Skip to main content

Occurrences: Book Nine


9 Jan 2012

The Saint Sylvestre meal at Pont-Scorff on New Year’s Eve was as delightful and delicious as it had been the previous year. Once again, champagne was poured at ten minutes to midnight. At midnight this year, for some reason, all the diners stood up and walked around the restaurant for kissing and handshaking, which was very enjoyable. I tried to work out mathematically how many kisses were exchanged: 24 diners plus Agnès and Marc, the owners; 13 women in the company; two kisses per embrace exchanged woman to woman and man to woman (handshakes of course between the men); therefore, how many kisses? I gave up after a minute or two of mental effort. The problem reminded me of those practical applications of maths to supposedly real-life situations which we used to do in primary school: ‘A bath is being filled at the rate of three gallons a minute. Unfortunately, Johnny has been careless and hasn’t fitted the plug properly. Water is escaping at the rate of three-quarters of a gallon a minute. When full to the top, the bath holds 30 gallons. Johnny is watching his favourite programme on TV. If he doesn’t come back in time, how long will it be before the bath overflows?’ I didn’t enjoy problems (that’s what they were called). I could do them, but they were laborious. I much preferred the pure abstraction of numbers, algebra and geometry.

Reading last year’s Occurrences before sending them to Mark Leicester so he could post them on my website, I thought they were rather heavy. The balance between political thinking-out-loud and observations about things that had happened to me and not to anyone else seemed too much tilted towards the former. I shall try to redress that balance this year.

The weather since we’ve been here has been extraordinarily mild. Everyone says it’s bizarre, not right. The plants will get going far too soon, then there will be a cold spell with sharp frosts which will kill the blossom, then there will be no fruit… Anyhow, working in the garden these last few days has been a pleasure. Yesterday Helen and I did a massive leaf-clearing job. Usually, most of the leaves fall before Jean-Paul cuts the grass for the last time in the autumn, so he picks them up with his machine. This autumn, most of the trees still had their leaves by the time he had to cut the grass (before the ground became too soft). They then fell during the course of one night in December when there was a violent storm. So we spent several hours making dozens of little piles and then barrowing these to huge heaps at the edge of the wood. Today, for a change of activity, we cleared out the shed and I drove the detritus to the déchetterie — always a satisfying task.

Becoming Our Own Experts, the collection of studies of classroom language which a group of us at Vauxhall Manor School made during the 1970s, and which we published ourselves, is about to go online as The book has been out of print for many years. Mark Leicester, the designer of, is also designing this website, with his wife Nicola. I’m sure it’ll look great. I can summarise best the reasons for giving the book an electronic afterlife by quoting the preface I’ve written to the online edition.

Becoming Our Own Experts was first published as a fat printed book with a red cover in 1982. It is the bringing-together of papers written between 1974 and 1979 by a group of teachers, self-styled the Talk Workshop Group, at Vauxhall Manor School, an 11-18 girls’ comprehensive school whose buildings were on two sites in Vauxhall and Kennington, south London. The papers constituted an example of teachers researching the interactions of language and learning in their own classrooms, a process sometimes known as “action research”.

The book was published in an edition of 4,000, with the help of a generous no-interest loan from the Schools Council (a long-dead organisation, superseded by more bureaucratic and more centrally controlled agencies known by sets of initials which have changed — and continue to change — with bewildering frequency). The edition sold out within two years. The publication caused considerable interest and enjoyed a little fame in the worlds of teacher education and educational research for some years, in that it showed that classroom practitioners could reflect productively on their teaching, and teach better as a result. If a group of people in one school could do this, why could not a group in any school?

The educational world in the UK, and notably in England, is unrecognisable from that which prevailed in the 1970s. Essentially, teacher autonomy has been overtaken by government control, a process which has brought some benefits and done much harm. There is no doubt that, overall, standards of student achievement in schools have improved significantly in the last 30 years. Most of this improvement has come about independently of government action, as a result of the continuing efforts of teachers, and of those who advise and support them, to understand better how to teach effectively. However, we should also acknowledge that, though government initiatives in education, beginning with the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1979, have been a mixed blessing, there has been a considerable amount of blessing in the mix. While brilliant and inspirational teaching always existed in the system, there were also large areas of complacent and poor practice. The government argument, to put it in its most generous light, was that if it were possible to understand how good teachers worked, if it were possible to agree on a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum in all school subjects, the complacent and the poor could perhaps be brought up to the level of the good and the brilliant, and everyone’s loss of autonomy would be a price worth paying.

There were — and are — struggles between governments and educators as to what “good teachers” and “a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum” actually look like; the educators, we are glad to say, have prevailed more often in these struggles, in terms of what actually happens in classrooms, than governments of either colour since 1979 would care to admit. There is the official story and the unofficial story: the latter always closer to the truth.

The harm done in the undermining of teacher autonomy has been seen in an excessively atomistic approach to curriculum design (in other words, the prescription as to what should be taught), most notoriously in the early versions of the National Curriculum, and by an excessively mechanistic approach to assessment: both the assessment of student progress by teachers and the assessment of teacher performance by senior colleagues and outsiders. Essentially, teachers were and are not trusted to make professional judgments to the extent that members of comparable professions were and are so trusted. The balance which should be struck between the autonomy of a proud profession and a recognition of the fact that teachers spend taxpayers’ money and should be answerable as such has shifted too much in the latter direction, driven often — under the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 as much as under the Conservative government of 1979 to 1997 and the Conservative-led coalition presently in power — by reactionary ideology which politicians and their advisers have imposed or attempted to impose, in ignorance of how learning happens most effectively. The result has been a loss of morale, an undervaluing of the use of the imagination in teaching, a draining-away of the essential pleasure, more days than not, that the calling should bring with it.

Despite the fact that the educational past is as much “another country”, where we “did things differently” as any other kind of past, there remains an interest in “action research” and in the concept of the “reflexive practitioner”. The arrival of the internet has given those members of the Talk Workshop Group who are still alive and still in touch with each other the opportunity to republish Becoming Our Own Experts electronically. Although much of the content of the book is of its time and place, the spirit of enquiry which it represents, the notion of the teacher as an autonomous self-critical professional, not simply a deliverer to learners of educational content pre-formulated elsewhere, is independent of time and place, we believe. Hence’


12 Jan 2012

It’s a beautiful day. There’s no wind. The sun shines steadily from across the valley. At lunchtime we could have sat outside, though that would have meant getting furniture out of the shed, so we didn’t. This morning we took the short circular walk up the road, turned right, through Saint Guénaël, home through the wood. The birds sang as if spring had come. We passed one fruit tree which already sported dark pink flowers. I didn’t know what kind it was. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can report that it was a quince. (Google ‘fruit blossoms’, click on ‘Images’, study the postage-stamp-sized pictures, click on the one I recognised from this morning and, hey presto!: ‘There are two distinctive types of quince tree: the one that bears large fruit and the ornamental one that is more of a shrub and has beautiful dark pink blossoms in spring. Quince is one of the first fruit trees to bloom in the year. The Chinese consider quince blossom as a symbol of good fortune. So you may see the blossoms used in celebration bouquets for Chinese New Year.’ And the internet tells me that Chinese New Year 2012 falls on 23 January. So everything makes sense.)

There is a further reason for my pleasure in this discovery. My father loved quinces, and he had a quince tree in his garden. After he and mother died, and just before the house was sold, I asked the woman who had looked after the garden during my parents’ last years to take a cutting for me. I brought it to France. Rosa looked after it for two years. Now it is planted in the garden here, and I must just go up to see if it has any flowers yet. (It doesn’t, but it looks healthy.) I’m very much hoping that eventually it will yield quinces and I’ll cook and eat them and think of my dad. I also like the fact that marmalade was originally a preserve made from quinces, not oranges. The Portuguese for quince is marmelo.

Camden Town

27 Feb 2012

We returned to London in mid-January. Reading the biography of Matthew Arnold when I was ill last October led me on to reading some of his essays, including that ‘On Translating Homer’. Arnold has four things to say in admiration of Homer. They are: that Homer is rapid; that he is plain and direct in his syntax and words; that he is equally plain and direct in his matter and ideas; and that he is noble. These compliments are just, but Arnold repeats them too frequently, like a teacher or preacher doubting his hearer’s powers of recall. All of Homer’s previous translators are, in one way or another, unsatisfactory to Arnold; but the offender for whom he reserves his cruellest scorn had the misfortune still to be alive. The essay ridicules Francis Newman’s Iliad and Odyssey. (Francis Newman was the brother of John Henry Newman.) Reading the extracts from Newman’s translations which Arnold quotes, I can’t help but agree with him. Newman went for a kind of ballad metre, but without rhyme:

‘Great Hector of the motley helm then spake to her responsive…’

‘O, brother thou of me, who am a mischief-working vixen…’

Newman protests a bit too much against the use of rhyme, like Milton in the preface to Paradise Lost. Apparently, he started out intending that each second and fourth line should end on a stressed syllable, as in a conventional ballad, but then, having doubled up pairs of lines into long lines, as in the examples above, found that the last syllable of each long line (the equivalent of two lines in the normal setting-out of a ballad) contained ‘an unpleasant void until he gave a double ending to the verse’, as in ‘resPONS…ive’ and ‘VIX…en’. Arnold sarcastically quotes ‘a recent American writer’ who says that this rhythm ‘has a disadvantage in being like the rhythm of the American national air Yankee Doodle’.

Arnold offers a few samples of the way he thought Homer should be translated. His preference is for hexameters. ‘Applied to Homer, this metre affords to the translator the immense support of keeping him more nearly than any other metre to Homer’s movement…’ After all, the original poems are in hexameters. (The mnemonic I use to remind myself of Homer’s metre is ‘DOWN by a DEEP DARK HOLE sat an OLD TOAD MUNCHing a CORN STALK’; I forget where I read it. I know there are allowed variations in the use of dactyls and spondees.) So Arnold proposes, for example:

‘So shone forth, in front of Troy, by the bed of Xanthus,
Between that and the ships, the Trojans’ numerous fires.’

One might suppose that there wasn’t much left of poor Newman by the time Arnold had finished with him. But the offended scholar writes an angry ‘Reply to Matthew Arnold’, equally long and even more learned, in its turn pouring scorn on Arnold’s hexameters. Then Arnold writes a response to the response called ‘Last Words on Translating Homer’.

Anyhow, all this hyper-educated bile has caused me to read The Iliad and The Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald’s wonderful modern translations. These use loose iambic pentameter, the default metre of English poetry, and I don’t think anyone could do much better for the English reader. Like countless readers before me, I became engrossed in and then entranced by the stories, and amazed by the mixture of exalted epic sentiment and down-to-earth detail which they contain. Achilles tosses and turns on his bed as he grieves for Patroclus; he tries various positions, but he can’t get comfortable. About 2,800 years before I built sandcastles on the beach, one of the analogies somewhere in The Iliad is with boys doing just that. When Penelope says:

‘…many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.’

— I think of most of my own dreams, how they seem to lack any significance. Why should I last night have dreamed that I was making love to the wife of a good friend of mine, a woman I have known for 30 years and always liked and admired as a person, but for whom, in my conscious mind, I can honestly say that I have never entertained the faintest sensation of desire, and about whom I haven’t thought for months?

The scene where the old nurse recognises Odysseus by the scar on his leg while bathing him when he is still disguised as a beggar is electrifying. Odysseus had forgotten about the scar. I love the fact that none of the heroes is perfect: Achilles and Agamemnon of course not — their faults, leading to such disasters, are huge; but even Odysseus, who has neither thoughtless arrogance on Agamemnon’s scale, nor offended pride on Achilles’ scale, makes mistakes. His wrong judgment undoubtedly led to some of his men being eaten alive by Polyphemus. They’d begged him to get going out of the cave with a few cheeses before the giant returned in the evening:

‘Why not
take those cheeses, get them stowed, come back,
throw open all the pens, and make a run for it?
We’ll drive the kids and lambs aboard. We say
put out again on good salt water!’

But Odysseus wouldn’t:

how sound that was! Yet I refused. I wished
to see the caveman, what he had to offer —
no pretty sight, it turned out, for my friends.’

Later, when they’re tangling with Circe, the faithful second-in-command Eurylochus is right to challenge what he sees as Odysseus’ foolhardiness, reminding the sailors:

‘Remember those the Kyklops held, remember
shipmates who made that visit with Odysseus!
The daring man! They died for his foolishness!’

Odysseus is so angry at this insubordination that he thinks of killing Eurylochus, but is dissuaded by the other men. In Polyphemus’ cave he was pig-headed. Now he is a thin-skinned rank-puller, like a few unimpressive people I have known in my working life.

The scene in book 23 of The Odyssey, after the slaughter, where Odysseus and Penelope sit opposite one another in the great hall of their home, not speaking, is profoundly moving:

leaning against a pillar, sat the man
and never lifted up his eyes, but only waited
for what his wife would say when she had seen him.
And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment — for sometimes as she gazed
she found him — yes, clearly — like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.’

I’ve had my reader’s head in Homer and my writer’s (translator’s) head in Petrarch. I can’t remember what train of thought it was that made me realise that I knew virtually nothing about one of the fathers of European lyric verse. He was Italian; he was in love with Laura; he invented the Petrarchan sonnet, which is different from the Shakespearean sonnet: that was about it. The internet brought me to Love Songs of Petrarch, translated by William Dudley Foulke and published in 1915. The translations — a selection from Petrarch’s oeuvre — are archaic and mannered, which is a relief when you’re trying to be neither. They don’t tempt you away from your own thoughts. But each has a helpful introduction, and there is an excellent long biographical essay, for which I was very grateful. Then I bought the Harvard edition of the complete Rime sparse, edited by Robert Durling. His translations are in prose, so again there was no interference.

Petrarch first saw Laura on 6 April 1327. Foulke says that on this day, ‘a day which according to mediaeval tradition was the anniversary of the Crucifixion of our Lord (and which fell in that year, not on Good Friday, but on Monday of Holy Week)… Petrarch first saw Laura, in the church of Santa Clara at Avignon. He at once became enamoured of her beauty, but she gave no sign of responding to his passion.’ Durling confirms that ‘April 6, 1327 was not Good Friday; it was the historical anniversary of the Crucifixion, as its date was calculated in Petrarch’s day.’ (The information that in 1327 the anniversary of the crucifixion wasn’t celebrated on Good Friday surprises and perplexes me; I haven’t gone further into how this came about in the practice of the church.)

Petrarch’s passion for Laura lasted for the remaining 21 years of her life (she died on 6 April 1348, on the same day and at the same hour that he had first seen her, so he leads us to believe; my father also died on 6 April, at about that hour, though according to the Gregorian not the Julian calendar) and for 10 years after her death. Of the 366 poems included in his Rime sparse, I would guess (I haven’t counted) that about 300 are addressed to or are about Laura. His love for her seems to me to have been a real, visceral feeling for these 31 years; different from Dante’s love for Beatrice, which has more of a quality of beatification about it, as her name is intended to suggest. The love was never consummated sexually. Laura either was married when he first saw her, or soon became so; and he was in minor holy orders (a decision he’d taken for reasons of career, the Pope residing in Avignon, rather than of vocation). His officially celibate state, and his obsession with Laura, didn’t stop him fathering two children by another, unnamed woman. He became a successful public poet, author and diplomat, moving frequently between France (his father, a lawyer, had moved to Avignon from Arezzo when Petrarch was a boy), Italy, Germany and the Low Countries, ambassador to dukes, emperors and popes. He had a house in the Vaucluse, at the source of the river Sorgue, which was the retreat to which he returned from his travels.

Petrarch is credited with being one of the scholars who laid the foundations of the renaissance, by rediscovering the works of classical authors and reintroducing them to contemporary readers.

With all his success, literary and political, Petrarch remained under Laura’s spell. Although he often uses familiar conceits to describe his state (fires being drenched by tears, the lover being shot by the loved one’s dart or being entangled in her snares like a limed bird), and although his poems are full of the classical allusions that he assumed his readers would understand, I don’t get any sense that the expression of his feelings is merely conventional. He’s hot, to use a vulgarism. He’s truly wretched. He really does think that he’s wasted his life on a hopeless cause. He frequently attempts the religious sublimation of his feelings, but he always comes back to statements of sexual desire and frustration.

I’ve done 11 translations so far (a number which suddenly sounds terribly puny), choosing poems where the metaphors or the argument seemed most concrete or original: not just elegant moping. Many have said it, and I may have written it before, but it always amazes me how approachable is the Italian poetic vocabulary of 700 years ago. I work with a modern Italian-English dictionary, a grammar and a book of verbs with their conjugations; I’ve never failed to find a word of Petrarch’s in the dictionary, though sometimes the spelling has changed.

I may do another batch later. For the moment, I’m in danger of only being able to think in iambics with full rhymes. I have completely failed so far to imitate the Italian metre with its eleven syllables. I keep saying to myself that I must try, but I fall back into iambic pentameter or hexameter, like a cyclist getting his wheel stuck in a tramline. So I’ve translated the first stanza of the third rima, which commemorates the event of 6 April 1327, and whose original is:

‘Era il giorno ch’al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,

quando i’ fui preso, et non me ne guardai,

ché i be’ vostr’occhi, donna, mi legaro.’

— as:

‘It was the day the sun’s rays hid their light
for pity of their maker’s agony.
Lady, your lovely eyes caught hold of me
and I had no defence; they bound me tight.’

Peter Hetherington, who knows Italian well, apart from being simply the best critic any poet or translator could hope to have, has helped me immensely, saving me from several elementary errors in translation, and guiding me towards the balance between dignity and informality of diction which is, I think, the hallmark of a good translation.

The online edition of Becoming Our Own Experts went live on 15 February. It’s been a lot of work and a long time coming; the idea of doing it came to me in the autumn of 2008, before Mark and Nicola Leicester went back to New Zealand. I’m very pleased with it now it’s here, and I’m doing my best to publicise it to people who should be interested.

Camden Town

6 Mar 2012

To start with a statement of helplessness: in Syria, at this moment, acts of barbarism are taking place, unchecked, which compare in nature with the worst human cruelties we have seen in the world in recent decades. In scale, the wickedness doesn’t match Rwanda or Cambodia, but it certainly matches disintegrating Yugoslavia in the ’90s, and it exceeds the worst we’ve seen since the people of several Arab countries began calling for normal human rights and freedoms fifteen months ago. The outside world does little but wail. The UN is helpless, because Russia and China won’t support any kind of military intervention. A conservative estimate of Syrian civilians killed by their own government would be 7,500. Countless have been maimed, imprisoned, tortured. We read reports of boys aged 12 having their throats cut by soldiers. We see pictures, secretly filmed, of injured men being tortured in hospitals where they are supposedly being treated. After the rebel fighters withdrew from the Baba Amr district of Homs last Friday, hopelessly outgunned by the regime’s forces, the government refused to allow the Red Cross or the Red Crescent access to the area to provide humanitarian aid, saying that the area was too dangerous to enter. The truth was that they wanted a free hand and no prying eyes while they carried out atrocities of revengeful slaughter.

And here I am in a quandary (not that it matters to anyone else — least of all to those who are suffering). I steadfastly opposed the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that the UN came nowhere near to authorising it. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, on the same grounds: anyone reading the resolutions passed by the Security Council at the time can see that there was, if not in explicit detail, at least in overwhelming spirit, a consensus that al-Qaeda and the Taliban should not go unpunished. For the same reasons, I supported the UN-approved NATO intervention in Libya. How can I support military action against Assad’s disgusting regime when I would not support military action against Saddam Hussein’s equally disgusting regime? I have the purest contempt for Russia’s position on Syria; it tries to pretend that equal blame for the violence can be assigned to the regime and to those challenging it, while supplying the regime with the arms it’s using to slaughter Syrian people. (Putin won a flawed election on Sunday, as everyone knew he would. Unless the Russian people rise up in the same way that some Arab peoples have — unlikely — he will be president for at least six years, and possibly for twelve.)

I can’t see my way out of this quandary. I find myself thinking that we should covertly supply arms to the rebels to give them a chance to win a civil war, since moral right is so clearly on their side. That would increase the bloodshed, but at least there would be a chance of a just outcome. I say ‘a chance’, because I’m not aware of anyone in the Syrian opposition with the stature to lead Syria in the direction it needs to go, towards a tolerant secular democracy within a largely Islamic but not Islamist country. Of course, the Assad regime has been secular in the sense that it hasn’t been theocratic. So was Saddam’s regime. Unfortunately, you can have secular butchers as well as religious butchers.

Meanwhile, we are edging dangerously close to a war in Iran. Neutral, specialist observers remain convinced that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, despite its insistence that it is only interested in civil nuclear power. Israel, which has nuclear weapons but won’t say so, is making belligerent noises about a pre-emptive strike on Iran, in ‘self-defence’. America is calling for restraint, for giving diplomacy more time to work, which is the right policy. Unfortunately, Obama cannot ignore the Zionist lobby in an election year. He is saying that if diplomacy fails and the Iranian government continues to ignore warnings, America will intervene militarily to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. (I suppose US intelligence, aided by the official investigations of the International Atomic Energy Authority, knows where the significant nuclear installations are.)

The only bright spot in this dark picture is that there is in Iran, unlike in Syria, a coherent opposition to the regime of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Iran has had since 1979 a theoretically valid democratic system; apart, that is, from the major fact that ultimate power in the country doesn’t lie with the president but with the supreme leader, who is an Islamist cleric, which means that the country is a theocracy. When Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the 2009 presidential election, Khamenei described his victory as ‘a divine assessment’. Mousavi, who probably did win the election, and who would, if he were president, attempt to guide the country away from the disastrous course it is currently taking, is under house arrest. But as president he would still have to work within a theocratic system, unless there were another revolution giving ultimate power to elected politicians rather than priests.

There’s an essential divide between the West and most of the East over the meaning of democracy. Governments in Russia, China, Iran, most of the ‘…stan’ countries which were part of the Soviet Union, and those Arab countries which haven’t had popular revolutions, or which have suppressed revolts before they’ve become revolutions, simply don’t believe that individual civil rights and freedoms, or fairly fought elections, are that important. What is important to them is stability, economic development and their own ascendancy, and they will sponsor whatever corruption or repression is necessary to maintain them. Ironically, one manifestation of economic development is technology. The computers and smart phones designed in the West but manufactured in China, contributing to that country’s vast sovereign wealth (some of which it’s investing in Africa, Latin America and now, with Europe’s economic difficulties, even here) are the tools by which the people of the East see things in the West which they want to have: not just material things (though they certainly and understandably want those), but intangible things like freedom of speech and dignity of citizenship.

The last paragraph could easily have been written by a British Conservative or an American Republican. The thing I need to add, which most Conservatives or Republicans probably wouldn’t, is that the West doesn’t stand on moral high ground over these difficult matters. We have nuclear weapons, and we’re not going to give them up, notwithstanding Obama’s heroic efforts to reduce the size of the arsenals. In all probability, the UK government will spend about £25 billion replacing Trident after 2015, whoever wins the election in that year. It’s not easy, therefore, to say to developing countries that they can’t have these things, as if they are children and we’re grown-ups, even though no rational government in a developing country would waste precious resources on them. The disastrous decision to invade Iraq means that the West has recently broken international law. Russia’s contemptible refusal to act against the Assad regime is in part a reaction to America’s long refusal seriously to challenge Israel’s illegal expropriation of Palestinian land and its oppression of the Palestinian people.

To come back to a word in the first sentence today: helplessness. There’s nothing I can do but watch, and perhaps give some money to humanitarian organisations which may be able to bring succour to the Syrian innocents. I’m an appalled spectator.

In an hour’s time, I’m going to Oxford to hear Geoffrey Hill give one of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. His topic is ‘Poetry, Policing and Public Order’: alliterative, certainly. Until yesterday, I’d never read a word he’d written, even though I’d known for years that he is a major figure in English poetry, and that some people think he’s the best living poet born in England. Yesterday I read Hill’s Selected Poems, A Treatise of Civil Power and Clavics, which were the three books of his I found in Foyle’s on Saturday. In the first of these, I could mostly understand the selections from For the Unfallen, King Log, Mercian Hymns, Tenebrae and Canaan, and I pretty much got The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, which appears complete. I am unashamed to say that in order to understand his references I consulted the internet, usually Wikipedia, about 50 times (and it never failed me); and a Latin dictionary about 10 times. I kept going through the selections from The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, but here my patience, or perhaps stamina, began to fail. A voice in me was asking, ‘Why are you wasting your time on this cleverness?’ and quoting the old saw about how most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. One of the eulogistic blurb writers on the back of the book is A.N. Wilson. We know what kind of position he represents: a regretful elitism. He’s the man who writes, in the last book of his I read (and the last, in the other sense, that I will read), that clever children shouldn’t be educated with stupid children. In the introduction to his social history of Britain under the present queen, which was as far as I got before giving the book away to Oxfam, he tells us that the British gained their empire mainly out of a genuine desire to help the native peoples there. So Wilson’s admiration of Hill didn’t help me to an impartial judgment of Hill’s poetry. I fall back on the thought, which has often occurred to me when reading poetry that has inspired me, moved me, made me wish that I could ever write a fraction as well as that, that the great don’t need the protection of obscurity or advanced and specialised learning. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Heaney: they can sometimes be difficult, they don’t always surrender immediately, but it’s not an assault course. They’re not deliberately placing obstacles in the way of the common reader. And in speaking of those that I also consider great, but with reservation (Auden, Lowell, for instance), the reservation is always to do with their over-production of assault-course verse. I think I’ve written before that anthologisers nearly always get it right: they sort out the 10% of simple (not necessarily easy) greatness from the 90% of learned, skilful obscurity. Eliot may be a unique case in this respect. I do think The Waste Land is often culpably obscure. On the other hand, it was such an epoch-making poem that one forgives it. It started something big and different.

There were a few more guiding lights in the poems selected from Scenes from Comus and Without Title. Then I read A Treatise of Civil Power. Most but not all of these poems are referential: you have to at least know what the book he’s read is about, or who are the people whom Holbein painted, or what Handel’s music sounds like, or who Gillian Rose was (a philosopher who died young, whom perhaps Hill knew). There wasn’t anything unconquerable here. Then I came to Clavics, and soon gave up. He’s sporting with the reader. It’s close to learned gibberish. I found myself unkindly thinking, ‘It’s the drugs,’ having read during one of my frequent visits to the worldwide web that, after long periods of mental illness in earlier life (and, consequently, sparse output) he’s now taking pills which have made him happier and more productive. Productive in quantative terms, yes.

When Hill is good, it’s because he writes directly about nature, landscape, his memories or his Christian faith. Heroes we can recognise (poet-martyrs, or the German officers who were executed after the plot to assassinate Hitler) are good topics too. The toughness of his language and his steady eye are admirable. Early on, he uses rhyme and conventional forms, and there is music in his words. The music is heard more rarely as time goes on. There is hardly any in the late work. You’re left grinding through arcane ideas. He’s also self-conscious. He talks about himself and about his antagonistic relationship with his critics, as if that matters. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t. He definitely isn’t ‘the greatest living poet in the English language’ (Nicholas Lezard’s opinion on the back of one book), nor is his poetry ‘the major achievement of late-twentieth-century verse’ (William Logan’s on the back of another). Heaney is incomparably greater, because — with all his skill and learning — he never turns his back on the common reader.

Camden Town

7 Mar 2012

It was an enjoyable evening. Hill’s lecture had nothing to do with either policing or public order. It was an hour of learned rambling on poetry and power. Human landmarks that we passed during the hour included Bishop Grosseteste, John Wycliffe, Langland, Petrarch, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, Breughel (the Elder, I think), Byron, Wordsworth (not principally as a poet, but as the author of the Tract on the Convention of Cintra), A.V. Dicey and Coleridge (briefly). I’d never heard of Dicey before. In 1915 he was a Fellow of All Souls. ‘The events of the European War suggested [to him] an edition (1915) of Wordsworth's Tract on the Convention of Cintra (1809) and a volume on The Statesmanship of Wordsworth (1917), designed to emphasize the intensity of the poet’s effort to persuade his countrymen to continue the struggle for “a peace grounded on the destruction of despotism”.’ (This is from R. S. Rait’s entry on Dicey in the Dictionary of National Biography.)

Hill’s learning didn’t add up to much, in the end. All we had was the assertion, supported by no evidence, that we are heading for a cultural/societal disaster because too much poetry is ‘accessible’ (he pronounced the word with extreme distaste). Only ‘difficulty’ will save us, and Hill doesn’t expect difficulty’s posse to arrive in time or in sufficient numbers. Curiously, he named the date by which he expected this Armageddon to have arrived (2032), as if he were a Jehovah’s Witness. Actually, he looked and sounded like Jehovah’s witness (small ‘w’) or possibly Jehovah himself: a bald 80-year-old crown, silver hair on either side of the head, and a flowing white beard. He pronounced his words slowly, oratorically, boomingly, sometimes with unexpected pauses in mid-sentence while we waited. I was grateful for this manner of delivery; it was the only way one could, just, hold on to the haphazard changes of direction in the ramble.

There were two occasions on which I found all respect for the man falling away. The first was when he alluded to comprehensive education (of which he naturally disapproved) and gave, as an example of it, A. S. Neill and Summerhill! Pure ignorance. The second was when he told us with some complacency that he doesn’t go online. I thought, ‘Do you really imagine that any sensible person, without access to the internet, would go to the trouble of tracking down the multiplicity of references, without which much of your work is incomprehensible, using only printed sources? And do you really think that only through applying ourselves to poetry as obscure as yours may we save ourselves culturally? You’re deluding yourself.’

Afterwards, David Bradshaw, David James and I walked through ancient lanes to The King’s Arms for beer, and then to a good restaurant in the High Street for dinner. The train brought me back to Paddington not long after midnight.

Camden Town

4 Apr 2012

The last month has been interrupted by two unwelcome events, one minor, one major. The minor event is that I was attacked by a virus which laid me low for more than a fortnight. I had no energy, I was feverish and my chest was bunged up with a great quantity of viscous yellow-grey mucus. I could do nothing except read, usually in a horizontal position. Eventually I went to the doctor, probably just as the virus was fading, and she gave me a puffer such as asthmatics use. It worked; my chest cleared within three days. I’m fine now.

The major event is that, in the midst of my small illness, my brother Peter had a serious stroke. He was in Nottingham, staying with his friend Susan. On the morning of Friday 23 March he took a bath. He says now that that he can remember feeling unwell before he stepped into the tub. After some time, Susan began to wonder why he was spending so long in the bathroom, went upstairs and opened the door to find him lying unconscious, with the water about to overflow onto the floor, and with his nostrils just above the water level. She pulled the plug and called the emergency services. (She’s profoundly deaf, so she used her text phone, which she says gets the attention of those services more quickly than does 999.) They came immediately. Peter was in hospital within an hour. There’s no doubt that Susan saved his life. She might easily have gone to work that morning, or been out of the house for some other reason, in which case he would have died, probably from the stroke itself, possibly from drowning.

The stroke was in an artery of the right brain. A recent MRI scan shows that the clot is still there. Peter can speak, and can read, eat and drink using his right hand (he is right-handed), but he has no movement at all down his left side, and he can’t see out of his left eye. His recovery, if he makes a full recovery, will be long and slow. He might move at some point back to a hospital in Canterbury, where he lives.

As I understand the medical information we’ve been given by the excellent doctors and nurses, the area of the brain around the blocked artery, into which the thwarted blood has flowed, is now dead and will never work again. However, the brain will be trying to construct new synaptic connections to take the place of the abandoned ones. I don’t know whether that is happening already, or whether it can’t start until the blood is flowing through that artery again. Such are the limits of my medical knowledge. I must ask some more questions.

So far, I’ve been up to Nottingham six times, and I’m going again tomorrow. We think we’ll still go to France as planned next Thursday, and be based there until the autumn. But now I shall be flying back about once a month to visit Peter. His children George and Stephanie have been wonderful in this crisis, as has Susan, but it’s a heavy load for them to carry.

My illness plus the train journeys have given me time to read The Aeneid (in Robert Fitzgerald’s magnificent translation, as with Homer earlier this year). I studied book VI for A-Level, as have thousands of other schoolchildren, and enjoyed it. But I’ve never read the whole work until now, and so I didn’t know that the whole point of Virgil’s epic is to invent for the Roman elite of his day, and in particular for the emperor, a noble ancestry. Rome was the new Troy, and Aeneas was a hero to rival Odysseus. The account of the sack of Troy (book II) is one of the most splendid and dreadful accounts of warfare I’ve read in poetry. It rivals anything in The Iliad, for me, I think because, written 800 years later, it seems a more human, less formulaic description. It’s strange to realise, having now read both Homeric poems and The Aeneid, that the most famous event of the Trojan War in present-day popular knowledge — the stratagem of the wooden horse — isn’t mentioned at all in The Iliad and only in passing in The Odyssey. Virgil provided the story in full. The fact that it is mentioned, however briefly, in The Odyssey is evidence that the wooden horse was part of the myth of the sack of Troy 800 years previously. Scholars will know, but I don’t, whether more complete versions of the episode existed in the great gap of time between Homer and Virgil, or whether he provided all those details himself.

Then I read Roy Jenkins’s biography of Gladstone. Very good. What an astonishing man Gladstone was. He had titanic amounts of energy and stamina, despite being frequently ill. He read voluminously and variously throughout his life, his consumption of books not at all reduced by the responsibilities of office. He was at least as interested in religious and ecclesiastical matters as he was in politics. During his fourth and final premiership, for example, as he struggled unsuccessfully to bring Home Rule to Ireland, he wrote a long article about improvements in the standard of church music he had witnessed in his lifetime.

In his first speech to parliament at the age of, I think, 23, he opposed the emancipation of West Indian slaves. As a young man he wrote a book insisting that all holders of public office in the United Kingdom should be communicant Anglicans. This was the same person who, in maturity and old age, was the great hero of the poor, a star orator capable of drawing crowds in the thousands and tens of thousands, far more popular than Queen Victoria, who was jealous of him for that. We can easily see now that if he had carried Home Rule for Ireland, the tragedies of the twentieth century in that country might have been avoided. He was a far greater figure than Disraeli, who emerges from Jenkins’s book — admittedly perhaps not the most friendly of sources — not as the father of compassionate one-nation Toryism, but as an unscrupulous manoeuvrer, willing to break Peel over the Corn Laws before adopting Peel’s policy once he had broken him, willing to oppose by every means Gladstone’s attempt to extend the suffrage by 400,000, only then to extend it by a million when he got office himself. Jenkins also accuses Disraeli of poisoning the queen’s mind, in a constitutionally improper way, against his chief opponent, not that the queen’s rather limited mind needed much encouragement to accept the poison.

Gladstone was, famously, a visitor of prostitutes for altruistic purposes who, Jenkins says, nonetheless derived a sexual thrill from the visits. He was indifferent to the danger to his reputation which these nocturnal adventures might cause. But he obtained a whip so he could flagellate himself afterwards. He cut down trees by the hundred on his estate at Hawarden, for exercise (and perhaps to work off excess sexual energy?). One of his most absurd exploits was to chase around Europe in pursuit of a woman who had left her husband and children and gone off with another man. He was hoping to catch up with her and persuade her of the error of her ways. She stayed one step ahead of him.

The final, just reputation of this great man, who was not a democrat in any modern sense of the word, who believed in a landed aristocracy, who enjoyed appointing bishops and archbishops, who was not enormously enthusiastic about the Forster Education Act — one of the most significant of the laws passed under any of his premierships — is that he nonetheless represented in himself progress, as in progressive, as in a tide which flowed in a direction which has benefited the majority of British people since. As I’ve said already, if he hadn’t been betrayed by the stupidity of men in parliament who couldn’t see the inevitable in Ireland as clearly as he came to see it, the majority of Irish people might have benefited too, and might have been saved the hatred and bloodshed awaiting them in the next century.

Camden Town

6 Apr 2012

I visited Peter yesterday. There’s no great change in his condition. He’s been moved to a private room, which must be a relief. ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ applies more to NHS hospital wards than to anywhere else. He said that the physiotherapists detected some slight twitching in his left side in response to their stimuli, but he’s not aware of any movement yet. Side-effects of the stroke include constipation, a problem compounded by the difficulty of actually performing a bowel movement when half of you isn’t working, and a tendency to violent attacks of hiccups. His recovery will be long and slow, and a big challenge will be to keep him from becoming depressed.

The blossom everywhere has been wonderful these last few weeks. Down the road from our flat, by the railway bridge taking the St Pancras tracks over Camley Street, there’s an area of waste ground, abandoned, overgrown and littered with rubbish. Out of it rise two beautiful big cherry trees, which are covered just now with white flowers (‘Wearing white for Eastertide’). Some men, working I think for the railways, have been doing a great job clearing the area, throwing the rubbish into a lorry and putting the undergrowth through a shredder. The cherry trees look even better on the cleared ground, though there was always something poetic and paradoxical about such beauty emerging from ordure and chaos.


14 Apr 2012

We arrived here on Friday. The place looks wonderful, if a little shaggy. I shall need to get the lawnmower out as soon as we have a dry afternoon. The primroses, mainly yellow but some mauve, are in full flower. So are the violets and a few aconites. And daisies and dandelions, of course. Strangely, there are green, fresh daffodil leaves, but no flowers. I thought perhaps we had missed the flowers, though I was puzzled that I could see no dead ones. Then Rosa said when I visited her last night that she had had the same thing: leaves but no flowers. She didn’t know why either.

On Thursday night we stayed for the second time at a little hotel near Mont Saint Michel. (The first was on the way back to London in mid-January.) We were introduced to the place by the daughter of the couple who run it. She was working as a waitress at Benoit, a restaurant in New York that we frequented when we were there last year. Her name is Annaëlle Lefort, and she told us that her parents, Annie and Thierry Lefort, run the Auberge du Terroir at Servon. The place is a delight. It’s in a tiny village, which nonetheless has a large church and a huge walled and turreted manoir. There are about eight rooms, and the restaurant has more the atmosphere of a family dining room. Beautiful traditional cooking. Because of the connection with Annaëlle, our stock was so high on Thursday that a whole bottle of champagne was offert. We knew in January that Annaëlle was going to leave Benoit and attend a wine school for a few weeks. She is now the sommelière in a new, posh restaurant in New York, and very pleased with life.

I visited Peter on Wednesday. He’s out of bed during the day now, in a wheelchair. I pushed him around the hospital grounds for 20 minutes, which he enjoyed. He can see out of his left eye again. He has some sensation in his left foot, but no movement on that side yet. His children think that he should move soon to the hospital at Canterbury, so he can be in contact with friends there. Everyone emphasises the importance of physiotherapy in what will be a long and slow recovery. Seamus Heaney, in the third and last of his wonderful sequence of short poems about his stroke, mentions physiotherapy, in an unlikely but successful comparison of himself with the charioteer at Delphi:

‘The charioteer at Delphi holds his own,
His six horses and chariot gone,
His left hand lopped

From a wrist protruding like an open spout,
Bronze reins astream in his right, his gaze ahead
Empty as the space where the team should be,

His eyes-front, straight-backed posture like my own
Doing physio in the corridor…’

‘holds his own’ is a sort of play on words. It has the ordinary meaning of ‘keeps control, stands his ground’, but it also clearly means ‘holds his own hand’, in contrast with Heaney’s helpless hand as described in the second poem:

‘…that I could not feel you lift
And lag in yours throughout that journey
When it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull…’

But there’s a bit of a mystery, a peculiarity, in that the charioteer’s left hand is ‘lopped / From a wrist protruding like an open spout’. I have in front of me an image of the Delphi charioteer. His arm is missing from the bicep, not the wrist. I’m pretty sure, in fact I’m certain, that there’s only one Delphi charioteer. Wikipedia tells me that the bronze statue was erected at Delphi in 474 B.C. and found there in 1896. It was made in sections. Three sections were discovered and reassembled. The fourth, the left arm, is lost. Even imagining the statue complete, would the left hand have been holding the right, to give it extra strength and resistance as it gripped the ‘Bronze reins’?

After reading about Gladstone, I went on to Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas’s last years, Now All Roads Lead to France. Very good, although a bit too clever early on in the way it jumps about chronologically. But that’s a quibble. I was grateful to learn so much about a poet I’ve always revered; in particular, to know about Thomas’s friendship with Robert Frost. I knew that Frost had been in England, and that they’d been friends, and I’d read Frost’s beautiful tribute To E.T. (with, incidentally, its prophetic line ‘The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine’). But I didn’t know that it was Frost who showed Thomas how to be a poet; that Frost’s theory of ‘the sound of sense’ — a Wordsworth-like determination to take ordinary human speech and control it only lightly in the discipline of verse — enabled Thomas to realise that the poetic prose he’d been putting into so many books, often turned out grudgingly to make a living for himself and his family, could be adapted and heightened, but not by very much, to become the equivalent of the poetry for which Frost is most famous. (I also didn’t know that Frost’s first two collections, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, were first published in London.)

So I’ve re-read Thomas’s poems, 144 of them, all composed, amazingly, between November 1914 and January 1917. I reckon about half of them work perfectly, and a large proportion of those are truly great. To say what I don’t like will help me to say why I like what I do. Over-obvious rhymes, lyrics with very short lines, and adjectives following nouns in archaic poetic fashion: these I don’t like. But when he lets his plain voice speak the findings of his acute observing eye, almost but of course not quite as if he were just talking to you in his house or in a pub, he is quite wonderful. The famous ones, yes: ‘Adlestrop’, ‘As the team’s head brass’, ‘Rain’. But also extraordinary powerful philosophical and angry pieces like ‘February Afternoon’ (Petrarchan sonnet, more or less):

‘Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again, — a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.’

I didn’t know, but now I do, that ‘shaw’ is ‘Archaic or dialect — a small wood; thicket; copse’. I might be particularly fond of this poem because of my own poem about starlings, and because of the contempt in the last two lines for any idea of a benevolent God.

I’ve written before that poets deserve to be called great if they have written 30 or 40 great poems, even if, like Auden or Lowell, they have also produced much larger quantities of merely skilful verse. By this minimum criterion, Thomas is without doubt a very great poet indeed.

God is sitting aloft, stone-deaf and stone-blind, at the moment as the Assad regime continues to slaughter its own people in Syria, as Sudan and South Sudan edge closer to all-out war over oil and territory, as Israel threatens Iran and vice-versa, as the Taliban look ever likelier to resume their barbarous governance of Afghanistan once the West has withdrawn, covering our failure and our retreat with brave words, as we will.


15 Jun 2012

It’s two months since the last entry, and here we are at my 61st birthday, in the same wonderful place where we were last year. I remember writing exactly a year ago that I was melancholy; it was something to do with the weight of anticipation of such a significant date, and then the anti-climax of its arrival. A foolish and ungrateful thought, considering how many people had been kind and generous in marking the occasion. Today I feel uncomplicatedly cheerful.

Eight of us have been here for a week: Mike Raleigh, Kate Myers, Peter and Merle Traves, Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor, Helen, me. Mike, Kate, Peter and Merle left this morning. The remaining four of us will stay another week. Last night I was taken out to the same restaurant — La Porta at Montichiello — where I was treated last year. Last year the weather was bad and we sat inside; last night the weather was perfect and we sat on the terrace and gazed at the magical landscape as evening fell. The food was excellent. The holiday here has been and will be the usual mixture of pleasures: eating, drinking, swimming, reading, visiting ancient towns of exquisite beauty, admiring the countryside, in my case improving my Italian.

I’ve stopped making apologies to myself for the enormous gaps of time between one entry and another in this record. I do have a sort of excuse for the latest silence. I’ve been doing something which I promised myself I would do when I got to 60. I began then to feel a regret that my writings on English teaching and language in education of many years ago had been scattered to the four winds. After I joined Channel 4, I wrote very little educational stuff. But from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s I produced quite a body of articles in magazines and journals, chapters in books and notes for talks, as well as The Resources of Classroom Language and (with others) Becoming our own Experts. During that time, I was too casual about keeping copies of the shorter pieces I’d done. I think it was a kind of vanity. I was saying to myself, ‘I can toss these things off without too much trouble; I hope people find them useful; there will be more.’ It was an affectation. Anyhow, with the help of various friends I’ve reassembled quite a lot of what I wrote, and it’s going to become a third website, to go with My Proper Life and Becoming our own Experts. Once again, Mark and Nicola Leicester are building it. As soon as we arrived at Kerfontaine I started on the editing and revising of the pieces. I’ve grouped them into sections. All but two of the sections are finished and have gone to New Zealand. The work took all my time until I came down here. I’ll do the last two sections when we get back to Kerfontaine at the beginning of July.

I say ‘I came down here’ because Helen spent two weeks in Marseille without me, on the understanding that Mary and family would speak English as little as possible, so that Helen could approfondir son français. (The partial immersion has had a positive effect.) I dropped Helen at Nantes station on 24 May. She took the train south. That evening, I flew from Nantes to Gatwick, and went to visit Peter. He had moved to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, as we hoped he would. He was already beginning to make progress, and has made more since. I spoke to him yesterday, on his birthday. He can walk a few steps now, with physiotherapists standing beside him. Last evening, he was moved from the stroke unit of the hospital to a neurological rehabilitation ward. The doctors are acting on the assumption that he will make a full recovery, though there’s no guarantee of it, and the process will be long: maybe as long as a year.

While I was in England I visited Martina Thomson twice. She’s coping bravely with her myeloma, helped by an operation she agreed to, by which a surgeon put little bits of cement into her spine to strengthen it. The weather in England was freakishly hot during the five days I was there. On the second occasion, we walked down from her house to Daphne Restaurant and sat outside in what felt like a tropical night, eating our favourite dishes and drinking retsina. The next day I flew back to France and got a lot done on the educational pieces during the following six days, being alone and able to live like a barbarian. Jean and Annick kindly invited me to dinner on four successive nights. I drove to Agen on 5 June and met Bronwyn and Stephen, who had just had a week with other friends in a house between Toulouse and the Pyrenees. On 6 June three of us arrived at Marseille, where we stayed two nights. Then we four came on down here, via one night at an excellent agriturismo called Podere Conti, near Pontremoli. When we leave here next Saturday, we shall drop Bronwyn and Stephen at Pisa airport, and give ourselves three more nights there. We’ll visit La Spezia for the first time. Then Marseille again for three nights; then we’ll return to Kerfontaine, taking Tess with us. On 12 July, I’ll fly to England again, with Tess, because by then Mary and Jacques will be in London. Mary owns a house in Camberwell. The woman who has rented it for years has left, and they are going to do some repairs and redecoration before finding another tenant. I’ll visit Peter again. When I return to Kerfontaine, I hope to stay put for a while after all this charging about. David, Lindsay and Tom will come for a fortnight; later in August Juginder Lamba and Lesley Lancaster will come for a few days; and there may be other friends there in September and October.

I haven’t done much poetry recently, because of the other writing, but I did do a translation of the last 60 or so lines of book II of The Aeneid, which I admired so much when I read it earlier this year. The Greeks have entered and are destroying Troy. Aeneas, having realised that the Trojan cause is hopeless, has led a little party of his family and servants through the night to a rendezvous point outside the walls, from which they will go into exile. When they get there, Aeneas discovers to his horror that his wife Creüsa is not with them. She must have been separated from the others in the confusion. He goes back alone to try to find her. He witnesses the continuing destruction in the city, including that of his own house. Abandoning all caution, he cries Creüsa’s namely repeatedly as he goes about the streets. Her ghost appears to him; she must have been killed, although she makes no mention of the manner of her death. There is a touching scene in which she tells him that he will see her no more, but that he will, after many wanderings, come to Italy, achieve royal fame and marry a new wife. As she fades from his sight, he tries three times to put his arms around her neck; three times her wraith eludes him. The passage ends with Aeneas returning to the rendezvous point, to find a large crowd gathered, all determined to follow him into exile. I’ve translated the very last lines as:

‘Above Mount Ida’s highest ridges rose the morning star.
It brought the day. Greeks had blockaded and now held the gates.
No hope of help remained. I bowed to the inevitable,
took my father up, and headed for the mountains.’

I’ve entered this, together with the Machado translation ‘To a Dry Elm’ and one of my Petrarch sonnets, for the Stephen Spender Prize. I’ve also put four of my own poems in for the Bridport Poetry Prize.

It was a pleasure to be in France at the time of the presidential election, to see Sarkozy ousted and Hollande installed. Victories for the left are rare enough these days. But there was little of the joy unconfined which I remember from Mitterrand’s election 31 years ago. These are much tougher and more pragmatic times. Europe, and the eurozone in particular, are in deep difficulties, essentially because of the unsustainable debts taken on by some governments, and the unwise lending indulged in by some banks. Tomorrow, Greece has a general election for the second time in a few weeks. The election there last month failed to produce a party or coalition of parties which could command a majority in parliament. It saw the rise of a radical left party which wants to tear up the terms of the bailouts which first Pasok and then the New Democracy/Pasok coalition had painfully negotiated with the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank. (Another of the parties which did well in last month’s elections is a neo-Nazi party whose symbol is very similar to the swastika.) The radical left party will attract good support again tomorrow, though whether enough to form a government I doubt. I have a feeling that New Democracy and Pasok will be forced into another unwilling coalition, and that Greece’s agony will continue for years yet, with perhaps some renegotiation of the bailout terms, but not much. I might be wrong. Greece might leave the euro, return to the drachma in a new form, and simply default on large chunks of its debt. Its problem if it defaulted is that, unlike other countries which have defaulted on debt, it simply would not have in its coffers the money, borrowed or otherwise, to pay its teachers and police and doctors and pensioners. So it would become a kind of failed state. Meanwhile, numerous European banks have lent huge sums to Greece, and they might themselves be in trouble if Greece defaulted.

Separately, the ECB lent about a hundred billion euros to Spain a week ago, to try to shore up Spain’s disastrous banks, which had so foolishly lent vast amounts of money to property developers which have gone bust. Conditions are very difficult here in Italy too, although I suspect that Mario Monti’s government of unelected technocrats is doing the right and necessary things. There was an instructive chart in yesterday’s Corriere della Sera, showing the deficits, as percentages of GDP, of each of the countries in the eurozone for 2012, with predictions for 2013, and the countries’ accumulated overall debt ditto. Greece has a deficit in 2012 of 7.3%, predicted to rise to 8.4% next year. It has an accumulated debt of 160.6% of GDP this year, predicted to rise to 168% next year! I can’t see how it can escape from the vicious spiral that it’s in, other than by some extraordinary act of debt forgiveness, coupled with the willingness of lenders to then lend again at reasonable rates. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Italy has bitten the bullet courageously; its deficit is 2.0% this year, dropping to 1.1% next, but its accumulated debt is still 123.5% of GDP, dropping only to 121.8% next year. The other countries with accumulated debt of more than 100% of GDP are Belgium (just), Ireland and Portugal.

All this trouble, we have to remember, was triggered in America in 2007 and 2008. There, a deeply indebted Republican government reaped the whirlwind of the laissez-faire attitudes to financial institutions which were among the most toxic inheritances of the Reagan/Thatcher years. Because the developed world’s financial system is so interconnected globally, the problem spread to the UK and to continental Europe. On the continent, governments which had been happy to borrow money to fund the well-being of their citizens suddenly found that the nice friendly lenders they had been relying on had become the equivalent of drug dealers exercising power over addicted clients. It was right-wing governments in Italy, Greece and France which ran up huge state debts, in Greece’s case concealing the truth about its indebtedness. It’s true that Zapatero’s socialist government in Spain allowed its banks to become dangerously exposed, and it shouldn’t have done that. But the Spanish government’s own debt is ‘only’ 80.9% of GDP, admittedly predicted to rise to 87.0% next year. As I’ve written before, Gordon Brown’s failure as Chancellor of the Exchequer was in not controlling more severely the UK’s financial institutions. He didn’t borrow irresponsibly; government debt during his time in that office was well within bounds. It was 40.9% of GDP in 2000, according to a chart I’ve just seen in an article by Niall Ferguson on the BBC’s website. It was only when the crisis hit, by which time Brown was Prime Minister, that the UK was obliged to borrow massively in order to save the banks. The debt is currently 88.4%, and the chart predicts that it fall only to 86.8% by 2017, despite the current government’s austere economic policies.

What are the lessons? Governments shouldn’t run up excessive debt. They should get together to limit the thrall in which they are held by private financial institutions with no interest in the welfare of the societies in which they operate, but only in enriching themselves. Multilateral, publicly owned lenders should lend at reasonable rates to countries and regions for necessary investment in infrastructure. Citizens should be made to pay their taxes in the countries, notably Greece and Italy, where tax evasion has been a national sport. Companies should be stopped from engaging in the legal but fraudulent activity of earning money in one country while being headquartered in another country with a much lighter tax regime. Wealthy individuals who legally avoid or illegally evade the tax which they should pay, and which their less wealthy compatriots are obliged to pay, should relentlessly be pursued by the authorities, and laws should be changed to make that kind of behaviour much more difficult to sustain. International pressure should be applied by the powerful economies in order to close down tax havens. Capital gains should be taxed at the same rate as income. There should be a financial transaction tax; and I’m glad to see that Hollande and Merkel seem to be edging towards it. I hope they stuff it down Cameron’s throat once it begins to bring serious money into their exchequers; he continues to insist that it’s a bad idea.

The second round of the French parliamentary elections is held tomorrow. I think the Socialists should win a working majority, with the help of the Greens and some other small parties. Hollande wasn’t helped this week when his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, tweeted her support for the opponent of Ségolène Royal, the president’s former partner and mother of his children, in the constituency — La Rochelle — into which she has been parachuted with the intention that she will be elected its MP and then become the speaker of the Assembly. I’m sympathetic to Olivier Falorni, a Socialist who was expelled from the party after he refused to step aside to let Royal stand, and who is standing as an independent. It looks as if he will win. It was the wrong thing to parachute Royal in. But Trierweiler should have kept her trap shut. Naturally, the UMP is delighted at this unexpected distraction from its own difficulties, notably to do with the ambiguity of its position with regard to the Front National. I fear there’s going to be more trouble and embarrassment down this line.

Away from these soap-opera antics, Egypt is also holding elections this weekend: the second round of the presidential contest, between the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the man who was Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. For a lot of people, this isn’t a cheerful or meaningful choice. They don’t want someone tainted by his association with the old regime, and they don’t want Islamist fundamentalism either. This week, Egypt’s Supreme Court — judges appointed by Mubarak — declared unconstitutional the parliamentary elections which the Muslim Brotherhood won last year. So there will have to be fresh elections. And there is still the fear that the army may in the end resume power, despite the soldiers’ declared intention to hand it over as soon as all the country’s democratic institutions are established.

In Syria, the UN’s ineffective peace mission has just been suspended. The slaughter of Syria’s citizens by its government continues. The great powers seem powerless. I think there will be a civil war.

I’m being taken out for a second birthday dinner tonight.


16 Jun 2012

It’s another blazing hot day. Helen and I have just been into Pienza for some food shopping and then a cappuccino and sweet pastry in our favourite café there. On the lawn next to the house as we returned was a beautiful bird which I’ve never seen in England but which is quite common here — a hoopoe (upupa in Italian; stress on the first syllable). It has black and white bars on its body, a long, thin beak and, most strikingly, an almost equally long, thin crest ascending from the back of its head.

Last night we ate in the arcaded cool of the Osteria del Cardinale in San Quirico. It was a lovely, relaxed, quiet meal, accompanied by a delicious (and expensive) local red wine called Quiricus.


17 Jun 2012

Three sets of elections yesterday: mixed results. In France, the outcome is straightforwardly good. The Socialists look as if they will win between 313 and 315 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. This gives them an absolute majority. They can govern without the help of the Greens (not that the Greens’ participation would have been a bad thing) and without the help of the Front de Gauche, who would have made life difficult over the necessary cuts to reduce France’s large national debt. So I think that there will be a mixture of national investment for growth, and economies elsewhere. Hollande has said (I quote from the BBC’s website) that ‘his first priorities for the new parliament include postponing a balanced budget until 2017, raising income taxes and hiring 60,000 new teachers’. The Socialists now have the Presidency, the Senate and the National Assembly: a position unique since the establishment of the Fifth Republic. Madame Trierweiler’s idiotic tweeting doesn’t seem to have done much damage nationally, although — as expected — Madame Royal lost in La Rochelle. I think that would have happened anyway. It’s always a mistake for the top leadership of a party to try to impose a candidate when a local constituency already has one whom they like. In slightly different circumstances, Tony Blair discovered to his cost that he couldn’t impose his choice of mayor on London, nor his choice of First Minister on Wales.

In the Morbihan, our own département, five of the six constituencies, including that in which we live, went to the Socialists. The long-serving Jacques Le Nay, mayor of Plouay and UMP deputy, lost. People on the whole speak well of him, but his prospects looked bleak when Plouay, a conservative little town, voted for Hollande against Sarkozy by a margin of 11 votes in the second round of the presidential elections. It would have been 12 votes had Annick’s mother, aged about 90, not fallen down the stairs that morning, and felt not well enough to go out and vote.

In Greece, it looks as if some kind of stability will return, since New Democracy, the centre-right pro-bailout party, won the largest number of seats — 129 — in a parliament of 300. The radical left party, which would have torn up the bailout agreement, won 71 seats, and will lead the opposition. Pasok won 33 seats. By a peculiarity of Greek constitutional law, the party winning the largest number of seats is then given a further 50, to be occupied presumably by candidates waiting on a list. (Nice work if you can get it.) This will give New Democracy and Pasok 212 seats out of 300. All around the world, leaders are breathing a sigh of relief, although Greece’s future will still be hard for many years. I expect there may be some slight easing of the obligations on Greece in the bailout agreements, though no major rewrite. Perhaps the payback periods will be lengthened. The thing that sticks in my craw is that it was New Democracy that got Greece into its mess in the first place, by running up huge debts and lying to its creditors and to the international authorities about its indebtedness. It was Pasok under Papandreou which did its best to make the country face up to reality, until Papadreou’s folly in proposing a referendum on the bailout terms, a proposal which had to be abandoned and which led to his political demise. Now, of course, New Democracy is boasting that it will save the country. As we know, there is no justice in politics. The cliché that the first casualty in any war is the truth applies equally to politics, where — to generalise — electorates have short memories and low levels of intelligence.

The worst news is in Egypt. The result of the presidential election won’t be announced until Thursday, although the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood is already claiming victory. But that isn’t the bad news. The bad news is that the army made an announcement last night which looks to me to be close to a military coup. As I wrote two days ago, last year’s parliamentary elections were last week declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court — a collection of judges appointed by Mubarak. Now the army says that new parliamentary elections cannot be held until a new constitution is drawn up. It will itself appoint the people to write the new constitution. The announcement removes from the future president any authority over the army, and gives the latter law-making powers and control over the budget.

Mohamed ElBaradei, my hero in Egypt, has (again according to the BBC’s website) described last night’s document as a ‘grave setback for democracy and revolution’. Other significant voices, including candidates in the first round of the presidential elections, have said similar things. The Muslim Brotherhood has said that the declaration is null and void. Soldiers have been stationed around the parliament, with orders not to let the supposedly unconstitutionally elected MPs enter. I cannot see but that there will be mass protests against this, with further bloodshed. The army has promised to ‘hand over power’ to the incoming president by 30 June, but it now seems as if all along the soldiers have been plotting that the power they intend to hand over will be ceremonial only.


20 Jun 2012

Midsummer’s day. As a child in England, the arrival of this date used to depress me, because I knew that the days would now shorten, and it seemed that summer had not yet begun. The summer holidays were still a month away, and if it had been a wet June, which it often had, what prospect was there of anything better as the days declined? Years later, someone offered me the comforting (and correct) analogy that 21 June is to the year what midday is to the day: the next three months until the equinox would be like the afternoon until six o’clock.

Anyhow, today in central Italy deserves the name ‘midsummer’s day’, with all the associations of languor and heat. I think we are at the peak of a heat wave brought by a giant anticyclone centred on north Africa, which has been with us since last weekend (today is Thursday). The temperature outside must be approaching 40 degrees, although there’s a pleasant breeze coming through the open window as I sit here and type in my underpants. We have two more days of this idyll. Last night, we ate for the third time at the Osteria del Cardinale. I consumed two beautiful summer dishes, both cold: panzanella and a carpaccio of cured, finely sliced beef. White wine from San Gimignano; red from Montepulciano. Drove home in the exquisite soft night, and sat up reading (not a book, but the BBC’s website to catch up on the news) with a grappa until late. I swim at least three times a day; the morning immersion is the sweetest, since it instantly washes away any slight headache which might remain from the night’s enjoyments.

My dear friend Paul Halley, who lives in Canada and whom I’ve known since Cambridge in 1970 — he’s a year younger than I — came on Monday with his wife Meg and his son Nick. He’d written to me about a month ago, wondering if we could meet while they were in London. He mentioned that they were going on to Italy. I said I wouldn’t be in London when they were there, but why didn’t we meet here? So they drove up from Rome, arrived in time for lunch and stayed until the following morning. Two of the apartments here were empty during this second week of our stay, and Claudio kindly let me rent them just for the night.

Paul was born in Romford, Essex. His parents emigrated to Canada when he was little, and he was raised in Ottawa. He is a wonderful musician. He was the organ scholar at Trinity. Since then, among other jobs, he’s been organist of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. He works now at King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He trains and conducts choirs, and composes. He and Meg run a music publishing business. (I’m pretty sure I’ve written some of this in a previous diary.) Although Paul and I have seen each other perhaps only five times in the last 40 years, we’re very close.

The important thing is that he is going to compose an opera, or perhaps an oratorio, about the life of Roger II, the 12th-century Norman King of Sicily, and he wants me to write the libretto. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I don’t think Auden had either until he got the invitation from Stravinsky to write the libretto for The Rake’s Progress, so I’m determined not to be frightened. The first thing I need to do is read John Julius Norwich’s book The Kingdom in the Sun. Here’s the description of the book on the Amazon website:

‘There were two Norman Conquests. John Julius Norwich is writing about the “other” one, the conquest of Sicily. When on Christmas Day 1130, Roger de Hauteville had himself crowned first King of Sicily, the island entered a golden age. Norman and Italian, Greek and Arab, Lombard, Englishman and Jew all contributed to a culture that was as brilliant as it was cosmopolitan; to an intellectual climate that attracted the artists and scholars of three continents; and to an atmosphere of racial and religious toleration unparalleled in Europe. Sixty-four years later to the day, the sun set on the Sicilian Kingdom; but its glory lives on in such dazzling monuments as the Palatine Chapel in Palermo or the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù.’

It’s easy to see why Paul is excited about the topic. If, more than 800 years ago, it was possible, at least for a while, for Islam, Christianity and Judaism to co-exist in one place to the mutual benefit of all, why does it seem to be so difficult in so many places today? The thought certainly challenges a simple, optimistic view of human progress over the centuries.

I shall get on with the job as soon as I’ve finished the last two sections of the website I was writing about the other day.

This evening we’re picking up Alessandra, Claudio’s business partner, in Montalcino at six, and driving to Follonica on the west coast, where Claudio and his wife have a house (I think inherited from her family). We’re being taken out to a fish restaurant by the sea.


26 Jun 2012

Here we are back chez Mary et Jacques after a wonderful two and a half weeks in Italy. The meal in the fish restaurant was sensational. We said goodbye to Claudio and Alessandra on Saturday amid protestations of enduring friendship. Bronwyn received bad news from Australia just as we were leaving: her brother-in-law John had had a stroke. There have been many difficulties to do with the disposal of Bronwyn’s father’s businesses after his death, caused by the vindictiveness of two of Bronwyn’s brothers, especially towards John, of whose competence and success in managing the father’s businesses they have obviously been jealous. I think perhaps they also harbour a long-term resentment that the father didn’t trust them to take senior positions in his businesses many years ago, but did trust his son-in-law to do so. Naturally, Bronwyn and her sister Barbara, John’s wife, feel that the stress inflicted on John may have been a contributing factor in the attack. Anyhow, Bronwyn is back in Australia already, supporting her sister. They have an ailing mother, now suffering increasing dementia, to care for as well. Meanwhile, Stephen’s mother, who’s in Bury St Edmunds, is beginning to fade too, as she has a right to at the age of, I think, 97. So their life is complicated at the moment by mothers coming to the end of their lives on opposite sides of the world, as well as by the unlooked-for and exhausting intra-family anger in Australia.

After I dropped Bronwyn and Stephen at Pisa airport on Saturday afternoon, Helen and I had three quiet days at Podere Conti, which is likely to become a regular stopping-off point in our Italian trips from now on. The drive up here yesterday was that dream-like experience of beauty and speed which the autostrada/autoroute along the Italian and then French Riviera offers. Then the empty Esterel, and the huge grey bulk of Mont Sainte-Victoire under a steely blue sky, the sun implacably burning through the windows in the roof of the car, beating down the efforts of the air-conditioning, turned up full, to keep us cool.

Last night we ate on the terrasse: gazpacho, monkfish and rice, peaches and ice cream. Jacques’ mother Lucille came, bringing a bottle of champagne to celebrate my recent birthday. She is an indefatigable talker, and always interesting. She tends to talk exclusively to me when I’m here. After keeping up my end of the conversation for three hours at the table, following the seven-hour drive, I was tired. I slept well till nine this morning. Mary has gone to London today, by herself, to begin to make arrangements for the re-letting of her house. She’ll be back on Tuesday. By that time, we’ll be at Kerfontaine with Tess.


6 Aug 2012

Two days after I last wrote, Helen, Tess and I drove back to Brittany, via an overnight stop at Agen. We had a delightful 12 days together here. Tess was charming company. Then she and I flew to England, where Mary and Jacques already were, beginning the redecoration and repair of Mary’s house in Camberwell. I stayed four nights in England, including one in Canterbury, visiting Peter, who continues to make slow progress: some movement in his left side; he can put weight on his left leg; he can manoeuvre himself from bed to wheelchair and from wheelchair to passenger seat in a car, which means that he can get out of the hospital for trips home or to the shops. Stephanie and I took him out twice. On the second occasion we went to a pub in a village five miles outside Canterbury. Just as Peter, with our help, was at the point of no return in performing the difficult transfer from car into wheelchair in the pub car park, the sky opened on us — perhaps the heaviest shower of rain of this sodden summer — so that by the time we got into the pub we were all drenched. It was one of those moments that make you realise how tough life’s most mundane actions life are for anyone with a physical disability.

Five days after my return here, David, Lindsay and Tom arrived. They left yesterday. They enjoyed themselves. Lindsay cooked a wonderful meal for us on Saturday, Helen’s birthday. She is coping bravely with her lung cancer, having endured (I think) six phases of chemotherapy, and being about to face further radiotherapy. She has no idea how long she has to live. She wanted to discuss with me readings and hymns at her funeral service, which I did apparently willingly but with some private reluctance, partly because I felt that I was to some extent usurping David’s place in that task, and partly because, to quote one of Albert’s favourite remarks, ‘Il ne faut pas danser plus vite que la musique.’ I hope Lindsay lives for another 30 years; who knows? Anyhow, we had a good literary session over coffee and croissants outside a café in Lorient in the morning sunshine while David and Tom were playing golf. I mentioned what we had done to David the next day. He wasn’t offended, but I don’t think there will be any more planning of ceremonies until the moment requires it.

Now we are alone until the 23rd of this month, when Juginder Lamba and Lesley Lancaster will come for five days. Juginder will be able to revisit four of the five sculptures we have bought from him over the years. They’re flying to and from Brest. I shall return to England with them on the 28th for another visit to Peter in Canterbury.

Mary and Jacques have had a very difficult time repairing the house in Camberwell, with a succession of tradesmen who’ve been either boorish or incompetent or a combination of the two. Most recently, carpet layers managed to puncture a central heating pipe, so Mary is staying on for an extra five days (Jacques and Tess return to Marseille today) to hire a plumber to fix that. When at last the place is ready, she’ll let it again.

Paul Ashton’s beautiful memoir of his childhood and youth, A Puritan at Les Baux, arrived recently. I helped with the editing and proof-reading. In my opinion it’s as good as Gosse’s Father and Son, as I told Paul, both books being concerned principally with their authors’ spiritual struggles within and then beyond their religious upbringings in the Plymouth Brethren.

From small concerns to great ones: the civil war in Syria continues, with many defections from the Assad regime to the rebels, the latest and the most significant being that of the Prime Minister, Riad Hijab, whose spokesman issued a statement that Mr Hijab had ‘defected from the terrorist, murderous regime and [is] joining the holy revolution’. The rebels control large parts of Aleppo, Syria’s second city. There is a constant stream of refugees into Turkey. I cannot see the Assad regime surviving, despite Russia’s continuing failure to condemn it and Iran’s active support for it. It will be overthrown, after more bloodshed and atrocity, but the outlook for the future governance of the country is confused, to say the least, with rival groups, some secular and some jihadist, claiming legitimacy and declaring themselves governments in exile.


8 Oct 2012

Two months since I last wrote. What have I been doing in the meantime?

Juginder and Lesley came, and enjoyed themselves. As I said I would in the last entry, I flew back with them and spent four nights in England, including two days visiting Peter in Canterbury. He continues to improve, slowly. The other day he told me on the phone that he can walk a dozen steps now, with a stick but otherwise unaided. He’s going to sell the house that he bought only (I think) three years ago, which is as inappropriate as a dwelling could be for a disabled person, being on four floors with steep staircases. When he’s sold it, he’ll buy something more suitable. Naturally, we all hope, especially after his recent news, that he still may make a full recovery, but the chances of that are lessening.

My brother Mark celebrated his 60th birthday on 16 September. (It was mother’s birthday too; she would have been 85.) He had a big party at his house near Taunton. We didn’t go across, but I sent him six bottles of champagne, and a few days later he and Gill came here in their camping car. I remember writing in less than complimentary terms about camping cars when they arrived last year. This year they have a new one, the old one (which they only had for about a year) having rusted badly. They had it welded together again, sold it and bought the new one. I always quietly wonder how many nights in a nice little hotel you could have for the thousands, perhaps ten of thousands, of pounds it costs to buy one of these great, ugly, lumbering things and maintain it. Chacun à son goût, up to a point. They stayed the night, preferring to sleep in the camping car than in the house, and went on south the next morning. I think they must be back in England by now.

To continue with the round-up of my siblings: Andrew and Bez are still in Bulgaria, repairing the houses they bought there last year. Next month they go to New Zealand, where Bez has a daughter. As well as the van I helped them to buy in Nantes a year ago, they have one parked in New Zealand, which they plan to drive around both islands before finally selling. They’ll be back in Europe next May.

After many difficulties, Mary has repaired her house in Camberwell and rented it to some Italian students whom she likes.

The thought strikes me that the five of us own, between us and together with our spouses, ten houses: two for me, three for Mark (the one he lives in and two others in Taunton), one for Peter, two for Andrew and two for Mary. I don’t know why I should find that worth mentioning; perhaps a sentimental reflection on the relative simplicity of the lives of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the matter of property.

I’ve done a translation of Montale’s long poem Mediterraneo: a wonderful meditation, in nine parts, begun in 1924, on his relationship with that sea, filled also with the uncertainty and pessimism of a humane intellect in Italy as fascism gathers strength.

The website of my educational writings, about which I wrote earlier in the year, is now nearly ready. Its title will be Writings on Language and Learning 1975 — 1995, and its URL will be, which I was pleased and surprised to find hadn’t been taken by someone else. I wondered whether anyone would be affronted by the fact that the three significant words in the URL are the same as the title of James Britton’s great book, but decided to take that risk. I finished the content in July, and now I’ve done the corrections to all the sections, and I’m waiting for Mark and Nicola Leicester in New Zealand to assemble it into one piece, which I’ll check one last time. Then it’ll go live. I’ll tell everyone I still know in the world of English teaching and language education, and we’ll see if anyone finds any of it useful. It will mean, at least, that I don’t feel that all that work is lost.

The main task occupying me these last weeks, however, has been the Roger II libretto. I’m pretty sure it’ll be an oratorio, not an opera. I read two John Julius Norwich books: The Normans in the South and the one I mentioned in June, The Kingdom in the Sun. Then I read Pierre Aubé’s Roger II de Sicile. During the last fifteen years of Roger’s life, his friend the scholar Abu Abdullah Mohammed al-Idrisi compiled, at Roger’s instruction and with his continuing interest, a work of geography the English translation of whose title is The Avocation of a Man Desirous of a Full Knowledge of the Different Countries of the World, commonly known as The Book of Roger. Norwich describes it as ‘the greatest geographical work of the Middle Ages’. It divided the known world into seven ‘climates’, going from central Africa up to Norway, each climate further divided into ten sections, going from west (the Atlantic or ‘the Ocean of Darkness’) to east (China). The book was accompanied by maps. The information on the maps was also engraved, as Norwich says, onto ‘…a huge planisphere of purest silver, weighing no less than four hundred and fifty Roman pounds, on which was engraved “the configuration of the seven climates with that of the regions, countries, sea-coasts, both near and distant, gulfs, seas and watercourses; the location of deserts and of cultivated lands, and their respective distances by normal routes in miles or other known measures; and the designation of ports.” One would give much for this magnificent object to have been preserved; alas, it was to be destroyed during the riots of the following reign, within a few years of its completion.’

The Book of Roger was written in Arabic. Al-Idrisi was of course a Muslim, and each section of the book begins and finishes with praise to God, who would I’m sure have been Allah in the original. There’s no English translation, but a French one was done between 1835 and 1840, and a new edition of the translation, irritatingly and incomprehensibly only including the sections of the book covering the western sections of the seven climates, was published in 1990. I’ve read that.

Tariq Ali has written a novel, A Sultan in Palermo, which is a fictionalised account of al-Idrisi’s work for and relationship with Roger. It arrived in the post today. I’m going to read it straight away.

Anyhow, I’ve made a start on the libretto. It has been difficult and sometimes dispiriting work, because I’ve been blundering around, unsure how to proceed, never having attempted anything like this before, often putting stuff down that I wasn’t thrilled about because I couldn’t think of anything better. I’ve sent Paul Halley two drafts — hardly drafts, more bits of rough scaffolding — and he wrote back today encouragingly. He also made the suggestion that we might in the end be writing ‘a play with a great deal of music — incidental and central’, which could be a liberating thought. In other words, a musical or Singspiel.

It has rained for weeks, it seems, almost without let-up. This morning Jean-Paul and his new apprentice Nicholas and I went down to the stream to cut and remove several trees which have in recent years fallen into the water. We worked for an hour or so: Jean-Paul, in high waders, on chainsaws, large and small, me stumbling behind him pulling the cut logs and branches to the shore, Nicholas dragging them onto the sodden ground. Then it poured so hard we had to give up, not because we were wet — we were soaked already — but because Jean-Paul was worried about water getting into the chainsaws.


9 Oct 2012

It didn’t take me long to read Tariq Ali’s novel. It’s quite the worst piece of fictional writing I’ve read in years: absurd plot, threadbare prose, heated up from time to time with embarrassingly bad sex scenes. He should stick to what he’s good at. At least there’s nothing in the book that I might have wanted to draw on, so no need to think about approaching his publisher.

Camden Town

14 Nov 2012

We returned to London at the end of October. I sat up all night last week watching the American presidential election results. (I did the same thing four years ago, looking at the little TV downstairs in my parents’ house. Mum was asleep upstairs; dad was in hospital.) As four years ago, I was first nervous, then gradually more confident, then exhilarated, then deeply moved by Obama’s eloquence. This time, many people thought that the result would be very close, because the Republican Romney had narrowed the gap on Obama after the latter’s poor performance in the first televised debate. But in the end Obama won convincingly. The victory speech he made was about 25 minutes long and, so far as I could see, delivered without a note. I kept looking for a discreet glass autocue, but I don’t think there was one. His powers of oratory are remarkable and rare.

The election campaign itself was the most expensive in history (each candidate spent about a billion dollars), and vicious. At its heart was the essential division between what is, for me, the better part of America and what is the worse. Romney’s speeches and other statements should have been an insult to the intelligence of the American voter. He had nothing to offer but appeals to patriotism and an economically illiterate determination to reduce taxes. Obama said that of course America is a great nation and will remain so, but that it must accept that other great powers are rising in the world; the future is multi-polar. And he insisted that tax rises on the rich must be part of the solution to America’s budget crisis. It was reason against demagoguery. The terrifying thing is that so many Americans swallow the demagoguery.

I do think, having watched a few presidential election campaigns now, that the electoral college system is mad. Because, unless pigs fly, Texas will always have more Republican than Democrat voters and California will be the other way round, and the same clear imbalance of preferences is evident in the great majority of states, the candidates are really only interested in the ‘swing states’. There are only about eight of those, which distorts the whole process. This time most of the attention was focused on Ohio, which Obama eventually won. Florida, the site of the dubious electoral practice 12 years ago which probably robbed Al Gore of the presidency, once again needed several days before it could make up its mind who had won the state (Obama had). I don’t understand why, in order to elect their national president, Americans don’t simply award the presidency to the candidate who gets the most votes. I can’t see a single argument against it, and I can see the overwhelming arguments for it: voters everywhere, whatever their persuasion, would feel that their vote had counted; and the candidates would have to appeal to voters in all the states, not just the swing states.

It was a delight to see the joyful multi-racial crowd at Obama’s victory rally. It gave me equal pleasure to see a doleful room full of rich white people in Boston digesting the bitter news they were watching on Fox News, the most flagrantly partisan of the Republican cheerleaders in the US media. There was a remarkable and hilarious moment when Karl Rove, the devil incarnate in terms of hatred of Obama, who has spent the last four years doing everything he can to destroy him, and who has solicited millions of dollars in contributions to the Romney campaign from rich people and organisations on the promise that Fox could deliver a Romney win, disagreed live on air with the exit-poll prediction on Ohio which the channel’s own researchers had announced. There was Rove saying, ‘This can’t be true,’ as a graphic on Fox’s screen said ‘Obama Re-elected’ (because Ohio, apart from being a crucial swing state, happened to be the result that tipped Obama over the 270 electoral college votes he needed to win). There was then the excruciating sight (lovingly replayed on YouTube many thousands of times) of Fox’s anchor woman walking carefully off the studio set in her high-heeled shoes, worried about falling over in front of millions, and making her way down the corridor to the back office where the statisticians were housed, to ask the chief statisticians if they were sure they had got their sums right. They were.

Obama had a huge majority amongst Hispanic voters. One of the commentators on the BBC’s coverage I was watching remarked that 50,000 young Hispanic Americans turn 18 every month. That’s 600,000 new potential Hispanic voters a year. Sensible Republicans (I try to imagine such a species) will attempt now to make their party more appealing to a wider cross-section of the population. Naturally, I hope that they fail, that their extremist colleagues prevail, and that Hillary Clinton runs in 2016 and is elected.

The Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives. The Democrat majority in the Senate increased slightly, but not up to the 60 out of 100 they would have needed to make their majority there filibuster-proof. So Obama now has to return to the weary battle with the Republicans over the budget. There are still plenty of Tea-Party extremists who won’t countenance any form of tax rise as part of a balanced programme whose eventual purpose must be to reduce America’s grotesque national debt while not choking off economic recovery.

Camden Town

27 Nov 2012

My website of educational writings finally went live last week, and on Sunday I wrote to all the people who I thought might be interested, telling them of its existence. I’m pleased with it. It looks good; it’s easy to navigate; and there is sensible matter in it. Mark and Nicola Leicester have done a wonderful job in building the site. Whether it will make any difference in the bleak educational world out there I don’t know. I decided to do it, as I’ve said before, partly because I didn’t like the feeling that all that writing I had done all those years ago was simply lost, partly out of pure rage at what education ministers in the present government have been saying and doing, and partly in the hope that some readers may take encouragement from it.

The efforts on the King Roger libretto which I described last month as ‘bits of rough scaffolding’ did finally combine into a first full draft. I sent that to Paul just before we left France. Once he’d read it, we discussed it on the phone. As a result of that conversation I’ve done a second full draft, which I sent to him yesterday. I expect there’s still a lot to do on it, but we’re getting closer to something he can begin to set to music.

It’s been a mixed experience. There have been times when I’ve really despaired, accusing myself of wasting my own and Paul’s time as a result of an impulsive, vain offer to attempt something beyond my abilities. Then, as the individual scenes have accumulated and an overall shape has emerged, I’ve had the contrary feeling: maybe I’m not so bad after all. There are some pretty terrible libretti around, some of them accompanied by sublime music; perhaps mine might hold up OK in that company. I can write reasonable prose dialogue, and verse in a variety of forms. The structure is sound: I’ve made al-Idrisi the narrator of the piece, which holds it together. It’s in two acts, of about equal length. The first act goes from Roger’s beginnings to his coronation on Christmas Day 1130. The second goes from there until his death, the penultimate scene being the completion of The Book of Roger. I hope, whatever Paul thinks of this draft, that we are beyond the risk of abandonment. Something will emerge in finished form.

No prizes for poetry this year, neither for translations nor for originals.

One could be forgiven for despairing of the wider world. The number of deaths in Syria is now reckoned to be around 40,000. The Assad regime continues to use its full military might to kill its own people. The act which shocked me most last week was the bombing of a hospital. 40 were killed, including surgeons and other specialists who had, heroically, been working there during these dreadful months. There is now, at least, some kind of unity in the opposition. Earlier this month, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was brought into being, led by a moderate imam called Moaz al-Khatib. France, courageously, has recognised the coalition as the legitimate government-in-waiting for Syria. I think the UK would like to do the same thing, but is being more cautious. Reports seem to suggest that opposition forces are gaining more and more ground in Syria; but Assad still holds Damascus and Aleppo, and wields weapons which the opposition can’t match. Russia and China are guilty of criminal stupidity in continuing to suggest that this is somehow a conflict in which the two sides share equal blame. Russia in particular still lives in the Cold-War past. Syria was its proxy then; it sold Syria arms, and continues to do so. Russia and China block any effective action from the UN. Iran actively supports the Assad regime for its own benighted reasons: through Syria flow arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which keeps up pressure on Israel.

Then, Israel/Palestine. The latest outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza has seen 158 Palestinians and six Israelis dead. There is now a fragile ceasefire. The familiar, hopeless arguments are trotted out. Israel has a right to defend itself when rockets are fired into its territory. Israel’s responses to these attacks are grossly disproportionate. The tunnels linking Gaza to Israel are used to smuggle arms. The Israelis treat Gaza as an open-air prison containing 1.7 million people. There will be no settlement until the Palestinian government on the West Bank and that in Gaza can settle their differences. Israel continues relentlessly and illegally to extend its territory on the West Bank.

I think the UN will this week, against the wishes of the US, the UK and Israel, agree to recognise Palestine as a ‘non-member observer’ state, however unimpressive that status may sound. Quite right, but I remain unconvinced of the long-term validity of a state consisting of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, even if the Palestinian Authority and Hamas could come to an accord. Realists will say that it’s the only way forward. For me, the only long-term solution is one secular state, with guarantees of religious freedom for Jews, Muslims and Christians, encompassing all the territories currently occupied by the Israelis and Palestinians. (The Golan Heights, with Syria in such a mess, would be a particular problem.) This is dreaming, I know; although, as John Lennon said, ‘I’m not the only one.’

Then, Egypt. Earlier this year, it was the army which looked likely to threaten the gains of last year’s revolution by taking to itself extraordinary powers. Last week, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the narrow victor in June’s presidential election, also took such powers to himself. He was feeling confident, having received much praise for his role in bringing about the Israel/Palestine ceasefire. He issued a decree saying that no authority could revoke his decisions. He is now trying to temper the force of that decree, but it has already provoked widespread protest. Morsi pleads that he is only taking these powers for a short time, until democracy is fully established. One has heard that kind of pleading before. On the other hand, it is true that many of the judges, whose powers Morsi would like to reduce, are Mubarak-era stooges who have no great commitment to democracy either. Secularists fear that the commission appointed to draw up a new constitution for Egypt — a body which Morsi wants to protect — will propose an Islamist constitution for the country, based on Sharia law.

The only voice in Egypt which I unreservedly respect, even revere, is that of Mohamed ElBaradei. He has said that he will not engage in dialogue until the president rescinds the measure.

Then, the Congo. The sufferings of the people of that huge country in the last 15 years dwarf those of any other country in the world, but they don’t get written about much. Five million were killed in warfare between 1997 and 2003. How we mourn, and rightly, the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands killed in the Middle East, in Iraq, in Afghanistan; but five million… Last week, a rebel army walked into the large city of Goma, near the Rwandan border, and took it over. The UN force there did nothing. The official Congolese army disappeared. I think I just about have a grip, in the most general way, on the tragic complexities which have brutalised the country since the Belgians, the worst brutes of all, left: grotesque corruption within the government in Kinshasa; intense greed over the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth; Rwanda’s determination not to let the butchers of 1994 regroup in the east of the Congo, causing it to support Tutsis who have in their turn committed atrocities in the region — an action which it continues fervently to deny.

The rebel army says it may advance westward, to challenge Joseph Kabila’s government. Another possibility is the de facto division of the country into east and west, allowing the rebels to establish a new ‘state’ in the east, to exploit the mineral wealth, leaving the west to its own devices. Whatever happens, innocent people in their millions will suffer. The outside world seems powerless to help.

From vast tragedy to minute comedy: the exterior woodwork of this block of flats is being painted, which it badly needs. Because much of the painting was done when we were still in France, none of our windows would open, the new paint having dried over the cracks between the windows and the frames. A lovely man called Carl, from Wrexham, climbed up a ladder last week and ‘eased’ the windows, as the saying is. He had to move the ladder five times to do it. I invited him in for a cup of tea afterwards. There then followed a paradigm case of class-denominated manners. I foolishly served him a cup of lapsang souchong. Carl was direct: ‘What is this? It tastes of burnt wood.’ Apologising, I returned to the kitchen and found a different jar of tea bags. The resulting brew turned out to be Earl Grey. ‘No better,’ said Carl. ‘This tastes of washing-up liquid.’ Desperately, I searched the cupboard. Thank God; there was an unopened box of Sainsbury’s tea bags. Unfortunately they were both free trade and organic, but they were at least, and very clearly, ‘Indian’. Carl said, on first sip, that this was ‘proper tea’, and showed a more than passing interest in its other virtues as described on the box. When I told this story to Helen that evening, she said, ‘At least you didn’t give him goat’s milk. That would have put the tin lid on it.’ (We’ve recently taken to buying goat’s milk as well as cow’s milk, because she finds the former easier to digest.)

There hasn’t been a single ray of sunshine today. Solid cloud, and damp. It’s the sort of day when you’re glad when it gets dark. Wallace Stevens: ‘It was evening all the afternoon.’

Camden Town

3 Dec 2012

Yesterday I went down to Brighton (Hove, to be precise) to see my friend Mick Robertson. One day in the summer, he collapsed when he was at the gym, and was taken to hospital. He was suffering from tachycardia, a sudden extreme speeding up of the heart rate. He could easily have died, but was saved by the wonderful actions of the National Health Service. He looks fine now, but he has a little electronic machine under his skin, near the top of his rib-cage on the left-hand side, which monitors his heart rate and which, amazingly, will tell the local hospital if something is going wrong, even before he knows it himself.

He and his wife Emma have parted, amicably. They sold their large house and have bought two flats in the town. Mick’s is at the top of an elegant old house overlooking Sussex County Cricket Ground, which suits him perfectly. He can’t actually see most of the play, but he can see part of the grass and has a clear view of the scoreboard. He’s a member at Sussex, so he can pop in whenever he likes. We walked round and went into the pavilion, where there was a sale of books about cricket. One of the stalls had a good collection of Wisdens, including a 1927 edition. I knew that Beckett had played first-class cricket for Dublin University at about that time, against Northamptonshire. Sure enough, there was a report of the match, played on 7 and 8 July, won easily by Northants by an innings and quite a lot of runs. ‘S.V. Beckett’ (which must be a mistake; he was Samuel Barclay Beckett) opened the batting, but only scored 4 and 1. He also seems to have opened the bowling, since his name comes second in the list of bowlers. He took no wickets, and conceded 47 runs. But he did take two catches. This Wisden, hardback and in pretty good condition, would have cost £130; I put it back. Wikipedia tells me that Beckett played twice for Dublin University against Northants. A few words tapped into Google, and I have the report of the 1925 game between the two sides. Beckett did better on this earlier occasion: batting at number 8, he scored 18 in the first innings and 12 in the second. He took no wickets, but his bowling was economical: eight overs for 17 runs. Once again, Northants won easily, this time by an innings and 56 runs. A few more Google taps, and here is Wisden’s obituary of Beckett:

‘Samuel Barclay Beckett, who died in Paris on December 22, 1989, aged 83, had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket. A left-hand opening batsman, possessing what he himself called a gritty defense [interesting spelling of that word], and a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler, he had enjoyed a distinguished all-round sporting as well as academic record at Portora Royal School, near Enniskillen, and maintained his interest in games while at Trinity College, Dublin. Indeed, Beckett, whose novels and plays established him as one of the important literary figures of the twentieth century, bringing him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, never lost his affection for and interest in cricket.’

Only one factual inconsistency remains: the obituary says clearly that Beckett’s two first-class games were played in 1925 and 1926, but when some more Google tapping brings up the Dublin University versus Northamptonshire game for 1926, Beckett isn’t in the side. When I add together his 1925 figures and my memory of his figures for the 1927 game (which I can’t find on the internet), they come to the right totals.

Thus can one idle away an hour of one’s life on the internet.

We went to Emma’s flat to collect their daughter Dillon, who’s nearly nine and unofficially one of my godchildren, and drove up to Devil’s Dyke on the top of the downs. It was a beautiful, very cold day, with perfect views across the Sussex Weald to the North Downs, to Butser Hill near Portsmouth, and even to the Isle of Wight. Kiteboarders took off from the slope which falls steeply away to the north, and sailed back and forth in the great space of air. We played ball (Dillon catches very well, much to her father’s approval) and went to eat in the pub. Then back to Mick’s flat for tea; he drove me to the station; I was home about eight.

Last Thursday Lord Justice Leveson issued his report on the press, which the government commissioned last year in the light of the scandals about the hacking of telephones and other abusive invasions of privacy by journalists on the News of the World and other newspapers. In the run-up to publication of the report, the usual suspects (the Murdoch press, the Mail, Telegraph and Express groups) had been screaming about the importance of press freedom, by which they really meant the freedom to carry on behaving exactly as they chose. Leveson made a subtle proposal: tougher, independent (not state-controlled) self-regulation of the press. Paragraph 5 of the Executive Summary: ‘I should make it clear at the outset that I consider that what is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation.’ But he added to this proposal a further one which, as he says in paragraph 70 of the Executive Summary, ‘leads to what some will see as the most controversial part of my recommendations…. there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes.’ Paragraph 72: ‘What would the legislation achieve? Three things. First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty of the government to protect the freedom of the press. Second, it would provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence were met and continue to be met; in the report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom. Third, by recognising the new body it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the benefits in law that would flow to those who subscribed…’ As Leveson predicted, the proposal for legal underpinning has caused controversy. I don’t know whether he privately expected the controversy to be as passionate as it has been. Probably he did.

I watched the debate on the report in the Commons on Thursday afternoon, which began with a statement by the Prime Minister. Cameron made it clear that he didn’t favour any form of statutory underpinning of the regulation of the press. Ed Miliband took the opposite view: Parliament should implement Leveson’s proposals in full. For the hour or so that I watched, there was a thoughtful exchange of views from both sides of the House. Later, Nick Clegg made a statement disagreeing with Cameron, and effectively allying the Liberals — part of the governing coalition — with the Labour opposition. Since then, there has been anger and a sense of betrayal on the part of those who believe, as I do, that some sections of the press have so flagrantly and so often abused the freedom they enjoy that some kind of legally reinforced mechanism needs to be introduced to challenge and punish the abuses. This is nothing to do with the right to freedom of speech; nor is it anything to do with the political purposes of the owners of our newspapers, grievous as is the imbalance towards right-wing positions in that respect.

Most of our papers will always, so far as I can see, do anything they can to discredit the Labour Party and especially Labour governments, and everything they can to support the Conservative Party and especially Conservative governments. I know The Sun has swung both ways since 1997; even when it was supporting Labour, the overall imbalance was there, with the Mail, the Express, The Times and the Telegraph lined up on the other side; currently, with The Sun back in the Tory camp, the imbalance is extreme. This is the perverted reality with which we live. Leveson had nothing to say on overall political bias specifically, though he did have some proposals about competition law as applied to the press. The hypocrisy of the cries for the maintenance of the ancient right of free speech, of which a free press is supposedly the most potent symbol, from the mouths of those in the press who regularly commit abuses with a sense of impunity: this is the heart of the offence. The abuses represent the evil which Leveson sets out to challenge.

The other absurdity in the argument of the ‘save free speech and a free press’ campaigners is the attempt, in a world of many media, to treat the printed press as a special case. There is no reason why the printing of written text on paper with ink (or, recently, its distribution in facsimile versions to people’s computers) should be treated any differently from other sections of the media. Radio and television are far more stringently regulated than is the press; they have to be impartial in their reporting of political news. Imagine if such a requirement were imposed on the newspapers! Of course, Murdoch would like to bring about the opposite situation, such as prevails in the US, where radio and television can be as partisan as the most partisan newspaper. In the UK, such a disastrous idea isn’t currently being suggested by any legislator (though I’m sure it’s in the minds of some on the right of the Tory party).

Anyhow, we shall see. I’ve signed an on-line petition, organised by the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign, calling for Leveson’s report to be implemented in full. It has more than 100,000 signatures, and it has only been going since Friday. If Cameron doesn’t change his mind, I think Labour will bring forward a motion calling for full implementation, which almost all his side will support, which all the Liberals are likely to support, although they’re in the government, and which quite a few Tories may also support, since 42 of them signed a letter arguing for a model of regulation very close to that which Leveson proposed. If the votes are whipped, which I imagine they would be, I don’t expect that all of the sympathetic Tories would have the courage of their convictions. Still, there could be a defeat for the government, although the motion would only be advisory, since it would have come from the opposition. It would put Miliband in a strong position to say if he wished to that he would push the Leveson proposals through if Labour were to win in 2015, though of course the price he would pay for that would be even greater vilification in the right-wing newspapers than he will get in any case. On his side is the fact that most of the public agree with him and with Leveson that parts of the press have put themselves outside the law by their behaviour, and that only some kind of legally supported new system will frighten them enough to change their ways.

Camden Town

10 Dec 2012

Last week the Chancellor delivered his Autumn Statement. There were one or two good things in it, such as the continued rise in the level at which people begin to pay income tax, and more tax relief on investment by small businesses. Corporation tax will be reduced to 21% of profits from April 2014; I guess that’s good, if we can afford it, in that it encourages people to do business here. Rich people will see the amount they can put annually into a pension pot, thus diminishing their tax liability, reduced to £40,000. But at the heart of the proposals was a dreadful measure: people of working age on benefits will in most cases see those benefits increase annually by only 1% for three years, when inflation is likely to be 2% or more. So the link between prices and benefits has been broken. The Chancellor knows that this proposal will play well with large sections of the electorate, who are happy to believe what the right-wing press tells them, that people on benefits are mainly idle scroungers. In fact, 60% of people on benefits work, and do humble jobs without which the country would grind to a halt. Of the remaining 40%, a large number (I don’t know how many) are in genuine need, because they’re physically or mentally ill or disabled — like my brother with his stroke — or they’ve been put out of work through no fault of their own, and are actively trying to find work.

The Chancellor will save about £3.7 billion as a result of these changes. He justifies the measure by saying that working people have seen a real-terms reduction in their wages since the financial crisis began; therefore it’s only fair that benefits claimants should share the pain. There would be some force to his argument if bread or potatoes or housing or electricity were paid in a currency called percentages, rather than in actual money. It isn’t. Those receiving the lowest income are obliged to pay the same amount for many things as those who are comfortably off. In some cases — payment for fuel, for example, where there are cheaper deals for people with bank accounts who can pay by direct debit — the poor actually pay more for the same product or service.

Benefit fraud is a crime whose perpetrators should be pursued and if necessary prosecuted. A household of a given size should not be better off on benefits than it would be if one of its adult members were working full-time on the minimum wage. Agreed, of course. But benefit fraud, though contemptible, is a minor drain on the Treasury’s funds compared with illegal tax evasion and legal but immoral tax avoidance practised by wealthy individuals and international companies. There’s been widespread outrage recently as the tax-avoiding activities of Google, Amazon and Starbucks in particular have been exposed by a House of Commons Select Committee. If that theft could be stopped, the Chancellor wouldn’t need to punish the poorest people in our society as he tries to rectify a dire economic situation brought about by the richest (I’m thinking about the people who used to run the banks, for instance). To stop it will require international as well as national action. I quite accept that Labour did nothing about it when it had the chance to.

‘The Living Wage’ is an idea whose popularity is growing. For London it’s set annually by the Greater London Authority, and for the rest of the UK by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. It’s a calculation, taking a whole lot of factors into account, of the minimum hourly wage that a household, with one person working full time, needs in order to live decently. It’s currently £8.55p per hour in London, and £7.45p per hour outside. It seems that the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, are in favour of it. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is actively in favour of it. Labour and the Liberals are, of course. If everyone who works received at least the living wage, there would be less to pay out on benefits. It’s one of those simple ideas which seems to please everybody but the most exploitative employers. It would have been good to hear something about it in the Autumn Statement: perhaps the Government using its enormous power as an employer and as a client of contractors to upgrade people currently on the statutory minimum wage to the living wage. Nothing. Meanwhile, come next April, those earning more than £150,000 a year will pay less tax.

I generally only read opinion articles in newspapers written by people who actually know what they’re writing about, rather than by hacks who have to have an opinion about something because it’s time for their weekly column. But I did read Deborah Orr’s piece in Saturday’s Guardian, as I was travelling down to Canterbury to see my brother. She writes: ‘The Conservatives have had awesome success in promulgating the nonsensical idea that the crash was caused by Labour incompetence and overspending, when it was really caused by Labour’s failure to tackle the neo-liberalism introduced by the previous Tory administration. Genius. Not only do the Conservatives fail to take responsibility for the results of the banking deregulation that their party “masterminded”, they also look as though they are the poor sods picking up the pieces after a socialist failure. That’s such good insurance, too. They can carry on saying, for a while yet, that the problem they inherited was huge. And they’re right. It was huge, because it had been stoked up since the Big Bang 26 years ago.’ That is a brilliant analysis of the position, although I’m not sure that Big Bang itself, which I think was an organisational response to new technology, was the problem in itself. Other laws deregulating banking certainly were.

My sister flew over last week to spend some time with Peter, so she was there when I arrived in Canterbury. In the course of a few hours, we found a brand-new flat for him, £30,000 cheaper than the price he is likely to get for the sale of his house, and ideal in other ways: it’s within the walls, it overlooks the River Stour, there’s a little pedestrian bridge which will take him straight into the centre of the town, and — most important — it’s physically convenient for a wheelchair user. Peter put down the reservation fee of £1,000. Mary and I returned to London pleased with our afternoon’s work.

Camden Town

14 Dec 2012

The other day we went to see The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the Almeida. It’s a play by Nick Dear (who wrote the screenplay of the Cinderella I commissioned at Channel 4, and whose agent gave me and the producers such trouble). It’s about Edward and Helen Thomas, and Edward Thomas’s life-changing friendship with Robert Frost. It goes over the same ground as the Matthew Hollis biography which I read in April, although it also contains scenes set after Edward Thomas’s death. I thought the play was good if not outstanding; for me, it was more a series of scenes than a piece with an overall sweep. But there were some poignant moments: the complete mutual incomprehension between Thomas and his father; the occasion when Thomas and Frost meet an angry gamekeeper with a gun, to whose violent threats Thomas responds in a way which later obsessed him as proving that he was a coward, and Frost responds with manly defiance; and the actor’s recitation of Thomas’s poem ‘I have come to the borders of sleep’ at the end. The thing which moved me most, however, was nothing to do with the play, but to do with a detail of the costume the actor was wearing. He had on a tie exactly like one of my father’s ties: it had a green-brown weave, with — and this was the detail — little reddish fronds of wool attached to and protruding down from the V-cut at the bottom. One of my earliest memories is that bit of decoration on one of my father’s ties (perhaps on more than one; it was probably a fashion). I was briefly overcome by a feeling of regret that, when I had taken all my father’s ties to the Oxfam shop, I hadn’t kept that one, or one like that if there were more than one, to remember him by, and to wear from time to time.

As we left the theatre, I saw that Helen’s response to the play had been altogether more profound than mine. She wept as we walked along Upper Street to the car. As we drove home and talked more over supper, it became clear, absurd as this will sound, that she saw in the relationship between Edward and Helen Thomas an intenser version of our relationship. The difference in intensity would be a hundred-fold, in every respect. Thomas was a full-scale depressive; I am occasionally moody. Thomas frequently said cruel, hurtful things to his wife; I am never intentionally cruel, but sometimes I say angry things in exasperation at some difference between us. Thomas was a great poet; I am an insignificant one. But Helen (my Helen — I don’t know whether the coincidence that she and Edward Thomas’s wife share a first name strengthened her feeling that there was a comparison to be made) said that, like Edward Thomas, I often withdraw from her company, psychologically. I’m still there in the room; I’m still making conversation and being polite, congratulating her, for instance, on having prepared a delicious dinner; but my true thoughts are elsewhere, and she’s left waiting for me to come back, when the mood takes me, into full psychological communion with her. She said that this had been a feature of our relationship from the beginning. I was shocked by the frankness and strength of feeling in her words, but can’t deny that her perception is accurate, although I would want to say that my withdrawals occur more rarely than Helen suggested that evening. Whether there’s anything to be done about it, so late in the day, I don’t know.

Camden Town

17 Dec 2012

We’re just back from our usual pre-Christmas weekend in Shropshire with friends. We stayed with David and Lindsay, as ever, but this year, I’m pleased to say, Lindsay didn’t have to do any cooking for big parties. We went to Glenda and Julian on the Saturday and to Pete and Merle on the Sunday. Lovely food and drink, and much fun.

This morning I was on my way to the solicitor in Shrewsbury who will handle the sale of Peter’s house and the purchase of his flat (the same firm as handled the sale of Margaret’s and our parents’ houses), when his daughter Stephanie rang to say that his previously ‘firm buyers’ had pulled out. This is something of a blow, but we’ve decided to keep going with the potential purchase of the flat, in the hope that a new buyer for the house will appear soon. The worst that could happen, if no buyer appears by the time Peter has to exchange contracts on the flat, is that he would lose most of the reservation fee. If he abandons the flat now, he’ll be no further forward when someone does eventually offer to buy the house, and I think he would lose most of the reservation fee anyway. But the next few weeks will now be more uncertain than I hoped that they would be.

Train from Canterbury to London

18 Dec 2012

On the way back from Canterbury. Peter has signed various solicitor’s forms which I shall post to Shrewsbury tonight. He also walked the length of the ground floor of his house, with the help of a stick with a kind of claw foot to give stability. This is more progress, but I think he’s right to press ahead with getting into a flat; there’s no certainty, alas, that he will make a complete recovery. After his walk, he was tired and needed the wheelchair.

Tonight we’re eating at Daphne’s with Mark and Nicola Leicester, who are over from New Zealand for a few weeks.


22 Dec 2012

We arrived yesterday. As usual, we drove down over two days, stopping at the Auberge du Terroir at Servon, where Thierry and Annie Lefort, who have now become our good friends, were glad to welcome us. We ate a delicious if not strikingly healthy meal: foie gras, coquilles Saint Jacques with tiny pieces of carrot and celeriac in a butter sauce, cheese and (in my case) crème brûlée. The champagne is so superb there that we start by drinking a glass each and end up keeping the bottle. It didn’t last the whole way through the scallops, so we had a glass of white Bergerac to finish them off, and then one of Lirac with the cheese. I’d never heard of Lirac before; it’s a Rhône wine, not as heavy as, say, Châteauneuf du Pape, but full of flavour. The main grape is grenache noir, blended with lesser amounts of mourvèdre and syrah. I shall get to know Lirac better.

The weather is wet, warm and windy. The stream at the bottom of the wood has massively overflowed its banks. I’ve never seen so much water there. This afternoon I climbed into the fountain and saved five salamanders and three frogs, all trying and failing to climb the vertical walls. Not for the first time, I’ve put branches into the water, their upper ends leaning against the lower wall at the front, in the hope that the animals might have the sense to use them as a means of escape.

I’ve been shopping twice today. Now we have everything we need for Christmas. Stephen and Theresa will come on Christmas Eve, as they did last year, but this time by train.

Last night I joined les amis de Saint Guénaël for the annual pre-Christmas nocturnal walk. About 30 of us gathered at the chapel at 7.30 and set off in the drizzle for a circular perambulation, lit by torches, lasting about an hour. It was straightforward on the country roads, but once we took to tracks and pathways it become trickier, for the land is heaving with water with nowhere to go. At one place in particular, we all linked hands to get down a sleep slope which had become a minor waterfall. But there were no mishaps, and vin chaud was waiting for us in a steaming cauldron when we got back to the chapel.


28 Dec 2012

Christmas has come and gone. Stephen and Theresa arrived as planned, and left this morning. We enjoyed ourselves. Rain continues to tip out of grey skies, with only brief intermissions. The first of these was on the afternoon of Christmas Day, when we walked by the sea at Fort Bloqué, as on previous Christmas Days. The waves were huge, after days of wind, and the sun shone through light rain, producing a brilliant rainbow. I’ve written before about the extraordinary sight, when the wind is from off the sea, of the foam being flicked off the tops of the waves as they crash, landing on the sand beyond the furthest extent of the waves, and forming a kind of ethereal bedroll of airy nothingness which you can walk through and which closes up behind you as you pass. The second period of relief from rain was yesterday afternoon, when Stephen and I went for a long circular walk in the late afternoon, starting and finishing at the house. It was a great relief to feel a drying wind on the face. We returned in the dark, with a beautiful if watery full moon in the sky. Rain resumed today.

We now have a proper wood store, built by Yves Le Vouedec. Albert’s stock of wood lasted us from 2003 until this spring. The slowly diminishing pile was covered by a plastic sheet. When we finally exhausted the stock, I decided we needed a solider shelter. The new construction looks very fine. Our neighbours say there are worse bus shelters. I tried and failed to get Yves to build it before we took a new delivery of wood in October. All the French craftsmen I’ve ever dealt with have been brilliant workers, when they arrive; it’s getting them to arrive which is the difficulty. Because of the delay, the wood when delivered had temporarily to be stored, like Albert’s wood, under plastic sheets. Because this year has broken all records for rain, most of the logs are damp, despite having been covered, so getting the fire to light and then blaze has been trickier than usual. Yesterday morning Stephen and I pulled off the sheets and transferred the wood to the wood store: a satisfying task. I hope, when there is a change in the weather and we get some dry if cold air, that the now properly covered winter fuel, off the ground, on pallets which stand on a concrete base (made before Yves arrived, by Christian and Bernard Grandvalet, who built the extension to this house), should burn more easily.

I had an email from Paul Halley two days ago, in which he promised that he would read the latest draft of my King Roger libretto in the next few days. He’s had it for more than a month now. I know how busy he’s been, conducting concerts and services in the run-up to Christmas, but I’ve found it frustrating waiting for a response from him. I can’t seem to settle to anything else in a creative way until I get this done. I don’t mind how much there is still to do; I just want to get on with it. I wrote back this morning saying that I’d really like to work on the libretto in the quiet of the first week of January, and that I’d value a long conversation before that.

More and more, as I write this diary, I’m aware of the immense gap between the insignificance of my concerns and the hugeness of the events which convulse the world. In Syria, Assad is almost certainly finished, but won’t go. About 44,000 people are dead, countless mutilated, hundred of thousands displaced from their homes. Russia continues, stubbornly and stupidly, to insist that the two sides ‘negotiate’. It won’t accept that responsibility for evil actions lies overwhelmingly with the Assad regime, not with the rebels, although at last it seems to accept that Assad’s days are numbered.

In Egypt, Morsi has got his way: in a referendum held in two stages on 15 and 22 December, a new Islamist constitution was approved by a large majority (63.8%) of the 32.9% of the electorate who voted. The non-Islamist people of Egypt (secularists, liberals, Christians and moderate, non-Islamist Muslims) feel betrayed. Parliamentary elections must be held within two months. It’s hard to predict what will happen now. I guess much will depend on how the new constitution is actually enacted; whether it will realise the worst fears of Morsi’s opponents, ushering in the kind of socially backward authoritarianism, particularly with regard to the rights of women, which prevails in some parts of the Muslim world, or whether something better, more tolerant, plural and pragmatic, will ensue.

‘Socially backward authoritarianism, particularly with regard to the rights of women’, has recently been seen in its most disgusting form in Pakistan, where women who were administering anti-polio vaccinations as part of a UN-funded campaign to rid that country of the disease, where it is still endemic, were murdered by members of the Taliban.

Mario Monti, the wise technocrat who has been Prime Minister of Italy since Berlusconi was evicted last year, resigned on 21 December, having successfully piloted Italy’s 2013 budget through parliament, but having otherwise lost the support of Berlusconi’s so-called People of Freedom party. He will stay on as Prime Minister in a caretaker capacity. There will be elections on 24 February. It looks as if the centre-left Democratic Party will have the largest number of seats in parliament as a result of the elections. Berlusconi, amazingly, will be standing again as leader of his party. Reason would suggest that his presence, after all the scandals which surround him and all the damage he has done, will hurt the People of Freedom; but reason — at least, political reason — doesn’t necessarily prevail in Italy. Monti has made a deliberately vague announcement saying that he would not ally himself to any party, but would be available to any eventual government as its adviser or possibly its leader. If the winners of the election have any sense, they’ll take up his offer in some way.

America is heading towards a ‘fiscal cliff’, a legal and financial sheer drop, brought into being in August of last year, when the political brinksmanship which then brought the country to the precipice of bankruptcy caused a law to be passed which was supposed to bang politicians’ heads together for very fear before midnight on 31 December 2012. It hasn’t worked, because the Republicans are still in thrall to those of their number who won’t contemplate tax rises of any kind, even on the super-rich. So if America goes over the cliff there will be enforced spending cuts and enforced expiry of Bush-era tax cuts, which will hurt the less well-off more than the rich, and which some think will send America back into recession. Obama meets congressional leaders today. Perhaps he can work a last-minute miracle, which would mean finding a way for Republicans to accept economic good sense without losing face. At the moment I doubt it.


31 Dec 2012

The year is ending, familiarly, in rain. It’s extraordinary to think that 10 months ago there was a drought in large parts of England and France, and that there were big publicity campaigns urging people to conserve water. Since the spring, the rain has hardly stopped. A caprice of nature, or an effect of global warming? Amazingly, primrose leaves are already poking through the grass.

This morning I emptied the gutters of fallen leaves: a surprisingly pleasant annual task as long as it’s not too cold, which it isn’t with this constant cloud cover. The only tricky part is the gutter at the side of the house by the lane. Because the land descends there, I have to jam a large stone under the lower foot of the ladder to make it level. Climbing the ladder is then precarious, but in the last 22 years the stone has never slipped and I’ve never fallen off.

Yesterday and on Saturday I wrote a comic poem called ‘Chorus of the Guardian Cats of Montmartre Cemetery’. Keith Fulton gave me the idea. He and Lou Pepe had visited the cemetery. They’d taken photographs of the graves of some of the famous people interred there and of the many cats which inhabit the place. Keith sent me the photographs, and suggested that particular cats were the guardians of the spirits of particular people. Could I write something along those lines? What I’ve done isn’t exactly what he asked for: instead of speeches by individual cats, it’s a chorus by all the cats together, addressed to visitors, claiming that the cats can see the spirits of the dead when they emerge at night to practise the activity for which they were celebrated in life. It’s a light thing, but quite skilful, and I’ll put it on the poetry website.

America is still teetering on the edge of its fiscal cliff. There is more slaughter in Syria and in Iraq. Mario Monti has said that he will lead a grouping of centrist parties into the February elections in Italy. Good. If the Democratic Party wins the most seats, and goes into coalition with Monti’s centrists, Italy will have the chance of a decent elected government for a change.

I think that the emergency actions which Europe’s leaders have taken during this year will slowly solve the eurozone and sovereign debt crises, at the expense of a much more stringent set of arrangements which fiscally bind together the countries of the eurozone. Those countries are becoming more and more one country, effectively, at least in economic and financial terms. The UK continues to play the would-be outsider in Europe, while remaining inside. I’m not sure how long we can go on having our cake and eating it in this way. There are increasingly strident voices at home calling for a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. If one were held now, my guess is that there would be a small majority in favour of leaving.

I’ve expressed my own eurosceptic thoughts here before. The EU doesn’t help itself in PR terms with a parliament which shuttles between two cities, with top leaders with virtually identical titles, with 200 people at the headquarters in Brussels who (according to David Cameron) earn more than he does, with the grotesquery of the common agricultural policy (admittedly due to descend to about 32% of the EU’s expenditure in 2013, but still overwhelmingly benefitting the richest landowners, and still hurting farmers in poor countries through the EU’s export subsidies). I would only subsidise farmers for the environmentally friendly stewardship of their land, and let the market do the rest, although all governments should hold stocks of food against emergency shortages. If the removal of production subsidies meant that more land became wild, so be it. We could do with more wilderness.

I know that the UK’s contribution to the EU budget is trivial in terms of our annual government expenditure. Different sources on the internet variously tell me that, with our rebate, we make a net contribution of a little under four billion or a little under five billion euros to the budget: nothing by comparison with the money we spent to bail out our own banks. But even sums as small as that, in national terms, sound like a lot of money to most people, especially when the information they receive on the topic is distorted by the messengers in the eurosceptic press. The overriding question is: if we left the EU, would we still have access to the single market, as Norway and Switzerland do in their different ways? A large proportion of our prosperity depends on that access. If the answer is no, we should definitely stay in, whatever the irritations. If the answer is yes, there’s a good argument for leaving. If we want to give money to poorer countries in the EU, as we do collectively at the moment through its regional support programme, we can do so independently. If we want to conclude agreements on, for example, international criminality or the transnational care of the planet — two areas in which of course we must act collectively with other nations or groups of nations — we can do so.

It’s becoming clear that several of our Europe ‘partners’, to use the familiar, optimistic term, including the most powerful ones, are getting tired of us. They want more integration, more co-ordinated action. They’re quite happy for Europe to move in the direction of becoming one country, while of course insisting on the cultural individuality of its nations and regions. They don’t see why the UK should constantly be asking for special treatment. They think we’re acting like a spoilt child. Perhaps, to use an adult metaphor, the UK and the rest of the EU are heading for an amicable divorce (apart, that is, from Scotland, should it vote for independence in 2014, which will want to join the EU as an independent country as soon as possible).

Tonight, as for the last two years, we will eat the Saint Sylvestre meal at L’Art Gourmand in Pont-Scorff. As I’ve written before, apart from the enjoyment of the meal, I like the lack of fuss there: just simple good wishes at midnight, with a glass of champagne.