PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1987 - NOVEMBER
Sunday 1 November
A grey dull morning. I go out for a walk after 8am and am surprised by the amount of activity - cars streaming down the Willesden Lane, single persons in overcoats going I know not where, others without overcoats dashing in and out of newspaper shops (or strolling in and stopping just outside to read their purchase), drunks and tramps with bottles in their hands already beginning to gather in groups, early dog walkers looking none too happy. It is the morning after Saturday night, and litter figures prominently everywhere in the landscape. The Kilburn High Road is so full of hamburger joints, all keen on the late night trade - it’s like one giant diner at 1 in the morning. And where does the rubbish from the takeaways go - the napkins, the plastic hamburger boxes, the chips’ newspaper, the wooden forks, the Pepsi cans? The litter draws one’s eyes to the pavement gutters and to the lower brick and cement work of buildings. There is true ugliness. These days, pavements are rarely even, their paving stones having been taken up and replaced so often. They are ugly in themselves, more so with damp, dirt, brick, bits of brick, patches of macadam, patches of earth, and sloppy construction work. Then there’s the grime in the gutters. Then there’s the buildings with crumbling brickwork, rendering falling off in lumps, drainpipes mended with bandages soaked in tar and half hanging off, moss, lichen and fungal growth taking over wherever conditions are right, the dark, dirt-festering corners and ridges where pavement and building meet. I ponder on a photograph exhibition of Kilburn, called ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, but maybe ‘The Good-looking, the Bad-looking and the Ugly’ might be easier. I need to take the tripod out with me to catch some of the more exquisite examples of bad-looking - perhaps in a fortnight or so.
A cold joy descends across the land.
In China, the Old Guard step down or are sacked to make way for younger politicians who will drag China into the 20th century. In Russia, Gorbachev publishes a book in which he admits that his liberal reforms are running into criticism. A ship full of arms for Northern Ireland is apprehended, and found to be Libyan. England conquers Sri Lanka and makes it to the cricket semi-finals in Pakistan. Stock markets stabilise as the US declares it will do something about trade imbalance figures. The BP shares sale went ahead.
Your Dad had a bit of fun over the BP share sale. As the production week of European Energy Report (EER) progressed unerringly towards the Thursday 5pm deadline, I had received no news story worthy of the front page so I decided to put the BP story there - not that it was the best, rather that it was the most topical. And very topical it turned out to be. The £7.2bn sale of BP shares - some the government’s stock and some a BP share issue - opened just a few days after the stock market crash. Whereas the BP price had been above the 330p offer, it dropped back some 30%. A fraction - 250,000 - of the six million investors that had thought about buying the shares actually bought any. The underwriters of the sale looked set to suffer drastic losses, and pressurised Nigel Lawson - our heroic Chancellor of the Exchequer - into cancelling the sale. By Wednesday, it looked as though the pressure might be working. Rowdy Labour MPs took every advantage of the situation in Parliament. Wednesday, Lawson said he would make a statement to the Commons on Thursday. Good, I thought, I’ll take my radio into work, catch the news, and slip it onto the front page.
Unfortunately, came my 5pm deadline for finalising the EER pages, Lawson still had not spoken. Complex negotiations with the Bank of England were under way. Well, in fact, my 5pm deadline is fiction - EER gets printed late on Friday morning or even afternoon, in time for a 4:30pm deadline for delivery to the post office. A chat with the printer Reg established that I could, in fact, send the copy down on a Friday morning train - 10:10 to be exact - but the copy then would then have to leave the office before 9, and this in turn would mean me getting to the office well before 8. An idea as unwelcome in deed as in thought.
I hit upon a brainwave to send down a ‘final’ version as usual with my best guess for the outcome, and then only come in early if I needed to send a new version in the morning. So, I sent down a final copy of EER 251 on Thursday night with the story written - UK declines to cancel BP share sale. I checked it over several times - missed that I’d written $7.2bn instead of £7.2bn, which Tracye thankfully spotted - and still found a spelling mistake (analaysts) in the photocopy of the proofs. I then carried the photocopied version with me home, read it on the train, took it to Mum’s for dinner, read it there too, and waited for the news. Finally, at 10pm Lawson spoke. He said the sale would go ahead but that the Bank of England would buy back the shares at a minimum price of 70p. My story, as it stood, was not wrong, nothing in it could be seriously faulted, and so I knew I could avoid any early morning rush. But I slept too fitfully, worrying about that spelling mistake. In the end I went into the office early because I had little to lose - a couple of hours - and it would be quite impressive (show keenness) if the newsletter went to press with a news item that hadn’t been public knowledge until 10pm Thursday night (some five hours after EER’s usual deadline). I got in before 8am. First thing I did was order a motorcycle messenger for 8:45, plenty of time to get the Red Star for Wetherby 10:10 train. I rewrote the story - minus spelling mistake - and was ready, sitting in the lobby with minutes to spare. The messenger was an hour late, didn’t come until 9:45, and he missed the train! Fortunately, Reg, accommodating Reg, said he could still make it - he started printing and waited for the new page one which would arrive later, on the 12:15. He couldn’t have done it though, he said, unless the body of the newsletter had gone down the night before. Saturday morning, the issue arrived on my doormat - a beauty.
7 November, Aldeburgh
Adam, my ears are burning for it is warm in this room. Mum is putting you to bed just - not long after 6pm. I think it is a bit early as you don’t normally go to sleep until 8pm or so. But here in Aldeburgh you get plenty of exercise, and plenty of that tiring fresh air. I am happy that you sleep. I think you need to sleep to grow, and you need to grow. In the last two weeks you have only put on three and a half ounces, and in the last six weeks you’ve only grown an average of four ounces a week. [. . .] Reading the books, it seems, you may be slightly underfed, so your mother and I agreed that she should try and express milk in the morning to supplement your evening feeds, and that we would start you on solids. (Today you had a banana.)
When I remember, and when I can be bothered, I try to write down my dreams. I’ve no idea what earthly good it does. Perhaps one day I’ll go through and research my dreams for some hidden meaning. This dream concerned you, my son, but as it is already evening I can remember but few details. And those I do remember are only because your mother refreshed my memory - I told her the dream early in the morning.
I am playing with a toy from my childhood. It is shaped like a giant icecream cone, and has a switch on the outside that when clicked flicks a ping pong ball in the air - the aim is to catch the ball in the cone. Bizarrely, you are part of the ping-pong ball, like a giant sperm or tadpole, a living presence within the ball. For some reason, I tell a colleague at work that I’ve been playing with this device, but he looks a little shocked because, he says, they have a tendency to overheat. You look all right at first but before very long your form melts. I go over to the colleague, suspending all emotion, and ask him to confirm that you’ve gone. He says, ‘yes, you’ve gone’. I then suffer the most distress, as though I have really lost you, before waking up.
Monday 16 November
Dear Angelheart, you and your mother have gone to Catford to spend a few days with your grandparents. I believe you are going to sleep in a drawer.
I went out on Thursday night and got drunk with Raoul. He had just heard that the Cancer Research Fund has only offered him sufficient funds for half his team of scientist, that is half the team that Ludwig was paying for. He tells me he and Caroline will have another child. He tells me how much he loves Jack and Sophie, and how he can’t wait to get home at nights to see them. He finds it difficult to see how I can bare to be separate from you. Perhaps it will get harder as you get older.
Did I tell you, B and my Mum went off to Brent Cross and bought you a cot. A real baby cot. You’ll sleep there now for at least a couple of years. But where will you sleep when you come here to my house, or go somewhere else. We will have to buy a travel cot soon. I am sorry but I got terribly tired with all the details of your needs. B tried to involve me in the purchase of some new clothes, and equipment and so on, well I was in no mood. I suppose I sort of feel it’s her job. She is only thinking of me, though.
My sailing weekend fell through. The navigation classes have become a little boring. A lot of the chart work is based on arithmetic which I can pick up ever so quickly, but Andrew, the teacher, of course, plods through to keep all the class with him. There is a cool, upright Scots woman called Marie who is both quick and clever, if a bit nervous. I had hoped we would both find ourselves on the same sailing trip with Andrew at the end of November. Without actually conferring - for we are both too cool - we had suggested to Andrew we might like to go. But it was too late, he had cancelled before we had a chance to confer and make a clear booking.
The pressure of work. I had so many climaxes on Thursday. Each time I thought the pages were ready for the printer, I discovered another error, and another. Even when the package was all sealed and waiting for the messenger who was late, I found yet another error, and had to print the pages out yet again. The last issue was my fourth in a row with 20 pages (as opposed to the more normal 16). It contained stories about Portugal recharging energy policy, the Russians snubbing the EEC over oil policy, Italians voting against nuclear power, Romanians sacking energy officials, Russians hinting at a nuclear retreat etc. The best headline was ‘Danish heating firms fish for fuel’.
I slip away from work early. I have some plants to settle in the garden before it gets too cold. By 4:30pm it has turned dark. I have about an hour in the light from 3:30. First I plant a winter jasmine - nudiflorum - in the back corner behind the rotting hydrangea. I hope it will flower this winter and brighten the horizon, so to speak, from my bedroom window - not that I am often in the bedroom when it is light these days. Next I put in a rose behind the juniper, for the wall there is very dull; originally passion flowers covered it but they died during their first harsh winter - no resilience. The rose, Dance du feu, should give repeated blooms of bright red. Then there was a santolina that B persuaded me to buy for its grey-silver foliage. I’ve placed it near the rosemary and lavender without even considering whether it should be in sun or shade. Well, it was a bargain from a supermarket DIY story down in Willesden.
I had forgotten how long it takes for foliage to die. Here we are in mid-November, and my garden remains ever so green, only the leaves from the apple tree and the salix and new honeysuckle have fallen. Other plants are beginning to yellow, the chaenomoles, for example, and the hydrangeas. The evergreen mahonia has already sprung its flowerbuds ready for a winter blooming.
In Aldeburgh, we have started on our blue garden. There will be a front hedge of rosemary, a mauve clematis along the fence, a ceanothus to be trained up the house front, veronicas and vincas and irises between the larger shrubs. And, to set the eye off early in the year, for the splendour of blue, will be a fine show of daffodils. B is agin this, agin the daffodils but I feel sure they will act as a sort of time-lapsed counterpoint. In the back garden I have persuaded B to agree to my planting a winter jasmine next to the vertical cotoneaster (we have a horizontal one too, both splendid). The point of this: the winter jasmine gives a few yellow flowers now, in November, when the cotoneaster is still full of bright red berries. B says red against yellow is vulgar. And perhaps it is when talking of annuals, but just a few isolated jasmine flowers next to the red beads I think will be superb.
I begin to feel my social isolation. Not only do I not make new friends, I don’t even meet people socially, make acquaintances. Now in the cycle of you and B, London and Aldeburgh, work and sleep, there are few opportunities for breaking out of the circle, and when they come I’m not even very interested any more. Before I went to Brazil (ah! Brazil, I have had such saudades for you today, for the swimming, for the beach, for Maria and Rosa, for my motorbike) I was more gregarious, and wanted to be.
The other evening I went round to see Rosy on the night of her birthday - she had invited me to a dinner celebration. There were perhaps a dozen or fifteen people squashed around one of Andrew’s improvised giant dinner tables. Rosy was serving up her normal fare for the five thousand. Who were all these ageing hippies, drop-outs, artists, social workers. I sensed a desperation about the people there - not something I’ve sensed before at Rosy’s - all demonstrating, either through their clothes, or their lifestyles, or their conversation. Richard was there - still a bit down on his luck, worried about the cost of petrol, and getting to the west country to see his child, Zula. He sells strawberries for a bomb in his Covent Garden porch. And Larry was there, the effete piano player I haven’t seen in years. Talking to Rosy, herself, I began to feel unhappy for her. Why did I expect to see her calm and confident and attractive? These days her clothes are inevitably star-spangled, and there usually is make-up dripping from her eyes.
Did I mention that Judy is pregnant again.
I am surrounded by child development books. I picked up a heap at the library yesterday. Sometimes I am concerned by an overwhelming desire to know things. All of a sudden, I felt I should be learning more about the processes that are happening to you. What are your key motor and cognitive developments? What does psychology know about the connections between behaviour/development at an early age and later behaviour/development?
Wednesday 18 November
I have to admit that I went a bit over the top last night, dearest Adam. Not only did I surround myself with those books but I also watched a programme called ‘Hot House People’ on Channel 4. Most of it was given over to a warm grandpa figure, forever smiling through his white beard, called Glen Doman, who runs the Better Baby Institute where children grow into geniuses. I thought the film weak for not showing more of the techniques used by the institute - I imagine some would look much like brainwashing - nor in seeking more detailed criticism. We were shown one interview with a scientist who just said that Doman has no evidence, no serious work to prove his theories. Doman doesn’t care for double-blind trials and continues his almost evangelical role. The children at his institute learn Japanese, learn to play the violin, learn gymnastics as well as more normal subjects. Clearly, the most important technique is the utter devotion given over to the children by their mothers - who do nothing else but teach their children, 24 hours a day if necessary. The mothers use hundreds or thousands of flash cards on which are written, drawn or pasted hundreds and thousands of facts, words and pictures. At every given moment, the mother is busy flashing these cards at the child in the form of a quiz - complete the Shakespeare quotation, what is this Japanese word, name this aircraft. Most of this is memory, but there is no doubting that much is also thought provoking, in the sense that the child has to remember a large variety of formats of solutions. But the school showed no techniques for problem solving. Indeed, all else we saw were examples of the students doing gymnastics and playing the violin. Oh yes, and two daily exercises that seem to show Doman has faith in our animal heritage: all the children must crawl a few miles a day (with their mothers behind quizzing them on maths and spelling), and swing one-handed across a series of parallel bars. Why Doman should believe that chimp-like behaviour promotes neurological growth is beyond me!
On television Doman comes across as very warm-hearted, even affectionate. He stresses over and over again that his education systems create not only intelligent children but nice and humane ones too. No freaks for him, or evil geniuses. Indeed, the children did seem normal and intelligently advanced at the same time. But, until they go out into the world and prove themselves, it will be very hard to assess the value of such concentrated and disciplined education. Perhaps the moment they have no supporter, no educator, no support group, no framework, not tests, they will fall to pieces. Life is an amazingly complex activity. We spend 16 years of our lives amassing information so that we can cope with the remaining 60-70 years. But the info we amass is not restricted to school-type teaching, there are all the complex inter-actions between human beings, the multitude of character facets to be formed through repeated situations, there’s the infinite little problems of life that need to be learnt and relearnt, failed and experienced. Mind control, ability and capacity can be important but it is also necessary to learn about the limitations - where instinctive behaviour takes over from the mind, and the multitude of traps that lie, that lurk waiting to catch the human.
Now, all this child development information around me leads to another question. If a fairy godmother materialised in front of me and said I could realise you Adam, yes you Adam, are you awake, into whatever sort of adult I wanted, what would I say? You see how can I possibly know what sort of person you will want to be? In all intelligence, I have to say I could want you to be whatever I can most imagine would be best for you (rather than for me or for B - two different things). But what is best? What does it mean. This is the crux of the problem. Many, perhaps most, people say it has something to do with happiness, perhaps self-fulfilment. But I happen to believe that happiness is a socially convenient concept - that there is no such thing as concrete happiness. The freer the mind, the less relevant is the concept of happiness. So, do I want for you happiness, in which case I ask the fairy to keep you simple, unquestioning and to provide you with a reasonably meaningful goal, towards which you can make significant strides in a lifetime - a path that has achievable steps. Do I ask her to blinker you. Or do I want for you the kind of rational logical mind that I have, that sees too much, that berates the concept of happiness, that struggles through, endlessly aware of its insignificance. I do not need a fairy godmother.
I think I would wish you greater social ease, more self-confidence than I have (because I do not have it) but that is no matter for development, rather it should be a bi-product of a generous stable childhood, which we will try to give you. I don’t think you need super-intelligence because a reasonable normal intelligence, such as many a person has these days, is quite adequate to do well in the world - you will need other qualities that your Mum and I between us can provide for you. I do not want you to change the world for I can see no way it can be changed. I do not want you to be a genius because I do not believe you will get much out of life as one. For me and for B, selfishly, I would that you become a kind, loving person full of generosity for your parents, and that you enrich their old age with your activities, your friends, your insights into the modern age.
Friday 20 November
We’re off to Aldeburgh again tonight. I hope the weather stays well for us. I hope the car stays well for us - the beaten up old Morris Ital I drive is so rusty the engine might fall out unexpectedly at any given moment.
On the way home last night, I popped into ‘Rigoletto’, the revival of Jonathan Miller’s production that transports Verdi’s 19th century drama to 20th century Chicago. With no promising television, no desperate need to write anything, and nothing much to look forward to at home, I thought I would nip off to the cinema, maybe to see ‘Aria’. A performance not far away started at 7:00. I got there a little early - it was not a continuous programme - so I walked down to St Martin’s Lane. At the Coliseum I bought a £2 ticket (half the price of the cinema) to see ‘Rigoletto’ from the front row of the balcony. Ah Verdi’s tale, so sorrowful a tale - as miserable as Thomas Hardy - is barely recognisable in 20th century suits and decoration. So transmuted is Miller’s version that I (who have never seen ‘Rigoletto’ before) cannot imagine how the original looks or feels - though I can of course imagine how it hears. The corrupt Mr Miller has packaged the Duke’s most famous song into a Juke box number. But I did enjoy the opera. Rigoletto himself was not so hot, but Anne Dawson as Gilda was superb, as was Jean Rigby in the last act, a near cameo role. But why should poor Rigoletto suffer so? This is a comment on good and bad, a judgement on revenge, a scathing attack on the Italian vendetta traditions. We must learn how unfair life is, and how pointless to seek vengeance for our fates.
Monday 23 November
Dear A. Temperature drops. There is an icy nip in the air these days. Frost and ice will soon kill off the last of the deciduous greenery. The clematis leaves burn and whither, but the miniature leaves of the cotoneaster follow the pattern of the early-withering parthenocissus - they turn orange and red and purple. The cotoneasters in our garden at Aldeburgh have turned so red you can’t tell the difference between the leaf and the berry. Few flowers are out now, early winter jasmine, a rose still blooms in my London yard; and in the allotments over the way from our cottage I saw a few dying chrysanthemums. This weekend we planted a ceanothus in the front garden - the blue garden. As usual we debated fully the positioning of the plant. It is a tall growing shrub that may overwhelm the tiny patch. We plan to train it up the wall, only the wall’s too little. We have grand plans, far too grand, for our humble land. In the back garden we plant raspberry canes, two varieties, Glen Cova along the back wall which will have to compete with a mature clematis Jackmanii, and Mallory Jewel along the side fence which will have to stand firm against a wild blackberry that I keep chopping back. B planted a pink rose, Albertine, next to the clematis montana at the back of the bathroom extension - two fast growers to cover the ugly construction.
You are a bit young to appreciate plants but I educate you as we walk around Aldeburgh. On Saturday morning, of course, we took our usual route to the top of the Town Steps for our panorama view of the sea. Behold the sea. But on Sunday morning, we walked straight across from the Leiston Road through the park, down past the allotments, the dying chrysanthemums, then instead of turning left past the bowling green and tennis courts we continued straight on. A muddy footpath. We stopped, so you could stare at the chickens, hens and cocks. You looked fascinated. Before buying the papers, we walked on the pebbles. We sat down right by the sea, on a steep bank, so that you could be ever so close to the wave crash - one wave almost got us and Dads and Ads had to retreat quickly. Then we stopped for a while so that you could listen to the squeaking gulls.
I regain my soul in Aldeburgh. B and I become addicted to the sea air. We didn’t go on any long walks, because of the weather, the lack of light hours, and the work load at the cottage. We thought to go to a choir concert in the lovely church - a celebration of Britten’s birthday - but standing at the church entrance I realised I wouldn’t be able to justify your presence in an audience of older people, should you let out one of your new-found shouts, or try an innovative crying sound. So, we watched the dreary people through the undreary stained glass windows, and occasionally caught the odd strain of singing voices.
On Saturday, we drove around from Christmas bazaar to Christmas bazaar, stopping in Friston and in Snape. On Sunday, we worked in the front room again. This time, taking off the last of the wallpaper and stripping back all the loose plaster as much as possible. The room is now bare, back to the brickwork in large patches. We’ll need a professional plaster to skim it flat. All this will wait upon the builders - but what of them? One Mr Middleditch of Steer and Partners is declining to reply to my messages. I fear he will delay the works - and blame the storms.
You my son behaved yourself so well at the weekend, barely crying and misbehaving at all. I did have to eat both lunches with you on my lap, but then you sat still and enjoyed me enjoying my meal, waiting patiently for your own. We gave you mashed potato mixed with cauliflower - you loved it. In fact you swallowed solids down like an experience guzzler. B is forever urging caution, she doesn’t like to use non-sterile vessels, or to give you cow’s milk, or anything that the books don’t recommend. I like to let you taste anything and everything - it seems to me that you are hungry for experience whether visual, physical, sensual, or even olfactory. You have begun to recognise sounds: I can get a laugh out of you now just by saying the words ‘wibbly-wobbly’ in a certain way. You have also begun to move your head towards a rattle, not very well but at least deliberately! B reports that you are talking more and more, indeed I can hear you vocalise all sorts of different sounds.
We had a bath together. You are so tiny (though getting bigger) without your clothes on, and so vulnerable. Several times I caught you smiling as we played. Perhaps the actual washing part is not so nice, but you’ll get to like that too. And before long we’ll be swimming in the sea together.
Tuesday 24 November
Tragedy at King’s Cross last week. 30 commuters died in a fire in the underground station. The fire began on an escalator, and swept through the ticket, hall filling large areas with dense and murderous smoke. It began, according to one early theory, because of a cigarette end, but officially there has been no word yet. I should think not. It is no good to blame a fire on a cigarette end - blame it on what the cigarette lit. Until a couple of years ago, smoking was allowed on the underground - have the safety laws relaxed since then to allow inflammable material to be stored within reach of a thrown butt. Of course not. It is ridiculous to rely on the banning of smoking in this regard, since safety measures must be sufficient so that if one youngster (or foreigner who doesn’t know the rule) breaks the law 30 people don’t die!
Dear Adam, I am afraid to tell you that the world is full of tragedy. There exists tragedy everywhere on every scale. On the grandest scale you will find poverty and hunger worldwide, in most of the third world. This tragedy is so vast that we must forget it. Occasionally our memories are jogged by appeals - Ethiopia looks set to suffer with a renewed drought - but we must soon forget it again. These transferences of monies to tragedy-hit countries are more a sop to our collective and individual consciences, the media prods our memory, and in order to feel better we give aid either through charities or political channels. But the truth is, that these countries must learn to survive on their own (or lose sovereignty). Dear Adam, your father used to cry over The Great Tragedy, he used to try and comprehend the suffering when he was a young Christian, but then he went travelling and saw it all for himself. He understood that it can be no other way. The scale of life is far bigger than our collective power.
Paul K Lyons
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