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Occurrences: Book Fifteen

Camden Town

6 Mar 2019

This is very late in the New Year to start writing the diary. No excuses. Just get on with it.

On 7 February I had a reading of my poems in the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town. It was a success. About 60 people were there, and they enjoyed the show. For 90 minutes I read a mixture of original poems and translations, with a linking commentary. I sold 22 copies of the books. Our friend Carolyn Boyd was there, and she has since put me in touch with the Crossness Engines Trust, which looks after Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s magnificent sewage works at Crossness, on the south bank of the Thames downriver from Woolwich. Today, a person who works at the Trust has written to ask if I will read my poem ‘‘For this Relief, Much Thanks’’ at an event on 28 March making the 200th anniversary of Bazalgette’s birth. What an honour! Of course I said yes.

Next Tuesday I’m giving a talk at Exeter University to the British Educational Research Association. It’s about the work we did which led to those ten booklets about curriculum and assessment in English, and then the two books published by Routledge. I finished writing the talk this morning, so I’m feeling relaxed about it now. I shall go down to Taunton on the train on Monday afternoon. I’ll stay with Mark and Gill overnight, and Mark will drive me to Exeter the next morning. I’m the first speaker, but I’ll stay all day and come back on the train that evening.

I’ve been visiting Peter Hetherington twice a week since returning to England in January. He’s much better. After a spell in Addenbroke’s, he was taken back to Bedford hospital, where he remained for about three weeks. Now he has moved to a brand-new rehabilitation centre on Manton Heights (just above Bedford Modern School), and he’s becoming himself again. His voice has returned, as has some of his conversation, although he’s still frailer and quieter than he was. I don’t know whether or not he will ever return to that extraordinary state of vigour and agility, mental and physical, with which he was blessed as an 88-year-old until the stroke, but the principal blessing is that he’s neither physically paralysed nor mentally impaired. His book is now at the printer, and I’m sure it will be out this month. I think there will be a little party at Bletsoe to launch it. We’ve postponed our annual play-reading (The Winter’s Tale this time) until the autumn.

I’m spending a lot of time on our project to do with the industrial estate across the road. Slow progress. The six-week public consultation finished in mid-January. Now our planning consultant is amending the Neighbourhood Plan in the light of some of the more sensible responses. Predictably, powerful organisations which can afford to employ smart lawyers and estate agents have weighed in against the plan. They simply want Camley Street to become a ghetto of luxury apartment blocks, and to make a great deal more money in the process. I hope that the decision will finally be made this year, and that it’ll go our way: keep the businesses where they are, in new and environmentally much better accommodation; build several hundred genuinely affordable dwellings for rent. The Neighbourhood Forum has been on the case for more than five years now, though I’ve only been actively involved for the last two.

Brexit remains a site of utter confusion. The withdrawal agreement which the 27 EU countries other than the UK unanimously agreed on 25 November was finally put to a vote in the House of Commons in January, and defeated by a huge majority. Since then, the Prime Minister has been trying — I think with little success — to persuade people in the EU to soften or amend the proposals on the Irish backstop, which enraged a significant group of right-wing Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party, on which Mrs May depends for her slim majority. Other MPs had voted against the agreement for a variety of reasons. We’ve got to the stage where we will be leaving the EU in 22 days’ time, unless the agreement, having been amended, is passed by MPs next Tuesday. If it is, which I doubt at the moment, there will be an implementation period of 21 months during which nothing will change, although we will formally have left. During that time, the UK and EU will negotiate arrangements for our future relationship in all areas: trade, security, crime, environmental protections, workers’ rights. A huge task. If the agreement is again rejected, there will be a vote the next day to see if there is a majority in the House for leaving on 29 March with no agreement. If that were to fail, which I think it would, there will be a vote a day later to see if there is a majority for a short extension of Article 50, which would mean that we would still be in the EU, perhaps until the end of June. If we’re still going to be in the EU beyond that date, we should really take part in the EU parliamentary elections in May: a further complexity.

I don’t think I’ve really changed my mind since I wrote about this in November. At the moment, the Prime Minister is trying to bribe Labour MPs in poorer, leave-voting seats to vote for the agreement in return for money to go to their areas, as if such a sticking plaster could compensate for the grievous wound inflicted on poorer areas by the government’s policies since 2010, and indeed by larger forces which governments have only limited (but not negligible) powers to counteract: globalisation and the move of basic industries — mining, ship-building, chemicals, steel production, ceramics — to other parts of the world. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the paper in the last few days concerns a potentially more tempting offer to Labour MPs: let the agreement go through, either by voting for it or by abstaining, in exchange for a legally guaranteed right to consider, vote on and amend the eventual proposal for our future relationship with the EU. That’s more or less what I was musing about in November.

There’s a real possibility that far-right, nationalist and xenophobic parties will make big gains in the European elections. There’s a kind of destructive, hate-filled mood abroad, combined with a deliberate amnesia about why the entity which has become the EU was founded in the first place. That plus dictatorships or authoritarian governments in so many other parts of the world — Russia, China, Turkey, most of the Arab countries — plus Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil make me tremble sometimes at the thought that the legitimate span of political thought and action under which I’ve lived all my life, from centre-right through social democracy to democratic socialism, is an endangered species, and that something much worse is coming along as I enter my last phase. There was a good piece by Macron in the paper the other day, syndicated across numerous other papers in Europe, reminding us of the reasons why the EU was founded, and arguing that we should be proud of its achievements while recognising that the institution has faults that need addressing. Amen to that, but the job needs doing: Eastern European countries, the main beneficiaries of EU largesse in recent years, flout its principles with apparent impunity; we can’t do anything collectively about refugees and asylum seekers; and trivial but symbolically significant absurdities continue, such as the EU parliament’s constant shuttling between Strasbourg and Brussels.

Last weekend we were in York with Tom James. He seems to be enjoying studying history at the university. He sent me two of his essays, one on the fourteenth century and one on the Enlightenment, which show a real developing grasp of fluent, unstuffy academic prose. We visited the Minster, and went to evensong; we ate in three restaurants, of which a Polish one was the best; we drank in a tiny old-fashioned pub; we walked on the city walls.

Camden Town

8 Mar 2019

It’s a beautiful ‘clear-sunned’ (Hardy) March day. I’m feeling virtuous because, for the first time this year, I jumped out of bed, walked down to the swimming bath next to St Pancras station, and swam 20 lengths. Walking back after such exercise makes me feel terrific. My usual breakfast is muesli, which I glumly munch. Today I allowed myself two boiled eggs with buttered toast and Marmite.

I wrote last year about the enthusiastic review of the two Routledge books which Gary Snapper wrote for Teaching English, one of the journals of the National Association for the Teaching of English. I noticed when reading that edition that the summer 2019 edition will be called ‘Becoming our own Experts’. I wrote to Gary reminding him that it had been our little group of teachers at Vauxhall Manor School who had written the papers on language and learning which were combined in the 1982 book called Becoming our own Experts, and offering to do an introductory piece for the forthcoming edition about our work. He was glad of the offer. I did the piece yesterday and sent it to him. I’m pleased with it; it reminds me of something important that I was involved in a very long time ago now. He’s just written back to thank me.

Yesterday afternoon I walked in the park. The buds are coming. I mused in my usual way about the curiosity that, in a row of trees of the same species, of about the same age, in what looks like the same soil, there are those that are forward and those that are backward as spring approaches. I’m better informed about this than I used to be. I was talking to Mike, who with his mate Steve looks after the gardens around this block of flats, and at various other places on the estate. They do a great job. I’m a director of the management company of our block, and I gave Mike my business card, in case he ever needed my help. On the card is the address of my website, which he then visited. He read the chapter of My Life in Prose called ‘Living in London’, in which I ask myself the question about trees’ varying rates of progress. Later, he wrote me an email including this:

‘I don’t know if anyone answered your question asking how can two trees of the same species in close proximity live such different lives? There are two answers, a combination of nature and nurture really. Naturally each individual specimen is unique, just like us humans, so although they are the same species, as individuals they are different. Take that as a starting point. Although they are growing in close proximity the unique characteristics of one individual will enjoy that soil, that elevation, that exposure, that biosphere etc., more compared to the other individual. Having said all that the really beautiful story is that trees of the same species will graft their roots together and the stronger will help the weaker. You see they are all socialists really.’

In my reply, I wrote:

‘Thank you for explaining why trees live different lives.  You are the first person to do it!  So they are like humans, or at least — given what you say about the grafting of roots — like humans at their best rather than their worst.  It’s nice to put that information in the balance against the classic Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest: a ruthless fight for life, and the devil take the hindmost.  Though of course Darwin, being the most humane of people, would have been appalled at how his theory, supposed to work over geological periods of time, was later hijacked by fascists and, in our own day, right-wing populists, to argue for an entirely individualistic view of our condition.’

This afternoon we’re going down to Portsmouth, city of my birth, to stay with my cousin Ceri and her husband Vince. Vince is doing a PhD in drama at the university there. As part of the degree’s requirement, he has to write a play which is then performed. The play is about Portsmouth in the English Civil War. Details from the internet: ‘Set in 1642, just before Charles I raised his standard and started the Civil War, the drama focuses on Governor George Goring and his Machiavellian double-dealing. The play will be performed in The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth, itself part of the action of the play, and brings to life many figures of the time including Queen Henrietta Maria, John Pym, Sir William Waller and, of course, George Goring.’

We’ll stay the night.

The government lurches ever deeper into difficulties. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State on Wednesday said that murders committed by the security forces during the Troubles ‘were not crimes’. She later had to apologise. It’s completely extraordinary that a person in that job should be so ignorant. Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, made an error when speaking to a radio interviewer about abusive tweets. She said, ‘It definitely is worse if you're a woman, it's worst of all if you're a coloured woman. I know that Diane Abbott gets a huge amount of abuse, that's something we need to call out.’ Diane Abbott immediately objected to the use of the word ‘coloured’.

I’m a bit more sympathetic to Ms Rudd about this, because although she should not have used that term, the phrase ‘people of colour’ is frequently used by black people in the UK in a progressive, anti-racist sense, and in America the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a proudly anti-racist organisation with a membership of half a million. Much worse was a response by Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, to a proposal by Naz Shah, the shadow women and equalities minister, for a Commons debate on Islamophobia, after Baroness Warsi, who used to be the Tories’ Chair, criticised her own party over the prevalence of Islamophobia within it. Ms Leadsom (it was she who, in the contest to replace David Cameron as Tory leader, had said that she would be a better Prime Minister than Theresa May because she had had children) proposed that Ms Shah could ‘discuss with Foreign Office ministers whether that would be a useful way forward’. In other words, Muslims in Britain are foreigners. In a later statement, her office said that she had thought that Ms Shah was referring to a global definition of Islamophobia. Laughable, since all the recent news about Islamophobia has been about its prevalence in Britain, and particularly amongst some Tory councillors. On the other hand, Naz Shah herself is not beyond criticism: she lost the party whip and was banned from party activity for three months in 2016 following social-media messages about Israel which she later admitted had been anti-semitic.

We’re lurching towards another vote next Tuesday on the EU withdrawal agreement, with no sense that the EU is willing to change its position on the Irish backstop. I think the vote will be lost again, if by a smaller margin. One former Tory cabinet minister is quoted in today’s paper as saying that ‘it’s like the last days of Rome’. There are no barbarians at the gates this time; the barbarians are within the walls.

Camden Town

18 Mar 2019

The most appalling atrocity has been committed in Christchurch, New Zealand. Last Friday an Australian white supremacist killed 50 Muslims and injured 50 others who were worshipping at two mosques in the city. In a grotesque abuse of social media, he live-streamed his actions on Facebook as they were taking place. He was arrested after he had left the second mosque, while on his way to a third mosque where he intended to kill more people.

New Zealand is profoundly shocked by the deadliest act of mass shooting in the country’s history. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown impressive and dignified leadership in responding to the outrage. I hadn’t realised how lax New Zealand’s gun laws are: they seem to be as libertarian as the USA’s. People can buy semi-automatic weapons perfectly legally. The government has already promised that this will change. It needs to, quickly.

My brother Andy, who’s in New Zealand at the moment, writes: ‘The shock of Friday still resonates around the country. Very impressed with the prime minister's action and words. Many people were shocked to realise that assault rifles could be bought legally here. That should be easy to fix. The rise of white supremacists down in the south is a more difficult problem. It’s been there for some time but treated as an embarrassment rather than a threat. Airport security has been stiffened, threats of reprisals have been made. The days of Kiwi innocents are over.’


8 Apr 2019

Here we are again, in springtime, with the primroses everywhere and April showers. Looking down the garden, the sight is different from usual, since in January an enormous oak fell down, fortunately into the garden from the bank which marks the boundary of our land. The situation would have been much more complicated if it had fallen the other way, across the public bridleway running down to the stream. But the tree smashed into two apple trees as it fell, and I don’t know whether or not they will recover. Jean-Paul has been here several times and begun the task of cutting the fallen giant into pieces, but there’s a place where the trunk is nearly two metres in diameter, and that will require some specialised heavy tools. The thing looks like a slaughtered elephant at the moment, and images keep coming into my mind of the wickedness of elephant poachers in Africa.

We took two days to get down here, because on Friday we stopped at Betton, a little town north of Rennes, to hear Simone Dinnerstein play the piano. Last autumn we went to a concert at the Barbican at the suggestion of Martyn Coles and Pamela Dix. Pamela’s sister Gill, whom I’ve known since 1972 when she was a girl, is a friend of Simone, who is a wonderful classical concert pianist. That evening she played Philip Glass’s third piano concerto. Glass had written the piece for her. I haven’t always been a great fan of Glass’s music, finding the repetitiveness wearing, but this piece is marvellously lyrical, moving between meditation and exaltation. We met Simone at the interval, after she had played. In conversation, it emerged that she was playing the Glass again in Brittany this spring. So we arranged to be there. She played Bach’s seventh concerto first, then the Glass. The performance was equally brilliant, and moving, although the acoustic wasn’t as good as at the Barbican, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne aren’t as good as the London Symphony Orchestra. But 400 people crammed into the newly built hall behind the mairie, and enjoyed themselves. The next morning we drove into Rennes and had breakfast with Simone at her hotel. She’s a lovely person. I’ve just sent her my poems, and the libretto of King Roger, which she’s going to show to a composer she knows. I’ve given Paul Halley enough time to write some music. I can’t remember now whether it’s six or seven years since I wrote the libretto. He hasn’t made a start.

Jean and Annick came to dinner last night. We shan’t see much of them while we’re here. They’ve gone to Paris today, and next week they’ve hired a gîte down south, where they will be joined by their children and grandchildren. Jean helped me this morning to solve a problem which has been bothering me for months. In the summer of 2016, the EDF installed a meter which supposedly can be read remotely. Despite this, our bills have continued to be estimated, and very large. Finally, this February, I paid close enough attention to the latest bill to realise what had happened. I wrote a letter to the EDF, which did no good. I found the address of their local office on the internet this morning, went there, and found that it exists no longer. Though I could have phoned myself, I felt the need of a native speaker to help me fight through the electronic hell which is obligatory these days in dealing with utilities. The upshot was that after about ten minutes of listening to music and pressing buttons, we got through to a woman who, having considered my case, admitted that I am owed 560 euros and promised that I will be reimbursed within a fortnight.

And this afternoon I’ve run various other errands, successfully. So I’m feeling cheerful.

It’s hard to know where to start about Brexit, so much has happened since I last wrote. Briefly, the government’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration have been defeated twice, by huge margins. The withdrawal agreement, shorn of the political declaration, has been defeated a third time, by the smaller but still large margin of 58 votes. Parliament has successfully wrested control of parliamentary business from the government, despite whipped government attempts to prevent this. On two occasions. various options for leaving the EU were proposed, but none commanded a majority. Kenneth Clark’s proposal for a customs union came closest to acceptance, losing by only three votes on the second occasion. Yvette Cooper introduced a bill that, if passed, will force the Prime Minister to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50. Again, the government did everything it could, unsuccessfully, to stop the bill being debated. When the bill was debated, it passed the Commons by one vote. It’s now being debated in the Lords, where I think it will pass.

Last Wednesday, Theresa May did what she should have done immediately after the 2017 general election, when she lost her majority, and said that she would collaborate with the Labour Party in seeking an orderly way of leaving the EU which would command a majority in the Commons. She infuriated her right wing and the DUP in doing this. Conversations between the government and the Labour Party, with Keir Starmer leading our side, are going on at the moment. I wonder whether — indeed I hope that — a compromise will emerge of the kind I thought necessary last November, on the day that the EU leaders unanimously accepted the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. That compromise is a customs union. It may have to be dressed up in other language for the look of the thing, since Theresa May has repeatedly said that we would be leaving the customs union. Some of the hard-line Brexiteers would be genuinely apoplectic; others in that group would wish to appear so. But for me it’s the only solution to one of the most intractable political problems of my lifetime. It solves the Irish border problem; it solves the movement of goods problem; we can take back control of immigration, given that so many people on all sides think that we should, although in reality we shall continue to need immigration from the EU and from elsewhere to keep the country running. Goods are only 20% of GDP while services are 80%, so we would still be free to strike deals around the world on services. No doubt there are lots of technical difficulties to be faced, such as the fact that some goods come in and go out with associated services attached. But in principle the deal could be done; the EU would accept it; our parliament would vote for it. It might break the Conservative Party, which of course from my point of view would be welcome, but I doubt it: Conservatives are notoriously good survivors, because — at least until recently — ideology mattered much less to them than it did to Labour.

We were supposed to have left the EU on 29 March. The EU granted us an extension of membership until 22 May if by 29 March Parliament had agreed something. If Parliament failed to do this, the extension would be until 12 April. Parliament duly failed to agree. So, with 12 April fast approaching and amidst continuing disagreement, Theresa May wrote last week to the EU asking for a further extension until 30 June, should she need it. The EU leaders will consider this request on Wednesday. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has suggested a flexible extension of a year, with a break whenever we manage to agree something with which the EU also agrees. As things stand, it’s still theoretically possible, but very unlikely, that we shall leave the EU on Friday with no deal, and face the resultant chaos.

If we stay in for many more weeks, we shall have to contest the European elections on 23 May. Large numbers of far-right rabble-rousers will emerge and stand, backed by the millionaires who funded the Leave campaign in 2016. I don’t want another referendum because it would provide a further platform for those forces, although I respect the argument that says that the first referendum was conducted on the basis of ignorance and lies, and at least this time people would be voting on the basis of better information. And I respect the one million people who marched in London the other Saturday to demand a second vote. I can’t see that, however much Theresa May is hated by some in her own party, a general election is likely, since under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (which I support) two thirds of the Commons have to vote for it, and the Conservatives will surely remember their mistake of 2017. The only other way in which a parliamentary fixed term can be shortened is by a successful vote of no confidence in the government. Jeremy Corbyn did propose such a vote in January. It was defeated, and I think a further attempt to unseat the government would also fail. So we’re left with the compromise being discussed this afternoon.

My talk at Exeter on 12 March went well. About 60 people were there, and I gave them a full hour on curriculum and assessment in English 3 to 16: the best that has been thought, written and done over many decades; what’s wrong with government policy now; the practical alternatives we’ve proposed. People seemed to appreciate it. The talk and the supporting material I provided are now on the British Educational Research Association’s website.

I read my poem ‘“For this Relief, Much Thanks”’ on 28 March at the event to mark Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s 200th birthday. About 150 people were there, and the poem was a success. I presented a framed copy to Peter Bazalgette, the chair of the Crossness Engines Trust. Carolyn Boyd and her husband Richard were there; so was Ann Whittaker, who had arranged the reading on 7 February which Carolyn attended and which gave her the idea of contacting the Trust; so were Bronwyn and Stephen, who had just arrived from Australia. It was a great evening. When I stayed with Mark on 11 March, he lent me an excellent book by Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis, which I’ve just finished.

Peter Hetherington’s book, A Northern Childhood — My Boyhood Years, arrived from the printer on 18 March. He’s very pleased with it. I was there when the boxes were delivered, and we sat in the dining room at Bletsoe and just quietly turned the pages. Then, on 31 March, there was a little family party at the house to celebrate. Stephen had designed the book, so the four of us drove up from London. 150 copies were printed; most of them will be posted to Peter’s and Monica’s wider families, friends and former pupils. Peter is continuing to make remarkable progress since his stroke. We’ve walked round the fields at the back of their house. He still wobbles a bit, and says that he might resort to trekking poles, which have become so popular and which until recently he scorned (as do I; I see people going round Regents Park with them as if they’re attempting the ascent of F6).


12 Apr 2019

I’m going to put something in here which I should really have included somewhere in the diary last year. My uncle Peter, known as Miles in his latter years, wrote a letter to his son Philip, my cousin, a few weeks before he died in autumn 2008. I wrote about my uncle and about that side of my family in the diary entries at that time. A copy of the letter came into my possession then, and I remember reading it to my parents as they sat up in bed one morning in late 2008 or early 2009. I must have left them the copy, and I didn’t keep one myself, and then it disappeared when we were clearing the house after my parents died. Anyway, Mary had a copy too, and copies of various other documents to do with my uncle and his parents, and she made further copies for me last year. Here’s the letter.

28 August ’08
15 Albert Terrace, Middlesbrough

Dear Phil

When you thought I was at death’s door and I began to wonder myself, I suddenly panicked that if I were going over that edge, none of you would ever know anything about your grandfather, and a grandfather is an essential link in the chain connecting us to our ancestors.

Well, I have come back from that cliff edge for the time being and have had time to write this short account of my father. I have stuck to what seemed essentials to bring out basic differences between us which make it impossible to infer a grandfather from a father, which can be done when a father sets himself up to his son as a role model, and the son accepts this relation. It wasn’t like that and from the day I told him I was going to be a conscientious objector our ways parted. All father’s work was covered by the Official Secrets Act. From the outbreak of war in 1939 the Admiralty (or the part of it in which he was) was moved from London to Bath and my brother, Ivor, moved with me into a boarding house near our old home, which was shut up. Ivor was doing ‘A’ levels and I was at art school at Kingston-on-Thames. Mother had died in 1936, aged 42, when I was 13. An almost idyllic childhood was over, and I got through the next few years as best I could, like everyone else. Father read The Times every day, taking it to bed with him if he hadn’t finished everything, including the crossword. He had watched the rise of Hitler with anxiety and on the day when Chamberlain came back from Munich waving a piece of paper which everyone except the PM knew was worthless, his anxiety overcame his usual calm. When he came into our bedroom to draw the curtains and get us up for school he said, ‘If I had ever dreamed that this day would come, I would never have had you children.’ An odd thing to hear when you are waking from sleep and have had a very good life. But that life soon began to change with increasing momentum. Going to school we found ourselves digging trenches in the playing fields instead of lessons, being issued with gas masks which we had to carry at all times and do gas mask drill every day. And in 1939 everything changed completely and father virtually disappeared from our lives. He made brief visits to see us in our boarding house whenever he could, otherwise he was completely engaged with the war. He travelled from Bath all over the world, but of course could never tell us where he was or where he was going, and when a new design of submarine, the Thetis, was reported to have failed to resurface and was lying on the floor of the Irish sea, I worried for weeks that he might be lying there too, since I knew that he often went on sea trials. Until he wrote one day, as he always did when he could: he hadn’t been part of that tragic loss.

I hope all this explains my panic when you thought I was dying. A normal relation between father and son began to end in my early teens and culminated in his condemnation of me as a coward and traitor. But I was still his son and he took that responsibility very seriously and came very willingly to meet David Bomberg, probably in 1947. From then on we had an increasingly close relation. I would cycle to Bath to stay with him and he would come to my flat in Ladbroke Grove. The war was over and normal communication resumed. But he had only two more years to live, not enough time to recover from the long break in our relation.

Of course it is impossible to write objectively about oneself. We interpret ourselves subjectively from inside. But having had two months of idleness which gave me plenty of time to go over 80 years and see my father from a distance of 60 years since his death, he does emerge as someone with qualities I haven’t met with in anyone else except Bomberg: an unshakeable integrity to his beliefs. And thinking there was no way you could infer this character in your grandfather from your observation of me, but I could see some of his qualities emerging in his grandchildren, put me under pressure to describe him as best I could while I was still fit enough.

With much love to you all

In the same and the next month, my uncle wrote the following two brief memoirs of his parents. The first covers some of the same ground as in his letter to Philip.

George William Richmond 1890-1949

My father died when I was 27. He was hard to know, his reticence hid a character of great integrity. He was almost always calm but his real feelings emerged on the day I told him I had decided to be a conscientious objector, and refuse to fight in the war. He sat stunned, and then burst out: ‘You my son, I’ve always brought up to love his country, a coward and a traitor to it in its hour of need! I’m doing what I can, your brothers have gone to do their duty, like everyone else, and you choose to be a coward and a traitor!’ He sat shaking. After a while he calmed himself, his thoughtful quiet voice returned, and he never mentioned the subject again. But he had to tell me that my decision had broken his heart.

He had devoted his life to the navy, working as an engineer. By the outbreak of war he had become one of two engineer inspectors responsible for the mechanical efficiency of the navy, a duty he discharged with tireless devotion. He loved the sea and in the wildest storms was never seasick.

He had been brought up in conditions of hardship. His parents came from the northern working class. By intelligence, determination and hard work he passed exams, won scholarships and succeeded, by his early twenties, in escaping the impoverished conditions of his childhood, and was working at the Admiralty in London, with leisure to go to theatres and galleries, learn to play the violin and study our history and literature. He loved Shakespeare, and enjoyed taking part in amateur theatricals, meeting professional actors whenever he could.

But he never forgot his working-class roots, believed passionately in a society where everyone was equal. He always treated people of whatever position in the same way, with quiet respect, genuinely believing that we are all equal. He never wanted wealth and thought that all rank and privilege should be abolished. Not being a revolutionary, he expressed his views by personal example. However important the job he was doing, he never presumed it gave him personal importance. Short in stature, he always dressed modestly and looked like any other civil servant, that is how he saw himself. His idealism was ridiculed by those who thought he lacked common sense. Their views made no impression on him. Common sense, he thought, usually meant no more than self-interest; he was concerned with the common good.

As an associate of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the Institute of Standards, he would lecture, towards the end of his life, on the importance of maintaining the highest standards in engineering. He was right to do so; those standards have been falling alarmingly since his death. Personal integrity, capable of taking responsibility for those standards, too often replaced by self-interest, ‘passing the buck’ replacing devotion to a service.

I think his harsh judgement of me softened after his meeting with David Bomberg, who persuaded him that painting could also be a way of serving one’s country, and I believed I had the talent to serve it in that way. He would sometimes say: ‘My work, after all, is only concerned with destruction, yours may be constructive.’

He knew he was going to die and would discuss it in a practical way. He had never wanted things, possessions or position. He believed in a cultured community of equals.

I believe he has gone, perhaps with relief, from a world of time to one of eternity, where thoughts of death no longer concern him, and he can continue his concern for the common good.

He died in 1949. I painted ‘The living know that they shall die, the dead know not anything’. This painting is still the best tribute I can make him. No kind of thing interested him, he is undisturbed by their absence.

He sets us a courageous example of the value of principles when we are faced with conflicting alternatives and expediency seems common sense.

Grace Muriel Richmond 1894-1936

My mother was the daughter of a prosperous Yorkshire businessman and a gentle mother of Cornish descent. The men of her family had gone to sea time out of mind. Mother had a wonderful voice which was trained by a good teacher, and had high hopes of a professional career. These were dashed by the outbreak of war in 1914 when women were directed into work useful to the war effort. Mother worked in a factory until her marriage in 1916.

From her parents, mother inherited two characteristics. Her father believed in getting on in the world, becoming as wealthy as possible, and enjoyed the pleasures that wealth can bring: expensive cars, a comfortable home and the freedom to play golf as often as he wished. From her mother the idea that the sea was the ideal calling for a son.

Their house was full of portraits of old naval officers, some of them might have survived from the eighteenth century. Her grandmother had been born in Cape Town in 1840 where her father, a naval architect, was building a dockyard. When I was still in my cot I remember her bringing an uncle, a naval officer, to see me. He towered above me, a remote stranger.

Between Bill’s birth in 1918 and mine in 1922, my mother had suffered a miscarriage of a boy who died at birth or shortly afterwards. This harrowing loss, during which mother was very ill and had some near-death experiences, perhaps contributed to her passionate desire to see me following her mother’s family tradition. I was taken at an early age to naval reviews at Spithead. But the more I descended into the cramped interior of submarines, or was taken all over the vast bulks of battleships and cruisers and watched torpedoes fired, the more loathing I got for a naval life. But mother was relentless in her ambition. Father’s socialist principles and the modest salary he earned as a civil servant ruled out the possibility of sending me to a public school, which in those days was the normal route to the Naval College at Dartmouth aged 16. Mother found a possible solution. We lived in Twickenham, and probably because of some ancient benefactor there were three scholarships every year to Christ’s Hospital. If I could gain entrance to this public school it would pave my way to Dartmouth. Aged 9 I was sent to a crammers, a retired headmaster, who coached me in maths and grammar. I took the entrance exam at 10+ and was bracketed for third place, the outcome to be decided by oral interview. Whether out of shyness or horror at what might lie before me I was more or less speechless and failed to win a place. The news came by post at breakfast time. Mother’s disappointment was painful and I had to hide my relief. I was sent to the front door to collect the milk and the nervous tremors caused by the conflicting feelings of mother and son made me drop and smash a quart bottle of milk over the tiled porch. This disaster compounded my incompetence in mother’s eyes. Fortunately father, who believed that children should decide on a career for themselves, took my part and cleared up the mess of milk and glass. Whether this disappointment contributed to her death from cancer three years later I don’t know, but I do know that I felt guilty for years that her early death wasn’t the unmitigated grief it was for father but mixed with relief that what had come to seem a threat hanging over my life was finally removed.

From her father’s attitude to the world, mother had difficulty reconciling herself to father’s socialist idealism. While still quite young I remember occasions when he was head-hunted by private industry with tempting offers of salaries surpassing those of civil servants. But he always declined, saying that he had given his loyalty to the public service and there it would remain. Mother would say, with some irritation, ‘You know we could do with a bit more money,’ but for all his devotion to her he would not change his principles. His father-in-law showed his contempt for his ideals by disinheriting his daughter, leaving his wealth to his sons.

During the bleak days following the Wall Street crash of 1929, mother worked tirelessly to shelter us from the depression which blighted so many lives. She took lodgers, kept bees and learnt all the craft of bee-keeping, knitted all our jerseys and socks on knitting machines with tireless devotion to her children, carried on the singing she loved as long as she was able before cancer robbed her of the strength to go on. A loving and devoted mother, and a child’s resentment shouldn’t blind me to her virtues.

I’m very grateful to have these writings, because previously I knew much less about my father’s and uncle’s forebears than about my mother’s. Both my paternal grandparents had died before my parents were married (perhaps Mum and Dad were already courting when my paternal grandfather died, but I know that she didn’t meet him), whereas I knew my mother’s and my maternal grandmother’s parents well. I remember saying humorously to my parents after I had read them the letter, speaking of my paternal grandfather’s socialism, ‘I’ve always wondered where I got it from.’ They laughed. He was an old-fashioned Liberal, she a Conservative. I’ve probably recorded this next exchange with my father somewhere in the diary before, but here it is again. We were sitting in my parents’ pleasant back garden one day, discussing politics. Dad said, ‘The point of politics is to enable people to sit quietly in their back gardens.’ I said, ‘The point of politics is to enable people to have quiet back gardens to sit in.’

My uncle’s complex relationship with both his parents is touching. Concerning his remark at the time of the spilling of milk that his father ‘believed that children should decide on a career for themselves’, the thought crossed my mind while typing the piece that my grandfather didn’t exactly follow that belief when my uncle told him he would refuse to fight in the war.

I’ve heard various stories about my grandfather’s secret heroics during the war. The most exotic is that the Royal Navy had a major engineering problem with some ships in Alexandria. My grandfather was wrapped up in a blanket and flown there in a Lancaster (no heating on board). He fixed the problem, and then reported to the nearest RAF base to request a flight back, as he had been promised. Some officious person laughed in his face, not knowing who he was or the importance of what he had done. My grandfather, the least likely person to pull rank, telephoned the Admiralty to tell them he was stuck. Hours later, an angry order from Churchill himself arrived at the base, telling them to put this man on the next plane home. I don’t suppose that the return journey was any more comfortable than the outward.

David Bomberg was the defining influence on my uncle’s development as a young painter. He taught him at Borough Road Polytechnic (now South Bank University), and my uncle later followed Bomberg and his wife when they moved to the south of Spain, near Ronda. I’ve seen the painting ‘The living know that they shall die, the dead know not anything’, to which my uncle refers in his memoir of his father. The title quotes Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 5. It stayed with me for years after I saw the painting, and emerged in my poem ‘Internal Eclogue at 60’. I noticed the other day, walking down Borough High Street, that a building containing halls of residence for South Bank University is now called David Bomberg House.

Last Saturday was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

Brexit update: on Wednesday evening/Thursday morning, the 27 EU leaders extended our membership of the EU until 31 October. Theresa May had asked for an extension only until 30 June, but the eventual decision of the 27 was that there was no chance that we could sort ourselves out by then. Macron wanted to stick to 30 June, and throw us out on that date if we hadn’t previously decided how to leave; many of the others wanted to give us a full year to make up our minds. So at about two o’clock in the morning of Thursday they split the difference. If we do agree how to leave at any time before 31 October, we can leave on the first day of the month following ratification by both sides. It seems very likely that we shall have to participate in the European elections on 23 May, since getting an agreement to pass Parliament before then is almost impossible, particularly as MPs yesterday went off on their Easter holidays. They’ll return on 23 April. So we may be in the anomalous position of electing representatives to a parliament which we intend imminently to leave. If we don’t take part in the elections, and have not come to an agreement by then, we shall be ejected on 1 June.

No one has said, definitely, that 31 October is the very last extension date. The agony could even be prolonged beyond that, though I doubt it. The Conservative Party is now mainly preoccupied with getting rid of its leader, although she has no obligation to leave until some sort of deal goes through (and even then, I suppose she could argue that she had only promised to stand down once her deal got through, not once any deal got through). The customs union compromise still seems to me the obvious one, particularly as the Irish prime minister supported it the other day, and said that the UK couldn’t be expected to be a ‘silent partner’ in such a union; we would have a full voice at that table. I’ve always thought that those who have confidently said that we would have to be ‘rule-takers, not rule-makers’ (weary cliché) in a customs union were wrong; it seems I was right.

My great fear is that whatever we may agree in the short term while Mrs May is prime minister could be undone once she is replaced by someone more extremely anti-EU. We could be in for years of angry wrangling over our future relationship with people who should be our closest allies and friends. If I were Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer, I’d yield something quite significant (the second referendum) in return for getting something quite significant (the customs union) and then approach the EU about making this a legal treaty too, rather than just an aspiration. A treaty would be much harder to undo. But I know that’s wishful thinking, because the hard politics of the matter means that Mrs May is not going to do anything that threatens to split the Conservative party. At the moment, it’s hard to see any way out of the slough of despond and impotence which we have knowingly got ourselves into.

I wrote quite a lot last year about Montaigne. I just want to transfer into the diary a few last quotations I made then.

Page 590 of the Penguin edition: ‘Most of the world’s squabbles are occasioned by grammar!’ (I kept thinking about this when I was doing my talk for Exeter, which included a section on the grammar debate.)

Pages 637 and 638: ‘Even in the case of my own writings I cannot always recover the flavour of my original meaning; I do not know what I wanted to say and burn my fingers making corrections and giving it some new meaning for want of recovering the original one — which was better. I go backwards and forwards: my judgement does not always march straight ahead, but floats and bobs about, velut minuta magno / Deprensa navis in mari vesaniente vento. [Like a tiny boat buffeted on the ocean by a raging tempest.]’ (A lovely admission by a great writer about the difficulty of really saying what you want to say.)

Page 709: ‘Nihil tam inaestimabile est quam animi multitudinis. [Nothing is less worth esteeming than the mind of the many.]’ (This is a piece of elitism to which I find myself more and more attracted as Brexit drags on. A burgher of Watford was on the radio at lunchtime saying that what our country needs now is ‘my old mate Boris’. Winston Churchill, that great believer in the European project, was right when he said that parliamentary democracy is the worst possible way of organising societies apart from all the others.)

Page 715: ‘…there is no polity which has not brought in some vain ceremonial honours, or some untruths, to serve as a bridle to keep the people to their duties; that is why most of them have fables about their origins and have beginnings embroidered with supernatural mysteries.’ (Absolutely right, although I would include Christianity in that charge, and of course the great humanist Montaigne was a pious Catholic.)

Page 722: ‘Nothing of mine [he means of his writings] satisfies my judgement. My insight is clear and balanced but when I put it to work it becomes confused: I have most clearly assayed that in the case of poetry. I have a boundless love for it; I know my way well through other men’s works; but when I set my own hand to it I am truly like a child: I find myself unbearable. You may play the fool anywhere else but not in poetry: Mediocribus esse poetis / Non dii, non homines, non concessere columnae. [Poets are never allowed to be mediocre by the gods, by men or by publishers.] Would to God that the following saying was written up above our printers’ workshops to forbid so many versifiers from getting in: verum / Nil securius est malo Poeta. [truly nothing is more self-assured than a bad poet.]’ (Amen, except that it’s not true that publishers don’t allow mediocre poets to get printed, and I don’t quite understand the distinction by which publishers apparently forbad mediocre poetry but printers allowed it, at a time when — I suppose — there was less difference between the two than there is today.)

A few weeks ago, we had lunch with Martyn Coles and Pamela Dix and our old friend Peter Howell and his partner Edward. Peter is a classicist and an expert on Martial. He kindly sent me his book about the poet’s life and work. Martial wrote hundreds of epigrams, gathered into fourteen books: satirical, sardonic, saucy or obscene. Epigram was the only form he used. I bought the complete works in the Loeb edition, and read them all. In the end, I can’t truly love these neat, pert little squibs, but I’ve just done loose translations of a dozen, and sent them to Peter in the hope that they aren’t too loose. Here they are.


You think Acerra stinks of wine from last night’s cup.
You’re wrong. He always drinks until the sun is up.


Alone, Gellia doesn’t mourn her father, who has passed away,
but turns the waterworks on full in company.
Gellia, seeking praise in mourning shows your tears are for display;
he truly grieves who grieves when no one’s there to see.


Celer, you ask me please to read my poems out.
I won’t. You never listen; only want to spout.


You’re pretty, young and rich, Fabulla. Everyone agrees.
But when you praise yourself too highly, you are none of these.


Sextus, you have no debts; no, none at all, we’re bound to say.
To be a debtor, one must have the wherewithal to pay.


Postumus, some you kiss, to others give your hand. You ask,
‘Which greeting would you like, my friend? You choose.’
So here’s my choice: to shake your hand’s the less unpleasant task.


Each time I praise your face, admire your legs and hands, you say,
‘You’d like me even better naked.’ Galla, you’re a tease.
Why won’t you take a bath with me today (or any day)?
I know: you doubt, with nothing on, I’d be a sight to please.


That publican who lately served me at Ravenna is a cheat.
I asked for wine and water; craftily, he sold the rot-gut neat.


You chase me, I flee; you flee, I chase you.
What you want, I don’t; what you don’t, I do.
We just can’t agree. It’s like that with me.


Galla, you ask, persistently, ‘Why can’t we two be wed?’
Your speech is too refined. My cock talks Cockney when in bed.


You’re difficult and easy. To my taste you’re sweet and sour.
I couldn’t live with you a day, nor lose you for an hour.


In order not to praise those that he should,
our Callistratus praises all. How kind!
But here’s the rub: if, no one, to his mind,
is ever bad, can anyone be good?


21 Apr 2019

Easter Sunday, and a day which should be one of joy is clouded by a dreadful series of events in Sri Lanka. More than 200 people have been killed and many hundreds more injured by bombs exploding in churches while worshippers were celebrating Easter, and in expensive hotels. It’s a clear attack on the Christian minority in the country, and on foreign visitors. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the atrocity, nor has the government named any suspects. The Tamil separatists were defeated in 2009, after a civil war in which between 70,000 and 80,000 people were killed. Inevitably, thoughts turn towards Islamist extremists. The BBC’s coverage says: ‘The nation has seen some sporadic violence since [the end of the war]. In March 2018 a state of emergency was declared after members of the majority Buddhist Sinhala community attacked mosques and Muslim-owned properties.’

My niece Tess has been with us for eight days, studying for exams at Aix University next week. She had decided, rightly I think, that Kerfontaine offers fewer distractions than Marseille. But we took her out on her 20th birthday on Monday, and again for crêpes (her favourite) on Wednesday. I had picked her up from Nantes airport a week ago yesterday and took her back there this morning.

We’ve had several days of the most glorious weather: between warm and hot, but with a refreshing breeze. Yesterday afternoon, giving Tess a break from the six or seven hours’ study she’s done every day, we drove up to Guémené-sur-Scorff so she could buy the andouille which her father loves. The countryside ‘[wore] her confirmation dress’ (Heaney). I’ve never seen it so lovely.

One morning this week, as Helen and I sat outside with coffee, the birds were singing at the tops of their voices. Lots of different calls, but I could only identify blackbird and chaffinch for certain. The chorus (not the right word — I mean the diversity of strings of notes, each ignoring the others) provoked a question which I’ve often wondered about, as — I’m sure — have countless others over millennia. It may be that ornithologists know the answer. Anyway, I did a little poem this afternoon, and sent it to Peter and Monica.

A Morning Full of Birdsong

For Peter and Monica, after the winter

A morning full of birdsong, and a nagging question:
does this music merely signal lust to breed,
alert the singer’s kind to local murderers,
or stake a claim to occupation of a space?
Or is it possible (allow a foolish thought)
that, descants on the young year’s gains of light and warmth,
these mingled notes are also carriers of joy?

Tonight we’re going to eat at L’Art Gourmand.

Camden Town

27 Apr 2019

We drove back to London on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Six days after the atrocities in Sri Lanka, the death toll has settled at a little more than 250, with hundreds more injured. There was a period when the estimate rose to more than 350, but it has since been reduced. The government is still hunting the perpetrators, and there have been further deaths as the police and the army have raided the premises of suspected terrorists. It emerges that the murders were indeed committed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan nationals, many of them from privileged, well-to-do backgrounds. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the outrage, and it does seem unlikely that such a sophisticated, co-ordinated, carefully timed set of murders could have been carried out by anything other than a large organisation with experience in planning terrorist acts. Of course the thought crosses the mind that these murders are a kind of grotesque revenge for the murders of Muslims in New Zealand in March. Two utterly opposed but strikingly similar mindsets, which see the world in simple binary terms: hatred of the other, and the idea that it is legitimate to kill in order to impose one’s own view of the world. I suppose the difference is that white supremacists are inspired by racism, without a religious element to their obsession, whereas Islamist fundamentalists draw their comfort from a perverted misinterpretation of their own religion: hence their willingness to slaughter other Muslims whom they consider apostates. There was a deeply depressing piece on the ten o’clock radio news last night about the continuing loss of life amongst the security services in Afghanistan. We hear of the peaks of atrocity, in Christchurch or Sri Lanka; meanwhile, the number of members of the Afghan security services who have been killed in the last four or five years (I think that was the period the piece mentioned) is between 40,000 and 50,000 — an average of 30 a day. 30 young men killed every day as the government struggles to combat the Taliban.

I’ve just finished Antony Beevor’s latest book, about the Arnhem offensive. It’s a detailed, heart-breaking account of the waste of life which occurs when a vain and stupid general, Montgomery, is allowed to have his own way. His insistence on trying to cross the Rhine delta in Holland, despite the obvious geographical disadvantages of doing so; his decision to use troops delivered by air, rather than relying on a slower build-up of infantry from the south; his failure to clear the estuary leading to the port of Antwerp before doing anything else: these were terrible, costly errors, and only brought about by his obsessive desire to be the first to cross the Rhine, and his refusal to accept the authority of an American. Eisenhower strikes me as a man weary of dealing with such a peacock, who should have been much firmer with his subordinate. If he’d simply said no to the mad scheme, thousands of innocent American, British, Canadian and Polish soldiers would not have died. Montgomery doesn’t come out well from any of Beevor’s books that I’ve read.

Scopello, province of Trapani, Sicily

5 Jun 2019

We’ve been in Sicily for a week now, with Glenda and Julian Walton and David James. David flew back to England last night. The four of us have another week here. David’s father died nine days ago. His body had been offered to science (and accepted by the University of Birmingham), so there were no funeral arrangements, and David’s mother insisted that he come with us, as previously arranged. It was the right thing.

We had three days in Palermo, then took a boat to the little island of Ustica for two days, then two more days back in Palermo. In Palermo we visited the places which I had read about, and then wrote about in my libretto: the palace of the Norman kings, with the Cappella Palatina, and George of Antioch’s little church, later called La Martorana. One day we took a taxi up to Monreale, and marvelled at the mosaics in William II’s cathedral. You could see how the vain grandson wanted to outdo the achievement of his grandfather. The mosaics in the cathedral, done about fifty years after those in the Cappella Palatina, often show exactly the same Bibilical scenes: the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, and many more. There is a huge Christ pantocrator dominating the central apse, very similar to that in Roger II’s cathedral at Cefalù.

Ustica is delightful. We walked around most of the island, along the southern coast on the first day and the northern on the second. The place has a grim history as a natural prison. In ancient times the Greeks left thousands of disobedient mercenaries there to starve to death, and more recently the fascists used it as a prison. Its most notable inmate was Antonio Gramsci. There didn’t seem to be any actual prison buildings; it was more a matter of house arrest. There is a plaque outside the house where Gramsci was confined. Now the island is a holiday place, especially in July and August, but it wasn’t crowded when we were there.

This village, Scopello, is across the Golfo di Castellamare from Palermo. It’s a bit of picture-postcard-ish, very pretty, and we’re in an excellent pensione where we ate simply and well last night. I’ve just driven the others down to a nearby beach. Glenda and Julian will be happy to spend the whole day under a sun umbrella; I think I might get a call from Helen after a couple of hours. Back in the room it’s quiet and the ideal place to write.

There’s little in the wider world to be cheerful about. The stupidest and most corrupt American president of my lifetime has this week been offered the United Kingdom’s red-carpet treatment in London. At this moment he’s present in Portsmouth at the 75th anniversary of the D-Day departures from the south coast of England. On Friday Theresa May will resign as leader of the Conservative Party, though she will stay on as Prime Minister until a new leader is chosen. That will take several weeks. At the moment, the self-interested, vain and untrustworthy Boris Johnson looks likely to win the contest. If he is one of the last two candidates — the others having been eliminated, at which point all members of the Conservative Party have a vote — he will certainly win, because he’s popular with the membership. The only positive thing to say about such an eventuality is that because Johnson is not an ideologically committed Brexiteer — that is, he only became a Brexiteer because he calculated that such a stance would speed his rise to the top — he might in the end perform some kind of fudge to do with our exit from the EU, relying on the honeymoon early period of his premiership, which would keep us closer to the EU than some of the purer Brexiteers would wish. But this is to clutch at straws. Nothing will happen before the end of July. Then there’s the parliamentary recess, then the conference season, and before we know it we’ll be up against the latest deadline agreed with the EU — 31 October — by which time we are supposed to have made up our minds about the manner of our leaving. When I come to continental Europe, it’s so plain to me that this is our home that the grief about the self-inflicted wound we have dealt ourselves is more painful. I don’t need to remind myself of the EU’s shortcomings, but I remain convinced that our role should have been to remain in the club and argue for reforms. It’s too late now.

The elections to the European parliament last month did not turn out so disastrously as I had feared. It’s true that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was the overwhelming winner in the UK, and that Marine Le Pen’s renamed Rassemblement National narrowly beat Macron’s party in France, and that Salvini’s La Lega won decisively in Italy. But the advance of far-right, nationalist, populist or racist parties was more mixed elsewhere, and the good news is that there were significant advances almost everywhere for centrist parties and for the Greens. This means that the two big centre-left and centre-right groupings, which have dominated the European parliament since its inception, will have to form an alliance with the liberals and the Greens in order to pass legislation (Macron’s La République en Marche has joined the centrist grouping in the parliament). That’s a good thing. Farage and his gang will make a nuisance of themselves there until we leave the EU.

Not many people get killed in Europe while we commit blunders. It’s a different matter elsewhere. The heroic uprising in Sudan which led to the overthrow of the dictator there is currently being crushed, with many deaths, by the same mobs of armed thugs who used to commit atrocities in the Darfur region of the country. At the UN, the effective dictatorships of Russia and China refuse to support any international condemnation of the brutality. The message to armed thugs in poorer countries in Africa and elsewhere is: carry on as you like, because Russia and China will give you cover at the UN; they’re not that worried about human rights themselves.


7 Jul 2019

We’ve been here for two and a half weeks now, after completing our fortnight in Sicily, returning to London for five days, then crossing to France and staying three nights at the Auberge du Terroir at Servon, so we could explore that area a little bit, as we had several times promised ourselves.

After Scopello we visited the wonderful ancient site of Segesta. I knew about it because Peter Hetherington, when he visited Sicily alone forty years ago, arrived there from Palermo on the train, walked up to the temple and the amphitheatre from the station, and was the only visitor. No gates, no information, no cars, no coaches. Just him and the wonders. On the evening after our visit, I rang him from our hotel in Erice to tell him what we had done, and later I wrote to him.

‘Segesta was indeed an unforgettable experience, even in the latter-day context of mass tourism.  We drove there by a small, bumpy road, passing the station — Segesta Stazione — where you alighted, Peter.  Now, visitors have to park at a place about a kilometre from the museo archaelogico, as they call it, and take a shuttle bus up to the site.  The bus drops you a short distance from the temple, and you pay six euros to enter.  But the temple is still breathtakingly beautiful in its silence and completeness.  It’s surrounded by a low wooden fence, so no one is climbing over it, but one can walk all around it, as you will have done.  The day was pleasantly cool and overcast.  After a good half an hour of marvelling, we made our way back to the road which leads up to the theatre, scorning yet another shuttle bus which takes lazier people the kilometre or so up the hill.  The effort was rewarded.  I didn’t know what to expect, but was entranced by suddenly coming to this perfect 4,000-seater stone auditorium with its immense view across the landscape down to the Golfo di Castellamare.  People just sat quietly on the seats and wondered.  I’ve been reading about the Elimi, the original inhabitants of Segesta (and also of Erice, where we now are).  Legend has it that they were fugitives from Troy after the war with the Greeks.  Indeed, I see from the internet that in book 5 of The Aeneid Aeneas comes to Eryx (Erice) on his way to Italy.  His mother being Venus, a cult in her honour was established in a building just up the road from our hotel.  We’re in a chastely austere former Carmelite convent, but the cult of Venus allowed — indeed commanded — less restrained behaviour.  Sacred prostitutes gave themselves ‘with lust and passion’ to passing sailors who had managed the 750-metre climb up from the plain.  It was the young women’s religious duty to do so: from the sailors’ point of view, this was an unusual example of the nice and the good being the same thing.

It’s historically certain, whatever doubts there may be about the identities of Aeneas’s mum and dad, that when Segesta and Erice fell under Roman rule after the final Punic war — ‘Delenda est Carthago’ I remember Ken using as an example of the gerund, never forgotten it, please tell him — they had especially favourable treatment from Rome — no taxes and a large measure of self-government — because of the assumed (or invented) common Trojan ancestry.

Erice is swarming with tourists in the daytime, but the coaches go away about five o’clock, and it is the most spectacular hilltop mediaeval town.  The view down to Trapani and Marsala and across to the Egadi islands is awesome (overused word; when I was in San Francisco everything was awesome, even the waiter’s response to my ordering coffee and orange juice in the morning), but this was.’

The reference to Ken is to Ken Pearce, who taught me Latin at O-level at Bedford Modern School.

We stayed in Erice for five nights. One day we visited Trapani, in great heat, and lunched very well in the shade of a back street, and then Marsala, where I drank a glass of the famous wine in the cathedral square. On another day we just drove around the interior of the west of the island, stopping at Salemi, one of the towns wrecked by the 1968 earthquake, and now rebuilt. It’s definitely not on the tourist circuit. We walked up to the piazza at the top of the town, where there was one bar which served us a good plate of pasta. The earthquake had destroyed the main church; it was impressive to see how the authorities had secured the standing remains of the apse and left them open to the sky. The Norman castle had apparently not shifted. It was closed. I walked all around it. An information plaque told me that Salemi is mentioned in al-Idrisi’s book.

We flew back to Liverpool, where it was pouring with rain, stayed one night with Glenda and Julian in Shrewsbury, then drove to London. A lot of unpacking and repacking and organisation. My birthday on the Sunday was quieter than usual, because Helen was going to treat me to the three nights at Servon, starting the next day.

We drove there on 17 June. The day after that we went to Avranches, where the highlight was a visit to the Scriptorial, the museum in the town where the manuscripts made or acquired by the monks of Mont Saint Michel are kept.  They’ve been there since the leaders of the French revolution removed them from the Mont and deposited them in the town as items of purely sociological, pre-Enlightenment public interest.  It’s a most impressive place, with a depth of information quite exceptional for a provincial museum.  I learnt, for instance, that Henri II Plantagenet, he who had Thomas Becket killed, performed his act of public penance, as required by the pope before he could be absolved of his sin, at Avranches. I understood for the first time how the Plantagenets came to be ruling England: they were counts of Anjou, one of whom married Matilde, William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, because her father, the last of William’s sons alive, had no male heir, and thus they got their hands on vast tracts of England and France.  I discovered that there was a close connection between the worship of Saint Michael here and his adoration on Monte Gargano in Puglia.  I already knew that one of the possible reasons for the Norman invasion of southern Italy and eventually Sicily was that some of the knights wanted to visit Monte Gargano on their way back from a crusade, but now I realised why they were so interested: the archangel had been adored on their own home patch since early in the eighth century. Bishop Aubert of Avranches was asleep one night in 708 when Michael came to him and told him to create a sanctuary in his name on the islet then known as Tombe.  The next morning, the bishop woke up and decided that his dream had no significance. That night, Michael, somewhat irritated, visited again and asked the bishop why he hadn’t already started work.  The following morning the bishop again decided that the dream meant nothing, and that in any case he was unworthy of such a great undertaking. The third night Michael, now thoroughly angry, came back and dragged his finger across the bishop’s skull, leaving a permanent mark, while repeating his instruction.  When the bishop woke up and felt his head, he knew that the visit had been real and that he’d better get on with the job.  Hence Mont Saint Michel.  One can see the bishop’s skull in one of the churches in Avranches, complete with Michael’s mark.  (We didn’t.) 

There was very interesting information about the making of parchment and the various inks and tints used in the writing and illumination.  All in all, it was one of those experiences where you realise how interconnected things are: in 1969, I played Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, directed by Peter Hetherington, who later visited Italy and Sicily; Henry II did penance at Avranches; I’ve written a (probably never to be performed) libretto about how the son of a Norman knight became ruler of Sicily; Saint Michael is one of the links between Normandy and southern Italy; I admire Seamus Heaney’s poems about the labours of mediaeval scribes.  Funnily enough, the last time I took communion, before giving up the practice as being hypocritical, was with my friend Peter Adams, who was chaplain at Trinity when I was there, and who stayed with us at Kerfontaine a few years ago.  He very much wanted to see Mont Saint Michel, so we went there on a Sunday before I took him to the airport at Dinard.  We walked to the top, where high mass was in progress in the abbey, and it was Michaelmas Sunday.

The next day Helen and I went to Granville, a few kilometres up the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula.  It’s an important port, with a noble granite high town and nice little art gallery where there was an exhibition of Corbet’s seascapes.  And the day after that we arrived here and ate a simple omelette for dinner, after three nights of our host Thierry Lefort’s unapologetically Norman cuisine.

I’ve just finished Antony Beevor’s book about D-Day and the battle for Normandy. I mentioned the other day that this year is the 75th anniversary of the débarquement, as the French call it. (They don’t call it an invasion; it was the Germans who invaded.) As always with Beevor’s books, the story is one of heart-breaking destruction and mass killing, with acts of barbarism interspersed with gestures of chivalry and kindness. I hadn’t previously appreciated the rather obvious fact that Normandy suffered terribly so that much of the rest of France could be spared the same degree of destruction as the Allies moved east. Once again, Montgomery comes out badly — vain, inflexible, unable to admit that anything he had done was mistaken — and Eisenhower comes out well: a diplomat holding together a set of ferocious egos, and somehow keeping them pointing in the same direction. Once again, I find myself enraged by de Gaulle’s hauteur, his refusal to acknowledge that the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, Canadians and Poles, were the real saviours of France. Leclerc’s French soldiers liberated Paris only because the Americans enabled them to do so. There were real heroes in the French resistance, disrupting German supply lines, blowing up bridges, cutting telephone wires. Once Paris was liberated, de Gaulle did everything he could to see that the communists in the resistance were excluded from the governance of post-war France. One could say that the French Communist Party’s rigid adherence to the party line from Moscow hadn’t helped them; they had been in favour of the Nazi-Soviet pact until the Germans invaded Russia and the line abruptly changed. And there were communists in France at the end of the war who didn’t realise that the last thing Stalin wanted at that time was a revolution there: he wanted American aid to the continent.

We are basking in the most lyrically lovely summer weather: hot but not too hot, with a refreshing breeze.  Soon after we arrived, we did have two or three days of suffocating heat, with humidity reminding me of my trips to Bangkok.  The humidity combined with the fact that it had previously rained solidly for almost a month meant that damp patches appeared all over the house, and the bathrooms streamed with water.  We were a bit worried until we heard that everyone else was suffering in the same way.  Now dry heat has returned.

I spent a few days getting the garden under control, in the face of the rife profusion occasioned by so much rain.  Now it’s done, apart from the enormous oak tree which blew down last winter, and which Jean-Paul, our gardener, and a few of his mates are slowly chopping up.  The crown of this tragic giant resists even the largest chain saws.  On Wednesday Jean-Paul and his wife Christine took us out to a little restaurant in Lorient, not previously known to us, run by a woman who had been a school friend of one of their daughters.  A lovely meal, taken in the restaurant’s sweet little back garden.  We heard elegant singing from somewhere nearby, and asked what it was.  It was the students of the local lycée, who had just finished their bac, and who were having a sing-song to celebrate.  I thought what a contradictory country this is: capable of smashing shops, burning cars and desecrating the Arc de Triomphe in the recent gilets jaunes protests, but also old-fashioned enough for 18-year-olds to want to join in a sing-song to celebrate the end of their schooling, and doing it with style.

Last night we went to the annual hunters’ fête in Cléguer. We are the very opposite of hunters ourselves, but good friends now with Jérôme Debon and his wife Aurélie, who live just up the hill at Collogodec. Jérôme is an enthusiastic hunter. Nothing we ate had been hunted, unless you count prawns: as last year, it was paella, Camembert and apple tart.

I’ve done some more translations: this time a dozen of Catullus’s poems. Number 101, very famous, is the moving tribute to the poet’s dead brother. I sent it to Paul, who showed it to Andrew Bethell, who’s just finished a book about his beloved and brilliant younger brother, who killed himself in 1980 at the age of 29 or 30, having damaged his brain with drugs. Andrew’s going to print the translation as the frontispiece to the book.


29 Jul 2019

The summer has continued ‘sublime’ (the word I used in the first line of my translation of Rilke’s ‘Herbsttag’ — ‘Dear Lord, the summer of your blessing was sublime’). But now it’s cooler, and it has even rained a little this morning. The garden looks good now. Jean-Paul, Alain and Nicolas have come on successive Saturdays and chopped up the remaining fallen wood, which we’ve shared between us. It’s been quiet all month: just Helen and me, apart from two nights when my friend Graham Caldbeck came to visit from Jersey. On Friday we begin a month of non-stop hospitality.

Graham had trouble finding the house, as many occasional visitors do. After driving round the commune for half an hour, he stopped at a house where two men were working, to ask if they’d heard of Kerfontaine. They were most helpful, and supplied him with an ancient map plus detailed instructions. But he had been astonished when, at the beginning of the conversation, they had asked him if he were a nudist. He didn’t know that there is a naturist campsite not far from us, and that lost people driving cars with foreign number plates in the summer are often presumed by the locals to be looking for a destination where they can take their clothes off.

Graham told me a good story told to him by Richard Chartres, who was then Bishop of London, and who had overlapped with Graham at Trinity. He must have left the year before I arrived. He attended a concert which Graham conducted. Afterwards they were reminiscing over drinks, and Graham said he remembered that Richard had lodged in Green Street Hostel. ‘Yes,’ said the bishop. ‘When I got there my bedder [one of the women who ‘did’ for the young men — made their bed, washed their crockery, cleaned their room] said this to me: “There’s some young gentlemen as likes to have young ladies staying with them overnight, and I don’t object to that. There’s some young gentlemen as likes to have young gentlemen staying with them overnight, and I don’t object to that. But what I can’t abide are vegetarians.”’ I suppose she must have objected to cleaning the pots and pans the vegetarians left after cooking their own dinner, rather than going to Hall to eat carnivorously like everyone else.

Politically, I’m in despair. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister last week, as widely predicted. He immediately chose a Cabinet stuffed almost entirely with hard-right, hard-line Brexiteers, including advocates of the death penalty and dreaming latter-day imperialists: a kind of fascism English-style. The government has adopted a gung-ho attitude to Brexit: we’re leaving on 31 October, come what may, with or without a deal with the EU. No deal is now the more likely eventuality, they say. This despite the warnings from every responsible economic or industrial body that we shall damage ourselves grievously if we leave without an accord. I fervently hope that the EU 27 stick to their oft-announced position, confounding the know-all opinions of Conservative commentators who say, ‘Ah well, Johnny foreigner always comes to the negotiating table at the last minute.’  There’s a part of me that would like to see Scotland become independent, and — but this would cause bloodshed — Ireland reunited, leaving a ‘United Kingdom of England and Wales’ to make its way in an unfriendly world.  I think Helen could apply for Cypriot citizenship if she wished to, thus remaining an EU citizen, and I could apply to be French.  Maybe we’ll do that. But of course the better part of me still hopes against hope that some kind of deal will be done, despite the government’s public position, because those who will be most hurt by our leaving with no deal will be those who can least easily sustain that hurt.

The trouble is that the Labour leadership is quite inadequate in response, and I predict that Johnson the showman will wipe the floor with Corbyn, who can really only read off the card what an adviser has written for him.  I heard on the radio the other day that someone had suggested a government of national unity under Keir Starmer, which would be wonderful but is, I think, a pipe dream. More realistically, so I read yesterday, Keir is talking to Philip Hammond and other sensible Tories about ways of preventing no deal when Parliament resumes in September.

When I think back to the stupidity of electing Ed Miliband instead of his brother in 2010…  David Miliband as leader would have won the 2015 general election, and we wouldn’t be in this dreadful mess.  It was the unions who tipped it for Ed, thinking him more left-wing than his brother.  Ed then changed the voting system, doing the unions no favours at all, but bringing about a situation where, if enough left-wing MPs continue to nominate a left-wing candidate as they did Jeremy Corbyn, the many enthusiastic socialist dreamers in the party’s membership will continue to elect far-left Labour leaders who will fail to gain power. Maybe the MPs won’t sentimentally nominate a left-wing candidate, just for the look of the thing, next time there is a leadership contest. It’s true, I admit, that Labour did far better under Corbyn than expected in 2017. But that was because the electorate hates being lied to, as Theresa May did by repeatedly saying that she wouldn’t hold an early election and then doing exactly that, and because the Conservative campaign was so awful. Neither of those factors is likely to be in play next time. Regardless of who is the Labour leader, we are now in a situation where Labour and the Liberals really need to agree a pact at the next general election, each standing aside in the constituencies where the other is stronger. The crisis is that urgent.

Meanwhile, all over the world, bad, stupid people are in control: USA, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, China, Egypt, Syria and most of the other Arab states… There’s a frightening stand-off between Iran and the West at the moment, with increasingly belligerent words on both sides. The root cause of the increased hostility is Trump’s withdrawal from the historic agreement achieved by the Obama administration. But it’s true that Iran unconditionally supports the monster Assad in Syria, and so it was right that the UK intercepted an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar, which was on its way to supply Assad’s armed forces, since EU sanctions forbid support for the Syrian regime. Inevitably, Iran denies that the oil was bound for Syria, and almost inevitably it then intercepts a UK-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf.

China is trying to crush democratic dissent in Hong Kong; it’s imprisoning large sections of the Muslim population in the west of the country. Russia imprisons people demonstrating for the right of opposition candidates to stand in elections in September. Thousands of political prisoners languish in Egyptian and Syrian jails. The Brazilian president makes openly homophobic and misogynistic remarks, and is unconcerned about the destruction of the country’s rain forest. Yesterday there was another shooting of innocent people at a festival in America. The BBC’s website says: ‘Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as a gun attack in which at least four people are either killed or wounded. In total, it estimates that 8,434 people have died as a result of gun violence in the US in 2019 so far.’ More than 8,000 people killed by guns in seven months. And absolutely no chance that the US is going to do anything about its gun laws.

I’m not sure that democratic legitimacy, the right to dissent, the values of an open society and the use of respectful political discourse have ever been so much under threat in my lifetime. To lie, to imprison, to murder: that seems to be becoming a normal method of governance in many countries. And the standard mode of discourse is the tweet: the glib shorthand of the ignorant and the wicked.

Barraud, Nabinaud

5 Sep 2019

Throughout August, as I predicted in my last, Helen and I supplied non-stop hospitality to a succession of friends and family. Very enjoyable, and a bit exhausting. We’ve agreed that we won’t let that happen again. Two weeks out of the four at most will be given over to shopping, cooking, bed-making and sheet-changing, and entertaining visitors in other ways. Of course we love all the people who came.

Now we’re here in the house which used to be Stephen’s and Theresa’s, and now is principally Theresa’s, although Stephen’s children have minority stakes in it. It’s four years since we were last here; three years and three months since Stephen died. We drove down to Angoulême on Tuesday, expecting to meet Theresa at the station and bring her here, but when we arrived there she rang to say she’d missed the train at Montparnasse and was still in Paris. Fortunately, her son Paul and his partner Phil were still at the house, so we came on and then Paul went to the station to fetch his mother that evening. The result was that five of us had a jolly and delicious dinner which Paul and Phil cooked. They left yesterday morning, so now it’s the three of us.

This morning we went into Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, still a beautiful village, though overrun with people like us: English spoken everywhere. It’s one of my peculiarities, perhaps snobberies, that I don’t like to rub shoulders with too many of my compatriots when I’m abroad. Tonight we’re going to a good restaurant at Chalais, where Stephen and Theresa took Helen and me on my birthday a few years ago. I hope that there may be fewer English there than in Aubeterre. The countryside has all the charm for which I’ve loved it since we first started coming here when Stephen and Theresa bought the house: gently rolling hills, a mixture of sunflowers, maize, vines, walnut and fruit orchards, ancient blonde farm buildings with red tiled roofs. We’re here until next Tuesday, then we take Theresa back to Angoulême, spend a couple of nights in a hotel, possibly at Agen, and then meet David and Heather Loxton at Toulouse airport. We were with them for a few days in July of last year, in a beautiful house near Gaillac belonging to a friend of David’s. This year we’re going to spend a fortnight with them, including, I think, a trip down to Pyrenees. David has lung cancer, which he is resisting well with the help of immunotherapy. I’ll do the driving. Then back to Kerfontaine near the end of the month.

We’re living through extraordinary times politically in the UK. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister first said that he wouldn’t prorogue Parliament in order to frustrate the efforts of those who wish to avoid the UK leaving the EU with no deal. He then did exactly that. Sometime next week, Parliament will rise, and not return until 14 October. Johnson and his ministers say, with straight faces, that this is a perfectly normal procedure, that the current parliamentary session has been very long (it has), and that the country needs a new legislative programme. Everyone knows that proroguing Parliament in order to begin a new session needs a few days at most, not five weeks, and that this is a nakedly politically manoeuvre. In response, the opposition, with the support of more than twenty Tories utterly in despair at the direction their party has taken, has successfully pushed through a measure forcing the Prime Minister to ask the EU for a further delay to our exit until 31 January 2020 if he hasn’t got a deal with the EU by 19 October. The measure has to pass the House of Lords, but after some late-night filibustering yesterday evening, the government yielded and said it wouldn’t frustrate the bill by attempting to talk it out. So I think it will go through. In response to that, Johnson has tried to provoke a general election. His problem is that, under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, an early general election can only occur if at least two thirds of MPs agree to it (as happened in 2017), or if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons, and can’t regain the confidence of the Commons within a fortnight. So there was a debate and a vote last night, after the opposition’s measure was successful, which failed because only 298 people voted for an early general election, and more than 400 would have been needed.

Somehow, and I don’t understand this, Johnson says that next week he’s going to have another go at bringing about an early election. I can’t see how the result would be any different, unless the opposition changes its position or unless the Fixed-term Parliaments Act itself were to be rescinded, which could be done with a simple majority. But Johnson now doesn’t have a simple majority. He had a majority of one (with the DUP supporting him) when he became PM. He lost that when one of his MPs went to the Liberals. Now, and this is the most extraordinary thing, he has expelled those Tory MPs who voted with the opposition to prevent a no-deal Brexit. So, although of course many of them might well vote with the government on all sorts of non-Brexit matters, in strict arithmetical terms his government has a minority, not a majority, of more than forty. And some of the people who are no longer officially Conservatives are among the most senior former members of the party: Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Alastair Burt, Nicholas Soames. Johnson has expelled these people when he himself, and all those others who frustrated Theresa May’s effort to get the Withdrawal Agreement passed, regularly voted against their own government and got away with it. (Johnson himself voted for the Agreement on the third occasion, having done everything he could to damage and defeat it earlier.)

It’s a preposterous situation, which really does bring closer the likelihood of a significant realignment of politics in the UK. As I’ve written before, I would be delighted if Labour, the Liberals, the Greens and whoever else wished to join could form a coalition government to get us out of this mess. And I think that the opposition was right to refuse to agree to an early general election now. It was a trap which Johnson set. Yes, Labour has been clamouring for a general election for most of the time since the last one. Yes, Johnson will go around now saying that Labour is frightened. But he is so patently untrustworthy that, had the opposition agreed to a general election, he could easily have changed the proposed date from mid-October until early November, thus more or less guaranteeing that the UK would leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal.

The Europeans are looking at all this with astonishment. It’s as if your most sensible, most prudish maiden aunt suddenly began shouting dirty words and showing her bottom at the dinner table. The British were supposed to be the pragmatists, the moderates, in the face of the wilder idealisms of their Continental friends.


18 Sep 2019

In the end, we didn’t go on down to the Tarn. Heather Loxton texted to say that David was too ill to travel. His most recent session of immunotherapy had so exhausted him that he was in hospital and being given enormous quantities of steroids. I’m glad to say that he’s back home now, and that the steroid doses are much smaller, but he needs to stay close to the hospital for weekly visits.

Our week with Theresa at Barraud was an emotional experience, because until 2015 that visit was always part of our year.  I used to take my overalls and gardening gloves, because Stephen needed a hand keeping encroaching nature at bay.  Since he died, various improvements have been done to the house, so now it’s a good deal more comfortable than it was.  It really was a metaphor for Stephen’s character: noble, romantic, but without some of the banal modern conveniences which the rest of us have come to rely on.  Now we go to sleep in a bedroom without fearing that a large insect might fall into our mouths if we open them to snore. There’s a shower room that you actually want to go into. There’s more light in various rooms, Velux windows having been installed.

Instead of the Tarn, we contented ourselves with two nights in Agen, staying in that eccentric hotel we love, whose plumbing is antique but whose breakfasts, including the famous Agen prunes, are delicious.  There’s no restaurant in the hotel, but there are two excellent ones nearby, where they know us.  We explored the town on the intervening day. There’s a very good museum, whose most famous possession is an exquisite Venus (she lacks head and arms, but she’s still gorgeous) from the first century BCE, discovered nearby in 1877. The Garonne skirts the town, and the Pont-Canal, the bridge over the river carrying the canal linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is a noble and beautiful example of nineteenth-century engineering.  

Then back here last Friday.  Driving home from shopping this morning, I noticed a field full of cattle egrets: beautiful white birds which the cows not only tolerate but welcome, because they eat the insects which otherwise torment them.

It’s a bit late for me to be writing about this summer’s cricket, but I will just say that the final of the World Cup was one of the most extraordinary and exciting matches I’ve ever listened to. The 50 overs for each side, England and New Zealand, ended in a tie; then there was one ‘super over’ for each side, which also ended in a tie; so England won the World Cup on the basis that they’d scored more boundaries during their innings. I sat outside the house with Radio 4 from beginning to end.  Helen brought me an aperitif at about seven, and at about nine French time said rather plaintively, ‘Couldn’t we eat now?’  I had no idea it was so late.  The English commentators and summarisers, with the honourable exception of Simon Mann, who is easily the best English commentator, abandoned any attempt at impartiality.  The usually entertaining Philip Tufnell kept forgetting that ‘we’ were playing New Zealand, not Australia, as if the match were merely a warm-up for the Ashes.  In contrast, the NZ summariser Jeremy Coney and commentator Brian Waddell maintained admirable objectivity to the end.  Coney did say that he thought the trophy should have been shared, and I agree with that.  Alec Stewart gruffly remarked that you can’t share a trophy, and the thought occurred to me that if you can share a Nobel Prize, as is regularly done, surely you can very occasionally share a sporting cup.

Then there were five Test matches against Australia. England lost the first one spectacularly, partly because Anderson played and then had to withdraw after bowling four overs. He shouldn’t have started; the young Archer should. The other reason was that in Steve Smith the Australians have one of those batsmen who come along only very rarely: not as elegant as Vivian Richards or Sachin Tendulkar, in fact not elegant at all, but astonishingly good at scoring enormous numbers of runs, and almost impossible to get out. In the second Test, young Archer was unleashed. He’s the first genuinely fast bowler — not fast-medium, genuinely fast — that England have had for many years. There was a gladiatorial contest between him and Smith, during which he struck Smith and concussed him. Smith couldn’t bat in the second innings. The match was drawn.

In the third Test, in which Smith couldn’t play, still being concussed, England produced, in their first innings, one of the most deplorable batting displays I can remember. They were dismissed for 67 by some wonderful bowling, but also by some appalling batting. All hope of England regaining the Ashes was given up. Australia batted well enough, and England had to make 359 in the fourth innings to win. Ben Stokes then played the most extraordinary innings that I have ever seen or heard played by an Englishman (he was born in New Zealand): boundaries to all parts of the ground, including an unbelievable six from a reverse sweep. Towards the end, there was only one wicket left, and the heroic Jack Leach, number 11, saw it through with Stokes. So the Ashes were still alive. England lost the fourth Test, so Australia, with Smith back in the side, retained the Ashes. England won the fifth and final match; the series was drawn. Australia deserved to retain the Ashes, because their bowlers were almost always brilliant. England’s bowlers were usually excellent, but there were some crucial periods when they weren’t. Neither side was reliable with the bat, apart from some individual performances approaching genius. Yes, we had Stokes; but they had Smith. It has been a great summer of cricket.

I’ve just finished reading Les Misérables (in a brilliant English translation by Julie Rose).  1200 pages.  What a whopper! What an extraordinary achievement, rising above most modern fiction like a great oak above scrub.  Hugo allows himself numerous lengthy digressions from the plot.  The one I enjoyed the most was that to do with the Paris sewer system, which comes before Jean Valjean’s heroic journey through the sewers, with Marius on his back.  It made me proud that, in my minuscule way, I’d also written imaginatively about the sewer system of a great city.  A cat may look at a king.  Of course the plot relies on a whole succession of impossible coincidences, but then so does Dickens and so does Hardy.  As with Dickens and also Dostoevsky (but not Hardy), a certain sentimental Christianity, or at least deism, hangs over the nobility of the author’s social and political rage.

Brexit update: Parliament was prorogued, and now the UK Supreme Court is hearing two appeals, one against a ruling in a lower English court that proroguing, whatever Johnson’s motives, is no business of the law; and one — an appeal by the government, this — against a ruling by the highest Scottish court that Johnson’s action in proroguing was illegal. We’ll get the Supreme Court’s judgment on Friday or early next week. Some people are saying that it’s the most important constitutional decision since 1689.  Maybe, but I remind myself that, so far, only one person has been killed because of this disaster: poor Jo Cox.  Much worse things happen around the world all the time: 24 people were killed in Afghanistan yesterday while waiting to vote.

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg was brilliant yesterday, having just met Boris Johnson, in his analysis of the mess we’ve got ourselves into.  And Alan Johnson on The World at One today said exactly what I wrote here in November last year: Labour should, with regret, have voted with the government to agree the 585-page withdrawal agreement, which only zealots on the far right of the Tory party and the DUP objected to, and then by all means be as trenchant as possible in insisting that a customs union with some agreed access to the single market be accompanied by guarantees on workers’ rights, environmental protections and standards for consumers.  We haven’t even got to the point of agreeing how to leave, let alone discussing what our future relationship will be.

The harvest of poetry recently is meagre: little pieces, nice enough in themselves, but nothing to make me really proud. I’ve gone back to Petrarch for translations: so far I’ve done three of the sonnets he wrote after Laura died (the translations in Bring Me the Sunflower end with the poem announcing her death for the first time). I’ll do a few more. I read the one I did yesterday to Helen. She admired it and said, ‘You’re always saying that you don’t do as many poems as you’d like to, because you don’t get good ideas often enough.  That didn’t bother Petrarch.  He just wrote about the same thing over and over again.’


25 Sep 2019

Yesterday the Supreme Court delivered its ruling on Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. And it was a historic decision. Lady Hale, the President, in the plainest possible terms, and representing the unanimous decision of all eleven judges, said that the Court does have the right to intervene on matters of this kind, and that the decision to prorogue was illegal. The judgment has an implication beyond the immediate context.  The Court insisted that it will intervene, and that it has a right to intervene, when it is convinced that one branch of the constitution — in this case, the executive — is acting to suppress or prevent another branch of the constitution — Parliament — from fulfilling its proper responsibilities.  Although Lady Hale used moderate language, it is clear that the judges were convinced that the exceptionally long prorogation was a device, a wheeze, to try to get us to 31 October and exit from the EU without further complications.  It’s extraordinary that Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Gove are saying simply that they ‘disagree’ with the verdict, as if they’re having a chat in a pub and that they disagree with what someone else is saying.  Of course we all have a right to disagree, but in this case the law trumps agreement or disagreement.  I don’t know what means opposition politicians have at their disposal to punish Johnson for breaking the law.  His offence was civil, not criminal, but unless he resigns, which I don’t think he will, I think their only option would be to go for some kind of impeachment. This would take time, and there isn’t much of it at the moment.  Johnson said in New York yesterday that the UK would be leaving the EU on 31 October.  He wasn’t necessarily right about that.  There is a law on the statute book, sponsored by Hilary Benn, which says that, unless we have a deal with the EU by 19 October, or unless Parliament votes for a no-deal exit (which it won’t), Johnson must ask the EU for an extension of our membership until 31 January next year.  I don’t see how he can get round that law.

Anyway, yesterday was a great moment, and it was impressive to see such complex matters explained so clearly. I’ve just written a little squib in celebration.

24 September 2019

In plain terms, Lady Hale pronounced the judgment of the Court,
which named for what it was a plot, a liar’s cunning wheeze,
a ‘practice to deceive’. Perhaps — but privately — she thought
that ‘scurvy politicians’ don’t come scurvier than these.


29 Sep 2019

It’s been raining all week. I don’t mind; the land needed it after a dry summer, although the Morbihan hasn’t suffered from drought in the way that much of the rest of France has.

The extraordinary political struggle over Brexit continues. Parliament resumed last Wednesday, by permission of the Supreme Court. By one of those judicial fiats which replace reality, the Court said that the prorogation simply hadn’t happened; the weeks during which Parliament hadn’t sat had the status only of a long moment of silence. On Wednesday, there were some of the most bitter, angry exchanges in the House of Commons that I can remember. I think most of the anger on the opposition side was generated by Johnson’s and his allies’ blithe refusal to recognise that they had done anything untoward, let alone illegal. Some women MPs accused the Prime Minister of using violent language — calling the Benn Act, which I mentioned in the last entry, a ‘surrender act’ — which had encouraged threats of physical violence to them on social media. Johnson casually dismissed one such intervention by answering, ‘I’ve never heard so much humbug in my life.’ It’s the posh-boy sneer, the hubris, which maddens all his opponents and which troubles quite a few on his own side. So it wasn’t surprising that Parliament voted down a motion to suspend sittings for the first three days of next week so that the Tories could hold their conference in Manchester. The conference will go ahead anyway, but it’s possible that Parliament might bring forward a vote of no confidence in the government at some point during those three days, and that some Conservatives might still be in Manchester, or on the train back, when the House divides.

The problem with the no-confidence vote is Corbyn himself; not enough people who genuinely want to see the back of Johnson’s government are sanguine about Corbyn leading an alternative government, even for a short time. It’s true that as the leader of the second largest party in the House, he has the obvious right to try to form an alternative government; but I have trouble believing that enough of the expelled former Tories would support the no-confidence vote, or even abstain, if that were to bring about a Corbyn-led administration. If a more consensually supported person like Kenneth Clarke were to offer himself, and if Labour were to agree to his becoming a short-term Prime Minister for the sole purpose of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through and then negotiating a customs union with the EU, I think that a no-confidence vote would pass. But I can’t see Corbyn agreeing to that; imagine the rage directed at him from his own inner circle and from the zealots in Momentum. So I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I suspect that most of the key actors in the drama don’t either. It could even be that Tories stuck on the train from Manchester might make the difference between success and failure for the vote.

I’ve just read Darwin’s Armada, a very good book describing the travels of Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Wallace, the way that their discoveries led to the development and publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory, and the battle to get it accepted from 1859 onwards. I knew quite a lot about this from Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin, but I didn’t know any detail about the travels of the three younger men, and in particular about Wallace’s achievement. His journeys to Brazil and then to the East Indies involved a degree of physical hardship — often life-threatening — far beyond the relative (only relative) comfort of the other three on ships of the Royal Navy. And it was interesting to read about his lurch into spiritualism, and his attempt, late in the day, to suggest that human consciousness had come about as a result of the intervention of a higher power, or ‘Intelligence’: a proposal which dismayed Darwin and the others. I wonder whether Wallace’s error was caused by an early concern about what later came to be called ‘social Darwinism’: the carrying-across of the principle of the survival of the fittest from the world of animals and plants to that of humans. There have been plenty of eugenicists and other racists prepared to adopt Darwin’s theory for evil ends. And the book does refer to a paper which Wallace wrote in 1864 called ‘The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man, Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection’, of which Darwin and the others approved, which proposes that, in the case of humans, natural selection has shifted, because of the development of consciousness, from a process supporting the fight for survival to ‘the sphere of morals, where progressive improvements could continue indefinitely’.

Wallace, so far as I can see from the book, was the one of the four, because of his much more extensive contact with indigenous people than that of the others, who was the least affected by conventional nineteenth-century assumptions about the superiority of white, European civilisation to the cultures of other peoples. Not that the others were racists; they abhorred slavery and fought hard against brutal notions, such as that encouraged by the Anthropological Society, founded in 1863, which tried to insist that white people were civilised, black people primitive, and that the two should never mix. It’s easy to see how such prejudices were both a cause and an effect of imperialism.

I think I’ve written before that I long ago came to the conclusion that the reason for one of the persistent products of consciousness — the existence in human societies of religious faith — is that, once our species came to have consciousness, a state which — so far as we know — no other living species has achieved, the realisation that we are born, we live a little while, we die, and that is that, so horrified our ancestors that they invented stories to console them by delusion. Hence religions. As to whether, on balance, religious faith has done more harm than good in the world, or more good than harm, I don’t know, but my suspicion tends towards the former.

Camden Town

6 Oct 2019

I’ve popped back to London to attend the wedding of my goddaughter Clare Harrisson. It was a lovely affair yesterday, held at the Stanley Halls in South Norwood. Plenty to eat and drink, of very good quality; touching and not-over-length speeches; dancing. Clare is the daughter of Mike and Judith Harrisson. Mike was killed in a motor accident in Barcelona in 2003. As I’m sure I wrote then, we went straight up to Huddersfield, where the family was then living, when we heard the dreadful news. Clare was doing her A-levels at the time. She passed them with distinction, despite her bereavement, and went to Trinity College, Cambridge to study history. Mike would have been very proud of her. I expect I wrote about her graduation ceremony too.

There were several of her university friends there yesterday, including a woman sitting next to me. I was amused when she told me that in her last year she occupied a room in Great Court — P7 — right opposite the one I had occupied — P6 — several decades previously. She didn’t know that the bathroom between the two rooms, which she used, was only there because the Prince of Wales had occupied a room on the floor below — P3 or P4 — in his last year, two years before mine. There was a lot of stuff in the press at the time about how he was being treated just like any other student. Not true, of course. For one thing, he wouldn’t have been at Cambridge at all, with his two unimpressive A-levels, if Charles Mountbatten-Windsor had been a private citizen. And at the time (late 1960s), there were no en-suite bathrooms for the students at Trinity. They had to wander across the court in their dressing gowns to the communal bathing places. No such indignity for Charles, at least in his last year (I’m not sure what happened in his first two); and I inherited his privilege two years later. No one else on the staircase wanted to make use of the facility, which was even more convenient for me than it had been for Charles: he had had to walk up one flight of stairs; the bathroom door was right next to the door of my rooms. The person in P7 that year, whom I met only once, was a hermitic, chess-playing mathematical genius who had no interest in washing.

I’ve just come back from a walk in Regents Park on this beautiful blowy autumn afternoon. I shall go to the Prince Albert later to hear, I hope, Paul, Chris and Rupert of Acoustica play: always a pleasure on a Sunday evening. I have to be up before five tomorrow morning to get the plane from Southend airport back to Rennes.

There was no attempt at a vote of no confidence in the government last week. The various opposition forces can’t agree on a common plan of action, and I’m sure that the problem is the lack of enthusiasm on the part of everyone other than Corbyn and his allies for the idea that he should become Prime Minister, even for the short time that a government of national unity would need in order to do a deal with the EU which would keep us in the customs union. Plenty of Labour MPs are waiting for the moment, which may come more quickly now than expected in 2017, when Labour will lose its fourth general election in a row, despite the Conservatives’ catastrophic mismanagement of Brexit, so that Corbyn will stand down, to be replaced by a leader able to attract the level of support which actually wins elections.

In the immediate emergency where we find ourselves, I think that a government led by Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman — Conservative and Labour respectively, and Father and Mother of the House respectively — would command the necessary majority. That’s probably a pipe dream. Meanwhile, Johnson has proposed the most preposterous, unworkable new plan, which he describes as a generous compromise on the UK’s part. Northern Ireland stays in the EU’s single market for goods; it leaves the customs union with the rest of the UK. This would require regulatory checks for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland; and it would require customs checks of some kind for goods travelling across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. How did Johnson manage to gain the DUP’s support for a measure — staying in the single market for goods — when it so evidently treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK? By promising them lots more money, and by giving them an effective veto over the continuation of the arrangement. In order that the single-market idea should come into being in the first place, it must be approved at Stormont and by the Northern Ireland executive. It must then be re-approved every four years, or the measure fails. This would be absurd if Stormont were working; but it hasn’t sat for more than two years, because of a stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein. And even if Stormont were to get back to work, the effective veto which I mention comes about because the Good Friday Agreement brought into being something called a petition of concern, which allows either of the two main parties to block a measure they don’t like. This apparently undemocratic but necessary device was introduced to stop one community imposing its will on the other. I read the other day that it’s been used 159 times since 1998.

I’m pretty sure that Johnson knew that the EU wouldn’t be able to accept his plan; and they haven’t. They’ve remained perfectly loyal to Ireland, not for a moment suggesting that Ireland should bend to Johnson’s will for the sake of getting this wretched business over with. Johnson meanwhile is caught in an apparent contradiction: the Benn Act requires him to seek an extension of our membership of the EU until 31 January next year unless the UK and the EU have agreed a deal by 19 October; he says that the UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October, come what may; but a government lawyer also says that the Prime Minister will respect the law. The only way out of this, as I know I’ve written numerous times already, is to get a government that will request that we stay in the customs union, while leaving the political structures of the EU. This won’t solve all the problems, but it will solve the Irish problem, and it will solve the Dover-Calais problem. And it will give us the breathing space — the implementation period — to work out what our long-term relationship with the EU is going to be.


24 Oct 2019

Tomorrow afternoon we end our wonderful long summer and autumn here, drive to Servon for the night, and on Saturday evening we’ll be back in London.

It’s been raining continually and sometimes heavily for a couple of weeks now. The land is saturated. But this afternoon, as I write, the sun is out, making bright stripes across the lawn.

Two days after I returned from my weekend in London, Peter and Monica Hetherington came on the train. They stayed for six days. It was the happiest of times. Peter has made a remarkable recovery from his major stroke of last December. We walked (in his case more slowly than used to be his way), ate very well at home and in familiar restaurants, visited the Pierre de Grauw exhibition at Pont-Scorff and the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes at Port Louis, and on the last day drove to the côte sauvage. It was a rainy Monday, and there was hardly anyone else there. We walked down to one of those beautiful little yellow sandy beaches, with the rocks standing blackly up above the flat sand (it was low tide), and looked at the sea. I could see how much Peter enjoyed it. Its wildness appeals to the Northerner in him. He’s always saying how Bedfordshire is too domesticated for a Durham boy used to moors and empty spaces. Despite this, he’s put up with the domestication for 60 years.

Last week there was tree surgery here. Several large trees have fallen down on our land during the last two winters. No great damage has been done, and we have a new supply of wood. But I’ve been a bit worried that trees very close to the house might one day fall on the roof, given that climate change seems to be increasing the frequency of violent winter storms. That would be serious and expensive, although we’re insured. So Nicolas Izquierdo, our local élagueur (not to be confused with the other Nicolas who used to be Jean-Paul’s assistant and who has also been helping with wood-chopping) came with Jean-Paul, and now seven trees near the house have had haircuts, some more severe than others.

Brexit continues. Since I last wrote, Johnson has managed to agree a new treaty with the EU, despite the latter having repeatedly said that they would not reopen the treaty which Parliament had rejected three times under Theresa May. The extraordinary thing about it, however, is that it is far ‘worse’, from a Unionist point of view, than was Theresa May’s deal. Northern Ireland is now to be in a customs union with the EU as well as in the single market for goods. This means that there will be regulatory and customs checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The DUP is understandably enraged, but most of the extreme Tory Brexiteers, who took such pleasure in frustrating Mrs May, have fallen into line behind Johnson’s deal. This makes no rational sense at all. It can only be understood as misogyny (we’ll back a buccaneering, blustering male who makes things up as he goes along, rather than a careful, charisma-free female who does her homework), or as exhaustion. Anyway, Johnson called a sitting of the House last Saturday: the first on that day of the week since 1982. He wanted to get a meaningful vote in favour of his deal on the day that he was obliged by law to ask the EU for an extension of our membership if we hadn’t agreed a deal by then (or hadn’t voted to leave with no deal). Sir Oliver Letwin put down an amendment proposing that the House should only back the deal once the full legal text of the bill to leave the EU had been debated. The amendment passed. The government then declined to proceed with the amended motion to accept the treaty, and announced that it would attempt to bring it back, unamended, two days later.

Two days later the Speaker of the House made a long and perfectly clear statement explaining why he wouldn’t allow the unamended motion to be debated. There’s a rule that says that a government can’t ask the same question of the House more than once in any parliamentary session, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The Speaker had decided that there were no exceptional circumstances. The only extraordinary thing that had occurred since Saturday was an act of petulance by the Prime Minister. He had sent the letter to the EU asking for an extension to our membership until the end of January next year, as he was obliged to by law; but he hadn’t signed it. He sent another letter with it, which he signed, saying that he thought an extension was a bad idea.

Tory extremists were enraged by the Speaker’s ruling, but he stuck to it. The next day, Tuesday of this week, the government introduced the full 110-page bill detailing the legal arrangements required as a consequence of our exit. Johnson wanted this massively complex and significant piece of legislation to be agreed in three days. He won a vote to give the bill a second reading, which meant that the UK has got closer to leaving the EU than ever before in this unhappy story, but he lost the programme motion which would have imposed the three-day timetable. So now he has ‘paused’ the legislation. We wait to hear whether the EU will agree to his ill-mannered request for an extension; they, the grown-ups, wisely decided that the letter required by law, though unsigned, was the one they should respond to.

Sensible Tories have counselled that 31 October isn’t a date to be fetishised; give the bill a decent amount of time to be debated, and see what amendments are proposed. Just do the normal thing. But I think that Johnson fancies a general election before Christmas, which he thinks he can win, given Corbyn’s unpopularity with the undecided public: the part of the electorate that actually decides the result of elections. Of course, Labour has to vote for a general election, under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Given that Labour has repeatedly said that it wants a general election once ‘no deal’ has been taken off the table, if the EU agrees an extension it’s hard to see how the party could refuse to vote for one. But I fear the results. On the other hand, as I’ve written previously, I’ve been so wrong in my political predictions so often before that it’s foolish to keep making them.

Just before leaving for my short break in London, I wrote one line on a piece of paper on the desk here: ‘Poem about how I’m becoming more aware of the bones beneath my flesh.’ At five o’clock in the morning of my return, I grabbed, more or less at random, a book to read on the journey back: Theodore Roethke’s Complete Poems. On the plane and over the next few days, I re-read all the poems. During my previous reading, many years ago, I had listed on the flyleaf all the poems I particularly liked. After the text of one favourite poem, I had written in pencil, within single quotes, ‘You see this goose flesh? And I am not cold.’ I thought, ‘That’s a good line. I hope it’s mine and not Roethke’s or anyone else’s.’ Having re-read the whole collection, it’s not Roethke’s, and I’m going to assume it’s mine, despite the single quotes. And I realised that the line would make a good ending to the poem I had planned before the trip. Anyway, the resulting poem is one of my best. It’s called ‘This Living Hand’, with every respect to Keats. Its last line is owed entirely to the chance that I picked up Roethke’s book that morning, and not some other.

‘This Living Hand’

Somehow, when young, I never thought about the way
my body did its job, for it was fit and strong,
quick to recover from abuse, so day to day
its working parts, like friendly neighbours, got along

and I had other things to do. But now that love
is all I have to do, I’m studying the skin
stretched on my hand a few protective cells above
the branching blood flow and my skeleton,

links in a whole concatenation — mortal me —
which while I — mental me — was otherwise engaged
has tenanted this breathing building faithfully
and kept the lights on as its absent owner aged.

Now mental me requests that mortal me will grant
a few more years before I’m changed to ash or mould.
Give me a few more years with her whose touch I want.
You see this goose flesh? And I am not (not yet) cold.

Camden Town

7 Nov 2019

We got back to London twelve days ago. I always enjoy the vigour of autumn: ‘gusty emotions on autumn nights’ (Wallace Stevens), but gusty emotions on autumn days too, and the sense that mild sunshine is a gift not a given.

We are, alas, embarking on a five-week election campaign. The EU granted an extension to the UK’s membership for up to three months, until 31 January next year. The government then brought in a simple bill which had the effect of by-passing the requirements of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (extraordinary what law-makers can do when they really want to), and only required a simple majority of MPs, not a two-thirds majority, to pass. It passed easily, because most of the Labour MPs abstained. Corbyn had always said that Labour would support a general election once ‘no deal’ had been taken off the table. He decided that the extension granted by the EU meant that ‘no deal’ is now off the table, at least for the time being. (Of course, it could be back on the table if we haven’t decided what we’re doing by 31 January, or if we get to the end of 2020 and the negotiations for a future relationship with the EU haven’t been concluded or have broken down; but I think the EU in that case will allow an extension of the transition period for another year or two.) So, there will be a general election on 12 December, the first held in that month since 1923.

If Johnson wins with a working majority, he will ram through his Withdrawal Agreement Bill by reintroducing the programme motion which was previously defeated. He might even do it in the one week remaining between the election and Christmas, and we might then be out of the EU on the first day of next year. Or it might take a bit longer, and we’ll be out on the first day of February. If Labour wins with a working majority, it will attempt to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the EU, despite the EU saying that they won’t agree to any renegotiation (but they said that about Theresa May’s deal, and then changed their minds when Johnson became Prime Minister). Then, having achieved a deal which, while leaving, keeps us closer to the EU, it will put to the electorate, in another referendum, the choice of leaving with that deal or of remaining. Alas, I have the strongest doubts as to whether it will be possible to convince undecided people that more months of negotiation and then a second referendum are a good idea. All the other parties have a simple message: get out or stay in. Labour has a complicated message.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that on 13 December we’ll have another hung parliament. The SNP is likely to gain seats in Scotland from the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have just announced an electoral pact covering 60 seats in England and Wales; that is likely to hurt the Conservatives. Nigel Farage has just said that his Brexit Party will stand candidates in every constituency in Great Britain. It’s likely that this will hurt the Conservatives more than Labour, though it will hurt both. The Tories have made a disastrous start to their campaign, with Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting on radio that the reason so many people died in the Grenfell Tower fire was that they didn’t use common sense (as he would have done, of course, being an Etonian and therefore so much cleverer than the sort of people who live in tower blocks); and with the resignation of the Welsh secretary, who had claimed that he knew nothing about an associate deliberately wrecking a rape trial (as a result of which there had to be a retrial, at which the associate’s friend was found guilty), when it appears that perhaps he did. Labour has its own troubles, too. The deputy leader, Tom Watson, last night announced that he would not be standing at the election, and would resign from his post immediately after it. His differences with Corbyn are well known. And this morning two former Labour MPs actually told people to vote Conservative, so intense is their dislike of Corbyn. Extraordinary.

So Brexit rumbles on. Labour in particular wants to talk about all the other things it would do if it gets power, but Brexit will hang over the next five weeks like a storm cloud. Keir Starmer will certainly retain his seat here, and I admire very much the way he has managed to maintain clarity on Brexit, albeit a complex clarity, and has maintained a public loyalty to Corbyn, whatever his private doubts. But at the moment I have no enthusiasm for going out to knock on doors and stuff leaflets through letterboxes.

I’ve just read Richard Holmes’s biography of Shelley. The book has been on a shelf in France for years, but I’ve just never got round to it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and I notice that it was first published in 1974, when the author was 29. That a person can by that age have learned so much, and can handle scholarly sources so well, is a wonder to me. Somehow I’ve never until now taken on the Shelley oeuvre properly, so when I’d finished the biography I took down the 1894 ‘Albion’ edition of the complete poems, which sat on my father’s shelf throughout my lifetime until he died, but which I hardly opened before transferring it to my shelf in London in 2009.

I have now made my way through the 646 pages, but only as a result of much skip-reading. I can only sincerely admire a number of the short lyrics, including some of the obvious ones: ‘Ozymandias’, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, ‘Song — To the Men of England’, ‘Lines written during the Castlereagh Administration’, ‘England in 1819’, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, ‘Evening — Ponte a Mare, Pisa’, ‘To Emilia Viviani’, ‘To William Shelley’, ‘To the Moon’, the translation of Dante’s sonnet ‘Guido, i’ vorrei’ (which I’ve also done, and I think my effort is better). The long pieces are indigestible. Nearly 400 pages are taken up with the first twelve poems and verse dramas in the book. I find their diction mannered and over-blown. None of the stories engage me in the way that Keats’s narrative poems do, especially The Eve of Saint Agnes. There are occasional moments of brilliance in the long pieces, such as the remark given to Count Maddalo (Byron) near the end of Julian and Maddalo: ‘Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong: / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’ Shelley obviously intends this as a statement of his own position. The simple descriptive beauty of ‘Evening — Ponte a Mare, Pisa’, was such a relief when I got to it. And even though some of the diction of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is high-flown, the connection the poet makes between the elements and his own despair that he is any more than the dead leaves flying before the wind, while hoping for greater recognition in the future, is moving. I should add that ‘Peter Bell the Third’, the satire about Wordsworth, is very funny.

The biography filled in the detail of what I vaguely knew already. I can only feel enormous admiration for a young man so passionately given to the cause of justice and liberty in the face of the dreadful oppressions visited on the common people of England. Rage contorts him. I’m not surprised that ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ became a sacred text to the Chartists. It’s remarkable that such a scholar as Shelley — able to read and translate from Greek, Latin, Italian, German and Spanish — should have also been able to write a popular ballad in response to Peterloo. I haven’t yet read any of his extensive prose output, apart from the bits quoted in the biography. I must do that next. Meanwhile, his personal and sexual life was extraordinary: running off with and marrying two girls, one after the other; charging about England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy; causing, unintentionally, the deaths by suicide in despair of his first wife and of the half-sister of his second; having a continuing sexual relationship with another half-sister of his second wife; fathering children, most of whom died, by four women; striking up new passionate relationships right until the end; sustaining an admiring friendship with Byron, heavily tinged with jealousy that Byron had achieved, apparently effortlessly, the public fame which he never did; holding on to a dream, never achieved, that somehow he would be able to form a community of like-minded, free-loving, socialist (avant la lettre), atheistical people held together in opposition to the stupidities and cruelties of the world he saw about him. All just about sustained because he had enough inherited wealth to keep debtors at bay. Drowned before the age of 30.

Camden Town

12 Nov 2019

I’ve just heard that Frank Dobson has died. He was our MP until 2015 when he retired. I’m very sorry. I knew Frank a little, from the period when I was a more active member of the local Labour Party than I now am, and I liked and admired him enormously. He was exactly the sort of Labour person we need: passionately clear about what the party should be doing to reduce inequalities and increase opportunities for those to whom they are denied, but not sectarian, and not given to vicious attacks on people representing different strands of thought within the Party. Left, but not ultra-left; able to see how unattractive doctrinaire ideologues are to the majority of working-class people, who are still Labour’s natural constituency. He was a very good health secretary for a short time, abolishing the internal market in the NHS which the Tories had set up (only for his successor to reinvent it in another form, alas), and it was a great shame that he decided, or perhaps was forced, to run for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone. It was one of Blair’s worst errors to prevent Livingstone from standing as Labour’s candidate, however unpleasant a character Livingstone has turned out to be in more recent years, with his provocatively anti-Semitic remarks (‘Hitler was a Zionist until he went mad and killed six million Jews’).

General election news: Farage has changed his mind about standing candidates in every constituency in Great Britain. Now he’s not going to contest the 317 seats which the Conservatives won in 2017. At the moment he intends to stand candidates in every other GB seat. This could change again. My first thought when I heard the news yesterday was that this was a huge benefit to the Tories; and surely it must be to their advantage, given that most pollsters think that the Brexit Party, and previously UKIP, have taken and will take two votes from the Conservatives for every one from Labour. Maybe this move alone will be the difference between another hung parliament and the Tories winning an overall majority. On the other hand, the Conservatives need actually to gain seats, principally from Labour, in order to have a majority, and with the Brexit Party splitting the pro-Brexit vote in constituencies which the Conservatives need to win, that will be harder than it would otherwise have been. As I wrote the other day, I think the Tories will actually lose seats in Scotland, to the SNP. The Liberal Democrats have some strong candidates in the south and south-west of England, who could unseat incumbent Tories. If Labour were to become the largest party, but without an overall majority, it will be much easier for Corbyn to make some kind of agreement with smaller parties, whatever is being said at the moment, than it would be if Johnson leads the largest party, but short of an overall majority. Johnson has burnt his boats with the only party with which he had been in collaboration — the DUP — and no one else will touch him, unless the Brexit Party actually wins a seat or two, which I don’t expect, despite their strong showing in the European elections in May. But I still think, pessimistically, that the Tories will win some sort of majority, because their offering on Brexit is so much easier to sell than Labour’s, however disastrous its longer-term consequences.

Camden Town

12 Dec 2019

General election day, and my prediction of a month ago — that there will be a Tory majority tomorrow — hasn’t changed. Despite writing on 7 November that I had no appetite to go out canvassing or leafleting, of course I’ve changed my mind and done a bit of pavement-bashing and letterbox-stuffing, principally because I have enormous respect and admiration for Keir Starmer, who will win comfortably here in Holborn and St Pancras. Nationally, though, Labour has failed to break through, as it should have done after the cruelty, incoherence and mendacity of the Conservatives over the last nine years.

Jeremy Corbyn, a decent man and a good, diligent local MP, doesn’t have the quality — hard to define but easy to recognise — which reaches out beyond the Labour tribe to the persuadable but uncommitted centre of the electorate: the people who actually decide elections in this country. Tony Blair had that quality, despite his dreadful error over Iraq, and he won three elections, two handsomely and one more than adequately. And though I respect Corbyn as an individual, I can’t forget, for example, that a contemptible attempt was made, at the Labour conference only two months ago, to unseat his deputy, Tom Watson, by abolishing the post of deputy leader. The attempt failed, but it was clearly the work of the Momentum faction which supports Corbyn and his policies, and he must have known about it. He didn’t stop it. So the thought crosses my mind that perhaps he is more sinister than he appears. As I wrote on 7 November, Tom Watson has decided that he has had enough; he isn’t standing at this election, and the deputy leader’s post will be vacant after today.

Labour’s Brexit position, despite being the only reasonable one to take, given the mistakes the leadership made earlier, is much harder to sell to people who are simply tired of hearing that word. By ‘mistakes the leadership made earlier’, I mean Labour’s failure to back Theresa May’s original withdrawal deal, the only contentious element of which was the Irish backstop, which proposed a temporary customs union in the unlikely event that a full-scale trade deal couldn’t be done before the end of the transition period. Labour, after all, went into the 2017 election promising to respect the result of the referendum. Its official position, as announced by Corbyn at the party’s 2018 conference, was for a customs union. So Labour officially wanted, on a permanent basis, exactly what May’s deal was suggesting on a temporary basis. The brief political declaration about the future relationship between the UK and the EU was nothing but aspiration. By all means Labour should have opposed anything it didn’t like in the eventual proposals for that future relationship. If Labour had backed May’s deal, or at least abstained, the zealots on the Tories’ far right and in the DUP would have been neutered. In autumn 2019, however, to say, ‘We’ll enter into a third series of negotiations with the EU, aiming for a softer Brexit; then we’ll put the outcome of those negotiations to the people in another referendum, with the option to remain also on the ballot paper,’ doesn’t cut through like ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Labour continues to be mired in allegations of anti-Semitism. As a Gentile and fervent anti-anti-Semite, I continue to be puzzled. I read the views of distinguished Jewish people saying the worst about Labour. Then I read the views of other, equally distinguished Jewish people saying that Corbyn has done more to root out anti-Semitism from the party than any previous leader. In the end, and having talked to Labour-supporting Jewish friends, I have to accept that the party has been too slow to prosecute people accused of anti-Semitism and to expel those found guilty. But, having organised a few things myself, I can imagine that the administrative load of conscientiously investigating hundreds of cases, while giving the accused a fair hearing and keeping to the principle of ‘innocent until proved guilty’, has simply proved too heavy for the party’s systems to deal with swiftly enough. A few weeks ago, the Chief Rabbi, who speaks for about a quarter of British Jews, made an extraordinary attack on Corbyn: extraordinary in the context of religious leaders’ usual reluctance to take political positions during an election campaign. He claimed that Corbyn was unfit to lead the country. The accusation was gleefully taken up by the right-wing papers, who have been as filthy in their anti-Labour bias as ever during the last six weeks.

So I think we’ll lose. I fear for the effect of Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the EU — so much worse than May’s — on the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. The deal enrages the DUP and encourages those who want a united Ireland. It places an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain through various administrative controls, while leaving the province in the EU customs union and single market. It exacerbates tensions that are already there, with the devolved assembly closed down and the two biggest parties not speaking to each other.

And of course I fear for the prosperity of the UK as a whole. Johnson’s promise to get a permanent deal with the EU by the end of 2020 is a fantasy. He might get a deal of some kind within that time, but it will leave many important things to be negotiated later. We’ll be talking about Brexit for years to come, although probably not every day.

I agreed with almost all of Labour’s manifesto this time. Yes to bringing rail, water, electricity and gas into public ownership. Yes to bringing broadband into public ownership, but I couldn’t see why it should be free. We agree to pay for other utilities; why should the most recently invented one be free? I agreed enthusiastically with the radical and expensive measures proposed to address climate change, which is easily the most significant challenge and most present danger facing our world. I honestly don’t mind how much we borrow, particularly at today’s ultra-low rates, if we can then move swiftly to a sustainable future. Of course one country can’t go it alone. On the other hand, if everyone waits until the others do something, the planet’s future will be grim for those coming after us. I agreed with the proposal to tax capital gains at the same rate as income. I’ve never been able to understand the moral case for allowing a person who makes a capital gain to be taxed at a lower rate than they face on their income. There will be a few people who make a small capital gain and who are taxed on income at the basic rate. The great majority are higher-rate taxpayers, and so should be taxed at 40% or above for the amount of their capital gain which exceeds the basic-rate limit. The need to increase funding for the NHS and for schools is urgent and obvious. Our country is becoming more and more unequal. The Conservatives between 1979 and 1997 began this disastrous trend. Labour between 1997 and 2010 made some progress in reversing it. Since 2010, the trend has resumed. There is extreme and dire poverty in this rich country. I remember writing about it in the diary on the day before the 1997 election, after hours of campaigning on an estate geographically close to here, but where people live lives indescribably distant from mine.

Despite all this, I think we’re going to lose.


21 Dec 2019

We lost, much more emphatically than in my direst fears. Johnson has an overall majority of 80. Labour had its worst result since 1935 in terms of seats gained (the only measure that really matters). Large numbers of previously unassailable seats in north Wales, the Midlands and the north of England went straight from Labour to the Conservatives. We shall now leave the EU on 31 January. During the rest of 2020, the UK will try to negotiate its future relationship with the EU. It would amaze me if anything more than a small part of what eventually needs to be agreed actually gets agreed within that time.

Labour lost for three reasons: Corbyn, Brexit and anti-Semitism. Corbyn was an electoral liability, not an asset, in those places where the Conservatives broke through so spectacularly. Traditional working-class Labour voters didn’t like or trust him, and enough of them had such strong feelings against him that they changed the habit of a lifetime and voted Conservative. The party’s position on Brexit, as I wrote nine days ago, was complicated and indigestible. In particular, people were derisory about Corbyn’s refusal to say which position he would take in the event of Labour’s proposed second referendum, where a renegotiated withdrawal deal was to appear on the ballot paper along with the option to remain in the EU. Finally, the accusations of anti-Semitism in the party must have caused damage, obviously in areas with significant Jewish populations, but elsewhere too. Labour simply didn’t look to enough people like an organisation worthy to govern.

One or two little things did occur as I predicted. The Tories lost seats in Scotland to the SNP. On the other hand, Labour’s position there is much worse: it only has one Scottish MP. Liberal Democrats did pick up two seats in the south of England, but overall it has one fewer MP than after the 2017 election. And its leader lost her seat.

In Northern Ireland, for the first time, nationalists have more seats than unionists: SDLP two, Sinn Fein seven, DUP eight (and one seat for the Alliance Party, which is a hopeful sign), though the nationalist majority doesn’t mean much given Sinn Fein’s ridiculous refusal to take up the Westminster seats they win.

Since his victory, Johnson has repeatedly used the slogans ‘one nation Conservatism’ and ‘the people’s government’. It remains to be seen whether the policies he will pursue genuinely do attempt to reverse the damage of 1979-1997 and 2010-2019, or whether we shall continue down the path of increasing inequality, a smaller state, yet more unbridled capitalism. I fear he will take the latter course, although his words at the moment are emollient. He says he wants to heal the divisions which the country has suffered in the three and a half years since the Brexit referendum. He must be aware that to a significant extent he owes his victory to people who live in areas most hurt by Tory policies since Thatcher, and that they could turn against him as quickly as they have turned towards him. Perhaps this fact, rather than any principled attachment to social and economic justice, might weigh with him.

Meanwhile, Labour is in tatters. There will be a new leader in March or April. I’m pretty sure that Keir Starmer will stand. The only other likely candidates for whom I could vote are Jess Phillips and Yvette Cooper. Phillips is passionate and eloquent, and would immediately attract the support of working people in the areas where Labour lost so badly. Cooper is a wise, sympathetic and experienced politician: the only one of the likely candidates who has actually held office. But her majority was slashed last week; she might decide that it’s too risky to be leading the party at the next general election when her own seat isn’t safe.

The danger is that a Corbyn-style candidate will get enough support from MPs to be on the ballot paper. Then, given the size of the Momentum-influenced faction within the membership, and Labour’s ultra-democratic voting system, we shall have another leader in Corbyn’s mould, and lose again, perhaps not so badly once Brexit is no longer an issue, but still lose.

A few post-election statistics. 56% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Labour, 21% Conservative. The Tories beat Labour at all ages from 40 up. Amongst the 70+ group, only 14% voted Labour, against 67% Conservative. Women were more inclined to vote Labour than men, at 35% to 31%, while men were slightly more inclined to vote Conservative than women, at 46% to 44%. The Conservatives easily beat Labour across all social classes; remarkably, their support amongst the lower social classes — C2s, Ds and Es, taken together — was higher at 48% than amongst the As, Bs and C1s taken together, at 43%. Labour had the support of 33% of voters in both cases. So perhaps we can say that, for the first time, social class is no longer an influencing factor in voting decisions.

Labour has only won elections since the war when it has, to paraphrase something which Tony Blair said on the radio this morning, brought the socialist and liberal instincts in the British electorate together in an effective governing force. Attlee, Wilson and Blair himself were able to do that. I think Keir Starmer could do it. In my lifetime, there have been Conservative or Conservative-led governments for 44 years and Labour governments for 24. That difference will now increase, at least by five years and quite possibly by ten.

The day after the election, we drove up to Shropshire for our usual pre-Christmas weekend with David and Tom James and other friends. There was a happy dinner for ten on the Saturday. After the meal, people read bits of seasonal literature. A few weeks earlier, I had written a funny poem about an event told to me by Julian Walton concerning his uncle, a serious drinker, who in the snowbound winter of 1962/3 had lost his false teeth in a snow drift while returning from the pub one night, but who retrieved them from the same spot months later when the snow had melted, and put them straight back in his mouth. The poem is called ‘Pisser Willy’s Teeth’, and Julian and I read it together.

We arrived here this afternoon for Christmas. Everywhere is sodden, with standing water in most of the fields. Two more of our trees have been blown down in recent storms, and more violent weather is forecast. Pot au feu with our neighbours tonight.


22 Dec 2019

Extraordinary weather here. Every so often it rains violently, with strong winds. Then all is still and the sun comes out. The ditches are filled with water. Two small rivers have been running down the road outside the house before combining in a single course in the middle of the lane which descends to the stream, carving a deep rut. The stream has burst its banks.

I had a look at the two fallen trees. They are both large oaks. The one that fell across the public lane has already been chopped up by workers from the commune. (Jean went to the mairie to tell them what had happened.) The other, though uprooted, hasn’t fallen to the ground, but is leaning against an adjacent oak. It can’t stay like that: too dangerous. It will have to be dealt with.

Throughout the world, there are signs of imminent catastrophe, whether from floods, violent storms, fires or drought. The ice caps at both poles are melting fast. The actions governments are taking are inadequate and too slow. I may have written before that only when the rich countries really begin to suffer is there likely to be a change of gear to address the crisis. It may be that the fires devastating Australia at the moment will cause that deeply unpleasant government, until now shamelessly committed to mining coal to sell to the Chinese, to change course; but I doubt it. Meanwhile, the Chinese people are choking in the cities because of coal and oil. The Chinese government, which doesn’t have to bother with inconveniences like democracy, could move swiftly to sustainable forms of electricity generation if it wished to. That would be a huge benefit to the planet, given that China burns more coal than any other country.

I still drive a car which runs on petrol. Our London flat is still heated by gas burned in a reliable but inefficient 30-year-old boiler. At least the electricity there is sustainably generated, according to our supplier. Here, all our energy — apart from the heat from the wood-burning stove — is generated by electricity, of which about 80% comes from nuclear power stations. As I understand it, nuclear power is much better from the point of view of climate change; on the other hand, its waste product is a fearful poison which must be guarded for millennia to come. Occasionally I read hopeful articles in the paper or online: there was a day recently when most of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind; more and more wind turbines are being built. Several excellent UK charities are busy planting trees around the world. All good. But the change, both at individual and at governmental and inter-governmental level, needs to accelerate immediately, or the world after my death won’t be the pleasant place that I have known.


23 Dec 2019

Having read the biography of Shelley recently, I decided to read Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, which has sat on our shelves in London for years but which I’ve never got round to. Very impressive. The book offers a touching, poignant but never soppy portrait of that extraordinary young man, like Shelley caught up in the politics of his day, like Shelley passionately of the radical persuasion, though less polemical in his poetry. A person ‘acquainted with grief’ from childhood onwards: shocked by his father’s sudden death, nursing first his mother then his brother Tom as they died, familiar with the gruesome facts of mortality from his work as a surgeon’s apprentice. Attacked with vile, sarcastic snobbery by the Tory reviewers; always aware of his (relatively) humble origins and his shortness of stature; taking on the responsibilities of an eldest sibling towards his younger brothers and sister; constantly worried about money; courageously atheistical; sexually deeply frustrated, I’m sure, although he may well sometimes have satisfied his longings with prostitutes; crazily in love with Fanny Brawne; unable to see how extraordinarily he had succeeded with the odes in 1819; brought low soon after that by the consumption that killed him; suffering dreadfully on the way to Italy and when he arrived there, until the end. Despite saying that he thought he would be among the English poets after his death, he died with no consoling evidence that that would be the case.

And, in his short life, he produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language. I’m just re-reading the oeuvre. For me, as for countless thousands of readers, his greatness rests on the five great odes, ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and numerous wonderful sonnets. After ploughing through Endymion, I can see why Keats was dissatisfied with it even as he published it, and why it tends not to be read these days: it has the same mannered, high-flown diction which I found indigestible in Shelley’s long poems. I don’t think I’ve read either version of Hyperion before. The first two stanzas of book 1 of the first version, describing the dejected Saturn, are very beautiful, and Oceanus’s speech in book 2 of that version equally so, as he tells his fellow fallen gods that they are but a stage in a process:

‘As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs;
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness: nor are we
Thereby more conquer’d, than by us the rule
Of shapeless Chaos.’

It reminds me of Arthur’s moving words at the end of Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur:

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

I’m more cheerful than I was yesterday, having taken a Stilton cheese to the pharmacist in Cléguer, who was delighted by it. In October of last year, I went in there to ask for some statin pills, which I’ve been taking since my stroke in 2016. My London chemist had made a mistake and issued me with twice as many packets of another pill, a blood thinner, as were specified on my prescription, instead of the statins. The French chemist told me that she wasn’t strictly supposed to let me have the statins, since normally they are only available on prescription, but she would make an exception for me as long as I would supply her with a Stilton at Christmas. Her father had spent time in England and adored the cheese, which he used to bring back to the family home. So I willingly obliged, and this year repeated the gesture. Then I crossed the road and, as usual, gave Valérie, the postmistress, three bottles of wine. Valérie has been looking after us now for nearly 30 years. We used to pay for letters sent to Kerfontaine to be redirected to London during the months we were there. Then, one summer, La Poste increased the cost of international redirection by an enormous amount. Valérie said, ‘C’est le vol,’ and since then she has been redirecting our mail by more informal means. It’s the sort of thing that could only happen in small communities. I hope that readers of this website won’t shop her to the authorities.

I picked up the Christmas capon from the butcher. Capon is a popular choice in France for the Christmas meal. My brother Peter, who has inherited from our father a specialism in terrible jokes, asked me the other day, ‘What does Batman do for Christmas?’ Answer: ‘He usually has a cape on.’ And in the same shop I also bought foie gras, coquilles Saint Jacques and several cheeses. It may be surprising that a butcher has the best cheeses in the district, but that’s the case here.


31 Dec 2019

Christmas passed pleasantly, as it always does. We walked by the sea during the afternoon, as we always do. The weather was astonishingly mild, even warm. When we got back into the car, the little panel which shows the date and the temperature read: 25.12.2019 19°. During the three days after Christmas the air remained mild and the rain held off, so I did the necessary in the garden: pruning roses and hydrangeas, cutting back the fuschias, clearing dead leaves, weeding. The place looks neat now, as it should at this time of year. But there are two huge oaks — not just one, as I wrote the other day — partially uprooted and leaning against their upright fellows, which will need attention in the spring; a third oak worryingly hanging over the main electricity line, which I should have asked Nicolas to attend to in October but didn’t; and a large willow fallen in the stream.

In a moment Mary and Jacques will come, and we shall go as usual to L’Art Gourmand for the Saint Sylvestre meal. They’ll stay a few days, and will look at a house nearby on Friday. They’ve more or less decided that they’d like somewhere in Brittany to which they can escape from the extreme summer heat of Marseille; it will be great to have them as neighbours.

I can’t shake off a feeling of dread for the planet in the years beyond my lifetime. I’m not sure that the following is a particularly good poem, but it says what I want to say at the moment.


These things will outlive me:
the pewter ladle which we bought
from children at a car boot sale,
made long before their time, before our time,
a simple, gracious, indestructible
thing serving soups and sloppy stews,
pleasant to hold, to wash and dry,
to put back neatly in its drawer;
my favourite wine glass (I admit,
I hope it will outlive me, it’s a fragile thing
I’m handling when I wash it, dry it, put it back
amongst the less loved glasses on the shelf);
meanwhile I hope our fragile planet
will outlive me, will outlive my siblings’
children’s children as a place of beauty,
ease and pleasantness to love and work in,
cherished as we cherish common things;
and yet a fear grows in me as I age —
the thought that we, my generation,
will be cursed by those who follow us
because, as holders of the one essential thing,
we could not — no, we did not — see
that it was slipping from our careless hands.