Occurrences: Book Seven

Camden Town

6 January 2010

The weather has been freezing for several days, with snow and ice all over the country. London is nearly always less affected by snow than elsewhere, but this afternoon there was a moment when it fell outside the office window as snow should fall: in big, slow-moving, drifting flakes. But then it changed to smaller, wetter flakes, falling faster, and by the time I left for home it had stopped. There are fewer people and cars. Some people haven’t come back from their holidays; some haven’t been able to get into London from places where the snow is much thicker than here; some, who probably could have got in if they’d had to, have decided to ‘work from home’, which generally means stay in bed late, drink several coffees, read the paper more thoroughly than usual, and check emails every three hours. So the town is pleasant.

Helen is making a steady recovery from her foot operation. It’s a good time for her to be confined to the flat.

Today there has been another outburst of fratricidal strife in the parliamentary Labour Party. Two former Cabinet ministers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, sent an email or a text to every MP at about midday asking them to say whether they would support a secret ballot for the leadership. They’d been plotting this since the week between Christmas and New Year. Charles Clarke, that recidivist back-stabber, was also involved. The rebellion is fizzling out as I write (10.45 pm); no serving Cabinet minister will support it. But it’s another self-inflicted wound. I feel nothing but contempt for people who can’t see, a few months before the election, that to replace the leader now would be a disaster, whoever took over. The last chance to replace the leader, assuming (which I don’t) that that would have been the right thing to do in order to restore the government’s fortunes, was last summer, at the time of the dreadful local and European elections. It didn’t happen. That should have been the end of the matter until after the general election. Hoon, Hewitt and Clarke are doing this, I can only conclude, out of spite, to take revenge on perceived or actual wrongs done to them in the past, or because they can’t see beyond the Blairite/Brownite ideological cleavage which has weakened the government so sorely and unnecessarily since 1997. No-one who sincerely wants Labour to win in May, or least to limit the damage done to it, would have done what they did today. The anger of Labour back-benchers on the Channel 4 News tonight was bluntly expressed. The episode is a present to the Tories.

Camden Town

18 January 2010

Six days ago, on 12 January, at about this time (9.53 in the evening GMT, 4.53 in the afternoon EST) an earthquake struck Haiti. The epicentre was a few miles to the west of Port-au-Prince. The magnitude was 7.0. It was a shallow earthquake — the movement of the crust descending only about six miles below the earth’s surface — which made it more destructive. It was the first major earthquake to hit Haiti since 1860.

The destruction has been unimaginable. No-one knows how many people have died, nor how many will yet die from sicknesses and untreated injuries. 200,000 is a current guess by those best informed. Three million people are homeless, out of a population of between nine and 10 million. It is true that the total death toll of the tsunami of 26 December 2004 was a little higher, at about 250,000; but those deaths were spread across several countries. These are all concentrated in one.

An enormous international relief effort is under way. It is hampered by the complete collapse of the infrastructure and machinery of government of what was already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In recent days, the excellent television and internet reporting of the catastrophe has tended to suggest that not enough is being done to co-ordinate the relief effectively. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated by governments, international agencies and individuals. There is no sense yet that generosity on this scale is getting to the people and places where it is most needed. I expect (but how would I know?) that the UN, the NGOs, the US and the other countries which have sent military and civilian personnel are doing the best they can. The UN, which already had a large peace-keeping force in the country under the terms of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, was itself shattered by the loss of many of its staff, including the head of the mission, Hédi Annabi, when its headquarters building collapsed. There is a fear that unless food, water and medical help arrives in the next day or two in much larger quantity than at present, usual civil behaviour may break down completely in many places, with armed gangs terrorising the traumatised population. I am glad that large numbers of US and UN troops are or will soon be there to combat the threat.

Jon Snow was magnificent on the Channel 4 News tonight, his journalistic professionalism once or twice almost overwhelmed by his feelings as a man who has done so much for and with the poorer world over so many years. All I can do is receive news and give money.

I’m sure architects and engineers are working on this, but I was thinking last night that there must be a quick way of building good, cheap, earthquake- and hurricane-resistant houses. Drill a dozen or 20 holes in the ground at the perimeter of the eventual house. Fill the holes with reinforced concrete, but leave in the middle of each a core of some kind of rubberised material, which absorbs shaking, into which steel stanchions are placed which stick up above ground level. Then bring in, from anywhere in the world which will supply them, houses in pre-fabricated kit form, with steel loops attached to the underside of the floor which are hooked and bolted on to the tops of the stanchions. The floor of the house doesn’t actually touch the ground. You have four steps or a ramp up to the front door. Something like this must be the best solution to the problem of replacing the destroyed dwellings — a problem which will face Haiti and international aid donors for many years.

And Haiti must replant its forests. Deforestation is the principal reason why hurricanes in recent years have been so destructive (though even the damage and loss of life in the dreadful 2008 hurricane season was as nothing in comparison with this earthquake). There are no trees to hold the land together; hence landslides and floods. There are no trees because poor people cut them down for fuel or as a way of making money.

Haiti is at the bottom of a deep vicious spiral of brutal poverty, grotesque inequality, political corruption, incompetence and wickedness, and environmental self-harm. Two hundred years ago, it enraged the European colonial powers, and especially France, for which liberté, fraternité, égalité were brave ideals for the emancipation of white people, by becoming the first independent republic in the Caribbean. Colonial societies based on slavery surrounded it. Now, it is trammelled in a different kind of servitude from which there will be no release for many years, even if those with power act with exceptional speed in a spirit of exceptional enlightenment.

Camden Town

29 April 2010

Here we are with spring in full cry. It has been the most beautiful season I can remember since… since the last time I wrote in ecstatic tones about the beauty of the world. We went to France at Easter, and everything was as lovely there as ever: primroses and cowslips in abundance, the first cuckoo call, skylarks hovering above the big open fields of green corn. The streams and rivers were in spate with the water from the snow and rain of the exceptionally long winter just past. In the last fortnight back here, the cherries, blackthorn, hawthorn, limes and now chestnuts and beeches have opened their flowers and leaves in procession. I find the sight of a cherry tree in flower, before it has put forth its leaves, one of the most extravagantly wonderful sights of all, because of the stark, minimalist contrast between wood and flower, with no diluting effect of leaf.

We have had plenty of opportunity to admire the English and Welsh countryside in the last fortnight, for a sad reason. Sue Goldie, Mike Raleigh’s wife, died of liver cancer on 11 April. I’ve just checked and I see that we visited Mike and Sue on the first weekend of April 2009, and that the disease had already been diagnosed then. So she struggled against it for more than a year, enduring one whole course of chemotherapy. That restrained the tumours for a while, but they came back and the doctors said that her liver wasn’t strong enough to withstand another course. We saw Sue for the last time on the first weekend of this March, when we stayed with her and Mike at the Little Stone House. On the Sunday, nine of us drank champagne and lunched at the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, on a brilliant, still, blue, cold day. The lake, with its little Ludwig-of-Bavaria pumping station, the hills and the sky looked as spectacular as I’ve ever seen them. We kissed Sue in the car park before driving back to London. She lived for another five weeks. She died at home, quietly and without great pain. Mike says that the care she received from the health service throughout her illness, and from the Macmillan Nurses at the end, was excellent.

We went to be with Mike on the Wednesday after Sue died, and stayed until the Sunday. Then we returned for the funeral on 21 April (by coincidence, a year to the day after my father’s funeral). It was held at Shrewsbury Crematorium. More than 100 people were there. It was a moving and uplifting occasion. I had written a poem, which I read towards the end of the service.

Tribute

In Memoriam Sue Goldie, 1939-2010

‘My golden girl has gone.’ Mike gave me that first line
the Monday morning when he phoned. The afternoon before
she’d travelled quietly beyond us. In his voice
I heard the full acknowledgement of absence, loss.

No poem, eulogy, not music even is equipped
to make of absence, presence; to restore the loss.
We’re here to bolster with our love those most bereft,
and with what instruments we have, to say:

We knew a woman rare in beauty, great of heart.
No truer spirit of conviviality
inhabited the earth; no-one more open-handedly
imparted gladness. She was laughter given flesh.

Sister, mother, lover, wife and friend:
she lived life as intended, to our benefit;
and children in their thousands whom she taught
are living tributes walking in the world today.

If memory needs something physical to cling to, it could be:
her eyes, in which the light of holiday was always shining;
or her hair, an outward glory of her nature, which was golden.

Then we sang ‘Jerusalem’, and went out to Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’, turned up loud.

There was a reception at The Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham. The next day, a smaller group of us, about 20 this time, lunched at Lake Vyrnwy again.

While Helen and I were in France, Lindsay rang to tell us that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer, five years after her supposedly successful recovery from bowel cancer. She has an operation next week to remove a small part of the infected lung for tests. Then she will know whether the doctors propose to remove a larger part of the lung later, or to give her chemotherapy. It seems, surprisingly, that if the new cancer turns out to be a secondary development from the original bowel cancer, the prognosis is better than if it’s a new kind, because they’ll know exactly how to treat it. We will support Lindsay, David and Tom, my godson, whatever happens.

Lung cancer is the biggest killer amongst the cancers; bowel cancer the second biggest. By coincidence, the papers yesterday reported a remarkable new diagnostic test and treatment for bowel cancer, which uses a tool called a Flexi-Scope — reassuringly plain name — to look for and if necessary remove polyps, the potential sites of cancer, in five minutes. It seems extraordinary. If it’s as good as it sounds, everyone should have the test by the time they get to my age.

We are a week away from the general election. Labour has been in power for 13 years, and it seems very unlikely, in fact impossible, that it will be given an overall majority in the House of Commons for another five.

I’ve written before about how we got into this mess. Since the events of January (Hoon, Hewitt and Clarke trying to unseat Brown), there have been two more spectacular own goals. In March, the selfsame Hoon and Hewitt, plus Stephen Byers, all three former Cabinet ministers, all standing down at the election, were entrapped by journalists pretending to be lobbyists into saying that they could and would use their powers of access to influence government policy once they left Parliament. Their fee: between £3000 and £5000 a day. They were secretly recorded saying this, and the dreadful, embarrassing footage was shown in a Dispatches programme on Channel 4. The three were suspended from the Labour Party, as was Margaret Moran, who’d done the same thing. The spectacle was so disgusting, so entirely the opposite of everything that Labour is supposed to stand for, that it will have done deep damage in the minds of wavering voters. I hate those four people.

The second own goal was scored yesterday. Gordon Brown was campaigning in Rochdale when he was approached by a 65-year-old woman, a lifelong Labour supporter, who asked him challenging questions about the national debt, pensions and immigration. She had gone out for a loaf and heard that Brown was down the road. It was a classic encounter between a good woman who doesn’t know very much and a good man who knows a lot: a friendly if robust exchange which ended with a handshake and smiles, despite the gulf between those two people. If the incident had ended there, the pictures shown would have, on balance, worked in Brown’s favour. He got back into his car and forgot to remove his radio microphone. (Question: why do politicians wear microphones on occasions like that? He didn’t need a microphone to have a conversation with a member of the public. Answer: because politicians like television viewers to see how normal and likeable they are on informal occasions.) In the car, the microphone transmitted his voice remarking to his aide that the encounter had been a disaster, ridiculous, asking who had put him with the woman — ‘Was it Sue?’ — as if to blame someone else for it, and then, worst of all, saying that his interlocutor had been ‘just a bigoted woman’.

Cruellest of ironies, the microphone belonged to Sky News. The Murdoch empire — the same people who tried to destroy Labour’s autumn conference by having The Sun announce its support for the Conservatives on the day of Brown’s speech there, the same people who stitched Brown up by arranging for the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to record his telephone conversation with her when he rang to apologise for apparently having spelt her name wrong in a personal, hand-written letter of condolence he had written — couldn’t believe its luck. The letter-writing episode backfired on The Sun. Most people were impressed and surprised that the Prime Minister wrote letters of condolence himself, in his own hand, and understood that a man who sees with only one eye might not have the most beautiful handwriting.

There was no backfiring this time. The private conversation was replayed repeatedly on all the networks, notably Sky, and was soon being listened to on the internet in offices all over the country, including mine. Brown did an interview on BBC Radio 2 shortly after his remarks had become public property. The tape was replayed on air. Though it was a radio interview, someone was pointing a camera at him, so we later saw the sight of the Prime Minister putting his head in his hands in a gesture of despair.

Meanwhile, the woman — Gillian Duffy — was told what Brown had said about her. The Sky News journalists, like sharks with blood in the water, detained her, holding on to her arm to discourage her from walking away, squeezing every drop of damage out of her distress and sense of offence. Had the event changed her mind about Brown? Yes. Would she now be voting Labour, as she had done all her life? She would probably not vote. That afternoon, Brown changed his schedule and, extraordinarily, drove back to Mrs Duffy’s house and spent 40 minutes alone in there with her. To her credit, she has not so far revealed anything about what was said (although that may change with this Sunday’s papers). He came out with the broad official smile on his face, saying that he was ‘a penitent sinner’, that he had apologised fully, and — less persuasively — that he had misunderstood what Mrs Duffy had said in the original conversation.

The enduring trouble is that the suspicion has been confirmed in the minds of many people, including the crucial undecided voters, that Brown is one thing in public — humane, personable, fallible, approachable — but ruthless, calculating and domineering in private.

So much for own goals. In fact, the election campaign has been dominated by a development which dwarfs their significance. Perhaps I should have written about it first. We have had three live televised debates, each lasting 90 minutes, in which the leaders of the three main parties have answered questions from a studio audience. These events have suddenly made traditional electioneering methods — putting up posters, knocking on doors, even telephone canvassing — redundant, or at least much less influential than they used to be. The first debate, broadcast on 15 April on ITV, was watched by 10 million people. A week later, on Sky, the second debate attracted 4 million viewers. Last night the third pulled in eight million on the BBC. (Eight million is rather a disappointing figure, given the historic novelty of these occasions. There will be more actual viewers than that, it’s true; I watched the debate after midnight on the BBC’s i-Player. But I imagine the BBC was hoping for something closer to 15 million live viewers.) Nonetheless, all future election campaigns will be dominated by the performances of the party leaders on these three occasions under the most unforgiving of spotlights.

The fascinating, extraordinary thing has been that, given the full public exposure which no Liberal leader has had since Lloyd George, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats suddenly looked to a lot of people like a potential party of government. Clegg performed very well in the first debate. He was more relaxed and fluent than the other two, and he made the case well that UK politics does not automatically and for ever have to be a duopoly. The opinion polls instantly registered scores that made a hung parliament likely. While the Conservatives have retained their lead in the polls throughout the campaign, the lead has diminished because of the Liberals’ surge.

Naturally, as soon as Clegg emerged as the principal threat to an overall Conservative majority, the right-wing newspapers turned their fire on him in the kind of character assassination which only they know how to perform: the combination of insinuation and downright lies which Brown has had to endure for years. But it doesn’t seem to have worked. The Liberal surge has held so far.

From my point of view, and given the quirkiness of our current electoral system, the best thing to hope for after next Thursday is a Lib/Lab coalition, or at least an agreement that the lesser party in terms of number of seats, which I still think will be the Liberals, will support a Labour government on crucial votes. I must say, in fairness, that if the Conservatives win the greatest number of seats although not an overall majority, they should be given a chance to form a government, but I can’t see them succeeding. In that case, a coalition or agreement between the Liberals and Labour would be able to change the electoral system before the following general election, which would have the highly satisfactory result of keeping the Conservatives out of power for a further lengthy period. I remember writing something like this in the full flood of joy after the 1997 election, imagining a time when Labour would need the Liberals to continue to govern. Of course, with a change in the voting system, it could be that the Liberals, not Labour, come to be the larger progressive party in terms of seats in the House of Commons.

Why does the possibility of a Conservative government so fill me with alarm? In a way, that’s a silly question to ask myself; I’m a lifelong socialist, that’s why. But analyse a bit, in just one area, the area where epic things have happened since Brown became Prime Minister: finance and economics. In the perspective of the last 30 years, here is what has happened in economic policy. Thatcher and Reagan and their financial advisers changed the world so that bankers could do what they liked. Blair and Brown inherited that world, and stayed with it because they were riding high. The Conservatives wished the government to go even further down the road of deregulation. When the crash happened, and with the Bush government still in place in the US, Brown and Darling made some heroically correct moves which persuaded others to work together to prevent the world’s financial system from collapsing completely, which saved millions of people like us from losing all the money in our bank accounts. The Conservatives were helpless and wrong in their analysis of the problem at that moment. However, they have managed to twist the argument since, so that they now offer themselves as the party of economic competence as the country confronts its large national debt and its need for a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts in the next few years. Brown and Darling will get no credit from the electorate next Thursday for what they did in the autumn of 2008. The Conservatives lurch incoherently from masochism (let’s have deep cuts now) to populism (let’s not raise National Insurance next year). They try to frighten voters by suggesting that, if a party or parties other than they form the next government, the financial markets — the people primarily responsible for the economic mess we’re in — will punish us. It seems that we must accept the right of the richest, stupidest and greediest people in society so go on being rich, stupid and greedy. I can’t wait for some kind of internationally agreed measure which takes serious money from these people in the form of taxes or levies and gives it back to the societies they have exploited. They’d still be rich. National debt could be paid back more quickly. Public services wouldn’t be hurt so badly. Only a progressive government will take this kind of action.

The Conservatives want to raise the inheritance tax threshold so that a group of already wealthy people won’t have to pay it. How emblematic. Macro-economically, as I’ve said, they’re incoherent, although of course they would expect and get an easier ride from their friends in the City than Labour or the Liberals would get.

Briston, Norfolk

1 May 2010

May Day! And a beautiful day it has been. We came up here yesterday, to spend the long weekend with Adam and Hazel. Today Adam and I left Helen and Hazel in Holt, to shop, while we walked on the salt marshes at Morston. Skylarks sang high in the air; kestrels hovered; in the little pools left by the diminishing tide, shoals of tiny fish dashed. Beside the lanes between Holt and the coast, the coming flowers of the young cow parsley are still green buds. Shining patches of blackthorn flower are everywhere.

Camden Town

4 May 2010

Gloomily studying the opinion polls, and facing the possibility of a small overall majority for the Tories on Friday, I realise that another of Labour’s failures in the election campaign is not to have trumpeted the numerous real achievements since 1997 which have made millions of people’s lives better. Put aside for a moment the errors — the Blairite/Brownite schism, Iraq, the decade in which Brown was happy to let the banks do what they liked, the 2007 election that never happened, the abolition of the 10p tax, the attempts to pull Brown down since he became Prime Minister, Labour’s full share of wickedness in the expenses scandal. Those are grievous errors, and if they hadn’t been committed Labour would I think be heading for a fourth term. But in the 13 years of Labour government, a number of wonderful things have happened. The NHS has gone from being a grossly under-funded organisation to being a world-class service, according to a report from the Kings Fund, the independent think-tank on health, published during the course of the campaign. The report went on to say, quite rightly, that the next step is to spend much more on preventive medicine and on health education, to stop people getting ill in the first place. The improvements in schools are immense, both in academic achievement and in quality of buildings and equipment. I say this while knowing, as an educator, that Labour ministers have made all kinds of stupid mistakes in detail — too much testing, getting obsessive about methods of teaching reading. In grand terms, nonetheless, the transformation has been remarkable. Then there’s the minimum wage, against the introduction of which the Tories fought tooth and nail; the tax credits for families on lower incomes; the significant though still incomplete progress in reducing the number of children living in poverty. I could go back to the lists I used to make to clear my mind when having arguments with friends who said that Labour was no different from the Tories. The trouble is, we haven’t heard much about these great steps forward. The television debates, ground-breaking as they were, didn’t give Brown the opportunity to speak about them, or perhaps he just didn’t make the opportunity by turning some of his answers in that direction. Elsewhere, I’ve heard almost nothing. I understand the difficulties, and they make me weary to report them, they’re so familiar: the difficulty of getting a positive message across when the newspapers are overwhelmingly and malignantly hostile; the huge sums of money — much of it provided by tax cheats like Lord Ashcroft — which the Tories can spend on negative poster campaigns, which Labour can’t match. Nonetheless, senior Labour politicians haven’t until yesterday spoken up about the things Labour has done as they should have, at least not when I’ve been paying attention, and I’ve been paying a lot of attention. Yesterday, at an event in Westminster Central Hall organised by Citizens UK, Brown recounted Labour’s achievements and values cogently and passionately. But, I fear, too late.

I read something in the paper last night which depressed me beyond measure, although the great majority of the population won’t notice it. The futures market in government bonds and foreign exchange will open at one o’clock in the morning on Friday, exceptionally. This will allow financial speculators to make money through the night, particularly if the prospect of a hung parliament causes the City to get jumpy about government debt. In other words, people who brought the country to its current financial difficulties will be allowed to profit from those difficulties seven hours earlier than usual.

Camden Town

5 May 2010

Gordon Brown spoke again yesterday, at a rally in Manchester, admittedly to Labour Party faithful but addressing the whole country, using terms and taking a tone which should have been present from the start of the campaign: health, schools, Sure Start, minimum wage, tax credits for poorer people, Northern Ireland… he read out a list of 55 achievements. These reminders of the true purpose of politics should have been given much, much earlier. Elsewhere, Tony Blair popped up to say: ‘You look at the largest investment in public services since the second world war, the creation of whole new services like Sure Start, the minimum wage, progress on gay rights, changes on paternity leave, the right to join a union, even things that have been difficult that used to cause me problems in government like the Human Rights Act — that is a massive progressive agenda we have delivered.’ And he was eloquent about the vacuity of Cameron’s notion of a big society. ‘No one wants an over-heavy state, but there is an element of what the Conservatives are saying that almost suggests that government has no role to play, or that it is down to volunteering.’

It’s this simply expressed combination of celebration and analysis that we have been lacking. Cameron has been allowed to get away with the lie that our society is broken. It isn’t broken. The Tories nearly broke our society in the 18 years in which they doubled child poverty, engendered mass unemployment and glorified greed. Society in 2010 is profoundly imperfect, and there are forces at work that may be stronger than any government can counteract, but the effort which the Labour government has made, taken as a whole, has been to mend society, not to break it.

I’ve just read the excellent at-a-glance comparison of the three main parties’ manifestos on the BBC’s website. It shows how far the parties’ policies, as officially announced, are from the way they are presented in the newspapers, and indeed from the shorthand caricatures which politicians construct to promote their own policies and to attack their opponents’. It would be an instructive game to cut up the one-line accounts of the policies, throw them into a hat, pull them out one at a time at random, and ask players to say which of the parties (one, or more than one) had each policy. So: ‘Support party funding reform, including caps on individual donations’. Who proposes this measure? Why, the Conservatives, of course, the party bankrolled by Lord Ashcroft’s millions. (The proposal doesn’t specify the level of the cap.) Or: ‘Push for an international agreement to stop banks engaging in large-scale trading using their own money and a global levy on banks’ (not grammatical, but we get the drift)? Conservatives again, the party which has managed to persuade a large chunk of the electorate that the current level of UK government debt is all Labour’s fault. (I admit that the other two parties have similar but not identical proposals in both these areas.) Or — a different kind of difference between presentation and reality — what would we find if we checked the detail of the Conservatives’ promise to reward marriage through the tax system? First, we’d find that the tax break applies to civil partnerships as well as to marriage; secondly, that it’s an offer to let one partner transfer £750 of his or her personal allowance to the other partner so long as the higher-earning of the two partners is paying the basic rate of tax. So it’s a much more nuanced proposal, benefiting homosexual as well as heterosexual couples, and excluding the middle class and the wealthy. Rather progressive, you might say, if you had any time for a proposal which chooses to favour certain emotional and sexual choices through the tax system, and thereby to penalise others, which I don’t. Its value to the Conservatives is not in the detail, but in the headline: ‘Tories back marriage’.

There are policy areas where the parties’ announced intentions confuse my basic allegiance. The Tories wish to end mixed-sex wards and to increase the number of single rooms in hospitals. I can only applaud, having spent a good deal of time in hospitals in the last years of my parents’ lives. The Tories and, unsurprisingly, the Liberals wish to scrap ID cards and the national identity database. I agree. Labour limps on with its now voluntary ID card scheme for UK nationals, while insisting that every time someone applies for a new passport his or her details will go on to a national identity database. I can’t see why you need a national identity database as a separate thing; surely, if you have people’s passport details, you have a de facto database. Compulsory ID cards were an affront to civil liberties in the first place; the affront, it was argued, was a price worth paying in order to increase our security. The voluntary version is no use as a way of stopping terrorism (what terrorist who is a UK national is going to ask for an ID card, or rely on a legitimate passport when travelling?). The only reason for not scrapping the scheme completely is to save political face; Labour has lost the argument. Speaking of databases, Labour wants to keep for six years the DNA of criminal suspects arrested but not convicted. The Tories would destroy the DNA of every suspect found innocent in a court of law. I agree with the Tories’ policy, while recognising that the police and the courts might prefer Labour’s. But ask a random sample of voters which party is strongest on law and order, and most will tell you it’s the Conservatives.

These ruminations are a world away from the popular language and imagery of an election campaign. People make their voting choice either because newspapers, most of them owned by very rich people who want a Conservative government, influence that choice, while claiming not to; or because of tribal loyalties; or because they ‘just think it’s time for a change’; or on the basis of their preferred gladiatorial performance by one or other party leader on television. I don’t think that the cool study of the parties’ manifesto commitments comes into it that much.

Camden Town

6 May 2010

It’s a beautiful, calm, warm afternoon, and the nation is voting. There was a queue at my polling station this morning; later, people arriving at the office who had already voted had queued at theirs. I hope for a high turnout. I fear that a Conservative government with a small overall majority will be elected. The combination of Labour’s mistakes, its failure until these last days to remind people of the good it has done, the global financial crisis, the ‘give the other lot a go’ mentality and — decisively — the lies bellowed into people’s ears by and on behalf of the Conservatives, will do its work. The Liberals’ surge won’t be quite enough to give them the king-making power which might have led before the next election to a change in the voting system and to other constitutional reforms. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

It’s the first anniversary of my mother’s death.

Camden Town

8 May 2010

Well, I was wrong. The Conservatives don’t have the small overall majority that I feared. They have easily the largest number of seats (306) and the largest share of the votes (36.1%). (They’ll win a 307th seat on 27 May in a safe constituency where the election was postponed because of the death of a candidate.) But 326 is the number they needed if they were to have an absolute overall majority. Labour has 258 seats, with 29% of the vote. The Liberals have 57 seats, with 23% of the vote. The other parties put together have 28 seats, with 12% of the vote.

The most surprising thing is the Liberals’ disappointing performance. Only a few days ago, I was writing about the Liberal surge, about the way that Nick Clegg’s performance in the TV debates had given the Liberals a popularity they hadn’t had since Lloyd George. In the event, they have five fewer seats than they had before. They can, legitimately, point to the iniquity of a voting system which gave them less than a tenth of the seats available when they had polled just under a quarter of the votes. But their vote share hardly increased either; it went up by about one percentage point, which is a paltry result after such optimistic predictions.

I don’t know how this happened; nor, I suspect, do expert psephologists. Perhaps more natural Liberal voters voted Labour tactically than the reverse; or perhaps the perversities of the current system meant that even had there been equal amounts of Lib/Lab tactical voting, the Liberals couldn’t have greatly benefited. One thing not in doubt is that the Liberals haemorrhaged support in the last days of the campaign. The combined findings of the final polls taken before 6 May gave them 27%. Four of those percentage points disappeared when people went into the voting booth.

There was little overall pattern to the results as they came in on Friday, apart from the generalisation that the south and midlands of England shifted significantly towards the Tories, while the north of England and Scotland didn’t. In Scotland, Labour actually increased its share of the vote, although the allocations of seats between the parties remained exactly as before. The Tories did a lot better in Wales than in 2005: eight seats instead of three.

Yesterday at 1.30 in the afternoon, Gordon Brown said that the Conservatives and the Liberals together should have the first chance to try to form a government. He also said that he would be willing to talk to any other party. He obviously meant that if Con/Lib talks failed, he might be able to put together a government with the Liberals, presumably relying on the support of some of the smaller parties. An hour later, David Cameron said that he would enter negotiations with the Liberals.

Camden Town

9 May 2010

The Conservatives and Liberals are talking. There seems to be an expectation that the talks will succeed; that somehow the circle of the Liberals’ insistence on electoral reform and the Conservatives refusal of it will be squared. I can’t see it.

There have been contemptible calls for Brown to get out of Downing Street immediately, not just from the usual newspapers, but also from some Labour MPs. Brown is doing exactly the right thing, constitutionally and morally, by staying put until someone is in a position to form a new government. Alastair Darling is in Brussels with other European finance ministers, discussing how best to prop up Greece and other eurozone countries in financial difficulties. Everyone agrees that we’re lucky not to be in the euro at the moment, but I expect that some of our banks are owed loads of money by some of the more troubled eurozone countries. Anyhow, the point is that the business of government goes on.

Everywhere, people are saying that the measures that will have to be taken to reduce our deficit and restore the public finances to good order will be unbelievably awful; and that whoever takes these measures will risk extreme unpopularity. I don’t agree with either of those positions. Taxes will and should go up dramatically; but as long as that is done progressively (which one shouldn’t expect with a Conservative-led government) most people in this rich country can easily take the hit. The middle classes will just have to go out to dinner less often, and take cheaper holidays. And we’re in a strange, masochistic moment, where a Mr or Ms Whiplash (it’ll be Mr) Chancellor can do things ‘for the good of the country’ without the negative political consequences which would follow in normal times. My fear, with a Conservative-led financial regime, is that the tax cuts will be lighter, especially for the better-off, and the cuts to public services deeper than they should be; in personal terms, that George Osborne, not Vince Cable, will win the argument about how the balance is struck.

Harmer Hill, Shropshire

14 May 2010

We came to Shropshire yesterday for Tom James’s confirmation. The Bishop of Shrewsbury conducted a cheerful ceremony in the chapel of Prestfelde School. Life is passing when bishops begin to look young; this one was born, he revealed, in 1961.

A week ago, Lindsay had the operation on her lung. The surgeon removed a little piece for a biopsy, which was done while Lindsay was still under the anaesthetic. With the information gained from the biopsy, the surgeon removed two lesions from one lung. Lindsay came home from hospital two days later. She cannot tolerate morphine, so is relying on other and less effective pain-killers. Neither can she tolerate hospital food, which was one reason for her early discharge. There she was at the confirmation. She is an extraordinary person.

Politics has been tumultuous since last I wrote. And I was wrong again about the outcome. The Conservatives and the Liberals talked and talked until Monday afternoon. They kept saying that the talks were going well, it was all very productive. But no product. Then, on Monday afternoon, Gordon Brown came out of number 10 and announced that the Liberals, while continuing to talk to the Tories, had indicated that they would also like to talk, officially, to Labour. (I think secret conversations had been going on over the weekend.) And Brown said that he was going to stand down as Labour leader; a new leader would be in place in time for the party conference. This bombshell immediately shifted the game on. The Conservatives, having until then refused the Liberals their cherished referendum on some kind of electoral reform, suddenly yielded. At that point, the thing that I thought so unlikely on Sunday became likely. Parallel sets of talks continued on Monday night and into Tuesday. A Lib/Lab coalition, with the support or acquiescence of some of the minor parties, was just a possibility in terms of votes in the Commons. But a Lib/Con coalition, if policy differences could be overcome or at least accommodated, would have an overall majority in the Commons of about 80: comfortable.

At some point on Tuesday the Lib/Lab talks stopped. The Lib/Con talks continued. By mid-afternoon, most people could sense what was going to happen. It was just a matter of the machinery. Late in the afternoon, Brown emerged again to say that he was going to Buckingham Palace, immediately, to resign as Prime Minister, and that he was also immediately standing down as Labour leader. He wished the new government well. He was proud of what Labour had achieved in its 13 years in government. He was proud to have been Prime Minister, but still prouder to be a husband and father. It was very moving. His wife stood beside him, and then the door of number 10 opened and out came their two little boys, and the family walked hand in hand down to the car to go to the palace.

An hour or so later, David Cameron entered Downing Street as Prime Minister.

The following morning, in another piece of choreography, Nick Clegg walked up Downing Street. Just as he got to the door of number 10, it was opened by the Prime Minister himself. Handshakes and waves and pats on the back; after you, no, after you. And in they went. In the next few hours, the full scale of what the Liberals had gained during the talks emerged. Nick Clegg is deputy Prime Minister. There are four more Liberals in a cabinet of, I think, 23: Vince Cable is the Business Secretary; David Laws is Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Chris Huhne is at Energy and Climate Change; Douglas Alexander is Scottish Secretary. There will be a further 15 Liberals in junior government posts.

That afternoon, Cameron and Clegg strolled out together to give a press conference in the garden behind number 10. The pair of them exuded relaxed bonhomie, but were also grandiloquent. This wasn’t just a new government; it was a new kind of government. Cameron generously described the government he was about to lead as ‘Liberal-Conservative’. Or was the written form ‘liberal Conservative’? Was he saying something to the right wing of his own party about the particular Conservative tradition he wished to inherit? He and Nick had considered some kind of ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby the Liberals, in exchange for some political concessions, would stand aside at votes to let the Tories get their business through, but had decided that they could do a whole lot better than that. They were going to govern for a full five years, and together bring the country out of its current financial difficulties. The journalists were fascinated. One of them reminded Cameron that he had once said, when asked what was his favourite political joke, ‘Nick Clegg.’ Clegg said, ‘Did you really say that?’ and pretended to storm off. Cameron cried, ‘Don’t go.’ He would be happy to eat his words. It was kiss-and-make-up time after a lovers’ tiff, in the Downing Street garden, in front of millions of people, with the birds singing. Then they strolled back inside.

Shortly afterwards, the text of the agreement between the two governing parties was published. It does seem to be evidence of a genuine conversation, with give and take on both sides. I’m afraid — though how would I know? — that my own party probably said to the Liberals on Monday and Tuesday, from a much weaker position than the Conservatives, ‘This is our manifesto. Do you want to sign up to it?’ And the Liberals said, ‘No thanks. We’ve had a better offer.’

There will be an acceleration in the reduction in the budget deficit, with an emphasis on cuts in public spending rather than tax rises. People earning less than £10,000 a year will be taken out of income tax. The proposal to increase the inheritance tax threshold to a million pounds has been dropped. The tax break for married couples will be postponed. There will be a serious look at the possibility of taxing financial transactions. A committee will be set up to see if banks can be broken up, so that high-street and casino operations are separated. Trident will be renewed, though the government will look for cost savings in the process. There will be five-year fixed-term parliaments. There will be an elected House of Lords. There will be a referendum on the alternative vote system for the House of Commons, with the parties free to argue for or against changing the current system during the campaign. ID cards and the national identity database will be scrapped. People found innocent after a criminal investigation or trial won’t have their DNA kept. There will be new nuclear power stations, but the Liberals will be allowed to abstain when the vote comes. There will be several unambiguously green measures on energy generation and conservation. Schools teaching poor children will get more money. The Tories will pursue their policy of letting people set up their own ‘free’ schools, outside local-authority control.

Seven pages like that. A remarkable hotch-potch of measures, some enlightened, libertarian and long overdue, some crazy (‘free’ schools, more nuclear power when safe green technologies are now available and viable). The key to the success or failure of this government will be the impact of the actual measures taken to reduce the budget deficit. If ordinary people in their millions seriously suffer, while bankers in the end are allowed to go on living their grotesque lives with no discernible inconvenience, the new-government gloss will come off quickly. A rejuvenated Labour opposition, led in all probability by David Miliband, will easily find its range, presenting itself as the only large progressive party in the UK, with the Liberals so tainted. But if the Liberal influence can see to it that the pain to come is inflicted with a sense of social justice, a coalition government which can point to major achievements in the areas of civil liberties and constitutional reform, areas which Labour so shamefully neglected or opposed, could well last the full five years, and get a second term.

Just as a matter of interest, here’s what I wrote in the diary on 12 June last year:

‘On 5 June 2009 [the day after the local and European elections in which Labour performed so catastrophically] 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.’

Quite a lot of my fantasy looks like becoming reality — under the Conservatives.

Kerfontaine

28 June 2010

We came here on 3 June. The weather is currently glorious, and has been so for over a week. This afternoon, it’s seriously hot outside. The place looks wonderful. Jean-Paul cut the grass last Thursday. We’ve bought lots of flowers, planted in pots or in the ground, and I’ve even started edible gardening in a miniscule way — four tomato plants and nine lettuces. It’s a kind of tribute to Albert. Maybe I shall be more ambitious next year.

At the end of May, Helen and I both sort-of retired. I say ‘sort-of’, because I think Helen will do a day or two a week in schools in London in the winter, and I’m available for foreign trips on behalf of Teachers TV if Andrew Bethell wants me to do that; also, I’ve done three days’ writing work for Mike Raleigh’s little educational consultancy firm, Owen Ltd (named after Robert Owen, who was born in Newtown, down the road from where Mike lives), and I’m happy to do more — £600 a day is good pay. Even if we continue to work a bit, our lives have changed completely. We intend to be here until the end of October, apart from a trip down to Italy at the end of August to stay in a villa near Pienza which Bronwyn and Stephen have hired, and in London from November to March, apart from a fortnight back here for Christmas and New Year. We’ll be back here again next spring. That’ll be the pattern.

At the moment, it still feels strange and delightful to get up every morning and then decide what to do. And the sense of this holiday stretching indefinitely into the future, to the end of our lives… Naturally, the constant voice in my head is saying, ‘Don’t fritter it. Use it. Apply seat of pants to seat of chair.’

In late May and early June, Mike Raleigh took a solitary journey to north-west Spain, driving the little sports car which he bought as a surprise for Sue last October. He stayed in Santiago de Compostela, León, Salamanca, Segovia and Bilbao, where Kate Myers joined him. They went on to San Sebastián, then crossed into France and walked for a day or two in the Pyrenees. Mike dropped Kate at Bergerac airport, and then stayed with two different couples in the Gers and the Vendée before arriving here for two nights. I think the trip was consoling for him, and he was glad to know that he could confront the melancholy that comes with being alone. Anyhow, we gave him a good time here; he enjoyed this bedroom where I’m writing, with its view down the garden, and the lovely terrasse where he could smoke (his only vice, and this is not the moment to nag him about it). In Galicia, he had discovered the 19th-century poet Rosalía de Castro (who wrote in Gallego). I hadn’t heard of her, but by the time he arrived two copies of her collected poems had been delivered by the excellent Amazon. His telling me about her caused me to tell him about Machado, and I ordered Campos de Castilla at the same time. Mike asked me to translate En abril, las aguas mil, which I’ve done.

Antonio Machado — In April, a Thousand Waters

April brings its thousand waters.
On the wind the storm clouds blow.
Up amongst their bleak procession,
rents of sky are indigo.

On the sky a rainbow glistens.
Water, sun; the world’s awash.
In a distant cloud, the yellow
zigzag of a lightning flash.

Rain is beating on the window.
Glass is chiming in reply.

I can just see one green meadow
through the drizzle and the mist.
But the holm-oak wood has melted
and the grey sierra’s lost.

Threads of water in a downpour
bend the growing season’s leaves,
whip the eddies of the Duero
into choppy, muddy waves.

Rain falls on the greening bean fields,
on the brown where corn seed hides.
Now the sun is on the holm-oaks.
Puddles shine along the roads.

Rain and sun. The landscape darkens
now; now blazes into light.
There a hillside re-emerges.
Here a hill is lost to sight.

Rolling to the leaden mountains
— balls of cotton, lumps of ash —
rain cloud after rain cloud lours.

Now in sunshine, now in shadow,
scattered farms and distant towers.

En abril, las aguas mil

Son de abril las aguas mil.
Sopla el viento achubascado,
y entre nublado y nublado
hay trozos de cielo añil.

Agua y sol. El iris brilla.
En una nube lejana,
zigzaguea
una centella amarilla.

La lluvia da en la ventana
y el cristal repiquetea.

A través de la neblina
que forma la lluvia fina,
se divisa un prado verde,
y un encinar se esfumina,
y una sierra gris se pierde.

Los hilos del aguacero
sesgan las nacientes frondas,
y agitan las turbias ondas
en el remanso del Duero.

Lloviendo está en los habares
y en las pardas sementeras;
hay sol en los encinares,
charcos por las carreteras.

Lluvia y sol. Ya se obscurece
el campo, ya se ilumina;
allí un cerro desparece,
allá surge una colina.

Ya son claros, ya sombríos
los dispersos caseríos,
los lejanos torreones.

Hacia la sierra plomiza
van rodando en pelotones
nubes de guata y ceniza.

That’s the only serious literary brainwork I’ve done this month. A delightful divertissement has been to edit and proof-read Paul Ashton’s splendid emerging Dictionary of Artists and Designers. There will eventually be some 500 entries in the dictionary, ranging over three millennia, the entire world, and all forms of art and design. The writing is authoritative in tone — expert to layperson — and the background research impeccable. None of the artists or designers exists or existed.

I’ve made good progress towards getting Becoming our own Experts on line. The wonderful Vanessa has found a firm that will do the electronic scanning (the book has about 450 pages) and send the scanned pages electronically to Mark Leicester in New Zealand for not much more than £100. Mark will then do the design. So www.becomingourownexperts.com should be on the internet soon. I’ll then need to alert a few people in the world of educational research to its existence.

George Osborne, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, presented his first budget last Tuesday.

VAT will go up to 20% from 17.5% next January. Capital gains tax for higher-rate taxpayers will rise from 18% to 28% immediately. Child benefit will be frozen for the next three years. There will be a two-year pay freeze for public-sector workers, but those earning less than £21,000 will be paid £250 extra each year for the next two years. From April next year, the basic state pension will rise in line with earnings, prices or by 2.5%, whichever is the greatest. The government will accelerate the increase in the state pension age to 66. The personal income-tax allowance will be increased by £1,000 from next April to £7,475. There will be welfare cuts worth £11bn by 2014/15: tax credits for families earning more than £40,000 will be reduced; housing benefit will be restricted to a maximum of £400 a week; from 2013, there will be a medical assessment for Disability Living Allowance for new and existing claimants. The child element of the child tax credit will be increased by £150 above inflation.

Corporation tax will be cut to 27% next year, and by a further 1% a year for the next three years to 24%. The small companies tax rate will be cut to 20%. From 2011, there will be a levy on UK banks and building societies, and on the UK operations of foreign banks. The levy is expected to raise more than £2bn a year. Smaller banks will not pay the levy.

The government will sell its shareholding in the air traffic control agency, the student loan book and, if it can, the Tote.

Taken together, these measures are projected to bring the budget deficit down to 1.1% of GDP by 2015/16 from 10.1% at the moment. The deficit is expected to be £149bn in 2010/11 (lower than Alastair Darling predicted in his budget in March) and £116bn in 2011/12.

Government spending will be £637bn in 2010/11, and is predicted to be £711bn in 2015/16. The UK economy is expected to grow by 1.2% in 2010, 2.3% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012. Unemployment is expected to peak at 8.1% in 2010/11, and then to fall each year to 6.1% in 2015/16.

In macro-economic terms, the question is: is the overall deflationary effect of the budget measures on the economy, an effect which will be accelerated by public-spending cuts to be announced in the autumn, going to push us into a double-dip recession? Joseph Stiglitz, my favourite economist, thinks so. In an interview with The Independent, he says: ‘If you have a household that can't pay its debts, you tell it to cut back on spending to free up the cash to pay the debts. But in a national economy, if you cut back on your spending, then economic activity goes down, nobody invests, the amount of tax you take goes down, the amount you pay out in unemployment benefits goes up — and you don't have enough money to pay your debts… The lesson is not that you cut back spending, but that you redirect it. You cut out the war in Afghanistan. You cut a couple of hundred billion dollars of wasteful military expenditure. You cut out oil subsidies. There's a long list of things we can cut. But you increase spending in other areas, such as research and development, infrastructure, education… I haven't done the calculation for Britain, but, for the US, all you need is a return on government investment of 5 to 6 per cent and the long-term deficit debt is lowered.’ The article refers to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which suggests that the budget will cost the poor 2.5% of their income, while the rich will lose 1%. So it could be that the budget is both macro-economically wrong and socially unjust.

I’ve said my piece before about the hypocrisy in the Conservatives’ accusation that Labour is responsible for the size of the deficit now. If the Conservatives had been in power in the years when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than he was. Brown and Darling pretty much saved the world’s financial system in the autumn of 2008; they get no credit for that. But the deficit does need to be brought down, and Labour lost the election; so it can be blamed for its size.

The main progressive measures in the package, which show the Liberal influence in the coalition, are the new arrangements for increasing the state pension each year, the increase in the personal allowance for income tax, and the increase in capital gains tax for higher-rate taxpayers. (This last was a blatant split-the-difference fudge. The just thing to do would have been to tax capital gains at the same rate as income, but Cameron and Osborne would have upset too many of their supporters.) The increase in VAT was expected and inevitable. The freezing of public-sector pay is harsh, but the £250 extra a year for lower-paid workers slightly takes the edge off the harshness. Just how harsh the freeze will be depends on inflation, of course; there may well be strikes in the public sector over the next two years.

It’s very unfair that private-sector workers won’t suffer any freeze on their wages, but governments of left and right have long given up trying to have any kind of incomes policy to cover the whole workforce. At least this government has kept Labour’s increase in the rate of tax on incomes over £150,000 at 50%. The key thing will be the details on the bank levy. If the levy really hits the banks, really makes them cough up money on a scale to make some kind of amends for their crimes up to 2008, there will be some public sense of justice being done.

I don’t know enough to have an opinion about benefit cuts. I believe that there are plenty of people who claim Incapacity Benefit falsely, for example; but there are more people who claim it legitimately, and whose already curtailed lives would be made unjustly worse by a cut in their benefit. It will all depend on how fair the assessments are.

In the week before the budget, Osborne announced a reform of banking regulation. The Bank of England gets much more power in the supervision of banks; the Financial Services Authority, which Gordon Brown created in 1997, has its power greatly reduced.

The one big political casualty in the coalition government since the election is David Laws, a Liberal who was for a few days Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and who would have had a major influence on government economic and financial policies. It emerged that he had been claiming for rent he was paying to his long-term partner, a man, when the rules say that MPs can’t claim for rent paid to spouses, including partners in gay relationships. Laws resigned. I’m not very sympathetic. Laws is gay: fine, of course. He didn’t want anyone, his family especially, to know about his sexuality: fine, of course, although such secrecy is difficult to maintain. He’s the MP for Yeovil, so he had a right to claim for accommodation in London: fine, of course. So why didn’t he rent accommodation from anyone with whom he wasn’t having a relationship, claim for that, leave some of his stuff there, use it as a kind of office, and then go and live with his partner? He could have given some of the money he was claiming to his partner on an informal basis. If Laws had been a person dependent on his MP’s salary, I could see the argument that it might be beyond his means to claim for accommodation he wasn’t living in; but he’s a millionaire, having made his fortune in the City before he went into politics.

The Saville Report into the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry (‘Bloody Sunday’) has at last been published. It is unequivocal in its condemnation of the actions of some of the British soldiers in firing on innocent, unarmed people who posed no threat to them, and of the orders given to the soldiers by some officers. The effect of the publication of the report on the Catholic community in Derry, and in Northern Ireland generally, has been dramatic. I think many of those people expected some kind of a fudge, or even a whitewash of the army’s actions. The frankness and explicitness of the report’s language was therefore unexpected and welcome. My friend Joe Mahon, who lives in Derry, confirmed what I had already seen from the live pictures of relatives of the dead speaking in public in the Guildhall there, that the report has given them the immense emotional relief that comes when justice is done and the truth told. David Cameron in the House of Commons was eloquent in his unreserved apology to the families of the bereaved, and in his full acceptance of the report’s findings. Harriet Harman for Labour was merely competent; she read what she needed to say from a paper. It was a moment when oratory was called for; Cameron had it, she didn’t.

Apart from its judgment on the soldiers’ actions on Bloody Sunday, the report condemns some of the soldiers for lying persistently to the enquiry. In my opinion, no soldier should be prosecuted for the killings, because of the extraordinary history of Northern Ireland since then. Republican and Loyalist murderers have in effect been forgiven their crimes in the effort to bring this dreadful chapter in the province’s history to a close. The soldiers should be treated similarly. However, I would vigorously prosecute those who lied to the enquiry in the cynical belief that the passage of time would make it impossible for their actions on that day to be accurately identified.

Kerfontaine

25 July 2010

I’ve recently read, 20 years after I should have done, The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’s wonderful book about the transportation of convicts from Britain and Ireland to Australia. It is an account of brutality so extreme that there are passages which are hard to read; but also of the relative liberality of some governors who had a notion of punishment as rehabilitation, and could see that the future of the colony depended on the efforts and skills of the rehabilitated. It is shocking to be reminded of the triviality of the crimes for which many convicts were transported, although Hughes rejects the romantic notion that Australia’s first white settlers were mainly heroic fighters for the freedoms which we now enjoy, who had been expelled from Britain and Ireland for political reasons; only a tiny minority were Tolpuddle Martyrs and their like. White settlement in Tasmania brought about the genocide of the entire Aboriginal population there; Hughes says that this is the only example of genocide in the full sense in the history of British imperialism. I don’t think that’s right. We committed genocide against the Carib and Arawak peoples of the Caribbean (no doubt with the help of other European nations). I don’t know enough in detail about the slaughters in Africa to say whether or not any of them counted as genocide. Hughes suggests, at any rate, that the dreadful actions in Tasmania gave other nations an example of the extermination of an entire people, which some of them later followed.

Then I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, which brilliantly recounts the major scientific achievements of the late 18th- and early 19th-century in Britain, principally featuring Joseph Banks, the Herschels (brother and sister and, later, William Herschel’s son John) and Humphrey Davy. I didn’t know that Keats’s line in ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ —

‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken’

— is a reference to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus. It’s a beautiful book: a reminder that greatness generally is accompanied by obsessiveness, a driven determination to discover and do more and more, to go on, undistracted.

Now I’m reading Hazlitt. There are times when his relentless rhetoric, his piling of conceit upon conceit, tires me, but overall he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest prose writers in English. It is easy to praise the wonderful relaxed vigour of his style in the famous account of the boxing match at Hungerford, or in his tribute to Cavanagh, the fives player. I admire equally the profundity of the wisdom in his political writing. On the French Revolution: ‘— it was not the Revolution that produced the change in the face of society, but the change in the texture of society that produced the Revolution, and brought its outward appearance into a nearer correspondence with its inward sentiments.’ On violent revolutions in general: ‘That the people are rash in trusting to the promises of their friends, is true; they are more rash in believing their enemies. If they are led to expect too much in theory, they are satisfied with too little in reality. Their anger is sometimes fatal while it lasts, but it is not roused very soon, nor does it last very long. Of all dynasties, anarchy is the shortest lived. They are violent in their revenge, no doubt; but it is because justice has been long denied them, and they have to pay off a very long score at a very short notice.’

In mid-June I popped back to England on the plane, to join Andrew Bannerman in another performance of his Lyrical Ballads show, this time in support of the restoration fund for St Alkmund’s church in Shrewsbury. In Andrew’s prose commentary linking the poems, he quotes several times from Hazlitt’s lovely essay ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’. I didn’t read the full essay until last night. When Hazlitt describes walking six miles with Coleridge from Wem back towards Shrewsbury after Coleridge had stayed the night with his family (where Coleridge received the letter from Tom Wedgwood offering him an annuity of £150 a year, which caused him instantly to abandon his plan to become the Unitarian minister in Shrewsbury — ‘Coleridge seemed to make up his mind to close with this proposal in the act of tying on one of his shoes’), I thought to myself, ‘Well, those two men would have walked through Harmer Hill, where David, Lindsay and Tom live.’ And sure enough, after a couple of pages describing the topics Coleridge had discoursed on during the walk, come the sentences: ‘If I had the quaint muse of Sir Philip Sidney to assist me, I would write a Sonnet to the Road between W—m and Shrewsbury, and immortalise every step of it by some fond enigmatical conceit. I would swear that the very milestones had ears, and that Harmer-hill stooped with all its pines, to listen to a poet, as he passed!’ Wonderful! I wonder why Hazlitt felt the need to leave the ‘e’ out of ‘Wem’. It isn’t a swear word or the name of a person one wants to protect.

Michael Foot died earlier this year. I gave a tribute to his connection with our Lyrical Ballads show at the beginning of the second half of the performance last month:

‘Andrew and I first performed this evening’s programme in January 1998, the year of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lyrical Ballads. A distinguished member of the audience that night was Michael Foot. Michael sat in the front row, and punctuated our performance with most audible and frequent grunts of approval. He had with him his dog Disraeli, who was of a great age, as was Michael. Disraeli too made his appreciation heard, in counterpoint with Michael’s, while moving his ancient hindquarters from side to side in a way which worried Andrew and me as readers, but didn’t in the event cause any embarrassing distraction. Michael was unconcerned; he simply wound the dog’s lead more and more tightly around his own leg.

For our second performance, a few months later in London, Michael kindly agreed to introduce us to the audience, and made a brilliant short improvised speech in which he linked the radical, dissenting tradition to which Coleridge and Wordsworth belonged, at least in their early lives, with events in our own day. Andrew and I were very honoured to have such a great man as one of our supporters, and we dedicate this evening’s performance to his memory.’

Since I last wrote, I’ve done another translation from Machado: ‘To a Dry Elm’. The circumstances in which Machado wrote the poem are very touching.  He met his future wife Leonor in 1907 in Soria, in Castille.  They married in 1909, when she was 15 and he was 34.  He was a schoolteacher.  In 1911, he was awarded a grant to study in Paris with Henri Bergson, and Leonor went with him.  In July of that year, she vomited blood and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  They returned to Soria.  The poem is dated May 1912, and Leonor’s recovery is the miracle Machado hopes for at the end of the poem.  She died on 1 August of that year, and was buried close to the elm tree.

I’ve written three original poems. I finished ‘The Vernacular’, a little thing based on another Irish story which Peter Logue told me. I wrote ‘Prayer before Death’, in the manner of MacNeice’s ‘Prayer before Birth’. Something Peter Hetherington wrote to me in the course of his essential criticism of that poem caused me to re-read MacNeice’s ‘The sunlight on the garden’, and I tried to copy its form in a mildly erotic fantasy, spoken by a woman, called ‘Her Night Thoughts’, one line of which had been suggested to me by a woman friend. I couldn’t manage MacNeice’s rhymes linking the last syllable of the first line with the first of the second and the last of the third with the first of the fourth, as well as everything else, but the piece is skilful enough.

Stephen and Theresa came last Monday and stayed three nights, on the their way down to the Charente. We had the happiest and most relaxed time with them. On Friday we went up to Saint Brieuc and spent 24 hours with Jim and Jacqui Payne. We drove to the Pointe du Roselier and admired the magnificent bay, then visited an old brickworks which has been turned into an industrial museum. Yesterday morning we wandered in the market, and bought the most echt, warty, split, multi-coloured tomatoes I’ve ever seen. Delicious they were when we got home last night. At a stall selling crabs and lobsters, an old man bought two large spider crabs. The digits on the weighing machine had almost come to a stop at eleven euros. The woman took the crabs off the machine and said, ‘Onze euros.’ This didn’t satisfy the man. ‘Pesez-les encore,’ he said. When the digits had come to a complete stop, they read 10.99. He was happy to receive his extra centime in change. Later we found the only old-fashioned bar in the town, and sat outside in the sunshine. I had two glasses of delicious Corsican rosé. Then Jim kindly bought us lunch: a very good steack tartare in my case. We drove home through the deserted interior of Brittany on a Saturday in July. (The RN12 on its spectacular high bridge by-passing Saint Brieuc had been stationary with traffic.)

On Wednesday, David, Lindsay and Tom will come and stay for a fortnight. Lindsay has had unwelcome news about her lung cancer. The operation did not permanently remove all the lesions. They have reappeared (I’m not sure whether on one or both lungs) and the condition is incurable, although it can and will be restrained by chemotherapy. She is being admirably positive about the situation, determined to get on with life whatever happens and however long she has. As I’ve written before, we will support her, David and Tom emotionally and practically through the coming years.

I’m just about to finish a love poem for Helen, called ‘The Stalker’.

Rodellosso, between Pienza and San Quirico

1 September 2010

We are in southern Tuscany, in a converted farmhouse next to the road which runs between Pienza and San Quirico. Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor have rented three of the five apartments in the house for a fortnight, and we are their guests. Their daughter Alix and her boyfriend Jeremy arrived from Australia yesterday.

The country around here, as I know from our summers in the 1980s, is breathtakingly beautiful. The earth is between blonde and grey. At this time of year, the corn has long been harvested, and tractors with caterpillar tracks are pulling ploughs up and down the hilly fields. Big bunches of black grapes hang for a few weeks more along severe straight lines of vines. The views in all directions, at any time of day, are magnificent: Monte Amiata to the south, Montalcino on its high hill to the west, the undulating lands towards Siena northward, Pienza close by to the east. In the mornings the sunlight is lemon. At evening, the low sun creates dapples, dimples of shadow in the hollows of the fields. The days are hot but not unbearable, the nights cool.

After David, Lindsay and Tom left us on 10 August, our friend Deirdre Finan came to stay for a few days. Then we started southward on 21 August, and stayed three nights with Stephen and Theresa in the Charente; as pleasurable as ever. I like to do something physical on the property with Stephen when I’m there. This time we cleared the drain at the back of the house, cut back hedges, and rescued an oak from the clutches of ivy which had grown a trunk almost as thick as the oak’s. I missed my swim in the river this year, working too late on our last day, but enjoyed many swims in the pool, always nude. I become semi-feral at Barraud. Stephen and Theresa came with us as far as Ribérac on the morning of our departure. We had coffee in the Café des Colonnes, and said goodbye. Then Helen and I took two slow days to drive through the Dordogne, the Lot, the Aveyron, the Tarn and the Hérault: la France profonde at its loveliest and emptiest. We stayed the first night at the Hôtel Le Belle Rive below Najac, by the Aveyron river. From the opposite bank, a steep cliff covered in deciduous trees rises to the castle which dominates the high town. When night fell, the illuminated castle’s walls and towers seemed to float in the black. On the second night, after more quiet wandering down D roads over high plains, through thick forests, across rivers low amongst their rocks after this dry summer, we came down to Lozère, blazing hot, and stayed at the Hôtel de la Paix. The next day we had a short, fast drive on the motorway to Marseille, where we stayed a night with Mary and Jacques. We shall stay longer with them on the way back to Brittany.

We came into Italy on Friday last week, zooming round the sensational autostrada which follows the arc of the riviera. I first drove that road more than 30 years ago. It’s showing its age now, and must be very expensive to maintain. The succession of viaducts and tunnels, taken at speed and in close proximity to other flying metal objects, induces a dangerous exhilaration after three or four hours. We stayed at a hotel in Moneglia. The room was comfortable, but the restaurant looked dreary to me — too many tables laid out for pensione guests going through the eat/swim/laze/eat motions of their holiday, as last year, as next year — so, after a bit of research in the Michelin, I found a restaurant high up above the town, and phoned. No, he regretted, he was full — well, almost full. There was a little table outside, but the weather was bad. It might rain. I said I would come and recce the place, while Helen was washing her hair. I snaked up the mountainside, sometimes needing to stop and reverse in order to get round tight corners, and arrived. The table outside was on a little balcony of its own. I said yes, we’ll take it and bring pullovers. Manoeuvred back down to the hotel, picked up Helen, manoeuvred back up to the restaurant, and we sat down in the humid night, the cloud low above us on the mountain.

We were then presented with one of the most delicious and excessive meals I’ve ever eaten. All fish, no choice: langoustine tails in tempura with orange; a boiled white fish (name forgotten), warm, with potatoes and mayonnaise; tuna with tomatoes, onions and croutons; linguine in a lobster sauce; a whole sea bass, baked in salt; langoustines and dressed crab, hot (of which, when we had finished, we were offered a second helping, which we declined); hot crêpes containing ice cream; hot dark chocolate with bitter cherries and more ice cream. Two bottles of dry white wine: one good and local; one unfiltered, from near the Slovenian border, its name Slovenian not Italian, sensational. Sweet wine left on the table with the dolci. What about a digestivo? ‘No grazie, I must drive, downhill, and judge those bends.’ Coffee.

I cleared my head in the hotel swimming pool the next morning, and we eased on down to Pisa, where we met Bronwyn and Stephen, and came here.

Rodellosso

3 September 2010

On Wednesday the joint owner of this property, Claudio Barbi, took us to Montalcino to visit the vineyard of San Lorenzo, belonging to his friend Luciano Ciolfi. We drove up past the famous little town and kept climbing before turning right down a small road which soon becomes a strada bianca. Luciano’s farm is 500 metres above sea level. He’s quite young — I would say about 35 — and has revolutionised production since taking the place over from his parents. Previously, the vines produced table grapes. 11 years ago, Luciano planted the Sangiovese vines from which Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino are made. 2004 was his first vintage. We admired the disciplined rows of plants and the dark fruit hanging from each. Because there are maximum limits in Montalcino for volume of wine per hectare (80 quintals for Brunello and 90 for Rosso), there is much pruning of the less favoured bunches throughout the growing season. Luciano said that there would be more pruning later this month. September, he said, is the crucial month for quality: a good warm September, and there will be more and better Brunello; a mixed or poor September, and there will be less Brunello and more Rosso. He will know for sure in December how much of each he can make. At this altitude and on south-facing slopes, the vines get maximum sunshine and few parasites. From where we stood, we could see the mountains of Corsica.

We went into the shed housing the oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks. Luciano explained the process: from harvest in mid-October to tank, then to barrel (in his case for much longer than the regulation minimum time for Brunello and Rosso respectively), then back to tank, then by tube and pump to the bottling machine. Then a minimum of four months in bottle for the Brunello, which may be sold from 1 January of the fifth year after the harvest. We tasted the 2008 Rosso, the 2005 Brunello and (a surprise) a rare Brunello Riserva (2006 I think) still in barrel and not able to be sold until 2012. Luciano had provided bread, cheese and sausage. Over the bread he poured some of his own olive oil. Grappa, both white and yellow, is made from the skins and pips of his grapes. These days wine-makers are not allowed also to make grappa; the skins and pips go off to a distillery near Siena. But the spirit which comes back bears the name San Lorenzo, and we tried both kinds. All the drinks were superb. We bought a case of the Brunello, three bottles of the yellow grappa and one of the white. I might go back for a case of the Rosso. [I did.] We would have bought some oil, but it had all been sold. Claudio has since given us a can; he uses Luciano’s oil at home.

The visit was a wonderful experience.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the enormous pale fields are being ploughed. Only tractors with caterpillar tracks can make progress on land that rises and falls so steeply. After the first ploughing, the earth lies in huge dry clods, tumbling over each other, such that it seems impossible that seeds could ever take root in it. But there will be harrowing later, and I guess that winter wheat will be planted before Christmas. The skill of the ploughman is impressive. Early this morning, he started on the hillside immediately next to our house southward. He ploughed all round the extreme edge, once. I suppose he was giving himself turning room for the ends of the furrows, but it also seemed to me, sentimentally, that he was cutting out his work like a tailor: ‘Right, this is the size of it.’ All day since then (it’s now half past four), the diesel engine has been growling away. The ploughman takes the field in sections, changing gear up and down depending on the gradient. The cracked stubbled land narrows as the stiff grey waves broaden. I’m sure there is knowledge informing the directions he takes — up and down, or back and across — perhaps to do with the way the water runs off earth turned this way or that, perhaps to economise on diesel. There are gradients too steep to plough upward even in first gear. Here he ploughs downhill, then climbs back to the top with the plough lifted. Such slow work must be dispiriting. The eventual effect is extraordinarily beautiful. Newly ploughed earth, even in a dry region like this, is of course darker for a few hours than that ploughed yesterday. There is still an enormous area to be done, in all directions, and the tractors are slower and the ploughs narrower than on easier land.

(Having stopped writing, and gone to view my ploughman’s progress, I see that, having done the smaller segment of the hillside up and down or back and across, he is taking the larger segment in diminishing concentric circles, so no need for turning space at the ends of furrows. Maybe my thought about the tailor sizing up his garment wasn’t completely sentimental.)

(Later still, Claudio tells me that circular ploughing on a hill is always done anti-clockwise, so that the ground is turned uphill, against the slope.)

The house has a swimming pool large enough for me to get up steam properly before turning round. I swim two or three times a day. Others find the water too cold, now the summer is ending. I make noises about being thrown into the English Channel at two, and told to get on with it. (Not completely true, of course.)

Rodellosso

8 September 2010

On Monday, the ploughman finished the job. After two days of circling, the remaining circle became too small to conveniently turn in, so he changed back to straight up and down, as with the earlier, smaller segment. The gentle contrast between three shades — the previous day’s ploughing, that day’s work, and the stubble still to be done — was lovely. He came up to see Claudio when he had finished. I congratulated him. He laughed and said it was easy work; in any case he had been ploughing since he was 14, and he was now 63, so he had got the hang of it.

I know more about the next stages of the work than I did. Once the rain has softened the ploughed earth, it will be harrowed, and then in November wheat will be sown, for bread. Frumento is the word Claudio used; I had trigo in my head, but that must be Spanish. [It is.] Froment is the grain from which the sweet French crêpes are made; and in the first chapter of the The Mayor of Casterbridge, before the shocking event of the sale of the wife for five guineas, the husband and she are drinking furmity, ‘a mixture of corn in the grain, milk, raisins, currants, and what not’, laced heavily with rum in his case, more lightly in hers.

There is one more enormous field to be turned, but that will be planted with broad beans, fave. To be prepared for beans, the ground only needs harrowing, not deep ploughing. The day after the ploughman finished, Claudio’s father, the owner of the farm and the farmhouse together with his wife and Claudio, began harrowing, and did half the field in a day. He is 82, and a few weeks ago had a heart operation and a pacemaker fitted. When I saw him first, ten days ago, moving slowly and leaning on a stick, I assumed that his working days were over. He drives here with his wife twice a day in a little Ford, but it is she who does all the routine work of emptying the dustbins, feeding the hens, watering the flowers and herbs. I was wrong; here he was, back on the tractor for the first time since the operation and, so his wife and Claudio said, happy. They had both warned him against overtaxing himself but, said Claudio, ‘He is a man who will do what he will do.’

On Saturday Helen, Alix, Jeremy and I drove up Monte Amiata. Above a certain altitude, you are in the cool of chestnut forests. Higher still, the chestnut gives way to beech. There is skiing in the winter, and we parked as close to the summit as we could get, by the closed-up hotels, and walked to the very top. The day was quite misty, but there was still a spectacular view to the east, across to Lake Trasimeno and the mountains of the Marches. We walked down and drove home in a complete silence deepened by our blocked ears. When we arrived back at the house, Helen fell on the gravel and sprained the ankle of the foot which was operated on last December. She hasn’t left the house since, but is slowly recovering. She has swum twice.

From Thursday to Sunday there was the annual cheese festival in Pienza. The climax was a cheese-rolling competition on Sunday afternoon in the cathedral piazza. Representatives of the six contrade of the town rolled pecorino cheeses across the cobbles towards a stick. Concentric circles around the stick carry different values: the closer to the stick, the more points. A great crowd watched. There were two referees to judge matters of doubt. The winner was loudly cheered. I had asked Claudio what the prize would be: ‘A year’s supply of pecorino?’ ‘The honour,’ he said.

That evening all of us except Helen ate in a restaurant still proud of the fact that some of the scenes in The English Patient had been filmed in the street outside. There were photographs of Anthony Minghella with the staff, and copies of an interview with him in which he praised the roast pork (excellent, according to Stephen and Jeremy; I had duck, also delicious). It reawakened my great sadness at Anthony’s death.

On Monday I took everyone except Helen to Siena, and came straight back. The four of them then spent the day there — the first time for all except Stephen — before Alix and Jeremy caught the train to Florence, again for their first visit. Stephen and Bronwyn caught the bus back. I shall go and pick up Alix and Jeremy at Siena station later this afternoon.

Marseille

13 September 2010

It’s Monday morning at the end of summer or beginning of autumn in Marseille. I’m in the Place Jean Jaurès, known as La Plaine. The weather is perfect — the easy shirt-sleeves temperature which leaves you in your own skin, lets you feel more alert than does the somnolence of high summer in the south. Marseille is an extraordinary place. It has immense charm and a relaxed friendliness which seduce me every time I come here. It’s also, in some respects, a mess. Rubbish lies around everywhere. There is barely a surface — be it park bench, metro station or doorway — not covered in graffiti. The pavements are so cluttered with cars that it’s difficult to know where to walk. Somehow this huge number of people, of all sorts, crammed together in this tight space, manages to get on together most of the time, indeed co-exist stylishly, as long as everyone keeps their good humour. Last night we ate on the little terrasse at the back of Mary’s and Jacques’s apartment. In the dozens of apartments around us were other families quietly eating dinner, on their terrasse if they have one, inside with the window open if not. It worked. But I should think — in fact I know from Mary — that Marseille can be a tiring place to live. And the part of me that feels and admires civic pride would like to do something radical to clean the place up, starting with the imposition of savage penalties for graffiti writers. What is it that causes people, with no other talent, to want to write obscenities and secret signatures on walls? To leave your mark; to urinate on your territory; to remind us optimists, us believers in the possibility of good government, of the dog beneath the skin?

Bruère-Allichamps, Cher

15 September 2010

Here we are in a gloomy little hotel on the bank of the Cher (not that you can see the river, hidden behind trees), having driven all the way from Marseille in about seven hours. The principal distinction of Bruère-Allichamps is that it is at the exact centre of France. In the village an old stone post surmounted by a tiny limp tricolore announces this geographical curiosity, as if it represented an achievement of some kind. Ten départments we have crossed today: Bouches du Rhône, Gard, Hérault, Aveyron, Lozère, Cantal, Haute-Loire, Puy de Dôme, Allier, Cher. The drive over the Massif Central was spectacularly lovely: France’s landscape at its grandest. The superbly engineered A75 autoroute whisks you through it, exposing grey mountain villages which must have been extreme in their remoteness before the road was built. The Viaduc de Millau is one of the modern wonders of the world. It’s the second time we’ve been over it — the first was on the way down to Mary’s wedding three years ago — and this time we stopped at the aire on the north side of the valley to look back and admire it.

Last night we went to a restaurant by one of the calanques of Marseille. Jacques drove. We descended the precipitous tiny winding road, with no barriers in case of error, amid a blazing sunset which for ten minutes turned the white rocks an intense pink. The water in the calanque was quite still. There was no wind, and no sound outside the clatter of the restaurant. With the sun gone, the light held for a few minutes on the vertical white cliffs hemming in the little square bay.

The meal was delicious: mainly fish. I had a sea-urchin flan in a sauce made of soft-shelled green crabs, followed by a marmite des pêcheurs. Others had grilled bass or bream. Very good white Cassis. The food was served in that friendly but direct, take-it-or-leave-it way characteristic of Marseille: they don’t do deference here.

The weather changed abruptly as we came off the massif about two hours ago. It’s cool and overcast now, with patches of mist hanging over the river.

Kerfontaine

19 September 2010

Even as I was writing the last entry, I was experiencing unsettling premonitions about the hotel we had chosen to stay in. We had picked it out of the Michelin, as usual, because the description promised pleasant surroundings and had the little red icon of the Michelin man licking his lips, which means ‘good food at moderate prices’. When we arrived, the look of the place already disappointed us, and I almost suggested to Helen that we phone and make up a story about having broken down (they had my mobile phone number) and go elsewhere, but I was tired from the long drive and — more significant — Helen still had her sprained ankle and didn’t want to walk around. If only I had followed my instinct, and trusted the 40 years of experience I have of French hotels!

I can hardly bring myself to write in English about the experience of that evening and — worse — of the next morning, and fortunately I don’t have to, because it’s all recounted in a letter I wrote in French to the Guide Michelin, and sent off on Friday:

Cher monsieur, chère madame

Je suis un Anglais qui voyage en France depuis 40 ans. Pendant tout cette période, je me suis servi de votre Guide Rouge. Normalement, les recommandations que j’ai suivies là ont été fiables.

Il y a deux jours, ma femme et moi ont passé la nuit à l’hôtel-restaurant ‘Les Tilleuls’ à Bruère-Allichamps, que vous trouverez dans le guide à St Amand-Montrond. Sur la carte de la région du Centre, ‘Les Tilleuls’ est indiqué comme établissement offrant, en anglais, ‘good food at moderate prices’. Quelle déception!

Les chambres, que le guide qualifie comme ‘small, well-kept rooms’ ressemblent à une caserne. Sous le drap sur le lit, il y a un couvre-matelas ou en plastique ou en caoutchouc qui servirait bien les besoins des bébés ou de ceux qui ont le malheur de souffrir d’incontinence. (On le sent toute la nuit.) Mais notre chambre était propre, et il y avait beaucoup d’eau chaude. On survivrait une nuit…

Nous sommes descendus au restaurant. Le menu est difficile à comprendre même pour ceux qui comprennent bien le français, mais enfin j’ai commandé une entrée, un poisson et une viande de la formule à 38 euros. ‘Fromage, dessert?’ a demandé la propriétaire peu agréable. J’ai répondu que j’allais attendre; je ne savais pas quel appétit j’aurais après avoir mangé trois plats. ‘Non,’ fut la réponse, ‘vous devez commander maintenant.’ J’ai répondu que je m’arrêterais alors après la viande. ‘Vous payerez à la carte,’ a dit-elle. J’ai dit que j’étais préparé à faire ainsi. Ma femme a pris la même formule, et a commandé entrée, poisson, viande, fromage et dessert.

Les trois plats étaient acceptables — pas plus — au niveau du goût, mais inacceptable au niveau de la quantité. Le ‘pot au feu’, par exemple, a consisté en trois petits bouts de langue de boeuf avec deux carottes et deux navets, tous miniscules, et une tache de sauce.

Le vin était bon, au moins. Les deux autres serveuses étaient aimables.

Le matin, j’ai été étonné, en regardant la facture; le prix de mes trois petits plats atteignait 45 euros (15 euros par plat), tandis que ma femme, qui avait mangé les cinq plats, devait payer les 38 euros attendus. Je me suis plaint, en disant que je comprenais bien que, si on choisissait des plats hors formule, le prix pouvait dépasser le prix de la formule, mais que dans le cas présent je n’avais fait que choisir trois d’entre cinq plats de la même formule. La propriétaire, pas plus agréable que la veille, a prétendu que je devais payer 45 euros parce que les quantités de mes plats avaient été plus copieuses qu’elles n’auraient été si j’avais pris la formule entière! J’ai répondu que dans ce cas la nourriture aurait été invisible.

Nous avons échangé quelques mots vifs. J’ai offert maintes fois à payer les 38 euros. Elle a refusé. Craignant que nous ne partions sans rien payer, elle a pris le numéro de la plaque d’immatriculation de notre voiture. Elle a commencé à téléphoner à quelqu’un (la police, je suppose). Enfin, j’ai payé la somme demandé, parce que je ne pouvais pas réfuter l’affirmation ridicule de la propriétaire que j’avais été régalé au niveau du volume de mes mets. (Ma femme, par hasard, avait fait l’autre choix d’entre deux aux trois premières étapes de la formule; je ne pouvais pas donc comparer.)

Ce fut un épisode tout à fait lamentable. Je me sens la victime d’une sorte de tromperie. Nous ne serions point allés à cet hôtel sans la forte recommandation de votre guide. Malheureusement, je me méfierai un peu plus du guide à l’avenir. Et je suis sûr que vous devriez enlever des ‘Tilleuls’ la qualification ‘good food at moderate prices’ de la prochaine édition du Guide Rouge, et de votre site-web.

Nous avons pris le chemin de retour pour la Bretagne. Normalement, nous ne mangeons pas grand-chose à midi quand nous sommes en route, mais ce midi j’avais grande faim, ayant dédaigné de prendre le petit déjeuner aux ‘Tilleuls’; en plus, nous avions besoin de quelque soulagement qui nous aiderait à oublier la catastrophe. Après quatre heures sur l’autoroute, nous passions au nord de Nantes. Nous avons quitté la grande route et, tout à fait par hasard et sans consulter votre guide, nous avons trouvé ‘Le Romarin’ à Sautron. Nous avons été reçu par une souriante propriétaire et sa charmante assistante dans une belle salle à manger, et nous avons mangé comme roi et reine. Notre nourriture a coûté à peu près 34 euros chacun. Je ne trouve aucune mention du ‘Romarin’ dans votre guide 2010…

Veuillez agréer, cher monsieur, chère madame, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.

We shall see if I get any response from Michelin. Still angry and still wanting revenge, I posted shorter versions of the account, omitting references to the Michelin guide and the happy paragraph at the end, on two big French websites carrying people’s opinions about restaurants where they’ve eaten. I hope I do some damage. The business is almost but not quite out of my system. [I did get a detailed, courteous reply about a month later.]

But to complete a day in which, to stoop to a terrible cliché, I experienced a roller-coaster of emotions, I opened my emails on Thursday evening to read that I had won first prize in the open category of this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation, for my translation of the first section of Victor Hugo’s ‘L’Expiation’, which I called ‘The Retreat from Moscow’. So I was thrilled. The prize-giving ceremony is on 10 November in London, and I pocket £750.

Brest to Southampton plane

21 September 2010

Quick hop back to England for a Poetry Society trustees’ meeting. Exquisite coastline east of Brest — the rivers, estuaries and the domino-like dark shapes of oyster and mussel beds visible through the sapphire water; then Guernsey, where Victor Hugo wrote ‘L’Expiation’; before long, the western tip of the Isle of Wight, where my parents’ ashes lie, dust on the down; the Solent, and a big loop into Hampshire, county of my birth, turning back towards Southampton Airport over Winchester, with a beautiful view of the cathedral, of Saint Cross, where my mother was happy living as an evacuee with Mr and Mrs Mattingley, who were kind to her, and of the water meadows where she used to walk and gather buttercups.

(My mother’s first billet as an evacuee in Winchester was a disaster. The woman of the house had two daughters in their late teens or early twenties, and mum, as the most innocent of 13-year-olds, couldn’t understand why so many men clumped up the stairs during the evenings and nights and went into their bedrooms for half an hour or so. She must have described these strange carryings-on to her mother, who removed her instantly from this informal brothel. Apart from her hostess’s lack of common kindness, mum also suffered in that the principal food she was given was seed cake, in great lumps with no sugar [which was rationed, of course, but a kinder woman would have put a little in].)

Kerfontaine

25 September 2010

Hopped back here yesterday, a day later than planned, because on Thursday the French air-traffic controllers had gone on strike, together with many other workers, over the government’s plans to raise the state retirement age. So I had an unscheduled day and night in Southampton.

I’m not especially sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. They live within a vision, which the leaders of the French left have promoted over the years, of endless progress: better pay and pensions, earlier retirement, shorter working hours, kinder conditions. The French left is always talking about les droits acquis; they never talk about les responsabilités acquises. The strikers are right to point to some of the disgraceful measures taken by Sarkozy’s government to benefit the already rich; only a socialist government would reverse those measures. But even if the tax system were strictly fair and progressive, the French state can’t go on paying pensions from age 60, as it has since Mitterrand’s first septannat, while people are living so much longer than ever before, unless the working population is prepared to be more heavily taxed, which no political party has been courageous or foolish enough to propose in its manifesto before an election. So the only alternative is to raise the age at which people receive their state pension. Under the draft law, people can receive at least a partial pension from age 62; if they’ve already worked their full quota of trimestres, as most workers who start work in their teens will have done, they’ll get the full pension then or earlier. People will in any case get a full pension, whether or not they’ve worked their full quota, at 67.

That seems reasonable to me, and it’s clear that unless something like this is done, France’s pension fund will be bankrupt in a few years. I do understand that French workers rely much more on the state pension than do British workers; for many of us with professional pensions, the state pension is a handy top-up rather than something we depend on. But the grand French tradition of descent into the streets whenever the government wants to do something one group or another doesn’t quite like is irritating to me; how the French love to think they’re different from and better than the rest of us! In the UK, the state pensionable age is going to increase, I think, to 66, with no early payments, and we won’t be descending into the streets to protest (although we may on other matters). I despise Sarkozy, but I hope the measure passes.

Today the Labour Party has elected its new leader: Ed Miliband. He beat his older brother David by the narrowest of margins. Under the alternative vote system used for the election, the candidate with least votes in each round of counting is excluded until one of the candidates receives more than 50% of the vote. David was ahead in every round until the last; in every round, including the last, he had the most first-preference votes of MPs and MEPs and of ordinary party members: two thirds of the electoral college. But Ed always led in the one third of the college given to the unions’ vote, and he took more second-preference votes from defeated candidates, and so was just ahead in the last round.

It was an impeccably democratic and comradely contest. One can debate the rights and wrongs of giving such weight to the union vote when it represents people who pay a levy to Labour through their union dues rather than being full individual members. On the one hand, I’d rather that everyone who wants to be a member of the Labour Party pay a full subscription, even if it were necessary to reduce the price so as to avoid the possible charge that some people can’t afford it; on the other hand, the trade unions are where Labour was born. I can’t criticise the alternative vote system, and I hope it will be introduced for the Westminster parliament in time for the next general election (it will if the referendum to be held next May produces a majority in favour of the change). But I think Labour has elected the wrong Miliband. Ed is a nice and very bright man; he did a good job at the Department for Energy and Climate Change; but I don’t think he has the stature, the natural eloquence, the quality of potential statesmanship that his brother has. I imagine the Tories are rather happy this afternoon. With a coalition government which will undergo severe strains of its own between now and 2015, it’s too early to make any predictions about such a remote date; but I just have a feeling that Labour will lose again then, that Ed will stand down, and that his brother, who will still only be 50 and will have had a good rest, will take over.

Kerfontaine

17 October 2010

Andrew Bethell rang on Friday to say that the government is going to stop funding Teachers TV as from the end of April next year. The (once again renamed) Department for Education communicated this news by email: no warning, no invitation to a face-to-face meeting, no thanks for what has been achieved; just the usual brutal bad manners which has been the style of most of the civil servants there since the start. It was Labour’s bad decision to take Teachers TV off air from the end of August, even though two thirds of the viewing was still being done on television, so that now it’s just a website; it is the Tories’ even worse decision to abandon completely a service which is evidently appreciated by hundreds of thousands of educators. Andrew’s shocked, of course. He will see if the service can be maintained on some kind of commercial basis, by which individual schools and training institutions would pay an annual subscription; and perhaps some not-for-profit foundation might want to help.

Stopping the government funding is an act of pure vandalism, dressed up as a necessity under the current financial conditions. Teachers TV costs very little money (£10 million a year), and you would have thought that, even in the government’s own terms, even taking account of whatever ambitions they may have for improving the quality of teaching, it’s proved its worth.

Kerfontaine

21 October 2010

Yesterday George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the results of the comprehensive spending review 2010: what the UK will spend in the four years beginning in April 2011. For most government departments, and for many people in the UK, the news is harsh. About 490,000 public sector jobs are likely to be lost. On average, departmental budgets will be cut by 19% over four years.

The structural deficit — that is, the exceptional debt the government has taken on in the face of the financial crisis — is intended to be eliminated by 2015. People on various welfare and unemployment benefits face cuts of £7 billion in addition to those of £11 billion announced earlier. Funding for the police will be cut by 4% a year; this will mainly affect civilian support staff. The retirement age will rise from 65 to 66 by 2020. Rail fares will be allowed to rise by 3% above inflation every year. The English schools’ regular expenditure budget will be protected, but spending on new school buildings — one of Labour’s best achievements — will be cut by 60%. The NHS budget for England will rise every year until 2015, which is good, and there will be an extra £2 billion for social care, which I don’t think will be enough. The Department for International Development will receive extra funding year by year until the UK’s contribution to international development finally arrives at the UN target of 0.7% of GDP, which is excellent. I can’t but be ashamed that Labour didn’t get to the target during its 13 years. I remember that the 0.7% target had already been set when I used to go to bread-and-cheese War on Want lunches at Cambridge, 40 years ago! The levy on the banks, forcing them to make amends for the near-catastrophe into which they led us through their stupidity and greed, will be made permanent, which is a good thing in itself, but it remains to be seen whether the banks will use their lobbying power with the Tories and their clever accountancy to diminish what they actually pay, while continuing to reward their top staff with obscene salaries and bonuses for performing socially useless and sometimes destructive activities.

Life will be very difficult for local authorities, which face an annual cut in their budgets of 7.1% for four years. They’ve never had to make cuts on anything like this scale before, and the effect on the users of council services in poorer areas will be grim.

Naturally, the City and the bond markets think that all this, apart from the bank levy, is wonderful. If there were no history, if the UK’s economic story had started yesterday, I might say that these measures were necessary if unwelcome. But I continue to be outraged by the Tories’ hypocritical lying over the recent past, presenting themselves as the fiscally responsible party brought in to clean up the mess left by a spendthrift previous government, when they know in their hearts — at least, the more intelligent of them do — that the mess was caused by people who, on the whole, would support conservative rather than social democratic administrations around the world, and that if they, the British Conservatives, had been in power in the years leading up to the financial crisis, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than Brown was. (I know I’ve written this before, but it still cries out in me to be said.)

It’s the most beautiful day here: bright warm sunshine, of the sort that, in autumn, I perceive as a gift, an act of grace, rather than a right; but a strong fresh wind, which is snatching the leaves from trees and whirling them horizontally across the air. There are horse- and sweet-chestnut trees within sight; and, with the French windows open, the thump of both kinds of chestnut on the ground is frequent.

Camden Town and London to Bangkok plane

22 November 2010

We’ve been back in London since 31 October. From the writing point of view, it was a good productive five months away, at least by my standards. 20 new pieces: 13 originals and seven translations or imitations. Some are very short, I admit; but there are also more substantial poems there, notably ‘Prayer before Death’, ‘Mission Sundays’ and ‘Evening Visitor’ among the originals, and the two Machados plus Montale’s ‘The Eel’ amongst the translations. They’re all up on the website. I’m afraid I’ve been breaking my rule about not revisiting anything after I’ve sent it to Mark in New Zealand; in particular, ‘Evening Visitor’, about a conversation between my father’s ghost and me, has been changed at least twice. I sent Mark what I know is the final version this morning, to paste over the version currently on the site. As I wrote to him, I don’t know whether my hesitations have to do with the emotional closeness I still feel to my father; I don’t think so. They have been more to do with form. I wrote the first version — about 80 lines — in not much more than half an hour: a dangerously high speed for me (maybe for anybody). Formally, the poem is free-ish, but there is some iambic rhythm and some rhyme. It affected Helen very much when I showed it to her, and Mark said that he and his wife had been moved by it when I unwisely sent it to him only a day or so later. A month after that, in London, I looked at it on the site and there were some lines that just seemed to me lazy and aimless, not poetry at all. So I tightened it up: more rhymes, more regularly rhythmical lines.

Last Thursday evening, Peter and Monica Hetherington came down from Bedford and the four of us went to the theatre, but to two different plays: Peter and I to Krapp’s Last Tape, performed by Michael Gambon and directed by Michael Colgan (and I shall write to Michael C shortly telling him how wonderful it was); Helen and Monica to Passion by Stephen Sondheim. (Helen had double-booked us at the theatre that night; the accident worked out very well, because Monica loves Sondheim and of course Peter reveres Beckett as much as I.) Anyway, while Peter and I were having a drink after the very short Krapp, I gave him the two versions of ‘Evening Visitor’ and asked him to compare them and tell me where the better efforts lay. He came back to me on Saturday with his usual marvellous, detailed judgement: on the whole, though not entirely, he thought my first thoughts had been best. So the thing went about two thirds of the way back to the first version. It’s done now, and I’m pleased with it. It’s harder to know when a looser poem is finished than when a tighter poem is. I’ve done two tight funny poems recently, one called ‘One in a Bed’, about Helen’s snoring, and one called ‘Vacheries’, a conversation between two cows. They’re clever and neat (‘neat’ an accidental pun with regard to the second), and I knew as soon as they were done that they were finished.

I’ve just finished reading Ian Hamilton’s biography of Robert Lowell. I’ll say a bit more about it in a minute, but the relevance here is Lowell’s wonderful distinction between ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ poetry. When he proposed those metaphors, I think he was thinking of himself as the chief cook of American poetry, and Ginsberg as the chief purveyor of raw American poetic food. I’ve always been suspicious of raw, even though some of my poems are free-ish (I don’t think any, apart perhaps from the prose poem ‘Funeral Oration, by the Deceased’, is untouched by some attempt at prosody). But it’s a matter of how much rope you allow yourself. When I write free-ish, I always have a bad conscience; a voice in my head is saying, ‘This is a bit too easy, too slack. It’s not poetry yet.’ And then I think: Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, D.H. Lawrence’s unrhyming poems, Walt Whitman…

To go back to this summer’s output: the thing I’m most pleased about is that, having had a run at writing — lots of days when nothing happened other than that we got up, never early, and I started writing around ten and carried on until about seven in the evening, with a half-hour break for a cold lunch — I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, I can be moderately productive. Most important of all, ideas do come. I’ve always said to myself, and to anyone else who asked, that with poetry (it’s probably true of all kinds of imaginative writing), getting the idea in the first place is the hardest thing. The more I write, the more the ideas come, and when a good idea comes, I can usually do something with it.

I have to report, however, that getting down to writing has been almost impossible in the three weeks since we’ve been back in England. Life is suddenly choc-a-bloc with pleasant and worthwhile distractions. The diary (not this diary, alas) has something in it almost every day. A lot of it is social, because I’m a sociable person, and some of it is good works (the Poetry Society and the Canon Collins Trust), but the great octopus work-for-money also still has a tentacle or two around my neck, which is probably just as well, since neither Helen nor I have the feeling that we’re spending less now that our income is smaller.

So I’ve now got on to the plane to Bangkok for Teachers TV, partly to give a ridiculously short talk (20 minutes) to a UNESCO/Intel conference for ministers of education in the Asia-Pacific region, and partly to spend two days talking to Pico, the firm which runs Teachers TV in Thailand. In December, I’m going to San Francisco with Andrew Bethell for a week. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a pilot Teachers TV in America; they’ve called it Teaching Channel. Unfortunately, according to Andrew, some rather major errors have been made right at the start, especially in key appointments. Two people have left their posts after short stays. When Andrew was in America a couple of weeks ago (he’s on the advisory board for all the Gates Foundation’s educational projects), he was asked to step in for a few months to right the ship. He said he’d do it as long as he could have me helping him. Agreed. So for this one week before Christmas, and for six weeks between Christmas and Easter, we shall be in the US, mainly in San Francisco at the NewSchools Venture Fund (no idea why there’s no space between ‘New’ and ‘Schools’), the organisation to which Gates has awarded the contract to run Teaching Channel. We'll be preparing for the launch of the pilot, I think in June 2011; it will be broadcast on some of the PBS stations and published on a website, and we hope it will lead to a full service later. Nice work if you can get it, and well paid. I said I was available for this kind of thing, so I’m not complaining. The PBS station which we hope will begin the broadcasts and offer them to other stations across America will be Thirteen in New York. In July 2008, Andrew and I spent time there (I wrote about it in book five of this diary). We worked with Ron Thorpe, the director of education at Thirteen, helping him to prepare a bid to the Gates Foundation, when it seemed possible that Gates might give Thirteen the job of running Teachers TV USA. That hasn’t happened, and there’s been some anger and confusion about it. But I hope that Thirteen will make several series for us, as well as carry the broadcasts, and that Ron can be involved in some way, as he deserves to, having had the idea for Teachers TV USA in the first place, and having worked hard to get it seriously considered by Gates.

I received my prize for ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ on 10 November. A jolly evening at Notre Dame University, just off Trafalgar Square: about 150 people there, including Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor, Stephen Eyers and Theresa Cato, Martina Thomson, Peter Hetherington, Paul Ashton and Helen. There were prizes in the under-14, under-18 and open categories. The prize-winners read their translations before receiving their cheques. I was on last, and I gave the reading the full theatrical works. Afterwards there were drinks, and Peter and I spent a quarter of an hour talking to Lizzie Spender, one of Stephen’s two children, and to her husband Barry Humphries. Natasha Spender, Stephen’s widow and Lizzie’s mother, had died only two weeks previously at the age of 91, so there was sadness in the occasion, since Natasha had been the founding spirit of the Stephen Spender Trust. Then all of our group except Peter, who had to get back to Bedfordshire, went to dinner at The Century. I was very happy.

I owe at least a chunk of the prize to Peter, because my first effort at translation was in blank verse. I sent it to him, and he said, in effect, ‘This is fine, but why haven’t you made it rhyme, like you did with “The Lions” and “Boaz Asleep”?’ I didn’t think I could do it until he provoked me. It turned out that I could. I’m pretty sure that the blank verse version wouldn’t have won anything.

I can’t like Robert Lowell as he appears in Ian Davidson’s biography. All right, he was mad, and that condition deserves sympathy. He was also a bully, domineering and selfish. His decision to use Elizabeth Hardwick’s private correspondence with him when their marriage was ending as matter for his collections For Lizzie and Harriet and Dolphin was contemptible, as many people said at the time. Adrienne Rich had it right: ‘There’s a kind of aggrandized and merciless masculinity at work in these books… what does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife?’ After quoting from the last of the poems in Dolphin, in which Lowell seems to be half-apologising for, half-justifying what he has done, Rich writes: ‘I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book…’ I agree with that.

And yet he was a great poet, for what he did in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean. I can’t sustain enthusiasm for the endless, endless 14-liners in History, though some of course are very good. I’m grateful for his choice of the term ‘imitations’ to describe and entitle his collection of loose English versions of poems originally written in Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French and Russian. It has helped me to be clear about when I’m doing a translation and when an imitation. But I find Lowell’s introduction to Imitations, ending with ‘I have been almost as free as the authors themselves in finding ways to make [the originals] ring right for me’, suspiciously close to an attempt to justify his not trying hard enough to get as close as possible to the original while remaining sure that the imitation is itself a poem. At any rate, I know that my translations (not imitations) of Montale’s ‘The Eel’ and the first section of Hugo’s ‘L’Expiation’ are better than his efforts.

I detect in myself a sort of no-nonsense lack of patience with those very male, very drunk, frequently mad American poets who regarded themselves somehow as a generation of doomed geniuses: Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Jarrell, Schwartz. What had they got to complain about, really? They didn’t come from materially deprived backgrounds, although in some cases their childhoods were psychologically damaged. They just fucked up their immensely brilliant brains with drink and drugs, and then wrote about it. Along the way, they hurt and inconvenienced the people who loved, admired and cared for them. This is very unfair and only a little true, but I still want to say it.

We’re just about to land at Bangkok. Flooded rice fields still abound amid the urbanisation. I can see some major new highways. Maybe the traffic won’t be quite as bad as it was when I was last here, 25 years ago.

Bangkok

26 November 2010

The UNESCO conference has finished, and Teachers TV has caused a stir. My presentation went very well yesterday, although it’s not hard to be better than most of the rest when they simply read out the words written on over-complex PowerPoint slides which look like pages taken from economics textbooks, causing the receiving brain to decide after a minute or two to take a nap until it’s time to join in polite applause at the end. Martina Roth from Intel was excellent yesterday morning, saying everything that needed to be said about the role of ICT in advancing a knowledge-based economy; and although I wasn’t there this morning, Mario Franco from the Portuguese government evidently made an inspiring contribution about a scheme which gives every child a cheap unbreakable computer with access to all sorts of appropriate content. I’m pretty sure we shall collaborate with him in some way.

At this afternoon’s wind-up session, where government ministers and officials said what they wanted to do as a result of the conference, Teachers TV was mentioned numerous times. Eventually, the chairman asked me to make a statement to the gathering about how we could help in the future, which I did. I expect that more Teachers TVs will be springing up in the region.

I spent Wednesday at Pico, and this morning I sat in the hotel talking to Thai Teachers TV’s head of marketing. The channel looks great, on air and on line: a tremendous achievement to get it going, and to have had such an impact in the few months since launch. This afternoon I introduced Pornchai and Viriya, the people who run the channel, to the deputy minister for education in Laos, a lovely, laughing man who had been very complimentary about my presentation. Pico has the concession to extend Teachers TV to several countries in south-east Asia, including Laos, and I think they’ll do some business together, especially as Thai Teachers TV’s satellite footprint covers the whole of Laos as well.

Having been uncomplimentary about the presentational skills of many of the speakers at the conference, I need also to say that a visit to this region is the most salutary of experiences for the complacent Westerner. The countries represented here, containing — with India and China amongst them — 60% of the world’s population, are moving fast towards the future, and education and technology are at the heart of that change. There is enormous energy and ingenuity. If I live another 30 years, as I would like to, Europe and North America will be nothing more than two centres of economic activity within a network of equals. Indeed, the US could be in a state of decline unless it addresses the extreme inequalities in every kind of wealth, especially knowledge wealth, amongst its people. One statistic stuck out for me from Martina Roth’s presentation: if the US had performed as well as Finland in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment studies of the effectiveness of publicly-funded school systems (where Finland is the top performer) since those studies began, it would now have a GDP one trillion dollars a year greater than it has. Of course I know that GDP per head of population isn’t the only way, shouldn’t be the only way, of measuring a country’s greatness or value, and I understand the potential environmental downside of growth (which is beginning to be addressed, unevenly and slowly); but America’s problem is that its political system finds it almost impossible to encourage or even allow any moves towards the equalisation of wealth. Witness the lunacy of the opposition to Obama’s epoch-making reform of the health-care system; witness the ambition of the Republicans, now that they have control of the House and that the Democrats’ majority in the Senate is wafer-thin, to undo everything Obama has done (they won’t be able to, I don’t think, so long as he’s there, but nor will he be able to make any more forward progress unless he wins again in 2012 and Congress swings a bit back towards the Democrats). I guess Teaching Channel is a little tiny effort to address the problem of the inequality of teacher quality in America’s public schools, which the PISA studies continually report as chronic.

Last night, I didn’t feel like sitting down to dinner with my fellow conference-goers at six o’clock, straight after the last session. I never eat that early. (The lunch served had been absolutely delicious, as it was today: a buffet of every kind of exquisite Thai, Indian and Chinese food, plus roast meats for unadventurous Westerners.) So after a shower I walked out of the hotel and wandered along Wireless Road in the heat of the evening. I had no plans. Then I thought: eat at the Oriental, as Helen and I did 25 years ago. The taxi took a good 40 minutes to get there in the traffic. There was a perfect quiet table out on the terrace, just as we had had in 1985. The ferryboats criss-crossed the river; the disco boats passed and re-passed as they had then, playing the same pop tunes for the benefit of similar groups of gyrating lubricated Westerners. The only physical difference was that on the other side of the river there are now three high towers, of which one is the Peninsular Hotel, one looked like apartments and one isn’t quite finished. (Pornchai told me this afternoon that that side of the river is now a ‘green area’: no more big buildings allowed. These must have got their construction permits before the law was passed.)

Anyway, it was great to be there. I sat in the warmth and quiet and was happy. The service was as impeccably courteous and friendly, without being over-attentive, as before. I ate spring rolls, king prawns with rice, chilled sago with raspberry sauce. Two Singha beers. The waning moon hung above us. I confess that when I’ve been in the tropics before, which isn’t that often, I’ve never noticed that the moon wanes horizontally from the top, not from the side, as on my familiar latitude. I suppose it’s to do with the tilt of the earth, but it’s shameful that here am I, in my sixtieth year, almost certainly more than two thirds of the way through, and I still have to write ‘I suppose…’ I must, I will find out, so I know.

After the meal I walked back to the hotel, retracing the taxi driver’s route. It took me an hour. A walk of that length, in that heat and humidity, is an expenditure of effort and sweat that most people, Thai or Western, would dismiss as mad. But unless you take a walk in a place like Bangkok, you’re just another rich person in a rich person’s bubble of aeroplanes, taxis and air-conditioned hotels. I found, as I had in 1985, the crush and sociability of the street life exhilarating. On every pavement are mobile kitchens, the stoves powered by bottled gas, where the cook fries or grills the food that people eat at the plastic tables adjacent. There are stalls everywhere selling fruit, vegetables, clothes, hardware. The little shops are just beginning to close at eleven o’clock at night. Meanwhile the traffic sometimes roars, sometimes drags along: lorries, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks and motor scooters fill every inch of road space, with a surprising absence of hooting, much patience and a high degree of skill. People living the very simplest lives are still at work. Young men unload bricks from a lorry, teetering down a plank while carrying two rough frames, one on each shoulder, into which the bricks have been stacked. In the gloom a gang is sorting rubbish, opening black plastic bags and separating glass from polystyrene from other plastic from cardboard from paper. Better-paid young men, wearing uniforms issued by the construction firm for which they work, are only now leaving the job: an almost finished skyscraper, I should think of about 50 storeys. A train rattles past on the new (since I was last here) elevated railway, a mighty achievement in concrete which overshadows the six-lane highway beside which I make my way. Amid the noise and the close proximity of brutal machine power, young women walk in ones and twos, going about their business confidently and without fear, as is right, and I find myself thinking that, whatever sexual exploitation exists in some sections of this society — and Thailand still has a reputation as the preferred destination for sex tourists — the position of most women is enormously preferable to that which prevails in some Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East. (Of course I know that there is a significant Muslim minority in this predominantly Buddhist country.) Then I find myself reflecting that grotesque misogyny, the attempt to justify the oppression of women by appeal to religious dogma, has been a feature, at various times and to various extents, of some tendencies within all three monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whatever more enlightened tendencies also exist there.

As the walk continues the buildings become smarter. This is the embassy quarter: Australian, French, German, Dutch, American. The American ambassador’s residence, just along the road from the US embassy, looks to me, as I peer through the perimeter security wall, to be a traditional Thai house, of which there are very few left in Bangkok: wooden vernacular, with a sloping polychrome tiled roof and a surrounding veranda, set in an enormous green garden. Wireless Road, where Thailand’s radio station may once have been, is anything but wire-less. Wires loop in great black bunches from lamp-post to telegraph pole to lamp-post. And now here I am back at the hotel, drenched in sweat. I make straight for the bar: one more frosted Singha beer before bed.

London to San Francisco plane

12 December 2010

Andrew’s and my first week with Teaching Channel begins tomorrow. There will be plenty to do, diplomatically unmaking mistakes that have been made, putting in place all the working systems that a TV channel and website need, and — most important — finding good people to make the programmes.

Helen and I had three days in Norfolk until last Tuesday, staying with Adam and Hazel. There has been heavy snow in Britain recently, and Norfolk was covered. On Monday we drove towards the coast, looking for an Iron Age fort. We took a fortunate wrong turning, and came upon a strange, beautiful, ruined church tower, rising alone from a white field. We stopped and crunched across the untouched, foot-deep snow. There was no sign by the tower, no information, no safety barrier preventing me from ascending the hazardous spiral staircase inside it; it just stood there with only its surroundings for context, a remnant, I would guess 600 years old, the flints in its masonry glinting in the sunlight, the blue sky framed in the open space of its Gothic west window.

Half an hour later we found the fort, near the village of Warham. By contrast with the mute tower, sufficient unto itself, an English Heritage information panel at the entrance to this field told us everything. The great earthworks are two thousand years old. There is a circular double ramp enclosing a deep ditch, except on the south side, where the immense labour of 1800 years before was undone 200 years ago in order to straighten the River Stiffkey, I suppose to meet agricultural needs. Previously, the fort followed the natural curve of the river. It encloses an area of, I guess, three acres. Within, the people of this settlement lived their lives; no-one could have made a greater effort to be safe from invasion. The huge silent place was as wonderful as the tower had been, clothed in the intense brilliance of thick snow.

We drove back to London on Tuesday. The day was again clear, after a night of (for England) extreme cold. I have never seen hoar frost so thick on the trees. It was especially lovely on the already white leafless birches. For two hours, until we neared London and the temperature rose, the scene was of entrancing beauty. I kept saying to myself, ‘You are witnessing a rarity. You might not see this too many more times.’

On Tuesday evening I had a jolly evening at the Century Club with some friends from Teachers TV. On Wednesday I went round to Paul’s to watch Arsenal play a European game; as ever on these occasions, he and Vicki provided a delicious Indian take-away. On Thursday, with Andrew, I talked to the deputy minister for education in Thailand and his senior official, who’d come over to see how we do Teachers TV in England. (Unnecessary, really; I could have seen them in Bangkok two weeks ago.) Pornchai was there too, and our real task was to tell the minister what a great job Pornchai and his colleagues at Pico are doing, while gently suggesting that, grateful as Pico is for the Thai government’s funding, it would be better if the government didn’t interfere so much.

While these civilised discussions were proceeding, there were riots in the streets of London. I don’t think I’ve written before about the coalition government’s decision to allow universities to dramatically increase their fees, and to replace Labour’s system of student loans with a calculation, for each student, of what they have racked up in fees and maintenance during their time at university, a sum which must be paid back, in whole or in part, once a graduate’s salary reaches a certain level.

When you read the fine print of the measures (which were passed in the Commons on Thursday by a small majority), you have to admit that, marginally, they are more progressive than was the student loans scheme. But they still attach a potentially huge debt — £30,000 and more — to an individual graduate, and there is no doubt that such a level of debt will discourage students from poorer backgrounds from going to university, as the student loans scheme has. But that was not the cause of the riots. In April and May, the Liberals campaigned on a pledge that they would abolish tuition fees. Many students, tired of authoritarian old New Labour, thought that the Liberals might offer a new kind of progressive politics, and voted for them. How surprised were they to discover that they had voted for the junior partner in a Conservative-led government, and that the excellent Vince Cable, whose understanding of the financial crisis in 2008 had been so impressive, was now in charge of the department which had designed the new system! They felt betrayed, and the feeling generated organised public dissent of the sort which UK students haven’t shown since I was a student.

During the autumn there have been several days of protest, with big marches. These have been impressive demonstrations, marred by the activities of small groups of hooligans, often not students at all, who have committed acts of violence, turning the demonstrations into violent confrontations between police and students. No-one has been killed.

Whether the protests will subside now that the measures will become law I don’t know. Amid the mess, I feel anger at my own party. If the Labour government had done the right thing when it came to power and introduced a graduate tax, paid only after graduation and when a person has achieved a certain minimum salary, none of this rage would have been necessary.  Then, the 35-year-old merchant banker earning £500,000 a year would have paid, say, 1%; and the 35-year-old primary-school teacher earning £30,000 a year would also have paid 1%. Crucially, no person would have taken on individual debt, so there wouldn’t have been the evident disincentive which there now is to the children of poorer families.  But Labour didn’t do it because the Treasury, under Gordon Brown, didn’t want to stump up the money for a few years until the tax started coming through.  Two years ago, Darling and Brown necessarily spent sums hundreds of times greater than the hypothetical cost of pump-priming the graduate tax, baling out the banks.



One of the wickedest of the coalition’s educational measures is closely related to the fees issue: the extraordinary decision to savagely reduce government support for humanities courses in the universities, while maintaining it for courses in science, engineering, maths and other areas of ‘hard’ knowledge. This means that the great majority of the cost of humanities courses will have to be borne, eventually, by the student as he or she repays debt incurred. The government is saying, ‘Be a scientist, be an engineer, and we’ll help you financially; be a historian or a student of literature, and we’ll hurt you financially.’ This is cultural barbarism, based on the benighted idea that a country’s GDP is all that matters, and on the mistaken belief that people with humanities degrees don’t contribute to a country’s wealth. What about those of us who teach children to read?

A second piece of wickedness is the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a Labour measure which gave 16- to 18-year-olds from poorer families a bit of money to encourage them to stay on in education. Gone, abolished. There’s going to be a thing called a pupil premium, which will give schools extra money for every child from a poorer background they take on. Good, in itself. But where’s the coherence between introducing the pupil premium and abolishing the EMA?

Kerfontaine

30 December 2010

The week in America passed in a blur of activity. By the time I arrived at Heathrow from New York on the morning of 18 December and, three hours later, Andrew arrived from San Francisco, we had done most of the things necessary to get Teaching Channel started. We had chosen six independent production companies (I chose a seventh the following week). Our eighth and principal supplier will be Thirteen, as we had hoped, who will make three series for us. Thirteen will also broadcast the programmes (I have get used to writing ‘programs’ over there.) We had chosen a company to build the website. A start had been made on writing various documents, notably the contract which will go out to producers early next month. Overall, progress was rapid. The group of people who constitute the central team all seem good to me; in particular, I like Erin Crysdale, a lovely, energetic person who’ll in effect be my deputy for the next few months. It’s just that the team had been led, up to the point where Andrew took over, by someone who didn’t know what she was doing. Whose fault it was that she was appointed in the first place, I don’t know; water under the bridge. Apparently, about a million dollars has floated by, wasted in the water.

I think I’ll be back in the US for ten days in the second half of January. I have the grandiose title of Interim Vice-President — Production.

I had flown from San Francisco to New York on the Thursday of that week for a meeting the following day at Thirteen with Stephen Segaller, the director of programs there, which produced the successful results just mentioned. I stayed at the Paramount, and ate a good dinner that Thursday evening at Benoit’s on West 55th Street, which I always enjoy, and associate with my recovery from tomato-juice poisoning six years ago. Friday was a beautiful day, cold and clear. I walked across to Thirteen. After the meeting with Stephen, which Ron Thorpe joined, I had half an hour with Ron, eating some of the party food he had arranged for the company party later that afternoon, before stepping out on to the street, imagining that I would simply hail a cab to take me to JFK. No yellow cab wanted to go there on that Friday afternoon a week before Christmas. I guess they all thought they’d spend too much time in traffic and it wouldn’t be worth their while. Just as I was beginning to think I might miss the plane, and was cursing a city which, for all its wealth, doesn’t have an express train connection from the city centre to the airport, along came a big black saloon car whose driver offered to take me there for $145 plus tolls. That seemed to me a lot of money, but to miss the plane would have been even more expensive. The young Pakistani driver — in America ten years, and now a US citizen — got me there in good time, doing all sorts of complicated back doubles through parts of Queen’s that the tourist never sees.

I felt asleep over Newfoundland and woke up over Wales. Large parts of the UK, I knew, were covered with snow. The plane landed on time at eight o’clock. While I was eating breakfast in the arrivals lounge, waiting for Andrew (and I should own up to the reason why I had to wait for him — I had stupidly forgotten that my London door keys were in a bag I had deliberately left in San Francisco), it began to snow heavily outside. Five inches fell in an hour. After breakfast, to pass the time, I walked around Terminal 5, admiring the construction. In the departures lounge, about five thousand people were being told that all flights until five o’clock that afternoon had been cancelled, and that they should leave the building immediately. No other information was offered. Back in the serenity of the arrivals lounge, someone came in to say that police with machine guns were calming the atmosphere upstairs in departures. (Subsequently, British Airports Authority apologised for its mishandling of events that day.)

Andrew’s plane was I think the last to land before the airport was closed to arriving as well as departing planes. He said it skidded a bit on the runway. The Heathrow Express and the tube worked well, and we parted company at Kings Cross. The snow was thick on the walk up to the flat. Helen had gone up to Shropshire with Mike Raleigh two days previously, for our usual pre-Christmas weekend with David and Lindsay and other friends. My solo drive there that afternoon and evening took me seven and a half hours instead of the usual three and a half. A lorry had jack-knifed at the top of a hill just north of Newport Pagnell. We were stationary for three hours, giving me plenty of time to think about John Bunyan’s posting in the town with the parliamentary army during the Civil War, and about my father’s years at Newport Instruments there, doing his life’s most important work. Once we moved, it was exhilarating to drive on the familiar old M1, suddenly strange, a hard wide piste of white, no road-markings to be seen, between trees loaded with snow and hoar-frost. I had the heater full on and the windows wide open. Near Rugby the snow stopped, and there were no further interruptions until I was nearly at Shrewsbury, when fog descended so thickly that I had to crawl the last few miles. The dinner party was nearly over when I got to Harmer Hill, but they’d saved some food for me.

There was another jolly meal the next day, with Mike and Andrew and Annie Bannerman. On the Monday, Helen and I went to Shrewsbury to buy her Christmas presents, and then on to lunch with Juginder Lamba and Lesley Lancaster. The little unsalted lanes, in the freezing cold, were enchanting to drive along; it was like invading a Breughel in a four-by-four. We lunched in a pub in Ruyton XI Towns. Arriving back at David and Lindsay’s, we were surprised to find no one in, though the key was under the mat. Tom soon phoned to say that David had been taken ill on his way to work in Birmingham that morning; he was pissing blood. He’d got himself back to Shrewsbury station, where Lindsay and Tom had met him and taken him to hospital. Lindsay and Tom soon arrived at the house; Lindsay and I then returned to the hospital with an overnight bag, to find David in the treatment room of Accident and Emergency, with a catheter fitted. The liquid in the bag was bright red, and every time David passed water the pain was intense. As so often in NHS hospitals, the hardest thing was to extract information from the staff, but in the end we got David some pain-killers, and discovered that he would be taken to a ward overnight in order to have X-rays the next morning. When an Irish staff nurse called Colette arrived, things improved immediately. Up we went to the ward, to a bay which mercifully had only four beds, of which only one other was occupied (though the other two, so David said the next day, were filled during the night, causing him to sleep even less than he might have done anyway). We left him.

By the next morning, David’s urine was running clear. He had numerous X-rays (the results of which aren’t yet known); then they removed the catheter and told him he could go home. I went to collect him. He was exhausted and went straight to bed, where he stayed until the following morning, Wednesday.

We had intended to come to France on the Tuesday, through the Channel Tunnel. When David was taken ill, we were prepared to stay at Harmer Hill as long as necessary. Meanwhile, heavy snow had closed the tunnel. When David got up on Wednesday, he said he felt fine urically, though pissing was still irregular and unpredictable. He’d damaged his back getting off the hospital bed; he does have a weak back, but also an excellent chiropractor, with whom he made an appointment for the next day. We rang Brittany Ferries, who said they had a boat crossing from Plymouth to Roscoff that night, and that the roads down to Plymouth were clear. We decided to take the boat. We would have been very welcome to stay at Harmer Hill — in fact, I know David, Lindsay and Tom would have liked it — but the house would have been very crowded over Christmas, with David’s parents and Lindsay’s mother, brother and sister-in-law also staying, so with the emergency apparently past it seemed right to go.

We drove to Plymouth with no trouble. Brittany Ferries’ brand-new boat, the Armorique, shamefully does not have a proper restaurant, so the principal pleasure of using that firm to cross the channel was taken away. We made the best of it in the huge, shiny self-service canteen, with football matches being compulsorily screened at every eye-line. The cabin was fine; we arrived at Roscoff on time the following morning, to be told that the boat couldn’t dock because of strong winds. I went out on deck once; the gale was almost powerful enough to knock me over. We stood off Roscoff all day, finally docking at about four in the afternoon. We drove straight to Plouay and stocked up for Christmas.

Kerfontaine

31 December 2010

The light is failing on the last afternoon of the year. It’s been the kind of day which New Year’s Eves seem often to be: grey, still and enclosed. I’ve just been for a mooch round the garden. In the fountain was the fourth salamander that I’ve ‘rescued’ this week. I put the word in scare quotes because I don’t know whether or not I’m doing the right thing to take salamanders off the vertical wall around the fountain where they always stand, and transfer them to the boggy ground on the other side of the path. I’m certainly not doing them any harm; if I walk away for a few minutes and then come back, they have nearly always burrowed under the mud. I’m guessing that, having been born in the water of the fountain, but being amphibians, they are happy to breathe air for a while, but that they could get tired after many hours clinging to a vertical surface, fall back into the water, and eventually exhaust themselves. Certainly, I’ve had to scoop drowned frogs out of the water quite often. Anyhow, photographic researches on the internet tell me that the yellow-and-black salamander which flourishes at Kerfontaine is the fire salamander (salamandra salamandra). (Now I notice that the French term is salamandre terrestre ou commune, so perhaps this is the commonest kind.) I love these creatures. I’ve learnt how to handle them; I don’t try to catch them in the fishing net which is there for frogs, living and dead, and drowned mice. I simply pick them up. They move very slowly; no sudden jumps. Their paws are almost human: the front paws have three fingers and a little stump of a thumb; the back paws four fingers and the thumb-stump. They await their fate patiently, perhaps expecting imminent death. Camouflaged they are not; their yellow patches, contrasting violently with their black bodies, are the most striking feature of their beauty. Further reading tells me that they are long-lived; one lived for more than 50 years in a natural history museum in Germany. Their colouring would be sufficient justification for their name; additionally, the ancient myth that salamanders are born of fire probably arose from the fact that they like to live in dead wood. When people took the wood into their houses to burn, the salamander naturally did its best to escape from the flame.

I’ve enjoyed a quiet week, after my recent rushing around. Christmas here is assuming its own traditions: on Christmas Eve in the afternoon I gathered holly to plait above the fireplace; that evening we ate oysters, foie gras, pork with prunes, Christmas pudding (the last supplied by Lindsay); on Christmas Day we got up late, took a hamper of food, wine and crackers up to Jean and Annick, drove down to the sea near Fort Bloqué and walked for a couple of hours before coming back for champagne and presents, followed by smoked salmon, more foie gras, duck with orange, more Christmas pudding. On Saint Stephen’s Day, which was bright and freezing cold, we took a long circular country walk, passing through the hamlet of Saint Etienne where, on the west wall of the chapel (late 16th- to early 17th-century), there is a bas-relief, much weathered now, of the stoning of Stephen. That evening we went to eat at L’Art Gourmand, the little restaurant we like at Pont Scorff. Tonight, we’re going back there for a grande bouffe, breaking our 20-year tradition (for we’ve nearly always — not last year — been here at New Year, though only recently at Christmas) of eating the Saint Sylvestre meal at home. Don’t arrive before nine, warned Agnès.