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Occurrences: Book Twelve

Cottesloe, Perth

18 Feb 2016

We’ve been in Perth for six days now, staying with Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor and preparing for Alix’s wedding tomorrow. Alix is our unofficial goddaughter. We flew straight here, stopping for a couple of hours only in the dream-like anomie of Dubai airport. The weather is beautiful: hot and dry, but with cooling breezes off the land or sea. This wealthy, stylish suburb has something of utopia about it. The architecture is either vernacular or modernist-tasteful, the Norfolk Island pines and eucalyptuses are inhabited by parrots of vivid colours or by crows which are somehow sleeker, more coupé than their Northern cousins, and the wide grass verges, planted with the thick, succulent buffalo grass which grows best here, are neatly trimmed. The feet sink into them.

We returned to London from Kerfontaine on 4 January. As I promised myself at the end of last year, I did get my head down and produce the compilation of Harold Rosen’s writings. It’s about 230,000 words, I think; 500 pages of A4 at Cambria 12-point. The Prontaprint shop in Camden High Street was terrific, and I’ve made good friends with Raj who runs it. 90% of Harold’s printed writings were turned into Word documents which I could then manipulate. 10% I had to bash in myself, because they were in old typescript or were photocopies where the black wasn’t intense enough to be detected by the scanner. I grouped the educational writings into three: The politics of language and English teaching; The role of language in learning; Story. I wrote an introduction, borrowing heavily from the obituary I did for The Guardian and the speech I gave at Harold’s memorial event. Between the three educational parts I’ve placed some of his autobiographical stories and poems. Everyone in the steering group seems happy with it; Betty is delighted. We have, as I’ve written before, the promise from Mark Leicester that he will make a website of it, but since he agreed to do that a couple of commercial publishers have said that they might be interested, so we’ll give them a look first.

The six PDFs called Curriculum and Assessment in English 3 to 19: a Better Plan have been completed and sent to the four sponsoring organisations, which have promised to put them on their websites and promote them. UKLA has already done so, very nicely; I haven’t looked at the other websites yet. A network called DARE (digital-arts-research-education), one of whose directors is Andrew Burn, who wrote the booklet on media for the original series, has also put the PDFs up on its site, equally elegantly. So I hope that the stuff will get about. When I’m back in England, we’ll send the things, probably in paper form, to senior civil servants in the Department for Education and to the Labour educational shadow ministers. I wanted to send them to the government ministers, but people in NATE, NAAE and UKLA seem agreed that it would be useless doing so. We’ll send them to various educational journals and to the trade unions.

And that, I suppose, will be that. It’s been two years and two months since Mike first put the idea to me; quite a chunk of time. Actually, that isn’t quite that, because the commissioning editor for education at Routledge has the ten booklets in paper and electronic form, and is thinking about whether to put them out as a combined volume.

I’m performing a poem at the wedding tomorrow. Here it is.

Epithalamion for Alix and Ben

On the occasion of their wedding, 19 February 2016

Poets have performed at weddings
Since the ancient Greeks.
But it’s still a risky moment
When the poet speaks.
Some too solemn; some too silly;
Some whose rhyming creaks.

Thank you, Ben and Alix, that you
Let this foreign poet in.
Will you take two words of counsel
From a licensed larrikin?
One is sober; one is silly;
With the sober I’ll begin.

In the art of long-term loving
Both must say their word.
It takes two for conversation;
Neither is preferred.
Be yourselves; but let the line where
Self and other meet be blurred.

That’s the sober thought; and here’s the
Irresponsible advice:
Live beyond your income (mostly);
Life is more than price.
Let your laughter be the coin you
Never sacrifice.

I have done; so, with these others,
Playing our supporting parts
To the leads you take as you
Enact the union of your hearts,
I say: may your life, now joined,
Transcend the joy in which it starts!

I wrote it in about four hours one Saturday afternoon in January, and I’m pretty pleased with it. Usually, as I’ve said many times, it’s getting an idea for a poem, any good enough idea, which is the hard part; once I have the idea, I can generally make something of it. On this occasion, the idea was ready-made, of course, and the decision — which came suddenly, about a week before writing — was to do with form. I knew that the metre would be trochaic. I thought that the stanzas would be quatrains, but I’ve ended up with six-liners. Of course the line about living beyond the newly-weds’ income I’ve used before, for David’s and Lindsay’s wedding poem, but I don’t suppose many people will notice. I’m having the thing framed in Fremantle, and I’ll go and pick it up this afternoon.

Theresa Cato was 70 on 31 January; there was a lovely lunch for family and close friends at the Blue Print Café near Tower Bridge, one of her and Stephen’s favourite restaurants. And Paul Ashton was 70 on 9 February, two days before we came away. His most recent book is a spoof of the work which, in the last Sherlock Holmes story, Dr Watson tells us that Holmes was writing (or had written?) during his retirement in Sussex. The great detective had taken up bee-keeping, and the volume is called A Practical Guide to Bee-Keeping, with some Observations on the Segregation of the Queen. Paul has written this in the form of a diary which Holmes keeps. The factual (and accurate) information about bee-keeping is interspersed with an account of Holmes’s personal life and circumstances. He has married his housekeeper, the former Mrs Hudson. He meets several famous people who (in historical fact) were in Sussex or London in the early years of the 20th century, among them Rudyard Kipling, Fritz Kreisler and Lenin. The evil Moriarty’s widow and children on two occasions attempt to lure him to his death. It’s a lovely read, with all Paul’s usual quirkiness but also attention to detail. The prose is exactly what one would have expected from an Edwardian gentleman of exceptional intellectual powers and a modern, progressive outlook. Paul has found contemporary photographs, including one or two famous ones, in which Holmes plausibly appears. I’ve edited the book, as usual, and it’s currently with two commercial publishers. There are so many Holmes enthusiasts around the world that perhaps it has a chance to be published at someone else’s expense, for a change.

I can hardly bring myself to write of the greater world, at least when I think of Syria. Our aeroplane flew across Turkey and into Iran before turning right to fly down the Persian Gulf to Dubai. It didn’t cross Syrian or Iraqi airspace, I expect for good reasons, though that would have been more direct. But the map on the TV screen in front of me named all the places which have been and are being devastated by war. Currently, Aleppo is undergoing a dreadful ordeal as Russian bombers destroy it, indiscriminately attacking civilian targets, including hospitals. Putin’s criminal uncritical support for his client Assad continues. Turkey is now joining in, firing missiles at the Syrian Kurds, whom it accuses of helping the Turkish PKK. I read this morning that a bomb in Ankara has killed at least 28 people and injured many more. Most of the victims are soldiers. Of course the violence across the region is only provoking an ever-greater refugee crisis, to which Europe, with some honourable exceptions (Germany, Sweden, Denmark), has failed to respond with anything like that generous humanitarianism which, we like to tell the world, our continent represents. We’re happy enough to throw money at Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey so that terrified people can be kept in lines of tents and given food and water, but we don’t want them, except in the tiniest numbers (again, I honour the exceptions) anywhere near us.

I think, alas, that another Cold War is coming, because Putin is provoking one. He seems to have no understanding of the possibility, the desirability, of a multi-polar world where power is shared. He is playing The Great Game as if we’re still in the 19th century, except that in our own century the mutilation, slaughter and destruction he casually unleashes is on an enormously greater scale.

My niece Tess is doing a project on Shakespeare for her baccalauréat. She asked me to make a little film about the poet’s life and work, which I did yesterday. Here’s the text.

William Shakespeare is the greatest English playwright, and one of the greatest English poets. Some would say that no one, in any language, has written more truly of the human condition. Whether or not that is true, many thousands of people during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and many millions more in the 400 years since he died, have marvelled at his wisdom, laughed with his comedy and wept at his tragedy.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the Midlands of England. His ancestors had been farmers living in the villages north and east of the town, near the ancient and mysterious Forest of Arden, the location for one of Shakespeare’s plays, As you Like It. His father John married Mary Arden, whose name shows the long family connection with the forest. John Shakespeare was a glover; he made gloves. William was John’s and Mary’s first child.

During the early part of William’s life, his parents were comfortably off, as we say in English; aisé, as the French say. John Shakespeare became an official in Stratford’s town council, an alderman, and was for a short time the town’s mayor. He also made money by buying and selling wool, although he did this illegally, because at the time only men licensed by the wool merchants’ guild, a monopoly, were legally permitted to do this.

William Shakespeare went first to a petty school (petty as in petit, little school, a school for the young), where he learnt to read and write. At about the age of seven he went to the town’s grammar school. There he was taught Latin and Greek, some mathematics, and the ancient art of rhetoric, or how to write persuasively and well. He read widely, history books and books of legends and fables, and the Latin and Greek classics, sometimes in the original, most often in English translations.

It seems that Shakespeare’s childhood was happy. He loved the busy town, with its fairs and markets, and especially the troupes of travelling actors who came to perform. He loved also the countryside, which came right up to the edge of the town; he could be in the country in a few minutes. Shakespeare’s plays are full of the language of farming, of the passage of the seasons, of flowers and birds and animals. We can hear his familiarity with the local dialect in some of the words he used: ‘chimney sweepers’ was the Warwickshire phrase for the balls of seeds left on dandelion stalks (pisse-en-lits) after the flowers had gone.

When Shakespeare was 18, he met and fell in love with a woman called Anne Hathaway. She lived in a village a short walk from the town. She was eight years older than him. He visited her often, and the inevitable happened: she became pregnant. So the couple had to get married in a hurry, which they did at the end of November 1582. In May of the following year, their daughter Susanna was born. Now Shakespeare, his wife and their daughter lived in the house in Stratford with his parents and his brothers and sisters.

By this time, William’s father’s fortunes were declining. It seemed that the glove-maker’s trade wasn’t doing so well. John was prosecuted for his illegal dealings in wool. And there was another problem.

50 years previously, in the time of King Henry VIII, England had left the Catholic church. This was mainly because Henry had become bored with his first wife and had wanted to marry another. But he could not get a divorce unless the pope permitted him to do so. The pope refused. So Henry declared himself to be the head of the church in England instead of the pope. He gave himself permission to divorce his first wife and marry his second. (He went on to have six wives in total; he was a dreadful and brutal man.) The new, Protestant Church of England was born. At the same time, Protestant ideas were entering England from Europe, particularly influenced by the German preacher and writer Martin Luther.

For the rest of the sixteenth century, there were terrible conflicts in England between Protestantism and Catholicism, with brutal persecutions, tortures and executions committed on both sides. John Shakespeare and his family were sympathetic to the old Catholic religion. John often refused to go to church on Sundays, where the new Protestant form of worship was compulsory. This got him into trouble with the authorities.

So the 18-year-old William had a father who was much poorer than he had been, and he had a wife and baby daughter. He already knew that he had talent as a writer. He loved the theatre. What was he to do to earn his living?

We don’t know what happened to William between 1582 and 1592, when he appears in London as an already successful writer. At some time during those ten years, perhaps quite early, he went to London to begin his apprenticeship in the theatre.

London was a boom town. Already about 200,000 people lived there. Many had only recently arrived from the countryside, some driven by ambition, like William, some by desperate poverty. When William arrived, there were already several groups of actors playing during the afternoons in different theatres to enthusiastic audiences.

William worked for three or four of these different companies. Eventually he settled with a company called The Chamberlain’s Men. Their patron was the Lord Chamberlain, a powerful and wealthy man and an important political figure in the government of Queen Elizabeth.

Most of William’s early plays were histories. They told the stories of previous kings of England: Henry VI, Henry IV and Richard III. But he was a brilliant comic writer too; the character of Falstaff, who appears in the two plays about Henry IV, in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in the later Henry V, is one of his greatest comic creations. He could do tragedy too: he wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career.

The Chamberlain’s Men performed most of the plays in a theatre simply called The Theatre. It was at Shoreditch, north of the City of London, outside the walls.

These were dangerous times. The terrible bubonic plague came often to the city, killing thousands of people. When the plague came, the theatres were closed. The city authorities mainly tolerated the theatres, but did not approve of them; they thought that they encouraged sedition (disloyalty to the state) and vice (sexual misbehaviour). And The Chamberlain’s Men had a problem with their landlord, who wanted to use the land on which The Theatre stood for other purposes, and who claimed, wrongly, that he could keep the building for himself.

So one night at the end of 1598, the company came and dismantled the whole theatre, wooden piece by wooden piece, and removed it to the other side of the River Thames, where they had leased a piece of land. Crossing the river was made easier because the winter was so cold that the water had frozen over; the men could drag the pieces of the building on carts across the ice. During the next months, a new theatre was built in the district of Southwark. It was called The Globe. It was magnificent. About 3,000 people could watch a play there, most standing, some sitting. In London now there is a copy of The Globe, where Shakespeare’s plays are still performed. It gives a good idea of the original, although it is smaller.

Now Shakespeare had security and financial success. More great plays, comedies, tragedies and histories, were written for and performed at The Globe: Henry V, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Richard II, Hamlet. The Chamberlain’s Men also regularly performed for Queen Elizabeth and her court at one of her palaces in the days after Christmas. When the queen died in 1603 and King James came to the throne, the Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men and continued to perform for the sovereign. In the early years of the seventeenth century Shakespeare wrote the great tragedies King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, which between them explore the deepest truths about human nature and society. And towards the end of his writing career Shakespeare wrote plays which were more like fables, ‘old tales’ as he called them: the two best are The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays which carry his name, and collaborated with other writers on some others. He got the stories of his plays from his wide reading. He also wrote a series of 154 sonnets, about the triangular love affair between himself, a younger man who was a nobleman, and a dark-skinned married woman. He wrote other poems, including the very popular Venus and Adonis.

He returned to Stratford from time to time to see his family, probably during the season of Lent, when the theatres were closed for religious reasons. His wife Anne bore him twins in 1585, a boy called Hamnet and a girl called Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at the age of eleven, a tragic loss which affected Shakespeare deeply.

Shakespeare was famous in his lifetime, and he made money as a writer, an actor and a shareholder in his theatre company. Near the end of his life, he left London and returned to Stratford, where he died on 23 April 1616, 400 years ago. On 23 April 2014, my niece Tess and I saw the first collected edition of his plays and poems, called the First Folio and put together by his friends and colleagues after his death, in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. His friend and rival in the theatre, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, described his genius well: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time.’

I knew most of this already, but I read Michael Wood’s excellent In Search of Shakespeare to refresh my memory. The book also told me lots of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know, for instance, that Shakespeare collaborated with four other writers on a play about Sir Thomas More. The parts he wrote include a scene where, to quote Wood: ‘More faces the mob on the so-called “Ill May Day” of 1511, when London was convulsed by an anti-immigrant riot: the kind of thing still grimly familiar in our own time’. Speaking up for the immigrants, More declares (Wood has modernised the spelling):

‘imagine that you see the wretched strangers
their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation
and that you sit as kings in your desires
authority quite silenced by your brawl
and you in ruff of your opinions clothed
what have you got? I’ll tell you, you had taught
how insolence and strong hand should prevail
how order should be quelled, and by this pattern
not one of you should live an aged man
for other ruffians as their fancies wrought
with self same hand self reasons and self right
would shark on you and men like ravenous fishes
would feed on one another’

More ‘asks the mob to consider where they would go if they were in the strangers’ shoes, what they would do if they were thrown out of England’:

‘Why you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you…
…What would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers case,
And this your mountainish inhumanity’

Sir Thomas More remained a draft — the play was never staged.’ But mobs in Germany and elsewhere do ‘whet their detested knives against [the immigrants’] throats’, although to be literal they prefer to burn down their hostels. In other details — ‘the wretched strangers / their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage / plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation’ — the contemporary analogy is pretty much exact.

Kalbarri, Western Australia

26 Feb 2016

The wedding went off splendidly. The ceremony was held in a park overlooking the Swan River, and conducted by a cheery civil celebrant called Wally. Alix arrived escorted by eight bridesmaids, two page boys, three flower girls, a matron of honour, and her father. Waiting for her were Ben, his best man and three groomsmen, these roles fulfilled by his three brothers and one brother-in-law. The bride wore an exquisite white gown like the bend of a swan’s neck, clinging to her shoulders. It had been purchased in New York at Christmas 2014 (these things need planning). Even the discount offered on it had come to many hundreds of dollars. Ben had a sharp grey suit in dull sheen, white shirt, white tie. The bridesmaids were in black dresses, all different, all expensive. The young woman who stood closest to me (we were in the front row of seats, me being a performer) had a figure-hugging number with square holes down both sides from thigh to knee, which particularly took my attention. The matron of honour (the lovely Lucy, Alix’s friend since they were two) wore a dark patterned dress, simultaneously matronly (that is, not strikingly provocative) but elegant, restrained and in control. The groomsmen and best man had identical dark suits, white shirts, scarlet ties, so that they looked like a close-harmony evangelical combo from the 1950s (the family is Catholic). The page boys had shorts, white shirts, bow ties and red espadrilles. The flower girls were all flowers.

When Wally asked aloud, ‘Who gives this woman to be married to this man?’ Bronwyn and Stephen together replied, ‘We do.’ The page boys then took the rings to the couple, to be told by Ben in a whisper that they had got them the wrong way round. Apparently they were right and he was confused.

My poem was the concluding event of the formalities, after the signing of the registers. I gave it the full treatment, and people were complimentary afterwards. Then we (that is, about 150 of us) drank champagne before climbing into coaches which took us on an air-conditioned tour of some of the more beautiful parts of Perth before arriving at a smart restaurant in the city. The building (mid-19th century) had been the residence of the Anglican bishop of Perth. Its period elegance is now overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers owned by mining and accountancy firms. More champagne on the lawn at the back of the building, and then the staged arrival of the wedding party, announced over the PA, concluding with ‘…and now, will you please welcome the new Mr and Mrs Goodwin’. Applause. Move to the lawn in front of the building, where we sat down to dinner, beginning with Turkish mezedes (Alix and Ben had met on a boat in Turkey) which were so generous that it was difficult to do justice to the main course. Speeches while we ate, of which the best was Lucy’s, a brilliant memoir of her friendship with Alix, full of affectionate irony about Alix’s tendency to drama and fantasy as against Lucy’s more literal view of the world. (A character called Mrs Clark was Alix’s imaginary friend for a period during her childhood. A place had to be laid for her at dinner, and she always accompanied the girls on holidays and trips to the beach. Her needs and even her opinions were always consulted, and when these contradicted those of Alix’s parents, the latter were understandably irritated. Stephen told me that he once said, ‘Fuck Mrs Clark’ to Bronwyn when their child was out of earshot.)

Then vigorous dancing, to a live band which had been told to play plenty of numbers from the 60s and 70s so that oldies could participate. The first dance, of course, was for the blissful couple alone. Bronwyn and Stephen then joined them; then Ben’s family. (His mother and father, alas, have died.) Luckily from the point of view of digestion, the desserts were on a trolley at the side, only to be approached after exercise had made space for them.

Before all this, on the morning of the great day, there had been complex final preparations for the female participants in the matter of make-up and hair. Bronwyn’s and Stephen’s neighbour Carole had kindly allowed her house to be used for the purpose. There was an old-fashioned, semi-secretive, slightly Biblical sense emanating from the house: the bride was being ‘prepared for her husband’. Helen had helped Alix to design a timetable for first hair then make-up for the bridesmaids, matron of honour, mother of the bride, and the bride herself. (Bronwyn came back from her session and immediately removed most of the products that had been so carefully and expensively applied to her face.) There was even a uniform for this pretend-virginal gathering: white shirts hanging loose over white slacks or skirts. Little anxieties fluttered in and around the proceedings. Émilie, Alix’s French friend, whom we remember fondly from the time when, as a 17-year-old, Alix spent six months living with a French family, by a remarkable coincidence only a few kilometres from Kerfontaine, and attended lycée in Hennebont, came running in from next door to ask where Stephen was. ‘He’s down at the reception venue,’ I said, ‘getting things ready.’ ‘Oh, Alix is so worried,’ said Émilie, ‘ because of the wind. What will happen to her veil?’ I mildly told her that although fathers have remarkable powers, control over the elements is not one of them. I added that, as she surely knew, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson were the two greatest French photographers of the twentieth century, that both had photographed brides whose veils stood out horizontally from their heads in stiff wind, and that these photos were among the most iconic and romantic images of French life in the last century. (I may have made some of this up; I’m pretty sure that at least one of the two masters did publish such a photograph.) Émilie seemed impressed by the information, and took it back to the bride. In the event, Alix’s veil did blow out behind her, though not fully horizontally, and Lucy had the good sense and aesthetic delicacy not to control it too severely. The song accompanying the bride’s approach to the ceremony was Donovan’s ‘Ah, but I might as well try to catch the wind,’ and I’ve no idea whether or not it had been chosen once the predicted wind speed and direction for the day had been checked on smartphones.

The vestals had ordered lunch to be carried into the sanctuary, and I was, I think, the only male who crossed the threshold. I may have broken a taboo, but nothing was said. The scene was that of a 17th-century painting, where the artist teasingly shows you a group from one side, while inviting you to imagine what it might look like from the other. Alix’s naked back was toward me, and at her face the make-up artist worked with intense seriousness and precision, while attendants fluttered. I said they looked like a Rembrandt, and retired. (I may have made up that comparison too.)

Anyway, it was all great, and everyone said what a wonderful occasion it had been. The following day there was a ‘recovery lunch’, where large quantities of restorative protein were consumed. And the day after that I took the newly-weds to the airport, whence they flew to Bali for their honeymoon.

Two days after that, Helen and I rented a car and drove northwards. On our first day we took the beautiful coast road to Geraldton, stopping to admire the Pinnacles Desert just south of Cervantes. It’s an extraordinary area of bright yellow sand, quite limited in extent, dotted with thousands of pointed limestone rocks, most of my height or shorter, some up to four metres tall. No one is quite sure what geological process has produced this phenomenon over many millennia: perhaps the rocks are the remains of tree trunks calcified by crushed sea shells; more likely they are the result of a process whereby the crushed sea shells slowly mixed with the silica of land sand, and as the ground all around was eroded, rain water washing on the crushed sea shells formed a tougher, cement-like exterior to structures gradually exposed by the descending land. But the information centre was honest enough to admit that ‘experts are in doubt’.

Yesterday morning we drove up to the charming small town of Northampton, where we were fortunate enough to come upon the Northampton Ladies’ Craft Circle at work (Thursday mornings 9 to 12). We bought two pots of chutney and an exquisite, delicate crocheted doily made by one of the ladies there. In the Little Pickles Café we had better cappuccino than I had been able to find in the whole of Perth, as I told the young woman. Then to the coast at Port Gregory, where we stopped to eat Little Pickles’s excellent frittata by the sea, and admired the astonishing Hutt Lagoon, otherwise known as the pink lake, because it contains a vivid pink alga which is used as a food colouring. (I wasn’t sure whether ‘algae’ is the plural of the rarer ‘alga’. Wikipedia tells me it is; ‘alga’ is the Latin for seaweed.) The lake also contains a tiny shrimp which is harvested and fed to farmed prawns. The intense blue of the sky, the brilliant white of the salt pans in those parts of the lagoon where the water had dried or been drained off, and the pink-to-purple colour of the water, made dazzling contrasts. Then up to this pretty seaside town.

Today has been most wonderful, because we have had not one but two of the most impressive experiences of the natural beauty of the world that I have ever enjoyed. We rose early this morning, and drove on empty roads through the thick bush of the Kalbarri National Park to the gorges of the Murchison River. This is not the tourist season. It was very hot: about 40 degrees by ten o’clock. We visited four lookout points where we gazed in awe at the depth and width of the gorges, at the bottom of which were the remaining pools and trickles of the river at the end of this dry summer. The endless bush rose to the horizon. Silence, and more silence. Eagles circled. There was no one but us. One kangaroo moved in the bush a few yards from us, and there were vivid birds. I don’t suppose, even if I see the Grand Canyon one day, that I shall ever be as impressed by wild beauty as I was this morning. And the fact that we were alone (at our fourth lookout, a solitary man from the Parks and Wildlife Department, doing his job, wished us good day) gave the experience a sense that this was the Garden of Eden and we were Adam and Eve. We kept our clothes on, of course; and the air-conditioning in the car was effective.

Back to Kalbarri for an excellent bowl of tomato soup in the Kalbarri Motor Hotel, and then on to the second wonder: the coastal cliffs. Again, we visited four or five lookouts, and marvelled at the magnificence of the precipitous cliffs, their pink and grey strata eroded over immense periods of geological time, the waves on this calm day purling and falling onto inaccessible little beaches at their base, and dolphins playing a couple of hundred metres out to sea.

Yallingup, Western Australia

5 Mar 2016

The day after the last entry, we completed a circle, driving back through the Kalbarri National Park to Northampton — more excellent coffee and a good chat with the owner, who was from Horsham in Sussex and had only been out here four years, and loved it — then back to Geraldton, then Greenhough just south of there, where we visited the remains of an early (mid-nineteenth century) European settlement, which brought out in me the mixture of feelings I’ve always had about ‘pioneer’ communities: admiration for their toughness and determination, their ability to improvise in the most hostile of conditions; but despair at the behaviour of invaders who, equipped with the absolute certainty of an imperialist mind-set backed up by the Christian religion, simply stole huge tracts of land and punished any efforts by the indigenous people to protest at this theft. The settlement comprised the obligatory two churches, a school (non-denominational), another school for Catholic girls, a hall for dances and wedding receptions and other social functions, the Catholic priest’s house (I’m not sure where the Anglican one lived), the Road Board meeting place (the Road Board was the precursor of local government), a general store and the building comprising the police station, local magistrate’s court and jail. There were five cells in the jail: four were for white prisoners, who had individual accommodation; the fifth, which was larger, was for Aboriginals, who were thrown in together and chained to an iron bar which is still there.

On we drove to Dongara, where we spent our last night. On the Sunday, we took an inland route through the vast, empty wheat-growing area of the state, past huge stubble fields awaiting the spring and the plough, and back to Perth. Alix and Ben returned from Bali the same day, and two days after that they left for Melbourne, to begin their new life, she as a neuro-psychiatrist specialising in sleep disorders, he to study for a degree in youth work. And the day after that Stephen, Bronwyn, Helen and I came down here, to the Margaret River area in the south-west of the state: a wine-growing region, more comfortable and more privileged than further north, cooler in summer (though hot enough for me as I write) and equally beautiful. Carole, the neighbour about whom I wrote last time, has kindly lent us her beautiful holiday house here. It looks down over Yallingup to the ocean. The great rollers form, rise and break. From the height where I sit, groups of surfers waiting, waiting, at last mounting a wave, falling off, paddling out again to wait for the next suitable wave, doing this again and again from morning to night, look in their black wet suits like water boatmen on a stream.

We have enjoyed extravagant dinners, wonderful swimming in clear water with transparent little fish darting between the reefs, a wine-tasting yesterday at Moss Wood, one of the most famous vineyards in Australia (I first visited and tasted 21 years ago), and a trip down to Augusta through forests of karri trees — great naked peach-coloured trunks rising in their hundreds high in the air. We went on from Augusta the few kilometres to Cape Leeuwin, the most south-westerly point of mainland Australia, where the Indian meets the Southern Ocean. Before the tall white lighthouse was built in 1895, there had been many shipwrecks around this corner of the continent. Since then, only one. The iron frame on which the light and its glass are mounted was constructed in Shropshire and Staffordshire; the glass itself was made in Birmingham.

Camden Town

8 May 2016

The Australian trip finished amid great pleasure and indulgence. We were back in the English spring on 11 March. Since then, I’ve been solidly on English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19, because Alison Foyle, the commissioning editor at Routledge, did write on 24 March to say yes, she would like to publish a combined volume of the ten booklets. Very good news. The only problem has been that Alison wants the book to be about 100,000 words, and the length of the ten booklets together is about 250,000. I’ve done my best, but the thing is still about 130,000 words. I finished the job yesterday, and I’m waiting for comments from Angela Goddard and Andrew Burn, who wrote two of the chapters, and from Mike Raleigh and Peter Dougill. (Peter Traves, who wrote one of the chapters, has already written to say he likes what I’ve done.) When I have comments from the others, I’ll send it to Alison, hoping (but not expecting) that she can stretch a point on the length. The trouble with shortening it further is that it would sometimes fall back on assertions which, though true, aren’t argued through as they should be.

Alison said in March that she would pass the Harold Rosen book to her colleague Heidi Lee, who commissions monographs, and who would reply ‘shortly’. I decided this morning that six weeks was a generous definition of ‘shortly’, so I rang. Heidi is out of the office today. I wrote, and I’ll ring again tomorrow. I don’t have high hopes that Routledge will take it, but you never know. We have a back-up: the Institute of Education’s own press, which would be appropriate given Harold’s long career there. We tried Routledge first because of its marketing reach across the English-speaking world. Andrew Burn, who works at the Institute, will introduce me to the boss of the Institute press if Routledge says no. Should this back-up fail too, we’ll go to the original plan, which is for Mark Leicester to turn the thing into a website, paid for by Betty.

I’ve had two slight setbacks to do with my health. Soon after returning from Australia, I woke up one morning with a swollen and tender right foot and calf. I did nothing for two days, but then went to the doctor, wondering whether I might have a deep vein thrombosis as a result of spending many hours on an aeroplane. (DVTs are popularly called ‘economy-class syndrome’. We were travelling business class, with proper full-length beds, but I suppose still not immune.) The doctor thought I might have gout, or an infection, or indeed a DVT. ‘Go to A and E at UCH,’ he said. I went. Triage; blood test; doctor. He thought it indeed likely that I had a DVT. Unfortunately, the hospital’s ultrasound machines don’t work on the weekends (this was Saturday afternoon) so I was injected in the belly with a blood thinner and told to come back the next day for another shot. I did this. On the Monday morning, I was there early, and at about 10.30 I had an ultrasound. No, I didn’t have a DVT (great relief); I had something called a Baker’s cyst at the back of my knee. A nuisance, but harmless. The cyst was pressing on the vein coming up from my foot, causing the swelling and tenderness. It would probably go away by itself. I went back for a check-up two weeks later, by which time the swelling had almost disappeared, and was discharged. Happy ending to first setback.

Then, on the morning of 28 April, I woke up with a strange gauzy occlusion over the upper right quartile of my right eye. It remained there all morning, so I rang my optician, Boots in Oxford Street, and was offered an appointment immediately. I went down there. Tests. The top person told me that there was something behind my eye, in the pathway of nerves to the brain. I could tell that she was concerned. She very sweetly pressed a £10 note into my hand and told me to go in a cab to the Western Eye Hospital immediately, to be seen as an emergency. I did as I was told. More tests. The doctor there thought that I had probably had a stroke. He rang the stroke unit at UCH. ‘Go there immediately. They’re expecting you.’ I walked along the Marylebone Road in the rush hour. Brief wait in A and E; a doctor came down from the stroke unit and accompanied me up there. More tests, manual this time, checking my physical strength. All fine. CT scan at about nine o’clock. A different doctor, on night duty, looked at the pictures and said yes, there was a weak signal coming from the place in my brain (left posterior) which controls sight in the right eye. An MRI would confirm this the next day.

I stayed in overnight. At 8.30 a porter came and took me down to the MRI machine. It was less claustrophobic than the last time, ten years ago, when I had an MRI to look at my back. There’s a periscope with a camera so you can see the staff controlling the thing. Two hours later, back in the ward, the top stroke doctor, Dr Perry, accompanied by three other doctors and a nurse, came to tell me that there was or had been a small blood clot in the suspected place. The cause was unclear. I had told the doctors the previous night about my brother’s and my father’s strokes. Somewhat to my relief, Dr Perry said that there isn’t much genetic connection between haemorrhagic strokes (bleeds), of the sort which killed my father, and ischaemic strokes (blockages). (I wrongly thought at the time that my brother’s stroke had been haemorrhagic too. He has since told me that it was ischaemic, so my relief at the time was only partly justified.) I was to start taking a strong aspirin every morning and a strong statin every night. After a fortnight the aspirin would be replaced by another blood-thinning drug. I’m doing this. I’m also wearing a heart monitor for a week (two days to go), to see if there’s any irregularity in the heart which might have sent a clot to the brain. I’m seeing Dr Perry again on 27 May.

I feel exactly the same as I did before the stroke. And I think, trying not to kid myself, that the eyesight is a bit better.  If the field of vision goes from 9 to 3 on a clock, my vision is perfect between 9 and 1, then there is occlusion between 1 and 2, but then there is clarity again between 2 and 3.

The one big potential change in my life could be to do with driving. I’m not allowed to drive for a month from the day of the stroke. That takes me to the end of this month. Then I have to wait for an appointment with a specialist eye doctor, who will among other things assess my competence to drive. On Friday I had a letter offering me an appointment on 6 July. We’re in Italy then. I rang this morning to see whether I could get something in June. No, fully booked. I changed the appointment to 20 July. It may be that I’ll have to fly back from Marseille, where we could stay after Rodellosso, leaving Helen there for a couple of days. It may be that we’ll have to rely on public transport and other people’s driving in the meantime. Helen, who hasn’t driven for ten years because the Freelander is too big and cumbersome for her, isn’t confident about driving on the continent. If I really am permanently prevented from driving, we’ll have to get a smaller car which she will feel comfortable with. So there’s much uncertainty to live with for the time being.

Overall, I’m terribly grateful that it was such a minor stroke, that almost all my functions seem to be as good as before, and that I’m living close to the best hospitals in the world.

The two medical incidents have meant that two brief foreign trips had to be cancelled. We were going to Antwerp to visit André and Catherine, friends whom we’ve met at Rodellosso, when I had the DVT that wasn’t. And we were going to Kerfontaine this last weekend for Jean’s and Annick’s golden wedding anniversary. Both called off. The weekend after next, all being well, we will go to Northern Ireland for the wedding of Nicky, Helen’s nephew, to his bride Debbie, who’s a nurse at Great Ormond Street.

23 April was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Andrew Bannerman and I did a little show about Shakespeare’s sonnets. We chose the sonnets together, and I wrote the linking passages. I’ve put the script on the website.

Last Thursday there were various elections all over the UK. I was most concerned with the election for mayor of London. I helped a bit locally, and I’m very pleased that our candidate, Sadiq Khan, won handsomely, after an excellent, principled, broadly based campaign, focusing on the things that matter to Londoners, notably affordable housing and efficient public transport. The Conservative campaign was disgusting. It tried to smear Khan, a Muslim, by association with Islamist extremism. It tried to divide communities originating in the sub-continent from each other: it sent letters to families with Hindu-looking names, for example, saying that Khan planned a special tax on jewellery; presumably the authors thought that Hindus all stash their wealth in gold and diamonds under their beds. The Prime Minister, to his shame, joined in at PMQs in the House of Commons, and so did other members of the cabinet. The thing backfired spectacularly, I’m glad to say, and now there is much recrimination about it in Tory ranks.

Elsewhere, Labour’s fortunes were much more mixed. We did win the mayoralty of Bristol, which in its way is as significant as Khan’s victory. The new mayor of Bristol is Marvin Rees, the son of a Jamaican father and an English mother. He’s now in charge of a city whose historical wealth derives principally from the slave trade. Labour had a disastrous day in Scotland, and is now not even the official opposition in the new Scottish Parliament; the Tories have claimed that, after an attractive campaign — in stark contrast to that in London — led by Ruth Davidson, an eloquent, friendly, jolly, openly gay woman, who claimed many of the votes of that substantial portion of the Scottish electorate which wishes to remain in the UK. Labour’s association with the Tories during the 2014 referendum has caused deep damage. As I’ve written before, there’s anger and a sense of betrayal on the part of Scottish people who’ve voted Labour for generations. They couldn’t understand what their own party was doing marching under the same flag with the Conservatives; and Labour now can’t quite explain its position on independence or further devolution.

The party lost a bit of ground in Wales, but is still the dominant force there and will govern in the Welsh Assembly. In the local elections in England, Labour ‘hung on’, as Jeremy Corbyn put it. Overall, the results give no great hope that Labour will be in a position to challenge for power in four years’ time. With certain exceptions (Sadiq Khan prominent among them), the big figures in the party at the moment are not people who know how to reach out beyond Labour’s core support to the centrist wedge of the electorate which actually decides elections. And we continue to inflict dreadful wounds on ourselves. Ken Livingstone disgraced himself two weeks ago by claiming that Hitler had been a Zionist until ‘he went mad and murdered six million Jews’. It was a smug, attention-seeking, grotesque perversion of the facts, which caused outrage. It is true that Hitler, in his hatred of Judaism, was considering all sorts of ways of ridding Germany of Jews in the early 1930s, including sending them off to other countries. Palestine and Madagascar were possibilities. He didn’t ‘go mad’ after that. He hated Jews all his adult life, as Mein Kampf, published in 1925, shows. Livingstone has stuck to his story nonetheless. Corbyn has had to suspend his close ally from the party. I hope Livingstone is expelled. It is as if he wilfully wishes to damage Labour. The difference between robust criticism of Israel’s actions in its conflict with the Palestinians and straightforward anti-semitism is obvious to me. Apparently it isn’t to Livingstone.

Recently, I’ve read 1812 — Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski; Agincourt by Juliet Barker; Joan of Arc by Helen Castor; and Ann Thwaite’s biography of Edmund Gosse. All excellent. 1812 chimed with the translation of Victor Hugo’s poem about the retreat which I did a few years ago. Agincourt and Joan of Arc were a pair, and I understood much more about the civil strife in France which allowed the unlikely English victory. Apart from being disgusted but not surprised by the sadistic self-righteousness of the theologians who condemned Joan to burn, I found myself enraged that the dauphin and his people made no attempt to ransom her once she was captured. The ransoming of important prisoners was standard practice at the time. Having used her when she was an inspiration, the dauphin’s party abandoned her to her fate as an embarrassment once Charles became king. I read Ann Thwaite’s biography of Philip Henry Gosse, Edmund’s father, a few years ago. It was Lucy, Ann’s daughter, whom I know from our time together at Teachers TV, who told me that her mother had written the biography of the son before that of the father. I came across the book in a second-hand bookshop at Cley in Norfolk when we were staying with Adam and Hazel.

Jean-Paul Prioux looks after our garden in France. One Saturday evening in the late summer of 2014, his wife Christine came to see us by herself. She had ‘some news’ to tell us. The news was that she had just discovered that she is a quarter English. She was born in Switzerland, and has known from a young age that she was adopted, her mother having died when Christine was six months old. She had a happy childhood, and loved her adoptive parents. She knew nothing about her biological family, and made no enquiries. Then, a few weeks before coming to see us, she had a phone call from a Swiss lawyer telling her of a small inheritance she was to receive from a biological aunt who had recently died. This information led her to her biological cousin, the aunt’s daughter. Through this source, many more details came to her, notably the fact that her maternal grandfather had gone to South Bank, Middlesbrough in the late 19th century, to work as a teacher in a Swiss school, Christine thought. After a few years, he had met and married an English girl. They had four children at the time of the First World War. Then the family departed to Switzerland, where more children were born, including Christine’s mother. The grandfather then died, and the grandmother married again and had yet more children, finally dying at the age of 53 having given birth, I think, to eleven offspring.

Christine wanted to find out more about her grandparents’ time in South Bank. I contacted Teesside Archives, who were very helpful. As a result of their researches, we know where the grandfather lived as a bachelor at the time of the 1911 census, and where the grandmother lived on the same day (in a house in the next street). We know where two of the first four children were baptised, and where the family lived at the time of the baptisms in 1916 and 1918. The grandfather’s profession on the census form and the baptismal certificates made no reference to teaching; he was always described as a metal slinger in the blast furnaces of the iron and steel works at South Bank, then working at full throttle and the main employer in the district.

I offered to visit South Bank with Jean-Paul and Christine. They flew to Southend from Rennes on 9 April. We had a long drive, mostly in pouring rain, up to the village of Romaldkirk in County Durham, where the Rose and Crown had been recommended to me by Julian Walton. The next day, a Sunday and a beautiful day, we drove around the magnificent Pennines in the spring, with daffodils and lambs everywhere. We visited the waterfall at High Force. Christine told me as we were standing there that her mother had been called Helen, like my Helen. I don’t know why she chose that moment to tell me, but I thought it acceptable then to ask about the circumstances of her birth and her mother’s death.

Christine’s mother had had a brief encounter with an older married man with three children. People knew he was Christine’s father. She was given up for adoption when she was born, and was being fostered at the time of the mother’s death. The mother had gone out in a boat on Lake Geneva with a man (not the father). The man returned several hours later in a state of apparent distress, saying that Helen had committed suicide by throwing herself into the water, and that he had not been able to drag her back into the boat despite his best efforts. The story was believed, was published in the local papers, and was accepted at the inquest. No body was ever found.

Christine has three theories about what happened. The first, the official story, she thinks unlikely. The second is that the man tried to take sexual advantage of Helen, that there was a struggle in the boat as a result of which she fell overboard, and that the man either tried and failed to save her or, worse, that he deliberately left her to drown, not wishing her to make accusations later about his behaviour. The third, which Christine thinks is the most likely, is that Helen didn’t die at all. She secretly agreed with the man that he would row her across to the French shore of the lake, where she would leave him and begin a new life with a new identity in a freer country. This was in the summer of 1945, when millions of displaced people were crossing Europe, trying to get back to places where they had lived before the catastrophe, or fleeing persecution, or simply wanting to hide. She could have merged into the crowd, and have escaped the shame which attended her as the mother of an illegitimate child.

I asked Christine why she thought the third hypothesis the most likely. Her only answer was that it was very strange that no body was found. I agreed with her about this, but I think perhaps that she likes to hope that her mother lived on, more happily, and that she could even still be alive, in her nineties, somewhere in France.

The next day, and the day after that, we went to South Bank. The contrast between the picture-postcard village in the Durham Pennines and a district just to the east of Middlesbrough suffering acute depression and deprivation was shocking. The iron and steel works by the river have either closed, or are closing, or are under threat. Most of the small shops and the pubs are boarded up. The A66, a four-lane highway, barges through South Bank, cutting it off from the riverside. There was ugliness and deep evident poverty everywhere. Most of the little streets on my 1911 map, kindly provided by Teesside Archives, no longer exist. North Street, where the grandfather lived in 1911, is now the car park for an Asda supermarket. Supermarket trolleys, crammed with rubbish, lay on their sides in meaningless empty spaces where streets had once been. A teenage girl, working as a prostitute, dressed in a cheap shell suit and trainers, looked at me hopelessly as she got into a man’s car after a brief conversation once he had tooted her.

All the people we spoke to were dignified and courteous. We went to the church where the baptisms had taken place: Anglo-Catholic St James, built in 1895. (There was also a Roman Catholic church, and chapels of several non-conformist denominations, all once meeting the different spiritual needs of the people drawn to South Bank by iron and steel. Some of the chapel buildings were now deconsecrated and used for secular purposes.) St James was locked, as we had expected on a Monday, but there were two ladies in the parish room at the back who welcomed us in once I explained our purpose. The church was beautifully maintained, the wood and brass all polished, and Christine was able to take photographs of the font where at least two, and probably four, of her uncles and aunts had been baptised, with her grandparents standing beside.

One of the ladies had worked in the steel works all her life, ‘on the computer side’, and had seen them go from private to nationalised to privatised to almost closed. We were visiting just as the owners of Tata Steel were saying that they wanted to sell the whole of their steel operation in the UK. Two weeks previously I had driven past Port Talbot, on my way to the funeral of Lindsay’s brother in Pembrokeshire. Also at the time The Guardian and other news providers were publishing the leaked ‘Panama Papers’, containing revelations about the vast sums of money squirreled away in tax havens by ultra-rich companies and individuals. The Prime Minister’s father had run a company helping clients to do this; Cameron had had shares in the company, which he had sold just before becoming Prime Minister.

Looking across South Bank, I thought — not for the first time — of the warnings from economists like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz about the dangers of a world of increasing inequality; but I don’t think I had ever felt the intensity of the injustice committed against working people whose jobs are destroyed in the name of globalisation and who are offered little in return, when the lords of the earth can enrich themselves even further by means sometimes legal but immoral, sometimes illegal and immoral.

It was an important trip for Christine, at the age of 71, and she and Jean-Paul were grateful for what I had done for them. The only unsolved mystery concerned her grandfather’s profession. Christine’s cousin had been sure that he had gone to England as a teacher, or at least with the intention of teaching. I had spotted that the family with whom he was lodging in 1911 was German. Had they lived just across the border from the German Swiss town from which he had come, perhaps having known him beforehand? Had they asked him to come to England to teach their children, to keep up their German? Perhaps that was just a bit of pocket money, and the grandfather had also needed a proper job. Christine will never know; but she knows a lot more about a part of her origins than she did. (I wondered, incidentally, what had happened to that German family in England after August 1914.)

Camden Town

7 Jun 2016

In response to my phone call and email, Heidi Lee at Routledge wrote to say no to the Harold Rosen book; or rather she said that she would only consider it if I greatly shortened it and removed Harold’s stories and poems, neither of which I was prepared to do. I wasn’t surprised, but I was irritated that, having apparently made the decision very quickly in March, and having communicated the decision to Alison Foyle, the commissioning editor of my other book, she hadn’t bothered to tell me; and that Alison hadn’t got round to telling me since. I fired off an angry email to both of them, not at all questioning the decision itself, but the laziness of the procedures for communicating it to me. Alison replied with a handsome apology, taking all the blame on herself, and we kissed and made up.

I then activated plan B, with the Institute of Education Press. Andrew Burn arranged a meeting with Nicky Platt, the publishing director, on Thursday 19 May at 4 o’clock. I had sent the book electronically to Nicky and to Andrew a week earlier. When I went in, she had a hard copy with her, which she’d obviously read pretty thoroughly, and she said yes! We shook hands. She didn’t ask for any changes; and she actively likes the mixture of educational writing, stories and poems. Wonderful. The book will be published in paperback in November or next March, with electronic publication about a month after that. We’ll have a launch, which will be combined with a Harold Rosen memorial lecture, which I’ll give. I had already agreed with Andrew some time last year that I’d do one, and this will be the perfect opportunity to promote the book.

Betty Rosen was in Turkey at the time, returning the following week, so I told no one apart from Helen the good news until Betty knew.

I walked from Nicky’s office in Holborn (on the same floor of the same building as Andrew’s) with Andrew to Kings Cross station, where he took the train to Cambridge, where he lives. I was mildly elated. I walked home and told Helen. She was due to have a drink with Deirdre in the Prince Albert, and I said I would join them. I did, and we were all very jolly. At about eight we parted, and Helen and I came home. I cooked some dinner while she was packing for Ireland the next day. At about 9.30 the phone rang. It was Theresa Cato. Stephen Eyers had died that afternoon of a heart attack.

Stephen was my best friend. I have a small group of friends to whom I’m very close. Stephen was the closest of them. I sat quietly and considered. We had known and loved each other for 42 years. I had met him on the first day of my teaching career. We had been together thousands of times, in schools, in pubs, at each other’s houses in London and France, in Italy on those school trips in the 70s, in Dorset, where he had recently bought a barn because he wanted to own a tiny bit of property ‘in the country of his heart’. Christmases at Kerfontaine, and one in Raynes Park when we couldn’t travel to France because of Helen’s foot operation, and when Stephen so overheated the claret that I had to put it outside the house to cool down. Summer visits, many of them, to Barraud, where I loved to swim in the river and, later, in the little swimming pool, where the four of us went out gaily to country restaurants down remote lanes, or to the Friday market at Ribérac. Dinner at Daphne’s to celebrate his birthday, on the day after my stroke. All finished. I thought, ‘This is what getting older means. Your friends die.’

We had, thank goodness, seen each other three days previously. We had had two pints and a good chat in the Royal Oak in Southwark. The next day we exchanged emails about the possibility of seeing some cricket before I go to France on 21 June.

I rang Theresa back and asked her whether she would like me to go with her to see Stephen’s body in St Thomas’s Hospital the next morning. She would. Jake, Stephen’s son, and her son Paul would be there too. They and Chloe, Stephen’s daughter, had all seen Stephen that evening, after the doctor had come out to tell them that he hadn’t been able to save him.

Helen and I were supposed to be taking the tube up to Burnt Oak the next morning, meeting eight of Helen’s family, going in two booked cars to Luton airport, flying to Belfast International for Nicky’s wedding. I had organised everything in advance: the flights; the wheelchair at the airports for Nick, Helen’s brother, who has great difficulty walking now; the taxis; the hotel. We agreed that Helen would shepherd the party over to Ireland alone, and I would join her when I could. I consulted the internet for flights to Belfast from various London airports.

The next morning I was waiting at St Thomas’s when I had two phone calls. The first was from Steve Webster, a good friend of Stephen’s, whom he had met when Steve was a young teacher at St Martin-in-the-Fields School; Stephen worked there from 1984 to 1989. Steve is now a professor at Imperial College. Stephen had been with him when he had the heart attack. They had had lunch together, as they often did. Then they went back to the college, because Steve wanted Stephen to meet some of his students. As they were walking along a corridor, Steve, who was a little ahead, heard a violent crash and turned round. Stephen had collapsed; fallen on his face.

Students rushed out of rooms. One knew how to do cardiac massage. Steve said that Stephen’s face was suddenly so swollen that he almost didn’t recognise him. A defibrillator arrived. Paramedics were there within a quarter of an hour, and performed the whole routine which I saw last year with John Bentil: adrenalin injections, electric shocks, the band which goes round the body and squeezes and releases the chest. Soon an ambulance was there, and went screaming off across town to St Thomas’s. Surely there must have been closer hospitals, I thought. There are. But Jake, who’s a consultant paediatrician, later told me that St Thomas’s is thought the best in London for emergency treatment after heart attacks. Steve managed to find Theresa’s phone number, and told her. She and the three children got to the hospital. I think the emergency treatment faintly revived Stephen’s heart for a little while, but both sides of it were badly damaged, and there was no telling what damage may have been done in the brain. At 6.30 the consultant came out with the news that Stephen was dead.

I thanked Steve for telling me all this. I went and had a coffee. The phone rang again. This time it was Alison Foyle at Routledge. I had written the previous day, because she had told me that the editorial board would meet on the Tuesday of that week to make a final decision about English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: essentially, she hoped, confirming her decision already taken. It was on that expectation that I had put in all the work of shortening the text to a bit more than half its previous length. Earlier in the week, I had asked whether smoke of any colour had come out of the editorial board. Her news on the phone was yes, they would publish, but they now wanted two books, not one! However noble was my ambition to write something covering the whole waterfront 3 to 19, marketing common sense told the editorial board that more books would be sold by targeting primary and secondary teachers separately. I agreed immediately, with a little regret but not much, because I could see that this solved my problem about length. Yes, I would get each book down below 100,000 words. She wanted 80,000 to 90,000 in each case. I wasn’t sure about that. I said that I wasn’t prepared to change the wording which was addressed to teachers across the whole age-range, resorting to saying essentially the same thing in different words in the two books just so they would be different superficially. Much text in the two books would be identical. She agreed to that, though she had some question about how much common material there would be. I said I couldn’t say then, but I would do the job and send her the two books, and I would be quick.

End of very friendly and successful call (I hope). How life delivers the strangest experiences, with the most extraordinary timing! Two acceptances from publishers within about 19 hours of each other, after all this work, with the news of the death of my best friend in between. He would have been so pleased and proud.

Jake arrived, then Theresa and Paul. Theresa was calm. We went to the bereavement centre, thence to the mortuary. We weren’t long in there. They had cleaned Stephen up a bit, but he didn’t look great. There was a gash on his forehead where he had fallen, and his mouth was half open. Perhaps when death comes suddenly the mouth freezes in the desperate attempt to gain breath. We each said goodbye. Theresa kissed him and spoke to him. ‘You were the gentlest man,’ she said. So he was.

We had coffee and talked. After 20 minutes or so, Theresa said she wanted to go home. Paul would be with her for as long as she needed. He lives at Whitstable, but stays in Raynes Park a couple of nights a week anyway, when he’s working in London. I asked Theresa if she wanted me to remain in London over the weekend. No, go to Ireland, she said. I said I’d visit as soon as we were back the next week, and would ring every day. We said goodbye, and I walked across Westminster Bridge in the lovely sunshine, thinking that it was only a mile or so away, down two bridges, that Stephen and I had begun our friendship when I was 22 and he was 31.

I went to St Pancras, picked up a bag that I’d left there, took the Northern Line and then the DLR to City Airport, jumped on the first plane to Belfast City, and was in the hotel with Helen and the family by six.

The wedding the next day was a success. It was held at Greyabbey, overlooking Strangford Lough. The ceremony was conducted by David Cooper, a Methodist minister, and he did it beautifully. I performed a poem, my second epithalamion of the year.

Wedding Poem for Debbie and Nick

Married at Greyabbey, County Down, Northern Ireland, 21 May 2016

A wedding’s a party
with costumes and flowers,
an organisational feat;
and those who have planned it
gave hundreds of hours
to make the occasion complete.

But marriage is more
than a wedding day’s choices;
it’s more than a toast or a speech.
It’s a long conversation
between equal voices
where each pays attention to each.

So, Debbie and Nicky,
may life bless you both; and
remember with joy that today,
for richer, for poorer,
you plighted your troth, and
you married in Ireland in May.

After the ceremony there was Irish music from two guitarists, then a very good dinner, then electric music for dancing until midnight. The light evenings are long in Northern Ireland in May, of course. There had been storms and hail earlier, including a particularly impressive and timely clap of thunder just as I was reading my poem. During the evening, a spectacular double rainbow appeared in the sky, one end touching the glistening mud of the lough, where the tide was out. The photographers got the bride and groom out from the dance floor to pose under a transparent umbrella, with the rainbow in the background.

The only hiccup in the proceedings came at the end. About 50 of us had been driven in a double-decker bus from Belfast to Greyabbey. The same bus had been booked to take us back at one in the morning. (This was an hour too late. Some men were drunk and loud; there were football chants, which you don’t want at a wedding.) When a single-decker coach arrived at one o’clock, I knew it wouldn’t be big enough, especially since those wishing to go back to Belfast had increased in number during the day. The driver wouldn’t go anywhere with an illegal load. We sat tight. At a quarter to two, poor Debbie and her step-father had to ask all those who were intending to go on to Carrickfergus after Belfast to get off the bus and wait until it returned, which they did with good grace. Off we went at last, and arrived in Belfast about half past two. The Carrickfergus party can’t have got home much before dawn.

During the electric music, weary of dancing, I had gone for a walk around the village. Beyond the beautiful grey stone houses, there was the council estate, with its tattered Union Jacks, and the Orange Hall. The street names were in English, but had previously had Ulster Scots names. In Belfast itself, 18 years after the Good Friday agreement, there are the walls, the barbed wire, the two flags, a few hundred yards from each other. The shops are full, the traffic is heavy, new building is everywhere, and the killings are occasional. But the segregation, suspicion and flaunting of ‘identity’ persists.

The next day we escorted Helen’s family to Aldegrove, managed with some difficulty to find the wheelchair for Nick, and said goodbye. Then I rang Peter Logue, my old friend from Channel 4 days, with whom we had arranged to stay for another two nights. Peter lives 15 minutes from the airport, and he was with us quickly.

I may have written in this diary years ago about the sad break-up of Peter’s marriage to Sarah. I won’t go into details. The divorce proceedings were long, arduous and antagonistic. All is now settled, and has been for some time, and Peter has kept the house. He is in a poor state of health. He has very bad diabetes, is grossly overweight, and suffers from wounds on his feet which make walking difficult. But he retains his spirit, his wit, and his brilliant ability to tell stories catching the character of rural Ulster. He is in the advanced stages of selling the house, and has found another place, 40 or so miles away, in a magnificent position overlooking the Portrush peninsula and the Atlantic. We saw it on the Monday. It is impressive, very large, about 15 years old, made of the beautiful blue basalt stone quarried in the area. At the moment, all sorts of last-minute difficulties are being put in Peter’s way by the potential buyers of his house, and these aren’t finally resolved. I told Peter, at all costs, not to lose the new place. Fortunately, he has a wealthy brother, whom he likes very much, who would be willing to lend him the money for a short time to buy the Portrush house if the deal on his old place falls through.

I visited Peter and Sarah often when I was at Channel 4. I used to sleep in the converted barn across the courtyard from the main house, which was also Peter’s office. The place is sadly neglected and run down now, but it is still a fine property, with meadows and fields belonging to it, which looked lovely in the new green of May.

We were back in London on the Tuesday evening. Since then, I have been busy chopping up my book into two. I finished that on Monday, and sent the two books off to Alison Foyle. I wait to hear. My great fear is that she’ll say that there is too much common material across the two books, and will I now go back to doing one. What my response to that would be I’m not sure. I really do want to get this project off my back now. I’ve been on it, in one way or another, since November 2013. I’ve done much less poetry as a result. And when you’ve had a stroke, even a mild one, and when your best friend dies suddenly of a heart attack, you realise that time isn’t unlimited. I do have one poetry project in hand, though only just started. Seamus Heaney’s last publication, posthumous, is a translation of book 6 of The Aeneid. He loved Latin, and writes about the learning of it, including Virgil, in his own poetry. A few years ago, I did a translation of the last 70 or so lines of The Aeneid book 2, where Aeneas goes back into burning Troy in search of his wife, and meets her ghost. I’m going to do the whole book. It’s the vivid account of the sack of Troy, including the wooden horse episode. It’s only about 800 lines, and I’ve done 70 already, plus a few from the beginning. I’ll employ the usual technique: try to understand as much as I can from the Latin itself, with the help of dictionaries and grammars and a dictionary of mythology; when stuck, consult the literal, non-poetical translation in the Loeb bilingual edition. Avoid at all costs looking at other people’s poetical efforts.

Tomorrow is Stephen’s funeral, at Clandon Wood Natural Burial Ground near Guildford. I’ve suggested some readings, one of which — Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Truly Great’ — I’m going to read myself. And I’ll give my own tribute, which I’ve written and will put in the next entry.

Camden Town

18 Jun 2016

Stephen’s funeral went as well as such a sad occasion could. It was a beautiful day, in a beautiful place a few miles east of Guildford. There were about 80 of us there. The ceremony, entirely secular, was led by Emma Curtis, and she did it graciously. She had gathered the facts for her eulogy from the family and from the online obituary I had done for The Guardian. We sang Jerusalem and a Beatles song. As well as my tribute and reading, Steve Webster read John Donne’s ‘No Man is an Island’, and Stephen’s sister Joy gave a touching tribute to her elder brother, especially about his kindness to her when they were children and teenagers. At the end of the ceremony, Stephen’s coffin was loaded onto a farm cart, and pulled by hand across a meadow, with high grass all around us, to the grave. The coffin was lowered with a certain amount of sweating and grunting by the undertaker’s elderly pall-bearers; they looked a bit unused to the effort, cremations being so much more common than burials these days. A few more words of farewell, the scattering of red rose petals onto the coffin, and we walked back to the building where the ceremony had been held. Drinks, snacks and conversation. That was it. Helen and I, with Paul Ashton and Stephen and Bronwyn Mellor, took a taxi back to Guildford station and a train to London, as we had come down.

Here are my Guardian obituary and tribute. There’s a bit of repetition. Also the Stephen Spender poem.

Obituary for The Guardian

My friend and colleague Stephen Eyers, who has died aged 73, was an English teacher and adviser of teachers. We met in April 1974, on my first day at Vauxhall Manor School in Lambeth, south London, one of the best comprehensives in the capital at the time, where he had been working since 1972.

Vauxhall Manor’s staff regarded the language and culture of the school’s working-class, ethnically diverse students as something to value and build on. The English department invited poets into the school. Groups of four or five colleagues, Stephen included, took parties to Italy, and ran frequent visits to theatres in London, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. Exam results were among the best in London for comparable schools. Stephen made a major contribution to all these achievements.

Between 1974 and 1979, a group of colleagues teaching a range of subjects at the school produced a series of papers documenting our students’ language and learning. These were combined in a book entitled Becoming Our Own Experts, which Stephen and I edited. The book, now available online, achieved a certain reputation nationally as an example of ‘action research’: the idea that practitioners could also be theorists of learning, rather than mere recipients of theoretical ideas handed down from higher education.

From 1984 to 1989, Stephen taught at St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls, also in Lambeth. He then moved into advisory work. From 1989 to 1995, he inspired hundreds of younger colleagues in south London by his understanding of education as a partnership between teacher and learner in which, over time, the teacher gains as much as the learner.

From 1995 to 2004, Stephen worked in the NHS, as an external adviser in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. He had no medical training, but he knew how to help doctors improve their teaching of younger colleagues at the bedside. ‘More humanity, less humiliation,’ he used to say. 

His last job, from 2004 to 2013, was at the University of Kingston, where he helped student teachers enter the profession through a variety of alternative routes: for example, those trained overseas who required qualified teacher status.

As a lifelong socialist, Stephen had a vision of the good society and of the contribution to that society made by education based on unsentimental respect for the learner. He once gave me a photocopied A4 sheet. Its top half was evidence that a student of his had, at the age of 11, failed the Schonell reading test. Its bottom half was the citation for the student’s PhD, gained 13 years later. Underneath he had written: ‘Anybody may be capable of anything.’

Stephen is survived by his wife Theresa Cato, also a teacher, whom he met at Vauxhall Manor, and whom he married in 1995; his children, Jake and Chloe, by his first wife Jeannie Lambert (née Dickens — their marriage was dissolved in 1981); his stepson, Paul; and his sister, Joy.

Tribute for Stephen

I knew and loved Stephen for 42 years. We met on my first day as an English teacher at Vauxhall Manor School, in April 1974. I think our boss, friend and colleague Jim Payne, who is here today, and who joined the school on the same day that I did, had asked Stephen, who had already been in the English department at the school for a couple of years, to give me some advice about the curriculum and about how the department worked. I knew then, immediately, in that strange way that sometimes happens, that we would be friends, though I didn’t realise how close that friendship would be.

When I told my parents that I had met an older man, a colleague in the department, and that he was supporting me in my sometimes desperate attempts to find my feet as an English teacher, I think they had a picture of a pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed, leather-elbow-patched, Marks-and-Spencer-shirt-wearing figure, a steadying influence on their slightly wild son. When my parents actually met Stephen, he clad in denim suit, cowboy boots and with his hair as long as mine, they revised their impression somewhat. But of course they came to admire and respect him, as who could not once they had spent even a few minutes in his company.

A little later, I’m going to read Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Truly Great’. I mention that now because the word ‘great’ applies to our Stephen in a particular way. ‘Great’, in today’s most common connotation, means ‘very famous’, or ‘very powerful’ or ‘having some huge, perhaps worldwide influence’. The use of the word as it applies to Stephen goes back to another connotation, common until the early part of the last century, but now lost. It then referred to greatness of spirit, generosity of soul, profound goodness of heart; and it is in this sense that the friend we have come to bid farewell to today was great.

I never met a person more broadly cultured than Stephen, with a range and depth of literary, artistic, historical, educational and political understanding got from a lifetime of reading, of listening to music, of looking at art (he was, many people here know, virtually a national expert on the paintings of Stanley Spencer, though he never wrote a book about him); from travel in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and America; from learning and teaching (two terms which he thought interchangeable); and from political activity. He was an internationalist, in particular a Francophile, who also loved, and returned frequently, to the country of his heart in Dorset and Hampshire.

Then, he was generous. There were times in his life when he didn’t have much money. Pretty often during those periods, I lent him the £5 note, later the £10 note, which meant that he could buy the second pint. He always paid me back, of course. And when, later on, he did have money, he distributed it freely, to a fault, joyfully laughing in the good fortune of plenty. And he was generous with his time, and his loving attention to the needs of others.

There are characters in the novels of Thomas Hardy, Stephen’s favourite novelist and poet, who stick to their principles whatever the rest of the world is doing, and sometimes pay the price for that. There were times in Stephen’s career when the purity of his ambition for education, his determination that education must be about an equal partnership between teacher and learner, forged in freedom, came up against the realities of a hierarchical education system increasingly preoccupied with short-term accountability for success in measurable terms. It would be sentimental and a disservice to Stephen’s memory to deny that he did pay a price for his principles. Yet there were also periods of joy: among others, his time at Vauxhall Manor; his unexpected excursion, years later, into the NHS, where he found most of the doctors more than willing to pay attention to his profound understanding of effective and practical teaching; and his time at the West London Partnership, where it gave him deep satisfaction to help students enter the teaching profession by various non-standard routes, especially those overseas-trained or training later in life.

I did a little online obituary for The Guardian the other day, and it ended with this story. Many years ago, Stephen gave me a sheet of A4 paper. Its top half was evidence that a student of his, Noreen Mitchell, had, at the age of 11, failed the Schonell reading test. Its bottom half was the citation for Noreen’s PhD, gained 13 years later. Underneath Stephen had written, in his always impossible handwriting: ‘Anybody may be capable of anything.’ It is for that greatness of spirit, that determined, unflinching commitment to possibility, that we — and especially Theresa, his children and his wider family — mourn Stephen’s loss, and salute his memory.

The Truly Great

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Stephen Spender

A postscript: there are awards for everything these days. Emma Curtis wrote to me on Wednesday asking whether I would nominate her for Celebrant of the Year at the Good Funeral Awards. I obliged with a testimonial.

We are five days away from the EU referendum. It has been an ugly campaign, with the remain side (my side) relying too much on frightening the public with dire warnings about the consequences to people’s wealth if we leave; and, far worse, a disgusting descent into racism by the leave side, culminating in the unveiling of a poster on Thursday displaying a photograph of a long line of black and brown refugees next to the words ‘Breaking Point’. In fact, the photograph was taken at a border post between Croatia and Slovenia, but the message was clear: they’ll be at Dover next. Meanwhile, the right-wing press has surpassed itself in its daily offering of lies and distortions about the wickedness of the EU and the sinister character of some other European countries, notably Germany.

There has, on my side, been far too little of the positive case for remaining in the EU, a case based on internationalism and a remembrance of history. The continent tore itself apart twice in the last century. It’s not a coincidence that there have been no wars since 1945 involving the countries that now constitute the EU (Croatia, a late arrival, being the only exception). And the world has become increasingly interdependent: we can’t address climate change or pan-European criminality or fair trading arrangements unilaterally. I actually like the diversity of voices and languages I hear on the streets of London, and the opportunities for the forging of new understandings and experiences which these migrations offer.

But I’m a comfortably off person with an international outlook and a house in France. If I were someone scraping by on the minimum wage or on benefits because the traditional industry in my area has disappeared and very little has been done to replace it with new kinds of worthwhile work, I might be angry and looking for someone to blame. The referendum has given me the perfect opportunity to vent my spleen. I probably don’t realise that the collapse of the steel industry or shipbuilding or pottery is to do with forces beyond the EU, notably the rise of the economies of the Far East. The EU is conveniently there, so it must be the culprit. The immigrants must be to blame too. It’s an irony that the areas of the country which are most likely to vote to leave are those where the numbers of people living in the UK but born elsewhere — whether in the EU or not — are smallest.

This is not to exonerate the EU entirely from blame. With the exception of agriculture, where it engages in the most enthusiastic interventionism, the EU has an excessively laissez-faire attitude to industry, and uses its power to prevent national governments from intervening to support industries in difficulty. It is too favourable to the private sector and not favourable enough to the public sector. On the other hand, some of the laws for which we should be grateful, especially on workers’ rights and environmental protection, have come about as a result of EU-wide agreements. And I fear that, once outside the EU, Conservative governments will abandon some of those rights and protections in favour of a yet more ‘open’ (as they would put it) economy and labour market; as I would put it, one which is likely to lead to ever-greater disparities of wealth and well-being in our already deeply unequal society.

A great sadness is that many of Labour’s traditional supporters, many of the nine million who voted Labour last year, have bought the lies about immigration which their newspapers and the leave campaign have sold them, even though 95% of Labour MPs are in favour of remain, and remain is the party’s clear official position.

The result is uncertain. Recent polls have seen a surge of support for leaving. If we do leave, we will have done so entirely as a result of Cameron’s failed attempt to resolve a long-standing schism in the Conservative Party.

Thursday was my birthday. We passed the morning quietly; went shopping and had coffee out. Came back for a cold lunch. I turned on my computer mid-afternoon to read the dreadful news that a Labour MP, Jo Cox, had been shot and stabbed in her constituency in Yorkshire. We heard on the PM programme at five that she had died. Her attacker was caught and arrested. He is a 52-year-old white man, who lived alone locally, who has a history of mental illness and who has had some contact with far-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. He was heard shouting ‘Britain first’ or ‘Put Britain first’ as he assaulted her.

The nation is deeply shocked. Campaigning for the referendum has been suspended until tomorrow, Sunday. Broadcast debates have been cancelled. Parliament, which had been in recess during the last days of the campaign, will be recalled on Monday to pay tribute to Jo Cox. The usual rivalries between the parties, and the bitter terms in which this present argument is being conducted, are in abeyance.

Jo Cox, aged 41 and only elected to parliament last year, was exactly the sort of person who should give politics a good name: deeply committed to social justice, an internationalist who had worked in a senior position for Oxfam, born and brought up in the constituency which she represented. She leaves a husband and two young children. (Her husband gave the most moving and dignified tribute to her on the very day she was murdered.) She was an enthusiastic campaigner for remain. I hope that her death will play no public part in the argument when the campaign resumes; but there’s no doubt that, if it has any actual effect, it will be favourable to remain, because the actions of this crazed man, and in particular the words he was heard shouting, are an extreme, perverted caricature of the thoughts of some of the leave campaigners. And I’ve just read that when he appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court this morning and was asked to give his name, he said, ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ Asked a second time to give his name, he said the same thing. The last three of those words have been spoken many times in recent weeks by the leaders of the leave campaign.


8 Aug 2016

It’s a long time since the last entry; and a lot has happened. On 21 June, we took the train from St Pancras to Marseille. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that this can now be done in seven hours, with no need to cross Paris. We changed trains at Lille. (There is a train that goes all the way with no change at all.) For the following three days, we helped Mary prepare for Sophie’s wedding on the 25th. Mary had prepared or was preparing most of the food for the 150 guests. I acted as sous-chef. On 23 June the two of us went out to the reception venue, a beautiful large house near Brignoles, with a wide terrasse under mature plane trees. We put some food into fridges. The choice of wines, of course, had been the subject of lengthy and strenuous debate. For the rosé, it had fallen on the Château des Hannibals, only a couple of kilometres away. Hannibal had supposedly passed nearby on his way round from Spain to Italy. (I’m not sure why ‘Hannibals’ is plural.) We went to pick up the wine, and stayed and tasted a little in the cool cellar. I bought a few bottles for consumption back in Marseille.

That night I stayed up all night to listen to the results of the referendum. My previously expressed fears were realised. A combination of lies and distortions bellowed at people over months and years, despair and anger on the part of those voters — many of them traditional Labour supporters — who have been left behind by the economic upheavals and social changes of recent decades, fear of immigration, and the lack-lustre campaign conducted by the Labour leadership tipped the balance 52% to 48% in favour of the UK leaving the EU. England and Wales voted to leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay. London, though in England, voted overwhelmingly to stay. (We had voted by post before coming to France.)

It is far too early to say what the long-term prospects for the UK outside the EU will be. There are some worrying signs: the pound has slipped significantly against the dollar and the euro (more in the case of the former). The Bank of England was obliged last week to cut interest rates to 0.25%, to increase quantitative easing and to promise to supply retail banks with plenty of money in the hope that they will lend it to their customers. There’s not much more that monetary policy can do. It remains to be seen whether the threatened exits of major companies from London to Continental cities will come to pass. What is certain is that none of the angry, abandoned people who voted to leave, seeing the EU as the source of their woes, will be helped by the decision.

This whole sorry story has been brought about by one man’s problems in his own party. Nothing to do with the good of the country. Chamberlain: Munich. Blair: Iraq. Cameron: leaving the EU (and possibly splitting the UK, if the Scots have another referendum and decide yes to independence this time, given the new circumstances).

In the immediate aftermath of 23 June, there were dramatic political shifts. David Cameron announced that he would resign as Prime Minister as soon as a new Conservative leader could be elected. Hilary Benn said publicly what many Labour people had been muttering privately: Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘pro-remain’ campaign had been weak, half-hearted. For this Benn was sacked. Most of the members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet then resigned, as did many junior ministers (including our MP Keir Starmer, who was shadow immigration minister). There then followed a classic example of how good the Conservative Party is at getting itself out of scrapes, and how good the Labour Party is at making its own, self-inflicted difficulties even worse. After a brief period of confusion during which it seemed that Boris Johnson was favourite to become Prime Minister, supported (supposedly) by Michael Gove, Gove stabbed Johnson in the back at the last minute and presented himself as a leadership candidate. Johnson withdrew from the race, presumably because he had done the calculation which showed that he wouldn’t be one of the two candidates chosen by MPs and MEPs to offer to the Conservative membership. Gove’s act of naked treachery clearly didn’t endear him to his electorate either, as he soon realised. He withdrew too. So two women were left: Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Theresa May was and is regarded as a serious politician, having been Home Secretary since 2010. She had been tepidly pro-remain, while wanting the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (which would be a shameful act; a decision deliberately to forget history). Not many people outside Westminster had ever heard of Andrea Leadsom, who immediately self-destructed by telling a journalist that she would be a better Prime Minister than Theresa May because she had had children and (I paraphrase), ‘Theresa must be so sad that she hasn’t.’ She then completed hari-kiri by denying that she had said it, only for the puzzled journalist to publish the transcript of the conversation showing that she had. Exit Andrea. Then there was one. A quick decision by the Conservative board that with only one candidate it wasn’t necessary to consult the membership and, hey presto, we have a new Prime Minister on the steps of Number Ten two days later, making a speech which could have been made by Keir Hardie, about the social and economic inequalities in our country and the need to address them, when she had been a member of a government for six years whose policies had only increased those inequalities.

Mrs May invented two new departments to deal explicitly with the consequences of the 23 June vote, and put two genuine pro-leavers in charge: David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, and Liam Fox as Secretary of State for International Trade (meaning ‘Go and do new trade deals with countries outside the EU’). Her most extraordinary decision was to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary. What a reward for a man whose whole career has been based on calculations of self-interest, regardless of the truth value of the positions he has taken at any time! Johnson has no sincere belief in the rightness of the pro-leave position. He threw himself enthusiastically into the leave campaign because he calculated, wrongly, that he would be Prime Minister as a result. His diplomatic abilities are minus. But he won quite a consolation prize. I’ve had trouble working it out from May’s point of view. I’m sure that she doesn’t regard him as a serious politician. In the end, perhaps she calculated that, unlike most politicians, Johnson has a high recognition factor amongst the general public. People nod and smile when his name is mentioned. And he knows how to win big votes: two for London mayor, one to leave the EU. Perhaps she will need that in 2020. Or perhaps she thinks he might implode sooner, having made some huge diplomatic gaffe, and that she will be able to sack him without the worry of having the effective leader of the winning side in the referendum as a troubling presence on the back benches.

Meanwhile, in the ‘if your wounds are deep, gouge them a bit deeper yourselves’ Labour Party, four-fifths of Labour MPs voted that they had no confidence in the leader. There is going to be a contest for the leadership, only a year after the last one. Angela Eagle, for whom I would have voted with some enthusiasm, was the first to put her name forward. She promised that, if someone else could get more nominations than she, she would stand down in favour of that person, arguing correctly that the likeliest way to unseat Corbyn is to present only one challenger. Someone I’d never heard of, Owen Smith, gained more nominations than Angela Eagle, so he is the challenger. I think Corbyn will win again, handsomely. There has been unseemly recourse to the High Court in our fraternal party. Did Corbyn need to have 51 nominations to be on the ballot paper (a number he wouldn’t have got) or, as the incumbent, was he on the ballot paper as of right? The NEC decided by a small majority that he was on it as of right. A High Court challenge to that decision was later rejected. The NEC decided, at the same meeting, that only those who had been full members or trade-union affiliated members by 18 January could automatically vote. Those who had joined since that date could not vote, at least automatically, but anyone who paid £25 (up from £3 last year) within a given two-day period could. This was a clear case of policy being made up as the meeting went along. Many members of the NEC obviously feared organised ‘entryism’ amongst Corbyn’s supporters, with its echoes of Militant in the 1980s. A High Court challenge to the denial of the automatic vote to post-18 January joiners has been successful, and the party is appealing against the judgment. If the appeal is turned down, the party will have to send out thousands more voting papers in the next two weeks, unless the process is delayed, and may have to pay back £25 to thousands of people who will say they wouldn’t have paid that money if they had known they had the right to vote as recently joined members.

Most shaming of all, ordinary monthly meetings of constituency parties have been suspended until after the vote, for fear of bullying and intimidation.

It’s never been as bad as this. If Corbyn wins again, without the support of four-fifths of his MPs, there may be a split in the party, with all the bitterness and anger that will cause. There will be arguments over who has the right to the name. Furious members will try to deselect MPs they regard as traitorous. And the Tories, with their narrow majority of 12, will sail smilingly on.

Sophie’s wedding to Julien was a great success. All my brothers, one cousin, three nephews, one niece and various partners were there. The ceremony itself, in the mairie of the 6th and 8th arrondissements of Marseille, was brief, as civil ceremonies in France are: nothing more, essentially, than the reading aloud of some articles of the civil code. The deputy mayor of the 8th did his best to lighten the tone by announcing that, as maire adjoint, he was in charge of dustbins, by commiserating with Sophie, who has a British passport, on the events of two days previously, and, on hearing a baby crying while he was speaking the articles, by interrupting himself to ask the baby whether he or she disagreed with any of their provisions. Then, after half an hour of photography and hanging about, off we went to the big house near Brignoles. Lovely champagne, great food, delicious wines, speeches, dancing. Helen and I went to bed at half past two, but lots of younger people danced till dawn and beyond. The main thing is that Sophie and Julien were happy, visibly so, and I’m sure they will be happy in their life together.

Four days later Mary drove us up to Aix early in the morning, where we met Glenda and Julian Walton. Julian drove us to Bologna. We had two nights in that magnificent city, which I hadn’t visited since the late 70s, then a night in Ravenna, with enough time to see the wonderful mosaics, then a spectacular drive over the Apennines down to Rodellosso. Two weeks there, with friends coming and going, and the usual pleasures.

After 23 June, I had prepared a speech of lamentation to give, in French and then in Italian, whenever puzzled and hurt French and Italian people asked me why we had done what we had done. I was asked often. In the vegetable garden at Rodellosso, I was helping Claudio’s mother Rina tie up tomato plants, which were in danger of breaking in a strong wind. A young woman called Maria, originally from Ukraine but resident in Italy for 15 years and married to an Italian, asked me the Brexit question. By this time Rina and I were putting rotted grass and straw around the roots of the plants to stop them drying out too quickly after watering, and Maria was coming after us with the hose pipe. A couple of minutes into my speech, to which Maria was paying close attention, Rina interrupted and said to Maria, ‘Be careful! You’re not giving those plants enough water.’ The health of her backward tomato plants, after a difficult, cold and rainy spring, was a more urgent priority than wider European problems.

After Rodellosso, Peter and Merle Traves dropped us at Florence airport, from where we flew to Marseille via Charles de Gaulle. Two days after that, I took an early train back to London. A day later, Helen, Mary and Tess drove in Mary’s car here to Kerfontaine.

In London, I stayed with Paul and Vikki because we have rented our flat to an Australian friend, Michael Davidson, for the summer and early autumn. I had five medical examinations: DVLA have appointed Specsavers, a chain of opticians, to conduct all their tests on people who’ve had strokes affecting vision, to see if they’re fit to drive; I saw a neurologist, Dr Leff, who specialises in visual impairments after strokes; I saw my GP to give a report on everything that’s been happening to me recently; I had an echocardiogram; I saw my stroke consultant, Dr Perry.

The upshot, so far as driving is concerned, is contradictory. Dr Leff gave me a test which showed that there’s a patch on the right side of my visual field where I’m not seeing things, and advised that I shouldn’t drive at least until he sees me again next May, when he’ll give me the test again. The previous day I had undertaken the same test, or one very similar, at Specsavers in Swiss Cottage. You look into a black field, and every time a white light flashes momentarily, you press a button. This morning I hear that, so far as DVLA is concerned, I’m OK to drive straight away! (In any case, I’ve decided that the legal situation is sufficiently ambiguous here in France to justify my driving, so we rented a little car when I got back from the London trip. Adam is looking after the Land Rover in Norfolk.)

Dr Leff also showed me the MRI scan of my brain, done on the morning after the stroke. It’s quite something to look at your own brain. I now understand exactly what happened. The blood clot has long gone. It may have gone by the time I woke up on 28 April. The artery itself is undamaged. But the effect of denying blood to a portion of my brain for a few minutes or a few hours while I was asleep was to kill that portion. It will never recover. The dead part was clearly visible on the scan as a bright white shape amid the encircling grey. The doctor said, reassuringly, that the dead part amounts to no more than 1% of the total brain space; it’s magnified on the scan so it’s easy to see. He said that it’s quite probable that the brain is still trying to find ways around the problem, literally, so as to restore the area of lost vision.

Dr Perry looked at the echocardiogram and said that the origin of the stroke remains a mystery. There’s nothing wrong with my heart that the echo and a previous test have detected, though he still suspects that the problem did come from the heart. There are to be no more tests. I will continue to take a blood thinner in the morning and a statin at night. I’ve agreed to take part in an international study comparing the effectiveness of the kind of blood thinner I’m on at the moment with another one, more recently developed. I won’t know which one I’m on. The study will last three years. I’ll start when I return briefly to London at the end of this month.

Towards the end of our time at Rodellosso, I had the welcome news from Alison Foyle at Routledge that they will publish the two books I wrote about on 7 June, now called Curriculum and Assessment in English: A Better Plan, one for primary and one for secondary, exactly as I had sent them, with no changes required. So while I was in England I went down to Milton Park in Oxfordshire to meet Alison. It was a day of great heat, and we sat outside in a bit of shade and did business. I like her very much. I was amazed that Routledge will publish the books in hardback as well as paperback and electronic. Alison said that there’s a large market, especially in the Far East, amongst new universities with enormous library buildings and not enough books to fill the miles of shelves. The universities ask Routledge and other big respectable publishers to send them everything they publish, whatever the content! And they want hardbacks. Alison said that they’ll charge about £90 per hardback volume. I was pleased when she offered me a 10% royalty, no quibbles, though I noticed in signing the contract the other day that it’s only 5% for hardback. Cunning, but I shan’t complain. Perhaps it’s standard. I’m just glad that the books will be published at last, probably in February.

I also went to see Nicky Platt at the Institute of Education Press. She’s lovely. The Harold Rosen book seems to be going ahead with no hitches or delays. Probable publication in March now. I’ll sign the contract at the end of the month.

And I went to Canterbury to see my brother, with a side trip down to Margate because I wanted to visit the newish Turner Gallery. It’s very impressive, but the thing that struck me most about the town takes me back to the EU referendum result. It was the beginning of the school holidays, and the weather was hot. Families had come for their week or two by the sea. These were the people who had voted to leave the EU: good-hearted, tattooed, overweight families, taking a break from insecure unskilled jobs or getting by on benefits, rightly enjoying the affordable pleasures that Margate offers. Many of them had stuck St George’s flags in the sand on the main beach.

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect

Margate is in the parliamentary constituency of the Isle of Thanet, where Nigel Farage just failed to win last year. It’s the most dispiriting place, once you move away from the beach and walk a mile or so in either direction along the sand. A hotel with former pretensions to grandeur has open upper windows where seagulls fly in and out. It’s not clear whether the whole place has been abandoned. The lido certainly is abandoned and covered in graffiti. Litter everywhere; I’m sure the district council doesn’t have the income to employ enough street cleaners. Terraces of villas with peeling paintwork and gloomy basements accommodate families speaking Eastern European or Middle Eastern languages on the pavements outside. Are they cheap labour, seekers of work, seekers of asylum, refugees? A tower block by the station is one of the ugliest buildings in England. A man in a vest stands at an open window on about the tenth floor, smoking, gazing out to sea.

Meanwhile, after my visit to the gallery, where a collection of otherwise unrelated works of art has been brought together because they all have some connection with circles (the thematic is trendy these days in galleries), I eat in the excellent restaurant the kind of food which people who go to galleries prefer: organic, fresh, terribly healthy, with a glass or two of something dry and white. Outside, refreshed, I’m in privatised, deregulated, low-wage England. Anyone who can afford something better has gone somewhere else.

It needs money. I wouldn’t say the same cruel things about seaside resorts like Southwold or Aldeburgh or Brighton or Portsmouth, city of my birth. They’re richer. The Thanet coast has many natural advantages and beauties, as Margate’s numerous information panels are keen to point out. But the whole area needs investment which doesn’t depend on the holiday season. Perhaps the new fast train which brought me here will help. I’m a bit depressed as it pulls out of the station and takes me away.

More dreadful atrocities have been committed in France since I last wrote. On 14 July, Bastille Day, a man inspired by Islamic State’s instruction to kill Christians at random drove a lorry into the crowd on the Promenade des Anglais. The people were watching the firework display. He deliberately ran over and killed 85 people, injuring many others, before the police killed him. On 26 July, two teenagers slit the throat of a priest celebrating mass in a church near Rouen. They filmed their actions and preached in Arabic from the altar. They took five hostages, seriously injuring one of them. The special police arrived quickly, and killed the teenagers as they left the church, saving the other hostages. Many big public events and annual festivities in France have been cancelled since, for fear of more terrorism.

In Syria, especially in Aleppo, the situation is dire. The regime, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, fights against rebels divided between those who simply want the overthrow of Assad and a measure of the freedoms I enjoy, and djihadists who would replace Assad with a Sunni Islamist theocracy. In Quetta, Pakistan two days ago, a faction of the Taliban killed at least 70 people at a hospital, many of them lawyers accompanying the body of a colleague, himself killed the day before. It’s the same story: fundamentalist Sunni Islam doing violence against any alternative view of the world, whether that be another interpretation of Islam, or Christianity, or a simple secularism which wishes to separate private faith from the system of government in a country. It’s pure barbarism, and at the moment I see no end to it.


22 Sep 2016

It’s a beautiful, quiet calm day in Brittany. September often produces such days. This September has excelled itself. I’ve spent the last two days gardening, and now the place looks as good as it ever will under my less than perfectionist care. The only job remaining is to cut the hedges, which Jean-Paul will do with me next month.

My recent big mental task, completed a week ago, has been the translation of Book 2 of The Aeneid, about which I wrote in June. I’m pleased with what I’ve done, and Peter Hetherington and Bronwyn Mellor, two of the five people to whom I’ve sent it, have been very complimentary. So, of course, has Helen, to whom I read the thing aloud. I sent it to Ken Pearce, one of my Latin teachers at Bedford Modern, and he’s looking at from the point of view of accuracy of translation as well as its poetic qualities. When I’ve heard from him, I’ll put it on the website, and Peter and I will have another session in the London sound suite where we record his and my readings of my poems.

Bronwyn and Stephen run a small publishing company in Australia, called Chalkface Press, which publishes resources for students studying English in secondary schools, and books for English teachers. Bronwyn has often said to me that she’d like to see my poems, or some of them, in print, not just on the website. I asked her whether Chalkface might be prepared to publish them, even though that’s not what the company normally does. She was reluctant at first, simply because, as she said, they don’t have the marketing power of an established UK-based company with a poetry list. But in July, when we were in Italy, I told her that I didn’t mind about marketing, and I quite liked the idea of having a book in print which didn’t mean that I’d have to remove the poems from the website, which presumably I would have to with a mainstream poetry publisher. So she and Stephen have agreed to publish a collection of my poems next year, if no one else will. I say ‘if no one else will’, because Nicky Platt, who’s publishing my collection of Harold Rosen’s writings, saw my website and liked the poems a lot. She asked me if I would mind her drawing them to the attention of a few colleagues working in companies which do publish poetry. I said I would love that. I’m going to give her until November to see what she can do; if nothing comes of it, Bronwyn and Stephen will bring out a collection, which it will be fun to work on with them.

In late August, I popped back to London for the second time this summer, staying with Paul and Vikki again. I had one medical appointment this time, at which I was started on the medical trial to see whether the newer drug rivaroxaban is better than aspirin or its equivalents as a blood thinner to prevent future strokes. Emma, the charming young woman who worked with me for an hour, administering tests which remind me of doing the 11-plus 54 years ago (I’ve had two of three of these sessions since the stroke), asked me to undertake one task which caused particular difficulty. She said, ‘I have a stopwatch here. In the course of one minute, I want you to say as many words as you can think of beginning with… f.’ The room was hot; there were no windows; she is very good looking. I thought, ‘You cannot say that word. You must put that word completely out of your mind. If you say that word, she may press a panic button and two burly men in brown coats will come and drag you away from her.’ Consequently, I was rather slow in getting going, and the words that I pronounced were multisyllabic and tended to be obscure, keeping well clear of dangerous Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: filibuster, fallacious, fibrillation, forensic… The experience reminded me of a story about Diana Dors, which the person who told it to me swears is true. At the height of her fame as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and other curvaceous American beauties of the immediate post-war years, Diana Dors was invited back to Swindon, her home town, to open one of the first supermarkets. The local vicar was invited to give the speech of welcome. Diana Dors’ real name was Diana Fluck. The reverend gentleman, well aware of the closeness of the deep pit into which a slip of the tongue might project him, spoke to this effect: ‘We’re here to welcome one of our own, who has gone far. This lovely lady is known throughout the world, and on the silver screen, as Diana Dors. But, of course, to those of us who’ve known her since she was a little girl, she will always be… Diana… Cunt.’ I avoided a minor version of the compulsion to say a word you know you must not say, but only just. Emma said that I had done ‘not too badly’ on that test; she was being kind.

I had another failure, but one which I was able to correct. While Emma was out collecting the pills from the pharmacy, I filled in a form containing dozens of statements about what I am or am not able to do unaided: wash myself, go to the toilet, eat, drink… The first group was headed by the question: ‘Do you have any difficulty with the following activities?’ Glancing quickly down the list, I checked all the ‘No’ boxes. There was then a second group of activities, similarly unremarkable and everyday, and I checked all the ‘No’ boxes there too. Having completed the form, and looking back over it, I saw that the second group of activities was preceded by the question, ‘Can you perform any of the following activities unaided?’ I had announced on the form that I can’t hold conversations with others, or remember events for more than a day. I quickly crossed out the ‘Noes’ in the checked boxes, and checked almost all the ‘Yes’ boxes, noticing however that the first activity was ‘…follow written instructions on forms, etc’. I left that checked as ‘No’ until Emma got back. She gave me permission to change it to ‘Yes’.

The following day I briefly attended the party to celebrate the wedding of Chloë, Stephen Eyers’ daughter, to her partner Mark. They already have two children. It was a happy but poignant occasion. I remembered that Stephen and I had spent several evenings in the pub where the party was held, The Bull and Last in Highgate Road, after professional-development sessions which we had run in the school across the road. I spoke to Chloë and Mark and a few other people, including Jeannie, Stephen’s first wife. Theresa and I then went back to her house by tube and train, and I stayed the night. The next day we drove down to the burial ground. On the last Sunday of every month, relatives and friends of those who are buried there are invited for tea, cakes and conversation: a good idea, and comforting. We talked to two recently bereaved women, then went out and found the grave, which wasn’t obvious because the long grass had been cut since the funeral. The rules of this natural burial ground forbid the putting up of monuments in stone; modest wooden memorials are allowed, but they are temporarily removed when the grass is cut, and Theresa hasn’t yet had a wooden memorial made. But there was a little metal tag indicating the place. We stood there for a few minutes, which was enough for Theresa, before driving back through the Surrey hills and the south-western suburbs of London to her house.

On the Monday I visited Betty Rosen; all well there, and she’s very pleased about Harold’s book, of course. The day after that, our friend Deidre Finan flew back to Brittany with me, and stayed with us for five days.

On 4 September, we had the annual fête de Saint Guénaël, which was a success as usual, with about 650 people sitting down to lunch, followed by entertainments of various kinds in the afternoon, including a display of vintage cars by the Amateurs de Véhicules Anciens du Morbihan. I was once again in charge of the sale of wine before lunch. Two weeks later, last Sunday, we volunteers were treated to an outing. A coach and a minibus were hired, and 71 of us went to La Roche-Bernard, where we trundled around the town on a little electric train, admiring the buildings and the bridge over the Vilaine, and had coffee or whatever people wanted to drink at eleven o’clock. Then the buses took us to the Barre d’Arzan, where we embarked on a boat which plied slowly back up and down the river for three and a half hours, doing 40 kilometres there and back, while we ate a five-course lunch. Home about six, and all very jolly.

Things are moving forward steadily on the publication of the three books next spring.

Tomorrow the result of the Labour leadership contest will be announced. Corbyn is certain to win again. The big question then will be: will the party split, or will the majority of Labour MPs, who have no confidence that Labour can ever win a general election under Corbyn’s leadership, just decide to sit this parliament out, let the Tories win again in 2020, before replacing Corbyn with someone with a chance of winning in 2025? A deeply depressing choice.

The situation in Syria is worse than ever, with Assad and his Russian allies bombarding Aleppo, and the strong possibility that this time the rebels may be forced from the city. At that point, Assad could say that he had ‘won’ the war, although the rebels would simply revert to guerilla tactics to attack him. The problem has been that the West has been pusillanimous in supporting the legitimate rebels, because of fears of becoming embroiled in another Iraq, and Russia has had no such compunction about arming and aiding a monster, so long as that monster serves Putin’s interests. I think back to the moment in the House of Commons when Cameron wanted to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, and Labour, to burnish its credentials as an anti-war party, submitted an amendment to the government motion only slightly different from the substantive text, causing the government motion to be defeated. It was a shameful decision to do nothing, which I think persuaded Obama to abandon his plan to bomb Syria’s weapons facilities, which enabled Assad to sign the international treaty renouncing the use of chemical weapons, just after he had used them, perversely making him look good. The clear sign that the West wasn’t going to do very much was enough to allow Putin to decide to do a great deal, with heart-breaking results.

Cameron, incidentally, is about to stand down as an MP. He can’t even wait until 2020 before abandoning the people of Witney in order to make serious money elsewhere. Contemptible. Gordon Brown, a man much older than Cameron, served a full five years as an MP after losing the 2010 general election. But he, with all his tragic flaws, was and is an honourable man.

Next Tuesday we’re taking the train to Avignon, where Brownyn and Stephen are staying, to surprise Bronwyn on the eve of her 70th birthday. Three nights there, and then on to Marseille for five nights, where Tess will be alone over the weekend; Mary and Jacques will be on holiday in Sicily until the following Monday evening, so we’ll have a day with them before returning here on 5 October.


23 Sep 2016

Jeremy Corbyn did win, easily, with an even bigger share of the vote than last time, though that was not so hard given that he had only one competitor. His position in the party as a whole is very strong; much less strong amongst his parliamentary colleagues. I voted for Owen Smith with no great enthusiasm. I imagine that he will now return to obscurity. Corbyn made a good speech calling for unity after all the blood-letting. Perhaps the threat of a split in the party won’t materialise. But I see no prospect of a Labour government before 2025.


29 Sep 2016

We had a great time in Avignon. Bronwyn was astonished to see us on her doorstep; Stephen’s secrecy had been complete. They’re in a house just outside the walls of the city, next to the railway station, belonging to their friends Janet and Tom (Bronwyn has known Janet since they were twelve years old; we went to a lunch in Fremantle in February to celebrate Janet’s 70th). Champagne and ravioli on the night we arrived, then dinner in two excellent restaurants on Wednesday and Thursday. The first, on Bronwyn’s actual birthday, was outstanding: Entre Vigne et Garrigue, in the country about seven kilometres north of the city. The food was beautiful and generous, and the setting memorable. As the name says, so it was: vineyards on one side, and rocky scrubland on the other.

On both days we explored Avignon, something I’ve never done, though I’ve been there a few times for very short stays. It’s a truly impressive European city, and not just for the famous monuments (the Palais des Papes, the bridge). Quiet, winding streets are lined by grand mansions and gracious smaller dwellings. There are some lovely churches, including Saint Pierre, which has magnificent carved doors. An impressive, impeccably kept public garden above the Palais des Papes gives a spectacular view over the Rhône northward. On both afternoons I went for walks alone outside the walls, and there reality intervenes: HLM blocks which I would never consent to live in, ugliness and mess, as well as acceptable if unremarkable suburban streets.

This morning we took the train from Avignon Centre station to Avignon TGV station (five minutes) and sat in the quiet warmth of the late morning until the TGV arrived, and swept us here in half an hour.

Tess was back from school for her lunch. She has coped well all by herself since her parents went away on Monday. I haven’t mentioned it before, but at the beginning of the month she was frighteningly ill. Appendicitis wasn’t diagnosed until the appendix had burst, causing peritonitis, requiring an emergency operation to remove the appendix and drain the filth from her abdomen. It’s an illness which still kills thousands of people around the world every year, mainly in poorer countries. Tess was weak, with a high temperature, for several days after the operation, but she seems completely recovered now. As I write, she’s in a philosophy class, studying Socrates, Plato and Bertrand Russell. Tonight we’ll take her out to a good little restaurant the other side of Notre Dame du Mont.

David James has lost his closest male friend, a remarkable man called David Bradshaw, whom we have got to know in recent years. He was an English don at Oxford, until recently chair of the faculty there. He specialised in 20th-century writers: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Huxley, Waugh. He was a full-scale scholar, bringing to light information about those people from sources which hadn’t previously been tapped, and he wrote in such an engaging, often witty style that the scholarship never weighed on the reader. He was 60, and it was cancer. His widow Barbara is a wonderful, courageous woman. She spent many days at Lindsay’s side when Lindsay was dying. The funeral is next Friday in Oxford. I won’t go, but I will go to the memorial event later.


15 Oct 2016

We returned from Marseille eleven days ago. Train to Nantes, and then we dined in the little restaurant, Le Rosmarin, which we found by chance a few years ago on the way back from Mary’s wedding. It was that occasion when we had suffered a truly dreadful experience in a hotel in the middle of France the night before, and needed cheering up. The food was as nice as before, and the same woman presided.

Since then I’ve spent three days with Jean-Paul making the garden look presentable, I’ve read a draft of a book by Simon Gibbons about the history of English teaching over the last 50 years (very good, and with some gratifying puffs for my occasional contributions to that history), and not done much of a literary sort. I’m still waiting to hear from Ken Pearce what he thinks of my translation of The Aeneid book 2. I’ve been organising a jolly little get-together for our small group of Bedford Modern School chums, plus partners this time, on 12 November at Peter and Monica Hetherington’s house. It will be the third time we’ve met like this, and for a change we’re going to do something other than just talk: we’re going to read Twelfth Night. The parts are assigned, Peter has organised the music, Monica will do tea, I will do drinks after the reading, and then we’ll go to dine at The Falcon.

On the train going down to Avignon I read Le Monde and then continued with Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, which is a collection of historical essays about parts of Europe and Asia that once were states, and are no longer. Very impressive. Anyhow, the newspaper and the book provoked the thoughts which follow. I’ve tried to make a poem of them, but even though the lines are in iambics, I don’t think it will ever succeed. It’s too preachy, didactic.

Ruminations on the TGV

I’m racing southward in the comfort of the train,
supplied with coffee and Le Monde, which offers
worldwide information on our self-inflicted woes.
Sated at last, I swap the present for the past.
The history book I’m reading is a catalogue
of vanished states, a litany of bygone cruelties:
the greed and pride of kings and emperors,
the sufferings of the poor, the bravery and failure of the good.
Remote, foreshadowing examples drag me back
to news still fluid, not yet hardened into history.
In Palestine, the stronger brother steals
the weaker brother’s birthright, piece by piece.
In Syria, two monstrous forces, one inspired by faith,
one merely brutal, with a bigger brute for backer,
silence voices which were raised in hope to claim
the simple freedoms which this passenger enjoys.
In lands where simple freedoms long ago were won
— in France, America or England — citizens
with little, who know less, are thrilled by champions
who feed their fear, who stoke their indignation,
jabbing righteous fingers at the strangers
it’s convenient to blame, while conjuring
a future like their fiction of the past.
If orators like these prevail, their listeners will learn
the vanity of signals they mistook for hope.

Now most of us are healthier and richer
than our ancestors, are we equivalently
wiser, kinder, abler to distinguish
complex truth from easy lies? Is tyranny
a rarer poison plant than once it was?
Will we, in time, desist from actions
which will make our pleasant, only home
a hellish place for billions unborn?
There are days, like today (the sunshine smiling
on the landscape, and all’s well with me)
when early confidence gives way to later doubt.

On Thursday we took Jean and Annick out to Le Vivier to thank them for everything they have done for us over the past year, and also to make up for missing their golden wedding anniversary in May. Last night Jean-Paul and Christine took us out to L’Art Gourmand, I think partly to thank me for what I’d done for them last April (the trip to Durham and Middlesbrough).

On Friday Helen and I had one of our occasional days where we take off in the car not sure of where we’re going. We drove up towards Carhaix, turned left onto the road which I’ve often taken when going to Brest airport, and found the impressive little town of Châteaulin in its valley, astride the Aulne, which forms part of the Nantes-Brest canal. I’ve looked at the canal and walked along parts of it numerous times. Construction work started in 1811. The panel I read at Châteaulin says that it was opened to traffic in 1836. Wikipedia on the other hand says that ‘Napoléon III of France presided over the canal’s opening in 1858’. Whichever is right, it was an enormous achievement: 385 kilometres in length, 238 locks, all done with the technology of the time. And within a few decades, the railway arrived, and the canal’s industrial purpose — to link the two great western cities and carry goods between them — was surpassed.

We lunched in a little hotel called Le Chrismas, which is not a misspelling of our English word, but — so madame told me — a combination of parts of the first names of two of the owners. Good and old-fashioned: I ordered the pâté to start with, which arrived in a large bowl with a knife stuck in it, and I was left to take however thick or thin a slice I liked, and however many gherkins I wanted from a deep jar. That is rare these days. Then I had andouillette: excellent, though I had to keep the dish well away from Helen’s nose. She finds the smell disgusting. After lunch we strolled up and down the riverbank before driving off into remote, lost country until we came out at Sainte-Marie-du-Ménez-Hom, where there is an impressive chapel with a spectacular retable, restored and repainted in recent years. From there it was five minutes up to the top of Ménez-Hom, one of the high points of Brittany. The view all around is wonderful: westward to the sea, northward to the peninsulas of Crozon and Plougastel, with Brest beyond them, southward to the big peninsula which starts at Quimper and ends at the Pointe du Raz, eastward inland, where the Aulne and the canal wanders. Beautiful, calm, rolling country on that sunny, windy afternoon. Then we descended to the coast and found a little road which sometimes skirts the sea, sometimes rises away from it for a bit. I knew where we were going to come out: Sainte-Anne-la-Palud, with its little sandy beach and the gracious hotel where Helen and I stayed once on her birthday. We had an expensive brandy at the bar and thought of David and Lindsay, who had stayed there too. I tried to persuade Helen that we should have a night there before we go back to London, which we will do on the last day of the month. I might succeed. Then back home in the early evening on the fast road past Quimper. A glorious and romantic day.


16 Oct 2016

In recent weeks, and especially when driving back from shopping this morning, I’ve noticed groups of beautiful white birds feeding in fields next to herds of cows. I assumed they were egrets, and the internet has just told me that they are indeed ‘cattle egrets’, a successful worldwide species that likes to feed near cattle, because the larger animals’ movements disturb the insects and other small creatures which the birds eat. Cattle egrets also sometimes eat the flies and ticks directly off the animals’ bodies. I read that they’ve moved up from southern Europe into France in recent decades. I’ve seen single birds in previous years (I remember discussing this with Albert) but I’ve never seen such large groups as recently.

Heavy rain on Saturday and last night has brought to an end this long period of dry weather. Now, whenever I bump into French people in the shops or on our walks, they speak excitedly of the prospect of mushrooms.

I’m glad to read that a coalition of Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmergas, with Western backing, is beginning the offensive to retake Mosul. I’m afraid it will be bloody, but it’s necessary. The recapture of Mosul won’t be the end of IS, but it will be a major blow to them, since it was there that their ‘caliphate’ was proclaimed. The great question then will be whether Iraq can survive as a state containing both strands of Islam, Arabs and Kurds, and various minorities, including Christians. That is not certain; the country could still break up into statelets, and maybe should, if inter-communal violence seems unending in a country only invented by French and British civil servants during the First World War.

Camden Town

10 Nov 2016

We returned to London on the last day of October. We dropped our little hired car at the supermarket in Pontivy. A coach took us from Pontivy to St Brieuc. There used to be a railway line. It closed in 1987. The station building is still there, and the rails. The coach took a route linking the former intermediate stations between the two places. So we found ourselves going down tiny country roads to hamlets which once had some significance — a bar or two, a hotel next to the then station — and now have none. TGV from St Brieuc to Paris; metro under Paris; Eurostar to London.

Having finished the translation of book 2 of The Aeneid, I’ve started translating bits from Virgil’s Georgics: beautiful, concrete, closely observed details about farming and country life. I’m going to do about four from each of the four books. The first is on tillage and crops, the second on vines, the third on cattle, the fourth on the keeping of bees.

I’ve done the indexes for the two Routledge books, and with Betty Rosen made decisions about which photographs of Harold to use for his book.

Amongst the lines which I included in the 16 October entry were these:

In lands where simple freedoms long ago were won
— in France, America or England — citizens
with little, who know less, are thrilled by champions
who feed their fear, who stoke their indignation,
jabbing righteous fingers at the strangers
it’s convenient to blame, while conjuring
a future like their fiction of the past.
If orators like these prevail, their listeners will learn
the vanity of signals they mistook for hope.

On Tuesday those citizens elected their champion in America. Donald Trump won the election, against all predictions. I stayed up to watch, as usual, and found myself actually trembling with fear at about three o’clock in the morning when his victory seemed probable. His campaign was dirtier than any Republican campaign I’ve seen, and that’s saying something. Simply abuse your opponent with whatever cheap shot you care to; lie; blame foreigners for America’s woes: and, hey presto, you’re the president. The intervention of the director of the FBI, 12 days ago, to say that he would be re-investigating Hillary Clinton’s unwise decision, when she was Secretary of State, to use a private server to conduct both private and state business, now looks like a deliberate, and successful, effort to damage her. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, again, two days before the election, but the damage had been done. Then there was the leaking of the emails of members of the Clinton campaign team: probably done by the Russians, possibly with the encouragement of Trump’s team. Who knows? At any rate, the following things are true.

Trump questioned Obama’s right to be president, claiming that he wasn’t born in the US: a knowing, malicious act. He says he will abolish Obama’s modest reform of America’s health system, thus endangering the health insurance of more than 20 million people. Obama’s historic agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons is likely to be scrapped. Trump, the worst person to have got to the White House in my lifetime, tweeted of Obama, the best person to have got there in my lifetime, that he ‘will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States’.

Trump wants to ban Muslims from going to the US. He wants to build a wall across the Mexican border. He is abusive to women, accusing one female interviewer of attacking him unfairly because ‘she was bleeding from the whatever’, and joking with a male interviewer that he could have whichever women he wanted because he was a star: ‘you just grab them by the pussy’. He encouraged his supporters, in the event of a Clinton victory, to shoot her should she attempt to change the Second Amendment. ‘Lock her up,’ he ranted, referring to an opponent who had committed no crime; his adoring supporters enthusiastically chorused the words back to him. He doesn’t believe in climate change, and wants the US to get on and burn fossil fuels without restraint. He acknowledges that he has paid no tax ‘because I’m smart’. He has the support of the Klu Klux Klan. There were constant, generalised attacks on ‘the elite’, ‘the Washington establishment’. There was the promise to ‘make America great again’. That was it. And he won.

The dark side of this is that the worst elements in American society — the racists, the homophobes, the gun-toting males itching to prove their masculinity through violence, the evangelical Christians who see in Trump God’s hand at work in restoring America to its former greatness, and sense a coming Armageddon in the Middle East — are massively encouraged. The world is immensely more dangerous now.

The more understandable side of it is that in America, just as in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, there is a big chunk of people who have been left behind, as they see it, by the deindustrialisation of the West and the migration of jobs to the developing world, who think they deserve better (which they do) and who are looking for someone to blame and for a saviour. They have lost all faith in established political parties. They put their faith in demagogues offering simple solutions: Farage, Trump, Le Pen. The parties who traditionally have represented the working classes of richer countries have not been able or willing to put in place worthwhile alternative jobs when the mines, the steelworks, the shipyards, the car factories, the chemical plants have gone to India, China, Korea, Mexico, Brazil: places where the management and shareholders of multinational companies see that they can improve or at least maintain their profits. The abandoned people, in their rage, blame the immigrants who are doing the jobs they don’t want to do — not the jobs which no longer exist — and the elites in government, business and finance.

As ever, Trump the abuser became Trump the healer when he made his victory speech. I’ve seen this happen so many times — with Reagan and both Bushes — that I discount it completely. For the moment, Trump has both houses of Congress on his side, and he will be able to appoint at least one and maybe more new members of the Supreme Court. Expect America to make an even greater contribution to the planet’s despoliation than before. Trump says he’s going to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure, which certainly needs it. Where he is going to get the money from, as he cuts taxes on the rich and on businesses, I don’t know; perhaps by borrowing. Reagan borrowed hugely, and Americans are still paying Reagan’s debts, especially to the Chinese. Trump says he knows all about debt, having been in debt so many times. The difference is that if a corrupt or unwise businessman goes bankrupt, he can walk away and start again, as Trump has often done. It’s true that other countries have defaulted on their debt; it’s not an option for the richest country in the world.

Just at the moment, I’m in despair. I said to Helen last night, and I don’t think I was being melodramatic, that political events in recent years have tipped me to a position where, for the first time in my life, I no longer expect the world to improve. All my life so far, I’ve hoped and believed that tolerance, respect for difference, a sense of individuals’ and nations’ obligations to each other, an understanding of the interconnectedness of the world, a realisation of the precious and fragile inheritance we have on this planet, were all increasing, slowly if unevenly. I no longer believe that. All that remains for me now, in however many years I have left, is to do as little harm as possible, to do good in my insignificant, habitual ways, and to enjoy the gifts and pleasures which my lucky life has brought me. The idea that I might be part of some broad movement towards enlightenment has gone, I think for ever.

Camden Town

11 Nov 2016

A beautiful, dry, clear autumn day, and I can’t shake off this profound gloom. As at other times in my life when I’ve been depressed, I go to bed in the afternoon and hope that the mood will pass. The trouble with sleeping in the daytime is that I lie awake most of the night, feeling useless.

Camden Town

13 Nov 2016

Yesterday we went up to Bedfordshire for the little Bedford Modern School reunion and reading of Twelfth Night. Good fun. I shook myself out of my gloom, but every news report, every piece of analysis I read, threatens to tip me back into it. This really is so much worse than a defeat at the hands of the Conservatives in a UK general election; worse even than the referendum. The most hate-filled, bigoted, isolationist people are beginning to take their place in Trump’s future governing team. The next few years are going to be bad for the world in a way that no previous period in my lifetime has been; the best that can hoped for is that the extremity of Trump’s positions — describing NATO as obsolete just when Russia is at its most dangerous, reneging on the global climate deal agreed in Paris last year, dumping international trade agreements without consulting former partners, claiming that he will round up and expel or imprison the two or three million people he describes as illegal immigrants and criminals — produce a kind of chaos which slows their malignity.

Camden Town

24 Nov 2016

The gloom returned. I had a dreadful, and uncharacteristic, long weekend, lasting from last Friday to last Monday, when I felt quite unable to do anything. I slept for far longer than I needed to, including going to bed for two or three hours in the afternoon. The state reminded me of Sundays many years ago, when I hadn’t entirely shaken off the mental damage inflicted by the religion of childhood and youth, when I similarly went to bed and lay there for hours, feeling wretched.

I had one comfort: a few months ago Peter Hetherington gave me a copy of Augustus by John Williams. It’s an epistolary novel, fictionalising some of the true events of the life of Augustus Caesar from the death of Julius Caesar onwards. Peter admires the book, and thought, correctly, that one reason I would be interested to read it is that both Horace and Virgil figure in it. It’s a magnificent work. There’s an extraordinary passage in Octavius’s long letter which forms Book 3, written a few days before he died, where he compares the work of the poet to the work of the general, the consul and the emperor.  The first two sentences of that paragraph are an apologia for poetry which could hardly be bettered: ‘The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility — which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it.  The fruits of that contemplation are the discovery, or the invention, of some small principle of harmony and order that may be isolated from that disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible.’

The book is also a marvellous account of the agonising dilemmas of power, culminating in Octavius’s decision to exile his daughter.  Williams cleverly leaves uncertain the question as to whether Julia did actually conspire with Jullus Antonius and others to kill her husband Tiberius and therefore to threaten her father’s life: Octavius writes, near the end of Book 3, that she did; she says, in conversation with him, that though she might have expressed a wish for the death of a husband she had been forced to marry for political reasons, and whom she hated, so that she could marry the only man she had ever loved, she had had no intention beyond that.  The very last words of the Epilogue, ‘...let us pray to the gods that, under Nero, Rome will at last fulfil the dream of Octavius Caesar’, are an envoi sending a chill down the spine, as if someone had expressed the same hope about a Trump presidency after that of Obama, who also has known the dilemmas of power. I consumed the book over that miserable weekend.

I may have written before that I found Stoner disappointing when I read it a few years ago, despite the praise heaped on it from all quarters.  I thought it was merely consistently glum rather than poignant, and sometimes overwritten to the point of pretentiousness.  But this is on another level altogether.

On Monday evening, the pall lifted. I am quite myself again (to quote Houseman), though of course the external situation is unchanged. The only bit of less-than-disastrous news was that Sarkozy was roundly beaten on Sunday in the first round of the primary elections for next year’s presidential candidate for Les Républicains. I hope we will hear no more from him, with his opportunistic appeals to the most divisive, chauvinist and racist elements in French public opinion. Indeed, he may be fully occupied defending himself in the courts against charges of corruption in the receipt of funds for his party in previous elections. Fillon’s dramatic victory was quite unexpected; I was sure that Juppé would come first, as were most people. I expect that Fillon will win in the second round of the primaries, especially since Sarkozy asked people to vote for him, despite having insulted and humiliated him when he was his Prime Minister; and that he will then go on to win the presidency. It’s a strange time we’re living in, when I can contemplate almost with equanimity the prospect of having as President of France an avid admirer of Thatcher, a man who thinks France should support Assad uncritically in order to defeat IS, because Fillon is not Sarkozy and not Le Pen.

France is sleepwalking towards a repeat of Vichy. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen got to the second round of the presidential election, the nation was shocked and ashamed. Lazy Socialist voters who hadn’t bothered to vote in the first round, because they had been on holiday or had had other things to do, hung their heads. There were huge demonstrations. This time, it’s taken for granted the Marine Le Pen will get to the second round. Brexit and the Trump victory have blown more wind into her sails. Socialist voters will once again have to vote for a right-wing candidate. It will be interesting, and perhaps terrifying, to see how the vote for the daughter in 2017 compares with the 17.8% which the father got 15 years previously. I fear it will be much greater. And 2022?

This assumes, of course, as everybody seems to in France, that the Socialists are so damaged after Hollande’s five desperately disappointing years, that no candidate of the left stands a chance of getting to the second round. I suppose that’s true, although I’ve been so completely wrong about almost all major elections in recent years, and about the referendum, that it would be pleasant one day to be glad to be wrong rather than miserable about it.

In all the democracies, the dog beneath the skin is growling.

Today I sent my translation of Aeneid 2 to Mark to put on the website, plus the first three of what I hope will be a dozen or so extracts from the Georgics. It’s been a good writing day: and a day when IS killed about 80 Shia pilgrims, many of them Iranian and Afghani, on their way back from an annual ceremony in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala. Is translating Latin as the world relentlessly darkens fiddling while Rome burns? Probably; but at least I’m cheerful again, however irrational that may be.


21 Dec 2016

We arrived yesterday. I’ve just been out for a walk up to the dustbins and back in the twilight of the winter solstice, amid thick mist and light drizzle.

We left London a week ago. We went first to Bletsoe, to Peter and Monica Hetherington. We dined very well with them at The Plough, and stayed the night. The next day we went on to Shropshire for the usual pre-Christmas weekend with David and Tom James. We saw all our Shropshire friends: on Friday night Juginder and Lesley; on Saturday night Glenda and Julian, Peter and Merle, Andrew and Annie, and Mike. We drove straight from Harmer Hill to Montreuil-sur-Mer on Monday.  I expect I’ve written about Montreuil before; we’ve stayed there many times. It’s an impressive walled, fortified old town, now several miles from the sea, though it has retained the name.  Les Hauts de Montreuil is a stylish little hotel with a good restaurant, where we toasted the first night of our winter holiday.  Yesterday was a longish but easy drive down here.

I’ve been proofreading the Harold Rosen book, and that’s done now. It took a good few days, because it is 572 pages and nearly a quarter of a million words. I showed the corrected proofs to Betty last Wednesday morning, before taking it to the publisher. She was very pleased, and slipped me a generous cheque which will more than cover the cost of seasonal festivities.

On 27 November Helen and I went down to Colliers Wood to hear a concert by a string quintet of which Kate Hetherington — Peter’s and Monica’s daughter — is first cello. It was wonderful: Glazunov in the first half, Schubert in the second. The experience produced a little poem, ‘Quintet’, which I’m pleased with.


Applause. The players sit, and settle. Pause. And then
a quick acknowledgement of eyebrows, and begin.

It always takes a while for time to leave the room:
for music only, and its makers, to remain.

But leave it does, and here, I see, first cello
wears a beatific smile, as if possessed by ghosts
of genius inhabiting her trembling fingers,
visitors unbidden whom she gladly hosts.

Schubert’s String Quintet in C is serious:
first violin has worked her face into a frown,
prising the clearest truth she can from lines of code.
The five unite, the one divides, and we are one

with them, within the music, in the silences
the other side of music. In their give-and-go,
their nods and glances, each one guards apartness
and surrenders to entirety. And this is how

they turn our various, distracted minds, and lead them,
willing and intent for now, deep, deeper, down
swimming in wells of sound at once familiar
and, as they plumb the furthest mysteries, unknown.

Tom Deveson and Richard Patterson, both fellow students at Bedford Modern, were at the concert. I’ve seen Tom occasionally in the intervening decades; he is perhaps the cleverest person I’ve ever met, and one of the best. I haven’t seen Richard at all. He’s been an English teacher and adviser, like me. I liked him immediately, after all these years. His wife Kay was lovely. They have a house in the Lot, so perhaps we’ll visit.

We had three nights, from 30 November to 3 December, with Adam and Hazel in Norfolk. On 1 December we walked on the marshes and by the sea at Cley, admiring the thousands of migrating birds which gather there. We drove back on the Saturday morning, and that evening went to Tosca at the Coliseum. We had a box, which Betty had kindly paid for. Gabriel Genest came too. We packed in quite a few cultural experiences in the few weeks we were in London: Lulu and The Pearl Fishers, also at the Coliseum; Mary Stuart at the Almeida; The Tempest at the Donmar’s temporary theatre at Kings Cross; Amadeus at the National; the Abstract Expressionists exhibition at the Royal Academy. I went to Tara Arts’ beautiful new little theatre at Earlsfield to see their pantomime, Bollywood Jack, in which Jack and the Beanstalk meets Bollywood and Tooting. Very funny: Farrukh Dhondy, whom I’ve known from English teaching and Channel 4 days, wrote it. Jatinder Verma, who runs Tara, is a good friend. I gave him my script of Roger II in the summer, despairing that Paul Halley will write any music after all this time. Jatinder’s thinking about it, but I doubt that he’ll take it on. I think it’s doomed to remain a paper project.

On Monday an Islamist terrorist drove a lorry into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve people and injuring many more, copying the atrocity in Nice in July. The lorry and its innocent driver were Polish; the terrorist hijacked the vehicle, which had been delivering goods from Poland to Berlin, and killed the driver in a struggle. The authorities know who did it: a Tunisian national with a string of aliases and a criminal record, who had applied for asylum in Germany, who left his German residence permit (no doubt by accident) and his DNA in the cab before escaping. The asylum application had been rejected, but the papers from Tunisia authorising his deportation hadn’t arrived when he committed the mass murder.

Angela Merkel’s admirable, statesperson-like policy of admitting about a million asylum-seekers and refugees into Germany — a kind of penance, perhaps, for Germany’s past crimes, but also of actual benefit to an economy that needs younger workers as its indigenous population ages — is under fierce attack from right-wing populists who are ideologically the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Nazis. She may well suffer in the German general election next September. Fortunately, she has great popularity among calmer, wiser Germans, and both her party and the Social Democrats, currently in coalition, have said that they would never enter a coalition with Alternative für Deutschland, the racist party.

Islamist fundamentalism is the scourge of our times. Naturally, we Europeans are shocked when our cities are attacked and our people killed, but fundamentalist organisations continue to kill people in far greater numbers in Asia and Africa all the time. I see no option but to defeat these organisations militarily, whatever the dreadful cost. They’re not like, say, the Provisional IRA or ETA or some violent Palestinian groups or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, where, however we might have condemned and — where they are still active — continue to condemn the wicked brutality of their actions, we knew and know that these were an incoherent response to long-term oppression. Islamic State and al-Qaida and their associated terror groups have not suffered specific, long-term oppression at the hands of more powerful forces or governments; their only purpose is to impose on the world their own perverted vision of Islam. Islamic State must be driven out of Mosul and Raqqa, though that will be very far from the end of the threat they pose.

The heart-breaking scenes in Syria continue. Assad’s forces now control Aleppo. Civilians are being swapped in their thousands from rebel-held areas to government-controlled areas, and vice versa. Although the retaking of Aleppo is a major gain for Assad, the end of the civil war is nowhere in sight. The rebels — both the democratic forces that the West should have supported much more robustly, and the Islamists — still control large swathes of the country. I think there will now be a period of stand-off and division. Russia’s wicked role in the tragedy is there for all to see. We should have attacked Assad after he used chemical weapons against his own people. We didn’t, and once Putin noticed that, he moved in.


23 Dec 2016

The Berlin killer has been shot dead in Milan. Two policeman found him in a working-class suburb of the city, and asked to see his papers. He responded by shooting one of them, who fortunately is not seriously injured. The other policeman, who’s only been in the job a few months, killed the killer, who had travelled from Germany to Holland, thence by bus to Lyon, thence by train to Turin and then Milan. The ease with which he was able to cross national frontiers raises serious questions about the Schengen agreement. Naturally, the parties in various EU countries which want the EU to break up are making the most of the story, but the authorities have so far, I presume, decided that to inconvenience hundreds of thousands of innocent travellers who cross national borders in the Schengen area every day, and to take on the huge extra cost of checking them, is not justified, at least not yet.


27 Dec 2016

Christmas passed pleasantly, but with the underlying sadness that Stephen Eyers wasn’t with us. Theresa, quite rightly, spent Christmas with her son Paul at Whitstable. We ate coquille Saint Jacques on Christmas Eve, took a hamper of very British food to our neighbours on Christmas morning, walked at Fort Bloqué in the afternoon, and came home to open presents with champagne while a guinea fowl was cooking. Yesterday evening we went to our restaurant at Pont-Scorff, where we shall go again, of course, on New Year’s Eve.

Yesterday and today I’ve been in the garden, pruning, weeding and raking, generally making the place look tidy. Tidiness does yield a certain satisfaction. Both days have been beautiful: clear and cold. I’ve been accompanied by a robin, most of the time, and occasionally by a dunnock. As I was having a rest and drinking tea yesterday, both birds were within my view, but as soon as the robin noticed the dunnock, he chased her away. Robins are aggressive little beasts, however much love we love them. The other day, through the kitchen window, we saw a magnificent male great spotted woodpecker hammering away at a fallen branch. We watched it for a couple of minutes before it flew off. And I’ve seen green woodpeckers twice at the top of the lane.

I’ve done a funny little poem which I’m pleased with. Brownyn gave me a very good book called Reading Dante, by Prue Shaw. In it, I came upon the extraordinary fact that, in Dante’s lifetime, some of his verses were brazenly used by lawyers to fill up the last pages of documents, to stop future falsification by the addition of codicils (I suppose the way that, when we write cheques, we put a line across the vacant space, or write ‘Only’, to stop a fraud adding more money). I often say that the hardest thing, with me, is to get an idea in the first place. As soon as I read that, I knew I could do something. The title is a bit learned, but it made me smile when I thought of it, it alliterates nicely, and I’m going to stick with it. Here’s the poem.

Fabbro contro Falso

In Italy, in Dante’s time, the lawyers’ clerks
filled up the spaces at the ends of judgments, deeds and wills
with sonnets or with chunks of longer literary works
to thwart the later introduction of fake codicils:
professional scribes’ forgeries appended
to parry or pervert the force intended
by careful phrasing in the body of the text.

And Dante’s verses were employed as padding
against the practice of malicious adding.

Imagine it: a wealthy litigant has vexed
the patience of the court, and lost his case. In seething rage
he’s flicking through the document confirming his defeat.
He finds ten tercets from Inferno on the final page.
He scans the visions of a cosmic dreamer,
the strange new numbers of the terza rima,
and sucks his teeth, and thinks of other ways to cheat.


28 Dec 2016

A beautiful cold clear day today. I finished maintenance work by emptying the gutters of leaves: a curiously pleasurable activity. The gutter down the side of the house is the trickiest, because I have to jam a big stone under the right foot of the ladder to make it level. A health and safety inspector would be appalled.

We went for a long circular walk after lunch. Saw no one. These days between Christmas and New Year are recessional, or as if someone has breathed in and not yet breathed out. I enjoy them. The Prue Shaw book is absolutely excellent; the chapters ‘Numbers’ (mainly about the rule of three which governs much of the Commedia, beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity) and ‘Words’ (self-evidently about Dante’s use of language) are marvellously informative. Though I knew that Dante was exiled from Florence and that he died in Ravenna, I didn’t know that he travelled widely in Italy after his exile, and that his vocabulary includes common words and conjugations of verbs in a variety of forms drawn from different dialects of the language, which — apart from anything else — helped him meet the formidable challenge of the terza rima rhyme structure.

We lurch towards a dangerous 2017. Trump is making up international US policy on Twitter. On Friday, the UN Security Council condemned Israel’s continual and illegal construction of settlements on the West Bank, saying — quite rightly — that it threatens any prospect of a two-state solution. I don’t believe that Netanyahu really wants a two-state solution, whatever he may say officially to the contrary. I don’t know what his real wish is. Is it that the Palestinians will just go elsewhere, perhaps to Jordan? Is it that they will accept a condition of permanent subjugation as he expands Jewish territory? Neither of these will happen. The proportion of Arabs — Muslim, Christian or Druze — in Israel proper is already 20%, and likely to rise to 25% by 2025. They will form increasingly influential coalitions with their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. In past entries, I have also written that a two-state solution isn’t the answer; but my one-state solution is the utopian idea — utopian at least for the foreseeable future — that Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze living in the whole area currently occupied by Israel and Palestine should establish a secular government on the basis of equal rights for all and complete respect for religious difference. The US abstained in the Security Council vote, infuriating the Israeli government. John Kerry has just made a speech pointing out the obvious: there will be no peace while Israel keeps taking Palestinian land. So Trump tweets that Israel should ‘stay strong’ until 20 January, when things will be different. And Netanyahu tweets a grateful response. Trump, Netanyahu, Putin, Erdogan: these are some of the masters of the universe now. Information-free opinionation; vast egos; profoundly complex international issues reduced to slogans of no more than 140 characters: terrifying.


31 Dec 2016

The year moves quietly towards its end under grey skies. No breath of wind. We’ll go, as usual in recent years, to L’Art Gourmand at Pont-Scorff for the Saint Sylvestre meal. I expect there will be singing, and I expect I shall be called upon. Helen heard Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ the other week, and suggested it to me as a possible extension of my repertoire. A slow, sentimental ballad is a departure from the vigorous folk songs I’m more comfortable with, but I’ve just rehearsed it a dozen or more times under Trenet’s personal direction (on YouTube), and I think I’ll risk it.

The year moves violently towards its end in Baghdad, with another atrocity committed by Islamic State in a Shia district of the city. I hope that this evil organisation can be defeated during the course of 2017, at least in Iraq and possibly in Syria. Apart from that, I have no great hopes for next year: too many bad people are in too many positions of power. I shall remember 2016 as the year when my best friend died, and when I realised, for the first time, how insignificant have been all my efforts in the little spaces where I have some expertise: not worthless, but hardly registering on the scale of change for good in the world. In that sense, I suppose I’m just like almost everybody else. The necessary thing is to stay cheerful while living with the realisation.

On Thursday I did a little love poem for Helen. I’ll end with it.

Our Time

There was a time when I was not.
A time will come when I won’t be.
Between these aeons, there’s a dot,
a microscopic speck. That’s me.

What biochemical event
how many billion years ago
began the process that has meant
that when I say, ‘I love you so,’

those vowels and consonants affect
the air, your eardrums and your brain
in ways the higher intellect
cannot sufficiently explain?

The heart’s a bit of pumping gear.
It’s prone to blockages and leaks.
Some other force must engineer
that flush of colour in your cheeks:

some impulse, some primaeval need,
before we learned to stand up straight,
implanted in the human breed
so I don’t have too long to wait

for your familiar reply,
‘I love you too. I love you more,’
which grants me courage to defy
the dark behind, the dark before.