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Occurrences: Book Thirteen

Camden Town

10 Jan 2017

We got back here late last night after a pleasant last few days in Brittany. 'La Mer' was a bit of a disaster at L'Art Gourmand on New Year's Eve. It needed much more rehearsal than I gave it, and it's one thing to sing along with Charles Trenet on the internet, and another to do it with no accompaniment after having drunk plenty. I think people forgave me. The folksongs went down well, as usual.

I've brought with me a cutting from Le Monde of 6 January. It's an article by the paper's UK correspondent, Alain Frachon, and entitled 'Brexit, tristes lendemains'. It discusses the difficulties in which we find ourselves after the referendum. Approximate translation of a few paragraphs:

'The Brexiters' argument [during the referendum campaign] was founded on an enormous lie. They guaranteed that the UK could leave the EU while keeping access to the single European market. This is false or, at the very least, the situation is much more complicated than that. Then, the debate of last spring didn't have to do with Europe, or at least very little. The Brexiters never said what kind of relationship they wanted to have with Europe. They don't know; they are divided. The campaign turned on two questions: financing the health service and the control of immigration.

On the first question, the Brexiters put forward extravagant figures. They "apologised" for them after the count, naturally. On the second, they cultivated a confusion between intra-European immigration (free circulation within the EU, of which London [meaning the UK government] was for a long time one of the most ardent defenders) and the migratory flows coming from Africa and the Middle East. But on the links to be preserved with Europe, on future co-operation with Brussels, on the role which the UK intends to continue to play on the continent when no longer a member of the EU, there was no discussion or hardly any. As if that wasn't the topic.

Since then, how do we interpret the 52% in favour of Brexit? What is Mrs May's precise mandate? Her silence is worrying. She seems to refuse to recognise the complexity of Brexit. Exasperated, the chief British representative at the EU, Ivan Rogers, has just resigned. Within her majority, the Prime Minister has to achieve a synthesis between the fundamentalists and the empiricists of Brexit. She has to avoid heightened tensions between the different peoples of the UK. During December 2016, Scotland and Wales announced that they weren't imagining leaving the single European market. A sign of the current unease: a poll conducted by WIN/Gallup indicates that 54% of the UK electorate would now say no to Brexit.

The press speculates on a compromise which would see the UK staying in the European customs union, at least for a very long period of transition. This medium-intensity Brexit would be the least devastating for the British economy. In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens remarks philosophically that history has taught us that "there are transitory arrangements which can become definitive".

Mrs May has an impossible mission because the question of Europe was perhaps not the central one in the June vote. The EU was the pretext for, and the victim of, one of those protest demonstrations which shake Western electorates. We know the reasons. The twin forces of globalisation and technological revolution continue to alarm, and are a cause of deindustrialisation, growth which is as sluggish as it is unequal, and worry about uncontrolled migratory flows. The complexity of this volatile and unpredictable world frightens people. They respond by voting for simple solutions: a return to the past. A withdrawal to the national. In the FT again, Gideon Rachman speaks of "nostalgic nationalism".

The problem for the British is that leaving the EU will not aid the treatment of any of the elements of this malaise…'

Perfectly put.

I've now got the proofs of the two Routledge books. So plenty to get on with.

Camden Town

27 Feb 2017

Since I last wrote, the most disastrous person to occupy the White House in my lifetime has been sworn in. He brought immediate chaos to the world by signing an executive order which indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen), refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days. He signed the order on a Friday afternoon. Over the weekend, people with an absolutely legitimate right to fly to the US were prevented from boarding planes at airports around the world. Senior lawyers, who understand something about the US constitution, succeeded in blocking the measure, causing Trump to rage against 'so-called judges' and the mainstream media, which he accuses of running an immoral campaign against the people's will. The idea that a president can be so ignorant of one of the essential elements of his country's constitution — that there can be no prejudice against a person on the grounds of her or his religious conviction — is truly remarkable, and shows us that we are now in uncharted territory so far as the governance of the most powerful country in the world is concerned. Trump's aides tried to plead that the order wasn't an anti-Muslim measure; only an anti-terrorist measure. That argument collapsed when it became clear that specific exceptions to the ban had been made for non-Muslim minorities in the seven countries. Further, none of the terrorist acts in the US since September 2001 has been committed by a person from one of the seven countries; Saudi Arabia, for example, some of whose nationals were involved in 9/11, was not on the list. Finally, the US at this moment is in coalition with groups in Iraq and Syria in the struggle to defeat IS; the measure seems the surest way to alienate those people. I read today that the frustrated president is going to issue another order on Wednesday to try to reactivate the ban on some different basis, to get round the judicial blockage.

Trump's National Security Adviser had to resign when it became clear that he had engaged in conversations with the Russian government about future relations between the two countries before he had been sworn into his post, something which is illegal in US law, and had then misled the vice-president, after the vice-president's and his own swearing-in, about whether he had done this or not. Trump's first choice of replacement refused the offer. Now he has chosen a serving soldier, apparently widely respected. It is too early to say whether that decision, and the more emollient tone taken by some of Trump's senior lieutenants in their dealings with the rest of the world, signal a shift in the direction of sanity. But it's government by Twitter for now. There was an extraordinary scene when Trump, the Japanese prime minister and the two men's wives were dining at Trump's luxury club in Florida, a place which is open to anyone who's extremely rich. The lunatic who runs North Korea chose that moment to fire a 'test' missile in the direction of Japan. It landed in the sea. A potentially lethal moment in international relations was then discussed in full view of fellow diners, some of whom took the opportunity to photograph or film the discussions and upload their efforts to social media.

The threat to build a wall the length of the border between Mexico and the US remains. The threat to deport millions of illegal immigrants, most of whom are doing low-paid work essential to America's economy, remains.

Trump casually remarked, in the company of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting, that he'd be just as happy with a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as with a two-state solution. Ironically, I've written in the past that a one-state solution is the only long-term answer to the problem, following Edward Said's wisdom. But Netanyahu's idea of a one-state solution wouldn't be Said's. Said's was based on the idea of absolute equality between Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze in a state whose constitution is secular, while guaranteeing rights of religious observance. Any one-state solution proposed or imposed by Netanyahu would involve the subjugation or removal of the Palestinians. There are people in the Israeli government even more extreme than he who would happily embrace that solution; he must realise its impracticability, regardless of its injustice. I'm reading a book called The Arabs, by Eugene Rogan. There's a chapter about the British mandate in Palestine, about the civil war between Jews and Arabs there as the British were leaving — a series of appalling events in which atrocities were committed by both sides but whose dominant narrative was that the better-armed Jews simply drove the Arabs from their homes — and about the first Arab-Israeli war as soon as Israeli independence was achieved. I'm tempted to say that the dreadful continuing tragedy in Israel-Palestine owes much to the UK's disastrous governance of Palestine between the wars; and it's certainly true that the Balfour declaration's intention to provide a homeland for the Jews while maintaining the rights and property of non-Jewish people already living in Palestine proved a hopeless (but possibly idealistic?) ambition, succeeding only in antagonising both sides. But no one in 1919 could have foreseen the Holocaust and the resulting moral imperative to provide a place of safety for Jewish people. What could and should have been foreseen is that you don't atone for one epic evil by the persecution of another group of people innocent of that evil.

I've strayed a bit from Trump. The only thing I'm sure of is that he has no grasp whatever of the ferocious complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine, and is only giving comfort to the most intransigent voices in the Zionist camp.

My books are nearly done. The Rosen book will be in my hands, I think, next Monday; and there will be a launch, at which I'll give a talk, on 20 March. I've signed off the text of the two Routledge books too, so they're on track to appear some time this spring. And I've finally agreed with Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor that Chalkface Press will publish a selection of my poems. (The vague possibility of Nicky Platt interesting a mainstream poetry publisher in the work didn't come to anything.) Last Friday I had a good session with Peter Hetherington, recording readings of 36 poems for the website. I've done five extracts from Virgil's Georgics now, including a long piece at the end of Book 4 about how Aristaeus lost all his bees because he had tried to ravish Orpheus' wife Eurydice, with the poignant account of Orpheus' failed attempt to recover his wife from the underworld. I've also done a philippic against Trump called 'Inauguration Day: January 2017', inspired by Robert Lowell's 'Inauguration Day: January 1953'; it's a sonnet in tetrameters like his. And I've written an elegy on my loss of Stephen Eyers, which I've had framed and have given to Theresa.

Camden Town

13 Mar 2017

It's a most beautiful day. Spring is here. I walked in the park this morning: crocuses and daffodils in full flower.

I gave myself a fortnight to write my speech for the launch of the Harold Rosen book next Monday. I knew that I wouldn't need that long; perhaps I was being ultra-cautious because it's a long time since I've done a big educational talk. Anyhow, I got it done in two days last week. I read it to Helen, who was precise in her criticisms as ever. It was too long (about 75 minutes), so I've taken out 20 minutes, and I think it'll do now. The book is published, and I'm very pleased with it. It's quite a doorstop at 582 pages.

The two Routledge books are scheduled for publication in late April: earlier than expected.

I've been watching the Six Nations rugby, as I do every year, often thinking about Harold, with whom I used to watch the England games whenever I could.

Today, parliament is completing the dismal business of formalising the UK's intention to withdraw from the EU. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, threw a rock into the pond this morning by announcing that the Scottish parliament will vote next week on a measure to request the UK parliament's permission to hold another referendum on Scottish independence, given the complete change in the situation since last year's EU referendum, in which Scotland voted heavily to remain in the EU. She wants to hold the second referendum in the autumn of next year or the spring of 2019. It's a big gamble for her. She will win the vote next week, since she has the support of the Greens, but it's much more doubtful that enough people in Scotland have changed their minds since September 2014. Perhaps they have; and I suppose she calculates that if she were to postpone another referendum until after the UK has exited the EU, and were to win it then, there would be a long delay while Scotland applied to join from outside, but if Scotland won the referendum while the UK was still in the EU, there's a chance that Scotland could, as it were, take the UK's seat. One problem for her is that about a third of SNP voters voted to leave the EU; they wouldn't agree that the situation, so far as that question is concerned, has changed for the worse. On the other hand, there certainly are Labour and Liberal Democrat voters who think that the decision to leave the EU is disastrous; perhaps they might decide that being independent and in the EU is a lesser evil than being in the UK and out. There are pro-European Tory voters in Scotland, but I doubt that any of them could bring themselves to vote on the same side as the SNP, however damaging is the prospect for Scotland's economy of the UK's exit from the EU.

Although I like and admire Keir Starmer, our MP and Labour's shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU, I think Labour's position on triggering article 50, the EU instrument which allows for member states to leave, is wrong. Psephologists tell us that about two thirds of those who voted Labour in the 2015 general election voted to remain in the EU in 2016. That is a big enough mandate, I would have thought, to enable Labour to vote against triggering article 50. We would almost certainly have lost the vote, even with the support of other parties, but there would have been coherence with the party's official position during the referendum campaign, however unimpressively Corbyn promoted it, and we would have represented the wishes of a two-to-one majority of Labour voters.

There's an election on Wednesday in the Netherlands, in which the far right, led by the vile racist Geert Wilders, is expected to do well, but will be prevented by some kind of coalition of the other parties from participating in government. Meanwhile, Turkey is moving towards full-scale dictatorship under Erdogan. There is to be a referendum next month which he is likely to win, since he controls most of the media now. Assuming that he does win, he will take even greater powers to himself than he currently has. There were to have been rallies for Turks living in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and France, some of whom are entitled to vote in the referendum. The first three of these countries blocked the rallies, citing security concerns (which presumably means the fear that there might be violence between pro- and anti-Erdogan Turks, and/or between Turks of either persuasion and far-right thugs). Two Turkish ministers were barred from addressing rallies in Rotterdam, with one of them escorted to the German border. Police in Rotterdam used dogs and water cannon against protesters waving Turkish flags. Erdogan has reacted by calling the Dutch Nazis: a ridiculous and disgusting thing to say. Ironically, the banning of the rallies may have done the Dutch Prime Minister no harm at all, a few days before his own election. He's shown that he can be tough on a matter of public order which happens to affect a largely Muslim minority in his country, perhaps spiking Wilders' guns a little.

Turkey still imagines, at least according to its official statements, that it could one day be a member of the EU. There's absolutely no chance of that, given the country's direction of travel under Erdogan.

Referenda are said to be a device popular with dictators. One can't accuse Cameron or Sturgeon of being dictators, but the UK's referendum has brought out the worst elements in Britain's character. The fear of foreigners and an easy tendency to blame them for the country's ills have been legitimised by the result. And we are about to engage in adversarial negotiations with the very people with whom we should have the closest relationships — other European democrats — just at the moment when, all around the world as well as in Europe itself, the authoritarian dog is growling not far beneath the skin.

Camden Town

14 Mar 2017

Walked in the park again this morning, and decided to take paths that I usually miss. Was rewarded by the sight of a pair of mistle thrushes quietly flitting back and forth between two big plane trees. Wonderful: a rarity. Also saw a scarlet camellia in full flower, and catkins everywhere on hazels and willows. I didn't know, until Wikipedia told me just now, that 'the word "catkin" is a loan word from the old Dutch katteken, meaning "kitten", on account of the resemblance to a kitten's tail'.

Camden Town

17 Mar 2017

This is the third extraordinarily beautiful day in a row. Wednesday was peerless: bright blue sky all day, and the temperature of early summer. Flowering trees behaved as if on speeded-up film. On Tuesday evening I passed the little cherry tree on the corner of Bayham Street and Pratt Street, which I always keep an eye on at this time of year. Nothing yet. 24 hours later, walking back from Daphne's restaurant with Helen, the whole performance had occurred; it was in full bloom, in that spectacular way that cherries have, with the starkly lovely contrast between flower and bark, no leaves yet.

I've just read Christopher Hibbert's The French Revolution. It's an old book, first published in 1980. I was looking along the shelves in the flat for something to read, having finished The Arabs. There it was, and I realised that, strangely, I'd never read a one-volume account of those astonishing events, although I'd come at them from various oblique angles, like the life of Bonaparte or the revolution's place amongst other proletarian upheavals. It's very good, and a terrifying reminder of the inchoate violence which occurs when dominant powers refuse to recognise the necessity of change. One particular statistic struck me. It's popularly imagined that the majority of people who went to the guillotine were aristocrats. No. 'Less than nine in a hundred of those guillotined in the Terror were of noble birth; about six per cent were clergy. The rest, eighty-five per cent, came from that class of people once known as the Third Estate. Among them were "twenty peasant girls from Poitou", so one contemporary recorded: "All of them were to be executed together. Exhausted by their long journey, they lay in the courtyard of the Conciergerie, asleep on the paving-stones. Their expression betrayed no understanding of their fate… They were all guillotined a few days after their arrival… From one of them a baby she was feeding was taken from her breast."' Occasionally I hear jolly Brits, on holiday in France, speak approvingly of some aspect of French society in contrast to that prevailing in Britain. They say, 'Of course, they had a revolution here.' They would be less uncritical if they read some of the detail in the book about the sadistic atrocities committed in the name of revolution. As Manon Roland famously said, looking up at the statue of Liberty in the Place de la Révolution just before her execution, 'Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.'

On Wednesday, the Dutch decisively rejected the vile politics of hatred as propounded by Wilders. Thank goodness. They'll now spend a long time constructing a coalition government, but the best news is that Wilders' party does not have the largest number of seats: with 19, nowhere near. If it had had, Wilders would be able to say that the other parties were ganging up against the will of the people.

On now to France, where I fear that Le Pen will come first in the first round of voting, but where it looks as if Emmanuel Macron will beat her in the second. Fillon, the surprise winner of the primary held by Les Républicains before Christmas, is mired in scandal over payments he is alleged to have made to his wife and his children for non-existent work. He's now been placed under formal investigation. He's battling on, even though he had previously said that he would withdraw his candidacy if that happened, and in the autumn mocked Sarkozy's candidacy in the primary, with Sarkozy also under formal investigation.

Macron, a centrist of no established political party, was Hollande's economy minister until he resigned to make his own run. He has founded a vague, optimistic movement called En Marche!, which is attracting people from various parts of the French electorate who are despairing of everyone else. He represents a phenomenon which couldn't happen here, because we don't have a presidential system. If he does get through to the second round, voters of the left will find it easier to vote for him than they would have done for Fillon; and voters of the non-racist right will find it easier to vote for him than they would have done for a candidate of the Socialist Party (who will come nowhere near the first two places in the first round anyway). So the young, party-less man has been the lucky beneficiary of the travails of both left and right. On top of that, François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist party Mouvement Démocrate, has joined forces with him. Macron is positive about the EU, and not afraid to say so, which is a relief in these times. If he wins the presidency, it will be intriguing to see how he does business with a government formed by members of a party or parties (not sure which one or more than one — that will wait till June) which he will appoint but to which he doesn't belong. There has been cohabitation before, of course; but (I think) never in the Fifth Republic cohabitation between a no-party president and a conventional party-based government.

Camden Town

21 Apr 2017

The launch of the Harold Rosen book on 20 March went well. There were about 200 people in a lecture room in the UCL Cruciform Building (the old hospital, as I remember it). Michael and Betty Rosen introduced me, and I spoke for an hour. Here is what I said.

Hello everyone, and welcome. And thank you, Betty and Michael, for those kind words. We're here this afternoon to launch this book [I held it up], which is a bringing-together of a selection of the educational writings, stories and poems of Harold Rosen.

Harold studied for an English degree at UCL between 1937 and 1940, he did his post-graduate teaching qualification at the Institute of Education, and much later, between 1962 and 1984, he taught in the English department at the Institute, rising to become head of the department and a professor of the university. So it's most appropriate that we're here in UCL, of which the Institute is now a part, although my principal memories of this beautiful building are of 40 years ago, when it was University College Hospital and I was sitting next to friends' bedsides.

The need to bring together Harold's writings, as Betty Rosen and I have done, lies in the nature of the thinker and doer that Harold was. There are academics who write, and leave behind them impressive doorstops of books containing their thoughts and findings, and that is of course fine and many of those academics have made important contributions to the advancement of knowledge.

Harold was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching and language education in the second half of the 20th century, and he had the intellectual equipment to pursue a conventional academic career of great distinction, but that wasn't the choice he made. His output of educational publications is large, as you will notice if you buy this book (as I hope you will) and have to carry it home, but he put his greatest efforts into collaborations with colleagues, always addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners. That decision was a natural consequence of his socialist understanding of how to bring about change in organisations and systems: it has to be done by collective endeavour.

Most of the words in today's book are educational writings. They are grouped in the book under three loose headings: The politics of language and English teaching; The role of language in learning; and Story. But their concerns very often — in fact more often than not — chafe against the boundaries, bleed across them. That is the nature of the thinker and doer he was.

Some of Harold's stories and poems are interspersed amongst the educational writing. He wrote stories about his childhood in the East End of London and about his own education. They are already gathered in two volumes: Troublesome Boy and Are you still Circumcised? The stories are by turns shocking, funny, poignant and loving, and questions of language hover within all of them. There is one story about an experience in Berlin in 1945 when he was a soldier in the US Army. Seven of the stories, including the Berlin story, are republished in today's book, together with a selection of his published poems. One poem appears for the first time.

I've included the stories and poems with the educational writings because, unlike many full-scale scholars of language, literature and culture, Harold actually dared to do the thing he wrote so authoritatively about. And they're there in the book as plums in the pudding too: if the educational writing is getting a bit relentless, you can read a story or a poem for a different kind of pleasure. And I'm going to follow my own advice by dropping a few extracts from the stories, and one poem, into the mix in the course of this talk.

Here's a bit from a story in which Harold remembers his mother, and her early influence on him. It contains two themes which stayed with him throughout his life: the centrality of education to change lives, and a turbulent and challenging approach to the powers that be. He had gone with his mother to London's County Hall, then the seat of London government, because there was some doubt about whether he qualified for a scholarship enabling him to go to grammar school.

I was eleven, sitting on a hard chair, looking at the man across the desk. He looked weary, perhaps even cross. My mother was sitting on a chair next to me. She too was looking across the desk at the man. I thought I could detect the glint of battle in her eye, but the man hadn't noticed. He wasn't looking at either of us but down at the buff-coloured folder which he frowned at while opening it.

The man across the desk looked up and gazed at my mother without saying a word. Teachers do that, I thought. It's how they get on top of you from the word go. My mother wore for the occasion her best black gloves, a newish grey hat and a fox fur. Gloves, hat, fur — she was putting on the style. The man began talking in a rusty voice, affecting infinite patience and civility, cultivated in dealing with the lower orders, especially those from the East End. I heard heavy condescension and controlled insolence. I worried desperately. My scholarship to the grammar school was at stake.

'Before I hear what you have to say, Mrs Rosen, and I shall do, rest assured, you simply must understand I have noted all the details. I have read your letter most carefully. I see from the form you've filled out that you and your husband became U.S. citizens in 1913. I am very sorry to tell you that this makes the boy an alien. You won't have read the regulations, of course. Oh, so sorry, you have? Well, they are very clear, aren't they? We are obliged to see that all conditions are met before we can...'

'Just a minute, just a minute. No one has asked me about what happened to my citizenship after I came back to England in 1922. You certainly haven't, have you? I reclaimed my British citizenship in 1924 after they changed the law. There's quite a few things which concern this scholarship which I've not been asked about.'

'Mrs Rosen, we have checked the details very thoroughly.'

'You haven't got all the details so how can you have checked them?'

At this point she took out of her bag a little sheaf of papers. I marvelled at her composure. The desk-man made an attempt to speak but my mother, certain she had the initiative, cut him off.

'No, no, don't rush me. Are you in a hurry? Let's go through these papers one by one. And you should know that my local councillor, Mr Silver, will be coming to see you, and my MP, Mr John Scurr, tells me he'll be writing to you.'

The official's manner was changing. Not that he became affable, but he was no longer dismissive and patronising. I had by now shed all my discomfort and sat revelling in my mother's aplomb. I was sure I'd get that scholarship.

And he did.

In the next part of this talk, I'm going to highlight some themes in Harold's book which created the climate which I entered and enjoyed when I became a teacher in 1974, and which I believe still offer the best hope for our children and young people in the area of English teaching, language and learning.

Here's the first.

In 1956, Harold went as head of English to one of the pilot comprehensive schools in London, Walworth School.

He wrote a syllabus for the English department during his time there, which he handed on to his successors when he left in 1958. Most of that syllabus is in today's book. It's an extraordinary document, in some of its language very much of its time, but with a central, revolutionary principle which is for all time: that the curriculum must take notice of and respect the language, culture, interests and enthusiasms of the students. Old hat? Not in 1958, not in a school then serving an entirely white, working-class population, not in an overall intellectual environment which then regarded the working class as usually deficient in language and intelligence, and in need of the enlightenment which more fortunate, cleverer people were kind enough to offer them.

Here is the first paragraph of Harold's introduction to the syllabus:

The teaching of English at Walworth calls for a sympathetic understanding of the pupils' environment and temperament. Their language experience is acquired from their environment and from communication with the people who matter most to them. This highly localised language is likely to stand out in their own minds in strong contrast to the language experience being consciously presented in the framework of English lessons in particular, and school work in general. This contrast can all too easily become a conflict, 'aversion to poshness', and affectation can easily bedevil the teaching of English. Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground. However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively pupils' own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience. Only in this way can they advance to the next stage.

That understanding, and the work of the Walworth English department from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, has filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and the English-speaking world.

So that is the first of my string of thoughts, the first of the insights, initially revolutionary, later accepted, taken for granted, incorporated into much mainstream practice, then challenged, undermined, travestied, sneered at by reactionary voices and forces, for which Harold and his colleagues and contemporaries were responsible: that the content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the classroom must respect the culture and experience which the learner brings there.

The second of the string of thoughts owes its existence to an organisation which Harold helped to found, in 1947, and which is one of the sponsors of this occasion: the London Association for the Teaching of English. LATE was the first locally based organisation in the UK in which English teachers came together to debate ideas, share resources and formulate policies for future practice. It was the spur to the setting-up of other local English teachers' associations, and to the establishment of the National Association for the Teaching of English in 1963. Harold describes LATE's early work, and a crucial development of that work.

In the Association we are all more or less specialist teachers of English and for many years we busied ourselves with our own fascinating specialist concerns… Increasingly, however, we found ourselves being pushed beyond the boundaries we had come to accept or perhaps helped to create. We found ourselves discussing the relationship between language and thought, how language represented experience, the functions of language in society, different kinds of language and how they were acquired, the difference between talking and writing, the nature of discussion and group dynamics… Soon we found ourselves talking about 'language in education', or 'language and learning', and finally about 'language across the curriculum'. We felt sure that language was a matter of concern for everybody, that if children were to make sense of their school experience, and in the process were to become confident users of language, then we needed to engage in a much closer scrutiny of the ways in which they encountered and used language throughout the school day. For this we needed all the help we could get from other subject teachers.

At a weekend conference in May 1968, LATE produced a document called 'A Language Policy Across the Curriculum'. (I think that it was on that weekend that the very phrase 'language across the curriculum' was invented.) It was more widely disseminated when it appeared at the end of the first edition of this book [I held it up], Language, the Learner and the School, which Harold co-authored with James Britton and Douglas Barnes (and it's wonderful to see Douglas here this afternoon). Harold's contribution to the book, from which I've just quoted, and the LATE document itself, are in the book we're launching today.

Language, the Learner and the School had an enormous and immediate influence in promoting two major ideas: that learners need to use their own language, especially their spoken language, in coming to grips with new knowledge which the school wishes them to take on; and that schools as whole institutions need to consider how the language through which they offer knowledge to learners is actually experienced by those learners. Implicit in the second of these two ideas was the judgement that learners very often experienced the language demands of the school as incoherent, or deadeningly repetitive, or simply mysterious.

The 1969 edition of Language, the Learner and the School sold about 35,000 copies in two years. A revised edition of the book was published in 1971, and sold equally well. Those numbers, incidentally, give an idea of a time when groups of teachers, working voluntarily, not under the impetus of government instruction, admittedly in this case with the help of a sympathetic publisher, had the confidence to generate ideas which were taken up by the profession immediately and widely.

'Language across the curriculum' was a banner raised to signal a concern and to invite action. A few years later, Harold and his colleagues in the English department at the Institute conducted a piece of research, which emerged in 1975 as this book [I held it up], The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18. It showed that, overwhelmingly, the experience of writers in secondary schools was that of low-level factual report and the generalised re-presentation of previously given information, written by the pupil for the teacher as sole examiner and judge; there was deadening repetitiveness in that area of those pupils' language experience, usually not realised by their teachers. The chapter which Harold contributed to that book is in today's book.

Another of Harold's productive collaborations in the study of language and learning was with his first wife Connie Rosen; they worked together, for example, on this very influential book [I held it up], The Language of Primary School Children, published in 1973. There's an extract from that book in today's book.

Does the idea that there should be conversations between teachers as to the experience of language which they are providing for their pupils, with the aim of increasing coherence and reducing deadening repetitiveness: does that idea seem so obviously right that it's almost banal? It didn't in 1968 and 1975; and its rightness is equally urgent now.

Time, I think, for a change of note; but still on the topic of writing. There's a story in the book called 'Penmanship', in which Harold remembers the trials, tribulations and punishments he suffered as a schoolboy because of what he and his teachers regarded as his terrible handwriting. (I never found it so difficult to decipher; perhaps it had improved over half a century.) He had a teacher at his primary school who regularly caned him because he couldn't do his k's right; though Harold sportingly acknowledges that at least Mr O'Carroll caned his left hand, he being right-handed. (He doesn't say what was Mr O'Carroll's approach to left-handed boys. I say 'boys', because of course primary-school classes were then segregated by gender after 'Mixed Infants'. This being the 1920s, it's probable that neither boys nor girls were allowed to be left-handed in that school.)

Going off the point a bit, I have my own story about the segregation of children in the old London School Board elementary schools. It was told to me by the vicar of the church my family attended in the 1950s. As a young clergyman before the war, he had been passing an elementary school on the first day of the new school year. He came upon a little child, heavily wrapped up in coat, scarf and hat, weeping profusely outside the building. He asked the child what was the matter. 'I don't know how to get in!' was the agonised reply. The young clergyman took the child by the hand, and led it to the boys' entrance. The child, who evidently could read, looked up at the beautifully sculpted word above the gate, and said, 'I'm not a boy!' Puzzled, the clergyman took the child round the corner to the girls' entrance. Again the child looked up at the sculpted word and, weeping ever more piteously, said, 'And I'm not a girl!' 'What are you, then?' asked the clergyman. The answer came immediately: 'I'm a mixed infant!'

Back to Harold. Amid the misery he was suffering as a result of his handwriting, there was a bright interlude: an example of what, when I was working on the National Writing Project in the 1980s, we called 'writing for a real audience'.

It takes some believing but only a month or two [before these humiliations] my writing had been in demand. I wrote love letters for a sailor. I was in the Reading Room of the Whitechapel Library where some of us used to do our homework. A wiry little chap slid into the seat next to me and started muttering something or other. Eventually it turned out that he was a sailor whose ship had docked somewhere in the Thames nearby and that he needed to write to his beloved in Liverpool. He pushed a cheap little writing pad under my nose and asked me to do the job for him. It was obvious to me that he couldn't write but at first I assumed he'd dictate in whispers and I would simply be his scribe. (Me, his scribe!) But no, he wanted me to compose as well and it had to be a love letter. Somehow he made all this clear. I don't remember what I wrote though I could make a good guess. I'd not yet written any love letters myself but I had read a lot of novels and with shameless confidence I wrote a nice devoted piece to Agnes in Liverpool. My sailor watched my writing flowing out of my pen as though I were performing magic. He couldn't take his eyes off it. I whispered my text back to him and did the envelope. He took the letter and envelope and pushed sixpence across to me — the first money I earned by my writing in both senses of the word. I did the same job for him half a dozen times and then my sailor stopped coming to the Reading Room, which was just as well because he never showed me replies from Agnes, if there were any, and I was running out of ideas. At the time I was grimly amused by the fact that I was earning money from my penmanship while my teachers waged an unceasing and ineffectual war against it. I wonder how Agnes managed.

The third of my string of thoughts concerns the relationship between theoreticians and practitioners. Though Harold participated in important conventional research, in which people with the time and the funding to do so find out things about what's happening in schools, publish their findings, and hope that the publication of the findings will effect some change for the better, he became increasingly dissatisfied with it because of its essentially hierarchical nature.

However much the researchers might be grateful to the teachers and schools providing their 'data', it was easy for an 'upstairs/downstairs', 'us and them' relationship to prevail, a state of affairs which could turn antagonistic if teachers who had provided the 'data' later read critical or condescending reports of their practice written in books and journals by people with more leisured working lives than theirs.

On the other side of the blanket, such an approach to research could encourage a 'canteen-culture', 'poor bloody infantry', 'too busy for all that airy-fairy waffle' philistinism in teachers, when often the research did yield insights which could make their and their pupils' lives happier and more effective.

So Harold came increasingly to see research as a truly respectful, collaborative endeavour between people working in schools and people working and studying in universities. And he enacted structures to guarantee that better relationship. In 1976, he and his colleagues at the Institute launched an initiative called 'Language in the Inner City', which was to be a broad-based network of enquiries, involving collaborations between teachers, advisers, teacher-trainers, researchers — anyone with an interest in any aspect of that large topic. He wrote this to Betty Rosen in the autumn of that year.

This morning I told my Diploma students about our project 'Language in the Inner City', about the particular way it was developing and that it was above all founded on notions of teacher initiative. Did they want to join in? In what ways? The floodgates opened and new possibilities poured through, including using our workshop time to make a video of one multi-linguistic classroom incorporating each child as a linguistic cameo. The room was agog. It confirms our notion that we must turn research upside down. No more pirate raids for 'data'. We become facilitators, donkey-workers and learners instead of 'experts'. And the students, with a precious year off to study, not being located as blotting paper but getting a chance to do things they hadn't dreamed of. So even in this job [with adults] the authentic moments come and you can feel them in the air just as you might with eight-year-olds.

The activities generated in the project, which came to be known as 'Language in Inner-City Schools', were discussed in twice-yearly conferences at the Institute. They were organised by a group of people, of whom I was one, in and beyond the English department there. They turned into very large affairs; at their peak, around 500 people attended every January and June. They ran for more than ten years, and were a significant exchanging point of ideas and practices for teachers (many of whose homes and schools extended well beyond the inner city).

The spirit of that entirely voluntary endeavour was later adopted by the government in the form of two national (by which I mean England-and-Wales-wide) projects: the National Writing Project and the National Oracy Project. I was involved in the first of these. They provided funding for a central team, and for representatives in a number of local education authorities, to devise, discover and publicise interesting and often inspiring examples of practice in the teaching and use of writing, and in the use of the spoken language in learning, in all areas of the curriculum; with the simple aim that teachers beyond those involved in the projects would read or hear about the activities and try some of them for themselves. Harold was an enthusiastic supporter of both projects.

They were the first — and almost the last — government-funded projects of that kind. (There was one more, which I shall mention in a second.) Thereafter, most government money was spent with more directive intentions. The Language in the National Curriculum project, in which I was also involved, was intended to be a giant piece of pyramid selling by which secondary English teachers and all primary teachers in England and Wales would be acquainted or re-acquainted with a Latinate model of sentence grammar. It was a disastrous failure so far as the government was concerned, although we did manage to produce much more interesting professional-development materials than those the government had ordered, which soon gained the reputation and popularity of samizdat publications in an oppressive state.

Harold, retired by now, followed these developments with close interest. I told him one day that sales of the samizdat materials had exceeded 20,000. Ronald Carter, the leader of the project (and a kind endorser of today's book), sold them at cost price from Nottingham University. 'Fantastic,' said Harold. 'You've given them the status of a dirty book!' I replied that this hadn't exactly been our intention, but thanked him for his enthusiasm.

Later, he watched with mounting despair as government initiatives like the Literacy Hour and the National Strategies became more and more authoritarian, abandoning any idea that professional development might be something to do with a partnership between equals, some with more knowledge and experience certainly, but all involved in a common pursuit.

Right at the end of his life, he was encouraged by Teachers TV, which was based on the same principle as the writing and oracy projects, and in which I was also involved. It used television and the internet to disseminate interesting and often inspiring practice in all areas of the curriculum across the UK and indeed the world. He watched some of the programmes and commented on them to me, in his ever trenchant, critical but fundamentally supportive way. He didn't live to see the arrival of Michael Gove at the Department for Education, one of whose first acts was to close Teachers TV down, despite its popularity among teachers.

So that's the third in my string of thoughts, an idea for which Harold takes a large share of credit, and in the realisation of which he practised what he preached: that classroom practice advances best when the doers and the supporters of the doers are engaged in mutually supportive enquiry.

Time for another change of note. In the last part of Harold's story 'Cribs', he and his fellow students in their first year at UCL are required to translate passages of Old Gothic. (Incidentally, and I apologise to any senior people here from UCL, Harold was caustically uncomplimentary about the ancient, arid content of the BA English course at UCL before the war.) The only remnants of Old Gothic which had survived until 1937 were fragments of the New Testament. Harold was Jewish. All his fellow students were Christians, however nominally, and more or less familiar with the New Testament; once they recognised the story being told in the Old Gothic, translation was easy.

There wasn't a copy of the New Testament in the Rosen household, for obvious reasons. Harold was deeply reluctant to spend money on buying one. Then the idea came to him: try the Christian Mission to the Jews in Philpot Street.

I pushed open the door and there in the large hall was a desk… A man behind the desk looked up when I came in… I had prepared my great chutzpah performance.

'Do sit down. Can I help?'

'Yes,' I said firmly. 'I have never read the New Testament, you see, and I'd very much like to do so.'

The man brightened up.

'Do you think I could borrow one for a short while?' I asked.

'Borrow one? We'd be happy to give you one.'

He pulled open a drawer and with a touch of ceremony handed me a New Testament. I have it to this day. Soft black leather covers extending beyond the body of the book and fine rice paper made it flexible and different. I got up to go. But he wasn't going to let this occasion slip by so easily.

'Would you mind waiting just a moment? I'd like you to meet our Director.'

He edged me into a nearby room. I hadn't bargained for this. The Director, a man with a gold watch chain across a black waistcoat, in no time was asking me questions. 'Was I a student? Why did I want to read the New Testament? Would I like to know more about Christianity? Would I like to meet a group of Christian students?'

I improvised feebly, almost always with a lie. When they asked for my name and address ('to keep in touch') I invented them. They pressed pamphlets on me. I fled from the place, knowing things hadn't turned out to be such a laugh after all. But I had my New Testament and when I next saw [my friend] Manny I gave him a full report.

'I missed being baptised by a whisker.'

I was still sufficiently aggrieved about the [Old Gothic] to be determined to be quite open with my New Testament. I went into class, smiled at the others and spread it out at the right page. When my turn came I consulted it with slow deliberation. Dr Brookfield drew up alongside me.

'Mr Rosen,' she said… 'have you prepared this passage?'

'Most carefully, Dr Brookfield.'

'In that case, why do you need this crib?'

She lifted the New Testament, rather irreverently, I thought. By now I was sick of the childishness of it all.

'No, Dr Brookfield, this is not a crib, as you call it. This is your New Testament.'

She was taken aback and I instantly regretted my improvised rudeness and wished I could withdraw it.

'Well,' she said, 'in this class my New Testament is, I am afraid, a crib and using it is not fair to the others.'

'No,' I said, 'can't you see that the whole of this class is unfair to me?'

I closed my books, stood up, stumbled along the row and left the room.

When Harold showed me this story, about 20 years ago, he was entertained to hear that, in the 1950s, at the church in Bromley, Kent which I have already mentioned, we used to have mission Sundays, at which a visiting preacher would come once a year to report on converting various groups of people around the world to our particular version of evangelical Protestantism.

Sure enough, someone from the Mission to the Jews turned up on a Sunday morning in spring, to tell us about trying to persuade the Jewish community in the East End that Messiah had indeed come; he was always bracketed on that day with a person from the Irish Church Missions, who preached at the evening service, and who told us about efforts to convert Dublin Catholics to Protestantism. It's fair to say that the progress reported was always slow, but we kept the faith, and put our sixpences into the plate as we sang the final hymn.

The story about the New Testament is, of course, a story about cultural conflict. It links to the fourth in my string of thoughts, which concerns the enormous changes in the ethnic and cultural diversity of Britain which occurred during Harold's lifetime; changes which were particularly marked in Britain's cities.

Harold's political upbringing and beliefs meant that he understood, from the beginning, the reasons why Britain became an ever-more multicultural society from the late 1940s on. The reasons lay in British imperialism and its consequences. This understanding meant that, while of course warmly welcoming the presence of people from the Caribbean, the Asian sub-continent, Africa, parts of China and parts of southern Europe to our country, he was immune from that hopeful, optimistic liberalism which assumes that as long as we, the indigenous whites, the so-called 'host community', are tolerant of new kinds of music and willing to taste unfamiliar foods, all will be well.

Harold was himself an immigrant, having arrived here from America at the age of two, and he experienced racism as a child and young person. So he combined an immediate interest in the implications of cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity for the teaching of English in schools with a hard-headed recognition that the children and young people in our schools who had come, or whose parents or grandparents had come, from other parts of the world, would sometimes or often experience racism, subtle or unsubtle, implicit or explicit, in their daily lives.

There are numerous pieces in today's book where Harold addresses these questions, always in a spirit at once positive and unsentimental. I'll pick only one, which is an extract from this book [I held it up], Languages and Dialects of London Schoolchildren, published in 1980, which he wrote with his colleague Tony Burgess.

The book presents the results of a linguistic survey carried out in collaboration with teachers and pupils in twenty-eight schools in the Inner London Education Authority, as it was then, and the neighbouring London Borough of Haringey. It was the first publication to map, with some rigour, the linguistic diversity of schools in the capital.

Harold and Tony proposed that the (then) new situation of great linguistic diversity in classrooms presented a golden opportunity for the curriculum: take that diversity, and treat it as potential curriculum content. They worked with groups of teachers and pupils to design resources for lessons which would do just that. Here are a few lines from the extract from Languages and Dialects of London Schoolchildren which appears in today's book.

Groups of children have improvised plays on tape in different languages and dialects, translating for each other, registering the ways in which a dialect of English may produce differences of accent, structure, vocabulary, behaviour and even character. There were teachers who made use of the original survey or devised modified versions of it to get the pupils themselves, in pairs or small groups, to compile information about the languages they spoke…

One English department prepared for the survey by running a series of assemblies on the theme of the children's multi-cultural background. They displayed a chart to show the various flags of the countries represented. Another school is preparing to produce a booklet about the languages spoken by its pupils and to include in it useful information about the school and the community as well as stories written in the different languages. Display and discussion of the wealth of dialects and languages a school or class could boast, as well as the high incidence of bilingualism and multilingualism, produced considerable pride, even competitiveness, and allowed for a demonstration of some consummate imitative skills.

Today's urban schools often contain a super-diversity of languages and dialects, yet more complex and varied than that which Harold and Tony encountered when they worked with those teachers and pupils. To study that diversity in the positive but unsentimental way that they did remains an essential element of a modern curriculum.

I could go on stringing thoughts together like this, but I'm going to confine myself to only one more. The topic which dominated the last period of Harold's intellectual life was narrative — or, as he usually preferred to call it — story. Stories of all kinds seemed to Harold a fundamental element of our humanity, both as individuals and as social beings. He contended that narrative had failed to gain the recognition and acceptance across the curriculum that it deserves, and that the curriculum, learners and teachers are the poorer for that.

Skipping through Part Three of today's book, trying to decide on one bit which might fairly represent Harold's thinking on story, a sort of meta-thought occurred to me, and I hope I'm not stretching a point in expressing it.

It is that, in a sense, Harold's concern with narrative in the last part of his life was a way of stitching together, of unifying, the great diversity of overlapping concerns which had driven him earlier.

For it's obvious that a man who writes in 1958 that children's language and culture must be respected and incorporated in the curriculum of the school they attend; a man who in 1968 and 1975 points out that learners' experience of the curriculum was dominated by the need to re-present factual information, with no opportunity to set those facts in a broader narrative context, oral or written; a man who in 1976 realises that the most productive relationship between schoolteachers and academics is when they are enabled to talk to each other as equals; a man who, throughout his long career, saw the increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in our schools as an opportunity for an exchange of experience, to the mutual enlightenment of all: it's obvious that such a man is going to be a champion of the use of stories in schools, both as events in themselves, and also as key media of learning.

So, in recognition of that championship, here's just one of Harold's many statements about narrative. It's the first few lines of a paper called 'The Nurture of Narrative', which formed part of this booklet, Stories and Meanings [I held it up], published in 1985 by the National Association for the Teaching of English, all of which is in today's book.

'Listen children,' runs the Yiddish folk song, 'listen with your nose and eyes,' and listen we did, for in the very next line a cow flew over the old gossip granny's roof. What nonsense! Listen with your nose and eyes, cows flying over the rooftop. I should be ashamed to be dealing in such trivial absurdities.

And I would be, were it not for the fact that our readiness to listen to and to tell stories is so universal and takes such a variety of forms and is made to serve such a range of functions that flying cows belong with fundamental processes of the human mind…

In the literature of language education it is often proposed that the ultimate goal for the teaching of composition is academic prose, objective exposition or some such. No one tells us why language development should not include as a central component getting better at telling and responding to stories of many different kinds.

We should have been warned. We know now that every Tom, Dick and Harry is a master of infinitely delicate language skills from a very early age, rich competences of grammar and modulated language use, and that every Tess, Bess and Hannah inherits a complex linguistic semiotic, systems of meanings developed in their culture, which include modes of story-telling.

We should have been warned that a common possession of humankind was not ipso facto of little account but rather an indicator of the functioning of the mind, a part of the deep structure of the grammar of our world.

'…a part of the deep structure of the grammar of our world': that will do for me as a pithy definition of narrative, and a reminder of its centrality in all the interactions involving learning in schools, whether the interactors recognise the centrality or not.

So that's my string of five thoughts:

children's and young people's language and culture respected and incorporated in the life and curriculum of the school;

the need for conversation and coherence about approaches to language and learning across a school and across schools;

equality of esteem as between schoolteachers and supporters of schoolteachers;

linguistic diversity to be seen as a great bonus and as a key element of curriculum content;

and the centrality of narrative in all learning.

It will have to do as the briefest of summaries of the major advances in our understanding of effective language learning which Harold and his colleagues helped to bring about.

But if Harold were here this afternoon, he would be saying (and I can catch his tone in saying it), 'It's all very well going on about my stuff. What are you people doing now?'

Some in the audience are aware of a project which culminated in the publication in 2015 of this series of booklets, English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Principles and Proposals [I held them up], published by Owen Education and the United Kingdom Literacy Association.

In the politics of education, and particularly in the area of English teaching and language education, there has for more than 30 years now been a struggle between those with the power but without the knowledge, by whom I mean some politicians and the whispering advisers who stand behind them in reactionary think tanks and influential cabals, and who are cheered on by large sections of the press, and those with the knowledge but without the power, by whom I mean teachers and those who support teachers, including all the people in this room.

We have moved from a situation where, when I joined the profession in 1974, teachers had a large measure of autonomy in deciding what to teach and how to teach it, to a situation today where teachers — and particularly primary-school teachers — are regarded by the government merely as machine operators, obliged to follow precise instructions as to curriculum content, teaching methods and systems of assessment.

And the trouble is that much of the curriculum content, teaching methods and systems of assessment thus imposed are simply wrong. They are ignorant of, or deliberately contemptuous of, the hard-won wisdom about curriculum, methodology and assessment which Harold and his colleagues and contemporaries spent so much time and intellectual effort accumulating.

In these circumstances, Peter Dougill and Mike Raleigh, the directors of Owen Education, came to me to suggest that we might put together a series of statements doing three things.

First, remind readers of some of the best that has been thought and written about English teaching, language and learning over many decades. Secondly, offer a detailed, robust critique of aspects of curriculum content, teaching methodology and assessment as they have been imposed with increasing stringency on teachers of children and young people aged 3 to 19 in more recent years. Thirdly, and most importantly, offer detailed, practical alternatives.

This is what we have done in these booklets. They contain, for example, a complete alternative curriculum for English 3 to 16; and a complete set of alternative proposals for assessment, tests and examinations 3 to 19.

We're here this afternoon principally to celebrate the publication of Harold's book, so if you only have £20 to spend afterwards, either here or in the café upstairs over drinks, spend it on Harold's book. But if you haven't seen the booklets, and you've got a bit more cash to spare, do splash out on some of them; they're only £7 each and, between them, I think they do cover the whole waterfront of English teaching, language and learning 3 to 19, including drama and media education. And while I'm in sales mode, we're also selling, for £10, Simon Gibbons' excellent account of the founding and first 20 years of the work of the London Association for the Teaching of English, to which Harold made such a major contribution, and which is 70 years old this year.

Before I close, there are some people I want to thank.

Raj Xavier runs the Prontaprint shop in Camden High Street. Through the wizardry of his technology, 90% of Harold's writings were converted from print or typescript to Word documents, which I could then manipulate (in the most innocent sense of that word, of course). Without Raj, I'd still be bashing in the text with my two fingers.

Tony Burgess, John Hardcastle, Jane Miller, Betty Rosen, Michael Rosen and Simon Wrigley were an advisory group who helped me make the decisions as to which of Harold's writings should go into the collection, and where some of them were to be found.

John Hardcastle and, later, Andrew Burn, arranged for me to have a Visiting Research Associateship at the Institute, which gave me access to the Institute's wonderful library and the archive of Harold's papers.

It was Andrew who introduced me to Nicky Platt, who runs the Institute of Education Press, and it was Nicky who, having had the typescript for no more than a fortnight, said she would publish the book with no changes to the text — an author's dream. Thank you to Nicky, and to all her team at the Press — Nicole Edmondson, Sally Sigmund, Margie Coughlin, Jonathan Dore and Michelle Cannon — for the wonderful job they've done in bringing the book to completion.

Eve Bearne, Ronald Carter and Neil Mercer have written kind endorsements of the book, for which I'm very grateful and which will do the sales no harm at all.

Thanks again to Michael and Betty for introducing the evening. Betty was Harold's key collaborator for more than 30 years in the last part of his life. It was her idea that his writings should be brought together in one place, and she has been my collaborator and encourager throughout the project.

The last piece in the book is a poem. You've heard that Harold was an immigrant. He was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, and came to this country with his mother when he was two. Born in the USA, he was officially an American citizen (and remained so throughout his life), and that is why it was the US army he joined when called up in 1945. In the last period of his military service, after the war had ended, he was posted to Germany. Many years later, he wrote this poem about an experience he had one night in Frankfurt.

It's nearly always a mistake to explain something about a poem before reading it aloud, but I'm going to take that risk by telling you that 'Wir sind die Moorsoldaten' — 'We are the bog soldiers' — refers to a song written by prisoners — political opponents of the Third Reich — in Nazi moorland labour camps in Lower Saxony. In 1933, one camp, Börgermoor, held about 1,000 socialist and communist internees. They were banned from singing existing political songs, so they wrote and composed their own. The poem is called:

In the SS barracks, 1945

In the SS barracks in Frankfurt-am-Main
(home of IG Farben, makers of holocaust gas)
I lie in one of the beds allocated to the Occupying Power.

In the dormitory in the dark in 1945
I hear an anonymous hummer in the bed beside me
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
The song of the concentration camps
I hum along with this master-ironist.

In this army bed only a few killings ago
A fine young man stretched himself out
He had not yet heard the guns in the south
Not a speck of mud or blood on his uniform
His black uniform folded tidily beside him
Nor on his lovely black boots
Standing to attention by his locker.

My hummer has stopped now.
Comrade in the dark, in your SS bed,
Are you too asking yourself
Why is there no blood on these sheets?
And how can we sleep with ghosts?

In Frankfurt, and later in Berlin, Harold saw at first hand some of the results of the evil which fascism had brought upon the world. The dog had split the skin of civilisation, and snarled and slaughtered. In large parts of the world today, the dog is not far beneath the skin, and is growling. Harold would have been in no doubt that our responsibility today is to challenge and resist the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, racism, fascism, fear and hatred of the other, in whatever ways — however small — we can.

There are drinks and bites to eat in the Cruciform Café upstairs, and an opportunity to talk and to buy the books. People will show you the way. The talk has been filmed, and will appear in due course on the Digital Arts Research Education website and on the Institute of Education website. If you'd like a copy, just of the text, more quickly, take one of my business cards here and send me an email. Thank you for your kind attention.

And most people did go up to drink, eat and talk; it was a great gathering of old friends. We sold about 100 books and about 40 booklets. Afterwards, Helen took me for dinner in a little Italian place on the other side of the Tottenham Court Road, and I was happy.

Two days later an atrocity was committed at Westminster. A man drove a car at high speed on the left-hand pavement of Westminster Bridge, going from south to north, killing four people and injuring 40. He crashed the car into the railings of the Palace of Westminster and managed to get into the open yard inside the Palace precincts, where he killed an unarmed policeman with a knife, before being shot and killed by armed police. He was a British man, not originally Muslim, who converted to Islam, and he seems to have been another crazed, lone fanatic following the instructions of leaders of IS to hurt the West with whatever weapons they can. It was shocking, of course, happening so close to the heart of UK government, and for a few hours the whole place was locked down, I imagine for fear that the attack was part of a co-ordinated series. It wasn't. But by comparison with attacks in France in recent months, and with almost daily atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria, London was lightly wounded, however much we mourn the loss of those innocent lives and in some slight way share the grief of their families.

Two days after that, we went with Theresa Cato to spend the weekend with David and Heather Loxton in Bury St Edmunds. Beautiful weather in Suffolk. We ate in Pea Porridge, the restaurant in Bury that I like so much, and we walked in the lovely grounds at Ickworth.

Four days later, we went to France for a fortnight. The weather continued to be astonishing for the time of year. It was summer in spring. With the primroses out and all the trees in blossom, the place was as close to paradise as I'm going to get. Four large trees had blown down during winter storms. Fortunately, they had fallen only on our land (none on Jean's and Annick's next door), and nowhere near the house. Separately, I had also agreed with Jean that I would hire a tree surgeon to trim the line of firs and oaks between his house and ours, because their lower branches were touching his roof. I spent three days with Jean-Paul (the tree surgeon came for one day) on this forestry work: in my case mainly piling onto Jean-Paul's lorry the vast heaps of branches which the élagueur had cut.

The other work I did was to make fast progress on the poems which Bronwyn and Stephen are going to publish through Chalkface Press. We've decided to have two books: one of original poems and one of translations. The first will be called My Proper Life, like the website. The second will be called Bring Me the Sunflower, which is a quotation from a translation of a little poem by Montale, Il Girasole. The design of the first book is more or less finished. The second has a little way to go. I finished the text yesterday. The first book, by pure chance, made exactly 192 pages, a perfect six times 32. The second was 11 sides short of 160 pages (five times 32), so I had the pleasing task of writing to order, to fill up space. I did a Horace epode, a translation of Lorca's haunting little lyric 'Despedida', five more Sappho fragments and a prose afterword about the work. Stephen hasn't done the covers yet. I think we're going to print the books with Short Run Press, a firm in Exeter which specialises, as its name suggests, in limited-edition publications. I saw one of their books by chance when I was in Exeter at Swales and Willis in February, looking at the final proofs of the two Routledge books (which I think will be published next week). I'm not sure whether the poetry books will be out by mid-June, in which case we'll launch them then, or later, in which case we'll hold the launch back until the autumn.

Unusually, we went to France on the Plymouth to Roscoff boat, returning by the same route, because over the Easter weekend most of my family gathered at my brother Mark's house near Taunton to celebrate the significant birthdays (on the Saturday) of two of my nieces: Tess's 18th and Stephanie's 30th. Great fun, although some of the party (not Tess, who was a model of restraint) disgraced themselves by getting completely drunk after the meal, noisily carousing in the hot tub in the garden until five the next morning. Very good walk on the Quantocks on the Sunday, and a wonderful walk on Easter Monday downhill from Countisbury on Exmoor through oak woods and then beside the East Lyn river to Lynmouth. Mary, Jacques and Tess came back with us to London on Tuesday. They stayed in Bronwyn's and Stephen's flat. They returned to Marseille yesterday.

While driving to London on Tuesday, we heard that Theresa May had decided to ask parliament to vote for a general election on 8 June. (Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2011, which is a good law, there can only be a general election before the five-year term is finished if two thirds of MPs vote for it, or if the government loses a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons.) The House of Commons obligingly voted for the early election on Wednesday.

Mrs May had previously said — several times, in the most explicit terms — that there would be no general election before the scheduled date in 2020. She said on Tuesday that she had decided to ask for the election 'recently and reluctantly', claiming that she needed a stronger mandate for her exit negotiations with the EU. However, nothing has changed, in terms of the UK political parties' positions, since her earlier promises. There are two actual reasons for her decision: one, given the catastrophic current state of the Labour opposition, she thinks she can crush Labour (quite possibly right); two, a majority of say 50, or even a bit less, would give her the room she needs to accept the undoubted concessions she is going to have to make to the EU without being murdered by her own extreme right wing. It's true that the electorate doesn't like being lied to, and some voters may punish her for dragging them to the polls unnecessarily. It's true that there are few Tory/Labour marginals (many which were marginals went to the Tories in 2015). It's true that the Liberals might do better than in 2015, because they've been punished enough for having been in the 2010-2015 coalition, and the Richmond Park by-election showed that there are potential Tory/Liberal marginals where the Liberals might pick up some seats.

But overall, I think Mrs May will increase her majority. On the other hand, I've been wrong so many times when making political predictions that I hesitate in making this one. If, after all the fuss and expense of the election, the Tory majority is not significantly greater than it is at present (seventeen), the Prime Minister will be weaker, not stronger, than at present.

Silver lining: assuming we lose (which I do), Corbyn will surely have to resign. The PLP will not make the stupid mistake again (I hope) of letting a far-left candidate get onto the ballot paper because it's feeling sentimental; and we might have a persuasive leader in September. Possibly even our own MP, who knows?

Just at the moment, I can't get up much enthusiasm for going out to bang on doors asking for support for Keir Starmer, whom I like and admire, when the whole exercise is the consequence of the government's partisan political calculation. Labour should have voted against holding the snap election. We would of course have been accused of being frightened; but if Theresa May had failed to get her two-thirds majority, she would have looked foolish too. The whole point of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act is to stop Prime Ministers calling elections merely to suit their political advantage. Only six years after the Act was passed, Parliament has made a nonsense of it. We shall be abroad on 8 June anyway (we're going to Sicily for a fortnight with Glenda and Julian Walton). We have postal votes.

Camden Town

22 Apr 2017

More voting: the first round of the French presidential elections is tomorrow. The average of polls published yesterday, the last day on which the publication of polls is allowed in France, gives Macron 24%, Le Pen 22.1%, Fillon 19.6%, Melenchon 18.9%. So I hope that Macron hangs on and makes it to the second round, ideally as leader from the first. He will presumably then win the second round, because lots of socialists will vote for him, however half-heartedly. If Fillon squeaks past Le Pen, despite the recent scandals surrounding him and his family, with Macron in first or second place, the second round will be, to some extent, a traditional right/left choice, although Macron isn't really left at all; he's a Blairite centrist. The worst outcome would be a Fillon/Le Pen second round, because I fear that a lot of socialist voters will then abstain, which will hand an advantage to Le Pen, whose supporters are the most likely to turn out to vote. A Melenchon/Le Pen second round would be extraordinary: far left versus far right, with an unlikely degree of agreement between the two extremes in a rejection of globalisation, a profound suspicion of the EU, and an appeal to different kinds of nationalism.

There was another atrocity, possibly IS-related, in Paris on Thursday evening. A man with a gun shot and killed a policeman on the Champs-Élysées and wounded two others before being shot and killed himself. This dreadful event of course plays into the hands of the far right. Some conspiracy theorists even suggest that acts like these are being committed or controlled by extreme-right agents provocateurs in the hope of bringing a far-right government to power. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Crazed, marginalised, angry people are being infected by the wicked ideology promoted by the leaders of IS and other Islamist groups. That's all.

Camden Town

24 Apr 2017

A relief. The second round of the French presidential election will be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. Better, Macron beat Le Pen by more than 2% (23.8% to 21.5%). He will certainly be France's next president, since all the senior figures in Les Républicains except Sarkozy, plus the soundly defeated socialist candidate Hamon, plus Hollande, plus of course the centrists of MoDem, have endorsed him. Mélenchon hasn't said anything yet. He got a creditable 19.6%, only just behind Fillon's 19.9%. I expect that some of his voters will switch straight to Le Pen, as has happened in past years with disillusioned communist voters. Despite the certainty of Macron's victory, there is the disquieting probability that Le Pen will get far more votes in the second round than her father did in 2001. One recent poll suggests that she might get 39%, which is more than double what Jean-Marie Pen got in 2001. Even if she drops back considerably from that figure, the FN vote will have advanced spectacularly. And in five years' time? Macron has a lot to do to bring back hope to those FN voters who are not ideological racists and street thugs, but who are struggling with poverty, unemployment and the sense that the state has abandoned them. If he fails, the awful prospect of a neo-fascist presidency in France in 2022 will loom larger. But for the time being, and speaking purely selfishly, I haven't got to ask myself whether I should be paying taxes and spending money in a country whose president is a direct inheritor of Vichy.

Camden Town

26 Apr 2017

We're just off to Bedfordshire to spend the night with Peter and Monica Hetherington; then up to Durham tomorrow morning for three days, to explore the country of Peter's heart. He was born and grew up there. Tomorrow afternoon we shall visit his secondary school at Wolsingham (a grammar school when he went there; a comprehensive now). Peter has endowed a cup in his name, awarded every year for poetry.

Yesterday, for the first time, Labour produced a clear proposal for what it would do in negotiations with the EU in the highly unlikely event of its winning the general election. Keir Starmer put the case very well on the radio and in a speech. Leave the options of some kind of single-market and customs-union membership on the table, while accepting that there will no longer be unfettered free movement of people. Welcome anyone from the EU here who has already got a job. On day one of a Labour government, guarantee to EU citizens already living in the UK the right to stay. Whether we win or not (we won't, I fear), have parliamentary votes which mean that, if the government were defeated, it would have to go back to the negotiating table with the EU to seek a better bargain. Have a transitional period after March 2019 if the business isn't finished satisfactorily by then.

The ironic thing is that proposals of this kind, and their ensuing negotiations, could, in a dream world, be the means by which the whole of the EU could revisit and change some of the rules and practices which have provoked cynicism and disappointment across the whole bloc. More power to the parliament. (Make the parliament stay in one place, not shuttle back and forth from Strasbourg to Brussels.) Make the commission genuinely the civil service for the bloc, doing what the parliament tells it to do; strip it of its law-making powers. Have freedom to work anywhere in the EU; not freedom to move and settle permanently whether you've got a job or not. Have an Australian-style points-based immigration system country by country. Let states nationalise basic industries which are essential to the public good: water, electricity, gas, railways. There was a sad little letter in the paper today pointing out that, in the EU, 'from 2019 all new railway franchises must by law be open to competitive tender (the "Fourth railway package" ratified by the European parliament last December).' The writer concludes: 'The only route to nationalising Britain's railways is to leave the EU, including the single market.' I can't help thinking that if a country wants to nationalise or renationalise its railways, it should be free to do so. Going further, I also think that if a major industry and a huge employer, like Tata Steel in the UK, looks as if it will leave a country and provoke mass unemployment there, as it did for a while last year, a national government has the right to step in and support that industry. But state subsidies are against EU rules. So this is all dreaming. But at least Labour at last has a coherent policy on our exit from the EU.

I imagine (I don't know, of course) that Keir has had to tread carefully with Corbyn and some other members of the shadow cabinet to get to the position where he can say, unambiguously, that unfettered freedom of movement will cease. You can kind of sense when journalists respect a politician with intellectual grip: one who's not just spouting pre-heated slogans. Keir has that.

Despite what I wrote a few days ago, I went down to Labour's smart new constituency office in Crowndale Road and did an hour's work there yesterday, sorting out canvassing clipboards.

Tomorrow would have been Stephen's birthday. I've left messages on Theresa's phones. We won't be there, but I've told her I'll be with her on the anniversary of the day he died (19 May) if she wants that.


14 Jul 2017

Nearly three months have gone by, and an enormous amount has happened. Where to start?

Start with the small things. We had a wonderful few days with Peter and Monica Hetherington in Weardale and Teesdale, staying in an excellent little bed-and-breakfast place in Wolsingham. On our first afternoon there, we did visit Wolsingham School, where we were shown round by the deputy head. It's exactly what a comprehensive secondary school should be: genuinely serving the needs and nurturing the talents of all its students, whether those talents be academic, practical, social, sporting or anything else. A beautiful new building has been grafted onto the old grammar-school building, leaving the library at the join between the two. There, on the honours board going back through most of the last century, is Peter's name, recording his state scholarship in 1948. He was the first student from that school to go to Oxford.

The next day we visited Killhope lead mine near the top of Weardale. Disused since 1910, it's now a museum. We went about 200 metres along a low tunnel into the dark, wearing hard hats and wellington boots. I kept banging my protected head on the roof. I didn't know anything about lead mining before that day. Lead ore is called galena, and it comes in vertical seams. Lead miners, on the whole, were a different sort of men from coal miners, who were a proletariat on weekly wages. Lead miners were speculators, making a contract with the owners of the land to exploit a part of it, with the possibility that they could make a good living from their findings, perhaps even enough to emigrate. (It's a preposterous idea, when you think about it, that anyone should privately own underground chunks of the planet.) The miners rarely struck it rich. Generally, the only real beneficiaries were the owners. The work was hard and dangerous. Water flowed throughout the underground workings, and without waterproof footwear the men's feet were constantly wet and suffered rot. Then, as with coal miners, the continual inhalation of dust damaged the lungs. Our guide told us that lead miners were often Methodists, literate, total abstainers. They knew their Bibles well. Some were lay preachers, walking miles on Sundays to preach to little groups of the faithful in chapels up and down the dales.

Occasionally, the men found a different kind of rock deep underground: a black limestone which they called marble. This was valuable, and a bonus. It was used for centuries on the roofs of grand buildings. It's on the roof of Durham cathedral. The mine at Frosterley yielded this rock quite frequently, so it's known as Frosterley marble, although the description is geologically inexact. The miners called these slabs 'cockle posts', because they contain the fossils of small sea creatures which look a bit like cockles. One slab pulled from Frosterley now stands upright at Stanhope Visitor Centre, having been polished and turned into a kind of sculpture. When I was studying it, with the knowledge that lead miners were often devout men, believing — I suppose — the literal truth of the first chapters of Genesis, I could see the possibility of a poem. Here it is.

Frosterley Marble

Ralph Walton mines at Frosterley six days a week.
The seventh day he rests, which means he travels far
to preach the Word of God to fellow Methodists.
'God made the world and all that's in it in six days.'
At work on Monday, Ralph, his brothers and his cousins
prise galena from the earth — their daily bread —
until they come by chance upon a rarity,
a welcome bonus to their earnings from the lead:
a slab of marble. Hacked out, trundled to the surface,
brushed and washed, the piece encases, white on black,
the fossilised remains of creatures of the sea.
Ralph stands and wonders. I am wondering today
at scores of Dibunophylum bipartitum,
the specimens held fast for millions of years
in this now polished artefact at Stanhope,
up the road from where Ralph named their find 'the cockle post'.
Total abstainer, literate, he knows his Bible.
Why would God have planted cockles underground?
Across his mind there floats the shadow of a doubt,
like darkening clouds on Weardale in the spring
which interrupt the gift of sunshine that he loves
and (barring Sundays on the road) sees little of.

The following day we went to the little village of Escomb, where there is a very old Saxon church (some say the oldest in England). It was built around 670. Its dark stone is beautifully simple. Much of it came from a nearby Roman fort. On the north wall, one of the reused stones has the marking "LEG VI" (Sixth Legion) upside down. An amazing thought: a new monotheistic religion using the building materials of polytheistic departed former conquerors.

We went on to Barnard Castle, to the extraordinary Bowes Museum, housed in a building which might easily be mistaken for the grandest of Loire chateaux. John Bowes, a wealthy member of the local nobility, met and married a French actress, Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier, in 1852. (He owned a theatre in Paris where she performed.) They had pots of money, and began to collect paintings, sculptures, jewellery, porcelain, glassware, marquetry, costumes. The building was erected so they could put all the stuff in one place. Joséphine laid the foundation stone in 1869 but died in 1874. John died in 1885, with the building still incomplete. According to the museum's website, the pair had some idea that they were bringing art and culture to the folk of the north-east of England. He had his wealth from coal mines on his land. I don't suppose the men who went down the pits to keep him and his wife in style were especially grateful.

A weariness comes over me, walking round treasure hoards like this, and an anger on behalf of workers who had made this conspicuous consumption possible. But there was one consolation: a beautiful silver sculpture of Sappho, looking as alluring as I imagine her. I bought the postcard.

We walked up the Yorkshire side of the Tees to High Force, where I was last year. There we met a Saudi family sitting on a bluff, gazing down at the waterfall. They had brewed tea on a gas stove, and insisted that we drank some with them, accompanied by Arab sweetmeats. They were delightful, and the encounter, in this otherwise seemingly monocultural place, felt extraordinary. On the last evening, we drove over a high, spectacular moor to Blanchland, a village almost too perfectly preserved, where we had a good dinner in the Lord Crewe Arms. The next day we sped back down the A1 to Bedfordshire, and then on to London.

At the end of April, my two Routledge books came out. There was no fanfare. I rang the publisher to ask if there was to be some kind of launch. The answer was no, but I could organise one myself if I wanted to. No thank you to that. Everyone at Routledge has been individually charming, and the commissioning editor wrote me a nice email at the end of the process, but I've had a sense throughout of being a small item on one of many production lines. The experience with the Institute of Education Press was much more personal. The Routledge paperbacks sell for £24.99; the hardbacks for £90! Libraries will pay that money, apparently, and the commissioning editor told me that there are numerous new universities in China and elsewhere in the East which have library buildings the size of football stadiums, with not enough books to fill the shelves, and they ask Routledge to send everything they publish, regardless of topic or quality. So I'm hoping to flog hundreds of boring-looking hardbacks (plain blue covers), although the royalty on those is only 5%. Still, there are two books; 5% of £180 is £9. We shall see next year, with the first royalty statement. Whether readers in a city of three million people somewhere in the west of China, a city which didn't exist a generation ago, are fascinated by developments in curriculum and assessment in English in England, I doubt.

During May, I got on with preparing the poetry books for publication. On 16 June, my birthday, I went down with Stephen Mellor to Exeter, to visit the printer. I was gratified to see that they publish a lot of poetry, including publications by Carcanet, Enitharmon and Fyfield, so I will be in good company. We're going for hardback, with dust covers beautifully designed by Stephen. To show me what my books will look like, more or less, the young man produced a recently printed hardback, consisting entirely of poems written by people who'd attended Trinity College, Cambridge: Marvell, Byron and Tennyson among them. I said that the publication had been a bit premature, but perhaps I might squeeze into a second edition. I think my books will go to print next week. We're doing 500 of each, and Betty Rosen has kindly agreed to store them in a spare room in her house in Muswell Hill. There will be a launch on 19 October in the upstairs room of the Prince Albert pub in Camden Town. I was back in England last week for three days, and collected 150 invitations from Raj at Prontaprint in the high street. The printing of the books will cost me about £4000. We're selling them for £10 each (£7 to those who turn up at the launch) so I'm hoping to recoup at least part of the money.

Doubling back, on 31 May we went for a fortnight to Sicily with Glenda and Julian Walton. It was the first time any of us had been there. The place is spectacular: a splendid, noble landscape, some astonishing towns, a superfluity of baroque architecture, a wonderful coastline, lovely accommodation in four different agriturismi, delicious food — quite different from the equally good Tuscan fare we're used to — and old-fashioned courtesy and warmth from everyone we met. We had five days in the south-east, near Modica; four days in the south-west, near Menfi; three days in and near Cefalù; and two days near Piazza Armerina. We did a certain amount of conventional sightseeing: the narrow streets of old Siracusa; the re-erected Greek temples at Selinunte (which 2,800 years ago was a city of 100,000 people); the floor mosaics in the Villa Romana near Piazza Armerina. But the main pleasure was simply being in a place so different from anywhere else in Europe. You sense its closeness to Africa.

One evening we drove from our agriturismo near Menfi to Sciacca. Here, Helen and I nearly had a major falling-out. We parked the car, and I suggested walking down the hill to the port to find somewhere to eat. The walk was longer than anticipated, the evening hot, the port district when we got there poor and dilapidated. I'd left my phone in the car, so there was no chance of calling a taxi to take us somewhere more salubrious. Helen began to accuse me of thoughtless and irresponsible behaviour: 'Why do you always do this to me?' Glenda and Julian kept diplomatically quiet. I refused to engage. Just as we passed a large rubbish bin from which a scrawny cat was removing a fish skeleton, I glimpsed what I had been praying for: a seriously posh restaurant in the midst of the shabby authenticity of a genuine fishing port (no smart yachts here), with a wonderful view over the sea from the terrace. The evening was saved, the food superb (it will be worth returning to Sicily just to eat that marinated raw fish again), the sunset over the water unforgettable. I pretended that I had known about the place all the time, though I did admit that we could have brought the car a bit closer. Julian and I gallantly paced back up the hill to get it, leaving the women to linger over coffee and digestivi.

We'd decided not to go to Palermo this time. Perhaps we'll do that next year, allowing a week to see all the wonders there and at Monreale. I hadn't known that Cefalù would be so clogged with tourists like us. It was the only overcrowded place we went to. But of course I enjoyed Roger II's huge cathedral, which we visited on the morning of Trinity Sunday, arriving towards the end of high mass, with the organ at full volume and the air heavy with incense. I thought of Paul Halley, of our stalled project — a collaboration which I fear will never advance further — and of a Trinity Sunday 45 years ago, when Paul conducted the choir of Trinity College from the roof of Great Gate. Half the choir was with him there, and half on the roof above the clock tower. They sang a two-part anthem which crossed and re-crossed Great Court. All traditions have to start some time, and Paul hoped that year to start a tradition whereby every Trinity Sunday would be so marked. I don't know whether his hope has been fulfilled. I wrote an email to him about the coincidences of place and date, ending with the words '…and my words still await your notes'. He hasn't replied.

Of the negatives about Sicily, one is not their fault, or largely not. Terrible earthquakes have destroyed large parts of the island over the centuries. In the west, there was an earthquake in 1968 which flattened many of the country towns, so that you arrive in hope after a drive on winding roads through glorious country to find dreary, ugly modern dwellings, built with cheap materials, devoid of all charm. I'm used to places rebuilt after the war (Lorient, Portsmouth) and I know the loss represented there. I guess it's the relative poverty of Sicily, combined perhaps with the evil hand of the Mafia, which has meant that so much ugly building has been allowed, when more money, better planning and less corruption could have made the loss less severe. The other negative is the presence of rubbish everywhere. People just abandon their waste by the sides of the roads, especially at the approaches to towns. Lay-bys are choked with heaps of plastic bags, stinking in the heat. You gaze across a majestic landscape while being aware of a filthy mattress and a pile of mixed rubble at your feet. It is backward. We could see what efforts the local authorities are making to encourage greater civic responsibility and to promote recycling. There's a huge clean-up job to be done.

One day, I drove alone from Cefalù on a big circular tour inland. (Glenda and Julian wanted a day at the beach, and Helen wasn't feeling well.) The corn harvest was finishing. Little fields, high, high up in the hills, were being cut. It is the most exalted feeling, driving alone in heat and silence through landscape of such nobility. I stopped at one small, remote mountain town (untouched by earthquakes, I think, for it retains the integrity of a place which has developed organically over the centuries, the building material all the same dark stone). I wondered if I would find anything or anyone stirring there at all. But there was a bank machine, several bars where men played cards which carried images I didn't recognise, shops, a hairdresser. In one bar I had an excellent piadina with hot sauce and a couple of glasses of red wine. Passers-by offered me 'Buon giorno' with elaborate courtesy. One family brought their baby over for me to admire. I left with regret, as I always do when I get to such places, and did a long loop through ever higher mountains, until I topped a pass and sped down towards the sea.

French politics: thank goodness, Emmanuel Macron was elected president on 7 May with two thirds of the vote. In June, his newly formed party, La République en Marche, won a convincing overall majority in the Assemblée Nationale, with the help of the centrist party MoDem. So he should be able to govern efficiently, and he's got on with it quickly. New laws on labour relations are being pushed through at high speed, sometimes by decree. Some of the unions object, of course, and I think there will be strikes in the autumn, but by that time the new legislation will be in place, and I'm sure that the government will sit out any protest. France does need some relaxation of its rigid labour laws. Quite rightly, they will still be much more protective of workers' rights than in the UK or the USA. But if the government does nothing, unemployment will remain stuck at around 10% on average across the country, and much worse than that in certain areas, with the inevitable temptations to populism and racism which come when people with limited education and no power feel themselves abandoned. Then, there is an ambitious plan on the environment, involving a big programme for the insulation of homes, 100% recycling of plastic, reduction of dependence on nuclear power stations, and — most eye-catching of all — the intention that all new cars sold in France from 2040 onwards will be 100% electric. Meanwhile, the government promises to reduce the budget deficit to 3% this year, and to balance future annual budgets during the course of this presidency and parliament.

Macron has been an audacious politician, but also lucky. If Fillon had not self-destructed because of the scandals involving huge payments to members of his family for work they didn't do, he might now be the president. France and the eurozone are, for the first time in years, beginning an upward curve economically. Hollande, whose five years were most disappointing, did have to struggle with a stubbornly sluggish economy. Macron has arrived just as the business cycle is turning. Still, you can't take away his ruthless brilliance in seizing his chance. He is enthusiastically pro-EU. He evidently hopes that Merkel will be re-elected chancellor in September. I think that we will then see some dramatic moves in the EU, including much greater fiscal coherence, and possibly a minister of finance for the eurozone with the power to enforce that coherence.

Overall, France is in a better mood now than it has been for years. There is consent to the idea that the young man should be allowed to show what he can do, even if he takes a few short cuts in the democratic process. The unions will accept the labour reforms, however grudgingly, if the wealthy are asked to shoulder their fair share of the tax burden. But there's the problem. At the moment, so far as I can see, the wealthy are set to become wealthier. Le Monde (14 July) reports that tax cuts announced for 2018 are 'ciblées pour près de trois quarts sur les entreprises et les revenus les plus aisés'. Jean, our neighbour, believes that Macron is just another economic liberal in the Thatcher mode, who will inevitably favour the already fortunate. Perhaps. In order to persuade the disaffected, cynical, poorer section of the population that not all politicians are corrupt, not all are there simply to give more to those that already have, concrete measures to ease the burden on the poorer need to be taken. It's true that the government is going to abolish the taxe d'habitation, one of the two local property taxes, which will help those who rent their homes.

Meanwhile, the traditional parties are in complete disarray. Les Républicains (down from 229 to 136 seats in the parliament) are split between those who are now in the government (including the Prime Minister and several cabinet ministers) or who are cooperating with the government in parliament, and those who are staying outside as a greatly diminished opposition. The diehards, absurdly, want to expel the Prime Minister and the other cooperators from the party. The Socialist Party is in tatters, having gone from 331 seats to 45.

It is a mercy that the Front National only got eight seats. If Macron doesn't achieve what his supporters and many open-minded French people expect him to achieve, the Front National will be back again in 2022. It's terrifying to think that fully a third of French voters voted for a fascist on 7 May. She nearly doubled the vote her father got in 2001. Macron has promised 'a dose of proportionalism' to be injected into the electoral system. He needs to be careful that the dose doesn't give the Front National bigger representation in the next parliament. The FN's meagre tally of seats means that it doesn't get recognition as an official group (the minimum number needed to gain that status is 15). Good — but it still got six more than in 2012. [Note added on 18 July: When I wrote that Marine Le Pen is a fascist, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the word was slightly too strong; she's a vile, xenophobic populist, certainly, but a promoter of a specific, evil political idea? Perhaps not. But then yesterday I read about the ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the notorious Vél d'Hiv round-up of 16 and 17 July 1942, in which many thousands of Jews were taken from their homes and herded into the vélodrome before being transported to concentration camps in the East, where at least 13,152 of them were murdered. Macron and Netanyahou were at the ceremony, and Macron made a speech repeating two previous French presidents' full admission of France's active complicity in this atrocity, and saying pointedly: 'Recemment encore, ce que nous croyons établi par les autorités de la République, sans distinction partisane, avéré par tous les historiens, s'est trouvé contesté par des responsables politiques français.' He was referring to Marine Le Pen's repeated statements that France was not responsible for the Vél d'Hiv round-up. He then said, hammering the point: 'Ce serait faire beaucoup d'honneur à ces faussaires que de leur répondre. Mais se taire serait pire, ce serait être complice.' Very good. So yes, fascist is the word to describe her.]

Now to UK politics. I did a bit for Keir Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras before we went to Sicily. The Labour manifesto was excellent. I agreed with all of it, including the policy on Trident (no to unilateral abandonment of the nuclear deterrent, yes to multilateral negotiations aiming to dramatically reduce nuclear arsenals). It was a positive, hopeful document, calling among other things for an end to austerity, much more public investment in infrastructure, abolition of university tuition fees. The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, was an utterly dismal thing; no hope in it at all. Free school meals for infants to be abolished (this only a few years after the measure had been introduced by the coalition government) and replaced by a bowl of cornflakes before school for those who wanted it. Make people who need social care in old age pay much more for it, to the point that they would only be able to retain £100,000 of the equity in their houses. This particular proposal caused such consternation in Tory ranks that it had to be abandoned a few days later: the only example I can remember of a political party abandoning a manifesto commitment before being elected to government, rather than after. The Tories made a complete mess of their campaign. Theresa May was stiff, humourless, repeating stock phrases like 'strong and stable government' over and over again. She refused to debate directly with Corbyn. Several government ministers were kept out of the campaign, which was tightly controlled by May and a couple of her advisers. The result was that I sat in the cool in the courtyard of the agriturismo on the night of 8/9 June listening to Radio 4 on the internet, and was amazed and delighted to hear the result of the exit poll at 10pm UK time: the Tories would lose their overall majority. As the night went on, it became clear that, in the constituencies where UK elections are decided, Labour's offer had been heard and appreciated, and the Tories' had been rejected.

The Tories lost 13 seats, Labour gained 30, the SNP lost 21, the Liberals gained four, Sinn Fein gained three, the DUP gained two. Labour's share of the vote was 40.0%, up 9.5% on 2015. But the Tories' share was up 5.5% too, largely as a result of the total collapse of the UKIP vote, and also because it bit deep into the SNP vote in Scotland.

May was obliged to do a deal with the DUP. Sinn Fein, alas, has refused to seize the historic opportunity to make life difficult for the Tories and the DUP by taking its seats at Westminster. So the government has an effective majority of 13, relying on the support of a party which is anti-gay, anti-abortion and doubtful about climate change. It's a complete humiliation for May, who is now a dead duck politically. She had a majority; she several times assured us that there would not be an early election; she changed her mind, seeing an opportunity to crush the Labour Party; this she notably failed to do.

Which brings me to my own opinions and my previous statements in this diary about Labour under Corbyn. I was sure that, however honourable Corbyn is as a politician, however good he is as a constituency MP, he has no chance of convincing enough people outside the Labour clan to elect a Labour government. I may still be right about that. Labour has now lost three elections in a row, and we see the damage done meanwhile. But I was wrong to predict that Labour would lose badly last month. In raw numbers of seats gained, it was the big winner. Corbyn, who last year made a lacklustre case for remaining in the EU (I still think he doesn't really believe in the institution), who seemed to shy away from interviews, who just didn't look anything like the person who might competently lead a country, has grown in confidence. He projects a much greater sense of ease. And he has tapped into a seam of anger at the way the country has been governed since 2008: making the innocent pay for the sins of the guilty. He has offered hope, especially to the young. People with high public profiles (Blair, Mandelson) have had to admit that they were wrong to criticise Corbyn so openly. Labour was in a total mess last year, with four fifths of its MPs expressing no confidence in the leader, and those terrible, fratricidal visits to the High Court over the second leadership contest. But now it's the Tories who are in a deep hole, cabinet ministers briefing against each other to the press, making no progress at all in the Brexit negotiations, and Labour does look like a government in waiting. My political judgements and predictions have been wrong so many times in recent years. Perhaps I'm wrong again. I hope so.

In the early hours of 14 June, fire took hold of a tower block in west London. At least 80 people were killed. [Later note: In the event, 71 people died.] It was a dreadful catastrophe, made even worse by the utter ineptitude of the Tory leadership of Kensington and Chelsea to respond swiftly and appropriately in the aftermath. The fire probably started in a fridge-freezer in a flat on the fourth floor. This event may have been caused by a surge of electrical power to the flat, of the sort that had occurred numerous times in the block over the previous four years. The emergency should have been confined to one flat, but it swiftly engulfed the whole block. It seems likely that new cladding applied to the outside of the block last year contained a flammable substance between two aluminium skins, speeding the conflagration up the building. The Council specifically ordered that kind of cladding, rather than another sort with better fire-resistant properties, to save money. The fact that some of the richest people in the country live in Kensington and Chelsea, and that those people received a rebate recently on their council tax, is a symbol of how the leadership of the Council regards the poorer people living in the north of the borough: a nuisance that they'd rather be rid of, but can't, but don't intend to spend any more money on than absolutely necessary.

The Grenfell Tower fire is the worst peacetime disaster in the UK since, I think, that in Aberfan in 1966, when the collapse of a colliery spoil tip killed 116 children and 28 adults. It has brought into sharp relief a brutal fact about our country: inequality is endemic and increasing. Thatcher's freebooting capitalism, which Labour managed slightly to restrain during its years in power, an ideology of which we are the inheritors, and in particular a policy steadfastly opposed to properly funded, publicly owned housing, is ultimately responsible for the deaths of those people, whichever organisations or individuals turn out to be the more immediate culprits.

It wasn't the sale of council houses in itself which was wrong under Thatcher. I am the part-owner of two private properties. I can't without hypocrisy deny other people the right to buy property if they wish to, and I can understand that they might wish to buy the property in which they are already living. It was the refusal of Thatcher's and Major's governments to allow councils to spend the money from those sales on building new council houses and flats, or buying existing property of equivalent quality, which was the crime. And the inducements to people to buy, in terms of the large discounts on the market price of their rented property, meant that, even if councils had been allowed to spend the income from sales on new property, they wouldn't have been able to afford like for like. Labour, alas, did not reverse the Tories' policy; only ameliorated it a little.

There will be a public enquiry into the cause of the disaster, and criminal investigations are under way. I wish I could say that this terrible event will bring about a change of attitude to publicly owned accommodation on the part of central and local government. I cannot be so optimistic.

We came here on 21 June. I flew back to England on 4 July and stayed three nights in Camden. On 6 July, Betty Rosen and I took the train to Newcastle, to a conference of teachers of English, mainly from universities, where I gave a repeat of the 20 March Harold Rosen lecture. Unfortunately, the publicity for the talk had been inadequate, and I spoke to about 12 people. They were all most appreciative, but I wouldn't have gone to all the trouble and expense if I'd known how small the audience was going to be. On 7 July I flew back here, and the next day we went to the wedding of our friends Aurélie and Jérôme. Good fun. Since then I've been somewhat idle: a bit of gardening and listening to cricket. The old Land Rover, at which we've thrown a lot of money in the last two years, finally gave up the ghost just before my brief trip back to England. We're going to buy a new, French-registered Renault. The administrative hurdles to an English couple buying a French car in France have been formidable, but I've just had a phone call from the young man at the Renault dealer in Caudan to say that after long consideration Reanult has passed us as creditworthy. So we should have the new car next week. I was surprised and pleased that we're getting 3,000 euros for the Land Rover in part exchange, though I'm sure that Renault has factored its apparent generosity into the deal.


21 Jul 2017

There has been a brief crisis in the French state. The head of the armed forces has resigned and been replaced. He had been criticising the cuts to his budget which the government had imposed in order to help to get the deficit below 3% in 2017, as Macron had promised to do in his election campaign. In particular, the general had told a committee of MPs, in approximate translation, that he was not going to be fucked about like this. He thought he was speaking off the record, but his words leaked. Most heads of state, most prime ministers, would have called the general in and told him in private not to do such a thing again. Instead, Macron, at the traditional party at the defence ministry on the evening of 13 July, publicly humiliated the man, 21 years his senior, in front of his subordinates, saying that he, Macron, was the commander-in-chief, he had made certain promises to the French people, and he didn't need to hear alternative opinions or commentaries from subordinates. The general went through the usual 14 July ceremonies in a state of shock, and resigned three days later.

Macron reminds me of only two former leaders of the French nation: de Gaulle and Napoleon. Most opinion that I've read believes that he was wrong to have behaved as he did; there is sympathy for an honourable soldier defending his patch. One general, writing in Le Monde, describes Macron's action as 'juvenile authoritarianism'. Macron says that it's the soldier's job to lead his troops; it's the government's job to decide on the budget. A legitimate reply would be that if the government asks the armed forces to undertake numerous tasks at home and abroad, as is the case at the moment, without providing the necessary means with which to do it, the top soldier has a duty to speak out. I don't know, of course, whether there is indeed a shortage of necessary equipment. All I do know is that Macron is highly unusual: ruthless in establishing himself as a president whose word and will is not to be questioned. He is a not particularly democratic person who has perfect democratic legitimacy. He says that, despite the cut he imposed in this year, he will over the course of his mandate raise the level of funding on defence towards 2% of GDP, as NATO requires. I expect he will do that. The French political establishment, used to all sorts of compromises and velleities, is having to get used to someone who actually does what he says he is going to do. France needs a bit of that, even though the French hate being governed.


1 Sep 2017

The summer is wandering away, pleasantly enough. I've been extraordinarily lazy the last few weeks; I can't work out why. Sometimes I wonder whether the pills I'm taking to reduce the chance of another stroke are weighing me down, making me more tired, less inclined to take on new tasks. I don't think, at the age of only 66, that it can be anything to do with getting older. Anyway, I've certainly listened to a lot of cricket recently; sometimes whole days have passed under the apple tree, or on the shady terrace in front of the house — me, the radio and Test Match Special. The most recent match, the second against West Indies, was easily the most exciting of the summer. The four Tests against South Africa were all one-sided affairs, three to England and one to South Africa. In the first Test of the West Indies series, the visitors were so bad that there was no pleasure at all in England's win, and the thought crossed my mind that West Indies might never again become even a competitive Test-playing side, let alone approach the grandeurs of their past. But then, magically, they rallied at Headingley, England didn't score as many runs in their first innings as they should have, West Indies bowled better, and two of their batsmen, Brathwaite and Hope (there are two Hopes, brothers, in the side; this was Shai Hope), batted splendidly in both innings. The match lasted all five days. West Indies won in the last session. Their five-wicket victory, with overs to spare, was comfortable in the end.

I thought back to the first time I saw a West Indies side playing a Test match in England. It was August 1963. I went with my grandfather to The Oval, to the last day of the final Test. The internet means that I can easily be precise: 26 August. West Indies had won two of the previous four Tests; England had won one; there had been the famous drawn Test at Lords. The Oval Test was low-scoring: England first innings 275; West Indies first innings 246; England second innings 223. So West Indies needed 253 in their second innings to win. Looking at the scorecards now, I see that the only English batsman who really distinguished himself was Phil Sharpe: 63 in the first innings, 83 in the second; top scorer in both. Charlie Griffith had been destructive in England's first innings: 6 for 71. In England's second innings the wickets were shared between Griffiths, Hall and Sobers. But what I remember, of course, is West Indies' second innings, when suddenly they made batting look easy. Conrad Hunte got the only century of the match: 108 not out (he had top-scored with 80 in the first innings). I can still see, in my mind's eye, Rohan Kanhai's famous falling-over pull shots to square leg or midwicket. The scorecard tells me he hit one six, the only six of the match. I remember it. I remember the mounting excitement, the eventual jubilation in the large West Indian contingent in the crowd. These were the new Londoners, the Samuel Selvon generation, in their smart suits and painted ties and pork-pie hats. When the winning run was scored, 255 for only two wickets, there was a pitch invasion. That sort of thing didn't happen in those days. My grandfather and I walked to the Underground station, and thence home to the quiet suburb of Bromley. I was 12, but even at that age I had a sense that something significant had occurred: significant beyond cricket, significant in terms of relations between black and white people in Britain. No more deference. 'We'll come here and we'll beat you fair and square.' No more Kamau Brathwaite's great line in his wonderful poem 'Rites', which I came across years later (and heard Brathwaite read once): 'Yuh cyan find a man to hold up the side.' And after that, of course, West Indies went on to dominate world cricket, which is why it is such a sadness to me that they have been in this deep, largely self-induced decline for 20 years. I want them to be back, with a swagger, amongst the top teams.

Deirdre Finan joined us here for a week in August, and after that came my Marseille family: Mary, Jacques, Sophie, Julien and their three-month-old baby Paul. Yesterday I wrote a little poem to celebrate Paul's arrival.

Welcome Poem for Paul

Your needs are food and warmth and human touch.
No grown-up meal you'll relish half as much
as now you savour each three-hourly dose.
But when you cry, we rock you, hold you close,
we pass the parcel, worried, mystified.
'Don't be afraid. We're here. We will provide.'

Is it bad guts, or does some deep malaise,
some sense of cosmic vastness, hurt your mind?
With foolish songs we seek to ease the pain.
We show you oak leaves stirring in the lane.
You heed the wind chimes in the apple tree.
You've joined a world yet lovelier, you'll see,
than that dark comfort which you've left behind.
So welcome, sweet enhancer of our days!

I've just finished reading or re-reading all the Canterbury Tales. For the sake of my own memory, I'm going to record the stories of all the tales, in order.

The Knight's Tale tells of the competition between the knights and cousins Palamon and Arcite for the love of Emily, the sister-in-law of Theseus. Theseus has imprisoned them after their defeat in his battle against Creon. At different times the two knights see Emily from their prison, and are smitten. Eventually Theseus decides that the suitors must joust for their lady's hand. Palamon is successful, but only after Arcite, who is dying, recommends to Emily that she should marry his rival.

The Miller's Tale tells of a foolish carpenter at Oxford who is expertly cuckolded by Nicholas, an astrological scholar who lodges with him and persuades him that a flood on the scale of Noah's flood is imminent. Alison, the carpenter's wife, enjoys herself with Nicholas at the expense of her husband, who has lodged himself in a boat hanging in the air in expectation of the flood, and of the hapless parish clerk Absolon, who is also in love with her.

The Reeve's Tale (a reeve is a carpenter, and the tale is told as revenge for the miller's tale) is of a foolish and corrupt miller (he cheats his customers) who lives near Cambridge and is expertly cuckolded by two young Cambridge scholars, Aleyn and John. Between them, they enjoy both his wife and his daughter in the mill.

The Cook's Tale is only a fragment. It was clearly going to be a tale of the same sort as the previous two. A riotous apprentice is kicked out by his master. He goes to stay with an equally riotous friend, whose wife keeps a shop for appearances, and prostitutes herself for a living. End of fragment.

The Man of Law's Tale is about the trials, tribulations and travels of Custance, daughter of a Roman emperor. She reluctantly agrees to marry a Syrian sultan, who has promised to convert to Christianity. The sultan's mother, furious at her son's apostasy, organises a massacre, of which Custance is the sole survivor. A rudderless boat eventually takes her to Northumberland. Many more adventures and misfortunes befall her, but at last she comes to Rome, still in the rudderless boat, now with her son Mauricius. Her Northumbrian husband Alla, who has killed his mother because of the wicked things she had done to deceive him about Custance, also comes to Rome on a pilgrimage of penitence, and the couple are reunited. They return to England, but Alla dies soon afterwards, and Custance goes back to Rome again, where her son eventually becomes emperor. Mothers-in-law do not have a good press in this tale.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue is twice as long as The Wife of Bath's Tale. In the prologue, the wife of Bath challenges the notion that virginity is preferable to marriage, or that there is anything dirty about sex, procreation and the organs of procreation. She enjoys sex, and is frank about it. In each of her five marriages, she has been the boss, especially in the bedroom. But ultimately it is equality, not domination, that she desires.

Her tale is about a knight in King Arthur's time who rapes a young maiden. He is condemned to death, but Queen Guinevere persuades her husband to let her pass judgement. She sends the knight away for a year and a day, to find out what it is that women desire most. The knight sees 24 maidens dancing in the woods outside a castle. They disappear, leaving behind only an old hag, who agrees to help him in his quest, as long as he will grant her any favour she then asks. After the year and a day, the knight returns to court and gives an answer to the women there which satisfies them: women desire lordship over their husbands. The hag's price for the help she has given is that the knight should marry her. On their wedding night, the knight is repulsed by the ugliness of his bride, but he gives a correct answer to her puzzling question: would you rather a faithful ugly wife or a beautiful wife about whose fidelity you will always have doubts? He says that he will give his wife the choice. Now she has power over him, she tells him to kiss her. He turns, and she is young and beautiful.

The Friar's Tale is an attack on summoners. A corrupt summoner meets a yeoman who turns out to be a devil in disguise. They come upon a carter whose horses are stuck in the mud. The angry carter says that the devil may take the horses. The summoner asks the devil why he doesn't indeed take them, since they are offered. The devil replies that the carter's oath is not his sincere intention. The two go on to the house of an old woman whom the summoner intends to cheat. The old woman resists the summoner's wicked false charges, and damns him to hell unless he repents of them. The summoner refuses to repent, and because the old woman's intention is sincere, the devil does take him off to hell, together with the frying pan which he has corruptly claimed from the woman.

The Summoner's Tale is a revengeful attack on friars. A corrupt friar visits a Yorkshireman called Thomas, who is ill. Thomas's wife tells the friar that their child has recently died. The friar pretends to be sure that the child is in heaven. He boasts about how well he has recently preached. He claims alms from Thomas, who tells him that he has a gift which he is sitting on, and which he will give as long as the friar will promise to split it twelve ways, amongst the other friars in his house. The friar agrees, and puts his hand down behind Thomas' back. Thomas lets out an enormous fart. The enraged friar leaves the house, and goes to the lord of the village to denounce Thomas, and to ask how a fart could possibly be divided into twelve. The lord is highly entertained, and his squire has a good suggestion: put the friar at the centre of a cartwheel, and let his twelve colleagues put their nose to the end of each of the twelve spokes. The spokes would then carry the fart equally to each of them. For this, the lord rewards his squire with a 'gowne-clooth'.

The Clerk's Tale tells of a marquis in Piedmont who marries a poor peasant girl, Grisilde. He subjects her to appalling tests of her loyalty and obedience, arranging for both their children to be removed from her, telling her that they will be killed, but in fact removing them to be cared for in Bologna. He then pretends that he has permission from the pope to annul the marriage, sends her back to her father, but then recalls her to help prepare for the wedding. Grisilde does his bidding in all things. In the end, the children return from Bologna, and the marquis, having presented Grisilde's daughter to her as his intended new wife, reveals the deceit, and explains that all the time he has been testing her. She is overjoyed, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Merchant's Tale is about old January, who marries young May and is obsessively jealous of her. May outwits him, cuckolding him with young Damyan, who is sorely in love with her. The climax of the story has May copulating with Damyan in a pear tree in the secret garden which January has organised for his coupling with his young wife. He has unfortunately gone blind, which should make May's deception easier, but Pluto and Proserpina are in the garden. Pluto says that he will restore January's sight, so he knows the truth. Proserpina in return says that she will give May the words to justify herself when the moment of truth comes. When it does, January is of course appalled and angry, but May protests that she is instrumental in bringing back January's sight, having been told that the best remedy for his blindness was for her to struggle with a man in a tree. January is sure that she has been doing a great deal more than struggling, but May at last persuades the old fool that his newly restored sight is still imperfect.

The Squire's Tale tells of Cambyuskan (Genghis Khan) who holds a feast to celebrate twenty years of his reign as king of Tartary. A strange knight appears during the feast, like the green knight of that poem, bearing various magical gifts. One of these is a ring through which humans can understand the language of birds, which is given to Cambyuskan's daughter Canace. The next morning Canace rises early and goes for a walk. She encounters a grieving female falcon, who tells her how she has been abandoned by her faithless lover for a kite. Canace builds a shelter for the poor bird, painted blue inside, for true faith, and green outside, for falsity, with pictures of faithless birds. The squire promises much more action, involving Cambyuskan's two sons and Canace's suitor Cambalo, but is then impatiently interrupted by the franklin, and stops.

The Franklin's Tale is set in Brittany. Arveragus and Dorigen marry. They agree that their marriage should be one of equality, though Arveragus will make the marital decisions in public, for the look of the thing. Arveragus then goes off to Britain to pursue his knightly exercises. Dorigen misses him very much, and is particularly anxious about the rocks around the coast of Brittany which might cause his shipwreck. A squire, Aurelius, falls in love with Dorigen. Eventually he tells his love. Dorigen is shocked, but also feels sorry for the man. He persists, and at last, as a joke, she says that she will become his lover if he will arrange for all the rocks of Brittany to be taken away. Aurelius goes off to Orléans and returns with a magician-scholar who manages to makes the rocks of Brittany disappear, for a fee of a thousand pounds. (Possibly the magician makes use of the exceptionally high tides in Brittany.) Aurelius demands that Dorigen become his lover. Arveragus comes back from Britain safe and sound. Dorigen admits her fault to her husband, quoting examples of women who have killed themselves rather than be dishonoured. Arveragus says that she must keep her promise to Aurelius. She goes to him, but he is so moved by Arveragus' nobility that he releases her from her promise. The magician is in turn so impressed by Aurelius' compassion that he releases him from the debt. So everyone has behaved well.

The Physician's Tale is a miserable story. A corrupt lecherous judge, Appius, sees a beautiful young woman, Virginia. He decides to have her for himself. He arranges for a peasant, Claudius, to appear before him in court and falsely accuse Virginia's father, Virginius, of having stolen Virginia when she was a baby. Appius connives in this lie, and orders Virginius to return his daughter to the court, without listening to Virginius' defence. Virginius goes home and explains the dreadful situation to his daughter. Should she consent to be dishonoured, or die by his hand? Virginia agrees to be killed by her father. He beheads her, and takes the head to Appius, who orders that Virginius be hanged. But a crowd bursts into the court, declaring Virginius' innocence. They arrest Appius and throw him into prison, where he commits suicide. They want to hang Claudius, but Virginius mercifully asks that Claudius be exiled instead. It seems to me that he could have resisted the judge's wickedness a bit more stoutly than he did.

The Pardoner's Tale is the one I know best, because I used to tell it to students when I was teaching. It is preceded by The Pardoner's Prologue, in which the pardoner frankly tells the other pilgrims that he is a fraudster. His tale concerns three ne'er-do-wells, gamblers and drunkards, seated in a tavern, who hear the passing bell of a dead person outside. The boy in the tavern tells them that the deceased is a former friend of theirs, whose life has been stolen away by a thief called Death. The drunkards determine to go out and find Death, and punish him. They come across an old man, whom they treat roughly and discourteously. He tells them that they will find Death on the top of a hill, under a tree. They go there, and find gold. Amid their astonishment and delight, they agree to wait until nightfall to take the gold away. The worst of the drunkards proposes that they should draw lots to see which of them should go to the town to buy food and wine to see them through the day. The youngest draws the lot obliging him to run the errand, and goes off. The other two then conspire to murder him when he returns, so that they may divide the gold between two rather than three. The youngest, meanwhile, plots his own evil scheme. He visits an apothecary and tells him that he is plagued by rats, and that a polecat is slaughtering his capons. The apothecary, though suspicious, gives him a powerful poison, which the young man puts into two of the three bottles of wine he buys. He returns to the others, who murder him immediately, and sit down to eat and drink. They are poisoned, die horribly, and thus it is that all three do find Death under the tree.

At the end of his tale, the pardoner, despite the frank admission of fraud in his prologue, tries to sell relics to the pilgrims, beginning with the host, who rebuffs him with vulgar abuse, offering to cut off his testicles and enshrine them 'in an hogges toord'.

The Shipman's Tale is an entertaining tribute to female sexuality, cunning and deception of the male, a bit like The Merchant's Tale. It tells of a merchant whose wife enjoys revelry and socialising, on which she spends a great deal of money. A young monk, who is friendly with the merchant, comes to stay with them. After confessing that she does not love her husband, the wife asks the monk for one hundred franks to pay her debts. The monk, without her knowledge, borrows the money from the merchant to give to the wife. In return, she agrees to give the monk a night of sexual pleasure. After satisfying himself in this way, the monk tells the merchant that he has already repaid the loan to the wife a few days after borrowing it, and departs. When the merchant asks his wife about the money, she says she has spent it on clothes, claiming that she thought the money was in payment for the lengthy hospitality the monk had enjoyed at their house. She tells her husband not to be angry; she will repay the debt to him in another way: 'I wol not paye yow but abedde!' The foolish merchant is obliged to accept her offer.

The Prioress's Tale is a straightforward piece of anti-Semitism. It's extraordinary to find it so nakedly unapologetic, after the variously humorous, humanistic, moral but broadly tolerant tones of the other tales. A little boy in a Christian city of Asia, with a Jewish ghetto, is determined to learn the words of the hymn 'Alma Redemptoris Mater', to which he has been introduced at school. He sings it on the way to and from school, walking along the Jewish street. The Jews are offended at this and kill him, throwing his body on a dung heap. His mother eventually finds the body, which miraculously continues to sing the hymn. The murdering Jews are torn to pieces by wild horses, and then hanged. A requiem mass is held for the boy, who still continues to sing. The abbot asks him how he is able to do this. The boy says that he has had a vision of Mary, who laid a grain on his tongue which enables him to keep singing although his throat is cut. The abbot, deeply moved, removes the grain from the boy's mouth. The boy dies.

As if that degree of anti-Semitism weren't enough, the tale ends with a request to 'yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also / With cursed Jews' to pray for 'we sinful folk unstable'.

Was Chaucer an anti-Semite himself? As with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, I'm reluctant to ascribe hateful bigotry to such a great and wise intellect. Perhaps Chaucer was simply acknowledging the existence of anti-Semitism in the society of his day: the Jews had been banished from England about a hundred years before the tale was written. But there's no challenging of the hatred by any voice, within or after the tale. At least, in The Merchant of Venice, there's the great 'If you tickle us, do we not laugh?' speech.

Chaucer's decision to make himself the narrator of the Tale of Sire Thopas is a mystery. Why did he embark on this foolish, mock-heroic story? A knight, Sire Thopas, dreams that an elf-queen will be his lover. He goes off in search of her, but runs into a giant called Sire Olifaunt, who bars his way, threatens to kill him and throws stones to chase him away. Sire Thopas rides back to town, where he summons his 'myrie men' to a feast consisting of sweets, and is extravagantly armed and armoured for the battle he intends to resume against Sire Olifaunt. Off he rides again, until… the host interrupts Chaucer, telling him that this is all worthless nonsense, 'rym doggerel'. It's true that the form of the tale is unique in Chaucer, sextets rhyming AABAAB or sometimes AABCCB, as in some popular stories of the time. Perhaps the intention was a full-scale comedy like Don Quixote, but with the form as well as the content a parody. But why go to the trouble of writing more than 900 lines and then abandoning them? Perhaps Chaucer tired of the joke, but couldn't bring himself to throw the thing away.

As if in revenge for the rebuke he has suffered, Chaucer then tells The Tale of Melibee, in prose. It's more than a thousand lines long, worthy and dull. Melibee is away from his house one day when three enemies break in, beat his wife Dame Prudence and attack his daughter, leaving her for dead. Melibee is naturally enraged, and summons friends to his side to discuss what action to take. They offer contradictory advice. Prudence, on the other hand, is clear. At exhausting length, debating with her husband point by point, adducing numerous authorities, she advises him not to seek revenge on the wrongdoers, but to turn the other cheek. She arranges to meet the men, and tells them that they should meet her husband and apologise for their actions, which they are pleased and relieved to do. Melibee in turn forgives them. The tale is a translation of the Livre de Melibée et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens.

Why did Chaucer the author disoblige himself by putting into the mouth of Chaucer the narrator two such unsatisfactory efforts?

The Monk's Tale recounts the lives and tragic fates of 17 historical or mythological figures. I had to plough through it as I did Melibee.

The Nun's Priest's Tale is a masterpiece, a thing of pure delight, with the learning it displays put to wonderfully comic use. Chauntecleer is a proud cockerel. One night he dreams of his own approaching death. He wakes his wife Pertelote and tells her of the dream. She chides him for his foolishness, telling him that he is only suffering from indigestion. He quotes numerous examples of baleful dreams that came true for the dreamer, but eventually, as day approaches, acknowledges that his night fears are overcome by love for his wife. Unfortunately for him, a fox is in waiting, wishing to murder him just as he did the cockerel's father and mother. The fox flatters Chauntecleer, persuading him to close his eyes and open his mouth to sing, so sweet is his voice. Chauntecleer's vanity is his undoing; the fox grabs the singer by the neck and makes off, followed by the whole farmyard in pursuit. Chauntecleer then tests the fox's vanity, suggesting that he taunt his pursuers, telling them that all pursuit is in vain. The fox falls for the suggestion and opens his mouth. Chaunticleer flies up into a tree, and this time no amount of persuasion by the fox will bring him down. Both animals ruefully reflect on their folly. The tale ends with the advice to 'Taketh the moralite, goode men'; it may be a fable about talking animals, but the lessons for humans are clear.

The Second Nun's Tale (there is no first nun, unless she be the prioress) tells the life and death of Saint Cecilia. It's a straightforward hagiography. Cecilia, already a Christian, is to be married to Valerian. On their wedding night, she persuades him not to consummate the marriage. She tells him that an angel is protecting her, and that if Valerian will consent to love her 'in clene love', he will see the angel too. Valerian naturally wishes to have this unlikely promise tested. Cecilia sends him down the Appian Way to see Saint Urban. As a result of this meeting, Valerian does indeed see the angel. He becomes a Christian. Later, his brother Tiburce is converted too. All three fall foul of the prefect Almachius, who orders them to worship an image of Jupiter, or be executed. The prefect's chief officer, Maximus, and numerous other executioners are converted by the Christians' example. Cecilia offers Valerian and Tiburce the right to worship Jupiter in order to save their lives, but when they are led out to perform the sacrifice they refuse, and are beheaded. Maximus says that he saw their souls gliding up to heaven, escorted by angels. This witness converts many more people, so Almachius has Maximus beaten 'With whippe of leed' until he dies. He then turns his attention to Cecilia, who boldly defies him with powerful theological arguments. He orders her to be placed in a scalding bath. The boiling water does her no harm. So Almachius orders her beheaded. The executioner half chops her head off. In this inconvenient state she continues to preach the Christian message for three days, until she dies. Saint Urban buries her body and names her house 'the chirche of Seint Cecilie'.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, preceded by The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue, is an attack on alchemy. I studied it for A-level. The canon, with his yeoman, joins the party of pilgrims 'At Boghtoun under Blee'. In the prologue, the yeoman betrays his master's shameful secret — cheating gullible fools by promising to turn base metals into silver — so that the canon 'fledde awey for verray sorwe and shame'. In the tale, the yeoman reveals all the tricks of the alchemist's deceitful trade. He tells how his master conned a greedy priest, by trickery and sleight of hand, into believing that he had made solid silver ingots in his alembic. The priest asked for the 'receit', the secret recipe, so that he could make silver himself. The canon charged him forty pounds for it, which the priest willingly gave him. The canon then abruptly disappeared, and of course the recipe was useless. The tale ends with philosophical and religious musings on the futility of seeking the philosopher's stone.

The Manciple's Tale is preceded by The Manciple's Prologue, in which there is an entertaining exchange at the expense of the cook, who is clearly drunk. The host invites the cook to tell a tale (we remember that the cook has already begun a tale, which exists only as a fragment). The cook isn't up to it. So the manciple takes over. His story concerns the god Phoebus and his crow. The crow is white in colour, and can speak. (In a digression, the manciple declares that it is impossible to change the essential nature of any creature.) Phoebus has a wife of whom he jealous. He keeps her shut up in the house. The abused wife takes a lover, and the crow betrays her infidelity to Phoebus, who kills her in rage. Later, he regrets his action, and in his grief he blames the crow. He turns it black and gives it an unmelodious voice. Moral: don't gossip, even if the substance of your gossiping is true.

Which brings us to the last, The Parson's Tale, an exhaustingly long prose treatise on penitence. It's divided into three parts, each part then further and minutely sub-divided. Penitence consists of contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction (the enactment of penitence in practical ways such as the giving of alms, waking, praying, fasting, scourging oneself). The second part, confession of the mouth, includes a section on the seven deadly sins and the remedies for them. The tale occupies 36 solid pages of my Robinson edition, and I was spent by the time I got to the end.

Chaucer's envoi, 'Heere taketh the makere of this book his leve', asks the reader to pray for Christ's forgiveness for his 'giltes', by which he means all the writings which we most enjoy, including Troilus and Criseyede and the Canterbury Tales, 'and many a song and many a leccherous lay'. It's interesting that it's placed after the Tales, but refers to Chaucer's whole oeuvre. Was he really hedging his bets at the end of his writing life? Did he really believe that the bawdiness of some of the tales, the rough physicality of some of the language — qualities which we value as much as anything in his work — might damn him for eternity? Or was it merely lip service? Was he worried about falling foul of an ecclesiastical court on a charge of obscenity? We'll never know.

Bartholomeus Klip, near Hermon, Western Province, South Africa

6 Nov 2017

Here we are in the same beautiful place to which I came 14 years ago, on my first visit to South Africa. I was so struck by Bartholomeus Klip then that I determined to return for longer the next time I came to the country. This time Helen is with me. Last week we were in Cape Town, choosing the scholars whom we will enable, through the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong Scholarship fund, to study for PhDs or MAs in South African universities in the coming one, two or three years. We also helped the colleagues who run the Canon Collins Education Trust to choose the larger number of scholars they can afford to fund. We chose six people; Canon Collins as a whole chose about another 30. As ever, there wasn't enough money to fund all the applicants who deserved support, but we shall make a significant difference to the lives of those whom we eventually chose.

It's 23 years now since South Africa was liberated, but the desperate poverty in which many of the black and brown people live remains a shame and a scandal. The townships on Cape Flats still stretch for miles, as far as the eye can see: rows and rows — or blocks and blocks — of corrugated iron shacks leaning against each other, boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter. The lanes between the shacks are of bare earth, which turns to mud when it rains. There is some sort of informal electricity supply, and many of the shacks have television reception dishes on their roofs. There are often portable toilets in rows, each used by scores of families. I remember the shock, 14 years ago, of my first sight of these slums as I drove into town from the airport. Now, those particular dwellings have been replaced by perfectly respectable small houses. I wondered whether their visibility to the wealthy traveller who has just arrived by air was the reason for the good fortune of those who have been rehoused there. But the scale of the task remains formidable, and I'm not well informed enough to know whether the government is doing its best with the resources it has, or whether it can and should be criticised for not doing enough, quickly enough. I'm inclined to the latter suspicion.

On a day off from our work with the scholarships, we were driven all the way down the peninsula to Cape Point by Maxwell, a taxi driver whom we had met on our first evening. On the way back we came to Hout Bay. We passed the pretty little settlement there. About a mile later, we came to the black people's dwellings. There had been a fire recently, Maxwell told us. Many of the shacks had been destroyed. Across the road, in a field, emergency replacement accommodation had been provided: hundreds of small containers, like miniature versions of those which carry the world's goods on ships, trains and lorries. One door into each; no windows; a letter and a number on each. At the edge of the field, rows of toilets and shower cubicles. It was like a refugee camp, but these people weren't refugees.

All the scholars whom we funded desired sincerely to ameliorate some aspect of the woeful reality facing poorer people in South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho or Zambia. They wished to provide better health care for women; to improve the education of deaf-blind children; to bring about better working conditions through changes to the labour laws; to involve women more actively in the services provided by local government, whether as clients or as employees. Some of them were doing voluntary work of various kinds in the townships. But none of the applicants had offered to study ways of addressing the housing crisis; for me, that and unemployment are South Africa's principal challenges. As has often been pointed out in the context of less severe housing crises such as that which we have in the UK, the great thing about building houses is that, provided that people are trained, the work is labour-intensive; you need lots of skilled and semi-skilled people.

On most of the streets in central Cape Town there are destitute people. An evidently wealthy foreigner can't walk around without being asked for money every few minutes. When I was out by myself, women offered me sex for money. In none of these encounters did I feel threatened. I gave nothing to beggars; there were too many. Most of the destitute people, sitting on doorsteps or lying on flattened cardboard boxes, didn't even bother to beg as I passed. Their hopelessness was complete. On our last evening, I went for a walk by myself. Returning down Plein Street, very near the parliament building, I passed a young brown girl squatting in an old sleeping bag. She just looked up and smiled at me. I walked on to the hotel, then turned round, went back and gave her 50 rand — about three pounds. 'Eat something,' I said. She smiled at me again but said nothing. That particular encounter broke me up. In the hotel bedroom, I found myself suddenly weeping for the whole awful wickedness, over decades and centuries, which has brought so many people, including that girl, to this pass. Then we went out and had an expensive and delicious meal.

I'll catch up, briefly, after this long pause since the beginning of September.

On 3 September we had the fête de Saint Guénaël, as usual on the first Sunday of September. It poured with rain, but I still sold more than a thousand euros-worth of wine, and four hundred people turned up to eat lunch, despite the weather. Two days later, we drove south, via Agen (one night), Marseille (two nights), Podere Conti (one night) to Rodellosso. Two weeks there, with friends coming and going, and the usual pleasures. (I think this will have been the last year when we've block-booked all five apartments for a fortnight. The friends who've been coming have seen enough of the place, much as they have enjoyed it. Next year, Helen and I will go just for a week, by ourselves, as part of a little tour of northern and central Italy.) Then we made our way back via Podere Conti (one night), Marseille (two nights) and Avignon (three nights), where we stayed, as last year, with Bronwyn and Stephen in the house they borrow from their friends Janet and Tom. We celebrated Bronwyn's 71st birthday on the last day. Then a long drive up through the massif central to the Loire valley. I suffered a minor disaster that day: I lost my wallet, with two credit cards, my driving licence and some money. The credit cards and driving licence have been replaced, and the one fraudulent attempt to use a card was thwarted by the bank's security system. The worst loss was that of the little black-and-white photograph of my parents as young lovers, I think before they were married, which, as I wrote in the poem 'A Child's Farewell', I kept 'deep in my wallet'. Irreplaceable. We stopped for one night at Cour-Cheverny, stopped again for coffee and to buy some wine at Amboise, and were home at Kerfontaine at teatime on the last day of September.

In the first week of October, Jean-Paul and I cut the hedges and chopped wood, which I stored. We left Kerfontaine on 11 October, and were in London the next day. On 16 October, Stephen Mellor and I went up to Betty Rosen's house and took delivery of 500 copies each of my two poetry books. (Betty, as I think I've said earlier somewhere, is kindly storing the books in her spare bedroom.) On 19 October, we launched the books at a party in the upstairs room of the Prince Albert pub in Royal College Street. About 100 people came; we gave them drinks and canapés, and the event was a success. I was particularly pleased that Peter Hetherington, Ken Pearce (my Latin teacher) and Chris Carmell (my French teacher) were there, with their wives. Stephen addressed the company briefly, then Bronwyn made a witty and flattering longer speech introducing me, and this was my reply.

Thank you, Bronwyn and Stephen, for those kind words of introduction. And thank you, everyone, for coming along in such numbers. Before Helen and I revisited this room last Friday, I was deeply anxious that I had organised an event during which people were going to be crushed like commuters on the Northern Line in the rush hour. It is pretty crowded, but I hope you can find your way to the bar and the food and the bookstall without too much difficulty.

As many of you know, for several years now I've had a website onto which I've put my poems. It was designed, built and is maintained by my friend Mark Leicester, whom I met when we were both working at Teachers TV. I'm very proud of the site, Mark looks after it beautifully, it will continue, and I expect to add to it as more poems come along.

But several friends have said to me, 'Wouldn't it be nice also to put your poems into that great old-fashioned thing called a book, which you can hold in your hands, and which you can manipulate with no need for an electricity supply?' And so I was delighted when my friends Bronwyn and Stephen Mellor, who've been running Chalkface Press for 30 years now, agreed to take me on as one of their authors.

I asked a small group of critics to cast a cold eye over the poems on the website, and to tell me which ones were worth the trouble of putting into print. There was a remarkable degree of agreement about this, and I was flattered and surprised that all but about 30 poems seemed to them to make the cut. That still left the best part of 200 poems, which would have made for a very fat book indeed, so we decided to do two books, one containing original poems, and one containing poems which are translations from other languages.

So my first thanks are to Bronwyn and Stephen. They are the kind of publisher that every author longs for. Forget about the content for a moment; Stephen's design is a model of elegant restraint (I had nothing to do with it other than to express admiration). And Bronwyn is a brilliant editor: wise in her judgments, gentle but clear in her criticisms, constantly encouraging, and with a hawk-eye precision on detail which nothing eludes.

Most people here are teachers, or have been teachers, or have been involved in education in some way. It's a great honour to me that no fewer than six teachers who worked at the secondary school which I attended in Bedford are here this evening. I don't need to tell this audience about the transformative influence which good teachers have on young people's lives. I was fortunate to come under the influence of three of the six, and — at the risk of embarrassing them — I'm going to name them.

Chris Carmell taught me A-level French, and his witty and erudite teaching made the study of Voltaire, Molière and Sartre a profound pleasure. Chris also played trad jazz trumpet (and still does — you can watch him on YouTube), and occasionally favoured us with stories about his youth in Paris: the clubs he played in, the bars and restaurants he visited. His love and knowledge of French language, literature, culture, food and drink evoked in me an urgent desire to get over to that country as soon as possible: a desire which, 50 years later, Helen and I continue to satisfy.

The first section of Bring Me the Sunflower contains translations of some of the poems of Victor Hugo. That section is dedicated to Chris, with my enduring thanks.

Ken Pearce taught me O-level Latin. I've found that people who learnt Latin at school, in reminiscing about the experience, record emotions ranging from agony to (very nearly) ecstasy. My good fortune, as a 15-year-old, was to be taught by a man who could actually make the concept of the semi-deponent verb entertaining; who gave to the hunt for the main verb in a Latin sentence something of the thrill of the chase; whose admiration for the wonderful economy of Latin as a carrier of meaning, as opposed to the more prolix necessities of English, has been an example to me in my own writing.

Later, Hugh Proudfoot, who is alas no longer with us, taught me A-level Latin, and showed me into Virgil's sad and beautiful philosophising and — as a pick-me-up — the sexy exhilarations of Catullus. 50 years later, Ken was kind enough to look over my efforts at translating Virgil and Horace from the Latin and Sappho from the Greek. He didn't grade the work on this occasion, but he did pronounce himself more or less satisfied with it, to my enormous relief.

The Latin section of Bring Me the Sunflower is dedicated to Ken and to Hugh's memory, again with my enduring thanks.

Peter Hetherington taught me English for the four years I attended Bedford Modern School: O-level, A-level and preparation for university. It's no exaggeration to say — and I've said it in Peter's hearing before — that he gave me my intellectual life. Central to that was, of course, his deep knowledge and love of English literature, which infected me immediately. But I also mean something wider. I mean that a boy who had a loving, supportive but religiously dogmatic family upbringing was shown the possibilities of a wider world of reason and critical openness to the diversity of human experience. Peter taught me, without ever being explicit about it, that there are more things in heaven and earth than had been dreamt of in the particular side-chapel of evangelical Protestantism in which I had grown up; and that it is our responsibility, and ours alone, as to whether the world goes well or goes ill in the areas where we have the chance to make a difference.

It's a great joy to Helen and to me that, after decades of seeing Peter occasionally, we're now in close and regular contact with him and Monica. Additionally, over these last 10 years or so, he has been an essential critic of almost every poem I've written and translation I've done, hanging in there with me until the thing is more or less right, is as good as it's going to be. The whole of My Proper Life is dedicated to Peter, simply because, at the beginning, he showed me what a proper life could be.

And, equivalently, the whole of Bring Me the Sunflower is dedicated to Helen Savva, my wife, lover, best friend, strength and stay; the one who hears the poems before anyone else, the one who puts her finger unerringly on what is right and what is wrong with them, the one whose constant love and support is the reason to keep on doing them. As you'll see, the second section of My Proper Life contains love poems for Helen. Cumulatively, they express my gratitude that she has shared her life with me these more than 40 years now.

I'll just do two poems: The Odyssey and The Iliad. (The old jokes are the best. I love that episode of The Simpsons where the little girl Lisa, going into an English class, sees that it's going to be poetry study that day and cries, 'Poetry! Kill me now.' And I like Dr Johnson's remark about Milton's Paradise Lost: 'No man ever wished it longer than it is.') I'll do one poem from each book. Here's a translation from Victor Hugo, who wrote that the event it describes did actually happen to his father, who was a general in Napoleon's army.

After the Battle

After Victor Hugo — 'Après la Bataille'

The battle done, my father toured the killing ground
on horseback, with a man he loved devotedly:
a hussar, great in stature, greater still in gallantry.
The night was falling and the dead lay all around.

From out the gloom, a feeble cry came to their ears.
A Spaniard of the routed army, broken, bleeding,
dragged himself along the road, gasping for breath and pleading,
'Give us a drink! A drink, for pity's sake, good sirs!'

My father saw his enemy's gaunt face: a mask
of agony and fear of death; and he was moved.
'Give him a drop of rum,' he bade the servant that he loved
and unhooked from his saddle his own drinking flask.

The hussar bent down to the dying man, a Moor,
who shouted, 'Bastards, go to hell! We're even now!'
He aimed the pistol he was clutching at my father's brow
and fired. The distant mountains echoed to the roar.

And echoed to the roar. The roar. The aim was wild.
The bullet, which had whistled past my father's head
had blown his hat clean off and shied his horse. My father said,
'Give this poor wounded soul a drink, hussar,' and smiled.

And here's an event that did actually happen to me.

As Anacondas Go

The anaconda is regarding me from up that tree
with merely intellectual interest. The enormous bulge
which quadruples its girth part way along the heaps of coils
which occupy the sagging branches of the tree is proof.
An anaconda isn't one for snacking between meals.
Obesity is not a risk it runs. Our guide would guess
it won't be in a mood for eating for at least a week.
'What does it eat?' I ask. 'Oh, meat in general,' he says,
'though probably,' — he sizes up my lanky frame — 'not you.
You'd be too big. It's only small as anacondas go.'

Our very small canoe makes progress through the flooded grove.
I'm glad I'm big as tourists go. I'm hoping not to meet
an anaconda here who's hungry and who isn't small
as anacondas go. The guide has brought a hunting knife
which is, I see, quite big as weapons go for self-defence.
My wish not to be squeezed out of my middle-sized dear life
is, out of all proportion to the way things go, immense.

Enough. There are about 200 more poems where those come from. Helen, as you see, is at the bookstall. In good barrow-boy and barrow-girl fashion, we're knocking these books out at seven quid a pop tonight. They'll be ten quid a pop from tomorrow. We accept cheques, cash or — if you haven't got either — take the books now and we'll invoice you. As I wrote on the invitation cards, think how this could ease all your Christmas-present headaches. But do remember not to send the books to each other. Meanwhile, there's plenty more to drink at the bar. And all those canapés need eating up. And thanks again for coming, and enjoy yourselves!

We sold about 155 books that night, which disappointed me a little. Some wonderful people bought multiple copies (Ann Whittaker bought 13!). But that must mean that many people bought only one, or none. A few days later, I wrote emails to everyone who had come, thanking them, and telling them where they could get more copies if they wished. I wrote a different email to a further 80 people whom I hadn't invited, providing availability details. So far, I've had a handful of orders. I'm disheartened, really, at the moment, and in an absurd way embarrassed. I certainly overdid the print run. I should have confined myself to 200 copies of each book, although a shorter print run doesn't actually cost much less money. Bronwyn and Stephen have generously said that they would pay for the printing of one of the books, and they haven't asked me for the £2000 for the other yet. Chalkface has sent review copies to the usual literary journals. I find myself reading my own poems, trying to reassure myself that some of them really are good, that it was worth all that bother. I don't have the heart to go tramping round bookshops to see whether they might take one or two on sale or return. I should investigate ways of getting onto online outlets.

Towards the end of a year during which five books have come out with my name on them, I'm stuck, wondering what to do now. I don't have a big project on. And the undermining thought keeps returning: has anything I've done with my life really made any difference to anyone? These South African scholarships will make a big difference to a few people, yes. But I have no great expectations now for the lasting effect of my own intellectual work. The proposals in the two Routledge books and in the ten UKLA booklets, for example, won't change government policy on curriculum and assessment in English one iota. I've had a good time during an entertaining, wandering career, but that's it. I know that lots of people like me, love me even, on a personal basis, and South Africa is the last place in the world where a privileged person like me should feel sorry for himself, and I don't. But disheartened is the word, at least for now.

We came up here on Saturday, in a rented car. Bartholomeus Klip retains its old-fashioned charm, just as I remember it from 2003. Tea at three, served in a silver teapot, with scones and jam and cream; a drive into the game reserve in the Land Rover at five, to spot eland, springbok, bontebok, zebras, ostriches and an enormous variety of smaller birds; drinks on the terrace at seven; a four-course dinner at eight. The farm of which Bartholomeus Klip is the farmhouse comprises 3,000 hectares of farmland and 4,000 hectares of reserve. The signs I can spot suggest that the business treats its workers well. Paternalistic it is, no doubt. The son of the owner flew in from Cape Town yesterday in a helicopter, with half a dozen friends. They enjoyed a noisy lunch, and flew out again at five. But there does seem to be a genuine care for the workers and their families, and the little houses on the estate are brightly painted in white and green, with wooden verandas and good roofs on which solar panels have been installed. The children are well dressed. There are various conservation projects, for geometric tortoises and disease-free African buffalo, which suggest enlightenment. And the place is astonishingly beautiful, bounded by a range of sandstone mountains to the east, beneath an azure sky with, today, a strong warm wind from the south which whips up waves on the little lake in front of which I was writing until the wind became too strong and almost blew the computer off the table.

Camden Town

18 Nov 2017

We enjoyed four days at Bartholomeus Klip. The only hazard there is the simultaneous presence of older English people of conservative opinions. The place is so small that you can't get away from them, and in their jovial conversation they begin to hint that perhaps apartheid wasn't such a bad system after all, given the mess that South Africa is in now; or words to that effect. Of course, when I open my mouth they immediately go into reverse gear, but it means that we're then wary of each other as we sip our drinks. Meanwhile, the younger guests from other European countries are absolutely of our persuasion, and easy to get on with. I had to repeat my 'I do apologise for Brexit' speech on several occasions.

A more general difficulty about going to South Africa is that you are constantly being told about its dangers. 'Don't drive at night,' 'Don't walk alone in the city after dark,' 'Don't carry much money around with you,' 'Don't pick up hitch-hikers.' Of course I'm not going to walk into the middle of a township late at night with a wallet hanging out of my back pocket, but otherwise I'm inclined to ignore such excessively paranoid advice. The alternative is that you never meet ordinary black and brown South Africans except when they're serving you. On our last full day at Bartholomeus Klip, we drove over magnificent mountain passes to Ceres, where we stopped for coffee and saw the only baboons on this trip. One female was carrying a baby on her back as she loped along to the junction in the middle of town. She didn't stop at the red traffic light, it's true, but then nor do most cyclists in London. Then we took a long road up through fruit orchards and vineyards, always under a beautiful blue sky, with hardly anyone about. I had hoped to complete a circular route by returning over another mountain pass, but when we arrived at the bottom of the pass the tarmac gave out, and we decided that a couple of hours on a dirt road was too much, so we turned round and started back the way we had come. We soon came upon the broken-down car which we had seen half an hour before. This time its driver waved and stuck his thumb out. I passed the car but stopped on the road about two hundred metres further on. 'What are you doing?' asked Helen. 'I'm going to see what he wants.' 'Don't do that, please don't do that. Just drive on.' I began to reverse towards the man, who saw me and ran towards me. Another man, younger, appeared from the car. Helen became frantic. 'There are two of them! Please stop and drive on.' I ignored her and waited until the man was alongside me. 'What can I do for you?' I asked. The man explained that his car had broken down, they needed to get back to Ceres (which was a good hour's drive at normal speed), and just wanted a tow over the hill to the next settlement where he could get help. We had a great big SUV with a tow bar and he had a tow rope. So we towed them over the hill and down the other side for a quarter of an hour, and left them at the little settlement as agreed. I got out and we shook hands and they thanked me warmly. The older man told me that they had been waiting all night for someone to stop.

I write this not because I want to criticise my darling wife, who's the most generous, kind, anti-racist person you'll ever meet, and not to present myself as some kind of saint for giving a couple of blokes a tow. Immediately after we left them, Helen said, 'You were right and I was wrong.' I write it to point out how fear can get into the minds of the best people, and that fear has the effect that white visitors to South Africa don't meet black and brown people there except when the latter are serving the former.

The day after that we drove to Cape Town airport for a night flight back to Paris. I must have slept pretty well, because we were over the Sahara when I woke up, and at Charles de Gaulle by eleven the next morning. A five-hour wait there for the hop across to London, and we were home in the early evening.

We met many Zimbabweans in South Africa: refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants fleeing the disaster that has befallen Zimbabwe under Mugabe. And this week there is significant news. The army moved in on Tuesday and placed Mugabe under house arrest, while insisting that this was not a coup. It's now clear that he is finished. I expect that he and his wife Grace will go into exile in one of the several places where they have wealth and property which they have stolen from their country. Zimbabweans are elated. There is a huge demonstration in Harare today, which the army supports, telling Mugabe to go and calling for a new start for the country.

The crisis began last week when Mugabe dismissed his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in order to clear the way for Grace, who is 40 years younger than him, to accede to the presidency. That was a fatal error, and he has reaped the whirlwind. Mnangagwa, however, is just as much of a thug as Mugabe has been. He was directly responsible for the atrocities in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, among other crimes. The best hope is that he will see that Zimbabwe needs a government of national unity for a good few years, and invites the principal opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, to participate.

Camden Town

26 Nov 2017

Something happened yesterday which made me feel a bit ashamed of my gloomy thoughts a couple of entries ago about my life not having made any difference to anybody. Out of the blue, I got an email from a woman called Pat Cummings. Mark Leicester passed it on to me; Pat had come across my writings online. This is the Pat Cummings of 'Progress in Pat's Writing', the close study of the development of one girl's writing that I had made in 1976. (That paper went into Becoming our own Experts.) Pat wanted Helen and me to meet her and some of her contemporaries; they had been together at the funeral, alas, of Angela Coley, a girl I remember as charming and very funny, who had died of cancer. At the wake afterwards they had decided to try to contact their teachers. They are now women of 55. The result was that they invited us to lunch at a restaurant at the top of the Gherkin, one of the skyscrapers in the City. It was a bright day, the view was spectacular, and the pleasure was intense. These women had all done worthwhile things in their lives: one was a musician who had toured the world, one ran a musical booking agency, one had been a midwife, one was a Royal Mail supervisor, one worked for the social services of a London borough, engaged in the delicate and difficult task of deciding where children who had to be taken away from their family would be best looked after. They all said that we had been big influences on their lives. I didn't get the impression that any of their emotional lives had been straightforward. Four of the women were black, one white. The black women talked frankly about the men they had lived with, and none was especially complimentary: I had a picture of unreliable, immature, thin-skinned, proud men, intimidated by the very strength, steadiness and competence which the women had developed, facing a world which had done them no favours but from which they had wrested benefit.


24 Dec 2017

Christmas Eve at Kerfontaine. I've made the brandy butter, all the shopping is done, and we shall have the usual réveillon dinner together: smoked salmon, foie gras, baked sole with vegetables, cheese, Christmas pudding or perhaps something lighter.

We arrived on Wednesday, having spent a few days with Adam and Hazel in Norfolk.

The last eleven days, however, have been overshadowed by the sudden and unexpected death of one of my dearest friends: Mike Raleigh.

We were at David James's house on the weekend of 9 December for the traditional pre-Christmas dinner party with Shropshire friends. Mike was there, with Kate, and in good form. They usually stay the night after the party, but they drove back home that evening, because there was snow on the ground and much more snow was forecast overnight. It did indeed snow more, so that they were snowed in on the Sunday and Monday, but they managed to get out on the Tuesday and Kate took the train to London, leaving her car. Mike was alone on the Wednesday when he walked up his steep drive to the road where he had left the car. He was going swimming; his costume and a towel were later found in the car. He drove for about 200 yards, and then the car came to a halt against the hedge. He had suffered a heart attack. A neighbour who noticed the car and motorists who stopped called the emergency services, who called the air ambulance. The professionals did everything they could to revive Mike, but though his heart did respond once or twice to their attempts at resuscitation, alas he died.

He was 69, and had already talked to me and others about plans to celebrate his 70th birthday next July (he was five days older than Helen).

I knew Mike for 40 years, since we were young English teachers in London, working together at the ILEA English Centre, then when he went to Shropshire as English adviser, was promoted within two years, and I took his place as English adviser and we did a lot for education in the county. When Helen and I came back to London and he left Shropshire to join HMI, we didn't see each other professionally so much, but we remained close friends, and often spent holidays together. When I was at Teachers TV and Andrew Bethell needed to bid to the government for the right to continue running the service (an absurd requirement), I suggested to him that Mike, who had retired from HMI by then, was just the person to write a persuasive bid; so it proved. And then, of course, he came to me in November 2013 with the suggestion that we produce the series of booklets on curriculum and assessment in English, which we did, and which have become the two Routledge books. The very last words he said to me, sitting in the snow in Kate's car waiting for her to come out of David's house, were a joke about what we are going spend our royalties money on when it arrives early next year (it'll be tuppence ha'penny, I expect).

So we had an intellectual comradeship as well as a personal friendship, although we were different personalities. He was more reserved than I, not heart-on-sleeve like I am, and a long time ago I stopped worrying about a certain gruffness in his manner; it didn't at all signal lack of friendliness or warmth. And of course I was a support to him when his wife Sue was ill with cancer and died in 2010. He came out to San Francisco at Easter 2011, still sorely bereaved, and our time together was a comfort to him.

When he took up with Kate Myers a couple of years later, their love brought both of them deep, unexpected happiness. Kate had been alone for many years. She is, of course, devastated.

Mike was one of the cleverest people I have ever met, but he never showed it off. It just showed in his achievements. At the English Centre, he was the person people went to for help with their writing, in search of new ideas, or just for general encouragement. He was a brilliant writer himself, and an unerringly brilliant editor of other people's writing, though his idea of editing sometimes amounted to a total rewrite, which was nearly always better than the author's original. He was loved at the Centre, and I saw how he was loved in Shropshire, how the leadership he offered really did make people feel proud and pleased to be working there. I didn't see, but I did hear, how he made the same impact in HMI. He rose high there. He would have made a great HMCI, and I asked him why he didn't go for it when the post became vacant. 'I don't fancy getting up early enough to be on the Today programme,' he said, though there may have been more mundane or perhaps even negative reasons why he didn't apply.

And he was kind. Peter and Merle Traves, both of whom suffered different kinds of cancer soon after Sue died, were deeply touched by his practical and emotional support. Mike knew what it is like to love a person with a life-threatening illness. They are both well, I'm happy to say, but as sad as any of us.

Kate and Mike's step-daughter Sophie are the executors. They've asked me to conduct the funeral service on 8 January, which I am honoured to do though it is a heavy responsibility. We'll assemble the programme over the next week.

So just at the moment I feel profoundly weakened and diminished by this loss. Of course, as we get older, we must expect our friends to die, and to die ourselves. But it was the suddenness of this, and Mike's relative youthfulness by today's standards, that have shocked us all. I must say that he smoked all the years that I knew him, despite my and others' numerous attempts to get him to stop (he did go on to electronic cigarettes in recent years); whether smoking was a cause I don't know. There will be a big gathering at Shrewsbury crematorium, followed by drinks at The Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham. Both were venues for Sue's funeral too.


26 Dec 2017

Christmas Day was as Christmas Days always have been in recent years. We got up late, Helen cooked me a delicious fried breakfast, we took a hamper of British delicacies up to Jean and Annick, we drove down to the sea at Fort Bloqué where we walked on the beach into a biting head wind going and an encouraging tail wind coming back. Then home through the quiet lanes, no one about, sherry, presents, a few phone calls, then a dinner of foie gras and smoked salmon, as the night before, followed this time by roast goose, with champagne and a very good claret which Helen had bought for me in Shrewsbury. By the time we'd finished as much goose as we could eat we were full, so postponed the Christmas pudding, probably until tonight.

Today, as every day since we've been here, it's raining. The countryside is sodden. I'd like to get out to prune the roses, hydrangeas and fuschias, and to clear the dead leaves away from the borders, but it's too wet.

The main political preoccupation in the UK in recent weeks has been the terms of our exit from the EU. Theresa May did get an agreement from the rest of the EU that next year the two sides can begin to talk about an eventual trading relationship. It seems certain that a transitional period will begin as soon as we leave the EU in March 2019, during which nothing will change from the status quo, except that we will have to abide by any decisions which the rest of the EU takes, without having any influence on those decisions. The EU would like the transitional period to end on 31 December 2020, which is the end of its current budgetary period. After that, who knows? Passing the enormous queue of lorries waiting to go through the channel tunnel a week ago, this at a time of free movement, I thought that a deal of some kind will have to be done, otherwise the queues waiting for customs checks will back up halfway to London. And the farmers, many of whom voted to leave, despite the benefits to them of the common agricultural policy, will simply not allow their potatoes and strawberries to rot in the ground because not enough UK citizens are willing to bend their backs to such work. If I had to guess, my guess would be that a customs union of some kind will be invented, thus getting round, by the use of weasel words, the government's commitment to leave the customs union as it is at present. I can't see the government, or even a future Labour government, consenting to free movement of people after 2020, because the anti-immigration mood in the country is so toxic. So I think that there will be some kind of quota system whereby we say that we need so many agricultural workers, so many nurses, so many care workers, and so on. Complicated and burdensome to administer. That still leaves the problem of services, which as I understand it are not included in the present customs union, and which account for nearly 80% of the UK's GDP. I just can't see the rest of the EU consenting to a customs union which includes services, as the UK would like, but allows the UK to set its own rules about movement of people. If it allows that, it will need to allow other countries to have their cake and eat it in the same way.

I suppose it's possible that some other members of the EU would like to modify the arrangements about free movement into their countries, thus creating a sort of league division two of EU countries, which would allow us to stay in on new terms, and allowing the central EU countries to get on much faster with the integration which France and Germany want. Possible but not likely. Meanwhile, the EU has big problems of its own, with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia lurching in a far-right, almost fascist direction, losing their historical memory: vile anti-Semitism in Hungary, Poland quashing the independence of the supreme court, all four countries flatly refusing to accept their fair quota of refugees pouring into Italy and Greece. And Austria now has a government which includes a far-right, anti-immigrant party, although the young leader of the major party in the coalition, pretty right-wing himself, is strongly pro-EU. There are times when I wonder whether it's possible to keep such a diverse collection of nations together in any meaningful way.

(By coincidence, having written this paragraph I looked at the BBC's website, to see that the German foreign minister has said that an eventual agreement between the UK and the EU could serve as a model for EU deals with Turkey and Ukraine. That's not quite what I was speculating about, which was to do with 'outer-ring' countries already in the EU, but it's along similar lines.)

We are further than ever from peace in Israel/Palestine now that Trump has declared the whole of Jerusalem the capital of Israel, thus overturning decades of international agreement that East Jerusalem should be the capital of an eventual Palestinian state. There is dreadful slaughter in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia and Iran fight a proxy war there. In Syria, it looks as if the butcher Assad will eventually 'win' his war, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Turkey moves ever closer to an Islamist theocracy. In Russia, Putin has effectively forbidden or crushed all opposition to his leadership; he will be 'elected' president again next year. Atrocities continue to be committed in Pakistan in the name of a perverted version of Islam. In fact, there's not much good news — at a political level at least — in the world at the moment.

Here, it continues to rain. I'd like to go for a walk to chase the blues away, but the rain is too heavy at the moment. Instead, I shall seek treatment for my present mood in the philosophic wisdom of Montaigne, whose essays I am reading for the first time.


31 Dec 2017

Our friends David and Heather Loxton have come for New Year, and tonight we four will go to L'Art Gourmand for the Saint-Sylvestre meal, as Helen and I do every year.

I've been busy organising Mike's funeral: dozens of phone calls and emails. It's coming together. I need to get the finished programme to the printer on Tuesday (in two days' time).

The rain continues unabated.