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Occurrences: Book Four

[Book 4 didn't begin soon after book 3 ended, as it should have done. There is no legitimate excuse. One can always plead overwork, but I had been working very hard throughout the period when I managed to write something at least every few days or every few weeks. Developments at Channel 4, announced in summer 2001, which affected me until 16 June 2003, the day I left the channel, which I describe in the chapter called Educational Broadcaster in ‘My Life in Prose’, are I think responsible for my abandonment of the diary for over two years. I became dispirited. For the first time in my working life, I felt a bad kind of stress, which I knew was hurting me: a stress which comes from a loss of power.

During the period when I wasn’t writing the diary, two close friends died prematurely. The first was Terry Furlong. Terry and his partner Gabriel Genest had a house close to ours in Brittany. We bought Kerfontaine on impulse while staying with Terry and Gabriel for a week in February 1990. Terry was a significant figure in English teaching in the UK, someone whose words and actions influenced thousands of teachers and children for good. He was a comrade and a leader of comrades. He died of cancer on 29 May 2002. I wrote an obituary which appeared in The Guardian the following Saturday.

Terry Furlong, who has died aged 59 of cancer, was a major force in English teaching in this country for 35 years, a key part of which he spent as head of English (and later head of the faculty of languages and humanities) at Holland Park School, west London, then one of the most famous comprehensive schools in Britain.

For those of us who shared his vision of the purpose of education, the 1970s and early 1980s were a time of optimism. We were determined to make the curriculum more relevant to children’s lives; we would show children literature which previous generations of teachers had thought them too stupid to understand; under our guidance, they would become makers and shapers of language, and therefore of their lives.

In the years before a legally required curriculum was introduced, the major institutional obstacle to the fulfilment of such thinking was the examination system. Terry led the movement to change examinations — so that spoken, as well as written, language was assessed, a wider range of texts was studied, and children produced a far greater diversity of kinds of writing than previously. Initially, he did this through the CSE, an examination which had been introduced in 1963, at a time when four out of five children left school with no paper qualification whatever; but he saw the need for a common examination for students at 16, to provide a richer experience for all. This aim was achieved when CSE and O-levels were replaced by the GCSE.

What educational reactionaries, for whom Terry later became something of a target, refused to understand was that the purpose always was to raise standards, to marry the old concerns about correctness and a conventional canon of literature with a new excitement about broadening and diversifying students’ experience and mastery of language, in particular making sure that working-class and black and ethnic-minority children were given the opportunity to share in that experience and gain that mastery.

Under the Thatcher government, it became clear that stamina and political judgement would be needed if the national curriculum for English, introduced from 1989, were to manifest at least something of this vision. Terry was one of the people who saw to it that, broadly, the vision can be discerned in the law.

When it became clear that the Blair administration was hardly less reactionary, in terms strictly of curriculum and examinations, than its predecessor, his view was pragmatic. It would be possible, he thought, still to defend the best of what had been gained, as government policy traversed an arid, utilitarian phase. There are some slight signs — the government’s rediscovery of the importance of creativity, for example — that he may, in the longer perspective, have been right.

Terry was born and brought up in Cardiff, and excelled academically at Cardiff High School, where he began to study for A-levels in physics, chemistry and maths before switching to English, French and German. Between 1962 and 1966, he took his first degree, in English, at King’s College, London. After experimental starts to his career, in advertising and as a chef, he turned to teaching.

His first job was at Spencer Park School, in south-west London, from where he went to Holland Park in 1973, remaining there until 1986. From 1979 to 1981, he had a two-year secondment as advisory teacher for English with the Inner London Education Authority. He then became English adviser for Brent (1986-94), with a secondment from 1989 to 1991, to lead a team designing the first national tests in English for 14-year-olds.

During his career, Terry was also Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, of the International Federation for the Teaching of English, and of numerous advisory committees to examination boards. For a time, he was chair of governors at Holland Park. When he took early retirement from Brent, he set up his own consultancy.

Terry had an awesome quantity of energy. He was a deeply human man — funny, irreverent, loving, emotional. At the risk of corniness, one could describe him as a renaissance person: he could install plumbing, lay a patio, speak several languages, explain quantum mechanics, embroider, play the flute and the piano, and do the things for which he is honoured by the profession of English teachers.

His personal life owed everything to his partner, Gabriel Genest. They lived together for more than 30 years, and depended utterly on each other. Gabriel nursed Terry with humorous and practical devotion through his final illness.

One summer night 20 years ago, I stayed up late with Terry, in a garden in Kent, during a weekend organised by the London Association for the Teaching of English. After everyone else had gone to bed, we drank plenty; Terry then produced his flute and played until the dawn had fully come, when we went to bed for a couple of hours.

We happened to come down to breakfast at the same time. More sensible souls, who had rested well, remarked what a beautiful morning it was. “I know,” said Terry. “I’ve seen it twice.” If ever a man got double value out of life, and gave double value to it, it was he.

The other friend who died prematurely was Mike Harrisson. He and his wife Judith went to Barcelona for a long weekend at the beginning of May 2003. On Sunday 4 May, as he and Judith were returning to their hotel after lunch, Mike stepped into the road and was knocked down by a speeding van. Judith saw everything. The ambulance came, but Mike was dead within a quarter of an hour. Judith then had the agonising experience of flying back that night on the first available flight to the north of England, to be met at Liverpool airport by friends whom she had telephoned, who took her home to Huddersfield, where she woke her two children, Clare and Christopher, and told them the news. The following day she telephoned us. It was the early May bank holiday, and Helen and I were at my parents’ house in Bedfordshire. We went straight up to Huddersfield. Over the next few days we did all we could to comfort Judith and the children, to help with the arrangements for the return of Mike’s body to England, and to plan the funeral.

I made a speech in tribute to Mike at a party in the Slaithwaite Civic Hall after the funeral. I spoke of his brilliance as an English teacher, his influential role in the reform of English examinations, his work as a senior examiner in English, his exceptional talent as a cook, his energetic support of the Labour Party, and his labours as a school governor. I mentioned the restaurant he and Judith had opened (brilliant food, but a commercial failure), the novels he had written, the CD-ROM publishing enterprise he had founded. Mike was, as I said, one of the best read, best informed, most widely cultured people I’ve known.]

Near Franschoek, Western Cape, South Africa

12 Nov 2003

I’ve been in South Africa a week now. It has been an astonishing experience. I’ve travelled only in one part of one province — the Western Cape — but the physical beauty of the place, and the diversity of that beauty, are breathtaking. Meanwhile, because South Africa has such political significance for me and for all my generation of the British left, I am viewing all this beauty in a particular way; asking myself what progress has been made in the nine and a half years since the country achieved democracy. That South Africa remains a place of deep divisions and disparities is all too obvious. The spacious, gracious, often stylish or, at the very least, comfortable housing belongs to white people. And I must say, knowing as I do that money alone is no guarantee of grace or style (witness most ‘executive’ developments in England), white South Africans in this part of the country have managed, mostly, to build with style and grace as well as on a scale which you would expect an elite to allow themselves. The housing for black people ranges from corrugated metal shacks, to wooden huts, to small dwellings made of bare breeze blocks, to — at the best, and obviously one of the achievements of the government since 1994 — small but pretty bungalows, in whitewashed breeze block, with roofs either tiled or in painted corrugated metal, having electricity, running water, little gardens and some space between one house and the next. But the ideal just described is rare, and even this is modest in the extreme by comparison with white people’s houses. The continuing reality for millions of black people is a tiny shack, one of hundreds or thousands packed together in great grim camps with narrow dirt tracks for streets, with no running water except from an external standpipe shared with scores of other families, and with toilets similarly shared.

I say that South Africa’s continuing divisions are all too obvious. Often they are, but sometimes you have to look for them. One of the most sinister aspects of the apartheid plan was the attempt to make black people’s housing invisible to the user of the country’s official roads (excellent, in my brief experience). Even today, the traveller is puzzled by the fact that there are huge settlements, glimpsed briefly from a road when its contour lets slip the reality, with no signs to them: no slip-roads with the names of these places properly displayed. You pass a place which must house tens of thousands of people, and think, ‘Where was that, then? How do I get to there?’ The answer was, ‘You’re not supposed to get to there. You’ve no need to.’ The scale of the challenge facing the government is formidable in all areas of social good for the majority: education, health care, employment, transport. But the physical task of constructing millions of acceptable dwellings, and their infrastructure, is the one which has struck me with awe.

I landed at Cape Town airport eight days ago. I had ordered, in advance, a Volkswagen Golf from a car rental firm. When I arrived at the firm’s desk, it had run out of Golfs, and offered me a Mercedes for the same price. I accepted. I nosed this great, comfortable, reassuring piece of rich man’s engineering around the car park, opening the windows and letting the warm wind blow through. A warm wind and a bright light on a November morning! I cruised into Cape Town on a fine dual carriageway, past some of the worst of the slums I’ve described above. There was Table Mountain, the sharp point of Signal Hill, and then I came over a rise and got a view of the great docks and Table Bay, with Robben Island in the distance. How extraordinary that this dreadful place is now a tourist attraction, with some of the former prisoners as guides. How bizarre history can be, and how sudden can be its twists. Friends in England had recommended that I visit the island while I was in Cape Town, but I didn’t.

The elevated road passed the city centre and descended to the seafront. Then I followed the sea for a few kilometres to Camps Bay, realising as I arrived that John Haycock, who had arranged my travel, had put me into one of the most beautiful and chic suburbs of the city. It has a brilliant white beach and luminous turquoise water. The guesthouse was perfect: comfortable without being luxurious, and when I opened the wooden doors of my room on to the terrace, there was the sea 300 metres away. I walked down to the strip of restaurants across the road from the beach and had lunch. Then I went back to the guesthouse and slept for three hours, having hardly slept at all on the plane. I woke up and showered, and had a beer on the terrace and watched the sun go down into the sea. I went out to another restaurant where the food was magnificent if over-generous, and walked back again and went to sleep.

The next morning, Friday, a taxi took me to Observatory, a district on the other side of the city. I sat for nine hours with four other people while we decided which 204 applicants for bursaries for university study, awarded by the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, would be successful. (The Trust’s work, since the liberation of South Africa, is to offer black and brown students in the country, and in some other countries in southern Africa, the opportunity to pursue higher education, something they would not otherwise be able to afford.) There had been 1500 applicants originally, and we were choosing from a short list of about 400. I was there because I and a group of friends in England administer two small funds, one in memory of Ros Moger, who died in 1999, and one in memory of Terry Furlong, who died in 2002. Our funds shelter within the Canon Collins Trust, and benefit from its charitable status. It gives a sense of how small we are within the Trust’s operation to say that seven of the 204 bursaries awarded were paid for from our funds. Still, it’s a good thing to be doing, and my day in Observatory was the business reason why I’m here.

That evening the same taxi returned me to Camps Bay. More seaside dining. When you turn round from the beach, there is a row of bare, sudden mountains called The Twelve Apostles. It is a place of wonderful beauty and immense privilege.

On Saturday I drove into the city centre, parked by the station, and wandered around. It was interesting to see an ordinary, busy Saturday in town: the market stalls, the open-air hairdressers doing good business, a mainly black community full of energy and seemingly thriving. I walked for about two hours, decided to skip lunch, and drove the car around Table Bay and up the coast northward. The dunes went on and on, the roads dead straight. After about half an hour I turned left to the sea at Silwerstroomstrand, and found a bleak esplanade stuck in the middle of nowhere. But the beach is beautiful, with white waves processing on to the sand, which is indeed silver. Black families were barbecuing sausages and steaks on fires lit in little concrete boxes provided for the purpose. Not much swimming. Probably South Africans think the sea is far too cold, especially so early in the summer. But it was a good sight to see: families enjoying themselves in an ordinary way at the weekend. I drove inland to the towns of Mamre and Atlantis — my first deliberate attempt to look at places off the tourist route. Both towns were depressing. When you see the tiny tin shacks near the airport you think, well, I hope one day soon they’ll demolish these completely, and it won’t take long to do. But the housing in these two towns is more substantial, while being deeply dreary and unloved. People will have to go on living there for years. Atlantis in particular looked like the very worst, most isolated council estate on the edge of Glasgow or Liverpool. But people waved cheerfully whenever I waved, and the white Mercedes didn’t attract a second glance.

I drove back to Camps Bay — an hour in time and a world apart. I sought out a restaurant not offering me immense quantities of fresh protein, of which I had had a surfeit since arriving, and found a kind-of-Greek place which was comfortable and quiet. I had a nice big wooden table to myself, and ate the old favourites of houmus, taramasalata and tsatsiki (half portions), followed by moussaka and salad. It was a relief to be able to finish the plates. The only problem was the excessive kindly attention. Two different people told me they would be my personal waiter for the evening, and the staff asked me I should think a dozen times if everything was all right.

The next day, Sunday, I left Camps Bay and drove down the Cape Peninsula. After Houts Bay, the road over Chapman’s Peak was closed. (I read all about it yesterday in the Cape Times. The dramatic cliff road was first opened in 1922. In recent years there have been dangerous rock falls which have required serious engineering. The road is due to reopen next month.) So I crossed the peninsula through Constantia, and then turned right over a mountain pass and came down to the coast on the eastern side of the peninsula, north of Simons Town, a little naval base which I drove through thinking of my grandfather, who used to come there with the Royal Navy. I carried on south on a beautiful mountain road, with wonderful views east across False Bay to the next headland at Hangklip. The southernmost part of Cape Peninsula is a national park and nature reserve, and you have to pay to get in. It is worth it. I don’t know whether I have ever seen a place so naturally beautiful. The Afrikaans name for the wild bushes which cover great expanses of the land is fynbos, ‘fine bush’, and the closest comparison I have seen in Europe is the maquis in Corsica, famously hauntingly scented, as is the fynbos. There was a deep blue sky; there were wild flighted birds of startling colours, ostriches, and the occasional group of baboons causing cars to stop and people to leap out and take photographs, despite notices saying that baboons are dangerous. I hadn’t realised before that the Cape of Good Hope is not the very bottom of the peninsula, but a couple of kilometres above that on the west side. Cape Point is the very bottom, and there are high sheer cliffs of the most wonderful beauty, where sea birds — maybe a kind of cormorant — were making nests on precipitous ledges. I walked up from the car park to the former lighthouse, and then down and round to the extreme tip of the peninsula, just above the present-day lighthouse. The whole place is a model of the correct management of beautiful and ecologically sensitive but popular tourist sites, down to the choice of material for the pathways and the benches. I was entranced. The sun shone and I felt great. I bought a sandwich and a bottle of water and sat on a rock and looked down at a little bay where there were penguins.

Then I drove back up the eastern side of the peninsula, back through Simons Town to Fishhoek and along False Bay towards Hermanus. It was while driving along that road that I kept looking to my left and seeing the settlements, over embankments beside the road, which told the other side of the story of this country. I passed through Hermanus and kept going towards Stanford. I gave a lift to an old man who talked non-stop in a language I didn’t recognise (not Afrikaans and it didn’t sound like Khosa — no clicks), but who was happy to be riding in a Mercedes. After half an hour he made a sign for me to stop, got out, bowed low, and walked away into the bush. I couldn’t see a house anywhere.

At about six I came to my second guest house, where I was to be for two nights. I tapped a code which I’d been given into a panel at the gate, and then drove on a sandy track across fynbos for about a kilometre. Wind moved the bushes. Apart from that there was complete silence. The place felt extraordinarily remote. Then the house came into view.

I was the only guest, and was served dinner in solitude by Val, the owner.

The next day, Monday, I retraced my drive along the sandy track, turned right outside the gate, drove down the road a few kilometres, turned right again, and came to the sea at a place called De Kelders. I was on one side of Walker Bay, which stretches right back round to Hermanus and beyond, and is perhaps the most beautiful sea bay I have ever seen. Continual processions of white waves followed each other to shore, the water blue with the opaque look which rough gems have when caught in lumps of rock. There were two whales, perhaps a hundred metres from shore, not more. The whales come in large numbers from Antarctica in the southern winter, to breed and give birth in the bays of this part of the South African coast. Almost all of them had left by the time I got there, but two were enough for me, and one in particular twisted and played in the water, holding its tail upright from time to time. I stood and watched until my wonderment and curiosity were satisfied. Then I walked along the bay, past the seaside houses awaiting their summer occupants, a few being painted and repaired by groups of workers in blue overalls. I went out on to the rocks as close as I could to the crashing water. I sat there for an hour and then walked back to the car and drove on south and east, on a straight road which just went on and on across bush, the only diversion being the sight, shocking to my eyes, of snakes squashed on the tarmac. I read that snakes seek out the tarred roads when it’s hot, because they like the intense heat that the tar gives off once the sun has been on it for a while, and so are often killed. I also heard that many drivers deliberately drive over the snakes, whether poisonous or not, for sport.

After about an hour on the tarred road, I came to a junction where the only choice was to turn back or proceed on dirt roads, so I carried on, more slowly, creating clouds of red dust behind me, and drove through wide expanses of farmland, where cattle and sheep grazed, with stands of eucalyptus trees which had extracted so much water from the ground that the earth below them was bare. Then I came out on to a tarred road again north of Struis Bay, and stopped on the edge of the town for petrol. I ate a pizza in the café next door, and read the Cape Times, which was encouraging national mourning and self-reproach because the Springboks had been easily beaten by the All Blacks the previous day in the quarter-finals of the rugby World Cup in Australia.

I went on down through L’Agulhas to Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa, and stood on the rocks there and again watched the waves processing steadily in, made bigger and fiercer by a strong wind off the sea. Then I drove back inland to Bredasdorp, across flat farmland, and turned left up into beautiful hilly country, where wheat was being harvested. Wheat is a winter crop in South Africa, and most of it had already been cut, the swathes of the harvester blades making regular, curving stripes on the vast hillsides. At Napier, white ladies in white clothing with broad-brimmed hats were playing bowls on a well-tended green. The bungalows were neat. Beyond the town were the shacks where the black people live. I carried on in the heat of late afternoon, up and up through high wheat fields, descended into a river valley where there was a vineyard and where onions were growing with the help of generous amounts of sprinkled water, and came back to Stanford.

That evening, before dinner, I had a conversation with Val in which I explained what I had been doing in Cape Town the previous Friday, and through that made it clear what my position had been towards the apartheid regime, and where my political sympathies now lay as the South African government struggles to address its immense inheritance of poverty and division. Val listened politely, but I could tell that she had been quite content to live and prosper under apartheid, and had no sense that she and her kind had been complicit in the perpetuation of an evil system. After dinner, I met her husband Tim for the first time, and encountered a male version of the same myopia. He was a handsome, tall, bearded man, with something of a Hemingway face, and he ran the South African branch of an American-owned firm which makes heat extractors. We started on the rugby, then switched to the state of the British and South African economies, and I was soon listening to him telling me that the difficulties facing the South African economy were principally to do with the inability of black people to show initiative, to respond to the wonderful opportunities they were now being offered. He cited numerous examples of the generosity of white-owned businesses such as his in funding amenities for black people — football stadiums complete with changing facilities and social clubs, for instance — which thrived as long as white people organised them, but which fell into disuse, amid factional rancour, as soon as the whites withdrew.

I became blunter and blunter in my contributions to the conversation, telling him finally that the poverty of the majority was a scandal for which the whites, whatever gestures some might now be making, carried full responsibility. He took this in his stride, telling me that if I thought black housing was bad here I should go to India, where the housing was even worse, because the brown people had been running the government for more than fifty years already. We shook hands and I went to bed.

The next morning Val drove me in their Land Rover around the sandy dunes of their nature reserve, and I saw tortoises, cape harriers and Val’s own little family of eland as we bumped through the grasses. She is a well-informed and thoughtful conservationist, with an admirable love of beauty and diversity in nature. When I remarked that a Land Rover must be an essential vehicle in this kind of terrain, she agreed of course, and added, ‘And it’s very useful for carrying labour around.’ By that impersonal noun she meant the black workers who were rebuilding another house on the reserve which she and Tim hoped to sell to rich Germans as a holiday home. At the end of our drive, before I took my leave, I asked her whether there was anyone in the current government for whom she had respect. She named Trevor Samuels, the finance minister, and two others whose names I have forgotten, including I think the minister for tourism. She was scornful of Mbeki and contemptuous of the health minister, stumbling over her double-barrelled African name with a ‘…or whatever her name is’. She mentioned particularly Mbeki’s initial refusal to admit that South Africa has a huge HIV and AIDS problem, a refusal which, I agreed, had been unstatesmanlike and foolish. I said that I thought the government had changed its position since. I had read an article by the health minister in the Cape Times the previous day (it appeared after the laments about the rugby), fully acknowledging the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Val said that Mbeki knew that South Africa had too many people, and that he had hoped that, by pretending that HIV/AIDS was not a big problem, many of them would die quickly, easing the demand for housing and water. He had had to change his position because of the international outcry at what he had originally said.

I left, amazed that Val could impute to the president of her country such wickedness of motive. It was that remark, more than any other which Val and Tim had made over the previous two days, which gave me a sense of the gulf between the previously ascendant white community and the inclusive government under which that community is now obliged — most of them reluctantly — to live.

I drove that day to Franschoek, back over breathtakingly beautiful rolling hills, the last of the wheat being harvested, up and up until I came to a great dam, the largest of the dams supplying Cape Town. The huge lake is surrounded by fruit orchards and vineyards. Mountains rise above the cultivated slopes, and in the hot sunshine, under a deep blue sky, the place could be the Garden of Eden, until you see little groups of black workers busy picking fruit while a white overseer stands right beside them, belly hanging over belt, doing nothing except sometimes talking on a mobile phone, just making sure that ‘the labour’ doesn’t slack. After the lake I drove higher still, over a mountain pass where I stopped and admired the great grey peaks, the upland meadows, the cape harriers soaring, before descending to the Franschoek valley. Franschoek is a privileged, pretty town, too complacent and cute for my liking. Famous vineyards line the roads of the valley. I’m staying at a guesthouse belonging to one such, between Franschoek and Paarl. I have a comfortable suite of three rooms, including a substantial living room with writing table and good light, where I’ve written this.

Cape Town Airport

14 Nov 2003

After two nights and the intervening day in the vineyard guesthouse, I went on through Paarl and Wellington. It was strange to me, going through Wellington in the heat, to see municipal workers slinging the town’s Christmas decorations between the lamp-posts. Then up over another wonderful mountain pass, describing a semi-circle until I was heading south towards Hermon. The farm where I was to stay on my last night, Bartholomeus Klip, is nearby. About 20 kilometres north of Hermon I picked up a hitch-hiker, perhaps my sixth (all black — I didn’t see a white hitch-hiker) since the monologuist last Sunday. The others had all been friendly, but it had been hard to get a proper conversation going, even if their English had been good. I had asked one woman whether life was better for black people than it had been 10 years ago. ‘I think so,’ she had said doubtfully, ‘but things are very expensive.’

This man was different. He was a water treatment engineer. He had been working since six that morning at a dam nearby (a smaller dam than the one I had passed on Tuesday, but still substantial, and also supplying Cape Town). It was about 2.30 in the afternoon when I picked him up. The temperature was 33º. He was a skilled man doing an important job: making sure that the inhabitants of Cape Town had clean water. Despite this, he was required to depend on the occasional and unreliable shared taxi service to get to and from his place of work, or to hitch lifts. He told me that if I hadn’t come along, he might have got a lift from someone else. Failing that, a shared taxi would arrive about four. He was articulate about the political situation in his country. An ANC member himself, he recognised that the government had made mistakes, and included some ‘not very good’ ministers. Corruption did exist, he admitted. But the ANC was nonetheless the only party which, in the foreseeable future, would be able to give the country a sense of unity, make any progress on the huge tasks facing it, and ‘control violence’. I knew this already, but it was reassuring to have an impressive representative of the new South Africa confirm it.

I left him at his tiny but gracious house outside Hermon. We shook hands and he invited me to come and see him there again. I wondered how long it would be before a water treatment engineer, an employee of the water supply company for the Western Cape, had his own van to drive.

Ten minutes later I was on a dirt road leading across wide plains of cut wheat and fynbos to Bartholomeus Klip. The original farmhouse has been made into guest rooms offering a high standard of old-fashioned comfort, verging on the luxurious. I was in time for tea, and I’m not sure whether I’ve ever drunk better tea, from a large silver teapot, or eaten more delicious buttered scones with home-made jam. At 4.30 I climbed into the back of an open-topped Land Rover and was driven, in the company of two other tourists — a couple from Camberley, Surrey, self-made successes in the double-glazing business, and experienced, even blasé safari-goers — around the huge expanse of fynbos which the farm includes. We narrowly avoided squashing a cape cobra about two metres long, which then made off through the grass. We saw a secretary bird, gnus, ostriches, antelopes various, and five geometric tortoises. The geometric is South Africa’s rarest tortoise. I had read at Val’s farm that there are only about 5,000 geometrics in existence. Bartholomeus Klip claims to have 3,000 on its land. Even so, our guide and driver, a young woman with a qualification in ecologically responsible land management, and obviously well informed, said we were very fortunate to see five geometrics in the space of two hours. She had never seen so many on one outing before. She told us not to pick them up. They urinate as a defence mechanism, and can become badly dehydrated and even die as a result.

The flat land is bordered to the east by an abrupt range of mountains, where there are leopards. We got back to the farmhouse in time to watch the effect of the sunset on the mountains, which turn an intense shade of pink for about five minutes. This while drinking a local and delicious Sauvignon Blanc, gazing across a lake as flocks of white birds flew in strict formations to their roosts. Then bath, then dinner, which was easily the best I’d eaten in South Africa, and I’d had some good ones.

This morning I drove slowly towards the airport, stopping at Paarl to find a present for Helen. None of the jewellers, in this land of gold and diamonds, had anything I liked. It was all the fussy, over-ornate stuff I remember adorning the fingers of ladies (not my mother’s) in England in the 1950s. I was about to give up when I came across a shop selling antique jewellery, and bought a pendant in rose gold, with little rubies and diamonds, about a hundred years old.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

16 Nov 2003

Then the airport, then twelve hours of acute discomfort, then English rain.

I shall go back to South Africa, and I must visit Johannesburg and some of the other cities. I’m well aware that I’ve done the equivalent of flying to Nice, driving along the coast and up into the hills of Provence for a few days, and then making generalisations about France. But I’ve seen enough to understand the scale of the challenge facing government and people, and to sense the terrifying possibility that it could still all go wrong. If ever a country needed great statesmanship at home, and permanent, sympathetic, practical engagement and support from abroad, South Africa needs these for decades to come. It is the economic powerhouse and it could be the political beacon for the whole region of southern and central Africa. Probably, it will maintain its economic role and develop its political role. That is what we must hope for, while not complacently assuming that, once a nation moves from darkness into light, it will stay there. There are too many examples — among them Zimbabwe — to the contrary.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

26 Feb 2004

Peter Adams on the phone. In retirement now as a priest, he still helps out with services when asked, as retired priests usually do. Yesterday he did the Ash Wednesday services, 11.30 and 8, at a parish somewhere in south London, because his friend the Revd Anthony Quartermain had gone to Portugal for a week’s golf, to get away from the wretched weather, and had forgotten that Lent was beginning!

I’ve been reading two or three poems, chosen at random from an anthology, aloud to Helen each night in bed before we go to sleep. I know that she hates Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ with ferocious intensity, not I think because she has a worked-out feminist objection to the poem (legitimate as that position might be) on the grounds that it does seem to suggest that Leda began to acquiesce in, even to enjoy, the rape, but because she finds the description of the act physically revolting, and in particular the lines

‘How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from the loosening thighs?’

The poem makes her shudder, and not as in ‘A shudder in the loins’. The other night, coming upon it as I flicked through the book, out of pure mischief I began to read, in a sing-song, bedtime-story voice:

‘A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl…’

and that was as far as I got before howls of protest curtailed the reading, and I looked for something more suitable. As a penance, I’ve written a sonnet called ‘Leda Ponders Yeats’s Sonnet’, in which Leda comprehensively demolishes Yeats’s suggestion that she consented to the rape.

Flight from Rio to Belém

23 Apr 2004

This is a Saturday evening flight from Rio de Janeiro to Belém, a city on the estuary of the Amazon. It will take three hours. My friends Len Brown, Jay Johnston and I have comfortable seats with the extra leg room by the emergency exit, so we’re cheerful. The plane is no more than half full.

Belém is just south of the equator, on the southern bank of the southern branch of the river. The island which divides the two branches is about the size of Belgium, and each of the branches about the width of the English Channel between Dover and Calais.

Although we took off only ten minutes ago, there are absolutely no lights below us now. Brazil is a country of huge activity and huger empty spaces.

We arrived in Rio last Sunday morning. It’s my second trip to Brazil. Len’s friend Roger, an English inhabitant of the city for 25 years, picked us up at the airport and took us to his house, right under Corcovado. We ate a leisurely breakfast in his beautiful garden, and then he drove us to the Copacabana Palace Hotel, where we’ve been for the last six nights. The Copacabana Palace is, I should think, the best hotel in Rio; certainly the most stylish. We have experienced luxury.

My business reason for being here is the 4th World Summit on Media for Children and Adolescents. I’ve been to all four of these events: Melbourne in ’95, London (which I helped to organise) in ’98, Thessaloniki in ’01 and now this. About 2,000 people were there. The conferences are a focus for people involved in the production of television and other media for children and young people who want in some way to resist the homogeneity and cultural narrowness which purely market-driven productions, mainly coming from America, would impose on the world. Diversity, relevance to local cultures and needs, indigenous production: these are the watchwords. It’s bound to be a campaign with many defeats, but there are some victories too. I was at this conference to give two talks: one about dramas I have commissioned in and about Northern Ireland; and one about Making It, a co-produced series of short films celebrating children’s creative ingenuity in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica and the UK.

In the evenings we’ve started with caiparinhas, then eaten magnificently, with a heavy emphasis on roast meat, and then gone to night clubs. On Tuesday we visited a samba place in Lapa called Carioca da Gema (Rio to the Core), where a five-piece band — large and small guitar, drums, keyboard and clarinet — played with dazzling skill, rather intellectually with a jazz influence. The dancing was perfect, proper samba, performed by some couples of exquisite beauty, but also by others on whom the years had taken their toll. All achieved heights of elegance and sensuality at which one could only gape.

On Thursday we were at another place in Lapa (name forgotten) where the music was more basic and popular, and where freer forms of dancing were tolerated. There we joined in with no embarrassment. The pleasure was at its height when a two-man camera crew invaded the place, presumably with the consent of the management, perhaps filming for some travelogue to be shown by an airline. The atmosphere of uninhibited night life they hoped to capture immediately shrivelled and died. The only dancers left on the floor were foreigners. We left. Roger and I went on to a great rough dance hall, where we stood and watched a big crowd, on the eve of a public holiday, enjoying a very loud band playing what Roger called ‘heavy metal forró’. Forró is a style of music from the north-east of the country, properly played with accordion, triangle and one drum. This band had big amplification, saxophones, guitars, electric accordion, full drum set and no triangle. Couples danced wildly but skilfully between the tables.

Today I flew in a helicopter for the first time in my life. We took off from Barra, a huge suburb of Rio to the west, followed the coast back to Leblón, Ipanema, Copacabana, around the Sugar Loaf, up to Corcovado where we flew twice round Christ the Redeemer, then straight over the forest behind Rio back to Barra. It was an exhilarating, beautiful experience. The aircraft was small — only four seats — with perfect views and a smooth ride. I sat in the front next to the pilot. Breathtaking.

Then we went to a cachaça shop in Leblón and tasted a few samples. Len and I bought a bottle each for ourselves and I bought one for Roger. After that we went to eat feijoada at the Cesar Park on Ipanema beach, as I did last time I was in Rio. Delicious. Like Mr Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, I love all the base parts of animals. In feijoada, tripe, pigs’ ears, pigs’ trotters and ox tongues are stewed to perfect tenderness.

We have two nights in Belém, and on Monday fly about 800 kilometres inland to Santarém, a smaller town on the Amazon, where its mighty tributary the Tapajós joins the main river. We have five nights there, with trips on the Amazon and into the forest. It’s going to be a serious adventure.


26 Apr 2004

We landed at Belém and walked through its beautiful new airport: the height of architectural style and confidence. It stands for the coming world, one can hope. It was a rainy night. The taxi took us into town along a road stuck in the present world of poverty and limitation. Lines of ugly shacks, built without any kind of plan; rusting and peeling signs for shops and garages and workshops; poor people simply squatting or standing by the road, with nothing to do late on a Saturday night other than be there; frequent tiny bars where two or three men gathered at the counter under a single light. Our hotel was drab, with dark wood fittings, furniture which had aspired to modernity forty years ago, and economy in the use of electricity. But the rooms (suites rather — we could afford them) were clean, and the showers and air-conditioning worked.

It was after eleven by the time we had dumped our stuff. We went round the corner, looking for a livelier place than the hotel for a drink, and immediately came upon a bar belonging to the coming world. Well-dressed people, smart casual, mainly young but with some older ones there too, were enjoying a Saturday night of a kind familiar to us. We stayed until two.

The next day I slept late, and met Len and Jay at the Resto das Docas, where I got my first view of the Amazon. Brown. The piece of river where Belém is situated is not even the main southern channel, I now discover; this inlet runs round into that channel a little to the north; but the water I was looking at was still wider than any river I have ever seen. A long forested island is visible seven or eight kilometres across it.

A section of the old dock buildings has been beautifully restored and turned into restaurants, cafés and a museum. Again, the coming world. We went back there for lunch later, and the place was full of our kind of people, economically; their children well dressed, at leisure on Sunday, with enough money to eat out, and new cars — nothing extravagant — in the car park outside.

Between coffee and lunch we walked through the markets next to the restored buildings, and saw the old world which is still the reality for most. At scores of tiny stalls, people had cereals, spices, fruit, meat and fish for sale. There wasn’t much custom, but they needed to stay open for what they could get. Round the side of the covered fish market was a little wharf, surrounded by painted houses and shops which had been pretty once, and could be again, but suffered from lack of money. Some poor people lay around in the shade, on benches or sacks, with nothing to do. Several kindly passers-by warned us that it was dangerous to stroll too far from what they called ‘movement’. While we were amongst people, we were safe. If we began exploring remoter streets where no-one was, we might be unlucky and meet thugs with knives or guns. We took the advice.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel for showers and siestas, and then returned to the river at 5.30 for a boat trip. We sailed around the promontory of Belém, looking at the wharves and the houses of the very poor sticking out into the river on stilts. It began to rain quite hard, and when the boat turned round after three quarters of an hour and sailed further out into the channel for the return leg of the trip, it was possible, looking across in the direction of the now invisible long island, to experience total darkness in a way I almost never do: thick cloud, so no moon or stars, heavy rain in big drops, no lights beyond our boat; just soft black night pressing in.

We flew to Santarém yesterday morning. It took an hour. Before the plane got above the clouds, you could see the complexity of the river system: tributaries and tributaries of tributaries, winding creeks, and every island covered in green forest, except for tiny isolated settlements, one house here, two or three there, next to the water and with only the water for transport.

At Santarém airport we hired a Toyota Hilux, a strong vehicle with four-wheel drive, to make possible some exploration on dirt roads. Our hotel, the Amazon Park, is a grotesque edifice on the edge of the town, opened in 1974 and then owned by Varig, Brazil’s major airline. The hotel was a symbol of the government’s determination to open up the Amazon to agriculture, mining and business generally. There are hundreds of rooms, ranged in an arc, all facing the river. The place looks to have had almost no maintenance since it was opened. My room is like a generously proportioned cell in an open prison. There is no decoration. Lino tiles peel from the floor. There are three single beds of basic design. The fridge and the air-conditioning make a lot of noise between them. But they work, and so does the shower, and the sheets are clean.

Last night we drove into town and parked on the waterfront. Scores of wooden boats were moored there, filling with people on their way to outlying villages up, down and across the river. I thought how experienced the pilots must be to navigate the boats in complete darkness between islands and along narrow channels to their destinations. On one boat, a boy lay with his head in his girlfriend’s lap, sending a text message. The display of his mobile phone glowed in the dark.

We ate what we could of a delicious but too large fish supper in the air-conditioned Mascote restaurant, and finished with ice-cream and cachaça on the terrace outside. A shoe-shine boy came to us. None of us wanted our suede boots cleaned, but we gave him some coins and asked him about his life. He was one of seven children, he told us, of whom the eldest was 23. He was ten, and not the youngest. He would work until ten o’clock, and then go home to bed. He attended school in the mornings. Schooling is provided on a shift system. He studied arithmetic, Portuguese and geography.

He was a beautiful boy: cheerful, humorous and well nourished. He didn’t feel exploited because he was walking around at night with his shoe-shine box, trying to earn some money. He was glad to be helping his family.

Today we drove out of Santarém in a south-westerly direction on a good tarmac road which was once part of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. After a few kilometres, big pot-holes slowed our progress. We came to a sign announcing the immense distances to Rio, São Paulo, Brasilia, Porto Alegre and other places. Len remembered the sign from when he was here 26 years ago. The roads which did for a while link the Amazon to the great cities of the south have not been maintained. The tarmac runs out, the dirt roads are only passable in the dry season, and there are places where the forest has begun to cover them over again.

The irony for tourists like us, in a car, and wishing to see the rain forest, is that the very fact that we are on a road means that the rain forest has been pushed back. Up and down the road, on both sides, are shacks, bars, shops, churches and petrol stations — a long thin ribbon of clearance. The effect of the clearance is generally ugly. The cultivation behind and between the buildings does not look to be a success. There is little sign, from the road, of substantial crops.

We turned off the tarmac road and drove along dirt roads to Bel Terra. We approached the town along an avenue of shacks, each with its yard. In each yard is a satellite dish. The principal means of transport are bicycles, motorbikes, buses and, still, a few horses and carts. We saw two or three cars only. The town was founded in the 1930s, the second of two experimental settlements built by the Ford Motor Company to house the workers and managers at the rubber plantations which the company had established nearby. The plantations were failures. They lost Ford a lot of money, and it sold them to the Brazilian government in 1945.

At the centre of Bel Terra, the former managers’ dwellings are proper clapboard houses. The road is paved, there is a park with concrete benches, and the main church is far bigger than a place of this size would normally merit. You are in the ghost of a paternalist capitalist experiment. It’s as if a small town in America had suffered a draining-away of money, so all the Americans left. Time passed and the weeds grew. In the Americans’ place came poor people from another country.

We descended to the bank of the Tapajós, where we had a picnic. I got a bottle of beer from a bar near the river. In this most remote place, the woman greeted me as if she saw me every day.


27 Apr 2004

Today we took a light aeroplane — a four-seat Cessna — and flew across the Amazon. It was possible to see clearly the point where the waters of the Tapajós join those of the Amazon. The Tapajós is steely blue and the Amazon reddish brown. At the point where we crossed, the Amazon must be a hundred kilometres wide. There are islands, slicks of land, and places in this rainy season where you’re not sure whether you’re looking at land or water. There is a broad central channel, itself perhaps forty kilometres wide. I only really understood the Amazon, as a geographical phenomenon, in seeing it from the air this morning. It is a water world, a huge slow force containing its own masses of land, not — as smaller rivers are — a channel of water contained by land. The land within the water was intensely green. There were occasional single houses, utterly remote. There were solitary eagles, flocks of buzzards, and one dramatically white flock of egrets, turning itself inside out, bright against the brighter green below. It was all a spectacular example of the physical beauty of the world.

We buzzed around the town of Alenquer, on the north bank, with its grid pattern of dirt streets, and looked down at the church, the public buildings, the waterfront, the houses, the football field, the very few cars, the larger number of motorbikes, a bus or two; then flew east to Monte Alegre, where we landed. A man drove us in an ancient car down to the waterfront, where we had juice in the bar of the brand new and immensely stylish boat station: a small but brilliant example of the best contemporary public architecture. Brasil avança, said the construction notice board. ‘Not yet inaugurated,’ said our driver proudly. He drove us back up through the town, through the market, past the bus station, where very old buses were waiting to take people to villages along the north bank of the Amazon and inland.

We recrossed the river, coming again to the south bank perhaps twenty kilometres east of Santarém, and kept flying south. Now we saw, with a perfect clarity which hadn’t been possible during our road trip yesterday, evidence of what is happening to the Amazon rain forest. It is still there, in enormous quantity, but the scale and effectiveness of the invasion by agribusiness is terrifying. Where we flew, soya fields are everywhere. This land, which was once forest, has been cleared completely. It is nude. It might be in East Anglia or northern France. The soya producers are serious; they intend to make their investment pay. On the other hand, the clearances which have been made by peasant farmers, such as those we saw yesterday, look mostly to have failed. There are rectangles of land where secondary wild growth is returning; nowhere near the height of the original forest yet, but growing. I don’t know whether the returning growth, left alone, can eventually become forest again, with the full bio-diversity of the original.

Nor do I know, I’m afraid, who’s winning the struggle of words and actions between the federal and state governments, the big-money, industrial-scale invaders of the forest, the representatives of the people of the Amazon region, and the international organisations concerned about the forest’s destruction. I don’t know whether we’re heading relentlessly for a global environmental disaster, or whether a sustainable compromise can be agreed. Poor people need work. They have a right to prosper and enjoy their lives, like the young families in Belém who were enjoying theirs, like we enjoy ours. Governments in rich countries, as well as international organisations, have a responsibility to help them do this without destroying a mighty piece of nature on whose continuing existence we all depend.


28 Apr 2004

This morning we went to a travel agent in Santarém and arranged an afternoon boat trip out amongst the islands. Then we drove to Alter do Chao, a pretty village on the Tapajós, which is obviously popular with Brazilian tourists and weekenders. It’s about 45 minutes from Santarém, on a good road. There are numerous shops offering craftwork and ecological information.

After a bowl of soup back at the hotel, we boarded our boat. It was big enough for a dozen people, so it was very comfortable with only three of us there, plus Neles our guide, who spoke excellent English, plus a boy who drove the boat. We sailed into the channel, and immediately saw clearly the line where the waters of the Tapajós meet those of the Amazon, as we had seen yesterday from the air. The line is absolutely abrupt: the grey-blue Tapajós side by side with the red-brown Amazon. Neles said that the waters slide along side by side like this for several kilometres before they begin to mix. The Amazon is colder than the Tapajós, which keeps the waters apart. (I’m not sure of the physics of this, but I took his word for it.)

After admiring the phenomenon for a few minutes, we went further out into the river and sailed between two long islands. It being the rainy season, the islands were flooded. The houses we had seen from the air yesterday are built on stilts. Some are simple shacks; some quite spacious dwellings. Neles told us that the people keep cattle on the islands in the dry season. Now, the cattle are on the high land behind Santarém. Most of the people are with them there; only a few continue to live on the islands in the wet season. We saw a little church and a community centre which also serves as a school. The tables and chairs were roped up near the ceiling, out of the water.

The islands are places of quiet but intense beauty at this time of the year. Green is everywhere. There are white and grey egrets, small green parrots, grey herons, black herons with yellow stripes (these called tiger herons), weaver birds, and bright red and yellow waders shaped like moorhens.

We stopped the boat, moored it to a tree, and proceeded by canoe. Flowering weed was thick on the water, and Neles and the boy had to paddle hard. We came to a thick grove of trees, the water covering perhaps two metres of their trunks, and paddled underneath them. In the course of the next hour we saw an anaconda, four sloths and a family of marmoset monkeys. Others in the boat saw a racoon; I missed it. We heard but did not see two iguanas falling from branches into the water, one narrowly missing the canoe. This in the stealthy quiet as we pushed our way between the flooded trees.

The anaconda was at the top of a tree, wrapped around its uppermost branches. It was not big by anaconda standards; it was big by any other snake standards. It had eaten quite recently, and would remain up the tree for about two weeks, out of harm’s way, digesting. The sloths were also up trees, doing nothing. Their name and reputation are deserved. They eat the leaves of the trees in which they sit, when they need to. They come down every few days to relieve themselves, and then go up again. I asked how often they mate. Neles said that they mate as often as necessary to maintain the species, but not more. ‘Unlike people,’ I said. ‘Unlike Brazilians,’ he said. ‘I don’t know about Europeans.’

The monkeys swung noisily through the trees. The boy imitated the call of a baby monkey in distress, which brought them closer for a minute, puzzled. Then they moved on, performing astonishing feats of agility, as if gravity doesn’t exist for them.

We left the grove of trees, paddled across more thick weed and rejoined the channel between the two islands. We stopped by some giant water lilies. I felt how strong they are, pressing down on one with my hand. They will support a small alligator. Alligators are plentiful here, though one is much more likely to see them by night than by day. They are not generally dangerous; they tend to flee from people. Crocodiles are rarer. They will attack unprovoked, so people shoot them.

We passed a house, and Neles and the boy spoke to a man sitting there. He was not well. He had been across to the town a few weeks ago. Being unused to traffic, he had been hit by a car. They had taken him to hospital for an operation, and released blood from his stomach. But he could not move his shoulder. His wife sat beside him, saying nothing. The voices carried softly and clearly across the water.

We found the bigger boat again, and crossed back to Santarém in the twilight. The meeting of the waters was not visible by colour in this light, but a line of bubbles and some turbulence showed where it was.


29 Apr 2004

Today, with Neles again and a driver called Chico, we drove south from Santarém to a huge chunk of rain forest, called the Tapajós Forest, which is conserved as a national park. The trip on the tarmac road took about 75 minutes. Then we turned right and followed a good earth road for about five kilometres through the forest. We came to a clearing, where there was one substantial house and some shacks. A forest guide was waiting for us. He led us off into the forest, where we walked for three hours.

Neles used the words jungle and forest interchangeably. To me, the word jungle has always connoted a place of impassably dense vegetation. This jungle was not like that. Because the top canopy of great trees reduces light below, the lowest vegetation is not especially thick. It would be possible to walk, or at least scramble, in any direction. An inexperienced walker would become lost in the forest immediately. Everywhere the light is that of the interior of a cathedral in daytime. It filters and shoots from above, sometimes hitting the forest floor, usually not.

The ground was wet everywhere. The place was quiet. A few birds called, and we saw monkeys once. The forest guide showed us the tracks of wild pigs. There are jaguars, but you would be very fortunate, or unfortunate, to see one, and an encounter would be most likely at night. (My guidebook says that when Santarém was first settled by the Portuguese in the 17th century, its inhabitants closed their doors and remained inside at night, while jaguars prowled the streets.) The forest guide did carry a pistol as well as a knife. The knife he used for cutting overhanging branches and harvesting fruit. He filled a plastic bag with large brown fruit which Neles called butter fruit. It needs cooking, and is then delicious, so Neles said, though fatty. The forest guide also cut a large slab of bark from one tree. Neles said that the bark would be boiled, and its essence made into an infusion which, when drunk, shrinks and removes tumours, including cancerous ones. He offered the striking piece of information that when the Portuguese arrived in the Brazilian forest for the first time, European medicine knew about a hundred effective cures for illnesses. The people they encountered knew about four hundred. Many of those four hundred are now amongst the stock-in-trade of first-world medicine.

We admired several enormous trees which are two and three hundred years old, and one giant which may be a thousand years old. We saw some brightly coloured caterpillars. The forest guide picked up one large armoured beetle, about two centimetres square, which performs the useful task of eating faeces, and turning them into sweet soil. Cattle farmers pay good money for these beetles. They leave them to breed in their fields, where they eat the cattle dung, preventing flies from hatching and attacking the cattle.

Overall, the forest is not a place of bright colour. The shades are of green and brown. Occasionally, you see a red or white flower, which is striking for its rarity. There are dark-blue butterflies, about four times the size of the largest butterfly I’ve seen in Europe. We ate several fruits offered by the forest guide. One had an intense concentration of vitamin C; another was full of calcium and zinc.

So we took a short walk in the world’s largest rain forest; a place on whose survival the world’s future as a hospitable place for humans probably depends.

Flights from Santarém to Rio

30 Apr 2004

We’re now on our way back from the Amazon back to Rio. Santarém to Manaus; change of planes; Manaus to Rio via Brasilia. It has been an amazing week. The people of the Amazon whom we have met have been, without exception, welcoming, courteous, humorous and relaxed. I saw, thanks to our trips by air, water and land, enough of the place to understand its essentials, geographically, ecologically and economically.

One is left with a sense of awe at the challenge Brazil, and the Amazon region in particular, face in balancing the country’s legitimate desire to enrich its poor people, to create a larger middle class, to become the great power in the world which it could be, given its wealth in natural resources, the diversity and scale of its industry and agriculture, and the size of its population; against the single, central fact that it possesses, in the Amazon rain forest and river system, a unique and precious place which must not be much more damaged than it is already, or catastrophe will ensue.

A Garota de Ipanema, Rio

2 May 2004

Here I am in the bar where Vinícius de Moraes wrote (or had the inspiration for writing?) one of the most famous popular songs in history. The place is on a corner; the street outside which goes to the sea is named after the writer. Until this trip, I had an image of two middle-aged men, de Moraes and Antonio Jobim, the composer, sitting in the bar together, with a beer each, and seeing the vision of insouciant loveliness passing them without a sideways glance on her way to the beach (the sea is only a short block from here; I can see it from where I’m sitting), and both being filled with the melancholy of age and hopeless sexual longing. But I heard the other day that de Moraes was in here alone, and only gave the words to Jobim two years after he wrote them. No doubt the truth is documented somewhere. Anyhow, considering the fame of the song, the place is admirably restrained in its exploitation of the association. It bears the song’s name, changed from something else; the song’s first verse — score and words — is on a plaque on the wall outside and on a board inside, and you can buy a tee-shirt displaying the same words and music. There are a few framed black-and-white photographs. But that’s it. Somehow, the restraint is part of the style, which in my little experience is true of samba and bossa nova generally. The music, and the dancing that goes with it, are demonstrations of controlled intensity conducted in a small space.

Anyhow, the girls still pass, and sometimes I see one who has the same quality of self-possession, of beauty carried casually, as that which disarmed de Moraes; and I feel similarly disarmed.

I’ve had a wonderful time in Brazil. I’ll be back.


5 Sep 2004

It is early autumn in Brittany, but still hot. It rained throughout August. Now it is perfect weather; calm, steady sunshine, but with a breeze to take off the full force of the heat. On each of the last few days, I have said to myself, ‘This is the perfect day. They don’t come better than this.’

On 15 August, while we were in England, Rosa phoned to say that Albert had died. [See the chapter called Kerfontaine and Albert in ‘My Life in Prose’.]


10 Sep 2004

We went back to Britain for eleven days in August. First we flew to Edinburgh, rented a car and drove up to Inverness-shire, for the wedding of our friends Carol Blake and David Mellor. We spent six nights in a comfortable hotel near Grantown-on-Spey. I’d never been to the highlands of Scotland before, apart from a 24-hour trip to Cromarty on Channel 4 business. I was quite enchanted by its beauty, and by its emptiness. We drove around every day except the wedding day, including one long day when we crossed to Wester Ross, and saw the magical sight, in the rain, of the Cuillin mountains on Skye rising above a level of cloud which hung over the island across the sea. On another day, we drove around the Black Isle in the sunshine, the fields full of ripe oats, barley and wheat, and stopped and admired Cromarty, and looked at the oil rigs standing in a row down the Cromarty Firth, about to be or having been maintained or repaired. On another day we went east, and another day south, up and down and around in Moray and Aberdeenshire. The combination of true wildness on the heather-clad moors, and the fields of crops, waiting to be cut, stirring in the warm breeze lower down the hills, was beautiful and satisfying.

We stopped and studied two bridges. One crosses the Spey at Craigellachie. It was built by Thomas Telford, no less, in 1814. It has a single iron arch, and two stone castellated pillars at each end. Of course it reminded me of the iron bridge at Ironbridge, and I wondered how many iron bridges had been built in the interval between the construction of the very first and that of Craigellachie bridge. The other bridge crosses the Don at Strathdon. It has a single narrow stone arch, and there is an inscription at the apex of the arch: Built 1715 by John Forbes of Inverernan. Both bridges are perfectly beautiful, simple structures, ‘strong through tension’, as Seamus Heaney puts it in a little poem in Electric Light.

After seeing something of the Highlands, we flew from Inverness to Luton, rented another car, and spent four days celebrating my father’s 80th birthday in Wootton. All five children turned up, plus partners and children, so there were about 20 people there for the main meal on the Saturday evening. We gave dad a bicycle. He had had his old one for a very long time, and it was worn out, unlike him.

Spread Eagle, Camden Town

2 Dec 2004

Twelve days ago, I went to New York, because The Illustrated Mum, the drama I commissioned in my last months at Channel 4, had been nominated for an International Emmy. This was the third time I’d been to the Emmy ceremony. I took a Saturday morning plane with some colleagues who had worked on the film. About an hour into the flight I was taken suddenly and violently ill. I thought the plane had lurched, because I lost any sense of balance, but it hadn’t. I began to vomit, and continued to do so regularly for the remaining six hours of the flight, even when there was nothing left in me but stomach bile. I had no strength in my legs; couldn’t stand up. My head lolled. Every time I tried to lift it up, I desired to vomit again. I remained leaning forward in something like the brace position, with a big plastic bag hooked on to my wrists.

My friends feared that I might have had a heart attack. I knew that I hadn’t, because I had no pains in my chest. But the experience was awful. I just about staggered off the plane at JFK, two friends holding me before and behind, and collapsed into a wheel-chair. I was whisked along private corridors, head still lolling, friends following. Doors were unlocked and re-locked. We emerged at the front of the customs and immigration queue, where despite my condition I was fingerprinted and photographed like everyone else. Outside the terminal building, an ambulance waited. I was laid out on the stretcher in the ambulance, and an oxygen mask was clamped over my mouth.

Had this misfortune not overtaken me, I would have gone with the others straight to Manhattan to give a seminar about the making of the film. The producer, the director and Michelle Collins, the principal actor, were essential to this session. So we agreed that Michelle’s fiancé Parry, whom I hadn’t met before, would come with me in the ambulance, while the others went on to Manhattan.

We were at the local hospital in Queen’s within ten minutes. I was wheeled into the ER, which was just like ER in the television series of that name, except that I didn’t hear any high-speed shouting of medical instructions. People walked, not ran. But the physical environment, with its functional surfaces, bare of adornment; the sense of a multiplicity of tasks being undertaken simultaneously by many doctors, nurses, technicians, cleaners, all coming and going, criss-crossing each other; the constant, delicate and sometimes fraught interactions with patients, in pain, under stress, angry, frightened or just plain awkward and rude: that was all there.

For the next five hours I was sampled and examined by a succession of doctors and nurses. After about two hours I ceased to vomit. Once the doctors had established that there was nothing wrong with my heart, they offered two diagnoses. Either I had a virus in that part of the head which controls balance — apparently a common condition which people don’t much notice except when being shaken about on some means of transport; or, more likely, I had been poisoned. I agreed that the poison had probably been in a large can of tomato juice I had drunk on the plane, having refused the dreadful meal American Airlines offered me. I had vaguely thought at the time that the taste wasn’t the freshest, but I was writing something, not paying much attention to the drink, and had finished it anyway.

Parry stayed faithfully with me throughout this time; or rather, he stayed as long as he was permitted to, since the rules of the ER were that visitors could only remain with their friends or family for 15 minutes in every hour. I guess the staff have to do some pretty unpleasant things to people in there, and they don’t want the laity fainting all over the place. During one of Parry’s 45-minute absences, the doctors decided to keep me in the hospital overnight. So all my clothes and other belongings, which had been dumped on the lower shelf of my trolley when I had been admitted and undressed, were put into three large plastic bags, each marked ‘Personal Property’ in big black capital letters. At about that time, I became desperate for a pee, but was still not able to walk. So a nurse brought me a urine bottle, and then closed the curtains around the place where they had parked the trolley, for modesty. At the same time, she put the plastic bags outside the curtains, to be collected by the porters who were going to move me. Just after this, Parry came back, to see the curtains closed around me, and the worldly possessions I had had with me stacked outside. He assumed the worst. As I was trying, completely unsuccessfully, to pee sideways into a urine bottle, his white face appeared between the curtains. ‘Thank God you’re all right,’ he said. ‘I hardly know you.’ Even the mirth this provoked in me was not enough to set the urine flowing, and I had to wait another hour or so, until the ability to walk returned to me, before relieving my agonised bladder.

Some time later, I was wheeled upstairs to an ordinary ward, and Parry went on to the hotel. Having eaten nothing for a night and a day, and having expelled absolutely everything from the system from the day before that, I was ravenous. The tuna sandwich waiting for me by my bed tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten.

The next day a doctor came to see me and told me I could leave. I was well. It must have been food poisoning. Two other friends who had worked on The Illustrated Mum, who had arrived in New York a few days earlier, came to get me. I stepped out with them into a quiet Sunday morning in a part of New York I might never otherwise have seen in my life. I was wobbly but fine. We took the subway to Manhattan. My luggage from the plane was in the hotel room. I had a bath, washed my hair, put on clean clothes and went out to lunch, feeling that I had rejoined the living.

We won the Emmy. Afterwards, we went to the New York branch of Soho House and drank champagne until late. The next day, I walked around by myself, savouring the quiet feeling of achievement, and gave myself a delicious solitary lunch at a comfortable, old-world restaurant next to the Museum of Modern Art. Gazpacho was on the menu, and I thought I’d try it, to dispel any lingering fear of tomatoes (and to check that I hadn’t suddenly become allergic to them). Delicious, and no ill effects.

There was no malaise on the flight back that night. I mentioned to a steward the problem I had had on the way across, and asked for some extra sick bags to reassure myself. A kind man across the cabin, overhearing what I said and seeing my height, offered to swap seats with me, so I had a seat in the aisle in front of an emergency exit, with the extra leg room. I read and wrote all the way to London. I have always loved the names of the navigation points which you are shown on the TV screens on planes, and which guide the flight. I wrote them all down, approximately in the order they appeared: New York, Halifax, Godlhab (which is in Greenland), Goose Bay, Madrid, St John’s, San Juan, Miami, Casablanca, St George, Dakar, Ungava Bay, Bogotá, Lima, Rekyavik, Freetown, Boston, Fortaleza, Panama, Belém (which I visited in April), Luanda, Glasgow, Dublin, London, Lisbon, Berlin, Kinshasa, Cork, Athens, Belfast, Vienna, Cairo, Exeter, Shannon, Turin, Algiers, Milan, Brest, St Helier, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bournemouth, Rome, Tunis, Killarney, Berlin, Addis Ababa, Rennes, Wexford, Tours, Caen, Plymouth, Stockholm, Munich, Naples, Aberystwyth, Le Havre, Lille, Liverpool, Coventry, Oxford, Bristol, Luton, Brighton, Gwent, Windsor, Marseille, Amsterdam, Norwich, Chartwell, Cambridge, Rotterdam, Cologne, Zurich, Stonehenge, Winchester. What a mixture of the famous and the unheard-of, the romantic and the banal! Names across a hemisphere helping to squeeze a lemon pip on an exact flight path through the night. I thought I might try to turn them into some kind of found poem, but I haven’t done anything about it.

Manchester to London train

26 Apr 2005

It’s been a beautiful day. Green is everywhere. Cherry blossom is at its brightest, and the lilac is out. Clouds travel in unique, never repeated formations across a sky which is deeper blue overhead, paler blue towards the horizon. We’ve just passed that place near Rugby where the railway, the canal and the M1 run side by side. There’s a little yellow stone church squashed between the canal and the railway. First, in the 1780s, the navvies came by and built the canal, raised on an embankment so close to the church that travellers on boats could and can peer through the east window. Fifty years later, the navvies’ grandsons came by and built the railway, raised on another embankment so close to the church that travellers on trains could and can glance through the west window, although — even when the railway was new — they were travelling too fast to peer. 120 years after that, the navvies’ grandsons’ descendants and their machines came and built the M1 on a third embankment 200 yards east of the canal. Drivers and their passengers could and can glance at the church, but are too far away and moving too fast to see anything through the east window.

Although the objective impact of the M1’s arrival on the peace of the place was far greater than those of the railway and the canal, the earlier arrivals must I suppose have been a greater shock to the feelings and habits of mind of the people there at the time. Rural England had never known anything like it. By the 1950s, sensibilities were callused.


27 Sep 2005

Over the last two years, we’ve had major works done at Kerfontaine, and last week they were completed. At the back of the house, there is now a beautiful new study, with an oak parquet floor and French windows looking out over a wooden terrasse and down the garden. The French windows and the Velux in the roof let in lots of light. The two armchairs which my great-aunt Margaret gave me 30 years ago have been splendidly restored by a local ébéniste working in partnership with a tapissier. The chairs are about 115 years old, in walnut, a wedding present to my great-grandparents.

The room occupies the space which once was the cave where Albert stored Kerfontaine’s fruit and vegetables and kept his tools. The inner wall is the cave wall, cleaned up and with the joints re-pointed in a honey-coloured cement mortar. I have a stout big writing table, nothing fussy, easily accommodating the computer, papers, notebooks and dictionaries. There is a phone point next to me, so the internet is at hand, though we’re still on the old dial-up system. ‘Le haut débit [broadband] n’est pas encore arrivé dans les communes rurales,’ says my man at France Télécom. (I remember how I allowed myself to become irritated at the slowness of dial-up one afternoon in an internet café at Santarém, 500 miles up the Amazon, until I bethought myself.) Albert’s vegetable garden has become a lawn. We’ve kept the hedge. In the winter it’ll be planted with flowering trees and shrubs. I have no desire to grow vegetables myself; too much work, and in any case I like buying them at Plouay market on Mondays.

Next year I’ll put a plaque carrying Albert’s name, dates and a sentence on the wall which he built around the spring in the wood.


29 Dec 2005

We arrived at Kerfontaine yesterday. We stayed on Tuesday night in a hotel near Rouen. Yesterday we drove through Normandy on a brilliant freezing day, with snow all around. The landscape was spectacular: woodland and fields and half-timbered farms all shining white. Each branch of each tree carried its thick load of snow: Every branch big with it, as Hardy wrote. But his poem is called Snow in the Suburbs. This was snow in the full, open, sweeping countryside, with great uninterrupted rectangles dazzling the eye.