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Occurrences: Book Three

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

9 Sep 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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


25 Sep 1997

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

19 Oct 1997

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

Viens, Provence

31 Oct 1997

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

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

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

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

Viens, Provence

2 Nov 1997

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

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

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

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

London to New York plane

22 Nov 1997

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

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

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

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


1 Jan 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2 Jan 1998

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

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

Wolverhampton to Euston train, and Spread Eagle, Camden Town

11 Jan 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilton Hotel, Rotterdam

29 Mar 1998

Here at a European market for educational television.

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

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

So far as I know, the fatwa still stands.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

3 Apr 1998

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

Hôtel de Banville, Paris

9 Apr 1998

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

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

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

Hôtel de Banville, Paris

10 Apr 1998

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

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

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


11 Apr 1998

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

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

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

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


12 Apr 1998

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

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

Glasgow to London plane

28 Apr 1998

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

26 May 1998

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

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

Stockholm to London plane

11 Jun 1998

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

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

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

Wootton, Bedfordshire

11 Jul 1998

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

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

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

London to Wickham Market train

16 Jul 1998

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

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

Nha Trang, Vietnam

3 Aug 1998

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

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

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

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

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

Nha Trang, Vietnam

4 Aug 1998

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

Nha Trang, Vietnam

5 Aug 1998

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

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


18 Aug 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


20 Aug 1998

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

25 Sep 1998

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

29 Sep 1998

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

New York

23 Nov 1998

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

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

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

New York

24 Nov 1998

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

30 Nov 1998

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

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

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


1 Jan 1999

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

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

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


4 Jan 1999

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


2 Apr 1999

And here we are again at Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry that the UN hasn’t explicitly authorised military action. I guess it couldn’t persuade Russia not to use its veto. But there have been numerous Security Council resolutions this year and last, condemning Milosevic’s barbarism, for example Resolution 1199 (23 September 1998): ‘Gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties and, according to the estimate of the Secretary-General, the displacement of over 230,000 people from their homes…’ There is slowly coming into being an internationalist understanding that barbarity is not to be tolerated just because it occurs within the borders of a sovereign state. There are occasions, very rare occasions, on which international forces must intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in order to challenge barbarity and to reverse barbaric actions. This is one of them.

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

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

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


4 Apr 1999

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


6 Apr 1999

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

Le Merle

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

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

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

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

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

The Blackbird

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

13 Apr 1999

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

Camden Town

16 Apr 1999

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

8 May 1999

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

10 May 1999

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

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

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

Camden Town

15 May 1999

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

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

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

Camden Town

26 May 1999

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

Camden Town

10 Jun 1999

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

Camden Town

22 Jun 1999

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

Sheffield to London train

24 Jun 1999

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

18 Jul 1999

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

Barraud, Nabinaud, Charente

16 Aug 1999

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

3 Sep 1999

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

12 Sep 1999

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

25 Sep 1999

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

Douglas, Isle of Man

8 Oct 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

23 Jan 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

9 Feb 2000

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

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

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

29 Feb 2000

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

6 Mar 2000

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

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


16 Apr 2000

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

Last Friday I had one of the experiences of my life, in the course of the Beckett project. They were filming a short, late play called Catastrophe, which is set in a theatre. The shoot was in Wilton’s Music Hall off Cable Street, near where Helen and I used to live. The action of Catastrophe has a theatre director and his assistant arranging the appearance on the stage of a silent, still figure, an actor somehow reduced to a stage prop, who is called the protagonist. David Mamet was the real director. The theatre director was played by Harold Pinter, and the protagonist by John Gielgud. I went down to the shoot on the Friday afternoon, and watched filming for about two hours. During the course of that time Michael Colgan, one of the producers, told me that Gielgud’s agent, Duncan Heath, had told him the previous day that Gielgud had decided that this would definitely be his last professional performance. Today was his 96th birthday.

The first hour involved takes which didn’t require Gielgud in person, and they used a stand-in. Then he appeared in a wheelchair. I had lost track, as so often happens when great people quietly disappear from regular view towards the end of their lives, of how old and frail he has become. They lifted his wheelchair on to the stage, and when he needed to he got out of the wheelchair, with help, and stood with a stick while they prepared the shot, and then managed without the stick while they filmed. He worked for about an hour. The feeling of nervousness and reverence in the crew was palpable. Two or three mistakes were made, necessitating re-shooting, because the normally imperturbable riggers and electricians knew what a delicate and extraordinary moment this was. We were watching John Gielgud give the last performance of his career, a career which had spanned more than 80 years. We were witnessing the last representative of his great generation of actors saying goodnight. David Mamet directed him very gently, but with a precision which indicated that this was still a professional contract, not an old folks outing. When the shooting was done, there was a photo-session for a minute or two, with Gielgud back in his wheelchair, and Mamet, Pinter and the other actors standing around him. Then there was prolonged and spontaneous applause, and Gielgud left. It was deeply moving, and I kept thinking how extraordinary it was that in some way I was connected with this man’s last professional engagement.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Michael Colgan brought Pinter over to meet me. We had a two-minute conversation, with nothing extraordinary said, but I simply told him what an honour it was to meet him, and how much I had enjoyed The Room and Celebration, the double bill of his first and most recent plays, which are on at the Almeida at the moment. All in all, it was an extraordinary afternoon, and I returned to C4 for a humdrum meeting at 4.30 in a state of elation.

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

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

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

Royal York Hotel, Toronto

14 May 2000

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

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


20 May 2000

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

1 Sep 2000

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

14 Oct 2000

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

27 Oct 2000

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

30 Oct 2000

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

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

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

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

Thessaloniki to London plane

27 Mar 2001

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

5 May 2001

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

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

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

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

8 Jun 2001

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

Camden Town

16 Jun 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed me strawberries in my mouth

This afternoon of youth.

The sun is hot, the road is clear

And we are heading south.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth:

Food of a long romance.

The corn is ageing in the fields

This harvest time in France.

Feed me strawberries in my mouth.

Agree not to arrive.

I’ll suck them off your fingers’ ends

As long as I can drive.

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

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

10 Jul 2001

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