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Occurrences: Book Two

Wootton, Bedfordshire

14 Sep 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

17 Oct 1996

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

26 Oct 1996

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

28 Oct 1996

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

30 Oct 1996

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

17 Nov 1996

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

23 Nov 1996

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

25 Nov 1996

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

Dublin Airport

29 Nov 1996

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

1 Dec 1996

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

Basel, Switzerland

7 Dec 1996

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

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

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

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

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

Basel, Switzerland

9 Dec 1996

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

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

Belfast to London plane

11 Dec 1996

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

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

Wootton, Bedfordshire

25 Dec 1996

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

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


28 Dec 1996

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


29 Dec 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 Jan 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


4 Jan 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

10 Mar 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

16 Mar 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

22 Apr 1997

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

29 Apr 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

2 May 1997

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

3 May 1997

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

15 May 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

20 May 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

21 May 1997

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

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

London to Budapest plane

24 Jun 1997

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

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

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

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

Poznan, Poland

15 Jul 1997

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

Poznan, Poland

16 Jul 1997

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

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

Poznan to Warsaw plane

17 Jul 1997

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

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

Letheringham Mill, Suffolk

25 Jul 1997

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

26 Jul 1997

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

4 Aug 1997

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