Skip to main content

Occurrences: Book Six


2 Jan 2009

Poom! The glass-panelled front door took the blow, and we saw feathers stuck to the glass outside, and opened the door. There lay a greenfinch on its back, its mouth gasping, its breast heaving. I picked it up. Contained in the palm of one hand, it was a living vessel of softness and warmth, desperate to fly, and not apparently injured. It stretched its wings once, twice; but no lift-off. I wondered whether to throw it aloft, but feared it might not be ready, might still be in shock, would fall straight to earth and be further damaged.

We put soaked bread and a saucer of tepid water on a dinner plate, and placed the bird on the plate next to them. It put its head on the bread, but seemed not to know it for food. It stretched its wings again; frustrating its instinct to fly was the fact that something somewhere was wrong. I took it up again, held it up, offered it up. A tiny drop of blood ran from its beak on to my palm. With all its might it desired to live. It shuddered in my hand. Its eyes were bright. Then it laid its head on my fingers and departed from this world.

Camden Town

10 Feb 2009

On 22 January my aunt Evelyn died. Her daughter Ceri, my cousin, asked me to speak at her funeral, which was held yesterday. This is what I said.

I remember my aunt Evelyn first through the eyes of a boy. By the time I was conscious of her, she was a young woman in her early twenties. She seemed to me very beautiful, quick, vivacious and fun. I remember excursions to Cosham market in the 1950s, in the days before Christmas, to buy nuts, dates, tangerines, chocolate and other special fare: the excitement of it, and her pleasure in organising and leading the expedition. I remember specifically her 26th birthday — I know it was her 26th because her father, my grandfather, mentioned her age when proposing a toast to her. That was August 1958. She shone at the lunch table, full of jokes and stories and laughter.

Later, when I was a teenager, she took me to the theatre. As we all know, Evelyn had a life-long passion for the theatre, and participated, as performer or designer, in many memorable productions on Portsmouth’s stages. I went with her to Chichester several times in the 1960s, driving there with her in her Mini on early summer evenings; I remember in particular a splendid production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, featuring Millicent Martin among other stars. I shall always be grateful to Evelyn for those nights out. Later, as an adult, I was able to return the compliment by inviting her to some London productions. The one I know she enjoyed the most was Chekhov’s Wild Honey, starring one of her heroes, Ian McKellen. We sat in the middle of the front row. Evelyn cheered at the end.

Apart from her commitment to the theatre, Evelyn was a gifted painter, a brilliant art teacher, a valued colleague in the schools where she worked, a wide-ranging reader; in short, she was a woman of culture. In the prime of her life she was struck down by multiple sclerosis, a cruel condition which progressively robbed her of independence of body. My visits to Drayton have been occasional these last 20 years, but on every occasion, as I saw the illness taking its toll, I also saw a woman who maintained her good humour, her pleasure in life, her interest in the outside world. She kept alive her love of theatre through television and video, and she continued to read extensively. She was an inspiring model of courage in adversity, courage never more tested than when her beloved son Huw died in 1995, at the age of 34.

Evelyn would have wished me to pay public tribute here to two people in particular. The first is her own aunt Margaret, my great-aunt, who is at home this afternoon, but who is here in spirit. Margaret is 94. Throughout Evelyn’s illness, Margaret — at an age when most people can justly expect to be looked after by other people — cared for Evelyn with saintly and cheerful devotion. She was Evelyn’s constant companion, providing unfailing practical and emotional support. Margaret has been love in action, down to the detail of turning the page of the book Evelyn was reading when Evelyn could no longer do it herself.

The other person Evelyn would have wished me to honour publicly is her daughter Ceri. Ceri has been love in action too. Only five minutes’ drive away from Evelyn and Margaret, Ceri has been an ever-present joy, strength and stay in their lives: their organiser, their champion, helping and sustaining them through the days, bringing the vigour and optimism of her life into theirs. No mother could have wished for a better or — in every sense — more beautiful daughter.

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.’

Evelyn, sleep well.

Camden Town

13 Mar 2009

An event to commemorate Harold Rosen’s life was held at the Institute yesterday. It was a great occasion: I should think 200 people were there, representing all the overlapping constituencies in which Harold had been so inspiring and influential. I was one of the speakers. I’ve put the speech, some of which was taken from the tribute I gave at his funeral, on to my website, at the end of chapter 3 of the autobiography.

Wootton, Bedfordshire

22 Mar 2009

I’m here for Mothering Sunday. I expect this will be my last. Mum is very frail. She stays in bed, but she’s still bright, and was pleased with my flowers. I brought such a big bunch that dad and I divided them into five vases, two in her bedroom.

On Friday I went to my aunt Aase’s funeral in Kent. I didn’t like her, and hadn’t seen her for many years. My brother Peter has been very good to her in recent times, living not far away as he does, and recognising a priestly responsibility for a member of the family, however peculiar and ungrateful. Aase was carried off quickly by cancer. She chose not to tell anyone she was ill, even when she was in hospital and near the end. I’m not sure how the news got out; when it did, Peter went to visit her. Anyway, on Friday I picked up my cousin James (who did like Aase) and his girlfriend Bernadette from Covent Garden very early, and we drove down to the crematorium near Sittingbourne. We arrived more than an hour before the coffin was due at ten o’clock, so we found a greasy spoon café and had the sort of unhealthy, delicious breakfast which should really be avoided by a middle-aged man with high cholesterol. Then we went back to the crematorium and met Peter. The hearse arrived. The four of us plus Aase’s gardener followed the coffin into the chapel and stood in the front row for ten minutes in silence. That was it. That was what she had wanted.

We drove back to Peter’s vicarage at St Nicholas-at-Wade and had coffee. We talked a lot about mental illness, because James suffers from bi-polar disorder, which I still prefer to call manic depression, a much more accurate and vivid description of the condition; and Peter works with mentally ill people. Then we walked to the village pub for lunch. Peter drove back to the crematorium to collect Aase’s ashes. In the afternoon, we all gathered at the farmhouse in the little beautiful valley south of Faversham where Bill and Aase had lived. We buried the ashes beneath a clump of flowering snowdrops, under a young oak tree, next to where Bill’s ashes had been buried a few years before.

Camden Town

22 May 2009

On 6 April my father died. On 6 May my mother died. So the last few weeks have been extraordinary, both emotionally and practically.

We were in Shropshire on the weekend of 3 to 5 April, staying with David and Lindsay. On the Friday evening, we had been to dinner with Mike and Sue. Sue is coping bravely with secondary liver cancer, the first cancer having been found in the bowel. She’s having courses of chemotherapy, and the latest news I have is that the treatment has slowed and possibly even reversed the growth of the lesions, and that it may at some time be possible to operate to remove the infected part of the liver, while leaving enough of it in place for the organ to continue to work. If the operation happens, the doctors will afterwards attend to the original cancer in the bowel. But I haven’t spoken to Mike or Sue for about a fortnight, so there may be more up-to-date news.

Anyhow, as we were preparing to leave David and Lindsay on the Sunday afternoon, I had a phone message from my mother to say that dad had been taken into hospital at lunchtime. He had been at church in the morning (Palm Sunday) as usual. He had not felt well, and someone had walked across from church to the house with him after the service. He had gone upstairs, lain down on the bed next to mum, and lost consciousness. He had then regained consciousness and tried to get up, but had fallen over again and didn’t know anyone. Julie Kennedy, one of the carers, was there getting lunch, and mum phoned Joyce Bavington, their other carer, who came round straight away. They phoned the ambulance.

Dad was given a CT scan as soon as he arrived at A and E at Bedford Hospital. The scan revealed a major brain haemorrhage, too big to be operated on. The hospital sent the picture electronically to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who confirmed the diagnosis.

I arrived at the hospital at about 7.30 that evening. My brother Peter was already there. Dad was breathing steadily with the help of an oxygen mask, but his eyes were closed and it wasn’t possible to tell whether he was aware of us or of anything outside himself. Peter said that he had seemed to shed a tear when he had spoken to him and prayed with him. The nurse said that dad would not recover, although it was impossible to say whether he would live for hours or for days.

I went home and told mum the news. She took it very calmly. She wasn’t distraught. She didn’t weep. I then went back to the hospital. Peter returned to Wootton. At about eleven, Peter Ackroyd, the vicar at Wootton, came and prayed with dad. I stayed with dad until about quarter past one in the morning. Then I went to Wootton to sleep, asking the nurses to phone me immediately if dad died in the night.

Helen and I returned to the hospital at about eleven the next morning. The curtains were drawn around dad’s bed. We went through. Dad had died a few minutes before. The sister came; she was sorry; she had been about to phone us. Earlier that morning, the doctors had decided that there was no purpose in prolonging dad’s life artificially, so they had taken away the oxygen. It was the correct decision.

Helen and I stood with dad for about two hours, until a doctor came to confirm the death.

There then began the intense period of organisation and decision-taking that always follows a death. By the end of the day, we had arranged the date, time and place of the funeral (21 April at eleven o’clock at St Mary’s Church, Wootton, followed by a cremation at Bedford Crematorium), and told everybody in the immediate family. Mark and Gill, who were on holiday in Cornwall, drove up. Mary, who had been intending to come from France to Wootton on 25 April to look after mum so dad could have a break with Mark and Gill, brought her arrival forward to 18 April. Peter, Mark and I agreed to divide the time between then and 18 April between us, so mum would have someone with her all the time. Dad had been mum’s principal carer, although she also received paid care from Julie and Joyce, until the day he departed.

Over the next few days, I drafted about 30 letters giving news of dad’s death, some personal, some business, which mum signed. I was greatly helped by mum’s lap-top computer and the printer which Peter had connected to it. Peter and I went to Bedford to register the death, and to the funeral director in Kempston to agree details for the funeral. I planned the order of service. I put dad’s car into my name, so it could be used by any of us when we were at Wootton. On the Thursday morning, I think, Peter went back to Kent.

Mum was deeply grateful for all our efforts, but all the time her scleroderma was worsening. She just had the strength to heave herself from the bed on to the commode next to the bed and back again. She produced great quantities of liquid faeces at hourly intervals. She never troubled me during the night, but every morning early I emptied a pot near to overflowing. It was a matter of simply overcoming, going straight through, a revulsion at seeing and smelling your mother’s shit. Beckett should have written a play about it. There were a couple of times in the bathroom when I nearly retched, but after that I simply kept the windows open to clear the smell as quickly as possible, and made extravagant use of hot water and Dettol wipes, for which invention I thank the Lord (metaphorically speaking).

I went to church on Good Friday, to hear the moving tributes to dad made during the service, and because it was proper.

On Easter Eve in the afternoon, mum began to be more than usually ill. Besides the diarrhoea, she vomited, was dizzy, had a painful headache and difficulty in breathing. This last was because the swelling of her abdomen, brought about by gas produced by undigested food rotting in her gut, was pushing up against her lungs. Joyce came round. She had seen mum many times in distress, and as a retired nurse knew what to do to ease the pain a little. But this was worse than usual, and at about eight o’clock that evening I called an ambulance. While we were waiting for it to come, I helped mum on to the commode one last time. When she had finished, I tried to get her back into bed, but she was a dead weight in my arms as I held her under the armpits. I managed to lay her across the bed. She began praying to God to help her. God seemed to be otherwise engaged (Easter Eve is a busy time). I said, ‘Mum, for goodness’ sake don’t die now. Leave dad in peace for a few days. He’s just getting to know the place.’ She laughed as well as she was able to.

The ambulance came quickly, and with some difficulty we got mum downstairs and on board. The paramedics, who were excellent, put her straight on to oxygen and a drip, and off we went to A and E, six days after dad had arrived there. The doctors and nurses were quite brilliant. Essentially, mum had nearly died of dehydration, collapse of blood pressure and loss of essential minerals and blood sugar. Pumped up with emergency supplies of everything she had lost, she began to feel more comfortable, although there was nothing immediate anyone could do about her bleeding and pustulating sacral sore, the result of many years of lying in bed and constant attacks of diarrhoea.

To her and my great relief, she was taken to a room of her own in the acute assessment unit. I left her there at about midnight, and went back to Wootton for a late supper.

I went to church again on Easter Sunday morning. There were more generous and moving tributes to dad for all the work he had done for the church over 44 years, and prayers for mum.

Mum was in hospital for three weeks and four days. During that time, the surgeons twice considered whether any kind of operation on the gut or the bowel might be possible, but of course had such an operation been feasible it would have been done a long time previously. So the only hope was to deliberately starve mum for a while, to clean her out completely and thus stop the diarrhoea, in the hope that the gut and the bowel might then begin to work a little. Mum just had a saline and/or glucose drip, oxygen and sips of water. This regime of course weakened her. When she was given a little food, either through the mouth or through the tube into her stomach which she had had for several years, the diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting resumed. There was a fear that faeces might get into the lungs.

I returned to London on Thursday 16 April in the morning. Mark was with mum until the Friday afternoon. Mum knew that I would arrive with Mary on the Saturday afternoon.

On Friday 17 April, I was at home with Helen, Bronwyn and Stephen. We were having champagne before dinner when the phone rang. It was the sister from the acute assessment unit. Mum was ‘deteriorating’. I left immediately and drove up the motorway, planning what to do if mum died over the weekend. Maybe there would be just enough time, getting the formalities through and the order of service reprinted at top speed, to have a double funeral. If not, it might be possible to make the service both a formal funeral for dad and a thanksgiving for mum’s life, and then have mum’s funeral as a small family affair later.

When I reached the ward I knew immediately that mum wasn’t about to die in the next few hours. She looked awful, and was vomiting brown fluid into a bowl, but she still had some strength and all her wits, and was pleased to see me. I stayed until about midnight and then went to Wootton to sleep. The next morning I drove to Luton Airport and met Mary, Jacques, Tess and Sophie. I explained what had happened as we drove back to Wootton. Mary went to see mum that afternoon.

Mary and I shared the visiting on the Saturday and Sunday. On the Sunday evening I drove back to London, and went to work on the Monday.

Tuesday 21 April was the day of dad’s funeral. Helen and I left London at seven, and drove through mist on the motorway, arriving at Wootton at about half past eight. The mist cleared during the morning, and there followed a perfect spring day: cloudless, very warm by the afternoon, but with all the freshness of April.

The service was at 11. I stood at the church door from about 10.30 and greeted everyone. At 10.55 precisely the hearse arrived. Peter Ackroyd and I walked down the path and greeted the funeral attendants. The four pall-bearers took the coffin out of the hearse. The little group processed to the church: Peter, Steve the chief attendant, the pall-bearers with the coffin, me. As the coffin entered the church, Peter began to read the sentences: ‘“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord…’ The coffin was placed on a trestle in front of the screen. I took my place at the end of the front row, next to Mark.

This is the order of service.


18 August, 1924 — 6 April, 2009

‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’

Funeral Service
St. Mary’s Church, Wootton
21st April, 2009


Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt his name;
When in distress to Him I called,
He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Deliverance He affords to all
Who on His succour trust.

Oh make but trial of His love,
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they
Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.

by Mark Richmond

by Alfred Tennyson
read by John Richmond

by Norma Smith

by the Reverend Peter Ackroyd

When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love and praise.

Unnumbered comforts to my soul
Thy tender care bestowed,
Before my infant heart conceived
From whom these comforts flowed.

When worn with sickness, oft hast Thou
With health renewed my face;
And when in sins and sorrows sunk,
Revived my soul with grace.

Ten thousand thousand precious gifts
My daily thanks employ;
Nor is the least a cheerful heart,
That tastes those gifts with joy.

Through every period of my life
Thy goodness I’ll pursue;
And after death, in distant worlds,
The glorious theme renew.

Through all eternity to Thee
A joyful song I’ll raise;
For O eternity’s too short
To utter all Thy praise!

led by the Reverend Peter Richmond


From Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan,
in which Mr Valiant-for-truth comes into his reward
read by John Richmond


Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise;
Sing to God a hymn of gladness, sing to God a hymn of praise;
He who on the cross a victim for the world’s salvation bled,
Jesus Christ, the King of glory, now is risen from the dead.

Christ is risen, Christ the first-fruits of the holy harvest field,
Which will all its full abundance at His second coming yield;
Then the golden ears of harvest will their heads before Him wave,
Ripened by His glorious sunshine from the furrows of the grave.

Christ is risen; we are risen; shed upon us heavenly grace,
Rain and dew and gleams of glory from the brightness of Thy face,
That we, Lord, with hearts in heaven, here on earth may fruitful be,
And by angel-hands be gathered, and be ever safe with Thee.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory be to God on high;
Alleluia to the Saviour, who has gained the victory;
Alleluia to the Spirit, fount of love and sanctity;
Alleluia! Alleluia to the Triune Majesty.


It was a magnificent service. I should think there were about 140 people there. Mark’s tribute was splendid: beautifully composed, quietly but confidently delivered, recounting the key events in dad’s personal, religious and working life lovingly and humorously. I had to struggle to get through my two readings (which I had privately chosen at least two years previously), but get through them I did, and I think the fact that I was visibly moved while reading moved the congregation.

Here are the readings, with my introductions.


‘Crossing the Bar’ is a poem of Christian hope. Tennyson wrote it in 1889, near the end of his life, composing it almost in one go as he crossed on the ferry from Lymington in Hampshire to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, where he had lived for many years.

The poem is so famous, and has been so often quoted and misquoted, that it’s worth reminding ourselves that the bar to which it refers is not some kind of saloon bar, and that the moaning of the bar is not the sound of disgruntled drinkers. The bar is the sand bar at Lymington, which divides the quiet waters of the harbour from the open sea. Sometimes, a certain conjunction of winds and tide causes a strange moaning sound over and around the sand bar. In Tennyson’s poem, the waters of the harbour are a metaphor for the life we know here; the open sea a metaphor for the life beyond.

My parents met in Hampshire, along the coast from Lymington, in Portsmouth. My father was sitting behind my mother in the Church of the Resurrection, Drayton. He said that he liked the look of the back of her neck. They courted on the Isle of Wight, especially on the down which now bears Tennyson’s name. My father, who cared little for ceremony, did make one request of me a couple of years ago: he would like his ashes to be scattered on Tennyson Down, where he and my mother had been so happy. This we shall do.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.


This extract from the great Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress has of course a close local connection. John Bunyan began to write The Pilgrim’s Progress some time after 1660, while in Bedfordshire county gaol, where he was held for violations of the Conventicle Act, which prohibited the holding of religious services outside the auspices of the established Church of England. So I think the passage has an appropriacy to the memory of my father, a loyal but restless Anglican.

If Tennyson’s poem is a quiet statement of Christian hope, Bunyan’s prose is an emphatic one.

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, and had this for a token that the summons was true, ‘that his pitcher was broken at the fountain’. When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder.” When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

After the service, the coffin was carried out to the hearse, which I followed as it drove at walking pace as far as the house. It paused there, and then drove on, with Mark and Peter following in Peter’s car to Bedford Crematorium.

There then followed a splendid lunch at the house, with most people eating, drinking and talking in the garden. I should think about 80 people came across from the service. Mary and Jacques had cooked a huge joint of beef and an equally impressive piece of gammon, which were served cold with salads and savoury tarts. I stood by the array of dishes telling people what was in them. I described one particularly delicious dish as ‘spinach from the garden, cheese and olives’. ‘Oh no,’ said the first five polite Wootton folk, ‘not olives for me, thanks, no.’ I noticed that the olives, which were black, hardly showed up at all against the dark green of the spinach, so I stopped mentioning them in my description. After that, everyone ate that tart, with no complaints. For pudding there was raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant meringue; the fruit had come from dad’s fruit cage last summer, and had been in the freezer since. I provided red and white burgundy and apple juice. The sun shone.

Mark and Peter went to the hospital after the brief ceremony at the crematorium, to tell mum how it had all gone.

Camden Town

11 Jun 2009

The remaining two weeks of mum’s life were an agony for her. It isn’t true that, in a rich country with access to the best medical knowledge and equipment and pain-reducing drugs, death is always somewhat bearable. Essentially, mum died of starvation, not through any fault of the doctors and nurses, but because her dreadful condition defied their best efforts.

There was one unsympathetic and brusque nurse among dozens of nurses who combined great skill with evident humanity. There was one foolish young doctor who, coming to examine mum for the first time, was so shocked by the quantity of diarrhoea she found under mum’s sheets that she first reached from some floor wipes on the side cupboard and would have applied one to mum’s anus had Mary, who was standing there, not prevented her, and who then scuttled away saying that cleaning up patients was nurses’ work, not doctors’, and was never seen again. But the severe criticisms of the NHS which I have as a result of the experience of watching my mother die relate to the capacity of the system, not to individual failings.

First, once the surgeons had finally decided that they could not operate, and the assessment of mother as a patient was at an end, she was moved to an ordinary, open ward, crammed into a bay with five other very sick women, even though it was well understood that she was going to die. Mother at least had a place by the window, so she could look out across the car park and see the trees in leaf, but the side of her bed was perhaps three feet from the side of the next bed, in which a severely demented but physically strong woman shouted, screamed and struggled day and night. To face death in the close proximity of that woman must have made the experience even worse than it had to be anyway.

Secondly, over the bank holiday weekend before mum died, doctors were invisible. I was told that there was one doctor on call for several full wards. For three days, none of us saw a doctor. It is not that a doctor could have brought about any change to the situation, but it would have been comforting to have had a medical conversation with a doctor during those days. Patients continue to be sick during public holidays.

When mum was first taken to the open ward, and I saw how little room she had, I asked the staff whether it was possible, as I think is the case in some NHS hospitals, for a person to pay to have a room of their own. Not in Bedford Hospital, I was told, and I respect the principle. I rang the nearest private hospital, at Biddenham. A bed there costs more than £500 a night, plus the cost of medicines and consultancy fees: around £4000 a week. The next day I told mum this, and said that if she wished I would try to arrange a move, and we would worry about arrangements for payment later. She didn’t want to spend that kind of money, which — depending on how long she remained at Biddenham — would have involved borrowing against the equity in the house.

Jacques, who visited mum several times, was shocked to see how poorly patients’ accommodation in a British hospital compares with that in France. In France, no hospital patient, however minor the reason for their stay, is in a room with more than one other patient; and many patients have rooms of their own. That was certainly the case with Albert during his cancer operation and recuperation, and when he went back to hospital to die after the cancer returned. It was also true for Rosa during both her knee operations. I know the two health systems are funded differently (in France, people are individually insured), but the blunt fact must be that France spends more on health, one way or another, than the UK does, and the difference shows at times of greatest need.

Mum was lucid until about 36 hours before she died. The last sensible thing she said to me was, ‘I’ve never felt this way before.’ Eventually her extreme weakness meant that she didn’t seem to see us even when her eyes were open, and she didn’t respond to my squeezing her hand. The nurses had to come every two hours or so to clean her up, and the cleansing of her sacral sore must have caused her terrible pain. When I returned to her side after these attentions, her face wore a fixed, staring grimace, as if she had just been assaulted or tortured, though of course the nurses were only doing what they had to do.

On the afternoon of 5 May, a doctor finally appeared, and Mary, Mark and I accompanied him to a room where we rapidly agreed to stop all attempts at further feeding, to stop the drips, to turn off the oxygen, and to give mum morphine. It was an easy decision. The morphine was injected straight into an artery in mum’s thigh, and a little box called a driver pumped the drug into her at regular intervals.

I phoned Peter Ackroyd that evening, and he came and talked to mum, read some passages from the Bible and prayed with her, as he had done for dad. Mark and I were with mum until about half past midnight, when I went home. Mark said he would stay for a couple of hours and then come home himself. I was back in Wootton about twenty minutes later, and the phone rang almost immediately. Mum had just died, at ten to one on Wednesday 6 May. I told Peter and Mary, and went back to the hospital. The sister had taken off mum’s rings, and put them in an envelope. Mark and I gathered the few things from around the bed, kissed mum on the forehead, and departed. When I got back to Wootton, I gave mum’s rings straight to Mary.

The next few days were a close but not identical copy of the days after dad’s death. Mum’s funeral in Wootton church was a sister event to dad’s. It was held on 14 May at 2.00. Here is the order of service.


16 September, 1927 — 6 May, 2009

‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’

Funeral Service
St. Mary’s Church, Wootton
14th May, 2009


Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt his name;
When in distress to Him I called,
He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Deliverance He affords to all
Who on His succour trust.

Oh make but trial of His love,
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they
Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.

by Mark Richmond

by Gerard Manley Hopkins
read by John Richmond

by Norma Smith

by the Reverend Peter Ackroyd

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine for ever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Thou spreadst a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And, O, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.

led by the Reverend Peter Richmond


‘When one person dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book,
but translated into a better language’
from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
read by John Richmond


For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesu, be for ever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might:
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victors’crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west:
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes the rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia! Alleluia!


The service was as fine as dad’s had been. Mark’s tribute was once again apt, humorous and beautifully delivered. Once again, I found myself almost but not quite overcome during my readings. Here they are, with my introductions.


Our mother took deep joy in the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. She saw nature at all seasons, especially during her bicycle rides, over many years, from Wootton to and from Kempston Rural Primary School, where she was deputy head teacher and then head teacher. She was also a knowledgeable and accomplished gardener. She and my father created a garden across the road from here that had something in flower almost all the year round.

For her 80th birthday, we bought our mother a lap-top computer. She sat up in bed and took to the internet like a duck to water, as you would expect from a former teacher. She began to order plants for the garden on-line. Sometimes we feared that her enthusiasm for buying plants in this way would exceed the capacity of the garden to accommodate them. But somehow, usually thanks to our father’s ingenuity, space was found.

Gerard Manley Hopkins lived a short life in the second half of the 19th century. He was a great original poet and a Christian priest. This is his poem ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.


As our mother was gently lifted into the ambulance on Easter Eve in the evening, the church clock struck. I’m not sure now whether it struck eight or nine. I said, out loud, ‘…for whom the bell tolls’. Mother smiled, in great pain as she was, because she knew this passage from John Donne. Donne was another great English poet and prose writer, and also a Christian priest. As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, he preached in the open air, outside the cathedral, to hundreds of people on most Sundays. The passage is from one of his meditations, written in 1623, in which he reminds us of the interlinkedness of our humanity, and of the effect of God’s hand upon us all.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? Who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? And who can remove his ear from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one person dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

After the service, Mark and I walked behind the hearse from the church gate to the house before letting the car go. This time, the cremation wasn’t until the following morning. There was tea and cake for guests. It was a quieter occasion than for mum, but equally convivial. That evening the family ate dinner together, which Gill had cooked. I provided champagne. The next morning, Peter, Mark and I went to the crematorium early, and saw mum off. Peter said some prayers. As the curtain closed around the coffin, the organist played ‘Somewhere, over the rainbow’: a quirkily a-religious and somehow cheering choice.

Back at the house, Mary supervised the division of mum’s jewellery amongst the women. We decided to sell the house as quickly as we could. Peter had been wondering whether to buy it himself, but had changed his mind: the right decision in my opinion. We agreed to take away immediately those few things which had either financial or emotional value. We drove Mary and family to the station; they took the train to Gatwick. Peter (my fellow executor) and I went to our parents’ solicitor in Ampthill. We applied for probate, and began the process of winding up the estate. Our parents’ financial affairs were not complicated.

Last Saturday, I shook hands with Paul Lowe, who lives next door to our parents’ house and is a property developer, and agreed to sell him the house for £230,000. I like Paul, and I think the deal will go through quickly. The total value of our parents’ estate after deductions will I think be about £250,000: £50,000 each.

I haven’t at any point since my parents died felt disabling grief. There have been times when I have been moved to tears, mainly by literature and music associated with memories of my parents; but literature and music can move me to tears at any time. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to deal with the experience as calmly as I have, and I don’t think I’m denying any deep-lying feeling. I have been fortunate to have both parents until the age of nearly 58. There was no unfinished business between us, apart from the unfinishable business of their religious faith and my lack of it, and they were immensely grateful for everything that we did for them in their last years. I took comfort from my leading role in the organisation of affairs after each death, and from the care I gave mother after dad died, both at home and when she went into hospital. I feel good, and pleased that now nothing is stopping me, for the rest of my life, from being myself completely.

Mum’s and dad’s ashes are currently sitting side by side under my writing desk here, in identical discreet black carrier bags. On 15 July, we shall scatter them on Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight, as dad requested. Then we shall have dinner in the Highdown Inn (researched on the internet by Mary and, in a reassuring coincidence, warmly praised by a friend yesterday) and stay the night. That’ll be it.

Camden Town

11 Jun 2009

Everything I’ve written in the diary this year has been about death, including the first entry about the death of a greenfinch. This can’t be healthy. Am I becoming maudlin as my default mood, I who always thought of myself as an essentially cheerful and positive person? I don’t think so, although I confess that some mornings when I look into the mirror I am struck by the likeness between my face now and the face I kissed and stroked in Bedford Hospital on 5 and 6 April. That is, I can fast-forward in my mind along the route that my face will take during my remaining years, if I live as long as my father, until the day I look very much like my father looked in his last hours.

Meanwhile, the world has been getting on with business. In May 1995, I wrote in revengeful joy of the Conservatives’ comprehensive defeat in local elections: a disaster for them which was the prelude to their near-annihilation in the general election two years later. Eight days ago, Labour suffered a similar catastrophe. They were routed in county- and unitary-council elections in England. They now control nothing in England outside the big cities, most of which were not voting. Their share of the total vote was 23%. It has never been as low as that in a nationwide local election. Of the 34 councils elected that day, 30 are now Conservative, one (Bristol) is Liberal Democrat, two (Cornwall and Cumbria) have the Conservatives as the largest party but without overall control, and one (Bedford) has the Liberal Democrats as the largest party but without overall control.

On the same day, the elections for the European Parliament were held. In these, Labour did even worse. It won 15.8% of the overall popular vote. In Wales, it was pushed into second place by the Tories for the first time since 1918. It suffered its lowest vote in Scotland since before the first world war. It finished in third place across the UK, after the United Kingdom Independence Party. Perhaps worst of all, the collapse of the Labour vote allowed the racist thugs of the British National Party to gain their first two European seats.

Labour’s humiliation has several causes. First, The Daily Telegraph has for weeks now been reporting on the abuses of the parliamentary allowances and expenses system which some MPs and ministers have been committing. It seems that a source in the fees office at Westminster sold the information to the paper for a large sum of money. The rest of the media has had to run with the story; it is a journalistic coup. Members of all the major parties have been exposed, but the Telegraph started on Labour MPs and ministers first. There is a mood in the country of righteous outrage at the venality, greed and arrogance of our representatives. Labour, as the incumbent government nationally, was punished at the elections more severely than the other parties, even though allowances and expenses at Westminster have nothing to do with local nor European issues, and Labour’s sins, though grievous, were not more grievous than those committed by other parties.

Secondly, the international financial crisis has hurt lots of people in a way that it hasn’t hurt me. Those who’ve lost jobs, seen businesses go bust, watched the interest on their savings shrink to almost nothing (actually, that has happened to us), or found it impossible to get a mortgage blame the government, even though it was Brown’s and Darling’s swift actions last autumn which stopped the crisis turning into the complete collapse of the financial system which might have meant that all the money in our bank accounts disappeared. There’s nothing fair in politics.

Thirdly, Labour has returned to the habit of fratricidal strife which in the joyful years immediately after 1997 I so naively hoped it might have shaken off for ever. On 30 November 2007 I wrote: ‘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.’ This woeful state of affairs has persisted since. In the days before the elections, it became known that a group of Labour MPs was plotting to oust Brown immediately after the expected heavy defeat. Eight ministers, including three cabinet ministers, resigned in the run-up to and immediately after the elections; the more honest among them said frankly and publicly that Brown was leading the party to electoral disaster next year. There was a moment on Friday 5 June when Brown’s hold on the premiership looked shaky, but he conducted a hurried reshuffle that day with the help of Peter Mandelson, who’s playing a role rather like that which Heseltine played for Major after Major’s back-me-or-sack-me resignation of the party leadership in June 1995. The new cabinet was thus bound to be loyal to Brown (anyone who accepted a post only to resign it within days would look a fool), and the MPs’ revolt petered out over the weekend. So Brown is secure until the election next year; but the sight of Labour tearing itself apart before the elections, just as in the bad old days, did us more damage.

So I expect that the Conservatives will win the next general election, some time next year. At the least, I expect them to be the largest party. This despite the fact that there isn’t the active hunger for a change that there was in the years before 1997. The truth is that Labour, although one has to acknowledge that it will have had the longest period in government in the party’s history, has inflicted deep wounds on itself through the unceasing conflict between the Brownite and Blairite factions in the parliamentary party, and through the inability of some of its dominating personalities to subordinate their interests and egos to the interests of the party and therefore of the country: behaviour which seems inexplicable and arcane to most ordinary Labour supporters like me. If Labour in government had been able to do the simple things well, as I had hoped in the early years that it might, we would be looking forward to at least one more parliamentary term after this one. The Tories were in power for 18 years; Labour looks as if it will manage 13.

On 3 May 1997, I wrote: ‘There is the possibility that, for a generation to come, Britain could be governed by a progressive party (or coalition of parties, if the Liberals were invited into government at a future election where Labour won a smaller majority) which will realise the proper purpose of politics: to give organised reality to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason.’

On 5 June 2009 at about half past ten in the morning, I was walking past the back of the Foreign Office and Downing Street just as Brown was conducting his reshuffle (though I didn’t know he was doing that until later in the day). I said to the person I was with that if I were Brown, I would call in Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. I would offer Clegg the Home Office and Cable the Exchequer, and one or two other cabinet jobs to Liberals. After further conversation, I would hold a press conference announcing the coalition, and making the following statement.

‘The date of the next general election will be 22 May 2010. That is a Saturday. We hope for a better turn-out on Saturdays than we have been getting on Thursdays. Additionally, anyone who wants a postal vote can have one. Parliament will have six weeks’ holiday this year. We’ll stop work on Friday 7 August and start again on Monday 21 September. The first three weeks of September will be enough time for the party conferences. During the autumn, the coalition government will bring in a bill to establish proportional representation as from that election (the form to be decided before we introduce the bill); to establish fixed-term five-year parliaments as from that date, dissolvable only by a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons; to reconstitute the House of Lords as an 80%-elected, 20%-appointed revising chamber with a fixed number of members, those first elections to occur at the same time as the Commons elections; and to prepare a written constitution for the UK.

There will be another bill going through Parliament at the same time, proposing the complete overhaul of the expenses and allowances system: notably, MPs who have constituencies outside London will be given a flat nightly rate for being in London, which they can spend on their accommodation however they like; and MPs will not be allowed to have continuous other jobs.

We shall abandon ID cards. We shall abandon the plan to record and keep on computer all phone calls, emails and other electronic communications made by people in the UK; we shall abandon the part-privatisation of the Post Office, since if we can afford to spend hundreds of billions saving the banks we can afford to keep a much-loved service in public ownership, even if it is losing money.

Thank you. I’m now going to get on with governing the country.’

Total fantasy, of course. That afternoon, Brown held a press conference to announce his reshuffle. Completely tribal, making the best of a diminishing pool of talent, heavily reliant on the House of Lords, acknowledging his debt to Mandelson by making him First Secretary of State (the title Major invented for Heseltine) and giving him other titles and a huge department. It won’t stop the rot.


2 Aug 2009

Since I last wrote, we’ve been fast-moving. Two days after my birthday, we flew to Malta. Taxi to the ferry for Gozo. Short ride across the straits between the two islands. Our friend Juginder Lamba met us off the ferry, and drove us to the north-western tip of the island, where he and Lesley Lancaster have their house. It’s a gracious, spacious structure, built of the honey-coloured limestone which is everywhere on the island. Like all the traditional buildings there, the house feels Arab. The walls are thick. The rooms on two storeys surround a courtyard. We had four days of heat. I swam in the pool every day and in the sea once, at a place called St Blas, which you get to by descending a steep pathway. The sand is rust-coloured. The water was turquoise, and at a perfect temperature: welcoming but invigorating. I swam for a long time, as I love to; but these days I’m more careful about going out too far, after my frightening experience in Brittany a couple of years ago.

Gozo is little, and more sparsely populated than Malta. The most striking sights, architecturally, are the churches in every town and village. They’re huge, and in the baroque style of St Peter’s, Rome.

While I was there, I read a biography of Bunyan by Christopher Hill (out of print) which Helen had found for me second-hand on the internet, and Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress in a combined volume, which Paul had given me for my birthday. My interest in Bunyan had been stirred by the famous extract from The Pilgrim’s Progress (Mr Valiant-for-Truth coming into his reward) which I read at dad’s funeral. I realised that I knew very little about Bunyan, despite the Bedfordshire connection. Hill’s book (as usual, immense learning lightly carried) presents Bunyan as a true political radical in his time, despite the dogmatic conservatism of his religious convictions. I found myself skip-reading both the Bunyan books; partly because the religious territory is so familiar to me (I know what’s coming), but also because there is much repetitiveness in both. The thing that saves them, and the thing, probably, which has made The Pilgrim’s Progress one of the most popular books ever written, is the wonderful blunt use of language, grounded in the familiar.

Nothing within Christianity could be further from Bunyan’s psychological self-torturings — essentially, the struggle for salvation of the individual soul — than the devout but communal and habitual Catholicism of the people of Gozo.

On our last morning on the island, Juginder and I walked on the high cliffs not far from their house, amid tiny walled fields where corn had already been cut. The Mediterranean was calm three hundred feet below us. Spectacular.

After Gozo, we were back in London for a couple of weeks, in the middle of which we had our annual weekend in Suffolk with Peter Adams: the usual, enduring pleasures. Then we took another short trip abroad, this time to Lisbon to stay with Glenda and Julian Walton. We were there last year, and had intended to repeat the trip at the beginning of this May, but postponed it because my mother was dying. As last year, we had lots of fun with Glenda and Julian — lovely meals, swimming from the town beach in the Lisbon suburb where they lived, a trip north to the beautiful little walled town of Óbidos. They’re leaving Lisbon this month, and going to Bangkok, where Julian has a job for a year teaching in an English-medium private school linked to Shrewsbury School, where he used to teach.

Back to England, and the following week Mary, Jacques, Mark, Helen and I went to the Isle of Wight to scatter dad’s and mum’s ashes on Tennyson Down. Dad had requested this of me for himself about two years before he died, so we did them both together. It was the most beautiful afternoon, with sunshine and a light breeze, the sea calm, the turf a giving pleasure to stride on. Despite it being July, there was hardly anyone about on this Wednesday afternoon, so we had the down to ourselves for the few minutes it took to scatter the contents of the two plastic urns. Dad’s ashes almost filled his container; mum’s barely half-filled hers, so skeletal had she become when she died. The act could not have been better done. We walked along to the Needles, then retraced our steps up to the Tennyson Monument, before returning to The Highdown Inn, where we were to stay the night. Mark, Helen and I drove down to Tennyson’s house, Farringford, which is now a hotel, where they kindly let us walk around the rooms, whose walls are covered with photographs and paintings of the poet, and illustrations of scenes in his poems. I was particularly struck by an amazingly sexy engraving of the Lady of Shalott; hair flying wildly up from her head, her body revealed to best effect through the drapes of her dress.

That evening, we drank champagne in the garden of the pub to mark the end of our parents’ lives, and ate well in the little dining room. The next morning, Mark biked off to Yarmouth (he had crossed from Lymington with his bike, having left the car there; he had noticed, at my request, the sand bar of ‘Crossing the Bar’) and the rest of us drove to Fishbourne. Crossed to Portsmouth and to Sainsbury’s on the Eastern Road to buy a picnic lunch to have with Margaret. While the others were in the shop, I simply dumped the two empty plastic urns in the appropriate recycling bin in the car park. I wasn’t sure why, sentimentally, I felt a bit guilty about doing so. What else was I going to do with them? And, after church attendance, loyalty to Sainsbury’s had been my parents’ steadiest observance.

Then we went to Margaret’s house and had lunch with her. She is 95 now, in fit form, and was glad at what we had done the previous day. She told me the story, which I knew, of how when Tennyson and his wife were unpacking their things on the day they moved into Farringford, with furniture parked on the lawn and everything in confusion, Prince Albert turned up unannounced, having driven over in a pony and trap from Osborne. A minimum of formality; they got him something to drink, and he went to pick cowslips, and left soon, because he could see they were busy. He was going to make cowslip wine for the queen. (Personally?) I said, ‘There are no cowslips there now, but there is a golf course and there was a helicopter parked on the lawn.’ She said, ‘My dear, you’ve said it all.’

Towards the end of the lunch, as Mary was saying something and Margaret was looking at her, Margaret suddenly asked Mary, ‘What’s that locket round your neck?’ Mary said that mum had given it to her, and that she thought granny (Margaret’s elder sister) had had it before her. ‘Yes,’ said Margaret, ‘it was a wedding present to our grandparents [probably married about 1870] and our mother had it after that. She was holding me in her arms one day when I was a baby, and I bit it. Take a look.’ Mary took off the locket and, sure enough, there were baby bite marks in it, made by Margaret in about 1915.

After lunch, we left Mary and Jacques, who were taking the train to Gatwick later, and drove back to London.

A week later, on Thursday 23 July, we took the last of our brief summer jaunts, this time by first-class rail to Penzance, for the wedding of a young teacher whom Helen has worked with at Churchill Gardens Primary School. We stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, where the wedding reception was to be held on the Saturday. The Queen’s is everything that is awful about seaside hotels in Britain. Arrangements of artificial flowers, dust-laden, adorn the staircase. Our room sported wallpaper of the kind that Oscar Wilde is supposed to have deplored in his famous last words. The perfectly good stout oak doors to all the rooms had been improved about 40 years ago by the addition of plywood fascias. Dinner on the first night was abominable to the point of laughter. A kind young obese man, our waiter, dicky-bowed, anxious to please, brought the menu. In case of doubt in these situations, it’s always best to go for the plainest offerings. Fish and chips and pies were available. ‘What kind of pies go with the fish and chips?’ I asked. He looked perplexed, then said, ‘Oh, peas, you know, the green things.’ Silly of me. Why should I expect the most expensive hotel in Penzance to know how to spell, let alone cook, peas?

The only good thing about the Queen’s, and it was wonderful, was the view from our bedroom window out across the bay, taking in St Michael’s Mount as you look down to the distant Lizard to the east, and round past Newlyn towards Mousehole to the west. On the Friday afternoon, while Helen went shopping, I sat at the open window and read the complete Dylan Thomas poems, which Stephen Eyers had given me for my birthday. Reading all the poems Thomas had published in his short life made me think that, usually, anthologisers and selectors of poetry get it right. The 20 or so poems which are famous are the best ones, by a distance. Scores of others are attention-seeking, flashy in their imagery, perverse in their obscurity: the bard giving himself room. But the 20 or so great ones are great. I found myself reading ‘Fern Hill’ out loud, over and over again. It’s a hard poem to read aloud well. Then Helen came back and I began to read it out loud to her, but I couldn’t finish it; I wept and wept. I knew why it was. Here was I on the south coast of England, the coast where, a couple of hundred miles to the east, I had started. As a child, the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight seemed to me a territory of romance. My parents had met there. They had been happy there, before the disappointments came. ‘Fern Hill’ remembers a place where the poet had been lyrically happy as a child; had enjoyed a secure joy now departed. My father, a young scientist working for the Admiralty, had traveled all along the south coast, by land and sea, testing the radar stations at Spithead, Portland Bill, the Lizard. He had had hope, a good job, a growing family, untroubled faith…

The wedding day was great. A good service in St Mary’s Church (high), presided over by a sympathetic and humorous priest, was followed by one of those afternoon-merges-into-evening drinking and eating sessions. The wedding breakfast was miles better than the Thursday-night dinner. Back to London the next morning.

And we came here last Wednesday.


24 Aug 2009

We’ve been here a month now, apart from a six-day tour down south, first to see Stephen and Theresa at Barraud in the Charente as usual, and then to visit David, Lindsay and Tom, staying in a gîte with Lindsay’s brother and sister-in-law near Beaumont de Périgord in the Dordogne. Lots of fun in both places. My essential annual swim in the Dronne; more swimming in pools. When I’m at Barraud, I like to have a project. This year it was to free the prolific plum tree from the grip of the ivy choking it. The plums were ripe and delicious. I get moments of pure happiness doing something like that.

Here, friends and family have come and gone on short visits, and we are alone. It’s the steady good weather of late August. Until today, I haven’t written anything since the last diary entry. Today I did a fifth in a series of little poems commemorating, for good and ill, my parents’ lives. I’ve worked in the garden, especially with Jean our carpenter, who has made and installed some beautiful gates for the gaps in the hedge around the ex-potager. Now that the deer won’t get in to eat the flowers, I’ve taken the wire netting off the trunks of the young trees. After Jean had finished, I spent a day varnishing the gates while listening to the first day of the last Test between England and Australia. For the next three days, until last Sunday afternoon, I mainly just sat and listened. (Paul and Vikki were here overnight on Friday.) I can still get utterly absorbed in a big Test match. England won back the Ashes by two games to one over a five-game series, after the humiliation of losing five-nil in 2006-7. I’m 60/40 pleased when we win, and 60/40 sorry when we lose, but the result isn’t really important to me. It’s the contest, and the achievements along the way, which I enjoy. When it’s over, I always feel sad, and have to go for a walk.

Early in August, I spent three days reading my father’s journals, which we found in a cupboard in their house, not carefully hidden, after his funeral and before my mother died. They fill 12 school exercise books, numbered. The entries begin on 17 February 1986 and end on 18 June 2001. (Mary tells me that she found a thirteenth book at the house when she was there earlier this month, with intermittent entries continuing until recently. I shall read it and add it to the pile when I get back.) The writing is a terrible, heart-breaking confession of misery. Here is a man, aged 61 when he begins to write, an Anglican lay-reader, married to one of the churchwardens of the church they have already been attending for 21 years. They are senior figures there. He was made redundant from Oxford Instruments in Newport Pagnell six years previously, and is now retired; she, in the final years of her teaching career, is headmistress of Kempston Rural Primary School. Their five children are all grown up now; the youngest is 22.

The journal entries are usually addressed to God. Most of them start with ‘Father…’ Across 15 years, they confess, with little variation or progression, to the complete failure of my father’s marriage to my mother. A major reason for the failure is that, at 61, he is still sexually hungry. She has no interest in sex at all. He quotes her as saying, ‘Why did God have to make it such an animal business?’ After the birth of their last child in 1963, she sees no reason for sex, although she accepts, reluctantly and with some distaste, that the need is still implanted in my father.

Dad admits that the reason he married my mother was so that he could have sex without shame. The religion and the sex began to confuse with each other right at the beginning. When dad met mum, she was already an evangelical Christian, having been converted at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union some time during the two years she was at Homerton. Dad was a sexually frustrated young man with vague religious leanings, who visited the local church in Drayton, Portsmouth, at the encouragement of his friend (and later best man) Ron Fischbacher, who was already a convinced believer (how evangelical I don’t know). Dad met mum at the church, and began to court her seriously. She told him (he quotes her): ‘If this is going to carry on, you must become a Christian.’ So he did. He became a Christian so he could marry my mother. He knelt down by his bed and said, ‘God, I’ve made a mess of my life so far. Please take it over.’ Pathetically, he makes the same appeal to God, in virtually the same words, repeatedly in the journals. He still sees his life, at any point between 36 and 51 years after that first prayer, as a mess he has made.

Mum’s firmness in insisting on dad becoming a Christian before giving herself to him is an early warning of the imbalance of power between them throughout their married life. Imbalance of power between married couples is, I would guess, much more often in favour of the man. In my parents’ case, mum dominated and dad submitted in all areas except theology. Her domination was reinforced by a ferocious temper, which on countless occasions through my childhood and youth led to scenes of anger and hurt within the family, most usually during Sunday lunchtimes. Dad confesses to his journal sometimes that he is seething with anger at the way she has just spoken to him. He is ashamed of the way that, during family rows in previous years, he allowed his children (notably me) to stand up to mum, to say harsh, true things to her about her behaviour which he didn’t have the courage to say. Most sadly, he often writes, after a bad encounter with her, that he feels like ‘a nasty, dirty little boy’: nasty and dirty partly because he wants sex and she only grants it to him as an act of resignation, partly because he senses that he hasn’t ever really grown up. He is still the boy in his first pair of long trousers going to see his mother in hospital on the night she died of cancer, and hearing a sympathetic stranger say of him as he left her bedside, ‘Poor little chap.’ The poor little chap, who had been badly bullied by his older brothers for being mother’s pet, had no mother throughout his teenage years. The desire for a mother morphed into the desire for a woman, a strong woman, and that’s what he got. Because of his religious belief, the idea that he might relieve his sexual feelings in mature manhood by any means other than penetrative sex in the missionary position with his wife was unacceptable, though he hints frequently at the temptation. Once he suggests that he has committed adultery. I hope he did, actually; and there was one occasion, a long time ago, when he went to America on business, and afterwards spoke to me admiringly about a woman he’d met at a conference, I think in Dallas, who ‘loved life’. This was such an unusual phrase for my father to use that it stuck with me. But probably, dad’s confession that he’d committed adultery was no more than a reference to the verse in the New Testament (Jesus or St Paul? I can’t remember) which says that ‘whoso looketh at a woman to lust hath already committed adultery with her in his heart’.

From having been behind mum in religious conviction when they met, dad went far ahead of her as a result of an experience which he dates and times precisely to 7pm on 7 July 1971. He was praying alone at home (this was in the first house they owned in Wootton, the one they had built in Keeley Lane), when he had the sensation of being filled with the Holy Spirit. He began to speak in tongues. (He writes towards the end of the journals that he spoke in tongues almost every day of his life thereafter.) He became, in theological jargon, a charismatic. This meant that the conventional forms of belief and worship, even those as dogmatic, prayer-filled and Bible-based as practised in a regular evangelical church such as St Mary’s, Wootton, became unsatisfying to him. He longed for the church to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. He sought out like-minded people in the area, based in churches of a variety of denominations, who wished to worship and pray in a Spirit-filled way.

In practical terms, this meant: praying extempore rather than using set written forms; the possibility of bursting into tongues at any moment, should the Spirit so lead; entering into mildly trance-like states of joy, often with hands raised above the head, when praising God; dancing in the Spirit; prophesying; healing the physically and mentally sick by the power of the Spirit; being willing and able from time to time to confront the devil and evil spirits which had entered into people and places, and to exorcise them by the power of Jesus and the Spirit.

My mother hated all this with a loathing. She was a conventional, repressed, loyal (though sometimes angry) servant of the Church of England. She believed that prayer and praise should be conducted in a restrained, generally formal way. Arms should never be raised above the waist. Faith-healing: highly suspicious. So after 7 July 1971, a further difference opened up between her and my father, exacerbating those to do with sex and power already evident: a cruel difference which they might never have expected. Both born-again Christians, how could they disagree so deeply about faith, and the practice of faith? But they did. Dad often laments to his journal, and to God, that ‘Daphne hates the way I pray’. He is referring to their daily, early-morning prayer sessions in the bedroom. She attacks him for this too.

So, in dad’s own words, it was a failed marriage. It would be impossible to publicly divorce or separate; the shame would be too great. In 1988, mother retired from teaching. Her younger sister Evelyn in Portsmouth was beginning to suffer severely from the multiple sclerosis which would eventually kill her three months before mother died. Mother frequently spent Mondays to Fridays with Evelyn and Margaret, going down on the train, leaving dad in Wootton. These separations were a blessed relief to him. He wished that the arrangement could informally become permanent, so that they would see each other only occasionally, without the need for any public announcement of their separation. He writes that he finds the atmosphere at Portsmouth stultifying anyway. But mother is back every weekend, to fulfil her responsibilities as churchwarden, and usually to criticise him over Sunday lunch for his shortcomings (not enough achieved in the house or garden while she’s been away, or the way he prayed or preached in church not to her liking).

As a lay-reader in the Church of England, dad was required to conduct services in the conventional manner, and asked by the vicar of Wootton to preach sometimes in the village church and in the daughter church at Stewartby. (He was also often invited to take services and preach in other churches around Bedfordshire.) The folk in Wootton and Stewartby are not naturally charismatic. Outbursts of religious emotion are embarrassing to them. The three vicars under whom dad served during the 39 years he was a licensed lay-reader expected him to ‘preach about God and preach about twenty minutes’, as the cliché goes. They all valued his loyalty and hard work, they admired the sincerity of his spirituality, but they found him unpredictable, worrying, hard to control. This was especially true of the first of the three, a conventional evangelical, in personality and in preaching devoid of any spark of inspiration, whose principal pleasure was his round of golf on Mondays. The second and third were more sympathetic, and much more interesting people, but not uncritical of dad. He was liable to preach too long, too spontaneously, and too confessionally in the sense that passages of religious disquisition and textual exegesis were frequently followed by true confessions about his life, the state of his soul, and the lives and souls of his wife and family. He reports that one Sunday lunchtime mum told him to ‘leave our family out of your sermons’. I am sympathetic to her about that.

(I need in fairness to record how wonderful Peter Ackroyd, the present vicar of Wootton and the third under whom dad served, was at the time of both my parents’ deaths.)

So, to add to his other unhappinesses, dad was an Anglican no longer really at home in the Anglican church, but unable or unwilling to leave it. The charismatic movement touched Anglicanism (and not just low-church Anglicanism), perhaps not as much as it did the non-conformist churches, but significantly here and there. Dad was attracted by activities at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, not far away. There they had received the Toronto Blessing, an extreme form of visitation by the Holy Spirit, in which respectably dressed people fall down and writhe on the floor. Sicknesses were instantly healed. God was moving in our generation in Hertfordshire; why not in Bedfordshire? I think my mother accompanied dad to Chorleywood once. She was appalled. During another unhappy Sunday lunchtime, she said (and again I sympathise), ‘I don’t want to hear any more about St Andrew’s, Chorleywood.’ (I’ve just checked the internet; the obsessive could spend hours reading the violent polemics for and against the church and the activities and morals of some of its recent pastors.)

Weekly, dad asks God to show him what to say in his next sermon at Wootton, Stewartby or another village. Sometimes, on a Monday, the journal records thanks to God that some people seemed to appreciate what he had said. Mostly, there is sadness, self-criticism or hurt that mother or one of the vicars has criticised his preaching. Sometimes, in his darkest moments, he takes a walk to ‘the rejection tree’. This was the tree he went to (I think it’s on the lane to Bourne End) on the day many years ago (mid-60s) when he heard that his application to be ordained had been rejected: a rejection which hurt him profoundly, and as a result of which he became a lay-reader — the nearest to priesthood he would come.

The overall tone of the journals is one of despair and self-loathing. He has wasted his life. The fact that four of his five children have divorced, and the fifth has chosen to live with a woman without marrying her, must be blamed on the failure of his marriage and the bad example he and mother set. So must the fact that only one child, Mark, is the kind of Christian who for him counts as the real thing. Three of us are outside the faith completely, and Peter — an ordained Anglican priest — is merely ‘an ecclesiastic’. He worries about me working for such a godless organisation as Channel 4; how could I have made that choice? And, again and again: ‘Please Father, I’ve made a mess of my life. Please take it over for me, such of it as remains. In Jesus’ name. Amen.’

About the achievements of dad’s working life, notably the pioneering work he did on MRI between 1965 and 1980: nothing. About the beauty of the natural world, which he appreciated so much: a little. About poetry, which he loved and read frequently: nothing.

Next to sorrow, my strongest feeling on reading the journals was one of disappointment at narrowness. When you spoke to dad, you didn’t get a sense of bigotry and small-mindedness. He seemed a gentle, humorous, loving and grateful person. But in his writing, we discover someone who is unhappy if he’s away from his church (whatever pains he experienced within it) for even one Sunday. He didn’t enjoy the trips to the south of France which Mary arranged for them, or the trip to Brittany which I arranged for them, because ‘France is a godless place; there are more astrologers than priests’. It hurt him that he had to be at table with people who didn’t say grace at the beginning of meals. He and mum did take one holiday to Scotland, during which mum unfortunately experienced the first symptoms (then undiagnosed) of her illness. They seemed to have a moderately good time. The conservatism of the cooking in Scottish bed-and-breakfast places was a plus. (Dad was notoriously unadventurous about food and drink.) A significant blessing was granted them in Nairn when they overheard another couple saying grace before their meal. So they were able to have fellowship with them.

On more important matters, dad is fixedly opposed to the ordination of women, and almost obsessed with homosexuality, which poses for him a terrible threat to the church and society. He quotes someone (he doesn’t say who) with approval: ‘“Liberalism is the slow road to agnosticism; feminism is the short way to paganism.”’ It never seemed to occur to him, not once, that his form of belief, with its petty, self-referencing, self-mortifying outpourings to a silent and unresponsive God, might not be the only way of salvation, after all.

Camden Town

5 Nov 2009

Nothing written for well over two months! Nothing to be done; no point in remorse or apology; just write some more.

I started back at work at Teachers TV on 1 September: earlier than usual for these recent years. Next year is going to be a year of change; Helen will retire, probably at the end of May, and so will I unless I get a ‘foreign posting’ to help set up a branch or version of Teachers TV in some other country, in which case Helen will come with me. I think that prospect unlikely. The most probable thing is that, early next June, we’ll begin a new lifestyle, spending half the year in France, half in London, and seeing something more of the world. We’ll be able to afford it, although we’ll have to live more simply than has been our habit for many years. For this reason, I didn’t mind starting back to work earlier than usual this autumn.

I’ve had plenty to do: in particular managing a project called Social Care TV, which was launched on 21 October. It’s a website which aims in a small way to do for people working in social care what Teachers TV does for teachers. There will soon be about 50 short films on the site, covering 16 topics, commissioned from four production companies. It’s been a long and at times frustrating business, trying to park the urgent, can-do culture of television production up against the slow, indecisive, risk-averse culture of the agency of the Department of Health called the Social Care Institute for Excellence. (SCIE is actually a registered charity, which is curious, given that it depends entirely on government funding and seems to be answerable to ministers.) Anyhow, now that the site exists, everyone seems to be very proud of it, and SCIE has just found money to fund the production of about 40 more films.

I’ve also completed a project funded by the British Council. Connecting Classrooms is a Council initiative linking good schools and head teachers in different countries. We’ve made eight programmes — three in Brazil, three in Mexico and two in England — which we’ve broadcast and put on our website, and which the Council can distribute around the world as it likes.

With Paul, I’m looking after the making of about 30 programmes for pupils. This is refreshingly reminiscent of what we used to do at Channel 4, though with smaller budgets.

Teachers TV continues to see international partnerships as a potential source of new revenue, although so far the money actually received from other countries has been insignificant. We’re still hoping that the Gates Foundation will fund the setting up of Teachers TV in America. The Thai government has voted the equivalent of £10 million a year for three years to have a Teachers TV there. The wildly eccentric Berlusconi government keeps makes noises about doing the same thing in Italy, but so far nothing practical has resulted. More seriously, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would like to persuade the Australian government to fund an educational channel, which it would carry. It has seen Teachers TV, and admires it. So last week I was in Australia. I had a great week. I did seven presentations about Teachers TV, in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, to executives at the ABC, to curriculum agencies, and to advisers and officials in the government. They seemed impressed. I was escorted round by Kim Dalton, the director of television at the ABC, whom I liked very much and who became a friend immediately. I also did a short presentation about our arts output to a conference, held in a studio at the ABC in Sydney, where 200 people were discussing how to forge mutually profitable links between traditional arts organisations and the electronic media.

And I enjoyed myself. On the Monday night, Kim hosted a dinner for about 16 of the contributors to the arts conference, at a restaurant called Marque in Surry Hills: a 12-course tasting menu, delicious. On the Tuesday night, I took a cab down to the Sydney Opera House, to be simply overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene there: the Opera House lit up, the harbour bridge, the dark waters of the harbour. I had dinner with two friends from England who by coincidence were in Sydney on holiday. On Wednesday night, by which time Kim and I were in Melbourne, he took me to dinner with his father, aged 90, in an Italian restaurant in the suburb of Carlton: lovely food, and wonderful conversation with a man in full possession of his faculties, a life-long socialist, still interested and analytical. He had been an organic chemist, and had worked in government scientific institutes in Australia and Britain, mainly on the development of polymers. Politically, he reminded me of Harold Rosen; in terms of his scientific interests, he reminded me of my father.

On Thursday I had my one day off. I just wandered around Melbourne in the warm spring sunshine, taking the place in. I bought Helen an opal necklace at a jewellers in Collins Street. I strolled by the Yarra. I lunched at another Italian restaurant, called Scusami, on the south side of the river. Splendid: a dozen oysters with two little pots of balsamic vinegar sorbet, risotto del giorno (I’ve forgotten what was in it, but it was lovely), half a bottle of Semillon from the Barossa Valley.

Two final presentations on Friday morning, then Kim and I flew back to Sydney. He drove us straight to the Opera House; he was going to a play in the theatre there, and I was going to Peter Grimes. I had a seat in the third row of the stalls. It’s a magnificent auditorium, and the production was superb. Stuart Skelton played Grimes as near-autistic, almost the village idiot of 200 years ago, rubbing his palms neurotically on his fisherman’s overalls. Of course he has a wonderful voice, but it was his acting which moved me the most. The wall of sound hitting the third row of the stalls from chorus and orchestra was electrifying.

Afterwards I dined again with the same two friends in the same restaurant as Tuesday. They had been to a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in another auditorium of the Opera House building.

On Saturday I walked out to the Sydney Cricket Ground, hoping that there might be a game on which I could watch for a couple of hours. There wasn’t, so I walked back to Surry Hills — a suburb just on the fringe of the city which I like very much and could imagine living in — and sat outside a café and had breakfast in the morning sunshine and felt good. Then I went back to the hotel and packed. Michael Ward, one of the directors of the ABC, whom I had met at a drinks party on Tuesday evening at the end of the arts conference, came and picked me up and took me out to Newington College, the school where his sons go, and we sat and watched his son Reuben playing cricket for the under 16s. A warm Saturday afternoon, playing fields with numerous games of cricket in progress, a sense of leisure at the end of the week: it reminded me of Dulwich College 1962-5. When the game was over, Michael drove me back to the hotel. I had a spare hour before I needed to go to the airport, so I walked back to Surry Hills a last time, and had a drink in a bar I had noticed and liked the look of earlier in the day. It was Hallowe’en, and it seemed odd, but not entirely disagreeable, to be served in the warmth of a spring evening by a cheerful young woman in a black corset with blood from a Dracula bite running down her neck.

Then the airport, then the long ride (14 hours) to Dubai, then a strange alienated four hours in the huge terminal there, then what seemed a short hop (only seven hours) to London. Business class these days means chairs which convert properly to flat beds, which is an immense mercy. And I was grateful for the Mercedes which whisked me home from the airport. So I haven’t felt too bad this week.

My parents’ house was finally sold to Paul Lowe, their next-door neighbour, on 9 October. The estate was wound up, and we five children received about £50,000 each, on 21 October. It could have happened much more quickly than that. I had decided to put the job into the hands of my parents’ solicitor in Ampthill, because he was local and he held the deeds to the house. It was a mistake. He turned out to be incompetent, so I sacked him in late August, he having allowed three months to be wasted by not communicating with the Probate Registry as he should have done. I turned the job over to Peter Stewart, who is Helen’s and my solicitor in Shrewsbury. He was brilliant, and all went well thereafter.

I’ve been reading French history lately: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, highly entertaining, about the 18th and 19th centuries, whose thesis is that France as we understand it now, a centralised single state with a proud language and a strong sense of itself, hardly existed then; Occupation by Ian Ousby, about France 1940-1944; France since 1870 by Charles Sowerwine, a straight consecutive account which includes cultural developments and women’s history step by step with political events (and which disagrees with Graham Robb’s thesis); Paris after the Liberation by Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper (an easy read, because the political stuff is mixed in with bonbons about the doings of the elites); La Vie en Bleu – France and the French since 1900 by Rod Kedward, dense but excellent, which I’m halfway through; and finally Graham Robb’s biography of Balzac, which I’m also halfway through, and which is as good as his biography of Victor Hugo.

When I was in Melbourne, I bought a copy of Judith Wright’s Selected Poems, because I thought I really ought to read a major Australian poet while I was there. Magnificent, my kind of poetry: controlled, crafted, deeply felt, often entertaining, a not uncritical tribute to her country and its people, especially troubled and troubling about the despoliation of the land by those who have come there so recently.

This afternoon Helen and I are going down to Portsmouth to have tea with Margaret. Tomorrow I go to Peter Hetherington’s house in Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, where seven school friends from 40 years ago will gather for tea, then apéritifs, then go with Peter to The Plough at Bolnhurst for dinner, then back to Peter’s for digestifs, then stay the night in a bed-and-breakfast place in the village. We haven’t all met together for about 20 years. Who knows whether we shall ever all meet again? I hope it’ll be fun and relaxed, despite the great differences in character, political views and outlook on life which have emerged since we were schoolboys.

Camden Town

27 Dec 2009

The schoolboys’ reunion was a success.

At the end of November, Helen and I gave ourselves a long weekend in Paris. Train from St Pancras, of course; two and a quarter hours later, arrive at the Gare du Nord. Taxi to our hotel in the Rue St Honoré. For four nights and three days, taste the reliable pleasures the great city offers: random walking; not too much culture; eating and drinking in the old familiar places.

On 11 December, Helen went into hospital for an operation on her right foot. She had had a bunion growing on the inside of the foot, at the broadest part near the big toe, for years. It was unsightly and uncomfortable, but the main problem was that it had already begun to deform the bones and tendons inside the foot, especially the main bone which runs down to the big toe. Unattended to, it would eventually cripple her. So it had to be removed. Such are the wonders of surgical science in rich countries these days that she went in at noon, was operated on that afternoon under a general anaesthetic, with a lot of local anaesthetic in the foot, and was available to be discharged at half past seven that evening.

We are nearly halfway through the recuperation period. For the first ten days Helen could only move on crutches, and spent all day on the sofa with her foot up. Last Tuesday, we went to the hospital (UCH, in its beautiful new building) for the bandages to be taken off. The wound had already healed remarkably. The surgeon explained what he (or rather his assistant, under his supervision) had done. As I understand it (and I always need doctors to explain something two or three times, but am shy after the first explanation), the distorted bone was deliberately broken where the distortion was. The distorted part was removed. Possibly with the help of a part of the bunion which was closest to the break (but are bunions made of bone? I don’t think so), the bone was made straight again, and two steel screws put in to secure it where the breaks had been made. The rest of the bunion was removed, and the wound sewn up with soluble stitches. I may have got some of this wrong. What is not in doubt is that we saw an X-ray of Helen’s foot, with the bone beautifully straight, and the two screws securing it. Amazing. Everyone at UCH, from surgeons to nurses to receptionists, was charming. It was the NHS at its wonderful best, making one proud to live in this country.

(And early on Christmas Eve Barack Obama got his health bill through the Senate: a great achievement. It still has to pass the House of Representatives, but most commentators think it will become law next year. Compromise as it is, it is the most significant piece of progressive legislation passed in any area of domestic social policy in the USA for many years, and probably the most important piece of health legislation ever achieved there. And done in the teeth of brutal opposition from vested interests in the medical profession and the drugs companies, and the protests of those many Americans whose minds are incomprehensible to me, who howled that the measure amounted to ‘Godless socialism’. 30 million Americans, who previously had no health insurance, will now have that security.)

Helen must wear a high protective shoe until 19 January. She can now walk without crutches, and is allowed to put weight on to the foot. She had her first bath this morning, with the foot lodged on the rim of the bath, out of the water.

I have been more than usually active in the kitchen. I hate washing and ironing, so the dry cleaner near my office, which also has a laundry service, has done brisk business with me lately. I don’t mind cleaning, but my standard of work as a cleaner, and my sense of when something really does need to be cleaned, can never meet Helen’s expectations: the one area of tension between us.

We haven’t gone to France this Christmas. Simpler to stay here. The only way Helen could have travelled would have been in the car through the tunnel. On 18 December, trains entering the tunnel from France broke down when snow which had accumulated on the tops of the trains in the extreme conditions then prevailing in northern France melted in the warmth of the tunnel and broke the electrics. Complete chaos, and great distress for thousands of people who had to be rescued from the tunnel and were then stranded in France. No deaths or injuries. But once the tunnel was open again, there was a huge backlog of travellers who had booked places (which we hadn’t, not knowing what the hospital’s advice would be last Tuesday), so here we are in London for Christmas and New Year. We went to Stephen and Theresa on Christmas Day, and stayed until after lunch yesterday. Great fun, lovely food and drink, and good walks.

Some time next year, Helen must have her left foot done, because she has a similar problem there.

At Copenhagen between 7 and 19 December, the countries of the world failed to agree legally binding international action to limit global warming. It seems that the villain of the piece in the last two days of the conference was China, exercising its muscle as the world’s pre-eminent superpower-to-be. Although willing to agree a statement of intention in the right direction, China would not agree to specific targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, nor to a system of verification by inspection of its power stations. It would not even allow the other countries to publish their own targets; if they had done so, it would have removed its name from the bland final communiqué. The idea of Obama, Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel being dictated to in this way by a Chinese representative who wasn’t even the Chinese leader, and who had to keep leaving the room to get instructions from his boss, is extraordinary and shows how global politics is changing. The Chinese behaviour reminded me of Amartya Sen’s thesis that famines don’t happen in democracies, because where there is a flow of information, and where leaders have some kind of respect for public opinion, ways are found of avoiding famines (unlike in China during The Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of people starved to death). Chinese leaders need not worry what their people think about climate change; in any case (and perhaps in opposition to Sen’s thesis) I imagine that most Chinese who are benefiting materially from China’s growth rates in recent years are simply happy no longer to be poor. Who knows whether China’s leaders will have the wisdom in future years to recognise that prosperity achieved at the cost of wrecking the planet is a poor bargain? Of course, hanging over Copenhagen was the legacy of Bush’s disastrous policies: initially denying that climate change existed as a man-made phenomenon, and withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty. Although a completely different person now leads America, that damage persists. China can argue that it’s hypocritical of America to make such large climate-related demands on it only a few years after denying that man-made climate change existed.

It may be that if China really behaves badly in the next few years, continuing to go for coal-driven growth regardless of the consequences, the other major powers will have to agree legally binding limits for as much of the world as will accept them, and then impose quotas or tariffs on Chinese imports to try to make China change its policy. That would be ugly and confrontational; I imagine that the climate-change deal-makers are already thinking about ways of bringing all the significant players back together for a more successful bargaining round soon. The fact that Copenhagen was a failure doesn’t mean the world is doomed. But the world will be a much more hostile place for great sections of humanity in a few years’ time if we have too many more failures. As I think I’ve written before, we just have to face the fact that the developing world can’t do what the rich world did to enrich itself. It seems unjust, but there it is. Such historical understanding requires great statesmanship on the part of the leaders of the developing world: understanding which wasn’t apparent in the Chinese position at Copenhagen.

In some recognition of its historic guilt, the rich world must give the developing world huge sums of money to help it develop without hurting the planet beyond repair. A modest success at Copenhagen was the agreement of the rich nations to begin to do this. The number of billions of pounds or dollars promised sounds impressive; it’s tiny by comparison with what the rich countries spent in autumn 2008 to rescue their banks.

After great struggle, I’ve completed a third longish translation from Victor Hugo: the first part of ‘L’Expiation’, his poem about Napoleon, which describes the retreat from Moscow.

Camden Town

31 Dec 2009

Since my parents died, I’ve been receiving mail redirected from their address to ours. Most of it has been junk mail: firms offering my father Christmas claret with his name printed on the label, or suggesting to my mother that she might be able to claim compensation for accidents she has suffered which were not her fault. (Does death count as an accident that was not her fault?) I have also written to numerous religious organisations to which my parents subscribed, the most hopeful of which is engaged in the long task of converting France to evangelical Protestantism. The main headline on the front page of France Mission’s leaflet announced a baptism near Toulouse.

A few people haven’t heard of my parents’ deaths, and sent Christmas cards. These people aren’t in my mother’s address book; I wrote in May to everyone in the book who didn’t already know about the deaths. Because there are no senders’ addresses on the cards, I have no way of telling the people that their good wishes for Christmas and the New Year fell on deaf ears. I will quote in its entirety one accompanying letter from a person who was evidently at school with my mother.

‘I hope that your health problems are well under control and that life is quite tolerable for both of you. It is a good job that you have adequate care for your daily needs since the family are so dispersed.

In August Alice Hilton died: she was the last link with Staff at the ‘Northern Grammar’. She arrived in September 1946 to teach Geography when I was in L6th. In 1959 she joined Fareham Girls Grammar School where I was working and we had remained friends.

We’ve had quite a ‘smooth’ year with no crises on either the health or domestic fronts. Derek’s diabetes seems under control and he is busy in the garden — when the weather allows! Despite the oddities of rainfall and temperature which affected some of the vegetables, our big freezer is comfortably full again this year.

I had a very pleasant holiday in the Isle of Man in August, having found a firm offering taxi/coach/flight transport — eliminating umpteen rail changes from here. The Isle was SO CLEAN, litter and graffiti free and transport all ran to time.

Best wishes


[Then there is a postscript, in different handwriting and written with a different pen, so presumably Derek’s.]

Lost £5m in the cash crisis. Apologies for the SIZE of the card — we like to support Naomi House’

There is something about this message which encapsulates an attitude to life which I am so glad to have eluded. The details are the give-aways: the inverted commas around ‘Northern Grammar’ and ‘smooth’ — let us not allow the informal to creep in without inverted commas to corral it; the sense that health and home are battlegrounds — ‘health and domestic fronts’; the British jollity of ‘when the weather allows!’ with its exclamation mark; the complacency in ‘our big freezer is comfortably full again this year’; most significant of all, the capital letters for ‘SO CLEAN’ in describing the Isle of Man. This woman is saying, ‘We have everything under control, and we are going to keep it that way. We will not allow life to spring any nasty surprises on us.’

But then, life did. There’s that astonishing postscript. I had these people summed up as retired teachers living in a bungalow or a semi-detached house with a garden. How did they come to have £5 million to lose? I didn’t think my parents knew any millionaires. The apology which follows ‘for the SIZE of the card’ made me laugh out loud. People who’ve just lost £5 million, you might think, would confine themselves to small cards, or perhaps not send any cards at all. This was a very big card. I can see from the back of the card that it’s sold in support of the best and most touching of causes: a children’s hospice. I have no wish to mock that. But why apologise?

I leap from the little to the large, this last day of the year. Some African countries, at the urging of their religious leaders, are passing or trying to pass legislation to criminalise homosexuality, or to impose even stricter punishments (including, in the case of Uganda, the death penalty) on homosexuals. Iran’s leaders are at an extreme of theocratic authoritarianism, which led them (I believe) to consider it right to pervert the outcome of the presidential election this year. America has millions of born-again Christian citizens who are sure their way of life is ‘God’s way’ (and who, as I wrote a few days ago, believe that a national health service amounts to ‘Godless socialism’). Outside the religious sphere, China’s behaviour so far, as the world’s next superpower, is not encouraging to people like me who hope that in a world no longer bi-polar, the great powers will be able to co-operate in ascendancy rather than compete for supremacy. Nor is Russia’s.

We have Obama: the great political plus of the year. He is that extraordinary rarity amongst national leaders: a true statesman, and — a further bonus — a great orator. Let us hope we have him until 2017. So much, too much, is expected of him. Because of him, American and British troops are withdrawing from Iraq. They should never have gone there, but it is good that they are leaving. It remains to be seen whether, once they’ve departed, Iraq can avoid a civil war which will show even more blatantly the murderous pointlessness of the invasion. Afghanistan and Pakistan remain desperate; good secular governance is nowhere in sight, and outrages committed by Islamist fundamentalists, in Afghanistan often linked to common criminality funded by the drugs trade, are everyday occurrences. These two countries are Obama’s big gamble; he has increased his country’s military commitment in Afghanistan (and, as a result, so has Gordon Brown, by a small amount) in the hope that Allied forces can speed up the process of preparing the Afghan government to assume normal power, the Taliban having either been defeated or, in the case of their more moderate members, co-opted into government and civil society. I fear that this is a remote hope.

A young Nigerian man tried to blow up an American aeroplane over Detroit on Christmas Day. He failed. He had been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The world, in this period, faces a severe threat from a tiny but determined group who would impose an Islamist theocracy on all of us, by violence if necessary (a project doomed to failure). While I feel the need to make the unremarkable statement that I am respectful of moderate Islam (and moderate Judaism, moderate Christianity, moderate Hinduism…), my real belief is that all religions are attempts to distract ourselves from recognising the terrible truth of our condition: we inhabit this world for a little space; then nothing.

Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’: ‘We must love one another or die.’

The struggle between enlightenment and certainty continues.