Occurrences: Book Ten

Kerfontaine

9 January 2013

The New Year’s meal at L’Art Gourmand was just as last year and the year before, gastronomically. More kissing and ‘Meilleurs voeux, bonne année, bonne santé surtout’ at midnight. This year, in addition, there were singers at each of the other tables, who spiritedly gave us a mixture of folk songs, French and Breton, and Edith Piaf numbers. One old lady in particular had a beautiful voice and, very touchingly, concluded her second offering, a love song whose last line is a direct statement of passion by a young woman to her young man, by turning away from the room which until then she had been addressing, and looking straight into the eyes of her old husband across the table. Tears were shed. Then everyone glanced meaningfully at the only table which had not yet made a contribution, so I got up and did my ‘Scarborough Fair’ party piece, beginning as usual with a prose translation into French. It went down very well; it always does. I made a vow to Helen immediately afterwards that I will learn three or four French songs for occasions like this. Otherwise word will get around that I’m that Englishman who always sings the same song.

With its now customary 11th-hour, 59th-minute timing, the US congress avoided America’s fiscal cliff by passing a law which went through the House of Representatives at 11pm on 1 January, and was signed by the President the next day. The Republicans finally blinked, and agreed some tax increases, notably for individuals earning over $400,000 a year ($450,000 for couples), together with increases in capital gains tax and estate tax, and the phasing-out of certain tax deductions and credits. Good; Obama is strengthened by that development, although the Washington decision-making machine must look completely absurd to most American citizens, as it does to me. The reverse side of what was supposed to have been a ‘grand bargain’ was further delayed, however; no decisions were taken about spending cuts, and there will be more horse-trading over those during the next two months. Meanwhile, America continues to owe more than $16 trillion to its creditors: about 105% of its annual GDP. 40% of US government spending is on borrowed money. Unsustainable.

The lives of Edward and Helen Thomas continue to touch me. I’ve just finished reading Helen Thomas’s pair of books, As it Was and World without End. They’re beautifully written, by someone who wasn’t a natural writer. There is intense sincerity in them, and through them we understand Edward Thomas as a man more acutely than through anything else I’ve read about him. Helen Thomas emerges as a rather extraordinary person: in one sense a proto-feminist, and very advanced, particularly in sexual manners, for her day; in other respects a typical adoring wife, always ready to defer to and forgive her difficult and sometimes psychologically cruel husband because she believed in his gift, and to do all the housework (though he was a good gardener). The last chapter of the second book, which describes their final parting, just after Christmas 1916, both of them knowing that there was a strong likelihood that he would never come back, is deeply moving.

Last June, I asked Helen to give me some Dostoevsky novels for my birthday. I had never read any of his work; I’m getting to an age when I feel I must read the greatest novels before I die, and since reading novels takes up so much time (which is the reason why I prefer poems) I will only bother with the greatest. Helen gave me Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. I read Crime and Punishment straight away. (I’m not sure why I didn’t write about it at the time.) There’s no point in saying that it’s a magnificent masterpiece; people have been saying that since it was written. The thing which struck me most forcibly (again, I’m sure that thousands of critics have remarked on it) is how modern a sensibility it demonstrates. Dickens was a great novelist, of course; but no one could say that Dickens was especially penetrating or complex psychologically. You always know whether Dickens’ characters are good or bad, to be admired or despised, to be pitied, laughed at or laughed with. This is certainly true of Dombey and Son, the most recent Dickens novel I’ve read: massive, massively enjoyable, and at its heart deeply sentimental. (Of course I should meanwhile acknowledge the importance of much of Dickens’ writing as eloquent protest against social evils.) But in Crime and Punishment there is an analysis of hidden motivations, an understanding of the destructive and erratic workings of guilt, as evidenced in Raskolnikov’s mind, which is far ahead of its time. You feel you’re reading the work of a writer of the mid-20th century, not of 1866. At the same time, there is the easier pleasure (which there is in Dickens too) of following the twists and turns of a good story. I wasn’t completely convinced by the epilogue, in which Raskolnikov, having confessed his crime and been sent to Siberia, begins to be morally redeemed under the loving influence of Sonya, the former prostitute (although it must have taken courage for Dostoevsky to present a prostitute — admittedly a previously innocent girl forced into that trade in order to support her family — as an unreservedly virtuous character). (The courage reminds me of the full title of Hardy’s great novel: Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.) Overall, I was utterly absorbed by and silent in admiration of Dostoevsky’s genius.

During the autumn, full of expectation, I tried to read The Idiot. I gave up after about 250 pages. I can’t believe that such a famous book is not very good. Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps the translation isn’t the best. Whatever the case, once I’d grasped the idea that Myshkin is a naïf wandering through the duplicities and insincerities of St Petersburg society, I couldn’t get more deeply involved. These people and their stupid lives bored me. At some point, I shall have to force myself further on, perhaps with another translation.

After that disappointment, and the resentment I felt at having given several evenings of my life to a task which I had then abandoned, I turned last week to The Brothers Karamazov. I am utterly entranced. The book has all the narrative excitement of Crime and Punishment, but is more complex because there are three main characters, not one. It’s extraordinarily daring, with its formidable long passages of theological argument for and against the existence of God rubbing shoulders with brilliant social comedy and thrilling crime fiction. I’ve got to the point where Dmitri Karamazov is being interrogated after his presumed murder of his father. The foolish, cheerful, suicidal confidence with which, chapter after chapter, he condemns himself out of his own mouth is quite wonderfully presented. I’m gobbling the pages, while telling myself to eat more slowly.

Camden Town

18 January 2013

We’re back in London and I’ve finished The Brothers Karamazov. Extraordinary, and wonderful. That Smerdyakov is the murderer, not Dmitri Karamazov, came as a complete surprise to me; but I’ve never been able to identify the villain, even in elementary whodunnits. Thereafter, we view the other characters’ actions and (in the case of the prosecuting and defence lawyers at the trial) their speeches through the perspective of our superior knowledge. So we wait to see whether Ivan Karamazov, the only character who knows the truth, will tell all. He does, but in such a crazed way that no one believes him: having said that Smerdyakov killed Karamazov senior, he adds that he, Ivan, gave instructions for the murder, and a few lines later describes himself as ‘simply a murderer’. This is dismissed as raving. Then Dmitri is destroyed by Katerina Ivanovna’s revelation of his apparently self-incriminating letter. After that, nothing that the eminent defence lawyer from Petersburg can say is likely to shift the jury’s mind.

Passionate intensity rages throughout the book: in Dmitri’s and his father’s destructive rivalry in courting Grushenka; in the turbulence of Dmitri’s and Ivan’s feelings towards Katerina, and in the two men’s awareness of each other’s ardour; in the violent lurches in Katerina’s attitude to both brothers; in the complicated hatred between Katerina and Grushenka, culminating in their unintended meeting in the hospital in the penultimate chapter, which Katerina assumes, wrongly, has been stage-managed by Dmitri or Alexei. I found myself a puzzled spectator of these emotional charges, rather than someone who could imagine having felt anything similar myself.

Dostoevsky seems to want to take leave of his reader on a downbeat. He leaves things hanging. Will Dmitri really be able to escape on the way to Siberia? And why make the very last chapter an account of the funeral of the little boy Ilyushechka, which though touching seems beside the main point? Just as I was less than convinced by Raskolnikov’s potential for moral and spiritual salvation in Siberia, so I found the preachy tone of Alexei’s homilies to the group of boys grieving for Ilyushechka somehow too pat after the complexities and ironies which had held me for 760 pages. But overall, the book is a masterly commentary on human nature, panoramic but also precise; mainly concerned with human failings, though sometimes aware of human virtues too.

Camden Town

20 January 2013

It’s snowing. The flakes are small and fall quite fast, so the sight isn’t as lovely as when big, fluffy flakes drift in the air before reaching the ground, but the effect on the ground is equally impressive. It’s now two o’clock in the afternoon, and if it carries on all day like this, we shall have a thick carpet, by London standards. I can hear children outside shouting with pleasure as they play.

We went over to Stephen and Theresa last night, and ate a delicious curried goat which Theresa had prepared. I had one difficult moment, when I unwittingly ate a Scotch-bonnet pepper whole. I think it should have been removed from the sauce before the dish was served. I’d never heard of this charmingly named but ferociously hot vegetable before. (I’ve since discovered that ‘Scotch bonnet’ is a name for a wasps’ nest.) I was obliged to leave the table and walk around the room for a few minutes, such was the fire in my mouth; somehow, movement distracted my attention from the pain. At last I doused the flames with glass after glass of tap water. This morning, sitting on the toilet, the following couplet occurred to me:

‘Of last night’s gastronomic joys no memory’s distincter
Than traces of Scotch-bonnet pepper passing by the sphincter.’

Camden Town

1 March 2013

We’ve had my niece Tess here for ten days. She departed on Tuesday. She is the most delightful companion. We took her to Kew Gardens, where the crocuses were spectacular; to the Victoria and Albert; to see Mamma Mia (this an experience I willingly missed, being happy to meet Helen and Tess afterwards and go for a pizza); to Charles Darwin’s house at Downe, which was a wonderful experience — it was our first time and we shall go again; to the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy. This last trip was just Tess and I. Afterwards we crossed the road to Fortnum and Mason and lunched there before buying some absurd follies in the cosmetics department.

The visit to Down House reminded me of the bicycle rides I took around south-east London and its environs when I was a boy. On one occasion, I got out as far as Downe and passed the house, then I think a private residence, and saw the plaque on the garden wall saying that Darwin had lived there. It must have been a very cold day and I wasn’t wearing gloves. When I got back to Farnaby Road, Shortlands, I put my hands straight into a bowl of hot water. The change of temperature was too rapid, and my father to the end of his life remembered running into the kitchen on hearing my profuse weeping. He said that I said, through my tears, that there was nothing wrong; I was just warming up my hands. The poem I wrote when my father was 80, called ‘Bicycles’, is about my protectiveness towards him wobbling along the Bedfordshire lanes as BMWs and Range Rovers screeched past him. How trusting my parents were in 1962 to let me cycle anywhere I liked in the vicinity of Bromley, as long as I didn’t go on main roads, by which they meant A roads. How I got out to Downe without going on an A road I can’t remember.

One of the things I love about Kew Gardens is that every plant is labelled. There’s never that unsatisfactory half-intention to look something up in a book later, which of course you don’t get round to. I was particularly pleased to know the name of a tree three of which I see every year at this season in Regents Park. They have small yellow flowers emerging straight from the wood. No leaves yet. The specimen at Kew told me that it’s a Cornelian cherry.

A week ago we went to Shropshire to stay the weekend with David, Lindsay and Tom. Lindsay is very sick now. She starts more radiotherapy on Monday, which is intended to help her breathing; then more chemotherapy. She is immensely courageous and at the same time very sad. There is nothing more to be said other than that life can be brutal and unfair. She is in her late 50s, with a child of 14 and a husband who love her. I took Tom to school on the Saturday and Monday mornings. He’s at Shrewsbury School. On the Saturday afternoon I went with Tess to pick him up after his game of fives. Darwin of course was born in Shrewsbury and went to the school, where he said they didn’t teach him anything of any value. I showed Tess the beautiful newish statue of the young genius. Then I explained that, although Tom was a day boy, most of the pupils at the school were boarders. Tess, as a rational French citizen (aged 13) was shocked that the English moneyed classes should so neglect their offspring. ‘Doesn’t it cause psychological problems for them later?’ she asked. I said that in all likelihood it did. Nonetheless, she was impressed by the luxurious facilities.

Helen gave me Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt as one of my Christmas presents. It’s an excellent account of the growth of the Victorian city in Britain, and of the efforts of civic leaders to impose some kind of order, dignity and even beauty on their chaos and squalor. There is a long chapter about Joseph Chamberlain and Birmingham. One thing struck me forcibly. When Chamberlain began to run Birmingham, there were two private companies supplying gas to the city. He municipalised them. Henceforth the profits made from the supply and sale of gas to the citizens of Birmingham would be spent on improvements to the city, and would allow for a reduction in the rates. He then did the same thing with the previously private water company. It’s a terribly simple idea: let the supply of life’s absolute essentials (to which today we would add electricity) promote the common good and militate against common evils. 140 years later, we’ve arrived at a point where life’s absolute essentials are once again provided for the profit of private companies (now global giants invested in by individuals and organisations all over the world who want a little steadiness in their share portfolios). British Gas is happy this week; profits are up because it’s been a cold winter. Centrica, the company which owns British Gas (which also supplies electricity — a state of affairs that my grandmother found incomprehensible when she heard about it just before she died), has recently said that it will not invest in the building and running of new nuclear power stations; the commitment would be too risky without firmer guarantees from the government. So the government is considering guaranteeing prices for the supply of electricity for up to 40 years to any energy company willing to build and run a nuclear power station or two. This is madness. As so often with madness, you forget that it’s mad when it’s all around you. The present rant is not principally against greedy capitalists running the energy companies to please their shareholders and meanwhile paying themselves huge sums of money; though it is that too. It’s principally a cry of despair that the political class, starting of course with Thatcher, have dug us into this hole. The supply of gas, electricity and water are services which could and should be run by representatives of the public, for the public good. And they were, at least from the Attlee government on, until Thatcher got hold of them. If we went back to Chamberlain’s simple idea, but at the national rather than the municipal level, the huge decisions about and huge investments in our need for energy and water could be made rationally, by competent people in charge of the situation, rather than helplessly by public servants, many of them no doubt able and well-meaning, but who are merely hostages to private powers.

I’ve also recently read a new biography of Joyce, by Gordon Bowker, confirming my previous opinion that Joyce was an impossible, egocentric, unpleasant genius, living out his life at the expense — in every sense, notably financial — of those who loved, admired and believed in him; this despite the compassion one feels for the man’s blindness, his frequent illness and the suffering he experienced at his daughter’s madness. It’s often said that you have to be a monster to be a great writer; he certainly was both. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses are great books which also utterly changed readers’ and writers’ ideas about how writing could be done. Finnegan’s Wake disappears entirely up its own backside, and insults the ordinary intelligent reader.

I’ve just finished the English translation of a beautiful short novel by Leonardo Sciascia called The Council of Egypt. Peter and Merle Traves gave it me for Christmas. It’s set in Sicily, and concerns a priest in the late 18th century in Palermo who, using his small knowledge of Arabic, deceives the city’s high society and the church and even the court of the King of Naples into believing that he has found and translated into the vernacular two priceless Arabic codices which throw light on Sicily’s Islamic and Norman past. He’s a complete conman. Meanwhile, a young radical lawyer, inspired by the French revolution, plans a similar uprising in Palermo. The plot is discovered and the lawyer is tortured and executed. The priest and the lawyer are presented as opposite types: a doomed commitment to principle versus conscienceless venality. One can see through the excellent translation what a master stylist Sciascia is. I’d never heard of him before. I’m going to get some more of his books.

Talking of Italy, the country finds itself this week in deep difficulties politically. The elections last Sunday and Monday produced, as expected, a working majority for Bersani’s Democratic Party in the Chamber of Deputies, but no working majority for anyone in the Senate. An Italian government needs working majorities in both places in order to operate. Berlusconi’s party, to my despair and incomprehension, did much better than it seemed a few weeks ago that it would. Mario Monti’s centrists were punished for the painful efforts Monti has made to reform the state, challenge corruption and force more Italians pay their taxes. His paltry 18 Senate seats together with Bersani’s 117 (Berlusconi got the same number) still leave the left and the centre 23 seats short of a working majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement, not so much a party as an organised howl of protest, astonished everyone by winning a quarter of the votes. The Movement now has 109 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 54 in the Senate. The trouble is that although Grillo has correctly castigated the incompetence and corruption of the political class, he doesn’t seem to want to dirty his hands by joining in the cleaning-up job. So, stalemate at the moment. Italy has been in political deadlock so many times since the war that one is tempted to believe that they’ll muddle through somehow. The difference now is the euro. If the third-largest economy in the euro returns to anything like the regime of mismanagement which prevailed before Monti took over, with its debts rising again towards unsustainable levels, banks in other countries, which have foolishly lent vast sums to Italy, will again be in difficulties just as the euro crisis seemed past the worst. Meanwhile, now the election is over Berlusconi himself is back in court, facing charges of tax fraud, bribery and sexual misconduct. It just astonishes me that the Italians have given him a political lifeline rather than, at least metaphorically, hanging him from a lamp-post. What is it in the soul of that country, whose people I love so much and who have enriched the world with their genius in so many ways over so many centuries, which makes them liable so often to make truly catastrophic judgments about their leaders?

Camden Town

5 March 2013

It’s a beautiful morning. I’ve just been across the car park to dump the rubbish, and it seemed to me that:

‘It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before…’

Andrew Bannerman and I used to perform that poem of Wordsworth’s in our Lyrical Ballads show. Despite its charm, one can’t help inwardly snorting at:

‘My sister! ('tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done,
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.’

If he’d helped Dorothy with her ‘morning task’ in the first place, they could have got out a bit more quickly.

I shall feel the sun again in an hour or so when I go over to see Len Brown in Ealing for a little multi-media experimentation: three of my poems — one on clouds, one about refugees leaving their city and one about a river — are to be accompanied by his photographs on those topics and by music.

I’ve done two more Madame Granic stories, thanks to the encouragement of Monica Hetherington. I stayed the night with her and Peter on 24 January. I’d been to the funeral of Katie Shephard, my school friend John Shephard’s mother, at Boughton near Northampton. The next morning Monica said she’d read the first four stories on my website, and enjoyed them. I realised how stupid it was that I hadn’t written any since… I don’t know when I wrote the last one; it must be four years ago. Anyway, now there are six, and I’m going to keep on doing them until there’s a proper collection. I don’t know whether they’re any good, really. They’re certainly not innovative in any structural sense. They’re just gently humorous. A bit middle-brow, possibly. Anyhow, I’m not ashamed of them, and they are carefully made.

Katie Shephard (Kath as I tended to call her) was born in May 1913 and died in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2013. She was a gracious hostess to our group of teenagers at Bedford Modern School in the 1960s. We often used to go to John’s house, 136 Spring Road, Kempston. Although Kath was certainly a Christian believer — she attended the Church of the Transfiguration in Kempston — there was none of the theological dogmatism which still governed the atmosphere in our house at the time. Kath and her husband Bill seemed untroubled about the destination of their or anyone else’s soul. A relaxed optimism reigned. There was a crate of Double Diamond beer in the kitchen, and within reason we could help ourselves. If we turned up unexpectedly before a meal, Kath would say, ‘I’ll just put on a few extra vegetables.’ I think my poor mum experienced feelings of jealousy that I had found a home from home which was in some ways more to my taste than my own home. In fact she told me that once. Kath, though she didn’t realise it, was one of the first adults, along with some of the teachers at school, notably of course Peter Hetherington, who showed me that goodness is possible outside the narrow confines of a particular set of Christian doctrines.

I haven’t written anything this year about my brother Peter. After long delays, we’re hoping that he will shortly sell his house. He has buyers who it seems (I keep hedging; such is the way with property sales) are about to exchange contracts with him. The bad weather in January and February has helped him in the sense that it has delayed the completion of the new flat, so the builders haven’t been demanding money for the purchase before he’s got money from the sale. I hope we’ll be moving him out of the house soon. There may be an interim before the flat is finished. If there is, he’ll stay somewhere locally for a short time.

Camden Town

19 March 2013

Towards the end of last year, I wrote at some length about the Leveson Report on press regulation. The political manoeuvres within government and parliament since then have been exquisitely complex, but they were resolved in the early hours of Monday morning. That rarest of things in British politics, cross-party agreement, will bring into force a new regime which, I’m delighted to say, infuriates the people who own and run our most disgraceful newspapers. There will be a Royal Charter laying down the new arrangements for the independent (that is, not state-controlled) regulation of the press. There will be a clause in an otherwise unrelated government bill saying that henceforth all Royal Charters will be subject to whatever conditions about their amendment or continuation are contained in each particular Charter. This Royal Charter contains a condition that it may not be changed without the consent of a two-thirds majority in each of the Houses of Parliament. Delicate footwork of this kind was necessary so that the Prime Minister could say that there will no statutory underpinning of the press. Actually there will be, but it’s the lightest of touches. The important thing is what’s in the Royal Charter. The newspaper industry loses its right of veto over the membership of the new regulator which will replace the Press Complaints Commission, although it will choose one member to sit on the appointments panel for the new regulator. So we’ll no longer have a situation where the most irresponsible newspapers are forgiven their crimes because the only court of appeal is one heavily influenced by their own editors. It won’t be compulsory for newspapers to accept the authority of the new regulator, but those that don’t will be subject to exemplary damages — in other words large fines over and above payments to an aggrieved party and legal costs, which will act as a deterrent — if they are found guilty of a breach of the new code of conduct for the press. Those that do accept the authority of the new regulator will be subject to smaller punishments. The new code will be written by a committee consisting of one third newspaper editors, one third journalists and one third laypeople. (I fear there may be some room there for the press to wriggle out of its responsibilities; it will depend on who the editors and journalists are.) The new regulator will have the power to ‘direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies’. In other words, if The Sun has told a lie on the front page in 36-point bold type, it will have to publish a retraction and apology on the front page in 36-point bold type. Not only individuals, as at present, but groups of people who’ve been abused will be able to go the regulator.

The Hacked Off campaign, which I support, is happy with the outcome. That’s the most important thing so far as I am concerned. The responsible national newspapers — The Guardian, Financial Times and The Independent — are content with the outcome and will work within it. It’s been fascinating but also nauseating to see the other newspaper groups — Murdoch, the Mail group, the Express group, the Telegraph group — reaching for constitutional arguments going back to the 17th century and claiming that our very rights as freeborn Englishmen are under threat from this mildest and most reasonable of measures. Apparently the bare-breasted girl on page three of The Sun on Monday increased her allure to the voyeur by quoting Thomas Jefferson. By coincidence, on the same day, The Sun paid damages to a Labour MP who’d had her phone stolen. Somehow the phone got from the hands of the thief into The Sun’s office. Thereafter The Sun had access to the MP’s private texts and emails.

There’s nothing whatever in the measures to discourage or stop responsible investigative reporting. The Telegraph’s revelations in 2009 about MPs’ and Lords’ expenses, for instance, could be made with equal impunity under the new regime. So the deal made in Ed Miliband’s office at three o’clock on Monday morning, with all three major parties plus Hacked Off present, and which was presented to parliament later that day, does I think deserve the accolade ‘historic’. We’ll see how it works next time one of the usual suspects among the disgraceful newspapers does something immoral, illegal and contemptible, which undoubtedly will happen.

Nine days ago I went to the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square for a screening of four of the films of John Krish. His daughter Rachel is a friend of mine; we worked together at Channel 4 and Teachers TV. I didn’t know until she invited me that her father had been a distinguished documentary film maker in the 1950s and 1960s. All four black-and-white films, beautifully restored by the British Film Institute, are gems: one about the last week of the London trams, one about a day at the seaside for abused children from the slums of Birmingham, one about a brand-new secondary modern school, and one about an old man without much money, a widower living in a council flat somewhere in London, spending his Sunday alone. The films were tenderly observed, humorous and sad. The commentaries were more sententious than would be approved of these days. John Krish answered questions afterwards. He said he had been in the tradition of ‘made’ or, as he put it, ‘confected’ documentaries, rather than the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries which have been more in fashion in recent years. ‘You interfere with truth in order to get to truth,’ he said, or words to that effect.

Last Thursday I got up early and went to Heathrow to meet two of the scholars we have supported (in one case) or are supporting (in the other case) via the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong Scholarships we offer through the Canon Collins Trust. Juliet Perumal was one of our first scholars; we supported her for three years from 2001 while she was doing her PhD on aspects of gender in education. Kgadi Mathabathe is one of our current scholars; we began to support her this year in doing her PhD in science education methods in secondary schools. They’re both delightful people. Juliet is now at the University of Johannesburg, Kgadi at the University of Pretoria. We arranged for them to meet academics at King’s College, London and the Institute of Education who are working in their areas of interest. They had a tour of the Houses of Parliament in the company of Bob Hughes (Lord Hughes of Woodside, a long-time supporter of the Trust) and visited a girls’ school in Hackney. On Saturday there was a small meeting at the Canon Collins office. Present were some of the Trust’s staff, all the members of the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong organising group, and six other people. Sandy Balfour, the Chief Executive of the Trust, I, Kgadi and Juliet spoke, in that order. The women’s presentations were beautifully fluent, informative and extraordinarily moving. That evening we took our guests to the theatre (The Winslow Boy at The Old Vic), and on Sunday afternoon I drove them back to the airport.

This is what I said in my talk:

Hello everyone; and let me add my welcome to Sandy’s. I’m John Richmond, and I’m a member of the RMTF Scholarship Fund organising group. I’m going to talk for a while about the work of our Fund, before I introduce the first of the two RMTF scholars who have come from South Africa to be here today.

I think many people here know the sad original circumstances in which a group of us set up the Fund. Most of our group were school teachers many years ago, and we have continued since to work in education in various roles. A dear friend and colleague of ours, Ros Moger, died suddenly and without any warning on an aeroplane in the summer of 1999. Martin Buck, who was her partner, and who is here today, was with her when that happened. Ros was, I think, 49 years old at the time. She was a brave and brilliant English teacher, and teacher of teachers, who understood, among many other things, that education has a central role to play in the empowerment of the previously disempowered; in offering to children and young people from socio-economically poorer backgrounds the opportunity to take greater control of their lives. She also knew that ‘socio-economically poorer’ does not mean culturally poorer; rather, often, the reverse. Ros worked in schools in London where the richness and diversity of the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the students was, when properly recognised, a major feature of those schools’ strength; and she was a dynamic force in promoting that recognition.

Among Ros’s many interests and commitments in education, none was more important than her interest in the education of girls, and in the whole question of how gender equity can be advanced in all aspects of a school’s organisation and curriculum. Indeed, the 25 years or so of Ros’s sadly shortened career in education saw a gathering pace in a long march in the direction of gender equity in education. Ros was one of the shining lights among those marchers, as were other women in the room here today.

In the year following the dreadful shock of Ros’s sudden death, our group, including Martin of course, discussed what we could do to provide a fitting memorial to her life. We thought we might set up a new charity in her name. Then one of us — I think it was Kate Myers, who is sitting over there — had the brilliant idea that, rather than going through the long process of trying to gain our own charitable status, we should see whether the Canon Collins Trust would take us under its wing, and allow us to benefit from its existing charitable status and its organisational structure. The Trust’s then Chief Executive, Ethel de Keyser, welcomed us warmly. It had taken our group no time at all to decide that if we could raise money from friends and admirers of Ros in order to do some good in the world, there was no better cause than to enable students in southern Africa, who would otherwise have had difficulty affording it, to benefit from higher education in South Africa.

So we made contact with these friends and admirers, who gave generously, as did members of Ros’s family. We had enough money by the middle of the year 2000 for Martin to go to Cape Town in the autumn of that year (our autumn; Cape Town’s spring), in order to take part in the Trust’s annual selection process for scholars for the following year, 2001, and to choose the handful of scholars that we could afford with the funds we had. (I remind those of us who inhabit the northern hemisphere that the academic year in the southern hemisphere is the same as the calendar year.) Juliet Perumal, who’s here and who is going to talk to us this afternoon, was one of those first scholars.

One of the members of our group was Terry Furlong. Terry was, like Ros, a major figure in English teaching in the UK, who shared Ros’s and our commitments and beliefs. Alas, Terry developed lung cancer at about this time. He fought the illness long and bravely, lovingly supported by his partner Gabriel Genest, who is also here today; but he died at the end of May 2002. He was 59. Amid our sadness, we decided that the best way to honour Terry’s memory was to extend the Scholarship Fund to embrace his name as well as Ros’s. Gabriel of course became a member of our group at this time.

Once again, we invited friends and admirers of Terry, many of whom were the same people as had been friends and admirers of Ros, to give money. And once again they gave generously.

In these early years, the scholarships we awarded through the Trust were in the areas that had been Ros’s and Terry’s particular concerns and passions: gender in education, language, literature and drama in education, and education about the media. A few years later, I attended the annual Canon Collins lecture in London, where three South Africans spoke impressively and movingly about the fight against HIV and AIDS in their country, so we added that topic to the list of specialisms in which we were particularly interested. The truth now is that, without forgetting our original aims, and to the extent that our funds allow, we are interested in funding outstanding students from southern Africa, who are going to make a difference to the lives of children and young people in their country, in any area of education. Kgadi Mathabathe, who’s going to speak in a moment, is one of those people; and she is a science educator.

So the pattern of our work has been set. We now have just over 100 contributors to our fund. Most give regular amounts by standing order every month or every quarter. We’ve had one or two large single donations, which have helped us greatly. As with all charitable giving in the UK, every pound donated by a UK taxpayer is worth £1.25p to the charity as a result of our government’s Gift Aid scheme. In October or November of every year, we choose scholars for the next year. Either one of us goes to South Africa to take part in the Trust’s selection process, or, as a whole group, we read through a short list of application forms in London which members of the Trust’s staff have chosen for us from the hundreds they receive every year. We are, and we always will be, a little boutique within Canon Collins’s supermarket, but boutiques have their uses, and we are proud that we’ve been able to support 49 scholars since 2001. At the moment there’s about £120,000 in Canon Collins’s bank account with Ros’s and Terry’s names on it, as it were, and we’re funding 12 new and five continuing scholars in 2013.

The two reasons why we fund scholars to study in South Africa are simple. First, we want to make our very small contribution to the further development of higher education in the country; secondly, our money goes much further in South Africa than it would in a university in the UK. So we can help many more people that way. Until recently, the amount we gave to each scholar depended, to some extent, on how much they asked for; some seemed to need only small amounts — say £500 for one year only — and some much larger amounts over a longer period. Many potential scholars, I think, were spending too much time contacting numerous potential sources of funding, in the hope of collecting enough together to meet their needs. Since Sandy has taken over as CEO here, he’s instituted a new and simpler system, which works much better. We fund students at MA or PhD level or equivalent, and we pay the rand equivalent of £4000 per student per year. This covers all tuition fees and a good proportion of a scholar’s living costs.

Although all our scholars study in South Africa, they come from several countries in the region: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, as well as South Africa itself.

That’s the nuts and bolts of what we do. You’re going to hear first-hand stories from two of our scholars today. I thought I would add to those stories some snippets, second-hand, from other scholars whom we have supported.

Here’s something that Venicia Smith wrote to me in 2005:

‘I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from you for the 2004 academic year, and I trust that it will be possible again this year. [It was.]

I registered for the DPhil degree in applied linguistics in the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Western Cape. The scholarship that I received last year was used to pay part of my tuition fees, to buy books and stationery, and to pay for the editing of my final research proposal. An amount of R6,000 was used towards my travelling costs for attending an international conference in Cuba in June.

I was very grateful for this scholarship. For the first time in my study career, I could buy books. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I had to make use of photocopies or borrowed books. It also afforded me the opportunity to visit Cuba — something I will value and appreciate for the rest of my life.

Because of the scholarship, I could concentrate on my research, on reading extensively and writing my research proposal, which was approved at the end of October of last year. And I was allowed to proceed with my studies…

You would not know what your financial contribution means to students such as myself. It opens doors and learning opportunities that we, otherwise, would not have. It has a profound effect on our lives.’

And here’s something from Thembinkosi Mthonjeni in 2008:

‘I have been studying and am employed at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Interesting news is that I together with two black young women have started a printing, translation and training facility in West Bank, Kuilsriver. Over 85% of my studies have been completed, and the printing facility has had its first two translation jobs for HIV/AIDS treatment in the Cape. I can claim to have contributed to making AIDS treatment literacy information accessible in our country through this translation service…

I cannot over-emphasise the role played by Canon Collins in supporting my studies. Your contribution to education in South Africa and the rest of the continent is unbelievably important. It makes me think about others who have lost hope and enthusiasm for further education because they cannot access financial support. Above all, playing a role which is much more than providing financial support is unparalleled…’

Masabata Joyce Pitseng wrote me this in 2006:

‘I’m a 24-year-old female student at the University of the Free State. I’m studying for my Masters degree, which as you know is in language practice and management studies. The Canon Collins scholarship funding has helped me realise my dreams. I can now see myself as somebody. Because of my past experiences I used to think I did not deserve anything good in my life. By this scholarship I realised that this was not the case…

The beginning of the first semester academically was also exciting and enjoyable and I did well in my studies. In my race no one studies for a Masters degree at my age: mostly it is only older people of about 30 upwards [in other words, really old people]. So I’m one of the most fortunate and blessed to have studied for a Masters degree at the age of 23. I’m now 24 and still enjoying my degree. I am also the first one in my family to have gone to university for a degree study…

Of course studying has its negative aspects. Some people think that if I study too much I’ll never get a job because I’ll be over-qualified. Most of them also think that I’ll never get married and have a family of my own because black men are scared of career women or women who are learned. [May I just say, speaking as a white man, that it’s not only some black men who have that problem.] My parents also feel that I have studied too much and that by the time I get finished I’ll be too old to find a job. I always tell them that I’m investing in my future and one day they will see my investment…’

And here’s something which Faith Mkwesha-Manyonga, a Zimbabwean, wrote in 2011, while she was doing a PhD in English literature at Stellenbosch University:

‘I am who I am now because of the Ros Moger and Terry Furlong Scholarships… I got the scholarship just as I was considering withdrawing from the programme in 2010 because I had failed to raise the money for tuition fees. I am still a recipient of the scholarship and hope to complete my degree in 2012. [She did.]

My research is on gender and the nation. I plan to return to teaching in Zimbabwe after the completion of my degree and to make a contribution in social education and reconstruction. My dream is to have a department of gender and development studies established at my university [in Zimbabwe] and to be actively involved in helping women to write in order to have their voices heard through writing.’

Finally, here’s Joseph Mwansa, a Zambian, also writing in 2010:

‘The scholarship was a miracle to me. I had applied and paid a little for the MA in applied linguistics at the University of South Africa, but found it difficult to raise the total amount needed. Just when I was about to give up, God sent you people along to help me. It was the most joyous moment of my life…

I went on to research the possibility of knowledge and skill transfer of discourse features from a person’s first to their second language. I was then appointed a lecturer in literacy and language studies in the School of Education at the University of Zambia. This has enabled me to pass on the knowledge and skills I gained from my studies. I have combined this work with studying for a PhD.’

So, there are some pieces of recent testimony as to what the generosity of our contributors, some of whom are sitting here now, has been able to achieve. The last two of those statements I’ve drawn from the booklet we produced nearly two years ago, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Scholarship Fund. Those of you who attended the celebration event for that anniversary in May 2011 will have received a copy then. There’s another copy in the folder you have today, as well as some information about nine of our current 17 scholars and a list of all 49 scholars since the beginning, with their areas of study. There’s also, you will notice, a form to be filled in by anyone wanting to make a financial contribution to this important and ongoing work. I know that most people here already give; that’s why you’re here, and thank you. Please do pass the form on to friends who you think would like to join us. If an extra copy of the booklet would help to persuade them, we have spares. Just ask.

The thing that has impressed our group, year after year, though it no longer surprises us, is the sheer determination to overcome difficulties which characterises the applicants for scholarships — those that we’ve been able to say yes to and those, alas, that we’ve had to turn down for lack of funds. We regularly read of people pursuing their studies despite having to work at the same time to raise money to feed a family and to pay for the schooling of their children, or of their late relatives’ children whom they have taken in, or to support elderly parents. To find the time and the mental space to concentrate on demanding academic topics while so much is being asked of them elsewhere is truly heroic. I’ll just read one account, among many, of this kind of situation. I won’t give the name of the person.

‘Although I am employed, my financial resources are under pressure due to family commitments and have been for a while. I have three children of my own and also have to support my elderly mother and my late brother’s two daughters back home… I have been hoping to study for this degree since 2007 when I completed my MSc but I have not found the resources to do it. Looking forward, it appears that the pressure on my finances will increase as my eldest daughter is going into the last year of primary school and my niece is starting high school next year and I need to pay for their education. Both my brother and his wife are late and the children are with my mother. Although I am married, my husband is the breadwinner for his elderly parents and an ailing relative and that puts more strain on our finances which leave very little for me to study…’

We said yes to this person, not because our hearts were wrung by what I’ve just read out, but because of the quality of her ideas and the clarity of their presentation. It’s against odds like those she describes that our scholars, and indeed the far greater number of scholars funded by Canon Collins as a whole, succeed academically and go on to take up positions of influence in the countries of southern Africa. They have richly deserved the support we have been able to offer.

I mentioned earlier that we have funded 12 new scholars in 2013. One of them is Kgadi Mathabathe, who has just begun a three-year PhD in science education at the University of Pretoria. And here she is. We welcome her warmly to London. (She needs a warm welcome given the temperature here; I think it’s about 25 degrees in Pretoria.) She’s going to talk to us now.

In one sense, the meeting was a failure. It had taken up a large amount of my and other people’s time since before Christmas. We had written twice to our 100+ contributors, and followed up with phone calls and emails. Of the six outsiders who came, two had nothing to do with our publicity at all, but were South African friends of Juliet’s who live in London. I shouldn’t think the event will produce any increase in contributions, and it has cost us about £2,500 to fly Juliet and Kgadi over and to look after them here. And yet the occasion was one of the most inspiring I’ve attended or been responsible for. It certainly re-affirmed the value of what we’ve been doing awarding these scholarships for the last 12 years, and made us all determined to continue, which we can do, at least for a few years more, with the healthy bank balance we have.

We went to The Winslow Boy that evening because Sue Davidson, a member of our group, was able to get special tickets through her friend Deborah Findlay, who was in the play. I wasn’t sure whether Terence Rattigan’s terribly English piece about a pre-First-World-War question of honour in an upper-middle-class family would appeal to our visitors; but they loved it, and so did I. Rattigan was famously out of fashion for many years, being regarded as socially limited in his subject matter and technically constrained by the limits of the ‘well-made play’. But this production showed what an excellent comic writer he was: a virtue that balanced the tendency to speechifying in the text. And the play’s concerns, including defiance of the establishment and the emergence of women’s rights (as personified by the hero’s daughter, who is a suffragette), forcibly struck contemporary chords. As for ‘well-made’ as a term of disapprobation: I like well made. I try to make my poems well.

Camden Town

20 March 2013

I’ve just been watching the Chancellor’s budget statement, Ed Miliband’s reply, some of the immediate reaction from the BBC’s political and economic commentators, and interviews with Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor.

Macro-economically, the budget paints an unrelievedly grim picture; micro-economically, there are some good features.

The official estimate for economic growth in 2013 has been reduced in the space of three months from 1.2% to 0.6%, and the prospect of significant future growth recedes further and further into the distance. Reduction of the annual deficit and the accumulating national debt as a proportion of GDP is also postponed. Government borrowing remains high. Whether or not it’s higher or lower than it was this time last year is a judgment based on all sorts of technical factors. But because the heavy-duty wealth-creating machine — the productive economy — has stalled, the Chancellor is reduced to tinkering, while hoping for some good news to turn up before the next election.

Some of the tinkerings are good. It’s good that the level at which people begin to pay income tax will rise to £10,000 from April 2014. It’s good that Corporation Tax will come down to 20% from April 2015. There are two interesting measures to stimulate the housing market and encourage house building: people buying new properties will be eligible for a loan from the government, interest-free for five years, for up to 20% of the value of the property; and there will be government guarantees for new mortgages taken out on the purchase of any property (subject to the usual credit checks) which should encourage lenders to lend with more confidence. Employers will see a reduction in their National Insurance contributions. The tax-avoidance havens closest to the UK — Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man — have entered into some kind of agreement with the Treasury which will bring in more money, and there are promises of tougher action against tax avoidance and tax evasion generally.

Previously announced measures will benefit some groups. The new, simplified, flat-rate state pension, to be introduced a year earlier now, from April 2016, will I think have more winners than losers. There’s going to be significant help with childcare: parents will receive up to £1,200 per year per child towards the cost of childcare, but not until autumn 2015 (why so long to wait?).

It’s unreservedly good that we will as a country at last begin to spend 0.7% of GDP annually on international development during this parliament.

Under these pieces of good news, which are a kind of cheerful descant trilling away at the top of the musical stave, sound the gloomy fundamental bass notes: real incomes falling every year for millions of working people on low or moderate incomes and for those of working age, working or not, who depend partially or wholly on benefits; very high unemployment; a collapse in the public sector which is not being compensated for by growth in the private sector; an increasingly divided society. Whatever the actual facts about the amount of government income forgone by the reduction in the top rate of tax from 50% to 45%, which will occur in two weeks’ time, the symbolism is stark: the rich get richer. Some of the rich owe their wealth to entrepreneurial brilliance, creativity and hard work. Creativity and a capacity for hard work are also characteristics of most school teachers and nurses. Others of the rich owe their wealth to self-seeking ruthlessness, to working in industries where serious money is plentiful and easy to get, or to activities which border or enter on the criminal. There is no argument for giving the rich more, and I hope that the political damage to the Conservatives when that measure comes into force will be significant.

Camden Town

22 March 2013

Peter Hetherington came down to London this morning. I met him at St Pancras, we walked back here for coffee and lunch, then took a cab to a sound suite near Baker Street and recorded the poems and translations I’ve done in the past year. It went very well. Peter’s readings of my translations of Montale’s ‘Mediterraneo’ and of the passage at the end of book 2 of The Aeneid, about the sack of Troy and Aeneas’s desperate search for his wife, were magnificent. Len Brown recommended this recording studio, Air Edel, and he turned up just before the end of the session, having been filming. As I mentioned earlier this month, I’ve recently written three poems at Len’s commission, something I don’t usually do, because he, apart from being a superb film maker, is a superb stills photographer, and he suggested that we might try putting my words together with sequences of his photographs, and adding music and effects. We had a go at one combination, ‘Clouds’, in his house on 6 March. It was pretty good. I think he’s going to finish this multi-media compilation using the better-quality reading of the poem which I’ve just done. He wanted a poem called ‘Streets’. He has beautiful photographs, going back 40 years, of largely empty streets all over the world. I ended up writing a piece which doesn’t help him; it’s called ‘Out of City’, and it’s about refugees fleeing. ‘Sometimes a poem’s not a poet’s choice.’ I shall try writing one about empty streets soon. And I did one called ‘The River’, which in my mind was a French river, say the Rhône, described from source to mouth. He thinks he can do something with that.

Camden Town

26 March 2013

We’ve just been to see Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar. Earlier this year, we saw another Pinero play, The Magistrate, at the National. The Magistrate is a hilarious farce from start to finish; Trelawney is both funny and touching. Both plays excellent and brilliantly performed. What with these and The Winslow Boy, we’ve enjoyed old-fashioned examples of the dramatist’s craft at its most accomplished.

I’m in the middle of a seventh Madame Granic story. I’m going to keep up the strike rate, now I’ve restarted the series, until I’ve got a book-length collection. The stories are probably the only things I’ve ever written which might have some commercial value.

Camden Town

1 April 2013

Easter Monday. On Good Friday, I thought I’d re-read Donne’s great poem ‘Good-Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’, but I’d forgotten the year of composition. Exactly 400 years ago! So on Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday morning I wrote a tribute poem, ‘Good Friday 2013. Driving Westward’. It’s in exactly the same form as the original — iambic pentameters, rhyming couplets — and exactly the same length — 42 lines. A learned article by A.B. Chambers, published in 1961 in English Literary History, a Johns Hopkins University journal, which I found on the internet, helped with some of the difficulties in Donne’s poem, and suggested some of the argument in mine. I’m pleased with my effort. It also makes a nice balance with the other Donne tribute poem I did, about ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’: profane versus sacred, confidently lascivious versus humbly reverential. Supposedly, I’m driving through Warwickshire on Good Friday, just as Donne, in all probability, was riding through that county on that day (29 March 2013 by the Gregorian calendar; 2 April 1613 by the Julian). In fact I’ve been here in Camden Town all weekend, but I’m not bothered.

Looking back over the entries during the last month, I notice Wordsworthian musings about mild weather on 5 March. The following day, when I went down to Len Brown’s house in Ealing, we sat in the back garden and watched bees buzzing around the blossom. Since then, the weather has gone into reverse. It was the coldest March on record. Day after day, the temperature hovers a little above zero, and registers minus at night. Every tree and plant is stalled. There isn’t much sun; mainly slow-moving cloud. We went for a walk in Regents Park yesterday afternoon. I’ve never seen the place looking so pinched. There were a few shivering daffodils, it’s true. The only virtue of the prolonged chill is that such flowers and blossom as have opened have remained open; there’s no heat to hurry their cycle through. The beautiful big mimosa in Barker Drive has been bright yellow for about six weeks now. Same with the Cornelian cherries in the park.

There have been snowstorms, with real blizzards and big drifts, in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands and the north of England. Sheep farmers have had a terrible time, losing thousands of ewes and lambs. And, according to the weather forecasters, spring is not ‘just around the corner’. These conditions, they say, might well continue for most of April.

Camden Town

23 April 2013

St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday and the day of his death, and Wordsworth’s birthday; and the most beautiful, warm day it is. I’ve been over to Stoke Newington to have lunch with Paul Ashton and to talk about his latest book, a lovely fiction called The Flight into Egypt, which imagines what happened to Jesus in the gap of time between the slaughter of the innocents and the day he appears in the temple at Jerusalem at the age of 12 and amazes the scholars by his learning and intelligence. The book’s cleverness is that the fiction is not simply realistic. Animals recognise Jesus’ greatness when he is still a tiny baby. The baby ‘talks’ to the animals through the head of his half-brother James, who’s 12 years old and who narrates the story, although in Jesus’ human form he doesn’t know he’s doing it. The Egyptian gods realise that a formidable challenge to their power has come into their land. Some of them, in their jealousy and fear, try to destroy the holy family. There are narrow escapes from pursuing Roman soldiers. It’s very good: part adventure story, part magic realism, with some comedy to lighten it and a certain amount of theology to weigh it down. I’m going to do the editing and proof-reading job I do on all Paul’s books. This is his fourth.

Two days after I last wrote, I was walking from the Borough, where I’d been to check on the Mellors’ flat, to The Young Vic in Waterloo, where I would meet Helen. We were going to see a short piece called My Perfect Mind, starring Edward Petherbridge, about the stroke that Petherbridge suffered in New Zealand as he was on the point of fulfilling his lifelong ambition to play King Lear. In Union Street the phone rang. It was David James. Lindsay, after a terrible night between Tuesday 2 and Wednesday 3 April, had been taken into hospital and was obviously near the end. I said I’d tell Helen and that we’d probably drive up the next day. Helen was very upset when I told her in the foyer of the theatre, but we went to the play anyway.

The next morning at nine o’clock I rang David’s mobile. He’d spent all night in the ward next to Lindsay. She was coming to the end of her life. I said we would leave during the morning and arrive in Shrewsbury in the early afternoon. I’d ring from the edge of the town to see whether it would be appropriate to come straight to the hospital. At about ten o’clock I was on the way to the High Street to get cash from the bank and sandwiches for the trip when David rang to say that Lindsay had just died. I stood in Barker Drive by the little park and tried to say the things which David would want to hear then. He said that he would be going home shortly. We agreed that we’d meet at Harmer Hill. When we arrived, at about half past two, David and Tom were there, with David’s parents Ron and Yvonne and Barbara Bradshaw, who with her husband David Bradshaw is one of David James’s oldest friends, and who had ministered to Lindsay wonderfully during her last days.

The two weeks and two days between that day and last Saturday, when we arrived back in London, were of course extraordinary. I have recently dealt with my parents’ deaths and funerals, and with my great aunt Margaret’s; my parents were in their eighties and Margaret 96. It’s a different matter to be involved with the death of a woman of 57, with a husband of the same age, a child of 14, and a mother still alive.

Helen and I did all the things that close friends should do, and which we would hope others would do for us. I think my job was the easier: to advise, organise and, when necessary, console. Helen did the harder job of looking after Tom during the hours when David and I were out visiting the registrar, or the funeral director, or the bank, or the solicitor, or the hospital (this last in order that David could say thank you); or when we were in his study with the door closed, writing letters and emails and deciding on the order of service for the funeral.

Every evening we ate a proper three-course meal, with wine and the candles lit, as Lindsay would have wanted. I went to see Lindsay’s mother Beryl in her bungalow in Oswestry several times. I admire her intelligence, courage and stoicism very much.

The funeral was held on 18 April in the church at Rhydycroesau where David and Lindsay were married in 1994. The service was conducted by David Crowhurst, who had married them. 19 years ago he was vicar of Oswestry and rector of Rhydycroesau. He’s now retired, and he and his wife live at Dorrington. His words and actions, when we went to see him at his house, when he visited us at Harmer Hill, and when he officiated on the day, were exactly what one would hope for in a pastor.

18 April was a beautiful day: perfect springtime after a long spell of cold weather. Sheep and lambs bleated in the fields. The church, which I should think seats about 100, was packed to the doors. People stood at the back and occupied the staircase up to the organ loft. There were three familiar hymns: ‘O God, our help in ages past’, ‘Guide me, O thou great redeemer’ and ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest’. David Bradshaw read Peter Levi’s poem ‘The break of day and the falling of night’. Christine Davies read 1 Peter chapter 1, verses 3 to 9. David had written a tribute to Lindsay, which I read on his behalf. Here it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘incredible’ as ‘impossible to believe’. And that’s the first thing to say. It is impossible to believe that Lindsay is not still here; that someone who so represented life, and who lived life to the full, has been swept from the face of the earth. As King Lear says, finding that his beloved daughter has been slain:

‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?’

But Lindsay wouldn’t have wanted me to continue in this vein. I can hear her saying, ‘For goodness sake, David, get on with it: it is what it is. The last thing they’ll want is you quoting Shakespeare and making everyone thoroughly miserable.’

In offering this advice, as in so much else that she said and did, she would be absolutely right; and the words I hear in my head are a sort of metaphor for our relationship: I, circumspect, hesitant, thinking through the implications, slow to action; she, straight out of the traps, getting things done, making a difference. One of her favourite sayings was: ‘In the time it takes to think about it, you could have done it.’ Quite so.

**********

We first got to know each other when we were working for the local education authority in Shropshire. I had come from a job in Solihull and she had moved from a successful teaching career in Oswestry. Somehow or other we were jointly commissioned to go down to Bishops Castle to do a session of governor training. As we drove there together, passing Pontesbury and Minsterley and ascending the Hope Valley, I began to realise that I was in the presence of a remarkable person; even, perhaps, of a higher power. And when, on the outskirts of Bishops Castle, an unexpected hand reached arrestingly from the back of the car and grasped my shoulder, my realisation was confirmed. The hand, or should I say paw, was that of Lindsay’s dog Poppy, who had lain in the back completely unnoticed and who accompanied her on all business trips.

At the governors’ meeting, all the qualities in Lindsay which continued to beguile me for the next 20 years and more were present: her instinctive grasp of the right thing to say, her natural authority, her ability to hold an audience, her humour, her common sense. The idea that I could provide a more specialist input into the general session she was doing proved superfluous, of course.

We got to know each other better over succeeding weeks and months. She moved into my house in Darwin Terrace in 1992 and we were married, in this church, by David Crowhurst, who is conducting the service today, on 23 July 1994, a gloriously sunny day which will be remembered by all who were there. I had previously decided to propose to Lindsay in a restaurant near Abergavenny called The Walnut Tree. Unfortunately, the tables were so tightly packed that any proposal to Lindsay might have been entertained by several other women at the same time. Instead, I popped the question in the car park afterwards. Poppy, of course, was again present to witness the event and to offer her canine blessing.

**********

Those who knew her will remember Lindsay the gardener, Lindsay the cook, Lindsay the education officer and project manager. I shall speak of her briefly in these capacities.

After Darwin Terrace we moved a couple of times to new houses on The Mount in Shrewsbury and, in 2004, to our current house in Harmer Hill. This last choice of property was typical of Lindsay: it has almost an acre of land, half of it then wilderness, which she was determined to transform into the most splendid kitchen garden. Her preference for painting on a big canvas is nowhere better illustrated than in this: we now have no fewer than 16 raised fruit and vegetable beds, accommodating every form of produce. It was typical of Lindsay that only a few weeks before she died, she sent Tom and me off to Percy Thrower’s to purchase something upwards of 200 seed potatoes. I’ve made a start on the first earlies.

Once Lindsay’s cancer returned in 2010, she decided on a complete revamp of the floral spaces she so loved, with new beds, exotic trees, and a large pond. Alas, she hasn’t lived to see this work completed, but completed it will be in her name. The professional gardeners and plants people who have advised on the work have been amazed at Lindsay’s ability to name species of shrub and flower with knowledge equal to theirs. She knew her trachelospermum from her amelanchier, and knew exactly where she wanted them put. Her upbringing with her parents Graham and Beryl and brother Martin was on a smallholding at Maesbury, and she never lost her connection with the country and country lore. This was so beguiling about her: she was a wonderfully feminine and stylish person who also knew how to milk a cow, set a mole trap and deal with a wasp nest.

To the many lunch and dinner parties she so ably hosted she brought all her flair and skill as a former home economics lecturer. (Incidentally, she disliked the term ‘home economics’, and was even more uncomplimentary about ‘food technology’. ‘Why don’t they call it “cooking”?’ she used to say. ‘We should teach young people to cook.’) She produced superb food with the minimum of apparent effort and the maximum of panache. Some of you will recall our pre-Christmas parties, where her talents for entertaining were most fully expressed. Even when she was ill, and receiving chemotherapy, she continued to host these parties, sweeping all along with her infectious enthusiasm. She thought nothing of knocking up dishes which could have won Master Chef: twice-baked soufflés, saffron-scented fish terrines, cuisses de canard infused with aromatic tea.

Lindsay’s effectiveness as an educational administrator, manager, team leader and motivator of people is evident in the enormous number of tributes from former colleagues we’ve received over the last few days, all of whom testify to her drive, clarity and ability to inspire people at work. Christine Davies, who led the education service in Telford, has written this of Lindsay’s professional qualities:

‘Lindsay had an immaculate eye for detail, forward thinking and planning. Nothing was ever left to chance, but she never personally sought the limelight, preferring to be behind the scenes. These characteristics were evident when she organised the visits of Princess Diana, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and, of course, the Queen to Telford and Wrekin. And she organised the entire launch of the new unitary authority in 1998. She also ensured that we were all appropriately dressed for each occasion!

She was tenacious and straight-talking. Chairs of Governors in both Shropshire and Telford quailed but paid attention when Lindsay advised them, in no uncertain terms, what to do, what not to do, when to do it and when not to do it.

She was immensely loyal — to her staff, her colleagues and her friends — and enormously kind and caring. When people were ill or vulnerable, she would go out of her way to bring flowers, cook casseroles and bake cakes, despite working full days, having her own family and her own pressures.’

**********

I, of course, knew Lindsay in a very special way, as my friend, partner, wife and mother of our son Tom. Tom and I are so privileged that we saw, on a daily basis, the intelligent, organised, straightforward person experienced by others; but also the person who had a natural sympathy for those in need and an almost complete selflessness. She was always moved by the plight of the victims we see nightly on our TV screens, whether this arose from earthquakes, famines or war.

She wanted the best for us and she instinctively committed herself to give of her best in all things. She is an impossible act to follow: the world has lost a truly remarkable person.

David Crowhurst preached a good and affectionate short sermon, and there were prayers, the commendation and a blessing. Helen and I followed the coffin and the family out of the church. Outside, there were about 50 people standing. Someone told me later that when the hymns started, most of those people, having neither the order of service nor a hymn book, sang the hymns from memory in the open air.

The ladies of the congregation at Rhydycroesau laid on a terrific tea in the village hall. A small group of us — David, Tom, Helen and I, Beryl, Lindsay’s brother Martin and his wife Brenda — followed the hearse in our two cars to the crematorium in Shrewsbury. David Crowhurst was already there, having driven in his own car a bit faster than the hearse. There was a short final ceremony, and we left. The funeral director did his job beautifully. He told me how sad he was personally: he had been at school with Lindsay in Oswestry. Then we drove back to Rhydycroesau for the remains of the tea and to greet those few guests who remained; we’d been away two hours. On our way back to Harmer Hill, once the last guest had departed, David Bradshaw, David and Tom, Helen and I stopped at The Talbot in Ruyton XI Towns. Tom didn’t want his father to drink even a half of bitter (he wasn’t driving); he said that alcohol will kill you. I knew why he said it. Nonetheless, David had two halves.

The following night, the family (including David’s parents), David Bradshaw, Mike Raleigh, Kate Myers, Helen and I met at a very good restaurant in Oswestry called The Walls. We had a lovely secluded square table and ate an excellent meal in Lindsay’s memory. I’ve just looked back at my entry for 7 August last year, remembering how Lindsay had begun planning her funeral service with me then. I didn’t write at the time that she also started to make suggestions for a post-funeral meal, including venue (the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel) and menu. At this point I drew the line, telling her that she really mustn’t extend her formidable powers of organisation too far beyond her departure. I think the venue we chose was better than the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel would have been: it’s in the town of her birth, and is very close to where her mother lives. She would have approved of the food; although not as sophisticated as that which she regularly produced, it was fresh, hearty and wholesome, accompanied by a crisp Pouilly-Fumé and a well-made claret.

Helen and I, together with David and Barbara Bradshaw and Martin and Brenda Richards, are Tom’s guardians until he’s 21 should — God forbid — his father die before then. I’m also an executor of David’s new will, although I hope never to have to undertake that duty, since I’m four years older than he. David and Tom are coming to Rodellosso with us at the end of May, and to Kerfontaine in the summer.

Margaret Thatcher died on 8 April. Her funeral service, in St Paul’s Cathedral, took place the day before Lindsay’s. I’m glad that my preoccupation with the aftermath of the death of a private citizen meant that I didn’t pay much attention to the public noise which Lady Thatcher’s death caused. She divided the nation in death as she had in life. Disgracefully, the taxpayer made a contribution of several million pounds to the cost of her funeral. I would think it equally disgraceful if the taxpayer contributed to the cost of the funeral of a politician I admired. With typical cunning, the government did not officially term the event a state funeral, although that is what it was in all but name. Churchill 50 years ago had a full state funeral, which was appropriate because of his leadership of the country during the war. I think Gladstone (not an uncontroversial figure, though certainly a great statesman) had a state funeral, so there is a precedent. One thing is certain: there won’t be another state funeral for a politician in my lifetime.

Camden Town

30 April 2013

Since I last wrote about my brother Peter, he has found a buyer for his house, and the builders of his new flat have finished it, two months later than they said they would. So two days after returning from Shropshire, I went down to Canterbury to organise the last stages of the move. Money was squirted around in such a way that Peter will enter the flat with no mortgage. Mary and I have between us lent him £12,000 until June, when he will take early retirement from the NHS and the Church of England, and pay us back out of his lump sums. The actual move took place on Friday; it went very smoothly, helped by two excellent young men who have a little local removal company. I was back home by four o’clock, having left Peter with his children, who had everything under control.

Saturday was Stephen Eyers’ 70th birthday. He organised a magnificent lunch party for 20 people in Dorich House, a 1936 art deco dwelling built for the sculptor Dora Gordine by her husband Richard Hare. Hare was 12 years younger than Gordine, and died of a heart attack in 1966. Gordine stayed on in the house until her death in 1991, when she must have been 95 or 96. Many of her sculptures are still there. The house now belongs to the University of Kingston, where Stephen works, and is available for hire for parties.

We arrived at Stephen’s house at 10, and gave him his presents: a linocut called ‘Plunge’, done by our friend Martin Davidson, and three black-and-white photos of Stephen and me which Helen took on one of our Italy trips in the late 70s, and which she’d had reprinted and specially framed. We went in a taxi to Dorich House. The 20 of us first had a guided tour, then champagne and canapés, then a four-course meal with lots of wine. I read a poem I’d written the evening before:

We meet to praise a man who has attained today
The age that, we remember, preachers used to say
‘The Spinner of the Years’ had chosen to allot
To us poor mortals; seventy was what you got.

I hesitate, dear friends, to contradict a truth
So soundly hammered into us in early youth,
But I’ll be bold: that talk of threescore years and ten
Consoled, may still console, some lesser kinds of men
But it won’t do for one who sows the seeds of life.
May his wild harvests prove yet wilder and more rife;
May he enjoy a bumper crop of bonus years
In liberation from that jail of childish fears.
Stephen, we love you; and we offer you this toast:
The love we’ve more desired, you have deserved the most;
We wish you happy birthday and, if these thoughts seem too weighty,
Please lighten them by asking us to lunch when you are eighty!

Stephen then made a speech ambulando, moving around the table and referring to the effect that each of those present had had on his life. He said he would do it with no more by way of notes than his preacher father used to have when delivering his sermons: three words or phrases written one above another on a piece of paper. He managed this, despite being burdened by drink as his father had never been in the Conditional Immortality Mission Hall, Boscombe.

After the lunch, a few of us went back to the house in a taxi for yet more drinks. At about nine o’clock, I felt an overwhelming desire for a curry, and went down the road with Heather Loxton to an excellent Sri Lankan place, returning half an hour later with a large takeaway. This soaked up some of the alcohol, and tasted delicious. Helen and I left at midnight. It was stupid to drive; I would have been miles over the limit if stopped, but I was ultra-careful and got home undetected.

On Sunday we were unusually quiet.

Marseille

3 June 2013

Here we are again staying with Mary and Jacques, after another week at Rodellosso in Tuscany. This is the fourth time we’ve been there. It has become a regular feature of our year. We’re going back there again at the end of this month. The reason for this odd and rather inefficient perambulation is that the only week David, Tom and Lindsay, had she lived, could have come was Tom’s half-term week, which was last week. I was very pleased that David decided that he and Tom would come despite their loss. Mike Raleigh and Kate Myers, Peter and Merle Traves and our friend Deirdre Finan came too; we took all five apartments. Stephen and Bronwyn Mellor also wanted to come, but weren’t arriving from Australia until later. Happily, the week they can make, 29 June to 6 July, coincides with the end of Tess’s school year, so Mary, Jacques and Tess are joining us, and we shall have three apartments. Tomorrow we head back towards Brittany, arriving on Wednesday evening. We’ll be there for two and a half weeks before returning south.

Rodellosso was as beautiful as ever, and we tasted the usual pleasures. Because the weather was unseasonably cold and wet, we travelled more and looked at more art and architecture than we might otherwise have done. We visited or revisited Siena, Cortona and Arezzo, and frequented the little local towns of Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino. Culturally, the highlight for me was the Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’ in the Museo Diocesano in Cortona, which I last saw some time in the late 1980s. This time there was no one in the museum apart from our group: an extraordinary privilege to see such a masterwork in peace and quiet, with no distraction.

Last year, Bronwyn made me aware of Iris Origo, a wealthy Irish-American woman, born in 1902, brought up in conditions of great privilege in Italy, who married an Italian marchese, Antonio Origo. In 1923, just before they were married, they bought an estate of 3,500 acres, La Foce, which is very near to where we stay at Rodellosso. I had already read Iris’s excellent book The Merchant of Prato, without realising who she was. Bronwyn had read her War in the Val d’Orcia, which I then read in its Italian translation. It’s a remarkable account, written secretly as a diary in 1943 and 1944, of resistance to the German invasion after Mussolini’s downfall and Italy’s change of sides. The Origos, as enlightened, wealthy landowners, had revolutionised farming methods and the treatment of their tenant farmers in the years before the war. They built a school and a hospital, and when the war came they took in refugee children from bombed cities in the north of Italy. The climax of the book comes when they find themselves, in June 1944, right at the centre of the most savage fighting between the advancing Allies and the retreating and revengeful Germans. There’s an extraordinary passage in which, having decided that it’s too dangerous to remain at La Foce, they and their assistants walk, leading or carrying the refugee children and their own two children through the heart of the bombing and shelling, with dead men and animals on all sides, to the safety of a friend’s house and underground cellars at Montepulciano.

We visited La Foce last Wednesday and had a tour of the gardens in the rain. What can be done with money: astonishing formal beauty, created by the architect Cecil Pinsent, who had also improved and extended the house. I’m now reading Iris Origo’s autobiography, and will have more to say when I’ve finished it.

Going back a bit: we arrived at Kerfontaine on 4 May. During the first week there, I did a lot of work in the garden. On 13 May, Peter and Monica Hetherington came and stayed for eight days. It was great to be able to show them the beauties of the area, and — as often happens when a host makes a special effort for guests — we found two magnificent new walks: the Côte Sauvage on the west of the Quiberon peninsula, and the coastal walk west from Doëlan. The rainy spring meant that there were wild flowers of all kinds in profusion. The same has been true throughout France and in Italy.

Today is the first properly hot day of the Marseille summer. Helen and I walked down to the Vieux Port, and admired from the outside the grands projets still in the process of completion to mark the city’s status as European City of Culture 2013, especially the Musée des civilisations d’Europe et de la Méditerranée, which is due to open on Friday. I expect we’ll visit when we’re next here. Then we wandered up through the rapidly gentrifying Le Panier, had an Orangina and an iced tea behind the Hôtel de Ville, and came home on the métro.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve written a pamphlet for the United Kingdom Literacy Association called Teaching Reading: How To. It’s an abridged, revised and updated version of an item in the ‘Teaching of Reading’ section of www.languageandlearning.net. The item itself was a turning into prose of notes for talks I used to give about the early teaching of reading. When I was putting the website together last year, I was angry about a number of the government’s stupidities and zealotries with regard to English, notably its fixation on synthetic phonics as the only way to teach children to read, and its policy of bribing and bullying primary schools to adopt only that approach. My friends Eve Bearne and David Reedy, who are both senior people in ULKA, agreed to publish the pamphlet. It came out last month, and I’m pleased with it. I would be astonished if it made any difference to government policy, but I hope it might encourage a few teachers and teacher-trainers to resist the government’s diktat.

Two weeks ago I had an email from Simon Gibbons, the Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, to say that the NATE trustees have decided to give me an award for ‘Lifetime service to English education, in acknowledgement of your work both as a teacher and writer and as one involved with educational programming’. I must say, I’m terribly pleased. They want to present me with the award at the NATE conference dinner on Saturday 29 June, in Stratford-upon-Avon. So, having arrived again at Rodellosso the previous day, I shall get up before dawn on the Saturday, drive to Pisa, fly to Paris and on to Birmingham, get myself to Stratford, receive the award and make a speech, stay the night, and do the journey in reverse on the Sunday.

The award causes me to feel that the idiosyncratic accumulation of writings and activities which has made up not so much a career as a succession of enjoyable experiences has been noticed in some quarters and has perhaps made a difference here and there; which gives me satisfaction. I’m not an academic and I’m not an intellectual, in the narrower senses of those words. But I think I have had a talent for taking good educational ideas, often brought into being by people who have been proper academics and intellectuals, and making them more readily available to teachers. And, as the Duke of Kent says in King Lear, ‘To be acknowledged… is to be o’erpaid.’ Never were truer words put into the mouth of such a bad man.

Kerfontaine

11 June 2013

There will be a delay in my finishing Iris Origo’s autobiography, because I have unwisely used it for its physical rather than its intellectual weight. When we’re in Marseille, Mary and Jacques kindly let us park the car — a rather prominent British-registered Land Rover Freelander, and perhaps vulnerable to break-ins if left on the street — in their little lock-up garage. The car just squeezes in. When backing out, it’s necessary to put something on the radio aerial so that it doesn’t buckle backwards and break on the underside of the opened garage door. The book did the job, and then of course I forgot that it was there as we drove off. What are the chances of an English-speaking person finding it in a gutter and enjoying it? Slim, but not non-existent. My foolishness reminds me of an even greater piece of absent-mindedness committed just before Christmas last year. Martina Thomson has done a book of translations of the German poems of Paula Ludwig. It’s very good; she had been showing me them as they accumulated, and I had made one or two suggestions about details. Martina knew Paula Ludwig. She came to their house in Berlin when Martina was a child. Ludwig could also paint, and in the book of translations there is a reproduction of a painting she did of Martina as a little girl, with — I think — her brother. Anyhow, Martina gave me a touchingly inscribed copy of the book. One early evening about ten days before Christmas, I wrote the Christmas cards, about 80 of them, and then decided to go to the pub to read the whole book at my leisure. On the way to the pub I posted the cards and, alas, the book, which I had dropped into a shopping bag with them. I simply grabbed the whole stack and stuffed them in two or three goes into the box, forgetting about the slim volume amongst them. I felt guilty and foolish, but knew immediately that I wasn’t going to hang about and throw myself on the mercy of the Post Office employee who next came to empty the box. I had also bought a few copies of the book, so it wasn’t necessary to confess my folly to Martina. The tossing away of the two books, I console myself, may be a little like those actes gratuits that the surrealists used to perform. Perhaps their discovery has had unintended, unenvisaged consequences in the world. Probably not.

I shall wait until we get back to Pienza at the end of the month before buying another copy of the Origo autobiography. I know that I could have one more quickly through Amazon. But I’ve stopped using Amazon because of its disgusting tax-avoidance practices. If Google, Amazon, Apple, Starbucks and the others could be made to pay proper corporation tax in each country where they make their profits, rather than using cross-border jiggery-pokery to reduce their tax liability, the nation states involved, including the UK, wouldn’t be in quite such deep fiscal crisis.

A few weeks ago, I read William Dalrymple’s Return of a King. It’s the first of his books I’ve read. It’s quite excellent. It tells the tragic story of Britain’s first entanglement in Afghanistan, in 1839. Because of our paranoid fear that Russia would invade Afghanistan and then threaten British control of India, we foolishly invaded the country in order to re-establish on its throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. The Shah was the wrong horse to back. For two years, with breathtaking complacency and incompetence, we sat in Afghanistan, until we had made ourselves unpopular enough to provoke a rebellion from a coalition of Afghans opposed to us and to the Shah. We retreated towards India through the Afghan winter, and were slaughtered on the way. This humiliation provoked a new invasion with the sole purpose of retribution. In the course of this second invasion, we committed acts which would now be described as war crimes. Then we retreated again. Our own barbarism was matched by the sadistic savagery of the Afghans who resisted our interference in their affairs.

The relevance of the debacle to the current situation in Afghanistan is obvious, though the parallels, for me, are not exact. It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that I reluctantly supported the American-led invasion of the country in 2001, to overthrow the Taliban who were governing the country with a barbarity towards their own people equivalent to that demonstrated in the acts committed against invaders by their forefathers, which Dalrymple describes; and, it must be admitted, to take revenge for the attacks of 11 September. The case was different, for me, from Iraq in 2003, crucially because the United Nations supported the invasion of Afghanistan and not that of Iraq. I have written all this before. We have now left Iraq, and next year we will finally leave Afghanistan. Despite the optimistic propaganda offered by American and British politicians and generals, I have no great confidence that the Taliban will not simply resume their barbarous governance of the country once we leave. If that is the case, will anything worthwhile have been achieved to compensate for the death, destruction and expense? I wish I knew. I wonder if even those at the heights of power know, PR messages aside, what is actually likely to happen.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the carnage continues. A few months ago, I wrongly wrote that Assad was finished. I fear I was just repeating an opinion I had read in a newspaper. The Assad regime has recently regained some of the territory and towns it had lost to the rebels. Russia continues to supply it with arms, and fighters from Hezbollah have come from Lebanon to help. Iran also backs Assad. The West wrings its hands, regrets the almost certain use of chemical weapons by the regime, and refrains from helping the rebels to anything like the extent that Russia supports the regime. The problem, apart from the West’s reluctance to get involved in a new war involving a Muslim country, is that some very unpleasant Islamist jihadists are now fighting with the rebels. Their vision of victory would be the establishment of an Islamist theocracy with Sharia law; in other words, a Syria governed in the way that the Taliban used to govern Afghanistan. So, it seems to me, the civil war in Syria comes down to a classic fight between various strands of Shia and various strands of Sunni Islam. At least 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, and millions displaced either within Syria or in neighbouring countries. I can’t help acknowledging, as I think I have before, the unpleasant private thought I have that there is something within Islam, at this stage in its history, akin to the wars of religion of past centuries within Christianity, and akin to the respect in which Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, was once the excuse for a desire to dominate and plunder the world. Catholics and Protestants used to slaughter each other (and recently still did, to an extent relatively tiny historically, but still tragic, in Northern Ireland). Spain and France and England invaded and conquered the rest of the world, justifying their action by a sincere or assumed certainty that their religion would one day be proclaimed the only global truth. Now, in the age of the internet, it’s the turn of a small number of Muslims to commit a similar dreadful error.

Eight years before the British blundered into Afghanistan, Charles Darwin set sail from Devonport on board the Beagle. I’ve just finished The Voyage of the Beagle, and I’m about to start on The Origin of Species. My first, and accumulating, response to the young Darwin’s great book was sheer wonderment at how much he already knew when he undertook the voyage. In order to understand what he was looking at as he travelled the world, in zoology, botany, geology and marine studies, he had already ingested and mastered a vast amount of the then existing scholarship. The detailed vocabulary of all these disciplines was at his fingertips. He knew who had written anything of importance about each of them. So it is that, even though the book was written for the general reader, and even though I read it with pleasure and no great effort, there were many passages, terminology and references which I didn’t understand, and simply had to take on trust. Then, as I’m sure many readers must have observed in the last 150 years, it’s very exciting to read passages where, simply through Darwin’s accurate observation and clear explanation of phenomena, we can see his curious mind at work, chipping away (metaphorically not physically, although he did plenty of physical chipping with his geological hammer) the irrelevant or obviously wrong hypotheses about why something it as it is, homing in on the great theory which has made him one of humanity’s few awesome and enduring mighty geniuses. What were those fossilised seashells doing thousands of feet up in the Andes? Why — and here he is honest enough to admit that he nearly missed this crucial fact, and someone else pointed it out to him — is it the case not simply that the Galapagos finches are unique to the Galapagos Islands as a group, but that different varieties of finch are unique to individual islands within the group? Why have atoll and barrier coral reefs been formed as they are, and why have fringing coral reefs been formed by a different geological process?

In between these eventually epoch-making questions, there is the entertaining travel journal of a spirited and energetic young man. His social attitudes are interesting, viewed from a distance of 180 years. He is a naturally kind and compassionate person. He has what we would today call empathy. He respects all sorts and conditions of men, and hates cruelty. His cri de coeur against slavery, towards the end of the book, is very moving. On the other hand, he is of his time in being quite happy to use the term ‘savages’ when referring to what I suppose today we would call ‘indigenous peoples’. He is quite clear, in general, that the European nations are ‘civilized’, ‘advanced’, and have been responsible for bringing enlightenment to the dark places of the world. On the other hand again, he assigns blame, correctly, to British imperialism when he is aware of evils which the British have committed. Of Tasmania, he writes: ‘All the aborigines have been removed to an island in Bass’s Straits, so that Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.’ I read this sentence two or three times before realising that its second half is intended ironically. He goes on: ‘This most cruel step seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks; and which sooner or later would have ended in their utter destruction. I fear there is no doubt, that this train of evil and its consequences, originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen. Thirty years is a short period, in which to have banished the last aboriginal from his native land, — and that island nearly as large as Ireland.’ There is a fuller account of the extermination of the native people of Tasmania in Robert Hughes’ wonderful The Fatal Shore.

One can tell that Darwin is uneasy about Captain FitzRoy’s efforts to ‘civilize’ the three inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, whom he had brought back to England on a previous voyage, and was now returning to their native land in the company of a missionary. I laughed more than once at Darwin’s not very high opinion of the missionary’s qualities. As the main party are to go off on a surveying side-trip, ‘Matthews, with his usual quiet fortitude (remarkable in a man apparently possessing little energy of character), determined to stay with the Fuegians, who evinced no alarm for themselves; and so we left them to pass their first awful night.’ Poor old Matthews doesn’t stay the course, however. When the party gets back from the surveying trip, ‘Matthews gave so bad an account of the conduct of the Fuegians, that Captain Fitz Roy determined to take him back to the Beagle; and ultimately he was left at New Zealand, where his brother was a missionary.’ Admittedly, the evangelist’s treatment had been alarming: ‘Another party showed by signs that they wished to strip him naked and pluck all the hairs out of his face and body.’ This is a people, after all, who in time of famine kill and eat their old women: ‘when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr. Low why they did this, answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” This boy described the manner in which they are killed by being held over smoke and thus choked: he imitated their screams as a joke, and described the parts of their bodies which are considered best to eat. Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives must be, the fears of the old women, when hunger begins to press, are more painful to think of; we were told that they then often run away into the mountains, but that they are pursued by the men and brought back to the slaughter-house at their own fire-sides!’

I think perhaps that it’s easy for someone like me, who believes broadly that the European invasions of other parts of the world were wicked acts, accompanied by brutality on an industrial scale, leading to centuries of exploitation and impoverishment of the invaded peoples whose effects are still with us, to romanticise the cultures of those peoples. Yes, we had no business going there as conquerors, we should only have gone there as traders; but of barbarity and backwardness in those cultures there was plenty.

Darwin ends his book with a paean of praise to British imperialism worthy of the most tub-thumping John Bull: ‘To hoist the British flag, seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.’ Perhaps he sincerely meant this. He had seen, for example, a happy and prosperous Christian settlement in the little part of New Zealand which he visited, which contrasted sharply with the filth and squalor in which the indigenous New Zealanders he had seen lived. But the simplicity of the statement just quoted is at odds with the more nuanced opinions he expresses in the course of the book. It occurs only six pages after his anti-slavery appeal. (Admittedly, the British slave trade had been abolished by the time he wrote; but not many years previously.) Did he feel the need to strike a ringing consensual note, to reassure himself and his readers, even as the full, terrifying implications of some of the things he had observed were dawning on him? We know that he was capable of diplomatic reserve, in that he has nothing but praise and gratitude to offer Captain FitzRoy in the book and its introduction, even though there were difficulties in their relationship, not simply brought on by their being confined together in cramped living quarters for nearly five years, but also as a consequence of FitzRoy’s unstable mental state, and his intolerance of Darwin’s questioning of the, to him, unquestionable and fixed truths of the creation.

Darwin the conscientious naturalist kills and examines specimens of creatures of all kinds, as long as they’re not too big. These he sends back to England from various parts of the world, as we gather from his acknowledgement to ‘the Reverend Professor Henslow’, his teacher at Cambridge, at the end of the preface. Darwin the country gentleman also frequently goes on shooting expeditions just for the pleasure, even though, quite often, ‘we had very poor sport’.

Kerfontaine

12 June 2013

The weather is terrible, and seems likely to remain so. Last Friday, there was a deluge of rain in the morning, but that was nothing compared to the hailstorm which hit us at about six o’clock in the afternoon. I have never in my life seen hail like it. (Admittedly, I’ve never lived in the Pyrenees or other parts of the south of France, where destructive hail is regular.) The hailstones were not, to quote the cliché, the size of golf balls. They were about half the size of golf balls, not round but jagged and irregular in shape. They descended in violence for at least twenty minutes, bringing with them thousands of green leaves ripped from trees, destroying many of the flowers we had planted out in pots, and causing a river to flow down the path to our front door. I was, not for the first time, filled with admiration for the men who built this house 90 years ago. Although in a steep valley, it is constructed on a little plinth, generally unnoticed, which means that a torrent of water approaching the house takes a smart left turn a metre from the door, then a smart right turn, and flows down the side of the house away into the lawn. The hailstones meanwhile heaped up in unexpected places, obedient to invisible and, to me, mysterious forces. One heap was a full metre high. Some of it was still there 24 hours later.

Rosa, who lives in a modern house in Plouay, was not so lucky as we were. I phoned her as soon as the storm eased. Her garage under the house was flooded. I went round and helped her sweep the water out. Luckily, no mud had got in with the water, so actually the floor was cleaner when we had finished than it had been before. But poor Rosa, who tends her little vegetable garden with minute care from March onwards, saw it largely destroyed in half an hour; and all the developing apples and plums on her trees lay amid the leaves on the ground. She was philosophical. ‘No one was injured or drowned,’ she said. ‘C’est l’essentiel.’ The next day I went round again to help her sweep up the fallen mass of green matter and flowers. Yesterday she came here for the afternoon, and on the way home we stopped at Point Vert so she could buy some more lettuce seed. She is a strange mixture: she has a natural talent for gardening; things grow under her hands as easily as they used to under Albert’s. But she is obsessive about weeds, and buys the most ferocious, non-ecological produits in an unavailing attempt to kill them. We went to the cemetery early yesterday afternoon, taking a detour between her house and ours, as we often do when she visits, before coming here for a tour of the grounds and tea. Albert’s grave is certainly the best kept in the place. There are some tiny, innocent little green weeds peeping through the gravel around the tomb. (Nothing at all on the monument itself, of course.) These are removed, and then each place where their offence was committed is sprayed with the poison. At her house, her success in growing herbs of all kinds has meant that chives and parsley have seeded themselves where they should not, in cracks between the house and the patio, and on the low walls of the raised flower beds. She has attacked these interlopers with neat bleach, with white vinegar, with dreadful obscure chemicals in plastic bottles sporting skull-and-crossbones warnings. Still they return. I say, ‘Rosa, let them be. They do no harm. Look at these beautiful mauve flowers on the chives.’ No use.

Having got back from Rosa’s on the day after the storm, I addressed the mess here. Upturning one of the plastic buckets which I park near the shed, I found a quietly meditating toad. This of course brought immediately to mind the couplet in the witches’ spell in Macbeth:

‘Toad that under cold bucket
Thirty days and nights hath stuck it…’

There is academic dispute about the authorship of these lines, with some scholars unable to grant the possibility that the master could have written such tosh. Beaumont, or Fletcher, or (an eccentric opinion this) even the Earl of Richmond have their champions amongst those who ‘cough in ink’. So far as I am concerned, if a timeless genius, author of the greatest dramatic verse ever achieved, chose occasionally, by way of variety, to turn out some demotic jogging doggerel, he had every right to do so.

Kerfontaine

17 June 2013

I finished The Origin of Species on Saturday. It’s hard to know quite what to say about a work now so iconic, so monumental in the modern consciousness. I’ll just say the things which surprised or touched me particularly as I read.

I thought it extraordinary that Darwin keeps apologising for the brevity of the book (which is 392 pages long in my edition); for the fact that he hasn’t been able to enter into details as fully he would have liked. So far as he’s concerned, the work is only an abstract of a future, more substantial effort. Some abstract! I imagine he was concerned, as a scholar, about criticism from the academy on the grounds of lack of evidence to support his theory. He keeps appealing to the reader to trust him. ‘I have the evidence,’ he says. ‘I am a man of honour, but I haven’t the space.’ As we know, he was pressed into print by the arrival, in the post on 18 June 1858, of Wallace’s paper. He must then have written in a hurry.

I loved the homeliness of much of the book: the genuine respect he had for the cattle breeders, horticulturalists and pigeon fanciers whose selections of better-favoured specimens of animals and plants gave him the idea for nature’s analogous selection of better-favoured variations. I loved the simplicity of many of his experiments (although he apologised for his inability to bring forward as much evidence as he would have liked, there is in fact plenty there). He takes a breakfast cup full of mud from a pond. As it dries, hundreds of different plants grow from it. He counts and identifies them all. He dries seeds, and puts them in salt water. They survive for much longer than he would have expected, and germinate afterwards. So he knows that seeds could easily have floated hundreds of miles across an ocean, thus transporting plants from one continent to another. The conclusions he comes to about the crossing of varieties and species, about the fertilisation of sexed plants, are based on tests in his garden which I, even I, could carry out (though I never will).

It was a relief and a liberation to read that the system of classification of organic beings (variety, species, genus, family, class…) is nothing more than scientists’ best efforts to group things. In fact, difference is on a continuum; it’s not a series of separated packets. Species are simply well marked varieties. Where you draw the line and say, ‘This is a species, not a variety; this is a genus, not a species,’ is a matter of judgment. Academic authorities differ.

Then, the determination to explain: the ‘Author’s Introduction’ at the beginning of the book; the summary at the end of nearly every chapter; the summary of summaries which is the last chapter, culminating in that glorious, stately, beautiful final paragraph. He is saying, ‘I will have you understand this. I am, ever so politely, rubbing your nose in it. Argue with me if you dare; but don’t pretend that you haven’t quite grasped what I’m saying.’ Of course, we know what happened at the British Association meeting in 1860, and the cause célèbre thereafter: the rage and derision of the Pharisees, the cartoons in Punch, the filtering down to the man on the Clapham omnibus of a tabloid but perhaps not wholly inaccurate version of the great controversy Darwin had unleashed. We can see that he was afraid of what might happen. He is flinching at the anticipated, not the given, blow. But with the fear, the courage. ‘This is the truth of which I am fully persuaded. I must speak it.’

It was very exciting for a person interested in language to read Darwin’s occasional analogies between natural and linguistic science. The genealogical descent of species and varieties may be compared to the descent and divergence of languages and dialects. There is a point at which we can all agree that French is a language, not a dialect. But there are plenty of communities using a form of speech which some linguists might say is a language, some merely a dialect. Then, and wonderfully for me given my recent preoccupation with early reading, towards the end of chapter 13, in discussing rudimentary organs, such as nipples in male mammals, or the stump of a tail in tailless breeds, Darwin writes: ‘Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation.’ Put that in your bloody synthetic-phonics pipe and smoke it, Mr Gove! Actually, I think that most Conservatives are a good example of how evolution, by its very nature, leaves less-favoured varieties behind, having selected more-favoured. The trouble is, it’s taking a geological length of time for the less-favoured variety in this case to die out. But one shouldn’t joke, given the perverted purposes to which Darwinism was put in the 20th century.

What does Darwin not say? He doesn’t say anything about the very earliest origins of life. He has no opinion about the beginning of the universe, or about how the first single-celled creatures came into being. He doesn’t know. There’s a lot that he doesn’t know. The book was published nearly a century before the discovery of DNA. He seems to hedge his bets about whether all organic beings originated from several or from one species. And although he is increasingly aggressive as the book goes on about the impossibility, the absurdity of the idea that all species were separately and independently created and are immutable, The Origin of Species is not an explicitly atheistical work. He mentions God, or ‘the Creator’, a few times. People who believe in God could, and still can, hold to the idea that God simply set the ball rolling, and natural selection with variation did the rest.

I think of the coincidences connecting the great man’s life and mine. I’ve written about my bicycle ride past Down House when I was 11. Meanwhile, on Sundays, I was going to church and listening to stuff directly contradicting the wisdom written down, only a few miles away, 150 years previously. (And my poor old dad, good scientist as he was, was still clinging onto ‘intelligent design’ when he died, like the people — I think including Gosse’s dad — who suggested that the fossils had been left on earth by God to test our faith.) Many years later, when we went to live in Shrewsbury, we lodged in a house 400 yards from the house where Darwin was born. In 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, Andrew Bannerman wrote and, with a group of young people, performed a beautiful quartet of scenes, at four open-air venues in the town, commemorating significant events in the young Darwin’s life there. While I was watching the scene being performed one Saturday in front of the old Shrewsbury School, which is now the town library, a group of noisy football fans, supporters of the away team due to play Shrewsbury Town that afternoon, came up the street from the station, singing their songs and chanting their chants. Andrew, dressed in early nineteenth-century costume with mutton-chop whiskers, ran across and — I heard him — said, ‘Welcome to our town. Could you just go a little more quietly? We’re performing a play across the road.’ The boys obliged immediately.

A certain intruder interrupted my reading on Friday, as I was sitting outside during a rare interval of sunshine. The intrusion provoked a little poem, which I finished yesterday (my birthday), and which is here (and already on the website).

The Spider on my Copy of The Origin of Species

I swat the little creature with an idle hand.
It’s hard enough, God knows (He does?), to understand
the patient man’s great temple-shaking argument —
its beauteous intricacies equivalent
to those he found in barnacles or in sweet peas,
in growth of coral reefs, the work of worker bees —
without distractions to my barely-coping brain.
Where was I? Concentrate. But here it is again!
I’ve read one paragraph, on pigeons; in that time,
by downward abseil and retracing upward climb,
it’s back where first it suffered the mysterious blow,
its travelling as rapid as my reading’s slow,
and goes about its lawful business, unafraid.
Well, let it be, and serve as living visual aid.
Spin out your steel, my murderer; ensnare your prey.
This book’s an iron Bible you and I obey.

Helen took me out to dinner last night at L’Art Gourmand. We were the only people there. It felt like having our own chambre privée. The food was delicious, and the Pernand-Vergelesses we had with it exquisite. I’ve had cards, phone messages and texts a-plenty.

Kerfontaine

21 June 2013

The longest day of the year, and still the weather continues awful. So far, there has been virtually no summer. It’s more like a mild winter with long days.

Since finishing The Origin of Species, I’ve read two related books. The first, Evolution’s Captain by Peter Nichols, is a biography of Captain (later Rear-Admiral) FitzRoy. It’s rather racily written, a bit like historical fiction, which it isn’t. I was grateful to have lots of details filled in concerning events about which I had been vague when I read the Darwin. During FitzRoy’s first Beagle voyage, he took the four Fuegians as hostages when his whale boat had been stolen, in the vain hope that the thieves would return the boat in exchange for the captives. After the Fuegians' trip to England, during which Fitzroy attempted to 'civilise' them by introducing them to society, they returned on the second Beagle voyage, the one with Darwin on board. There was an unsuccessful attempt to re-implant them, with an English missionary, in their homeland in order that they should spread Christianity among their people. The Beagle voyages made extraordinary demands on and carried great dangers for captain and crew. The charts FitzRoy made of the southern coasts of South America were so absolutely accurate that they were in use by the Admiralty until well into the 20th century. FitzRoy’s later career was dogged by disappointments. Especially shameful was his failure as governor of New Zealand, but his work as first director of the Meteorological Office was important and pioneering. Throughout his life, FitzRoy was troubled by a gnawing sense that he had unwittingly been responsible for allowing the godless errors of Darwin’s ideas into the world. His mental state was increasingly unstable and he finally committed suicide. He had been kindness itself to Darwin during their voyage, and most of the time they had enjoyed a warm and relaxed friendship; but from very early on there were moments of inchoate rage, the first when Darwin challenged him on the matter of slavery. The saddest image I retain from the book is of FitzRoy, at the end of the famous and raucous British Association debate in 1860, standing at the back of the room, trying to make himself heard in order to denounce Darwin’s theory, waving his Bible in the air; and no one paying attention.

Then I read the story of another acquaintance of Darwin’s, also a scientist, also a Christian fundamentalist who suffered because he could not bear to accept the truth of a theory whose implications he clearly understood; also a man who married and then lost his first wife, and later married again. In Fitzroy’s case, the suggestion is that the first wife increased the religious dogmatism in him; in the case of Philip Henry Gosse, the dogmatism was there in full measure when he met Emily Bowes, his equal in evangelical piety, at the Brethren meeting in Hackney. Ann Thwaite’s biography of Gosse père, Glimpses of the Wonderful, is excellent. FitzRoy, master surveyor of coasts, whose later achievements in early meteorology have deserved the fame he has had since 2002, with one of the UK’s shipping forecast areas named after him, is however principally remembered as the man who sailed Darwin round the world, who was mentally unbalanced and who killed himself. Gosse was a truly distinguished zoologist, author of many books, Fellow of the Royal Society, ‘the David Attenborough of his time’, as Nichols writes in the FitzRoy book, where we meet Gosse briefly. He is however principally remembered, first, as the author of the absurd Omphalos, the book which attempted to square the circle or cut the knot of the evident incompatibility of the recent findings of science with the creation story as told in Genesis; secondly, as the terrifying father in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.

Ann Thwaite of course agrees that the Omphalos theory is absurd. In the book, Gosse asserts that the life of all organic beings is cyclical. God’s creation was an irruption into the cycle. It was necessary, at the moment of creation, to put all the marks onto a created being that would have been there if creation hadn’t happened; so, notably, a navel, an omphalos, onto Adam. This explains the existence of fossilised remains of creatures from the time before the creation. Gosse invented the word ‘prochronic’ to describe the pre-creation period. One can see the crazy logic of the idea, applied to beings which were still going concerns, as it were, at the moment of creation. Neither Thwaite nor Nichols tells us (and perhaps Gosse doesn’t attempt this, and I doubt that I shall ever read the book) how he explained the existence of fossils of creatures which were already extinct before the creation. Perhaps they were a kind of background colour.

Anyhow, the book, which Gosse hoped would satisfy both scientists and Christians, generally pleased neither, although there were a few good reviews, probably written by people anxious to be respectful to the reputation of an already eminent and popular figure. The scientists (many of whom also regarded themselves as Christians) immediately saw that the theory was preposterous. The Christians (some of whom were also scientists) wondered how Gosse could have had the effrontery to tell us what had been in the mind of God at the moment of creation, and — even worse — to suggest that God had been happy to play a kind of confidence trick on mankind. They said, rightly from their point of view, that the creation is a mystery requiring faith, not a puzzle calling for a solution.

I realise that I was wrong, in the previous entry, to say that Gosse had suggested that God put fossils on earth to test our faith. I think that’s too glib an interpretation of what he proposed. The fossils would and did test the faith of believers; but in Omphalos, from what I can make out, they are there as part of the bigger plan Gosse invented in his desperate attempt to make faith and facts fit.

The main effort of revision in Glimpses of the Wonderful concerns the portrayal of Gosse the father famously given by Edmund Gosse the son in Father and Son. I have admired the latter book since I first read it 40 years ago. It’s very entertaining, and the account of the struggle of wills and ideas brought about by the forcing of dogmatic evangelical Christianity into the mind of a growing boy reminded me pleasurably of the milder version of that experience to which I had been subjected myself. But Thwaite convincingly tells us that Father and Son is not a true portrait, despite Edmund Gosse’s insistence that it was. There’s no question that the father was a religious zealot, who believed that the world was a fallen place, and that humanity’s only hope of escaping perdition was through the saving blood of Jesus Christ. He also hoped and expected that the Second Coming would occur in his lifetime, and that he would be one of the saints who would escape death, and be taken up in the Rapture to meet Jesus in the air. But he was also, according to Thwaite, a much more loving and lovable man than his son describes. She doesn’t believe that Edmund Gosse’s childhood was as joyless, bleak and frightened as he suggests. And she points to specific stories in Father and Son whose details, emphasis or timing are clearly at variance with other, more reliable, less dramatic accounts of the events in question. In short, she believes that Edmund didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story; or perhaps that he had a bad or careless memory. I see that she has previously written his biography too. Perhaps I shall read that.

Podere Conti, Commune di Fillateria

28 June 2013

We’ve been staying here for two nights. We met Bronwyn and Stephen in a hotel in Genoa on Wednesday. They’d flown there on Monday. Today we drive down to Rodellosso for our second stay this summer. Mary, Jacques and Tess arrive there tomorrow, by which time I shall, all being well, be in Stratford-upon-Avon receiving my little medal from NATE.

I’m only going to do one thing in this entry, which is to try to describe a passion flower. I do this because, when I’ve looked closely at passion flowers before (I remember doing so for the first time at Letheringham in Suffolk), I must confess that the astonishing, detailed, I might say over-the-top rococo complexity they display tested my faith in Darwin’s theory of natural selection with variation. What succession of chance variations, produced over millennia, could have been selected to produce such a prodigy? And is it the case that the beautiful but bizarre structure I now see before me is perfectly equipped for the job it does? I suppose it must be.

At the top of the stem of the flower, there are three purple spikes. (I realise how completely lacking is my botanical terminology.) These are attached to a little green bulb which is at the centre of another arrangement of spikes, this time five in number. These are green, seen from above, and bright yellow, seen from below — that is, from the eventual stalk. These two groups of spikes have the overall appearance of a double set of potentially counter-cyclical helicopter blades; but the helicopter is at rest. Following the stem further down, we come to a receiving circlet of mauve fronds, on a pale green background, which is the innermost of three concentric expressions in mauve or purple. Moving outwards, the next — the middle circlet — is of tiny dots. The outermost circlet is of long lashes, or spears, of dark purple colouring at the nearest point to the middle of the flower (where each spear sports its own dark dot or bobble, slightly bigger than the dots in the middle circlet), followed by a period of white at the middle point of each spear, followed by a longer period of paler mauve extending to the end of the spear. All of this exotic equipment is contained, and was formerly enclosed, by a triple layer of pale green outer petals. The outermost layer of this final group numbers three; the middle and innermost number five each. The whole extraordinary arrangement stands on one simple green stem, which was surprisingly tough to tear from the plant when I did so yesterday at the end of an alley in Pontremoli.

Kerfontaine

29 July 2013

The quick trip back to England on 29 June went well, though there was a long delay in taking off from Pisa, which meant that I missed my connection to Birmingham at Charles de Gaulle and had to wait five hours for the next one. Having left Rodellosso at half past five in the morning, I landed at Birmingham at seven o’clock in the evening, took a taxi to Stratford, rushed to my room in the Holiday Inn, changed and appeared in the banqueting hall just as dinner was starting. After dinner, two awards were made: one to Keith Davidson, who I know has given long and valuable service to NATE, especially in the area of exam reform, and one to me. The speech which the Chair of NATE, Simon Gibbons, made in my honour was, I must say, touching and gratifying. Here’s what I said in reply:

It’s a little over 39 years since an April morning when I walked across Vauxhall Bridge from my lodgings in Westminster to the school in Lambeth where I was to undertake my first job as an English teacher. I had been appointed only two days previously. During the intervening day, I had designed schemes of work for my English classes. These documents, produced in different versions for the different age-groups I was to teach, had a modest aim: to summarise, indeed to synthesise, all the useful literary and linguistic knowledge which Western society had attained, from the ancient Greeks to the present day. I thought I would complete these cultural tours by the end of the summer term and then, if the school wanted to continue to employ me — for I was initially on a one-term contract — I would think what else to do in September.

The students’ response to the grand ambition of my proposed curriculum was unanimous: they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. But they were, mostly, remarkably polite. After two or three lessons had painfully shown me the level of unrealism at which I had begun my career, they pointed out the stock cupboards in the corners of the prefabricated rooms used for English lessons, where there were piles of class readers, anthologies of poetry and prose, and books of grammar exercises. ‘Give us some of these, sir,’ they said. ‘You’ll get on better that way.’ So I did, and I did.

Within a couple of weeks, I realised that, whatever the mixed quality of the books in the stock cupboards, where the wonderful Voices anthologies sat side by side with Ronald Ridout’s appalling Word Perfect books of spelling, punctuation and grammar drills (and I used the latter quite often when all other disciplinary methods failed), I had fallen on my feet in the English department to which I had been sent. Here was a group of people who were forging a common understanding of what English is. That understanding was based on three principles: first, a respect for and interest in the language and culture which the children brought with them to the school (and in that school at that time the two largest groups of students were white working-class south Londoners and second-generation children of Caribbean origin); secondly, an understanding that development in language, getting better at the use of language in all its modes and for all its purposes, is best helped by the provision of opportunities for the use of real language in real, varied and worthwhile contexts; thirdly, collaboration between colleagues in the design of the curriculum and the making and selection of teaching resources is far superior to, and more pleasurable than, leaving individual teachers to make their own lonely way in their own classrooms.

These three principles — respect for children’s language and culture; real language use in real, varied and worthwhile contexts; and professional collaboration and camaraderie — remain, I think, as valid today as they were 39 years ago, during my hapless, flailing efforts to teach English with nothing more under my belt than a degree in English literature (this was just before a teaching qualification became compulsory), a modicum of idealism and an urgent need for money. Once I got beyond that first term (and the school did continue to employ me, for another five years), and was able to look for groups and networks of like-minded colleagues beyond those in my own school, it wasn’t long before I discovered the London Association for the Teaching of English and the National Association for the Teaching of English. Within these two organisations and also by contact and collaboration with the English department at the London Institute of Education and the Inner London Education Authority English Centre (now the English and Media Centre) I did my best to make a contribution to the fulfilment of the three principles.

I was optimistic, energetic — and naïve. Who, I thought, could fail to subscribe to those admirable principles, whatever changes in the political weather might come about? You don’t need me to tell you — you who, as an organisation, have fought the good fight, have stood up for those principles throughout the time that I’ve been involved with English teaching — how complete my naïvety was soon shown to be. English has become a cultural battleground with, on one side, it has often seemed to me, those with the power but without the knowledge and, on the other side, those with the knowledge but without the power. We, those who have the knowledge, know, for example, that, in the early teaching of reading, the identification of correspondences between the sounds and the spellings of some groups of words is one, but only one, of the means by which little children engage in the wonderful, mysterious, essentially meaning-making process of learning to read. We know that to have a productive and receptive grasp of the grammar of English is not the same thing as, is prior to and bigger than, having a metalinguistic vocabulary with which to talk about language, useful as this second competence is. We know that spoken language is as much to be valued, and as important to develop, as written language. We know that the term ‘great literature’ describes a group of works constantly being added to, sometimes being subtracted from, rather than an unchanging museum collection of pinned butterflies. We know these things. We also know that politicians of all stripes (even more of blue stripes than of red ones, but plenty of those of red ones too), aided and sometimes ventriloquised by the ideologues and whisperers who stand behind them, have parodied, derided and occasionally even demonised this knowledge, either from pure ignorance about moderately complex topics or, more often, for their own knowing political advantage. And it still goes on, even as we meet. I’m told that the current Secretary of State describes people like us as ‘the blob’. Well, meet Mr Blobby.

I could be depressed, but I’m not. Why not? First, because I can see from the reading of NATE’s publications and its website, and of those of like-minded organisations, that a thoughtful, coherent alternative to the tabloid simplicities of politicians is continually being offered. Secondly, because, in the recounting of the history of any struggle of ideas, there is always the official story and the unofficial story. We should continue to offer our contributions to the official story, despite our dismay at the apparently endless revisions and re-revisions of the National Curriculum, the comings and goings of tests of various kinds for younger children of various ages, the repeated back-of-an-envelope re-thinkings about examinations at 16 and 18. We should continue to do this, steadily, even if our contributions seem to have little impact on the latest version of the official story. It’s hard labour, I know, and it’s not the kind of occupational therapy most likely to ward off depression. But the truth of the matter is that the unofficial story, as we look back on the 50 years that NATE has been in existence, is the truer story. Whatever the malicious and self-serving jeremiads fed to the public by politicians, their advisers and large sections of the press, every year huge and growing numbers of young people leave our schools as competent, confident and enjoying users of English. The numbers have grown, despite recent government machismo in redefining excellence in order to create more young people who are not excellent, not because exams have got easier, but because thousands and thousands of teachers of English, with the help of NATE and like-minded organisations, have learnt, over many years, and benefiting from the learning of those who have gone before them, how to teach better.

In 1963, the year that NATE came into being, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) exam was introduced. Up to that time, eight out of 10 children left secondary school with no paper qualification whatever. 80% of the rising population were thought not to have the intellectual equipment to read serious literature, to write fluently in a range of forms, to use the spoken language effectively. In two generations, a huge change has been brought about and, in English, NATE has been a major agent of that change. As we continue to suffer the slings and arrows, not of outrageous fortune, but of the outrageously ignorant and, often, malevolent; and as, indeed, we continue to fire a few slings and arrows back, let us remember how much, in the long view, we have achieved and are achieving.

Having mauled one line of Shakespeare, and remembering where we are, I’d better end with another. I’m deeply honoured by this award, and thank NATE and its trustees, from the bottom of my heart, for thinking of me. As the Duke of Kent says in King Lear, 'To be acknowledged… is o’erpaid.' I feel o’erpaid. Thank you.

The speech went down well, and there was generous applause. I didn’t get anything tangible beyond a certificate granting me life membership of the Association, but I meant what I said in the last paragraph. (I know I quoted Edmund’s remark a few entries ago.) After being photographed and saying hello to various people, I drank a most welcome pint of English ale with a friend, and went to bed. The following morning I consumed a delicious full English breakfast on the terrace outside the Dirty Duck, and felt good. The flights back to Paris and then Pisa were on time. I had a front row window seat on the second plane, and enjoyed a magnificent clear view of the Alps. To the west there were clouds, pierced only and spectacularly by the top of the Matterhorn. I drove back to Rodellosso through the gathering dusk, arriving just before eleven.

The following day, all that week’s occupants of Rodellosso’s five apartments — Helen, me, Mary, Jacques, Tess, Stephen, Bronwyn, three Belgians and two Italians — drove to Siena for the eve-of-palio prova (rehearsal for the morrow’s race) followed by dinner in the streets of the Val di Montone contrada, of which Claudio, our host at Rodellosso, is an important member. We met him near the Porta Romana, where he had arranged privileged parking places for us. We went first to the contrada’s headquarters for aperitivi. Then we walked behind the horse, jockey and the leading signori of Val di Montone through packed streets to the Piazza del Campo. About halfway there, people began to sing the anthem of the contrada in solemn unison. There were 40,000 people in the piazza, according to Claudio’s estimate. The event itself, I secretly thought, was a damp squib. You could see that the riders were conserving their energies and tactics for the real thing. Our own jockey simply cantered round, making no attempt to race. The most impressive display of horsemanship preceded the prova. Eight (or was it ten?) cavalrymen on sleek thoroughbreds, in full ceremonial dress, trotted around the square once, then galloped round a second time, now with swords drawn and pointing forward.

The dinner, however, was another matter. Two thousand of us sat down at numbered places to an excellent five-course meal served by gloved and uniformed volunteers. Wine appeared without stint. Coffee and digestivi were provided afterwards at the headquarters. We drove home at about one o’clock. There was a brief moment of alarm after Buonconvento when the waiting carabinieri flashed at us to stop. I was probably over the limit. When they saw the British number plate, they waved us on.

Val di Montone didn't win the following day (we watched on television), but Claudio wasn't too upset.  They won last August for the first time for 22 years, and he said that one shouldn't be greedy.  Waxing lyrical, he compared the palio to life: ‘Nel palio come nella vita, bisogna la fortuna e [he emphasised the “e”] la bravura.’

The rest of the week passed pleasurably, amid great heat. I bought another copy of Iris Origo’s autobiography, and finished reading it. She writes very well, in a beautiful restrained style. But there’s a great deal that she doesn’t say. Her feelings about the fascist period in Italy are complex. We visited La Foce a second time, and I heard from the guide that her husband had been, in the early days, an enthusiastic fascist, of the benevolent kind, if such a thing is possible. He wore the black shirt, and saw fascism as a practical means of addressing the poverty and agricultural backwardness of the region of which he and his wife had bought such a large portion. But by the end of the war, at great risk to their own lives, given the savagery of the German occupation after Mussolini’s fall, the Origos were secretly sheltering resistance fighters and Allied soldiers trying to find their way back to their lines. Antonio Origo played a significant local role in the period of immediate reconstruction after the German retreat. I would have appreciated a franker account of the Origos’ shift from support for Italian fascism through disillusionment to eventual opposition. I suppose it is very difficult for people to admit that they were wrong to place their faith in an authoritarian political creed which is later utterly discredited. At the other end of the political spectrum, many communist intellectuals have had the same difficulty.

We left Rodellosso on Saturday 6 July, spent one more night at Podere Conti, and then three in Marseille, for the first two of which Bronwyn and Stephen were still with us. On the Monday, we visited the magnificent Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée. There was an excellent exhibition about European colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East. On the Tuesday, Bronwyn and Stephen took the train to Avignon to stay with friends there.

On the Wednesday and Thursday we drove from Marseille to Brittany, largely eschewing autoroutes. It was enchanting. We stopped at Pézenas, near Montpellier, a beautiful and ancient town whose pride and wealth owes much to its association with Molière, who is everywhere. Not only restaurants and cafés and the principal hotel, but garages and dry cleaners and every kind of shop bear his name. Pézenas was one of the places where Molière’s travelling troupe stayed and performed during the period when he was ‘forced to tour’. Another curiosity of the place has an English connection. Lord Clive, on his way back from governing India, stopped there. I suppose his ship must have docked at Sète or Saint Gilles. He had with him his Indian cook, who invented, so the marketing information goes, a particular kind of sweetmeat while his lordship was in residence. ‘Sweetmeat’ is exact. The petits pâtés of Pézenas look like mini Melton Mowbray pork pies (the latter, I remember, are an important element of English culture according to T.S. Eliot in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture). Like mince pies in Victorian times, they contain actual meat (lamb in this case, I think, not beef), sweetened with sugar and spices. It’s an unfamiliar taste, sweet and savoury at the same time rather than one thing or the other, but three or four of them, hot, go down well with a chilled rosé en apéritif. I noticed as we entered Pézenas that it is twinned with Market Drayton, Shropshire, evidently because of the Clive connection, the man being a Salopian and having a village in the county named after him. I was talking on the phone about this to a Shropshire friend the other day, and she told me that Market Drayton also specialises in these delicacies. I didn’t know this, despite my long association with the county. I shall go and try them this winter.

That afternoon we drove along the southern edge of the Cévennes, where hay was being made and the sunflower fields were just beginning to open their faces this late, late season. We stopped for a night at our hotel in Agen, and ate a lovely dinner at Le Margoton, where we were glad of air-conditioning because of the great heat, but took our coffee and digestifs on the terrace afterwards in the Tennessee Williams night. The next day we made our way up through western France: Bergerac, Ribérac, Jarnac, Cognac (and many smaller ‘–acs’ in between), across towards La Rochelle, over the mysterious marshes of the Vendée, then the great bridge spanning the mighty estuary of the Loire at Saint Nazaire, and home. It was an exhilarating and dream-like journey.
 
Since then, we’ve had two Ashes Tests. The first was very exciting. England eventually won by 14 runs. I sat riveted on the last morning, and was only a little disappointed (but then I’m a romantic) that the final Australian wicket fell as a result of a decision made with the aid of cameras and computers, England successfully reviewing the not-out decision of the umpire. I was hoping that the Australians would get as close as they did at Egbaston eight years ago. I know I wrote about that amazing match, to which I was listening here, while cutting the hedge with hand shears so I wouldn’t miss anything, as Flintoff picked up and consoled Brett Lee, having dismissed him and thus won the match by two runs: one of the great moments of sport. England won this season’s second Test easily; in fact, they crushed Australia, who are not competitive at the moment. I hope they improve during the third Test; I like a contest.

The eve of Bastille Day saw an impressive gathering in Cléguer to celebrate the Fête de la République. About a thousand people turned up to play Breton games, eat, drink, bounce (in the case of the children) and sing. At a previous gathering, on the evening of the ferocious hailstorm in June (the storm having passed), there was a barbecue for the inhabitants of Saint Guénaël, held in a barn near the chapel. After dinner I sang ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’, with prose French translation. This caused me to be nominated as Saint Guénaël’s official singer at the all-Cléguer event on 13 July. I took this honour seriously, promising that I would learn a French song (an intention I have had since the New Year dinner at L’Art Gourmand). I asked Graham Caldbeck’s advice. He suggested a number of French folk songs, all of which Britten had set to music. He very helpfully directed me to the website of Hyperion, the classical music label, where one can read all the words and hear extracts from the songs as recorded. I chose ‘Quand j’étais chez mon père’. Here are the words:

Quand j’étais chez mon père,
apprenti pastoureau,
il m’a mis dans la lande,
pour garder les troupiaux.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais guère.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais biaux.

Mais je n’en avais guère,

je n’avais qu’trois agneaux;

et le loup de la plaine

m’a mangé le plus biau.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais guère.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais biaux.

Il était si vorace

n’a laissé que la piau,

n’a laissé que la queue,

pour mettre à mon chapiau.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais guère.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais biaux.

Mais des os de la bête

me fis un chalumiau

pour jouer à la fête,

à la fêt’ du hamiau.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais guère.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais biaux.

Pour fair’ danser l’village,

dessous le grand ormiau,

et les jeun’s et les vieilles,

les pieds dans les sabiots.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais guère.

Troupiaux, troupiaux,

je n’en avais biaux.

Old French, of course, and I don’t know which dialect, but it’s interesting to see the most frequent difference between this and modern standard French: the substitution of ‘i’ for ‘e’, for example in ‘troupiaux’, ‘chapiau’, ‘biaux’, ‘hamiau’.

I learnt the song on the afternoon of the performance, and we made our way to the evening event, expecting that I would compete in a friendly joust with other singers of traditional French or Breton songs. Somehow, I had got the wrong end of the stick. It was karaoke! The electronic music boomed out of the enormous speakers, it was come-all-ye, rather than a competition between nominated champions of the various hamlets, so that about 40 people sang during the course of the evening. Most of the songs chosen, and performed with the aid of background pop videos, were in English. The four-person jury (all hairdressers, for some reason) did something I didn’t understand until Helen, who keeps in closer touch than I do with mass culture (not hard), explained later that it was an imitation of the behaviour of the jury in a popular television talent contest. When the singer begins, the members of the jury deliberately turn their backs on him or her, almost as an act of rudeness, like anti-Thatcher demonstrators at the lady’s funeral. If however they are seduced by what they hear, they one by one turn around to face the singer.

The ironies multiply. The only foreigner present on the stage that evening is the only person to sing a traditional French song (though ‘La Vie en Rose’ got two airings, one by a woman who really did sound like Piaf). The foreigner has learnt that ancient song a few hours earlier with the essential help of the internet. ‘Quand j’étais chez mon père’ was definitely not in the karaoke catalogue helpfully provided for potential performers. So, when I was called up, I required the mighty machine to be silenced and its flickering images to be stilled. It had been very difficult, during the 30 or so performances which preceded mine, to hold the tune in my head in competition with Frank Sinatra doing it his way and Bobby Vee asking a certain person whether she would be his girl. I kept humming it to Helen in the gaps. But I gave it my best shot, a cappella, and it came out all right. There was good and amused applause: ‘Quelque chose de different,’ said the DJ approvingly. I didn’t notice which way the jury was facing by the end. I couldn’t have eaten earlier, so anxious was I not to fail when the moment came. Only hot dogs were left by the time I’d finished, but they were very good with a bottle of rosé from the bar, by then under the stars, which were indifferent but hadn’t turned their backs. After that there were fireworks, spectacularly good for such a little place, and then it was midnight and we came home and ate some more.

There was a period of intense heat after we got back from Italy. I sat up late, night after night, under the good outside light above the front door, perfectly comfortable in a light short-sleeved shirt, reading or writing. When I was writing with the computer on my knee, insects did to the screen what Hardy’s visitors did to his ‘new penn’d line’ in ‘An August Midnight’, except of course that electronic lettering can’t be ‘besmeared’. Now it is cooler and stormy. David and Tom arrived eleven days ago and stayed until two days ago. They’ve gone to stay with other friends in the Dordogne, and will be back for a week from 7 August.

Kerfontaine

20 August 2013

All of our summer guests have come and gone. It’s enjoyable but tiring running a small hotel plus local tour guide service. Since I last wrote, we’ve had Glenda and Julian Walton, David and Tom James for the second time, my niece Tess, my sister Mary and brother-in-law Jacques, and finally Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, our friends from Los Angeles. I’ve visited the Côte Sauvage on numerous occasions, and swum very enjoyably there twice; I’ve done the coastal walk west from Doëlan once; I’ve shown groups round the three chapels, Saint Fiacre, Sainte Barbe and Kernascléden, concluding the afternoon’s study of ecclesiastical architecture with a drink at the Auberge de Pont-Calleck. We’ve been up every morning putting out a buffet breakfast; I’ve shopped most days for great meals in the evening, which Helen has splendidly prepared with some sous-chef help from me. The dishwasher and the washing machine have been going non-stop. Now we are calm, and the calm is welcome.

On 31 July, we drove up to the Côtes d’Armor, where Jacques’ sister and brother-in-law have a house on the Ile Grande, which despite its name is small: one can walk around it in two hours, which I did with Helen and Mary, swathed in a mystical sea fret through which the sun occasionally broke, only to be veiled again. The house is right on the beach, and opposite a very little island which claims to contain the grave of King Arthur, as several places in Brittany and the south-west of England do. I swam in the warm, gently sloping bay between the house and Arthur’s island, thinking about the description of his death in Morte d’Arthur.

Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said: Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go from him. Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.

I think it’s one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of prose in English.

Mary had kindly invited Peter over for ten days, and was looking after him with great delicacy and care. He enjoyed himself. We stayed for two nights, before returning here with Tess.

The third Ashes Test ended in a draw. I think Australia would have won it if rain hadn’t intervened on the last day. So England retained the Ashes, more with a whimper than a bang. They then went on to win the fourth Test, and so the series, thanks to a devastating spell of bowling from Stuart Broad on the final day, just as it looked as if Australia might reach the total they needed in the fourth innings. All four games have been wonderful and, apart from the second, not as one-sided as England’s 3-0 tally so far might suggest. The fifth Test starts tomorrow at The Oval.

Today is a perfect day of late-summer warmth and tranquillity. I feel reposed. Yesterday I wrote a little poem about something that had happened the night before.

The Owl that Calls

The owl that calls and calls and, pausing, calls again
is speaking to me, as I fancy, lying here,
the bedroom and its furniture made pale and strange
by patination borrowed from a hanging moon.

How lovely the night is! Creeping out of bed,
I pad downstairs, open the door, and stand like Adam
on the spiky lawn, where dew is gathering.
Somewhere, at the edge of earshot, under lights,
a combine makes short work of one more wheat field.
Stars are myriad but shy, outfaced by moonlight,
as the bird who summoned me repeats himself,
then hesitates — ‘to-wit’ but not ‘to-woo’ —
suspicious of a foreign presence on his ground.

A minute passes. Then the overarching oak
releases him, my fellow watchman, wings outstretched,
who sails straight by my upturned wondering face
and down the silver valley till I’ve lost him
and I wait, and then… ‘to-wit, to-woo, to-wit…’
as Adam shivers with a sense of benefit.

Kerfontaine

27 August 2013

The last Ashes Test, at the Oval, ended in a draw. It was one of those games which demonstrates the intense peculiarity of cricket. The England selectors, accountably, abandoned their hitherto successful policy of playing three top-class attacking seam bowlers, one top-class spinner and six specialist batsmen. They replaced the injured Bresnan with an untried all-rounder, Woakes, and the out-of-form Bairstow, who had batted at number six, with an untried leg spinner, Kerrigan. Australia won the toss, chose to bat and accumulated nearly 500 runs, in the process disdaining the bowling of Woakes and demolishing that of Kerrigan. Much scornful criticism of the selectors. England began to bat towards the end of the second day. During the third day they crawled along, clearly interested only in not losing the match. By close of play, they were still about 40 runs behind the total required to avoid the follow-on. The fourth day was entirely lost to rain. It seemed that the match could only end in the tamest of draws. But on the fifth morning, England suddenly accelerated, avoided the follow-on easily, and were all out for 115 less than Australia’s score. Australia then went in and threw the bat, declaring for the second time in the match at 111 for 6, giving themselves, but also England, a chance to win. England went in and, thanks principally to a characteristic display of aggressive brilliance from Pieterson and a steadier but still confident performance by Trott, were very close to reaching the target, with plenty of wickets to spare, when bad light stopped play and the game was a draw, but not a tame draw. There was much scornful criticism of the International Cricket Council’s rule that once light levels fall below a certain point, the umpires must stop the game, regardless of the circumstances. Most people with an opinion, including me, would prefer to go back to the old system, whereby when the light was bad, the umpires ‘offered it’ to the batsmen, who were more disadvantaged and in greater physical danger than the fielding side. If the batsmen were prepared to carry on in bad light, so be it. These days the umpires’ decision to ‘offer the light’ would be more consistent than it used to be, because they’re equipped with light meters. Anyhow, it was a very exciting last day, and overall the series has been as absorbing as any Ashes series of recent years, though less heroic than that of 2005. Battle is rejoined in Brisbane in November.

So I could be doing something useful while the game was on, I cut all the hedges rather than paying Jean-Paul for the service. The result is a bit scruffier than it would be with the professional touch, but no one will notice except me.

I’ve just finished reading Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, all 628 pages of it. It’s a magnificent account of that city from the dawn of its history to the present day. For the first two thirds or so, the writing is informative but not elegant, because there’s so much to cram in that there’s a sense of haste, and events are set down sometimes without explanation, leaving the reader puzzled. It must have been an absolutely formidable task to decide how much detail to include. As we move into the modern period, the writing is more relaxed, and causes and effects are discussed more fully. Overall, the work is an account of savagery, of the atrocity which flows from religious bigotry and hatred of the Other, although occasionally we see the three religions, and their sub-variants, and the many peoples who have inhabited Jerusalem, living together with reasonable mutual tolerance. I don’t need to be convinced of the proposition that fanatical religious certainty combined with political oppression brings disaster. Over the period the book covers, representatives of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have at various times been both persecutors and persecuted. I was grateful to learn in detail about the emergence of Zionism, the British Mandate in Palestine and the bloody events leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel. The author, whose forbears play significant roles in the story, is obviously the kind of broad-minded, liberal, perhaps secular Jewish person who knows that the problem of Israel/Palestine will only be solved when the parties learn to live with and respect the Other, and are prepared to face down their own extremist wings in order to do so. At the same time, I think he does underplay the scale of the catastrophe which the Palestinians faced when Israel was created. Palestinian violence towards Israel, in this account, seems less understandable historically (it’s never justifiable, of course) than I have believed it to be up to now. The Palestinians are presented as the only ones who wouldn’t countenance any compromise leading to a solution. Arafat comes across as little more than a terrorist. On the other hand, the author is clear that settlement-building in the occupied territories is a grievous misjudgment and a provocation, while believing that a two-state solution is yet achievable. He knows far more about the topic than I do, but I still think that that the only ultimate solution is that of one state: Israel proper, the West Bank, all of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip under a strictly secular government in which representatives all three religions and all ethnic groups participate, with guarantees of freedom of religion for all as long as that freedom doesn’t involve the oppression of the religious persuasion of the Other. A pipe dream, those on the ground will say, but it’s a pipe dream which for many years David Ben-Gurion himself believed could become a reality. I accept that even a partial two-state solution, involving the West Bank and Israel but not the implacable Hamas in Gaza, would be a step forward.

It seems certain that the Assad government in Syria used chemical weapons last week to kill hundreds of its own people. The government denies it, of course, accusing the armed opposition of being the perpetrators. America has sent ships carrying Cruise missiles to the eastern Mediterranean. I’ve just heard on the radio that the UK parliament is being recalled on Thursday to hear what action our government proposes to take in response to an action which, if proved, the West has repeatedly said it will not tolerate. It seems clear that the US, the UK, France and Germany have already decided to do something, which will probably be to attack Syrian government installations from the sea. Russia, which has supported and armed Assad’s iniquitous regime, of course nobly says that to intervene militarily, without the UN Security Council support which it and China will always prevent, would be a breach of international law.

Here we are again, as we were 10 years ago with Iraq. Then, I was absolutely opposed to the invasion, because we were going in without the agreement of the UN Security Council. I think that events in Iraq in the decade since the invasion have proved me and countless other people right. Iraq is in a worse state now, with many ten of thousands more people killed, than it would have been if we had not invaded but had continued to work for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in other ways. Saddam gassed his people too. So I can’t consistently be in favour of attacking Syria now, even though the intervention, at least at first, is likely to be limited to air attacks from ships. On the other hand, I don’t subscribe to the position that atrocity committed in a country is only the business of the people of that country. Meanwhile, I have to accept that, amongst the Syrian opposition, there are some very nasty people indeed, who are fighting not for the rights and freedoms that I enjoy, but to establish a barbaric theocracy based on a perversion of Islam.

The Montefiore book and the book about the first Afghan war which I read earlier this year have given me some understanding of the distance in understanding between many of the countries where Islam is the predominant or the state religion, including most of the Arab countries, and Western notions of democracy and human rights. I also understand better the load of responsibility which Western imperialism bears for some of the ills which still afflict countries from North Africa to Pakistan. But it’s now a long time since the colonial powers left. Our blunders, duplicities and crimes have done their damage and left their mark, but they don’t explain everything about the wounds which Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to inflict upon themselves, nor about the nature of the autocracies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, suffocating dissent and denying basic liberties as they do. We are in a period of bewilderingly complex, seemingly endless tragedy in that part of the world.

It’s another beautiful, quiet, gentle late-summer afternoon in my untroubled and irrelevant little paradise here.

Kerfontaine

30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney has died. He was a great poet; in my opinion easily the greatest British or Irish poet to have written since the Second World War. For 40 years he has been my hero, the guiding light of my own poor attempts to write poetry. When I saw the news on the BBC website this morning, I wasn’t deeply shocked or distressed, because I had been preparing myself for it, in the manner of a relative or friend who knows that a loved one is likely to die. That may seem a strange thing to write about a person whom I only met once, about 35 years ago, when David Thomson introduced him to me at the Roundhouse in Camden Town. But he was for me, as he was for thousands of other admirers, the ideal of what a poet should be: accessible without being easy, a master in the employment of form in verse, an acute and loving recorder of the characteristics of the country, people and culture from which he sprang. His stance on the Troubles was hard to maintain, but the right one: an essential sympathy with the sufferings of his own folk, the Catholic minority in the Six Counties, and a steadfast refusal to support violence as a response to those sufferings. I loved also his love for Dante, Horace and Virgil. Of all the poems whose mastery I have wondered at, none exceeds in my admiration ‘Anything Can Happen’ in District and Circle, where he turns a version of a Horace ode into a comment on the wider meaning of the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Whenever I sit down to write, here or in London, at least two collections of his are always on my table, as talismans. In moments of despair at my own limitations, I pick one up and read something at random, to encourage myself. I know how sad Martina Thomson will be. She and David knew Seamus and Marie Heaney well, and Seamus and Marie visited Martina in London last autumn.

One of the good things about writing a diary, as long as you don’t doctor it retrospectively to try to make yourself wiser than you are, is that it can show you how wrong you can be. Only three days ago I was assuming that military action against Syria had already been decided on, and that the recall of the UK parliament was a formality to give a veneer of democratic accountability to a done deal. Wrong. I think now that Cameron made, from his own point of view, at least two miscalculations. He might have imagined that Miliband would support him, as the Tories supported Blair in the fateful decision to invade Iraq. He might have imagined that dissent on his own side would be limited. Neither was the case. The government motion which was debated in parliament yesterday was in any case considerably weakened in force from that which had originally been envisaged; it only endorsed the principle of possible military action, once the UN inspectors currently in Damascus investigating the chemical attack had reported back to the Secretary-General, and it promised another debate and vote in parliament before any actual military action. Miliband tabled a Labour amendment, very similar in content to the government motion, but expressed in slightly stronger terms, which predictably was defeated. The surprise was that the government motion was also then defeated, by 13 votes, with 30 Conservatives and nine Liberal Democrats voting against. Cameron immediately stood up and said he respected the will of parliament. So I think that, unless Assad does something even worse than what he has already done (like making a habit of gassing his own people) there will be no overt UK involvement in military action.

I’ve thought a lot in the last three days about the dilemma which the politicians face. Of course unanimity at the Security Council is desirable. It isn’t going to be achieved. The holding and use of chemical weapons has been illegal since 1925 under the Geneva Protocol. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 augments that measure. It outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. 189 of the 196 countries in the world have signed and ratified the convention. One of the five countries which have neither signed nor ratified is Syria.

Then there is the UN’s 2005 ‘responsibility to protect’ initiative. This gives the international community the right to intervene in a country which is failing to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But the authority to intervene militarily, the last resort, rests solely with the Security Council and the General Assembly. So we’re back to the impasse at the Security Council. Yesterday, the BBC published the legal opinions of several international lawyers and human rights experts. One of them, Geoffrey Robertson, whom I’ve always respected, writes:

‘There has never been any need for a Security Council resolution approving action to stop, punish or deter a crime against humanity. Before the UN or League of Nations were established there were well-recognised situations where action was taken against piracy, against slavery. More recently, we have action taken by NATO to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. That did not require a UN resolution, which Russia would have blocked. If Russia wants to prevent military action against Syria, for a crime against humanity of using chemical weapons to mass murder its own people, then it must bring a motion of condemnation in the Security Council, as it tried to do with Kosovo. It failed, getting only three votes, so NATO action in that case is regarded as legitimate. So was the NATO use of force to create safe havens in Iraq in the 1990s.’

Admittedly there are other views in that article which differ from Robertson’s, but he is not alone in his opinion that there are circumstances in which force may legitimately be used without Security Council agreement.

Difficult, difficult to know what position to take. It’s no consolation to those suffering in Syria, but the House of Commons was at its best yesterday, at least so far as argument is concerned, with serious and careful speeches made both for and against intervention. But I’m ashamed of my own party’s tactics. There was no substantive difference between the government motion and the Labour amendment. If Labour had wanted to refuse military action in any event, that would have been a straightforward and honourable difference. But it didn’t. The difference turned on the emphasis of words, and it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Labour acted as it did simply in order to expose Cameron’s weakness in the face of opposition from his own side. I hate numerous things that Cameron’s government is doing, but this wasn’t an issue which should have been decided by a contest within UK party politics.

I think I’m bending towards support for military intervention if all else fails. The situation is different from that in Iraq in 2003. Saddam’s chemical weapons had been used 15 years previously, not a week previously. The invasion wasn’t a punishment for what Saddam did in 1988; it was a punishment for his supposed (but non-existent) role in the 11 September attacks. The weapons inspection team wasn’t given the chance to complete its job. The sanctions were having their effect. This was all known at the time, so I’m not relying on what we discovered later about the falsity of the reports of his having weapons of mass destruction.

Military intervention in Syria, I imagine, would not touch the chemical weapons dumps, assuming we know where they are, for fear of simply spreading the poison, but it would say to the Assad regime that it can’t use an illegal weapon against its own people without unpleasant consequences. If we do nothing, we’re saying to Assad that if he wants to use chemical weapons, we’ll protest for a while but ultimately we’ll stand aside.

Kerfontaine

4 September 2013

Last Sunday was the Fête de Saint Guénaël. For the first time, Helen and I were involved as volunteers. I may have written last autumn that we were given our official polo shirts, with ‘Les Amis de Saint Guénaël’ inscribed on the back, at the October meeting where the accounts of the 2012 event were presented. On Saturday I and about 20 others peeled 250 kilograms of potatoes. My job on Sunday, together with my friends Philippe and Pierre-Yves, was to sell bottles of wine and water to the 600 visitors eating lunch. Helen had the harder job: she was one of a dozen people doing the washing up. It was a beautiful, clear, hot day (as it has been for a week, and is today).

After lunch, spectators were treated to an exhibition of foolish team games, rather like Jeux Sans Frontières of yesteryear. For one of the games, ‘newly weds’ had to undergo various trials, including bicycling across the rough grass of the field, the ‘bride’ sitting on the handlebars or the crossbar while the ‘groom’ wobbled. The couples then dressed up in full wedding costume before walking along a slippery plank over a shallow pool which had been created in the middle of the meadow, the ‘groom’ gallantly carrying the ‘bride’ in his arms. This last ordeal was the highlight of the afternoon, since many of the couples fell into the pool, and had to be rescued by two lifeguards wearing old-fashioned one-piece men’s swimming costumes and flippers, though the water was no more than two feet deep. Another parody of the sacrament of marriage was offered all day long by two beefy men dressed as brides, who, in an inaccurate reference to le marriage pour tous which has recently entered in law in France (inaccurate of course because there is no chance of the Roman Catholic church offering marriage to same-sex couples any time soon, so it will remain an exclusively civil ceremony for the foreseeable future), were ‘united’ by a ‘priest’ just after midday (the actors having respectfully waited until the real priest in the chapel had completed the real mass, which was attended by about a hundred people, and included a baptism), and then queened about (I hope I may use the term) all day, offering kisses and tantalising glimpses of garters just above the knee.

We have recently got to know a couple who like us are incomers to Brittany, in their case from Paris. Five years ago they bought a house near Saint Guénaël. Gérard is a painter and photographer, Gertrude a designer and bookbinder. Gérard has done a very good copy of Gauguin’s ‘Le Christ Jaune’, which he formally gave to the chapel at the end of the mass and which the priest dedicated and blessed. Gérard told me, in one those stories whose irony is replicated whenever great works of art aren’t recognised at the time of their making, that Gauguin offered the piece to the rector of Pont-Aven when he’d finished it. This was in 1889. The rector refused it, saying that the work was too crude and too yellow. It’s now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York State, and beyond price. I mentioned this to Jocelyne Gragnic, one of the leading members of the Saint Guénaël community. She’s married to Dominique, and they run one of the three farms in the hamlet. She paints too, and she said she didn’t like the Gauguin either. Some of her work is annually on display at the fête: the structure which we English would call the portaloo is embellished by her murals. They show a certain naïf crudity not unlike Gauguin’s.

During the evening, sausages were served, either hot-dog style or wrapped in crêpes. The bar had been open uninterruptedly since before noon. There was karaoke, as on 13 July. After my puzzling experience then, I kept a low profile and didn’t offer to sing.

The following morning, I arrived at the field at about half past nine and helped to clear up. The benches were stacked, the trestle tables flattened and stacked. Philippe and I deposited hundreds of empty bottles in cardboard boxes and took them to the nearest bottle bank in his van with trailer and my Land Rover. I watched while tractors with the double-spike attachment on the front, normally used for skewering bails of hay or straw, lifted the stacks of benches and tables onto long trailers and towed them away to barns for storage until next year. Another tractor towing a water cistern arrived at the pool and pumped the water out of the pool and into the cistern. A digger then turned up and shovelled the banks of earth back into the hole. By lunchtime the only structures standing were the marquee in which 600 people had been entertained the previous day, and the canvas lean-to in which the cooking had been done. About 60 of us sat down to lunch. After lunch, Anne the treasurer gave her initial financial report: the takings had been 13,000 and a few hundred euros. There will be several thousand euros to subtract by way of costs (purchase of the food and drink, hire of the marquee, public-address system and bouncy castle for the children), but the event will still have shown a handsome profit, all of which goes to the maintenance of the chapel. And it had been, everybody agreed, a great day. It’s quite remarkable that the inhabitants of a settlement containing perhaps fifteen houses, admittedly with the help of a few outliers like us, can achieve such a formidable feat of organisation.

Seamus Heaney’s funeral took place on Monday at a church in Dublin. His son Michael spoke most movingly. He ended his tribute by telling the congregation that his father’s last communicative act, a few minutes before he died, was to send Marie a text: Noli timere (‘Do not fear’). What an extraordinary way to end a great life! Paul Muldoon also spoke, in his droll way. His best joke concerned the electronic device which Seamus had fitted after his stroke, and of which he liked to say, ‘Blessed are the pacemakers.’ Seamus was buried later that day in St Mary’s churchyard, Bellaghy, Derry, his home town. I’ve just read the piece in The Irish Times about the ceremony. I see that two of the people I knew from Channel 4 days, Neil Martin and John Kelly, were present. Neil, who’s a wonderful musician, played a lament on the cello together with the uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn.

President Obama has said that the United States will attack Syria in order to damage Assad’s military capability, and to punish him for the chemical weapons attack of 21 August. Though the president has the authority to do this without congressional approval, he will seek a vote of support in Congress next week, and it looks certain that he will get it, since the Republican leaders also support military action. President Hollande similarly will seek the approval of the National Assembly. This is an interesting development: three leaders (two presidents and a prime minister), all with the authority to declare war without the approval of their legislatures, have nonetheless decided to seek that approval, unsuccessfully in the case of our prime minister, in all probability successfully in the case of the presidents. Today, for the first time, President Putin hinted that he might support a UN Security Council resolution if he were absolutely convinced that the Syrian government had been responsible for the 21 August attack. He’s never said that before. If Putin were to be convinced (or, nearer the truth, if he were prepared to admit in public what he must know in private to be the case), that would change the game. I can’t imagine he would join in any attack on Syria, having steadily armed the Syrian government for so many years, but he might put severe pressure on Assad to leave. If that happened, there might be the possibility of a political solution of some kind. This is all speculation. Obama will be in Russia tomorrow, at the annual G20 conference. He is bound to talk to Putin about Syria. I can’t help thinking (probably wishfully) that Putin’s slight change of position in advance of meeting Obama might have been made in order to allow another, more significant change of position to seem less sudden and contradictory.

I’ve just re-read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. I read it for the first time only two or three years ago but, looking back through the diary, I don’t seem to have written about it then, which surprises me, given what an impression it made. To read a big book twice within a short period of time seems a great indulgence, given the quantity of big books I’ve never read and the shortness of time left to me, but I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said that it is better to read one book six times (as long as it is good) than six books once. He exaggerated as usual. Helen had been looking for something new to read, and I suggested Tristram Shandy, but I could see after a few days that she wasn’t going to persevere with it, so — telling myself that a series of long factual books had ben hard pounding these last few months, and I deserved a reader’s holiday — I picked it up and allowed myself a few nights of pleasure. It’s the most extraordinary achievement. Very funny, rather bawdy, and quite out of its time in the way that the author, in the guise of the narrator, plays with his reader.

He allows himself outrageously long digressions and stories within stories which have nothing to do with the main plot and the central characters, who are Tristram, his father and mother, his uncle Toby, his uncle’s man Trim, Parson Yorick, Doctor Slop and the widow Wadman.

The author/narrator addresses his imagined reader(s) as a different person or people at different times, sometimes ‘madam’, sometimes ‘sir’, sometimes plural. He inveighs against or appeals to critics as part of the onward rush of his rhetoric. The roll call of learned sources he adduces, mostly authentic, sometimes invented, is immensely long. I will admit that I skip-read some pages where I could see that Sterne was simply enjoying himself, and nothing new would be added to the action. Surely the book must be the most original novel, structurally, of the eighteenth century, and I wasn’t surprised to see from the introduction that Joyce much admired it. It seems to me that it isn’t finished; it certainly comes to a very abrupt conclusion. The first eight volumes were published serially, in pairs, and were hugely popular. The ninth and last is the only singleton. Perhaps Sterne, knowing how ill he was, felt he had to bring down the curtain while he still had strength.

I would have loved one more chapter, to see whether Toby does marry the widow, and what occurred on their wedding night in the matter of his wound in the groin. Of all the moments in the book which made me laugh out loud, none was more delightful than the widow’s coy question to Toby: whereabouts had he received the wound in his groin? Toby, innocent as ever, sends Trim off to find the map of the siege of Namur in the attic of his house. Trim knows perfectly well that the widow’s question was attempting to identify a place on Toby’s body, not on the continent of Europe, but he does his master’s bidding. The double-entendre reminded me of a joke that my good friend and colleague at Channel 4, Stuart Cosgrove, used to make. He was perhaps the most peripatetic of the C4 commissioning team, charging around Britain and Ireland promoting and commissioning production outside London. His base was and is in Glasgow. He suffers from a skin complaint. He went into a Glasgow chemist with a doctor’s prescription for a cream to ease the itching. The chemist asked him where he would be applying the cream. Stuart, who had a plane to catch, replied, ‘In Birmingham.’

Kerfontaine

11 September 2013

I’ve had, for me, a moderately productive few days on the poetry. As Polonius might have said, I’ve done comical, pastoral and tragical. The comical was suggested by the episode in Tristram Shandy where, to complete the narrator’s early misfortunes, he loses his foreskin at the age of five when a sash window falls on it as he is pissing out of the window, the chambermaid having failed to put a pot in the chamber. This delight at another’s fictional wounding was combined with something I came across on the internet: a group of preposterous American Christians have got together to protest about the loss of their foreskins when they were new-born babies. What right, they clamour, had doctors or our parents to have us circumcised when there was no need? A perfect example, it seems to me, of rich, lucky people having nothing better to do than complain about something that doesn’t matter very much. They’d be better off doing something practical, like giving money to campaigns against female genital mutilation in poor countries (and in backward communities in rich countries). To these two sources I added some autobiographical thoughts, speaking as a circumcised man.

The next poem is only pastoral in a rather broad sense, since it concerns game birds, not sheep. It describes the endearing habit which flocks of partridges (coveys, to use the precise collective noun) have of running along the road in front of the car while disdaining to use their power of flight until all ground-based possibility of escape from danger has been exhausted.

The tragical poem is eight lines about the crushing of the Arab spring by theocratic authoritarianism or secular military force.

On this last topic, there has been a significant development in the Syrian situation. Russia has said that it will support a UN resolution requiring the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and has said that it would join the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting their use. There have been straws in the wind about this in recent days. The first was Putin’s hint which I mentioned in the last entry. The second was John Kerry’s remark that Assad could avoid an American attack if he gave up his chemical weapons ‘within a week’. That is an impossibly ambitious timetable, of course, but it seemed to show that negotiations were going on behind the scenes. Now it emerges that at the G20 Obama and Putin discussed the idea of Assad abandoning his chemical weapons, in return for America staying its hand.

If this were to happen, it would be an good outcome for all the parties to the dispute, except for the Syrian people who have suffered and died under Assad, including, most notoriously, those who were gassed on 21 August. Russia could claim that its insistence on purely diplomatic means of resolving the crisis had been vindicated. America could claim that its credible threat of force had forced Russia and Assad to see reason. (Obama last night gave a characteristically eloquent address, whose text I’ve just read, to the American people.) Assad avoids attack. The UK’s vote against military action seems in hindsight to have showed foresight. President Hollande looks good too; he would have supported military action, despite the inconclusive and unimpressive debate in the National Assembly last week, and now perhaps he doesn’t have to back his words with deeds. We shall see. Even if a UN resolution is passed, there will be lengthy complexities and disputes to do with the organisation and verification of the removal of the weapons. And the civil war in Syria, with more than 100,000 dead now, is no nearer a conclusion. But the possibility of Russia, and perhaps China too, being for once on the same side as the US, the UK and France in the Security Council, is a cause for some small cheer.

Kerfontaine

26 September 2013

A week ago, I sent Mike Raleigh a few of my recent poems. Yesterday he wrote back encouragingly, but with this comment on the owl poem which was in the diary entry of 20 August:

‘One technical point, derived from country living, upon the owl calls. If too-whit too-woo is what you heard, it was almost certainly a tawny (big round head, sentinel eyes, greyish or reddish-brownish depending on the season and the light).  However, if you heard both too-whit and too-woo, you heard a female (too-whit) answered by a male (too-woo).  But then poetry was never an exact science.’

Of course he’s right, as the internet has rapidly confirmed. So I’ve changed the poem, and now it’s much better:

Bright Eyes

The owl that calls and calls and, pausing, calls again
is speaking to me, as I fancy, lying here,
the bedroom and its furniture made pale and strange
by patination borrowed from a hanging moon.

How lovely the night is! Creeping out of bed,
I pad downstairs, open the door, and stand like Adam
on the spiky lawn, where dew is gathering.
Somewhere, at the edge of earshot, under lights,
a combine makes short work of one more wheat field.
Stars are myriad but shy, outfaced by moonlight,
as the bird who summoned me repeats herself
once, twice — ‘to-wit, to-wit’ — then hesitates,
suspicious of a foreign presence on her ground.

A minute passes. Now the overarching oak
releases her, my fellow vigilant,
bright-eyed Athena, wings outstretched,
who sails straight by my upturned wondering face
and down the silver valley till I’ve lost her
and I wait, and then… ‘to-wit, to-wit… to-wit’
as Adam shivers with a sense of benefit.

Kerfontaine

1 October 2013

I went to London on 12 September for three days, to attend the 50th-birthday party of the National Association for the Teaching of English. I thought I ought to be there, after the little gong they gave me in June. I also hoped to see Martina Thomson. I had spoken to her on the phone about a week previously. She said she was ‘going downhill’ with her myeloma, but was looking forward to my visit. When I got to Camden Town, I phoned and left a voice message. The next morning I phoned again; message box full. I went round. No one there. I wrote a postcard (in fact two postcards, pictures of Fra Angelico’s Annunication in Cortona, which I had promised to take to her) and pushed them through the letterbox, leaving my phone numbers (which she had anyway) and fearing the worst. The strange thing, I realised, was that I didn’t have contact details for any of Martina’s three sons, nor for any of her other friends. Normally there’s a network of some kind. I attended the birthday party, and did some tidying up in the flat. Just before I left Kerfontaine, I had received an email from Stephen Eyers with the good news that his daughter Chloe had had her first baby, a boy, two weeks late. Stephen had become a grandfather for the first time. On Saturday afternoon I went to University College Hospital and saw little Arthur. In fact I picked him up, attached to wires by all four limbs as he was, after various complications during and after the birth. Then I went down to Stephen and Theresa in Raynes Park, and spent the evening and night there. We celebrated the birth with very good champagne (Nicolas Feuillatte 2005) and Stephen took me out for a splendid meal. On the Sunday morning he drove me to Southampton airport, where I met Helen’s brother Adam and sister-in-law Hazel, and we flew back to Brest.

Adam and Hazel stayed with us for a week. During the week I phoned Martina’s number several times; message box always full. The next Sunday morning I drove Adam and Hazel back to Brest airport for their return to England. That afternoon, someone answered the telephone at Martina’s. It was Tim, one of the sons. She was dying in UCH. That evening I went to Lorient station to meet Paul Ashton, who was coming to stay for a few days. The next day, eight days ago, was the most glorious blazing late-summer day. Not a cloud in the sky. The three of us went to the Côte Sauvage, where we marvelled at the beauty of the waves and the cliffs, and wandered along the soft sand as the tide came in. When we got back, there was a phone message from Tim that Martina had died that morning. I rang and spoke to Luke, another of the sons. He gave me an email address, so I was able to write something to the three of them. I shan’t go to the funeral, even if I’m told when it is, but I said in the email that I would help in any practical way the sons wanted when I’m back in London. I somehow don’t expect to hear from them. I hope to be proved wrong.

Martina was one of the most remarkable people I've met in my life, and my friendship with her, both before and after David died, has been a blessed gift to me.  She was a poet, a potter, an engraver, an art therapist, a translator of poetry and prose from the German, an actor in her younger years.  I wrote on 30 August that she and David had been good friends with Seamus and Marie Heaney.  She used to show me the letters and postcards which Seamus sent her from time to time: writings for one person only, done with all the care and point of his poems for many.  She was born in the late 1920s or early 1930s (she was always evasive about her age), in Vienna, and moved to Berlin when she was little.  She was walking home from her piano lesson when Kristallnacht happened.  She asked someone (I think a relative) what was happening. The reply was, ‘Du arme kind.’ She had a Jewish father and a Gentile mother.  The family got out, by different routes, to London. I am so grateful for the day in 1974 when I went into the Edinburgh Castle and got into conversation with David, a conversation that led to a friendship lasting 14 years with him, and nearly 40 with Martina. Only three months ago, she went by herself to Italy, to Trani and Bari, and sent me a book about Frederick the Second. She had tremendous courage in the face of an illness which she knew would kill her. And one last, fascinating thing about her: while being married to David, she maintained a close and possibly romantic friendship with C.L.R. James, whom she had got to know because he had been a lodger in her mother’s house. The relationship was so close that she was present at James’s funeral in Trinidad. (I should say that David knew about Martina’s attachment to ‘Mr James’, as she always called him. I think he had one or two attachments of his own during their long and happy marriage.)

So I had been in UCH, holding a two-day-old baby in my arms, while Martina was dying in the same hospital. I blame myself a little. I should have been bright enough to guess that our local hospital would be where she was. The Winter’s Tale: ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born.’ Except that I didn’t meet her; not then.

That rarest of things, an international agreement, does seem to be holding on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. A UN resolution requiring Syria to identify them and give them up for destruction was passed. The inspectors from the organisation in Holland charged with ridding the world of chemical weapons have arrived in Syria. We shall see how closely the Syrian government adheres in reality to the timetable which it has in principle accepted. Meanwhile, the civil war there continues, with increasingly murderous divisions within the ranks of the opposition, between the secular forces which the West is trying to support and the djihadists who simply want to replace Assad with an Islamic autocracy and sharia law. This plays perfectly into Assad’s and Russia’s hands, of course. All over the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Pakistan, barbarities continue. Just over two weeks ago, Somali terrorists killed many people in a shopping mall in Nairobi. The same weekend, Christians were murdered while worshipping in a church in Peshawar. This last weekend, more people were killed in the same city. At about the same time, students in an agricultural college in Nigeria were slaughtered. There are regular atrocities in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In the latter case, it seems to me more and more likely that there will be a violent internal struggle, and possibly civil war, when the UK and America leave at the end of next year.

The perpetrators of almost all of these unspeakable acts are people who believe that at the end of their campaign of terror an Islamist caliphate will be established, which will be a mighty power in the world. All forms of dissent from their version of Islamic teaching will be suppressed. These people are deluded, but the West really doesn’t know what to do about them, and local governments, often corrupt, are ill equipped to deal with the crises as they occur. Obama’s policy of attacking terrorist hideouts on the Afghani-Pakistani border using drones doesn’t seem to be working, and of course the drones sometimes kill innocent civilians. Last week Paul said that the only thing that will solve the problem is dollars, not arms. In other words, if you can give the common people of these countries prosperity, or at least a route towards prosperity, they’ll abandon their support for fundamentalist organisations, and even turn against the organisations’ leaders (who are often not poor themselves; Bin Laden was rich). I’d like to think that this is true; it’s certainly part of the truth. In any case, it’s the long view. In the short term, there is blood and misery.

There is a tiny ray of hope coming from Iran, where the newly elected president has been making conciliatory gestures towards America. He and Obama have exchanged letters and had a telephone call. He insists that Iran has no ambition to have a nuclear weapon. His predecessors have said the same thing, but the Iranian president says this time that the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions (‘problem’ so far as the West and Israel are concerned, he says) will be solved quickly. Perhaps there could be a peaceful outcome, with Iran getting all the help it needs to build nuclear power stations (just as Germany, for example, is getting rid of hers) in exchange for a verifiable commitment not to develop a weapon. One can hope. Unfortunately, Israel also has nuclear weapons which it will not even admit that it has.

America has arrived at another budget crisis brought on by Republican spite and stupidity. Today is the first day of its new fiscal year. A budget for the year has not been passed, because the Republicans wanted to attach to it a postponement of the implementation of Obama’s health care law. Rightly, the Democrats in Congress and Obama himself have refused to countenance such an absurd and self-serving proposal. So parts of the American state machine will be closed down until there is a resolution of the crisis. And a further crisis looms on 17 October, when America will reach its borrowing limit. I don’t know why the borrowing limit needs to keep going up and up; at some point America must borrow less. I guess there are two factors: the wars, and the borrowing necessary to bring the country through the post-2008 financial emergency, which it is now doing with some success.

It looks as if the vile Berlusconi may have over-reached himself. He has been convicted of one of the many crimes of which he is accused, and the conviction has been upheld on appeal. The long and (from the Italian state’s point of view) windingly inefficient road by which convicted criminals can postpone their punishment has come to a stop. A Senate committee will decide later this week whether to expel Berlusconi from the Senate. As a distraction from this looming humiliation, Berlusconi tried to bring down the coalition government the other day by ordering his party’s five ministers to leave the coalition cabinet, purportedly over the imposition of a sales tax which the Democratic Party wishes to introduce, and which I’m sure is essential in helping to bring down Italy’s huge budget deficit. Now some of Berlusconi’s previously loyal lieutenants have said that they will back the government in a confidence vote tomorrow, thus keeping the coalition in existence. If that happens, I think it will be the end of Berlusconi, finally, and not before time. Stabbed in the front, not the back, by his own henchmen. Good. The only thing I’m sorry about is that the bastard is apparently too old to go to jail. He will serve his sentence under house arrest. Some house. But there are several other court cases pending. I wish every humiliation heaped on him. No one since Mussolini has brought such shame on Italy.

This morning, I helped Rosa fill in some forms on which she applied for extra assistance towards her medical costs. (The French national health service isn’t like the British NHS; people are individually insured. Rosa is insured through the organisation, le mutuel, to which Albert paid dues when he was working.) The forms were fiendishly complicated, and the volume of accompanying documentation required was formidable. I think the French state may be suffering from a sclerosis brought on by the excessive complexity of its administrative systems.

It’s been raining hard today, but now the clouds have parted and the sun casts shadows. Most of the flowers in their pots look as healthy as they did in July.

Montmartre Cemetery

14 October 2013

A week ago we took the train from Lorient to Paris, and had three days here. The usual pleasures: walking, museums, parks, eating and drinking. We stayed and are again staying in Jean’s and Annick’s little flat in Montmartre. On Thursday we went down to Marseille, and have spent the weekend celebrating Mary’s 50th birthday. The occasion was properly marked. About 40 people crowded into a little Syrian restaurant on Saturday night. Mary was presented with a very expensive camera, which she had said she wanted and to which most of us contributed. Jacques gave her a beautiful diamond ring, which was a complete surprise to her. I composed and read a little vers d’occasion, in the two languages:

Pour Mary à Cinquante Ans

Mes chers amis, nous sommes nombreux pour rendre tout honneur
à une amie bien-aimée, une femme, une mère, une soeur.
Hélas! Ses maintes qualités et sa beauté hors pair
volent au-délà de la portée de ceux, mes pauvres vers.
J’ai de la chance, quand-même; j’l’ai vue le jour de sa naissance;
vous avez eu, vous, moins de temps pour faire sa connaissance.
N’importe; de toutes et tous ici, ses talents et son charme
méritent nos remerciements et même, de joie, nos larmes.
Alors, amis, cette soirée, sous les cieux doux de Marseille,
souhaitons ‘Bon anniversaire’ à une dame sans pareil.

Dear friends, we’re here to celebrate the 50 years of life
of one who has no peer as friend, as sister, mother, wife;
whose qualities, kind listeners, it will soon be plain to see,
fly far beyond the limping gait of this, my poetry.
I’m lucky, though; I saw her on the day that she was born.
I’ve witnessed since the beauties which her character adorn.
How long, how short the years we’ve had to get to know her well
matters not much; what matters is the love her charms compel.
Our eyes are bright with tears of joy in Marseille’s soft night air.
Please join me in a birthday toast to one beyond compare.

The evening was enlivened at one point by an energetic belly dancer, much slimmer and sexier than belly dancers usually are, at least in my limited experience. I remember seeing a few in Istanbul 40 years ago. This performance was a surprise gift from the management. The young woman always performs in that restaurant on Saturday nights.

Jacques’ daughter Sara came from Cannes for the weekend, with her little daughter Ainhoa, aged two and a half, who is a delight. She can count up to twelve in four languages: French, Spanish, English and Russian. I told Sara she should exhibit her enfant miraculeuse on La Croisette. Ainhoa is also charmingly philosophical. She had lost her ball while she and her mother were out shopping. We went back to the place where they had been. It wasn’t there. ‘Tant pis; c’est la vie,’ she said with a resigned sigh as she sat on my shoulders. I bought her a new ball. At lunch one day, Mary produced a splendid array of cheeses. ‘Mon fromage préféré est fromage râpé,’ she said, to general amusement.

Helen and I went for a long walk yesterday afternoon, in the lovely autumn sunshine of the south. Yesterday evening we went to Jacques’ sister and brother-in-law, and had plenty of very good champagne and a delicious curry. This morning we took the train back here. Helen’s having a sleep, and I’ve come for a wander. I’ve never been into this cemetery before, and particularly wanted to, because of the poem I’ve written about its cats and some of its famous occupants, inspired by and dedicated to Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

I’ve just (I think — I always have to say that) finished a poem called ‘Unauthorised Absence’, about the fact that my great-grandfather, who was born in 1870, the year of the Forster Education Act, rarely gained a ‘perfect attendance, perfect punctuality’ certificate at the end of the school year, because his mother always allowed him a holiday on his birthday. It’s given me a lot of trouble, but with some critical help from Paul Ashton over the weekend I think I’ve got it right.

There’s still impasse in America over the budget and over the need to raise the debt ceiling. Obama is holding firm. He knows that most Americans rightly blame the Republicans. I imagine that they’re trying to find a way of yielding which at the same time gives them some non-essential concession as a face-saver. I hope they’re severely punished in the mid-term elections next year, and that Obama then has an easier time for his last two years, and can get a few more things done that need doing.

Hundreds of people have recently been drowned in the Mediterranean, trying to get into Europe via Lampedusa, Malta or Sicily. They’re poor people from various African countries, and more recently from Syria, fleeing penury or persecution or both. Wicked traffickers (the French word, I read, is passeurs) charge huge sums to transport them from Libya or Tunisia in dangerous, overcrowded boats. It’s a calamity to which the European authorities offer no adequate response. As with the problem of Islamist terrorism, about which I wrote the other day, the eventual answer is greater prosperity and political freedom in the countries from which the migrants come. But that’s a long way off, and in the case of some countries it’s a pipe dream. The little island of Lampedusa has been absolutely admirable in its compassionate reception of these desperate people, and in fulfilling the gruesome responsibility of dealing with the drowned.

I don’t say that migrants of all kinds should be allowed to stay in Europe without check; there’s no chance of that politically anyway. But there needs to be a proper Europe-wide policy of reception and sorting of the migrants in humane conditions, surveillance of the sea between north Africa and the closest European coasts, and agreements where possible with the governments of the countries from which the people have come and from which they have embarked (not possible, I know, in Somalia and other failed or failing states; Libya seems in danger of collapse too) to outlaw trafficking and punish the traffickers. The richer countries in the north of the continent, which is where the migrants often want to go, should contribute generously. I fear this is more pipe-dreaming.

Paris to Lorient Train, and Kerfontaine

16 October 2013

We’re on the way back to Kerfontaine. The day is misty and overcast. Last night we ate in a new restaurant: Le Bistrot de Paris, in Rue de Lille, near the Musée d’Orsay. It was splendid. I’m sure we shall return. But I think that for the next few weeks I should impose a period of restraint on myself. That’s an unusual resolution for me to make, I know. I just feel like giving my liver a rest and losing a bit of weight.

France is in a malaise. There is a growling, out-of-sorts discontent with the government. Hollande is profoundly unpopular, even though the economic policies his government is pursuing are exactly those needed to get the country out of its difficulties with deficit and debt, and to reduce the frightening level of unemployment. Le Monde told me the other day that the amount of money the state is losing as a result of illegal tax evasion and legal but immoral tax avoidance is between 60 and 80 billion euros a year. The combined amount that the countries of the EU are losing is estimated at 2,000 billion euros: an unimaginably vast sum of money. I’ve written before, speaking of the UK or France, that if these losses could be stanched, the government’s whole budgetary policy would be different. France currently pays out about 47 billion euros a year in interest on its debt; the same amount that it spends on its schools. It’s easy to see what a difference would be made by the recouping of even half of what it’s losing as a result of the actions of dishonest wealthy individuals and clever tax-avoiding businesses.

I think that part of the problem is that Hollande, personally, doesn’t impress. He doesn’t seem to have stature, even for those who, like me, are on his side. He hasn’t addressed the French in terms which would force them to face realities, to recognise that progress towards greater and greater prosperity isn’t automatic and guaranteed, but that France is still and always will be a great country if certain painful adjustments are made. He’s muddling through. And there’s this gnawing fear that the Front National is waiting to make big gains in the municipal and European elections next year: intellectuals of the left and even the moderate right fret about another period of Poujadism, and the permanent insertion of a racist party in the elected institutions of the state. The brutal fact is that large numbers of otherwise perfectly nice, even admirable French people are racist. Rosa is.

Paris is full of beggars and down-and-outs. I don’t remember ever seeing so many.

We’re back at home now, on a beautiful warm autumn afternoon, with chestnuts of both kinds on the ground and the apples urgently requiring to be picked, which I’ll do tomorrow. As I drove into Plouay an hour ago to do some shopping, the row of cider apple trees on the left as you go into the town looked like trees that Gauguin might have painted; the colour of their fruit is almost too intense to be true. One or two of the trees had already been stripped, and a huge heap of apples lay on a sheet on the ground, waiting to be taken to the press.

There are two bits of good international news. The first is that it looks as if the US Congress has done a deal which will re-open the federal government and avoid a default on the country’s debt tomorrow. And, most important, the deal does not damage Obama’s health care law. Some Republicans in the House will vote with the Democrats. They will be vilified by the lunatics in the Tea Party. I hope that this debacle may have shown a few Americans what crazy and destructive ideologues the Tea Party people are.

The second bit of good news is that the talks in Geneva between Iran and the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China seem to be edging towards some kind of agreement on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. There are lots of details to be sorted out, but there has never been such a relatively cordial atmosphere in discussions on this previously poisonous topic. Obama started the process of détente as soon as he came to power. Since the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected in August to replace the crazy Ahmadinejad, progress has been rapid. (I know I’ve just described as crazy both a group of right-wing Americans who would like, among other schemes, to bomb Iran ‘into the stone age’, in their charming phrase, and a man who believes that America is ‘the great Satan’. Stet.)

Kerfontaine

17 October 2013

The US Congress has indeed passed a law, at the last minute as so often recently, which will re-open the federal government and deal with the debt ceiling, at least until early next year. Obama’s health care law is unaffected. It’s a great triumph for him, and a humiliation for the Republicans. The New York Times got it right: ‘The Republican Party slunk away on Wednesday from its failed, ruinous strategy to get its way through the use of havoc.’ But the American people are sick of seeing their legislators govern only by crisis. There needs to be a bi-partisan way of bringing America’s enormous debt under control.

I’ve been out in the garden picking apples, either off the trees or off the ground. There’s a profusion, but not on the scale of the glut of two years ago which provoked my poem of hommage to Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’. The hail of 7 June has meant that almost every apple has at least one dry scar where it was hit by a hailstone. Fortunately, the scars don’t seem inclined to rot. I was accompanied in one tree by a beautiful little goldcrest, who didn’t seem frightened of me. Wikipedia tells me that Linnaeus gave the name Regulus regulus to this bird — ‘Little king little king’ — in reference to the legend of the king of the birds. I had thought that the wren was the bird referred to in the legend. The article has this to say on the subject:

‘Aristotle (384 BC — 322 BC) and Pliny (23 AD — 79) both wrote about the legend of a contest amongst the birds to see who should be their king, the title to be awarded to the one that could fly highest. Initially, it looked as though the eagle would win easily, but as he began to tire, a small bird which had hidden under the eagle’s tail feathers emerged to fly even higher and claimed the title. Following from this legend, in much European folklore the wren has been described as the “king of the birds” or as a flame bearer. [The French for wren is roitelet.] However, these terms were also applied to the regulus species, the fiery crowns of the goldcrest and firecrest making them more likely to be the original bearers of the titles; and, because of the legend’s reference to the “smallest of birds” becoming king, the title [I think the writer of the article must mean the first title] was probably transferred to the equally tiny wren. The confusion was probably compounded by the similarity and consequent interchangeability of the Greek words for the wren (βασιλεύς basileus, “king”) and the crests [goldcrest and firecrest] (βασιλισκος basiliskos, “kinglet”). In English, the association between the goldcrest and the Eurasian wren may have been reinforced by the kinglet's old name of “gold-crested wren”.’

At Channel 4, we commissioned a nice little five-part series for primary schools, each of whose programmes contained animation of a legend or other story about a creature and live-action scientific filming of that creature. The wren was one of those.

Kerfontaine

18 October 2013

Another lovely mild autumn day. I took most of the apples I’d picked round to Rosa last evening. She’s always grateful for them, and wants more. Meanwhile, Helen has made chutney and two crumbles.

Camden Town

4 November 2013

We’ve been back in London since Friday. Today is the most beautiful bright chilly autumn day, the air invigorating and head-clearing.

In the last two weeks at Kerfontaine, I read three books. The first was The World without Us by Alan Weisman. It’s a scientific fantasy about what would happen to the world if humans suddenly left it. The author has an impressive grasp of numerous branches of science, which means that the fantasy is factually based: animals would proliferate in this way, materials would decay in this way, nuclear power stations would explode in this way. The book left me more depressed than hopeful, confirming my natural pessimism about our future.  I think we probably are too stupid to restrain the malign implications of our own cleverness and greed.  We probably aren’t going to slow population growth or greenhouse-gas emissions or the disposal of plastics in the environment, or find a way of rendering nuclear waste harmless, until it’s too late for most of humanity to experience anything other than a desperate struggle for survival, instead of the kind of life which privileged people like us enjoy now.

Then I read The Great Shame by Thomas Keneally. It’s one of the finest works of non-fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a history of Ireland in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and of the migrations of Irish people to Australia and America. Some of those people were humble peasants escaping poverty and starvation, or who were transported to Australia for minor crimes or acts of defiance against brutal landlords. Others — the leaders of ‘Young Ireland’ and, later, the Fenians — were politically conscious rebels, reformers or revolutionaries who were arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to transportation. (Many of them were actually sentenced to death, but had their sentences commuted.) Apart from the clarity and ease of Keneally’s style, I am in awe of the amount of research which must have gone into the collection, marshalling and selection of information before he can have put fingers to keyboard. I admire too the restrained indignation of an Australian of Irish origins at the oppression of Ireland by Britain, an oppression most sharply evident in the grotesquely exploitative system of land ownership, which led to the rebellions and failed attempts at revolution he so calmly describes.  In particular, I found the two accounts of breakouts by Irish prisoners from Fremantle jail absolutely riveting; it was like reading a thriller, which I generally don’t. I think this book and Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore between them have given me a pretty good picture of the history of transportation to Australia and the early European invasion of the continent more generally. It was extraordinary also to read of the achievements of some of the Young Irelanders and Fenians in America, once they had been released or had escaped from Australia. Most but not all of these achievements, usually in politics or law or journalism, were admirable; on the debit side, John Mitchel supported the Confederate cause in the Civil War and championed the continuance of African slavery.

There is something heroic but also sadly comic in the repeated failure of ‘risings’ in Ireland in these years. Plans went awry for embarrassing and ridiculous reasons; on one occasion orders were left and discovered in a toilet. The British government planted spies in the rebels’ inner councils. And in North America, there were absurd attempts by Fenians to invade Canada from the USA, with the idea that the Canadians would be delighted to be liberated from the British yoke, and that the impetus gained there would lead on to the liberation of Ireland.

As I remember writing when I had read the biography of Gladstone, the failure of the UK parliament to do what Gladstone worked for, and give Home Rule to Ireland, a failure for which rebellious members of his own Liberal Party were responsible when Home Rule was debated and defeated in the House of Commons, led to the tragedies of the next century, beginning with the 1916 rising, about which there was nothing comic.

The Great Shame is a very great book.

I then read David Copperfield. I’ve got to the age of 62 without having read much Dickens: I think only The Pickwick Papers, Hard Times and Dombey and Son (which I read last year). For many years, he just wasn’t my kind of writer. There were too many words; you have to give up such a large slab of your life in reading him. But I must gobble him up now. It’s shameful for an Englishman who considers himself literate not to have read all of Dickens. In getting through the 870 pages of David Copperfield, I can’t remember when I last had such a conflicting set of responses to a book. There are passages of comic genius, notably to do with Mr Micawber and his family. There are passages which made me weep: in particular, the account of Mr Barkis’s death, when it was the poetry of the idea of a person dying on the Suffolk coast ‘going out with the tide’ which undid me. There are passages where one admires Dickens’s unflinching portrayal of brutality: for example, the wife- or woman-beating tinker David meets when walking to Dover. But the plot depends on a succession of impossible coincidences and convenient deaths, so much so that, at a certain point, one stops even thinking of it as a realistic novel (despite the social realism of much of the book’s description and concerns). It’s more like a picaresque jeu d’esprit in the manner of Don Quixote. Then there is the appalling mawkish sentimentality, the nauseating Christian piety, the fact that all the characters announce themselves at entrance as good or bad, kind or cruel, honest or devious, and never deviate. The dialogue is often stilted and predictable. But still, I read the book from beginning to end with pleasure, and I found the autobiographical sections — the humiliated child labourer, the parliamentary reporter, the articled apprentice lawyer in Doctors’ Commons, the famous young writer — very interesting. It’s easy to see why Dickens was as phenomenally popular as he was; he doesn’t do psychological subtlety like Dostoevsky does (I know I’ve written that before). He uses the lush primary colours of simple emotions and sensational events.

I’ve done a poem called ‘Legacy’, the idea for which I owe entirely to The World without Us — the poem speculates for 40 lines on the future of the earth minus humans. I’ve entered this and the owl poem for the National Poetry Competition. Earlier this year, I put ‘Good Friday. Driving Westward.’ in for the Bridport Prize. I don’t suppose they’ll get anywhere, but people keep telling me to put my poems about more, so I’m doing as I’m told.

Camden Town

19 November 2013

Since last writing, I’ve been out of London three times. The first occasion was on the 6th and 7th of this month, when Stephen Eyers and I went down to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. He has bought a barn there. I’m not sure really what he proposes to do with it, apart from storing some of the hundreds of books he has in his and Theresa’s house in New Malden, but that’s his business. He inherited some money when his mother died two years ago, and decided that he wants to own a piece of property, however modest, in the country of his heart; he was born in Bournemouth and his ancestors come from Dorset. The task facing us on those two days was to remove ivy from the outside rear wall. It had grown up to the height of the roof, and was pushing under the slates, so allowing water into the barn. As we drove down through Surrey and Hampshire, Stephen said that he thought the job would take about an hour; after that we could do a little sightseeing around Portland.

When we arrived, and looked at the ivy, I knew that we would need more than an hour to get it down. We had brought tools and overalls, and Stephen had hired a ladder and a skip. But I have never seen — and certainly never dealt with — a parasitic plant on that scale. The diameter of each of its two trunks was perhaps half a metre. A thick overlapping lattice of growth covered and clung to the wall. I’m not the most confident person high up on a ladder, especially when there’s a stiff wind blowing off the English Channel, but we set to, and by nightfall on the first afternoon we had cleared perhaps a quarter of the total. Then we drove to the hotel close to Portland Bill where Stephen had booked a room. I was interested to see that the building had once been the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, and had been constructed in the late 1940s. My father worked for the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment on Portsdown Hill above Portsmouth, built at about the same time and looking very similar. The two buildings are obviously a pair, and made (of course) out of Portland stone. I remember my father saying that he used to come to Portland, and to other prominent points on the south coast of England where the navy had facilities, to test the radar on which he was working as a young man. So I think it very likely that he stayed here. I also remember my parents talking about the Portland Spy Ring when I was nine or ten. The secrets sold to the Russians came from people working in this same building.

Our room was perfectly clean and very comfortable. Stephen then took me to dinner at a beautiful little fish restaurant just back across the bridge which connects Portland to the mainland. I had oysters and sea bass and we drank a very good Sancerre. I slept soundly back at the hotel, having been up early that morning and done a great deal more physical labour than I am used to. The wind which had been blowing all day was pounding at the windows, but had dropped by the morning.

We were back on the job at 8.30. We worked solidly until mid-afternoon, by which time we recognised that we had no chance of getting all the ivy down that day. We had done just over half of it, I would say, when Stephen rang the builder who was coming to repair the roof and make it watertight once we had finished, and asked him to quote a price for getting rid of the rest of the plant before attending to the roof. A sensible decision. We drove back to London. I was home by nine o’clock.

It’s strange that I, a southerner, born in Portsmouth, who has visited Dorset many times, should never have seen Portland before, except from aeroplanes flying between Southampton and Brest. It’s impressive, indeed awesome, to see this great lump of limestone rearing up as you come around Weymouth and cross the bridge. The notorious prison, The Verne, is built into the rock. I’d never really thought about the place until I read The Great Shame a month ago. Several of the Irish revolutionaries were kept there, in solitary confinement, for long periods before they were transported.

The next day Helen and I went to Aldeburgh for the poetry festival, as for so many years now. It was nice to be there with our friends, and I’m always grateful to Heather Loxton for organising the rental of the house by the sea, but the poetry itself isn’t as good as it used to be. The one exception was Ian Macmillan, whose late-night hour on the Saturday was wonderfully entertaining. The performances, as I probably wrote a year ago, have moved from Aldeburgh to Snape, so although the physical surroundings are more comfortable and the acoustics better, you don’t get that sense of being in one place for the whole weekend, and the pleasure of walking everywhere. I’m not sure that we shall go again.

Last Thursday we went to Shropshire to stay with David and Tom. It was David’s birthday that day; it would have been Lindsay’s two days previously. Father and son are coping pretty well with their bereavement, I think. We drove back yesterday.

I’ve read two more Dickens novels: Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Pip in Great Expectations is the one example so far, in my admittedly still limited reading of Dickens, of a character drawn with real psychological subtlety. Pip becomes a snob when he comes into money; as a result, he avoids Joe (and Joe is in an agony of awkwardness when he visits him in London); he is initially appalled to discover that his benefactor is a convict, and not Miss Havisham; and he bitterly regrets these failings at the book’s conclusion. He has learnt something. Meanwhile, the plots of both books depend once again on absurdly unlikely coincidences, something which obviously hasn’t mattered at all to most of Dickens’s readers over the years, and I suppose shouldn’t matter to me. The books are melodramas. They contain some marvellous pieces of atmospheric description: Pip and the convict in the churchyard, Fagin in the condemned cell, Miss Havisham on fire. One can’t deny the ardour and sincerity of Dickens’s criticism of the treatment of poor children in Oliver Twist. One can’t deny the casual anti-Semitism by which Fagin is constantly referred to as ‘the Jew’, and presented to us as physically repulsive. I shall keep on gobbling up Dickens this winter; I think Our Mutual Friend next.

There has been a dreadful typhoon in the Philippines, perhaps the strongest ever recorded in that typhoon-vulnerable part of the world. It caused a surge of water which killed many people living near the sea, and destroyed much property and infrastructure. A big international aid and rescue effort is in full swing now, but it will take years to replace and restore that which has been broken and lost. These events will continue and increase in frequency, I fear, until the world’s leaders agree on unpopular measures forcing humanity to stop abusing the planet. It’s a cruel irony that we, the rich, have done the damage; they, the poor, are paying the price. It will take an unspeakable catastrophe hitting a rich country or two to bring about the change that is needed. Even then, it will be many years before the benefits will be felt.

The situation in Syria is awful. There is now a full-scale civil war in which the original aims of the opposition have been forgotten as two evils confront each other: the vile brutality of the Assad regime versus the murderous theocratic zealotry of the djihadists. Neither of these forces offers a vision of the future remotely connected to the hopes of the Arab spring. Indeed, the whole region — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon — seems convulsed by schismatic hatred between Shia and Sunni.

Kerfontaine

31 December 2013

The rest of the year has run away with me, as it always does. We’ve been here, as usual now, since four days before Christmas, and we shall stay until 5 January. Earlier this month, we went to Norfolk, to Adam and Hazel (where we heard of Nelson Mandela’s death), and also back to Shropshire for the traditional pre-Christmas weekend, this year alas without Lindsay. Peter and Merle Traves hosted a merry evening nonetheless. At Mike Raleigh’s suggestion, I said a few words at the beginning of the meal in memory of the woman who had for so many years been ‘the founder of the feast’. The next day, a Saturday, David, Tom and Mike went to France for a week’s skiing, so we moved to Glenda and Julian for the weekend, for more pleasure. On the Saturday afternoon, at my request, Julian and I climbed the Lawley. It’s something I like to do at least once a year. On this occasion, the wind was so strong out of the south-west that we were nearly blown over, and had to make the final ascent on our hands and knees.

We’ve seen other friends for lunches and dinners and drinks: the usual thing.

Stephen and Theresa came for Christmas, and stayed for four nights. We went for walks on each of the three days. On Christmas Eve we ate John Dory; on Christmas Day goose, roast; on Saint Stephen’s Day goose, curried. On the day after that Stephen and Theresa took us out to our little restaurant at Pont-Scorff, where we shall go again tonight for the Saint Sylvestre dinner, as last year and the year before that.

The weather has been mild and very wet. Just before Christmas, there were violent storms here and in the south of England, causing widespread flooding and depriving many homes of electricity, including on Christmas Day. We were hardly affected. One tree fell down in the wood. But only a few kilometres away, at Quimperlé, at the confluence of the rivers Ellé and Laïta, disruption to people’s lives has been severe. There is only one road through the town, which crosses the bridge directly over the confluence. It was engulfed.

These inconveniences, however, are as nothing by comparison with the woes being suffered elsewhere in the world. Syria remains an appalling disaster, with no apparent end in sight. Well over 100,000 are dead, and many more mutilated. There are millions of refugees, either in neighbouring countries or internally displaced. As I’ve written before, perhaps too often, the principal conflict is now between Assad and the djihadists: equally unsavoury opposites. No reasonable person would want to be governed by either. The ‘international community’ (ridiculous phrase) seems helpless. Do we simply resign ourselves to the thought that the human condition is very often one of tragedy, and that this is normal?

In Iraq, ten years after the invasion, there is still regular violence, and al-Qaida seems securely entrenched. A similar situation prevails in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Africa, several states are convulsed by civil strife, caused by tribal and/or religious divisions mixed with secular power struggles. This is true in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Mali (though the situation there is quieter since the French military intervention of last January) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia remain deeply unhappy places, in which the exhilaration of the Arab spring has given way to profound divisions about what kinds of societies those countries should be. It seems impossible to establish there the kind of governance which significant proportions of those countries’ citizens actually want: respectful of religious belief, including that of minorities, while maintaining a secular parliamentary and legal system. The trouble in Egypt has been that, when the people were given the chance to vote, they voted by a small majority for an Islamist party. That party, despite its initial promises to respect diversity of thought and action, did the opposite: it moved unmistakably in the direction of Islamist theocracy and sharia law. So it was thrown out. It can claim, with some justification, that it was and is the only democratically elected government of Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, and that its overthrow was a dictatorial coup. But it was a coup which millions of Egyptians, and I would have been one if I were Egyptian, were glad to see happen.

The significance of Nelson Mandela’s life and the greatness of his humanity were properly acknowledged the world over. Barack Obama made the only good speech at the memorial service for Mandela, held in a football stadium in Soweto. Apart from paying proper tribute to the greatness of the man’s courage, wisdom and capacity for forgiveness, Obama chided other national leaders who seem not to have even a hundredth part of Mandela’s qualities, though few if any of them have suffered as Mandela did. And that does seem to be the problem. Statesman- or stateswoman-like leadership is extraordinarily rare. For every great unifying leader like Obama, there is a divisive thug like Putin. The world’s nations are too often led by men — usually men — whose true purpose in leadership is self-aggrandisement and self-enrichment, whatever propaganda they give out.

Recently, I read Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party, about New Labour from the election victory of 2001 to the defeat of 2010. It’s a very long book, which I consumed addictively in two and a half days, so I must have enjoyed it. But by the end it had depressed me profoundly. I’m sure that Rawnsley knows what he’s writing about; I very much doubt that he made stuff up. The book revealed to me how naïve, how child-like had been my belief (in the early Labour years) and then my diminishing hope (in the years which the book covers) that the leaders of the party I was and am a member of were somehow better than they turn out to be.  The portrait Rawnsley paints is one of fratricidal warfare conducted between people with grotesquely distended egos, apparently unaware that they were squandering the once-in-a-lifetime advantage which the electorate had given them. Brown emerges, from the 2001 victory onwards, as fixated on one thing only: the leadership. He and his acolytes, notably Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, spent most of their energies undermining Blair’s authority. Meanwhile, Blair’s over-confidence in his own judgment, combined with his desperate desire to be Bush’s closest friend, a desire justified by the delusion that he was exercising a restraining influence on American foreign policy, led the UK into the catastrophe in Iraq. Rawnsley pays tribute to Blair’s positive achievements, notably his historic contribution to bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, but rightly says that Iraq, and all the duplicities that led up to it, have permanently stained the record of his premiership. That wrong decision is the thing he will be remembered for.

When Brown finally got the job for which he had been longing and plotting for so many years, he didn’t enjoy it and, with one huge exception, made a mess of it. The huge exception of course was his and Darling’s magnificent handling of the financial crisis of autumn 2008. Unfairly, the UK electorate didn’t particularly thank him for what he did then. That right decision, in its own way as significant for good as was Blair’s decision on Iraq significant for ill, was forgotten amid the daily evidence that Brown didn’t know, after the sorry farce of the election that never was in autumn 2007, how to look like a Prime Minister at ease in the post. ‘Enjoy the office,’ Macmillan is supposed to have said or written to Wilson. Brown gave the impression of hating it; and some of his personal behaviour while in Number 10 was that of a man having lost all sense, if he had ever had some sense, of how to treat other people and get the best out of them.

Even without returning to my own diary entries from 1 May 1997 onwards, written from the point of view of an optimistic but powerless supporter, I know that if I were to compare my outsider’s thoughts about events with Andrew Rawnsley’s inside knowledge of those events, the gap between my piety and his reality, my simplicity and his complexity, would be immense. I can’t now get beyond the thought that the best that people like me can do is to support the least bad political party capable of getting power. As Raymond Aron said, speaking of grander and more fateful choices than those with which British party politics are usually concerned, ‘The choice is not between good and evil. It is between the preferable and the detestable.’

I’ve done a bit of winter gardening while we’ve been here: pruning, weeding, leaf-clearing. There is a satisfaction in seeing the place pared back and trim.