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Occurrences: Book Five

Camden Town

27 Apr 2006

I’m recovering from a major operation. At the beginning of January, I began to feel an intense, burning pain in the left leg, from buttock down to the back of the ankle. It was particularly bad in the mornings, when I had difficulty getting out of bed and stepping into the bath-tub to have a shower. The doctor gave me a fortnight’s course of anti-inflammatory pills, thinking that I might have an inflamed nerve. I took these, but they did no good. Rather than go back to the doctor, I went to a chiropractor in Paddington, to whom Helen had gone about five years ago with sciatica, and who had cured her by manipulation. He is a jovial South African called Ashton Vice. He manipulated me, quite robustly, over about eight sessions in four weeks. On two occasions he put acupuncture needles into me. (I had no idea they were so long — about three inches — and he pushed them all the way in at various points on my left buttock and leg. I felt nothing, except once, when I had a sensation like a sharp electric shock.)

These treatments did not help either, or only marginally. Ashton and I agreed that if he had been going to cure me, I would already have started to feel better. He was sure that the problem lay in the lumbar region of the spine, where something was transferring pain down the nerves of my left leg. I should have an MRI scan.

I decided that I was going to use private medicine, if I could afford it, and get the condition diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. (Ashton was private, of course, but his charges were modest — £40 a session.) I went to an MRI centre in Harley Street, recommended by Ashton, and climbed into the machine. For 25 minutes it took pictures of my body from the neck down to the tops of the legs. As I lay there, I thought with pride that my father had played a major part in the development of MRI in the 1960s and 1970s, though he had worked on smaller machines, called quantity analysers, which measured certain constituents of foodstuffs. He could put a small piece of chocolate in the machine, for example, and it would tell him immediately how much fat was in it. Peter Mansfield and his team at Nottingham University (my father’s old university) had gone on to invent the MRI machine which has so revolutionised the diagnosis of the ills of the body, for which Mansfield quite rightly received a knighthood and the Nobel Prize. My father took Mansfield one of his own magnets to try in one of the early prototypes of Mansfield’s machine, but Mansfield needed more powerful electro-magnets than were available to my father. Nonetheless, I thought, I might not be lying in this machine now if my father hadn’t done that early work. Charge: £350.

The MRI report and pictures told Ashton and me that I had a major extrusion of the L4/L5 disc — the disc between the fourth and fifth vertebrae of the lumbar section of the spine — which was pushing into the theca, the sac containing the roots of the nerves which run down my left leg. Ashton said I should consult a certain neurosurgeon, a Mr Afshar, also in Harley Street, immediately. I visited Mr Afshar a few days later. He examined me, made me try to push my left big toe against his hand (I had no force there, unlike in my right big toe), and tapped me with a reflex hammer below the knee cap (immediate reflex) and on the Achilles tendon (no reflex at all). He read the MRI report. Then we looked together at the pictures. The problem was obvious. The discal hernia was sticking so far out into my spinal canal that it looked like the Pont d’Avignon from the air.

Mr Afshar told me it was likely, leaving aside the pain I was in, that if I didn’t do anything about the hernia, it would in the next year begin to cause permanent damage to the nerves in my left leg. They would atrophy, and I would lose mobility in that leg. He recommended a micro-endoscopic discectomy. He personally performs about 100 of these operations a year. He told me that there is a very high chance of complete recovery. Complications occur in about 2% of cases.

This conversation took place on Thursday 23 March. We went to see his secretary. If I wished, he could do the operation the following Wednesday evening. He would charge £1500. The anaesthetist would charge £500. Five nights in The London Clinic, a private hospital adjacent to his consulting rooms, would cost £5400; each subsequent 24 hours would be another £640. I walked back to my office at Teachers TV in Berners Street and thought about the matter for an hour. Then I phoned and said I would have it done.

During the days between the decision and the operation I was frightened. I knew I was doing the right thing; I had absolute confidence in Mr Afshar, who, apart from being evidently at the top of his profession, was a charming man, with none of that overbearing arrogance which afflicts some of those with consulting rooms in Harley Street. Nonetheless, someone was going to be messing about in my spine with a sharp instrument, and I kept having the thought that a grave-faced Mr Afshar would come to me in my room the day after the operation and tell me, with great regret, that something had gone wrong and I would never walk again.

I didn’t want to tell Helen that I was frightened. I told her simply that I was worried. On the Monday afternoon, at work, I told Vanessa Linden that I was frightened, and once I had used the word aloud to someone else, the fear diminished and then departed.

I went into The London Clinic on the Wednesday afternoon. At about 6.30, Mr Afshar appeared with the consent form. I signed. I donned a gown, and walked down to the operating theatre, in the basement of the building, with a nurse. I lay on a trolley, and the anaesthetist, Dr Devros, put opiates in my arm. I thought about the last time I had had an anaesthetic, in Farnborough Hospital, Kent, in 1962, when my appendix had been removed. On that occasion, the surgeon had told me to count to ten. I had got to three…

The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the trolley, and Mr Afshar was smiling and saying that the operation had been a complete success. I waggled my left leg, and I could tell immediately that he was right. I had been unconscious for no more than 90 minutes. I made roguish remarks to the nurses who were putting morphine into one arm, a saline drip into the other, and oxygen up my nose. They smiled indulgently, having seen and heard such nonsense many times before. With childish pride, I began telling them how my father had invented the MRI machine. They smiled some more. Once fully hooked up to my life-support systems, I was pushed out of the operating theatre to the lift, and taken to my room on the sixth floor. I felt good. I spoke to Helen on the phone.

I don’t think I slept at all that night, but I didn’t mind. I just lay there, knowing that the anaesthetics were still in me, and that the morphine must be having some effect, and thought how wonderful it was that I had just had this done, so quickly, and that I was going to be all right.

Mr Afshar had made a vertical cut in my flesh, about three inches long, following the lumbar section of the spine. Then, using a microscopic probe remotely controlled, he had pushed aside the nerves and muscles in the vicinity of the extrusion. Once the probe was at the site of the extrusion, it simply dug it away, I imagine like a tiny JCB shovel. The consistency of the matter which had herniated, said Mr Afshar, was like that of crab meat. (Dr Vice had described it as toothpaste.) The discs in the spine have two parts. There is the tough outer ring, known as the annulus fibrosus, and the crab-meat- or toothpaste-like inner core, known as the nucleus pulposus. My problem had been that the nucleus pulposus of my L4/L5 disc had been squeezed under or over or through its annulus fibrosus. When Mr Afshar’s probe had taken away the extrusion, it ventured inside the annulus fibrosus (I think he said that it got in through a tiny hole in the ring) and removed the remaining nucleus pulposus too, to avoid the possibility that that might herniate in the future.

I recovered rapidly. On the Thursday afternoon, Mr Afshar visited and said that I could manage without morphine, saline drip or oxygen. I was disconnected. On the Friday, I went for my first walk, along the corridor with a physiotherapist. On the Saturday morning, joy of joys, a nurse took me to a walk-in shower room, and I had a shower and washed my hair. On the Sunday morning, after three days of constipation brought about by the anaesthetics, the morphine and my lack of mobility, I had such an enormous bowel movement that I found myself humming the Hallelujah Chorus immediately afterwards. These acts made me feel l’homme moyen sensuel once again.

The only cause for concern during this period was that my temperature kept shooting up during the evenings. The doctors and nurses worried that an infection might have got into the body during the operation. They gave me antibiotic pills. These made me nauseous, and I was sick in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday. I took no more antibiotics on Saturday, but during that evening my temperature went up again. I said to Rosie the nurse that I’d really rather avoid the pills. Was there some other way I could take antibiotics? Well, she said, I could put them into your bottom. I thought about this for a few minutes, and then rang for her and said all right. While she was away getting the equipment, I thought how unpleasant it must be for a nurse to put something into a patient’s rectum when that part wasn’t completely clean, so just to be sure I got up and washed myself. I was lying back on the bed when Rosie reappeared. She told me to lie on my side. I did so and, to be helpful, raised my upper leg away from my lower, so the anus was more accessible. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘you don’t need to do that.’ I lowered the leg, puzzled, and the next thing I knew was an intense pain as she pressed a syringe into my buttock, a long, long way, until she found a muscle. My reactions were mixed at this point. There was the relief at my misunderstanding, and at the knowledge that I wasn’t going to have to suffer the indignity of a suppository introduced into my anus. And there was the recognition that this injection was causing me worse pain than anything I had suffered since arriving in the hospital. I felt like a horse being put down. I told Rosie what I thought she had been going to do to me, and we had a good laugh.

I slept well that night, and after the triumph of the bowels the following morning, I felt ready for anything. But then Rosie came in prepared to give me another injection. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I thought one would be it!’ ‘Four times a day,’ she said, ‘just like the pills.’ ‘I’ll go back on the pills,’ I said, ‘and see if I tolerate them any better.’ ‘OK,’ she said. I did, and this time I felt no sickness, thank God.

The care I received during my six days and nights in The London Clinic was superb. I knew I was jumping the NHS queue, but I just decided to do it. All the staff — doctors, nurses, the providers of the excellent food, the cleaners — were cheerful and unstressed. They had enough work, but not too much. They had time to talk. They were enthusiastic observers of and participants in my recovery. I had my own room, looking out over the Marylebone Road towards Regents Park, with bathroom ensuite (though the walk-in shower was down the corridor), so I had precious privacy. My own television and radio. Visitors welcome at any time of day. I could turn out the light when I wanted to sleep at night, not when someone else decided it was bedtime. It was the way things ought to be — and could be in a rich country like ours — for all sick people, but aren’t.

Helen was simply wonderful. She came every day, bringing newspapers and books, and stayed for hours, feeding me when I was still horizontal, not talking when there was nothing to talk about, just being there, reading or writing or arranging the constantly arriving bouquets of flowers. The best book she brought was Seamus Heaney’s new collection District and Circle, which I read with intense pleasure and admiration, a gift, a blessing, lying on my back and holding it up as if to the light.

Stephen Eyers came and took me home on the Tuesday morning. I lowered myself stiffly into the front passenger seat of a hired saloon car for the short trip to Camden Town, and hauled myself stiffly out at the street door of our flats. Helen was there, and I walked up the two flights of stairs slowly but without difficulty. The three of us had coffee, toast and jam, which tasted exquisite.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasant, enforced regime of convalescence. Every day I’ve walked around Regents Park, watching as the spring has gathered momentum. The chestnut leaves stick up into the air for a day or two after birth, and then fall downwards, intensely green and limp with life. Chestnut flowers are stiff green cones of bud to begin with. Then the florets open, from the bottom upwards, their colour between white and the palest of yellows, with tiny pink lines on them. Sycamore flowers are green even when open — the only green flowers I know. As April has passed, limes, planes, oaks and ashes have stirred in turn. Once a tree is minded to put forth its leaves, the process is quick — three days at the most. If the weather is warm, leaves can appear between one day’s visit and the next.

I’m in good shape.


31 Dec 2006

On Christmas Eve, the day we arrived here, I walked down into the wood and cut branches of holly, which I intertwined in the old wooden plate-racks above the fireplace in the house. It felt significant. For the first time, we were spending Christmas in our own place, rather than — as nearly always throughout my adult life — with my parents.

It was a relief and a liberation: no fixed traditions (must have turkey, must listen to King’s College, Cambridge carol service), no management of difficult emotional weather, none of the melancholy which always assails me at Christmas because I find the carols unbearably sad, because my parents have invested their whole lives, now coming to an end, in a religious fancy whose most intense celebration is at Christmas, and of course I love them while knowing that none of it is true. For once I could be what I am: a grown-up who is now sure that Darwin was right, sure that the whole of religion is an invention of humans once they got to a stage of evolution where self-consciousness was possible, and who, appalled by the realisation that there is birth, life and death and that is all, turned away from such a dreadful truth and invented comforts in the form of saviours and an afterlife (and, in the case of Christianity, a choice of heaven and hell to keep people in order). Last year I looked up yule on the internet, and was glad to read about the ancients, who had a more permanent reason, in the northern hemisphere, for a celebration in late December; the days had arrived at their shortest and would now lengthen. The sun would recover its strength. They sat around their fires with the beer they had brewed, and told stories. That seems to me a reasonable thing to do. One can celebrate the winter solstice, 1500 and more years later, even though the mighty superstructure of Christianity and now commerce sits on top of it.

On Christmas Day we got up late, had a lovely ordinary breakfast, and went up to greet our neighbours and give them presents. (When we had arrived the previous day, there was a card, an orchid and a bottle of Côteaux du Layon from them waiting for us in the fireplace. The card was written in perfect English, and said ‘Welcome to your first Christmas at Kerfontaine’.) Then we drove down to the sea at Fort Bloqué, and walked along the beach. The drive was like a dream; we were the only car on the road. The entirety of France was at lunch. The weather was overcast and perfectly still. Tiny waves. Not a breath of wind. Cold but not freezing. We walked for a couple of hours, I marvelling at how happy I was because, whatever I was feeling, I was allowed to feel it. No obligations of any kind. And what I was feeling was simply self-possession, self-awareness, gratitude at being fit and well after illness, an adult in love with my surroundings and the person next to me. Little grey and black seabirds wheeled and screamed in groups, feeding at the water’s edge. Millions of tiny mussels clung to the rocks. A few people began to appear after their lunches. We drove home, banked up the fire, poured glasses of sherry and opened our presents. Then we made and ate the meal: oysters, foie gras, guinea-fowl, Christmas pudding; champagne, claret and the Côteaux du Layon. We sat and read until about one o’clock. It was a wonderful day; easily the best Christmas Day I have had.


1 Jan 2007

The poetry harvest in 2006 was pretty good by my modest standards. I make it 17, including translations: ‘Away for the Week — One More Thing’ (originally called ‘Difficulties of Translation’), ‘Rough Winds’, ‘Up All Night’, ‘Aloft’, ‘Arts Minister Briefs Journalists’, ‘Car Wash’, a translation of Montale’s ‘I limoni’ (finished finally after many years), ‘Cut Cornfield’, a translation of Dante’s ‘Guido i’ vorrei’, ‘Paul, I should like’ (a sonnet to Paul Ashton which I hope will be the first in a series, each addressed to a friend after the manner of ‘Guido i’ vorrei’ — an idea Paul suggested to me a couple of years ago), ‘Epiphany 2006’, ‘The Twelfth of July’, ‘The Squirrel and the Conkers’, ‘Desolate’, a tribute to my friend Alex McLeod, who died in November, ‘Christmas Atheist’ and ‘Pupil to Teacher’.

The last-mentioned poem, which I wrote in the summer, refers to one of the best things I did this year. In early July, just before we came away, I finally resumed contact with my English teacher Peter Hetherington, the person who, more than anybody, created the person I have been as an adult, through his inspirational influence on me between the ages of 14 and 18. I telephoned. There he was. The conversation was easy. I went round to his house at Bletsoe in Bedfordshire one warm evening. When he had taught me he had been a bachelor. He has married since. I didn’t meet his wife Monica that evening; she was out at a sixth-form dance at Bedford Modern School, the school where Peter and I met, where Peter and she met later when she went to teach there, which she still does. (The four of us are going out together in January.) I met Peter’s son and son’s girlfriend: both delightful. Then Peter and I walked down to the pub and spent three hours talking over a meal. It was the most perfect example of how no barriers exist between truly kindred spirits, even though nearly 40 years had passed since our last proper conversation. (I have seen him a couple of times in the interim, but with others at old boys’ get-togethers — not real meetings.) I told him, soberly and seriously at the beginning of the evening, that he had been a great, great teacher, and that I owed him, intellectually and in terms of the stance on life I had taken since I had left school, more than I owed to anyone else. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that is a heavy responsibility. You were a great pupil.’ The wonderful thing about the content of our conversation that evening is that though it was of course partly retrospective, filling in essential information about events in the ‘great gap of time since first we were dissever’d’ (he quoted the line; I had been Florizel in his production of The Winter’s Tale in 1967), the talk was mainly about now. And our beliefs, our sensibilities, just chimed and chimed.

I gave Peter two presents that night. One was a DVD set of Beckett on Film. [As I wrote in the first chapter of ‘My Life in Prose’,] Peter had introduced me to Beckett in autumn 1966, near the beginning of the A-Level English course. We had first read King Lear, which was on the syllabus. Then he said, ‘Right, now we’re going to read a play which isn’t on the syllabus. It’s called Waiting for Godot. I believe that it and Lear are the two greatest plays written in English in the last 500 years.’ This was an extraordinary and thrilling thing to be told at the age of 15. Later, I realised what a bold judgement it had been, only 11 years after the play had first been performed in England, to overwhelming critical derision (the exception being Harold Hobson, who — I read in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of Peter Hall’s production — wrote in support of the play and the production week after week in The Sunday Times).

The second present was my poems. Later that summer, Peter wrote to me in France to say that he had really enjoyed them, and that it was a very fine collection. This made me immensely proud, and I wrote back to tell him so, enclosing the poem Pupil to Teacher, which I had written in tribute to him.

Alex McLeod died on 4 November. The Parkinson’s Disease from which he had suffered for about 10 years had reduced him to virtual helplessness at the end. I had power of attorney over his affairs. He was in a nursing home at Great Dunmow, the fourth he had been in during the two and a half years since he gave up his flat in Hackney and stopped living independently. Richard Beckley was with him in the home until the last few weeks, when Richard quite rightly accepted the offer of a flat in sheltered accommodation round the corner. He still saw Alex for long periods every day. Richard was Alex’s partner for 15 years, and you would not find a more shining example of practical, caring and constant love during Alex’s illness. It wasn’t just that Richard attended to Alex’s personal needs, making sure that he had the kind of extra food and drink that he liked, buying his clothes, arranging trips out; it was also that he fought endless battles with the management of the homes Alex was in, against laziness, inefficiency and forgetfulness in the provision of the routine care Alex was supposed to get, and — amazingly — sometimes the actual unkindness of some of the staff. Alex was paying an enormous amount of money for his care — around £800 a week — and I don’t think he ever got value for what he paid. As ever in organisations, some of the staff were wonderful. But one home in particular, the newest and shiniest of them, at Sawbridgeworth, which at a cursory glance seemed to represent exactly what care of the elderly and infirm should be like — nice rooms with plenty of light, wide corridors, no smell of age or piss — and which supposedly specialised in looking after people with neurological illnesses, was in fact guilty of scandalous neglect of Alex. The medication on which he depended rarely arrived on time; the food was disgusting. Richard battled every day to get the place to do for Alex what it had contracted to do, and was charging him so much for.

The Great Dunmow home was easily the best, though not perfect. Several of the staff there really loved Alex, and he appreciated that.

At the funeral, Alex’s wife Miriam read the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, beginning ‘To everything there is a season…’ Andrew, Alex’s son, delivered a moving tribute. I read a poem I had written:

In Memoriam Alex McLeod

Born 31 December 1921, died 4 November 2006

He loved long-distance walks. He knew the River Lea
from Three Mill Island, over Hackney Marshes,
on past locks and once-were-villages as the city’s grip loosened
until fields which did his heart good.

He knew the upstream Thames and Oxfordshire’s canals:
adopted hinterland for this arrivant Londoner
who stayed and served so many London schools,
their learners and their teachers, for so long, so well,
you’d number in their thousands those he taught and touched.

Mind you, Home Counties towpaths were a dawdle in the park
for one who’d climbed New Zealand’s mountains in his youth.
The student Tramping Club — all communists, all singers —
crossed the Kaimanawa Range, the Tongariro, Rangitoto:
ancient nation names a gift to music and to metricality.
And followed sea coasts: Coromandel, Taranaki Bight, Cape Turnagain.
He did, a lifetime later, clambering and pacing,
carrying the years behind him like a lunch-stop knapsack, nothing to it.

I see him peering at a map the summer night
before we climbed Mont Vallier. The planning of the route;
the pleasure in the prospect. Then the long, long day
which started in the dark, which finished in the dark,
containing at its height the fierce blue flames
of Pyrenean flowers burning through mist.

Later, on a tide-smoothed strand in Brittany,
small to my tall, his stride is matching mine
despite the thirty years between us
and the Parkinson’s which hinders him already.

Teacher, writer, organiser, arch-encourager; and husband, parent, lover;
one for whom the point of living was to change a world which, crying
out for change, still yielded, and in armfuls, joy;
whose life scorned easy rides;
whose years, he said right to the end, were worth the trip:
he goes before us, that alert, neat gait, light in his eye, and leaning into hope.


31 Aug 2007

My mother has been suffering for about 10 years now from a distressing and progressively worsening condition called systemic scleroderma. This means that the inner digestive tract, all the way through the body, is hardening and losing its porosity. The most grievous effect of the degeneration is that food, when arriving in the gut, isn’t broken down by enzymes as it should be; it sits there and rots, causing pain and bloating of the stomach, and provoking frequent episodes of diarrhoea. Mother gets much of her nutrition now in liquid form, through a tube into the stomach, though she can take some food in the usual way as long as she’s very careful about what and how much she eats. She is weak and thin, and spends more and more time in bed. My father has cared for her with patient devotion all this time. Meanwhile, he is beginning to show early signs of some kind of dementia, in occasional loss of short-term memory and periods of confusion. Last month, he fainted while he was in church, and was taken to hospital. He stayed in for one night. The doctors diagnosed an aortic aneurism: as I understand it, a ballooning of the aorta, the main artery carrying blood from the heart. I flew back to England for a few days. An aneurism of the aorta is a serious condition which can mean sudden death if the aneurism bursts. Dad’s going to see two heart specialists, next week and the week after, and he’ll know then whether an operation is possible or desirable, or whether he must take medicine, or just live quietly.

It must be because of my parents’ failing powers that I think a lot about death these days. It’s a complete waste of time, but I can’t stop doing it. When I light the fire here, which I have done a few times this cold summer, I think about my own body in the crematorium oven. I imagine it yielding to the flames, boiling and bursting. It will happen on a particular date in the not-too-distant future. When I’m driving along by myself, I dwell dolefully on how insignificant are the achievements of my life so far, and on how little of lasting worth I am likely to achieve in the years left to me. I was never like this before. I was always a practical, positive person. Perhaps it’s also because — as must happen when you get to middle age — serious or mortal illness sometimes seems to be all around: my parents; Alex McLeod, who died last November; his partner Richard Beckley, who now has lung cancer; Harold Rosen, who’s just has an operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon, and is very poorly; and friends of my own age with non-Hodgkin’s lyphoma and myeloma. Another reason is that, when I see my parents being irritable with each other, despite the deep love between them, stuck together as they are in a narrow space of habit and routine, I suspect that doubt must be in even their minds about whether there is anything after death. All the joyous certainty of 40 and 50 years ago is falling away. Are they really going to meet Jesus the moment their heart stops beating, or on the Last Day? Of course they’re not. I read a beautiful article in Le Monde yesterday about a bee, fossilised in amber, bearing the pollen of orchids on its back. The bee lived between 15 and 20 million years ago, in the Dominican Republic, which wasn’t a republic then. The scientists who have studied it now believe that orchids appeared on earth between 76 and 84 million years ago. There was an enlarged photograph of the bee. The specks of orchid pollen were quite clear on its back. Breathtaking. It’s that kind of knowledge that I want, bracing knowledge that makes me face up to my fate, get on with my life and enjoy it and do the things I want to do, not mope about with gloomy bits of philosophising, still tainted by all the religious rubbish which I thought I had got rid of good and proper.

Camden Town

30 Nov 2007

In a moment of wild and foolish optimism in September, I began to write a post-script to the chapter on politics in ‘My Life in Prose’.

‘To descend from the grand and general to the personal and particular, Gordon Brown’s performance since he took over as prime minister from Tony Blair at the end of June makes me sure I was right to stick with the Labour Party. He’s been brilliant. Since he took over, he’s had to deal with and respond to attempted terrorist outrages, widespread flooding, a foot-and-mouth outbreak and the continuing tragedy of children being killed by other children in the poorer parts of our cities. It hasn’t been a quiet summer. His actions and his tone have been just right. He sounds like a statesman. Apart from unforeseen events, he has made some planned announcements, notably to give more power to parliament vis-à-vis the executive, which are wise and truly democratic. I like his cabinet appointments. He has given some ministerial and advisory posts to people outside the Labour Party, which not everybody approved of, but which I think was imaginative and inclusive. He made the Liberals look foolish by offering to give Paddy Ashdown a Cabinet post, only for Ming Campbell to refuse the offer (the best recent example I know in politics of a drowning man refusing the offer of a lifebelt). He took his family holiday in Dorset, England, rather than in Italy with the Berlusconis, as the Blairs once did, to their shame. I heard a Conservative woman activist, with the kind of cut-glass accent which it’s easy to forget still exists in parts of the shires, describe him as having gravitas, in sorrowful contrast, so far as she was concerned, to the leader of her own party. If I were a Conservative, I’d be worried.’

I didn’t get any further than that before events overtook me. How wrong can you be? It just shows that I can’t bear to abandon myself to the kind of political scepticism — ‘a plague on all their houses’ — which is the position so many of my friends have come to. But in the light of events since I wrote that paragraph, I can justly be accused of terminal political naivety, of wanting my leaders to be better people than they are.

In October, the lunatic idea began to be discussed that Gordon Brown might call a snap general election, which — it was suggested — would take advantage of the honeymoon he was enjoying with the electorate, and give him his own five-year term. It was obvious to me that the one way in which Brown might throw away his popularity would be to do just that. The electorate would conclude that, despite the brave words Brown had said about humility and service when he entered Number 10, here was another prime minister just toying with them. Instead of crushing talk of an election immediately, Brown allowed the chatter to continue until it overwhelmed Labour’s party conference. At the Conservative conference the following week, Cameron gave a very good speech, in which he told Brown he was ready to take him on. Brown made the terrible decision to go to Iraq during the Tory conference, which — whatever his real motives for going there — looked as if he was visiting the soldiers simply in order to attract media attention away from the Tories. Then an opinion poll gave the Conservatives their best showing for a long time, and Brown was forced to announce that there wouldn’t be an election after all. Nobody believed him when he said his decision hadn’t been affected by the Conservatives’ good conference and good poll showing. He managed to look weak and calculating at the same time; the opposite of the way he had looked only a month previously.

Meanwhile, the difficulties in the summer of the Northern Rock bank — certainly not the fault of the government — have become graver and graver. In order to keep the bank afloat, the Bank of England has been lending it money. So far, we the taxpayers have lent a bank, whose difficulties were the result of reckless management by already rich men who wanted to make themselves richer, about £25 billion. People better informed than I, like Will Hutton, say the government should have nationalised the bank for a while in order to straighten it out. That sounds sensible to me. Instead, the government is trying to find a private bidder for Northern Rock. This isn’t proving easy. And there is now an enormous amount of money owing to the exchequer, with no certainty about when or even whether it’s going to be paid back. This has made the government a sitting duck for partisan attacks from the Tories on grounds of economic incompetence.

Next, a different kind of incompetence — culpable but farcical — came to light when we heard that a junior civil servant in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had sent two CDs containing the names, addresses and bank details of the 25 million people in households receiving child benefit to the National Audit Office, in the ordinary internal mail, with no special care to protect them, and that the CDs had gone missing. Again, definitely not the government’s fault, but a significant emergency nonetheless. So far I haven’t heard of anyone suffering as a result of their personal details falling into the wrong hands. But it’s the kind of cock-up which makes a government look inept; and it’s easy — though probably nonsense — for the opposition to say that government cuts to HMRC make this sort of thing more likely to happen.

But now to the worst. The ‘cash for honours’ police enquiry in the last months of the Blair government failed to bring a case to court. Cash had changed hands; honours had been handed out. But to legally prove a causal connection between those two events, for any individual donor or lender, would have been too difficult. I’m sure that a few people close to Blair were mighty relieved.

Brown was going to be a new broom; his government would be clean. The people would be able to trust their leaders at last.

Last Monday, the general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, resigned. A rich property developer had been giving money to the party through proxies, which is illegal. Watt claimed that, although he knew this was going on, he did not know it was illegal. Nobody believes this. Watt was one of the handful of people in the country whose job it was to know what political parties are and are not allowed to do by way of accepting donations.

Jon Mendelsohn, the man whom Gordon Brown had appointed to be Labour’s general election fund-raiser, replacing Tony Blair’s Lord Levy, then admitted that he had known what the property developer, David Abrahams, had been doing. He pleaded that he was ‘unhappy’ with the arrangement, though he had been assured by Watt that it was legal, and that he had been going to meet Abrahams to tell him that he wanted the proxy payments to stop. Again, nobody believes this.

What is certain is that Labour has been accepting illegal gifts. This is a disastrous state of affairs. There will be a police enquiry. Labour has been breaking its own law — the law which it passed in 2000 to try to clean up the funding of political parties in the light of the profound corruption of the Thatcher and Major years.

The government has gone from an absolutely dominating position in the three months since Brown became prime minister to a position where, if there were to be an election tomorrow, there would be a big Tory victory. Of course, Brown doesn’t have to call an election until the spring of 2010, and a lot can happen between then and now. But whereas I was sure, a year ago, that once Brown became PM, the electorate would give him the rest of the uncompleted parliament and then one more full one — in other words, a clear run until 2013 at the earliest — I now think he’ll struggle to retain power after 2010.

Camden Town

3 Dec 2007

We had a good weekend in Norfolk, staying with Adam and Hazel, who’ve moved up there in retirement, having greatly enlarged and improved the cottage they’ve owned for 25 years. On Saturday, a beautiful bright cold day, we walked on the huge beach at Holkham, and then admired the countless thousands of migrating geese feeding and resting on the marshes inland from the dunes: an extraordinary sight and sound.


2 Jan 2008

We came here last Saturday.

In November and December, I took my father three times to St George’s Hospital, Tooting. He needed an operation on the abdominal aortic aneurism which had been discovered in August. The first visit was to meet the surgeon, who explained that there was a one in twenty chance that dad would die during the operation; but that there was, in any one year, a one in three chance that the aneurism would burst, which would be fatal. So it was an easy choice to make. The second visit was for preliminary tests and to tie off blood to one of dad’s buttocks; he stayed in one night. The third visit was for the main operation, when he stayed in six nights. I visited him every evening during this visit. We read poetry to each other. He had taken two books into hospital: the Bible and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I wondered, but didn’t ask him, whether the choice of those two amounted to an each-way bet on the existence of a hereafter.

The operation was successful. It was performed in Tooting because that hospital is at the moment the only place in the country which does a micro-surgical version of the procedure to replace an aneurised abdominal aorta with a stent. I was shown a stent; shaped like a diviner’s rod, it’s a cylinder about a centimetre in diameter and about five long, made of I’m not sure what material (it looked like compressed cardboard, but can’t be), enclosed by a metal mesh which reminded me of fish-net stockings. The top attaches to the tissue of the aorta coming down from the heart; the two openings at the bottom attach to the main arteries going down into each leg. The really clever thing about it is that when it is introduced into the body, through a small cut in the groin, and then guided into position with the help of a wire poked through a small cut in the other groin, it’s tightly compressed. When it’s in exactly the right place (the manoeuvre is remotely observed on a TV screen), it’s somehow twisted and expands to its full width. At each of the three ends, the metal mesh pops outward diagonally to form wings which press against the interior of the good tissue, creating a blood-tight seal. Thereafter, the blood flows through the stent, and the aneurised tissue outside it is redundant. At least, I think that’s it. Amazing.

In the early hours of 16 December, Richard Beckley died in St Clare’s Hospice in Harlow. His lung cancer had progressed, and the radiotherapy he had borne during the autumn hadn’t had much effect. I had seen him on the afternoon of the 15th. He was perfectly clear in his mind, although he could hardly talk. He was on oxygen, and all his effort was going into breathing. The breath was thick and noisy. His eyes were closed most of the time. I told him everything I could think to say, and reminded him of some good times we had had together; especially the week last April he had spent with us at Kerfontaine. I recounted a few of the funny bits from a biography of Tennyson I was reading. He laughed. I read him a poem of Rilke, Frühling ist wiedergekommen, in the German, then the English translation, then the German again. We had been going to have a seminar on Rilke, so he could explain to me some of the poems I can’t understand. (He taught German at King’s College, London all his career.) Then I held his hand for an hour. Once he opened his eyes, and smiled intensely at me. At last I left, because I had to get back to Tooting. I told Richard I would be round to see him early the following week, and he nodded and smiled, but we both knew that was unlikely. That evening, his godson Peter phoned to say that the hospice had told him to come urgently if he wished to be with Richard at the end. Peter went with his wife Maria, and they sat with Richard for the few hours until he died.

Later that morning, I took dad home. I was standing at the foot of his bed, waiting for him to be discharged, when a consultant and his junior, a young woman, came round. While the consultant was looking at dad, the junior came over to me and said, ‘We lost a couple last night in here. But this one should be all right,’ pointing at dad. ‘He’s pretty fit for his age.’ ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ I replied. ‘What do you think?’ she asked. I said that I didn’t have a medical opinion, but that speaking as the patient’s son, I knew he’d always looked after himself. She blushed violently, having taken me for another doctor, and apologised in some confusion. I told her how flattered I was that I looked like a consultant. I suppose I was wearing the sort of smart casual clothes that doctors wear when doing rounds at the weekend.

Helen and I went to Wootton for Christmas, which was the usual mixture of feelings I’ve described in the past, the absence of which I so celebrated a year ago. The best part was Boxing Day morning, when Helen stayed with mum, and dad and I went for a circular drive around the north Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire villages in the bright sunlight: Bromham, Oakley, Pavenham, Carlton, Harrold, Lavendon, Cold Brayfield, Turvey, Newton Blossomville, Hardmead (nothing there but a little church, a rectory certainly not lived in by the rector, and a row of council houses), Astwood, Cranfield, and home.

Straight after Richard’s funeral on 28 December, we drove to the Channel Tunnel and stopped the night at a hotel in Montreuil-sur-Mer. It was already half past ten, but our host said we could have a meal if we chose quickly, which we did. There, in the lovely dining room before a bright fire, I had tournedos and Helen had veal kidneys, with a bottle of Beaujolais. When I asked for un petit cognac after the meal, our host said, ‘Petit ou normale? Vous ne conduisez plus ce soir.’ Normale was enormous. We slept until ten, and then spent an hour getting food in the Saturday market in that wonderful big square in the town. We bought a guinea-fowl from the smallest stall; the woman had two birds left, plucked but still bloody, and a choice of three or four vegetables with damp mud on them: about as far from supermarket presentation standards as conceivable. Then we drove here, arriving about half past seven.

All the food was delicious.


3 Feb 2008

I’m here at this time of year for the second year running, for an utterly foolish and self-indulgent reason. I accompany Arnaud Beauvais, our restaurateur friend in Lorient, to the annual trade exhibition of Loire wines, held at the Parc des Expositions, a great shed at the edge of the town. Last year we tasted about 200 wines in the course of two days, spitting as we went. This year I expect it’ll be the same: gargling and expectorating samples of Fiefs Vendéens, Vouvray, Sancerre, Quincy, Savennières, Chinon… up and down the river and its tributaries. We start in the morning on dry whites, move to rosés just before lunch, then on to reds in the early afternoon, finishing with sweet wines about four o’clock. We eat only a sandwich at lunchtime. By the end of the working day, although not at all drunk, we are high on the fumes of the wines which have entered the chambers of our brains. And, despite our best intentions, the sweet wines are generally so delicious that it’s impossible to resist swallowing a few mouthfuls. So we hardly require an apéritif before dinner, though we have one anyway, in a different restaurant each night, each place carefully chosen by Arnaud, where of course we do go on to drink the wine, pleasurably uncorseting ourselves after the day’s restraint.

For Arnaud, this is serious business. He makes written notes on every wine he tastes, and gives each a star rating out of five. He has a stock of about 11,000 bottles back in Lorient, constantly being depleted by the restaurant’s customers, and needing to be topped up. He has regular and trusted suppliers, so he knows where he’s going amongst the 500 or so stands. We are not grazing randomly. The vignerons he meets greet him as a friend and colleague. On se tutoie. After tasting each supplier’s full range, starting with last year’s hopeful and immature offering, and moving back through tongue sensations of greater and greater complexity and distinction, the purchasing is done with perfect informality. Arnaud says how many bottles he would like of each of his chosen vintages, and approximately when he wants the goods delivered. The vigneron writes his order down. That’s it. No money will change hands until the wine arrives in Lorient. Trust is everything. My good fortune is that I’m allowed to buy at the same prices that he pays. My wine is delivered to the restaurant, in separate boxes, and I pick it up at Easter or in the summer, and send off my cheques then. The mark-up on wine bought in a restaurant by the diner is enormous, as is well known. I buy perhaps 50 bottles of the best wines of the region, to Arnaud’s several hundred, and pay between three and seven euros a bottle, delivery included. Arnaud generously asks me for my opinion on each wine, although the gesture is like my asking for his views on endogenous growth theory or the state of leg-spin bowling in England. I do my best to vary the short series of adjectives I produce on each occasion, but by mid-afternoon my stock of reasonable descriptors is exhausted, even in a foreign language I speak rather well, and if I’m not careful I lurch into absurd poeticisms, especially about the demi-secs and the moëlleux, which cause Arnaud to look at me with an expression of smiling tolerance, but not to be able to concur with and build on my contributions in the way that companions in conversation usually do.

One thing I almost never do: criticise a wine. I did make an exception last year, when Arnaud allowed himself to stray from his usual well-trodden paths to visit the stand of a friend of a friend, who flattered himself that he was a pioneer in challenging France’s image as the stuffy grande dame of world wine-making, and in promoting un look more likely to appeal to the young and unsophisticated consumer. The result was a red called Vin Rude, sporting a label which would not have been out of place on the top shelf at a newsagent. Arnaud was polite to the friend of the friend, but for once made no written record of the tasting. When we were well out of earshot we agreed that Vin Rude had been disgusting. Whether it will become the tipple of enough former lager drinkers to help reverse France’s steadily declining share of world wine sales, I doubt.

This morning I walked down from the flat to the magnificent St Pancras International station: ten minutes. I passed through check-in and passport control: two minutes. I stood in the beautiful, spare, spacious undercroft (a word I didn’t know until ten days ago, when I read it in an article describing the project; the internet told me in seconds that croft here is nothing to do with small Scottish farms, but is a shift from crypt, subterranean room), had a coffee, and escalated to the platform. The mighty arch has been superbly restored and painted. The central part of its span has new clear glass, so this morning’s blue sky beamed luminously through. Brilliant. The train left bang on time, of course. It almost immediately goes into a series of tunnels, travelling at such speed that when you emerge at the first recognisable place, after only a few minutes, you are already at Dagenham. Travellers’ horses in flat fields. Then you’re under the ascending carriageway of the Dartford Bridge, then in another tunnel under the Thames before a brief stop at the newly-built Ebbsfleet station (there’s no there there), then you charge through Kent, then you’re under the sea, and it’s France and Gare du Nord seemingly in no time, such is the wonderment of it. Straight under Paris in the métro, and I was at Gare Montparnasse in time to be able to leave the crushing, gloomy place and have a glass of wine and a croque monsieur in a proper bar across the road. Then on to a TGV which delivered me to Angers in an hour and 35 minutes, bang on time of course. At one moment I looked up from reading and saw great white wind turbines, their sails turning in the stiff wind, standing in a wide field of green winter corn, the sky gently azure above, with high cloud, and I felt briefly optimistic about the world after I’m dead.

The most notable thing to have occurred since I last wrote is that in the late evening of Monday 14 January, dad was again taken seriously ill, this time at home. He fell over and couldn’t get up. His speech was incoherent. The following morning, after a visit from the doctor, he was taken into hospital in Bedford with a suspected stroke. Mary flew over from Marseille that day. I met her in London and we drove straight to the hospital.

Dad was in hospital for eight days. It turned out that he’d suffered only a TIA, a transient ischaemic attack, commonly known as a mini-stroke. He was for two or three days deeply confused, and there was some loss of mobility in his right arm. But a TIA doesn’t leave any permanent damage in the brain; once the little blood clot which had briefly denied oxygen to the brain has dispersed, the patient is no worse off than before the attack. There is no treatment: only the prescription of precautionary drugs which thin the blood, making future clotting less likely.

I brought dad home on Wednesday 23 January. That day, we had a lengthy meeting with a social worker and a district nurse. The result is that mum will get an enhanced level of publicly-provided care, which will take the pressure off dad. This extra care hasn’t actually turned up yet, the wheels of administration turning as slowly as they do, but it is promised. However, the best development with regard to care has occurred as a result of a suggestion which my brother Andy made. A recently retired nurse called Joyce Bavington, known to Andy, who lives in the village and who has known of mum and dad for a long time, is happy to earn a bit of money to enhance her pension. She now comes in twice a day, morning and evening. In the morning she prepares breakfast; in the evening she helps mum and dad to get to bed. She makes sure they’re both taking the right pills at the right time. She gives them steady emotional support, and they know they can ring her any time if there’s an emergency. She, plus the carer who comes in later in the morning to help mum shower and get dressed, plus the five volunteer ladies from the church who come in at tea-time Monday to Friday to make tea, plus Judy who cleans on Friday mornings, constitute an adequate amount of care. The extra publicly-funded care which should come soon will provide someone to make lunch. I hope all of this will allow mum and dad to stay in their house, at least for the time being and possibly for the rest of their lives, which is what they want.

Gare du Nord

6 Feb 2008

Here I am at the Gare du Nord, on my way back from the wine-tasting. This place and my notebooks are for ever associated in my mind because of the catastrophe which befell me in 1996, when I left a precious notebook full of writing on the train, having arrived here from London. I am now neurotically careful whenever travelling with notebooks.

The last two days have been, as they were last year, immensely pleasurable and self-indulgent. Arnaud and I remained stringently sober throughout our perambulations at the exhibition, spitting as we went. Mainly, we visited the same stands as last year: all small independent growers, all Arnaud’s friends. We tasted Vouvray, Savennières, Cheverny, Côteaux du Layon, Chaume, Mareuil, Haut-Poitou, Sancerre, Reuilly, Saumur-Champigny. I think I spent just short of 1500 euros, though I’ve only had to shell out a third of that on the spot. The rest I’ll pay in April or in the summer. It sounds a lot. It is a lot. But over the course of a year it may constitute a kind a saving, since I won’t be buying much wine at high street prices. Thus I justify my extravagance to myself.

On all three evenings we ate in good restaurants in Angers, Arnaud generously paying for two of the three meals and, as I discovered this morning when leaving the hotel, settling the hotel bill as well. He was away by seven o’clock, we having got to bed about half past one. I slept until nearly ten, and awoke to find that the rains of the last two days had cleared away, leaving a washed blue sky with a few small clouds. Standing on the platform at Angers, the sun was agreeably warm on my face: the earliest stirrings of spring.

Now we’re tearing across the northern French plain at 180 mph. Everyone in this full carriage is quiet. What is it about French TGVs which, on the whole and leaving rugby and stag weekends on one side, cause people to behave so much more considerately with regard to others’ peace than they tend to on English trains? Perhaps it’s wonderment at the sheer speed. Perhaps the continuous low roar of the wheels on the track is effective in muffling voices.

The flat quiet countryside slips by. In stands of deciduous woodland, the leafless branches are precise against the sky…

I fell asleep after Lille (it must have been the little carafe of Côtes du Rhône I had with the plat du jour in the brasserie at the Gard du Nord) and woke up in England. After a short stop at Ashford, the train is now galloping towards London. We cross over the Medway as the sun descends towards the slack fired water. We slide under the Thames next to the Dartford Bridge. The guard welcomes us to London and wishes us a good evening with the train still in sight of the bridge. Extraordinary. Now comes the long tunnel, taken at full speed, and we’re there, under the arch of St Pancras. Suburbia negated in a twinkling. It’s one of the great engineering achievements of the world. Telford, Brunel and the Stephensons would have approved. We’re on time, of course.

London Library

14 Feb 2008

I’m sitting in the Reading Room of the London Library. I’ve been a member here for two or three years. Until now, Paul Ashton has paid for my membership as a very generous annual birthday present, in response to my having bought him three years’ membership (with a bit of help from Channel 4 colleagues) when he left the channel in 2002. Before Christmas, there was a big increase in the Library’s annual subscription fee, causing Tom Stoppard, the president, to write an apologetic letter to members. Paul asked me whether he might from now on choose a different birthday present for me. I said of course. But then, when my subscription came up for renewal, the question arose: was I willing to pay £375 a year myself to continue my membership? I almost decided that this was a ridiculous luxury; I threw the papers in the bin at work. But then I pulled them out again, realised that I could pay in monthly instalments at no extra charge, decided that £31.25 a month to have a place in central London where I am absolutely guaranteed silence (not to mention access to a few thousand good books) is a modest cost, filled in the papers and sent them off. I then recalled that my membership card had been in the wallet which I lost in the autumn, so I came down this morning and was given a replacement. Here I am.

I like it here. I approve of the silence which all in the room maintain. The slight traffic noise from St James’s Square doesn’t bother me at all. The light is good, and the simple pleasure of having a writing desk, uncluttered, at the right height, with a comfortable but firm upright chair to sit on, is worth much.

As soon as I have written the paragraph above, a young woman sits down next to me, causing a certain amount of disturbance as she deposits three library books, her handbag and a bottle of mineral water on her desk. The last of these, as I know from the ‘Reading Room Etiquette’ notice stuck on each desk, is the only form of food or drink allowed in the RR. Then the young woman takes from her handbag a tin containing, as I see when she opens it, some kind of sweetmeat — it might be Turkish Delight and nuts, covered in powdered sugar — which she begins to eat with a spoon which she has also taken from the bag. I glance at her with the mildest and briefest expression of disapproval, as if I have been a regular in the RR since the time of Tennyson and Carlyle. My glance is sufficient censure to cause her to move, with handbag, snack, water and books, to another part of the room. She settles herself there with further minor disturbance. Looking across, I can see that she is continuing furtively to eat. In addition, she has begun to write on a lap-top computer, also produced from the handbag. It is a big bag. According to the rules of the Library, electronic writing machines may only be used in the RR’s North Bay, which is straight ahead of me through double doors with glass panels. I can see people tapping away in there. Writers in the RR proper must use older means of making marks. So this woman is simultaneously guilty of one breach of RR etiquette and one of Library rules. I decide against reporting her to the young attendant, who would have to go across and reprove the member, risking bad feeling and possibly a scene: an unwelcome duty amid the tranquillity of the morning. The woman is not really distracting me (except that she obviously is, or why would I have written so much about her?) despite the occasional clink of spoon on tin.

Now that I’m paying for my membership by direct debit, I expect I shall remain a member for ever, unless I become so poor in retirement that I can’t even afford silence (or, as this morning, the next thing to it). The older you get, the lower the one-off price of life membership. I’m grateful that I’m still young enough for life membership to be way beyond my means, but I imagine that a time comes, for an older person with some savings, when it’s worth making an optimistic gamble on longevity, reflecting perhaps that the outlay of those few thousand pounds is a good reason, in moments of despair, to go on living.

Camden Town

18 Feb 2008

We’re enjoying a series of days of perfect sunshine. Each day is cold, clear and blue. The nights are still and frosty, with a gibbous moon. The trees stand calmly straight, accepting the afternoon warmth and the night chill. They wait for longer light and higher temperatures, but I expect that this interval of midwinter spring will hasten the arrival of leaf in March or April.

My niece Tess, aged 8, arrived from Marseille on Friday evening. She’s going to stay with us for a week: the last week of Mary’s and Jacques’s three-week honeymoon in India. She is a delight. She has exquisite manners; she is easy to please; she will eat anything; she is interested in everything; she has an unexpected gift for comic mime and improvisation. We love her.

On Saturday we walked in the park and spent half an hour in the children’s playground: something that parents of young children spend great slabs of their lives doing, but a novelty for us. Noticeable in the playground were single fathers with their offspring. I guess we were looking at divorcees’ access: Saturday morning, pick up child, go to park, let child play, move on later to Macdonald’s or Pizza Express. The small sample of fathers who were there on Saturday were not impressive parents. They spent the time on the phone to adult friends, making social arrangements not related to their children. When the children interrupted them with a perfectly reasonable request (‘Daddy, push me on the swings’), they were irritable at being distracted from their call. Minor pieces of misbehaviour (child scuffs trainers through soft-landing material under climbing frame) were scolded aggressively or with a light cuff to the head. There was one obviously caring dad there; unfortunately he didn’t have much grasp of the laws of physics. His little boy wanted a go on the roundabout, which was spinning round as fast as another adult, a mum, had been able to push it for her child, who was already aboard. The dad carried his boy to the roundabout, leaned over it and dropped the boy on, expecting him to grab one of the rails. The little boy, of course, couldn’t get a grip immediately, and was catapulted straight off on to the surrounding soft-landing material by the centrifugal force. He didn’t cry, to his great credit and possibly to that of the soft-landing material (although I know there’s a debate about whether we’ve made children’s playgrounds too safe — ‘We need to let them discover their own limits,’ some say). He got up and declared in a public voice, ‘I’m not doing that again.’

Then we walked on and admired the ducks, moorhens, geese and herons on the lake. Tess was interested to see the great unwieldy herons manoeuvring on to their wide shallow nests in the tops of the trees, carrying sticks in their beaks. We walked all round the park in the freezing sunshine. Tess from Marseille wasn’t fully equipped for these temperatures, so we went to Marks and Spencer and bought her a hat, gloves and scarf to go with the coat and boots she already had. We shopped for food and went home and had lunch. We watched a football game (FA Cup 5th round — Manchester United 4, Arsenal 0 — Helen needed counselling) and later we went to Daphne’s Restaurant for dinner. Anna, who owns Daphne’s with her son Nicholas, speaks very good French, having been a French teacher at Pimlico School for many years. When she discovered that Tess is from Marseille, she brought Marcel Berlins, journalist, broadcaster and regular diner at Daphne’s, also born in Marseille, over to meet her. Marcel was charming, and exchanged words with Tess about places in Marseille they both knew.

The government will nationalise the Northern Rock bank. Good. I don’t know enough about the details of the private bids which have been made for the bank, nor of the bank’s robustness in terms of assets and liabilities, to be absolutely sure that the government has wasted several months, and should have done this in the autumn; but that’s my guess. The Tories, of course, are trying to present this as final proof of the government’s economic incompetence. It’s nothing of the kind. There’s no comparison with 16 September 1992. The incompetence, as I’ve written before, is with the greedy rich men who ran Northern Rock, and who wanted to make even more money by relying on wholesale international borrowing to get the funds to lend for mortgages, rather than getting their income from savings and from steady existing mortgage payments, as Building Societies used to do.

Yesterday, Kosovo declared independence. Again, good. Serbia and Russia are howling, predictably. Some countries with minorities calling for their own independence have objected. But most of the EU countries, plus America, will recognise an independent Kosovo. Comparisons with other situations where provinces or minorities want to secede from an existing state are inappropriate, unless those provinces or minorities have recently experienced genocide, as the Kosovan Albanians have. Yes, there has been some dreadful abuse of the Serbian minority in Kosovo; but nothing compared to what Milosevic did in 1999 to the Albanian majority, and less than nothing compared to what he would have done if NATO hadn’t stopped him. We just have to hope that the new government will keep its promise to run a secular, democratic state, tolerant of minority rights. I think it will sincerely try to, with EU, UN and NATO help. The problem, I think, will come from the other side, with the Kosovan Serbs taking orders from Serbia not to co-operate, and using violence to foment inter-communal hatred. On the other hand, Serbia recently elected, thank God, a pro-European president; there must be a majority opinion in Serbia which wants to get on with the social-democratic life which the rest of us enjoy, join the EU, join the euro (which Kosovo already has done, de facto), and move beyond the disasters into which Milosevic led them. His grand, brutal dream of being the master of all Yugoslavia has shrunk, now he’s dead, to the reality that Serbia is merely Serbia: not Serbia-with-Montenegro and now not even Serbia-with-Kosovo.

Train from London to Stafford

16 Mar 2008

The starkest possible contrast with the Eurostar experience I described last month: I’m travelling up England by train, at the speed of an 18th-century stage-coach. Such is the parlous state of our railways, and so desperate and overdue is the need to repair them on Sundays. I’m going to spend what will remain of the day, when I get there, with David, Lindsay and Tom James. David’s coming over to Stafford to pick me up. I shall have to phone him in a minute and try to estimate how late I’ll be. The alternative would have been to drive; not a viable alternative on a day when they’ve closed the M1 completely to demolish a bridge. So, the usual travelling misery, caused by a mixture of chronic under-investment in public transport over decades; the confusion in the division of responsibility as between public and private entities in the running of the railways; and, in the case of the roads, the simple problem of wealth. Too many of us have cars which we want to drive too often, too far. The infrastructure can’t cope. Meanwhile, the planet bleeds.

On Friday, I drove dad from Wootton to Tooting for a check-up on his aneurism operation. It took nearly three hours to drive the 60 miles there; about two and a quarter to drive back. 38 years ago, I used to do an almost identical journey — Wootton to Richmond, to visit Jenny — in an hour and a half. Where they’re widening the M1 to four lanes south of Luton is an apocalyptic scene of mud and metal, a great brown stain on Hertfordshire. I remember Forster’s fear in Howard’s End of the creep of the city and the machine into that county: ‘a red rust’.

I had a terrible day yesterday. I spent several hours speaking to courteous people in India, trying in vain to get our internet connection fixed. ‘Only connect.’ Failed. The sense of the waste of time, of a precious day of my life flushed down the toilet (Larkin’s wonderful phrase — ‘time torn off unused’) weighed more and more heavily on me, and brought down the gloom I have to try to stave off often in this phase of my life: the fear that, for all the assortment of achievements I can point to in my 35 years of adult life, it doesn’t add up to much. I’ve been a utility player: a bit of this, a bit of that. And the growing feeling that this is how it’s going to be. Everyone of my age who’s going to make a run has made it by now. I’m not one of them. It’s not about money, of course. It’s about making a mark of greater longevity than the length of your own working lifetime; causing a stir which goes beyond your immediate circle of friends and professional colleagues. I haven’t done that.

England is covered with water. The vile, charmless shelters about which I’ve written in the past — the houses and bungalows in their crowded thousands which accommodate the great mass of the population — scar the landscape and grieve the eye everywhere. They look worse than ever in a dull light and drizzle.

The train has taken a long deviation around the western edge of Birmingham. We slide past the feet of the stilts which carry the M6 and M5 as they intersect. Indescribable ugliness everywhere. Piles of rubbish. Meaningless graffiti. Two swans preen one another by a canal. There is blossom in the most unexpected places.

Wootton, Bedfordshire

23 Mar 2008

With mum and dad. We came up this morning, bringing the lunch. This afternoon we walked round the village while mum and dad rested. It’s a wintry Easter: freezing cold, with snow flurries and occasional sunny intervals. It could be Christmas. The over-committed buds and flowers are on hold; some are drying and shrivelling in the icy wind.

Today is the earliest Easter for many years. It will not fall as early as this again, I read, until 2160. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox or, as will very occasionally happen, after the full moon at the spring equinox. So it could fall one day earlier than this, on 22 March. On Friday night, the night of the equinox, there was a beautiful full moon in the indigo sky, the clouds racing, obscuring and revealing it. It was the Council of Nicaea in 365 which decided when Easter should be celebrated. Why they decided to make it a moveable feast, following the moon, I don’t know. Christmas, after all, is a fixed feast. I’m sure the reason is known. Perhaps, just as the decision on Christmas was to piggy-back on the pagan festival of Yule, there was an existing spring festival, date governed by the moon, and the Christian fathers decided to piggy-back on that. Then, of course, there was the schism between Rome and Byzantium, causing Easter usually to be celebrated on different Sundays in the two spheres of influence. This year the Orthodox Easter isn’t until 27 April — five weeks away.

Camden Town

30 Apr 2008

May Day and Ascension Day on the same day: extremely rare. I’ve just rung Rosa and she tells me that these feasts — one humanistic, one religious — haven’t coincided since 1913.

We’re off to Portugal this afternoon, to spend the long weekend with Glenda and Julian Walton. Julian is teaching in an international school in Lisbon. Glenda retired from Shropshire’s education service at Christmas, and is simply enjoying her new-found leisure in the douce climate down there. What fun.

My best recent news is that I’m putting my poems on a website — I’ve struck up a friendship with a wonderful man called Mark Leicester, who until recently worked in the web team at Teachers TV. I’ve always liked him, but we didn’t have much to do with each other until the week before Easter. When our internet access at home failed, I asked Mark whether he would mind coming to look at it. He came round on Maundy Thursday evening, even though this kind of maintenance work is well below his usual plane of operation; he’s a web designer and programmer, with advanced conceptual, even philosophical, ideas about what the web can do, and how this new medium is changing our sense of the potential of content. It’s too boring to describe our struggles over the Easter weekend to restore internet access to 77 Weavers Way; many hours were spent on the phone to India. Success was eventually achieved on Easter Monday at 10.00pm. In the course of our trials, we got to know each other, and I said that I had been thinking of putting my poems on the web. (Mike Raleigh has been encouraging me to do this for some time, and I was just coming round to the decision to take Mike’s advice when I met Mark.) Mark said he’d do it for me, and he has! The site looks wonderful already, even though it’s still being built, and all sorts of extra embellishments will be added before it goes live (at the moment it’s password-protected, but I haven’t been able to resist giving the password to a few friends, who’ve all been impressed).

There’s something about the existence of this website which has released me, poetically. I’m going to stop looking back, fiddling, wondering whether some other kind of configuration of the work might tempt an editor to write me an acceptance rather than a rejection letter. I’m going to put the stuff out there, and I can say that I have published it. I’ll tell friends and acquaintances about its existence, and we’ll see if some kind of audience builds. I’m going to give people permission to use the poems for their own purposes, non-commercially, as long as they attribute me. There will be an invitation to visitors to give some money to Sight Savers International if they want to show appreciation in a practical way. It’s terribly exciting.

Not much is different with mum and dad. Mary and Tess spent a week with them in April, while Helen and I were in France. There was an absurd emergency when the hospital rang up one evening to say that mum must go in immediately; the values which they’d just read in a sample of her blood (taken two weeks previously) meant that she was on the point of death. An ambulance arrived, which Mary followed to the hospital. Mum and Mary sat in there for several hours, only to be told that it was a false alarm; someone had muddled up mum’s blood readings with another person’s. Several more hours passed before an ambulance came to take mum home. Relying on satellite navigation, the driver and his mate (both French) managed to take mum to the wrong village. She heaved herself up from the bed and identified the village as Kempston Church End; they were outside the school where she’d been headmistress for all those years. She was able to direct them home by means of local human knowledge. Mary was just about to phone the hospital to report a lost ambulance when they arrived. We don’t know whether the person who really was at risk of imminent death did die because they weren’t got into hospital in time, or not.

I’ve just finished a translation of Booz Endormi by Victor Hugo. I’m very pleased with what I’ve done, and Peter Hetherington, David James, Mike Raleigh and Helen have all been highly complimentary. In an email David sent me last week, with his thanks for the translation, he included an entertaining detail which he remembered from a biography of Victor Hugo:

‘For some reason I treasure the thought, as reported in Graham Robb's biography, of Hugo in old age, building a small greenhouse on the roof of his Jersey home, in which, of a morning, he would shave naked and then expel over his head, through a kind of Thomas Crapper device, a large gush of rosewater. This was preparatory to his later stroll down to the port area, where he would visit various ladies of the night, or, in his case, afternoon.’

It’s caused me to want to go out and buy the biography this afternoon before we go to the airport.

Helen and I went to vote in the London mayoral elections this morning. It’ll be a close-run thing between Ken Livingstone and the Tory Boris Johnson. Nationally, Labour is in deep difficulties; Brown’s nightmare continues. The latest fiasco is over tax on poor people: not the poorest, but people on modest incomes, as the genteel phrase has it. In March 2007, in his final budget as chancellor, Brown abolished the 10p rate of income tax which he had himself introduced ten years previously; the abolition was not to take effect, however, until April 2008. I don’t know why he abolished the 10p rate, from his own point of view. If it had been a good progressive thing to introduce it in 1997, why was it no longer a good progressive thing in 2007? The headline-grabbing part of Brown’s tax changes in that budget was the reduction in the basic rate from 22p to 20p. Perhaps Brown thought, wrongly, that even the people who had been beneficiaries of the 10p rate would be net gainers as a result of the cut in the basic rate. Anyhow, I was on the train to Bristol on the March morning after Alastair Darling’s first budget as chancellor. I read every word in The Guardian’s budget supplement. I was very pleased to see what this supposedly boring chancellor, with his supposedly boring budget, has done to reduce the number of children living in poverty (real poverty — not modest incomes). I then looked at the table showing how different people, on different incomes and in different circumstances, would be affected by the tax changes legislated for a year ago, and now about to take effect. I could see at first glance that there was a blip around the £15,000 mark, where the changes would actually make people poorer. I thought, ‘Can that be right?’ and went on reading.

Our legislators — the people we pay to scrutinise our forthcoming laws — hadn’t noticed this anomaly in debating the budget last year. (Someone told me that Frank Field had noticed it then, had pointed it out, but had been ignored.) Anyhow, Frank Field — a man I admire deeply — has led a Labour rebellion this year on the point, which has caused the government to have to design a complex and expensive means of compensating the losers for their loss, as the price extracted to persuade the rebels not to vote against the Finance Bill. There were enough rebels, and Labour’s majority is small enough, for the government to have lost the vote. If a government loses a vote on a Finance Bill, it usually faces a vote of no confidence. That wouldn’t have meant the government falling, because the rebels would presumably have supported the government in the no-confidence vote. But it would have been a disaster in terms of the government’s standing with the electorate, which is already very bad. The Tories have, in any case, had a field day. It’s a bitter irony that the party which, when last in power, was in practice the enemy of poorer people, managing for example to double child poverty between 1979 and 1997, has been able to present itself as the champion of a group for which it has no real sympathy whatever.

I expect that Labour will do very badly in local elections around the country today. Boris Johnson may win in London. There is no sign of Brown being able to recover the authority he had until the shambles of last autumn’s election-that-wasn’t.

Anthony Minghella has died since I last wrote in this diary. It’s a dreadful loss of a wonderful man and a brilliant film director. He was still young (two and a half years younger than I). His film of Beckett’s short play Play is a masterpiece; that’s how I came to meet him. When I went into the cutting-room to view Play with him, I thought to myself, ‘Whatever you say, it had better not be stupid.’ I made three small suggestions to Anthony, all of which he adopted. I was terribly sad, and diminished, when I heard.

I have recently read a very good new biography of John Donne, by John Stubbs.

‘Who casts not up his Eie to the Sunne when it rises? but who takes off his Eie from a Comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his eare to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a peece of himselfe out of this world? No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were: any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; It tolls for thee.’

Camden Town

15 May 2008

From Victor Hugo’s poem ‘Puisque je suis étrange au milieu de la ville…’: ‘…il est moins urgent / De punir les effets que de guérir les causes’. Nothing more needs to be said about the heartbreaking and apparently irresolvable conflicts disfiguring the face of the world.

Train from London to Bedford, and back

17 Jun 2008

I strolled down to St Pancras International (admired previously, I know) and took a humble train to Bedford. I shall stay tonight in Wootton, and tomorrow drive dad to Tooting, in his car, for a check-up on the stent in his aorta. Then back to Wootton, then the train again to London. I’ve done this four-way trip several times in the last few months. I find it much less tiring if I’m doing only two of the stints in the car.

The poetry website is nearly there. I shall launch it in the next few days with an electronic postcard to about 140 people, asking that they pass the postcard on to anyone they think might be interested. I must say, I’m very proud of the site. Mark has done a wonderful job. We shall see what the response will be.

You can listen to the poems. Peter Hetherington, Zawe Ashton (Paul’s daughter, a very good young actor) and I recorded the readings in the course of one day in the sound suite at Teachers TV. It was a great day. Of course, professional recording facilities make almost anything sound wonderful. That taken into consideration, there were some moments when the editor and the other listeners were moved by what they were hearing. As I like to say, ‘If it makes people cry, it must be literature.’

I decided to put some prose on to the site too: the autobiography as it stands at the moment and the first four Madame Granic stories. So it’s quite chunky now.

The long weekend in Portugal with Glenda and Julian at the beginning of May was delightful. Julian picked us up at the airport on Thursday evening, and drove us to their comfortable flat in the Lisbon suburb of Parede. We ate a delicious fish stew which Glenda had prepared, and talked until late. The next day Glenda, Helen and I took the train to Estoril and then walked on the boardwalk to Cascais. We wandered around the town, admiring the particular beauty of Portuguese domestic architecture (especially the use of ornamental tile work on the walls of the houses). About three, Julian joined us with the car, having done his morning’s teaching, and we drove to Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of mainland Europe. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, with vertiginous drops to the sea, which was flat calm that day. The promontory was covered with wild flowers, of which the most profuse was the hottentot fig, a purplish succulent invader from Africa.

That evening we dined in Parede, at a sea-food restaurant called Eduardo. The food was spectacularly simple and fresh: dose after dose of protein. The climax of the meal was crabs for four. The brown meat in the body of each great beast had been scooped out, mixed with egg and pepper, and put back. Superb. However, the legs and the claws were unbroken. Each of us was supplied with a wooden hammer and block. Most of the other diners in this packed Friday-night venue were eating the same thing. So the place sounded more like a carpenter’s workshop than an eatery. It would not have been the right place to make romantic or sexy proposals, nor to negotiate a delicate diplomatic agreement.

On the Saturday, we went to Cintra. I’d read about the place, but had no real idea of its eccentric beauty, sweeping up and down the steep wooded hills. We walked around the Moorish castle at the top of one of the hills, and looked across at the extraordinary fairy-tale Ludwig-of-Bavaria-style castle on the top of another hill, and gazed down at the lesser but still astonishing fantasy palaces below. We visited the luxuriant Monserrate gardens, created by the English millionaire Sir Francis Cook. His summer pavilion, at the top of the garden, is being renovated. There was a photograph of him and his family, taken on a hot afternoon about 120 years go. The clothes they wore! How lust must have weighed on the minds and bodies of the young men and women, looking away from the camera and at each other, under all that fabric. Old Francis, gazing straight at the camera, seemed content with his cigar.

That evening we crossed the magnificent 25 April bridge over the Tagus, and drove south-east for half an hour to the hilltop town of Palmela, where there is another castle and a former monastery, now in use as a pousada, one of Portugal’s luxury hotels. A wedding party had taken over the dining-room, so we dined in the cloisters, consuming whatever we wanted from a huge hot and cold buffet, while a viola-and-flute duet played classical snippets to us.

On the Sunday we drove into central Lisbon and walked around. It’s a wonderful city, rising and falling steeply, its houses clambering up and down over each other. We climbed all over the castle of St George, our third castle in two days, and admired the views of the city, the Tagus and its great lagoon inland from Lisbon, and the countryside to the south. We found one of those old-fashioned, solid, unfussy restaurants where you know everything is going to be right the moment you walk in. Dark wood panelling; stiffly starched tablecloths and napkins; serious waiters in equally stiffly starched white cotton jackets. We ate a superb meal, of which the highlight for me was lamphreys. I’d never eaten them before, and knew nothing about them, other than the factoid everybody knows, that King John died after eating a surfeit of them. They are a sea and fresh-water creature sui generis, not — as is often supposed — related to the eel. They live by sucking the blood of other fish. They reminded me slightly of crayfish, in that they can operate in both kinds of water, and that there’s something faintly disgusting about them: crayfish will eat anything; lamphreys are blood-suckers. Anyhow, they were delicious, served up in a thick, strong, black sauce.

On the Monday, our last day, Julian had to work. Glenda and Helen were in the mood for some shopping and a ladies’ lunch. I took the train to Lisbon again. The terminus in the city is also the river station for boats across the Tagus, so I walked straight from the train to the first departing boat, which was going to Seixal. It was a fifteen-minute crossing, with beautiful views in all directions. When we got to Seixal I could see that there once had been a railway station there, bringing people in from the countryside south of the river. The railway line was no more, and the station building abandoned, alas. There was a huge car park full of cars: daily commuters. I walked along an unprepossessing strip of new road, next to an enormous building site: hundreds of new flats. After five minutes I came to the old village of Seixal. It is quite beautiful, essentially unchanged by the centuries. It has three parallel streets, of which the first faces out over the water, which is either a tributary or an inlet of the Tagus. I wandered about in the quiet of a Monday morning, alone, enjoying being alone, and sat down outside a café and had a coffee and one of those exquisite cakes called bolos. Then I wandered about some more, and soon it was time for lunch, which I ate in the narrow central square, under a holm-oak which, I noticed, had been planted in 1907 by the arboreal friends of Seixal. It was bliss. The lunch cost almost nothing. Everyone was charming. It felt a million miles away from Lisbon, a great modern city bursting with pride and ambition, although I was only a short ride across the water. I sat there until about 2.30, took the boat back across the water, then the train to Parede. Glenda and Helen arrived from their lunch just after I did, and we packed and Julian took us to the airport. We were home about midnight.

Camden Town

24 Jun 2008

Since the trip to Portugal, we’ve had the second long May weekend in Shropshire with Andrew and Annie Bannerman (deeply pleasurable, though pouring wet on the Sunday when we drove around beautiful Corvedale), and the following weekend I went over to Northern Ireland to see Peter Logue. On the Saturday, we drove over Tor Head on the north Antrim coast. The weather in Northern Ireland had been beautiful for a month, unlike that in southern England. On this day it was perfect. There is a place high up on the little lane which clings to the side of the hill where we stopped the car. Far below was the deep, calm blue sea. Only a few miles across the water was the Mull of Kintyre, with the mountains of Scotland in the distance behind it. Near the tip of the Mull were little islands. Further south was England and the hills of the Lake District. In the opposite direction were the Hebrides, with the jagged mountains of Skye showing in the haze. Around us were hawthorn, fuschia and gorse in flower. Birds sang. Nobody came and nobody went. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, the only witnesses, just then, of this scene of exalted and spectacular beauty.

My birthday was properly marked, as I like it to be. Helen took me out to the Connaught for dinner, which was superb in a straightforwardly English sort of way: leek and potato soup, lamb chops with spinach and mash, apple crumble. I broke the alcohol fast I’m currently undergoing: champagne, claret, sauternes. Helen gave me a lovely little limited-edition Miro print, and I had lots of cards.

Today I’m feeling great because went live yesterday. Lots of people have written in response to the electronic postcard to say well done and how good the site looks. Of course, the only thing to do now is to write some more, but having done what I’ve done I can leave all those poems and that prose behind and let the world make of them what it will. There may be feminist friends who will be disappointed about the frank descriptions of male sexuality. There may be friends more left-wing than I who will find absurd my justification in the last chapter of the autobiography for still being a member of the Labour Party. There may be Christian friends who will be sorry to read that I’m an atheist. I don’t care. I’ve said in public what I want to say, and I feel better for it. I’m fulfilled.

Tomorrow we go to Cambridge for Clare Harrisson’s graduation. She got a 2:1 in history. The ceremony is at 10 o’clock at the Senate House, so we start early. I expect there will be some refreshment at Trinity afterwards, and then Helen and I will drive across to Suffolk for our annual weekend with Peter Adams. Rod Allen, Peter’s host at Letheringham Mill for the last 20 years or so, died last August, so it won’t be quite the same.

I think I’m going to New York on Teachers TV business for a fortnight in July, but the trip still isn’t finally confirmed.

Camden Town

3 Jul 2008

We went to Cambridge, and then on to Suffolk. The graduation ceremony was splendid and very moving. Judith and I had the best seats in the Senate House, right next to the chair in which Martin Rees, the Master of Trinity, sat to confer the degrees. Clare, by pure coincidence, was the first of the 80 or so in her batch, so she got the full Latin paragraph both from the praelector and from the Master, the others having to be content with the abbreviated version. Of course we all thought of Mike, of how proud he would have been. It’s over five years since he was killed.

Then we stood about and chatted on the Senate House lawn before strolling by the back lane to Trinity, where lunch was served in Neville’s Court. It felt very pleasing to be there again, on a much warmer day than that of my own graduation 36 years ago.

About half past two we left Clare and Judith and drove across to Suffolk, for a longer-than-usual weekend with Peter. That evening we went to eat at the Fox and Goose in Fressingfield, a place new to us, though I was told later by Tim Miller that it had been a cut-above sort of pub/restaurant for decades: in the 60s it was run by a Belgian who was a passionate anti-smoker, before his time; if he caught a diner smoking in the dining-room, he would seize the cigarette from the person’s hand, walk to the door with it, open the door and throw it out, before turning to the offender and inviting him to follow it.

On the Friday afternoon we visited The Red House, where Britten and Pears lived from 1957, which is now owned by the Trust which carries their names. Very interesting: the house full of the paintings which Pears collected over the years.

We went to an Aldeburgh Festival concert on the Saturday afternoon: Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, performed by the young people of the Britten-Pears Orchestra. I’d never been in the Maltings Concert Hall at Snape before: a beautiful, plain interior, brown and restrained, the old brick and the new wood.

Peter and I went to church at Melton at eight o’clock on Sunday. Tim joined us. Afterwards he showed us the grand house above the village where he had been born and grown up: Foxboro Hall. We looked at it from the lane at the bottom of the park. His parents sold it about 30 years ago, when the children had long gone and they were old and rattling about in it and couldn’t afford to keep it up any longer.

I like Tim very much. We got to know him through Peter. He used to be churchwarden at St Anne’s, Soho, where a friend of Peter’s, Fred Stevens, used to be vicar. He’s gentry: he went to Eton; he was in the Guards. Then he became a documentary film-maker. Then for 15 years he was a probation officer, working with young offenders who had committed some of the worst crimes. Then went to the Royal College of Art as head of the film department. Now he’s retired, but he’s got a new occupation: screenplay writer. One of his former students, Asif Kapadia, has directed the films The Warrior and Far North. Tim and Asif write the screenplays together. They’re working on a sequel to The Warrior. Tim has an apartment in Albany, a house at Shingle Street, and a house in the Pyrenees which he shares with his cousin. He’s deeply in love with Suffolk, and knows an immense amount about its history. He’s rooted. We had drinks at Shingle Street before going to Orford. I love to stand on that beach, with the valerian and sea-cabbage in bloom, and look out at the great container ships making for Felixstowe.

We drove back to London on Sunday evening.

Herald Square Hotel, New York

9 Jul 2008

I’ve been here since Sunday with Andrew Bethell, and he’s flying back tonight. I’m staying another eight days to help Ron Thorpe, the director of education at the PBS television station Thirteen, and his colleague Margaret Honey produce a document which they will take to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, no less, asking for a large sum of money to establish Teachers TV in the USA. If Gates grants the money, I may be spending more time here.

It’s hot. It was unpleasantly humid and overcast for the first couple of days here, but now the air is clear and there’s a pleasant breeze mornings and evenings. The Empire State Building, three blocks from this hotel, is a great straight grey pencil marking, not scraping, the sky. Ron’s office at Thirteen looks out over the Pennsylvania Station sidings, then the Hudson, then the New Jersey shore. The walk from hotel to workplace takes an informative 15 minutes. I could happily envisage six months or a year here, helping to set TTVUSA going, getting to know the city properly.

I shall go down now to the laundromat to pick up shirts, socks and underwear, bring them back here, then go out again and find somewhere nice for dinner. I may go to the restaurant near the Museum of Modern Art where I ate lunch the day after we won the Emmy in 2004, when I tried the delicious gazpacho to make sure that American Airlines hadn’t rendered me allergic to tomatoes.

Herald Square Hotel, New York

16 Jul 2008

This is my last evening here. I’ve worked solidly every day since Andrew left, including Saturday and Sunday. I get up about 7.30, have a shower, leave the hotel about 8.15, and I’m at Thirteen, on W33rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, a quarter of an hour later.

It’s been relentlessly hot — in the 80s and 90s (they still have Fahrenheit here) — and I haven’t minded that. As I say to taxi drivers and anyone else who wants to complain about the weather, I’m from England, I spend most of my life being cold, I can take a little of this. I work in the great ugly brown air-conditioned building until six, then switch off the computer, walk back to the hotel, have a shower, and go out for the evening.

I haven’t read much — one slim early novel by John McGahern, called The Leave-Taking, which covers some of the same ground as his beautiful late (last?) book, simply called Memoir, which I read recently, given to me by Peter Logue. The Leave-Taking isn’t as good.

Peter Logue once met McGahern, who told him the following story. During Charlie Haughey’s time, there was a scandal — one of the many in Haughey’s corrupt administrations — in which the minister responsible for development was in the pocket of a rich developer, who wanted to turn a beautiful auld decency house on the banks of the Liffey into an exclusive hotel, with golf courses, swimming pools, fake 18th-century extensions, etcetera. McGahern, who lived nearby, led an effective, well-publicised campaign of opposition to the plan. So noticeable did the campaign become that the matter was discussed in cabinet. Haughey asked the minister for his comment on the situation. The cabinet note-taker had his pen poised as usual. The minister said, ‘Taoiseach, I’m very sorry about it, but that fucking writer cunt above has them all ris.’

Yesterday I was stopped and asked for money by a black man, aged about 35, who had been in the marines in Iraq and had been shot. He pulled up his shirt to show me the bullet holes. I gave him money. He was the kind a beggar who always moves me and to whom I always give. That is, he hadn’t passed over to the other side, to a hopeless state of intoxication and sub-humanity. He was still one of us, but he knew how desperate was his plight, how close he was to a place beyond help. It was only three dollars I gave him, pulled randomly out of a wallet containing hundreds, but he thanked me with tears in his eyes. I said I was from London, and he said he had a buddy in Gloucester. Did I know Gloucester? I said it had a beautiful cathedral. He said he hoped we would meet again some day, and jerked his finger heavenwards. We shook hands once, and as we parted he wanted to shake again, by which time I had transferred my bag to my right hand, so I offered him my left. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the right hand, the right hand.’ We shook properly, and he was gone.

Camden Town

3 Sep 2008

I got back from NY on 19 July in the morning. The following Wednesday we went to France, stopping overnight at our hotel near Avranches and arriving at Kerfontaine on Thursday lunchtime. Five and a half weeks then slipped pleasantly by. We drove down to the Gers on 29 July, in order to celebrate Mike Raleigh’s 60th birthday the following day, which we did in fine style, a party of 10 in a beautiful large restored manoir. I took a walk alone on the afternoon of Mike’s birthday, in the great heat, through exquisite countryside, gently hilly, with fields of young sunflowers glowing everywhere, and vineyards. In the tiny bourg of the commune, there was a moving memorial to a battle fought between the Germans and the French resistance, aided by some Spanish republicans and, I’m glad to say, a unit of Special Operations Executive. The Germans won in the end, only by bringing up greatly superior firepower, and the village was totally destroyed. The houses there now don’t look new, to the casual glance; they must have been rebuilt soon after the war with traditional materials in the traditional style.

The day after Mike’s birthday we departed and drove up to the Charente, to stay three nights with Stephen and Theresa. I love being there, and they’ve made big progress on the house since our last visit. The kitchen is almost finished, and the ceilings of the bedrooms have plasterboard and paint, so the danger of an insect falling into the open mouth of the snoring sleeper has passed. Just as I was drying myself by the pool after my first swim, the phone rang. Harold Rosen had died that morning. I wasn’t completely surprised. I’d seen him for the last time the day before I went to New York. We had a good long talk. His physical infirmity was depressing to him. It seemed to me he was gazing at the probability of death, but refusing to accept it. There was no philosophical quiescence. He wasn’t going gently into that good night. That was his nature; and as was his nature, after the briefest of medical conversations, he said, ‘What’s new, John?’ and I told him about my work.

I spoke to Betty on the phone straight away. The next day, as I had expected, she rang and asked me to do the obituary for The Guardian. I rang The Guardian obituary desk. Yes, they would definitely run a piece. Could they have it by Sunday? It was Friday morning. I sat down in one of the spare bedrooms and wrote the piece on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, with the help of phone calls to Michael and Brian Rosen, Harold’s sons, for factual information and for guidance on the political side of Harold’s life: essentially, his membership of the Communist Party and his leaving of it. The educational part I could do unaided. Then I read the finished thing, still in handwriting, on the phone to Michael and Brian, listening together, and then to Betty. We both cried a lot as I was reading it to Betty. I said, ‘A man should no more cry at his own writing than he should laugh at his own jokes.’ All three of them liked what I had done, so on Saturday afternoon Stephen and I went to an internet café in Chalais and I hammered it in and sent it off. Such is the wondrous technological world now.

The obituary appeared on Monday 4 August, with a lovely picture of Harold which The Guardian had got from Betty. I didn’t actually see the newspaper until 10 days later. They’d fiddled with what I’d written, quite unnecessarily, and made it about 10% worse. (They did exactly the same with my obituary for Terry Furlong in 2002.) I was cross, as I had been with Terry’s piece, but at moments like that there’s no point in getting uppity, and many people have been complimentary about what they read. Here’s what I wrote (not quite what was printed).

Harold Rosen

A Leader of Thought in the World of English Teaching

Harold Rosen, who has died aged 89, was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the purpose and possibilities of the subject English within the school curriculum. Beyond the constituency of English teachers — people teaching that subject in secondary schools — Harold's teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people's understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

Harold was born in 1919 in Brockton, Massachusetts to Jewish parents. At the age of two, he came to the East End of London with his mother, an active communist and inspirational woman whose influence remained with him all his life. He attended local elementary and grammar schools. In 1935, he joined the Young Communist League, where he met Connie Isakofsky. Their emotional partnership, marriage and intellectual collaboration lasted 41 years, until Connie's early death from cancer. In 1936, they took part in the Battle of Cable Street. It was the urgent clarity of the needs of those years — to defeat fascism and to liberate working-class people from every sort of poverty — which formed Harold politically.

In 1937, Harold went to University College, London to study English. He was a college rugby player, middle-distance runner and political activist. He graduated in 1940. He took short-term teaching jobs in England during the rest of the war. Having been born in the USA, he was officially an American citizen (and remained so throughout his life), so it was the US army he joined when called up in 1945. He served in the Education Corps for two years, with the rank of captain, working in Frankfurt and Berlin. Returning to civilian life in 1947, it was clear to him, as to so many people politically committed on the left, that the defeat of fascism must be only the necessary beginning of a shift towards more open and egalitarian societies in the victorious as well as the defeated nations.

Harold took a teaching qualification at the University of London Institute of Education, and began his teaching career proper in schools in Leicestershire and Middlesex. The first of the Middlesex schools was Harrow Weald Grammar, where he met James Britton and Nancy Martin, who became his great teachers. Elsewhere in Middlesex, however, his career was impeded by the black-listing of communists then practised in some circles of that Local Authority. When the London County Council made its pioneering move towards comprehensive education, with the setting-up of pilot comprehensives, Harold went to one of them, Walworth School, as head of English.

The work of the Walworth English department in the 1950s has filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and the English-speaking world. Briefly put, this theory and practice insists that the content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the class must respect the culture and experience which the learner brings there. It sees the making of meaning in and through language as the essential act in which learners engage and which teachers help to bring about. It says that the best learning is a collaboration between teacher and learner, and between learner and learner. It was the effort to make this theory and to put it into practice which Harold joined and helped to lead for 40 years.

Harold was a founder member of the London Association for the Teaching of English, the first local organisation dedicated to the improvement of English teaching by practitioners. LATE was the spur to the setting-up of other local English teachers' associations, and to the establishment of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

When he left Walworth, Harold began his long career in teacher education, first at Borough Road Teacher Training College in Isleworth, and then in the English department of the London Institute of Education, where he had trained. James Britton and Nancy Martin were by then the senior figures there. Beginning under their leadership, and later when he rose to be head of the department and a professor of the university, Harold and his colleagues made the department a place of national and international fame and impact in the professional education of English teachers, and a centre of thought about language and learning.

Harold had the intellectual apparatus necessary for a conventional academic career of great distinction. This wasn't the choice he made. His list of educational publications is long, but those for which he is best known are all collaborative efforts addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners: for example The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18, with James Britton and others; Language, the Learner and the School, with James Britton and Douglas Barnes — a book which emerged from an LATE conference and which launched the idea of 'language across the curriculum'; and The Language of Primary-School Children, written with Connie, herself an inspiring figure in progressive primary education.

Harold left the British Communist Party in 1957, having decided that the party was no longer likely to help bring about the social change he desired in Britain. Its Stalinism was increasingly at odds with the direction and tenor of his educational activities and beliefs. He remained all his life a socialist, as fiercely critical of the evils which American imperialism has brought upon the world, sometimes with British assistance, as he was sorrowful at the dashing of the hopes of his youth with regard to the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

In the politics of education, Harold fiercely resented — and, when he was still working, fought — the attacks on progressivism from within the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, and lived long enough to see, very recently, the irony that some of the principles and practices which he helped to develop are being re-adopted as official government policy in England, without of course any sense on the part of the policy-makers of the origins and history of those ideas.

Harold's second wife Betty was, until her retirement, also an English teacher. She is the author of books on narrative and story-telling, and it was partly under her influence that Harold's later educational writing focussed on the nature and role of narrative in our ability to conceptualise and communicate.

Harold loved to watch England play rugby on television, especially when I was in the armchair next to him. He was an ardent Arsenal fan. Betty cared for him with deep devotion in the physical infirmity of his last years. Mentally, Harold remained trenchant and analytical, and joyful at news of gains in the long educational revolution in which he had played so prominent a part, until the end.

Betty survives him, as do Brian and Michael, his sons by his marriage to Connie, his step-children Ian, Joanna and Rosalind, 10 grand-children and one great-grand-child.

Harold Rosen, educator
Born 25 June 1919
Died 31 July 2008

The funeral was arranged for 13 August, and the family asked me to be the master of ceremonies, since it was to be a non-religious occasion. It was a proper and fitting ceremony, with about 200 people there.

Jumping back, 4 August was Helen’s 60th birthday. By this time we were back at Kerfontaine, and David, Lindsay and Tom James were in their usual gîte at Moëlan-sur-Mer. They came over on the day, and Lindsay, with a bit of sous-chef help from me, cooked a magnificent dinner. Jean and Annick came down for it too. It was a sublimely happy occasion. I gave Helen an emerald ring in white gold, which I knew she wanted; and she had many other presents, and scores of cards.

Yesterday I was due to meet our bank manager, who’s in Shrewsbury, where we still keep our accounts. I’ve never seen her. She doesn’t call herself a bank manager but a ‘relationship adviser’, and she’s replaced the excellent bank manager we used to have, who called himself a bank manager. I had no special business with her, but she wanted a meeting, and was prepared to come to London for it. At nine o’clock yesterday morning, the mobile rang: she was so sorry, she wouldn’t be able to make the meeting; the National Westminster Bank couldn’t afford to send its relationship advisers on train journeys at the moment.

Camden Town

7 Oct 2008

On 1 September, my first day back at Teachers TV after the summer, Andrew Bethell told me that he could only afford to employ me for seven days in September. So I did five of those straight away, and then went back to France for most of the rest of the month.

On 10 September, I met Peter Adams at Stansted Airport and we flew to Dinard, where I had left the car. We drove to Rennes, and met Helen, who had just stepped off the TGV from Marseille, having had a wonderful 10 days there with Mary, Jacques and Tess. Peter had four days with us. On his last day (a Sunday), I took him back to the airport via Mont Saint Michel, which he had never seen. We climbed up to the top (we had to pay to get into the abbey itself) and arrived there in the midst of high mass. It’s a spectacular building, soaring and light, and the service in full swing, organ music, incense and all, made it exhilarating. We went up to the altar rail. Peter didn't take communion. He didn't think it right to, as an Anglican priest. He received a blessing. I did take communion, even though I'm an atheist. Afterwards, the view from the square outside the west doors, over the great bay at low tide, was breathtakingly lovely: reflections of clouds moving across the sheen of water on the mud, and the empty winding creeks showing where the tide would later enter.

After that, Helen and I had a peaceful two weeks together alone at Kerfontaine. The weather was the best of the summer: a succession of steady, golden days. On Monday 22nd we picked the apples. Rosa came down to help us. I have a useful new tool for apple-picking: a long extendible metal pole, to which is attached a short fitment with a cloth bag at its end. With a bit of practice, and as long as an apple is ripe, you can cause it to fall into the bag by holding the bag under the apple and banging the metal ring at the bag’s mouth against the stalk. You can get four or five apples like this before bringing the pole to earth. A lot of apples fell to the ground as the trees were disturbed, but the ground was so soft after all the rain earlier in the summer that they didn’t bruise. We gave most of them to Rosa; they’re a winter boon for her.

On the way back to London, we stayed in a delightful auberge, called the Auberge d’Inxent, an hour south of Calais. It is completely old-fashioned. We were shown to our room via an outside staircase where we had to push aside great yellow daisies to walk up. The village of Inxent is in the valley of the perfectly named River Course; the Course is a fresh stream, flowing fast over the chalk. Dinner was simple — a four-courser for 28 euros, with lots of regional specialities which I hadn’t heard of. The wine list was quite spectacular for such an unpretentious place. We had a half-bottle of white Rhône (Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe) but I couldn’t choose amongst the clarets, so I asked the owner to pick one for me for about 50 euros. He came back with a Saint-Estèphe which was ten years old and wonderful.

The next morning the sun was bursting through the mist as we threaded the lanes, past churches which might almost but not quite have been in Kent or Sussex, before rejoining the old RN1 (now demoted, because of the motorway, to the D901). We took a boat across the water, because the tunnel was still catching up on bookings after the recent fire, and were in London about six.

I have guaranteed work two days a week until further notice.

Meanwhile, the world has been convulsed by a financial crisis. As I write at the computer, I keep watching the behaviour of the stock markets on the BBC’s website. So much has happened in the last few days and weeks that it’s hard to know where to start, and how much detail to go into. Essentially, very greedy and stupid people running banks, encouraged by the light regulatory regimes which were put in place in the 1980s in America, Britain and elsewhere (less so in Continental Europe), lent enormous sums of money, irresponsibly, gambling that they would get their money back at a handsome profit. This irresponsibility was further encouraged by the fact that there always seemed to be another bank or financial institution which would buy a particular bank’s debts (called assets, in the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass world of banking) from it. Now this never-never delusion has been revealed for the catastrophe that it was. In America, most spectacularly, but also in Britain and other countries, governments have had to step in to buy up or at least guarantee banks’ debts. In America, after a huge hiccup when the House of Representatives first voted down a measure which the leadership of both parties thought they had agreed, which caused the measure to be revised before finally being agreed in the House last Friday, the government has agreed to spend a sum which may turn out to be around a trillion dollars (they’re saying $700 billion at the moment, but I expect it’ll go up) buying up banks’ bad assets. Ordinary Americans, caught up in all this chaos either because many of them have lost their houses, unable to keep up payments on mortgages sold to them by smooth-tongued salespeople; or because banks suddenly won’t lend them any money, even if they’re credit-worthy and their small business needs immediate funds; or because they’re out of work now that the financial crisis, which has been going on in America for 18 months, has spilled over into the real economy, are angry at the grotesque behaviour of the super-rich on Wall Street. Barack Obama, I’m very glad to say, is benefiting from this anger, a month before the presidential election.

This morning in Britain, before the markets opened, the government made available around £500 billion to the banking system. Some of that money will buy shares in banks — part-nationalising them. Some will be used to guarantee that if banks lend to each other, they will be paid back. Some will be lent to banks in exchange for assets which the banks would like to get rid of. At around lunchtime in the UK, the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB cut interest rates by half a percent. These actions have come about after days of wild fluctuations, mainly precipitous falls, on stock markets. Bank shares in particular have collapsed. The RBS Group, which owns NatWest, which has Helen’s and my money, is worth about a sixth of what it was worth at its high point earlier this year. Recently, the government had to nationalise the Bradford and Bingley’s bad debts, while getting Santander to take on its viable assets. It persuaded Lloyds to buy HBOS, although that deal hasn’t been concluded and isn’t certain; I think a lot depends on what happens to the share prices of the two banks after today’s events.

The people who have made me angry fall into two groups. In the first group are some bankers, who have gone on television to blame the government for the mess we’re in: a mess which is entirely of their own making. It’s true that the government should have acted more swiftly last year over Northern Rock, a bank run by the greediest and most stupid of bankers, and which had to be nationalised as a measure of last resort. But since then, Brown and Darling have done as well as anyone could have been expected to, considering the scale, speed and complexity of the crisis. On Monday night, Darling met the bosses of the big banks, in what was supposed to be a private meeting. Somehow, the fact that the meeting was taking place leaked out, as did the (true) rumour that the Treasury was planning this morning’s package. Bank shares collapsed yesterday. This is supposed to be the Chancellor’s fault, even though it’s either the bankers themselves, or the Governor of the Bank of England being too candid with the Conservatives, who then blabbed, who fanned the rumour.

The second group I hate are opinion journalists, like Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian, who sneeringly say that the Chancellor’s performance has been hopeless. Jenkins and commentators like him would not have remained continent had they been confronted with such a crisis. Darling has kept his cool, maintained his tone, been himself — boring, some might say, but one doesn’t want an entertainer at a time like this — and done the right things.

The political ironies of recent months are sharp. The most right-wing, free-market government in American history (though perhaps Reagan’s government, which started the rot, ran it close) discovers that the state has a life-saving role to play in the country’s affairs. A Conservative opposition here, which until recently loudly preached the virtues of laissez-faire economics, whose members are the inheritors of Thatcher’s view that the state is bad, or at least not to be trusted, and that the private sector always knows best, now speaks about the need for stronger regulation and about the virtues of fairness. A Labour government which, unlike any previous Labour government, has been, in the words of Peter Mandelson (restored to the Cabinet last Friday, to everyone’s astonishment) ‘seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ (I think I’ve got that right), is being attacked by the Conservative opposition for not being tough enough on the City! Cameron’s biggest backers include people who have got rich by pulling the most disreputable levers of the fruit machines of capitalism in the hedge funds. But Labour also has supporters amongst hedge-fund managers and short-sellers of vulnerable stocks; one was made a junior minister at the weekend.

The only thing we can hope for is that the scare which governments have had in recent days and weeks will make them impose sterner regulation on their financial sectors, in exchange for lifting them out of the sea at the point of drowning. Governments must require banks not to lend more than they’ve got; to lend responsibly, to those who, according to their best judgement, can afford to repay; to lend to people who make things and do things in the real material world, not to people who only want to borrow money to lubricate arcane financial instruments in the unreal world; and to stop paying themselves obscene amounts of money.

My father’s brother, my uncle Peter (I prefer to call him Peter, even though for years he has called himself Miles, or Miles Peter) died yesterday. He was 85 and had cancer. He was a serious painter; he painted single-mindedly and with passion all his life. He had been a student of David Bomberg. With all his devotion to his art, he was never famous. I remember him most affectionately from the 1970s; Mark and I lived in his house in Albert Street while he was in Spain. I visited him and his family at their huerta near Ronda in 1975 (twice) and 1976. During the two summers, I watched farmers threshing corn on a circular floor of cobbles, using a horse and a mule yoked together, the horse for spirit and the mule for stamina: a way of working which has gone for ever. Fiestas in white walled villages high up in the mountains went on all night; we drank and danced in the square for hours, until the dawn had fully come, and then bought sweet pastries for breakfast from stalls in the street and went home to sleep until noon. I swam in the stream across the field from the house every day. One day, Peter suggested that he and I go for a ride on horses. I had never ridden a horse before. We mounted and galloped, I following him, until we arrived at an abandoned house. It was midday, and burning hot. This had been the house, Peter told me, where Bomberg and his wife had lived. As I knew, Peter had come to Ronda, with his wife, to be with Bomberg. We stood for a while as Peter talked about his life in painting, about the importance of taking your art seriously, whether anybody else notices or not. Then we galloped home, dangerously, near-suicidally in my case, as my horse repeatedly swerved under the low branches of trees to try to knock me off. I flattened myself along its back and held on.

I wrote lots of poems when I was in Spain in those years. A very few of them have survived, often much changed, in the current collection.

Camden Town

18 Oct 2008

Friday was Peter’s funeral. (I shall call him Miles from now on, because everyone there did, and that was the name on his coffin.) I went up on the train from Kings Cross to Northallerton. Some cars met the dozen or so of us who’d been on that train, and we were driven to the village of East Rounton, about 12 miles away. I met Mark there; he had flown up from Bristol to Newcastle and rented a car.

The little church was quite beautiful, and the service appropriate. About 80 people were there. The priest, who had known Miles well, described his intense, unorthodox spirituality perfectly. Three of his children gave tributes: Philip very movingly recounted memories of his father; Georgina read a short Lorca poem, first in her lovely translation, then in the original; Bob read some brief diary entries which his father had written in the last weeks of his life. The hymns were good, ending with ‘Jerusalem’, which was right for a passionate English mystic whose hero Blake had been. Then we followed the coffin outside and laid Miles to rest in the corner of the churchyard. The sun shone and sycamore leaves floated to the ground in and around the grave.

Afterwards there were refreshments in the village hall. On a stand in the room was one of Miles’s last paintings: a view of the North Yorkshire hills from exactly the spot where he knew he would be buried. After an hour of conversations, Georgina and Philip took Mark and me to the studio where Miles had worked until the end. On an easel was another view of the same hills, from the same spot; this time there was a purple mark in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, which was, we were told, Miles’s spirit crawling into its grave. We wouldn’t have known.

There was an excellent obituary in The Guardian last Wednesday. It described how Miles had struggled all his life to paint and draw in a way which acknowledged the physical world but did not simply represent it. His art was not abstract — it did not ignore nature — but nor was it a slave to nature. There was a story in the piece about a painting called ‘The Red Studio’, a reproduction of which took up about half the full page given to Miles, which I’ll quote. ‘… in the 1970s he found that his work had taken the long route through drawing to the discovery of light and colour. It is probably no coincidence that one of this new sequence of paintings is called “The Red Studio”, the very title Matisse used in 1911 for one of the most important breakthrough paintings of the age, in which colour gives the impression of both light and spatial depth. Richmond had moved to London and was working in a studio in Camden Town; in his telling, he painted non-stop for three days, during which he experienced a quasi-mystical experience when he seemed to travel through the sun; as he emerged, he heard a voice saying, “Now you are connected.”’

I would say there was no quasi- about the mystical experience. Mark and I lived in that studio for five years, from 1974 to 1979, when Miles was in Spain. ‘The Red Studio’ stood on an easel in the room. I looked at it every day, with admiration, but I didn’t know until now that the doing of it had been so significant an event in Miles’s artistic life.

Yesterday I went to Portsmouth to see my aunts Evelyn and Margaret and my cousin Ceri. Lovely lunch, cooked by Ceri, and then I walked on the down as usual. The weather was glorious. I lay on the grass and looked at the city, the harbours, the Isle of Wight. All the complex connections kept crowding in on me, overwhelming me: there (Tennyson Down, on the island) my parents courted, there (the Church of the Resurrection, just down the hill) they were married, there (in Fratton) I was born, there (in Solent Road, opposite my aunts) I first went to school, there (somewhere on the other side of the Havant Road, down a street of quiet bungalows) I accompanied my father to the little Plymouth Brethren chapel, and here where I was lying we walked home from the service, my hand in his, on summer Sunday evenings. To these well known connections I added another that Philip had told me on Friday: my father’s father’s father had come from Hartlepool to Portsmouth as a poor man, a labourer, and had found work in the dockyard. I had known that my father’s side of the family as well as my mother’s had been established in Portsmouth, and that it was a coincidence that my father, whose own father had moved to London with his wife, had come back to Portsmouth when he joined the Admiralty after university. But I hadn’t known how the Portsmouth connection on my father’s side had started. So down there in the docks, on the west shore of Portsea Island, starting at some date in the 1880s, alongside thousands of other men, a man with a northern accent had moored and unmoored warships. On Friday I had been not far from Hartlepool, in a church on whose walls the plaques commemorated Bells and Trevelyans, the lords of that part of the world, Miles’s first wife’s relations, who’d made their money as owners of factories and foundries in the coastal towns of the north-east. Philip told me that the labourer had been very proud of his son, who became an engineer in the Admiralty and did important and secret work designing ships’ engines (he got an MBE). (A generation later, my father also worked for the Admiralty as a scientific researcher, developing radar.) Philip said that our father’s mother’s family had thought nonetheless that our grandmother married beneath her. Her father, a Mr Winterbottom, owned a printing business, and was well off; his daughter had trained as a classical singer. I remember my great-aunt Margaret telling me that Mr Winterbottom — one of my great-grandfathers — had known the only great-grandfather I knew, the one I loved and who played draughts and cribbage with me. He had worked as a commissionaire in a bank after he and his family had moved to Portsmouth in (I think) 1925. Mr Winterbottom had his account at that bank. This slight connection between the two families came long before my father met my mother.

I walked down the hill and across the Havant Road, looking for the Plymouth Brethren chapel. I found it in South Road. A man was up a ladder fixing to the front wall a banner proclaiming a verse of scripture. His two little children, a boy and a girl, played in front of the building (now simply called South Road Church). I thought about going over to ask the man if the church was still Plymouth Brethren. I might tell him that I had attended it 50 years ago: information which would certainly lead to friendly enquiries about the state of my soul now. I went on.

Vantage Point

In October sunshine, high on the down, with a view of the city, the harbour, the sea, I sit and ponder the place where I started, which I cannot disown, whose birthmarks are printed in me like spots on these fallen sycamore leaves, like flukes in the bark of this whistling hawthorn which leans with the wind down the hill into the huge deep bowl of air below me. I am panoptic, exalted.

What have I retained of what I was given here, then? First, love; next, education: two gifts out of three. The third, which was faith, I’ve handed back for good.

The boy who walked with his father on this grass, bending his curious but believing brain to hard truths wrung from texts containing all heaven and earth in fine, clear print, is no more and never will be. Instead, here sits a man certain that we, and we only, can do good; that ‘to be born is best’; that our days supply infinite occasion for joy; and that the dead know nothing at all.

Camden Town

9 Nov 2008

Listened to Anthony Sher’s excellent programme on Radio 4 about Isaac Rosenberg. Heart-breaking: the difference, amongst the great poets of that war, between being a Jew and a private soldier and a Christian and an officer. In one of his letters home to his mother, he cries out: ‘Mother, send me a pencil.’ In another, he writes that for the moment he’s able to write, ‘being lucky enough to bag an inch of candle’.

Century Club, Soho

11 Nov 2008

Junction of Berners Street and Oxford Street: look left on this clear dry afternoon to Centre Point, and beyond it to the calm azure sky. There to the left of the building, large and level with its upper floors, is the full moon, its mountains and seas sharply delineated. It hangs, a quiet new person in the room, waiting for our notice without calling for our attention. A miracle. Gravity holding us together and apart. Just below the smudged but gleaming disc, an aeroplane crosses the sky, disappears behind Centre Point, reappears, disappears.

Camden Town

14 Nov 2008

On Saturday 1 November dad had a heart attack. Joyce Bavington, who goes in early mornings and late evenings to help mum and dad, arrived about ten that evening to find him lying on the couch in the front room downstairs. He said he felt weak. Joyce took his pulse and called NHS Direct. An hour later, dad was in hospital. I went up the next morning. The doctors said that the attack had been mild; nonetheless, some of the heart muscle was now dead. When heart muscle dies, it isn’t renewed. So the rest of dad’s heart muscle will have to take over the work of the dead part. I stayed in Wootton until the following Thursday, looking after mum and visiting dad twice a day. On Thursday my brother Peter came to take over from me. Dad left hospital on Friday. Mary arrived two days ago to take over from Peter. She will stay until the 23rd. Between us, we’ve been putting in place enhanced care arrangements for after that.

At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last weekend, we had very good readings from Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Alan Brownjohn, Tiffany Atkinson and a Chinese poet called Yi Sha. Dennis O’Driscoll also delivered an excellent lecture about Seamus Heaney, on Heaney’s stance as a public and political figure, mainly with regard to the Troubles but also to other conflicts (he spoke very well about ‘Anything Can Happen’, Heaney’s wonderful translation of the Horace ode, which refers to the Twin Towers). Then last Monday we heard Heaney and O’Driscoll being interviewed by Mark Lawson in Wyndham’s Theatre. Stepping Stones, a fat book of O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney, has just been published. I bought it at Aldeburgh. Both men were excellent. An edited version of the conversation is on Front Row on Radio 4 this evening.

Ten days ago, Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States. I sat up all night in Wootton and watched. It was a wonderful triumph. I felt as elated as I did on 1 and 2 May 1997. The better part of America won. Obama’s administration faces gigantic tasks: fix the collapsing global financial system; revive America’s dying economy; save the planet from environmental disaster; engage with the outside world instead of bullying it; in particular, get out of Iraq. At the moment it looks as if Obama wants to send more troops to Afghanistan, to properly finish off the Taliban and Al-Qaida. While I have nothing but hatred for those forces of barbarism, backwardness and cruelty, and while I reluctantly supported the original invasion in 2001, there’s every chance that an increased Western military force will get bogged down in Afghanistan for years, with many deaths on all sides, and will become Obama’s albatross. Meanwhile, Pakistan is looking increasingly shaky as a democracy. People with disgusting attitudes, willing to defend the selling of girls as property, or the execution of women who have been raped, have joined the government. There’s no doubt that Taliban and Al-Qaida fanatics are being trained in Pakistan. The whole area represents a huge problem for the next US government. The only thing I can say, weakly, is that the problem won’t be solved by force alone. It needs intensive diplomacy, including negotiations with some of the most unpleasant people in the world — the kind of people who shoot women who run girls’ schools.

Obama’s victory speech was one of the finest pieces of political rhetoric I have ever heard: up there with the best of JFK and Martin Luther King, but delivered in a style appropriate to modern mass communication, so that, at its heights, it was almost conversational, as if he were speaking to each listener one by one. ‘Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared.’ Every so often in life, despite the inevitable long process of disappointment which a political idealist like me is bound to experience, comes a flaring up of hope, a sense of the possibility of how things could be if a few good, intelligent, imaginative men and women coincided as world leaders. Hope flared up in me again as I listened and watched this remarkable man, ten years younger than me, holding an audience in the palm of his hand at about 5.30 GMT on the morning of 5 November 2008.

Camden Town

25 Nov 2008

Update on the financial crisis and the recession: there’s a lot of noise from the Tories and the right-wing press about burgeoning UK government debt. In fact, the UK’s debt is 50th in the CIA’s world rankings, according to the league table I’ve just looked at, at 43.6% of GDP, lower than (in ascending order) Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, Cyprus, the United States, Portugal, France, Canada, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Japan, to list only other EU countries and non-EU first-world countries. It’s true that the debt is projected to increase significantly, perhaps towards 60% of GDP in 2013/14, but I imagine that these other countries’ debt will increase equivalently. So far as I can see, Alistair Darling’s proposals in yesterday’s pre-budget report (which is in fact a full-scale budget, and much more significant than many full budgets are) are sensible Keynesian action in a recession. The government’s prediction for the depth and length of this recession is that it will be shallower and shorter than the two recessions of the Tory years. We shall see. The difference between the situation today and those prevailing during the Tory recessions is that there is currently a global banking crisis of exceptional — possibly unique — proportions. The one fair criticism of Gordon Brown’s time as chancellor doesn’t relate to his management of the ‘normal’ economy; it relates to his failure to impose tighter regulation on the banks. But that would probably have required global agreement to reverse the light-touch regulation of the Thatcher/Reagan inheritance, at a time when other governments, notably in the US, would have laughed at him for suggesting it. He could, had he been endowed with second sight and phenomenal courage, have tightened control alone. Had he done that, in a globalised finance system, a lot of money would have left the UK.

Camden Town

12 Dec 2008

I’ve just finished reading all of Milton’s English poems (except ‘Comus’, which I skipped after a couple of pages because it seemed too silly). Milton was born 400 years ago last Tuesday. Somehow I avoided him when I was young; I didn’t study him extensively either at school or at Cambridge. I may have been prejudiced against him by the information that Keats had given up writing ‘Hyperion’ because there were ‘too many Miltonic inversions in it’. The only poems I have certainly read before are the famous sonnets ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ and ‘Methought I saw my late espoused Saint’; both are utterly wonderful, though the syntax of the first four-and-a-bit lines of ‘When I consider…’ takes a lot of conning.

To utter heresy, I don't think ‘Paradise Lost’ is a great poem. It's a long poem. Milton was a great man. There are some passages of great poetry in ‘Paradise Lost’, notably — and this is also the glory of Dante — when he makes a comparison between something religious and high-flown, and a common, down-to-earth, human experience. Examples are the lines near the end of the last book, where Adam and Eve are being expelled from Eden:

‘…all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as Ev’ning Mist
Ris’n from a river o’re the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Labourers heel
Homeward returning.’

Or, describing Satan’s secret entry into Eden in book 4:

‘Or as a Thief bent to unhoord the cash
Of some rich Burgher, whose substantial dores,
Cross-barrd and bolted fast, fear no assault,
In at the window climbes, or o’re the tiles:
So clomb this first grand Thief into Gods Fould:’

(And, just after this passage, I love the quirkiness — not Biblical — that Satan’s first manifestation in the Garden is as a cormorant sitting on top of the Tree of Life.)

Occasionally, Milton achieves simple, sublime lyrical beauty, as in the description in book 1 of Satan’s fall:

‘…from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th' Ægean Ile:’

And there are grandeurs such as the description towards the end of book 2 of the abyss of Chaos which Satan contemplates before he launches into it, including the phrase ‘His dark materials’ now made famous by Philip Pullman.

But there are excessive longueurs, where the prolix iambic pentameters jog on just above the level of rhythmical prose; and stately but predictable and tedious conversations. I love Dr Johnson’s remark: ‘“Paradise Lost” is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is…’

If I had to, I would exchange the whole of ‘Paradise Lost’ for the two great sonnets.

‘Lycidas’ is very beautiful, and a political poem, and the rhymes are enchanting. (The preface to the second edition of ‘Paradise Lost’, where Milton justifies his decision to have written the poem without rhyme, protests a bit too much, though it is very interesting. The thought of doing something on that scale, dictated orally in blindness, and rhyming it too, boggles the mind.) ‘Samson Agonistes’ is absurd in that it’s one of numerous examples of great poets trying to write plays, which turn out static (I know Milton didn’t intend this one to be performed). Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy are other culprits. But there are some memorable lines, my appreciation of them probably enhanced by a 21st-century sensibility. Dalila to Samson, during their row:

‘In argument with men a woman ever
Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause.’

And Samson to Dalila:

‘At distance I forgive thee, go with that;’

I can think of a few people to whom, esprit d’escalier, I would like to have quoted that line.


24 Dec 2008

Here we are again: our second Christmas at Kerfontaine. Dad has been pretty well since his heart attack. It was Mary’s turn to be with mum and dad this Christmas, and she, Jacques and Tess arrived there on Sunday. So we have been liberated. This afternoon, as two years ago, I went into the wood and cut holly, which is now scruffily but pleasingly plaited above the fireplace. The garden and the wood are beautiful, in the spare, contained way of winter. In particular, Jean-Paul has done a great job with the strimmer in the wood. It's easy and pleasant to walk between the trees. The stream is full but not overflowing.

We crossed Dover-Calais yesterday lunchtime, and stopped last night at Le Manoir de l’Archerie, near Villedieu-les-Poêles. We ate a wonderful Norman country meal, with only two other diners in the room. We woke up the next morning to thick mist, and drove on down the old N175 (‘la Route de la Liberté’, with the special kilometre posts carrying the embossed hand holding the flaming torch of freedom, which I noticed the first time I drove down that road more than 30 years ago) to Avranches. The ghostly silhouettes of the rooftops and church spires of the town looked spectacular. Mont Saint Michel not to be seen. A quarter of an hour later, the mist suddenly cleared, and we were in blazing sunshine, which has lasted the rest of the day. Brittany looked splendid: well cared-for and trim, with winter corn beginning to show. We stopped for our Christmas food in the supermarket at Plouay, bought flowers for the house at Le Nay and two dozen flat oysters for tonight from my man by the church, who explained that he wouldn’t sing me another English sea shanty today, as he had in the summer, because he has ‘something like sciatica’ which is causing him a lot of pain. He prefers to be up, moving and working, despite the pain; lying in bed is worse. I’ve been buying oysters from him for 18 years.

As two years ago, I most definitely didn’t listen to the carol service from King’s College, Cambridge on the radio. Its very beauty always fills me with profound melancholy: an inheritance from childhood. Consequently, I don’t need cheering up on the evening of Christmas Eve, because I’m already cheerful. I shall go and open the oysters; the flat ones are much easier to deal with than the hollow.


25 Dec 2008

A clear sky at sunset. The day started overcast. We rose about 10.30, Helen having discovered, as usual, a present to wake up to at the end of the bed, enclosed in one of her own stockings: La Perla perfume. We had a larger-than-usual, longer-than-usual breakfast: coffee, the pear juice we bought yesterday at the hotel, two boiled eggs each, toast, yoghurt. We took a hamper up to our neighbours. We left them preparing for lunch and drove down to the sea. The roads were deserted, as on Christmas Day 2006. We walked along the same stretch of shore as then. To our amazement, about half a mile out at sea, causing surf where no surf usually is, were what must have been either porpoises or dolphins, their black forms partially appearing briefly and tantalisingly before disappearing under the water before appearing again. Just as we watched, the sky cleared and the sun came out. On the walk back, this time along the water’s edge, oyster-catchers were running comically and fast on the wet sand and through the shallowest water, their legs moving at top speed like cartoon legs, their bills pecking the sand in sudden, jerky, irregular movements, but confident, sure that there, exactly there was a tiny tit-bit of food: nothing so large as an oyster.

Then we drove back and ate a plate of goat’s cheese and salad with a glass of Madame Laroche’s magnificent Savennières. We opened our presents. Helen gave me a biography of Milton, which I’d asked for, and four beautiful second-hand first editions of poetry: Tony Harrison’s V, Stephen Spender, Robert Lowell and R.S. Thomas. I gave her more cosmetics. She had named four brands she currently likes (Tom Ford, Estée Lauder, Dolce e Gabbana and a Japanese name I can’t remember). I got her one of each. Extravagant, but we have got £100,000 in the bank and we do own two properties outright, combined value about £500,000, and we have no dependents, so there’s no need to practise economy too diligently.

Then we went for a walk around the grounds, admiring everything in its pared-back winter state. But the viburnum was in full flower, its pinky-white florets offering a peppery scent when you put your nose right up to them in the cold air, the flowers standing out brightly from the dark pointed leaves. That bush is about 10 feet high, and it’s been standing there since we bought the place. One year I thought it was going to die, and lopped off several already dead branches, but it’s recovered completely.

Our Christmas meal tonight: smoked salmon, coquille St Jacques, guinea fowl with sprouts and roast potatoes, cheese, Christmas pudding. This morning, Helen also gave me small presents in a hand-made paper stocking, including — as every year — Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide. Hugh tells me that the Brane-Cantenac 2002 which I’ve been keeping may now be drunk, so I’ve decanted it into the claret jug which Stephen gave me years ago. It smells sensational.


29 Dec 2008

This fleeting privilege at freezing twilight:
bright Jupiter, and Venus, and the last new moon of the old year,
assembled where the vivid afterthought of the departed sun
is losing its prismatic contest with the night.


30 Dec 2008

Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve. I heard on Boxing Day. As when Anthony Minghella died earlier this year, the loss caused a deep, unsettling shift in me; I can do no better than return once more to Donne. It was the Beckett project which brought me into personal contact with both men. Anthony’s death was both a surprise and a shock, in that he was young and I had no idea he was ill. Everyone knew that Harold has undergone treatment for cancer of the oesophagus; the last-but-one time I met him was in the pavilion at Lord’s where the BBC was launching a season of films of some of his plays. He made a short speech saying that he had recovered well from the illness and the treatment, and that it was good to be alive. I saw him by chance one more time in the Festival Hall. We exchanged a few words. When you’ve had cancer, as I know from Albert’s experience, it doesn’t necessarily ever go away. The appreciation for Harold in Le Monde put it well when it said that his death wasn’t a surprise but it was a shock. He was a truly great playwright — I think, after Arthur Miller’s death, the greatest living playwright in English, and I’m not saying he was a lesser talent than Miller, just different — and it isn’t excessive to discuss his achievement in the same terms as Beckett’s and Brecht’s. I admire all his plays: the great early ones obviously, but also the terrible, shocking political statements in his later work. I must say I think he was a dreadful poet, and that it would have been better for him not to have published any of the poems I’ve seen in print. They’re formless rants, inchoate splutterings of rage against the wicked masters of the world, which for him principally meant the leaders of America and Britain. And there I do disagree with the emphasis of some of his polemics. Of course it’s right to condemn and protest against the misery which American military might, with British help, has visited on the world in recent decades. But to pass so briefly over the tyrannies which have caused the West, rightly or wrongly, to intervene in some regions of the world seems to me one-eyed. On the wrongness of the invasion of Iraq, I agree with Pinter completely. But in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, his efforts to defend Milosevic were preposterous. He said in 2001, ‘I believe [Milosevic’s] arrest and detention by the international criminal tribunal is unconstitutional, and goes against Yugoslav and international law. They have no right to try him.’ He thought Milosevic had been unfairly demonised. How can he have thought so? The political part of his Nobel acceptance speech was nine-tenths anti-America; it had one short paragraph acknowledging the tyrannies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc before 1990. I don't believe that Pinter would have survived in those societies.

But to return to his greatness: it’s something to do with the way he ratchets language and human communication a few degrees from true (in the sense of realistically, ordinarily true) while retaining in his dramatic situations a masterful ability to portray the apparently ordinary, the apparently real. This produces a sense of the thinness of the ice on which humans skate as they continue to do business with each other; of the closeness of the silence which is behind the sounds and gestures we make to each other. More simply, as a Londoner (though not born and bred like him) I love his grip of the speech style of Londoners, especially working-class Londoners. And, as with Beckett, I love the comedy which bubbles up through his choices of language. ‘That’s not equivocal. That’s unequivocal.’ ‘Why don’t you just pop off?’ ‘She had no wish for full consummation. She was content with her particular predilection. Consuming the male member.’ ‘Nearby is an Indian restaurant of excellent standing, at which you would be the guest of my committee.’ ‘Have you been to Carrickmacross? / I’ve been to King’s Cross.’

For six days, from Christmas Eve until yesterday, the weather has been wonderful: freezing cold, with bright sunshine in the days, exquisite coloured twilights and profound black star-crowded nights. No moon until yesterday, and then the thinnest shaving of the new. No wind. We’ve had good long walks every day except today. Today I did leaf-clearing from the lawn, which I knew I should do while the leaves were dry and the ground hard. I worked well and felt good. Then I went for a meditative mooch down in the wood, admiring again Jean-Paul’s excellent work there. It’s deeply satisfying to be the owner of a well-husbanded and beautiful parcel of the earth.