Skip to main content


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

Book One

Calais-Dover ferry

1 Feb 1994

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


31 Dec 1994

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

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

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

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


2 Jan 1995

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

3 Jan 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

1 Feb 1995

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

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

London to Melbourne plane

10 Mar 1995

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

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

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

Perth to London plane

25 Mar 1995

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

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

Perth to London plane

26 Mar 1995

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

A Hotel in Berkshire

30 Mar 1995

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

Belfast to London plane

9 Apr 1995

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

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

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


16 Apr 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not writ
In any book.

Wallace Stevens

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

Seamus Heaney, from Sweeney Astray

Belfast to London plane

24 Apr 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

29 Apr 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

7 May 1995

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

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

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

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

Inverness to London plane

9 May 1995

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

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

16 May 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

19 May 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

28 May 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

4 Jun 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

12 Jun 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

23 Jun 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

27 Jun 1995

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

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


1 Jul 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

11 Jul 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

24 Jul 1995

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

4 Aug 1995

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

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

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

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

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

El Parador Restaurant, Camden Town

5 Aug 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

7 Aug 1995

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

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

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente

19 Aug 1995

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

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

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente

20 Aug 1995

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


1 Sep 1995

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

Wootton, Bedfordshire

16 Sep 1995

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

18 Sep 1995

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

Monticello, Corsica

24 Oct 1995

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

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

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

Monticello, Corsica

25 Oct 1995

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

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

Monticello, Corsica

27 Oct 1995

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

Monticello, Corsica

28 Oct 1995

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