Occurrences: Book Eleven

Camden Town

12 March 2014

I’m not as ashamed as I might be that this is the first entry for 2014. The reason is that I’ve been, until the last few days, solidly engaged in an educational project sponsored by Mike Raleigh and his colleague Peter Dougill. Both are former English teachers, former local authority advisers, former HMIs, and they now run a little consultancy called Owen Education (named after Robert Owen, described by Wikipedia as ‘a Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement’), who was born and died down the road from where Mike lives.

I’ve done a few bits and pieces of editorial work for Mike and Peter in recent years. In late November of last year, they asked me to do something bigger: to be the main writer of a series of booklets on the teaching of English, language and literacy to children and young people from age 3 to age 19. It’s an attempt to remind teachers and educational policy-makers of some of the best that has been thought and written on this topic in the last 50 years. The political purpose is straightforward. Recent governments, and especially the current government, have required in law approaches to the teaching of English, language and literacy which are simply wrong, and will prove unworkable. They have done so because of the political appeal of a retrospective populism which says that educational standards were much higher many years ago, when traditional methods were practised, especially in the teaching of early reading, spelling and grammar. The claim is demonstrably false, but truth is not a high priority in the minds and motivations of most politicians; certainly not in the case of our current Secretary of State and the advisers around him.

So we’re trying to state the truth about how children and young people come to have a confident control of English, and how teachers can best help them to do that. There will, I think, be 11 booklets in all, and they may be combined eventually into a book. I shan’t write all the booklets; probably seven of them. I’ve already produced the essential contents of five. So a large amount of the heavy work is done, and this is what has been keeping me busy since early December. We haven’t yet decided who’s going to publish us, but we’re pretty sure that the booklets will be electronically published before they’re printed.

Today has been the most beautiful day: warm and spring-like. I walked down to the Institute of Education, where — thanks to the good offices of my friend John Hardcastle, who works there — I’m a Visiting Research Associate. This gives me access to the Institute’s library, which I should think is the best educational library in the country, and quite possibly in the world. It certainly has all the books I’ve needed for research purposes. Then I walked across to John Lewis to pick up a print of a picture by Daumier which we saw at an exhibition of his work in the Royal Academy recently, and came home on the bus.

Yesterday I escorted our friend and neighbour John Bentil to University College Hospital, where he had an artificial lens inserted in his right eye, which was virtually blind. It was all done within four hours, without — according to John — any pain at all. This morning, when I took off the dressing which covered the eye, he said he could already see more clearly. Wonderful. He needs to put a drop into the eye six times a day for two weeks, and twice a day for a further week. I’ve been doing it for him today. When the NHS works well, it’s the most superb system. I took John for a pre-assessment about a month ago. Expensive machinery gave the nurses the exact specifications of the lens which he would need, which was then individually made for him. This morning he had a phone call from a nurse to ask whether everything was all right. We shall go back for a check-up on 31 March. He will then have the left eye done, which is not as bad as the right, but still needs fixing.

‘Praise they that will Times past; I joy to see
Myself now live; this age best pleaseth me.’ — Herrick

It’s a great age to live in as long as you’re in a rich country with a socialised healthcare service. Thank goodness we do.

Two weeks ago, we flew down to Marseille for a long weekend, to help Jacques celebrate his 60th birthday. It was a happy occasion. Mary had taken him and Tess to Rome for a few days, including his actual birthday. This was a family party on the following Sunday, held in the flat belonging to Jacques’ sister and brother-in-law. 30 people there. Mary had cooked everything: delicious. I wrote and performed a little poem, to go with the one I did for Mary’s 50th last October.

On dit que l’âge de soixante ans
apporte une grande sagesse.
Mais, Jacques, notre ami bien-aimé,
esprit de gentillesse,
de cette vertu tu es, on voit,
équipé largement;
et c’est pour ça que ce beau jour
d’un bel avant-printemps
nous te prions tout simplement
— fils, frère, mari, papa —
continue d’être la grande âme
que nous aimons déjà!

I’m reading Postwar by Tony Judt, an epic account of Europe since 1945. The scale and complexity of the changes which our continent has experienced in my lifetime and in the few years before it are immense, and Judt’s achievement in marshalling all this information is deeply impressive. The hypocrisies and acts of realpolitik by which, suddenly, a country which you have just necessarily destroyed (Germany) is helped to become a functioning state again, so Nazis recently out of uniform, some quite senior, are employed to help in the reconstruction. The appalling brutality of the Stalinist takeover of the East. The illusion in the West during what the French call les trente glorieuses that things can only go on getting better and better. The rude awakening from that daydream. The only thing I have against Judt’s writing (and this applies too to several other big histories I’ve read recently) is that he allows himself occasional moments of social commentary on topics he obviously knows nothing about. It’s natural that I’m going to object to the sweeping, unsupported statement that the introduction of comprehensive education in Britain has been a disastrous mistake which has inhibited rather than advanced social mobility. On other topics too, where my feelings are less committed and my knowledge less sure, he briefly indulges in saloon-bar opinionation. But these are trifling failings; overall, the book is a tour de force of scholarship and clear writing.

Train from Exeter to London

14 May 2014

I’m on the way back from a meeting in Exeter with Angela Goddard, who’s going to write the ninth booklet in our series of eleven, on English as taught to 16- to 19-year-olds. Angela was a colleague on the Language in the National Curriculum Project all those years ago. She’s a main authority on A-level, particularly A-level English Language, and I think she’ll do a good job. At any rate, I like her very much. The reason for yet another long pause in writing the diary is the same as in March: these booklets, and the management of the project as a whole, are proving demanding. We’re hoping that the United Kingdom Literacy Association, which published my pamphlet on early reading last year, will do them. We had a meeting with UKLA three weeks ago. Eve Bearne and David Reedy, both good friends of mine and past presidents of the Association, are taking our proposal through various committees. We intend now to publish all eleven booklets in one go early next year, and maybe combine the series in a single book thereafter, to be published commercially.

What else have I done recently? In early April, we went to Shropshire to be with David and Tom James on the anniversary of Lindsay’s death. From there, we went across to Norfolk for a few days with Adam and Hazel. On Good Friday, Tess came by herself from Marseille and stayed with us for a week. She was a delight. We heard a concert at the Wigmore Hall, we visited Eltham Palace, Tate Modern (for the Matisse cut-outs exhibition), the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and Cambridge. This last was on a day when Helen was working, so it was just Tess and I. I took her all round Trinity, and managed to wangle a lunch with the students in hall. The food was as bad as ever, but the experience worth it. Then the Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard. The particular reason for all this gallery-visiting was that Tess was doing a project on self-portraits for her brevet. She had to study five. She had already chosen a Frida Kahlo, a Van Gogh and (interesting choice) Baudelaire’s poem ‘L’Albatros’ — a self-piteous portrait of poets as a kind. She needed two more. We settled on a Lowry in the NPG and a Christopher Wood in Kettle’s Yard. I was delighted to go back to Kettle’s Yard, from where I had borrowed works of art more than 40 years ago. I had known nothing about Christopher Wood. He was born in 1901 and killed himself in 1930 by jumping in front of a train at Salisbury station, not far from where I am at this moment. Prodigiously talented and deeply troubled. I remembered that I had seen his name and noted its Englishness on a portrait of Max Jacob in Quimper. Sure enough, he spent much of the 1920s in Paris and visited Brittany (I can’t remember how often) because of the Gauguin connection. The self-portrait is of him on a roof terrace in Paris with other roofs in the background. He’s large, apparently confident, staring at us almost insolently, and wearing a striking red-and-white patterned sweater. His painting equipment is to one side. Tess was very struck by the work, and so was I.

The next day, Helen took Tess to see a musical called Urinetown. I didn’t go because I disapproved of the choice, made without consulting me. Agreeing that they should go but that I wouldn’t was a sort of score draw. I met them afterwards and we went to see Gabriel Genest, who played a beautiful Bach partita for us. I wanted Tess to hear top-quality playing from someone we know and therefore she now knows. On her last day, she and Helen went shopping. She had arrived with a large but half-empty case. When it was fully packed the following morning, it was hard even for me to lift. £40 excess weight charge at Heathrow.

I’ve begun editing Paul Ashton’s latest book. This one is based on a true story told to him when he worked at the BBC, about a young man, physically ill-favoured, who’s 25 and a virgin and desperate. He goes to a brothel and falls in love with the young prostitute whom they assign to him. Meanwhile, he’s taken on as a part-time worker at the establishment. The book concludes brutally and shockingly, but along the way there’s much humour and tenderness, and the goings-on in the brothel, which is expensive and where entertainments of the most extravagant kind, mixing artistry with gratification, are regularly laid on, allow Paul full rein to his talent for baroque detail. Paul’s done six books now, all different, and I’ve been his editor on all but the first.

After Judt’s Postwar, I read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the causes of the First World War. Magnificent, and this time I had not even trifling reservations. The book explains both the specific actions and inactions which brought about the catastrophe, but also — and perhaps more importantly — manages to communicate something of the culture of that time, the assumptions and the manners by which the political elites dealt with each other. I knew nothing really about Serbia before I read the book. I didn’t even know that it had come into being as a state as a result of the Congress of Berlin. What struck me, in reading about the murder of the king and queen in 1903 and the uneasy relationship thereafter between the official government of the country and the militaristic shadow structure existing alongside it and threatening sometimes to supplant it, was how similar that was to the situation in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Ukraine now. One moves by uneasy stages from something close to democracy to out-of-control banditry. The Serbs’ obsession with ‘Greater Serbia’ was there at the beginning and at the end of the last century, a racial mania whose many victims notably included Albanians. At both periods, Russia’s support for its Slav ‘little brothers’ was a major contributor to the disaster. Without underestimating the threatening nature of German militarism, and fully accepting that the eventual invasion of Belgium was a casus belli, one can’t come away from the book with the idea, ingrained in traditional British thinking, that Germany was the only or even the principal culprit. Austria-Hungary had a right to be outraged when it became clear that Serbia was deeply involved in the Sarajevo assassination. Russia was uncritical in its support for Serbia. Russia mobilised first. In its determination to avenge the humiliation of 1870, France tied itself too closely to Russia. Everyone was a threat to everyone else. The catastrophe was avoidable in a way that the Second World War, alas, wasn’t.

Camden Town

25 July 2014

We went to Kerfontaine for our summer season on 23 May. The previous weekend, we had been once again with David and Tom in Shropshire. As I have probably written before, Lindsay was a wonderful and ambitious gardener. When she knew she was dying, she commissioned an overhaul of their garden, which has resulted in the creation of magnificent flower borders and a large pond with an overhanging wooden deck, ideal for coffee or aperitifs. Alas, she didn’t live to see her project finished, but finished it was, and on 17 May about 60 people came to a lunch party to celebrate the completion. David made a very good and moving speech.

We were at Kerfontaine for a month, enjoying beautiful early summer weather. There was quite a lot to do in our garden: nothing in the Lindsay league, of course; mainly fighting back the encroachment of wilderness. I had to buy a new lawn mower, the other having given up the ghost last year. And there was more work on the language booklets. Helen gave me a wonderful day on my birthday. We went to our favourite little restaurant at Pont-Scorff in the evening.

On 16 May, on our way up to Shropshire, we had lunched with Peter and Monica Hetherington. Two days later, Peter sent me some translations of a recently found poem by Sappho, which Ken Pearce, who was for a year my Latin teacher at Bedford Modern, had seen in the TLS and sent to him. Peter wondered whether I might care to attempt a translation myself. I knew that I wouldn’t do exactly that, since six poets had already made the attempt, with varying degrees of success. But the suggestion prompted the thought that I might try translations of some other Sappho poems. So the day before leaving England I bought the Loeb edition. It gave me exactly what I wanted: a conscientious literal prose translation of each fragment, done by a scholar with no pretension to poetry. Of course I have no Greek at all. I can’t even do what Milton’s daughters did: pronounce the words without understanding them.

I use the word ‘fragment’ instead of ‘poem’ because that’s what the Loeb scholar calls them, and it’s easy to see why. It seems likely that Sappho was prolific, producing numerous books each containing many lyrics. They are lost. We depend on quotations from Sappho by later writers, Greek and Roman, and on remnants of papyrus and parchment — often partial and badly damaged — which have somehow survived to the modern day. I think that only the very first fragment out of more than 200 is more or less a complete poem. It didn’t take long to read the 200+; many of the fragments are only a few words long. I settled on 13 to translate, choosing those where enough remains to descry an argument, and where there is something original or striking in the thought. I’ve done the 13 at Kerfontaine and in our travels since. They’re versions (‘imitations’, in Lowell’s terms) rather than disciplined renderings of the originals. They often go off on frolics of their own. I’m pleased with them. I haven’t sent them to Mark yet to go on the website. Ken Pearce has kindly agreed to look at them, both to comment on them as poems, and also to check whether the Greek originals make sense. I pulled these off the internet and amended them when they differed from the Loeb version, like a monkey playing with Scrabble tiles. In one case I preferred the internet version to the Loeb, when I was pretty sure that a scholar had come across a fuller version of that fragment since the Loeb was published.

Most but not all of the fragments are about love. Sappho of course has become one of the patron saints of the lesbian community, and it is true that many of her poems are explicitly about love between women. (It is charming to read some of the nineteenth-century translations of her work on the internet, where scholars, who must have understood the difference between male and female personal pronouns in Greek, persist in translations where the loved one whom Sappho addresses is male.) But Sappho was also married, and had a daughter whom she adored. Later commentators, including Ovid in the 15th of his Letters of the Heroines (in which he takes on the voices of women pining for their absent male lovers or unrequiting loved ones or husbands) suggests that she died of love for Phaon. I can’t improve on the brief description of Phaon in Wikipedia:

‘Phaon in Greek mythology was a boatman of Mitylene in Lesbos. He was old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat. She put on the guise of a crone. Phaon ferried her over to Asia Minor and accepted no payment for doing so. In return, she gave him a box of ointment. When he rubbed it on himself, he became young and beautiful. Many were captivated by his beauty.

According to mythology, Sappho fell in love with him. He lay with her but soon grew to resent her and devalue her. Sappho was so distraught with his rejection that she threw herself into the sea under the superstition that she would be either cured of her love, or drowned. She was drowned. Aelian says that Phaon was killed by a man whom he was cuckolding.’

So Sappho, who was undoubtedly a historical figure, is muddled up with mythology. Maybe the story about Phaon is homophobic: a case of later writers wanting to punish her posthumously for having loved women. Horace described her as ‘manly Sappho’. Anyhow, she was born around 620 BCE and died around 570. She came of noble family in Mytilene on Lesbos. At some point in her youth the family fell into disfavour with the ruler of the island, and was exiled to Sicily. The political situation improved later, and Sappho returned to Lesbos, where she established a singing school for young women. They sang her poems, accompanying themselves always on the lyre. Sappho invented the plectrum, and a stanza form subsequently named after her (three lines of 11 syllables each and one of five), imitated by Horace and Catullus and, unsuccessfully, by some modern writers.

Of the few Sappho fragments which are not about love, the most interesting are those in which she chides one of her brothers, Charaxus, who seems to have disgraced the family by wandering around the Mediterranean and consorting with an expensive Egyptian prostitute. Having thrown all his money at her, he resorted to piracy to recoup funds. I’ve translated one fragment in which Sappho appeals to the Nereids (sea goddesses) and to Cypris (another name for Aphrodite) not to be too hard on the boy, despite his misdoings. The voice in the poem reminds me of that of parents or — when the parents didn’t speak English — of older siblings at exclusion meetings during my years as a school governor. Their child or younger sibling had behaved so badly that he or she had had to be removed from the school, usually temporarily but occasionally permanently. The sorrowing family members couldn’t seem to recognise their relative in the undoubtedly truthful and often quite restrained account of wrongdoing which the head teacher read out to them. ‘I can’t understand it. He/She isn’t a bad child really. It won’t happen again.’

On 24 June we set off for our now annual trip to Italy. We are, I must confess, becoming creatures of habit. Perhaps we always were. A night at the Château des Jacobins in Agen, with dinner at Le Margoton; two nights with Mary and Jacques in Marseille; a night at Podere Conti; and then Rodellosso, via Pisa airport, where we picked up Paul Ashton. Other guests in that first week were Mike Raleigh and Kate Myers, and Peter and Merle Traves. The fifth apartment was occupied by the Belgian couple André and Caterina, with whom we’ve coincided often during the five years we’ve been going to Rodellosso, and who have become good friends.

After a week of familiar pleasures with these friends, others came to stay: Peter and Monica Hetherington, Mary, Jacques and Tess, and Adam and Hazel. These people hadn’t met, either for many years or not at all, but everyone got on very well. On the Tuesday I took Peter and Monica to Siena. Monica hadn’t been before, and Peter only once. During the week, Peter and Adam went off on long rides together on the mountain bikes provided. Peter has tremendous boyish energy for a man of 83. Perhaps he overdoes it a little in order to show that ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age’. He speaks good Italian, having studied for a year at the University of Perugia when he gave up teaching at Bedford Modern.

During the first week I gave Italian lessons; during the second, swimming lessons. Helen is sometimes a bit resentful that I seem to enjoy my role as tour guide and events organiser so much that I forget I’m supposed also to be on holiday with her. On the last Saturday, after everyone had gone, we drove to Siena together and had lunch in an exquisite restaurant that Claudio, our host at Rodellosso, had recommended: Le Logge, near San Martino. It will become our restaurant of choice in the city from now on. I should also say that Claudio and Alessandra, his business partner, laid on a wonderful evening for us on the Thursday of the second week, with a cornucopia of Tuscan dishes accompanied by Claudio’s family’s wines. We shall be back next year, in the week of the July palio (in which Claudio’s contrada will be running, as it will in this year’s August palio), so we can expect the same hospitality on the eve of the event as we received last year. Creatures of habit, as I say.

Then back via Podere Conti, Marseille, and four lovely days with Stephen and Theresa in the Charente. I helped Stephen in the garden. We went to eat in Ribérac one evening, hoping for a quiet outdoor dinner in the great heat. A free concert in the square (four thrash punk bands, one after the other) meant that the four of us had to lip-read from soup to nuts. There was neither soup nor nuts, but the food was good. The following morning we went back for the weekly market, which is enormous and which we enjoy very much. Then home to Kerfontaine last Saturday.

On Monday we went across to Plouhinec, next to Audierne, for lunch with Huw and Jo, friends of Mike and Sue when Sue was alive, and now of Mike and Kate, and our friends too, who were staying with Arthur and Suzanne, friends of theirs. Jo, Suzanne and Sue had been colleagues at Holland Park. Arthur Sculley is American and has had a very senior career in banking. He was at J.P. Morgan for a long time, latterly as CEO of its private bank. He’s now doing research into the entrepreneurs of Asian Turkey and northern Iraq, for the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He’s a charming, softly spoken man with a knowledge of international affairs got from the seniority of the positions he’s held and the company he’s kept. I learnt more about Turkey, the Kurds, the current tragedy in Israel/Palestine and the situation in Iran in the course of an hour of two with him than in weeks of reading the newspapers. A lot of what he said confirmed what I thought to be true; it was gratifying to hear it from him. For example: the split in Iran between the right-wing theocrats, who still hold ultimate power, and the recently elected government led by Hassan Rouhani and his excellent foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are trying — to put the matter briefly — to bring Iran back into the world. They have had some success, with help of John Kerry and Catherine Ashton, in moving slowly towards a resolution of the crisis over Iran’s supposed intention to build a nuclear weapon.

After lunch we went swimming in the bay of Audierne. A delight, though a bit more invigorating than the swimming pools of Tuscany and the Charente. Then back for tea, and Helen and I drove home in the quiet early evening.

On Wednesday I flew from Rennes to Southampton. Train to Waterloo. Over to Paul’s for the evening: two delicious pints of English bitter in the uncharacteristic heat, and a very good Kerala curry. Yesterday I had a meeting at the RAC with Mike and Peter from Owen Education and Eve and David from UKLA. UKLA will definitely publish the 11 booklets, probably next March. Print and electronic publication will be simultaneous. We agreed a timetable for delivery of the manuscripts. Owen and UKLA agreed a split of costs. I feel a bit relieved. It’s a weakness of mine that, when I have a large undertaking on hand, I can’t ever put it out of my mind, even when there are other things I have to do which distract me from it. It hangs about at the back of all my thoughts. So it has been with this project all year. Somehow, we’ve invited lots of people to come and stay with us at Kerfontaine in August and September, which means I won’t be able to get on as fast as I would like (apart from the fact that my writing room is the guest bedroom). Having a reasonable steady schedule through to the end of the year, by which time the writing and editing should be complete, is reassuring: two booklets (already virtually complete) to be delivered by late August; then two more a month later; and so on. The principal uncertainty is with the booklets to be written by others. How good will they be? How much editing and diplomacy will be required?

Tomorrow I go to Taunton to stay the night with Mark and Gill. In the evening Mark and I will be in Wells Cathedral, listening to The Dream of Gerontius, conducted by Graham Caldbeck. I said I would come over for the performance anyway, and yesterday’s meeting turned up conveniently. Then back to Brittany from Southampton early on Sunday morning.

If I start on an account of the great events in the world at the moment, I know I shall be traversing ground which, alas, I have traversed many times before. Israel/Palestine is dreadful. In June, three Israeli boys were kidnapped and killed on the West Bank, probably by a rogue extremist group which regards even Hamas as being too cosy with Israel. The Israeli response was predictably and understandably robust. Meanwhile, Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, causing terror and a few deaths. So Israel has launched a huge and totally disproportionate counter-offensive, causing the deaths of many hundreds of Palestinians. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority seem helpless, caught between the two adversaries, trusted by neither. The usual calls from the international community for a ceasefire. I see no end to the bloodshed. Netanyahu’s policies are very largely supported by the Israeli public. They see no problem with their continuing theft of Palestinian lands on the West Bank. They see no problem with their blockade of Gaza, which makes intolerable the lives of the people there, even when they aren’t at immediate risk of being killed. Gaza is I think the most overcrowded bit of territory in the world. Recent big migrations to Israel, notably from Russia and other countries of the ex-Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, have tipped the balance of public opinion away from those Israelis who advanced the reasoned argument that Israeli must find a way of living at peace with its neighbours, towards the position that the only way for Israel to be at peace is to exclude its neighbours, to drive them away, to Jordan, to Egypt, anywhere. Netanyahu is a prisoner of that position. I still think that a one-state solution, not a two-state solution, is the only way out of the agony. It’s nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, and not very far away, appalling things are going on in Iraq and Syria. A group of Sunni djihadists calling itself the Islamic State now controls large swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and has declared the existence of a new Islamic caliphate. It’s saying that the boundaries drawn up during the First World War by the European imperial powers — Britain and France — are an aberration of history; which they are. The caliphate aims to expand its boundaries so as to create a huge Islamic theocracy in the Near and Middle East and North Africa, run according to its own most brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and dedicated to the destruction of Shia Islam as well as Christianity, Judaism and any other religion. Christians have had to flee. Many of them have gone to Kurdish northern Iraq.

Consequently, the West’s focus of concern in the region has shifted from the brutality of the Assad regime to the brutality of the Islamic State. Assad must be feeling complacent. He can say that all along he has been fighting terrorists. The legitimate opposition to Assad — that which the West has so notably failed to support — is crushed between two barbarisms, one secular, one theocratic.

Not very far way again, in eastern Ukraine, Russia continues to arm and support groups of thugs who have proclaimed their ‘independence’ from Kiev. It’s exactly the same technique as it used in its unilateral takeover of the Crimea from Ukraine earlier in the year (which the rest of the world seems to have accepted as a fait accompli): foment discord in a region which you want to own; claim to have nothing to do with that discord; secretly arm the separatists; play the statesman coming in to offer diplomacy; end up with more territory. A dreadful event occurred last week, however, consequent on giving terrifying weapons to people who don’t know how to use them. A surface-to-air missile shot down a civilian aircraft on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board. There’s no doubt that Ukrainian separatists fired the missile. There’s no doubt that it was supplied by Russia. It’s very probable that the missile was fired by accident. The separatists deny it. Russia denies it. No one else believes them.

This action is so far away from the norms of any civilised state or individual that we don’t know what to do. The European Union is 28 countries which find it difficult to agree to do anything. Some minor sanctions. Several of the EU countries are so dependent on Russia for gas, or are so far into potentially lucrative trade deals with Russia, that we’re afraid of hurting ourselves in the process. The US understandably doesn’t want to start another war just as it’s disentangling itself from Afghanistan and so soon after it has left Iraq (in a state of chaos). Russia exploits this weakness (Iraq has chopped away the moral high ground from the West), and continues to act as if we’re still in a world where power equals physical territory and the domination of immediate neighbours. Its own population, apart from certain elites who know better but who speak out at their own risk, is completely in thrall to a propaganda machine which assures them that the Kiev government is fascist, and that the EU and US are only interested in thwarting Russia’s legitimate assertion of its rights as a great power.

I could go on. An Algerian plane, en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers, came down yesterday in Mali, in the desert near the border with Burkina Faso, killing everybody on board. Bad weather was probably the cause.

Enough for one day.

Kerfontaine

15 August 2014

The Dream of Gerontius concert was magnificent. Wells Cathedral was packed. Mark and I crossed the Somerset levels, which had been covered in water during the winter, first in the beautiful early evening, later in the soft night. I was up at half past five the next morning, and drove in a hired car to Southampton Airport for a 9.30 flight back to Rennes.

Since then we’ve had Deirdre Finan to stay, and then Glenda and Julian Walton. Much pleasure in both cases. On the eve of Helen’s birthday, between the two visits, our neighbours Jean and Annick took us out to a seriously expensive restaurant in Pont-Scorff (not the little one we usually go to) to celebrate her birthday, as they were about to be overwhelmed with grandchildren the next day. We were the only people there that Sunday evening. The food was experimental and spectacular. The woman who served us, the wife of the chef, announced each course in a paragraph of incantation, accompanied by a curious little dance — three steps forward, three steps back — as if the putting of food into our mouths were a religious rite to be approached with due solemnity. Which, in French restaurants at that level, it is.

The next day I took Helen out and bought her a ring. It’s silver, with a stout little opal set in the clasp. Unfussy, which we both like. I had already bought her a silver bangle the previous week. That afternoon Glenda and Julian arrived, and in the evening I took the whole party out to Le Vivier at Lomener. We had a good table overlooking the water, and celebrated both Helen’s 66th birthday and Julian’s recent 70th birthday in style. The food was delicious, if a little less experimental than on the previous evening.

After Glenda and Julian left, I had a final editorial read of Paul Ashton’s book about Joe in the brothel. That took me three days. Since then, I’ve been back on the English curriculum project. Mike Raleigh sent some of my draft booklets to an HMI who wrote back rather depressingly that he didn’t think teachers had time for this kind of thing any more — that is, attempts to lay out a sound theoretical foundation for the job of teaching — but just wanted quick tips to get them through the week and to do what the government requires of them. I must say, I was depressed, and for a while wished I had never embarked on the project in the first place. But of course it was I who had made it clear to Mike that I was up for whatever work he might have which would earn me a few shillings, and the few shillings will, over the year from November 2013 to October 2014, amount to £12,000. So I must be grateful and stay the course. Mike and his colleague Peter Dougill agreed that ‘hot tips for teachers’ is not what we’re doing, so I’m sticking to the timetable which we agreed with UKLA in London in July. The one significant change which we’ve agreed to make as a result of the HMI’s remarks is to introduce the series with an executive summary as booklet 1, which will contain the essence of what’s in the other 10 booklets. Instead of waiting until booklet 11 to propose our alternative version of the National Curriculum for English, we’ll put it at the end of booklet 1, entire, and in parts at the ends of the booklets dealing with each particular aspect of the curriculum. So since Tuesday I’ve been revising the booklet on the spoken language — now booklet 2 — accordingly, which has meant inventing an alternative set of National Curriculum ‘orders’ for talk. I sent it off to Mike and Peter yesterday, and I’m having a rest day today. I shall embark on a revision of the grammar booklet tomorrow.

We’ve also sent various of my drafts out to some very well informed people, including Margaret Clark, Myra Barrs, Barbara Bleiman and Henrietta Dombey. I haven’t heard from Henrietta yet. Margaret Clark’s comments were crisp and can quite easily be accommodated. Myra and Barbara have much more thoroughgoing criticisms of the two writing booklets — Writing 3 to 7 and Writing 7 to 16 respectively — and I know they’re right. It just means that I will have to do a lot more reading and then revision before those booklets will be presentable. I said to Helen the other day that I must shake off the resentment I feel about how long all this is taking, resign myself to the fact that it’s a major piece of work which will, by the time it’s finished, have consumed the lion’s share of more than a year of my life, and get my head down and just do it. If I never write anything educational again, at least I will have said something solid and significant, which I hope some people may find useful and — who knows? — might in the future have some sort of influence, perhaps on teacher-training or even — a forlorn hope, I fear — on government policy. In the end, though, I’m writing these booklets partly because my good friends are paying me to do so, and the money’s very handy, and mainly because I want to feel that I’ve said my piece on matters which have been important to me since the day I starting teaching.

My good friend Peter Logue was formerly the education officer for Channel 4 Schools in Northern Ireland. Joe Mahon, who runs Westway Films in Derry and who made several excellent schools programmes for me at Channel 4 (he also does the readings of my poems which require an Irish accent), told me on 3 August that Peter had been taken very ill, and was in a coma in hospital in Antrim. Later he emerged from the coma, and when I rang the hospital he had been transferred from the intensive care unit to an ordinary ward. I wrote to him. I shall try his home phone number soon.

The fifth Test between England and India is about to start. I’m going to sit on the deck and have a listen. It’s a beautifully quiet, cool morning, and a holiday in the Catholic countries, of course. It now occurs to me that it’s 10 years to the day since Albert died.

Kerfontaine

18 September 2014

Peter Logue, I’m relieved to say, is back at home. I’ve rung him twice since I wrote last month. He has had a continuing variety of medical ailments, including diabetes and gout, but his voice on the phone sounds like the man I know. I shall go and visit him from London when we’re back there.

We’re going to be back there earlier than we had planned: on 6 October. I wrote enough last time about my feelings about this educational project. I shall feel much more at ease, and confident that I can get the booklets done within the timescale we’ve agreed with UKLA, if I’m in London and close to the Institute of Education library for most of the autumn. We have a meeting with the designer of the booklets on 8 October. Those on talk and grammar are finished and with the designer now. Yesterday, I completed (I hope) revisions on the Reading 3 to 7 booklet, thanks largely to Henrietta Dombey’s comments, and sent the thing back to Henrietta, who’s replied this morning that she’s going to look at it over the weekend. I sent it at the same time to Mike Raleigh and Peter Dougill. I do hope they don’t want much more done to it. Then we’ll have three booklets in the can; only seven to go! That’s why I’m having a day off today. The next in the queue is Writing 3 to 7, on which I have Myra Barrs’ detailed comments, and some books I’ve bought at her suggestion, which I must read before embarking on the revision.

Today Scotland votes in its referendum to decide whether it wishes to become an independent country. There’s been a long and passionate campaign there, and the turnout today will be the highest ever in any kind of national ballot in Scotland. The result will be very close. Most of the polls have indicated a slight advantage to the ‘No’ position, but one went the other way, and all the recent polls have had a margin of error which spills across the 50% mark.

I’m divided in my feelings. As a member of the Labour Party, I should be against independence for Scotland, because in that event there would be many fewer Labour MPs in the House of Commons from 2016 (when Scotland would become independent in the event of ‘Yes’ winning today), making it much more difficult for Labour ever to gain an absolute majority there again. At the moment there are 49 Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster. If Labour were to become, by a small margin, the largest UK party at the general election next May, the subsequent loss of their Scottish MPs once Scotland became independent in 2016 would undo any working majority a Labour-led coalition had. In which case, presumably, there would be a vote of no confidence and another general election in the diminished UK. All crystal ball gazing, I know. If on the other hand the Conservatives were to continue to govern from next May, alone or in coalition, the UK (with or without Scotland) will have another referendum in 2017, on whether to leave the EU or not, and my feeling is that, in that case, we could easily sleepwalk out of the EU. Meanwhile, an independent Scotland would be trying to join the EU, and possibly facing a veto to its membership from Spain (worried about Catalunya) and maybe even — but I don’t think so — from the diminished UK, out of spite, assuming that we hadn’t already left the EU ourselves. If Scotland votes today to stay in the UK, but in 2017 the UK votes to leave the EU, I think the Scots will want to visit the independence question again, because they’re desperate to stay in the EU. Speculation. One of the uncertainties will be resolved early tomorrow morning.

I said that my feelings were divided, because there’s an irresponsible part of me that would like to see what happens if Scotland says ‘Yes’ today. The economic and strategic questions are major. Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, wants to stay with the pound sterling, in a currency union. It’s not clear whether or not London will let him. If London doesn’t, will Scotland pay its share of the interest on the national debt, or refuse to on the grounds that London has taken its monetary ball home? There are UK nuclear submarines in the water in Scotland. Will they be moved, at enormous expense, to Milford Haven or Plymouth or Portsmouth? At what point will Scotland demand 100% of the revenues from oil in what it will regard then as its waters? Then there are much smaller but still intriguing issues, such as BBC Scotland becoming the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, the issuing of Scottish passports to people born on or after the day of independence, and the silly question of what the remaining UK calls itself. At the moment, it may be fortunate alphabetically that G as in Great Britain comes before N as in Northern Ireland. In a diminished UK, N as in Northern Ireland comes before W as in Wales. Will the Welsh object to being pushed into last place alphabetically, elbowed out of the way by a province that has given the UK so much trouble?

If the vote is ‘No’ today, there may well be a call from Wales and Northern Ireland for exactly the same extra level of further devolved powers as have been promised to Scotland in recent weeks, by an increasingly panicked Westminster. So the three smaller parts of the UK would be treated the same. But what about poor old England then? Why shouldn’t England have devolved powers? What about an English parliament, to even up this historic asymmetry? Enough, enough.

Some Tories are muttering that Cameron would have to resign if the vote is ‘Yes’. I can’t see that. If the vote is ‘Yes’, the Conservatives can bid farewell to Scotland (which has one Conservative MP at Westminster) with a crocodile tear in their eyes, and much insincere talk of a precious 307-year union broken, while looking forward to being much more likely to be the dominant governing party in the diminished UK in the future. And if the vote is ‘No’, Cameron can say that he has saved the union for the rest of our lifetimes.

I read on the BBC’s website that the Chinese are taking a close interest in the Scottish referendum, but that they can’t understand why such a small country would want to become even smaller. I suppose one could say ‘Tibet’ in reply (on the principle, not the scale of the thing).

We’ve had two more sets of visitors since I last wrote: Martyn Coles and Pamela Dix in late August, and Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor earlier this month. Bronwyn’s mother died in July in Perth, after a lengthy period of dementia. The complicated and unpleasant financial affairs that Bronwyn and Stephen, with Bronwyn’s sister Barbara, have had to deal with arising from the disposal of Bronwyn’s father’s considerable estate (he died about four years ago) and the division of the proceeds amongst the inheritors in the family, are coming to an end. And Barbara’s brother John suffered a severe stroke two years ago. So Bronwyn and Stephen have been through a trying time, and were glad to just relax with us. They did however help me to cut all the hedges, thus greatly lightening the burden of that annual task.

As I write, a red squirrel is running back and forth between the walnut tree and the wood. It’s stripping the tree of such fruit as it has this year: not much. A delight to see.

I’ve had Ken Pearce’s comments on my Sappho versions. They’re charming, and in handwriting. I’m going to take the trouble to copy them out here.

I have from childhood been disadvantaged (and still am, I think) by the habit of associating together goblins, Greeks, dwarves, giants, elves, Norsemen, Romans, Picts, Saxons, fairies, Normans and so on. They were all different species of odd creatures. But, of course, in very many respects the historical lot were like us, even if climate, technologies, sciences and so on were different or less developed. I mean — did neolithic people have a sense of humour? What did they laugh at? How would they or the Normans or Greeks regard (or show) kindness or distaste or keenness, etc., etc.? In what respects did they differ from us?

We do not know much about Sappho in spite of her considerable reputation in classical times. Scholars often use words like ‘perhaps’, ‘may’, ‘possibly’ and so on. What can we say with some security? She came from Lesbos and wrote in Aeolic Greek (characteristic of the northern part of the Asia Minor coast and off-shore islands). Mytilene was the capital city of Lesbos, which experienced a period of tyranny and notably the rule of Pittacus of Mytilene. Greek tyrants were not necessarily approximations to the modern concept — they often oversaw periods of prosperity in commerce and the arts but significantly they curtailed (severely restricted) personal freedom, which liberal and intelligent Greeks found oppressive. By BCE 600 Lesbos was flourishing. It was warm or hot for most of the year, convenient for trading, and had schools for at least some citizens. There were among them sensitive and sophisticated people who developed ideas and artistic methods by which to express them. They had no cars.

Sappho was clearly intelligent, educated and cultured. I think we can say she was married to some successful citizen and had a daughter. By 600 she would have been about 30 years of age. She had a group of women/girlfriends but also wrote appreciatively and favourably about men. She died in Sicily. Human love colours what she wrote. We are dreadfully short of examples of her work. What we do have expresses charm, sensitiveness, affection, insight, command of her language and of metric verse forms. Writing had only existed (we think) for plus or minus 150 years. She MAY have been kicked out of Lesbos. She MAY have left because of a dispute with the authority of the ruling regime. She MAY have left to extend her horizons. She is noted by many later writers but most are MUCH later, some are liars or unreliable, some have axes to grind and the papyri date from about 700 years after her lifetime, but some of the later writers can be trusted (e.g. Quintilian).

(Well, then.) She lived (when in Lesbos and probably when in Sicily) in comfortable surroundings (in summer when the living is easy). She was an intelligent, sensitive, passionate and loving woman. She had delicate command of language and verse forms and was clearly aware of the artistic contribution of the lyre. Her milieu was one in which the arts and thought were flourishing in part (at least) of society but in which the authority of a few would sometimes irritate serious thinkers. One would hope that her poetry, however fragmentary, would today inspire a writer to appreciate the sensitiveness with which she appreciates human feelings which are just the same today as they were then. Only the context is different and that should simply be reflected in anything written ‘after Sappho’.

PRONUNCIATION Difficult — e.g. eta (η or H) used to be thought to be EE (meek); after 1930 thought to be AIR on the basis that in Aristophanes’ Archanians the sheep say βη βη. Some dialects have long A (AH) where others have eta. Omega used to be OH (ω or Ω), now thought to be nearer OR and so on. Accents and breathings were not invented until long after Sappho’s time.

I think it is worth considering [John Richmond’s pieces] first without reference to Sappho. I am taking ‘Green’ as an example here.

  1. They read easily.
  2. The verse forms are neat and not forced.
  3. The vocabulary is clear and not ostentatious.
  4. They identify situations and human feelings simply.
  5. They don’t pretend to be translations.
  6. They say things that are worth saying.
  7. I enjoy them.

John Richmond has said that they are ‘after’ Sappho (and that is right) — so is it possible to claim legitimacy (or refuse it) for the ideas, moods, feelings and so on which are expressed or implied? I think it is fair to say that most of the reflections are perfectly valid. Sappho was direct but never (I think) coarse. Is ‘a bit of rough’ [from JR’s version of fragment 57, called ‘No Accounting for Taste’] coarse? On fifteenth reading I think not. Would Sappho have tolerated ‘the fool’ [in ‘A Sister’s Plea’ and ‘Green’]? — yes, I think that in the modern idiom she would have. [John] can have his reference to Orsino [‘If music be the food of love, I’m playing on.’]. The desperately fragmental fragment 58 ADIEU makes me think of Ronsard and Yeats and the meaning cannot be satisfactorily paralleled in a very modern idiom but this has not been attempted. I think the result is an agreeable compromise which I particularly like.

AN INVITATION is similarly not conducive to reproduction in 21st century verbiage but I think the rendering here is delightful. (In the Greek version the little word in the first line must be ἐκ not ἐν which would have the opposite meaning.) [This was attended to.]

UNOBTAINABLE is, to my mind, an especially fine effort — succinct, clear modern English, well structured verse, easy and agreeable to read and a good expression of Sappho’s idea.

A SISTER’S PLEA A tour de force. Rhyming couplets and a straightforward argument. But there is nothing unnatural about the English verse — it sounds well without being forced and (of course) the Ovid is in elegiac couplets. [This version was after a combination of two Sappho fragments and a little part of Ovid’s ‘Letters of the Heroines 15’.] Clearly the plea made by Sappho must have been close to this — and certainly I can tolerate ‘fool’ here!

Some of the short efforts are close to being translations so that I get the same or similar experience as I do when reading the original fragments of Sappho.

APPEAL TO APHRODITE This is a considerable poem both in the Sappho version and in the English here and I suggest that some scholars might react with concern about the English on the ground that it does not reflect the precision of Sappho’s verse form. This would, I think, be a mistaken view. (i) To be honest, we cannot be sure how sophisticated Sappho’s vocabulary was. (ii) It is, in any case, better to regard the English as a modern representation of the ideas Sappho was expressing in good contemporary English language and elegant English verse form. In that way I think it comes over very successfully.

Overall the most important effect on reading these pieces is the recognition of Sappho’s enjoyment, love, humanity, kindness, envy, jealousy, hope and so on and that is very important. It is hardly possible to get that from little fragments — especially if you don’t read Greek! [Which of course I don’t.]

I was so pleased and gratified to get this from Ken. I’ve written to him, of course, and I hope that we can meet this winter. I haven’t seen him for more than 40 years. He seems sure that Sappho died in Sicily. I haven’t been able to find that certainty either in the Loeb edition or on the internet. It doesn’t matter. He says that writing was only invented 150 years or so before Sappho’s time. I’ve read authorities which contradict that, even if we confine the thought to Greek scripts, but again it doesn’t matter.

I’ve just finished another Dickens — Bleak House. The same combination of responses as before: admiration amounting to awe for the occasional nobility of his prose (notably the famous first chapter); intense enjoyment of his comic talent; the pleasurable sensation of being drawn into a plot of great complexity and mysteriousness; toleration of the ridiculousness of the coincidences, piled on top of one another, without which the plot would fail; and profound irritation at his cloying sentimentality, religious or otherwise, especially with regard to the characters of his heroines (who are so good, so unselfish, so unassuming, so usefully busy, so skilled at talking kindly to the poor, and so certain to end up with the right man). Dickens has always been praised as social critic, and perhaps his magnificent rhetoric against the ills of 19th-century England did have an effect on social reality (I don’t know; scholars must have studied this). But in the books themselves, the only solution to the misery and degradation of the poor is the occasional intervention of kind rich people. I shall keep on making up for lost time with Dickens: maybe Martin Chuzzlewit next.

In early June, my neighbour Jean and I went to the mairie in Cléguer to report that the road running down from Jean’s to our house was in a deplorable state. Jean said that it hadn’t been repaired in the 40 years he had been there. The lady behind the desk wrote a few words in a book and said, ‘C’est noté.’ We didn’t have high expectations of swift action. But we were wrong! On Monday, we were awoken by a JCB in the lane, scraping away the loose and broken surface material. The deep holes in the carriageway were filled up with small white stones which a lorry had brought. Then, yesterday afternoon, along came a tarring machine which completed the job in half an hour. So now, in perhaps the most remote corner of Cléguer’s road system, we have the newest tarmacadam. I shall go into the mairie soon to say thank you.

Andrew and Annie Bannerman are coming to stay on Saturday, for five days; then Anne Seeley for a few more days. Then we have a little time to ourselves; then back to London.

Kerfontaine

19 September 2014

Well, all that speculation about Scottish independence was idle. The Scots voted yesterday by 55% to 45% to stay in the UK. It was a larger margin of success for the ‘No’ campaign than polls in the last few weeks have predicted; so the polls were wrong again, as they have been frequently in the run-ups to recent elections in the UK. There must be a lot of people who either deliberately mislead the pollsters, or who say they’re undecided when in fact they’re not.

Everybody in Westminster is highly delighted. David Cameron’s position has been greatly strengthened, at least for a little while. There will now be a rapid move towards giving Scotland greater powers over tax, spending and welfare. Cameron also promised in his statement in Downing Street this morning that Wales, Northern Ireland and England would be given more control of their own affairs:

‘In Wales there are proposals to give the Welsh Government and Assembly more powers and I want Wales to be at the heart of the debate on how to make the United Kingdom work for all our nations. In Northern Ireland, we must work to ensure that the devolved institutions function effectively. Millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws, the so-called West Lothian question, requires a decisive answer so just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues on tax, spending and welfare, so too England as well as Wales and Northern Ireland should be able to vote on these issues. And all this must take place in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland.’

This amounts to a significant constitutional shake-up in the affairs of the UK, promised within a short timescale. We shall see.

Meanwhile, beyond the peaceful politics of the UK (nobody was killed during the Scottish referendum campaign, after all), graver matters are at hand. The Ukraine has signed the association agreement with the EU the abandonment of which last year, under pressure from Putin, has provoked the current crisis. I read opinions within Ukraine which say, ‘Let us join the EU and NATO as soon as possible. Let us join the world. If those two eastern regions want to become part of Russia, let them do so. We’d be better off without them.’ The Ukraine parliament this week gave self-rule to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (why only parts?); and a cease-fire between the Ukrainian army and the Russian-armed separatists is holding. The ideal outcome would be that legitimate referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk were held on whether those regions would join Russia or stay with Ukraine; but I doubt if they could be conducted without bloodshed. About 3,000 people have already died in Ukraine in the 10 months since the crisis began. I think the number of people killed in Northern Ireland over the 25-year period of the troubles was about the same.

There is no doubt that Putin has aggressive intentions towards numerous bits of the former USSR and the Eastern bloc. He is a fool. His mind is operating on 19th-century power politics lines. It may, alas, be necessary to return to a version of the confrontation of the Cold War, except that the Iron Curtain will have moved east.

Events in Iraq and Syria are unspeakable. Islamic State continues to terrorise and murder people in large numbers in the name of its perverted idea of Sunni Islamist purity. Thousands of young Muslims from countries around the world, including from the European democracies, have gone to join the Islamists. There is at least now a prime minister in Iraq who seems to have the intention of forming a more inclusive government, which the West is happier to support. A coalition of Western powers, inevitably led by the US, is supporting the Iraqi government and army, the Kurdish forces and the legitimate Syrian opposition to Assad in fighting against Islamic State. This week Obama gained support from Congress for his proposals to spend much more money in the effort, and to increase air strikes against Islamic State.

Putin’s continuing and uncritical support for Assad is another of his crimes. The death toll in Syria is over 200,000.

In Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal, ebola has now killed more than 2,600 people, and the disease is spreading. Western countries, including the US and France, are sending teams of health workers supported by soldiers to try to isolate and treat affected people. At the moment there is no vaccine against the disease or other cure for it. In Guinea, a team of health workers and journalists intending to raise awareness of the disease has been killed by ignorant villagers who imagined in some way that the team’s presence was bringing the disease, not trying to prevent it.

Thousands of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, desperate to get into Europe via Malta or Italy on boats launched from the North African coast, especially from Libya, have drowned during the course of this year. In the latest tragedy, the evil people trafficking the refugees deliberately sank the boat they were in when the refugees refused to move to another boat which they considered dangerous. I’m tempted to use Conrad’s phrase ‘the heart of darkness’, except that I know how drenched that is with assumptions of European moral superiority. We have had plenty of examples of the heart of darkness on our own continent.

It’s a beautiful quiet morning here. I think I’m going to take a few days off from the educational writing. I’m reasonably on schedule.

Train from London to Paris and Paris to Lorient

15 October 2014

I’m unexpectedly returning to France, nine days after leaving it, for the saddest of reasons. Rosa Penhouët died during the night between Sunday and Monday. Gilles, her son-in-law, phoned me on Monday morning to tell me. Rosa’s friend Marie-Pol knocked on her door on Monday morning, perhaps intending to go shopping with her, got no reply, saw that the shutters were still drawn, had a key, went in, and found Rosa dead in bed. I haven’t heard any medical opinion about the cause of death. I suppose a heart attack is the most likely. When we said goodbye to Rosa eleven days ago, she was in good humour and facing the future with her usual practicality and confidence. She had logs in for the winter. The chimney sweep had come. The outside walls of her house were being repainted. I had bought her a new pair of slippers. We had coffee with her on the Saturday morning, and as we left she embraced us warmly and said, ‘Nous avons passé de bons moments ensemble cet été.’ As indeed we had.

Because we returned to London earlier than we have in recent years, I wasn’t able to help Rosa with the annual hygiene-fest at Albert’s grave just before Toussaint. I may have written about this before. Rosa was so preoccupied with keeping the grave clean that great amounts of probably environmentally disastrous produit were applied annually to the tomb and surrounding gravel. The faintest lines of dirt in the corners of the marble were scrubbed with an old toothbrush. Almost invisible weeds and wild flowers, venturing a few millimetres above the gravel, were pulled up and the places sprayed with weed killer. This rite Rosa planned to perform with her daughter during the last days of October. She and I went to have a look at the grave a fortnight ago. ‘Je serai là-bas bientôt,’ she said with a melancholy pleasure. I told her not to be silly. I said she had a good few years yet. She was right and I was wrong. She was 80 and people do die at 80. She took all sorts of pills for all sorts of complaints. Maybe the combination over so many years weakened her. Her actions, especially the great expense — for her — of having the outside of the house repainted, showed that she had no intention of dying yet, despite what she said to me in Cléguer cemetery, where we shall leave her tomorrow, after a mass in the church at Plouay.

I was a good friend to her, I know. In the immediate years after Albert’s death I went to see her every couple of days when we were at Kerfontaine, and phoned her twice a week from London. More recently I saw her at least once a week when we were at Kerfontaine and phoned perhaps once a fortnight from London. I helped her negotiate the obstacle race of the French social security system so that she received extra help with her medical needs. (This year’s grant of 550 euros will be no good to her.) She had other good friends in the neighbourhood. She often said that, though the circumstances of her and Albert’s removal from their house at Kerlébert were brutal, she was much better off where she was, in the town, with a shop nearby. Her death is the close of a chapter in our lives which has lasted 24 years, since the day Albert came down to Kerfontaine and agreed to look after our garden.

I like to keep in touch with three widows. For a long time the three were Betty Rosen, Martina Thomson and Rosa Penhouët. When Martina died a year ago I replaced her with Beryl Richards, Lindsay’s mother. Now I must find another replacement.

I’m going to stay two nights with our neighbours Jean and Annick, rather than opening up our own house again.

We enjoyed having the Bannermans and then Anne Seeley to stay with us. The weather in September was steadily glorious. Andrew and I swam three times in the sea, which welcomed us at a temperature which the Atlantic does not normally achieve at these latitudes.

Back in London, I’ve got on with the educational project. Three booklets are now firmly under the wire and with the designer, with whom we had a good meeting a week ago. I’m revising the fourth, Writing 3 to 7, at the moment.

The main events in the world are as they were. Ebola, which has now killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, is developing into one of the worst medical scourges the world has recently seen. There will be many more thousands of deaths before the outbreak comes under control. There is no cure at the moment, though various drugs are being tried and intensive work is under way on the development of a vaccine. But the relativisms are strange. It is quite right that the rich countries should do everything they can to help. At the moment, the USA and the UK are in the lead. Meanwhile, I saw a poster on the tube yesterday telling me that 200,000 children a year drown in Africa and Asia, many of them doing something as simple as going to get water from a river or a lake. If that’s true, or even half true, it amounts to a loss of life and of potential wealth on a scale which compares with even the worst of epidemics or with most contemporary wars. It’s a reminder that the most important development work should be to provide the simplest things, including safe access to clean water.

Islamic State continues to march through large swathes of Iraq and Syria. The Western air strikes are slowing but not halting the progress of this evil force. The Iraqi Kurds are fighting courageously on the ground, aided (so I read in today’s paper) by forces from Iran. It’s impossible to say what the outcome will be. Assad is using the cover granted him by the rise of Islamic State to continue to fight his own brutal war against the legitimate opposition in his country. We haven’t heard anything yet about the achievements of Iraq’s new leader, who is supposed to be forming a more inclusive government in the country than Maliki achieved (or, as many people say, intended). Maliki is blamed for driving many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State. Turkey is playing a dishonest double game. It refuses to allow its Kurds across the border into Syria to fight against the djihadists. It has even begun to attack its own Kurds (it says they attacked first), despite the recent understanding which was supposed to have been achieved between the Turkish government and the leaders of the PKK. It hates Assad, understandably, but seems somewhat relaxed about an equally vile potential autocracy on its border. Islamic State has funded its activities very largely through the sale of cheap oil, principally to Turkey. The situation is as complicated and unsatisfactory as it could be; and the West’s influence on events is small. In fact, the lesson of recent years seems to be that, though there is much that the West can do by way of good, in terms of aid to poor countries riven by disputes many of which have religious fundamentalism at their roots, there isn’t much that it can do by way of military action to support the more civilised forces in those countries. And the dreadful truth is that our invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been in part responsible for the rise of religious despotism in the region. The djihadists moved into Iraq during the chaos we created in the aftermath of the invasion.

In the UK, we have our own comparatively tiny problem in the shape of UKIP. The anti-immigration party won its first Westminster seat last week, in Clacton, where a popular Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, had resigned from the party, gone over to UKIP, and triggered a by-election. He won handsomely. On the same day, a previously safe Labour seat near Manchester, where a by-election was needed because of the death of the sitting MP, was retained by Labour by a few hundred votes. UKIP came second. There will be another by-election next month in Rochester and Strood (Rochester quite genteel; Strood definitely not) because the sitting Tory MP copied Carswell’s move. UKIP thinks it can win that seat too, though if it does it won’t do so as decisively. The other parties, especially the Conservatives, are seriously frightened.

UKIP has only one message that matters: there are too many immigrants in the country, most of them are coming from the EU, and most of those are coming from the poorer countries of Eastern Europe. So let us leave the EU, it says, and make it far harder for immigrants from anywhere to get into the UK. It’s a policy which appeals to perhaps millions of less well educated voters in poorer areas who have been having a hard time since the crash of 2008. It’s obvious to them that much of what is wrong with the country is the fault of immigrants. Economic arguments to the effect that immigration is a net supplier of great wealth to the country; that young taxpayers doing humbler jobs are needed provide the state with an income to support our ageing population: these don’t work. And I can see that if it is true, as I read, that cities like Southampton have had a 9% increase in population in a small number of years, but not a 9% increase in the number of school places or doctors, and if it is true that the arrivants have been willing to undercut the pay of established unskilled and semi-skilled workers, there will be resentment. There used to be resentment and worse in the 19th century in English and Scottish cities at the effect of even cheaper Irish labour on workers’ wages, already barely sufficient to stave off penury. Romanians and Bulgarians are the new Irish, though the actual levels of deprivation, whether of arrivants or established workers, are not those of the century before last.

I do think that an Australian-style points system for immigration from outside the EU is required. You say how many people you need to do certain jobs, and you let them and their immediate families — that is, spouse and children — in for a fixed but generous period of time, say five years, with the possibility of their applying for British citizenship after that time. I don’t think that’s uncivilised or inhumane. Indeed, I thought that the Labour government had that policy aim before 2010. But it didn’t achieve it. The UK government could bring in such a measure whenever it chose. But immigration from the EU is another matter. I’ve no idea how much success any future UK government would have in persuading the other 27 members of the EU to change one of the Union’s most basic principles: the free movement of labour. And in any case, I’m one of those people who actually likes and welcomes the diversity of accents, languages, cultures and experiences which the free movement of labour has brought to our country. The answer to our current problem is not to blame the immigrants, but to increase the minimum wage significantly for everyone, so that poverty wages become a thing of the past, to take decisive action against the wicked people who employ workers illegally at rates below the minimum wage, and to make sure that, when there are sudden increases in population as a result of immigration, the social, health and education services respond. Easier said than done, I know. I would pay for at least some of the cost of all this by levying capital gains tax at the same rate as income, and levying National Insurance at its current range of percentages on the whole of a person’s income, rather than reducing it to 2% on earnings above £815 a week (in 2015/2016), which is a tax break for the better-off which I’ve never been able to understand.

But I am in the minority. At the moment, the mood in the country is summed up by men and women interviewed on television news programmes in the streets of these by-election constituencies, who have strong opinions and weak information, who feel abandoned by the traditional political parties, and for whom UKIP offers straightforward certainties. It’s not impossible that we might drift out of the EU in the next few years as a result.

Train from Lorient to Paris and Paris to London

17 October 2014

Rosa’s funeral took place yesterday morning in the church at Plouay, in the presence of about 70 people. As a ceremony, it was mournful. The form of words was standard, off-the-peg. Concerning Rosa herself, there was nothing more than a statement of the meanest facts of her life: date and place of birth, place of residence during childhood and youth, profession (seamstress) before marriage, date of marriage to Albert, place of residence (Kerlébert) during almost all of their married life, death of her elder daughter at the age of 16 (a tragedy still whispered about locally), removal to Plouay ten years ago, death of Albert almost immediately after that, Rosa’s own death. Nothing about her as a person at all.

Miserable modern Catholic hymns were sung without accompaniment, the singing led courageously by a man I recognised as having been the butcher at the little supermarket in the middle of town when that shop had a fresh meat counter. We had a friendly word afterwards. The priest conducting the service did the best he could with what he had. He was a black African; the only person of colour in the place. He read the liturgy and choreographed the upstandings and downsittings with dignity and at the proper pace.

Rosa, as I may have written before, had views on immigration exactly like those of the UKIP voters I wrote about two days ago. She was perfectly receptive to the lies of the Front National here, though whether she actually voted for them I don’t know. Last year, during our successful campaign to get her extra state help for her medical needs, she asked a person on the phone — enraged as she was by being sent from pillar post by different branches of the French bureaucracy, and exhausted by listening to recorded music for 20 minutes — ‘You give all these immigrants everything they want whenever they ask; can’t you give a Frenchwoman something for a change?’ About a month ago, she told me a story which she said her daughter Gisellaine had told her, which Gisellaine had said her friend in Chinon had told her. The friend of the daughter had been waiting in a queue in a chemist in Chinon. In front of her were some immigrants, I think Roma according to the account. Supposedly, the Roma were given all the medicines they needed without paying. Then one of the group said he wanted tanning cream. The chemist said he could have tanning cream, but must pay for it. The immigrant said no, he knew he had the right to have tanning cream free. The chemist consulted his book of rules, agreed that the immigrant was right, and gave him the tanning cream free. ‘Voilà,’ said Rosa, ‘that’s why we’re so in debt in France.’ The last time she came to Kerfontaine, a few days before we said goodbye to her, she asked me why immigrants were so keen to get into the UK; why there are so many of them at Calais. I said I thought the popularity of the UK for migrants was something to do with English, a language with which many of them have greater familiarity than they do with other European languages, partly to do with the perception that there are more unskilled and semi-skilled jobs available in the UK than elsewhere, and partly to do with the fact that some social benefits in the UK, notably visits to doctors and hospitals, are funded out of general taxation and don’t require the system of registration and payment followed by reimbursement which operates in France.

Rosa was of course the kindest and most courteous of people, and would have been so to any person she met, whatever their colour and origin, as long as they were kind and courteous towards her. So I imagine that she would have been content that an immigrant, robed in a beautiful purple chasuble, sent her off to heaven, and furthermore that, given his skin colour, he wouldn’t have been asking for tanning cream, paid for or not, at the chemist.

After the service in Plouay, about 20 of us gathered at the cemetery at Cléguer. The Penhouët family tomb had been opened. Rosa’s coffin was lowered into it, and we looked down into the hole. It was lined with cement. One coffin, that of Rosa’s daughter, had been draped with a black plastic sheet, I imagine temporarily so as not to upset the family, especially Gisellaine, since it must have decayed considerably since the early 1970s when her sister died. There was the little container carrying Albert’s ashes, with his name and dates on the lid. Rosa’s coffin lay next to her daughter’s. That was that; there was no more ceremony. We dispersed.

At both places, I was most touched, not by anything that was said or sung or done publicly, but by the fact that friends of Rosa who were also friends of mine were there and were affectionate towards me and grateful that I had come.

Jean kindly drove me around. We went home for lunch. That afternoon, at about five, I went to Rosa’s house. Gisellaine, Gilles, their daughter Maïna and a faithful friend of Rosa’s, Pierrette, were there drinking coffee. There had been no larger gathering. The tears of a few hours previously were all wiped away, and the conversation turned on any subject other than that of the departed woman. I tried to re-turn it in that direction once or twice. My intervention was politely responded to, before this year’s fruit harvest, the habits of local wild animals, or the relative advantages of wooden as against traditionally built houses (this last because a school friend of Gisellaine’s, who lived in such a wooden house, turned up) reclaimed the full energies of the conversationalists. I left after an hour. It seemed as if the page had already been turned on Rosa’s life.

Camden Town

28 April 2015

In recent years, a ‘book’ of these diary entries has been coterminous with a calendar year. During the first days of January, I have usually proofread the previous year’s entries and sent them off to my friend Mark Leicester to be uploaded to the website. This January was different, because the series of booklets on English teaching, finally called English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Principles and Proposals, has consumed every ounce of my energy all winter. (We still use imperial measures in such phrases.) I like the story of Disraeli who, when prime minister, was sitting next to a lady at a posh dinner party. ‘Oh Mr Disraeli,’ she said, ‘I did so enjoy those novels you wrote when you were younger. May we hope for more?’ ‘I fear not, madam,’ he replied. ‘I am one of those fellows who can only do one thing at a time.’ I am certainly one of those fellows who can only do one thing at a time.

The project is nearly complete. Nine of the 10 booklets (10 now, not 11) are finished and with the designer. Six of them will be printed and published by the end of next month. The remaining four, including the one not quite finished, will be published at the beginning of September. The routine of writing for eight or 10 hours in the little room in the flat is at an end. I’m now working on easier jobs: organising the three launches of the series in Brighton, London and York in the first week of June, and preparing other kinds of publicity. So gaps have appeared in my days, but I can’t quite settle to anything else, because my mind is still preoccupied. It’ll be better when the launches and the initial publicity are done.

One of the ways I’ve filled the gaps in my days recently is by canvassing for Labour. The general election is in nine days’ time. Keir Starmer is our candidate; he’s replaced Frank Dobson, who has stood down after 36 years. (Frank will be 75 this year.) Keir was for five years the Director of Public Prosecutions, so he’s held a big national job. I’ve met him three times now, once with just the two of us there, and I like him very much. He’s not grand; he is very able; and I think he really does believe in the things which unite, or should unite, Labour activists, politicians and voters. He will be elected in this safe seat. I hope, whatever happens on 7 May, that he’s promoted pretty quickly to the front bench on one side of the House or the other.

I can be confident about the next MP for Holborn and St Pancras. I can’t be confident at all about the result nationally. The only thing which seems certain is that neither major party is going to get an overall majority, so there will probably be another coalition of some kind, or perhaps even a minority government kept going by smaller parties, vote by vote. The significant new presence at Westminster looks likely to be the Scottish National Party. I wrote quite a bit about the Scottish referendum last September. Since then, the SNP has experienced an enormous increase in its support, to the point where all the polls predict that it will win the majority of the Scottish seats. Some polls have even predicted a clean sweep. I don’t think that will happen, but I would be surprised if the SNP ends up with fewer than 45 out of the 59 seats. There are three reasons for this.

The first reason is that it was a fateful error for Labour to enter the pro-unionist referendum campaign with the Tories. Thousands of Scots who had voted Labour all their lives, out of habitual loyalty, suddenly asked themselves what the party they had thought of as theirs was doing marching under the same banner as the deadly enemy. The result was like a sudden separation or divorce after a long but routine marriage. They deserted the party in droves. Labour should have run a pro-unionist campaign under its own banner.

The second reason is that at seven o’clock on the morrow of the referendum, a couple of hours only after the victory of the ‘No’ campaign had been announced, David Cameron came out of 10 Downing Street and made a speech (some of which I quoted in the diary entry the next day) not simply welcoming the result, and promising to see what could be done to give Scotland still greater autonomy within the union. He immediately linked the result to the need, as he saw it, to give English MPs the sole right to vote on laws which affect only England, because of the hoary old West Lothian question. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the West Lothian question, this immediate hijacking of the Scottish people’s relief or dejection enraged millions of them, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters alike. It made nationalists more nationalistic still; it made many unionists feel they’d been betrayed. ‘We voted to keep Scotland in the UK,’ they thought or said. ‘Now he’s got us in the bag, he’s appealing to English nationalism and English voters, which is all he really cares about.’ I’m sure Cameron knew what he was doing. He wanted to damage the Labour Party, and he’s done it. If the proportion of seats won by the parties in Scotland in 2010 were even approximately repeated in 2015, Labour would have something very close to an overall majority, and could certainly govern with the Liberals. The Tories would be a distant second. As it is, Labour and the Tories are neck and neck.

The first two reasons for the SNP’s rise are negative. The third is positive. Nicola Sturgeon, the new leader of the party, has emerged as a political star. Across the UK, not just in Scotland, people like her. She’s tough, human, humorous, quick on her feet, ordinary as well as clever. As a result, she’s been dubbed ‘the most dangerous woman’ in Britain, because one possible outcome of the election is a Labour government looking to her for support of some kind, although Ed Miliband has ruled out a formal coalition. The front-page headline in The Mail on Sunday two days ago claimed that Theresa May, the home secretary, believes that the prospect of the SNP in government at Westminster represents the worst constitutional threat to the country since the abdication crisis: a truly bizarre comparison.

The Tories and the right-wing press have gambled that Miliband is a weak leader and will be exposed as such. In fact, Miliband has emerged better than expected from the two televised debates so far, and there are lots of not particularly political people who instinctively dislike poisonous personal attacks of the sort that some Tories and the right-wing press make their speciality. Michael Fallon, a particularly unpleasant person who is currently the defence secretary, who has a tendency to the absurd in his choice of words (he once remarked that schools shouldn’t have ‘local authority bureaucrats walking all over them in their suede shoes’), said that because Miliband the younger had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ in the leadership election, he couldn’t be trusted with Britain’s nuclear deterrent. This was a preposterous claim, which embarrassed many Conservatives, and did Ed only good. I still think that Labour made a huge mistake in not choosing Miliband the elder in 2010, but that is history.

I have a policy for a devolved settlement in a United Kingdom. There should be four parliaments in the UK, as in a sense there are now. Very large and equal powers should be devolved to the four parliaments: justice and policing, education, health, transport, broadcasting and culture, support for business, local government, environmental protection in the local sense. (Some of these of course already are devolved, in an uneven way.) Governments in the four parts of the UK would set their own budgets and raise their own taxes to pay for these things. There should be one set of elected representatives for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not the two that exist in those places at the moment. From time to time, the representatives in the four parliaments would meet in the House of Commons (where there’s just enough room) or indeed in one of the other parliament buildings, to debate and decide on UK-wide concerns: defence, foreign policy, relations with the EU, the environment (in the global sense) and climate change, migration in and out of the UK, financial regulation. The UK government would set budgets and raise taxes to pay for these things. So taxation would be like it is in the USA, with a federal tax and a state tax. You’d need two levels of cabinet; the UK cabinet would be a great deal smaller than it is now. The UK prime minister could also be the first minister of one of the four parliaments, or not. The Bank of England would continue to decide interest rates.

I would abolish the House of Lords completely. (The English parliament could perhaps move in there.) At the moment, apart from the grotesquery that there is still a small group of hereditary peers on the red benches, the main function of the House of Lords is to slow everything down. I would make much more use of paid expert committees advising the parliaments, so that former parliamentarians and distinguished people from outside parliamentary politics could make a contribution to law-making.

At the moment, the union is a lopsided mess. There’s a simplicity in my proposal which means that it’s not going to happen in my lifetime.

Camden Town

6 May 2015

Today is the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death.

It’s pouring with rain. Tomorrow is the general election. Let it rain today, but let the sun shine tomorrow, so people aren’t discouraged from coming out and voting (and so that my life is pleasanter, sitting outside polling stations taking numbers, and climbing the stairs of council blocks asking whether people have gone to vote yet). I’ve just checked on the BBC website, and it looks as if my wish will be granted.

I’ve done about eight canvassing sessions and delivered a few hundred eve-of-poll leaflets to prospective Labour voters. As always when I do this, I’m reminded that the key, central, underlying question in our politics should be: how can we reduce inequalities? I meet people whom, in my comfortable normal life, I don’t usually meet. Mostly, they’re not people who are desperate (though there are a few of those), but people who are just about hanging on to a sense of the adequacy of existence. Life offers few pleasures. Routine, ill-paid work consumes most of their energies. Their immediate physical environment is dispiriting. If their incomes were reduced further, for example by the reduction of the tax credits which supplement the minimum wage they earn, they would join those who are already desperate. There is an urgent need for a straightforward and significant increase in these people’s incomes, so that life isn’t a constant worry about making ends meet, so that there is headroom both in the sense of a bit of financial surplus in the family budget and in the sense of room for the head to enjoy leisure and a greater diversity of experience.

Only Labour, with all its faults, has a chance of creating the economic circumstances which might make such a desirable ambition an actual reality. As could have been predicted, the right-wing newspapers are making every effort, telling every lie, manufacturing and distributing every poison, to try to stop Labour gaining power tomorrow. The Sun today has huge headlines warning people of the danger of a Labour government in thrall to the SNP. That’s the English edition of The Sun. The Scottish edition tells people to vote SNP. This is lying at its most absurd: warning of an impending catastrophe in one part of the UK; promoting the supposed cause of the catastrophe in another. It’s a complete and unapologetic contradiction with one purpose only: to damage Labour.

We shall see. I’m hoping, but I’m not optimistic, that Labour will get a few more seats than the Tories. If we do, it should be possible for Miliband to form a stable government, because Labour has more friends and non-enemies (that is, parties which wouldn’t vote down a Labour Queen’s Speech) than do the Tories. The situation isn’t hopeless even if the Tories do get a few more seats than Labour. They need more seats of their own in order to have a programme for a stable government, because only the Liberals, UKIP and the DUP would support them or abstain from voting them down. The Liberals have said that they won’t join any form of agreement, however loose, which involved UKIP. So it’s the Liberals or UKIP, not and UKIP, in such a scenario. Labour has the Liberals (who will climb into bed with either big party), the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green or Greens, the SDLP and one or two independents: a bigger group. Of these, the SNP is by far the most important and most problematic potential partner. It is likely to be the third-biggest political party in the UK after tomorrow. Miliband will have to come to some kind of informal agreement with the SNP if he is to govern. Without them, unless there is a delightful surprise tomorrow, it will be very hard to get to the number he needs. During the television debate with the other ‘challenger’ parties, Miliband said, ‘No coalition, no deal’ in response to an offer of collaboration from Nicola Sturgeon. In usual English, that seems to rule out any form of cooperative agreement, however informal. Maybe he’ll find a way out of the impasse he seems to have created. I wish he had said something like, ‘Until the election, my job is to put forward the Labour Party’s plans for government as effectively as I can. If the UK’s voters decide on 7 May that they want more than one party to govern for another five years, it’s the politicians’ job to try to satisfy their request. We will take part in that effort if we have to. But until 8 May, I’ll do the job I have on hand now.’

One more big lie which the Tories have been telling since the 2010 election campaign and ever since: that the ‘financial mess’ they inherited, as they put it, is all due to Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility. I’ve written about this before, I know, but it continues to enrage me. I’ve just looked up the figures. At the end of the 1997/8 financial year, after 11 months of Labour government, net public-sector debt was £352 billion, or 51.7% of GDP (source: Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, November 1998). At the end of the 2007/8 financial year, after 10 years and 11 months of Labour government, net public-sector debt was £620.1 billion, or 43.3% of GDP (source: Office for National Statistics Statistical Bulletin, Government Deficit and Debt Under the Maastricht Treaty, September 2012). So just before the financial crisis, which was brought about entirely by the greed and stupidity of the very rich people running the banks and other financial institutions, Labour had in its 10 years of power achieved a significant reduction in government debt as a proportion of GDP. Meanwhile, it had built new schools and hospitals, and given education and the health service more money to spend than they had ever had before. That’s a legacy to be proud of, not to be ashamed of. Alas, I haven’t heard senior Labour people quoting these figures anywhere. Of course the debt as a proportion of GDP then shot up (£1,312.1 billion, or 85.8% of GDP, in 2011/12). It had to, otherwise many of us would have seen the modest savings in our bank accounts disappear ‘into air, into thin air’. Labour’s failing wasn’t to do with overspending; it was to do with letting the banks do more or less as they pleased. But the crisis happened on Labour’s watch. That’s the trouble. Paul Krugman, one of the economists I most admire, recently wrote that it was fortunate for Obama and the Democrats that the crisis occurred on the Republicans’ watch. If it had occurred a year later, the Republicans would have been echoing the Conservatives’ lies on the other side of the Atlantic.

Kerfontaine

16 June 2015

My birthday, and an exquisite, calm, bright day here in Brittany.

To begin with politics: I was wrong again! The Conservatives won the election with a small overall majority of 12. If I was wrong, so were all the opinion polls and all the professional political commentators. The lesson to be learned, and never to be forgotten for the rest of my lifetime, is: don’t trust opinion polls, at least in the UK. Conservative voters lie when they’re asked who they will vote for; they’re politely called ‘shy Tories’. The exit poll on the day, which interviewed 22,000 voters as they came out of the polling stations, got it right; it predicted, as the polls closed at ten o’clock, that the Conservatives would be the largest party.

I sat up, as usual, until seven o’clock in the morning, then went to bed for three hours, got up again and watched more television until tea time. We went to see the musical Gypsy that night — booked long ago — starring the wonderful Imelda Staunton. It’s strange when in one part of your head you are utterly desolate, and in another you are persuaded to laugh amid the desolation. The bad feeling persisted until the Sunday night. I was reminded of its opposite: the exhilaration over the long weekend after 1 May 1997. How far away that now seems.

In brief, here are the reasons for the defeat, most or all of which I’ve identified before. First, we chose the wrong leader in 2010; it should have been David Miliband. It’s a cruel irony that it was only the unions which swung it for Ed. They thought he would be more left-wing than his brother; that they would get better treatment from him. They were wrong; Ed courageously changed the voting system for future leaders, eliminating the tripartite electoral college, and in other ways loosening Labour’s dependence on union block votes dictated by their leaders. When it came to 7 May this year, many of the people who actually decide elections in this country decided that Ed doesn’t have the gravitas, the authority, the hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognise quality of a potential prime minister. So the unions have made a significant contribution to giving the country a further five years of Conservative government. Thanks.

Secondly, Scotland. It was a complete SNP landslide; they won 56 of the 59 seats there. Labour, the Tories and the Liberals hung on to one seat each. Some of the swings were phenomenal, unprecedented. Labour went from being the majority party in Scotland to almost nothing.

Thirdly, if 7 May was bad for Labour, it was a disaster for the Liberals. They lost all but eight seats across the UK: the price they paid for going into coalition with the Tories. So no chance whatever of Labour being able to form a Lib-Lab coalition.

Fourthly, the UKIP vote hurt Labour as much as it did the Tories. In many places, UKIP voters reduced the Labour count by enough to prevent Labour taking Tory-held seats; in some places the effect was sufficient to allow a Tory win.

Fifthly, the months of poisonous, calculated lying by the right-wing press had their usual effect. There’s always a nauseating, hypocritical moment just after elections won by the Tories, when that part of the press for a day or two pays half-hearted tribute to the qualities of the gallant loser, while privately gleefully congratulating itself on another job well done.

Those are the reasons. There was small local consolation in that we increased Keir Starmer’s majority in Holborn and St Pancras from the 10,000 he had inherited from Frank Dobson to 17,000. And in London as a whole, there was a swing to Labour. But great swathes of the rest of England went the other way.

Ed Miliband resigned as leader on 8 May. Labour must now choose a new leader (and deputy leader, since Harriet Harman will stand down as deputy leader in September, having done — as in 2010 — a stint of a few months as acting leader). There is no leadership candidate who fills me with absolute confidence. I think I shall vote for Andy Burnham. In three or four years’ time, with Cameron standing down as he said he will, and if Labour still trails in the polls, there may even be another leadership election. In the meantime, Miliband the elder should come back and get himself a safe seat, just as Boris Johnson, mayor of London until next year and a Tory leadership contender, has just done.

Change of subject: the first six booklets in the series English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Principles and Proposals were successfully launched in Brighton, London and York on 2, 3 and 4 June. We gave away more than 100 copies of Summary, the first booklet in the series, and sold 114 copies of the others, including some advance sales of the four booklets to be published in September. I feel very pleased. There’s still work to do in proofreading PDFs of the September booklets, but the intellectual work is now complete (English 16 to 19, the tenth and last in the series, was finished last week). There will be one more launch, at the United Kingdom Literacy Association’s conference in Nottingham on 12 July, but Mike Raleigh and Peter Dougill will do that one. I’ve written to Cambridge University Press, at the suggestion of Ron Carter, enclosing the six booklets and asking whether they would be interested in publishing a combined volume containing all ten. They’re thinking about it. If they say no, we’ll try one or two of the other big commercial publishers.

Here is the speech I gave at the three launches.

Thanks so much for coming.

This project originated, in my case, in a kind of rage. In 2012, I became so apoplectic about what the government was doing on synthetic phonics, legislating that it was the only way in which young children should be taught to read, that I feared I might develop an ulcer unless I found a way to relieve my feelings. Fortunately for my physical and mental health, my friends David Reedy and Eve Bearne at the United Kingdom Literacy Association invited me to write a short pamphlet for the Association on early reading, which I did. I felt a great deal better as a result, and I hope it gave a few people the sense that there is a better way of understanding early reading than the crazed zealotry emanating from the government.

The pamphlet was published in spring 2013. In autumn of that year, my friend Mike Raleigh came to me, and confided that he and his colleague Peter Dougill at Owen Education were suffering in the way that I had been, but on a bigger scale. The source of their unhappiness resided in many places, but particularly with the government’s intentions for the content of the new National Curriculum for English and its assessment arrangements: not just its fetichistic preoccupation with synthetic phonics, but also the absurd quantities of abstract spelling rules to be imposed on young children, ditto for the absurd quantities of grammatical terminology similarly to be imposed at an early age, plus the contemptuous undervaluing of the importance of the spoken language in learning (witness what’s happened to spoken language in the grading system at GCSE), plus the refusal to acknowledge, in the second decade of the 21st century, the existence of the digital and electronic means of communication in which children and young people bathe every day of their lives. Plus a few other things, for example the imminent arrival of more tests for primary-school children, apparently designed with the deliberate intention of breaking up the holistic activities of reading and writing into the performance of language drills and exercises which bear no relation to each other.

This joint unhappiness was enough to make us three oldies feel that we should not go gently into that good night.

So Mike and Peter said to me: why don’t we produce a series of booklets which try to cover the whole waterfront? A series which, to boil the thing down to four headlines:

  • first, restates fundamental truths about how children and young people come to speak, read and write English effectively
  • secondly, describes how teachers can effectively help learners to do these things
  • thirdly, offers robust critiques of aspects of the new National Curriculum for English and its assessment arrangements
  • and fourthly, proposes detailed, practical alternatives.

 
That was the plan Mike and Peter put to me. I said, ‘It sounds like a good idea.’ They said, ‘Will you be the lead writer on the series?’ I said, ‘All right.’ We then approached David and Eve at UKLA, and they very kindly agreed to co-publish the booklets with Owen Education.

And 18 months later, here we are. Actually, we’re not quite ‘here’ yet, because only six of the booklets are with us today: the first in the series, which is a summary of the whole project, plus those on talk, on early reading, on early writing, on grammar and knowledge about language, and on drama. The remaining four, on reading in the upper-primary and secondary years, on writing ditto, on media across the whole age-range, and on English at 16 to 19, will be with us at the beginning of September.

The result of the general election last month means that there is absolutely no chance that the Department for Education will take any notice of what is in these booklets. But I hope that they will bring strength and encouragement to some of the thousands of teachers, student teachers, teacher-trainers and advisers out there who know that the effective learning and teaching of English is something more than, something other than, the lock-step, correct-method-obsessed set of instructions to a platoon under orders which characterises much of the new National Curriculum for English and the new tests and examinations.

We’ve been robustly critical in these booklets. We’ve also been practically constructive. We’ve written an entire alternative National Curriculum for English, which is in one place in the summary booklet, which I hope you’ll take away tonight with our compliments, and which appears severally in the other booklets. We’ve also made practical proposals for a different way of assessing progress: none the less rigorous than those that are being imposed by the government, and much more likely to encourage rather than interfere with effective learning.

It’s a grotesque irony that the majority of secondary schools in England — those that are academies and free schools — and the increasing minority of primary schools which have that status are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum anyway. What is the point of going to all the trouble of writing the terms of a common entitlement, and then saying that it needn’t apply to large numbers of schools? I hope that those schools not obliged to follow the government’s National Curriculum might choose to follow ours instead.

I’m going to finish by taking the tone of a barrow boy. I can do this without shame because none of us will make any money from the sale of these booklets. If there is a surplus in the end, it will go to UKLA, which is an educational charity. Normally, the booklets sell at £12 each, and £11 to UKLA members. Because you’ve taken the trouble to turn up, they’re a tenner each to everybody, and of course the summary booklet is free, one copy per person. The other five will never be this cheap again, and £10 will save us messing about with change. You can pay with cash, or by cheque. Or you can fill in the form on the desk with your debit or credit card details (try to avoid paying with a credit as opposed to a debit card if you can, because there’s a £3.50 handling charge). Or you can fill in the form and ask to be invoiced, and take away the booklets tonight.

On top of that, if you were willing to trust to the quality of some or all of the booklets to be published in September and are willing to pay for those now, you can have them for £10 each too, and you won’t have to pay postage and packing when they’re delivered to the address you put on the form. Up to you.

Most important, when you read the booklets, if you like what you find there, please tell lots of other people about them. They’re available (but not at a tenner) through UKLA’s website: www.ukla.org. Later in the summer, they’ll be available in electronic form too.

That’s it. Have another drink, enjoy yourselves. And thanks again for coming.

A couple of people have said that the speech made them feel that I should have been an MP myself. Nice for the ego, but it’s too late for that, I fear.

We crossed the channel on 7 June and arrived here the following day. I spent a good part of the next few days asleep. Since then, I’ve had the glorious feeling which comes at the end of a big project: delight in new-found leisure, and no immediate urge to do anything else in particular. The pleasure of just being here in early summer is enough. Actually, I’ve done quite a lot of physical labour. I’ve helped Jean our neighbour shift a heap of topsoil from one side of his house to the garden on the other side, where it was needed to cover clay exposed where a digger had dug a trench to take sewage and drainage pipes to a new septic tank at the far end of the garden, and then filled the trench in. Topsoil now covers the whole area, and we’ve rolled, seeded and watered it, so new grass should come soon. And I’ve weeded the flowerbeds here, put compost around all the plants and doped them heavily with fertiliser to accelerate their flowering. Jean-Paul had cut the grass before we arrived. So now Kerfontaine looks wonderful, in its slightly shaggy way.

Intended writing projects when I get round to them: some new poems (I have three ideas); more translations; more Madame Granic stories; and I’m going to write to Paul Halley to ask whether I’m ever likely to get any music from him to go with my King Roger libretto, which has been waiting for tunes for two and a half years. In the autumn and winter, when I’m back in London, I’m going — at Betty Rosen’s request — to edit a selection of Harold Rosen’s writings. We haven’t finally decided on the mode of publication yet; possibly a website, possibly designed and built by Mark Leicester.

On 26 February, I was writing as usual in the little room at 77 Weavers way, when I heard raised voices from John Bentil’s flat next door. I went across. John had collapsed. Fortunately, the cleaner, who only came for half a day once a fortnight, was there when it happened, and had dialled 999. The paramedic was telling the cleaner to pump John’s chest. For the next quarter of an hour, I ran up and down stairs admitting more and more emergency medical people. In the end there were eight or nine in the flat, being instructed by a doctor. It was an impressive exhibition of strenuous, skilled collaborative effort. They tried everything: electric shocks, adrenalin injections, oxygen, a machine to pump the chest. In vain. After about 40 minutes, the doctor looked at me and I looked at her, and we agreed that they should stop. John had died of a heart attack, his heart probably weakened over many years by his asthma.

The medical team left. After a few minutes, two police constables arrived. Half an hour after that, a sergeant turned up, and was swiftly satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances. I sat with the constables for several hours, until the emergency undertaker arrived; two burly men took John away in a black plastic bag, bumping down the stairs on a trolley.

During my time with the constables, I showed them letters from John’s daughter, written 15 years ago from an address in Kent. I told them that the daughter was John’s only child. I knew this because about five years ago, I had asked John whether he had any children. He had said, ‘I have a daughter, but we don’t get on.’ I didn’t enquire further. About three years ago, I had offered to help John sort out his chaotic paperwork. His desk was covered by a huge heap of correspondence, mostly bills he had paid. Seeing the letters in a drawer of the desk, I recognised that they were personal, but read enough of the first pages of two or three of them to realise that the daughter was expressing regret that her father did not wish to pursue a relationship with her. That was all I knew then. I understood a little more when the police were with me and I read the letters all the way through. I also found a typed letter from two other people in Kent, which made it clear that they were John’s daughter’s adoptive parents.

I suggested to the policemen that their colleagues in Kent visit the daughter’s house, and tell her the news if she was still there. They agreed, and took away various of John’s documents (expired passport, expired driving licence, the folders into which I had organised such of John’s papers as were worth keeping). These would go to the coroner.

The next morning, the daughter rang. The Kent police had found her, told her, and given her our phone number. I liked her immediately. The morning after that, a Saturday, she arrived with her elder son. She is Jill Whibley, and the most honest, honourable, decent and charming person.

She told me the full story. John (as I knew) had arrived from newly independent Ghana in 1959 or 1960. He and his brother, who died soon afterwards, had rapidly become disillusioned with Nkrumah’s governance of the country. They feared that Ghana was heading towards a one-party dictatorship. They were in physical danger, as young, eloquent spokesmen for the opposition to Nkrumah. This was one of the reasons why John came to England.

John worked in London schools and in the Post Office while studying for the Bar. (I knew several of the schools, including Tulse Hill — which is no longer there — and some of the people he had worked with.) In 1962, at the age of 29, he had a brief liaison with a woman of 21. Result: a baby girl born in the harsh winter of 1963. Black father, white mother, a long time ago. The relationship didn’t last. Why, Jill doesn’t know. Was it that John didn’t wish his brilliant potential career as a barrister to be compromised by this inconvenience? At any rate, Jill’s mother didn’t keep the baby. Initially, she was fostered. Jill doesn’t know at what point her mother’s parents found out that their daughter was pregnant. They visited the foster home, and were appalled: a scene of Dickensian squalor. (I told this story last night to Jean and Annick, who came to dinner; they said ‘Zolaesque’.) The grandparents took the baby away, and later adopted her. So maternal grandparents (the writers of the typed letter) became legal parents.

John knew where his daughter had gone. He sent money to the new parents, and asked whether he could see his daughter from time to time. He was refused. This must have hurt him deeply, and was perhaps the reason for his later wrong behaviour. In the typed letter, which was literate and conciliatory, and didn’t seem to be the work of people who would have been racists, even all those years ago (but I can’t be sure), the parents/grandparents wrote simply that John had broken their daughter’s heart, and that they had wanted to give the baby a completely new start in life.

The new parents then did one good and one strange thing. Once the little girl was old enough to understand, they told her that she was adopted. Her skin colour was not that of most Kentish maids. That was the good thing. The strange thing was that they told her that her mother was her elder sister. The mother had by this time met another man, married and moved away, but Jill saw her ‘sister’ from time to time. One day, when she was about 12 years old, she opened a drawer in the house, read some papers, and discovered the truth about her mother. There must have been a scene at that point. However, she didn’t then find out who her father was.

She grew up, became a nurse, married and had three children. The marriage didn’t last. The husband, who was abusive, eventually left her for another man. Thereafter, she brought up the children alone, on a nurse’s salary.

Meanwhile, John was called to the Bar (in England and in Ghana, although he never revisited the country of his birth). He didn’t practise, but he taught civil, criminal and environmental law in universities in England and Australia. He had a sabbatical year while in Melbourne, during which he went to the USA and to Japan, studying aspects of those countries’ legal systems. During his career, he wrote more than 200 articles for legal journals. He returned to London at the end of his time in Australia, first renting a flat in Russell Square, then buying 79 Weavers Way in 1997.

At some point in the 1990s, I think (but I’m not sure) in the early years of the Labour government, the law in England was changed so that adopted children henceforth had the legal right to try to discover who their biological parents were. Jill, a woman by now in her mid-30s, took advantage of the new law. She contacted the Fostering Agency, who gave her John’s name and intended profession. She contacted the Bar Council, and asked whether they had an address for a John Kodwo Bentil. They did: 79 Weavers Way, London NW1 0XG. She wrote to John.

On an August day in the year 2000, when Helen and I were either here or visiting Stephen and Theresa in the Charente (there’s no diary entry between May and September of that year, I’m sorry to say), Jill brought her three lively children to London to visit her father, their grandfather. They went to the zoo. John bought the children Toblerones. The children played in the little park in Barker Drive, round the corner from the flat. It was a happy enough meeting, but alas, either then or a few days later, John made it clear to Jill that he didn’t wish to pursue an adult relationship with her. He gave her some money. Her several letters in the weeks following were dignified, heartfelt attempts to get him to change his mind. They were unsuccessful. That was the full story behind John’s one statement to me that he and his daughter didn’t get on.

I liked John very much, and did a lot for him, but his rejection of Jill was a terrible failing. Obviously, it wasn’t her fault if his male pride has been hurt 37 years previously. It wasn’t her fault even if, contrary to what I had inferred from the typed letter, the adoptive parents had been racists at the time.

Once Jill had told us the story, we went next door and looked at the shabby flat, with its hundreds of legal and other books on shelves and a few cheap prints on its walls. She told us that on that day in 2000, John had said to her, as they looked at the books, ‘One day you’ll have to deal with all this.’ In our part of London, these flats now sell for at least £400,000, even in an unloved state. John owned it outright.

Jill’s birth mother had died before the meeting. The adoptive parents died in the early years of this century.

In 2014, I helped John to reclaim money he had left in Australia in a bank account and an investment trust. He had no idea how to do this, and it was a bit complicated to achieve, because Australian law says that if money lies untouched for a number of years, it is automatically transferred to the government. I had to apply to the government to get it back, but I managed this, and in the summer of last year, John’s UK bank account benefited to the tune of about £8000. I happened to be in London at the time for a few days, because of a meeting to do with the booklets. He had me in to drink a bottle of champagne and to eat some crisps and Twiglets. He thrust an envelope into my hand, insisting that I take it and not object. It was a cheque for £1000. My researches into his financial affairs had revealed that he had the best part of £200,000 in various bank accounts in the UK. So his total estate was worth at least £600,000, and probably more.

I told Jill that I was sure that she would inherit John’s estate. I was wrong. She rang me on the Monday, in some distress, having been told by (I think) a probate officer in the Treasury Solicitor’s office, who had received John’s papers, that she could expect to inherit nothing, unless a will were found naming her as the beneficiary, since she had been adopted, and under English law an adopted child forgoes any right to the estate of biological parents unless there are instructions to the contrary.

I consulted our solicitor, who kindly gave me a detailed opinion gratis, saying the same thing. I even enquired of her as to whether, as the person who had done the most for John during the last years of his life, I might have a claim as a beneficiary; if the claim were successful I would give the money to Jill. No. Unless a will could be found, the estate would go to any blood relatives (perhaps cousins, nephews or nieces in Ghana) who could be found. But the Treasury Solicitor would not be making any effort in that direction. It would simply post the details of John’s unclaimed estate on its website for three weeks. If no blood relative were found, the estate would eventually go to the Treasury.

Since then, two firms have emerged, calling themselves, with slight variations between the two, forensic genealogists. These people look at the details of unclaimed estates on the Treasury Solicitor’s website. One of them is pursuing the case on Jill’s behalf, saying that there may possibly be a way round the law, given the strength of Jill’s moral claim. I don’t know whether or not this firm is also trying to contact Ghana. They work on a no-win, no-fee basis. If they can find and prove a beneficiary, they take about 15% of the estate. I have my doubts. I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that the government will collect the money.

It may seem surprising that John, a barrister, did not know this piece of English law. The law is a wide area, and he probably simply wrongly assumed that, if he never got round to making a will, Jill would inherit by default. I am quite sure that he did say to Jill what she said he said on that day 15 years ago, and that it was his intention that she should inherit.

I notice that I wrote in spring 2014 about helping John to get one of his eyes fixed at UCH. He had been almost totally blind there. In the autumn, I arranged for him get the other eye done. It had been only slightly better than the first. In a few months last year, he went from a position of extreme partial sightedness to almost perfect vision. We visited Boots in the high street in January, where he was measured for his first ever (ever!) pair of spectacles. He had managed all these years with a magnifying glass.

I remember wondering then whether I should ask John if he had made a will, but didn’t do so for fear that he might think that I was interested in his wealth. I wish now that I had been bolder, because the ensuing conversation might have prompted him to make a will, giving legal force to his intentions for Jill. Whatever the law says on the matter, Jill has the moral right to inherit, and if ever a person deserved a stroke of good fortune in life, she does.

John’s funeral at Golders Green on 17 March was attended by six people: Jill and her three children, Helen and me, and the celebrant, if that’s the right word, who was a civil servant. If there’s no obvious person, religious or otherwise, to preside at a funeral, the civil service provides one. This man, also called John, did the job very well with the little information he had. I gave a tribute. Here it is.

John Kodwo Bentil

23 January 1933 – 26 February 2015

A Tribute

My wife Helen and I knew John from 1997, when he moved into the flat next door to ours, until his sudden death last month. Over those years, and slowly, for John was a quiet and independent man, we became good and then close friends.

John was born in Ghana, when that country was part of the British Empire and was known as the Gold Coast. He was one of the minority of African children who gained a good education under the colonial regime, provided first by the Methodists and then by the Roman Catholics. He was evidently a clever boy, and did very well. Ghana was the first African country to gain independence from British rule, and John with his elder brother was involved first in the excitement of national freedom, but then in the progressive disillusionment with and eventual opposition to Kwame Nkrumah’s governance of the country. This opposition brought John into great personal danger, and was one of the reasons why he came to England in his late twenties. He taught in several schools, primary and secondary, in London. I asked him recently how he had got on teaching in Effra Primary School in Brixton. ‘Not very well,’ he said. ‘The children ran about too fast for me.’

John’s natural inclination was towards the law. With great diligence and persistence, studying in the evenings and at weekends while working full-time in schools and, for a while, in the Post Office, he passed his law exams and was called to the Bar in Lincoln’s Inn. Shortly afterwards, he was called to the Ghanaian Bar as well, though he did not return to Ghana to receive that honour.

At about this time, John had a brief relationship with Linda Whibley. In 1963 Linda gave birth to Jill, who is here today with her children Tom, Lewis and Georgia: John’s grandchildren. Since John’s death, Jill — supported by her children — has bravely and effectively made all the arrangements necessary after a death, and has prepared this ceremony.

A qualified barrister, John decided not to plead in the courts, but to teach law in universities. This he did, for many years, in London and in Melbourne. After a decade or so in Melbourne, he was granted a year’s sabbatical leave, during which he travelled in the United States and in Japan, studying aspects of those countries’ legal systems. He taught civil law, some criminal law and environmental law, the last a growing specialism as countries began to realise that states needed laws to restrain powerful interests from damaging the planet in order to enrich themselves.

Eventually, John retired to London, where he continued to write copiously for legal journals. Last weekend, Jill, Tom and I found a list of the titles of his articles in his flat: more than 200.

John had regular habits: two hours of physical exercise in the flat every morning, an admirable but necessary discipline to keep himself strong in the face of the asthma from which he suffered; shopping at about four every afternoon. He came to dinner with us often. For a Ghanaian, he had some peculiarly English tastes: he loved prawn cocktail and roast lamb, which he would wash down with sweet wine, a combination I could never understand, but people tell me that Ghanaians love sweet wine.

John also loved sport: football, where his two passions were Arsenal Football Club and the Ghanaian national team; and Formula One motor racing. And he loved classical music. Radio 3 was on most of the time during the day; he particularly enjoyed choral evensong from an English cathedral on Wednesday afternoons.

John was a thoughtful, eloquent and cultured man. He was an African who had grafted onto his African inheritance elements of European culture, and the result was greater than the sum of the two parts.

I conclude with John Donne’s famous statement about our common humanity in the face of death. I’ve taken one liberty with the great 17th-century Dean of St Paul’s’ beautiful prose, and added the words ‘or Africa’ in the middle.

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

Rest in peace.

You can’t do better than John Donne at a funeral. I read this wonderful, famous piece at my mother’s funeral too.

Helen’s taking me to Le Vivier for dinner tonight.

Kerfontaine

18 June 2015

The dinner was exquisite, as was the whole day. Yesterday was equally bright, beautiful and warm. I did something which, now I’m 64 and the subject of the Beatles’ witty, melancholy lyrics, I need to be careful about: I cleaned out my shed, and took a lot of accumulated clutter to the dump. Don’t become shed man. I know for certain that there’s no chance that I will ever have jars of screws of graduating sizes, nor sets of spanners ditto hanging in rows on plywood panels. Helen has just come in and said, ‘Thank God.’

Kerfontaine

19 June 2015

Another sublime blue day, and I’ve written a poem! A small one only, nothing much to boast about, but it is the first poem since the Sappho translations of last summer, and so a great relief.

Saturday Morning in the Park

A Christian men’s group, Bibles open, sits cross-legged on the grass.
Its leader prays for guidance in the study of God’s word.
Two groups of alcoholic men have made a start
on lager (extra strength), got from the Turkish shop.
The roses that my taxes pay for are well out
and sunlight striking plane leaves forms and shifts their patterns
on the path where laden shoppers, light of step, greet me with nods.
The child who swings and slides and rides the roundabout appeals in vain
for admiration from his parent, on the phone.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright… Bank holiday weekend
and I could be deceived that all assembled here are blest.

Rodellosso

29 June 2015

Here we are again; our sixth year in southern Tuscany. Somebody said to me the other day, not in criticism but in banter, ‘You’re always doing the same thing.’ It’s true. I don’t think I’m particularly adventurous, in the sense of having a restless desire constantly to go ‘tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’. I like coming back to the same places and the same people and getting to know them better.

We left Kerfontaine eight days ago. Our first night (as ever) was in Agen, at the Château des Jacobins with Stéphane and his grandmother. It was 21 June, la fête de la musique, and there was music in every street. Then two nights in Marseille, with Mary and Jacques. My brother Andy was there with Beryl, on their way back to Bulgaria, where they now live in the northern hemisphere summer. They were in New Zealand from last October until this May. Jacques’ mother died last year, and he and his sisters have sold her flat. There was an enormous sideboard in there, which no one wanted and which even Emmaüs, the charity, had declined to take away. It had a huge piece of fake marble on its top. Andy very skilfully cut it with a diamond-edged power saw, so that about two thirds of the original could be transported to Mary’s flat, to sit neatly atop the stone bench on their terrasse. I was sorry that the piece of furniture couldn’t stay together. It wasn’t valuable — reproduction — but well made of solid wood, if you like that ornate sub-Louis XV style. I hope, but doubt, that one of the employees of the Marseille recycling department saw the opportunity to keep it in one piece.

Then into Italy, and a night at Podere Conti with Cornelia. It was the most beautiful evening, warm but not hot, with low humidity after a violent thunderstorm the night before. Cornelia is very pleased with her new chef, and I must say the food was the best we’ve had there. I received the PDF of the seventh booklet in my series when we arrived, and it was the perfect place to concentrate on proofreading, so I did a bit before dinner, and got up at six the next morning and did most of the rest before we had to leave.

Then to Siena, where we had arranged to give ourselves two nights of luxury in the Hotel Grand Continental, the smartest hotel in town. We drove first to Claudio’s house on the edge of the city, and parked. It was about three o’clock, and he and his wife Lucia, assuming correctly that we’d eaten something for lunch (an egg roll only — they would have been appalled), provided an exquisite array of sweetmeats from a Siena pasticceria called Un Peccato di Gola. Then Claudio drove us into the city, and helped us carry bags to the hotel. We had a lovely room, not large but perfectly comfortable, with a wonderful view to the west. Swallows and swifts flew and screamed in their hundreds over the rooftops below us. That night we ate at Le Logge, the restaurant Claudio had recommended and we had tried last year. Beautiful food. Then coffee and grappa in the Piazza del Campo. It is quite something to sit, in the cool of the late evening, in one of the most miraculous human-made spaces in the world, with the growing moon overhead.

The next morning we went to the Museo del Duomo and to the Pinacoteca Nazionale. I hadn’t been into the latter for many years, and was mightily impressed by some of the Sienese masters of which I had known nothing before: Bartolo di Fredi, Sano di Pietro, the Maestro di Tressa, Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Lovely simple lunch at Osteria Dino. Then back to the hotel for a sleep, in Helen’s case, and the last of the proofreading in mine.

That evening we went out with Claudio and Lucia to a restaurant he had recommended. We weren’t as impressed with it as we had expected, but of course said how lovely it all was. I tried my best to pay; impossible. Then to the Piazza del Campo for coffee and grappa. The tufo had been laid that morning for this week’s palio. Impossible to pay there either. Whenever I try, Claudio says that the owners are his friends, and that it would be shameful in their eyes if he didn’t pay. This can’t be true.

The next morning we visited the Palazzo Publico; again, something I hadn’t done for many years. I think the works of art in there, especially the Simone Martini Maestà and his wonderful painting of the Sienese soldier on horseback traversing an apparently desert landscape between embryonic towns (picket fences, not yet walls), with military encampments threatening, are as good as anything in Siena or indeed in Italy. And the Ambrogio Lorenzetti portrayals of good and bad government are wonderful. I especially like the idealised countryside outside Siena, with the peasants happily going about their business, one encouraging his pig forward by prodding it with a stick.

Claudio met us at 1.30 outside the cathedral, and drove us to his house. ‘It’ll only be a small lunch,’ he said. ‘Lucia had to work this morning.’ (So did he.) I should like to know what he means by a large lunch. We had cold salumi of various kinds to start with. Then superb spaghetti with pesto, freshly made by Lucia in the blender with basil from their terrace. Two helpings. Then porchetta with ratatouille. Cheese. More dolci from Un Peccato di Gola. All this accompanied by very good spumante, Luciano’s rosso di Montalcino, Luciano’s brunello di Montalcino, a moscatello, a peach digestivo, grappa or brandy with the coffee. At four o’clock we drove here, to find that Mary, Jacques, Tess and Jacques’ grand-daughter Ainhoa had already arrived. We had planned to go straight out to my favourite restaurant in San Quirico, the Cardinale, but I was relieved at the decision to postpone that pleasure until the next day. We went shopping, and Mary and Jacques cooked a delicious rabbit stew, which somehow Helen and I found room for.

Yesterday the food intake returned to something like normal. We did go to the Cardinale in the evening, where we were greeted like the good friends we now are. I had the anchovies followed by the cinta sausages. Lovely. For dinner tonight, Helen and I have cooked a chicken casserole. Mary, Jacques and Ainhoa have just returned from Monte Amiata, not having found mushrooms, in contrast to last year, when they came back with a basketful.

Kerfontaine

17 September 2015

I always seem to be apologising to myself for the long gaps in this journal. I feel like the weary schoolmaster who, in response to a pupil’s latest failure to produce his homework, asks, ‘What’s your excuse this time?’ This time the excuse refers to a self-inflicted wound. A few days after our return from Italy (about which more later) I was writing on my computer after midnight. I had had a moderate quantity of wine with dinner. To the right of the computer was a small glass of grappa. I knocked it — about an inch of liquid — straight onto the keyboard. I rushed for the kitchen roll, frantically mopped the keyboard, but the damage was done. As I began to type again, bizarre things happened. The letter b came out as 50 square brackets. I don’t remember such a feeling of panic, giving way to despair, since the occasion all those years ago when I left my notebook on the train at the Gare du Nord. Hoping that the thing might right itself once the liquid in the works had dried, I went to bed, but not to sleep for a long time.

The following morning the computer was completely dead. It wouldn’t even start. I tried warming it with Helen’s hair dryer, thinking that the hot air might dry out the works. No good.

I considered the situation as calmly as I could, and realised that it wasn’t a complete disaster. Everything to do with English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19 already existed on other people’s computers. All my poems were already on my website. The only things which I might permanently have lost were an unfinished Madame Granic story and the eleventh book of my journal (that is, this one). I rang Ian Wilkinson, my man in Maidstone who looks after the computer. I sent the poor thing over to him. He ordered a piece of equipment from China which he hoped would recover the data on the hard drive. It didn’t work. He then sent the hard drive to a specialist in data recovery in Portsmouth. Ten days ago I went to London. I landed at Southampton as usual; train to Waterloo; train from Victoria to Maidstone. Ian had bought me a new computer, and put all the necessary software on it. I now have a facility whereby every time I want to keep a document beyond all risk of loss, I put it ‘on the cloud’. This phrase has been around for a few years now. I had some idea that it might involve sending data up to a satellite. No; in my case, the Apple ‘cloud’, according to Ian and his young assistant, is probably an air-conditioned windowless box somewhere in Ireland. Anyway, I came back from my brief trip to London with a new computer. Then, on Monday, I heard that the specialist had recovered all the data safe and sound. I was only interested in the text files and, wonder of wonders, they arrived here that day, onto the new computer, and all I had to do was to transfer the ones I wanted from Dropbox to my documents or desktop. And send them to the cloud, of course. Done. The bill arrived today: £1700. An expensive glass of grappa. I’ll see if I can get anything back from the French house insurance.

I’ve just been to the insurance office. Sorry, no.

This unhappy affair is in itself no excuse for my writing nothing in the journal for nearly three months. But somehow, the worry of it got to me. I felt I couldn’t go on until I knew was the extent of the damage was.

To resume where I left off: we had, as always, a deeply pleasurable fortnight at Rodellosso. Mary, Jacques, Tess and Ainhoa were with us for the first week. For the second, we had booked the whole place, and were joined by Andrew and Annie Bannerman, Glenda and Julian Walton, and Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor. The first two couples hadn’t met Bronwyn and Stephen before. Everyone got on terrifically well. It was very hot, but the pool was cooling, and we went to the familiar restaurants and found one new one, at Montefollonico, on the last night. We sat outside in the soft air, and ate beautiful food, for which Bronwyn and Stephen generously paid, since that day was their wedding anniversary.

We returned via Marseille (two nights) and then stopped with Stephen Eyers and Theresa Cato for four nights in the Charente. I performed my usual role, helping Stephen with the various physical jobs which always need doing there. Swam several times a day in their little pool, nude this time, so secluded is the place. We got back here on Saturday 18 July. Shortly after that, Mary, Jacques and Tess arrived, and Mary and Jacques painted the outside of the house, which needed doing. It was a mixture of work and play for them; we had a lot of fun, and they cooked some splendid meals, brilliant cooks as they are. Mary’s eldest child Sophie came for a few days with her fiancé Julien. He is charming, and they seem very happy. He works for Air France, guiding planes in at Marseille airport. They plan to get married next June, and we all agreed to do the catering for them at the event, thus avoiding the ruinous prices which the Marseille traiteurs were proposing to charge.

We were alone on Helen’s birthday. I bought her a silver necklace with a pretty dark blue stone (name forgotten) from a jeweller in Pont-Scorff. She wanted to take another look at his work, so we went there in the early afternoon. He had some loose stones, including two beautiful opals, so I asked whether he could put those into silver earrings for us. He did this during the afternoon, so Helen had the silver earrings with opal drops in time for us to go out to dinner at Le Vivier in the evening.

Later in the summer, David and Tom James came, and then Deirdre Finan, and then my brother Mark and his wife Gill, on their way down the west coast of France and into Spain and Portugal in their beloved camper van. I may have ‘gone off on one’ (Helen’s phrase when I start ranting) about camper vans before. Chacun à son goût. I rang Mark yesterday, which was his birthday and would have been our mother’s. He and Gill had just lunched in a very good restaurant in Santiago de Compostella, before visiting the cathedral.

Today I hear that the last four booklets in English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19 were delivered to the Leicester headquarters of the United Kingdom Literacy Association. The thing is done, except that now we have to mount a publicity operation to see that the series gets noticed. A couple of weeks ago, I had a highly complimentary rejection from CUP of the idea of their publishing all 10 booklets as a combined volume. They were mightily impressed with the booklets and the whole idea of the series, but are also just publishing some classroom resources which follow the new National Curriculum for English closely, and it might seem contradictory to then publish something so critical of the government orders. I don’t think there’s any contradiction, myself, in supplying teachers with material which they need as things stand, while also asserting that things could be different, be better. There we are. We shall now try Routledge.

Last Saturday, Labour announced the result of the election for its new leader. Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing back bencher who had only got onto the ballot paper because some other MPs ‘lent’ him their vote in the interest of having a wider debate within the party, won crushingly in the first round, taking 59.5% of the vote. Most of the rest of the parliamentary party is dazed. Very few MPs voted for him. His success was due to the new voting system which Ed Miliband had introduced. This gives one person one vote, with three categories of voter: full members, like Helen and me; trade unionists who become affiliated supporters, paying about half what full members pay; and ‘registered supporters’, who have paid a one-off fee £3 and declared that they support the aims of the party and are not members of parties opposed to Labour.

Once the possibility of voting as a registered supporter became widely understood, there were malicious campaigns in some of the right-wing newspapers encouraging their readers to pay £3 and vote for Corbyn, in order to consign Labour to oblivion. There may have been a bit of that, but Corbyn won nearly 50% of the votes of the full members in the first round, so would have won easily even if the registered supporters (about 85% of whom voted for him, admittedly) had not existed. It’s very likely, I think, that the majority of the large number of people who have joined the party since the election have done so in order to vote for Corbyn. Apparently, more than 15,000 people joined in the 24 hours after his victory was announced.

Corbyn is a profoundly principled and decent man. I agree with most of his policies. The only one is disagree with, with regret, is his policy on defence. He wants to scrap Trident and leave NATO. I have always thought that for the UK to have an independent nuclear deterrent, while also being a member of NATO, is pure vanity. We’re harking back to our former great-power status. If you’re in a club, and you pay your dues to the club, why duplicate your expenditure by, as it were, also setting up your own club, with only you in it, and with an expensive membership fee? I remember reading a C.P. Snow novel years ago — it may have been Corridors of Power — in which some dissident Tories in the 1950s try to stop the government wasting the nation’s money on our own bomb, when the Tory government is already spending plenty as part of NATO. The effort failed, of course.

However, to leave NATO completely, when there are dangerous people about like Putin and Netanyahu and — despite the landmark agreement with Iran, achieved in July, one of Obama’s greatest achievements — a possible hawkish future leadership of Iran, ditto Pakistan, ditto North Korea, would be foolish. Of course there should be strenuous, permanent efforts to achieve significant multilateral cuts in nuclear arsenals.

Anyway, Corbyn’s arrival means that it’s not going to be business as usual in UK politics for a while. There is a very big difference between the two parties now, at least at the top level. Corbyn: renationalise the railways; tax the rich harder, and seriously crack down on tax avoidance and evasion; bring academies and free schools back under local-authority control; abolish the internal market in the NHS (which has already happened in Wales). I think he will come down on the side of staying in the EU when the referendum comes along in 2017, which must be a private relief to Cameron, who I imagine was banking on Labour’s support in his struggle against his own Eurosceptic right wing.

The next general election is a long way away. I think it highly doubtful that Corbyn will still be leader then, because at the moment he lacks the support of most of his parliamentary colleagues. And, wish it though I might, I don’t think the UK electorate would vote to put him in Downing Street. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong often enough in political predictions recently. Maybe a 21st-century version of the spirit of 1945 will sweep him to power. Certainly, if opinion polls a year out from the election were to show Labour with a commanding lead, a lot of those MPs who have been openly critical of him in the last few days would suddenly find that they’d changed their minds. It would be wonderful: the British people rediscover a taste for social justice, decide that there is such a thing as society, and that they want to be part of it. The behaviour of the right-wing press can only be imagined. But I have deep doubts that the dream could become a reality, which is why I voted for Andy Burnham, who came a distant second, but who — I’m glad to say — agreed to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as shadow home secretary, unlike some of his former shadow-cabinet colleagues who went off sulking to the back benches.

The dominating issue in European politics at the moment, however, is not the little revolution in the British Labour Party, but the arrival of refugees in their hundreds of thousands, fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Afghanistan and many other places. It’s the largest sudden movement of people to and within Europe since the end of the Second World War. Europe, I’m afraid, has signally failed to rise to the challenge which the influx represents. The only people who have shown real statespersonship are Angela Merkel and the leaders of Italy and Greece. Merkel has said that Germany could take 800,000 arrivants, and welcome. Her vice-chancellor later said that the country could accommodate 500,000 a year for the foreseeable future. It’s true that Germany’s economy is booming, that its population is ageing and in need of young blood, and that there is a grand coalition in the country uniting the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. It’s also true that Germany has ferocious neo-Nazi groups, who regularly burn the temporary accommodation provided for the migrants. Merkel has faced these down with great courage. She has proposed the most reasonable joint response to the crisis: every EU country should take a number of migrants in proportion to its population, its GDP, the levels of its debt and deficit. Unfortunately, most of the other EU countries, the UK included, are too timid and too scared of their own right-wing media to do the decent thing. It’s true that the UK has spent serious money supporting organisations and governments near Syria, in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, in their huge task of accommodating people in refugee camps, and we should be proud of that. But it’s significant that we’re prepared to spend such money as long as these people don’t come too near us. In terms of accepting people within our own borders, Cameron has made the puniest symbolic offer: we’ll take 20,000 over five years (five years!) from the refugee camps in the bordering countries. France has done a bit better than the UK in accepting people there, but nothing on the scale that a country of its size and standing should. Hungary, meanwhile, is building a fence along its border with Serbia, to keep the migrants out. Croatia is ‘moving migrants on’.

Italy and Greece have heroically borne the burden of being the first countries of arrival for most of the migrants. Greece has dealt with an endless stream of arrivals on Kos and Lesbos, only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, while Athens has been locked in crisis negotiations over its debt. Thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. It is a full-scale tragedy, and Europe has failed to live up to our much-vaunted humanitarian ideals. The EU has a population of more than 500 million. The numbers arriving, large as they may seem in the raw, are tiny in proportion to 500 million. We are a rich continent. And as has frequently been pointed out, many of the migrants are the most resourceful of the citizens of their ravaged countries: people with skills and energy which they would have wished to use at home, but from which Europe could benefit.

In the middle of writing this, an email brings me the newsletter from Claude Moraes, London’s MEP. He is Chair of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. He writes:

‘Action by the European Union's Member States has been chaotic and painfully slow, hampered by a small minority of EU countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The UK continues to opt out from the vast majority of common EU measures which could assist with the crisis and has decided to adopt its own approach which I have commented on widely in the media as being inadequate and not assisting in cooperative solutions to help the crisis in the EU and on its borders...

My key criticism of the UK government's response is not that the UK has given little in development aid to the affected areas. In fact, the UK’s latest £600m contribution places it as one of the highest international donors to the region. The criticism is that since 2011 the UK has accepted up to 5,000 asylum applicants but resettled only 216 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. It is the same scheme that the UK has announced will be extended to 20,000 over a five-year period. The refugees will not come from anywhere within the EU or on the borders of the EU. The UK will also opt out of all the key cooperation measures to deal with the crisis already existing in the EU and on its borders.’

Quite.

Kerfontaine

23 September 2015

The last four booklets in my English teaching series arrived on Saturday. They look good. I’ve spent a bit of time this week on publicity to sympathetic organisations and individuals. What I don’t want is for all this effort merely to result in a few friends and comrades having something to cheer them up, with no real effect on teachers more widely.

As for government policy, as I said in my speech at the launches in June, the Conservatives will take no notice of anything in the booklets, should they ever get to read them. If they did become aware of what’s in them, they might even pull a trick to which they resort regularly, which is to slip a word to mates at the Mail or the Telegraph, so that people like me can be publicly derided as trendies selling the nation's children short.  It's something that's happened to me before; in 1991, before I started writing this diary, my poor mum was reading her Telegraph, with coffee and digestive biscuit at 11 in the morning as usual, and was astonished to see her eldest son presented there as the devil incarnate.  She never bought the paper (or any paper) again.  

Now that there’s a new set of Labour shadow ministers for education, we’ll send them copies, but nothing will happen as a result for at least five years, since opposition is impotence. My realistic desire is that lots of teachers and teacher-trainers and advisers of teachers should know that there is an alternative to the benighted legislation which had just been imposed on them. (As we say in the preface to the booklets, and as I said in my speech, it’s a huge irony that academies and free schools, now in the majority in the secondary sector, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum at all. Why go to all the trouble of designing a common legal entitlement to the curriculum, and then say that large numbers of schools can opt out from it? I know the answer, of course; schools of which central government approves, because they are no longer part of local authorities, can be allowed greater autonomy, while the scruff, the ones which still belong in local authorities, must be closely controlled like a platoon under orders.)

It’s been a joy and a relief to get back to a bit of literary writing. I’ve just completed (I think) two new Madame Granic stories, in which our heroine becomes romantically involved with the man whom she met because he had a right to a share of the inheritance which the three old ladies wished to confer on Madame Granic, he being the natural son of one of them. When I’ve finished writing of that kind, poetry or prose, or even when I’ve just had a good writing day and left the desk with the work still in progress, I get a feeling of justification, a certainty that this is really what I should be doing, which is all the happiness I ask for. I know that I’ve spent quite a few days in recent weeks in a state of dissatisfaction because the educational writing was finished but I hadn’t got the impetus — or perhaps just hadn’t forced myself — to turn to the other kind. Now I have, and I must make sure the flow continues.

A pleasant little task last week was to translate a short museum guide into English. At Pont-Scorff there’s a small art gallery called Espace Pierre de Grauw, which houses the work of that artist, mainly sculptures. He is a Dutchman who’s been living in France since his youth. As an artist, he’s self-taught. He’s also a monk, though a disobedient one, since he left his order to get married. (The order had him back later, with limited rights.) He will be 94 in December. I think his work is magnificent: sculptures in wood (sometimes using old railway sleepers), bronze and plaster, nearly all on religious themes. We’ve been to the gallery several times now. We took Glenda and Julian there a couple of weeks ago. I spoke for some time to Chantal, the woman who looks after the gallery. At the end of our visit, trailing her coat no doubt, she said that she was looking for someone who could do an English translation of the guide. It’s only two sides of A4, the French is straightforward, and I’m familiar with all the Biblical stories to which the sculptures relate, so I’ve done the job. There was a ceremony on Sunday in the gallery, to inaugurate a new room on the second floor. We went, and met Pierre de Grauw and his wife Georgine. He has had a stroke, so can’t speak well, but is fully mentally active behind that disability, and wrote a charming dedication to me in the flyleaf of a big book about his work, which was my payment.

I haven’t worked out yet how Pont-Scorff came to agree, not just to house the gallery in the building which was once the mairie and the school, but to display de Grauw’s work in the open air in numerous places around the village. He has spent his career in France in the suburbs of Paris, at Bagneux and more recently in Sèvres. I expect I shall find out.

Kerfontaine

24 September 2015

There has been some limited progress on the refugee crisis. Yesterday, EU leaders agreed to give an extra billion euros to the UN refugee agency and the World Food programme, to help them support refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria. There will be more direct help to Lebanon, Jordan and particularly Turkey, which have accommodated migrants on a scale which dwarfs anything Europe has achieved. There will be assistance for the Balkan countries through which migrants are travelling in their attempt to reach northern Europe. And help for Italy and Greece, which take almost all the migrants arriving via the Mediterranean. On Tuesday, EU ministers backed mandatory quotas to divide up 120,000 refugees among members. But the vote was passed only by majority and was fiercely opposed by Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Slovakia has launched a legal challenge to the decision. There has been vicious name-calling between several European countries. Serbia, for instance, has just said that Croatia’s newly introduced border restrictions were ‘comparable only to those of the World War Two fascist regime’.

This is dangerous and deeply depressing. A tragic view of history would claim that nothing is learned. Serbia, which has been responsible for much more recent dreadful atrocities than those committed against its citizens by the fascist regime in Croatia during World War Two, shows the dog not far beneath its skin. The former Soviet satellites have large proportions of racists in their populations, and their leaders show every sign of being concerned to appease those prejudices. Any idea that 70 years of internationalist solidarity under communism was anything more than an empty slogan has been discredited many times since 1991.

We can’t, it seems, get anything right. Of course the underlying problem is the war in Syria and, to lesser extents, repression in Eritrea, chaos in Libya, violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia, against all common sense and decency, continues to back Assad. The West will not tolerate a future vision for Syria without Assad’s departure. So there we sit, while Islamic State and the Assad regime compete with each other in levels of barbarity. But meanwhile, Europe — the cradle of democracy, the birthplace of the concept of human rights — is limping ungraciously towards the most grudging of collective responses to the problem. There should be reception points in Greece, Italy, Malta and anywhere else where migrants arrive. They should be paid for out of EU funds. At these points, officials should process the migrants, sorting out the refugees and asylum seekers from the economic migrants. Meanwhile, the migrants should be humanely accommodated, again out EU funds. Once the bona fide refugees and asylum seekers have been identified, they should be sent to EU countries according to those countries’ populations and GDPs (as is happening on too small a scale with the 120,00 agreed on Tuesday). The economic migrants, depending on their qualifications and skills, should be offered work in countries which need labour, as many do with their ageing populations. If they refuse work, or if they can’t be accommodated, they should be flown back to their country of origin or to any other countries willing to accept them. Something like that is the obviously right response to the crisis. Europe is nowhere near it. Merkel is head and shoulders above the other leaders in her attempts to move EU policy in the right direction.

Kerfontaine

10 October 2015

Just when I thought I had finished with the English-teaching series, another job came along. Various organisations representing English teachers in England (the National Association for the Teaching of English, the National Association of Advisers in English, the English and Media Centre, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, as well as the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the joint publisher of the series) have expressed an interest in trying to agree a common position on curriculum and assessment in the light of the various errors committed by the government, and have thought that the series might be a starting point. So would I do a summary which they could consider? I’ve just spent a week on it. It’s largely been a cut-and-paste job from text which is already there, but it has also involved some new research, since the government’s plans, particularly about testing up to the age of 11, have moved on since I wrote about them in the spring. I’ve sent the thing to a few people; it’ll go to the wider group of organisations once the smaller group has commented. There will be a meeting on 6 November to discuss my effort. I hope they like what I’ve done. I’m not going to get into accommodating little revisions and preferences in the attempt to find a form of words which satisfies everyone. I’ll listen to initial suggestions, but after that people can take it or leave it.

Nearly two weeks ago, in the early hours on Monday 28 September, there was a total eclipse of the moon. I got up at around four o’clock, by which time the earth had already covered the moon. There was a full sky of bright stars. ‘Blood moon’ is the phrase that’s used, but the colour on the moon’s silhouette was between red and black, a dull splodge, with some lightness around the edges. I read in the paper that the lightness is caused by the sun’s rays passing through the earth’s atmosphere on their way to the moon. For a while, it was difficult to see what was going on. But once the earth began to move away from the direct line between sun and moon, and the full moon to reappear gleaming white, the edge of the earth’s shadow was clear and sharp as it slowly revealed more and more of the moon. It was spectacular: a small section of the curved line which is the surface of our round planet, black as pitch, yielding to the light. It took about an hour to expose the moon fully. Of course I thought about Hardy’s poem, and of my own poem ‘Eclipses’, written a few years ago after a similar event. I watched until the last little obstruction had been nibbled away, and climbed back into bed freezing cold. Helen remarked that my scrotum wasn’t so much like a shrivelled walnut as a shrivelled hazelnut.

I’ve just finished reading Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, in Bruce Penman’s translation. David James and Helen have been reading big novels together recently: War and Peace, The Brother Karamazov and Bleak House. I asked whether I might join in, and suggested The Betrothed; I knew that it is the iconic Italian novel, but I hadn’t read it. It deserves its reputation. The rattling good story about the young lovers is wonderfully interspersed with historical information about the states of Milan and Venice in the early seventeenth century, and with religious passages which reflect Manzoni’s own Catholic faith. The descriptions of the bread riots in Milan, and in particular the plague, are magnificent. I’ve never read anything which more accurately and poignantly tells of the terror and hysteria brought by the plague, the callousness in the face of suffering and death which it inevitably caused, but also the heroism of some people in the midst of it. Also, the book is often funny and ironical. I think we three are going to continue reading big European novels which we haven’t got round to. The next will be Buddenbrooks.

Kerfontaine

22 October 2015

Driving back from Pont-Scorff this morning after Helen’s weekly trip to the hairdresser, we passed a magnificent crop of cider apples in the hamlet of Pilornec. There were five or six heaps, of different varieties, and behind were more apples in sacks, waiting to be unloaded. Last week I had to drive up to Bubry quite early in the morning. It was a beautiful day, unlike today, and in a field a man was picking up the apples under the trees. There were already twenty or thirty sacks leaning against each other. It’s great to see small-scale cider-making still going on. We’ve had a pretty good apple crop this year: not as good as the year when I wrote ‘After After Apple-Picking’, but still more than enough for our needs. We give away as many as we can. This is the first autumn since Rosa died, and I’ve immediately become lazy. I don’t climb up ladders and pick the apples. I wait until they fall down. If they get bruised, we stew them, bake them, put them into a crumble or make chutney. We had an absolute glut of peaches, which are more of a problem because they don’t keep. We did as much as we could with stewing and chutney and giving them away, but a lot were wasted. Rosa and her friends used to come and harvest apples, peaches, chestnuts, medlars: all we had. I liked that.

Ten days ago we decided to go somewhere we’d never been before. We ended up at the estuary of the Étel, where it meets the sea. The sun shone, and we had the beach almost to ourselves. We walked for a couple of hours and then found a little restaurant which looked as if it hadn’t changed for 50 years. I didn’t think that places like that existed any more. The bar was in a different building from the restaurant itself, and between were a few outdoor tables. It was still warm enough to eat outside, as long as you sat in the sun, which Helen insisted on doing. I was overcome by nostalgia for meals I’d eaten in places like this forty and more years ago. We had mussels in a green sauce, chips and white wine. Delicious. The cook told me the name of the spice in French — curcuma — and although the English was somewhere at the back of my mind, I couldn’t bring it forward. The cook’s wife, who was serving, disappeared into the bar and came back a minute later with the English word: turmeric. ‘Thank you, Google,’ she said in English, which gave my nostalgia a bit of a jolt.

Later we walked by the river, then crossed the bridge in the car and drove round to the town of Étel, where we walked again. The sun shone warmly all day, and I said to Helen as we drove home that it had been the day of the season. I wrote a little love poem later in the week, called ‘Tracks’.

I’ve had modest success with poems recently. As well as ‘Tracks’, there’s ‘Wind-blown Acanthus’, about the time that Richard Beckley, nearly blind, identified with his hands alone that style of decoration around the door of the chapel of Notre Dame de Vérité at Caudan; ‘Drummer’, which started as an attempt to connect Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ with the dreadful murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, but in the end is simply about the latter, though he isn’t named; ‘Learning to Whistle’, about my seeing a boy in Regent’s Park practising whistling, exactly as I had done at his age; and ‘Sunny Morning in the Park’, about a slightly spiritual, Stanley Spencer-ish experience in St Martin’s Gardens in Camden Town, when ordinary surroundings and people were momentarily suffused with light and became ‘rich and strange’. This last poem has given me a great deal of trouble since I first wrote it in June (and put it in the diary entry for 19 June, entitled ‘Saturday Morning in the Park’). Peter Hetherington thought it too wordy, and has tirelessly helped me to revise it. We’ve agreed today that it’s finished.

These are all short meditations. I did something longer and different this week. I read Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days in the Loeb edition, looking for something to translate. I couldn’t find anything in Theogony, which is mainly a genealogy of the gods from the creation of the world down to Hesiod’s day. But in Works and Days there’s the short, brutal fable of the hawk and the nightingale. Hesiod used it to make his point that humans, whatever our failings, are superior to animals. We don’t eat each other, on the whole, and we do have some sense and system of justice, however imperfect. The hawk captures the nightingale, terrorises her and says that he might eat her, he might not; whatever he decides, there’s no point in the weak defying the strong. They’ll always lose.

I translated this in ballad form, and then thought that the moral (not quite the right word) of this fable contrasts interestingly with that in the fable of the eagle and the wren, in which the birds decide that they would like to have a king. To determine who should be crowned, they organise a competition to see who can fly the highest. The eagle thinks he has won, but then the wren, who has secretly been riding on his back, pops up and flies even higher. I first came upon this story when we made a series at Channel 4 in Irish. Each programme combined an Irish fable or legend about an animal, done in animation, with scientific filming about the beast. One of the programmes featured the wren. So there’s a version of the story in Irish folklore. But now I find that, at least according to Plutarch, it was one of Aesop’s fables too; it’s one of those ancient stories, like Cinderella, which has several — perhaps many — versions around the world.

I did ‘The Eagle and the Wren’ as a partner to ‘The Hawk and the Nightingale’ and linked them under the overall title ‘Two Views of Power’. I’m pleased with them.

On Tuesday, I sent off the text of the document to be considered by the English associations, about which I wrote in the last entry, to the wider group of people who will be at the meeting on 6 November. It’s a substantial thing, at 38,000 words, robust in its criticisms of the government’s follies to do with curriculum and assessment in English, but also constructive; every criticism is matched by a realistic alternative proposal. We shall see how it’s received.

Lindsay James’s mother, Beryl Richards, died on Monday night in Shrewsbury Hospice. She was a wonderful person, full of wisdom and good humour, an interested and interesting conversationalist, who bore with great courage the terrible blow of Lindsay’s death. The funeral will be at Rhydycroesau, where she was churchwarden and organist for many years, where David and Lindsay were married, where Tom was baptised, and where Lindsay’s funeral was held. If the date is after we get back to London a week tomorrow, I’ll go.

I used to tell Helen that I needed three widows to keep an eye on. The three used to be Martina Thomson, Betty Rosen and Rosa Penhouët. When Martina died, Beryl became the third. When Rosa died, I was down to two. Now Beryl has gone, I only have Betty. A year ago, when I came back here for Rosa’s funeral, I told our neighbour Annick about the three widows. She said, ‘Not me yet, thank you.’ Jean is in excellent health. We’re taking them out tonight to the restaurant in Pont-Scorff, to thank them for all they do for us.

Kerfontaine

23 October 2015

Last night, Jean and Annick told us good stories from their childhood and youth, to do with the cinema in their respective towns. Annick remembered going to the cinema in Plouay in the 50s and early 60s, when nearly everyone went. The film of the week was shown on Saturday afternoon, again on Saturday evening and again on Sunday evening. The Sunday evening crowd tended to come in from the country. I suppose there were buses to take them back and forth. The films were either American or Italian, and they weren’t all pulp movies. Annick remembers seeing Bicycle Thieves and other classics of Italian neo-realism. The best part of her account concerned the priest. He presided over these showings (the cinema was close to the presbytery), which might be regarded as a sign of liberalism; he didn’t condemn the cinema from the pulpit as a work of the devil. However, he was the self-appointed censor. He must have watched the films in private in advance, because whenever a scene came along which he considered trop hot (Annick’s exact phrase), he would tell the projectionist to stop the projector and fast-forward until the danger was past. There were groans and boos from the bolder members of the audience, and resigned shaking of heads from the others.

I expect the priest sometimes became aroused during his private previews.

Roujan, Jean’s town in the south of France, is smaller than Plouay. 60 years ago, when Jean was thirteen years old, it was a village. It shared the same copy of each weekly film with two other villages. So the showings were staggered. Reel one of the film began to roll in village A two hours before the same piece of celluloid began to roll in village B, which was two hours before its third roll in village C. I didn’t ask, but I suppose that the villages took it in turns to come first, second and third. As soon as reel one had finished in village A, it was rewound and driven in a car or on a motorbike to village B, where it was eagerly awaited. The car or motorbike returned to village A to await reel two, which by then was playing. And so on. The arrangement needed more than one transporter, since the same car or motor bike couldn’t be carrying reel two, for example, from village A to village B at the same time as carrying reel one from village B to village C.

The audiences bore the inevitable delays with patience. Additionally, in Plouay and in Roujan, there were the familiar hazards of the period, with films breaking and projectors overheating. Often the celluloid had to be quickly and temporarily scotché. (The word is a good example of a number of linguistic phenomena: a borrowing from one language by another; a proper noun, a brand name in this case, becoming a common word, like ‘hoover’ or ‘biro’; and a noun being turned into a verb and given a standard past-participle ending.)

And then, as all over the world, television arrived and the weekly trip to the cinema declined in popularity. It was no longer an event drawing a community together for entertainment. Which reminds me of a story which Annick told me years ago. There was a priest in the nearby village of Calan. He was noted for parsimony (not that priests’ stipends were generous). Some time in the 70s, he put an advertisement in the parish magazine: ‘Father So-and-so finds himself in need of a television set, and would gladly accept such a gift from any kind and generous member of the congregation. Preferably, the gift should be in colour.’

Helen and I told Jean and Annick about our contrasting experiences of the cinema during our childhood and youth. Helen went with her family at least once a week, and sometimes more often. There was a choice of five picture houses up and down the Edgware Road. I managed to see four cinema films by the time I was eighteen, because my parents did think that the cinema was, on the whole, the work of the devil. The four were: the classic pre-war Disney animation Fantasia, on a trip organised by my primary school in Bromley; a patriotic biopic about Winston Churchill, also in Bromley; Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, in Bedford, with my first girlfriend, when — as I like to say — we had to leave after the ninth commandment to get the last bus home; and Far from the Madding Crowd, also in Bedford, at a matinee performance which I saw with Peter Hetherington when we took an afternoon off from rehearsing for Murder in the Cathedral. I remember that there were two women in the row in front of us. Irritatingly, one kept informing the other about the upcoming plot. When Sergeant Troy came on, the less well-informed woman said, ‘I don’t like the look of him.’ Her better-informed friend, for the benefit of several rows around her, replied, ‘Don’t worry. He dies in the end.’

When I got to Cambridge I made up for lost time by seeing every single film that came on at the Arts Cinema, gobbling up the entire nouvelle vague as well as all the Italian masters: Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini. There were usually five different films a week: Monday to Wednesday, Wednesday late night, Thursday to Saturday, Saturday late night, Sunday.

Yesterday, coming out of the supermarket in Pont-Scorff, I met a group of people suffering from cerebral palsy who were selling raffle tickets for a charity supporting people with their disability. I talked for a few minutes to one of the group, a man in a wheelchair. He had that characteristic loud, wrenched, groaning manner of speaking. After a while he said, ‘Vous avez un petit accent. Vous venez d’où?’ I told him, and we laughed. It was like one of those disability advertisements which try to trick your expectations.

Train from London to Shrewsbury

2 November 2015

It’s Beryl’s funeral tomorrow. I shall stay with David for two nights.

We got back to London on Friday evening after our usual two-day trip, with the stop at the Auberge du Terroir for delicious, cholesterol-packed food and deep sleep aided by Calvados. Having unloaded, we went straight to Daphne’s to remind ourselves of the delights of Greek cuisine.

There is thick mist outside as we rush through Buckinghamshire. Yesterday and today began mistily in London. We drove across to see Bronwyn and Stephen in Southwark at about 10.30. The dome of St Paul’s glistened magically as the yellow light of the sun forced its way through the white. There followed the most beautiful warm sunny day: according to the Met Office it was the warmest November day ever recorded in England and Wales. We went for a walk in Regent’s Park in the afternoon. It was about as different as could be imagined from the description of November in that not very good poem about the month, the one with all the ‘Noes’ in it. Admittedly, it was only the first day of November. Later in the afternoon I drove up to see Helen’s brother Nick in Edgware, taking apples, brandy and the special French soap that Christine likes. On the way back the traffic was so bad in the Finchley Road that I turned left and climbed up to Hampstead. At the top, the mist was as thick and mysterious as it is now (we’re at Coventry).

There was a nice letter from Keir Starmer, our MP, waiting for me on Friday. He said he liked the 10 booklets on English teaching, and asked for another set to give to Fiona Millar. He also said that he would try to have a word with Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary. I sent the booklets this morning, telling Keir about the recent development with the various English-teaching associations and the meeting on Friday. Then I read in the paper that Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, is going to make a speech tomorrow about assessment in primary schools, with the possibility that there may be yet more external testing at Key Stage 1. The plan for summer 2016 at the moment is for externally set, internally marked tests for seven-year-olds in reading and in grammar, punctuation and spelling. We shall see; the picture keeps changing.

After posting Keir’s package, I went up to Betty Rosen in Muswell Hill (more mist) to talk about compiling a selection of Harold Rosen’s writings, educational, political, autobiographical, poetical and personal. We’re going to ask Tony Burgess, Jane Miller, Simon Wrigley, John Hardcastle and Michael Rosen to form a little steering group. I’ve already asked Mark Leicester in New Zealand if he would be interested in building a website carrying the selection; he said he would. I think we’d have some printed copies as well. I’d like to get the majority of the work done before we go to Australia in mid-February for Alix Mellor’s wedding. That may be ambitious, but dealing with the writing of a master will be more a matter of choosing what to put in and of grouping the material than of detailed editing. At any rate, I expect that the whole thing will be finished and published by the time we leave for France next May. After the job I’ve just done, this will be an easier pleasure.

I’m now on the local train from Birmingham New Street to Shrewsbury. It moves barely faster than a stagecoach. It will take more than an hour to do the short trip, stopping — as my aunt Margaret used to say — at every five-barred gate (I exaggerate). But at least the carriages are new and clean. The afternoon is now perfectly clear. It’s a quarter past four, and will be dark in an hour. It’s always a bit of a shock changing from the French summer time to Greenwich Mean Time within a week; night suddenly takes over.

The wider world continues grievous. The very conservative, neo-Islamist President Erdogan of Turkey yesterday won the re-run of parliamentary elections he had ordered. He hadn’t liked the result he got in June, which had meant that his party was obliged to share power with others, so he asked the people think again. Obligingly, they did. Before long, he will arrange to change the constitution so as to give him the powers of an executive president, as in the USA or Russia. The reality will be much more like the latter, with the press muzzled, independent critics silenced, all opposition cowed, the senseless, murderous war with the Kurds renewed. I expect that Islamist subjugation of women will follow. It seems strange that until recently Turkey was seriously applying to become a full member of the EU. I can’t see that happening now.

Syria is awful, unspeakable. More than 250,000 people are now dead; more than a million are injured; many millions have fled the country. Because Russia and Iran refuse to contemplate a Syria without Assad, and the West and the Sunni Gulf states refuse to contemplate a Syria with Assad, the international response to the war there is incoherent. Russia says it is bombing Islamic State, but it’s pretty clear that it’s happy to bomb what we would call the legitimate opposition to Assad as well. People go out shopping and are blown to pieces in the market when one of Assad’s barrel bombs lands. The West and the Gulf states give some but not enough military support to the legitimate opposition. Meanwhile, Islamic State continues to perform the most appalling atrocities across the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls. The outside parties to this conflict — USA, UK, France, the EU, Russia, Iran, the Gulf states — met in Vienna on Friday. The inside parties, those actually fighting, were absent.

The people on this little train, tired after a day’s work and thinking about their evenings (and often discussing them it on their phones, for the benefit of the rest of us) have no control over and not much interest in these faraway miseries. I don’t blame them.

A woman of Jamaican origin (I can be that precise because of her audible phone conversation) is telling us about certain emotional and domestic difficulties she is going through. As a person used to hearing the accents and speech styles of Londoners of Caribbean origin, it’s a change to hear Caribbean vowel sounds inflected, full on, by those of the Black Country. The mixture sounds Barbadian, Devonian. But I know she’s Jamaican. ‘I’m going to Kingston in the spring to see my aunty.’ Also: ‘It was a great Hallowe’en party but I don’t think she [a third party] should have appeared nude at the end. It got the men a bit, erm, you know, worked up.’

Kerfontaine

31 December 2015

And the year has nearly gone! The weeks since the last entry have been filled with the familiar mixture of great events — mainly but not exclusively tragic — and my own small doings.

The great events first. On the evening of Friday 13 November, Islamist terrorists killed 130 people in Paris. Most were slaughtered while attending a rock concert. Others were killed while sitting in cafés and restaurants. The death toll could have been even higher; it emerged that three suicide bombers had tried to get into the Stade de France, where France was playing a friendly football match against Germany, but had failed and so blew themselves up outside. The grief and outrage were immense. Hollande, who is not popular, even among most Socialist supporters, rose to the occasion and spoke and acted like a statesman. A state of emergency was declared. Armed police and soldiers appeared on the streets of all major cities. The man generally thought to have masterminded the attacks was later traced to a flat in northern Paris and killed. The French government, which has been part of the coalition of forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said that it would not be deterred from its purpose.

At the beginning of the year, on 7 January, France had been similarly traumatised when Islamist terrorists killed 17 people: journalists who worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and shoppers at a Jewish supermarket. There was an outpouring of grief and national solidarity then, which I shared, although I have always thought that a part of French secular opinion, of which Charlie Hebdo is a symbol, is immature and provocative. It parades its right to freedom of speech and thought, its right to shock and offend whatever the target, as a proud badge of France’s laïcité. I’m all in favour of laïcité, and I wish we had a clearer division in the UK between church and state, but if you deliberately set out to outrage every symbol, every precious article of faith cherished by members of a religious and ethnic group the great majority of whom are not terrorists, it is likely that you will give ideological cover for the tiny minority who are. It’s true that Charlie Hebdo also satirises Judaism and Christianity; but Islam has been its main target. An unfortunate side effect is that these highly educated, secular, left-leaning intellectuals, ‘children of ’68’, inadvertently arouse the same prejudices against French citizens who are Muslims as do the hateful messages of the Front National. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became an international motto for a few days. I saw it scrawled on dustbins in Camden Town. J’étais Charlie myself, but not 100%.

On 29 August 2013, David Cameron tried to get a motion through the House of Commons authorising air strikes against Assad of Syria, who had recently used chemical weapons against his own people. The motion was defeated. After the Paris atrocity last month, the French government made it clear that it would be grateful if the UK would extend its attacks on Islamic State from Iraq (where they had been taking place since the autumn of last year, after a vote in the Commons which drew little attention) to Syria. Cameron was desperate not to repeat his 2013 defeat. There was full-scale division within Labour’s ranks, since Jeremy Corbyn is against armed intervention in foreign conflicts in almost all circumstances, and a large minority of the party, including several members of his shadow cabinet, thought that we should extend the fight against IS to Syria. In the end the vote was won comfortably, thanks in part to a magnificent speech by Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, courteously opposing his leader and combining the finest oratory with compelling argument. I absolutely agree with him (though many of my friends don’t, and nor does Helen) for the following reasons. First, the coalition is succeeding in slowing down and reversing IS’s advance. It isn’t true to say that armed intervention does no good. Secondly, IS doesn’t recognise the border between Syria and Iraq anyway; it regards it as an imperial invention, put in place after the First World War (which it is). Thirdly, the level of barbaric brutality which IS practises, mixing sadism and religious bigotry in equal measure, is unspeakable. Fourthly, how would we feel if those attacks had occurred in London, and we had appealed to the French for help, and the French had refused it? Fifthly, finally and most important, the UN Security Council voted unanimously after the Paris attacks in favour of whatever measures are necessary to defeat IS. This last reason was the clincher for me. The absence of a UN authorisation was the reason I was so utterly opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and why this is different.

Islamist fundamentalism, now a malign force throughout large parts of Africa and Asia (we should never forget, as we mourn 130 French dead, that many thousands of people in Africa are slaughtered every year in its name) is perhaps the principal challenge to enlightened human values now. But secular barbarism, as personified by Assad, comes a close second.

More optimistically: for a fortnight in December, in Paris once again (though actually in a large building on its northern edge) all the countries of the world came together and agreed to face up to the threat of planetary disaster if we do nothing to reduce — and fast — our emissions of greenhouse gases. The final resolution promised to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Centigrade, and if possible to get close to 1.5. All sorts of promises were made by which rich countries will help poorer countries to continue to develop without recourse to the carbon-generating technologies which have made the rich countries rich, and which have created the problem in the first place. It was a magnificent and moving sight: the whole world agreeing something so important that it dwarfs everything else. Now comes the hard part: sticking to the promises.

When we heard news of the Paris attacks, we were in Shrewsbury, staying with Glenda and Julian. It was David’s 60th birthday the next day. There was a lovely party in the Drapers' Hall, with about 30 people attending. David made a good speech. His close friend David Bradshaw, who’s very ill with cancer and couldn’t attend, had at my suggestion written an entertaining and touching reply, which his wife Barbara delivered.

I stayed up in Shropshire for the following week, moving across to David’s house on the Tuesday, because it was Merle Traves’s turn to celebrate her 60th birthday the next Saturday. Helen came back to London on the train. On the Thursday, I helped Ron and Yvonne James, David’s parents, to sort out their new flat in Shrewsbury, into which they had moved only the day before. They had far too much stuff, having downsized from a house in the Shropshire countryside. Some of it went to friends, including us. But most of my day was spent going backwards and forwards to the Severn Hospice charity shop. The next day we had a flat-warming, with champagne, and Ron and Yvonne took David, Tom, Julian, Mike Raleigh, Kate Myers and me out to The Armoury for dinner.

The gathering of English associations on 6 November liked what I had written, but suggested — and they were right — that a single 38,000-word document was too long to expect people to plough through. So I went away and chopped it up into six bits, which will appear as PDFs on the websites of most of the associations. The only disappointment was that the English and Media Centre, whose directors couldn’t stay for the afternoon meeting to which Mike Raleigh, Peter Dougill and I were invited, told us later that they didn’t want to be associated with the initiative. I can’t really understand why; there was no detailed explanation, no specific things they disagreed with. The email I got from one of the directors merely said, along with the usual compliments, that the Centre didn’t associate itself with things which it hadn’t itself produced. Which I thought was a bit parochial.

I’m well into the Harold Rosen work. There was a meeting of the steering group on 8 December. I had by then read or re-read most of Harold’s oeuvre, and I suggested a way of grouping the work, which the meeting approved. I’ve been using the Prontaprint shop in Camden High Street to scan writing from books, journals and off-prints, turning the scans into Word documents which I can manipulate, which makes the process much faster. In some way which I haven’t yet decided, I’m going to mingle Harold’s poems and autobiographical stories with his educational writing. The steering group agreed that the compilation should initially be a website, with the possibility of printed publication later. Mark Leicester has confirmed that he will design and build the site. I’m going to get as much as I can done in the long, dark month of January, with few distractions and not much drinking. And Betty Rosen has kindly said that she’ll pay me something.

Talking of drinking, we’ve had a merry and peaceful Christmas here, with Stephen and Theresa joining us for five days. The weather has been bizarrely and worryingly mild, with mimosa, camellia and even azalea in flower, and primrose leaves well out. On Christmas Day, as we drove down to the sea for our usual walk, we passed, not exactly a host, but certainly a posse, of golden daffodils. Tonight, again as usual, to Pont-Scorff for Saint Sylvestre. I promised myself this morning that I would learn a new French song to entertain the company, but I’ve spent so much time writing this that they’ll have to put up with the two I’ve given them before.