with limited success. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do if Wiley remains uncommunicative. We may have to use the ‘The editors would be glad to hear from the owners of the copyright in…’ formula, and hope for the best. There’s a huge email trail showing that we’ve done our best.

A few days ago I felt I had the strength to reorganise the books in the house, with Helen, as we had intended to do in early July until the new bookcase injured me. Poetry and dictionaries now occupy the handsome item in the little back room, to make space for which the wine cellar has had to be reduced in size. Now there is space for other genres to breathe on the shelves in the living room.

I’m now well into the third volume of Proust. I shall finish it, without fail, but my feelings about it haven’t changed since the last entry. To repeat, more or less, what I wrote then, I’m wading through a succession of descriptions of interminably long dinner parties attended by completely worthless people, some of them witty in a brittle sort of way, but utterly without any sense of their uselessness to the society which has so enriched them.  I’m almost tempted to wish that a latter-day Robespierre had been in charge in France in the first decade of the 20th century.  After all, the guillotine was still in use then. Of course I don’t mean the last bit, but I’m reminded of Thomas Piketty’s statistic in his second great book on economics, in which he shows that on the eve of the First World War, inequality in France was slightly more extreme than it had been in 1789!  So much for the revolution.  I think I must be the kind of reader who needs to care a bit about at least some of the characters in any work of literature.  The narrator seems to me to be completely unsympathetic so far: vain, self-centred, self-piteous, cruel, sneering at the lower orders, and quite possibly a hypochondriac, spending all those daylight hours in bed…  And the book contains ways of talking about homosexuals and Jews which I find repulsive, even though the narrator (and Proust) were not anti-Semites (both were Dreyfusards, and Proust’s mother was Jewish, so he was Jewish too) and not anti-homosexual (Proust was actively homosexual).

Camden Town5 November 2023

A two-month gap since the last entry. I think I’ll start with headlines. The Vygotsky book is finished and has gone to the publisher. Myra has died. Her funeral will be held on 14 November and she will be buried the next day. A dreadful war has broken out in Israel and Palestine.

On 20 September I flew to London and spent twelve days with Myra. Six days later I sent the typescript of The Vygotsky anthology to Routledge. The book, I now hear, is likely to be published in May of next year.

Myra was already very weak then, and having great difficulty breathing. She was being supported by two wonderful carers, Laura Cunningham and Edith Bradley (Edith is her sister-in-law). Before I flew back to Nantes on 1 October, I told Myra, Laura and Edith that Helen and I intended to return to London near the end of October, but that we would come earlier if need be. Need there was. On 13 October, as we were preparing a birthday dinner for my sister Mary, whose sixtieth birthday it was, Edith rang to say that we’d better come quickly. So we packed up and were in London on the evening of the 15th.

I had agreed with Myra that once the Vygotsky book was done, we would assemble a collection of her poems. This I did during the first week back in London, helped by Susanna Howard. Susanna and I are co-executors of Myra’s financial and literary estate. By the end of the week we had a collection of 112 poems, in typescript, with a title. Myra was now permanently in bed. She approved of the title — The Prospect of a Morning — and the titles of the sections in the book. I read a few of her poems to her, and she smiled and nodded until she indicated that she’d had enough. I took copies of the typescript to two people whom she had asked to read the poems ‘for quality control’. Chalkface Press will publish the book. We shall launch it with the Vygotsky book in the spring.

Myra slept more and more over the weekend of 21 and 22 October. On 24 October she was pleased when I took a call from Italian friends in Gugliano, the village where she had a holiday home for 39 years, and I could tell her that everyone there was sending their love. I left the house a little earlier than usual that afternoon, because Helen and I were driving over to Paul Ashton’s house to watch a football match. (Helen and Paul are both passionate Arsenal supporters.) On the way Susanna rang me to say that Myra had died. I turned the car round, drove back home, left Helen there and went back up to Highgate on the tube.

Since then, the days have mainly been occupied with a multiplicity of tasks, small and large, to do with registering and announcing the death, making arrangements for the funeral next week, and dealing with the estate. Fortunately, Myra gave Susanna and me almost all the information we need to carry out her wishes.

An 83-year-old woman died in her bed, at home, surrounded by people who loved her, although in the months before her death it was dreadful to watch the slow-acting cruelty of the cancer which took her. 17 days before she died, fighters belonging to Hamas, the organisation which governs the Gaza Strip, broke through the barrier separating Gaza from southern Israel. They murdered about 1,400 people in nearby villages and kibbutzim, often in unspeakably atrocious ways, and took about 240 hostages back to Gaza. This act — the worst single attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust — has provoked Israel to respond by attacking Gaza with terrible force in a determined effort to annihilate Hamas. In the process of doing this, the Israeli Defence Force has so far almost certainly killed about 10,000 people in Gaza. Many of the dead are women and children. Pleas from outsiders, notably the US, the EU, the UK and the United Nations, that Israel should act proportionately and within international law have not stayed Israel’s hand. Israel argues, no doubt with at least some justification, that Hamas has, over years, deliberately concealed its military personnel and materiel in and under civilian buildings such as hospitals and schools. Hence the terrible loss of civilian life. It’s true that Hamas has openly said that it would like to repeat its actions of 7 October again and again. It wishes to destroy the state of Israel. Hezbollah in Lebanon desires the same thing. So does Iran, the Houthi in Yemen and Shia groups in Syria and Iraq.

My memories of the 1967 and 1973 wars are remote. I know I’ve written about Israel and Palestine from time to time in this diary when hostilities have flared up in the region. Nearly always, I seem to remember, many more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed in these confrontations. Now there is full-scale war between Israel and Hamas, with the danger that a wider conflict could ensue. It is the most dangerous moment in the grievous history of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians since 1948.

At some point, and perhaps not in my lifetime, there will have to be a solution. Extremists on both sides — Israelis who want Palestinians simply to disappear, whether by being killed or being expelled to other countries, and Arabs who harbour the fantasy that Israel could be wiped off the map — will themselves be defeated. Israelis and Palestinians will have to learn to live side by side, whether in two states (the more likely outcome) or in one state (the better but less likely outcome). The sheer dreadfulness of what is happening at the moment demands a solution. Unfortunately, at the moment there seems no one — certainly not the current Israeli government — with the strength and the stature to bring that aspiration closer to realisation.

Last week a violent storm tore through Brittany, the Channel Islands and the south coast of England. Numerous trees have been blown down in the garden at Kerfontaine. We’ve lost trees to high winds several times in the last few years, but this is the most extensive damage we’ve suffered. There will be weeks and weeks of chainsaw work next year to clear up. Fortunately, the house wasn’t touched. There is no doubt that extreme weather events — storms, floods, drought, fires — are becoming more frequent, and that human activity is the cause. I have some hope, but no confident expectation, that the world’s leaders will act swiftly enough during the rest of my lifetime and in the decades beyond to avert the awful possibility that we may be permanently wrecking the planet as a hospitable place to live.

Camden Town16 November 2023

Myra’s two-day funeral went well. About 80 people turned up two days ago at Lauderdale House on Highgate Hill. Susanna and I had organised the programme. Myra was there in her willow coffin. We had employed Ruth Valentine, who knew Myra through a poetry group they both attended, as celebrant. There were tributes touching on Myra’s early life, her career in education, her love of Italy, her work on Vygotsky, and her long relationship with James Berry. There was music she specially loved (Puccini, Bach, Borodin). I did the piece on Vygotsky. Here it is.

Myra first became aware of Lev Vygotsky, and of the significance of Vygotsky’s work for teachers of language, during her studies at the London Institute of Education. Myra’s PhD, which she completed in 1995, was on Vygotsky’s brilliant and revolutionary understanding of how young children come to realise what writing is and what writing can do for a person.

In the course of the remaining 28 years of her life, Myra became an international authority on Vygotsky’s work. As she admitted, everything she believed and taught about teaching and learning had been foreshadowed in Vygotsky’s writings in the 1920s and 1930s. Here are just a few of those profound understandings.

First: all language acts are attempts to communicate or receive meaning. ‘Words without meaning are empty sounds,’ said Vygotsky.

Second: we must never divorce intellectual knowledge from emotion, creativity and imagination; there must be joy in learning.

Third: we must help children who have physical or intellectual difficulties in learning to overcome or bypass those difficulties by offering them alternative routes to success in learning.

Fourth: play is an utterly essential element in every child’s intellectual and emotional development.

Fifth and last, for now: the best teaching operates at the leading edge of what children have already achieved. Good teaching ‘must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions,’ wrote Vygotsky.

These understandings, among others, guided and illuminated Myra’s own immensely influential writing, speaking and teaching. Russian has a single word which combines teaching and learning. Myra never stopped learning as she taught.

As Ruth has said, Myra asked me to help her with her two books about Vygotsky. The first of these, Vygotsky the teacher, was published to great acclaim two years ago. To Myra’s joy, she and I finished her second book, The Vygotsky anthology, a month before she died.

She then immediately turned her attention to her next project, which was a collection of her poems. Susanna and I have edited the poems, and Myra saw the typescript, approved the title, and chose the colours for the dust jacket: yellow and deep blue, like the flowers on her coffin.

We shall launch both books next spring here in Highgate, and all will be welcome.

I salute the memory of a great teacher and a dear friend.

Myra’s coffin departed, and there was then a wake which lasted most of the afternoon.

Yesterday, the coffin re-appeared (the funeral directors, Cain of Hayes in west London, who had organised James Berry’s funeral and who Myra wanted to do hers, were superb throughout), as a dozen of us assembled at the burial ground in Buckinghamshire where Myra was laid to rest next to James. I read ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun…’ and other people made brief tributes. We threw flowers onto the coffin. Then we left her there and went for lunch in a local pub called The Jolly Cricketers.

Kerfontaine17 December 2023

I fear that the 2023 diary is going to be shorter than usual. I could blame other responsibilities, but probably sheer laziness is the culprit. No point in dwelling on it. Get on.

We arrived here three days ago. It’s wonderful to be back in a place I love and where I feel so much at ease. On arriving, however, we were confronted with the sight of the fallen trees in our garden. There are seven huge ones and three or four smaller ones on the ground, plus great branches torn from trees otherwise standing, but wrecked. The task is beyond amateurs, however experienced with chain saws. We’ll have to get a professional forester to come in. I hear from our neighbour that my friend Dominique Gragnic, who owns the fields around us and the wood below our neighbours’ house, has already hired someone to deal with his damage. I’ll go and see him and ask whether his man might be interested in cleaning up our territory as part of the job, since we’re next door. If he is, and I can offer him the wood, some of which has value, it might be that the bill won’t be too steep. We’ll see.

Since I last wrote, I’ve continued to deal with Myra’s estate. The work is occasional now, but it will go on for months, because the bureaucracies responsible for the granting of probate and the calculation of Myra’s inheritance-tax liability move slowly. I’ve proof-read The Vygotsky anthology in the first stage of its production process. The copy editor was excellent and very nice, unlike the copy editor on Vygotsky the teacher. I shall ask to see page proofs when they’re ready. And I’ve sent The Prospect of a Morning to Stephen and Bronwyn Mellor. Editing Myra’s poems and seeing them through to print has been and will continue to be pure pleasure. As I’ve written before, we’ll have a launch of the two books together in the spring.

On 21 November I read some of my poems and two pieces of prose to a small but appreciative audience in Highgate Library. Here is the text.

Good evening, and thanks so much for coming. I’m going to start with some memories of childhood: two poems and a piece of prose. I’m the eldest of five children, and this little poem is called ‘The entertainer’.

Sometimes, after tea, when my brothers and I
Played in the garden, I sensed at the window
Our parents’ faces, and knew that they were happy.

This made me want to orchestrate the play,
Being the eldest, the impresario,
But still present a seeming spontaneity,

Watchful in case the game flagged or a quarrel broke out.
It mattered somehow to put on a show
Which proved we were that family I’d heard about:

Where parents wash the tea things, talking quietly
And children play as they are meant to do —
Under smiling eyes, under an elm tree.

Some of my childhood memories have had echoes later in my life. Here’s one of them, in a poem called ‘Bicycles’.

It’s spring of 1962, a Saturday,
I’m with my father on an empty-at-the-weekend train, and full of joy.
We’re on our way to buy a bicycle, my first.

We come back on the same suburban train.
(I know; I checked the number; I am in that phase.)
The bike I chose is blue, and in the guard’s van.
I suggest we get off one stop earlier than planned
so I can try it on the road.
My father is unsure, and then consents.

The hill from Beckenham to Shortlands,
in the valley of the Ravensbourne, is steep.
We’re at the top. He holds the bike.
I mount, and wobble, then shoot off and leave him standing.

At the bottom, I turn round
and watch him running down the hill
and when he’s close enough I see
fear clearing from his eyes.
But I’m all right

and 42 years pass

and we are in a shop in Bedford, buying him a bicycle.
He’s 80, and the old one is beyond repair.
He mounts outside the shop,
adjusts the saddle height,
then says he’ll ride the five miles home
and will I take the car? He’ll see me there.

I follow at a distance, not to seem concerned.
I stop in driveways, watch him wobble on the new machine,
then overtake by half a mile, and stop and wait again. Each time
fear has its hand around my heart.
These roads which once were country now are chock-a-block with metal
and the bends are blind. Each time

he reappears. He is all right.

Great chapters of our lives have opened, closed.
A zero interim. Where but from the man ahead
have I inherited
this instinct of protectiveness for him?

In my first and third books, My Proper Life and Another Kind of Seeing, there’s a good deal of poetic rumination on an aspect of my childhood which caused me much unhappiness. My parents believed at the time that there are only two destinations for every human soul after death — heaven or hell — and that the only people bound for the former were evangelical Protestants who shared their beliefs. I’m going to spare you those ruminations this evening, you’ll be glad to hear, although I’m grateful that I’ve been able to write about the benevolent brainwashing I suffered then, since writing is much cheaper than other kinds of therapy. But I will read one piece of prose which touches on the theme. It’s called ‘Hairdressing at home’.

We were obedient children. This was the late 1950s, a period of apparent certainty, before the Profumo affair, before the Cuba missile crisis, and we lived in a suburb to the south-east of London, a place of apparent stability. In addition, our parents were evangelical Christians who had committed their lives and their destiny to God: the ultimate fail-safe guarantee. Their trust even meant (as my father told me much later) that they left decisions about the generation of offspring to the Almighty. He would guide the sperm to the egg, or arrange for the former to bypass the latter, according to His infinite wisdom. The result was that mum and dad found themselves the parents of four boys, in quick succession, by June 1957. (Their last child, an adored girl, did not arrive until 1963, causing me to wonder, once I was old enough to understand these things, whether perhaps they had decided to give God a helping hand, by some means or other, in coming to His decision.)

And we were happy children, despite my persistent worries about the eventual fate of my immortal soul. Our parents loved us and we loved them. Our lives were regular. We three eldest boys attended the primary school at the end of the road. We all worshipped at church and Sunday school every Sabbath. We played cricket, football or hide-and-seek in the park most Saturdays. On Saturdays too the four of us were issued with our weekly pocket money. It was understood that we would spend it immediately in the sweet shop opposite the school. As the eldest, I was entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that my younger siblings did not ‘waste their substance with riotous living’, as the prodigal son in the Bible did. Riotous living in our case meant bubble or chewing gum. Certain confectioneries (liquorice allsorts, lemon drops, ‘fruit salad’) were acceptable, others not. Twice a week I visited the public library to change my library books. Summer holidays were spent at our maternal grandparents’ house in Portsmouth. The years passed.

Dad was a scientist. Mum was a qualified teacher, but had given up her job as soon as she got married in 1950 (and didn’t resume teaching until the mid-1960s). So, although we children wanted for nothing, I can understand now that with the need to pay the mortgage and feed and clothe four children on one income — admittedly a professional income — money was tight. And in those days short haircuts were obligatory. So, once a fortnight, the four of us were led down to the barber in the high street, sat in the chair, and shorn, one after the other. Our parents bore the expense as an inevitability, until one day the vicar at our church (where dad was a churchwarden) mentioned to them that he owned a set of haircutting tools, with which he had for years cut his children’s hair. Those children having now grown up, he had no further need of the equipment, which he generously offered to the churchwarden and his wife, who gratefully accepted the gift. The prospect of saving ten shillings a fortnight was welcome.

Because we were obedient children, we accepted without protest the instruction to sit on a chair in the kitchen, have a bed sheet tied around our necks, and submit to our parents’ best efforts. At this distance of time, I can’t remember whether mum or dad wielded the instruments, and which of us went under the knife, so to speak, first. But I do remember that we all emerged from the ordeal with a lot less hair on our heads, having experienced a level of pain with which, in our comfortable lives up to that point, we were unfamiliar.

The silver scissors and clippers were blunt, and mum and dad had no means of sharpening them. It’s true that a man occasionally came bicycling down our road, calling out ‘Knives to grind!’, and that a spinning appliance on the back of his machine, driven by the man turning one of the pedals, performed this useful service. But his appearance had not coincided with our need. The parent wielding the tools — since every profession requires training — had not understood that, once a length of hair has been cut, it is important to open the teeth of the cutting instrument before pulling it away, to avoid the risk of yanking the growth still attached to the head and causing the skull to be dragged violently to one side, attended by intense discomfort at the root. My mother in particular believed that people shouldn’t make a fuss about nothing, and I think she thought, at least initially, that we were doing precisely that.

There are some activities where, once you have put your hand to the plough (a second Biblical reference, this) you have to plough grimly on. Haircutting is one of them. The shearer couldn’t leave a child’s head hacked on one side but not the other, or fore but not aft, and so, for better or worse (worse, in this case) the job had to be completed. Nor did it seem right to impose this torture on only one of the unfortunates: we were always treated equally. The result was that after a couple of hours of anger, howling and misery, the four of us looked like slum children.

(An aside on the equal treatment point: our godparents departed from this excellent principle, for reasons I could never understand. At Christmas I, the eldest, received five shillings, my next brother four, my third brother three, and the youngest two. Until a few years ago, when my grateful youngest brother reminded me, I had completely forgotten that I instigated a system of socialist redistribution, meaning that all four of us ended up with three shillings and sixpence each.)

It may be (here I invent, rather than remember) that the damage thus inflicted was disguised, once we boys were next paraded in public (probably at church the following Sunday), by the liberal application of a grease called Tru-Gel, which my father used. (Brylcreem was regarded as lower class.) This kept the spikes which had survived the onslaught more horizontal than vertical. What is certain (and here I remember, rather than invent) is that when, a fortnight later, our parents proposed to repeat the treatment, there was a revolt, in which I, the eight-year-old tribune of the plebs — the most biddable set of plebs imaginable — simply told our astonished parents that we were not going to sit in that chair in the kitchen again. None of us. No argument, no negotiation. We were solid. And the management, confronted by this unprecedented display of shop-floor unity, relented. Back we went to the barber in the high street, who perhaps was appalled, perhaps entertained by the rescue job he was called upon to perform. Ten shillings left my mother’s purse that morning, and every fortnight thereafter until we were old enough to make decisions about hair length (and hair style) for ourselves.

I look back on that moment of defiance, and on our parents’ good-humoured acceptance of defeat, as an early and innocent shadow of doubt cast on the certainty and stability which, in their youth and optimism, and trusting in God’s guidance, mum and dad believed would be lifelong.

As you may imagine, in our house the cinema was regarded as an invention of the devil. Meanwhile, in another part of London, a certain girl was exposed to the diabolical invention on a regular basis. It’s still the 1950s, but we’re now in the Edgware Road: ‘Intermission’.

The lights come halfway up.
The usherette glides backwards down the aisle.
Such poise! The horizontal steadiness her tray maintains!
When you’re grown up, you want to be an usherette.
Meanwhile, you’re ushered forward by your mum and dad
to purchase orange juice and ice cream tubs.
The usherette, who knows you from your weekly visits,
sweetly smiles while searching for the items with her torch.
You hand her half a crown; she gives you change.
You settle back between your mum and dad to drink the orange juice
while Pearl and Dean comes blasting from the screen.
And then the feature.

Twice or sometimes three times in the week
an evening’s smoky entertainment in the Edgware Road
is yours and mum and dad’s for shillings:
Gaumont, Regal, Odeon, Blue Moon.
Security and love. You’re safer here
than in the newsreel cinema in Praed Street in the afternoon
when men in raincoats choose to sit beside a solitary girl
although the place is almost empty.
There, the usherette performs a double service
as confectioner and guardian angel:
‘If those nasty men begin to bother you,
just get up and come and tell me, dear.
I’ll sort them out.’ They did. You did. She did.
Which makes you doubly sure (it’s not a fleeting whim):
when you’re grown up, you want to be an usherette.

Luckily for me, she later changed her mind and became a teacher. She still loves the cinema.

The collective and individual experience of Covid-19 will stay with us for the rest of our lives. One good thing which the tragedy taught us, at least temporarily, in case we had forgotten, is there absolutely is such a thing as society; that society is not merely an accumulation of the needs and desires of billions of individuals. Here are three poems I wrote during the pandemic. The first is called ‘The locked-down citizenry at a pandemic’.

The passage of the hours is regular and slow.
We do the same things slightly differently each day,
but now we note the differences within the same.
Restless impatient children, we anticipate
the circuit of the park allowed for exercise;
a shopping trip for food becomes a kind of treat.
Indoors, each family, each person finds a way
to occupy this unexpected interlude:
read, write, reach out to others, play our favourite game,
switch on the news, clink glasses as we watch and eat,
suspicious of most politicians’ soothing lies,
admiring those who trust us with the truth they know.
Closer than most of us have come to megadeath,
our fiercest common feeling is of gratitude
to that till now unlauded ministering band
of brothers, sisters, heroes of the wounded state,
who stand to help the helpless fighting for each breath
and, when they’re dying, sit with them and hold their hand.

The pessimist in me can’t help noticing that, alas, most of our leaders, whether in politics, banking or business, have not learnt the lesson that the pandemic should have taught them. This poem, ‘The priests of mammon at a pandemic’, expresses that pessimism.

They told us that mammon is wiser than states,
that sanctity dwells in demand and supply,
that crumbs from the greater will drop from on high
as food for the lesser to spread on their plates…

Then plague struck the earth: its invisible hand
unsettled the copestones in temples of greed,
and nurses, not bankers, stepped up to our need,
and dissident doctrines were heard in the land,

until it passed over. We buried the dead.
The priests re-emerged with a sigh of relief.
‘That sad interruption was mercifully brief.
It’s business as usual from now on,’ they said.

I suffered a bout of Covid myself. It was nothing by comparison with what millions of others suffered, and are still suffering, but it was still deeply unpleasant, and the worst of it was that it infected me with a sense of worthlessness, the feeling that nothing I had done in my life was of any significance or value. In this poem, the reference to ‘a greater John than I’ is to the great nineteenth-century poet John Clare, who, with all his genius, suffered acute and chronic mental illness, and spent the latter part of his life in what were then called lunatic asylums. The poem is called ‘In the pink’.

Thrice jabbed I may be, but that tiny scrap of RNA
has laid me flat. I’m fairly banjaxed. Day by mournful day
I lie in bed, refusing comfort, music, books or food
and hosting an unwelcome frequent visitor: a mood
which whispers to me, ‘John, your every enterprise has failed.’
Stupid, I know, I know. A greater John than I bewailed
‘the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems’. Poor man; and he
had cause enough. This poet doesn’t merit sympathy
while bailing out his little dinghy which has sprung a leak.
But there it is; the moping misery persists a week.
Excessive sleeping day and night affords no mental rest.
Each morning I submit four nasal droplets to the test.
First one stripe, then a pause, and then the fateful second line:
its brutal message unequivocal, incarnadine.

The second week draws on. A subtle change: I start to think
the daily T stripe may be nuancing in shades of pink
from shocking, via salmon, baby, through to merest blush:
less paint than water on the watercolour artist’s brush.
Could I be getting better? In comparing stripe with stripe,
the sinking man’s reverting to an optimistic type.
Hope springs. It’s not eternal, but at least it hasn’t died,
and spring, a welcome visitor, is in the street outside.
The best news is the chemist’s PCR: I’m in the clear.
Six million of my fellow humans dead, but I’m still here.

The death toll was about six million when I wrote the poem. It went on, as we all know, to be many millions more.

The great thing about the republic of poetry is that there’s room for all tendencies. I am of the tendency that prefers form to freedom. There is form in all kinds of artistic activity, of course. I have been privileged to witness the preference for form in the samba clubs of Rio de Janeiro, where I have watched couples dancing the samba and the bossa nova. Some were young people of surpassing beauty; others were those on whom the years had taken their toll. But they were all expressing, with immense skill, intense feeling in a confined space. And that is a metaphor for me of what lyric poetry should do: express intense feeling in a confined space. Here are four poems, of contrasting moods, which try to do that. The first is a villanelle called ‘Evening walk’. A villanelle has five stanzas of three lines each and a final stanza of four lines, and it allows only two rhymes. My wife Helen and I often take this evening walk from our house in Brittany after dinner in the summer.

Come walk with me between the barley and the maize
this silver evening in the hopeful month of June.
The summer’s all before us; we are rich in days.

Refreshed by rain, the quiet countryside displays
its laps and shadows to a primrose crescent moon
whose beauty we alone, it seems, are here to praise.

We crane our necks to seek a skylark in the haze
holding in failing light its undiminished tune.
It must be up there somewhere. It eludes our gaze.

How many silver evenings have we walked these ways
till dark, unwilling to make tracks for home too soon,
tonight’s young moon’s admirers in our later phase?

Too many now to count; and are we rich in days?
Our closest friends are dying. We are not immune.
Most summers are behind us: an expended blaze.

In light’s last dregs, the persevering lark delays.
Next week the turning year begins its afternoon.
Your step beside me is the only thing that stays.
Walk home with me between the barley and the maize.

I am one of that minority of citizens of the United Kingdom who believe that our democracy would be more mature if we were a republic rather than a monarchy. Monarchy, it seems to me, keeps large numbers of our citizens in a state of emotional and intellectual adolescence. But I have to admit that when Donald Trump was president of the USA, and I asked myself the question, ‘Who is the better, or at least the less harmful, head of state: Donald Trump or Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor?’, there was only one answer. My republicanism was revived, however, when I read last year that our present monarch will pay no inheritance tax on his mother’s immense private fortune. The rest of us pay 40% above a certain threshold. So here is a ballad: stanzas of four lines each, eight syllables in lines one and three, six in lines two and four, rhymes at the end of lines two and four. It’s called ‘A humble petition’.

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?

Some of us here are old enough to remember the great snow of the winter of 1962/3. I was eleven at the time, and living in the suburb of London I’ve mentioned. My good friend Julian Walton was growing up in County Durham, where the snow was even thicker than it was in the south of England. When he told me the story which I narrate in the next poem, I was reading the poems of Robert Burns. My poem, ‘Pisser Willy’s teeth’, imitates the form of Burns’ great comic poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter’: it’s in iambic tetrameters — that is, lines that go bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom — and rhyming couplets.

A man of my acquaintance tells
a story from the dales and fells
of County Durham under snow
now nearly sixty years ago,
in 1962-stroke-3.

His uncle was a farmer; he
enjoyed a — still undying — fame
and Pisser Willy was his name
or, rather, nickname, for this reason:
in all weathers, every season,
from his farmhouse by the Tees,
come rain or shine, come heat or freeze,
he went by paths and over stiles
three lonely upward country miles
of lead-mine workings, millstone grit,
to find his special chair, and sit
in comfort in The Miner’s Rest
and drink five pints of Durham’s best;
then, on the quicker downhill road,
discreetly void his liquid load,
arriving home prepared for sleep
prolonged, and sonorous, and deep.
Next morning, we should quickly say,
he rose refreshed to greet the day;
his eye was bright, his head was clear —
a tribute to the local beer.

At Christmas 1962
the snow began to fall, and through
the next three months, till spring awoke
the land, there lay a thick white cloak
which drifted high above the hedges.
People went about on sledges;
pipes froze up; babes were delivered
in the backs of cars. We shivered.

Pisser’s nature made him slow
to change a lifetime’s habits, so
he went, as usual, after dinner,
treading where the snow was thinner
up towards the friendly light
which drew him.

One returning night,
unbuttoning at urgent speed
to meet a beer-related need,
he tripped up on a frozen root
and felt — aghast — his false teeth shoot
straight out of his mouth. They flew
into a six-foot drift. He knew
his biting gear was lost to sight,
deep in a wilderness of white.

Loss of NHS free dentures:
worst of rural misadventures!
Pisser long before had had
the teeth God gave him, which were bad,
exchanged for made ones, strong and straight
and paid for by the welfare state.

Lesser persons would, if caught
so inconveniently short,
have cursed the fates which rule our life.
Not Pisser; as he told his wife,
‘I’ll manage rightly with my gums
until the better weather comes.’

And so he did, though forced to eat
a softer diet, with less meat;
which to our more enlightened eyes
might seem a blessing in disguise.
Not so to him; unlike Jack Sprat
he sucked the bones and chewed the fat.

The vernal equinox had passed;
the thaw was on its way at last.
One lighter evening, Pisser strode
as usual on his upward road.
There, on a patch intensely green,
two hemispheres, white, pink and clean,
like strings of pearls which God had kept
unsullied while the earth had slept
all long hard winter, caught his eye.
He picked them up, and with the cry
of one who has restored a lack,
he put them, top and bottom, back.

That evening in The Miner’s Rest
the other drinkers were impressed
by Pisser’s rare exalted mood.
He said, ‘I’ve been a bit off food
without my teeth. But still, I think
I’ve taken goodness from the drink.’

Entire where he had been bereft,
from then on Pisser wisely left
his dentures on the window sill
each night before he climbed the hill.

After a poem which goes bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom, here’s one which goes boom-ba, boom-ba, boom-ba, boom: trochaic rather than iambic. Helen and I were enjoying a drink with friends in a tiny little bar on a remote little island called Ustica, off the coast of Sicily. Just when we thought we’d got away from it all, a familiar voice reminded us that now nowhere is ‘away from it all’. This is called ‘Ubiquity’.

Since the fabled age of gold,
folk are found where drink is sold.
Humans’ social needs are met
over jars of ‘something wet’;
time and money freely spent
forging bonds of sentiment.
Metro buzz or beauty spot,
lonely light: it matters not
which saloon, shebeen or joint
tipplers of the world appoint
as our favoured watering hole;
one is there to soothe our soul.
At oases, near and far,
desert shack or cocktail bar,
ambience-wise, there’s no choice;
ineluctable, that voice.
Be the hooch refined or rough,
babe, he just can’t get enough,
and he’s never, as we sup,
never gonna give us up.
Who cares what the time of day?
He says, ‘Let the music play
on and on…’ He owns the air.
Wheresoever we repair,
seeking to assuage our thirst,
Barry White has got there first.

I’ve enjoyed translating poems and literary prose from other European languages. In my second book, Bring Me the Sunflower, and my third, Another Kind of Seeing, I make a distinction between what I call ‘translations’ and what I call ‘imitations’. With the ‘translations’, the difficult task is to be as faithful as possible to an original, while at the same time producing a work in English which is a poem in its own right. ‘Imitations’ are much freer versions of the originals, but which still try to catch their spirit and tone.

Here are two ‘translations’ by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke lived in Paris for a while, where he was secretary to Auguste Rodin. He often visited the Jardin des Plantes, which, in addition to plants, housed a zoo where animals were kept in the cruellest and most confined conditions. This is ‘The Panther’.

The bars have passed before his weary stare
so many times that they have struck him blind.
There are a thousand bars; the world stops there,
it seems to him. Nothing exists behind.

His quiet, thwarted strength and supple grace
compel the narrow circle of his strides:
a dance performed around a central space
in which his stunned and stubborn will abides.

Rarely, an image from the common day,
admitted by the flicker of his eye,
through quickened limbs in silence lights its way,
only to reach his heart, and die.

Rilke also visited another jardin, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and his observation of children on the carousel there is one of his loveliest and lightest poems.

The carousel starts up, and in the shade
thrown by its canopy revolve the teams
of painted horses from a land where dreams
still hesitantly linger, soon to fade.

Some bridled mounts tow passengers in carts
but every head displays a bold expression.
A fierce red lion enters the procession.
A lone white elephant arrives, departs.

A woodland stag, from freedom lately lured,
consents to wear a saddle; by its strings
a little girl in blue has been secured.

The lion bears a little boy in white.
Its mouth, with fangs and tongue, is open wide.
The jockey’s hands are hot; he holds on tight.

A lone white elephant arrives, departs.

And lively older girls have come to ride,
for whom the age of roundabouts and swings
is almost over; those were childish things.
Their eyes are searching and dissatisfied.

A lone white elephant arrives, departs.

And on it goes; the creatures prance and sway
towards their destination. They have none.
One beast is red, one green; astride the grey,
a tiny face, its journey just begun.

Sometimes a rider’s dazzling smile comes round:
a signal from the land of breathless play
where time means nothing and where joys abound…

I decided to translate some of the love poems of the sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. I did a few, but as I was doing them I began to have an uneasy conscience. ‘Am I doing anything more,’ I asked myself, ‘than translating pieces of elegant sexist smut, the fantasies of the male gaze, however canonical these poems are? What would some of my more advanced women friends think of me, wasting my time and talent in this way?’ But despite the voice of my conscience, I kept going. After a while, I had an idea: carry on translating Ronsard’s poems, but give the women to whom they are addressed the right of reply. Then I extended the idea to the output of other famous male poets. So here are three pairs of poems: the first of each pair is by the canonical but unhappy male; the second by a woman or a group of women in response.

First, here’s a sonnet by Ronsard. It’s a fairly typical complaint about unsatisfied sexual longing.

Two forces — now of fear, now hope — assailed
my heart on every side. Encamped in me,
equal in strength and in tenacity,
the foes fight on. Yet neither has prevailed.

Glad confidence or sad uncertainty?
Hope, doubt or dread: which mood should I believe?
My heart’s a captive. Vainly I deceive
myself with promises to set it free.

Confined in shadows by my lady’s power,
shall I not pluck, before I die, the flower
which opens in the springtime of her charms?

Is there no chance that, tangled in her arms,
exhausted, spent with loving, out of breath,
I may endure a sweeter kind of death?

Good question, Pierre. There are three named women whom Ronsard pesters with his sonnets: Cassandra, Marie and Helen. So this is ‘Cassandra, Marie and Helen: memo to Pierre’. The reference near the end to the ‘Pléiades’ is to the group of poets of which Ronsard was the leader. There were seven of them, like the stars.

Ronsard, we don’t deserve this elegant abuse.
The myth that fourteen lines of whining can create!
Don’t tell us it’s just literature: that’s no excuse.
And pay attention while we put the record straight.

We’re sorry that a part of you is fit to burst
because we’re not inclined to tumble into bed
without, at least, a little conversation first,
but there it is. We’ve heard the sales pitch and we’ve read

the catalogue: the fading blossoms, setting suns,
‘I’m going grey, so how about a cuddle?’ Please!
Catullus, Petrarch, you: well-heeled male poet paints

himself as victim; us as basilisks or nuns.
So be advised (and tell the other Pléiades):
the three of us have had enough of your complaints.

250 years before Ronsard, Dante wrote this laddish sonnet about a fantasy boat trip with six on board. It’s called ‘Guido i’ vorrei: Guido, I should like…’

Imagine, Guido: Lapo, me and you
On board a magic boat, far out at sea.
Not blown by winds, but powered by wizardry,
The craft goes anywhere we tell it to.

Soft skies have brought the fairest sailing weather
And no bad luck has come to spoil the trip.
We pass our days in deepening fellowship:
Firm friends who wish always to be together.

Our kindly wizard has provided mates:
The ladies Vanna, Lagia, and she
(No names, for now) whom we all know to be
Among Firenze’s thirty hottest dates.
With love the constant theme of our debates,
They will be happy; so, I think, will we.

Vanna, Lagia and the anonymous third woman have their own ideas about this jaunt, in their ‘Reply to Dante’s invitation’.

Signori, this proposal is most kind!
But there are just two points we’d like to check
before we climb aboard, if you don’t mind.
The first: what shall we eat and drink on deck?

We’d like to bring a picnic: wine and bread,
some Tuscan cheeses, olives, watercress;
the inner man — and woman — must be fed;
an equal crew should share an equal mess.

And secondly, forgive a sceptic note:
you jolly sailor boys anticipate
that love shall be our topic of debate.
Is that as far as you intend to go?
From word to deed’s a little step, we know;
and none of us would want to rock the boat.

Finally in this group, and lowering the tone considerably, here is an unpleasant bit of literary stalking in an ode by the Roman poet Horace. He has a young woman called Chloë in his sights.

You shun me, Chloë, like a fawn who’s searching
in the trackless mountains for her trembling mother,
startled by the noises of the forest and the winds.

She’s no need to be afraid. It’s only spring approaching, fluttering the leaves,

or bright green lizards pushing back the brambles;
yet her heart is thumping and her knees are shaky.

Why? I’m not a savage tiger or a lion out of Africa.

I’ve no desire to hunt you down and crush you.
Listen now; stop following your mother; you’re ready for a man.

Chloë, however, is not as helpless and defenceless as old troll Horace imagines. Here’s her reply.

You’ve noticed, Horace, when we meet at parties, that I seek
the company of other suitors. I admit, it’s true.
All right, you’re Rome’s best poet; yes, you merit your renown;
you do such clever stuff with lyric models from the Greek.
And now you’ve started pushing poems through my letterbox.
I don’t mind lovers’ verses. But the thing I can’t abide
is being called an animal. This Bambi nonsense! Please,
I’m not a fawn. You’re not a big cat, I agree. And if
I had to make comparisons, I’d say that you’re a fox,
an elderly and mangy dog fox troubled by his fleas,
who sniffs around the choice of youthful vixens in the town
and leaves his calling card: a pungent and distinctive whiff.
You say I’m ready for a man; perhaps, but I’ll decide,
and, man or woman, I can tell you this: it won’t be you.

I’m coming towards the end now. Here is a piece of prose about youth, followed by two poems about getting older. The youthful piece recounts a certain indiscretion. It’s called ‘Naked justice’.

I have only been imprisoned once. In September 1971, I and a group of friends drove to the south of France in John Shephard’s Morris Oxford. We had been doing manual jobs during the summer vacation from university, as was usual in those days, and we intended to spend some of our earnings sampling the delights of Provence and the Côte d’Azur before the new term began. We swam, we ate large meals costing ten francs including wine, we suffered the attentions of mosquitoes as we slept, or tried to sleep, in our tents at the campsite.

Most of the time we were all together, but sometimes we split up so people could follow their own inclinations. One evening I found myself alone on a beach somewhere to the east of Saint Tropez. It had been, and continued to be, the most beautiful day, and when you are twenty, fit and healthy and with enough money to enjoy yourself, life seems extraordinarily wonderful. That is the state of mind I was in as I looked back from the sand on which I stood, to the semi-circle of rising land, where pines and maquis grew profusely, which enclosed this little bay. I could just make out the conical towers of several villas camouflaged by the vegetation.

I am not an ideological naturist, as some people are, particularly in France. I understand and sympathise with the cast of mind which sees the exposure of the naked body to the sun and the wind, in the loveliness of youth and in defiance of the ravages of age, as an almost religious commitment. There are naturist settlements on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of France, established many decades ago, to which adherents return every summer. I am not such a person, but I do derive intense sensual pleasure from swimming — whether in a pool or in the sea — with nothing on at all, as long as no one nearby is likely to be shocked. So, having looked around the bay and failed to spot a single person there, which was not surprising since it was the hour of dinner, I took off all my clothes and walked into the lovely, warm, caressing late-summer water. I swam out, out, a long way, and turned on my back and saw the new moon in the sky. For half an hour I floated and frisked, or took deep breaths and plunged downwards as far as I could go before coming up for air.

The third or fourth time that I came up for air, I noticed that, far away on the beach, a dark-blue Renault 4, marked ‘Gendarmerie’, was crossing the hard, compacted sand. It came to a stop next to my little heap of clothes. A uniformed policeman got out and stood by the car. He seemed in no hurry to leave; in fact, it looked as if he was waiting for me.

In these circumstances, my choices were limited. I could carry on treading water, as the evening passed and the temperature dropped, in the diminishing hope that the policeman might simply have driven down to the beach to enjoy the beauty of the place and the moment, as I had until his arrival. After ten minutes considering this option, I rejected it. The only other choice, obviously, was to swim in, walk across the sand to my clothes, say ‘Bonsoir’ to the gendarme, and face the music, if there was music to be faced. This I did. I was five minutes getting to shore, and another two or three arriving at my clothes.

The policeman’s first action was to salute me. A fully uniformed servant of the French state, aged perhaps fifty, saluted a twenty-year-old naked skinny foreign boy with shoulder-length hair. ‘Bonsoir, monsieur,’ he said, before I could greet him. He then explained his mission, in clear, carefully articulated French, making sure every few sentences that I understood.

I had committed a minor crime (un délit). Although le naturisme was permitted in certain tightly defined sections of le littoral, it was forbidden in this commune (he named it) and in neighbouring communes, as an outrage to public feeling, according to by-law number so-and-so, section number so-and-so, as enacted by… and here I forget whether the enactment was at the level of the commune or of the département. A local resident had reported le délit, and the policeman was obliged to act on that report. Would I be so good as to accompany him to the gendarmerie? I replied that I would indeed be so good. He suggested that I dress. I was only too happy to oblige. During the interview, the air had dried me, which was just as well since I had no towel.

As we drove to the gendarmerie, the man was the soul of courtesy. Was I enjoying les vacances in the Var? Was I a student? What was I studying? He even complimented me on my competence in his language. When we entered the police station, however, his manner became graver. He regretted to inform me that, according to section number so-and-so, sub-section number so-and-so of the penal code, I must either pay a fine (une amende) of 250 francs, or I must consent to a brief period of imprisonment. I asked how long the period would be. He replied that in the circumstances, considering that, to his knowledge, this was my first offence in the commune, and taking into account my remorse (I had indeed been repeatedly remorseful, standing there on the beach with no clothes on), the period of imprisonment would be limited to one night.

It was an easy choice. The man led me downstairs to a cell, which was equipped with a bed, a blanket and a flushing toilet. He showed me the buzzer which would attract his attention in case of an emergency or extreme need, but warned me severely against using it more casually. Before locking me in, he asked whether I would like a cup of coffee. I said I would. He came back ten minutes later, unlocked, handed in the coffee with two sugar lumps and a little biscuit, bade me goodnight and locked me in again.

The bed was hard but long enough, and even though, so far as I could see, the little barred opening high up in the wall giving onto the outside world had no glass, there were no mosquitoes. I knew that my friends might be wondering where I was, but I had no way of contacting them, and I stopped worrying about it. So I slept well that night, once I had properly processed in my mind this turn of events. Some busy-body bigwig in one of those villas behind the pines was responsible, I was sure. Maybe the mayor, or a local councillor, or just a prude whose ‘public feeling’ had been enjoyably outraged…

The next morning, soon after six, my host unlocked the cell. He surpassed himself this time, bringing me another cup of coffee plus a croissant plus a pain au chocolat. I was starving hungry. Departing, he left the door open and told me to join him upstairs when I had finished breakfast. At the desk a quarter of an hour later, I signed a form in triplicate. He took the top two copies and gave me the third. I regret very much that somehow I lost my copy later in the holiday. Then he pronounced, with a flourish in his articulation, ‘Monsieur, vous avez purgé votre peine!’ I was in tears of gratitude as I shook his hand. ‘Merci, merci, monsieur. Vous avez été tellement gentil.’ ‘C’est mon devoir,’ he replied. And then, in a different tone of voice, conspiratorially, ‘Il y a des gens qui sont, disons, moralisiteurs. Mais la prochaine fois, portez un maillot de bain.

I walked out into the cool of the Provençal morning, feeling terrific.

Jumping forward more than 50 years, here’s a poem about ageing which doubles as a love poem to the person with whom I’ve lived for almost all that time: ‘‘This living hand’’.

Somehow, when young, I never thought about the way
my body did its job, for it was fit and strong,
quick to recover from abuse, so day to day
its working parts, like friendly neighbours, got along

and I had other things to do. But now that love
is all I have to do, I’m studying the skin
stretched on my hand a few protective cells above
the branching blood flow and my skeleton,

links in a whole concatenation — mortal me —
which while I — mental me — was otherwise engaged
has tenanted this breathing building faithfully
and kept the lights on as its absent owner aged.

Now mental me requests that mortal me will grant
a few more years before I’m changed to ash or mould.
Give me a few more years with her whose touch I want.
You see this goose flesh? And I am not (not yet) cold.

And this is ‘Senior moments’:

I’m often (‘shame would have it hid’)
forgetting simple things I did.
The failure’s worse each passing year;
it’s indisputable, I fear.
Is this dementia drawing near?

Two items I today mislaid,
and, though an atheist, I prayed,
‘Lord, show me where the car keys are,
then show me where I parked the car.’
Have I declined so fast, so far?

Tonight I bathed, and carefully
I dried the nether parts of me
until a nagging thought arose:
did I just dry between my toes?
I’m getting older, I suppose.

The clock strikes twelve. And so to bed.
No sooner have I laid my head
than, ‘Did I lock the outside door
or not, five minutes since, no more?’
Synapses on the blink, I’m sure.

I hope, now doubts like these assail
my clouded mind, that I’ll not fail
completely; that I’ll still retain
a working though defective brain
until I’m earth and air again.

At the end of 2020, in the depths of the Covid pandemic, I wrote a poem whose title, ‘‘The back end of a bad year’’, is a quotation from a poem by my poetic hero Seamus Heaney. I’ll finish with it.

When I pass holly trees whose scarlet berries have survived
the birds’ attentions all this sodden season;

when I spot, with pleasure and alarm, a primrose open in December
and I wonder if the time is really ‘out of joint’, beyond repair;

and when, at night, the owls exchange their notes from wood to wood,
as clear, as deftly phrased, as ever human instrumentalist achieved;

when, all this year, I’m brought to tears
by heroisms daily, quietly enacted
by the hands and brains which serve us, save us, for their small reward;

when sane, sage voices warn of nightmares sure to come
when I and all my generation have been changed to earth and air
unless we summon up the better part of us
and act in concert now
so children yet unborn may live to bless, not curse, their ancestors;

then, childishly, in spite of every disappointment
age has taught this sadder (wiser? I don’t think so) man to bear
from crowds of clowns and crooks who rule our lives
— the carefree ease with which they formulate their lies —

I am compelled to hope.

I leave you with that hope. Thank you for coming. My books are on sale, and I think there’s still some wine left.

My brother Andrew is staying with us. He has been with Mary and Jacques since the beginning of November, and done terrific work in their house. We went there for dinner on Friday. The place looks very smart now. Mary and Jacques have gone to Marseille for Christmas. They’ll be back between Christmas and New Year. Sophie and her children will come on 30 December, so we’ll all have New Year together. It’ll be great to spend an extended period of time with my youngest brother, which we haven’t done since we were children.

The situation in Israel and Palestine is dreadful beyond description. The number of Palestinian dead is around 20,000, many of whom were women and children. Hamas and other jihadist groups still hold about 130 hostages. Some were released during a brief truce, in exchange for three times as many Palestinians in Israeli jails. Some have died while in captivity. Israel shot three of the hostages by mistake. Numerous Israeli soldiers have been killed. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic: starvation and disease are adding to the death toll caused by Israeli bombardment and ground attacks. There have been many deaths in the West Bank too. Around the world there have been huge demonstrations calling for a ceasefire. It isn’t going to happen, at least not until Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel and releases the remainder of the hostages. I have nothing to add to what I wrote last time about an eventual emergence from this nightmare. I visited Peter and Monica Hetherington eight days ago. We were talking about this, and Peter said, ‘The person responsible for the tragedy is Adolf Hitler.’ Holocaust; international guilt at what was probably the worst atrocity committed by one group of people against another group of people in the history of humanity; determination to atone for the crime, at whatever cost; failure to see that providing ‘a home for the Jews’ while expelling 700,000 people who had lived on that land for a thousand years would provoke hatred and a desire for revenge; determination by neighbouring Arab nations to ‘drive Israel into the sea’; Israel’s response, going beyond legitimate self-defence to illegal expropriation of Palestinians’ land; failure of peace process; split of Palestinian factions; election of Hamas in Gaza; continuing determination of Hamas, Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to wipe Israel off the map (Hezbollah especially dangerous and well armed). There, in an over-long sentence, is the shorthand of what has happened.

The news elsewhere isn’t good. A far-right president is elected in Argentina; a far-right party wins the largest number of seats in The Netherlands; Trump continues to attract enormous support in the USA despite his undoubted criminality; Putin continues to commit mass murder in Ukraine; his lick-spittle Orban holds the EU to ransom because of the EU’s unworkable requirement that there should be unanimity on its major decisions; COP 28, held in a petro-state, ends with a statement which must have delighted producers of oil, coal and gas — ‘transitioning away’ from their use will take many decades, by which time the world could be uninhabitable.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin,’ wrote Voltaire. At the moment, looking out across mon jardin, it’s a clearing-up job that needs doing, rather than cultivation. I suppose I could take ‘notre jardin’ to mean the garden of the world, held by all of us for future generations, rather than my own individual plot. I am utterly powerless to do anything about the garden of the world, and somewhat daunted by the job of restoring the beauty of this particular hectare and a half.

Kerfontaine29 December 2023

After days and days of rain, we at last have a beautiful, mild, sunny afternoon. This morning I took Andy back to Mary and Jacques, who have returned from Marseille. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have him with us. I think that these thirteen days must be the longest period of uninterrupted contact and conversation of our adult lives. We talked about our different life experiences: I, the eldest child, ‘clever’ and academically successful, looked up to by my siblings (though I don’t think I ever played the super-confident know-all). He, the youngest brother, with an unlucky experience of primary schools, some oddities of appearance (a lazy eye which only partially opened and required two operations, the first of which failed and the second of which was only partially successful; a broken front tooth which, for reasons I don’t understand, was never properly mended), and, crucially, failure in the 11-plus. That dreadful examination, that divider of sheep from goats, often the final arbiter of people’s fates thereafter (final, at eleven!), meant that his experience of secondary education was utterly different from mine and from that of my two other brothers. But he made a good start in life nonetheless, until the disastrous encounter with a group of thugs intent on destroying the young people’s encampment for which he was responsible as an employee of Bedfordshire’s outdoor pursuits initiative, as a result of which Bedfordshire police, in the depths of their stupidity, decided to prosecute him for grievous bodily harm because he had defended himself in the affray. Having been struck on the head with a baseball bat, he began to suffer epileptic seizures. There were frequent episodes of alcoholism thereafter. Then he met the woman, eighteen years older than him, with whom he lived on and off (much more on than off) for the next 43 years, until she died six months ago of advanced dementia. He had cared for her full-time in their house in Bulgaria for the four years during which she was completely helpless. During that time he was mostly alone, though he had help from kind friends, especially Tracey and John (Tracey is a nurse, with extensive experience of caring for people with dementia). For perhaps six years before that, as the illness first showed itself and began to progress, his life had been constrained by the need to look after his wife. It was a saintly commitment. I imagine it helped that as a young man he had started training as a nurse (though he didn’t finish the course). He had no squeamishness about dealing intimately with a doubly incontinent woman. On the other hand, I think he would say that she had saved him from the worst excesses of alcoholism. I had thought that once a person is an alcoholic, and then stops drinking, he or she mustn’t touch a drop thereafter. Not so in Andy’s case, it seems. He told us he began to drink, very moderately, about three years ago, and finds it quite possible to keep his drinking within that moderation. We drank wine every night while he was here, and he certainly was moderate. I noticed that he drank more slowly than I did.

On that subject, I should report that as soon as we arrived here a fortnight ago, I had the ultrasound and the blood test which were postponed from October because of our hurried return to London. The doctor who administered the ultrasound was very droll. ‘You’ve got a bit of fat on your liver,’ he said. ‘Nothing serious; nothing irreversible.’ ‘What’s causing it?’ I asked, knowing the answer perfectly well. ‘Oh, the good things of life:’ he replied, ‘cheese, charcuterie, alcohol… But whatever you do, don't stop enjoying them completely. When people of your age do that, they just get depressed. Carry on enjoying yourself, but… more occasionally.’ He’s just the kind of doctor I like. Later that morning I had the blood test, and the results came through by email a few hours later. My GGT level had gone down from 801 to 325! I was very pleased with myself, and resolved to enjoy the festive season before embarking on another period of restraint but not abstinence (following the doctor’s advice, as one always should), in an effort to get the level down to 60, where it should be.

Andy’s only vice (but it’s a vice I can well understand, given everything he’s been through) is that he’s addicted to tobacco. He rolls his own. He needs to go outside every couple of hours for a smoke. I hope he’ll have the confidence to give that up before long. I’ll talk to him about it. Mike Raleigh rolled his own through all the years we were friends, and died of a heart attack at 69. Andy is 66.

Kerfontaine30 December 2023

Normal service has resumed meteorologically. I went out after lunch to do some gardening and managed an hour or so of leaf-clearing and rose-pruning before being driven in by the rain. Because I had stubbornly continued working in the steady drizzle, I was completely soaked by the time I retreated, so Helen ran me a hot bath in which I lay for longer than strictly necessary, then washed my hair, put on clean clothes, and enjoyed a cup of strong tea and a large piece of Christmas cake in front of the fire.

I’ve just finished Christopher Clark’s magnificent new book, Revolutionary Spring. It’s about the 1848/49 revolutions and counter-revolutions. I’d previously read his Iron Kingdom, on the rise and fall of Prussia. I’ve twice read The Sleepwalkers, which I’m sure is unsurpassable as an account of the ten years leading up to the First World War. Helen has given me a book of Clark’s essays as one of my Christmas presents.

In Revolutionary Spring, the author does allow himself, in a manner of which more austere historians would perhaps not approve, to make comparisons between the events of 1848/49 and those of our own day. I was convinced by his judgement that, though in the short term it’s possible to say that the revolutions failed, in the longer term their impact was to establish the political customs and institutions which until recently people like me in the West have taken for granted: stable political parties of right, left and centre; the toppling of absolute monarchs; an expanding franchise; a free press; the gradual amelioration of the condition of working people, especially as a result of the activities of trade unions. (Of course there have been grotesque departures from this optimistic view of the last century and three-quarters, notably fascism.)

But the more profound and disturbing thought which Clark advances is that the optimistic view is now open to serious question. That view was taken to an absurd conclusion by the historian who wrote after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet communism that those events represented ‘the end of history’: in other words, that social democracy was now the only game in town. Stable political parties — what about the rise of extreme populist parties and movements, mainly of the right, and the increasing trend towards extra-parliamentary violent action (6 January 2021 or the gilets jaunes)? The toppling of absolute monarchs — what are the current leaders of Russia and China other than absolute monarchs who’ve got to their positions by means other than birth? An expanding franchise — yes, untouched so far in many countries, but what about the Republicans’ constant attempts in the USA to disenfranchise black voters, overwhelmingly more likely to vote Democrat, or the taken-for-granted tendency of autocrats in many countries with supposedly democratic systems to corrupt the management of elections and to lie about the result? A free press — this is the cause, so dear to the hearts and voices of the revolutionaries, which has been distorted and defiled most grievously since, as we have seen the longed-for freedom from control by autocratic governments, briefly achieved, soon vitiated and replaced by ownership of large sections of the press by wealthy individuals of the right, concerned only to promote the interests of the right. And so on.

In other words, we are living in very dangerous times. Things are falling apart. Many Republicans in Congress believe, in effect, that Putin should be allowed to keep his gains in Ukraine. America clearly now has only marginal influence in restraining Israel’s murderous revenge in Gaza for the unspeakable events of 7 October. China will, sooner or later, try to retake Taiwan. Western democracies of the sort I live in represent a minority method of national governance. The spectre of planetary catastrophe hangs over us all, as national leaders and international bodies find it simply too difficult to stop or even slow the production and burning of oil, gas and coal.

Jacques Delors died the other day, at the age of 98. He, as much as any major political figure in my lifetime, represented the kind of politics I believe in and which is now so much under threat: a politics of the social-democratic left, grounded in communal morality (in his case linked to a Christian faith), seeking constructive consensus on the big challenges of the day, and determined never to forget the lessons of history: exactly the opposite of the kind of politics represented by many (not all) of our current leaders.

Tomorrow Helen and I will drive over to Priziac, where we shall celebrate Saint Sylvestre with Mary, Jacques, Andy, Sophie, Paul and Anna. Then it will be the New Year: a year in which I fervently hope that Labour will win the UK general election, in order to start on the Herculean task of inching our small country back in the direction of the kind of politics I believe in. But I am so very far, now, from the excited 46-year-old I was in 1997, that it will be ‘relief in that dawn’ not ‘bliss in that dawn’ should we win. Far more significant in global terms will be the American presidential election. Should the dangerous criminal Trump re-enter the White House, the pessimistic view of human history which, more and more, seems to me to be confirmed by the facts, will harden to a despairing certainty.

Having finished Revolutionary Spring, I’ve started Antony Beevor’s new book about the Russian revolution and civil war. More pessimism. Vygotsky wrote about catharsis in The Psychology of Art: when you read a really good book (Hamlet was one of his examples), it cheers you up, no matter the dreadfulness of the events it recounts.

I’ve finished my translation of Marcovaldo or Seasons in the City and sent the twenty stories to Arturo Tosi. He’s going to read them, correct the mistakes and suggest improvements. Then I’ll put them on the website.

Time for an aperitif.