Occurrences: Book Sixteen

Camden Town

9 January 2020

The Saint Sylvestre dinner on 31 December went very well. The main improvement on the last two years was that Marie-Thérèse was back in full voice again. This is the lady who always used to belt out Edith Piaf numbers at full volume, addressing particularly poignant love songs directly to her seated husband. Two years ago, she was sad because her husband had died during the previous year, so didn’t sing, and last year she was absent. Here she was again, full of vigour and joy, so much so that during one of her performances she swept me up and we waltzed round the restaurant. She must be well into her eighties. I sang too. A day or two later we played the CD of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing classic numbers together, and I suggested to Helen that Marie-Thérèse and I are their equivalent in Pont-Scorff, except that in our case the man is the younger performer.

Last Friday Mary, Jacques and I went to look at a house near Priziac, about half an hour north from our place. It’s well kept and recently decorated, with a beautiful little garden, and they’ve made an offer for it. I hope it goes through. It’ll be lovely to have them as near neighbours for a part of the year.

We arrived back in London on Sunday.

The world is anxious because in the early hours of last Friday morning the Americans killed Iran’s most senior military leader, Qasem Soleimani, and several of his associates, at Baghdad airport. This provoked an outpouring of rage and grief in Iran, with threats of violent revenge. Dozens of mourners were killed in a crush as Soleimani’s body was about to be buried in his home town. So far, the only external response from Iran has been to fire missiles at two bases in Iraq containing some American troops, with no casualties and little damage. But it’s too early to say whether or not Trump’s grotesque act of provocation will lead to a war on not. It may be that the event will eventually lead to the departure of American troops from the region, which would, I think, on balance, be a good thing, although it might lead to more violence there and the possible dismemberment of Iraq.

There is no doubt that Soleimani was a tyrant, responsible for the deaths of many thousands of people in Iraq and Syria as well as in his own country. But his death, and Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal which Obama achieved, have made it more likely that Iran will go on to develop nuclear weapons, not less. The event strengthens the hand of the hard-liners in the Iranian leadership, who see America, Israel and the rest of the West as implacable enemies rather than forces which must be negotiated with, however cautiously. In a characteristic bit of cynical manipulation of public opinion, the government claimed that the strikes in Iraq had killed 80 Americans when it knew that it had killed none, probably because its missiles had been intended to miss their targets.

After Labour’s disastrous performance in the election last month, the party is about to choose a new leader and deputy leader. Keir Starmer is standing, and yesterday received the support of Unison, the biggest trade union, which is a major boost. We shall vote for him because he is clearly the candidate most likely to lead intelligent, articulate opposition to Johnson’s government, and to revive Labour’s fortunes at the next general election in four or five years’ time, even if it might be too much to expect Labour to overturn the Conservatives’ 80-seat majority. I’ve offered to help his campaign. Most of the other candidates are women, and there is a point of view which says that it’s time Labour had a female leader. That’s an admirable aspiration, but none of the women who have said they will stand would be able to do the job I’ve described as effectively as Keir would. In particular, he has made it clear that he accepts that we’ll be leaving the EU on 31 January, whatever his regrets. That decision has been taken. The task now is to see what kind of deal can be done with the EU which keeps us as close as possible to our most important trading partners, preserving jobs here, while collaborating helpfully on the other areas where collaboration is essential, notable security, the fight against international criminality, and — crucially — the protection of the planet.

It’s a beautiful, mild, sunny January day.

Camden Town

13 January 2020

Hours after I wrote the preceding entry, the Iranians shot down a civilian airliner which had just taken off from Tehran on its way to Kyiv. 176 people were slaughtered. The regime then tried for several days to deny responsibility, insisting that a missile could not have caused the crash, and even accusing the West of making such an accusation as an act of psychological warfare. Eventually, the overwhelming technical evidence was too strong to deny, and the Iranian government owned up. In the paranoid hours after Iran’s attacks on the bases in Iraq, people in control of Iran’s missiles had mistaken the departing airliner for an incoming cruise missile. It has so far not been explained how an aircraft which gives out a civilian call sign, travelling at that moment at only 500 kilometres an hour — much slower than a cruise missile — could have been taken for an American weapon. Other aircraft had taken off from Tehran airport that early morning, in the dark, without incident.

63 of the people on board were Canadians of Iranian origin, on their way back, as they hoped, to Canada via Ukraine. There were 82 Iranians and 11 Ukrainians, as well as nationals from Sweden, the UK, Afghanistan and Germany.

The public reaction in Iran to all these momentous events has lurched violently. Last year, months before the killing of Soleimani, protests against the regime were brutally suppressed, with hundreds of deaths, by forces led by him. His death briefly closed the rifts in public opinion, so that hundreds of thousands of people protested against the American action. Now, rage and resentment against a government which casually and confidently deceives its people has brought a moment of vulnerability for the regime more dangerous, I think, than at any time since 1979. It would be nice to think that the people might overthrow the mullahs and the military thugs who do their bidding, and usher in governance by moderate, open-minded, well educated people, of whom there is no shortage in Iran itself and amongst the Iranian diaspora. And, despise Trump and his actions as I do, I should admit that his unpredictable behaviour, leading to the catastrophe of the air crash, might push Iran in that direction. But, as I wrote the other day, it’s more likely that those actions will force the regime the other way, towards even greater paranoia about Western intentions and even harsher brutality in its suppression of dissent.

Camden Town

27 January 2020

It’s been the most beautiful day. There have been several of them this month. Last night was very cold; there was a heavy frost this morning, even here in central London. But the sun has shone from a cloudless sky, and the air was almost warm as I walked round the park this afternoon.

I’m still fully engaged in the campaign to do with the industrial estate across the road. We have a Neighbourhood Forum, whose members are leaders of the businesses over there and residents of Elm Village on this side of the road. I’m secretary of the Forum. We want to keep the businesses where they are, transferred to new and environmentally better accommodation, and to build lots of dwellings which would be genuinely affordable to people on ordinary incomes. It’s a long slog. I’ve learnt a few things about the complexities of planning law. Our Neighbourhood Plan, which has legal status under an Act of Parliament which came into force in 2011, is currently being considered by an independent examiner appointed by Camden Council, after consultation with us. We don’t know whether it will succeed. We wonder whether the Council, which owns the freehold of the land across the road, would rather make a lot of money by selling it to conventional developers, who would then build blocks of flats for private sale at market rates, which around here means about a million pounds a unit, and use the money to build social housing elsewhere in the borough. We say no, Camden shouldn’t have rich and poor ghettoes, and the 500 people working on the industrial estate are serving the local community.

I’ve also been leading a project affecting our own block of flats. 24 of the leaseholders in the block (which has 44 flats) will shortly employ an agent to apply for a 90-year extension to our current leases, beyond the 87 years they still have to run. It seems mad, in a way, to be worrying about something which will only occur many years after our lifetimes, but if fewer than 80 years remain on a lease, the resale value of a property begins to wobble, it becomes more difficult for buyers to get a mortgage, and something iniquitous called marriage value becomes payable. This is justified by the notion that a freeholder has a right to share in the enhanced potential value of a property once its lease has been extended. There has been much legal consultation about this recently, and perhaps the government will at some point change the law to make it easier and cheaper for leaseholders to extend their leases or to buy the freehold of blocks of flats, but we’ve decided that we’d better act now. Currently, an intermediate organisation, sitting between Camden, which is the freeholder, and us, scoops up £150 a year from each flat for doing precisely nothing. When we get the 90-year extension, those payments will stop. £150 a year is insignificant by comparison with the price we’ll pay — perhaps as much as £10,000 — but at least we’ll have secured the value of the flats should we ever come to sell.

Keir Starmer has cleared the necessary hurdles to get onto the ballot paper for the Labour leadership. He has been endorsed by the shop workers’ union USDAW, as well as Unison and the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. Lisa Nandy has just been endorsed by the GMB union, and already has the support of the NUM, so she’ll probably be on the ballot paper too. There are now four candidates, because Jess Phillips dropped out today. I’m sorry about that. I wish she could have stood also for deputy leader. I would have voted for her there. The rules don’t allow it. She has said that if she couldn’t be leader, she would support one of the other female candidates. Which one she chooses will be significant.

In Davos, Trump has just made a disgusting, ignorant speech criticising those who warn us of the climate crisis as ‘prophets of doom’. The remarkable Greta Thunberg then said the opposite: ‘I wonder, what will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leave them facing... climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them? That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resign the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying? Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.’

Amid Trump’s bluster and lies, some of the world’s wealthiest investors are pulling out of coal, oil and gas. The more the better, and quickly. Capitalism is unsentimental. If there’s no world left, there’s nothing to make money from.

Kriva Reka, province of Shumen, Bulgaria

18 March 2020

I flew out two days ago to spend some time with my brother Andy, who lives here with his partner Beryl, known as Bez. It’s Bez’s birthday today. She’s 81, and tonight there’s a party at her son’s and daughter-in-law’s house. They also live in this village. Bez suffers now from dementia at quite an advanced stage, so I’m here partly to give my brother a bit of emotional support, and partly to see something of a country which I’ve only visited once before, in 1974, and then only to travel straight through it on a train.

Kriva Reka is in the east of the country, two hours’ drive from Varna on the Black Sea coast, where I landed on Monday. Most of the people in the village are Roma. There are other villages nearby which have majority populations of Turks or Bulgarians. It’s a poor place economically, with a scarcity of motor vehicles and the continued use of horses and donkeys to pull carts. The houses are vernacular, with mud brick walls surmounted by the classic curved roof tiles of southern and eastern Europe. If you go into the middle of the larger villages, where there are public buildings of various kinds, you see the remnants of the brutalism of the Soviet era. In the fields around this village, and probably similar villages throughout the country, there is another kind of scourge. Modern shopping practices, and the unchecked use of plastic, combined with unreliable refuse collection systems and perhaps a local mentality not educated in ‘advanced’ notions of civic responsibility, mean that the beautiful fields above this house, on common land rising up to hills where deciduous trees are about to come into leaf, are covered in thousands of pieces of refuse of all kinds, mainly plastic bottles. As I write, men in the fields are burning some of the waste (my brother says the mayor probably told them to do so) in small bonfires. Fortunately, the toxic smoke is blowing away from the house.

I’m sleeping in a house belonging to friends of Andy’s in a neighbouring village. The good road taking us there sports a sign announcing that this improvement has been financed with the help of funds from the European Union. Unfortunately, a small section of the route of about half a kilometre crosses a sliver of municipality which was not party to the agreement made by the two municipalities on either side, so we slow for a few minutes to negotiate a wrecked carriageway with deep potholes. Both the road problem and the litter problem are examples of enlightened civic attitudes and benevolent pan-national intentions frustrated by local political rivalries or inefficiencies and by the backwardness of some of the population.

The people are unfailingly friendly. My brother says that they welcome the significant British expatriate presence here (more in the village where I sleep than here) because it brings money to the community, and houses once ruined are being restored. The British, of course, have come here partly because property remains extraordinarily cheap by western European standards, as does the cost of living generally. It’s also a healthy climate, with savagely cold, clear winters (though less so last winter, I’m told — climate change) and long hot summers. Today is a beautiful spring day, with invigorating air and the trees in blossom.

The world is going through a crisis quite unlike anything I’ve known. A virus known as novel Corona virus has caused a disease which the World Health Organization has named as Covid-19, and which is rampaging across the planet and causing many deaths: I think the number now stands at about 8,000. Although that number is small by comparison with the toll taken every year by such afflictions as malaria, AIDS or seasonal influenza, the strangeness and unpredictability of this virus has brought about huge economic and social changes throughout the world, and there is the dreadful possibility of truly huge numbers of deaths and the breakdown of national health systems through overload.

The virus almost certainly started in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Expert opinion says that the Chinese predilection for killing, cooking and eating exotic wild animals might have meant that some of these animals, possibly infected by the virus from bats, carried it across to humans when their meat was eaten or touched. The infection is transmitted by droplets of water from breath, carried in the air, and perhaps the virus can also linger on physical surfaces.

China, which has one of the most authoritarian governments in the world, and one of the most obedient populations, imposed extraordinary controls on the behaviour of the people of Wuhan and the surrounding region. For weeks they were not allowed to leave their dwellings except under the most limiting of conditions. One heroic doctor, who warned about the imminence of the disease late last year and was punished by the state for his unpatriotic attitude, later died of Covid-19 and is now regarded as a hero by those Chinese who have any access to media other than that controlled by the government.

The disease has for now passed its peak in China, and infections and deaths are diminishing. But in almost all other countries, governments are struggling to contain the outbreak, and taking more or less drastic measures to do so. In Europe, Italy has been the worst affected, with — the last time I looked — about 2,500 deaths, and the whole country is in lockdown. No one goes out except for essential reasons, such as to buy food or because they are health workers, police officers or other personnel essential to the state. There is a similar situation in Spain, as there is since noon yesterday in France, where President Macron decreed that for the next fifteen days everyone except essential workers must stay at home. A form has been published online where are listed the only legitimate reasons for being outside. Those venturing outside must carry the form, ticked as appropriate, and if they are found to have disobeyed the decree, they will be fined.

My poor sister in Marseille has had a difficult few days. Last Friday, to her and our joy, her daughter Sophie was delivered of a baby girl, Anna Daphne Marie. Sophie returned from hospital on Sunday. On the same day, Sophie’s brother Sam, who was in Lisbon, contacted Mary to say that he was worried about his father, Mary’s first husband and a person whom I have cordially hated and despised since he abused my sister, sexually, physically and emotionally, during their marriage. Mary went to Sam’s flat, collected the keys to his father’s flat, went there and found the man dead on the floor. She touched the body, to see if there was any life, and then had to alert the authorities and to tell her children, who of course were deeply shocked and distressed. Despite my feelings towards the man and whatever his shortcomings, he was their father and that is a deep bond. This all coincided with the national health emergency, and Mary understandably couldn’t dismiss from her mind that her former husband might have died of Covid-19 (the elderly are overwhelmingly the group most at risk of death from the disease, and he must have been about 80), that she had then caught it, and perhaps later transmitted it to her family, including to the nursing mother and the new-born baby. Today, to our relief, it’s been confirmed that the death was not caused by Covid-19. It has been attributed to ‘Natural Causes’, with no autopsy done, leading me to wonder whether the authorities have more urgent things on their mind than to investigate further a sudden death not connected to the present emergency.

It’s one of those things about life. Sometimes nothing much happens for a very long time, and then a collection of extraordinary things happen all at once.

In the UK, the government has stopped short of decrees, but has issued the advice that people should stay at home as far as possible, and that the elderly should self-isolate for several weeks. It has also announced a huge package of economic stimulus measures, I think as big as those announced at the time of the financial crisis in 2008, to stop companies going bankrupt. This is in addition to the measures announced in last week’s budget, where significant but perhaps inadequate sums were provided specifically to address the health emergency, and an enormous new investment in infrastructure was promised, mainly paid for with borrowed money. (Interest rates at the moment are the lowest they’ve been in modern history.)

Essentially, the new Conservative government has abandoned the policy its predecessors have been following for the last ten years. In 2010 it decided not to follow straightforward Keynesian practice, as Obama had been doing since he took office in January 2009, and which has meant that the American economy emerged relatively healthily from the near-catastrophe of 2007 and 2008, which was a series of events caused by the greed and stupidity of overwhelmingly right-wing people and organisations, as I know I’ve written many times before. Instead, the UK embarked on a programme of austerity which has badly hurt our country socially and economically. All the time, it justified this action by making the cheap but effective political point that the crisis had occurred on Labour’s watch, and was therefore Labour’s responsibility, and that the Tories were clearing up the mess. Now, that programme having failed, it is going to borrow money on a scale far greater than that which would have been needed in 2010 and the following years to set the economy back on its feet. It is doing what Labour has been recommending during the past decade, and what Labour would probably have done if it had been in government from 2010. Which places Labour in a slightly awkward position, in that it cannot criticise a government too harshly for doing, albeit belatedly, what it would have done. However, trying to see things from the point of view of the good of the country rather than from that of party-political advantage, it’s a mercy that the Conservatives have seen some sense at last.

Such are wonders of the internet that I was able to vote yesterday for Keir Starmer as the next leader of the Labour Party from rural Bulgaria. I’ve done a little bit of work for his campaign, ringing people up and asking for their support. I went to a party for volunteers a couple of weeks ago, and had a good chat with Keir there and on the tube train going home afterwards (he lives not far from us). I told him why I thought he was the right person to lead the party and eventually the country, and warned him that he might need two goes to achieve the latter. I said, ‘You might be nearly as old as I am before you get to be Prime Minister. But don’t worry; those two guys [Biden and Sanders] who want to be the next Democratic President of the United States are already ten years older than me.’

It looks certain now that Biden will be the challenger to Trump. Democrats have decided in favour of platitudinous reassurance rather than forensic anger, despite the fact that America badly needs something very like the range of solutions to its problems which Sanders proposes. But they think that Biden is likelier to beat Trump. Perhaps they’re right. Anyone will be better than the most disastrous, ignorant, boastful, out-of-his-depth person to have occupied the White House in my lifetime. Trump’s inadequacy has been starkly illustrated by his incoherent, information-free, prejudice-rich statements to the American people as the Covid-19 crisis has worsened in his country.

I haven’t written any poetry so far this year: a bit worrying. But I have written four autobiographical pieces, and I’m translating some of Montale’s stories. I’ve so far done six out of the 47 which were collected and published in 1960 in a book entitled Farfalla di Dinard. They were originally written for two Milan newspapers between 1946 and 1950, and are full of the Zeitgeist of Italy in the early decades of the 20th century, coloured by the pessimism of a hero who had been through the fascist period on the right side, and survived. Despite my best efforts and the help of printed and online dictionaries, there are still places in the texts where I’m not sure that I’ve got the translation right.  The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, as a modernist, Montale didn’t write straightforward narratives.  Sometimes there is more than one narrative level, or he uses devices to cover what must be autobiography, or there are suggestive hints that leave you wondering and going back to the text to check you haven’t missed something. Some passages have genuinely perplexed me.  He was a great admirer of Eliot, who wasn’t all that bothered about always making himself clear either. On top of that, there are period references which an Italian reader just after the war would have got, but which are beyond us now, and occasionally I’ve given the translation a helping hand to make those clearer.  At some point I shall need the help of a native Italian speaker, preferably one with literary interests.

Lisi vrah, province of Shumen, Bulgaria

19 March 2020

Until tomorrow, when I hope to fly back to England, I’m going to stay in this house belonging to my brother’s friends, where I’ve been sleeping. The quarantine regulations have become severe in the light of the Covid-19 crisis. When I landed at Varna on Monday, there were no restrictions on incomers’ behaviour apart from a quick check on our temperature before passport control. Since Tuesday it’s got stricter. Incomers from other countries now have to sign a form saying where they will be staying, get there within five hours, stay there in isolation for two weeks, and be prepared for checks by the police. I was walking openly around Kriva Reka with my brother on Tuesday and Wednesday. Perhaps someone reported my presence, because this morning I was told that the police and the mayor there would like to see me this afternoon. Fortunately, Bez’s son explained to the authorities that I was sleeping here, and the mayor of Kriva Reka — who perhaps wanted a quiet life — said that in that case he didn’t want to know any more about it as long as my presence is reported to the mayor of Lisi vrah. My hosts John and Tracey have agreed to do this once I’ve left tomorrow. I say ‘I hope to fly back,’ since flights all over the world are being cancelled. At the moment, tomorrow’s Wizz Air flight from Varna to Luton is still on.

I got up early this morning and went for a walk with John up through extensive woods of beech and oak. We looked down on a huge field of lavender. John said that in August, when the plants are harvested, the smell is wonderful.

The nations of the world are taking ever more stringent steps to try to slow the progress of the disease. In the UK, there is as yet no decree requiring people to stay at home except for essential reasons, but it may come soon. As from tomorrow, all the schools in England will be closed; those in the other parts of the UK already are. Poor Italy has more than 3,000 deaths, most of them in Lombardy. Spain has 767. Worldwide, the death toll is near 9,000.

The European Central Bank has followed other central banks in offering huge sums of money in the form of loans or asset purchases to help businesses which would otherwise fail. The lesson is the same as in 2008: market capitalism is all very well, for some, when the sun is shining; when the weather changes dramatically for the worse, the state has to intervene. Unfortunately, the lesson is soon forgotten when the crisis has passed. For many businesses, smart practice is to diminish tax liability as far as possible, usually legally, sometimes illegally; and when things get tough, to cry out to governments for help. Several airlines may soon be nationalised, in whole or in part. I’d be quite happy about that. The trouble is that recent economic policy has been to return to the private sector companies which had been nationalised in an emergency, once the trouble has passed, rather than keeping a stake in businesses when they are profitable again so that the state and the people may benefit directly.

Camden Town

22 March 2020

I got back to London on Friday evening as planned. After narrowly avoiding the police on Thursday, I did meet two officers on Friday afternoon when they came round to the house. Evidently, my presence in Lisi vrah had been noted also. The men were charming, but they took all my passport details, and when I got to Varna airport a couple of hours later the woman on passport control spent a very long time looking at my passport, putting it back into the machine two or three times, and reading something on a screen which I couldn’t see, not that I would have understood it if I had.  My details must have been passed to the central computer, but probably the advice at the end was to let me go.  After about three minutes my passport was returned and I was through. The flight back was straightforward.

On the train from Luton to St Pancras I talked to a young Bulgarian man who had been on the plane with me. He was heading to Margate, where he has a fish and chip shop which he has been running for ten years. He hoped that business this coming season might be better than usual because holidaymakers probably won’t be able to travel abroad. On the other hand, he didn’t know whether or not he’d be allowed to open. That day, though I didn’t know it at the time, the government announced that all pubs, cafés and restaurants must close immediately. Restaurants will be allowed to sell food to be taken away. So I expect he’ll be all right. I was full of admiration for his courage and sense of initiative. He said that he’s going to apply for settled status in the UK, and then citizenship. I hope he succeeds; he’s the very opposite of the ‘scrounging east European overwhelming our public services’ which the Brexiteers have encouraged us to fear. But I was reminded, though I didn’t tell him this, that I went to Margate a short time after the 2016 referendum, at the height of the holiday season, and saw the white English working-class families on the beach with their St George’s flags fluttering in the breeze.

Last week Andy told me that in the villages in his region people wear red and white ribbons on their wrist from about mid-February. They’re called martinitsi, ‘March bands’. The tradition is that when you see your first stork each year, usually in March, you take the March band off and tie it to a tree closest to the point where you observed the bird. It’s a kind of fertility symbol. This year he and Bez were given March bands by Rosalinda, Bez’s granddaughter. She made them by plaiting wool. Having a pair of storks nesting in a village is seen as a good omen: hence the use of cartwheels or something similar on the top of poles to encourage storks to make their nests there.

Then, yesterday, he sent an email to say that the storks had returned. About a hundred of them were hanging in the sky. Everyone cheered. A pair have nested in Kriva Reka every year since he and Bez have lived there. Today he wrote that this morning twenty or so landed in the field behind the house and were feeding after their trip. ‘Frogs and lizards beware!’ I remember the description of the arrival of the storks in this part of the world in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

Camden Town

23 March 2020

A beautiful day, and Helen and I have just come back from shopping. The streets and the food shops are quiet. People are coming to understand the extraordinary changes which Covid-19 has imposed on our lives.

At the level of economic and social policy, the whole set of orthodoxies introduced under Thatcher and Reagan, which has done such deep damage to our societies, has been unceremoniously dumped by governments, including — as in the UK — by right-wing governments previously fixated on the idea of the small state. ‘There is no such thing as society,’ said Thatcher. Public bad, private good. The market can do almost everything better than the state. All this has been swept away. This morning the railways have been effectively renationalised. The private franchisees who still run most of them will be paid a management fee for continuing to do so. The state will shoulder all the railways’ liabilities and will own its assets, for at least six months. Private hospitals will now provide services to the NHS at cost, making no profit, bringing enormous new resources of people and equipment to the state at a stroke. And the huge interventions made by the chancellor since his first budget on 11 March — interventions which dwarf even those which the state made in 2008 — are there to stop complete economic collapse and the resulting social breakdown. The government will pay 80% of the wages of employed workers temporarily laid off, up to £2,500 a month, for at least three months and longer if necessary. This is a huge financial undertaking: tens of billions of pounds. They’ll make an announcement about self-employed workers later.

So it has taken an invisible force — the virus — to show how dangerous, how venal is the uncritical worship of the market. Suddenly, the state has a role to play, as economic observers of the sort I admire have been advocating for decades. Amongst those companies pleading for help from government are some whose owners and shareholders have grotesquely enriched themselves at the expense of the health of their business and the fair treatment of their workers. They have the loudest voices calling for rescue.

I expect that the airlines will have to be renationalised. National flag-carriers may once again become just that, rather than subsidiaries of multinational private entities.

I also expect, alas, is that once this is over — in three months, six months, a year? — the lessons will be forgotten, and we shall go back to business as usual, with the accompanying injustices and increases in inequality. Meanwhile, as stock markets crash and the super-wealthy seek ‘safe havens’ for their assets, they continue to avoid paying their share of tax.

It’s still the case that the UK’s death toll is greatly lower than that in Italy (which has suffered worse than any other country), Spain and France. Whether it remains that way, or whether we’re in for the same degree of loss, remains to be seen. I think the government may introduce sterner measures to restrict movement in the next few days.

Camden Town

27 March 2020

We’re now four days into a state of lockdown unprecedented in my lifetime, although the restrictions aren’t as severe as they are in France, Italy and Spain. The Prime Minister broadcast to the nation on Monday evening, essentially telling everyone to stay at home unless obliged to go out for essential reasons such as food shopping. One daily walk or run for exercise is allowed. The weather in England and Wales all week has been sunny and clear, so there is a dreamlike feeling in the streets: hardly anyone about, warm sunshine on the empty, quiet buildings, and birdsong audible as it rarely is in London in the daytime.

Yesterday, as previously promised, the chancellor made another enormous offer of financial support from the government, this time to the five million self-employed people normally working in the economy. Those with profits up to £50,000 a year will get the same benefits as employed people: the government will pay 80% of their average income, as calculated from tax returns over the last three years, up to £2,500 a month, for three months at least and for longer if necessary. Those with tax returns of a shorter time than three years will be treated on the basis of one or two years of tax returns. Because dealing with the self-employed is more complex than it is with the employed, the system won’t start paying out until June. Until then, self-employed people no longer working will have to rely on savings, or borrow from their bank, or apply for Universal Credit, which pays £94 a week. The quantity of debt which the government will be taking on to see us through this crisis is vast: I’m sure larger than ever before (perhaps except for lend-lease during the Second World War?).

Italy has more than 8,000 deaths, Spain nearly 5,000, France about 1,700, the UK ‘only’ 578, although the NHS is braced for many more in the next two or three weeks. China, where the worst of the crisis seems to be past, has suffered more than 3,000 deaths. The US, where — so far as I can see — the worst is just beginning, now has about 1,300 deaths. Trump is talking about getting Americans back to work by Easter. I think that may be another of his fantasies, although of course I hope he’s right. Some research reported on the BBC’s website estimates that the US will have more than 80,000 Covid-19-related deaths over the next four months. That is a very big number when you compare it with the current total number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world: 24,000. I suppose you could say that, on a planet with a population of 7.5 billion, 24,000 is a small number. But if the prediction for the US comes to pass, and there are similar huge increases elsewhere, we could be facing very significant losses. More significant than losses in the wars that we live with all the time, and seem unable to stop? Wars continue as the world’s economy booms. This virus, on the other hand, has brought the world’s economy almost to a standstill. One good thing: the planet is breathing more freely.

Meanwhile, we live in our little flat, going out only to shop for food every two or three days and to walk round St Pancras Gardens several times each afternoon. We play Scrabble and do the quick crossword in The Guardian. We’re members of the lucky generation, with nothing to worry about. Our generous pensions pop into our bank accounts as we find ways to fill our time.

I’m carrying on with the translations of Montale’s stories. I’ve done seven now. When I’ve done the first group of thirteen, I’ll try to find a native Italian with an interest in Montale, as I wrote a few days ago.

Camden Town

10 April 2020

I’ve just finished the thirteen translations. And I’ve found, through Betty Rosen, the perfect person to correct my mistakes. Arturo Tosi was a friend and admirer of Harold Rosen. I think he worked at Royal Holloway College. He spoke at least once at the Language in Inner-City Schools conferences which Harold and I, with others, used to organise. He’s a sociolinguist, and I was naturally interested, given my Bedfordshire background, in the study he made of the language of the migrant Italian community in Bedford. The London Brick Company had travelled to villages in Calabria and Sicily after the war to recruit labourers for the Bedfordshire brickfields. I worked with some of those people when I was a student. ‘Blocking’, where you transferred the bricks which had come out of the ovens in a honeycomb formation, which had let the heat circulate, to a solid three-dimensional block, was the most exhausting physical work I’ve ever done. Arturo had discovered that the highly dialectal Italian of the Bedfordshire migrants had remained remote from standard Italian, whereas those people’s families who had remained in the villages of southern Italy had shifted their language closer to standard Italian under the pressure of mass communications and formal education.

Arturo now lives near Buonconvento, not far from Rodellosso. He’s correcting one story a day. We should finish the thirteen on Sunday if he keeps it up. I’m going to pay him by a consignment of Luciano Ciolfi’s Rosso di Montalcino.

The Covid-19 pandemic has now killed nearly 100,000 people across the world, according to official figures published by Johns Hopkins University. I’m sure that the true figure is much higher than that, because of all the people who have died in care homes and other places which are not hospitals, where the statistics are harder to collect. The countries with the largest numbers of reported deaths to date are Italy (18,849), USA (17,842), Spain (15,970), France (12,210) and UK (8,958). The official figure from China, where the disease started and where it has now almost ended, is 3,336. I’m inclined to distrust that figure, simply because governments in autocracies tend to lie. (I was pleased to hear today that China is considering changing the status of dogs, so that they are to be regarded as pets rather than a source of food, and that they want to discourage the eating of wild animals. It’s very probable that this virus was transmitted to humans because of the Chinese predilection for exotic meat.) I also distrust Iran’s figure of 4,357 deaths. Germany, whose figures I do trust, has ‘only’ 2,591 deaths, because it did much more testing much earlier, and because it has a greater supply of the essential equipment for fighting the disease, including ventilators.

I fear very much for the USA, with its lying braggart of a president and the inequalities in its population’s access to health care, grievous despite Obama’s modest reforms, which Trump’s lawyers are doing their best to reverse. Governor Cuomo of New York has been a hero throughout the crisis: clear, straightforward and compassionate.

We continue with our routine. Helen learns French with the help of a charming on-line teacher called Alexa. I translate Montale. We shop for food once every two or three days; we exercise once a day. We have no idea when this will end. It’s the most significant enforced change in the lives of those of us born in the rich West after 1945.

Camden Town

12 April 2020

After several days of clear skies and summer-like weather, it clouded over a bit and a light shower fell as Helen and I walked round St Pancras Gardens. But now the sun is out again, pouring through my window.

More than 10,000 deaths from Covid-19 have now been reported from hospitals in the UK. The actual figure is much higher. The Prime Minister has been discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital, after a week there, including several days in intensive care. He’s at Chequers and has just made a little film, thanking the people who looked after him, which I must say is very moving. The question is: after all this is over, will there really be a change in priorities, so that the NHS gets the resources it needs, either through an increase in taxes — my preferred method — or through even more borrowing than is going to have to occur anyway?

There’s a stark comparison between the UK’s and Germany’s performances during the crisis so far. Both are rich, industrial western-European countries. Infections began in both at about the same time. Germany has had 125,452 confirmed cases so far: 1,509 per one million of population. It has suffered ‘only’ 2,871 deaths. The UK has had 84,279 confirmed cases so far: 1,269 per one million of population. We have suffered 10,612 deaths. So, despite having more than 41,000 fewer confirmed cases than Germany, we have suffered 7,741 more deaths. The lessons are clear: Germany has not limited funds to its health service, as our government has done since 2010 in the cause of austerity; and, once the pandemic declared itself there, it immediately instituted a large-scale system of testing which meant that those infected could be isolated. It did so because it could. It had the kit. We didn’t, and we’ve been trying to catch up ever since. And Germany had enough emergency equipment in its hospitals to make sure that those who had a fighting chance of survival when they got there were given that chance.

The percentage of reported cases that have ended in death in the UK is 12.59. Comparisons with other European countries: France 14.74; Italy 12.79; Spain 10.22; Germany 2.29. So Germany has done enormously better, not just than the UK, but than other comparable countries too. So far as the UK is concerned, I hope that the shameful comparison — and other equally stark bits of evidence — will make their presence felt in funding decisions in the future; but I can’t say that I’m sure that they will, despite the unprecedented nature of the experience we’re going through.

Camden Town

17 April 2020

Not much new to report about the health emergency:

‘I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.’

The number of confirmed deaths from Covid-19 in UK hospitals is 14,576. The actual figure, as I wrote the other day, is much higher. Equivalent figures in other countries: USA 34,814; Italy 22,170; Spain 19,478; France 17, 920; Germany 4,105. Smaller countries, where the gross figure is lower, have also suffered very badly per head of population: Belgium 5,163; Switzerland 1,318. Belgium’s and Switzerland’s numbers of confirmed cases per million of population are almost double that of Germany. But the key statistic, so far as one can extrapolate anything from these figures, is the relationship between confirmed cases and deaths. The UK’s percentage of reported cases ending in death has gone up to 13.41; France 16.46; Italy 13.12; Spain 10.36; Germany 2.97. The USA has easily the highest number of deaths in the world, at 34,814, but its percentage of deaths as against reported cases is low at 5.14. Of course I’m pleased about that; I’m not sure how the country has managed it, given the ineptitude of its leader and the fragmented nature of its health service. There is the heroic performance by those caring for the sick, of course, and the proper leadership shown by some state governors, notably Andrew Cuomo; but then those caring for the sick here, and in other European countries, have been equally heroic. So that low percentage in the USA is a bit of a merciful mystery.

In the UK, we face at least another three weeks of lockdown. There are louder and louder calls, from authoritative sources, for the scale of testing practised in Germany to be achieved here as soon as possible, so that those infected, and their contacts, can be isolated, and the uninfected can get back to whatever represents normality in their lives. Without that, and during the long period before a vaccine is widely available, the fear is that the virus will simply run riot again as soon as there is any significant lifting of the restrictions.

I’ve finished my first 13 Montale stories. Arturo Tosi sent me one each day with his corrections. I’ve sent them now to Mark for the website. I think I might send them also to the Istituto Italiano in London, to see whether they might be interested in doing anything with them. I wrote to Luciano Ciolfi, who owns the San Lorenzo vineyard at Montalcino, only a few kilometres from where Arturo lives. He’s going to deliver a case of Rosso di Montalcino to Arturo when people in Italy are allowed to move around more freely.

Peter Dougill rang on Monday. I mentioned my sadness that I’m not going to get down to Hove in May to watch a bit of cricket with Mick Robertson and him. He jokingly remarked that attendances at four-day county games are so sparse that social distancing, as required by the government, wouldn’t be difficult. This gave me the idea for a light piece which I’ve sent to the two of them. I’m not sure whether it’s substantial enough to put on the website under ‘Other Works’, but here it is anyway.

County Cricket and Social Distancing

For Peter Dougill and Mick Robertson

Two dear friends of mine are members of Sussex County Cricket Club, and I’ve recently spoken to them both on the telephone. They, like me, are mourning the temporary death of county cricket — how temporary remains to be seen — under the impact of Covid-19. The grim reaper is no longer merely a figure swivelling in the wind at Lord’s. One of them pointed out that attendances at the four-day games are generally so sparse anyway that social distancing of the sort recommended by the government — two metres, or, for the older generation (that is, almost all aficionados of the four-day game), six feet — would in any case be easy to achieve, although club members might have to take turns to enjoy the comforts of the pavilion and access to Harvey’s bitter beer in proper glasses.

Of course, the age demographic of what it would not be correct to call ‘the crowd’ at these games means that strict adherence to the recommendation is even more important here than it is in social life generally. One of my friends tells me that on the first morning of the first four-day game of each season, in April, an associate of his conducts a roll-call of the old lags gathered around him on the benches in front of the pavilion, looking forward as they are to five more months of sardonic complaint about the club’s mismanagement, to check who, if anyone, has died over the winter. We can imagine how much more poignant this moment of truth is likely to be after the present emergency.

I’m mourning with my friends, because one of the highlights of my year is to take the train down to Hove in May, and spend two days in their company watching part of a match. But the thought about social distancing with regard to spectators has caused me to speculate on what implications the same requirements would have with regard to players.

For the fielders, the most radical change would be in the slips. First slip, in order to be two metres from the wicketkeeper, would have to move out to about where a conventional third slip is now. Second slip would go to a wide gulley. Naming of positions would immediately be simpler: ‘slip’ and ‘gulley’ would be all you would need. The other fielders normally close behind the bat on the off side would be posted to the outfield; so, inevitably, fields would be more defensive from the start of an innings than they are now.

Something similar would have to happen with the short leg(s), although in this case the social distancing would be between fielder(s) and batsman instead of (with only one short leg) or in addition to (with more than one) that between fielder and fielder. It may well be that conventional forward or square short leg, often dangerously close to the bat when a bowler strays down the leg side (an increasingly likely eventuality: see my remarks below about the bowler’s run-up), might privately be relieved by the obligation to place himself a little further from potential injury. And at the level of the casual conversations which of course must go on during a playing day of six hours, intimate chats between the square-leg fielder and the square-leg umpire would be more difficult.

I think, in terms of the balance of advantage to one side or the other caused by these necessities, that there would be a slight advantage to the batting side, because of the ease with which runs could be scored through a now largely vacated, or at least sparsely populated, slip area. And the new ball wouldn’t be the same weapon with a more defensive field. On the other hand, the batsmen, when crossing for runs, would need to keep away from each other under the two-metre rule, meaning that twenty-two yards (at least cricket hasn’t yet gone to metres for that measurement) would have to be extended to twenty-three or twenty-four, with the batsmen’s career becoming more a parabola, like that of a biased bowl in crown green bowls, than a straight line. There would be an incidental benefit at the level of ‘fair play’: that concept which the English, and English cricketers in particular, have so successfully exported to the rest of the world. Batsmen would no longer be tempted to the vile practice of running on the wicket, especially during second innings, in order to mess it up for the opposition when their turn came to bat.

What of the bowler as he approaches his delivery stride? Only two possibilities here: either (and this is not satisfactory) he delivers the ball two metres to the side of the umpire, over or round the wicket, meaning that the trajectory as the ball comes to the batsman is always oblique, something perhaps like a curve ball in baseball; or the umpire stands much further back from the wicket than is now usual, so that the bowler’s arrival there doesn’t compromise his safety. Umpires, the kindest and most forbearing of men, are often criticised for not spotting no-balls, as if they didn’t have enough to think about and watch out for, and an umpire standing, let us say, four metres behind the stumps would have even less chance of making correct adjudications than at present. Perhaps this is an inconvenience we shall have to live with, and it does tip the balance of advantage back a little towards the fielding side.

Moments of bad temper are only to be expected in these trying times. We can imagine two fielders, let us say deep mid wicket and deep long on, converging for a steepling catch which the batsman has put up in attempting to go to his century with a six over what illiterates call ‘cow corner’. The two are keeping one eye on the ball and one on each other, but each at the last minute remembers the government’s advice on social distancing, and stops, expecting the other to go on to take the catch. The ball plops down between them and they look at each other. It is a relief, given the captain’s choice of words to them, that four-day county cricket uses no stump microphone. Or an apparently easy catch at (new) slip or (new) gulley goes down in the first over after lunch; on enquiry from the enraged captain, the unfortunate fielder admits that the alcoholic hand-gel he had diligently applied after using the lavatory just before returning to the field of play had remained on his fingers and made them slippery.

These are some of the changes we must expect if, as we fervently hope, the four-day game resumes soon, with social distancing. And, just as the worst catastrophes in the world benefit someone somewhere (the Northamptonshire boot makers during the First World War), so we lovers of the long-form game may expect a moment (who knows, perhaps even a season) of relief from Twenty Twenty and The Hundred, where social distancing is, thank goodness, an impossibility.

I’ve been meaning for a couple of weeks to write a poem about the pandemic, using the same dactylic ABBA form as ‘At a Banking Crisis’, which I wrote in 2008. I’ve sent it to Paul Ashton to see what he thinks. It doesn’t have the wit of the other poem; it’s perhaps a bit po-faced. But here it is.

The Priests of Mammon at a Pandemic

They’d told us that markets are wiser than states,
that nothing exists but demand and supply,
that crumbs from the greater would drop from on high
as food for the lesser to spread on their plates.

A plague struck the earth: an invisible stain
which silenced the preachers of profit and greed.
Then nurses, not bankers, stepped up to our need
and states and society flourished again

until it was over. We’d buried the dead.
The preachers emerged with a sigh of relief.
‘That sad interruption was mercifully brief,
and “Business as usual” from now on,’ they said.

Camden Town

21 April 2020

Before Paul had replied to the version of the poem above, I’d already changed it to:

They told us that mammon is wiser than states,
that sanctity dwells in demand and supply,
that crumbs from the greater will drop from on high
as food for the lesser to spread on their plates…

Then plague struck the earth: an invisible stain
which tarnished the glitter of profit and greed,
and nurses, not bankers, stepped up to our need
and states and society flourished again

until it passed over. We buried the dead.
The priests re-emerged with a sigh of relief.
‘That sad interruption was mercifully brief,
and “Business as usual” from now on,’ they said.

He agreed that this second version was better than the first, but quite correctly asked how an invisible stain could tarnish glitter. So I had another think. Here’s the third and, I hope, the final version:

They told us that mammon is wiser than states,
that sanctity dwells in demand and supply,
that crumbs from the greater will drop from on high
as food for the lesser to spread on their plates…

Then plague struck the earth: its invisible hand
unsettled the copestones in temples of greed,
and nurses, not bankers, stepped up to our need,
and dissident doctrines were heard in the land,

until it passed over. We buried the dead.
The priests re-emerged with a sigh of relief.
‘That sad interruption was mercifully brief.
It’s business as usual from now on,’ they said.

I’m rather pleased with ‘invisible hand’, because of the ironic reference to Adam Smith, although it could be criticised as excessively learned. And I’m pleased to have maintained the religious metaphor throughout. Heaney admirers will notice a similarity with his line near the end of ‘Anything Can Happen’, that extraordinary updated version of one of Horace’s odes:

‘Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.’

I’ve been editing a second book by Peter Hetherington, to be called After Words. It’s a collection of his prose, poetry and pictures. Stephen Mellor is doing a wonderful job with the design.

I’ve just finished reading or re-reading all Herbert’s lyric poems, in the awesomely scholarly Oxford edition containing all his works, including great swathes of Latin.  The very last poem in the collection published in 1633 as The Temple, ‘L’Envoy’, isn’t one of his best: not up the standard of ‘Prayer’, ’The Collar’, ’The Pulley’, ‘The Pearl’, ‘Love (III) — Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back…’ or ‘Jordan (I) — Who says that fictions onely and false hair / Become a verse?’ But here it is.

‘King of Glorie, King of Peace
With the one make warre to cease;
With the other blesse thy sheep,
Thee to love, in thee to sleep.
Let not Sinne devoure thy fold,
Bragging that thy bloud is cold,
That thy death is also dead,
While his conquests dayly spread;
That thy flesh hath lost his food,
And thy Crosse is common wood.
Choke him, let him say no more,
But reserve his breath in store,
Till thy conquests and his fall
Make his sighs to use it all,
And then bargain with the winde
To discharge what is behinde.

Blessed be God alone,
Thrice blessed Three in One.

Finis.’  [That is, the end of the whole book.] 

I can’t con the last lines of the last poem in a book of devout verses in any way other than that Herbert is telling ‘sinne’, defeated by God, to fart, so as to be humiliated in that way.  The scholarly but perhaps prudish Canon Hutchinson says nothing about it in the notes. I consulted Paul, and he is as puzzled as I am. As he writes: ‘I still can't quite believe he would end the whole highly devotional work with such a rude gag — but there it is.’

Herbert is a very great poet, and would be if he’d only written the poems I mention above. I’ve always thought the label ‘metaphysical’ unfortunate, because although he, Donne, Vaughan, Marvell and others do discuss philosophical matters, the peculiar genius of the best works of the best of the 17th-century lyric poets — by which I mean the four I’ve named — is that they are physical, not metaphysical.  Doctor Johnson’s disapproval is to blame. Wikipedia tells me that Johnson ‘refers to the beginning of the seventeenth century in which there “appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets”… he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden, who said of John Donne: “He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this... Mr. [Abraham] Cowley has copied him to a fault.”’  I’d rather an inch of Herbert or Donne than yards and yards of Dryden or Pope.  So perhaps Herbert did intend the whole book to end with that most physical of references. 

Camden Town

2 May 2020

A beautiful spring day. Helen and I have just come back from our regular walk around St Pancras Gardens. Yesterday I bought food for the next three days. Our lives are perfectly regular in these strange times. We get up about 8.30, bathe, breakfast, depart to our respective tasks (Helen learning French with the help of Alexa; me writing, or working on the lease extension business for about twenty-five of the flats in this block, or on the project to do with the redevelopment of the industrial estate across the road). We eat a cold lunch at about one. Back to the tasks for an hour and a half. The walk at three. Back to the tasks again. Aperitif at 6.30. Watch the news on Channel 4 at seven, while eating. Do The Guardian crossword together. Play Scrabble some nights. Helen watches lots of films on her computer. I return to the study to read (just now, I’m re-reading all of Robert Frost). Coffee about ten. Bed about midnight. And so it goes on. Every three days I read stories to Paul, my great-nephew in Marseille, via Facetime.

Deaths mount up. The official total for the UK is now 28,131. The actual total will be much higher than that, as I’ve written before, because the official total is of those who have tested positive for the disease, whether in hospitals, care homes or elsewhere in the community, and have been certified as dying from it. Many people who have not been tested, whose deaths have been caused directly or indirectly by Covid-19, have not been formally certified as dying from that cause.

The USA has recorded 65,905 deaths due to Covid-19; Spain 25,100; Italy 28,236; France 24,594. Germany continues to do well, with ‘only’ 6,735 deaths. Worldwide, the death toll at this moment, according to Google News, is 238,999.

Governments across the world are faced with a dilemma: how to reassure increasingly restive populations that there is a way out of this crisis, even if gradual, while persuading those populations that the premature easing of restrictions might only see the virus return with full force. No government in my lifetime has had to make decisions of this kind and of this awesome consequence.

Monique Le Gal, the co-president of Les Amis de Saint Guénaël, has died of a vascular aneurysm in the brain. She was a lovely, vivacious, busy person, mother of two children, grandmother of three, adored by her husband Eric. She was 59. Because of le confinement, as France calls the lockdown, only five people were allowed to attend the funeral. It must have been a comfort to Eric and the family that Jean-Marc Harnois, the priest of the parishes of Cléguer and Pont-Scorff, is a wonderful person, a friend of the family and always active at la fête de Saint Guénaël, over and beyond his celebration of the mass in the morning. He will have conducted the funeral. I’ve written to Eric.

I’ve written two new Madame Granic stories. I then re-read the whole series, and was afflicted by the thought that my casual use of some of my friends’ real names, including Le Gal, transferred to characters in the stories, might cause hurt or embarrassment. The name Granic itself is also a bit too close to the family name of Dominique and Jocelyne, who have their own troubles (not death, thank goodness) at the moment. So I’ve changed all the names, both for people and for places, to put a bit of distance between the ‘fictions’ and the facts which gave rise to them. Madame Granic is now Madame Menez. Plouay is now Plouzalver, ‘zalver’ being the Breton word for ‘saviour’, ‘sauveur’. The Ruisseau du Saint Sauveur runs through Plouay, and marks the boundary of our land at the bottom of the wood. I’ve also re-ordered the stories (there are now thirteen) so that the main events affecting Madame Menez are interspersed with narratives which she supposedly hears on her rounds. I’ve asked the long-suffering Mark to replace the existing stories on the website with the new versions.

Camden Town

6 May 2020

Two nights ago, I was awoken by the most stupendous noise across the car park. It went on and on. No chance of getting back to sleep. I stumbled to the window in the living room. Lamplight leaking from the street revealed two full-grown foxes, brushes up, bellowing, baying, howling at each other (what is the word? ‘barking’ is inadequate): an unholy, violent, machine-like racket. While still in bed, emerging from slumber, I had wondered whether it was magpies. This was a bit like that unpleasant football-rattle call of magpies, but magnified five times. One animal was male. He cocked his leg up to urinate against the beech tree. I wasn’t sure about the other. Was this an argument over territory? Or the weirdest, most public kind of courtship ritual? After a while they disappeared behind the big communal dustbins. For several minutes I heard scuffling but no more howling. Were they fighting in there, one establishing dominance, or copulating? Then the male emerged, and went his way. He seemed triumphant. He returned, twice, before disappearing permanently into the night. Later, the other fox emerged, and left in the opposite direction. That animal seemed dejected: tail between the legs.

Solitary foxes are of course a common sight in London these days. But I’ve never seen or heard anything like that.

Camden Town

8 May 2020

Today is a public holiday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in Europe. The celebrations are muted because of the lockdown. On Sunday, the Prime Minister will announce some easing of the restrictions, but I expect them to be cautious. The popular newspapers had ridiculous headlines yesterday, such as ‘Magic Monday!’, imagining that life will return to normal then. The price we pay for a free press is the latitude it gives some newspapers to say things which are palpably untrue and get away with it.

I’ve just re-read all Robert Frost’s poems. I expect, if I were to go back through the diaries a few years, I might find an entry noting that I’d just read them all for the first time. Yesterday I went back through the collected edition and listed the poems I had particularly admired. There were 106. If other great poets (Auden, Rilke, Montale) get up to 30 or 40 poems which, I reckon, really are in the top bracket, that qualifies them, for me, as great. But more than 100! I suppose my admiration has something to do with his preference for form (his famous remark about why he didn’t write free verse), and to do with the plainness of his diction. He was a learned, educated person, it’s true, and that is often wittily evident; but he’s never obscure, and his preference is for the language of the common person.

Here are my 106.

‘The Pasture’, ‘A Late Walk’, ‘Rose Pogonias’, ‘Waiting’, ‘Going for Water’, ‘The Tuft of Flowers’, ‘In Hardwood Groves’, ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘The Mountain’, ‘A Hundred Collars’, ‘Home Burial’, ‘The Black Cottage’, ‘Blueberries’, ‘After Apple-Picking’, ‘The Code’, ‘The Fear’, ‘The Self-Seeker’, ‘The Wood Pile’, ‘Good Hours’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, ‘The Exposed Nest’, ‘In the Home Stretch’, ‘Meeting and Passing’, ‘Hyla Brook’, ‘Birches’, ‘Putting in the Seed’, ‘A Time to Talk’, ‘The Cow in Apple Time’, ‘Range-Finding’, ‘The Hill Wife II — House Fear’, ‘A Girl’s Garden’, ‘“Out, Out —’’’, ‘The Gum-Gatherer’, ‘The Line-Gang’, ‘The Vanishing Red’, ‘Snow’, ‘The Census-Taker’, ‘The Star-Splitter’, ‘Maple’, ‘The Ax-Helve’, ‘The Grindstone’, ‘Paul’s Wife’, ‘Wild Grapes’, ‘Place for a Third’, ‘To E.T.’, ‘The Runaway’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘For Once, Then, Something’, ‘The Onset’, ‘Two Look at Two’, ‘Not to Keep’, ‘A Brook in the City’, ‘Evening in a Sugar Orchard’, ‘On a Tree Fallen Across the Road’, ‘The Need of Being Versed in Country Things’, ‘Spring Pools’, ‘A Passing Glimpse’, ‘A Peck of Gold’, ‘Tree at my Window’, ‘The Thatch’, ‘Acquainted with the Night’, ‘West-Running Brook’, ‘A Soldier’, ‘The Investment’, ‘The Door in the Dark’, ‘On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations’, ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’, ‘The Gold Hesperidee’, ‘A Roadside Stand’, ‘On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind’, ‘The Figure in the Doorway’, ‘At Woodward’s Gardens’, ‘They were Welcome to their Belief’, ‘The Strong are Saying Nothing’, ‘Moon Compasses’, ‘Design’, ‘Unharvested’, ‘There are Roughly Zones’, ‘Ten Mills VIII — The Hardship of Accounting’, ‘The Silken Tent’, ‘The Most of It’, ‘Willful Homing’, ‘The Quest of the Purple-Fringed’, ‘The Gift Outright’, ‘Our Hold on the Planet’, ‘To a Young Wretch’, ‘To a Moth Seen in Winter’, ‘An Equalizer’, ‘Trespass’, ‘Not of School Age’, ‘A Young Birch’, ‘An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box’, ‘A Mood Apart’, ‘The Fear of Man’, ‘A Rogers Group’, ‘On Being Idolized’, ‘The Ingenuities of Debt’, ‘One More Brevity’, ‘Auspex’, ‘Ends’, ‘Peril of Hope’, ‘Questioning Faces’, ‘The Objection to Being Stepped On’, ‘On Being Chosen Poet of Vermont’.

If I could only have one of these, it would be ‘There are Roughly Zones’. And I will just write out ‘The Hardship of Accounting’, the eighth in a series of shorts called ‘Ten Mills’, because it sums up my approach to money:

‘Never ask of money spent
Where the spender thinks it went.
Nobody was ever meant
To remember or invent
What he did with every cent.’

I’ve done two more lockdown poems: another heavy one, and one light. Here they are.

The Locked-down Citizenry at a Pandemic

The passage of the hours is regular and slow.
We do the same things slightly differently each day,
but now we note the differences within the same.
Restless impatient children, we anticipate
the circuit of the park allowed for exercise;
a shopping trip for food becomes a kind of treat.
Indoors, each family, each person finds a way
to occupy this unexpected interlude:
read, write, reach out to others, play our favourite game,
switch on the news, clink glasses as we watch and eat,
suspicious of most politicians’ soothing lies,
admiring those who trust us with the truth they know.
Closer than most of us have come to megadeath,
our fiercest common feeling is of gratitude
to that till now unlauded ministering band
of brothers, sisters, heroes of the wounded state,
who stand to help the helpless fighting for each breath
and, when they’re dying, sit with them and hold their hand.

While Ye May…

Our kindly neighbour telephones from Brittany.
All’s well. He’s mown our lawn. He lacks our company.
One difficulty only (it’s the same each year):
‘Your plumping rosebuds have been gobbled by the deer.’

The first-world problem of a second home in France:
I’m tempted to reverse my anti-hunting stance.
The liberties those creatures take when we’re away!
A locked-down Londoner, ‘in city pent’, I say,

‘Why can’t wild animals find something else to eat?
There’s all that grass; what makes my roses such a treat?’
I sense his Gallic shrug. ‘I’m sorry for your waste.
Hélas, it seems French roe deer have exquisite taste.’

The second of these I owe to Paul Ashton. I had mentioned to him in an email that Jean had told me about the damage the deer were doing. Paul commiserated, while suggesting that it shows what good taste those creatures have. In the first, I’m sure that Frost’s frequent use of irregularly occurring full rhymes must have had its effect on me. It certainly did when I wrote ‘After “After Apple-Picking”’ a few years ago.

Camden Town

19 May 2020

Not much to report. Our lives are extraordinarily regular. The sun shines in this summer-like spring. Helen learns French. I write poems, or translate them. I’ve done six of Ronsard’s lyrics, and I’ll do a few more. I shan’t attempt any of his long political poems, often concerned with the religious wars ravaging his country (and where, like Montaigne, he took a strictly Catholic stance in the face of the rise of Protestantism). I’ll stick to the love poems.

Last week the government eased the lockdown a little. We’re now allowed to visit one person not of our household, as long as we stay outside and keep two metres’ distance between us. We’re discouraged from using public transport unless absolutely necessary. On the first day of the new dispensation, I drove up to Betty Rosen’s house, and we had coffee in her garden. This afternoon we’re going to Helen’s brother and sister-in-law. Helen needs to borrow some summer clothes from Christine (Helen’s are all at Kerfontaine). There’s no prospect of getting to France before mid-June, and perhaps not even then.

Several European countries are beginning to open up, cautiously. It does seem, for the moment, that the worst of the crisis has passed in Europe. People are still dying, but in smaller numbers. In the USA, the death toll has passed 90,000, although new cases are on a slight decline. Trump’s responses to the crisis continue to be incoherent. Never has the USA had such inept leadership in a time of international crisis. In several South American countries (notably Brazil, with its equally disastrous president) and numerous other poorer countries of the South, cases and deaths are still on the rise, although — apart from Brazil — the raw numbers of deaths are still relatively low (India 3,163, Mexico 5,332, Pakistan 939, Bangladesh 349, Nigeria 192, Ghana 29, Egypt 645, Indonesia 1,221). Of course, these figures (which I’ve got from Google News, which in turn reports its sources as Wikipedia and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) only include people who were tested and confirmed positive for the virus. There must in reality be many more cases and many more deaths.

Camden Town

22 May 2020

I’ve only done one more Ronsard translation, and I think I’ll stop there. I began to feel a bit guilty that I was spending my time translating highly wrought bits of smut, however canonically great Ronsard is. To ease my conscience, I’ve written a riposte by the three women to whom his love poems are addressed: Cassandra, Marie and Helen.

Cassandra, Marie and Helen: Memo to Pierre

Ronsard, we don’t deserve this elegant abuse.
The myth that fourteen lines of whining can create!
Don’t tell us it’s just literature: that’s no excuse.
And pay attention while we put the record straight.

We’re sorry that a part of you is fit to burst
because we’re not inclined to tumble into bed
without, at least, a little conversation first,
but there it is. We’ve heard the sales pitch and we’ve read

the catalogue: the fading blossoms, setting suns,
‘I’m going grey, so how about a cuddle?’ Please!
Catullus, Petrarch, you: well-heeled male poet paints

himself as victim; us as basilisks or nuns.
So be advised (and tell the other Pléiades):
the three of us have had enough of your complaints.

If I produce a new book of poems and translations, I’ll put this after the seven Ronsards.

The Borough

25 May 2020

We’re in Bronwyn’s and Stephen’s flat in Southwark. We drove over last night, after ten, with several bags. I got up at six this morning and took the car back to our car park: these timings to avoid the central London congestion charge, which now applies seven days a week from seven in the morning until ten at night.

It’s delightful to be here, in another district of London, in a flat with a balcony in this summery weather. We spoke to Bronwyn and Stephen this morning, and they’re happy for us to stay here as long as we like.

But the reason we’re here isn’t delightful at all.

A couple lives above us in Weavers Way, with whom I’ve been on perfectly civil terms over many years when we’ve passed each other on the stairs on in the street. Occasionally they play their music too loud late at night. We are not obsessive about this; we understand that there are disadvantages to living in flats. And of course in recent years there have been long periods when we’ve been in France. Helen or I have been up a few times — at intervals of many months — to ask them to turn the music down when it’s coming quite clearly through our ceiling after 11.30 at night. This I did last Friday at about that time. I knocked on the door, which the man opened a crack. I simply said, calmly, ‘Too loud, too loud.’ He may have said, ‘OK,’ but I could tell just from that brief interchange that he was intoxicated, whether by drink or drugs or a mixture I don’t know. The result of the exchange was the opposite of what I had asked. He turned his music up contemptuously loud, and then began shouting abusively as loud as he could. He uttered frequent obscenities, naming me. He called me a filthy cunt: not once, but several times. He also periodically got a stick or some other hard object and banged repeatedly on his floor, determined to keep us awake. This behaviour continued until about 1.30 in the morning. At this point I telephoned the police. I explained what was happening, was told that this was a matter of second-order priority, and that someone would arrive within about an hour. When the abuse and banging became more frequent, I telephoned again. I was told that help was on its way. Eventually two young constables turned up, one male one female; they had got lost, and I had to retrieve them from the block of flats across the car park. From the car park, I pointed out the flashing red strobe lights which were accompanying the music. The constables went up, and we overheard what happened. The man’s partner gave them a long intoxicated monologue, attempting to justify their behaviour, to which the police listened politely before asking that the music be lowered. They came back downstairs and reported to us that the woman was drunk. I described, using the actual words, the abuse which had been directed at me. They told me that nothing could be done about this because I was in my own flat, and not in personal danger; there was no public-order offence. They departed. As soon as they had gone, the music, abuse and banging resumed, this time with sneering shouts of ‘Call the police, call the police.’ It stopped at about 3.15.

I lay down on the settee in my clothes, and remained awake until six. Then I went to bed and slept for a couple of hours. When I got up, I rang the police again to report what had happened since the constables’ visit. I wanted to be sure that everything was on the record in case this happened again.

During Saturday, I examined my state of mind. I realised that I was in a state of utter rage. I knew that the frustration and sense of offence — offence that this could happen to us with apparent impunity on the part of the perpetrators — was doing me no good at all, physically or mentally. My heart was beating much faster than normal. I was sweating heavily. I kept having violent fantasies about what I would like to do to the man; I wasn’t sure, if I were to pass him on the stairs, that I wouldn’t assault him with whatever sharp instrument I had to hand. Now this may sound implausible, but I do remember the only other time in my life when I was close to physically assaulting another man. It was when I flew down to Marseille 23 years ago to rescue my sister from her abusive husband (about whose death I wrote on 18 March; although I was concerned then about the distress which the circumstances of the death would cause to my sister and her children, the truth is that I was delighted that the man was dead; I had been looking forward to the event). In January 1997 I was certainly prepared to commit violence if necessary, even if that violence might land me in jail. On Saturday morning my feelings were the same. But of course the rational bit of me knew that I should avoid any such encounter; not out of fear of the offender, but out of fear of what I might do to him, and of the turmoil into which a violent act would throw my and Helen’s lives.

I knew that the possibility of calm, undistracted mental normality had gone. It was impossible to imagine settling down to write anything. I knew that every evening I would be waiting for the music to start, wondering whether to put up with it, wondering whether to attempt another reasoned request or to go straight to the police. I think there’s a slight difference between Helen and me in our attitude to what happened. Although she is as shocked and upset as I am, she is a little more inclined to make some allowance for the fact that the couple were out of their heads with intoxicants of some kind, certainly including alcohol. And I admitted at the beginning of this entry that my casual encounters with the man over the years have been civil. But I am absolutely not prepared to make any such allowance. The young woman constable smiled slightly, simpered, when she described the other woman’s drunkenness. I don’t share that tolerance at all.

Before pursuing this rant, I’ll add something not connected with Friday night’s events, but which has contributed to a decision which we’ve come to over the weekend, and which I shall describe in a moment.

I have, in recent years, become a sort of unpaid concierge for our block of flats. What that means in practice is that I pick up the litter which drug dealers and drug users, and people engaging in prostitution, casually throw onto the floor of the car park when they have finished their business. Less seriously but still culpably, lots of residents don’t bother to put their rubbish in the bins where it should go; or they put into the bins objects which definitely shouldn’t go there. Last week I retrieved a black leather armchair and four or five items of electrical gardening equipment from the ordinary bins. The council offers a good service for the disposal of heavy items which are not household refuse. People ignore it. I try to keep our immediate environment as pleasant as possible. It’s a losing battle.

I’m a director of the management company for the block, and I fulfil my responsibilities cheerfully. No one forced me to take the job on. On 21 January, I wrote about the project I’ve been leading to get our leases extended; again, no one forced me to do that. (And the neighbour upstairs is one of the people I’ve helped to do this!) But as I fight the losing battle against constant anti-social and sometimes illegal behaviour, the thought has come and gone in me that I should give up this ‘active citizen’ business; I’ve done enough of it over decades. I was a school governor for more than twenty years, and I’m still the joint secretary of the organisation campaigning for the socially and environmentally responsible redevelopment of the industrial estate across the road. These were and are admirable activities which I don’t regret. But what happened on Friday night has provoked a decision which Helen and I have taken, I think firmly, after several conversations.

Once we have the 90-year extension of our lease, we shall sell the flat. We are in the fortunate position of having a property in France to which we can go, and — as I’ve written — we’re welcome to use this flat in Southwark when Bronwyn and Stephen are in Australia. So we could sell the Camden Town flat without needing immediately to move somewhere else in England. If I had my way, I’d buy an apartment in an Italian city, for use in the winter, and live at Kerfontaine in the summer. I’ve had enough of England. But Helen is worried about what might happen to her if I were to die before her, and she were left in a foreign country without mastery of the language and far from friends. I respect that. So the most likely thing is that we will look for a property in England, outside London, where we can have more space for our money. It would be bliss for me to have a decent-sized room which I could actually call a study, where my books could be shelved in some kind of order rather than toppling around me as they do in the tiny room where I write in London. (The situation is much better at Kerfontaine.) Helen sensibly says that she’d like to live in an English town so she can walk to shops. She doesn’t want to have to resume driving, something she hasn’t done since 2006. She would like to be close to friends. All this points towards Shrewsbury.

We won’t be putting the flat on the market before next year, because I’m sure it will take at least the rest of this year to get the lease extension. But Friday’s events have provoked in me a more immediate decision. I simply don’t want to sleep in the Camden Town flat any more. We don’t need to, immediately, because Bronwyn and Stephen are locked down in Australia just as we are locked down in London. I very much hope that we can stay here until the French government allows us to go to France. That may or may not happen this summer; it depends on France’s success in eliminating or at least containing Covid-19. But even if Bronwyn and Stephen need this flat back and we’re still in England, I would rather go to other friends (to David James in Shropshire, for instance) than go back to worrying about abuse from my neighbour, and unsuccessfully battling against the anti-social and often illegal behaviour which is commonplace in our neighbourhood. Of course I’m quite happy to pop back to the flat during the daytime to get things and to check on post and to water plants. I was there briefly this morning. But I feel tainted by the contact I’ve had with that man, and I wish not to feel unclean. So it’s quite possible that I may not sleep in the flat again. When we do come to sell it, we can easily put our stuff in storage for a while if we need to.

I’m a serious and diligent writer, however modest my talent and limited my reputation. That is what I should be doing for the rest of my active life; not spreading myself thinly across all manner of other activities.

To end this entry on a positive note: Bronwyn and Stephen have just written confirming what they said when we spoke. We can stay as long as we like. We can treat the place like home. Wonderful. The view from the balcony is pretty spectacular, and the walk by the Thames this morning was soothing.

The Borough

6 June 2020

We’ve been here nearly two weeks now, and are enjoying it very much. Southwark has become a trans-Thames holiday destination, and we’re taking full advantage of its facilities and attractions, though of course they do not at the moment include pubs or restaurants. (This must be the reason why we have found ourselves somewhat richer than usual these last few months.  As we keep saying to ourselves, we really are the lucky ones, with pensions dropping into our bank accounts regularly, unlike all those younger people whose income has become so much more precarious. The only good thing which our government has done in its otherwise inept handling of the crisis is to borrow huge sums of money in order to stop millions of people falling into destitution.)

We wander off in different directions to explore.  Two days ago, I walked down a side street and came across All Saints Gardens, with information about how George Reindorp — well-known radical Anglican cleric — was responsible for the rebuilding of the church after the war. (Alas, his vision didn’t last; the church later closed and became a recording studio.)  Paul Ashton remembers Reindorp as the fearless scourge of parents wasting their substance in pubs in the area where Paul grew up.  Reindorp would walk into those pubs — including the one in Pimlico just next to where the ILEA English Centre, where I worked from 1981 to 1985, used to be — and drag the parents out, commanding them to go home and feed their children on something more sustaining than bags of crisps.  I know from another source that he was once on the top deck of a number 24 bus.  He was wearing his clerical collar and smoking a pipe.  A nosy, self-righteous evangelical came up to him and asked, ‘Would Jesus Christ have been seen smoking a pipe?’  To which Reindorp replied, ‘Would Jesus Christ have been seen on a 24 bus?’  He ended his career as Bishop of Guildford.

On Wednesday we walked along Long Lane, and came to a beautiful little Italian deli called Locanda del Melo.  We bought some pecorino cheese and a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: both very good.  The place also does take-away food, and we shall certainly sample its pasta before long.  We’ve already taken away curries from Simply Indian, the little restaurant in Tabard Street, twice in my case, because last Sunday Helen went back to Camden for the night, to be there for the delivery of a parcel on Monday morning.

Yesterday I took the train down to Canterbury to visit my brother Peter and nephew George.  George is living with his father at the moment, which is a good thing for both of them.  Peter and I sat in a local park until it came on to rain.  We then lunched in the flat, but with the sliding doors wide open to the balcony, so I don’t think any harm was done.  The tube to St Pancras and the train through Kent were almost completely empty.  Nonetheless, I put a mask on as soon as I entered the transport system.  The difficulty with a mask comes with reading, for those of us who need glasses.  Expelled breath, which normally goes horizontally outwards or downwards, goes upwards when it meets the obstruction, and steams up the glasses.  This is particularly irritating when one is reading something pretty demanding, as I was: Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, which is a canter through Western philosophy, but certainly not an easy ride.

Myra Barrs gave me the book last Saturday, when I went over to see her in Bedford Park.  She has cancer, but this week the oncologist told her that the drug she’s taking has shrunk the tumour a bit, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of other tumours developing. She’s writing a book summarising and commenting on all of Vygotsky’s major writings.  She’s sending it to me chapter by chapter and I’ve been making a few comments.  It’ll be very good, I think; most people, including me, only know Vygotsky through Thought and Language and Mind in Society.  Myra is determined to get the book done as fast as possible, in case her illness worsens.  Routledge will publish it.

And tomorrow I’m going up to see Betty Rosen.  We sit in her back garden at a good distance.  She’s been telling her concerned children that she and I have been communicating on the pavement in front of her house.  But now, I notice, we’re allowed to walk swiftly through a person’s house in order to get to an open space behind, which is what I’ve done twice already.  So she can now tell her children the truth.  Being the ultra-good person she is, she hasn’t liked deceiving them.  And tomorrow afternoon, Paul is going to drive over, park in the Marshalsea Road, and we’ll have a coffee in the nice little park there.  The pop-up Bird’s Hill coffee shop round the corner is lovely; I go there every day with my environmentally virtuous cup. And the excellent man who owns The Cobbler’s Nest, right next to this block, has repaired two pairs of my sadly neglected Italian shoes. So we’re making use of local services.

Writing-wise (and entirely because of the balm of the quiet of the spare bedroom here), I’ve continued the series of replies, or ripostes, by women to male poets who have made the women famous, usually by complaining about the women’s behaviour (or lack of a certain kind of behaviour).  To the Ronsard riposte I’ve added responses, in various different tones, to poems I’ve translated by Petrarch, Catullus, Ovid and Dante.

Mary rang two days ago.  She and Jacques are going to be in Brittany, at Kerfontaine, on the weekend of 20/21 June, because on 22 June they will sign the deed to give them ownership of the house they’re buying at Priziac, half an hour north from us.  I don’t think we’ll be there by then; we’re waiting to see what the French government wants to do about letting foreigners in.  But in the meantime, we couldn’t be happier than we are here.

To the existing crisis in the USA has been added another. A few days ago, a black man was murdered by a white policeman, while the policeman’s colleagues stood by and let him do it. This was filmed. Social media now means that almost any act can become worldwide property instantly. So there have been protests and demonstrations across the USA, and in other countries too. In America, there has also been rioting and looting in several cities. The authorities have responded by imposing curfews and sending in the National Guard. Trump’s response to the emergency has of course been deplorable, to the extent that Twitter, the president’s preferred means of communication, actually obscured (not deleted) one of his tweets, which said that shooting would be a response to looting: clear incitement to violence.

America has a continuing and perhaps endemic problem of grotesque inequality; and this inequality is extreme in the case of many black people. Built into the mindset of some ignorant white people, including those in positions of authority, there is still the idea that black people may be oppressed with impunity; that the merest suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of a black person justifies a violent and sometimes deadly response. I’m not sure that America has any chance of recovering its former supremacy, or even its standing as first among equals of the major powers, until it is able to address the failings which are crippling it, of which the two most serious are interlinked: inequality and a natural tendency towards violence, as evidenced most starkly by its gun laws.

More than 387,000 people have been confirmed as dying from Covid-19 throughout the world. The USA has more than 110,000 deaths, with recent increases in those states which, with Trump’s encouragement, have defied lockdown instructions or advice. The other country whose leader is criminally culpable, Brazil, now has the third-highest number of deaths, at more than 35,000, and that number is rising fast. Shamefully, the UK has the second-highest number of deaths, at more than 40,000 (and I expect the real number to be nearer 60,000), although the rate of increase is slowing. Alas, the number of deaths in India is also now rising fast: inevitable with that country’s huge population, many of whom are crammed together in urban slums, and with a health service struggling to cope.

The Borough

16 June 2020

My birthday, and it’s a beautiful day. We’re still here in Southwark. Our stay here is going to end soon, because President Macron said on Sunday that people from the UK may now go to France without restriction, although they are ‘invited’ to enter into a ‘voluntary’ 14-day quarantine (lovely oxymoron in that phrase, and France has invented the word ‘quatorzaine’ to meet the case exactly). So we shall go back to Camden for three days on Sunday, and then take the tunnel a week tomorrow.

I’ve had lots of cards, texts, phone calls and presents. Deirdre is coming over at five, and at six I shall go to the excellent Italian delicatessen which we’ve discovered in Long Lane, and we’ll have a takeaway meal on the balcony after champagne.

I’ve gone back to Montale’s stories, and I’m translating the second batch in Farfalla di Dinard. There are twelve, and I’ve done six. I hope Arturo will correct them for me when I’ve done them all, but it’s a lot to ask, and if he’s busy I’ll have to find another Italian to help.

England is returning to a new sort of normality. All shops may now open. Bars and restaurants not until next month. Since yesterday it’s been compulsory to wear face masks on public transport. There are fears that the relaxing of the previous restrictions will inevitably mean a second spike in infections and deaths, though there’s no evidence of that in this country yet. Around the world, the disease continues its dreadful work. Poorer countries with less robust health systems are the worst threatened, of course; but up to now, at least so far as official figures are concerned, some of the poorest countries have escaped relatively lightly, perhaps because there is less international travel to and from them. Bangladesh, for example, is reported to have suffered ‘only’ 1,200 deaths, though its graph is going upwards; India, with more than a billion people, has suffered nearly 10,000 deaths, which is dreadful but less than a quarter of the UK’s, with our 65 million people; Pakistan’s figure is less than 3,000. These numbers may be completely inaccurate, for all I know, but they are the only ones to which I have access. And there may be much worse news to come. The USA, with its disastrous leader and a big chunk of its population opposed to any restraint on their behaviour, however socially irresponsible or indeed personally risky, continues to lead the world in the gruesome league table; it has suffered more than 117,000 deaths. Brazil, about whose appalling leader I’ve already written enough, has now overtaken the UK in second place, with more than 44,000 deaths. Our own figure is not far behind, at nearly 42,000; and of course the real number — as I’ve tediously repeated numerous times — is much higher than the official confirmed figure in all countries.

The government has been providing food vouchers or food parcels to families whose children normally qualify for free school meals. Initially it said that this provision would cease in England at the end of the summer term, as it usually does, although Scotland and Wales have announced that they are going to continue the provision through the summer holidays. The Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, who remembers that his mother relied on free school meals and food banks when he was growing up, has just brought about a spectacular U-turn by the government. Using his high profile and his access to 2.7 million followers on Twitter, he argued that, in these exceptional circumstances, where many poorer families have found themselves even poorer, despite the financial provision the government has made to cushion the worst effects of the most precipitous economic downturn in history, it would be right to continue to offer food vouchers through the summer holiday. And he’s just won the argument! The government changed its mind today. They obviously realised that being on the wrong side of an argument with a young national hero, who although wealthy now has direct and recent experience of poverty, was not a good look.

Kerfontaine

17 July 2020

We’ve been here for three weeks and two days now, and delightful it is. We came through the tunnel on 24 June, and drove all the way in intense, dream-like heat, without stopping except for petrol. After that there was a week or so of cloud, rain and cold, but now summer has resumed. We’ve been gardening and painting (artisanal not artistic painting, that is, although Helen does both).  The place looks lovely, I must say, and the weather these last few days has been beautiful: warm but not hot, a bit of a breeze, birds singing, combine harvesters droning in the distance, ‘All the live murmur of a summer’s day’ — Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, which my dad used to quote by the yard.  I damaged my finger two weeks ago, weeding without gloves, when a spine or a splinter entered under the nail.  The internet recommended plunging the finger into vinegar for half an hour, which reminded me of Jack and Jill going up the hill and his treatment with vinegar and brown paper.  I think the vinegar helped a bit, but a week ago I went to the doctor, and have now recovered after a course of antibiotics and an antiseptic finger bath which smells like a swimming pool. I must buy those thin but strong weeding gloves. Another hazard of the outdoor life: tics have been more and more of a problem in recent years, as the climate has changed, and I found one boring contentedly into the most intimate part of my anatomy. Helen had a travail délicat to get it out with tweezers and a special plastic device called Tire-Tics, available from the chemist.

I sit outside until midnight most nights, reading under the light. I re-read Annie Proulx’s charming novel The Shipping News, Tom Keneally’s magnificent account of the first European arrivals in Australia, The Commonwealth of Thieves, and now I’m into Thomas Piketty’s second economic/historical doorstop, Capital and Ideology. I read Capital in the Twenty-first Century as soon as it came out about five years ago. Essentially, Piketty gives me the detailed statistical information to support what I know to be true: that the world since 1980 has been heading in the wrong direction, towards greater and greater inequality, for a host of reasons, and unless we do something to reverse this, there will be major though unpredictable disasters ahead. I know what his prescription is: action at an international level to constrain capitalism’s native energy and recycle some of the wealth created by that energy towards social and environmental good, rather than allowing it, as at present, to be captured by a smaller and smaller number of people and organisations. It is the right prescription, but the difficulty of bringing it about is formidable. What real progress has been made on exposing and reforming tax havens? The elite of the world fly to Davos at the end of every January, spend a few days bewailing increasing inequality on the planet, and get into their helicopters and fly away again. Perhaps only violent, terrifying revolutions, or environmental catastrophes with many deaths and genuine fear amongst those elites, will provoke the right kind of change. I fear that elegant, humane argument won’t do it.

In this part of France, at the moment, there’s no immediate sense of panic or danger from Covid-19.  We bump elbows instead of shaking hands, we don masks and squirt gel onto our hands before entering shops, and in the fruit and veg shop the staff serve us rather than we serve ourselves (I like that).  But the government has just announced that the wearing of face masks will be compulsory in enclosed public places from Monday, throughout France. There is a concern that the disease might take hold again now that the confinement has been relaxed. We’ve been to eat twice in our little restaurant in Pont-Scorff, and will go again tonight.  No masks when you eat — that would be difficult — but masks when you move about the restaurant. Helen thinks that we might stay here until the crisis has passed.  We shall see.  Without being starry-eyed about French politics, the general feeling is that the government here has handled the crisis pretty well.  The French can be the most disobedient of people (vandalising speed cameras when the speed limit on roads without central barriers was reduced from 90 to 80 kph), but the most unified when there’s a real crisis.

Kerfontaine

20 August 2020

More than a month has passed, most pleasantly, since I last wrote. Deirdre Finan came for a week at the end of July/beginning of this month, and David and Tom James were here for a week until last Saturday. Now we’re alone, although we have Mary and Jacques up the road at Priziac. Before they arrived, Jean-Paul, our gardener, and I went over in his lorry to mow their lawn and meadow.  On Saturday I drove to Rennes airport to pick up Sophie, Julien, Paul and little Anna, born in March, whom I met for the first time. She seems a contented baby: drinks a lot, sleeps a lot, smiles a lot, doesn’t complain except when she needs to. I drove them to Priziac, and stayed for lunch.

Many days this summer have been quite beautiful, lyrical, spiritually magnificent: hot but not unbearable, a light breeze in the trees, the countryside still green enough to look youthful even in middle age.  David and I swam twice, from different beaches. The water was exquisitely cool, and you just get in and splash about and lie on your back and then swim a few strokes and turn over again and look and the sky and think, ‘Well, life has treated me well.’  As it has.  

Of course no one would have wished for the dreadful tragedy which has overtaken the world these last few months, but in this part of France at least (I think it may be different in seaside resorts like Southend or Bournemouth) there are noticeably fewer people about.  No traffic jams even in places where there are often traffic jams on Saturdays in the summer.  A sense of summers as I remember them from the 1950s and 1960s on the south coast of England.  More relaxed.

Our own garden looks lovely, though I say it myself, and there’s nothing much nicer than sitting in the shade listening to Test Match Special, especially when the games (against the West Indies and Pakistan) have been so absorbing, as they have all been except the last one, which was ruined by rain and bad light (in Southampton, not so many miles north of here).

I’m still helping Myra Barrs with her book on the life and work of Vygotsky.  She’s nearly finished it; just one more chapter to do.  And Paul Ashton has written another novel, which I’ve also helped with.  It’s a latter-day Animal Farm. Committees of animals around the world decide that they must do something to stop the humans destroying the planet and the animals with it.  They go for various forms of violent direct action, co-ordinated by a heavy-drinking parrot called Captain Flint, who’s the property of a New York couple and who knows how to turn on their computer when they’re out at work during the day so as to inform himself of the worst offenders in the abuse of the earth and of the creatures on it. The current presidents of the USA and Brazil are both assassinated by animal hit squads using various methods.  There is a dreadful but also rather topical conclusion to the book: apparently there are deadly viruses which have been buried in the Siberian permafrost for thousands of years (Paul does his research), but which are emerging now that the permafrost is melting.  These are harnessed in order to exterminate the human race once and for all.  Despite all this gloom, the book is very funny, as are all Paul’s books.

And I’m still translating Montale’s stories. I’ve now finished the second batch, so I’ve done 25 out of the 47 in Farfalla di Dinard. I need another native Italian to correct my mistakes and explain some obscurities.  Arturo Tosi, who helped me with the first batch, is too busy with a book of his own.

Last night I finished reading Capitalism and Ideology. It’s taken me a long time, but it is solid matter and more than a thousand pages long. All of Piketty’s prescriptions for dealing with the world’s current woes and injustices I support. Sadly, perhaps because I am twenty years older than him, I’m more pessimistic than he is about how many of his proposals are actually achievable, given the unimpressive and sometimes downright wicked character of most of the world’s leaders. Briefly, Piketty proposes: a steeply progressive income tax; a steeply progressive annual wealth tax; international co-operation to limit the secretive use of tax havens; practical measures to reduce educational inequalities; much greater participation by workers on the boards of private companies, along the lines of the German and Swedish models; a tax on carbon emissions, targeted so as to hit the worst polluters; huge investment in green technologies; renewal of the EU, in which those countries that wish to move quickly towards common fiscal systems and the establishment of common euro-debt can do so (so eliminating the ‘spread’ between what Germany pays to borrow money and what, for example, Italy pays); another aspect of EU renewal, bringing into being a ‘European Assembly’ which would be a body combining the MEPs of the countries moving towards greater unification with a selection of the MPs from the national parliaments of those countries; much more generous debt forgiveness for poorer countries. If we don’t do these things, or at least some of them, he says, the increasing inequality which the world has seen since the Thatcher/Reagan reforms of the 1980s will continue to generate nativist, nationalist and sometimes downright xenophobic movements amongst the poor and the modestly placed 50% of the populations of first-world countries: something we’re seeing already. In the past, the poorer and the modestly placed voted for parties of the left; they do so no longer. On top of all this, there is the ultimate challenge of climate change, which we are not addressing with anything like the urgency which the situation demands. Piketty wrote the book before Covid-19, so he has nothing to say about it, but it will only have increased his conviction that international co-operation, however hard to achieve in practice, is the only way that the human race will save itself.

I had a lovely email out of the blue from a woman in Miami Beach, who’d come across my poems and translations on the website.  Her mother, who died in April, had been a professor of Italian literature at Columbia University, and an expert on Montale.  One of her favourite poems had been ‘Portami il Girasole’.  After she died, the daughter was looking for a good translation of the poem, came across mine, and decided that it is the best available.  I sent her the two books in the post, and she wrote back to say that although her mother was now three months dead, the funeral still hadn’t been held because of the pandemic.  It’s to be held shortly.  The funeral card will have Montale’s poem on the front cover, and my translation on a bit of paper inside, ‘for those who can’t read Italian’.  I’m very touched.  An amazing thing, the internet, for good and ill.  My friend Peter Traves runs an English Literature group for the University of the Third Age in Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury.  At his request, I sent a few of my poems with notes about how I came to write them, and the two books for each member of the group. Peter wrote to tell me that a member of the group had said, at the end of one of the Zoom sessions, ‘Well, there are a lot a poets buried in Westminster Abbey that I don’t care for, but this chap who’s still alive is just up my street.’  But I’m not letting it go to my head.

A while ago I had another email out of the blue, from an English woman living in France who is doing an advanced degree in translation studies at Bristol University. She asked whether she could make my translation of the first part of Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ — the piece I called ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ — the topic of her dissertation. I wrote back to say yes, of course. She sent me the dissertation a few weeks later, and very good it is. I sent her the two books too.

There has been a grotesque scandal in the UK over the awarding of grades for A-levels and BTecs. Essentially, because of Covid-19, final examinations have not taken place. Teachers have awarded grades to their students on the basis of the work they had done during their courses. These judgements have of course been moderated and standardised. But the governments of all four parts of the UK, and the organisations overseeing examinations, obviously had no confidence in teachers’ professionalism, so they imposed an absurd algorithm on the process, whereby grades were changed, upwards or downwards, but usually downwards, depending on the school’s or the college’s results in previous years. The result was that thousands of students received results far worse than those which they and their teachers were sure they deserved. The error has been corrected now as a result of the outcry. Teachers’ moderated, standardised judgements will now stand as the grades which the 2020 students have achieved. The chaos means that universities are having a very hard time organising admissions for the coming autumn.

The wretched algorithm was presumably removed for GCSE grades before they were announced today, so there hasn’t needed to be a last-minute revision of grades for 16-year-olds, thank goodness. Teachers’ judgements have been accepted. There has been a significant improvement in grades since last year. I don’t believe that’s because teachers are ‘soft’. I just think, as someone who, years ago, before the internet gave governments the excuse to reintroduce final examinations as the main method of assessment because of the supposed risk of cheating, that coursework is a fairer method of judging students’ real capabilities than time-limited final examinations. I don’t have up-to-date information about the extent of cheating at GCSE and A-level. The most recent figures I have are from 2014, when 2,550 penalties were issued, representing 0.012% of the total number of entries in all GCSE and A-level subjects across all examination boards in England. That was twelve examples of cheating for every 100,000 entries, a lower figure than in previous years. It was twelve too many, but not a justification for casting doubt, as the government has done, on the whole principle of continuous assessment.

It’s a habit of mine to get angry after listening to the announcement of the A-level and then GCSE results every August, when some pig-ignorant Tory MP comes on to say that results are improving because standards have dropped.  This baseless opinion goes against the academic research on the question, and is as if to say that people like Helen and me and scores of our friends, who’ve spent our working lives one way or another helping to improve the quality of teaching, might as well not have bothered.  ‘Grade inflation’ is the cheap phrase used. If standards continue to improve year by year, it could just be because, overall, the quality of teaching is improving. In the exceptional circumstances of this year, official incompetence and the lack of trust in teachers’ professionalism have reached a new low.  Gavin Williamson, the current Secretary of State for education, has been contemptible whenever I’ve heard him on the radio.

Kerfontaine

10 September 2020

Here, we have the steady, calm warmth of late summer.  The children have gone back to school (masked, alas, in the case of the older ones) and the roads and shops are even quieter than they have been since June.  Mary and Jacques are enjoying their little house up the road.  Mary’s daughter Sophie and family visited, as I mentioned in my last, and I had a day at the beach with Paul, making sandcastles and carrying him into the sea.  He wanted to pretend that he was driving a car in the sand, complete with wheels and various other accessories, and as I remarked to Mary and Sophie, ‘Let the boy’s imagination run riot today; he’s going to school next week; they’ll sit him down and teach him the subjunctive.’  Which, so I hear, is not far from what has happened.

This has been a good year for fruit.  We have loads of little peaches, falling on the ground, and on Friday Mary, Helen and I made peach chutney.  Delicious with cold meat.

On Sunday we attended the outdoor mass for the Pardon de Saint Guénaël, but this year alas with no fête to follow.  I wrote in April about Monique Le Gal’s death. The whole community has been deeply shocked, and her husband Eric is inconsolable.  The mass was in Monique’s memory, and the priest, Jean-Marc, presided with great charm and sensitivity.  I should think that 200 people were there, sitting on chairs and benches on the grass.  When Eric tolled the bell before the service, I found tears in my eyes.  Then there were drinks afterwards, and all in all it was about as affirming a ceremony as one could imagine in such circumstances.  As I mentioned in April, only members of the immediate family were permitted to attend the funeral. Yesterday I wrote this little poem:

At a Breton Pardon

He loved his wife. For more than thirty years
they’d made a life together, farming. Then,
abruptly, unexpectedly, she died.
An aneurysm of the brain at 59.
This was in April 2020, with none but family
permitted to attend the funeral.
The lovely spring and summer stretched ahead.
His grief was green as leaves and early corn.
And then, the village pardon in September.
Two hundred people, masked and greeting one another
by movements of the eyes and touchings of the elbow
(where, all their lives till this, were handshakes and embraces)
gathered for the outdoor mass named in her honour.
Though we were already seated, he, the summoner,
went to the rope which hung within the chapel’s open door
and rang the little single bell, so that its chimes,
obedient to his strong, familiar hand,
united us with him, and her,
too soon perhaps for consolation; not too soon for love.

Myra Barrs has now finished the main text of her book about Vygotsky, much to her relief, although there’s still the drudgery of checking references and seeking permissions for quotations.  Fortunately, she’s found someone who can help her with permissions.  I’m now going through all the chapters again as she sends them to me for polishing.

People arriving in the UK from France now have to quarantine for 14 days. As long as that lasts, we’ll stay here.

On Monday Helen and I celebrated the anniversary of our first meeting, which occurred on the first Monday of September 1974 in a classroom at Vauxhall Manor School.  We remember it on the first Monday of every September, whatever the date.  Of course, each 28 November we also celebrate our wedding in 2008.

I’ve just finished Vanity Fair, which I’d never read before.  It’s most entertaining, despite the casual racism, both towards people of colour and towards Jews, which crops up occasionally.  And there is psychological complexity in many of his characters, something which is rare in Dickens, despite the latter’s genius.  And I’ve also read White Mughals, one of William Dalrymple’s books of Indian history, which is splendid.

The other night something unfortunate occurred, about which I wrote this poem:

Mishap

The trees are stirring in the midnight air
and owls exchange their calls from tree to tree
as, reading late beneath the outdoor light,
This is the way the world should be, I think:
Ms Bishop’s poems, and a glass of wine.
The glass is on the ground beside my chair.
My left hand holds the book. Mechanically,
my careful right descends to get a drink.
I like this glass; the orphan of a set,
I feel a stupid fondness that it’s mine.
I raise it to my mouth. My fingers find
a slug bequeathing, at its sluggish pace,
a line of slime across the glass’s base.
I slam the orphan on the ground too hard.
The shock splits stem from base and breaks the bowl.
The shards and spilt wine glisten in the night.

Remorse for such a little thing! And yet
the world beyond my peaceable back yard
is full of clowns and crooks I can’t control,
and banish, mostly, from my reading mind.
Oh, how I wish I could undo the action!
I crush the slug with meagre satisfaction.

As the poem says, I was reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. Amongst them are some wonderful pieces. My favourites are: ‘The Fish’, ‘Cootchie’, ‘A Cold Spring’, ‘The Bight’, ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Cape Breton’, ‘The Prodigal’, ‘Faustina, or Rock Roses’, ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’, ‘The Shampoo’, ‘Manuelzinho’, ‘Manners’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘From Trollope’s Journal’, ‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘The Moose’, ‘Poem’, ‘One Art’, ‘The End of March’, ‘The Wit’, ‘Exchanging Hats’, ‘A Norther — Key West’. Not as many favourites, I admit, as I listed for Robert Frost. I suppose that’s partly because he wrote more anyway, and partly because of my preference for form over freedom. Sometimes, her very free poems, notably ‘The Fish’, ‘At the Fishhouses’ or ‘Cape Breton’, work beautifully; they sustain a quality of rarity, a diction hovering a distance above prose, despite the freedom. But sometimes I find the free poems too easily written down. This is probably deeply unfair to the poet’s efforts, because I believe she worked and re-worked her poems again and again, and only put them out when she was completely satisfied. But I stick to my feeling of mild dissatisfaction with poems which are only slightly heightened prose. And I wish my output had a tenth of the quality of hers.

I’m feeling light of spirit because of two contrasting things which happened yesterday. The first was that I wrote ‘A Breton Pardon’ after a longish period when I was really beginning to wonder where the next poem was coming from. The second will take longer to describe. As I’m sure I’ve written on previous occasions, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort in the last five or six years engaged in a campaign to try to see that the industrial estate across the road from our flat is redeveloped in a way that allows the existing businesses on the estate to remain there if they wish to (which several of them do), in new and environmentally better accommodation, and that also allows for the construction of several hundred dwellings for rent at levels which people on ordinary incomes can afford. This as opposed to the possibility that the whole site would be sold off to private developers, who would put up more blocks of flats there, each flat costing a million pounds or more.

We have had some success in this campaign: success to which I think I’ve contributed. But — and I don’t need to go into the details — I’ve found some of the actions of the person who chairs our group increasingly at variance with the way I would do things. There’s no doubt of his sincerity; he’s energetic, and his ultimate vision for the place is the same as mine. But the differences between us have accumulated, and when he wrote to me yesterday asking me to confirm that I wouldn’t raise a dissenting voice at the meeting next Tuesday (all meetings are on-line at the moment, of course), despite my doubts about a particular course of action he favours, I decided to resign my post as joint secretary of the group, and also from membership of another group, a committee including some of Camden’s officers and councillors, and members of other local organisations, on which I was one of our group’s representatives. It will cause a bit of a fuss within the group, but I can’t help that. The result is that a large body of work has left my shoulders. There would, for example, have been the meeting next Tuesday and three the week after, each of them generating work of one kind of another, usually involving my writing things or improving other people’s efforts.

Kerfontaine

30 September 2020

It’s a grey, rainy afternoon. Helen and I have decided that we’re going to stay here until early next year. The news from the UK about the second wave of Covid-19 infections is bad. It’s true that, at the moment, nowhere near as many people are actually dying from the disease as died in the spring; but rates of infection are increasing, and no one is absolutely sure that this trend won’t eventually lead to many more deaths. If we went back to London, we’d have to self-isolate for two weeks in our little flat, not even — strictly — allowed out to buy food. We’re much better off here, where, apart from the wearing of masks in shops, restaurants and other enclosed public spaces, life continues unaffected. It’s a different story in the big cities.

Mary and Jacques are returning to Marseille today. They would have preferred to stay in Brittany, but various needs call them back. Mary wants to support Sophie, who tested positive for Covid-19 just as she was starting a new job. My great-nephew Paul has also had it, though without symptoms. It was probably the innocent baby Anna who brought the virus back from the crèche. Then Mary and Jacques have some complicated business concerning their immeuble. The building is more than a century old, and the city authorities have declared that the façade is in urgent need of repair. This will be expensive. Jacques, who would like soon to retire as a painter and decorator, needs to jump through the necessary administrative hoops to get his pension organised. But they’d both like to come back here as soon as they’re free to do so, perhaps after a month.

Talking of administrative hoops, I’ve just posted requests to the local branch of the social security system here for Helen and me to have French medical insurance. Throughout the last thirty years, our medical expenses in France have been small, and we’ve been happy to pay doctors, dentists and chemists when we’ve had to. We haven’t even bothered to try to reclaim some of the money, which I think we’re entitled to do under the reciprocal agreement between France and the UK while both countries have been in the EU. (In fact, for the first time, I did yesterday send off some papers which might mean that we’ll get back the majority of about 150 euros which we’ve spent on drugs at the chemist; Sophie wrote us the prescriptions.) But with the UK’s final departure from the EU imminent, and the doubt about whether there will be a future reciprocal arrangement, I enquired of Sophie, went on-line, and talked to a helpful woman on the phone, as a result of which I discover that it is possible to get something called Protection Universelle Maladie, which is designed for people in our situation: citizens of other countries living for most or all of the time in France. I fully expect that my first attempt will fail for want of some bit of correct documentation, but I will persist.

I’ve now finished the third group of stories in Farfalla di Dinard; 35 down, twelve to go.

I nearly always meet local friends when I’m out on one of my regular walks or drives. I might meet Philippe, who now walks several kilometres every day since the doctor told him that he must do more exercise or take stronger medication for high blood pressure. He sensibly chose the former. If I’m driving, I have to slow down when coming up behind him, because he has earphones and doesn’t hear me until the last minute. Through his earphones he is learning English as he walks. We have a brief chat in my language. Two days ago, while walking myself, I turned right at the top of the road, going towards Saint Guénaël, to see two small pet goats running towards me, followed by a car. A young man jumped out of the car and attempted to catch the goats. They eluded him. I was ready to try to grab one myself, but the animals, seeing me up ahead, about-turned and ran the other way. Again, the man failed to lay a hand on either of them. The young woman driving the car turned it round and chased the goats slowly back in the direction from which they had come. I expect they got the pretty beasts home. Then I passed Paul’s house. Paul is one of the farmers in the hamlet. Normally, he is amongst the most sociable of my neighbours, but since he was on his knees dealing with what was evidently human excrement coming out of a blocked drain, he was understandably disinclined to pass the time of day with me. If I meet Louis, who lives across the road from Paul, there will be a long conversation. Louis is a builder. He has just finished constructing, with his own hands, a substantial family house for his son, next to his own. Louis takes a keen interest in international affairs: our talk is usually of climate change, Covid-19 and the wickedness and stupidity of Donald Trump. If I turn left at the top of the road, and left again, I get to Kerdurand, where Robert lives. As he says himself, he was born there and wants to die there. Unfortunately, he has had cancer of the stomach, which is being treated with drugs, and he does look frailer than he used to. But he walks up and down the road; ‘il faut rester debout’. ‘When are you going to become French?’ he asks. I tell him I’m thinking seriously about it. ‘Do you think I’d pass the test, with my accent?’ I ask, committing the Englishman’s besetting sin of false modesty. ‘Accent? Don’t worry about that. Everyone’s got an accent,’ says Robert, showing a grasp of sociolinguistics which eludes many people I’ve met who have more advanced educational qualifications than he has.

If, before getting to the top of the road, I do a sharp left at what the French call ‘une patte d’oie’, by the dustbins, I shall get to Collogodec, where our friends Jérôme and Aurélie live. Before their house, I pass the house where Julien, a fighter pilot in the French air force, and his American wife Michelle live. They met when he was training in Mississippi, her home state; perhaps he was learning to fly a kind of jet which France had bought from America. They have a baby girl, Kate, and each of them takes turns to push her round the lanes. Michelle tells me that her husband is doing his last stint as a fighter pilot, based at Lann Bihoué, the airport near Lorient which is part military, part civilian. When he finishes this five-year commitment, they’ll move to Corsica; he’s from there. He’ll become an airline pilot. I remark that the weather in Corsica will be a bit different from that in Brittany. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘but we’ll manage. Mississippi weather can be warm too.’

Jérôme and Aurélie, and their children Morgan and Olivia, have become close friends. They regularly supply us with eggs. Aurélie used to do Helen’s hair every week, but she’s had to stop work because of calcification in her shoulder, no doubt a kind of repetitive strain injury brought on by constant use of hair dryers and other equipment requiring the lifting and lowering of the right arm. She’s considering another career. Jérôme works for the environmental department of Lorient council. He’s the city’s principal pest controller, dealing with Asiatic hornets’ nests, rats, cockroaches and other undesirables. They are the sweetest of people; we’re very fortunate to have them nearby.

Since I started writing a couple of hours ago, the rain has been relentless. Brittany is a peninsular sticking out into the Atlantic, and when the wind is from the south-west and the air pressure low, rain can continue for days and days.

Nine days ago I attended, with Jean and Annick, the funeral of a man I knew only slightly, one of Les Amis de Saint Guénaël, Luc Gragnic. He was the brother of Dominique, whom we know much better; Dominique and his wife Jocelyne are close friends too. Luc had died of cancer at the age of 60, a year younger than his brother. I should think that 500 people, all masked, were at the church at Gestel, most of us standing outside, on a fortunately dry, mild afternoon. Jean-Marc, the wonderful priest of whom I’ve written before, conducted the service with Gestel’s priest. The ceremony was broadcast on loud speakers. At the end, everyone processed past the coffin to pay respects. Those of us outside entered through the west door and walked up the central aisle, bowed to the coffin and turned right to exit by the door in the south transept. Luc’s and Dominique’s mother is very much alive, and a dynamic force in Les Amis. With her family, she stood and watched as the coffin containing her son was unloaded from the hearse. Her wreath — one among dozens — bore the words ‘A mon fils’. After the service, she walked with the family behind the hearse for the interment in the village cemetery. It’s hard to imagine how a woman in her eighties must feel, saying goodbye to a child. Annick tells me that she is both croyante and pratiquante. I hope that may provide some consolation.

Kerfontaine

2 October 2020

Last night there was a violent rainstorm: no thunder or lightning, just very strong winds and a downpour. I lay in bed looking up through the Velux window at the branches of the oak flailing wildly in the gale. No damage has been done, although a huge bough of another oak overlooking the lane which leads to the house has been half broken off and hangs down dangerously. Jean-Paul came to look at it this afternoon and will return on Monday with his lorry and a rope and hook, pull it away completely and chop it up.

The red squirrel is tireless in its collection of walnuts from the tree a few yards from where I write. If I keep perfectly still, it goes about its business swiftly: scamper up the tree, pluck walnut with mouth, either transfer nut to paws immediately and begin eating, or keep nut in mouth, descend, run across the grass into the wood next door. Repeat. But if I make the slightest movement while it’s facing me, it remains stock-still for several minutes until it’s sure the danger has passed, even though I’m usually in the house, observing its activity through the French windows.

Days and days of rain are forecast.

Kerfontaine

14 December 2020

And now nearly two and a half months have gone by since I last wrote. I long ago stopped making excuses or even feeling guilty about these long gaps. In the interval, there have been tumultuous events in the world, and I’ve been keeping pretty busy with projects which will have the merest, tiniest influence on our revolving planet.

The most important, and wonderful thing, is that Donald Trump was soundly defeated in the presidential election on 3 November. He is the worst, the stupidest, the most dangerous occupant of the White House in my lifetime, and possibly ever. ‘Evil’ is the strongest of words, but not too strong as a description of his influence on America and therefore the world. Since his defeat, he has continued to insist that the election was stolen from him, principally because he claims that postal ballots, whose use greatly increased this year because of legitimate concerns by voters about being infected by the Covid-19 virus if they went to vote in person, were used fraudulently. There is no evidence for this; not a scrap. But that hasn’t stopped him and his lawyers making repeated appeals to state supreme courts (only, of course, in the states where Biden won) seeking to overturn their results. Every appeal has been swiftly and comprehensively rejected. Last week, he arranged for an appeal to the federal Supreme Court (a body which he has stuffed with judges of a conservative persuasion). The Court rejected that appeal in short order and with some contempt, showing that judges holding conservative opinions on matters like abortion or the right to bear arms are not therefore corruptible on constitutional questions. Trump’s behaviour has divided America like it’s never been divided before, and encouraged the possibility (though, thank goodness, a possibility not yet converted to reality) of violence being committed against people, Republicans or Democrats, trying to do a fair job of recording and reporting the election results. Whether he’ll bother to turn up on 20 January for Biden’s inauguration, who knows? And who cares? Since his defeat, he has managed to raise a quarter of a billion dollars, only a small amount of which will be needed to pay his hapless lawyers; the rest will, I imagine, go to a fighting fund enabling him to make life for Biden as difficult as possible, while Trump plans a campaign for re-election in 2024. And here the Republican Party will have to make up its mind. Do they really want to go into that campaign as the party of Trump version 2, with all his isolationism, disregard for the planet, visceral divisiveness, ignorant opinionation, favourable nods towards armed insurrectionists and extreme right-wing conspiracy theorists? Or do they want, even though they will fiercely contest that election, to remain in the broad stream of engagement with the world, dealing with the challenges we face as a species (climate change being the most important, of course)? From Biden’s point of view, the best outcome would be that the Republicans choose a different candidate, but that Trump also presents himself under his own flag. That would split the conservative vote nicely, but it’s probably too much to hope for.

In the meantime, we can hope for a better America these next four years. The signs are already good. Biden will rejoin the Paris climate accord; he will attempt to refashion some sort of deal with Iran; he will build on Obama’s achievement in health care; he will bring serious federal muscle to the fight against the Covid-19 virus, which has ravaged America. About 300,000 people have already died of the disease there. This is easily the largest number in any country in the world. The number of cases of infection per one million of population is also very high, at about 50,000.

In Georgia, the state whose result Trump contested most bitterly (it was a narrow but definite win for Biden, after two recounts, in a traditionally Republican state), there will be two run-off votes for the Senate on 5 January. If both those contests go to the Democrats, there will be a 50/50 balance in the Senate, and Vice-President Kamala Harris will have the casting vote there. If one or both are won by Republicans, there will be a Republican majority there, making it much harder for Biden to get his measures passed. But there’s still a lot he can do even if the result goes the wrong way, and overall most of the world is breathing a deep sigh of relief that the better part of America has prevailed in this election.

Covid-19: about 1.6 million people worldwide have died of the disease, according to official figures. The effect of the disease on the lives and livelihoods of billions of people is incalculable. Governments have borrowed inconceivably large sums of money — many hundreds of billions of whichever currency you care to name — to prop up their economies and to ward off total civil collapse. As ever, the poorest and the most vulnerable have been hit hardest. Helen and I, in our nice warm house with its big garden, are only inconvenienced in the most minor ways. We fill in a form when we go shopping. That takes 30 seconds, and here in France even this obligation will cease tomorrow. There’s more money in our bank accounts than usual, since our pensions arrive every month and there are not so many opportunities to spend it. But for a young couple on the minimum wage, with uncertain employment prospects, living in a small flat with two or three children, it’s a different story.

The one bright light on the horizon is a vaccine; or rather, several vaccines. The first to be cleared by the UK for use on the general population arrived in the country last week, and is already beginning to be administered to the very old, and to health workers in care homes and hospitals. Other vaccines will soon be available, bringing the possibility that some time next year enough people will be protected from the disease to allow life to return to some kind of normality. The research and testing which has brought the first vaccine to market so quickly is quite remarkable, and testament to what humanity can achieve when there is genuine international cooperation. An American company, Pfizer, with a German partner, BioNTech, using the knowledge of Turkish scientists, produce a vaccine which is manufactured in Belgium and shipped to the UK. Oxford University and Astra Zeneca will soon have their own vaccine available. The Russians have one called Sputnik V. And there will be others. Unfortunately, there is a significant group of benighted people in most countries who cast doubt on the efficacy and/or safety of these vaccines. Many such people peddle conspiracy theories about how ‘the state’ will use the vaccine to take control of our brains. Less crazed sceptics ask why there hasn’t been such urgency in the development and distribution of cures for malaria, or HIV, or other diseases which principally devastate poorer parts of the world. That’s a good question, but irrelevant to the current situation. Not one extra child in Africa would be cured of malaria if the current international effort on Covid-19 hadn’t happened. And there is serious and successful work going on against malaria, notably by the Gates Foundation.

Kerfontaine

26 December 2020

Christmas has come and gone. As usual at this season, my mood fluctuates between conviviality and despair; between gratitude for the good fortune that chance and fate have offered me, and shame at how little, really, I have managed to achieve in my life so far. Friends of course will tell me what nonsense that is; ‘Look at what you did here, or there.’ But such kindly encouragement doesn’t remove or even diminish the feeling. It’s something I’ve lived with for a few years now. It comes and goes. It’s a relief when the moods lifts, but I can’t predict when that will happen, nor do anything to hasten the clearing of the sky.

On Christmas Eve, the UK and the EU finally agreed a deal on their (our) future relationship, in trade and some other matters. This will mean that the chaos of the UK’s departure from the EU in five days’ time with no deal, to trade thereafter on World Trade Organization terms, will be avoided. It doesn't mean that the UK will enjoy the ‘exact same benefits’ of membership as continuing members enjoy, despite that foolish (and, I think, ungrammatical) phrase having been bandied about by the magnificent isolationists on the far right of the Conservative Party. There will be a heavier administrative burden on businesses trading between the EU and the UK, but at least, in most cases, there will be no tariffs or quotas. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland effectively — though not constitutionally — remains in the EU, since it will continue to be a part of the single market and the customs union. This should avoid, thank God, any recrudescence of violence to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I anticipate that there will be a big increase in the transport of goods and people from the whole island of Ireland direct to France and Spain, via ports in the Republic. There will inevitably have to be some administrative checks on certain goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and, of course, between Great Britain and the Republic. This is all sad, expensive and unnecessary; but the worst has been avoided. Parliament will be recalled next Wednesday, 30 December, to debate and vote on the deal. It will go through, because Keir Starmer has said that Labour will vote for it. I expect there will be some rebels on the Labour side, and it may well be that some extreme Brexiteers on the Conservative side will foam at the mouth about ‘betrayal’, but the vote is not in doubt. And I expect that the European Parliament and the member states will nod it through as well.

And that will be that, at least for a few years, and maybe beyond my lifetime, although no doubt there will be arguments and mini-crises over particular matters, most likely over different interpretations of the extent to which either partner is subsidising businesses in its jurisdiction. So far as I can see from a read of the excellent brief summary of the agreement provided by the BBC, the UK has yielded a lot more than the EU. In the matter of fish, for example, the value of fish caught by EU fishermen in UK waters will initially be cut only by 25%, the cut to be phased in over five and a half years. Thereafter, it is true, the UK will fully control its own waters, but I imagine that it will continue to do deals with the EU in order to maintain tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets for its own fish. And on the ‘level playing field’ — rules about fair competition — there are ‘measures which commit [both sides] to maintain common standards on workers’ rights, as well as many social and environmental regulations’; and ‘the UK has also agreed to stick to common principles on how state aid regimes work’. The fig leaf which disguises the nakedness of our claims about ‘taking back control’ is that the machinery to arbitrate on disputes will no longer be the European Court of Justice, but ‘a binding arbitration system involving officials from both sides. It means that even though this is a tariff-free agreement, the threat that tariffs can be introduced as a result of future disputes will be a constant factor in UK-EU relations.’

It feels as if the two sides have said, ‘We’ll trust each other to behave, but there are more stringent checking measures in reserve should the trust break down.’

Life has a way of arranging coincidences which might affect historical decisions. A new, more easily transmitted strain of Covid-19 is running ‘out of control’ (the phrase used by the Secretary of State for Health) in large parts of England, especially in London and the south-east. This caused many countries, notably France, to close their borders a few days ago to travellers from the UK. France did so for a 48-hour period. The result was that thousands of lorries have been stranded in east Kent, waiting to get on ferries at Dover or trains through the Channel Tunnel. Drivers have been sleeping in their cabs over Christmas, with limited or no access to food, water or washing and toilet facilities. France then agreed to let lorries cross the Channel as long as their drivers held a certificate showing that they had tested negative for Covid-19 in the last 72 hours. The logistical challenge of getting this done has been formidable, but it is being achieved, and the backlog of lorries is gradually being dealt with. But, courtesy of an unrelated scourge, the rehearsal before their eyes of the nightmare of what might happen for a long period of time if there were no deal between the EU and the UK might just have persuaded politicians that a deal had to be done.

We have easy access to media in France and the UK. In official statements about the deal, the tone is starkly different on the two sides of the Channel. In France (and I think in other European countries) the tone is one of regret and relief. In the UK, it is one of triumphalism: ‘At last we’re free.’ The facts dispute the boast.

The main text of Myra Barrs’ book about Vygotsky is now finished. I arranged for a printed typescript to be delivered to her a few days ago. There is some topping and tailing to do (acknowledgements, the contents page, an afterword) and we’ll both have a relaxed final read before it goes to the publisher. It’s taken a lot of time in recent weeks, but I’ve enjoyed it (and Myra has paid me generously). The trickiest thing, since it’s an academic work, has been to make sure that all the references in the text connect properly to the reference lists at the end of each chapter, and that the style in which the references are set out is consistent throughout. It’s the pedantic exactitude required in microsurgery or mediaeval theology. (I’m sure I’ve never been a surgeon in a previous life, but I might well have been a mediaeval theologian.)

A couple of weeks ago I finished translating the last of the 47 Montale stories in Farfalla di Dinard. I shan’t put the remaining 34 stories on my website, nor offer them to any prospective publisher, until I’ve found a native Italian to do for me what Arturo Tosi did for the first 13. Three people — Paul Ashton, David James and Helen — have read and enjoyed these last three batches, despite the uncertainties and faults they contain.

The days have stopped getting shorter, as the ancients noticed. The trees are bare, the sky grey. We were blessed with sunshine on Christmas Day, but are threatened with a violent storm tomorrow.

Kerfontaine

28 December 2020

Just after I wrote two days ago, Dominique Gragnic rang up and invited us over for aperitifs yesterday morning. We went, and my mood seemed to lift. We discussed the sad loss of Dominique’s brother Luc in September. Dominique and Jocelyne were so positive about life, looking forward to their respective retirements in 2021, proud of their children and grandchildren. Whether it was the champagne as we sat and talked or the break from the almost relentless rain of recent days, I don’t know. But I felt better.

Glenda Walton rang last night. She has been taking Italian lessons with a woman in Bologna. I asked Glenda for the woman’s email address, and have written to her asking whether she might be interested in reading and correcting the 34 Montale stories.

I was interrupted for a couple of hours today by one of those dreadful scams so common on the internet. A woman I know well, who until recently lived in Saint Guénaël, appeared to write to me saying that she was mortally ill, and would I do her a favour? I wrote back saying of course, what was it? As soon as the answer came, ‘Send me some money to Ajaccio,’ I knew what was up, but I had been conned by the excellence of the French in the original appeal. Normally these criminals can’t spell or punctuate, but in this case the grammar, spelling and punctuation were perfect, so far as I could see. You always feel a fool, to be taken in so easily, but since the person in question lives alone, and is of a reserved nature, her cri de coeur seemed plausible.

All the sane commentators I’ve heard since the UK/EU deal was agreed on Christmas Eve have spoken with one voice: what are we doing spending four and a half years negotiating an arrangement which will make it more difficult, not less difficult, to do business with our biggest market and our closest neighbours? I read that New Zealand (a country I admire enormously, which has just about the best leader of any country in the world at the moment) will from 1 January 2021 have fewer administrative burdens in importing its goods into the EU than will the UK. We’ve done this so we can wave the tattered flag of sovereignty.

The variant strain of Covid-19 is continuing to spread across England, and has been detected in more and more countries as a result of the arrival of infected people from the UK. The NHS is under extreme pressure. Our country has now suffered nearly 71,000 deaths from the disease. The numbers in the USA, and the continuing rise in cases there, are terrifying: 333,000 deaths and 152,000 new cases per day. Brazil has the second highest number of deaths, at 191,000. India: 148,000. Mexico: 122,000. Italy: 72,000. France: 62,000. Russia: 54,000 (a figure I’m inclined to suspect). Meanwhile, the vaccine doses are being distributed as fast as possible to those who most need them, and perhaps, some time next year, the brilliant imaginations and painstaking work of scientists will slow and eventually halt the incidence of the plague.

Our friends Jérôme and Aurélie and their children went to relatives near Grenoble for a week over Christmas, leaving me and my neighbour Jean in charge of 32 guinea pigs, about a dozen hens, several rabbits and two caged magpies.  It’s been an education looking after them and observing their habits, but I’m quite glad their owners came back yesterday. The two rabbits of which I became particularly fond, one white and one dark grey, usually pass their separate lives in the same cage, but with a stout partition dividing them. On the second day, I found them together in one half of the cage. I was sure that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to cohabit while my back had been turned the previous day. The dark grey rabbit must have clawed its way up the partition wall and squeezed through the narrow gap between the top of the wall and the roof of the cage. I was concerned that they might fight or, if they were of opposite sexes, that they might mate, against their owners’ wishes. Throughout the rest of the week it was clear that they were enjoying each other’s company, so I left them together. Today Jérôme told me that they are two males, so no danger of unplanned progeny.

The rain resumed today. The countryside is swimming in water. Streams and rivers sprawl across fields. And it’s very cold, with a wind from the north-east. Dry, cold weather is promised from Wednesday, which will be a great relief if it happens.

Kerfontaine

29 December 2020

Today I wrote a poem and then did something I don’t usually do: sent it immediately to about twenty friends. I have a horror of being the sort of poet who imposes his most recent effusion on kindly readers, who then privately feel irritation at having to find something nice to say in response. But I was moved, at the end of this extraordinary year, to overcome my diffidence.

Trying to recall the thought or experience which has provoked a poem can be difficult, but on this occasion I know that the sight of a holly tree covered in red berries, as I drove back from shopping, and then a line from Heaney’s poem ‘Servant Boy’, in Wintering Out, which came into my mind a few moments later as a good title (normally titles are the last, not the first, thing to be settled), did the trick.

‘The Back End of a Bad Year’

When I pass holly trees whose scarlet berries have survived
the birds’ attentions all this sodden season;

when I spot, with pleasure and alarm, a primrose open in December
and I wonder if the time is really ‘out of joint’, beyond repair;

and when, at night, the owls exchange their notes from wood to wood,
as clear, as deftly phrased, as ever human instrumentalist achieved;

when, all this year, I’m brought to tears
by heroisms daily, quietly enacted
by the hands and brains which serve us, save us, for their small reward;

when sane, sage voices warn of nightmares sure to come
when I and all my generation have been changed to earth and air
unless we summon up the better part of us
and act in concert now
so children yet unborn may live to bless, not curse, their ancestors;

then, childishly, in spite of every disappointment
age has taught this sadder (wiser? I don’t think so) man to bear
from crowds of clowns and crooks who rule our lives
— the carefree ease with which they formulate their lies —

I am compelled to hope.

Several people wrote back to say they were grateful for the poem, and two or three asked if they could pass it on to other friends. I said yes, of course.

Mary and Jacques arrive from Marseille today. We’ll see them often between now and 10 January, when they return. We’ll celebrate Saint Sylvestre with them, and they’ll stay the night.