PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1991 - FEBRUARY
19 44, Friday 1 February 1991, Brussels
Tragedy at 13 Aldershot Road. Last night I was just relaxing after my late dinner when Fiona calls through the kitchen windows - Rolf has rung from London because the house has been burgled. He will ring back in some minutes when I’ve had a chance to get over to Fiona’s flat. How fortunate I thought to give Fiona’s number to people at the last minute.
The story is this. Rolf had fallen asleep on the sofa in the lounge while watching television. He had woken up to some noises but thought at first they were Melinda. After a few minutes, however, he wasn’t so sure and went to investigate. Realising that there were real live strangers downstairs he made enough noise to scare them off out through the back, the way they came; and then he called the police. He did not, however, chase them. The boys in blue arrived within five minutes but not soon enough to cut the thieves off as they exited from the new development entrance out the back in Priory Park Road. According to Rolf, there were two of them. Each one appears to have taken a rucksack (one from Rolf’s room) or a bag and stuffed it full of as many small items as they could find: Walkmans, CD players, cash etc. Moreover, they stole as much official looking paperwork as they could find, all cheque books, cards, statements; and they stole all the keys they came across. By the time they left, they had been through every room in the house except the lounge where Rolf was sleeping. They had rifled my study and taken all the paperwork and foreign currency from the second drawer of my desk, £500 worth of small goods from Melinda’s room (her estimate), and, as I’ve said, Rolf’s rucksack which was full of all his most important papers (since the robbery at David’s next door, in fact, he’s been taking this rucksack to work every day, so all his valuables - passport, keys, bank papers, absolutely everything were in it).
What makes me so furious is that this robbery is a direct result of the development at the back of my house and specifically the loss of the very high wall that used to exist. After the robbery at David’s house, I was convinced that a similar robbery could not occur at 13 Aldershot Road: I couldn’t imagine how such thieves could break in and take out large equipment through the front door. Our house does not have a porch area between the inner and outer doors, and the front door has a Chubb lock whereas that of 15 didn’t at the time. Moreover, I was convinced no robber could haul televisions and videos over the back wall. However, I completely failed to imagine the possibility of a different sort of robbery. The sort which could take place when someone was in the house and in which the robbers did use the back wall but only took money and cards and small items. I barely have any small stuff of value so it’s not something I’ve worried about. As far as I can tell, the only significant item I’ve lost is the Sony Walkman (though, I do, at times have a lot of cash in the house).
Rolf and Melinda seemed to be coping alright. I’ve called them again this evening and they reported that they’ve had £90 worth of new locks fitted to the front and back doors. It is a bit annoying not knowing what damage they might do with my paperwork - can they, for example, use account numbers drawn from bank statements? or do they need the cards. Certainly, there were some old cheque books and guarantee cards for accounts I no longer use. I asked Rolf to cancel all the old accounts in my name. Later I got B to check with Access and First Direct if thieves could cause any trouble without the actual cards (all of which are safe, thankfully). In fact, I may have got off lightly in terms of inconvenience. I had no important keys in the house - as far as I can tell, although as I write I do seem to remember there was a spare set of car keys, I’ll have to decide what to do about that when I get back. Keys for B’s house weren’t there; all my important car documents are with me already, as is my passport. Moreover the fuss of getting the locks changed has been handled by Rolf and Melinda. I had thought, after the first brief call from Rolf, that the television and video might have gone - that would have been a cool £500-600 up in smoke. It was a relief to find they hadn’t taken any of expensive large items - not Melinda’s computer, for example.
15 49, Saturday 2 February 1991, Brussels
There really isn’t enough time in the day. I have my French lessons to do, I must get on with cleaning and tidying this flat (and there remains a lot to do just to get it reasonably habitable - everything is so dirty and dusty), I have FT work (translations of standard articles in the newspapers), I must write my journal, I must eat, do my yoga - good gracious me how do other people manage to get time to go out. I must go out to profit from the weekend here.
Actually I have been out and about this morning and I can testify to a very cold temperature. Since I arrived in Brussels the temperature has barely risen above freezing - well it seems so to me. From my bedroom window I can see that the goldfish pond in the yard is still frozen this afternoon. This morning, on my walk, I could see where water used to clean the pavements had frozen. Last night I studied a guide book - ‘Confidential Brussels’ - with a view to what I might do this weekend. One half of me said I really ought to get out and about while I have the car here - go on a large tour of Brussels and the region, have a look at the more distant parks and so on. The other half of me recognised that I still wasn’t on tip top form, that the weather was freezing and that I had too much to do at home. I compromised and went by car to a couple of the markets on the other side of town. My first stop was the famous flea market in Place du Jeu de Baille in the Marolles.
The flea market fully deserves its name as it really is a rag-bag assortment of sellers, most of whom must be professional junk dealers. A large rectangle square is given over to the market (every day I think) and most of the vendors simply spread their wares out on a blanket or plastic sheet, few have tables most not. I cannot think of any market in London with the same character as this. First of all, I know of none which are daily and none which have, contained within a square, such a range of goods. Magpies is probably the best way to describe the vendors - they are the ones who are prepared to seek out junk from distant lofty corners and stand around each day in the cold and wet; they are not the ones with the slightest interest in repair or possession of fine things. These are the descendants of the rag and bone man. What appears, on first sight, to make this market different is that all the traders are of this ilk, whereas in London you might find stalls like this in Camden on a Sunday or in Convent Garden on a Monday, but, in the same market, there will be experts and dealers who love the antiques.
I was very happy to find a bargain figure on this my first visit - another member for my ceramic family. I saw him almost immediately on arrival, and was quoted BFr2,500 (a little over £40). I moved on, thinking perhaps such figures were commonplace in Brussels, but I did not see any more. Sometime later, on my freezing way back to the car, I braved the sour-looking trader for a bout of bargaining. I had practised various lines in my mind, and I had sorted out my cash into different pockets so I could, at least, say I had no more money than that. I sidled up to the grim lady - veteran of fifty cold winters - and suggested she offer me a lower price for cet homme-la - he was lying down, some distance away, his head on some books. She brought her husband in immediately who wanted to know what she had quoted originally. Don’t offer me, she hesitated, fifteen hundred. Well, I didn’t. I offered instead two thousand. I could see the man was going to accept - had I paid too much? Any detailed bargaining would have been impossible because my language wouldn’t stand it; I think the portly trader realised this and decided quickly: you give me two thousand for him and one hundred for my coffee and it’s a deal. Who could refuse that extra hundred Belgian francs (£1.40). I wonder how many times he had used that same line. Still, the fact remains that my new man - a Roman warrior, complete with helmet and shield, his skin is painted gold and he’s wearing a red tunic - cost me £35. He’s not as beautiful (well he is in the sense of pretty) as Mephistopheles, but, of the entire family, he’s probably second in line for the Paul Lyons Decorative Appeal Awards; and I paid £50 for Mephistopheles seven or eight years ago, and even more for the urchin three years ago.
He’s a really sleek creature my Roman. I think he’s probably badly out of proportion between length and width. I can certainly see two faults in his design - the neck is too long even allowing for the false proportions of height; and, secondly, his shield which stands face on in front of his legs is too large and detracts from the whole sculpture by drawing the eye down to a feature which doesn’t please it. Still, my collection is but a pauper’s one, so choice is confined to availability at non-antique prices.
I also strolled along the Rue Haute and up to the Place du Grand Sablon where the real antique dealers set up professional stalls every weekend underneath the Eglise du Sablon - the Brussels equivalent of Portobello Market but about one hundredth the size. I’d thought there were going to be more second hand books but there was hardly one stall. The area is more upbeat than Notting Hill with very swish antique dealers lining the square.
What impressions am I gaining of this city? One of being always bitterly cold. It is much less busy than London. There are pockets of busyness and busy times, but away from these pockets and away from these times, streets are often deserted. I am fortunate to have chosen this area - Saint Catherine. It is so close to the centre, for one. For two, I am just round the corner from the great church itself so, although looking out of my windows and down my street I might just as well be at the back of Euston or King’s Cross, I only have to go a few metres to the end of the road and I am looking down the wide and spacious Quai au Bois a Bruler towards the church’s huge broadside. This filled-in dock is now lined by dozens of fish restaurants, each sporting their own colourful neon light at night. Fish dealers and shops take up the spaces between the restaurants. A hundred metres or so away is the one remaining canal that streaks through the west side of the city - I’m sure once the weather improves I’ll be walking along its length in search of places and pictures. The guidebook has helped me appreciate Saint Catherine since it is one of seven quartiers picked out for special description. All the others are south and east of the Grand Place.
6 56, Sunday 3 February 1991
This was a long and involved war dream but I remember only bits. First, seeing hundreds of river boats moving silently through the night up the river towards London. Before long, Saddam’s forces seem to be everywhere. I, or we, have to escape under the cover of dark through fields. I can’t understand how the enemy has made such incursions into our country, I thought our military was so superior that there was no question of losing land. Yet here were thousands of troops making their way to the capital city, and apparently without opposition. Next, I remember I am in a crowded place with Saddam and some nurses around me. We do not have any news about how the war is going but then someone begins to speak to us from a high balcony. I understand it is the duke of Luxembourg - are we in Luxembourg? He gives a short speech with information about the war and answers questions. (At first no one can hear him because he is so high up and far away and he hasn’t switched on his microphone.) Towards the end of the session I tell him about all those troops along the river, and I ask if there is some strategy behind allowing Saddam to take a bite out of London, but he laughs my question off. We are largely re-assured that everything is under control. In fact, I am not in Luxembourg but much nearer home, somewhere like Ely. Adam is happily playing on various peoples laps. Later I have returned to somewhere but without Adam. It is only in the morning that I realise I have left Adam behind. I am sure he will be OK with nurses in the crowd, but I begin to panic and try to telephone, I remember some of the nurses names. When finally I speak to one of them she tells me he has been in an accident and is dead.
19 01, Sunday 3 February 1991
Sunday - a rest day, but I feel more tired than I’ve felt all week. Hilde, my Flemish friend who studied biological anthropology with me last year, came to collect me about 10.30 this morning and we drove east into Flanders, to the town of Tongeren. We talk quite a lot about the Flemish/French problems in Belgium. There is deep resentment by the Flemish speakers against the Walloons which, Hilde explains, has roots in a more distant past but was stoked up during the Second World War. The Flemish speakers were culturally punished by the French speakers for having collaborated more with the Germans. I cannot comment on the complexities of the problem, I know nothing of it, but it is clear that the language split within the country is extremely divisive yet it seems to be the Flemish speakers who continue to bear most of the grudge. Hilde, for example, will not speak French in Brussels because she believes that it should be a bilingual city and that the French should be made to speak Flemish. She has no objection to speaking French in the Walloon area, but not in Brussels. She objects strongly to the fact that French speakers make no attempt to learn Flemish. Her father is a flemish patriot and will not contemplate the Belgian flag - he, and many others, are men of Flanders. And Brussels should be part of Flanders.
I can understand the deep resentment that exists, just as I can understand the deep resentments that exist in many parts of the world - Northern Ireland, Basque country, Lithuania - based on an identity, language, or culture at odds with that of the centre. These resentments exist in minor and major keys and are passed on from generation to generation by fanatics. In some cases, perhaps in most, there is a just and reasonable cause at the root of the divide. The Baltic states are destined for independence; they have been part of a colonial Soviet Union but colonies were a geopolitical mechanism of the last century not of this one. There appears to be no likelihood of these Baltic states seeing any gain in hanging around for a Federation. In Northern Ireland and the Basque country, a percentage of the population have sympathy for a more regional identity because they believe their culture is penalised in a central system. In Belgium, the problems appear to be at one and the same time less serious and yet more widespread. The actual political grievances of the Flemish seem minor today since there is an equality of treatment that borders on perfection - any variance from the equality is immediately trumpeted loudly and causes immense problems, witness the fall of the government recently over the most minor of border town problems. Recognising that a great deal of autonomy already exists between the regions and that there is a tendency for decision-making to move up to the European Community level in many matters, to continue fighting the idea of a Belgian identity seems self-destructive. Why carry on the resentment, I ask Hilde, rather than set an example of being bilingual. As a person willing to speak both languages, you can enjoy all parts of Belgium. If a Walloon refuses to learn Flemish then he can only enjoy half his country.
But I did not mean to get sidetracked onto this discussion. It is amazing how, as soon as I change my routines, as soon as I am in a different country or a different place, there is so much to write about, so much to discuss with myself.
We had come to Tongeren to visit an archeological museum which is currently showing a special exhibit on early man’s reindeer hunting. We were, however, deceived. A Continental might say ‘deceived’ but ‘disappointed’ would be better if less colourful english.
First of all being experts in biological anthropology we spotted the unfortunate errors in a display case about the evolution of Homo sapiens. There were three lines of evolution - H. africanus to H. robustus; H. boisei; and H. habilis to H. neandertalensis to H. sapiens. There were four or five poor plaster casts of some of the fossils, Hilde recognised them all. Between the diagrammatic lines of evolution and the placing of the fossils there was very little right about the display. The reindeer exhibition was no better - there was more imagination than fact in the designer’s interpretation of life as a reindeer hunter. To give an example: a life-size model of a hunter was fully decked out with his clothing of reindeer fur. However, he looked as though he had come straight out of a fur shop window. He wore shorts and long furry boots but his knees were completely uncovered. His jacket arms stopped at the biceps but were well trimmed with extra fur on the sleeve. A reindeer fur tent had been constructed in another exhibit. Outside, a man, naked except for his fur underpants, sat working on a fur; inside the tent we could see a naked woman lying down on her side with her backside pointing out to us - the artist, one supposed, was hoping to slip inside the wigwam, let fall the furry door and, from behind, take his pleasure!
There were one or two javelin reconstructions and lots of flint (silex) darts and arrowheads. The justification for the tent reconstruction had been the finding of a circular structure of ground holes. Whether there was any justification for the use of reindeer skin for clothes and tents was unclear - the only clue was a picture of eskimos using such items.
We lunched in a pub in the centre of Tongeren but the food was no better than in a second rate Kilburn pub. The bread of the toasted sandwich was already crisp before being toasted, and the lettuce garnish - which was perfectly frozen - had turned brown several weeks ago.
We looked inside the town’s cathedral but the most interesting object was placed in the entrance hall, not in the church proper at all. A very lithe C11-12 Christ-on-the-cross. He had a simplicity of form, part deliberate, perhaps, and part naive, which many, many another Christ-on-the-cross could profit from. Oddly, he was a bit out of proportion in the same way as my new Roman.
The highlight of the day came later in the afternoon when we visited a convent - Marienlof - not far from Tongeren. Hilde had visited the convent recently, and was full of tales about it. She said the youngest nun was in her fifties, and the oldest in her nineties, but recently they had a new entry, a girl who had been a ballerina. The trouble was, though, that she bathed four times a day and was fussy about her food. She didn’t stay longer than three months. The order is a closed one in the sense that the nuns don’t leave the premises, but it is open in the sense that anyone can walk into the courtyard, and the chapel is open at certain times. Apparently, some years ago a decision was made to try and cover some of the convent’s costs directly. BFr20 is charged for entry in the chapel, and this fee includes a generous half an hour talk by the most aged and doddery nun I can ever recall seeing. She was possessed of great good humour and was happily on hand to answer any questions with enthusiasm and wit. In the chapel itself - which was originally constructed in the fourteenth century but has twice been ruined by lightning - there is one painting that is memorable for being of a tree with cameo portraits of dozens of nuns packed into the branches. One visitor observed to this old nun that there was no room left for her, but she replied, according to Hilde, that there was plenty of room on the back of the picture. In fact, many of the paintings and pictures in the little church showed nuns; one in particular portrayed a nun assisting Jesus on the cross. This is pure imagination, of course, but must have given endless pleasure to many a nun imagining herself to be in the same position.
In the chapel itself there is a chair - said to be the oldest chair in Europe - which is said to cure infertility. It has, however, not worked on Belgium’s Queen, so I’m told. On closer examination, Hilde found a hand-written detailed note about the chair. Astonishingly, it managed to incorporate into the chair’s mythology, dating back to the twelfth century, the current French/Flemish problems - the contemporary nature of the tension was thus given a root almost 1,000 years old.
There were a couple of fine wooden statues. One of an old man was said to have been found in a field by the nuns having been left there by a monk who didn’t want it. When the nuns cleaned it up the monk wanted it back. Another is of an old shepherd with a child on his shoulder/back; it reminded me vaguely of a figure I’d seen in a cemetery in Reykjavik - I think - and is probably a traditional figure, unknown to me as I’m no Catholic.
But the best was yet to come. The nun’s tea room - although I take liberties with use of word ‘tea’. It came as a complete surprise for we had already walked into the courtyard once that morning when the chapel wasn’t open, and I had wondered around the yard several times waiting for Hilde (she was frightened to leave before the old nun’s talk finished for fear of offending her) and I had had no idea that right there, by the entrance, was a door leading into the coffee parlour, but let me give it a more descriptive name - tart-room. Inside, there was a room laid out with trestle tables and tablecloths. Several groups of people - certainly not anyone who had been in the chapel - were seated at the tables with huge plates of fruit pies in front of them. Here, presumably, was another means of making a crust for the poor nuns (oh that’s dreadful, that I should sink to such stale puns!). The menu had three or four items - coffee, beer, crisps, coke, and hidden among these banal items was the word tart or flemish equivalent. We ordered coffee, which turned out to be grim and grey, and a plate of cakes. What a delight. Eight huge pieces filled the plate - three meringue-topped slices, an apple crumble slice, a sour cherry slice, two prune slices with lattice pastry-work, and a plum slice. All enjoyed the same thick cake base (which could, in a truly perfect world, have been a touch slightly less dry) and all delighted in the most delicious (and presumably home-grown) fruits. We gorged ourselves on three pieces, and never did cakes ever taste quite so home-made, quite so wrapped up in the atmosphere of self-sufficiency. Moreover, and here I shall stop, the delight of these tarts was amplified, intensified, even dramatised if you like, by the very religious air of the place and the pure aestheticism of convent life - as though soul, sacrifice, and the compromise of a way of life unchanged for centuries had gone into the production of these tarts for the visiting decadent.
6 34, Wednesday 6 February 1991, Brussels
I drive back to London tonight. I do hope the water in my radiator hasn’t frozen, the temperature here over the last week has barely risen above zero. A slight layer of snow covers the pavements this morning. Maximum temperature for Brussels, the radio tells me, will be minus three today.
Yesterday, I stayed home during the morning and worked on pharmaceutical stories for Alan Archer. On Monday I had talked to the clear-thinking official behind the plans to set up an independent Community medicines evaluation agency, aiming ultimately to replace all the national evaluations that take place. He explained, quite comprehensively, the substance of the four proposals - all of which had been double dutch to me beforehand.
I don’t really get time to do much else other than work. In the afternoon yesterday I went to one of the Parliament buildings for the CERT hearing on coal. Occasionally, MEPs, who sit on the energy and research committee, organise these hearings, to which a number of experts are invited, so as to inform themselves better on particular subjects. Last year, they held one on energy and the environment. This one on coal was, apparently, somewhat of a coup for the coal producers who had lobbied MEPs for such a meeting.
I was quite overwhelmed by Parliament’s plush surroundings. I had expected a more run-down and seedy enterprise - I’m not sure why. The hearing was held in a modern conference room, in a spacious building not far from Berlaymont. The seating was laid out with a head table and about five concentric semi-circles of desktops with bright-red director-like swivel chairs. To one side, a small annex held seating for 50 or so spectators. And, encircling the auditorium in their lofty glass cages, were the translators (about four for each language) who alternated between relaxed boredom and the intense pressure of being on mike. As a journalist, I was led to the main seating area right behind, unfortunately, a German Green MEP, Mrs Breyer, who seemed to me a perfect stereotype - long, rather unkempt hair, black jeans and sweater, a witch-like face, and a truly immature attitude to issues based on superficial knowledge. As I arrived, the chair, in the person of the Scottish MEP Gordon Adam, was getting noticeably angered by Breyer’s ranting. At the end of her rant, she turned smiling to her neighbour - a bearded, casually-dressed plump Italian green - with a large childish smile of satisfaction on her face.
Let me try and describe the rest of the people at this meeting because it is instructive to see how few are the real decision-makers. The central section of the semi-circle seating, with the exception of the back row from which I observed the proceedings, was reserved for the CERT MEPs - their names were on bold cards. There were only about five MEPs present. A dozen or so of the experts sat to one side of the semi-circle, then there were several Commission officials, several Parliament officials, administrators or secretaries for the political groupings, MEPs’ assistants, a few journalists, a public section about half full, translators, of course, tucked away, and the service staff - the uniformed personnel that showed you to your seat, delivered messages, opened the bottle of orange juice on your desk and gave out papers if necessary. All this for FIVE MEPs.
Joe Dunn, the Parliament administrator whom I talk to regularly on the telephone, was seated next to Gordon Adam, who had organised the hearing. Joe is a small, handsome young man, if somewhat stressed by his job into smoking too much. After the hearing, the coal producers had laid on champagne. Joe seemed pleased with the way it had gone - indeed he had done a good job in getting so many of the papers printed up beforehand, and there had been no major upsets or problems through the afternoon. The hearing continues this morning.
I have not been able to uncover any interesting news this time round. My last issue of ‘EC Energy Monthly’ contained so many scoops you couldn’t find the boring stuff. I am expecting some energy decisions by the Commission today - the Energy Charter for example should be out, and a decision on German coal.
I look forward to going home to Aldershot Road (despite what I might find as a result of the break-in), I look forward to going into the office to catch up on the news with Miriam and Kenny and investigate the Apple Mac we now have, and I look forward, most of all, to seeing Barbara and Adam. I think this only the second weekend ever that I have missed out on being with Adam. A card from Barbara contains a pithy note: ‘I hope you have many happy returns from your new home. Love from A and B, not Ant and Bee.’
19 08, Saturday 9 February 1991, London
The journey back from Brussels was not pleasant. In the first place, I managed to catch the rush hour traffic leaving the city (in much the same way I had caught it arriving) and was therefore victim to several jams. Still, I’d left ample time and reached the Ostend port with an hour to spare. There I waited for 50 minutes with the biting cold of minus 10 degrees or more slowly seeping through into the car. Other cars were allowed on the ferry half an hour before us, then I watched the lorries rumble past to take up their positions. I was among the last, to be squeezed into the curved back section. An hour is an acceptable wait at Gatwick or Heathrow and one often needs that long to get through the check-in queues and walk the long distance footpaths to the gate; moreover, there are shops and coffee bars to lessen the irritation of waiting. An hour waiting in a car in the cold is a different proposition entirely. Once on the ferry, at about 9pm, it was still early and I took a while to get some sleep. There was a horrible wait at Dover, in the hold of the boat with half the cars igniting their engines ten minutes early and filling the enclosed space with noxious fumes.
While waiting at Ostend port, I had availed myself of a telephone box standing nearby to call B. She told me terrible weather conditions had been forecast and suggested I stay in Dover at a hotel. Of course, I scoffed at her worry. But her concern was not misplaced. Not far out of Dover, snowstorms began to seriously affect visibility; and, as I drove up a long steep section of the motorway towards Canterbury, the snow was beginning to settle and make driving very difficult. Most of the time, through the snowstorms, I followed either the tail lights of a car in front (as one might do in fog) or the tracks in the road left by previous vehicles (much as we did when travelling across the Jordan-Saudi border desert all those years ago). Sometimes, I was obliged to overtake huge lorries which, in their wake, created mini-tornados of swirling snow and mist. This meant leaving the main driving line and venturing out into the virgin territory of the fast lane. As I did so, I prayed for the lorry too keep a straight course, because I had no idea where the edge of the road was. Towards the top of this long inclining stretch, a few cars were already abandoned, a police car and breakdown trucks were in attendance. I felt the roads were liable to seize up altogether, what with the severe cold and the snow coming down so fast, so, instead of keeping a moderate pace on the trail of several other vehicles in caravan, so to speak, I decided the best thing to do would be to speed up - otherwise I might get caught by several cars stopping at once or a jam in the road because of a breakdown and, if my car were to stop, I probably wouldn’t get it to start again, certainly not on the hill - what with the Marina’s back wheel drive and all. My drive faster policy meant that life was a little hairy, and, on one occasion, I did seriously consider diving off at a junction in search of a bed and breakfast. Fortunately, the heavy snowstorms were quite localised (they tended to be on the southerly slopes of hills or downs) and there were long stretches where neither the road nor the weather were too bad. Nearer London the drive was further complicated by problems with the car’s fuel supply - when I took my foot off the accelerator, she still kept going. A charming complication when driving on snow and ice. Still, I got home without an incident, not long after 2.30am. I had trouble again getting to sleep, and was up at 7am to make my way into the office.
Two horrendous journeys back from Brussels in one month. Perhaps, the heavens are trying to tell me something about stretching my life out in this third direction/dimension; where most people live, geographically, at a point, not even a line is complicated enough for me, I need a triangle.
Weather problems were not mine alone. The whole country came to a virtual standstill that day and the next - a foot of snow fell almost everywhere, clogging and freezing up all roads, and causing pandemonium on the railways. The weather was one headline which knocked the Gulf from its number one media spot (a position which it had come to take for granted), but another managed it too. On Thursday morning, a white van parked illegally in Whitehall. The driver and an accomplice left quickly on a motorbike. Seconds or minutes later, three mortar bombs were launched in quick succession through the cut-out roof of the van, one landed within forty feet of where the government’s war cabinet was meeting, two others landed nearby. Outrage across the land. Immediately, I assumed it was the work of Iraqi terrorists but no, this was the IRA getting tired of playing second fiddle to Saddam. Unlike the last direct attack on the government members in Brighton, no one was hurt. However, John Wakeham our beloved fixer of the electricity privatisation process, was present at the war cabinet (presumably because of the oil connection), and it was he who lost his wife as a result of the Brighton bomb.
11 41, Sunday 10 February 1991, London
This morning I have done a number of different lessons with Adam. Right now he is finishing off the large 100 piece Noah’s Ark Puzzle, I help him quite a bit, especially at the start, but he can manage a surprising amount himself. Joining up the dots was our first lesson this morning. I created a few on a blank sheet of paper and then asked him to colour one of them in. I constantly encourage him to hold the crayons properly in his right hand, to press firmly and to concentrate. I teach him to use short careful strokes near the edges when colouring in, and longer strokes in the middle of an area to be coloured. I then draw a four by four matrix of 16 boxes and ask him to colour each one in with a different coloured crayon, transferring that crayon from one pool to another so as not to use the same one twice. The boxes are only a centimetre square, filling them in is designed to help him to appreciate and to learn about colouring small areas neatly. Also the use of the four by four matrix leads us neatly on to our arithmetic lesson. On the floor I have sixteen square lego pieces - four each in red, yellow, green and white. I put four out in front of him and get him to imagine they are apples. I then ask him how many he will have left if two, one or three are taken away, or if one, two or four are added. I use actual lego pieces if he has a problem visualising the result, but take them away immediately so that he still has to see the result in his mind’s eye. I progress until he has a good idea that two plus two is four plus two is six and plus two more is eight, and that four and four is also eight. I also show him these results visually and move on to explaining about a four by four square. We add up the lego pieces in the square, we check the number of pieces in the rows and columns, and I explain about multiplication. Of course, I do not expect him to have the faintest idea yet about multiplication but I can lay down the principles, visually, and for his imagination, which will make arithmetic much easier for him later on.
Yesterday, we had several different lessons - some of which I’ll probably repeat today. The reading lessons are probably the most difficult and the least fun for Adam. Whereas he certainly seemed to show an early aptitude for recognising words on flash cards he hasn’t really moved along as fast as I thought he might. It’s as much as we can do to learn four or five words in any one reading lesson now, and he won’t remember them the next day. I have probably pushed too hard, too early on this and may have hindered his advance. We also went through a speaking lesson. This is much more fun for Adam. We go through all the letters of the alphabet, he following my lead both in terms of the letter itself and the tone in which I say it. We go through the alphabet again but using the sounds of the letters rather than the letters themselves. Then we move on to our special sounds: the snake sound - ssssss, the elephant sound - th, the llama sound - lalala. These are the sounds which Adam has difficulty with. Some of the difficulty stems from bad example and speech laziness, the tendency to lisp, for example. But his difficulty with the l sound might be more problematic than that. Sometime ago, when I began his speech therapy, I found he couldn’t move his tongue upwards very far. I have thought this was due to a lack of development or practice so, regularly, I’ve got him to try and touch his tongue or the roof of his mouth, and have practiced the th and l sounds; I’ve made some progress but not much. This weekend, B has suggested we might take Adam to a speech clinic because there is a condition where the tongue is attached too tightly and is physically limited from moving upwards too far. The condition, which is quite common, might indeed restrict his speech capability. However, I must stress how well Adam articulates in general, and that even with the l and th sounds his problem is only one of fine tuning.
22 38, Thursday 14 February 1991, London
I am in the home of an ageing hippy couple. For some reason I have allowed them to give me massage treatment - in the first place they take one of my hands and gently lick backwards and forwards across the top of my fingers. This is extremely arousing, and I try my best not to get an erection. Once or twice they stop and we go for a short walk to a room full of plants which I admire. However, on the second occasion, when I say how lovely the room is, I do not get a positive response. A few moments later we walk along a corridor/tunnel away from the room; suddenly, as if the traffic lights have turned green, a stream of vehicle traffic bustles past us. It is a horrible, crowded, dirty, dark tunnel. I watch as two minis jostle each other - they are being driven by old ladies. Before very long they crash badly. It is a horrible sight. I rush forward to help and am the first to arrive, but the minis are only the size of my hand and I just manage to open a door with my finger but I cannot possibly be of assistance inside the mini as my hand is far too big. Someone else has had the presence of mind to call for an ambulance. It arrives directly and I withdraw. Raoul is in the dream somewhere as I find myself reassuring somebody that my friend is a fully qualified doctor.
Such a busy schedule this week, I’ve been unable to practice a moment of French or write a word into my Toshiba computer (Tosh). I blame the weather which has virtually brought the country to a standstill, certainly the trains and the roads have been a mess. I went down to Brighton on Monday and spent all day Tuesday with Adam. I have not felt mentally well, somewhat depressed and unfocussed. The day with Adam was a bit wishy washy. We went swimming for the first time in ages. He is not very adventurous, and just likes to move backwards and forwards along the top two steps (about six inches deep). I push him a little, and try to show him how to swim and float in deeper water, but I am gentle.
I leave my car at a new garage and am instantly £350 poorer. This is the first MOT that Whisky (my orange Marina) has really failed. I bet if I had gone to my friendly mechanic in Aldeburgh he would have got it through the test for less than £150 - I just couldn’t find the time, I couldn’t get it organised. Life is so complicated at the present and for what?
Sunday 17 February 1991, Antibes
[Lone hand-written entry in an otherwise blank journal] It is my first visit here to Sasha’s flat for 18 months. Nothing much has changed. There are a few more books on the shelves, the tape player has ceased to work altogether, a portable fax machine now hides in a drawer. Outside, building work takes place at the north end of Plage de la Salis (maybe they are expanding the bar or winning extra terrace for it from the sea), a few shops have changed their contents - nothing else I can think of has altered. And I, too, do the same things. I have bought the ingredients for a ratatouille at the Provencal market (aubergines are a bit pricey at this time of year) and shall compose it later this morning. I have already dabbled in the pastries, and collected cheeses and patés for my non-stop high teas. I listen to the World Service for company, and flick through the French TV channels in the evening in the hope of some interesting or entertaining programme. I do not expect much of myself on this trip. I am here but for five days, the two centre days of which I plan to drive up to Isola 2000 to ski. I will leave at or before dawn tomorrow (Monday) all things being well (weather and snow report) and, in less than 24 hours, I shall be gliding down a mountain breathing in mountain air and praising life for such pleasures.
On arrival yesterday, bright blue skies greeted me, and a temperature high enough to dispense with pullovers and jackets. Today, however, it has become overcast, rather grey, and a chill has settled in the air. The apartment too is rather chilly. As far as I can ascertain there is only one small fan heater which I use in the evenings. It is a joy again to be by the Mediterranean. The mustard and auburn colours of buildings contrast against the turquoise, marine and deep blues and greens of sea and sky and flora. Ah! the mimosa is in flower and I am transported instantly across the sea to Corsica to that magical and important winter I spent there. I have been thinking abut Corsica of late in the nights, in the middle of the nights, because I have been waking with a restless mind in the rut of thinking about work problems, so I take the train off the main line and shunt it to an old disused siding where it quickly slows up and falls idle.
As occasionally happens, I sat next to a rather attractive woman on the aeroplane. Well, to be honest, she was more sexy than attractive. I had noticed her already - well her legs - in the waiting lounge for she was sitting with short skirt and tightly crossed legs engrossed in the ‘Independent’. I didn’t talk to her until we were well on our way and an early lunch was being served. She fell asleep for a while, so I could inspect her face more carefully (it is so difficult to look at one’s neighbour on a plane or a train without appearing rude). In profile, I noticed a raised mole above and to the side of her lip, shoulder length hair, and crudely applied eye make-up. Her blouse was open one or two buttons, and her bra visible, though I couldn’t make out the size or shape of her breasts. I thought her clothes cheap, not tatty, but showing little evidence of expense. No, I think I’ve portrayed her as too scruffy; from a little distance her plain black and white dress (white blouse, black everything else) appeared smart. This is not the sort of woman I would normally meet or even try and meet.
She told me she was in her first job, had been working for a tour company IntraSun for a year and a half. She had spent a year in Italy, otherwise she’d been in college before then. At most that makes her 24, I thought 28 or 29. Pru, for that was her name, Prudence, turned out to be an amusing companion, and, whereas the first half of the journey proved tiresome, the second half flew by quickly. She was used to getting on easily with men, found it easy to joke and laugh. We talked a lot about her job, and her trip - a one-night, two-day visit to Juan Les Pins’ Ambassador Hotel, a freebie, with other tour company people (on the plane whom she didn’t know) who had been invited to sample the delight of the Ambassador. She was due at a gala dinner that evening, I suggested she should invite me - since partners were invited but she had come alone. She didn’t take up the idea. I gave her my phone number before leaving the airport, though I’m sure she won’t ring, not least because she won’t have time.
Iraqi radio has broadcast a statement that Iraq is ready to withdraw from Kuwait but with nine or so conditions or are they just a list of things Iraq would like to discuss next (they include Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestine etc.). Meanwhile, allied troops are preparing themselves for a ground offensive. A delay to allow diplomacy time to achieve something - the Iranians and Russians are making very serious attempts to persuade the Iraqis to follow UN Resolution 660 - could be problematic. The organisation of the ground offensive is a complex business - delays will cause military problems. As such, the timing of the Iraq statement is probably designed to sow maximum confusion.
Outside it rains. I don’t like writing by hand any more. I have become word processor addicted. My thought patterns are inextricably linked now to the delete button, the thesaurus facility, and the cut and paste technique of moving sentences, phrases, paragraphs.
I go for a walk on the Cap. My visits to Antibes are such routine events to the point that I even take the same walk - along the Chemin d’Hermitage and then up the steps to the lighthouse. Even though the heavens drizzle, I only wear a jumper, it is not so cold that I need a coat. I am very content during this walk, there is no one about, just me walking in the rain. Sometimes, I look around at the closed up villas and their gardens and wish one of them was mine, sometimes I think about work (this is certainly the only dynamic thought area at present), and then for a few minutes my mind relaxes enough to think wider thoughts. I feel sure there is no writer in me, I would not want to be a mediocre writer of mediocre prose, I would want to be, at least, original. Well, I have less than 18 months to come to terms with what my next future will be.
I ring B and A. A does not want to speak to me. B says he has been asking to live in London with me! I tell her she mustn’t respond, not in any way. [End of lone hand-written entry in otherwise blank journal.]
20 05, Monday 25 February 1991, Heathrow Airport
Very tired this evening as I sit in this Airbus waiting to take off for Brussels. My eyes are sore, my hands dirty, my body hot, my stomach rumbling with hunger. Having to stand in a crowded tube train from Covent Garden to Heathrow probably didn’t help, nor did waking at six this morning and being unable to go back to sleep. I should be able to get to the flat in St Katherine by 10pm London time. Mercifully, the flight is on time. I couldn’t truthfully say the same about transport in and around London in the last few days. The troubles have been worse than during the snow storms and, again, only half of the staff at Newsletters managed to get in. Miriam rang on several occasions to say that she was trying to make it - by train, by bus, by cab - but ultimately she failed. This latter strife has been caused by bomb scares at the mainline railway stations. Last Monday, while I was thankfully gliding down the slopes of the Alpes Maritimes, an IRA bomb at Victoria killed one person and injured dozens of others. There had been a warning but it was just one of dozens received every day. Now, of course, there only has to be the faintest hint of a bomb threat and all the stations are shut down, along with their feeder tube stations too. Of course, I can personally guarantee that there will be no second attempt at a railway station now by the IRA; they never attack the same sort of target in succession. That way they cause the maximum amount of disruption to people’s daily lives by prompting ridiculous levels of security. These are more a sop to public opinion than of any real value.
We are about to take off. It is a change to come to Heathrow, I usually fly from Gatwick or Docklands. I had trouble finding a cup of tea in Terminal One. I have much news to catch up with, but this 45 minutes flight to Brussels is not the time to do it. I fear we will get hardly anything to eat, and I am starving.
13 59, Tuesday 26 February 1991
I am pleased with the apartment, the way it looks and feels. It is neat and tidy (although I still have to give everything a good clean). Two handicaps stand out on a fresh assessment: the mattress and bed remain a big problem, and the views out of the windows are depressingly blank and grey. I suppose the views are no worse than from my house in Kilburn, but these windows are larger, and the views through them dominate the lounge or bedroom. Moreover, through many of the windows in Kilburn, greenery is apparent, either inside or out, here there is no greenery visible at all.
My first morning trawls up virtually nothing of interest either by way of Commission news nor in the way of Belgium news, nor do I meet or talk to anyone. Nothing happens. I am here back at the flat kicking my heels, so to speak. Well, I will, no doubt, create work for myself tomorrow. This morning I was still over-tired, and this afternoon I don’t feel like trekking back to the Commission.
Over the last few weeks, I have not been very positive about this move with friends. I have found myself saying how hectic my life is, that I always seem to be tidying up, packing, and worrying if I have forgotten something. I think, as I sit here, that it will be important to give myself some targets - aims for being here - and set a date when I should assess whether or not to continue. One problem is that I am always on the hop, and will always be able to ‘feel’ busy without necessarily really ever achieving much. Thus, if I were now settled into a routine in London as last year, I would have all the time I spent on my Masters free to be pursuing other private interests.
The sort of aims I must keep in mind are: a serious development in learning French; an increase in my income; an extension of professional skills (different areas, more editorialising, wider readership); and an expansion of my social life to include new people. I must continually, however, bear in mind that this venture is a stop-gap measure until B finishes at Brighton Poly in June 1992, after which I can, perhaps, take a more bold step. I must be looking towards what that might be.
I have some notes to write up from Antibes: for the first couple of days I wrote my journal entry by hand, but I didn’t write much at all. It was a ludicrously quiet five days. The drive up to Isola 2000 on the Monday was a fraught journey because the snow was fairly well packed on the road and the BMW tyres had trouble gripping. I should certainly have had chains or at least snow tyres. At one point, I was slipping and sliding so much that I turned around and was about to come back down, more out of respect for Dad’s car than anything, but then I decided I was being silly, and that the road was not going to get any worse. In fact, this proved the case, and I achieved the ski-field without much further bother. As the weather was improving and the temperature rising, the return journey on the next day proved trouble-free.
I skied like crazy all day Monday. The weather was foul, it was cold, snowing and misty. I certainly had no view of mountains and at times could barely see the piste. With the dim and diffused light, it was always difficult to gauge the bumps and dips properly, still I spent the day re-accustoming myself to all the body movements and to the geography of the lifts and pistes. I spent the night in Isola village at the Hotel de France. The room and food were average and adequate. Before dark, I tried to walk along some of the mountain tracks rising up from the river, but without the right sort of footwear I couldn’t go anywhere through the snow. There are a lot of marked footpaths in this area so perhaps it would be worth coming in a season other than winter.
Perfect weather arrived on Tuesday, blue and cloudless skies. The skiing during the day was perfect. Although there were a lot of people around due to the French school holidays, I discovered (at the furthest reaches of the resort) a good piste and a fast chair lift. Here I skied most of the day, loving every moment of my rediscovered ability, breathing in the wide open spaces and the huge snow-capped mountain panoramas; eating, greedily, the clear pure air; and absorbing the marvellous sensations of gliding easily and quickly down mountainsides which belonged to me.
7 49, Wednesday 27 February 1991, Brussels
I spent one day in the office - last Monday - but did lots and made my presence felt. I had planned to have a detailed meeting with Kenny and Miriam about the programme for our re-equipment and production of our newsletters on the Applemacs unfortunately Miriam didn’t make it in because of the bomb scares and Kenny was late. Still, I got Kenny to agree that we should go live on the new system in about four weeks time. Today and yesterday, K and M are on training courses for the new software. The rest of the equipment and the networking will take place this week. Following that we will get some training. The week I am expecting K and M to manage ‘European Energy Report’ live, I will go on a training course myself so that I can move up to their standard, and also assess whether or not I should get myself an Applemac for here in Brussels. This will allow me to: access the network through a telephone link as though I were in the office; print letters, for example; access K and M’s material; and see or edit pages in their real form. If the network system lives up to expectations, then an Applemac will serve me better than an IBM.
My team and I are now actually at the heart of the process to re-equip the FT’s Newsletters division. Efforts to re-equip another (outside) team have run up against obstacles, and I find myself the key link between those that plan and those that do. I am the only person who is really involved in organising how the re-equipment should take place and who actually does something with it. The information I am feeding upstairs is, thus, vital. Increasingly, I find myself doing the talking and the advising at our re-equipment meetings, whether about timing, training, equipment or software.
I have asked for a pay rise. In my note to Dennis, I mentioned the fact that I am editor of two titles (and two supplements) and that I haven’t had a real rise in three years. I did not mention my assistance in the re-equipment processes but then, at present, it goes without saying - if I withdrew my help at this stage the whole process might get very messy again.
As things transpired, I have spent a good part of the day at an auction house round the corner. The weekly sales could not be more perfect since they are a blend of cheap/nasty and expensive, better quality secondhand goods. It is an old-fashioned place, full of not-very-rich dealers who have been coming here for many years and mostly poorish people looking to make their francs go a bit further. The sales are held in an odd-shaped warehouse brimming in period character - iron girders holding up a balcony, huge skylights, a massive door which wheels sideways into the wall, signs that must have been put up at least twenty years ago. The auctions themselves work in a very different way from those I know of in the UK, and it has taken me three visits to comprehend how the system operates. Indeed, only today did I realise there are two auctions: a morning one with the really cheap goods, and one at 2pm with the bulk of the furniture and slightly better goods.
Although the articles are numbered, the numbers have no bearing at all on the order in which they are sold. The order, as far as I can make out, is largely random and depends entirely on how the items are picked out from behind a barrier by the assistants. This means that it is impossible to know when a particular item will be ready for the hammer. This afternoon, for example, I bought one item (a coffee table) very soon after the start, but had to wait nearly four hours to bid for my other chosen purchase (a standard lamp). Moreover, I have not yet been able to discover how to view everything. The goods are on show from Tuesday morning, but they seem to be piled up so haphazardly one can only see some of them. Whether they rotate the goods, or spread them out better at a different time, I don’t know. The main problem is certainly space, the auctioneers sell far more than they really have space to display.
I think the company must be flemish, most of the people have flemish characteristics but, fortunately, the sale is carried out in French. The auctioneer, himself, won’t see fifty again. He has a fleshy flat face, and gave me to think that there are advantages in a full-bodied double chin because it can hide any disarrangement of one’s tie. He has a good humour and does his job reasonably well; now and then people have trouble catching his eye, and he ends up continuing the sale after the hammer has gone down. He is served by one short chain-smoking grey apron of a man, a balding egg-head who reminds me of a Beano character called Smithy (I think). It is he who defines which item is being sold at any moment by telling the auctioneer and, in some cases (pictures, books, jewellery), giving him the item, so that he can decide where to start the bidding. He has two other functions: he shouts out the number (for the clerks presumably); he does this in an idiosyncratic way by starting to say the number in a normal voice but reaching a crescendo in pitch and loudness by the end. Usually, at the same time, he attaches a blue label with a new number to the item being sold. You may think that this a lowly function and one not even worth a line of my journal, however you would be mistaken. There is, without any doubt, a distinct art in ensuring a label is affixed to every single item passing under the hammer. The person entrusted with this high responsibility must be armed not only with paste for gluing onto furniture, but a stapler for stapling onto items such as carpets, and a good deal of ingenuity for sticking or stapling the label in the position least likely to damage the article. Two clerks sit at a table strategically placed for a top view. They write down the item’s various numbers and its price. Behind them, and behind a glass panel, sits a lonely cashier in the office to whom the drones buzz backwards and forwards with blue labels and monies. These drones have two tasks (some do both, some don’t). There are those that move the furniture (into view ready for Smithy to point it out to the auctioneer and to move it quickly behind the scenes when it has been sold), and those that zoom in on the purchaser within seconds of the hammer going down to take his money and give him a ticket that matches the one stuck or stapled to the lot. With this ticket the buyer is free to collect his item immediately.
I sat through the whole sale today not only to be sure of winning the standard lamp but also to get an idea of the full range of things that can come up for sale. If I had been prepared to buy on spec, I might have bought a carpet, a bag of ladies’ hats (for A’s nursery), and some postcards. There were scores of pictures sold, but there was only one that interested me (I hadn’t seen it beforehand and I couldn’t see it in close up). It sold for over £50, I’m sure it was worth it but I just wasn’t prepared mentally to spend so much on spec.
A small anecdote from my visit today. The seating is arranged a bit like a cinema without any depth in the stalls or balcony. A central square stalls section is flanked by two wings of a dozen or so chairs. At the back of the stalls a row of chairs sit on a bank giving a good view. There are also two or three rows of chairs in the balcony. I had not appreciated that some of these chairs were reserved (as in a cinema) until I got into an argument with two old-timers wearing cloth caps. I had sat down in a chair between them. For some time, I kept bobbing up and down, because seated I couldn’t see the lots. Sometimes, I would remain standing but without interfering with the gentlemen’s views. Suddenly, one of them blew up at me and demanded I sit down. Of course, I blew right back. I asked him if he could see or if he couldn’t see (though in anger, the intelligibility of my French drops to below that of my Swahili) and when the man on my right defended the man on my left, I said he’d been standing for some long time, not very long ago. In the haze of my self-righteousness, one or two bits of information filtered through. Firstly, these men had probably paid for the seats, and, secondly, they have been coming here for 18 years (if I understood properly). Having retreated to a position where I could bob up and down comfortably, I realised that what the man had objected to was not my standing but my continuing to stand. I watched the two of them for some minutes after that; they often stood up but very quickly sat down again. I also looked around more carefully. All the raised seats at the back of the stalls looked to be possessed, owned. All the occupants were of a type (many with cloth caps), and on the empty seats there were magazine pages. It also seemed that this corner, where I had been sitting, might indeed be the pole position, i.e. reserved for the longest-standing dealers of all. I could see quite clearly then, how the rabble occupied the central stalls, while the dealers were identified by their position; for the dealers were indeed known to the auction house and did not have to pay within thirty microseconds of the hammer fall. The buyers’ commission of 20% added a sting to the price of any purchase.
Paul K Lyons
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