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Occurrences: Book Fourteen


1 Jan 2018

The Saint-Sylvestre meal was fine, though the atmosphere was a little more subdued than usual. Marie-Thérèse, the lady who is usually the life and soul of the party, was sad because her husband had died during the year. So she sang less and with less enthusiasm, which meant that I did too, and so did everyone else.

There was a violent thunderstorm in the early hours of this morning, which cleared the sky for the first time since we’ve been here. At noon, the four of us (Heather and David Loxton are staying until tomorrow) drove down to the Côte Sauvage on the Quiberon peninsula. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more impressive sea: mountainous waves, the colour of jade, rearing and crashing against the cliffs, driven on by a wind from the west so strong that it nearly blew us over. Showers of spray attacked our faces, and spume detached from the tops of the waves rolled up the beaches. When you put your hand in it it’s dry, airy. All this in dazzling sunshine under a bright blue sky: exhilarating after the recent monotony of cloud and rain.

Fish pie tonight.

Camden Town

18 Jan 2018

Getting back to England was complicated. Initially, we cancelled the return trip through the tunnel and booked a sea crossing from Roscoff to Plymouth, intending to drive straight from there to Shropshire for Mike Raleigh’s funeral, saving me hundreds of kilometres of driving. Brittany Ferries then cancelled the crossing because of the violent storms in the first week of January. So we rebooked the tunnel and came all the way round after all, stopping for one night in London.

The funeral on 8 January was an intensely emotional but dignified tribute to Mike. About 150 people crammed into the crematorium at Shrewsbury. I led the ceremony. This was the order of events:

Duet ‘Nuit paisible et sereine’ from Béatrice and Bénédict by Berlioz

John Richmond

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by W.B. Yeats, read by David James

Sheila Raleigh

‘Softly Awakes My Heart’ by Saint-Saëns, performed on the trumpet by Maddy Carr Rushby

‘My true love hath my heart and I have his’ by Sir Philip Sidney, read by Merle Traves

‘Run’ from Up to Now by Snow Patrol

‘Feel No Guilt in Laughter’, read by Anne Eckert

John Richmond

Sophie Carr and Kevin Rushby

Song (which we sang together)
‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan

Concluding Words and Reading
‘The Truly Great’ by Stephen Spender
John Richmond

‘My Heart Will Go On’ sung by Celine Dion

This is what I said in my tribute:

I’m going to attempt the difficult task, in a few minutes, of paying proper tribute to one of the most remarkable people I’ve known, a close colleague and a dear friend for nearly 40 years. In doing so, I’m going to draw on written tributes which other friends have made and asked me to include.

Mike and I met as young English teachers in London, briefly when he was head of English at Ladbroke School, and then in close collaboration when he became the deputy warden (to use a strange old-fashioned term) at the Inner London Education Authority English Centre, which had been set up with the task of improving the quality of English teaching in the secondary schools of that very large education authority. Michael Simons, who is here today, was the warden of the Centre. Michael, Mike and a group of advisory teachers, of whom I was one, set about the task with enthusiasm.

Since Mike’s death, everyone who has spoken or written to me about that time has said similar things: that Mike was one of the most brilliant people they have ever worked with; that he inspired them; that they went to him for encouragement, in search of new ideas, or for help with their writing. Mike was a brilliant writer himself, and an unerringly brilliant editor of other people’s writing, though his idea of editing often amounted to a total rewrite, which was nearly always better than the author’s original. The force of his ideas and his formidable work rate were major contributors to the Centre’s growing influence in London and then nationally and internationally, in the courses it ran and the publications it produced.

The English Centre was later renamed the English and Media Centre, and in more recent years Barbara Bleiman became one of its co-directors. She can’t be here today for the good reason that she’s running a course at the Centre, but she has written this:

‘I was an ILEA teacher who, in my early twenties, went on courses at the Centre, contributed to projects, and was indelibly changed for the better by my experiences there, not least by the courses led by Mike and by encountering his fierce intellect, wry wit and ability to draw people into the ‘family’ of the Centre. He was always charmingly welcoming and modest, at the same time as offering a wealth of knowledge and the sharpest of insights into whatever subject he was tackling. His writing, in the English Magazine and in other Centre publications, was exceptional too — clear, incisive and powerful.’

Barbara speaks there for many.

Mike had met Sue Goldie at Ladbroke School. They fell in love, and lived together, with Sue’s daughter Sophie, in a flat in Notting Hill. When Ladbroke was amalgamated into the much larger Holland Park School, Sue, who was a chemistry teacher, also became a head of year there. And then Mike applied for and got the job as English adviser in Shropshire. He and Sue bought a beautiful property, the Little Stone House, near Welshpool, and Sue soon got her own job as deputy head at Bishop’s Castle Community College. David Preshous, the head there at the time, is here today, and could speak more eloquently than I can about how Sue was loved and admired in the years she worked there, and how she is remembered still.

When Mike arrived here in 1985, he immediately set about improving the quality of English teaching in the county by a combination of clear thinking about the curriculum, the making of judicious appointments, and the exercise of all the personal qualities which he had shown in London. It didn’t take Shropshire long to realise what a remarkable person had arrived in its midst, so he was promoted within two years to senior secondary adviser. He thus created a vacancy for English adviser, which I was lucky enough to fill, and so I was able, for a second time, to work with and observe this remarkable person in action, now operating on a whole-curriculum-wide and whole-authority-wide scale. It was the same combination of characteristics and talents, really: a gargantuan appetite for work; luminous clarity of thinking; a tendency to plain speaking; impatience with defensive waffle and opaque educational jargon; kindness; the human touch. I wasn’t in Shropshire long: only two and a half years, but those years began my own now lifelong love of the county, and during frequent visits back I watched Mike move up to chief adviser, then deputy county education officer, and I know from the spoken and written words of numerous Shropshire colleagues how much he invigorated the place and its educational practices, moved things forward, took people with him. The testimony of David James, for many years head of human resources in Shropshire education and Mike’s dear friend and colleague, will stand for that of many. He writes:

‘When Mike was appointed deputy CEO he became my new boss. We had a meeting at which we agreed that neither of us had much idea of what my role entailed. I was living in a terraced cottage in Shrewsbury at the time, down by the river. I saw Mike from time to time over the next few weeks but, understandably, he had a lot on his plate. Then, one evening, at what seemed like a very late hour, there was a knock on my door. It was a dank November night and mist enveloped the house. All I could make out through the open door was a dark figure, black hair, black beard, black overcoat, but the tell-tale glow of the inevitable roll-up told me it was Mike. ‘Fancy a pint?’ he asked. This was not the sort of invitation I had been used to from my previous boss in the world of educational administration. We repaired to the local pub and then began a great friendship, which lasted for the next 29 years. He asked me what I’d picked up about the job and we began to put together a plan of what I’d do. I felt my way into the role I had to play with Mike’s guidance and wise counsel.

Mike had an instinctive sense of the right thing to do: both educationally and morally. His energy and drive, his ability to see the big picture but never neglect the detail, were quite remarkable. And he would go straight to the point. I remember once that we were discussing the issue of the lowest-graded people in the education department. What rationale could be found for giving another £60 a year to the person who brought the mail round? After all, her job had been and would always remain the same. “Common decency,” said Mike.’

David continues: ‘I suppose it was inevitable that he would move from Shropshire, which he eventually did to take up his role in HMI and Ofsted. But Shropshire was the poorer for it. It’s often said that no one is irreplaceable but I think he was. When I told a leading headteacher of the time the news of his death, he emailed me back: “I thought that Mike was an incredible person and we were so fortunate that he chose Shropshire as a place to work.” That thought will be echoed by so many who worked with and knew him.’

As David writes, Mike moved from Shropshire to HMI and the Office for Standards in Education. I didn’t see, but I did hear, from his friend and colleague Peter Dougill, who’s here today, and from others, about the impact he made there. He had various roles: a regional responsibility for the north-west of England, and England-wide responsibility in particular aspects of the inspectorate’s work. He wrote the national inspection system for local authorities. He headed the inspectorate’s secondary education team. And he brought the same combination of qualities and talents to this work that he had throughout his career. Scale didn’t matter; it was the care and the clarity which counted. He would have made a great HMCI — Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector — 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, with characteristic gruff modesty.

After his retirement from HMI, he founded, with Peter Dougill, Owen Education (named after the great socialist reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen, who was born in Newtown, down the road from where Mike lived). Owen Education did important work as a school-improvement and educational-development consultancy across the UK. I was honoured and flattered when, over a coffee opposite Euston station one morning in November 2013, Mike suggested to me that government policy on the curriculum and assessment of English, language and literacy had gone so badly wrong in recent years that it was time that somebody did a detailed critique and proposed more sensible alternatives, and would I take the job on as lead writer. So it was that, nearly 40 years after we’d first met, I had the pleasure of working closely with Mike again.

Some of our conversations during this work took place in Mike’s writing shed behind the Little Stone House. Huw Salisbury was Mike’s close friend for many years; he and his wife Jo, and Mike and Sue, were married in 1995 in a joint ceremony on the island of Mauritius. Huw is in America at the moment, and sends his best wishes to all here. He wrote to me, remembering that he and Mike had visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed at Laugharne, which inspired Mike to have a shed of his own. And then Huw wrote out the whole of Thomas’s famous poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’. Mike did not ‘go gentle into that good night’, but nor did he ‘rage against the dying of the light’. He was too busy for that. His hands were busy and his feet were swift, to quote the words of another Dylan, which we shall sing in a moment.

I mentioned, in introducing the Snow Patrol song earlier, that some of us were here in 2010, to say farewell to Mike’s beloved wife Sue, who had died of cancer. Mike nursed and cared for her with devoted and practical love until the end. ‘My golden girl has gone,’ were the words he used to tell me of Sue’s death on the phone the next morning. His sense of loss was profound, but joy reasserted itself when, after an interval, he became more than friends with his long-time friend Kate Myers. The happiness they brought to each other was a wonder to behold, as they travelled the world together, packed in visits to the theatre in London and Stratford, holidayed with my wife Helen and me and other friends in Italy, joined in the traditional pre-Christmas festive meal with Shropshire friends. (It was at that meal, on 9 December, that I saw and spoke to him for the last time.) Kate’s and Mike’s happiness together was the deeper for being unexpected; and so we offer today to Kate, especially, our heartfelt sympathy and love.

The great sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote a lot about death. In one of his essays, he writes: ‘I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can; I want Death to find me planting cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.’ Well, Mike wasn’t planting cabbages when he died: it was the wrong season, and anyway the Little Stone House was under a foot of snow. (Nonetheless, he and Kate had got a nice little vegetable garden going.) But if ever a man prolonged life’s duties (and pleasures) as much as he could, to the benefit of all of us, it was Mike Raleigh.

And this is what I said by way of concluding words, including the reading of Spender’s ‘The Truly Great’, which I had read at Stephen Eyers’s funeral in 2016 (with a similar but not identical introduction), and at Terry Furlong’s funeral in 2002:

In a moment, I’m going to read the poem ‘The Truly Great’ by Stephen Spender. ‘Great’, in today’s most common connotation, means ‘very famous’, or ‘very powerful’ or ‘having some huge, perhaps worldwide influence’. Well, actually, Mike’s influence, first on the world of English teaching, then on schooling throughout this county, then on education in our country more generally, were such that to apply the word ‘great’ to him as a professional person is in no sense to exaggerate. But another connotation of the word applies equally or even more appropriately to Mike. It was common until the early part of the last century, but is now lost. It then referred to greatness of spirit, generosity of soul, profound goodness of heart; and it is in this sense that the friend we have come to bid farewell to today was great.

‘I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious, is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,

See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud

And whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.’

And so we commend our dear friend Michael Joseph Raleigh, Mike, to the sky and to the earth, in gratitude, admiration and love.

Afterwards there were refreshments at The Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham, just as there had been at Sue’s funeral in 2010. We drove back to London that night.

Mike’s death has affected me, hurt me, more than any other death in my fortunate life so far: more than my parents’ death, more even than Stephen Eyers’s death. I’ve been trying to work out why. Perhaps it is that, just at the moment, I find myself wondering what to do next, after a year in which five books came out, wondering (as I know I wrote last year) whether anything I’ve done in my life has really made any difference to anything, and Mike’s sudden departure is a reminder that quite possibly I haven’t much time left myself, having had a stroke, and having been told last week that I have high blood pressure and am pre-diabetic. At the same time I feel very well physically, and in the mirror I don’t see a person who looks likely to depart this life soon. But then nor did Mike look that way when I saw him last, four days before he died. Perhaps the difference between the loss of Stephen and that of Mike is that the friendship with Stephen had become for many years a matter of habit: dear old friends (despite our political differences, he the idealist socialist dreamer, me the grubby socialist pragmatist), seeing other each other regularly, enjoying life’s pleasures, but with our professional, intellectual collaboration a distant memory. With Mike, I was still in harness; there could well have been more to do.

We had the best possible cure for these blues last weekend when we flew down to Marseille to see my niece Sophie inaugurated as a doctor in an old-fashioned ceremony. Sophie presented a summary of her thesis, on a new technique for detecting cancerous cells in the cervix, to four men dressed in red or black mediaeval robes. She wore a black gown with white tabs and a piece of what looked like white rabbit fur dangling on her shoulder. Apart from the rabbit fur, she looked a bit like an English seventeenth-century puritan divine (though her glamorous orange shoes would have turned the heads of the most ascetic of that persuasion). Then all four men responded in turn and at some length. I could tell immediately that they liked her a lot; she is one of their stars. They left the room, pretended to confer for no more than thirty seconds, and returned. The president officially conferred on Sophie the title of doctor. She raised her right hand and swore the Hippocratic oath before a bust of Hippocrates. It was very moving.

Then we drove back through the traffic to Mary’s and Jacques’ flat for a party. Mary had prepared some delicious food (catering for 80 people doesn’t faze her). I circulated with champagne and other drinks. The gathering got pretty lively, and finished with presents, speeches, and then dancing until about 1.30. We were staying with Jean-Louis and Annie, Jacques’ sister and brother-in-law. The next day we went back to Mary’s and helped with the clearing-up. In the afternoon I visited Tess, who is working at the Lacoste shop, and bought two polo shirts to encourage her (though I don’t think she gets any commission). That evening we dined chez Jean-Louis and Annie. On the Sunday we visited my nephew Sam in his new flat, met his charming girlfriend Léa, then went on to Sophie’s for lunch (leg of lamb). A walk in the park at Montolivet in the afternoon, Spanish omelettes at Mary’s in the evening, and back to Jean-Louis and Annie to sleep. Mary took us to the airport on Monday morning, and we were back here by mid-afternoon.

I spent a lot of time with Sophie’s and Julien’s son Paul, my great-nephew, who’s a delight. He smiles all the time, finding life deeply agreeable as long as he has enough to eat. He enjoys my singing.

Camden Town

15 Mar 2018

It’s been a strange couple of months since I last wrote. I think I have been suffering from a kind of depression. This was made worse a fortnight ago when I contracted an illness which might have been a heavy cold and might have been flu. Apart from the usual symptoms — effluvium in the head, catarrh on the chest, aches and pains all over — I have been listless, exhausted, lacking in energy or enthusiasm for anything. I’ve been going to bed at nine in the evening and sleeping for twelve hours, plus a two-hour nap in the afternoons. I think I’m getting over it now: both the illness and the depression. There’s no rational excuse for being depressed, but then everyone knows that depression isn’t rational. Perhaps it’s a long-drawn-out response to Mike’s death. Perhaps it’s the lacuna I’m in at the moment, with no big projects on. Perhaps it’s the hardening certainty that the effect my whole life has had on the outside world is insignificant.

Two great Cambridge scientists have died in the last few days: Sir John Sulston and Stephen Hawking. Both were born in 1942, nine years before me. There isn’t much time left, their deaths seemed to be telling me. John’s death was a shock to me, since I had the privilege of meeting and working with him briefly when he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures while I was the commissioning editor in charge of them at Channel 4. He had led the UK side of the transatlantic team which mapped the human genome. He fought fearlessly and successfully for the idea that this epoch-making discovery should be shared freely with whoever in the world could understand it; and so the draft of the sequence which makes up human DNA was published on the internet in 2003, fifty years after Crick’s and Watson’s discovery. Though our collaboration was brief — a couple of weeks — we somehow seemed to understand each other, to know that our view of the good society was the same. He always enjoyed a pint or two after his lectures, and I once told him in the pub that ‘I got it’ that scientific research should be available to the world at large, which had after all paid for it through people’s taxes, rather than privatised, as his American rival Craig Ventner had wanted to do. ‘I know you do,’ he said. So it didn’t surprise me to read in the obituaries that John was a lifelong socialist who said that you shouldn’t do things just for the money, and that his parents, like mine, had been religious people who had bred in him a sense of the importance of personal integrity and a disdain for the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. As with me, John had completely abandoned the religious element of his upbringing, but had retained his parents’ moral values. He was the most delightful, humorous, modest, approachable man, always stressing the importance of collaboration in the endeavour of discovery. I’ve met perhaps four people in my life for whom I would reserve the word ‘great’ (in its conventional sense, that is; I used the word in its more generous, old-fashioned and inclusive sense at Mike’s funeral): John, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter and Harold Rosen. Of the four, I think it will be John, through his work as a geneticist and his insistence that the findings of the research he led should be freely available to all, who will bring the most obvious benefit to humankind in the future. He died of stomach cancer, only a month after the disease was diagnosed.

Stephen Hawking was of course much better known to the general public than John was. I take on trust the assertion that he may have made the greatest contribution to unravelling the fundamental mysteries of the universe — how it came into being, how quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity can be linked, what black holes are and what they do — since Einstein himself. Nor can we doubt the profoundly beneficial effect he has had on popular perceptions of disability and of what disabled people can achieve. His stout championship of the NHS and his publicly expressed regret about Brexit are admirable too. But I think that John’s work in biology will yield greater practical good.

I attended a conference of the London Association for the Teaching of English last Saturday. The conference was about research, and was entitled ‘Becoming our own Experts’. I only found out about the event by chance, and I thought that someone might have mentioned to me that they were using the title of our book as the title of the conference. But when I got there, it was gratifying to hear the first main speaker, John Yandell, praise the work warmly as a landmark in teacher-initiated research, which had affected other work subsequently. Other people said affirming things to me as well. One head of department told me that my alternative English curriculum was the basis for all his department’s work, and that he was promoting it to other schools in his area. So I returned from the conference feeling more cheerful than I had for weeks, went to the pub for a deserved pint, opened The Guardian and read that John had died. It knocked me back again. A fragile little thing, life!

I’m helping to organise a memorial event for Mike. It’ll be on 21 May, I think, but we’re having trouble finding a venue which is affordable and big enough. I’m hoping that we can use the same room at King’s College London which we used for the London launch of the purple booklets in 2015.

Two weeks ago we had a bout of savagely cold weather: much colder than even the chilliest ‘cold snap’ which we expect once a year. Snow was heavy on the ground even here in London. In other parts of the country villages and isolated houses and farms were cut off for days by huge snowdrifts. Since then the weather has been wet and mild, with some sunny mornings feeling spring-like. More cold weather is promised for the weekend: winter’s last fling.

Mary, Jacques and Tess went to New Zealand last month. They drove around both islands in the converted bus which Andy keeps there. They had a great time. Mary and Jacques returned on Monday, leaving Tess to work in Wellington for a few weeks. Mark Leicester has kindly arranged for his neighbour Janet to accommodate Tess while she’s living there. She’s been sending her CV around to prospective employers. Everyone seems confident that she’ll find a job quickly. Her English is now almost perfect. She’s applied to the university at Aix-en-Provence (languages or English) and the Sorbonne (cinema), to start in September.

The Sunday before last, we drove to Bury St Edmunds for two nights with David and Heather Loxton. We had a lovely time there, including a terrific concert at The Apex, the new concert hall in Bury. The Britten Sinfonia with Jonathan Denk performed Stravinsky, Milhaud and Gershwin. The next day a country road narrowed by snow caused a speeding white van to smash the offside wing mirror of our left-hand-drive car as we passed: £400 to replace it. We left the car at the Renault garage in Bury and returned to London on the train. I went back today to collect the car. Heather told me on the phone yesterday that she’s finally retiring from teaching at Easter. I told her, and I meant it, that she’s the best classroom teacher I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a few.

Tonight we’re going out to dinner with my god-daughter Clare Harrisson and her boyfriend Kieren, whom I haven’t met. They’re both Labour activists. Clare works for Unison, the trade union, and is a councillor in Tower Hamlets.

On Sunday 4 March in Salisbury a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned by a chemical weapon. They are both still critically ill in hospital. British experts in chemical weapons have identified the substance as novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. So it seems certain that either the Russian state committed the attack deliberately, or that the substance had got out of Russia’s control and into the hands of criminals. Russia of course denies all knowledge of the affair. The USA, France and Germany have joined the UK in condemning the attack. The UK is expelling 23 Russian diplomats, identified as ‘undeclared intelligence officers’, increasing checks on private flights, customs and freight going into and coming out of Russia, freezing Russian state assets where ‘there is evidence they may be used to threaten life or property in the UK’, and suspending all planned high-level bilateral contacts. No minister or member of the Royal Family will attend the forthcoming football World Cup in Russia (Prince William is President of the Football Association). Russia will of course retaliate. No one believes anything that any senior Russian says these days, about anything much. Russia has become a state so used to lying that the difference between truth and falsehood hardly exists. Putin will win Sunday’s election easily, because he has crushed, intimidated or exterminated any opposition. The official media is ubiquitous and utterly tamed. The common people have no access to anything like independent journalism.

I can understand that spying is a dangerous game, and that betraying your own country while spying is doubly dangerous. But to use a chemical weapon for the first time on European soil since the Second World War in order to attempt to kill a man, to be willing also to kill his daughter, who I imagine is completely innocent of spying offences, to be willing to endanger the lives of equally innocent British citizens, including the policeman who went to help the stricken couple, is the work of a rogue state. I’m inclined to agree with a no-nonsense letter published in The Guardian yesterday, which criticises Jeremy Corbyn’s initially equivocal response to the outrage (he has somewhat hardened his tone since):

‘Jeremy Corbyn’s response to Mrs May was totally inadequate. Novichok agents were never standardised and weaponised for military deployment by the Russians. Any stocks probably exist in only one research institute which is one of the most, perhaps even the most, secure place in Russia. The idea that “rogue” elements got hold of the material is a complete fantasy. This action was done by the Russian state on the direct instructions of Putin. There is absolutely no other remotely credible explanation…

This is attempted murder using a poison which would have a role as a chemical weapon in warfare but the attack in Salisbury is not a use of chemicals in war. The reference [to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] is a complete red herring created by the Russians for which Corbyn has fallen hook, line and sinker. As for sharing samples with the Russians, that is akin to sharing the evidence of a murder with the murderer. Corbyn’s question about the analysis is also confused. The identification of the agent as a novichok agent means that it is adequately characterised. Since the country that invented and developed these agents is Russia, its source is Russia and since an ex-Russian agent is the target, to claim there is any ambiguity is ludicrous.’

I’m not sure how Mr Cookson, the writer of the letter, can be so sure that rogue elements could not have got hold of the material, given the chaotic state of Russia in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but otherwise his argument convinces me.

Meanwhile, London is awash with corrupt Russian money. Wealthy Russians have given large sums to the Conservative Party. We have thus colluded in the giant rip-off of Russia’s wealth which has occurred since the end of the Soviet Union. I don’t know what we can do about Russia other than to isolate it to such an extent that it finally occurs to its people that the nineteenth-century idea of greatness which Putin and his criminal circle have promoted — enlarging power by stealing land from other countries and subverting the democratic processes of other countries — is no way to increase their wealth and happiness.


6 Apr 2018

It’s the ninth anniversary of my father’s death.

We’ve been here for a week now, since Good Friday. After several days of continuous rain, the sky cleared yesterday morning and I’ve been able to do quite a bit in the garden, making up for the fact that I didn’t do any pruning when we were here at Christmas and New Year, partly because the weather was dreadful then too and also because we returned to England early for Mike’s funeral. This afternoon, as I sat on the bench in front of the house with my tea and bread and jam, the sun was positively warm on the face. I’m told it won’t last.

I’ve done two poems recently, to my great relief: a simple little thing about a chance meeting I had with a Nigerian woman who was carrying a huge bunch of palm fronds, no doubt to her church, two days before Palm Sunday; and a literary thing (as Rosalind in As You Like It might have said of it, it’s ‘not for all markets’) contrasting statements by two great poets about whether or not poetry has any effect on the world — Auden’s ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ and Shelley’s ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I’m pleased with both poems, in different ways. The palm fronds one came so quickly that I was a bit embarrassed. The literary one took a lot more effort, and Peter Hetherington was wonderful, as he always is when I call upon him as critic.

I’ve spent a good deal of time with Kate Myers since Mike’s death. We’ve postponed from May until November the memorial event we’ve been planning. It will be held at Kings College London, as I had hoped, but that was only confirmed just before Easter, not long enough before May to get the invitations sent out. Also, Kate was feeling more and more that she would still be a bit too fragile in May.

I’ve updated the little memoir on my website, My Life in Prose. I looked at it a few weeks ago and realised that it stopped in 2012. Quite a lot has happened since then. I’ve been wondering whether it would be worth making it into a book.

Tonight Helen is taking me out to Le Vivier at Lomener. It’ll be a treat to sit and eat and gaze over the sea on this spring evening.


12 Apr 2018

There was much more rain after last Friday, then two days of sunshine and warmth yesterday and today, culminating in a thunderstorm as I write. Yesterday I sat on the terrasse reading Ovid, and was positively hot.

Last weekend the Syrian government, probably with the agreement of the Russians, used chemical weapons against its own people in Douma, a town east of Damascus, the last area of opposition to Assad. In 2013, as I’m sure I wrote at the time, Assad did a similar thing. Obama said then that this was a red line that could not be crossed, but didn’t follow up on his threat. The monster Assad promised to get rid of his chemical weapons, making himself briefly look virtuous. Russia saw that the West wasn’t going to do anything serious to overthrow Assad, and moved in. Assad was obviously lying about the weapons. It was the only big foreign-policy mistake that Obama made. This time I think that there will be a military response to the outrage, and I support it. It is to the Labour Party’s shame that it brought about a defeat in the House of Commons in 2013 for Cameron’s proposal to join with the US in striking at Syria’s chemical weapons production. Rogue states cannot be allowed to use these dreadful weapons and expect to get away with it. It’s a hopeless irony that I’m prepared to support the appalling Trump in taking this action, and that he probably will fulfil his threat, as Obama did not. There should definitely be a debate in the Commons, and I think Theresa May would win it this time, and it could happen in the next day or two. Parliament might have to be recalled from its Easter recess; that is a minor inconvenience compared to the gravity of the crime committed, so far with impunity.

Russia continues to lie over the poisoning of the former Russian spy and his daughter. The daughter is now out of hospital, and at a secret location for fear that someone will try to finish her off this time. The father is still in hospital, closely guarded, I’m sure. The Russians continue, absurdly, to suggest that the British might have been the poisoners. Because the daughter is a Russian citizen, they keep demanding consular access to her. She quite rightly doesn’t want to see anyone from her country at the moment. Her cousin has been prominent on Russian television, and is obviously being used by the Kremlin to give a personal touch to their fabrications. I imagine that father and daughter will in the end be given new identities and move to another country. But their lives will never be entirely free from threat. I feel particularly for the young woman, who I don’t imagine had anything to do with spying, but who happened to be with her father when someone tried to kill him.

On Monday we ate at L’Art Gourmand, and booked a big table there, probably for sixteen people, for Helen’s 70th birthday in August. On Tuesday we dined with Jean-Paul and Christine: raclette, her Swiss speciality. Today I went round there again and gave Jean-Paul a card and a bottle of claret for his birthday.


30 Jun 2018

We returned to London in mid-April, after a fortnight here, and arrived here once again on 4 June. In the interim, Helen did her day or two days a week at St Dominic’s primary school. She has agreed with Deirdre, the headteacher there, that she’ll do another November-to-May stint next school year; after that she’s not sure. She enjoys the work (apart from getting up in the dark at six during the winter months), and the money’s handy. But it may be that she’ll stop after next year. Primary schools’ budgets are increasingly strained, and sometimes she thinks that she’s too expensive. On the other hand, Deirdre obviously values her presence enormously, as an adviser and friend at hand in the sometimes difficult decisions she has to make.

Betty Rosen has published a book of her poems and autobiographical prose. It’s called I Have a Threepenny Bit. The title poem delightfully describes the pure childhood happiness of being given a threepenny bit by her piano teacher’s mother for playing well. I edited the book for her, and Chalkface Press published it. Stephen Mellor did his usual wonderful design job. I went to the numismatist in Cecil Court and bought a couple of 1935 twelve-sided threepenny bits. I took them down to Len Brown, who’s a brilliant photographer. He photographed one of the coins (both sides) for the front and back covers. Betty organised a launch at her house on 28 April. About 40 people were there, from all parts and periods of her life. It was a happy occasion. Betty drank rather a lot, which she never normally does. She read two of her poems with great theatricality, and I read a few paragraphs from one of her prose pieces.

Kate Myers has published a little book of Mike Raleigh’s poems. Again, I edited it and again Stephen designed it, though this time on a private basis, not as Chalkface Press. Mike didn’t write many poems; the only two published previously appeared in Yesterday Today Tomorrow, an anthology oƒ poems mainly by and entirely about women, produced by the ILEA English Centre in the early 1980s. (Mike, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and I were the only male poets included. Mike and Yevtushenko both died last year.) But he did write occasional pieces, especially for birthdays; and he wrote Kate a love poem on each of the six anniversaries of the day in October when he and she became ‘more than friends’.

On the subject of editing, I also edited a book put together by David Parker, my old friend from Channel 4 and Teachers TV days. It’s a collection of sound recordings of conversations he had with Laurie Lee, in the course of making a TV programme about the writer’s life and his connection with the village in Gloucestershire where he lived.

UK politics has recently been dominated by an appalling scandal, in which some of the people who came to our country from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973, at the invitation of our government and to help rebuild the country after the war, have been told that they have no right to be here. The group affected are people who’ve never applied for a passport, because they’ve never left the country since arrival. Most of them are poorer people, doing humbler but essential jobs, paying taxes, leading quiet, regular lives. When Theresa May was Home Secretary, she declared that she wanted illegal immigrants to experience a ‘hostile environment’ in the UK. These innocents of Caribbean origin have been caught up in the practical effects of that declaration. A particularly malevolent aspect of the legislation introduced after May’s declaration is that actual or potential employers of people working or seeking work, and actual or potential landlords of people renting accommodation or seeking rented accommodation, have been recruited as spies for the government; they check an employee’s or an applicant’s immigration status, and can be fined heavily if found to be employing or housing people who have no right to be here.

Members of the ‘Windrush generation’ have been sacked, refused work, refused housing, locked up in detention centres, threatened with expulsion from the country, refused a passport when they eventually applied for one (which in many cases they did in order to visit their country of origin to attend a family funeral). Some years ago, the agency of the Home Office responsible for immigration destroyed the documents (‘landing slips’) which had previously been used to prove a person’s right to remain in the UK indefinitely.

The scandal cost Theresa May’s successor as Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, her job, when she misled a parliamentary committee as to whether or not there were numerical targets for the removal of people from the UK (she said there weren’t; there were). She had previously criticised her own department in parliament, even though it had been enacting the policies which she and her predecessor had required and were requiring. That’s usually a fatal error for a minister to make: if you blame your officials for doing what you’ve told them to do, don’t expect them to help you dig yourself out of a hole. Theresa May herself, with disgusting hypocrisy and lack of historical memory, while regretting the whole affair and promising to put it right, said that we had ‘welcomed the Windrush generation’. ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish,’ the notorious posters in the windows of boarding houses and cheap hotels in the 1950s and 1960s, was the ‘welcome’ for many who arrived in the ‘mother country’ in those years, full of hope. They read or heard about Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. I remember Stephen Eyers telling me that, when he was working at Henry Thornton School in Clapham in the 1960s, a teacher came into the staff room, having just conducted a test with one of his classes, and announced with scornful astonishment, ‘Do you know, a black boy came top!’

The scandal has now dropped from the headlines; I think the injustices are slowly being put right. In classic British fashion, and with no great sense of irony, there was a service in Westminster Abbey this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, and to celebrate the contribution of people of Caribbean origin to our society.

The enquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster has heard heart-breaking testimony from survivors and relatives of those who died. This week, some of the courageous firefighters who were there that night have told their story. I really hope that eventually some people, whether Kensington and Chelsea councillors or executives of the Tenant Management Organisation to which the council had delegated management of the block, will be tried in court for manslaughter and criminal negligence. I have no doubt that Kensington and Chelsea’s Conservative councillors have always found the presence of poorer people on their territory an irritation they’d rather be rid of; hence their decision to divest themselves of direct responsibility for publicly-owned housing in the borough. Someone took a decision to install cheaper, potentially flammable cladding around the block when a more expensive non-inflammable cladding had previously been considered. That decision led directly to 72 deaths.

The government remains utterly divided as to what kind of relationship we wish to have with the EU after we leave it. The 27 other members of the EU see no clarity in our position at all. There is to be a meeting of the Cabinet at Chequers next week, to see whether some kind of unified UK position, likely to be acceptable to the 27, can be achieved. I doubt it, unless the extreme Brexiteers resign or are sacked.

The bill to incorporate EU law into UK law received royal assent this week. The Commons overturned all the amendments which the Lords had put into the bill. The Prime Minister has the following things going for her: no one on the Tory side wants another snap election, because they fear they would lose this time; almost no one on the Tory side wants to challenge May’s leadership, because that would look chaotic to the country, and increase the chances of Labour winning in 2022 or beforehand; and although there are a few Tory Europeans prepared to vote against the government, there are also a few Labour anti-Europeans prepared to vote with it.

There will soon be a White Paper which will set out the UK’s negotiating position with the EU. I fail to see how anything short of a customs union of some kind, whatever it’s called, will guarantee our future prosperity and solve the problem of the Irish border. Big employers like Nissan, BMW and Airbus are serious about moving out unless frictionless trade with Europe remains.

Here, we have had two weeks of the most glorious weather. It’s high summer, and hot, but with a refreshing breeze. I sit out in front of the house in the evening, under the light, reading until late. After a long interruption, I’m back into Montaigne’s Essays; I’m over a thousand pages in, and there are still more than two hundred to go. Recently I read, with great pleasure, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (in English). Before that, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (Loeb parallel text). And I’m still making my way through the whole of Ovid. I’m glad to say that, after a gap of several years, I’ve done a translation which I’ve entered for the Stephen Spender Prize: two successive Ovid elegies in Amores book 2, which I’ve turned into one poem. In the first part, the poet complains indignantly at his mistress’s accusations of infidelity; he is particularly offended at her suggestion that he is carrying on with the maid who dresses her hair. In the second, he chides the maid for perhaps revealing the affair that they are in fact having. He presses her to go to bed with him again, and when she refuses, he threatens to reveal the whole thing to the mistress. Here’s the poem, plus the commentary which the judges ask for.

The Mistress and the Maid

Ovid, Amores 2, elegies vii and viii

To the Mistress

So! Must I evermore stand trial for new crimes?
I’m tired. I’ve fought and won my case so many times.

We’re at a show, let’s say. I turn around to see
who’s sitting in the top rows of the balcony.
At which, from that whole crowd of women in the place,
your stare picks out one unsuspecting female face
to justify your jealousy! Or if, by chance,
a pretty lady casts my way a wordless glance,
you claim to recognise unspoken signals there.

I praise some girl; your fingernails assault my hair.
I criticise the same girl’s faults, and you decide
that she and I have secret sins of lust to hide.
My colour’s good: my former ardour has turned cold.
I’m pale as death: I’m in another woman’s hold.

If only I could know what wrong I’ve done to you!
The guilty calmly take the punishment they’re due,
but me you blindly hasten to incriminate
on baseless rumour, so your anger bears no weight.
Look at the long-eared donkey; see how slow he goes,
poor wretched beast, borne down by never-ending blows!

And now, the latest charge you catapult my way:
Cypassis, she who nicely does your hair. You say
that she has soiled her mistress’ bed. Great gods above,
if I’d a mind to sin, I’d choose a nobler love
than company like that — the meanest of the low.
What free man deigns to mate a slave, I’d like to know?
Embrace some chit whose back bears markings of the whip?
Besides, her skilful hands delight your ladyship.
Why would I interfere with such a faithful maid
unless I wished to be rejected and betrayed?
By Venus, here I swear: I’m innocent of every charge you’ve laid!

To the Maid

You know a thousand perfect ways of dressing hair
(though only goddesses deserve your touch, your flair).
Cypassis serves her mistress well; me better still.
In furtive love play, hardly rustic is your skill.
But who’s the blabber who has made our coupling known?
How did Corinna hear of it? Could I have shown,
in blushes, or some simple indiscreet remark,
a signal of the carnal pleasures we’ve kept dark?

‘A man who loves a slave is mad. His wits have turned.’
Did I say that? And yet with love Achilles burned
for Briseis, a slave. Cassandra, late of Troy,
as slave and concubine brought Agamemnon joy.
I am a greater man than neither, you’ll agree.
Why should a dish served up for kings not do for me?

But when Corinna fixed on you her angry stare,
I saw the blushes spread across your cheeks. And there,
if you recall, how much more self-possessed was I;
in mighty Venus’ name I swore fidelity!
Great goddess, pray command the warm wind from the south
to waft away a harmless heart’s deceitful oath
across the Aegean sea!

                                              Come lie with me today,
my own brown girl, Cypassis; this sweet forfeit pay
for my good offices… You won’t? Ungrateful maid,
why shake your head? Why find new cause to be afraid?
One master’s favour ought to be enough for you.
But if you’re silly and say no, here’s what I’ll do.
I’ll tell your mistress everything I once denied:
how many times we met, and where. And I’ll confide
to her, Cypassis, all the details of the ways of love we’ve tried!

Commentary on ‘The Mistress and the Maid’, translation of Ovid, Amores 2, elegies vii and viii

Two thousand years after he wrote, Ovid continues to shock the reader (at least, this reader), despite the fact that we are supposed to be an unshockable generation. The flagrancy of his persistent encouragement to adultery amongst the Roman upper classes (Ars Amatoria, passim); his invective against his own penis for its failure to perform (Amores, 3, vii); his anger at Corinna for attempting — I think successfully — an abortion (Amores, 2, xiii and xiv): ‘naughtiness’ strays far enough across a line for it be one cause of his eventual exile; we laugh merrily as he surveys his limpness; but there is nothing funny about a young woman driven to try to end her pregnancy by violent means.

So it is with the two successive elegies I have translated here, and made into one poem. At first glance, we marvel at the chutzpah of a man who can acknowledge his sexual double dealing so openly, so brazenly: outraged innocent in the first part; devious Lothario in the second. But, without making the mistake of judging behaviour too critically at a distance of two millennia, there’s something distasteful about the poet’s fake revulsion at the idea of going to bed with a slave; and the blackmail with which the second part of the poem ends reminds us of sexual power plays — and the revolt against them — in our own time.

Ultimately, though, Ovid is dessert not main course; the lighter must prevail over the darker notes. I see no virtue in trying to imitate his verse form, though reading it aloud brings over me the fancy that I’m at one of those dinners where he’s been prevailed upon to serve up his latest confection. Here, I’ve gone for rhyming couplets in Alexandrines. I hope they entertain; that is their intention.

A couple of weeks ago, I did this little villanelle for Helen:

Evening Walk

Come walk with me between the barley and the maize
this silver evening in the hopeful month of June.
The summer’s all before us; we are rich in days.

Refreshed by rain, the quiet countryside displays
its laps and shadows to a primrose crescent moon
whose beauty we alone, it seems, are here to praise.

We crane our necks to seek a skylark in the haze
holding in failing light its undiminished tune.
It must be up there somewhere. It eludes our gaze.

How many silver evenings have we walked these ways
till dark, unwilling to make tracks for home too soon,
tonight’s young moon’s admirers in our later phase?

Too many now to count; and are we rich in days?
Our closest friends are dying. We are not immune.
Most summers are behind us: an expended blaze.

In light’s last dregs, the persevering lark delays.
Next week the turning year begins its afternoon.
Your step beside me is the only thing that stays.
Walk home with me between the barley and the maize.

Bronwyn and Stephen were with us for a week soon after we arrived. They would have been here for Helen’s 70th birthday, but brought their visit forward because they have to be in Melbourne in July and August; Alix is expecting a baby. So we had an early celebration. They gave Helen two lovely pieces of Clarice Cliff pottery — a teapot and a milk jug — and took us out to Le Vivier on 10 June. Six days later, after they had left, Helen took me there again for my birthday.


22 Aug 2018

We have had the best summer weather here since 2003; in fact, better than then. 2003 was a summer of relentless heat. This year, long periods of heat have been punctuated every few weeks by bursts of refreshing rain. Now, as so often in the latter part of August, we have steady, calm warmth, easy to be in.

Helen’s 70th birthday was a great success. Mary, Jacques, Tess, Glenda, Julian and Deirdre were here for it; they stayed for several days. On the evening before the birthday, we all dined here, together with Jean and Annick. On the evening itself, a Saturday, the ten of us, plus Aurélie and Jérôme (Helen’s hairdresser and her husband), Jean-Paul and Christine (our gardener and his wife), and Dominique and Jocelyne (the friends who used to farm at Saint Guénaël, and who came to Rodellosso last year) dined at L’Art Gourmand. We had the restaurant to ourselves; the food was delicious; it was an evening of perfect happiness. Helen had lots of presents. I gave her a necklace which she had chosen from the jeweller in San Francisco she discovered when we were there seven years ago, and which they shipped over.

David and Tom James came for a week after the other guests had gone. More feasting; a trip to the seaside; a day at Port-Louis, visiting the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes. The two of them played golf three times. They left on Sunday. Tom is looking forward to going to York University to read history. (And, equivalently, Tess is looking forward to going to Aix-Marseille University at Aix-en-Provence to study English, Spanish and Chinese. What bliss!)

I mentioned in the last entry that I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays.  I finished them a few weeks ago. They are an extraordinary, massive series of thoughts on all aspects of life: personal, sexual, political, theological, philosophical. Montaigne continually draws on his extensive knowledge of classical authors. He is often referred to as a great humanist, and I suppose he is, in the sense that very few people before him had written about the human condition in such a direct and lively way. But he was also a devout Catholic. Some of his remarks about women belong entirely to his time; on the other hand he is clear that women are sexual and emotional beings and have a right to sexual and emotional pleasure. In the third book, there’s a long essay called ‘On some lines of Virgil’.  The lines referred to are from the eighth book of the Aeneid, where Venus embraces a human man.  The essay is about human sexuality.  I came upon this passage:

‘…I find that sexual love is nothing but the thirst for the enjoyment of that pleasure within the object of our desire, and that Venus is nothing but the pleasure of unloading our balls; it becomes vitiated by a lack either of moderation or discretion: for Socrates love is the desire to beget by the medium of Beauty.

Reflecting as I often do on the ridiculous excoriations of that pleasure, the absurd, mindless, stupefying emotions with which it disturbs a Zeno or a Cratippus [the note says that both these sages admitted the effects of terrifying emotion], that indiscriminate raging, that face inflamed with frenzy and cruelty at the sweetest point of love, that grave, severe, ecstatic face in so mad an activity, the fact that our delights and our waste-matter are lodged higgledy-piggledy together; and that its highest pleasure has something of the groanings and abstraction of pain, I believe that what Plato says is true: Man is the plaything of the gods — quaenam ista jocandi / Saevitia! [what a ferocious way of jesting!] — and that it was in mockery that Nature bequeathed us this, the most disturbing of activities, the one most common to all creatures, so as to make us all equal, bringing the mad and the wise, men and beasts, to the same level.’ 

I thought: I can do something with that, so I wrote this little comic number.

Body and Soul

I often ask myself why Nature’s craft,
when fashioning the human body, placed
the organs of delight, before and aft,
right up against the vessels for our waste.

What’s more, those instruments play double roles
as drainpipes and as messengers of bliss.
We join in union our yearning souls
by privy parts which also shit and piss.

Perhaps our maker feared that we would climb
too high in our opinion of our worth,
so juxtaposed the base and the sublime
to bring us lower angels down to earth.

Despite this awkward anatomic fact,
which even Platonists cannot deny,
love’s labours lift us, in the carnal act,
a little distance back towards the sky.

In pleasure’s sweet unherculean tasks
we borrow, briefly, powers not our own,
our faces fixed in tragi-comic masks,
and signal their completion with a groan.

In early July we had a wonderful week in the Tarn, where we spent five days with David and Heather Loxton. They were staying near Gaillac, for the wedding of the son of a friend.  By pure coincidence, the wedding was held in a magnificent chateau only half an hour away from a house belonging to another friend of David’s, which they had borrowed and where we stayed in some grandeur.  It’s a magnificent region: wooded, hilly, covered by vineyards, and with ancient bastides — small fortified towns — every few kilometres.  The bastides tend to have beautiful arcaded squares in the middle, and these tend to have restaurants where one can sit and sip the local wine and generally think the life has dealt us a pretty good hand.

Because David is handicapped at the moment — he has lung cancer (which, thank God and the NHS, he’s keeping at bay) and he needs a new hip — I drove them about.  On the way home after our week, we stopped at Agen, as we tend to every year, staying in our usual hotel and drinking aperitifs in our usual cafe in the square.  Then we went to our usual excellent little restaurant, only to find, despite it being a Tuesday not a Monday, that the restaurant was closed exceptionally. The owners didn’t think that they would get any customers that evening because it was the semi-final of the World Cup: France v. Belgium.  So there was only one thing for it: walk along to the one-star Michelin restaurant and throw ourselves on the mercy of the madame there, who was of course quite happy to show us to a delightful table in the garden, under the trees, where we ate and drank like king and queen amid the discreet company of French people who have priorities other than football.  Over the wall of this seclusion, however, was the fan zone for supporters watching the match on the big screen, and we could tell from the howls of triumph that France had won.

When we got back here the next day, we watched England’s impressive and unlikely run in the competition come to an end, and a few days later joined our neighbours Jean and Annick for that rather extraordinary final, after which France was in a state of euphoria for a few days.  The mood has worn off now.

I wrote a sonnet commemorating our visit to a little town near Albi for its Sunday morning market.  Here it is.

Near Albi

No trace remains of Albigensian blood
in this small town where Innocent’s crusade
proclaimed mass murder as the will of God.
Instead, a summer Sunday’s light and heat
have blessed the milling thousands, here to trade
at market stalls packed tight in every street.
I’m seeing what the jostled stranger sees:
necessities and joys passed hand to hand
in commerce carried on through centuries
of tending to a scarred and fruitful land.
May it endure beyond my gratitude
that I am briefly part of an event
surviving civil and religious feud:
this cheerful, disbelieving sacrament.

I’ve decided to have a go at translating some Rilke.  I haven’t done anything from the German until now, and in the Afterword to Bring Me the Sunflower I mention the significance of my coming across, as a teenager, Leishman’s and Spender’s translation of Duino Elegies on my father’s bookshelf.  I made neither head nor tail of the poems at the time, I seem to remember, but they stirred something in me which, decades later, caused me to begin to translate the work of greater poets than I.  Having a go at the poet who started me off seems a proper thing to do.  (And Seamus Heaney translated two Rilke poems: the one about the apple orchard and the one about the boy coming out of his burnt-down house. Wonderful work.) I’ve only done five pieces so far, but I’ll try to do a dozen or so, including Rilke’s great, freer-verse poem about Orpheus and Eurydice.  His version has Eurydice being accompanied out of the underworld by Hermes. She is dead, though able to walk, so she’s not conscious of the poignancy of the moment when Orpheus turns around, which makes a good contrast with Virgil’s version which I’ve translated. For my birthday Betty Rosen gave me Orpheus: the Song of Life by Ann Wroe. Very good indeed, although in style a little too lush for my taste. But I was grateful for the information in the book, especially about Rilke’s preoccupation with the Orpheus myth and the circumstances in which he wrote Sonnets to Orpheus.

Disappointing news: My Proper Life got nowhere with the Forward Prize; all the nominated entries were from big publishers.  I had hoped also to enter the book for the Costa Prize, but Chalkface Press was prevented from doing so because it isn’t a UK-based publisher.  I tried to argue that it’s a publisher with a UK address, but apparently you have to show the address where you’re registered for tax purposes, and that is in Australia.  Bronwyn has looked for equivalent competitions in Australia which we might enter, but without success.  Maybe my Ovid will get somewhere with the Stephen Spender Prize.

On the other hand, I’ve had a hilarious communication from an American called Kenneth Rosen (no relation to the British Rosens I know or knew), who had come across my website.  He was particularly taken with the Hugo translations.  He wrote to me as follows:

‘I sent you a fan letter per your website. Ordered My Proper Life via Amazon USA. Enjoy nibbling on your imitations and translations thanks to all that utterly estimable work represented by website table of contents, but would much prefer the risk of exposing Bring Me the Sunflower to my turmeric- and cocoa-laced golden coffee than squinting at my cellphone screen at [here he gives his address in Portland, Maine].

This past Friday I read your translation of Hugo’s ‘La Vache’ to a gaggle of old ganders who meet Fridays for the consolations of our unquenchable geriatric aspirations, joined on this occasion by a somewhat long in the tooth goose, a soi-disant Francophone Studies (i.e. evils of colonialism) professor at a private college 25 miles north of here, who hadn't read any Hugo, steadily flashed her excellent teeth, flaunted her ringless left hand and fluttered her long dark eyelashes through lunch and poem, which provoked I thought a tableful of sweet postprandial tranquility, including said French professor’s not unattractively roiling inner syrup and lava, whose antipathies to Eurocentrism I’d evidently evaded by my fervent reading of ‘The Cow’ and astute ironical silliness. Afterwards one of the rising or not yet quite there ROMEOS (retired old men eating out), asked for an link to your version, which I swiftly provided, and I’ve posted the poem, credited per your instructions, on my pitiful Facebook page. Shame on me, but that's the news from Portland, Maine, and so, ciao for now.’

I wrote back that I was so pleased by his email that I would send him my two books free of charge, which I’ve done.


16 Sep 2018

The correspondence with Kenneth Rosen continued for some time. He turns out to be a significant published poet. He sent me two of his books in return for the ones I sent him.

I did do a translation of Rilke’s ‘Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes’. I sent it to Peter Hetherington and to Paul Ashton. They were both very complimentary. Peter said that he thought it was the best thing I’ve done. I must say, I’m pleased with it.

Towards the end of August, Deirdre came back and stayed with us for a few days. Jean-Paul and Christine had given Helen tickets for a cruise on the Odet, from Bénodet up towards Quimper, as a birthday present. So we took the cruise with Deirdre, and very beautiful it was. The day after Deirdre left it was the fête de Saint Guénaël, and as ever I sold the wine, cider and water for the diners — more than 1,100 euros taken in about three hours. Last year it rained solidly all day, but this year the weather was perfect: hot but not oppressively so. The event was a great success. About 700 people dined; there were traditional Breton games in the afternoon; the bar did a roaring trade. I helped with the clearing-up the following morning. Overall takings amounted to about 13,000 euros, of which about 7,000 euros are profit. The little chapel will be well looked after.

Then, the following day, we started on the trip which we are now about halfway through. We crossed France slowly, staying at Issoudun (made famous by Balzac in La Rabouilleuse, which I haven’t read and will), then near Macon. We ate a delicious meal just across the Sâone at Saint Laurent. Thence to the Mont Blanc tunnel, emerging into the Aosta valley for the first time since the 1980s, when it was usually our first stop in Italy. We stayed for three nights in a charmingly eccentric, slightly hippy-ish agriturismo, surrounded by rabbits, turkeys, hens, guinea fowl, sheep and a donkey. On successive days, we drove up three of the side valleys into the mountains. We left the car as far up the Val di Rhêmes as cars are allowed, then walked for a couple of hours in the direction of the glacier at the top of the valley, but stopped and turned back when we realised how far it was. Even this mild exertion had given me a keen appetite, and we lunched enthusiastically in the little restaurant above the car park. I ate an entire plate of lardo (cured pig fat) with honey and walnuts. I have a tendency to go for dishes which I’ve never tried before. It was an unwise choice. Although I wasn’t ill, my stomach registered a grumbling surprise at having to deal with such a quantity of pure fat, and I ate nothing that evening and had to go to bed early. I was fine the next day, when we drove up the valley which leads to the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), a mountain I have always wanted to see.  We walked beneath the stupendously beautiful giant for half an hour, in bright sunshine.  Sublime.

Last Sunday we had a long drive down the valley, into Piedmont, across the Po valley to Mantua. Approaching the city, it was clear that something special was going on.  The place was packed.  It turned out to be the last day of a literature festival, one of the most famous in Italy.  The local paper the following day said that about 110,000 people had visited. Mantua is Virgil’s birthplace (at least, it is the town nearest to the village where he was born). The young woman on the reception desk in the hotel asked if we knew about Virgil, and when I told her that not only did I know something about him, but that I had translated some of his poetry, and that, in fact, my book of translations was in my bag, and I was going to make her a present of it, she was — though I say it myself — impressed. Her English was evidently good enough for her to make some sense of my efforts. Virgil is everywhere commemorated in Mantua. There is of course a Piazza Virgiliana, with an enormous classical statue of the poet at one end. Helen photographed me in front of it. The learned society is called the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana; it has been going, under various names, for about 500 years, since the time of the Gonzaga dynasty.

And, to extend the coincidences, we also just missed a performance of translations into Italian of the poetry of Rilke. The following day the place was quiet, apart from the noise of stages and scaffolding being taken down. Helen bought me the poetry of Leopardi and Saba, and — as a curiosity — Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern in parallel English and Italian text.  We lunched that day at the Osteria dell’ Oca, which we came across by chance, and which is obviously a local institution.  We ate the best risotto we’ve ever had, risotto all’ubriachi because it’s made with red Lambrusco.  

The town reminds me a little bit of the scenes in a film we enjoyed earlier this year, Call Me by Your Name: elegant people on old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg bicycles pedalling serenely around the flat streets, with dramatically beautiful ancient buildings as backdrops. We visited the Palazzo Ducale (huge — a monument to the power of the Gonzaga dynasty) and the exquisite Teatro Scientifico Bibiena, built between 1767 and 1769. Mozart, aged 14, performed there with his father on 16 January 1770.

I didn’t know that Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first performed in Mantua, in the Palazzo Ducale, on 24 February 1607. Monteverdi was master of music at Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court. So Orpheus is following me around.

After three days in Mantua, we drove to the Colli Euganei, a little group of hills — volcanoes millions of years ago — about which I knew nothing, but which are extraordinarily beautiful and fertile.  The grape harvest was in full swing. And there are large olive groves (some of the trees have leaves of the classic grey-green kind, and some are of a kind I hadn’t seen before — their leaves are shiny, not matt, and the fruit is fatter, turning to dark brown, and must already be ripe, because I saw a woman picking some off her tree and putting them straight into her mouth).  

Then, to my total surprise and great delight, we discovered that the village of Arquà Petrarca, ten minutes’ drive from our agriturismo, is where Petrarch spent his last years, where he died on the eve of his seventieth birthday, and where he is buried.  We visited his house: very beautiful, and simply maintained.  You can see (behind glass) the actual chair which he was sitting on, reading a Latin text, and where he was discovered, lifeless, on the morning of 19 July 1374, with the book still in his hand.  And his tomb, outside the church down the hill, is terribly simple and dignified, with no great fuss, no excessive amount of signalling that this is where one of the great poets of Europe lies.  (I read that they did move his bones to a safer place during the last war, but put them back afterwards.)  Last year we visited his house in the Vaucluse; on two or three occasions we’ve been to the house in Arezzo where he was born.  So I’ve been following him around. The discovery has encouraged me to go back and see if I might do a few more Petrarchs once I’ve done enough Rilkes.

On the evening of the visit to Petrarch’s house, we went back to the little bar in the upper village of Arquà Petrarca for an aperitif, because we had liked the place so much when we had had coffee there in the morning. Driving up to the car park a hundred metres above the bar, we passed four men walking down. They were formally dressed, in suits and ties, despite the heat. I said to Helen, ‘Those men are important.’ When we got to the bar, there they were, having ordered aperol spritzi all round. The woman behind the bar was having difficulty getting ice out of a large plastic bag to cool their drinks. The men were the soul of courtesy and good humour. Eventually, after much banging and hammering, she detached some pieces of ice, and served them. They drank their drinks, looked around, wished everyone good evening, and left. Once they were gone, the woman looked at me and asked if I spoke Italian. ‘Enough,’ I replied. These had been top, top policemen, from Padua, she said, including the actual chief of police of the city. She was so embarrassed that she had had such difficulty serving them properly, with all that banging of the bag of ice on the counter. She needed to tell someone. We laughed; I told her not to worry. She thought that they might be going on to eat at an expensive restaurant outside the village.

The next day we drove to Padua. We visited the Scrovegni chapel, with its wonderful frescoes by Giotto, and wandered around that elegant city: the first visit for both of us. And yesterday we came to Rodellosso. This is our ninth year here, and the first alone. It will be something of a relief not to be the travel agent that I have been in previous years, when we’ve booked all five apartments for a fortnight and friends have come and gone and I’ve looked after them, although I always enjoyed doing that. But there were times when Helen thought that I was paying more attention to them than to her.

Two days ago I received the sad news that Ron Carter has died. It was expected; he had been afflicted by a rare cancer, a kind of sarcoma, which was diagnosed in the autumn of 2016. I loved and admired Ron very much. It was so fortunate that our lives were brought together during the LINC project in 1989. We were comrades-in-arms through the political turbulence of that experience. Then he arranged for me to have a Visiting Professorship at Nottingham University for three years. And we collaborated on other projects, including a booklet about English teaching for the British Council. I went to him for advice about the booklet on grammar in the Owen Education/UKLA series. He advised me to see whether Cambridge University Press, with which he had close connections, would publish a combined edition of the ten booklets. When CUP declined, he suggested Routledge. I know that he wrote a glowing account of the value of the booklets when asked to do so as a reader; that may well have been decisive in getting Routledge to publish the contents of the booklets as two books. And he wrote kind endorsements for the covers of the books, and for the Harold Rosen book too. His wife Jane sent a brief email with the news, saying that Ron had wanted neither a funeral nor a memorial event. I wrote back this morning:

‘Ron was a major, influential and prolific scholar and intellectual, yet of the most unassuming and quiet modesty; I never met a person who carried his achievements so lightly, with such humility.  It was an honour to be his friend.  He helped me with my publications right through to the end, and kindly endorsed them — an endorsement which I value more than that of any other.  His monumental English grammar remains the book I go to whenever (which is often) I have a doubt about some aspect of that thorny subject.

He was a great man, in the sense of a person of true greatness of soul.’


25 Sep 2018

Two days after I last wrote, on the Tuesday morning of our stay at Rodellosso, Alessandra, who is Claudio’s business partner in running the place, brought the terrible news that Claudio had suffered a heart attack while bicycling on the Sunday morning (it must have already happened by the time I was writing the last entry), and was in an induced coma in hospital in Siena. The doctors had performed a heart by-pass operation, but there is serious brain damage, and Claudio is not expected to survive. Jacopo, his elder son, told me that under Italian law (I don’t know to what extent the law here is different from that in other European countries) the doctors are obliged to keep someone alive if there is any brain function at all, even if there is no chance of anything like a recovery.

Claudio was in great spirits when we arrived on the Saturday. He was so pleased to see us, and was immediately planning one of his evening suppers for the Rodellosso guests that week, plus the annual trip to Montalcino, to taste and buy some of Luciano Ciolfi’s wine at San Lorenzo. Alessandra and Jacopo didn’t want any of the other guests, who were staying for the first time, to know what had happened, but of course they had to tell us. So the rest of the week was strange: the usual pleasures, without the responsibility of looking after friends, but this overwhelming sadness and a sense of waiting for the inevitable. More than once I said, ‘Is there hope?’ They were sure that there is none. That is the situation still.

The only English friends I’ve told are Glenda and Julian Walton, with whom we stayed last weekend in Umbria (more on that in a moment). I shall wait until Claudio dies — or, hoping against hope, makes some sort of recovery — before telling the other people who have come with us to Rodellosso. Extraordinary: there I was telling Claudio about Mike Raleigh’s death from a heart attack, and the next day Claudio suffered the same fate, the only difference being that Mike departed almost immediately, and Claudio is lingering. He will leave Lucia, his wife, his sons Jacopo and Matteo, and his mother Rina. Alas.

I hope we shall go back to Rodellosso next year (it would be our tenth year there) but how the business will carry on, if it will, is uncertain.

Last Saturday we drove from there to Montefalco, in Umbria. We stayed at an elegant hotel, an 18th- and 19th-century villa in its own park, complete with cypresses, a loggia to catch the breeze, and a swimming pool for morning and evening exercise. It’s just outside the walls of the beautiful little town, which is jammed with visitors during the day, but somehow the buses take the crowds away about tea time, and in the evening the place is quiet, the locals emerge, and we tourists who like to think that we’re a cut above the common herd were able to admire the charm of the place. Glenda and Julian had decided to join us there as part of a week they’re having in Umbria and Tuscany.  On Sunday evening Julian and I walked around the town walls, with spectacular views south to Spoleto, east to Trevi and the main chain of the Appennines, north to Foligno and Spello, and west to the sunset.  On Sunday morning we drove to Spoleto. I’ve been there two or three times before, and was reminded what a noble, dignified, particular place it is, climbing up its hill.  When you get to the place where you suddenly look down on the cathedral square, the effect is breathtaking, since they’ve just finished cleaning the facade, and it dazzled in the morning sunshine.

Yesterday morning, before leaving the district, the four of us performed a sentimental hommage for Helen and me.  I don’t know whether or not I’ve ever mentioned in this diary that three times in the late 1970s, when Helen and I were teaching at Vauxhall Manor School, we took parties of students (all girls — it was a girls’ school) to Italy, in two 15-seat Ford Transit minibuses.  Having crossed France and Switzerland, we always started the Italian journey in Venice, thence moving south, variously over the three years, to Ravenna, Bologna, Florence, Arezzo, Foligno and Rome.  On the first year, we stayed in the youth hostel in Foligno. Helen and I were the de facto leaders of the party, and the three colleagues who were with us that year invited us to take the evening off, as a reward for our labours in planning and leading the trip.  They would look after the girls, they said.  We accepted the invitation, got into one of the minibuses, and drove off towards Spello, deciding, on a whim, to go up the mountain above the town to see if we could find a dinner in conditions of extreme remoteness.  Which we did, at a lovely little village called Collepino.  We arrived at the fall of night (this in springtime) and ate a wonderful dinner in the only restaurant there, all alone, before returning to our charges.  This was 42-and-a-half years ago.  

The rest of the story causes me to blush.  Parking the minibus outside the youth hostel, we immediately heard a sound which I can only describe as wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Our colleagues had let us down badly.  All being quiet in the youth hostel after the simple dinner there, they had decided to go out for a drink, leaving the girls to their own devices. These devices involved inviting the young men from the town fire brigade into the hostel, to enjoy a party generously irrigated by rough Umbrian red wine, which the hostel’s owner had made and which he supplied without stint. The result, acting on 16- and 17-year-old constitutions, most of which were contained in Caribbean bodies directed by minds imbued with Pentecostalism, was a religious catastrophe of a high order.  Deplorable scenes: hands raised to God for forgiveness, one maiden holding another’s head as she vomited, and the one girl who had abstained (Noreen Mitchell, who couldn’t read when she came to us at eleven, but who got a PhD at the age of 24, thanks to our and her efforts), moving amongst the crowd like a black female Old Testament prophet (I don’t think there were any of those), her right hand raised in judgement, declaiming to the prostrate penitent, ‘First you sin, then you suffer!’  And one of our colleagues was totting up the damage with the help of a clipboard on which he had drawn three columns: OK, Not OK, So-so.  As if that were any use!  Clearing-up operations finished at about three that morning, and the atmosphere in both buses, as we drove south the following day, was subdued.

Anyway, yesterday morning we went back to Collepino after those 42-and-a-half years, and it was just as beautiful as we remembered it.  The one bar/shop was officially closed (Monday) but the man who ran it, who was cleaning, made us a coffee.  The whole place is in pink stone, with narrow, secret-feeling little streets and one chapel.  The restaurant is still there, and we would have loved to eat there, but it was closed too.  Maybe next year.

Buggiano is a tiny place in the hills above Montecatini Terme.  There is no single Buggiano; the commune is a collection of hamlets variously called Colle di Buggiano, Buggiano Castello, Borgo di Buggiano…  We are at Colle.  Our hostess, Fulvia, is that kind of principessa of a certain age who might have been a prima ballerina in the Milan ballet until her retirement, with roses thrown from the stalls, some 20 years ago.  That is fiction, of course, but she did say that she’s been living in this quiet place for 20 years, and she sashays in silks in a way that suggests dance.  She also remarked yesterday that she finds it useful that from Pisa, only half an hour away, she can fly straight to New York.  I somehow imagine that as soon as she lands at JFK, a car picks her up and she’s in the stalls at the Met that evening.  All fantasy. Anyway, she makes delicious marmalade, peach jam and ricotta, which I ate for breakfast this morning.  Last night we ate in the only trattoria here; the food was simple but delicious, but something didn’t agree with Helen, so she’s confined to bed this morning with green tea.  As she says, the price of living with me is that sometimes her stomach says, ‘Hold [or rather, Don’t hold], enough!’

I’ve done one more Rilke translation: his famous poem about the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I shall keep going for a bit longer. Peter Hetherington suggests that I have a go at ‘Der Geist Ariel’.


7 Oct 2018

Our hostess in Buggiano, who we thought might have been a ballet dancer, turned out to have been, in her younger years, a physical education teacher and an expert in martial arts.  So we weren’t far wrong. The room we slept in was covered with 200-year-old frescoes depicting flowers, birds (especially swallows, which had given the place its name — Le Rondini) and classical columns. Fulvia had discovered them after cleaning off three layers of paint. She had called in an expert, who looked at them and said, ‘Not Michelangelo, but not bad.’  

Helen recovered quickly from her illness, and on Wednesday we made the trip which was the reason for staying in that district in the first place.  We drove back a short distance towards Florence, to visit the town of Prato.  A few years ago, Helen and I both read Iris Origo’s book The Merchant of Prato. Iris Origo was the aristocratic Irish-American woman who, with her equally aristocratic Italian husband, had owned La Foce, south of Montepulciano. During the 1920s and 1930s they had improved the unpromising land being farmed by their fifty or so tenant farmers, and had built a school, a medical centre, and a social club for the workers. Her book War in Val d’Orcia is a remarkable diary of her and her husband’s courageous care for orphans during the war and, even more dangerous, support for partisans and allied soldiers who were moving behind the German lines as the front advanced slowly up Italy.  She also wrote a biography of Leopardi, which I haven’t yet read but will. The Merchant of Prato is about Francesco di Marco Datini, born 1335, died 1410.  He grew up in Prato, but moved to Avignon as a young man, where he began to make his fortune in the manufacture and supply of goods of all kinds.  He returned to Prato in middle age, and continued to expand in business so successfully that eventually he controlled a network of trade covering the whole of western Europe (including southern England) and northern Africa.  He founded a bank in Florence.  When he died, he left all his immense wealth to the poor of Prato (he was most particular that the church shouldn’t get its hands on it), for which he is still revered.  The gift was a kind of welfare-state provision for the area, centuries before the welfare state.  He had also instructed in his will that every item relating to his life and business dealings be preserved in the grand house which he owned in Prato.  So it was that Iris Origo was able to write a book giving a detailed picture of life in the town in the 14th and early 15th centuries.

For several years, we’ve been saying that we want to visit the house, which is open to the public.  It’s most impressive, although only the ground floor is accessible.  The rest of the building houses state archives containing all the Datini documents.  The displays downstairs are extensive and detailed enough to give a clear idea of the man’s life and work. There is one particularly touching display: a letter from his wife to him, dated 12 September 1402, she at home minding the shop, he somewhere travelling.  She senses that he is suffering from melancholy, and this saddens her.  He is not to worry about affairs at home; she has it all in hand.  Then: ‘Io avrei voglia di sapere se tu dormi solo o no; se non dormi solo, avrei caro di saper chi dorme con te.’ I presume that she is not suggesting that he’s sleeping with another woman; simply that, after the fashion of the time, he might be sharing a bed with another (male) traveller, who might possibly not be of the cleanest habits.  And a piece of profound wisdom to finish with: ‘Il bene e il male che noi abbiamo in questo mondo ce lo facciamo noi stessi.’ I don’t think we’ve improved on that, as a statement of our responsibilities towards each other and the planet, in the intervening 616 years.

We left the house and crossed the road to the cafe.  The owner rapidly questioned me about my origins, and when I explained what we had been doing, he said that a professor who had written a book about Datini was in the cafe, and he would like me to meet him.  The professor was summoned.  We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.  ‘So,’ he said, ‘you have read my book?’  No, I explained, I had read the book by Iris Origo.  Our mutual affection immediately cooled by a few degrees. ‘That is a very old book,’ he said, ‘and mainly fantasy.’  ‘So,’ I asked rather bluntly, ‘is your book better?’ Naturally it was better, he replied, and I could buy it in Datini’s house opposite.  But I couldn’t, so I shall continue to rely on Iris Origo.

Prato is a magnificent medium-sized walled city, flat, with a handsome cathedral complete with frescoes by Filippo Lippi, and a splendid municipio dominating a square in which Datini’s statue proudly stands.  There were hardly any tourists there, perhaps because it’s so close to Florence, and people go straight to the more famous place.

The next day we drove to Marseille, including making a long detour because of the collapsed bridge at Genoa. We enjoyed the company of my family there, and in particular that of my great-nephew Paul, about whom I wrote a sonnet last summer.  He’s very entertaining.  He has a remarkable gift for heading balls and for throwing them with two hands just as if he’s taking a throw-in from a football touch line.  I have him lined up for the French World Cup team in 2038.

We’ve been back here since Tuesday. Today we have bright sunshine, warm enough when you’re directly in it, but with a wind from the north to remind you that it’s definitely autumn. I keep thinking of the Rilke poem, ‘Autumn Day’, which I translated when it was still summer:

Dear Lord, the summer of your blessing was sublime.
But lay your shadow on the sundials now
and let the winds loose on the fields. It’s time.

So that the year’s last fruits may ripen, Lord, allow
them just the two more southern days they need;
force them to fullness; squeeze into the heady wine
the final drops of sweetness from the vine.

Who now is houseless will not build a home.
Who now is single will remain alone,
will write long letters, lie awake and read
or, seeking peace of mind, will wander here and there
along the avenues, as leaves drift in the air.

Cape Town

25 Oct 2018

We were at Kerfontaine for two and a half weeks after Italy and Marseille. I worked in the garden with Jean-Paul for several days. Now all the hedges are cut, all the fallen wood chopped and stored. There was so much wood that two other people, Alain (a neighbour) and Nicholas (Jean-Paul’s former employee), came and helped in the chopping, and the four of us took a quarter each.

The weather, at the end of this magnificent long summer and autumn, continued to be beautiful, with freshness in the morning and enough chill in the evenings for us to light the first fires. We drove back to London on Friday and Saturday of last week. On Monday night I flew down here for the annual task of interviewing candidates for the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong Scholarships which we offer through the Canon Collins Trust. To read the application forms is always inspiring and often heart-breaking. Earlier this year, our fund received two big donations: one of £10,000 from Anne Dobson, and one of £100,000 from an anonymous donor (the same person who has twice previously given us the same amount). These gifts have transformed the fund’s fortunes, just when we were beginning to wonder whether to wind it up and encourage our regular small donors to continue their contributions directly to the main Canon Collins fund. So there’s about £124,000 uncommitted in the pot at the moment, and tomorrow, in conversation with friends who run Canon Collins, I’ll spend quite a bit of it: perhaps up to half. When we started the fund, I used to say that we were a little boutique within the big Canon Collins supermarket. But the supermarket has shrunk since, and we now constitute a significant part of Canon Collins’ spending power.

Last year Helen and I stayed in the city centre. This year I’m at Medindi Manor in Mowbray, where the interviews took place yesterday. It’s a gracious old house turned into a small hotel, and I have a large elegant room with its own balcony. Springtime in the south! I remember writing about the shock of a warm wind in November in the poem ‘My Proper Life’, the first time I came to South Africa in 2003. Last night I went with my Canon Collins friends to a very good fish restaurant in Observatory. I had ceviche and then pasta in squid ink.

I wrote in March about being depressed, and I remember describing a similar feeling at this time last year, when we were at Bartholomeus Klip. I had another bout of listlessness two weeks ago at Kerfontaine. I go to bed at nine o’clock in the evening and stay there for twelve hours. I lie down on the bed in the afternoon. I can’t bring myself to read and write anything. I’ve now worked out why this mental state assails me from time to time. It’s because I’ve always, until recent years, cherished the delusion that my life and work were going to have some kind of significant effect on the world beyond my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. It’s the vanity which comes from having gone to an elite university. In recent years I’ve realised that my eventual lasting effect on the outside world will be insignificant and perhaps non-existent. It’s the process of coming to terms with that truth which is causing me these moments of lassitude.

On the other hand, sometimes encouragement breaks through. Lots of individual people have praised my books of poems, and many of them have done so with the sort of attention to detail which shows that they’re not just flattering me in order to get that little duty done. And when I got back to London and was opening the pile of accumulated post on Monday morning, there was a magnificent, prominent review of the two Routledge books in Teaching English, one of the journals of the National Association for the Teaching of English. Perhaps, after all, I’m helping a few teachers out there, people whom I’ll never meet, to see things more clearly and act more decisively, despite the retrogressive stupidities in the teaching and assessment of English imposed on them by the government.

I’ve done eight Rilke translations now: ‘The Swan’, ‘The Panther’, ‘The Carousel’, ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’, ‘Autumn Day’, two sonnets about spring from Sonnets to Orpheus, and ‘The Spirit Ariel’. Peter Hetherington has been very complimentary about them. He’s compared them with other translations, some done by famous names, and he’s sure that they don’t suffer in the comparison. So, more encouragement there.

Harmer Hill, Shropshire

4 Nov 2018

The Cape Town trip was successful. In all, we offered scholarships to 27 people, of which 11 will be paid for directly by the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong fund. Flying back at night, the beautiful half moon was lying on her back as we crossed the equator. Coming out of King’s Cross St Pancras Underground station a few hours later, at half past six in the morning, the same beautiful half moon was standing on her side.

Today is Sunday. On Thursday, Helen and I drove to Bedfordshire and stayed the night with Peter and Monica Hetherington. On Friday we came on here. After lunching with David James, I left Peter, Monica and Helen in David’s company, and went to the Unitarian Chapel in the High Street in Shrewsbury for a rehearsal for the reading of a selection of Wilfred Owen’s poems, to be given in the chapel the next day (yesterday). Owen, an Oswestry and Shrewsbury boy, was killed 100 years ago today, one week before the end of the First World War.

Andrew Bannerman, with whom I have performed many times, had organised a whole series of commemorations of Owen’s achievement to mark the centenary of his death, but he hadn’t been able to take control of this event as firmly as he would have liked, and I was worried, given the less than impressive quality of some of the other readers’ efforts at the rehearsal, that the performance next day was going to be something of a shambles.

I needn’t have worried. Overnight, Andrew composed a series of prose linkages for the poems to give the programme a shape, and the less than brilliant readers raised their game significantly from the previous day, and we gave about 100 people on Saturday morning, and about 50 on Saturday afternoon, an intense 75 minutes of that great poet’s extraordinary work: especially extraordinary when you consider how technically innovatory it is, and in how short a period of time it was composed. I read ‘Asleep’ and ‘Insensibility’ and part-read a couple of others. Last evening we dined at Carluccio’s in Shrewsbury, at Peter’s and Monica’s expense, and this evening we’re dining here. This morning we climbed the Lawley, my favourite Shropshire walk, before lunching at the Royal Oak at Cardington. Tomorrow we’ll return to London via Bedfordshire. Peter and Monica have been glad to be introduced to our Shropshire friends. Peter has particularly enjoyed meeting Julian, since they’re both Durham lads.

I’ve been reading a remarkable book called East West Street, by the international lawyer Philippe Sands. It concerns the city of L’viv (in Ukrainian), Lvov (in English after 1945), Lemberg (in German and Yiddish), Lwów (in Polish) or L’vov (in Russian), and the neighbouring small town of Zólkiew. It links the history of Sands’ Ukrainian Jewish family, including the murder of several of his forebears by the Nazis and his mother’s escape to Paris as a baby, with the fact that two lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, also both Jewish, who, respectively, have given the world the concepts and terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, lived and worked in L’viv before emigrating, the one to England and the other to the USA. So it’s a mixture of the personal and the political, or the legal-political. Particularly extraordinary is the friendship which Sands established with the son of the member of the German high command, Hans Frank, responsible for the atrocities in that part of the Reich, and therefore ultimately the murderer of some members of Sands’ family, who was tried and executed at Nuremberg.

I’ve also read Iris Origo’s biography of Leopardi: an account of the life of a great poet who made an art of being miserable.

Camden Town

25 Nov 2018

There is no quieter moment than nightfall on a Sunday in late November.

Today, the leaders of 27 EU countries agreed, in a matter of minutes, the legally binding document of nearly 600 pages which lays out the terms on which we shall leave the EU next March, and the 26-page aspirational document which sets out the broad parameters within which the EU and the UK will negotiate their future relationship.

This is a sad day for me, because I don’t believe we should ever have voted to leave the EU. The question shouldn’t have been put. We should have stayed, as a prominent member, and argued for improvements and reforms from within. The only reason we had a referendum in 2016 was because David Cameron thought that he could lance a boil which had been festering on the body of the Conservative Party for decades. He was deluded. Chamberlain: Munich; Blair: Iraq; Cameron: the 2016 referendum. All three Prime Ministers were deluded on those topics.

Once the referendum was lost, it was obvious that the UK would be in a weak position in our negotiations with a bloc six times our size, and determined that our exit should not encourage other members to peel off. So it has proved. But, having read the withdrawal agreement, I find myself a heretic vis-à-vis Labour’s official position. Labour says that the two documents represent a bad deal and that the party will vote against adopting them when Parliament debates the matter in a couple of weeks’ time. Because the Prime Minister also faces a substantial rebellion from within her own party — mainly from her right wing but also from some pro-European Tories who believe that we should have a closer relationship with the EU than that proposed in the documents, or who even hope that we could stay in the EU after all, following a second referendum in which the UK electorate changes its mind — it’s difficult to see at the moment how she is going to get the measure through.

For me, the sections of the withdrawal document on citizens’ right and on the cost of the divorce are not controversial. Nor are they the main area of controversy for most MPs, whatever their point of view on ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ (though there are a few lunatics who think that the UK should simply renege on our legally binding financial commitments, made as members of the EU). The controversy comes over Ireland. How historically appropriate that Britain’s oldest colony should be the last one causing us serious difficulty! Nobody wants a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The only way to avoid that is to have frictionless trade across the border, as at present, and identical environmental, food-safety and other standards. The only way to achieve that, so far as I can see, is for the UK to remain in the existing customs union or to join a new customs arrangement which would amount to the same thing. Theresa May has foolishly ruled out remaining in the customs union, but has proposed that the two parties should try to work out a way of having frictionless trade and equivalence of standards during the ‘implementation period’ — the 21 months from the end of March 2019 until 31 December 2020. (There is the possibility that the implementation period could be extended by one or two years if more time were needed to agree the permanent relationship.)

If the details of a permanent relationship can’t be achieved by the end of 2020 (or possibly the end of 2021 or 2022 — though there will have to be a general election in May 2022, so I think the longest extension possible would have to cease before then), the UK would agree to be in a customs arrangement with the EU until such time as a permanent trading relationship could be settled. There would be common environmental, social and labour standards both in the temporary customs arrangement, if it were needed, and the eventual permanent relationship. Now, a customs union with common environmental, social and labour standards is what Labour officially wants. Theresa May is proposing, as a theoretical temporary expedient to which she hopes never to need to resort, exactly what Labour wants on a permanent basis. Of course I can see why right-wing Conservatives hate May’s compromise. But, given that all this argument is mainly about how we get out of the EU, and much less about the detail of our future permanent relationship, I can’t see why Labour is determined to vote against the government when what is being proposed is so close to what it says it wants. If, later, the detailed proposal for the permanent relationship were to be unsatisfactory, by all means vote against it then.

It doesn’t matter what I think. If the vote goes against the government next month, a number of scenarios open. We could leave the EU with no deal on 29 March 2019, and trade with the bloc thereafter on World Trade Organisation terms. There would be chaos, at least for a while. The Prime Minister could come back to Parliament after Christmas, with some revisions to her plan. That isn’t going to happen because the EU isn’t going to budge; the only revisions would be further concessions on the UK’s part, which would enrage her own rebels even more. (One drily humorous administrator in Brussels, when asked whether there was any possibility of the EU side making changes to the withdrawal agreement, said, ‘We could change the font.’) The Prime Minister could resign, bringing about a leadership contest. But a new leader would be faced with the same difficulties. There could be another early general election, despite the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. That isn’t going to happen because another general election before May 2022 requires either a two-thirds majority voting for it in the House of Commons, or that the government loses a confidence vote. However much some right-wing Tories dislike Theresa May, they are not going to allow the possibility of a Labour victory before 2022. The interesting scenario revolves around amendments (and it was Labour, and Keir Starmer in particular, who saw to it that there will be a meaningful vote on leaving the EU, with the opportunity for amendments to be debated). The only way that I can make sense of Labour’s current position is that they are keeping their powder dry in order to combine with other parties — the SNP, the Liberals, Plaid Cymru and, most important, a big chunk of pro-European Tories — to force through an amendment keeping us permanently in the customs union, or in something very much like it, a proposal which presumably the EU would accept.

It could also be that there will be an amendment calling for a second referendum. If there is, I hope it will be defeated. The first referendum was a divisive disaster. The second would be equally so, though it would at least be fought by opponents in possession of better information than they had in 2016. If the vote were to go the same way as in 2016, what would have been gained? If the vote were to switch to ‘remain’, the rage and civil disobedience of the leavers can only be imagined. The only certainty is that the strife would continue thereafter. No, we have made our bed and we must lie on it; we must seek as close a relationship with the EU as can be managed, given the principles and priorities of both sides. Theresa May’s achievement is the best that could be managed, given her misguided determination to leave the customs union. As I’ve said, it wouldn’t surprise me if we end up, by hook or by crook, in something like the present customs union, though it may have to have a different name, for the look of the thing.

The desire to control immigration was the most significant factor in bringing about Brexit. People thought that the single market automatically means that we have to accept immigrants from the EU, house them and pay them benefits, in all circumstances. We know the facts: EU immigrants pay more tax and claim fewer benefits, as a proportion of their income, than indigenous UK citizens, and have been essential to the UK economy’s slow recovery from the disaster of 2008, although in some parts of the country their arrival in large numbers has put a strain on public services. But even if we were to accept the argument of those who wish to control immigration from the EU, there is no binary choice between ‘no immigration’ and ‘uncontrolled immigration’. It emerges that some of the most committed EU countries, fervent supporters of the single market, have more constraining laws on immigration from other EU countries than the UK does. Immigrants there must have a job to go to; they can’t claim state benefits until they have been working for a period of time, and have begun to make a significant contribution to the host country. We could have had this arrangement — we could still have it, theoretically, though in practical terms it’s now too late — without giving up the benefits of the single market.

It’s all a dreadful cock-up. Mostly, it’s been a shouting match between the ignorant. No one knows what the outcome will be. I predict that the UK will be worse off than we would have been had we stayed, and that those poorer people who voted in the largest numbers to leave will be those who will suffer most as a result of our folly.


21 Dec 2018

The winter solstice. It rains without cease here. I’ve just come back from a windy, wet walk.

We arrived on Wednesday. Last weekend we were in Shropshire, for our usual pre-Christmas weekend with friends there, this time alas without Mike Raleigh.  It was on the equivalent occasion last year that we saw him for the last time.  And that reminds me that I’ve haven’t written about the memorial event for him that we held on 8 November at Kings College London. It was a good do, with about 100 people there, and nice food and drink. There were speeches from Mike’s step-daughter and his sister-in-law, and from Michael Simons (about Mike’s time as his deputy at the ILEA English Centre), David James (about Mike’s time in Shropshire) and Peter Harris (about Mike’s time as an HMI). I think that Kate Myers, Mike’s partner these last few years, who organised the event with me, was comforted. She has sensibly decided to avoid this Christmas in England, and gone to South Africa to visit relatives.

On Tuesday morning we left David James and drove straight to the Channel Tunnel.  We stayed the night at Montreuil-sur-Mer, in a nice little hotel, Le Coq.  We ate at Le Clos des Capucins in the main square, where delicacies such as whole calf’s kidney, pig’s trotter and tripe are available.  It was an easy drive to Kerfontaine the next day. Today I’ve helped our neighbour Jean to saw and stock wood blown down from one of his trees by a gale on Wednesday night.  

Since my last despairing entry about Brexit, things have got worse. The Prime Minister continued to insist that her withdrawal agreement would be presented to parliament for a vote on 11 December. On 10 December, facing the certainty of defeat, she changed her mind, interrupted the five-day debate and postponed the vote which was to have been held the next day. This enraged many MPs on all sides of the House, whatever their position on Brexit. The right-wing Conservatives who want us to leave with no continuing connections with the EU immediately accumulated enough letters to send to the chairman of the 1922 committee to force a vote of no confidence in the leader of their own party. The vote was held on 12 December. The Prime Minister won it by 200 votes to 117. She went straight off to Brussels the next day to try to scrape together some support for ‘clarification’ or ‘reassurances’ about the contentious part of the withdrawal agreement, to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This she signally failed to gather. This week, the government announced that the debate on the agreement would be resumed in the week beginning 7 January, when parliament reassembles, and that the vote would finally take place in the following week.

Before that, in the first week of this month, the government achieved a first: the only time in the UK’s modern constitutional history (I think since 1688) that it has itself has been in contempt of its own parliament. Keir Starmer had tabled a motion requesting that the full legal advice relating to the withdrawal agreement, provided to the government by the Attorney General, its most senior lawyer, should be laid before parliament. The government, foolishly from its own point of view, didn’t bother to vote against the motion. So it passed and was law. The government then refused to produce the full legal advice. The Attorney General came to the House, made a statement and answered questions for some hours, but declined to do what parliament had required him to do. So Keir proposed a motion declaring the government in contempt of parliament, and it passed! Some Conservatives must have supported it. Whether anyone in the government will face any kind of punishment for so sneering at democracy I very much doubt. The government published the full legal advice the next day. It wasn’t greatly different from the version the Attorney General had given orally earlier in the week. It was just that some of the ‘risks’ (or guarantees, depending on your point of view) associated with the Irish backstop were spelt out less ambiguously, thus enraging the right-wing Conservatives even more.

If only I could be more enthusiastic about Labour’s position! It lurches by the day, and I think it’s because there is almost as much disagreement on Labour’s front bench about what to do as there is in the Cabinet. I suspect Corbyn is deliberately refusing to come off the fence because he’s enjoying the government’s agony too much. Several times since I wrote the entry on 25 November I have read it again, wondering whether whenever Corbyn stood up in the House and condemned the withdrawal agreement as a bad deal he was referring to some obvious failing in it which I had missed. (And of course I keep reminding myself that we’re only talking here about a way of leaving the EU; the detailed terms on which we will eventually trade with the EU and relate to it in all necessary ways have yet to be discussed.) Then, on Tuesday, I opened The Guardian while waiting to drive through the Channel Tunnel and there was an article by no less an authority than Vernon Bogdanor, one of our wisest and most authoritative political commentators. He writes:

‘[The Prime Minister’s] deal probably has more Commons support than the alternatives of no Brexit or no deal. If she were defeated, it would be by a coalition of incompatibles — Tory and DUP Brexiteers who believe that she has aligned Britain too closely with the European Union — and Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and perhaps a few Tory remainers who seek either a closer alignment with the EU or a second referendum. Clearly this coalition of incompatibles would be unable to agree on any alternative policy. So a new prime minister, almost certainly a Conservative, would face exactly the same problems as May. That means a general election. But there is no reason to believe that an appeal to the people could resolve the parliamentary deadlock any more than the 2017 election did.

The irony is that there is a much greater consensus among MPs than is apparent from the posturing of May’s opponents. Kenneth Clarke believes that about 80% of MPs are against a no-deal Brexit, while nearly all MPs accept that there should not be a hard Irish border, which would be incompatible with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

The withdrawal agreement achieves both of these aims. It meets two essential requirements that almost all MPs support — that, if no future relationship with the EU is agreed by the end of December 2020, there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish Sea, with full access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK internal market. The agreement therefore protects both the north/south strand and the east/west strand of the Good Friday agreement.

The agreement does, admittedly, require Northern Ireland to ensure that its regulations are in conformity with those of the EU in those limited areas of the economy necessary to avoid a hard border and protect north/south cooperation under the Good Friday agreement, such as agricultural products, veterinary controls, state aid rules, VAT and excise in respect of goods. But these constitute a small fraction of the single market rules that currently apply. If, during the period of the backstop, Britain decides to adopt different regulations from those of the EU, there would be limited checks, not on trade from Northern Ireland to the rest of Britain, but from Britain to Northern Ireland.

There is already, of course, considerable differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK — different regulations on animal health and agricultural products, not to speak of different rules on abortion and same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland has also committed to a introducing a different corporation tax rate from the rest of the UK. The DUP is happy to accept differentiation where it is in that party’s interests. But differentiation is very different from a border in the Irish Sea and, in return for a limited degree of compliance with EU rules, Northern Ireland gains both the benefits of the UK internal market and of the EU internal market. Economically, it is a good agreement for the province.

No doubt it is for this reason that the deal has been welcomed by almost all the Northern Ireland parties except for the DUP, including the unionist biconfessional Alliance party, and by the Northern Irish business community. In opposing the agreement, the DUP is not only failing the people of Northern Ireland. It is unilaterally breaking the confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives, which declares unconditionally that the party ‘agrees to support the government on legislation pertaining to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union’. The agreement is for the length of the parliament and can only be reviewed by the mutual consent of both parties. In return for that, Northern Ireland received £1bn of public money. The DUP, therefore, is in breach of contract and arguably guilty of taking public money under false pretences.

Labour, too, is hypocritical in opposing the deal since its policy is to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU. There is now no time to negotiate any new arrangement, whatever that may be, since there is little consensus on the Labour front bench, even were the EU willing to contemplate one.

But the Conservative Brexiteers and DUP, who seek to defeat Theresa May, are guilty of far worse. For the most likely alternative to the deal is a no-deal Brexit. Even if we ignore alarmist talk about aeroplanes being grounded and medicines being unavailable, there would be, on 30 March, customs duties and a host of complex regulations for companies exporting to the EU. That means bankruptcies and unemployment.

Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP, instead of plotting to engineer a constitutional crisis, would be better employed during the Christmas period explaining to their constituents why they are adopting a stance that will put many of those who elected them out of work. This is the central issue that should be concentrating minds at Westminster.’

That expresses exactly what I have been thinking. Since the article appeared, Corbyn has declined to propose a vote of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, despite being encouraged to do so by many in his own party and by the leaders of other opposition parties. Presumably he realises he’s likely to lose such a vote. If there’s one thing that unites the Tories and the DUP, it’s their determination that there will not be another general election before 2022. On Wednesday, during the last Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, the Tories were in full pantomime action, jeering at Corbyn with ‘Oh yes he will,’ ‘Oh no he won’t’ call a vote of no confidence. Corbyn may or may not have muttered the words ‘Stupid woman,’ referring to the Prime Minister, in his anger. He later claimed that his muttered words had been ‘Stupid people.’ I haven’t seen the video of his lips. The Tories then put on a show of sanctimonious feminist piety, as if, for example, they hadn’t, the previous week, restored the whip to two of their MPs who had been caught sending disgusting sexually explicit texts to women, so that these two men could support the Prime Minister in the party’s own confidence vote. If Corbyn did say, ‘Stupid woman,’ he shouldn’t have, and he should have apologised. But he was mightily provoked.

Parliament is now on holiday. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But I don’t expect any improvement in this dismal situation during the dark days of January. We’re now spending billions of pounds preparing for a no-deal Brexit which, I’m sure (and so is Professor Bogdanor), the great majority of MPs do not want. It’s just that they can’t bring themselves to agree on what a majority of them do want.

A week ago I met Keir Starmer, to talk about our plan for the redevelopment of the industrial estate across the road. Alex Smith, the chair of our Neighbourhood Forum, and Richard Crutchley, from our planning consultants, were there too. It was a good meeting, and Keir was supportive. Being a politician is extraordinary: one day you’re in the midst of the most important constitutional debate the UK has had since 1945, and the next you’re talking about the future of a collection of sheds. And his father had just died. The funeral is today. I gave him my poetry books, and invited him to a reading which I’m doing at Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town on 7 February. He’s a Kentish Town resident, and he joked that if he gave up politics he hoped to get a job there. I said that I was sure that Gary, who runs the bookshop, would be happy to employ him.


23 Dec 2018

In France they like to burn and break things.  Generalisations about national character are deeply dangerous, but here’s one: the French are naturally revoltés (rebellious, mutinous); the British are naturally paisible (peaceable, meek).  I make no value judgement either way.  For several weeks now, France has been rocked by an extraordinary movement of violent protest. The protestors are called the gilets jaunes, because they wear the high-visibility yellow jackets which motorists are required to carry in their cars in order easily to be seen if standing by their vehicle after an accident or breakdown. There are no leaders of this movement, at least not at the moment, and a few people who have put themselves forward as leaders have immediately been threatened by the rest of the protestors. It’s a typically modern phenomenon, driven by social media. The spark which ignited the flame was the government’s apparently reasonable proposal to increase the price of diesel from 1 January next year by a few centimes more than the increase in the price of petrol, in order slowly to wean people away from diesel cars, which have been proved to cause many more deaths, especially in cities, than do petrol cars. Of course it’s true that the government, a couple of decades ago, encouraged the purchase of diesel cars, because diesel emissions make a smaller contribution to global warming than do petrol cars. The same happened in the UK. The difference is that the higher price which UK motorists now pay for diesel as opposed to petrol (an actually higher price, not — as in France — a lower price but one where the differential is diminishing) is accepted, however reluctantly. In France, no. The diesel issue became the first item in a lengthening list of enraged complaints by people who feel that they have been left behind, taken for granted, patronised and even despised by a sophisticated urban elite, perfectly exemplified by Macron, his government and his governing style. After four weeks of increasingly violent demonstrations across France, the government backed down, as it always does when the people take to the streets and bring the country to a halt. Macron went on television and announced that the fuel increases would not happen, that there would be an increase of 100 euros per month in the minimum wage, and that overtime and pensions below a certain level (I think 2,000 euros a month) would not be taxed. He encouraged businesses to pay special bonuses to their workers. Since then, the protests have diminished but not ceased.

In 2017 the French vote for a president; in 2018 they decapitate him in effigy, and the police have to protect his family’s house at Le Touquet by dispersing a crowd with tear gas.  Thugs hack Marianne off the Arc de Triomphe.  Hundreds of cars are burnt and shops smashed. Macron has made mistakes, and said some unwise things.  He abolished a tax on wealth, and replaced it with a different tax. It’s true that the new tax does take more from the majority of better-off people than did the previous tax. But foolishly, the new tax actually benefits the 1% who are super-rich, and actually hurts the very poorest. How stupid, how wrong is that? Was it deliberate, or just an unintended consequence which civil servants and politicians didn’t notice? I don’t know, but it has been the perfect justification for popular rage.

As an internationalist, Macron has been clear about the threat which the whole of Europe faces from fascism or from quasi-fascism in its modern forms (in Italy, in Germany, in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and of course in France itself), not to mention the rise of authoritarianism elsewhere in the world: USA, Brazil, Turkey, Syria, China, Russia… He recognises that the EU is an important bulwark against active, malign forces which really do want to destroy the interrelated, rule-respecting, broadly democratic consensus within which I have lived my life and which, perhaps wrongly, I have thought secure. I admire Macron’s clarity about that, but it cuts no ice with the only-just-managing common people.  

Jean, our neighbour, of whom I am very fond, who with his wife Annick has a deservedly comfortable retirement on their two teachers’ pensions, is proud of the fact that he voted blanc (that is, spoiled his ballot paper) in the second round of the presidential elections last year.  When I ask him how he, a life-long socialist, can in effect have given half a vote to a fascist, his reply is such that there’s no common ground between us. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that, amid the genuinely disgruntled, honourable ordinary folk who have put on the yellow jackets, there are plenty of far-right, far-left and anarchist activists who enjoy violence and just want to see the state totter.

The government will have to borrow a lot more money to pay for the concessions it has made to the street. That will probably mean that it will be in conflict with Brussels over the its borrowing level as a percentage of GDP.


28 Dec 2018

It’s a beautiful, cold, clear day. I’ve finished all the practical work which needs doing at this time of year: pruning roses, hydrangeas and fuchsias, removing large quantities of leaves from the flower borders, and clearing the gutters.

In the evenings I’ve been reading The Pickwick Papers for, I think, the second time in my life. There are passages of comic writing in that book which are as funny as anything in English. On Christmas Day we opened a bottle of 1983 Warre’s vintage port which Adam gave me many years ago, and the combination of Dickens’ prose, a blazing fire and a 35-year-old fortified wine is enough to give me a deep sense of gratitude for my existence, despite the ills of the wider world: a planet in danger, too many people on it, and too many bad or stupid leaders running it.  We’ll keep on keeping on.  You do what you can.  I’ve just had a lovely email from a woman to whom we gave a Ros Moger/Terry Furlong scholarship in Cape Town last year.  Having finished her MEd at Stellenbosch, she’s just applied for and got a paid job working for Canon Collins itself, as an assistant to Eva Lenicka, the scholarships officer. She’s determined to work for a better future for her country, and thanks us for the opportunity we’ve given her.

Peter Hetherington has written a wonderful memoir about his childhood and youth in Durham in the 1930s and 1940s. I’m editing it, and Stephen Mellor is designing it. It’ll appear early in the New Year.

Mary and Jacques are coming for New Year, flying up from Marseille to Brest. I’ll go and pick them up on Sunday.


31 Dec 2018

The light has just failed on the last day of the year. Mary and Jacques are with us, and we’ve come back from one of our favourite circular walks, past the hamlet of Kerviden, which Helen calls ‘God’s special place’, not that she has any particular religious conviction, because it is so beautiful at any time of the year, thanks to the skills of Jackie and his wife, who live there. The walk passes several water mills, whose races still race, though now they don’t do any work. One of the mills functions, using electricity. I once asked the owner what kinds of flour he produces. ‘All sorts,’ he said, ‘but especially blé noir, for crêpes.’ Where does the best blé noir come from?’ I asked, thinking that he might name some district of rural Brittany. ‘Mongolia,’ was the reply.

On the way to Brest airport yesterday, I had a phone call from Monica Hetherington. The little screen on the phone said ‘Peter H’, and I thought it was Peter ringing to talk about his book. I was going to wait until I got to the airport before replying, but when the phone rang again only five minutes later, I wondered if it was something urgent. I parked and rang back. Monica told me that Peter suffered a stroke, a ‘bleed on the brain’ as she put it, on Thursday. He was taken to Bedford hospital, where they scanned his brain and sent the pictures to Addenbroke’s in Cambridge. (They did exactly the same, in the same hospital, when my father suffered his fatal stroke, and decided that there was nothing that could be done for him.) On this occasion, the decision was that they could save Peter. He was driven in an ambulance to Cambridge, where on Friday the doctors inserted a tube into his groin, with a coil on the end of it, pushed it all the way up his body to his brain, where — as I understand it — they left the coil so that it stopped, or blocked, the bleeding. Extraordinary. I spoke to David, Peter’s son, this morning. Peter is fragile and sometimes confused, but on the other hand he has my two poetry books with him, and has apparently been reading some of the poems to other patients in the ward (and possibly to the nurses? — I must ask). And he did a crossword puzzle with David yesterday afternoon. He will be in hospital for at least a fortnight. My most fervent hope is that his mental capacity hasn’t been too much impaired: such a beautiful, subtle mind, operating at full power a few days ago. Naturally, I said to David that above all Peter mustn’t worry about the book; assuming that he recovers sufficiently to be able to attend to it, we’ll make the final few editorial decisions together, and then get it printed as soon as possible. More than anything I want him to see the thing published. I’d hate to have to write a regretful afterword to the work (he called it a ‘parvum opus’ in his usual modest way when he wrote to me just before Christmas — but you could say the same of Gosse’s Father and Son) if he should no longer be with us. Several times recently I’ve told myself that the man to whom, more than to anyone, I owe my intellectual life, will not be alive for many more years, and that I must prepare myself for that. He’s been writing the memoir for two years. He promised to have it finished this autumn ‘before the leaves have fallen from the trees’, and so it was. I promised to have it published ‘before the leaves return to the trees’, and so it will be, whatever happens. I just want him to be there.

I sent an email to Alessandra in Italy, with good wishes at the end of the year, and asking her how Claudio is. He’s still in a coma, three and a half months after his heart attack.

Tonight, as ever on Old Year’s Night (as it used to be called) we’ll go to L’Art Gourmand for the special Saint-Sylvestre meal. It’ll be especially nice to have Mary and Jacques there. They’ve told us that they’d like to buy a property in Brittany, not far from here, so that we can be neighbours for part of the year. That would be great. Mary of course wants to be in Marseille too, so she can be close to her children and grandson; but a few months here in the country during the summer could fit in with that, and the children and grandson (and any future grandchildren) would enjoy it, just as Jean’s and Annick’s grandchildren do.