Occurrences: Book Seventeen

Kerfontaine

26 January 2021

A new book! And starting not too late in the year. The reason for the slight delay is that I’ve been busy getting Myra Barrs’ book about Vygotsky finished. It finally went off to the publisher yesterday evening. I know from experience that there will be hiccups and irritations before the book comes out, but the major work is done. That leaves big spaces of time now, which I haven’t had for several months.

Angela Stoffella in Bologna is turning out to be an excellent critic and corrector of my Montale translations. There are two or three things in each of the stories which aren’t just matters of nuance; they’re plain wrong. In ‘The Storm Fly’, for instance, I had the servant taking away Federigo’s visiting card ‘in the most convenient vessel’ as a translation of ‘nella sede più opportuna’. Quite wrong. Now it’s ‘to its most appropriate destination’. I’m still not absolutely sure that this is right either. But Angela was clear that ‘sede’ refers to Signora Dirce herself, the appalling person whose insistent hospitality imprisons Federigo, not to an inanimate object. On the other hand, Angela occasionally makes mistakes herself, including correcting my ‘pyjamas’ to ‘pyjama’. I had to tell her that there’s no such thing as a singular pyjama in English.

Covid-19 is now so severe in London that there’s no question of us returning any time soon. More than 100,000 people in the UK have now died of the disease. Many hospitals, especially those in London, are full of very sick and dying patients. If we had to return for some reason, we would be required to show a negative result of a Covid-19 test taken not more than 72 hours before crossing the Channel, and fill in forms promising to self-isolate in our flat for 10 days. At the moment, the government is considering a more stringent measure: requiring people to self-isolate in hotels, at their own expense, for that period. That may not happen, but the fact that the government is even considering it shows how concerned they are. Essentially, in a liberal democracy, many people will do what they want to do, not what it is in their and their fellow citizens’ best interests to do. I read that fewer than one in five people required to self-isolate in the UK have actually done so consistently.

Millions of people in the UK and around the world are now being vaccinated, and I think the story for the rest of this year will be that of a race between the vaccines and the disease, with all the mutations which the virus performs in its attempt to outwit humans’ immune systems. The world has taken a knock more severe than any in my and most people’s lifetimes. Governments around the world have borrowed unthinkably large sums of money in order to stave off complete social collapse. Meanwhile, we are safe, I think, in this quiet corner of rural Brittany. It’s true that there is a curfew from six in the evening until six in the morning, but at the moment there’s nothing much to go out to in the evening anyway.

Two huge events have taken place in America. I’ve written enough in previous books about Donald Trump. The scale of his wickedness reached new heights on 6 January when, in his continuing campaign to question the outcome of the election in November, he made a speech inciting his deluded followers to march on the Capitol, where Congress was going through the (usually ceremonial) process of finally certifying the election result. Having whipped them up into a frenzy, including saying that he would be going with them, which of course he didn’t, he ‘let slip the dogs of war’. They went to the Capitol and burst in, making murderous threats against some of the leading legislators, including Vice-President Pence who, despite having been for four years the most charisma-free Vice-President I can remember (though there was Dan Quayle…), was at least prepared to recognise the legitimacy of the outcome of the election. There was then mayhem and destruction at the heart of the symbolic and physical centre of the world’s most powerful democracy.

It was an attempted coup: a failed, chaotic, incoherent attempt, but an attempted coup nonetheless. A group of people used violent means to frustrate a democratic process. Biden emerged to make a sober, gloomy speech, calling on Trump to condemn the violence and tell the invaders to desist. Trump, having a few hours previously described his followers as patriots and heroes, then condemned them for the actions which he had incited. Eventually the mob dispersed.

There are continuing questions about the inadequacy of the security arrangements at the Capitol on that day, with the suggestion (unproven as yet) that there was actual collusion between Trump’s circle, some of the leaders of the Capitol police and some members of the National Guard, who were sufficiently sympathetic to Trump as to betray their oath to uphold democratic legitimacy whatever their personal political persuasion. It’s certainly true, as many people pointed out at the time, that the security presence in anticipation of a march overwhelmingly involving right-wing white men bore no comparison with that mounted at the time of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year.

Once the building had been cleared of the rioters, Congress resumed its business, and did finally approve the election result, at about three o’clock in the morning. Unbelievably, a significant minority of Republican senators and congressmen used the legalistic instruments at their disposal, before and after the invasion, to delay the inevitable. They knew they would lose. The only explanation for their contemptible behaviour is that they feared for their own electoral prospects at the hands of enraged and revengeful Trump supporters the next time they have to present themselves.

The anger of the mob had been intensified by the news that both Senate seats for the state of Georgia had been won by Democratic candidates the previous day. This means that the Senate is spilt 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and that if there is a tie in voting, Vice-President Kamala Harris has the casting vote. So, for the moment, the Democrats have all three arms of government: the Presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate, though the last by the narrowest of margins. It is certain that Republicans in both houses of Congress will use whatever procedural devices they can find to frustrate and delay Biden’s agenda. But still, the outcome is much better than I had feared, and the prospect of two Democratic senators, one black, one Jewish, representing a former slave state, is enormously encouraging.

Two weeks later, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated. We watched with pleasure and, I must confess, damp eyes. Lady Gaga, in an extraordinary dress, belted out the national anthem effectively, and Jennifer Lopez gave a bravura rendition of ‘This Land is your Land’ and ‘America the Beautiful’, but the star of the show was a 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman, whose poem ‘The Hill we Climb’ managed to encapsulate the spirit of the time, its dangers and its defiance, in long legato lines where the rhymes came as delicate chimes to remind us that this was a poem, not a prose poem.

Then the new administration got to work immediately to undo the damage of the Trump years. Biden has rejoined the 2015 Paris climate accord, rejoined the World Health Organization, stopped the building of an environmentally disastrous pipeline across the USA from Canada to Mexico, stopped work on the absurd wall at the Mexican border (not that a great deal had been done anyway, despite all Trump’s boasting), lifted the restrictions on people travelling from Muslim-majority countries and, perhaps most immediately urgent, began to address the Covid-19 crisis properly. About 430,000 people have died of the disease in the country, and it’s certain that the total will rise to at least 600,000, even with the measures now in place. Just to have sane, sage people in charge in America, instead of crazy ideologues and craven courtiers, is an immense relief.

Most Republican senators, contemptibly, are announcing that they will refuse to consider the case for Trump’s impeachment when it comes to the Senate. Trump has already been impeached in the House: the first time in history that a president has been impeached twice. Some of those who condemned Trump’s behaviour in the days following 6 January are now issuing statements completely contradicting their previous words, and the few brave Republican law-makers who are sticking to previous positions, like Liz Cheney, are facing efforts to unseat them. American politics will remain as venal and duplicitous as it has ever been, despite Trump’s departure.

Kerfontaine

16 February 2021

We’ve just come back from an afternoon walk in what I might call the avant-printemps. In the last few days we’ve had a fall of snow (very rare here; I think the last one was ten years ago), some bitingly cold days and nights, and days and days of continuous rain. But this afternoon there is a mild wind and some intermittent sunshine. There are crocuses on the lawn, which we didn’t plant. A few primroses are out already, and there will be many more in the next few weeks. They spread every year.

We’re staying here for the foreseeable future. Nothing has changed since I last wrote, except that, if we did return to London now, we’d have to get ourselves tested on the second and eighth days of our ten-day confinement at home, in addition to all the other obstacles we’d have to overcome. It turns out that the obligation to self-isolate in a hotel, at the traveller’s own expense (£1,750), applies only to UK residents coming from 33 countries where potentially dangerous variants of the virus are most prevalent. France is not one of the 33.

As I predicted when I last wrote, Myra Barrs and I have had various bits of extra business to attend to now that her book is in the hands of the publisher; but nothing difficult. And I’ve written a piece about public-service broadcasting for children, to go into a document which will be published by the Children’s Media Foundation later this year, and a copy of which will go to every MP. Angela Stoffella has corrected 22 of the 34 remaining Montale stories: those in the second and third groups of Farfalla di Dinard. I expect she’ll finish the last 12 in the next week or two. I’ll then add the 34 to the 13 already on my website, and see whether I can find an interested publisher.

We’re hoping that on 22 June there will be an event in St Paul’s Cathedral to mark 40 years of the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, and 20 years of the Ros Moger/Terry Furlong Scholarships Fund at the Trust. If large indoor gatherings are still not permitted by then, the event will be postponed until next year. But in any case I’m gathering testimonials from scholars whom we’ve supported over the last ten years, and from a few who also contributed to the booklet we produced for our tenth anniversary event in 2011. They’ll go into a new booklet.

As expected, the Senate failed to convict Trump. Only seven Republicans had the courage to vote with the Democrats, when 17 were required for a conviction. But enough new evidence emerged in the course of the trial to show that Trump was beyond doubt responsible for the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January. Mitch McConnell, the former Senate majority leader who had defended the indefensible for the four years of Trump’s presidency, said as much himself, but then hid behind the dubious legal argument that it is unconstitutional to impeach a person who has become a private citizen. I don’t see that; the offence was committed when Trump was the President, and surely therefore the sanction should relate to his status then. Trump faces various other legal challenges, notably one from Georgia, where his hour-long telephone call in early January to Georgia’s secretary of state, including the extraordinary statement ‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’, seems a clear case of attempted corruption. Meanwhile, Biden and Harris are just getting on with governing sensibly, as I knew they would.

The military in Myanmar staged a coup on 1 February, to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which won a general election by a landslide in November, from taking office. They have imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi herself. There has been continuous courageous civil disobedience across the country since. The soldiers are now saying that they will hold fresh elections soon; nobody believes them. If there were fresh elections, and they were at all fair, the result would be the same as it was in November. Any attempt by the West to put pressure on the soldiers is largely neutered by China’s support for the military; it and Russia will veto any motion of condemnation at the UN. Neither of those powers has any interest in Western notions of democratic freedom. Myanmar’s history since independence is tragic. The West’s uncritical support for Aung San Suu Kyi was called into question when she refused unequivocally to condemn Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya people. Perhaps, out of pragmatism, she thought that the chances of achieving sustainable democracy in her country were greater if she didn’t criticise the soldiers too openly. If that was the case, the coup shows that she was wrong.

Kerfontaine

1 March 2021

It’s a peerless, soft Saint David’s day here, not that the Bretons, I think, notice Saint David, despite the close connections between Brittany and Wales. (I’ve just checked the local paper; Brittany is commemorating Saint Grégoire today.) The last few days have been bright and cloudless, but with a biting north wind. Today everything has seemed to relax. There will be more wintry days before spring truly takes hold, but I’ve always regarded the first of March as the beginning of spring, whatever the external reality, and will continue to do so.

We went for our usual after-lunch walk this afternoon. As we descended the track from Collogodec, the post lady drove up behind us in her van (rural postal deliveries take all sorts of off-road short cuts) and handed me a package containing Andrew Bethell’s book about his brother, which I edited in the autumn. As I probably wrote then, it’s a poignant memoir about his only sibling, Robin, younger than Andrew, charming and brilliant, who wrecked his brain with drugs while at university in Perth, Australia and probably also on his way home, and later committed suicide. That was 40 years ago. Andrew tells the story of their childhood, including the ordeal of boarding school at Sherborne, and recounts how in recent visits to Australia he has managed to find out more about his brother’s life there, making contact with some of Robin’s friends and lovers. The epigraph to the book is my translation of Catullus’s famous tribute to his dead brother.

At the moment, nothing much changes here. The Vygotsky book is finished until the proofs arrive, which won’t be for a few weeks or months; Angela Stoffella is correcting the last group of my translations of Montale’s stories; I really need to get back to some more serious work of my own, either original writing or translation. I’ve just finished reading a book about Montale’s poetry, which confirms something about which I had a doubt last year: there are one or two extra stories which Montale added to a later edition of Farfalla di Dinard, so I should translate them too while I’m at it. I’ve just sent off for a second-hand copy of a 1994 impression of the book, which I hope will contain the extra pieces.

The UK government has announced a slow, four-stage process which, it hopes, will lead to final freedom from Covid-19-related restrictions by 21 June. Of course nothing is certain. We won’t go back to London until it’s easy to do so. It’s true that the UK has done much better than France, and the rest of the EU, in getting people vaccinated. We could have been vaccinated weeks ago had we been in London. I read that vaccinations will be offered to everyone in France over the age of 65 from the beginning of April. Whether that includes foreigners I don’t know, but we’ll go to the doctor in Plouay and ask.

We’ve postponed the event which was to take place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on 22 June. It would have been too close to the end of restrictions, even if everything goes well. Also, people coming from South Africa are currently obliged to quarantine in a hotel near the airport for ten days, at their own expense (£1,750). We wouldn’t want to put our South African visitors through that. So we hope that Saint Paul’s will accommodate us some time next year.

The world lurches dangerously on. Events in Myanmar are unspeakable. At least 18 people were killed yesterday during peaceful protests against the coup a month ago. It seems dreadful that a bunch of soldiers can do what they’ve done while the world’s democracies are powerless to intervene. I can see that a military invasion by the West would lead to a war with China. Over the weekend, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN broke ranks and denounced the military thugs who’ve been in charge since 1 February. Of course he was immediately dismissed; I hope he and his family will be safe. Autocracies are perfectly capable of sending assassins across the world, as Russia has repeatedly shown.

Shamima Begum was 15 when she left London, with two friends, and went to Syria to join Islamic State. She was immediately married off to a fighter and had his children, I think three. They have all died. The UK government stripped her of her British citizenship; she retains Bangladeshi citizenship. She is now in a camp in a Kurdish-held part of Syria. The UK Supreme Court last week ruled that the government is not obliged to bring her back to Britain. Hearing this news on the radio, Helen and I had a conversation about the rights and wrongs of the case.  In the end, having listened to an impressive woman who said that the hard-headed bosses of MI6 and other security services don’t believe that Begum represents a threat to national security, our feeling is that the UK and other democracies ought to have the self-confidence to take back people who have committed terrible crimes elsewhere, or have encouraged others to commit such crimes, and/or who still believe dreadful things, and expose them to our system of justice (of which we’re so proud).  Whether Begum now regrets what she did when she was 15, or whether, as an adult, she continues to justify Islamic State’s atrocities in the name of that perversion of Islamic doctrine, is irrelevant.  She should be tried on the basis of the law as it stands for offences she committed when she was a minor and/or when she was an adult.  (Of course the legal fact that in the UK people become adults on their 18th birthday, and thereafter are deemed wholly responsible for their actions, is arbitrary; but there it is, and you have to draw the line somewhere.) European democracies have tried the Nazis, both at Nuremberg straight after the war and many times more recently.  Last week a vile minor participant in Syria’s tyranny was tried and convicted in Germany on the basis of a piece of international law which allows states other than that in which an offence was committed to prosecute wrong-doing; and the same court hopes to punish a more senior member of Assad’s regime soon.

So, on balance, I would bring Shamima Begum back, try her, and keep her under tight surveillance and control if we don’t send her to prison.  I would do the same for the other women who are currently in camps in Iraq and Syria, and who retain British citizenship. There are numerous perfectly innocent children stuck in these camps, who deserve to be released and educated. At the same time, I’m in favour of the principle of stripping people of their citizenship if they’re guilty of dreadful crimes against their own country, even though I read that to do so is illegal under the 1981 British Nationality Act and the UN’s 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness; the UK government has used the convenience of Begum’s Bangladeshi citizenship to justify the removal of her UK citizenship. Bangladesh, meanwhile, has said that she might well face the death penalty if she went there, as punishment for her terrorist crimes. Despite the cruelty of the situation, I don’t think Begum’s UK citizenship should be restored, at least until we are absolutely sure that she has renounced her former beliefs and been punished for any crimes she is proved to have committed.  After the war, the French revoked the citizenship of senior people who had collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis, and they’ve done it more recently with French citizens who have committed Islamist atrocities.  

President Macron is currently trying to get the leaders of Muslim communities in France to sign up to a statement of acceptance of democratic and republican values. Predictably, the attempt is running into difficulties. Some groups accept the statement, some not. All the religions of which I have any knowledge have some dreadfully violent passages in their holy texts; which doesn’t mean that all or even most of the followers of those religions are violent.  Democracies which have significant communities of diverse ethnicities and faiths, which is more or less all of them now, need to tolerate, even foster, peaceful diversity while being uncompromising when a group within that diversity incites hatred and violence.

I’ve just finished reading The History of Germany since 1789, by Golo Mann.  The English edition was published in the early 1960s.  It’s been sitting on my shelf for years.  It’s very good; and he comes to the conclusion that totalitarian certainties, as represented of course by the evil of Nazism but also by the intolerant violence of Soviet Communism, must be avoided in Germany at all costs.  60 years later, the uncertainties and compromises involved in democracy are still a mess; but the authoritarian alternatives (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Syria, Egypt, several other African countries, all the Arab oil states, several states which were formerly part of the USSR, Myanmar…) are unspeakable, as is the drift in that direction in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, India…

Kerfontaine

11 April 2021

It’s a freezing cold but beautiful day. Last month, as often in recent years, there was unseasonably warm weather, almost summer-like, so the plants hastened to burgeon, but now they’re being punished for their precocity. French viticulteurs and fruit farmers are particularly concerned; some of them have been out all night, lighting fires or launching drones to keep the air circulating. I read that these violent lurches of temperature are all part of global warming, which should more accurately be described as global climate disruption. Normally, the jet stream and the vortex going round the North Pole move in the same direction. But now they’re moving in opposite directions, allowing blasts of arctic air to penetrate much further south than they usually do. Newspapers are full of mixed stories about the planet: here are dire warnings which more or less suggest that our grandchildren are doomed; then here are examples of countries or states or cities embarking on projects (electric cars and bicycles, off-shore wind farms, huge arrays of solar panels, better insulation) which give some hope that we might be able to avoid the worst. We’ll only make a significant difference in the right direction when the huge investment funds that dominate world finance stop investing in coal, oil and gas. I sometimes think that the best contribution to the avoidance of global warming which Helen and I have made is not to have had children. (I say this with respect and love to all my family and friends who have had children, and to all the children I know and adore.) The Duke of Edinburgh died last Friday, two months short of his hundredth birthday. Of the various recordings of his interviews which were played on the BBC that day, I was struck by one in which he remarked that the world then contained three times as many people as it did when he was born, and that we can’t go on multiplying like this without causing an eventual catastrophe.

I’ve been busy with the Vygotsky book and with the Montale translations. This morning I finished the first proof-reading of the Vygotsky. The next stage will be page proofs on PDFs, which will look like the pages of the eventual book. And when the 1994 edition of Farfalla di Dinard arrived, it did indeed contain three extra stories, bringing the number up to 50. I’ve done them now, and Angela Stoffella has corrected them. On Tuesday I wrote to Pushkin Press, a publisher which specialises in translations, to see if they would be interested in taking a look at my efforts. No reply so far. If no one’s interested, I’ll just put the remaining 37 stories, plus a few notes, onto my website along with the thirteen that are already there.

Mary and Jacques came in the middle of March and painted the outside of this house, and all the woodwork of the gates in the garden. It looks beautiful now, the white paint gleaming in the sunshine. They did a very serious job, involving hacking out great lumps of plaster which the rain had penetrated. Meanwhile they enjoyed being in their house at Priziac. Last Sunday (Easter Day) I drove them to Brest airport; they’re leaving their car at their house for when they come back in May. They were both quite doleful at leaving. I remember the same feeling whenever we left Kerfontaine in the first few years after we bought it.

Tomorrow I shall ring the local doctor to see about getting us vaccinated. I become eligible from next Friday. Helen has been eligible for a couple of weeks now, being over 70, but we thought we’d wait and get it done together. France and the rest of the EU still lag behind the UK, much to the delight of the Brexiteers across the channel, but supplies are slowly arriving. A week ago France entered a third quasi-lockdown: not as severe as the confinement of a year ago, but still a major interruption of normal life for many people. President Macron promises that this imposition will only be for a month, and then things will open up; the French, he says, will once again practise their famous art de vivre. We shall see. Other parts of the world are in dire difficulties. Brazil is probably the worst case, with its vile president continuing to deny the reality of the situation, or to take urgent action, as thousands of people die every day. In the USA under Biden, vaccinations are being rolled out fast, and there have been huge stimulus packages for the economy and for individual households, aimed particularly at the poorer.

We’re going to stay here until it gets easier to get back to London (and indeed to leave England again; at the moment one risks a £5,000 fine for leaving the country without good reason, and I don’t think ‘going to our second home’ counts as a good reason). It’s been an enormous pleasure to see all four seasons here, for the first time since we bought the place 31 years ago. I’ve done quite a lot of my writing at this desk with four layers on plus a woolly hat, plus an electric fire in extremis. Somehow, in a centrally heated, well insulated flat in the middle of a large city, winters seem to pass without us realising quite how cold that season can be. Here, we’ve been a little bit closer to ‘milk coming frozen home in pails’, though of course in our case it comes home from the supermarket. But, foolishly playing at the way things used to be, we have started to collect water from the spring in the wood across the track. Michel, the owner, said, ‘Help yourselves.’ So we go down with a few empty plastic bottles and get it. Michel has it analysed every year. It tastes delicious. And at last I’m not adding to the world’s mountain of plastic bottles. (Plastic, I read, can only be recycled three times; after that it’s useless, unlike glass and metal which can be recycled almost infinitely.) Of course we could get water from the tap in the house, but there’s a certain pleasure in wheeling the wheelbarrow up the hill, carrying water which has just come straight out of the ground. There would be absolutely no such pleasure if we were obliged to do it every day.

Kerfontaine

13 April 2021

We’re going to be vaccinated by the doctor in Plouay on Saturday. A step forward. It’s become the fashion for people to ask, ‘Which one will you have?’ as if it were a matter of a choice of ice cream flavours.  I reply, ‘Whatever I’m offered.’  I have a favourite when it comes to ice cream — vanilla — but I’m indifferent as to vaccine varieties.

We’ve applied for titres de séjour here: an obligation forced on us by the accursed Brexit. French bureaucracy being what it is, my first effort wasn’t sufficient, so I’ve had to gather up further bits of evidence that we are who we say we are, that we live where we say we live, and that we’re not destitute. I’ve sent these off today. Meanwhile, the bank also wanted me to prove that I live where I say I live, despite us having been customers of theirs for 31 years, so I took in a water bill this morning. The insurance company, noticing that I’m approaching the age of 70, strongly recommended that I take out personal accident insurance, so I’ve done that too. There were various little niggles to do with proof-reading the Vygotsky book which have required detailed exchanges with the copy editor. Helen and I are directors of the management company for our block of flats in London, and the managing agent hasn’t been paying the bills which the company has incurred, so I had to write the boss an email last Friday instructing him to pay the bills by the end of today, and to confirm in writing to me that he’s done that. The application for a 90-year lease extension on our flat, and on that of about twenty other leaseholders, which is a campaign I’ve been leading for the last eighteen months, has got stuck somewhere between our surveyor and the property company acting for Camden, the freeholder, so I rang our surveyor this morning to encourage him to push the business along.

This truly tedious list of minutiae (I can’t imagine that anyone else would be remotely interested in it) weighs on me. The banality of it. The precious time thrown away on it (Larkin’s marvellous phrase: ‘time torn off unused’; I suppose you have to remember those old-fashioned calendars where the days of the year were a fat block of pieces of paper in January, diminishing as the year passed, to really get the metaphor). I’m certain that, when the lease extension is achieved and when we can get back to London, I want to sell the flat and get shot of those responsibilities (and expenses).

It’s another beautiful day here, but with a cold wind. In the corner of the terrasse, out of the wind, it’s blissful as long you’re wearing enough clothes. We’ve just come back from our afternoon walk, and had tea and (in my case) half a scone with butter and raspberry jam.

Mary rang this morning to say that their flat in Marseille has been burgled. She was on the way back there from Avignon, where she and Jacques are doing a decorating job. She rang again, later, to say that the police had caught the three criminals — two women and a man — because a neighbour living above had heard the noise and called the police, who miraculously came almost immediately and apprehended the thieves as they were leaving the building with most of Mary’s jewellery, including some precious items which had belonged to our mother and grandmother. These are now back in Mary’s possession. The only thing missing, Mary thinks, is a gold ring which had belonged to our great-grandmother. So it could have been worse. But Mary and Jacques, like us, are wearying of their great city, with its inconveniences, incivilities and criminality. They have even greater worries than we do over the management of their flat. Because an immeuble elsewhere in the city fell down a while ago, causing deaths, the city authorities have become hyper-anxious about old buildings, and unfortunately some probably over-enthusiastic fonctionnaire saw the façade of the building where Mary and Jacques live and decided it was dangerous, with the result that the five or six owners of the flats there will between them have to pay many tens of thousands of euros for the repairs. That plus the fact that their former syndic, the equivalent of our managing agent, has turned out to be at the very least grossly inefficient and quite probably a crook. He promised them for months that he was actively addressing the problem, while in fact he was doing nothing. They now have a new syndic who they hope will be better. So Mary and Jacques have their cares as well.

This evening I’m going to read to my great-nephew Paul on FaceTime. I did this regularly last year, when we were in London. His mother tells me that he’s been asking for the sessions to resume.

The other day I was buying petrol in Plouay, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of a peach tree in full blossom in the corner of a little patch of tended earth — a small vegetable garden — right next to the forecourt. Just the tree, and the flowers, and the bare earth. No leaves yet, and certainly no sign of vegetables. It was sensational in its starkness and simplicity.

Kerfontaine

19 April 2021

Progress on tedious matters: I’ve just had an email from the préfecture in Vannes instructing me to attend on 12 May to receive my titre de séjour. So one of us has broken through the wall of French administration. Helen has been presented with greater difficulties, because all the regular bills here (electricity, water, insurance, phone, internet) are in my sole name. So she has yet to prove to the authorities that she does live here, even though we’ve been joint owners of the place since 1990. Amazingly, a paying-in slip from our French bank, with both our names on and our address, was refused as justicatif de domicile. We’ve sent off a document from a delivery company with Helen’s name, this address, and the required year (2020) on it, to see if that works. If not, we’ll do something else; perhaps get a notaire to write an attestation for us.

After applying extreme pressure to the incompetent man who owns the managing agent for our block of flats in London, including the curtest of voicemails left by me on his phone, we got him to issue a cheque for the payment of the annual insurance premium on the block. It arrived at the insurance company’s office today. I hope it doesn’t bounce. We’ve decided, nonetheless, that we’re going to change managing agent.

Enough of tedious matters. On Saturday, I received a text from Jacopo Barbi, Claudio’s son, telling me that Claudio had died that morning. He had been in a coma since September 2018, following his heart attack. I wrote to Jacopo, of course, and to everyone who had been to Rodellosso with us since we started going there in 2010. Claudio was the very spirit of that place, and a dear friend. The last day we saw him was the day we arrived for a week’s stay. He suffered the heart attack the next morning. He was 56 then. I’m sure that we’ll go back to Rodellosso when the pandemic has receded, assuming that Jacopo and the family wish to keep it going as an agriturismo.

This morning we bought herbs, rosemary, thyme and basil. I’ve transplanted the thyme and the rosemary to bigger pots, and put them out on the terrasse. We’ll keep the basil indoors for a while longer, in case of late frosts. And I’ve put compost and fertiliser on the roses and hydrangeas. In the lower garden, which I still call the ex-potager, remembering Albert, a mole has gone into overdrive. There were perhaps twenty-five huge molehills there this morning. Over the years, I’ve lurched between Genghis Khan and St Francis of Assisi in my attitude to moles. I’ve tried exploding them, gassing them, trapping them, bleeding them (they’re supposed to be haemophiliac). Nothing works. So I try not minding them. That doesn’t work either. So this afternoon I tried a technique which so far seems to work for my neighbour. I shovel away the excess soil of a molehill. I find the little hole up which the soil has been excavated. I place a bamboo stick in the hole, tap it with a mallet so it stands upright, and put an inverted plastic mineral water bottle on its top. The vibration of the bottle when the wind blows, transferred down the stick, is supposed to persuade the mole to go elsewhere. (In fact, I wonder whether the effectiveness of the technique in my neighbour’s garden is the reason for the beast’s emigration to mine.) The display of five upturned plastic bottles on sticks is not pretty. But if it works, I shall be content.

We were successfully vaccinated with the Astra-Zeneca jab on Saturday morning, and given a date for our second dose in July. All very efficient, and we didn’t even have to pay. I’ve had no ill effects, but Helen was feverishly cold on Saturday night, and a bit fragile yesterday. We and Jean and Annick went to lunch with Jérôme and Aurélie just up the hill, which was the usual and delightful affair lasting all afternoon, but Helen had to leave before the end and go to bed. She seems fine today, thank goodness.

I’ve recently re-read The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s magnificent account of the ten years leading up to the First World War, and the failures of statesmanship which permitted that catastrophe. Before that I read The Last Mughal, in which William Dalrymple brilliantly describes the fall of Delhi in 1857 during what the British refer to as the Indian mutiny and some Indian writers describe as the first Indian war of independence. Unspeakable atrocities were committed on all sides, but the British reprisal once the uprising was defeated was extreme in its violence and bloodlust. Before that I read Giorgio Bassani’s The Novel of Ferrara, which is in fact a bringing-together of four novels and two sets of short stories, all set in Ferrara, and all concerned, one way or another, with the approach of fascism to that city, and its dreadful implications for the large Jewish community there. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the longest of the novels, and the most famous, because of Vittorio de Sica’s film adaptation. Beautiful, restrained writing, with some poignant ironies, such as the fact that many of the Jewish community’s most prominent members had joined the National Fascist Party in the early years, taken in — as were so many others — by the promise of a modernity and dynamism which would sweep away the inefficiencies, inequalities and archaic practices which, it is true, so hampered the country.

I decided a while ago that I really must read all of Dickens before I die. I took in Nicholas Nickleby a few weeks ago, and now I’m halfway through Our Mutual Friend. I’ll go on to A Tale of Two Cities next. Then there’s The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit and Edwin Drood. I’ve read everything else. Nicholas Nickleby and Our Mutual Friend confirm me in my feeling that Dickens is a wonderful comic writer, a masterful manager of plot, and a sincere social critic. There are passages of description, especially details of the London he knew so well, which are quite sublime in the exactitude of their observed detail. Dickens’ characters, with rare exceptions, are morally and psychologically simple: they’re good or bad, and if they’re comic they’re comically good or comically bad. Morally good young women with pretty or beautiful faces and shapely figures abound. And Dickens is often mawkishly sentimental, especially in matters of religion. His sincere social criticism doesn’t go beyond a forlorn hope that those with power might change their ways. Those who overcome poverty or oppression usually do so thanks to the kindness of wealthy individuals: shining exceptions to the dark and brutal rule. But what an output!

Kerfontaine

8 May 2021

A sublimely beautiful May evening. Wind from the south in the trees. Birdsong constant. I’ve been translating the poems in the ‘Ossi di Seppia’ section of Montale’s Ossi di Seppia that I’ve haven’t done before. I think I’ll make myself do them all, even though some of them don’t appeal immediately, and some are pretty mysterious.

I’m now reading War and Peace for the first time. I’m not sure why it’s taken me to my seventieth year to get round to it. More when I’m further in. I did manage to get to the battle of Austerlitz, and Napoleon’s encounter with the wounded Prince Andrew, on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death last Tuesday.

Kerfontaine

9 May 2021

There were elections throughout Britain on Thursday. Labour has performed badly in England and Scotland, well in Wales. To start with the small amount of good news for Labour in England: popular Labour mayors like Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London have been returned; in two places — Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and West of England — Labour mayors have taken over from Conservatives; Labour holds nine of the eleven elected mayoral positions in England, with one yet to declare. But there is much more bad news. There was a disastrous by-election result in Hartlepool, where Labour lost the seat for the first time since it was created in 1974. And the council results are equally grim. At the moment, the Conservatives control 58 councils (up 12) and have gained 239 councillors; Labour controls 43 councils (down seven) and has lost 301 councillors. It’s very unusual for a sitting government, in power for 11 years, to pull away from the opposition rather than yielding to it.

In Scotland, the SNP has won handsomely, but with 64 seats is one short of an overall majority. With the help of the Greens, however (eight seats), there will be a handsome working majority — 72 to 57 — at Holyrood for independence. The Conservatives remain the official opposition with 31 seats. Labour, which not many years ago was the dominant political force in Scotland, has 22 seats, having lost two. There will now be a battle royal over whether or not Scotland can have another referendum on the independence question. I’m sure that the result of any such referendum in the next few years will be much closer than the 72-to-57 difference suggests, but I’m equally sure that the pro-independence vote will be bigger than it was in 2014.

In Wales, Labour has 30 seats in the Senedd, up one. The Conservatives have 16, up five. The big loser is UKIP, which had seven seats and now has none.

How to make sense of this? It does seem that incumbency in England, Wales and Scotland during the pandemic has helped the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP respectively. Then there is the post-Brexit effect. Wales voted for Brexit, and it looks to me that Brexit-voting people in Wales have returned in more or less equal numbers either to Labour or to the Conservatives now that UKIP has disappeared. England voted for Brexit, and here, by contrast, Brexit-voting former Labour voters seem to have gone across to the Conservatives much more than back to Labour. This must mean that Labour has emphatically lost its appeal to many of the people who traditionally supported it, especially in the Midlands and the North. And Johnson the showman has been lucky. Despite the disastrous start to the government’s response to the pandemic, and the fact that the UK has a very high proportion of deaths from Covid by head of population (1,871 per million, only just short of Brazil’s catastrophic record, and slightly more than the USA’s, where the Biden administration has made great strides since inheriting Trump’s appalling legacy), the success of the vaccination programme has brought about a feel-good factor in the population in recent months.

Which brings me to Keir Starmer, whom I know personally and admire very much. I was glad to have played a small part in his campaign to be leader. At the moment, his evident integrity, clarity of mind and forensic dismantlement of Johnson’s bluster at Prime Minister’s Questions every week have not reached through to the people whom Labour needs in order to win a general election. I supported Keir’s campaign to be leader because I genuinely thought, and still think, that he is the person most likely to bring Labour back into government. When I supported his campaign, I wasn’t thinking about what party members like me wanted; I was trying to think about what those millions of people who don’t spend much time worrying about politics, who mainly just want to get on with their lives, who care first and foremost about their families and livelihoods, would want; and I was trying to think about who would best withstand the vile assaults which any Labour leader will get from the Tory press as an election approaches.

But it’s evident that the damage Brexit has done to Labour in the North and the Midlands has survived and will continue to survive the conclusion of that debate at the beginning of this year. And Keir, despite the ordinariness of his upbringing and the shining example he offers of aspiration and success from the starting point of an ordinary upbringing, looks to many working people, especially those a long way from London, like another privileged Southerner, and one who campaigned, to the last, to remain in the EU. I expect he has lots of people around him giving him advice. My advice would be that he needs to be a bit more of a politician and a bit less of a lawyer. A tougher, rougher voice; more slogans, less analysis. When Blair came to power — and he was a person from a more privileged background than Keir, and also a lawyer in a sharp suit — he knew the cutting edge of the slogan, hence ‘Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. It’s ten words rather than the three of ‘Take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit done’, but it cut through in 1997.

It may be, as the pandemic recedes and normal politics resumes, that it will be easier for Keir to make his voice heard. And it’s possible that Johnson will come a cropper at some point. But there no doubt that he’s a vote winner at the moment, and there’s something about his jovial bad-boy bluffing which uncommitted people are amused by and like. I may have written before that I remarked to Keir, a few weeks before he became leader, that he might need two goes at being Prime Minister. He said, ‘I know.’ Whether the party will give him another go if he fails in 2023 or 2024 I’m not sure. There are figures more easily associated with the North and the Midlands, where Labour has suffered the most, waiting in the wings: Andy Burnham certainly, for whom we voted when Corbyn won the first time, and Lisa Nandy, who has the further advantage of being a woman, something that a lot of Labour members think it’s high time for.

Kerfontaine

10 May 2021

There’s been a further unfortunate development in Labour’s woes since last Thursday’s election. On Saturday night, just as there was some good news for Labour with the election or re-election of Labour mayors, came the news that Keir Starmer had ‘sacked’ — I put the word in inverted commas because I have no idea whether it was true — Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, from her post as campaigns co-ordinator. This prompted the usual explosion of rage on social media, especially from people on the left of the party. By last night, a limited shadow cabinet reshuffle had taken place, with the welcome arrival of Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor, and with Ms Rayner promoted, if anything, to shadow Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office. As Ian Watson writes on the BBC’s website, Ms Rayner ‘is now not only deputy Labour leader but shadow first secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work. The key issue, her allies stress, is that she will have a say over party policy, particularly on the economy and workers’ rights.’ So, good news from the point of view of the wing of the party she represents. But the affair smacks of incompetence. The whole reshuffle should have been announced in one go, with no rage-inducing talk on Saturday night about a sacking. As I say, sometimes things happen behind the scenes which can’t be admitted. Perhaps Keir floated the idea to Ms Rayner that she should move and she then put the word ‘sacking’ into the public sphere. Those of us not in the inner circle will never know. But it only adds to a feeling that Keir’s grip is not completely sure. Events like this fade quickly in the memory. If Labour begins to regain popularity in the polls, if the government comes unstuck for one reason or another, it’ll be forgotten. I’m sticking with Keir, for reasons I’ve given before, despite the voices who say that he would make a great Home Secretary and of course an effective Attorney General, but hasn’t got the popular characteristics to lead Labour to victory in a general election.

I forgot to mention that, amid the largely gloomy news after 6 May, there was one tiny but resounding success. The referendum on the Camley Street Neighbourhood Plan was held that day, along with all the elections. The Yes vote won with a whopping 92% of the turnout. The turnout was only 30.8%, but the returning officer told Peter McGinty, who’s now the sole secretary of the Neighbourhood Forum after my resignation last year, that 30.8% is very good for Neighbourhood Plan referenda. This doesn’t mean that Camden is legally obliged to do what we have proposed in the Plan, but it does put significant pressure on the Council to pay attention to our proposal: maintain all the businesses which want to stay on site; build hundreds of dwellings, mainly for rent, at prices which people on ordinary incomes can afford; do the whole thing in as environmentally sustainable a way as possible.

Kerfontaine

12 May 2021

I’m just back from an office in Vannes, and am now a French resident. I was photographed and fingerprinted, as if I were a criminal, but it was all done in the friendliest manner. I have to take Helen back to the office in a couple of weeks so she can get her titre de séjour too. I had thought of taking her with me today, but was sure that, French administration being what it is, she would have to appear on the date and at the time she has been given. But no! When I told the young woman that I’d be coming back in a fortnight with my wife, she said, ‘Oh, why didn’t you bring her with you? I could have done her too.’

Kerfontaine

15 May 2021

One small success on the tedious news front: we have now changed the managing agent for Elm Village Block D. A firm called Scott and Stapleton has taken over from Goldfield Properties. I only bother to record this in recognition of the fact that the change has required scores of phone calls, dozens of emails, three sets of letters to all 42 leaseholders, and a certain amount of stress last month, when it looked for a moment as if the building might not be insured, since the owner of Goldfield Properties hadn’t paid the insurance premium, having held the invoice for five months. In the end, the premium was paid, and the building was never not insured, but that piece of incompetence was the final straw.

I keep pushing and pushing about the 90-year lease extension.

Such inconsequential matters! Meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinians are at war again, with familiar heart-breaking scenes, and the familiar ratio of many more Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths. The last report I heard today had 139 Palestinians killed; 11 Israelis. Hundreds more injured, of course. A new development since the last serious conflict in 2014 is that this time there have been outbreaks of inter-communal violence within Israel itself, between Jews and Arabs. Israel continues to build settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These acts are illegal so far as most of the rest of the world is concerned, but Israel will continue with them because it knows it has the tacit consent of the US in doing so, although the Biden administration may well take a more critical stance than did Trump, who essentially encouraged Netanyahu to do whatever he liked.

The threat to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem in order to make way for a Jewish settlement is one of the sparks which has ignited this new blaze. Then the desire of Zionist youth to march through largely Arab areas of East Jerusalem to celebrate the Israeli victory in 1967, just as some Protestants in Northern Ireland wish to march through largely Catholic areas of cities in the province to celebrate their victory of 1690. The march was re-routed at the last minute. Then violence at the holiest Muslim shrine in Jerusalem during Ramadan. The site is equally holy to Jews. On 10 May, when Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its soldiers from the site, and when Israel of course refused, Hamas began firing rockets into Israel. The Israeli response has been devastating. Great numbers of buildings in Gaza have been destroyed. Many civilians have been killed. Israel says it is only targeting Hamas militants. This afternoon the Israelis blew up a tower block housing foreign media. Again, it said that there were militants in there. The landlord of the building denies this. He managed to evacuate all those inside just before the destruction.

I don’t expect any end to this dreadful waste of life and outpouring of hatred in my lifetime. Those with any influence in the matter continue to speak of a two-state solution. As I’ve written so many times before, I see no solution other than a one-state solution: Israel proper, both parts of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights united as one country, called Israel-Palestine or some similar name, the state strictly secular in its apparatus but with absolute right of religious belief and practice for Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. A dream. But you could say the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa was a dream. Despite that country’s continuing enormous difficulties, the dream was realised.

I find, when I’ve written about this over the years, that I must also say that Hamas is a dreadful organisation: a violent authoritarian theocracy, as backward in its attitude to freedom of thought and the role of women as the Taliban. But it is in power because it won an election, and I don’t think anyone has suggested that its victory was rigged. I can’t see how it can achieve any reconciliation with the more moderate Palestinian faction on the West Bank. The recent exposure of shameful anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party concerns those who are unable to restrict their criticism to the actions of the Israeli government, as I try to do, but who go further and question the right of Israel to exist at all. Israel has every right to exist, despite the dreadful short-sightedness of 1948 which imagined that a new state could simply be brought into existence by clearing away large numbers of people of a different ethnicity and faith who had lived in that land for a thousand years. It was a short-sightedness caused by the West’s understandable desperation to do something to atone for allowing one of the world’s worst ever atrocities — perhaps the worst ever in the history of humanity — to have been enacted in Europe. And Israel faced the implacable hatred of most of its Arab neighbours, who declared war on it and made remarks about driving it into the sea, although several Arab states, starting with Egypt under Sadat, have since formally recognised its existence. Now you can hear casual Israeli voices wishing that Gaza could be wiped off the map. Equally, you hear wise and tolerant voices, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, pointing to actual examples of peaceful and mutually respectful coexistence and collaboration.

Perhaps only some dreadful crisis, greater than that which is now occurring — and I suppose I mean full-scale civil war in Israel itself and the West Bank — might shake the parties into the realisation that they must, they must, find a way to live together, children of Abraham as both sides are, rather than continuing to spill blood as now. Of course, both sides would have to deal with their own zealots and extremists, but that always happens in the resolution of bitter long-running conflicts, as Northern Ireland has shown. The rich world, starting with the US, would have to put in enormous sums of money and huge efforts of technical knowledge to drag Gaza out of its dire poverty and dependency. But it could be done. We’ve seen how unthinkably large sums of money have been found in response to Covid-19. The wealth is there if the will were there.

Kerfontaine

17 May 2021

Miserable, cold, windy weather! Not like May should be at all. Here’s a complaining poem I’ve just written.

Cold Spring

Rank sodden May, the new leaves supercharged
with water. Grass and meadow flowers in glut.
Across these lengthening days the clouds process,
coloured like bruises, spill their load and pass.
Brief bursts of sun are miserly of heat.
I stoop to set the evening fire, submerged.

The wood we’ve burned this winter! Night by night
a barrow-load has gone to ash and smoke.
Last autumn, ‘That will be enough,’ I thought,
proudly surveying the packed woodshed. Not.
My neighbour brought three lorry-loads of oak,
seasoned for twenty years, to help us out.
He asked for nothing, but accepted wine.
Daily, at six, I cross the knee-high lawn
to raid the stack. The pleasure in routine.
But will I still be doing this in June?

Kerfontaine

7 June 2021

It’s a lovely day here. May was wet and cold almost to the end, but it brightened up on the 30th. So there’s the answer to my rhetorical question in the last line of that poem.

Jean-Paul came last Monday and Tuesday and cut the meadow. I’ve left big parcels of wildness on both lawns, to encourage the bees. Last week, using my newly acquired electric chain saw, I cut the lower branches from the double row of fir trees at the top of the meadow. So now more light comes in, you can walk between the trees, and Jean-Paul will be able to get in there with his big machine. It’s made quite a difference; before, that part of the garden was gloomy.

Mary and Jacques arrived at Rennes by train from Marseille on Thursday. I went to collect them. They stayed the night here, and I took them to their house the next morning. I think they’re very happy to be back in Brittany. They’re coming to tea and dinner later. Jacques fell off a ladder recently while doing a painting job and has broken several ribs. He fell from quite a height: I think five metres. Thank goodness it wasn’t worse. There’s nothing to be done about the ribs, other than to let time heal them. In the meantime, he’s on strong painkillers.

A ceasefire was eventually agreed between Israel and Hamas, with both sides claiming victory. But the underlying problem remains. Since then, Netanyahu has been challenged as Prime Minister by a coalition of eight unlikely partners, which between them have 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and which hold a wide disparity of positions. As Jeremy Bowen writes on the BBC’s website, the coalition ‘would be trying to span the entire Israeli spectrum, from the nationalist right to the liberal left’. It includes, for the first time, an Israeli Arab party. Netanyahu will do everything he can to sabotage the coalition. Even though I can’t see this extraordinary partnership working, I’d love to see the back of Netanyahu, whose duplicity — occasionally seeming to offer the possibility of some sort of agreement with the Palestinians, then withdrawing the offer, while continuously encouraging the building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — has been a major contributor to the continuation of the tragedy in Israel/Palestine. He is on trial in Jerusalem at the moment on serious corruption charges.

People keep asking me if I’m going to do anything special for my 70th birthday in ten days’ time. I say no. I like to celebrate my birthday, but I see no reason to depart from usual practice just because there’s a nought on the end this time. It’s true that from this Wednesday the restaurants will be allowed to open indoors, but there will be restrictions on the number of customers they can accept, and on the number that can sit together at the same table. The curfew moves from 9pm to 11pm on Wednesday, but I don’t want to invite people out to dinner when they have to be looking at their watches while drinking their coffee. So we’ll probably just have a nice evening here with Mary and Jacques.

I wrote a funny little poem the other day about being 70. It pretends that I wrote it on my birthday. The idea came to me via one of my favourite quotations from Horace, which I had wrongly remembered as ‘Naturam expellas furca sed revenit’. I thought ‘revenit’ would make a good rhyme with ‘maintain it’ or ‘restrain it’. But the actual quotation, when I looked it up on the internet, is ‘Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret’. So I had to jiggle things around a bit. Here’s the poem.

On his 70th Birthday

I read somewhere that Thomas Hardy claimed, with pride,
he’d had ‘full sexual intercourse’ at 84.
I’m 70 today. And will my life provide,
should I be spared, his fourteen lusty summers more?

A century has passed. Alas, we can’t discover
the youthful second Mrs Hardy’s point of view.
How was it for her, entered by her ancient lover:
pure bliss, or just a wifely ordeal to get through?

An old man’s libido’s a mighty strange address;
and yet I find I’m more than anxious to maintain it.
So let me, strictly confidentially, confess,
since ageing, so far, seems unable to restrain it,

that Horace hit the nail smartly on the head
with his ‘Naturam’ (he meant in and out of bed)
expellas furca’, pitchfork as we may, ‘tamen
usque recurret
’ (thank God) time and time again.

Last week we finally had success with the application for a 90-year lease extension on twenty flats, including ours, in our block in London. My friend Richard Cotton, a Camden councillor who lives in the block, suggested that I write to the borough solicitor, which I did. The borough solicitor got someone in his team to put pressure on Camden’s valuer to come to a reasonable compromise on the amount we have to pay for the extension, which the valuer eventually did. So the twenty flats will now have leases extending into the remote future (2196) with no more ground rent to pay, and their resale value will be assured. A few people have written to thank me.

I calculate that 2196 is as far into the future as 1836 is into the past. 1836 is the year my great-great-grandfather was born: my mother’s mother’s mother’s father. He died in 1930, and I remember how, when I went to see my grandmother just before she died in (I think) 1990, she had photographs around her bedroom including that of her grandfather and those of babies, her great-grandchildren, likely to live until late into the twenty-first century: she had known people whose lives had stretched or would stretch over a period of about 250 years.

I finished War and Peace about two weeks ago. What an extraordinary achievement that book is: the descriptions of the battles, the futile loss of life, mixed in with the pleasures and privileges of Russia’s upper classes, plus glimpses of the suffering Russian peasantry whose unaddressed condition would lead to the tragedy of a hundred years later. Wonderful. I thought it interesting how, at the end, in the First Epilogue, the surviving main characters settle down to ordinary, rather mundane lives. Nicholas marries Princess Mary and becomes a country squire. Pierre marries Natasha. Babies arrive. And then the Second Epilogue abandons the narrative completely and theorises at length about historical forces. It repeats a position which Tolstoy has taken frequently during the novel, which is that ‘great men’ (he is often referring to Napoleon) are themselves subject to historical forces beyond their control, however much they may be seen, or may see themselves, as masters of the universe. Tolstoy’s regular departures from fictional narrative in the book remind me, perhaps bizarrely, of Moby Dick, where similarly a riveting story is continually interrupted by factual writing — in that case detailed descriptions of the practice of whale-hunting.

I’m now reading Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. He’s a terrible show-off as a writer, but his visualisations of concrete details are brilliantly vivid, and the experience he describes — the lurch from liberal aristocratic privilege in the last years of the Tsarist regime to the straitened life of an émigré — is fascinating. I didn’t know that he went to my college in Cambridge. He confirms the view I’ve had for a long time, that Bolshevism was a disaster from the outset. Many of my left-wing friends used to say that everything was wonderful in the first years of the revolution, until Stalin took over. No. Lenin was as brutal a leader as Stalin, though more subtle. I would have been a Menshevik in Russia and a Girondin in France before those revolutions, which probably means that I would have been shot in both cases. The only statement that Nabokov makes which, from my previous reading, I would question is his claim that Russia was already, from the 1860s onward, embarking on a liberal path. Yes, there were liberal forces in Russia, and Nabokov’s father was an honourable representative of those forces; but surely it was Tsarist autocracy, refusing to yield to liberal demands, which brought about the countervailing catastrophe of Bolshevik autocracy.

Kerfontaine

9 June 2021

It’s my brother Andy’s birthday. I rang him in Bulgaria this morning. He was in pretty good spirits, but I could sense, reading between the lines of his conversation, the load he’s carrying in his constant care of Beryl, now in the advanced stages of dementia.

On Monday Mary and Jacques came to dinner. Towards the end of the evening Mary had a text from our brother Mark, asking her to ring him. She rang. He told her he has lung cancer. The tumour is in the upper part of the left lung. I spoke to him then, and yesterday. Tomorrow he sees a consultant at Taunton hospital, where he expects that therapy of some kind, or perhaps an invasive operation, will be offered. At the moment he has no idea what the prognosis is. He’s 68, very fit, and hasn’t smoked for many years. Even when he did smoke as a young man, it was an occasional habit, so far as I can remember; he was never addicted. These things are unpredictable. We can but hope. If we have to go back to England earlier than planned, despite continuing difficulties to do with the pandemic, of course we will.

Serious heat has arrived, and is likely to be with us for a few days. We’ve reverted to our summer habit of walking after dinner, when it’s cooler.

Kerfontaine

13 June 2021

Very unusually for me, I’m writing this outside, on the deck, at half past nine in the evening of a cloudless, still, blazing hot day. Generally, I regard writing outside as a kind of cheating, as having too much of a good thing, and I can’t believe that the necessary discipline will be achieved with so many of nature’s distractions to hand. But this evening is simply sublime, and as we near the summer solstice, the sun in the north-west is shining horizontally at me between the trees, and will continue to do so for about another ten minutes. I’m sweating profusely from a double duty of watering: our own plants, in pots and in the borders, and Jean’s more extensive collection, which I take care of willingly when he and Annick are away — our neighbours do so much for us — but which does require a good forty minutes with the hose and watering can, at least every other evening when it’s hot. And I feed their cat, who’s always affectionate to me.

Last night we went to Mary and Jacques, and had a delicious dinner with them outside their house (octopus salad, fish pie, cheese, strawberries and peaches). It was late when we finished, and we went for a circular walk in the gloaming, about eleven, in the stillness and the silence, with the sliver of a new moon and one planet vivid in the peachy light left by the departed sun, and the stark silhouettes of the trees against the lit horizon. Mystical. Then a brandy before bed and a dreamless sleep. Back here this morning, and after lunch I found that the languor of the afternoon required another doze in the downstairs bedroom while Helen was out here listening to England playing football in the European Nations Cup, which should have taken place last year but was postponed because of the pandemic.

Talking of sport, the England men’s cricket team have, in the last few days, performed about as miserably as I can remember them doing for a long time (and I have to remind myself that I’ve been paying attention to England’s cricketers for half a century now). I like the New Zealanders; they play fair, and I have none of the animus against them that I can’t deny wells up in me when we’re playing Australia. It’s quite ridiculous that one of the best teams in the world only gets two Tests against us this summer, when India (also one of the best teams in the world) will have five games in quick, too quick, succession starting in early August. In the first Test, at Lord’s, New Zealand made a very sporting declaration at the end of the third innings, which England pusillanimously failed to respond to, batting out a tedious draw. Then, in the match at Egbaston, which finished this morning, England were outplayed in every department of the game. They won the toss and Root chose to bat on a good wicket. They got far fewer runs than they should have, because of several palpable lapses by the batters. New Zealand posted a first-innings lead of 85. The English radio commentators, as usual, were making the most optimistic projections about how England could seize the advantage from there (‘Get past the New Zealand total with only one or two down, build a lead of about 200, bowl the Kiwis out in the fourth innings…’). Collapse. We lost nine wickets yesterday, again at least partly because of failures of batting technique or temperament, and the tenth to the first ball this morning. New Zealand knocked off the 38 runs they needed for the loss of two wickets. They were superb, and I give them every credit, but there is something profoundly amiss in the state of English cricket when we can’t put on a better display than this.

The sun has gone. The minor physical inconveniences of high summer (the gnats, mosquitoes and ticks which bite me, and the hay fever which always attacks me in the weeks around my birthday) are as nothing compared to the delight of being here, in this green paradise, as my biblical span approaches.

Kerfontaine

14 June 2021

It’s another blisteringly hot day. The temperature outside must be well up into the thirties. Glorious. I can take any amount of this.

Mark has seen a consultant about his lung cancer. The news so far is relatively (only relatively, because lung cancer is a serious business) reassuring: the tumour doesn’t seem to be connected to the lymph glands; nor is it close to the bronchial area of the lung. So he will have a PET scan (positron emission tomography) within a fortnight. The internet tells me that ‘The use of PET scans may help doctors more accurately detect the presence and location of cancer cells. A PET scan is similar to a CT scan; however, PET scans can detect live cancer tissue.’ So the PET scan will tell the doctors exactly where the tumour is. Then, depending on the results, it is likely that Mark will have an operation to remove a small part of his lung. This will be done at the Royal Infirmary in Bristol, perhaps near the beginning of August. If the operation successfully removes the cancer, and it hasn’t spread, it may not be necessary for Mark to have radiotherapy or chemotherapy, although, as Helen says, doctors often recommend extra therapy after surgical operations, just to be sure. As I wrote a few days ago, we can but hope.

Kerfontaine

20 June 2021

It’s been a pretty successful week. My 70th birthday on Wednesday was a delight: cards, presents (including a generous cheque from Mary and Jacques, who were with us for the evening, to be spent on a amorous short break somewhere), emails, texts, phone calls, and a film from Alix, Ben and Isha in Australia, featuring easily the best rendition of ‘Happy birthday’ that I received. I chose the menu for dinner: smoked salmon, lamb chops with mashed potatoes, cheeses, Eton mess, wines various.  All delicious.  After several days of intense heat, the rain fell just as we were clinking glasses, with champagne in, on the deck outside.  So we came inside, but it didn’t matter.  The following morning the merest of headaches was gone by lunchtime. 

On Thursday the plastic cards confirming our status as French residents arrived in the post.  It was quite a business getting them, but now we have them we’re entitled to stay here for five years, no further questions asked, and then we can renew.  So we’re pleased about that.

All 20 of the leaseholders in Elm Village Block D have been offered and accepted extensions on their lease. So that campaign, which I’ve been leading since December 2019, has been successfully concluded.

I did the final checks on the main text of the Vygotsky book. That was easy. But checking the index was exhausting and brain-achingly boring. It took me about ten hours, and did require quite a few additions and corrections. I sent it off with the main text at the end of the day on Thursday, so there’s nothing more to be done on the book, I hope. It should be published in August.

Stephen Mellor has done a great job on the design of the Ros Moger Terry Furlong Scholarships 20th anniversary booklet. That has now gone to the printer in Exeter. Sue Davidson, a member of our little organising group, will handle the distribution to our contributors. We’ll ask people at Canon Collins itself to organise sending copies to southern Africa.

Arturo Tosi has agreed to double-check my translations of the 37 Montale stories which Angela Stoffella has already corrected. He’ll have done them all by the end of July. Then I’ll have another go at seeing whether anyone is interested in publishing them.

David James is coming on 28 June, for a week, to look at the house in Pont-Scorff which he’s intent on buying. Last night we went to dinner in L’Art Gourmand — our first trip to a restaurant since last autumn — and Agnès told us that two more houses in the square there are for sale, so I’ll try to organise visits to those as well.

Mark is having a brain scan this coming Tuesday. At the same time, they’ll take a biopsy of the tumour on his lung. The following Monday a group of specialists will meet to decide what to do, once they have all the information they need. If they recommend the operation in Bristol which I mentioned in my last, it may well be keyhole surgery under a local anaesthetic. So we’re hoping.

The only sadness this week is that Ken Pearce has died. He was my O-level Latin teacher for a year, in 1965-1966, and inspirational. I dedicated the Latin section of my translations book to him, and to the memory of Hugh Proudfoot, who taught me for A-level. Ken and his wife Val remained close friends with Peter and Monica Hetherington, and it was through them that I met Ken several times in recent years. He and Val came to the launch of my poetry books in 2017. He was a few months older than Peter, who was very upset when I spoke to him on the phone on Friday. He had known Ken since 1959; when Peter went to Bedford Modern School, Ken was already there. After leaving Bedford Modern, Ken became head of Mary Hare School for deaf children and young people. I can see from the internet that he was there from 1973 to 1987, when he retired. He and Val lived at Buxton in later years, and were active in the annual Buxton International Festival (of which my university friend Stephen Barlow was for a long time the musical director). He played the piano very well, and owned a succession of vintage cars. He and Val had three daughters, and I hear that they were with him at the end. It was a long life, well lived. I shall write to Val.

Kerfontaine

12 July 2021

The unsettled, rainy weather has continued since my birthday. We’re nearly halfway through the summer, and we haven’t really had a summer yet; only the brief burst which ended as we were clinking champagne glasses. The grasses in the verges by the roads are rife and fat again, only a few weeks after they were scythed by the council’s tractor drivers. Normally, two scythings a year, in May and October, are sufficient to keep the verges neat. But it’s pleasing to see the diversity of wild grasses and flowers which pop up.

David James came for a week, and looked at four houses in Pont-Scorff. On the Tuesday he saw two, one of which was a possibility, but he didn’t like the arrangement of the rooms. He was still yearning for the original house he had seen, number 28 in the town’s square, despite all the advice he had received that it was a ruin inside which would need huge amounts of money and time to fix. When we visited number 28 on the Thursday, he finally accepted the advice. That day, by chance, we met Marc, who runs L’Art Gourmand with his wife Agnès, who told us that a house from which another restaurant in the town had operated was to be sold as a private dwelling. This we visited on the Saturday. I think it would suit David very well; it’s a beautiful traditional Breton double-fronted building, in granite, with ancient but well preserved beams inside, two open fireplaces, a little courtyard at the back, and no structural work needing to be done. It’s true that it’s on the cobbled street which runs out from one corner of the square, so there’s frequent passing traffic. I suspect that David is going to say no to it when I hear from the owners how much they want for it, partly because of the traffic (a problem which could be solved by installing double glazing while keeping the lovely traditional wooden window frames), but also because he’s fussy about little things which aren’t to his taste. But it’s his money, and to buy a second home at the age of 65 is a big decision.

My brother Mark is facing an operation tomorrow. The doctors now aren’t absolutely sure whether the growth on his lung is a cancerous tumour or not. He’s been giving sputum samples, which they’re analysing, in case it’s tuberculosis. The most likely thing, he thinks, is that they will go into him tomorrow and remove a slice of the growth for immediate analysis while he’s still under the anaesthetic. If it’s cancerous, they’ll come back and remove the tumour. If it isn’t, they might close him up and treat the growth by other means. Of course he’s preoccupied, perhaps frightened. I would be. We can but hope.

Meanwhile, my brother Andy’s wife Beryl, in Bulgaria, was operated on in the local hospital on Friday. She has advanced dementia, but this problem was physical. She had a hugely distended stomach, because she wasn’t passing any waste matter, and was in intense pain. The doctor told Andy that if urgent surgery wasn’t performed she would die. Andy still isn’t sure exactly what they’ve done, but the distension has disappeared and she has a long scar across her stomach. So perhaps they’ve fixed the problem by cutting away part of the colon and sewing it up again. At the moment, there’s no bag outside the body, which is a hopeful sign. Andy hopes to understand more today. They’ve put the two of them in a side room with only two beds, and he’s being allowed to stay with her, which is essential given her dementia.

While I’m on medical matters, we had our second Covid vaccinations on Saturday, with no ill effects at all. On 1 July France (and perhaps all the EU countries — I’m not sure) introduced the EU-wide Covid vaccination certificate, which in theory gives us the right to travel anywhere in the EU, as long as we accept whatever local restrictions are in force when we get there. So the fact that we had to wait twelve weeks for the second jab turned out to be fortunate, because the doctor gave us our EU certificates on the spot. Those who had their second jabs before 1 July have had to apply for the certificate separately.

Last Thursday, the UK’s transport minister announced that from 19 July people in England who have received two jabs in the UK will no longer have to self-isolate on their return from a trip abroad to an amber-list country. (Most of the European countries are on the amber list.) Here we are, in France, having received two doses of a vaccine developed at Oxford University and produced by an Anglo-Swedish firm. If I had to return to England tomorrow I would have to self-isolate for ten days. I’m hoping that vaccinations administered in the EU will be soon be given the same status as those administered in the UK. Then we’ll be able to go back to London, if we want to, without much trouble, expense or restriction on our behaviour. David’s trip here cost him hundreds of pounds in tests, and he’s still self-isolating six days after he got back.

I’d better say something about last night’s football match. (I’ve just sat here for two minutes wondering whether to pass over it in silence.) England lost the final of the European Nations Cup to Italy, on penalties. The scores were 1-1 after extra time. For days and weeks now, as the team has progressed through the group and then the knockout stages, a preposterous hype has developed in all sections of the UK media, including the BBC, with talk of ‘immortal glory’, the ‘long wait of 55 years’ (since the 1966 World Cup), ‘bringing the country together after these terrible 18 months’ (as if other countries haven’t also had a terrible last 18 months). Meanwhile, an initially uninspiring, safe, slow method of play, based on a solid defence and occasional deft moments of attack, seemed to work. England conceded no goals until the semi-final, and only one then. Countries employing more romantic methods of play fell away: France lost to Switzerland on a penalty shoot-out, having been 3-1 in the lead earlier in the game. Last night England scored after two minutes. Then, gradually, their fault of past years reasserted itself. The slow method of play based on a solid defence continued, but the occasional deft moments of attack became rarer and rarer. Helen kept saying that they couldn’t get the ball. In fact, they weren’t trying hard enough to get the ball; they were allowing too much possession to a very good, if rough, Italian side. Hoping to sit on their lead, they weren’t playing with ambition. Unsurprisingly, Italy equalised. Full time came; extra time came. Extra time often brings no more goals (though it did, for England, in the semi-final, through a penalty), because many of the players are exhausted. Very near the end of extra time, the England manager, who has been a role model in upholding the best values in the game, brought on two players with the obvious intention that they would take penalties in the shoot-out. Both players happened to be black. One of them, Marcus Rashford, has been an absolute hero away from football in persuading the government to reverse its decision not continue to provide free school meals, or their equivalent in money, to poor families during the school holidays while the pandemic was raging.

When the shoot-out came, England’s goalkeeper, Pickford, saved two Italian penalties. In a five-penalty contest, that would normally guarantee victory. But England missed three penalties, including two by the players who had been brought on specifically to take them, and one, the last, taken by a 19-year-old, who is also black. I think Gareth Southgate, whom I like and admire, made a major error of judgment in asking players who had hardly been on the pitch, and weren’t warmed up, suddenly to spring into action, and then to entrust the crucial fifth penalty to the youngest member of his team, however brilliant had been the young man’s play on the field. There were several more experienced players available. The fact that the three failed penalties were taken by black players, and the two successful penalties taken by white players, has meant that, overnight, there has been a stream of on-line racist abuse against those three men. England has gone from talk of immortal glory to examining the stinking dog beneath its thin skin: racial hatred. Amongst the great diversity of England football supporters, which includes Helen, there is a solid minority — and, I fear, not that small a minority — of racist white men, equipped with strong opinions and weak information, for whom football is the major, if not the only, vivifying passion. And the problem of the Pandora’s box which is social media remains. The providers of social media continue to deny that they are publishers; they don’t accept the responsibilities accepted by conventional publishers, printed, electronic or both. I don’t know what exactly can be done about it, given the speed with which millions of pieces of content can be put on line these days in a matter of seconds. But I do know that social media is a two-edged sword. If it has helped popular uprisings to organise against authoritarian governments across the world, it has also given a platform to the worst, the most backward, ignorant, dangerous elements in our populations, as some of Trump’s supporters have so vividly demonstrated.

Kerfontaine

19 July 2021

Summer has arrived in full strength. After the four weeks of rain, wind and gloom which started on my birthday, we’ve had intense heat and clear skies for the last three days. I hope it will continue for a good while.

Mark’s operation at Bristol Royal Infirmary went well. The surgeon, having said initially that he was going to take out the upper lobe of the left lung, changed his mind when he got in there, because he couldn’t at that point see any cancer.  He removed a necrotic mass, ten centimetres long, which is now being tested by the pathology lab. It isn’t tubercular, and six days after the operation the lab still hasn’t found any cancerous tissue. Mark was discharged from the hospital on Thursday. The discharge note mentioned ‘cryptogenic organizing pneumonia’. If it turns out that the growth has been produced by an infection, there will be no need for further surgery, and the treatment thereafter will probably be by antibiotics.  That is what we must hope for.  If the lab does eventually find cancer, there will be another operation to remove the lobe. So Mark is back at home, being well looked after by Gill, who as a midwife knows a lot about medical matters.  (I didn’t know until now that our left lungs are made up of two parts, the upper and lower lobes, and that our right lungs have three lobes.) We await the final verdict from the pathology lab.

As so often with the NHS, there’s a difference between the wonderful treatment actually provided, and some of the less impressive decisions made earlier in the diagnosis. Why did an oncologist precipitately invite Mark to participate in a clinical trial, involving chemotherapy, immunotherapy and a surgical operation, when she had at that point received no definite indication that the growth was cancerous, which so far it turns out not to be? Of course it may yet be cancer — we all hope not — but there was no justification for that offer at such an early stage. The unpleasant thought crosses the mind that the person was more interested in filling up her quota of trial participants than in Mark’s best interests.

In Bulgaria, Beryl has now been operated on twice, and was this afternoon discharged. There is no more distension of the stomach, and anatomically things are returning to normal. Not everything was satisfactory in the hospital — there was one particularly unsympathetic doctor — and at one stage, after the first operation, which left the long scar across Beryl’s stomach, Andy was having to press down on it himself to stop the swelling splitting open the stitches. He did two years of training as a nurse many years ago, and is utterly unsqueamish about bodily functions, which is just as well since Beryl, in her dementia, quite often reverts to pre-potty-training behaviour. He’s been quite heroic, and fortunately he has the support of Tracey, herself a nurse, who lives with John in the next village. I stayed with them in March of last year.

The other day I looked out of the kitchen window and saw either two lesser-spotted woodpeckers (which I know are rare) or, more likely, two young greater-spotted woodpeckers. Whichever, it was a wonderful sight.

Last Monday, 12 July, I thought of Northern Ireland and my poem of that name, and also of poor Peter Logue, with his beautiful story about the little Protestant mother of an acquaintance of his, a welder I think, who made good money in the Middle East welding pipes on the oil refineries, who asked her son, one day in early July just before he was due to fly out to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, ‘Do they get the twelfth holiday over there?’

On Saturday a combine harvester made short work of the barley field just above the house. This morning, as I drove by to go shopping, the straw was still lying where the combine had ejected it. By the time I returned from shopping, it had all been bailed up and the tractor had disappeared. Further up the road, there is a large field of chestnut pumpkins. The farmer told me a few weeks ago that most of them go to Britain, to Indian restaurants and grocers’ shops, where they are a staple in curries. The preparation of the ground requires more than one ploughing, until the earth is tilled and smooth. Then a machine simultaneously puts down a long sheet of black biodegradable plastic, derived from maize, punches holes in the plastic at regular intervals, and sows the seeds through the holes. The spaces between the rows must be exact, because of the need for weeding. A tractor precisely straddles the double rows of plants under each strip of plastic in order to hoe the ground between the rows, halfway on each side. But the weeding immediately around the plants themselves has to be done by hand, and four or five people were at it this morning, in the intense heat.

I was telling Betty Rosen on the phone about Farfalla di Dinard, and how I was sure that the little yellow butterfly which has been appearing regularly in our garden must be the same as the butterfly which visited Montale every morning in his café at Dinard. Now she has sent me her own book of butterflies and day-flying moths of Britain and Europe. I think my yellow butterfly must be a brimstone. And, with the help of the book, I’ve identified the butterfly which I’ve just rescued with a net — it was bashing itself against the Velux window of my writing room — as some kind of fritillary (there are dozens of them) or maybe a cardinal.

Arturo Tosi has almost finished the second round of corrections on my translations of Farfalla di Dinard. Only four to go.

Lorient and Kerfontaine

28 July 2021

I’m writing this with some difficulty in the back of the car, having brought Mary and Sophie to Lorient to do some shopping. I know I could go to a café, but somehow I don’t feel like doing that with this smart computer. It feels a bit ostentatious. I expect I’ll finish today’s entry back home.

The best recent news: Mark doesn’t have cancer. That’s the final decision of the pathology lab at Bristol. He has that strangely worded condition called cryptogenic organizing pneumonia, which so far as I can see simply means ‘pneumonia but we don’t know where it came from’, although the word ‘organizing’ (spelt the American way) is still a mystery to me. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

‘Cryptogenic organizing pneumonia (COP), formerly known as bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP), is an inflammation of the bronchioles (bronchiolitis) and surrounding tissue in the lungs. It is a form of idiopathic interstitial pneumonia… The classic presentation of COP is the development of nonspecific systemic (e.g., fevers, chills, night sweats, fatigue, weight loss) and respiratory (e.g. difficulty breathing, cough) symptoms in association with filling of the lung alveoli that is visible on chest x-ray. This presentation is usually so suggestive of an infection that the majority of patients with COP have been treated with at least one failed course of antibiotics by the time the true diagnosis is made.’

That’s exactly what Mark has been suffering from, and he has indeed had courses of antibiotics which haven’t worked. So from now on, the treatment will be with other drugs, in the hope of permanently expelling the disease. Wikipedia: ‘Most patients recover with corticosteroid therapy.’

Andy is doing very well at home in Bulgaria with Beryl, who is showing no signs of distension and is no longer in pain. I’m not sure how predictable her bowel movements are, but as I’ve said before, Andy is wonderfully calm and unfazed by human excrement, however and whenever it appears. He has my sincere admiration. Mind you, I wasn’t bad with our mother twelve or thirteen years ago. I probably wrote at the time, after carrying another bowl of liquid excrement from bedroom to bathroom, that Samuel Beckett should have written a play about it.

There has been a significant political development regarding Covid. The UK government announced this morning that people fully vaccinated in the EU and the USA won’t need to quarantine when they go to England. It’s expected that the other parts of the UK will follow suit. This is a dramatic shift in policy. Only nine days ago, the UK put France into an especially restrictive category, with even more limitations governing travel to the UK from France than from other countries in the EU. I don’t know why they did this. The official reason is concern about the prevalence in France of the Beta variant, that which originated in South Africa. But I’ve seen no evidence that France is worse affected by any of the variants than several other EU countries which are not restricted in this way. On the one o’clock BBC news, the information simply referred to the EU as a whole.

Myra Barrs’ book on Vygotsky comes out on 19 August. She wants to have a launch on 8 September. She has found the perfect venue for it: the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution. (She’s just moved to Highgate.) Last night, having no expectation of what the government has decided today, I wrote her a regretful email, encouraging her to go ahead with the launch without me, since I really didn’t fancy ten days of self-isolation in our little flat before the event, forbidden visitors, not even being allowed to go out to get food. Less importantly, the obligatory tests cost several hundred pounds. And Helen didn’t fancy being left alone here for a fortnight. So, in the middle of the day, I was hopeful that the government’s announcement would involve no continuing punitive exception for France, in which case I would simply fly over to London for a few days. I rang Myra, who was naturally delighted.

It was too good to be true. The liberation for fully vaccinated people coming from most countries in the EU, and from a few other European countries, applies from next Monday, but the UK is maintaining its punitive exception for France. Fully vaccinated people coming from France will still have to self-isolate for ten days, and undergo two tests during that period. At the end of next week, there will be a review of the position regarding countries around the world other than those liberated today. Perhaps France may be reprieved then. I doubt it. I think there’s some particularly spiteful politics going on. Johnson wants to punish Macron for some of the things he’s said about the UK over Brexit, and to do with continuing disputes, notably over Northern Ireland and fishing. So my hopes were dashed, at least until the end of next week, and I rang Myra again to tell her. She is adamant that she’s not going to have the launch of the book without me there, which is very touching. So it will either take place on 8 September, if — which I do not expect — France is allowed back into the fold at the end of next week, or the event will be postponed until later in the autumn, when Helen and I have decided that we’ll go back for a while anyway, self-isolation or no self-isolation.

Arturo Tosi has finished correcting the Montale stories. So now I have the definitive version, thanks to him and to Angela Stoffella, and — for matters of English style — to Paul Ashton and David James. So I must gird up my loins and try to find a publisher, something I find it difficult to do. I’m no good at marketing. (Actually, that’s not completely true; I marketed Becoming our own Experts effectively in 1982, and we sold four thousand copies in a few months.) Which makes me think of Harold Pinter’s regretful little couplet (the only poem which that great playwright wrote which I unreservedly admire):

‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime;
another time, another time.’

We had the traditional long summer lunch with Jean and Annick on Sunday: Helen and me, Mary and Jacques, Sophie, Paul and Anna, Dominique and Jocelyne, Aurélie, Jérôme, Morgan and Olivia. The previous days had been rainy. The table was set indoors. Then, as we drank champagne outside, the skies cleared, the temperature was perfect at about 20°, and I suggested that we eat outside. Which we did, moving cutlery, plates and glasses onto the table under the tulip tree. Then, just before the entrée, a surprise: Annick had written to poem for me. She performed it:

16 juin 2021

70 ans, ce n’est pas grave…

Il s’appelle John, de son prénom,
Quant à son nom, c’est ‘Riche Mont’;
C’est notre ami, il est Anglais,
Mais bon, personne n’est parfait.

Un été, au siècle dernier,
Il remplaçait Monsieur Pelletier:
Il avait acheté Kerfontaine
Et s’installait avec Hélène.

Il etait jeune, il etait grand,
Il avait un accent charmant;
On l’a tout de suite adopté,
On ne l’a jamais regretté:

Sa bienveillance, sa bonne humeur,
Sa culture, ont conquis nos coeurs
Et, depuis plus de trente annees,
C’est notre voisin ‘préféré’.

S’il s’est bien mis au jardinage
Il ignore tout du bricolage:
Planter un clou, c’est la galère
Mais il lit Hugo et Voltaire.

Il a écrit des poésies,
Des traités de pédagogie;
Dans son journal, il n’oublie pas
D’évoquer Albert et Rosa.

Aujourd’hui, il écrit toujours.
Il a garde son humour.
Rimbaud dirait, en le voyant,
‘On n’est pas sérieux quand
on a septante ans!’

Happy birthday to our favourite neighbour!

Annick et Jeannot

I was very touched. Of course the first line of Rimbaud’s poem is ‘On n'est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans.’ Perhaps the liberty which Annick took with the sensible Belgian (and Swiss) French word for ‘seventy’ is to be excused by the fact that Rimbaud was born in Charleville-Mézières, close to the Belgian border.

Just after the main course (grilled meats with Parmentier potatoes and taboulé), the rain came down. I have rarely seen rain of such suddenness and intensity. An absolute deluge, in two or three violent episodes, lasting about twenty minutes. We immediately picked up the table and took it into the shelter of the farmer’s barn next to the house, where we had the cheese, Eton mess (an English dish which our French friends have taken to with enthusiasm) and coffee. It was a memorable and joyful afternoon, socially, gastronomically and meteorologically.

On the night between Friday and Saturday, a huge fir tree fell down in the meadow, obligingly missing all the other trees. So there will be plenty of chainsaw work in August. And Jérôme has brought his friend and fellow hunter Francis to look at the oak tree which for a year now has been leaning on another oak next to it, which is upright but worryingly near the house. Francis and Jérôme are going to remove the leaning tree and chop it up for 800 euros.

Kerfontaine

9 August 2021

I was over-pessimistic about the UK government’s intentions towards France. Last Thursday, France’s special restriction was removed; it’s now being treated the same as the rest of the EU. So I immediately rang Myra, and we confirmed the date of the book launch as 8 September. I booked return flights for 6 and 10 September, and organised all the things I still have to do, even without quarantine: booked PCR tests here and in London, and downloaded various forms. I’m pretty sure that the PCR tests in England are a racket. The one I chose, close to the flat, cost £150. The one here, test and laboratory findings combined, will cost about 45 euros.

Mark had a setback after his good news: he contracted a secondary infection somehow, which meant that he had to go to Taunton hospital for several days and receive intravenous antibiotics. He’s now home again and taking the antibiotics orally for another week. He seems cheerful. Once the secondary infection is dealt with, the doctors will decide what to do about the original problem. Mark thinks that they may use immunotherapy.

Andy is continuing to care for Beryl with angelic forbearance and good humour. We speak on the phone a couple of times a week.

Helen is ill at the moment. For six days now, she’s had severe intestinal pains, vomiting and diarrhoea. On top of that, she has some kind of muscular pain at the top of her right arm, which means that she can’t use it. Yesterday, I rang Sophie in Marseille, who prescribed three drugs. With great difficulty and with Mary’s help on the phone, I found a chemist in Lorient open on Sunday. She had two of the drugs. I got the third this morning from the chemist in Cléguer. I also bought an anti-inflammatory gel for the arm. We’ll see if any of these medicines works. If not, we’ll have to go the local doctor, and possibly be referred to specialists. Helen has been eating very little, but has just had some avgolemono soup, which I made this morning under her instruction.

Now that we have our titres de séjour, I’ve been trying to get our Cartes Vitales, which are essential for the reimbursement of medical expenses in the national health system in France. The administrative mountain to climb is formidable. Having paid for copies of our birth and marriage certificates to be sent from the UK, I began the process of assembling the pile of documents required, but gave up when I got to the obligation to provide copies of a year’s worth of bank statements, British and French. A year’s worth of details of our British joint account, downloaded, would amount to 47 pages. Then Helen’s account; then the French account. No chance of doing any of this electronically. France is drowning in paper. So I’ve stopped for the moment. Perhaps I’ll seek help from some sort of agent who would tangle with the authorities for a fee.

Last week, now that I have the definitive version of the Farfalla di Dinard translations, I sent another email to Pushkin Press, pointing out that I had written to them on 6 April, telling them what I had done and asking if they were interested in taking a look at my efforts, and remarking that they hadn’t bothered to reply. So I was trying again. To my amazement, someone replied immediately. To be precise, two different people replied, signing themselves just with their first names, as if we were already old acquaintances. I’m so yesterday in terms of manners. No apology for the previous failure, of course; but yes, please do send the work. So I did.

The full-strength summer which I welcomed on 19 July lasted about a week. Since then, we have had rain and wind and low temperatures; it’s been miserable. There’s some possibility of an improvement in the second half of the month.

I’ve read Dava Sobel’s very good and touching book Galileo’s Daughter, featuring some of the correspondence between Galileo and his elder daughter, whom, with her younger sister, Galileo sent to a nunnery when they were still girls. After that, I thought I’d better have another go at Heilbron’s biography of Galileo, which I first read a few years ago. It’s very good, although he shows off as a writer, which I don’t like, and much of the maths and physics is beyond me. But the picture of this epoch-making figure, argumentative, quarrelsome, vain, but also loving and generous towards friends and family, struggling with the awesome significance of what he was discovering, is impressively drawn. It was a battle between the light of reason and the darkness of power: a clear example of how utterly wrong the highest authorities in the world can be, and the lengths to which they will go to maintain their dominance. It’s also fascinating to read about the ways in which the Catholic church, in the centuries after Galileo’s death, has used every sort of casuistry to distract from the plain truth that it was wrong and he was right. Heilbron’s book ends with the humorous suggestion that in about 400 years’ time the Vatican will get round to sanctifying Galileo, who was a devout Catholic all his life.

Kerfontaine

22 August 2021

I hardly know where to begin in setting down my thoughts about the current situation in Afghanistan. It amounts to one of the most humiliating defeats for the West, and for liberal values and the idea of an open society, in my lifetime.

Last year, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in Doha, whereby NATO troops would leave Afghanistan in return for a promise that the Taliban would never again allow that country to be used as a base for international terrorism. Two things occur to me. One: the fact that such negotiations were going on, that responsible Western powers were sitting round a table with gangsters, suggests that the West knew, in reality, that the gangsters were likely once again to assume control of Afghanistan, whatever Western diplomats and politicians stated publicly. Two: surely only the naïvest spectator could imagine that a gangster’s promise is worth anything.

Moving forward to this year, I can see the sense, in principle, of Biden sticking to the outline of Trump’s supposed deal, as long as America and the rest of the NATO coalition remained in control of the withdrawal: that it was done on our terms. Biden, we know, has been opposed to America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan for many years. Trump’s deal imagined a withdrawal by the end of May of this year. But Biden seems to have lost all political good sense. Instead of managing the withdrawal slowly and surely and on NATO’s own terms, he went for a precipitate withdrawal by 31 August, tied to the foolish deadline eleven days after that of the 20th anniversary of the September 2001 attacks on America, and apparently with no understanding of the likelihood of the Taliban’s resurgence.

Anniversaries are merely symbolic events. They carry no strategic or tactical significance. The result is the absolute chaos that we’re seeing at the moment. How can it be that the President of the USA and the UK Prime Minister can assure the world, in the middle of July, that the Taliban have no chance of taking back the whole of Afghanistan, and be so wrong? Do we have no responsible and well-informed secret services and military advisers who actually know what is happening? The pure tragedy, now, is that although most foreign passport holders will probably eventually escape the country (and many already have), large numbers of Afghans who helped NATO forces and civilian NGOs to try to build a non-theocratic country, no longer based on the terror which prevailed between 1996 and 2001, will be hunted down and assassinated by the gangsters. The most powerful military force the world has ever seen is being polite to the Taliban in the hope that it will be kind enough not to put too many obstacles in the way of the evacuation effort. And the kinds of oppression that the country suffered for the six years until 2001 will be reintroduced. Women and girls will suffer the most. All this on top of the general humanitarian crisis facing one of the poorest countries in the world, largely dependent on foreign aid. Mass starvation, or at least mass malnutrition, is a real prospect.

China, Russia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, the Gulf states… The autocracies are on the march, whether they be theocratic, military or oil-based, and whether or not they cover their brutality with sham democratic structures. I don’t imagine that the Chinese leaders, theoretically Communist atheists, in practical terms dominant players in a globalised capitalist market, are troubled at all that the Taliban proclaim a perverted version of Islam as their inspiring ideology. China will do business with them, probably pouring investment into Afghanistan in order to extend its hegemony in the region, while continuing to oppress a different Muslim people within its own borders.

Biden, whom I was overjoyed and relieved to see elected last year, defends his actions by saying that Afghanistan can no longer be used as a base for Al-Qaeda to attack the West, and that Osama bin Laden has in any case been killed. How can he be sure of the first of these two statements? This is early in his presidency, and electorates have short memories, but his actions have done him deep damage, and given Trump the opportunity to loud-hail his lies again.

The only evidence we need of the reality of the kind of governance already resuming in Afghanistan under the Taliban is the sight of the many thousands of terrified people desperate to leave, crowded together at the approach to the airport. A few have died there in the crush. The only possible face-saving action which the West could now take would be to lift the self-imposed 31 August deadline for any NATO presence in the country, and to establish, by military force if necessary, safe corridors for anyone with a legitimate claim to leave the country. And why did the Americans abruptly abandon the military airport, which could have provided a second exit point in addition to the civilian airport? Western leaders have made so many inexplicable wrong decisions in the course of this crisis.

Kerfontaine

29 August 2021

Biden refused to extend the deadline. Last Thursday a suicide bomber, a member of ISIS, killed about 170 people crowded outside Kabul airport, and injured hundreds more. The overwhelming majority of the dead and injured are Afghans, but thirteen US service personnel, helping to organise the desperate evacuation, were killed. Biden expects that there may be another attack before the final deadline of Tuesday at midnight. The last UK troops and diplomats arrived home this morning. Nationals of most other countries which have participated in the effort, over the last twenty years, to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan have left. The Americans will be gone by the end of Tuesday. I believe that darkness will then descend upon that country, with revenge killings of all those suspected of having helped the West, and the re-imposition of sharia law as part of a regime of generalised brutality. It’s true that thousands of people who helped us have been helped to escape the country in the last fortnight, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, more have been left behind, left to their fate, despite having the documentation giving them a theoretical right to leave. And all this because of the utter foolishness, pusillanimity, of agreeing to an artificial deadline for leaving, rather than leaving according to our own timetable, on our own terms. The most powerful military alliance in the world has agreed to terms imposed, as I wrote last week, by a group of murderous gangsters who get most of their funds from the illegal drugs trade, and hide their wickedness under a perversion of Islamist ideology.

I can’t stop thinking about an interview on the BBC yesterday with a man who had acted as interpreter for UK forces. He has all the paperwork needed to leave the country, but couldn’t get to the airport because the checkpoints on the way are controlled by the Taliban. He’s living in a tent in the garden of a friend. He will have to keep moving from hiding place to hiding place, because the Taliban are watching his house. They found his father, and when his father refused to tell them where his son was, they broke his legs. He’s now in hospital. These are the people to whom we have ceded power in Afghanistan.

Helen rightly asks the question: why did the Taliban win so easily? The West is supposed to have trained about 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police. Why didn’t they fight? Why were we so wrong about the speed of the Taliban takeover? What were we doing simultaneously supposedly equipping the 300,000 people to defend their country against barbarians, and sitting round the table with the barbarians in Doha?

The whole tragic episode has ended in shame for the West. I now expect China, once it has happily agreed generous support for the Taliban, to turn its attention to the next face-off with America: Taiwan. Will a US President send soldiers to die for that island?

Kerfontaine

24 September 2021

I wrote last month about our difficulty in getting Cartes Vitales. About three weeks ago I went to see our friend Dominique, who used to farm at Saint Guénaël. He and Jocelyne now live in Plouay. Somehow the conversation turned to French administration. Dominique told me about the difficulties he was having finding a dentist for his mother-in-law, so I told him about our problems applying for Cartes Vitales. ‘Oh, I’ll get the mayor in,’ he said. ‘He’s my next-door neighbour. Il est sympa.’ He phoned the mayor, who came in immediately, dressed in jogging pants and a tracksuit top. He listened to my story. ‘Give me your email address and phone number and leave it with me,’ he said. Which I did. A few days later Helen and I had separate letters from the local headquarters in Vannes of the national health service, asking for the smallest amount of paperwork proving our status as French residents. Easy to provide. And now our Cartes Vitales have arrived in the post. I went to see Dominique and asked if the mayor would be embarrassed by a thank you present. Might it provoke a scandal about corruption in high places? Dominique thought that there would be no problem at all, so both he and the mayor are now in receipt of an expensive bottle of Saint Julien. Mayors have a lot of power in France.

Kerfontaine

1 October 2021

On 6 September I popped back to London on the plane for five days. The main reason was to attend the launch on 8 September of Vygotsky the Teacher, which had been published a few days previously. That went very well; there were about 50 people in the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, many of them old friends and colleagues. Tony Burgess, who years ago was Myra Barrs’ tutor at the London Institute of Education, made a speech; I made a speech; Myra made a speech. She was generous in her thanks to me for what I'd done to help bring the book to completion.

The first thing I did after landing at Southend was to visit a person in south London who gave me a cheque for £100,000 made out to the Canon Collins Trust, which means that the Ros Moger Terry Furlong scholarships have several more years of life at least. That afternoon, as a director of Elm Village Block D Management Company, I counter-signed 20 documents extending the owners’ leases for a further 90 years beyond the 85 years they still have to run. (Yesterday, the business was finally completed; I started on this campaign in December 2019.)

On the evening of 6 September I had dinner with Betty Rosen; the next day, dinner with Myra and Tony and Carol Burgess. She’s staying with them while the house which she’s just bought in Highgate is being renovated. And I ate twice at Daphne’s, late on the Wednesday, after the book launch, and on the Thursday. Earlier that day I went up to Bletsoe to visit Peter and Monica Hetherington. We had lunch in the garden and talked. It was great to see them again after more than a year.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve started on yet another editing job for someone else’s book. This is becoming a habit. Michael Rosen wrote to me in August asking whether I would help him gather together the articles, lectures, chapters and other dispersed pieces which he’s written over the years. I said yes. We met in his house on 7 September. He then sent the pieces to me electronically. It’s taken me a bit more than two weeks to sub-edit and group them. I’ve sent him a first version of the book by email, and arranged for a paper copy to be delivered. I expect we’ll have some sessions working on the text side by side in November, when Helen and I are back in London, and that the book will appear next year.

Yes, we’ve decided to go back to London for the winter, although we may return here for Christmas and New Year. I don’t think Helen is going to resume her teaching at St Dominic’s, so that will mean that we could come back here earlier in the spring, say around the beginning of April, which I would like.

Next week, there will be tree surgery. There are ten trees which either threaten our house or our neighbours’ house, or are hanging worryingly over the power line. Landry Sagot will be here with his cherry-picker, accompanied by Francis (I don’t know his surname) on the platform with his chain saw. Francis and Jérôme cut down and chopped up an oak tree for me in August. In doing so, they couldn’t help damaging another oak tree with which the one they cut down was entangled; so this one needs to come down too, at least as far as the crown.

I drove Mary and Jacques to Brest airport on 15 September. They’re in Marseille for a month. I’ll collect them from Brest when they return on 14 October. And the day after that, Helen and I are going to give ourselves a little holiday, in Albi, in a chambre d’hôtes which Mary and Jacques have stayed in and have recommended. (The generous cheque which Mary gave me on my birthday will go towards the cost.)

The Labour Party conference took place this week. I think, on the whole, that it was a good week for Keir Starmer in his efforts to make Labour electable again. There were setbacks: his deputy called the Tories ‘scum’, which is a perfect gift to the Conservatives and the right-wing newspapers; the last Corbynite member of the shadow cabinet (apart from the deputy leader) histrionically resigned at a moment when he thought he could do most damage; and there was heckling from the floor during Keir’s impressive long speech on Wednesday. But various crucial changes were put through, notably the abolition of the mischievous de-selection procedure, which has meant that perfectly good, hard-working MPs or prospective parliamentary candidates who just didn’t happen to suit Momentum’s taste risked being de-selected, thus constantly distracting them from the job they were elected to do or from their efforts as candidates. Momentum is still a threat to Labour’s chances of getting power in 2023 or 2024; it is simply Militant of the 1980s plus social media. Keir has plenty of good people around him in the shadow cabinet, notably the excellent Lisa Nandy as shadow foreign secretary and Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor. But so far, there’s no sign of Labour making the gains in the opinion polls which will be needed if it is to make any dent on the Conservatives’ majority next time round. It has been a uniquely difficult time for an opposition to make itself heard, with the almost constant media focus on a national crisis transcending party politics, whatever the government’s mistakes in dealing with it.

As a socialist, I remain, and will remain to the end of my life, amazed by the stupidity of perfectionist dreamers who simply can’t see that the world they envisage (which is, in many respects, the world I envisage too) will never be achieved in the United Kingdom as it is, with the electorate as it is and the newspapers (still influential, despite modern media) as they are. When, extraordinarily, a perfectionist dreamer became leader of the Labour Party, the result was the worst defeat for the Party since 1935. Is any lesson learned? Not apparently by those who publicly demonstrated division and discontent in Brighton this week. Dreams, dreams… and the years have gone by and my life has gone by and the damage, under successive Conservative governments whose life has been made easier by Labour’s frequent inability to choose the right leader, has deepened. When we do, for once, choose the right leader, the dreamers insult him in public. Peter Mandelson said this a few weeks ago, listing general election results since 1979: ‘Lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.’ Bitter, and true.

Kerfontaine

2 October 2021

There is an extreme shortage of lorry drivers and farm workers in the UK. The results are that fuel isn’t being delivered to petrol stations, and food isn’t being delivered to shops. So there are long queues at petrol stations, as many people, irrationally but understandably, panic-buy; and there are some empty shelves in shops. We know the cause: principally, it’s Brexit. When we were in the EU, we relied on workers from other EU countries to do some of the jobs which British workers were unwilling to do. Many of them have gone back home. Insultingly, the government this week offered temporary visas (until Christmas Eve!) to EU lorry drivers. Today, given the evident lack of enthusiasm for such an offer, they’ve extended the offer to tanker drivers to the end of March next year, and to drivers of food lorries to the end of February. Next week, the army will begin to assist in the delivery of fuel to petrol stations.

The utter incoherence of the government’s position amazes me. We said that after Brexit we would have a points-based system whereby we would offer visas, in appropriate quantity, to the various trades and professions that we need. Why don’t we simply do this for lorry drivers and farm workers? The government’s argument is that for too long the UK has relied on foreign labour, which has kept wages low. I doubt very much that there’s any truth in that; the reason why the UK doesn’t have enough lorry drivers or farm workers is that there aren’t enough British people who want to do those jobs. But let us suppose that the availability of foreign workers has indeed depressed wages in those sectors in the UK, rather as, centuries ago, the immigration of Irish workers to Britain was thought to have depressed wages. Surely that is the whole rationale of capitalism: wages will find their level, supply and demand. When the Blair government introduced the minimum wage, the Conservatives were violently opposed, claiming that the measure would drive up inflation to the point that the wage increases were worthless, and that you can’t buck the market. They were wrong about that, and have now come to accept the minimum wage as a fact of life. For a Conservative government to complain that British businesses haven’t been training British people well enough, or paying them well enough, so that the shortage of labour now is British businesses’ fault, is to complain about a central plank of capitalism, the free-market philosophy on which Conservatism is based. The slogans of Johnson and the Brexiteers — global Britain, open for business — don’t match with a sudden desire for insularity in the labour market. Today, by coincidence, we hear that the fourth-largest supermarket in the UK has just been bought by an American private-equity firm. Does the government seriously imagine that those billionaire foreign investors are going to say, of their own free will, ‘We must pay our workers more, so as to stop foreign workers from driving down wages’? The entire NHS and the entire social-care system depend on workers from numerous foreign countries to keep going. That situation isn’t going to change. Although workers in health and social care require a different set of skills and qualifications from those required by drivers of lorries or harvesters of vegetables, the principle is the same. Should we really send back Spanish nurses or Filipino care workers and imagine that there will be queues of people waiting to fill their places?

It’s a wild, stormy, rainy day outside. The trees are swaying violently. The surgery next week for the trees near the houses can’t come quickly enough.

Kerfontaine

26 October 2021

The forestry work lasted ten days. We now have, alas, ten fewer trees than before, but at least our house, and our neighbours’ house, and the electric power line which crosses our land and supplies us, are secure. The work involved the hire of a nacelle (cherry-picker in English — a huge machine looking like a spider with only four legs, and a platform which can go up as high as 25 metres) for three days, and a broyeur — shredder — for one day, to deal with the vast quantity of small branches, leaves and twigs which the chain saws brought down. I say we have ten fewer trees; in fact, seven of the trunks are still there and likely to sprout next spring. People tell me that in the old days all the trees planted on the talus (the banks; the usual field boundaries here) were coppiced every nine years. That meant that they didn’t grow too big and threaten to fall over, damaging the talus and any dwellings nearby. Now, that doesn’t happen.

The work brought a total of eight men and one woman to Kerfontaine at various times, so it was a most convivial occasion, with coffee and biscuits about eleven o’clock and beers at the end of the day. I gave all the cut wood to Francis and his brother-in-law Loïc, who were glad to have it. I think they were surprised that I didn’t want to stock it myself; firewood, particularly oak, is highly regarded here. We have enough wood already, I tell myself, what with the previous oak tree and the large fir tree which were cut down in the summer, and I didn’t fancy the effort of chopping, splitting and storage. It’s true that we ran out of wood last winter, but we’re not going to spend all of this coming winter here, and I’ll worry about shortage should the problem arise.

Being determined, perhaps unwisely, not to be the seigneur who supervises but doesn’t work, I did my fair share of lugging logs, as a result of which I had a bad back, a strain in the right leg and a pain in the right elbow. I’m glad to say that all three discomforts have faded now, with the help of strong paracetamol, creams from the chemist and plenty of rest.

We were blessed with beautiful autumn sunshine throughout the ten days. Doing that job in the rain would not have been such a pleasure.

On the evening of the last day of the work, I drove to Brest airport to meet Mary and Jacques, who have come back to their house for a month. Early the next morning, Helen and I set out on our little holiday. We drove down to Albi, to the chambre d’hôtes which Mary and Jacques had previously enjoyed and recommended. It’s in a huge garden which descends to the banks of the Tarn. On the other side of the river rises the vast cathedral and the equally impressive Palais de la Berbie, the former archbishop’s palace which now houses the Musée de Toulouse-Lautrec. We visited both, admired the extraordinary ornamental box hedge in the grounds of the palace, which must be about a hundred metres long by fifty wide and require constant maintenance, strolled around the streets, shopped at the covered market, ate very well in several restaurants, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Breakfast arrived every morning, deposited on the windowsill, and was so copious that we took to having some of it for lunch. I read a short biography of Toulouse-Lautrec, bought at the museum, and a longer book, which was in the cottage, about the fearful atrocity of the genocide (I do believe that’s the right word) of those who had embraced the Albigensian so-called heresy. I wish I could say that mass murder on that scale, justified at the time by religious certainty and driven by the desire for political supremacy, is a thing of the benighted past. Not so. And a sobering afterthought to our admiration of the cathedral: its scale (apparently it is the biggest brick-built cathedral in the world) is a deliberate statement of the re-imposition of papal authority once the ‘heretics’ had been slaughtered.

We drove back on Wednesday. As we came into Brittany, we encountered a tremendous storm, with strong winds and torrential rain. We were glad that we’d done the forestry work when we did. No damage the next morning.

We’re here for another nine days, returning to London, at last, on 4 November. At the moment, Covid-19 permitting, we think we’ll come back for Christmas and New Year, then return again to London until the spring. Because Helen has stopped working at St Dominic’s Primary School, we could be here much earlier in the spring than the end of May or beginning of June, which used to be our habit.

Covid-19 might not permit, of course. The government in England is hoping — gambling, perhaps — that the vaccination programme will mean that there won’t need to be a re-introduction of lockdowns and other controls. It says it has a ‘Plan B’, probably involving vaccine passports, compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and more working at home, but doesn’t want to implement it unless cases, hospitalisations and deaths increase dramatically. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of people in intensive care with Covid-19 and dying of it have not been vaccinated. In France, we’ve got used to producing our vaccination certificates as we go into restaurants (and into the cinema, where I went last night with Mary, Jacques and two of their friends to see an adaptation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet); and the marches and demonstrations in favour of citizens’ rights to do whatever they like, regardless of the consequences for others, have ceased.

Camden Town

20 November 2021

We did return as planned on 4 November, and are now firmly reacquainted with the pleasures and routines of London. We’ve been, several times, to Daphne Restaurant, of course; walked by the canal, shopped in Waitrose, and bought books from the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town. I’ve downed a few pints of bitter in the Golden Lion and the Prince Albert. Helen has been to the cinema twice and the theatre once. Camden Town looks much the same as it ever did, except for a few large holes in the ground where shops or industrial units used to be. Someone must have enough money to fund these redevelopments.

I’ve almost finished the editorial work on Michael Rosen’s book of articles and talks, which will appear next year. It’s very good, and it’s been a pleasure to work closely with him again. We’ve had two side-by-side sessions in his little office in Wood Green.

I’ve recently read Juliet Barker’s two magnificent biographies, of Wordsworth and the Brontës. They’ve been on our shelves for years, but I had never got round to them. Now I’m going to embark on all the Brontë novels. The only one I’m certain that I’ve read is Jane Eyre. I found a copy in a bookshop in Tehran in 1974, when I was very ill and miserable with gastroenteritis. The misery of the book cheered me up no end. I think I must have read Wuthering Heights at some time, but I can’t exactly remember when. Anyway, I’m going to read the lot now.

I saw Paul Ashton on Monday. I had coffee with Ann Whittaker on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday evening we went to Daphne’s with Martyn Coles, Pamela Dix, Peter Howell and Peter’s partner Edward.

Peter Hetherington has been ill and in hospital with a painful kidney stone, from which he has (I think) recovered, but then a violent bout of diarrhoea overcame him once he stopped taking a course of antibiotics. He’s had to starve himself for two days. I was going to visit last Wednesday, but we’ve postponed it. I’m hoping to go up this coming week. On Friday we’re going to Norfolk to see Adam and Hazel. We’ll have lunch with Heather and David Loxton on 29 November in Bury St Edmunds, on the way back to London. The next day my sister arrives, and two days after that so do Sophie, Paul, Sam and Sam’s girlfriend Céline. They’ll all stay in Bronwyn’s and Stephen’s flat in Southwark.

After much moodiness and changing of mind on my part, we’ve decided that we’re not going to sell this flat and move to Shrewsbury. I got so depressed last year, what with the behaviour of the man above us and the constant nightly invasions of the car park by drug dealers, that I was ready to depart. But there has been less trouble since we’ve been back, and we have to admit that London is a great city, offering a feast of delights, cultural, gastronomic and social, with many dear friends nearby. So we’re going to put up with any little local difficulties, and I’m going to try not to become too much the grumpy old man. Also, we might as well benefit from all the work I’ve done in bringing about the lease extension on the flat, and hiring a new and much better managing agent for the block.

The heating and hot water system wasn’t working when we got back on 4 November. Reshat, the builder and plumber we met a few years ago when he was renovating the flat across the lobby from ours, came and replaced the 36-year-old pump. On the way up through France, we had been discussing what tiny things we could do to be kinder to the planet. So we sat Reshat down and asked his advice about replacing the ancient, very reliable but very inefficient and polluting gas boiler. As a result, he is going to remove the boiler and the large water tank in the airing cupboard and install in the cupboard an electric boiler and two much smaller tanks. He’ll do that in early January, when we hope to be back in France for a few weeks. So then we’ll be all electric in both places. I’m still driving a petrol car, although it uses about half as much petrol as did the Land Rover, and we drive it only when essential in London, taking advantage of our wonderful Freedom Passes. The next car, if we live that long, must be electric. I’m eating a lot less meat than before: once a week at most. These are tiny gestures. I think I’ve written before that perhaps the most significant thing we’ve done to be kind to the planet is not to have had any children. Of course I don’t criticise members of my family and my many friends who have had children, and in whom I delight, but the fact is that there are too many people on the planet already, and the number is increasing. The earth would breathe better with a couple of billion fewer.

While we were debating our minuscule contribution to the struggle against climate change, there was a huge conference in Glasgow devoted to the same cause. Major announcements were made, aiming to halt deforestation, reduce methane emissions, slow down the burning of coal, and speed up the transfer of funds from rich to poor countries to help them adapt their industries and mitigate the damage they are already suffering as a result of the behaviour of the developed world since the industrial revolution. My natural inclination is always to hope that at least some of the good intentions and brave promises made at events like this will actually be translated into action. I don’t agree with those who say that it’s all piety, hot air and hypocrisy. But I fear, as another year of environmental and climatic disasters draws to a close (parts of British Columbia and Washington State are under water at the moment, having suffered ferocious wildfires earlier in the year), that the world will only be forced into the urgent actions required when rich countries again and again experience major catastrophes causing death and destruction on a large scale.

Meanwhile, national politics has been dismal. Two and a half weeks ago, the government tried to prevent the censuring of a Conservative MP and former minister who had been lobbying ministers on behalf of two companies which had been paying him handsomely. The commissioner for standards said he had been doing this. The cross-party parliamentary committee for standards, whose membership includes three Conservatives, unanimously agreed. The government then tried to force its MPs to vote for a motion which would have put aside the censure until a new committee for standards, chaired by a Conservative and with a Conservative majority of members, had considered the whole matter of how MPs’ conduct is to be judged in future. The government won the vote, but by such a small margin that Johnson knew he was in trouble. Labour and the other opposition parties refused to have anything to do with such an evidently corrupt proposal. The next day the government completely reversed its position, causing many Conservative MPs to be enraged that they had voted so obediently for a measure which had brought obloquy on them from many of their constituents, only to be made to look foolish less than 24 hours later. The MP at the heart of the matter immediately resigned, since otherwise he would certainly have been suspended from the House of Commons for thirty days.

Over the next few days, more and more stories emerged of the vast sums of money which MPs, nearly all of them Conservative, were earning from the second jobs they did, with the result that Johnson has been forced to concede that there will be some kind of restriction on the kinds of paid work which MPs and members of the House of Lords will be allowed to do in addition to their income as parliamentarians. Details to be discussed. But it was significant that he bowed to the pressure the day before Labour introduced its own motion to that effect. The government put down an amendment to Labour’s motion which was voted through with no one against. Though of course weaker and vaguer than what Labour had proposed, it went in the necessary direction. So we shall see what eventually changes.

Johnson has infuriated many of his younger and more recently elected MPs, who were made to look foolish and cowardly. He has also infuriated some of his older MPs, often former ministers with safe seats, who see that a source of their easily gained riches is likely to be restricted or cut off. Then, this week, an announcement was made about upgrading the railways in the Midlands and the North. It largely broke previously made promises. The eastern leg of HS2, which would have gone from Birmingham to Leeds, will now stop at East Midlands Parkway. The new high-speed line from Leeds to Manchester will not now be built. Existing lines will be upgraded instead. Another tranche of Conservative MPs — those elected in 2019 in constituencies which had traditionally been Labour — feels betrayed. ‘Levelling up’ — a slogan for the Johnson government equivalent to ‘the big society’ for the Cameron government, and as meaningless — has been revealed for what it is: a slogan.

I need to be a bit careful here, because I have been against HS2, full stop. For me, it was obvious that money should be spent on overhauling the transport system in the North, not on helping people to get to and from London more quickly. But once HS2 was finally approved, the right thing was to get it done as a complete project, so as to bring maximum benefits to the Midlands and the North. The abandonment of its eastern leg and — much worse — the decision not to have a new fast line between Leeds and Manchester, which should have been the centrepiece of a line which would eventually cross England from Liverpool to Hull, is a betrayal.

A further betrayal was quietly announced on Wednesday. The government’s plan for the future funding of social care was announced in September. Essentially, it will raise money for the NHS and the care sector by increasing National Insurance. This way of raising funds is in any case bad. It will largely hit people on modest and moderate incomes, since the standard rate of NI is 12%, but it drops to 2% for the tranche of salary over about £50,000 a year. A much fairer way of raising much more money would have been to tax capital gains at the same rate as income. There is no moral argument which can justify the difference. The vast majority of people who make capital gains are higher-rate taxpayers. The higher tax rates for income are 40% for the tranche above £50,271 and 45% for the tranche above £150,000. But for capital gains, a higher-rate taxpayer will only pay 28% on gains from residential property and 20% on gains from other chargeable assets. This is grotesque. Why should the profit made by a landlord who sells houses for double what he paid for them be taxed at a lower rate than the rate paid by the same person on his income above £50,271?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the way the money is to be raised, the government claimed in September that no one would have to pay more than £86,000 towards their care. Now it emerges that the calculation of the £86,000 does not include the means-tested support which people with assets of less than £100,000 will receive to help them pay for their care. The calculation only relates to contributions which people make themselves. The result is that a person living in a house worth £1 million (and there are many thousands of such houses in London and the South-east, several of them lived in by friends of mine) will pay less than a tenth of their total wealth towards their care. A person living in a small house in a town in the North worth £100,000 (and there are many thousands of such houses too), with no further assets, will certainly have to sell that house in order to receive care. Again, this is grotesque. There will be a vote on the proposal for the cap on Monday. I expect that the government will get its way, alas, but I hope that there will be at least some Tories willing to rebel.

In party political terms, the effect of the government’s catastrophic actions of the last two or three weeks is that, for the first time in many years, Labour is leading the Conservatives by a small margin in the opinion polls. Keir Starmer is finally punching through into the public’s consciousness as a person of intelligence and integrity. Johnson the endearing clown, the loveable, forgivable rogue, is looking more and more like the braggart, chancer and spiv that he is. ‘The joke isn’t funny any more,’ Keir has said repeatedly this week. The one certainty is that, as we move closer to an election in 2023 or 2024, the Tories will dump Johnson if they decide he’s an electoral liability, just as they turned a blind eye to his crimes when he was the electoral asset which he has been for them.

Camden Town

1 December 2021

Before I write anything about recent happenings, I’m going to reinstate a story which, with reluctance, I removed from this diary several years ago, at a friend’s request. It’s been bugging me that I took it out. So here it is again, but this time with a cloak of anonymity to protect my source.

My friend works a day a week in a charity shop in a district of London. This charity raises money for the excellent cause of helping people with poor mental health or with mental illness. Like other charities, it runs its shops on a commercial basis, employing people with experience in commercial retail. It’s possible, but I’m not sure about this, that it actually sub-contracts the running of the shops to a commercial company. Anyway, the manager of the shop where my friend volunteers had the necessary commercial background to maximise turnover and profit at the shop.

One day, a young woman came in and asked to try on three garments. She was shown into the tiny kiosk which serves as a changing room. She was in there for a long time. Eventually, the manager instructed a female member of staff to peer through a crack in the curtain to see what the young woman was doing. The member of staff reported that she was lying on the floor, in the foetal position, weeping. The manager’s response was immediate: ‘Get her out of here. We don’t want any mad people in this shop.’

When I originally put this story into the diary, I included my friend’s name, the name of the charity and branch where my friend works. To my amazement, he asked me to remove the story from the internet because the manager had been applying for a job in another charity shop elsewhere in England, had googled the name of the charity and the branch where she was currently manager, perhaps to get a bit of background information for her application, and up came my piece. She begged my friend to get me to take it down for fear that others (perhaps her prospective interviewers) might find it. So I did. I write this diary with no expectation that anyone is going to read it (apart from another friend who looks after my website), but you never know. And I don’t think it can do any harm now.

One other story about the same shop. My friend there looks after the books section. He has written nine or ten books himself, most of which I have helped him with editorially. He had lovingly inscribed one of these books to some people he thought of as good friends: ‘To dear so-and-so and so-and-so, with best wishes from [the name of the author]’. Imagine his feelings one Monday morning, not long after the date of his gift, as he was sorting through the weekend’s donations, to find the book, with his inscription, casually given away to support the mental health of strangers. I told him he should have posted it back to those ‘friends’ with a note about where he had found it. I don’t think he did.

Another story, totally unrelated, and this time charming. My adorable French great-nephew Paul is four and a half. He is obsessed with dinosaurs. In October he was showing me his handsome green plastic tyrannosaurus rex, about a foot long. He knows about the meteorite which landed on the Yucatán peninsula and caused the obliteration of sunlight which led to the death of the dinosaurs. As I was discussing this with him, a remote memory from my primary-school days came into my mind. I have no idea whether the information I took in sixty years ago and handed on to Paul is true or not, but I certainly didn’t invent it. I told Paul that there were some dinosaurs which had two brains, one in the head and one in the tail, and that the disagreement between the instructions issued by the two brains may have been one of the reasons why those dinosaurs died out. Paul immediately said, ‘I have three brains.’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said (all this in French), ‘one in my head, one in my willy and one in my bottom. Because when I do pipi or caca it works automatically. I don’t have to tell my willy or my bottom to work.’ Several adults were listening to this, and of course we all laughed, so he laughed as children do when they see that they have entertained the grown-ups. But I thought how wonderful was that hypothesis about involuntary physical processes, coming from the single brain of a four-and-a-half-year-old.

The four-and-a-half-year-old and his mother (Sophie, my niece) and his uncle (Sam, my nephew) and Sam’s girlfriend are arriving tomorrow evening. My sister Mary is already here, staying with my brother Peter in Canterbury. On Friday Sophie and Sam are going to inter their father’s ashes in the grave where his parents lie, in Farnborough, Kent. Mary has agreed to go too, though I think reluctantly, given the unhappiness of her first marriage. Meanwhile, I shall be taking Paul to the Natural History Museum to further his interest in dinosaurs.

Camden Town

2 December 2021

It’s a beautiful day, and I’m just off to St Pancras to meet Mary, who’s coming up from Canterbury. We’ll go straight down to Bronwyn’s and Stephen’s flat in Southwark, where the whole group I mentioned yesterday are going to stay.

Last Thursday I visited Peter and Monica Hetherington in Bletsoe. He was recovering well from the kidney stone which had put him in hospital, and from the diarrhoea which he suffered when he stopped taking antibiotics. We walked around the village together. Years ago, he planted numerous trees in the field behind their house and in other areas of common land in the village. ‘I planted these,’ he said several times. When we went to Norfolk the next day to see Adam and Hazel, I wrote this little poem and sent it to Peter and Monica.

The Tree Planter

For Peter Hetherington

We walked around the village field
where aspens, oaks and beeches grow
and, glancing at them as we passed,
he said, with pride, ‘I planted these.’

The planter’s handiwork revealed.
It’s been my lifetime’s boon to know
a man whose gifts are made to last,
whether of wisdom or of trees.

We agreed to meet on 16 December at St Pancras and go to the Alice exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s a celebration of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and of the cultural phenomenon which Alice has become since their publication. And we planned the next play reading of the Bedford Modern group, on 2 April next year. I’ve written to everybody, and they can all come. But yesterday I rang, and Peter’s diarrhoea has returned. He’s had to start a new course of antibiotics, twice as strong as the previous lot. He’s lost a lot of weight these past few weeks, and Monica is of course very worried, but I believe that his remarkable constitution will pull him through.

Camden Town

4 December 2021

Peter’s a lot better. The antibiotics seem to be doing their job. He was cheerful on the phone this morning, having avoided another stay in hospital, and was going out to mow the lawn: a good sign.

My visit with little Paul to the Natural History Museum was a delight. It’s a joy to be with a person for whom so many things are new and wonderful. Of course he was principally interested in the dinosaurs, but he also vastly admired the blue whale, the elephants, the narwhal (and knew its name), the dolphins, the birds… And he very much wanted to see the diamonds, so we found our way to the red zone where the precious minerals are, and although I couldn’t actually find a diamond, we saw lots of glinting rocks, and he seemed satisfied. (I remember that when I took Tess to the museum about thirteen years ago, when she was eight, she was equally fascinated by the minerals: something I didn’t expect.) I bought Paul a collection of eight model dinosaurs, and a plastic watch which, apart from telling the time, projects images of various dinosaurs onto the wall. After several hours there we came back here and I read numerous books to him. Then I took him back to Southwark; he’d had a great day. I find, though I’ve never been a parent, that I do experience a quasi-parental love for my sister’s children and her daughter’s children. Tonight we’re going over to Southwark to eat with the family.

It’s been a beautifully cold, bright day. I did my usual brisk walk round Regent’s Park, as I’ve done hundreds of times over nearly fifty years. The only difference from my more youthful self is that when I leave the park and press the button for the pedestrian crossing light to go green, I’m happy to wait for it to go green, rather than dash across when there’s no traffic even if it’s red. I get a mild ache in my arms after an hour of vigorous walking, and it’s pleasant when that eases.

Camden Town

7 December 2021

The family flew back to Marseille yesterday. On Sunday, I had taken Paul to London Zoo, which he enjoyed, but perhaps not as much as the Natural History Museum. Part of the problem is that there are very few animals left in the zoo. I suppose that’s right and proper, and perhaps a day will come when we’ll look back at zoos as symbols of our arrogance and cruelty, whose only continuing but temporary justification — until (pious hope) we recreate the habitats which we have destroyed — is to maintain the existence of species which would fail to survive in the wild. Of the few animals we did see, the penguins were the most entertaining. We heard a lion roar, and briefly glimpsed a lioness at the door of her cavern.

I think the best part of Paul’s day was a long ride on the front seat of the top deck of a double-decker bus. There are no double-deckers in Marseille. He was delighted to be able to look down on the cars, motorbikes and the tops of the bus shelters. This pleasure cost nothing; I’m too old to pay; he’s too young.

We’ve decided not to return to France for Christmas and New Year. I’m sad at the decision, but I think it’s the right one. The administrative hoops to be jumped through because of Covid-19 — tests to be taken and forms to fill in before departure and before and after return — are tedious, and we concluded that it wasn’t worth the trouble for a short trip of two or three weeks. The new variant of the virus, named Omicron, is worrying scientists and politicians all over the world. So far, it seems less likely to cause severe illness and death, but is much more quickly transmissible than previous variants. I think governments are holding their breath in the hope that it won’t be necessary to impose another severe lockdown. So we’re staying put, and if we have a quiet Christmas in the flat, we’ll be quite content.

Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. I can’t find out why the World Health Organization decided to jump straight there, instead of going to the fifth, which is epsilon. Naturally I hope that we won’t get as far at the twenty-fourth letter, omega, which would be the end of everything.

I went out to the Co-op this afternoon, and got absolutely soaked by Storm Barra, the second named storm of this winter. The rain fell in the way it does in films when a rain machine is doing the job. A few days ago, Storm Arwen did huge damage in Scotland and the north of England. Some homes are still without power. I’m quite sure that if the damage had been in the south of England, the response to the emergency would have been more urgent. At the moment, as I think I wrote a while ago, ‘levelling up’ — meaning spreading wealth and opportunity across the whole of the UK — is an idle slogan with little real change either arrived or in prospect.

Keir Starmer has undertaken a full-scale reshuffle of the shadow cabinet, of which I wholeheartedly approve. Bringing Yvette Cooper back to the front bench as shadow home secretary, and moving Lisa Nandy to the vital position of shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing, communities and local government (a long-winded title, I know), where she will challenge Michael Gove, are smart moves. So is making David Lammy shadow foreign secretary. The shadow cabinet now looks much more like a serious group of people which could attract the allegiance of the politically uncommitted and changeable — including all those who deserted Labour in droves in 2019.

When we were with Adam and Hazel at the end of last month the four of us went out to a restaurant on Helen’s and my wedding anniversary. The music being played there included Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs. Adam loved them. So Helen decided to buy him the CD as one of his Christmas presents. To do this is not as easy as it sounds now, at least if you’re old-fashioned enough, as we are, to want to go to a shop and emerge with a physical object. There are almost no general record shops, selling music of all kinds, left in London. But there’s a little independent record shop in Pratt Street which I’ve passed hundreds of times, which always looked interesting although I’d never gone in. I thought I’d try it. I went up to the counter and asked the man there whether he had in stock, or could obtain, a CD of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. He looked at me and smiled. ‘Sir, this is London’s only specialist punk music shop.’ In the end, against all my principles, we had to buy the CD from Amazon. Actually, we got two copies, one for Adam and one for us. But we have no CD player. The one we used to have broke down before we left for France last year. So we went onto John Lewis’s website and ordered one. It is first and foremost a radio, but it does have a CD player, so that ‘You can dig out your old CDs’. It reminded me of the moment in 2017 when we were taking delivery of our new car. The young mechanic showed us all the electronic gadgetry. Then Helen asked, ‘Where is the CD player?’ He smiled and shook his head, before pointing to the USB port. He was thinking, ‘Old people.’

Camden Town

10 December 2021

Last night we went over to Earlsfield and had dinner in an excellent vegan restaurant with our old friend Gabriel Genest and his new partner Bill Christianson. Gabriel has been alone since Terry Furlong died in 2001, so we’re delighted that at last he’s found someone to share his life with. We didn’t know until yesterday that they’ve got on and had a civil partnership already. Bill is charming: he’s a South African who’s been in the UK since he was 29, he’s an ordained Anglican priest, has worked for missions for seafarers most of his career, and is also (I’m not quite sure how) a senior member of the Worshipful Company of Innholders, one of the City livery companies. He talks easily and entertainingly, as Terry used to, while Gabriel is quieter. They seem very happy together. Bill is executor of the estate of a former seafarer. There was some money left in the estate after the principal beneficiaries had been paid, so Gabriel suggested that our fund at the Canon Collins Trust, named after Terry Furlong and Ros Moger, would put it to good use supporting students in southern Africa. The result is that the fund now has an extra £35,680 in addition to the £100,000 from an anonymous donor in September. So we enter our third decade of activity with confidence.

The government is currently in deep difficulties because of the sort of scandal which reaches a wide public, beyond the concerns of political obsessives like me. It seems that there was a party (and now, perhaps more than one party) in Downing Street just before Christmas last year. When the Daily Mirror broke the story; the government denied it. There was no such party. Then, a film emerged of Downing Street officials at a mock televised press conference rehearsing what they might say at a future real televised press conference should a journalist ask whether there had been such a party, at a time when London was in the highest level of lockdown, and people weren’t even allowed to visit sick or dying loved ones. The future press conference never happened, because the idea of televising such events was abandoned. But the joking tone of the rehearsal — ‘We know this shouldn’t have happened; how are we going to get away with it most conveniently, ha, ha’ — has outraged the nation. Johnson, of course, first insisted that no rules had been broken, there was nothing to worry about; when the film was leaked (and it’s fascinating to think about the kind of spitefulness or, possibly, the kind of moral anger which caused someone within the government machine to exhume a bit of video nearly a year old and put it into the public domain), he had to come to the Commons to apologise, saying he was disgusted by it, but he still insisted that he knew nothing about it. No one has yet managed to show that he was lying about not knowing, and perhaps he’ll be able to hold that line, but the episode has added to the sense that the heart of government in the UK is incompetent and corrupt.

And there are other examples of Johnson’s relaxed relationship with the truth, including the murky question of payment for the obscenely expensive refurbishment of his and his wife’s flat above 11 Downing Street. There is an annual public grant of £30,000 available for works at Downing Street. Not enough for Johnson and his wife. The refurbishment cost £112,549. It seems that, in the end, Johnson reimbursed that money himself (I suppose he has such funds in his bank account), but not before anonymous Conservative donors had provided the funds for the work to be done. Was it always intended that the donors were only providing provisional generosity, and Johnson always intended to stump up himself? I must say that I doubt that, and find it much more plausible that Johnson was hoping that the luxurious improvements could be done at someone else’s expense, and he only had to dip into his own pocket when the news about Tory donors making him and his wife extremely comfortable began to look bad politically. Anyway, the impeccably politically neutral Electoral Commission, which regulates political parties’ income and spending, has fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for serious failures in its reporting of donations made towards the cost of the refurbishment. Johnson’s particular problem at the moment is that he claimed to his ethics adviser that he didn’t know anything about who was paying provisionally until February of this year, but it now seems that he was in contact with the man organising the donations three months before that, and encouraging him to get on with the work. It’s all a bit technical, although if it becomes clear that he was lying to his ethics adviser he could be in serious difficulty. But it’s the party story which has done the deeper damage.

Yesterday morning we had our booster Covid vaccinations, and it was moving and impressive to see the service being delivered efficiently and good-humouredly; impressive too to see how many people have volunteered to help the doctors and nurses by organising the queues, handing out the forms, reassuring the doubters. We sat for 15 minutes after receiving the jabs to see if there were any immediate ill effects. There were none, although I did have a sore arm overnight. Gone now.

Camden Town

22 December 2021

We went with Peter and Monica to the Alice exhibition at the V and A last week, and enjoyed it very much. I was particularly interested in the early biographical information about Charles Dodgson. His diary was open at the very page where he describes the ‘golden afternoon’ in July when he rowed up the river with his friend and the three Liddell girls. And I was fascinated by a little book he wrote promoting proportional representation as a fairer way of electing our political representatives than first-past-the-post. Being the brilliant mathematician he was, he’d worked out the likely outcomes of various versions of PR.

A quick update on the scandals engulfing Downing Street: a photograph has emerged, and was published in The Guardian, of nineteen people, including the Prime Minister and his then fiancée (now his wife), in four separate groups in the Downing Street garden in mid-May of last year, having drinks and snacks. It’s quite obvious that this was a social gathering. At that time, such gatherings were not permitted. Various defenders of the government have tried to say that the meeting was for work (completely implausible), or that it was a quick drink after a gruelling day (some sources have admitted that the drink wasn’t quick in the cases of some of those who were there). Even if the drink was quick, it defied the regulations. Nurses and doctors were having far more gruelling days than anyone in the Cabinet Office, and weren’t gathering for drinks at the end of their day. The photograph has added to the outrage and sense of betrayal that many people in the country feel, not just those on the left and those who take a particular interest in politics.

When the film about which I wrote the other day emerged, the Prime Minister announced that the Cabinet Secretary, the country’s top civil servant, would conduct an investigation to see whether there had been any wrongdoing. Now the Cabinet Secretary has had to recuse himself from the job because a party had been held in his private office! It’s beyond satire. You couldn’t make it up, as the cliché goes.

On Saturday, Lord Frost, who negotiated the UK’s departure from the EU and has since been negotiating our continuing relationship with the EU, resigned. It was another blow to the government’s credibility, although there was the usual mutually congratulatory exchange of letters between him and the Prime Minister. Reading between the lines of those letters, it seems that Frost wants a faster move towards a low-tax, lightly regulated, ultra-free-market UK than Johnson is prepared to allow at the moment. Quite what Frost imagined that the government should do in the depths of the pandemic, other than borrow hugely to stop the economy collapsing, I don’t know. I’ve written earlier that the way the government will fund increased expenditure on the NHS and social care — an increase in National Insurance contributions — is the wrong way to do it. But some kind of tax increase is essential. I really do think that the ideologues on the right of the Conservative Party — and Johnson isn’t an ideologue, just a self-interested self-promoter, previously with a talent for campaigning — imagine some kind of heaven where the state has shrunk almost to nothing, apart from the armed forces, and we are all exposed to the winds and whims of the market. The kind of society we know today would collapse if such a ‘heaven’ ever came to pass; a murderous anarchic individualism would replace it.

In a by-election last Thursday in the constituency of North Shropshire, the Liberal Democrats overturned the previous Tory majority of 23,000, to win the seat by 6,000 votes. This was the election provoked by the resignation of Owen Paterson, about which I wrote on 20 November. It was a huge swing. The party which has always been the most enthusiastically pro-EU won in a constituency where there was one of the largest pro-leave majorities in 2016. It shows that the Brexit question is becoming less salient. It might show that some people are beginning to realise that being outside the EU isn’t quite as wonderful as they imagined it would be. More importantly, it shows that voters will turn on their leaders and representatives when they feel that they are being scorned, lied to, taken for granted.

We drove up to David James in Harmer Hill the day after the election. He lives in the constituency. He told me that the local Tory councillor had knocked on his door on the afternoon of the election and asked him if he had yet voted. ‘No,’ said David. ‘And will you be going to vote?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And will you be voting Conservative?’ ‘No.’ ‘Ah well, just one of those things.’ And the councillor departed, not having engaged in political debate of any depth. As I drove round the bleak plain of north Shropshire on a dull December afternoon, I could see that it had been carpet-bombed with Liberal Democrat slogans. Not a Conservative poster in sight in this previously safest of safe Tory seats.

On Saturday evening we had our traditional jolly pre-Christmas meal with friends: Andrew and Annie Bannerman (who also brought their son Edward), Peter and Merle Traves, Glenda and Julian Walton, David, Helen and me. I say ‘traditional’; it didn’t happen last year, for Covid-related reasons. This year we all agreed to have lateral flow tests in the morning. David’s kitchen briefly looked like a crack den, with three of us sticking things up our noses at the same time.

We drove back to London yesterday. I’m going up to see Myra Barrs for supper this evening. She’s had quite a year: a new book and a move to a new house in London, while bravely and successfully battling her illness.

Camden Town

24 December 2021

Coming out of Camden Town tube two nights ago, after supper with Myra, I passed a homeless man sitting on the ground and performing ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ by blowing through the hole in the narrow end of a traffic cone. He was pretty good; the sound was like that produced by a didgeridoo. It reminded me of the French horn player who comes regularly to the wood up the road from us in Brittany to play snatches from the classical repertoire for his instrument. I wrote the little poem ‘Horn Solo’ about him a while ago.

Last night we went to Daphne Restaurant for dinner. We’ve been going there for about 47 years now. I remember celebrating my twenty-third birthday there when it was run by previous owners and called Modhitis. We talked to Nicholas, who runs the restaurant with his mother, about the days when smoking was allowed. ‘Who was that man,’ I asked, ‘who sat alone at a table at the back and chain smoked, even when he was eating?’ ‘That was Percy Savage,’ said Nicholas. I reminded him of the Saturday lunchtime when we were there and Percy was at the back, smoking as usual. At the front was Patricia Hewitt MP and some of her family. She was Secretary of State for Health at the time, and had that week finally succeeded in getting a bill through Parliament which would ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces. Percy didn’t know that his nemesis was only a few tables away from him. Anyway, Nicholas told me (and produced Wikipedia on his phone to support his information) that Percy had been a significant figure in the world of haute couture. Born in Brisbane in 1926, he had come to London as a young man, found the weather so dreadful that he moved to Paris after a fortnight (is the weather in Paris that much better than that in London?), and gone to work for Christian Dior. He had introduced Dior to the young Yves Saint-Laurent. One day, he was due at a meeting (possibly a dinner) and was late, as he often was. Someone said, ‘Oh, Savage is always late.’ (Or it might have been, ‘Oh, Savage est toujours en retard.’) Dior immediately said, ‘That’s it. That’s the name I need for my new men’s perfume: Eau Sauvage.’ And so it was. Percy gave his name to one of the most famous brands in male perfumery. It’s the only after-shave I use, and for many years, when we had Christmases at home and my brothers were there, I gave each of them Eau Sauvage talc, in its stylish brown plastic bottle.

I often get depressed at this time of year, but this year, I’m glad to say, I’m in the best of spirits. Perhaps it’s because I’ve helped two people to produce very good books, which they couldn’t have done without me, as they’ve both said. Then, I’m pleased with my fifty Montale stories, now sitting on the front page of my website. It’s been a sparse year for original poetry, I must admit, but the quality of the few pieces (nine) has been good enough. Then there are the twenty translations from the ‘Ossi di seppia’ section of Montale’s Ossi di seppia, which means that I’ve done all twenty-two poems in that section now. ‘The Sunflower’ and ‘Often, It’s Life Evils that I’ve Met’ are in Bring Me the Sunflower.

I had drinks with Anna Home ten days ago. She showed me the printed version of Our Children’s Future: Does Public-Service Media Matter?, the book published by the Children’s Media Foundation to which I contributed. I wrote about it in February. It’s a handsome production. Greg Childs, the director of the Foundation, has just sent me two copies. I’ll send one to Keir Starmer in the New Year. The vultures on the right of the Conservative Party are continuing to circle around the BBC, and around the very idea that the electronic media should have any responsibility other than to meet the demands of the market. They would abolish the requirement for political impartiality. Fox News would immediately cross the Atlantic. It would be hell. I re-read my piece and was proud of it. So, another reason to be cheerful on Christmas Eve.

Camden Town

28 December 2021

Christmas passed pleasantly and quietly. We breakfasted late, walked around Regent’s Park, came back, did some food preparation, opened a bottle of champagne, opened our presents, cooked the meal (smoked salmon, poussin with roasted vegetables, cheese, Christmas pudding with custard, wines various), felt sleepy but decided it was too early to go to bed, played Scrabble, went to bed. I spoke to all my siblings on the phone during the course of the day; Helen spoke to both hers.

Among my presents was a new biography of De Gaulle, by Julian Jackson, which I began reading immediately and am now completely absorbed in. It’s beautifully written: a detailed and authoritative account of that extraordinary man and the tumultuous events of his life. I’m only up to about 1944 so far. One sobering thing which the book has made me realise is how deeply entrenched far-right, quasi- or explicitly fascist ideas and movements have always been in France. British people of a left-wing persuasion (like me) often say, casually, ‘Well, of course, the French had a revolution, didn’t they? And a good thing too.’ But when you add together the sizeable chunk of popular opinion against Dreyfus, the longevity of Action Française, with its ultra-Catholic, monarchist, avowedly anti-Semitic position, the scale of collaboration between the French authorities and the Nazis (not just in the Vichy part of France; notoriously in Paris too), then the Poujadism in the 1950s, then the near coup d’état over Algeria, then the rise of Le Pen and now his daughter, and now Eric Zemmour, with the probability that the second round of next year’s presidential election will be another run-off between Macron and one of two fascists, you can see how close the nation which proudly claims to have advanced the rights of humankind around the world through its revolution has also come, from time to time, to being an authoritarian state based on racist and xenophobic ideology. De Gaulle himself, conservative, Catholic, convinced of the need for strong leadership of a turbulent people and that he was the one to provide it, had much in common with the ideas of Action Française, certainly as a young man. The book makes it clear that in his maturity he was not a dogmatic anti-Semite; he was only interested in whether or not people would defend France against the German aggressor, whatever their political views, religion or racial background. But there are anti-Semitic remarks in some of the letters he writes as a young army officer, and as late as December 1944, while visiting Moscow and having met some members of the Lublin Committee, the group which the Soviet authorities wished to install as the future government of Poland, he commented to one of his aides, in what the author calls ‘a rare flash of anti-Semitism’, that those people were just a ‘“bunch of rabbis, a bunch of yids with no popular support”’. And the book says that anti-Semitism was casual and usual amongst the people who worked for the Free French in London during the war: a group of people whose efforts have achieved mythic status in the minds of the French public since.

Desmond Tutu has died. I was only in a room with him once, when we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa. The party was held in Kings College, London, where the archbishop had received his theological training. Peter Adams was there at the same time, though he is six years younger. He knew Desmond. Peter told me, and I think this has become well known, that as a student Desmond used frequently to go up to policemen in London to ask the time, even when he didn’t need to know it, because it just delighted him that a white police officer would oblige a black person in that way. Desmond was the guest of honour at the party, of course, and he made a terrific speech thanking the Trust for what it had done, and looking forward to the time when South Africa and southern African countries generally wouldn’t need the help of charities like ours. (That was an optimistic thought; sixteen years later our help is still very much needed.) He told a good joke, about trust in God. A man is walking along by the edge of a cliff. He loses his footing, slips and is falling to his death. But he manages to grab hold of the branch of a tree halfway down. Hanging desperately on, he looks up and prays, ‘Is there anyone up there? Please help me!’ A voice from heaven replies, ‘My son, leave go of the branch. You are in my keeping. You will descend gently to earth. Trust me.’ The man considers this for a moment, and then prays, ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

Archbishop Tutu was one of the great heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, and then, with Mandela, South Africa’s moral leader in the years after liberation. In the years after Mandela stood down as president, Tutu was not afraid to condemn corruption in the senior ranks of the ANC.

Camden Town

31 December 2021

Last year we were spared the lengthy and excessive build-up to Christmas which plagues England, since France celebrates the event with greater moderation. This year we’ve had weeks and weeks of anticipated excitement, complicated by the fact that people have wanted to celebrate even more enthusiastically than usual, since they had been prevented from doing so last year, while the government has been telling them to be cautious. Now a welcome calm has descended. I like the quiet days between Christmas and New Year.

Reading this diary on the last day of the year, I’m struck by how much illness features in it. Of course Covid is a large part of the reason, but ageing has a lot to do with it too. Omicron continues to spread rapidly through the population, although at the moment the numbers of severely ill and dying people are nowhere near the levels of last January. Perhaps the virus really is causing milder symptoms, as several studies have suggested. And many of us — still not enough — have been vaccinated. We’re off to spend New Year’s Eve with Heather and David Loxton in Bury St Edmunds. We stuck swabs up our noses this morning: negative.