JOURNAL - 1997 - DECEMBER
Monday 1 December 1997
Half past eleven at night. I am listening to Radio Four. A cute little series of interviews with top-notch interpreters - ‘On the shoulder of history’. This is the second programmes I’ve caught. Although the anecdotes about Presidents meeting and conducting business at informal cocktail parties are mildly interesting, what I enjoy most is the crispness and clarity of the language used by the interviewees. The two I’ve listened to so far are not natural English speakers and carry an accent; nevertheless their vocabulary and grammar are impeccable, and their delivery rock solid, without a murmur or an um.
Saturday 20 December 1997
More than three weeks since my last journal entry. Time marches on, and on. Julian’s third child Tobias or Toby was born on 5 December. I saw him on Wednesday for a few minutes. He was fast asleep, a cute little baby, with pursed lips, showing traces of Sasha. Julian is proud. My mother is happy to have a fifth grandchild.
Adam has finished school for the term. His teacher Mr Fyfe came back two days before the end of term, after nearly four weeks away. We were told that he had a virus, and that he was handing in sick notes every week; but there was a rumour that he was in the Lake District. This latter appears to have been confirmed by himself; he told the kids he went to a funeral and it wasn’t worth going there just for a day.
Adam has been using all his spare time to make Christmas cards for us. He spent ever such a long time doing a card for Barbara. Well, it was more than a card, more like an eight page newsletter full of information about things to do with Christmas which he had culled from books and CD-Roms. He did it all on his own, without any supervision or advice from us. He’s also used his own money to buy Barbara two or three things.
This morning we brought in the same Christmas tree that I’ve used for several years now. It started as a tiny tree, but is now a respectable height (although it could be a little bushier up top); and, the fairy lights, I’ve used for at least five years (which I bought at an electrical shop in Brighton) worked first time. This afternoon we wrapped Barbara’s Christmas and birthday presents while we watched James Stewart and Charlton Heston in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and ‘The Saint’ on TV.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done a couple of tidying up jobs. I’ve re-sorted and organised all my personal files on the computer, especially my diary and story files. These are now on diskette and on the computer in a way that should make it easier to keep them properly backed up. Mind you, there’s not much need to do any backing up at the moment considering I haven’t written any fiction for well over a year now - not since before Theo joined me. I’ve also been through a shoebox of cards that I’ve had for years and years. This shoebox was ostensibly for my old picture postcards, but it has been well corrupted with new postcards, Christmas cards, photos, things people have sent me, and so on. Every time I needed a new card or possibly an old card I rummaged through the whole box never being able to find a thing. So, I’ve now sorted out the majority of old cards to resell at auction, and organised all the rest into easy packets of labelled goods. Thirdly, I have completed typing up, editing and printing out, my 1984 diary. For the last four months or so, I have used the interstices of the day to type a page or two at a time, and, finally, I finished it a few days ago.
We had a hectic schedule for EC Inform-Energy 55 and EC Inform-Transport 11, because, as luck would not have it, there was an Energy Council and a Transport Council the day before each newsletter respectively. This meant I was on tenterhooks throughout the week, never knowing how much material would be coming out of the Council and whether I would be able to get the material in time. In both cases, I managed to get the Finnish press guy in the Council, who knows me and does both transport and energy, to fax me the 20-page press releases late in the evening after the meeting.
I had a more interesting weekend than usual lined up for myself after production. I had bought a ticket for the volleyball club annual Christmas bash. There was to be a barn dance and food and lots of drink; I was looking forward to it more than I would have thought, given that I certainly couldn’t describe any one who goes to volley as a friend. Then, on the Saturday, I had an afternoon and dinner for Adam and I with Genny and David; and, on the Sunday, it would have been volley in the evening. Unfortunately, I went down with an horrible cold the previous Wednesday, which reached its peak of debilitating me on the Friday and Saturday. A week later, now, I’m capable but still recovering. The whole weekend was a washout. I was just so ill, I couldn’t make any of the appointments. Such is life. It seems every time I try to make an effort to move my social life on by even a millimetre, something gets in the way.
Sunday 21 December 1997
Ads has gone over to B’s for the day, and I am alone in Russet House. I have decided to spend the day working on the Energy 2000 book, but, after three weeks away from it, I’m finding it hard to summon up the interest to get started. Christmas is just a few days away. I still need to buy some presents, and I may go to Guildford tomorrow. For Adam, I’ve bought a cheap radio-controlled boat, a Meccano motor set, some small airfix models, an indoor mini-boules set, some coloured pencils etc, and a half share in ‘Riven’ (the successor to ‘Myst’ - although in truth, I don’t think either he or I are going to enjoy it as much as we did ‘Myst’). I’ve also ordered an expensive magic coin for him, which he’s much wanted. B has bought a pen and biro set with his name engraved. Arrangements for Christmas Day are as follows: A will spend the night at Yalta, and then have breakfast and open presents with B and Les; A and B will then come over here and have a second breakfast and we will open out presents; and then A and I will drive up to London to spend the day with my Mum, Julian and Melanie.
Ads and I went hunting for holly with berries yesterday and we couldn’t find any anywhere. What is the point of having one’s own huge holly wood and not being able to find any berries at Christmas. In the end, I found a few berries on the holly bush in my own front garden. It is a mystery though; I mean, was the holly wood full of berries earlier in the season and were they all eaten, or are all those holly bushes and trees in the wood barren of berries. I say this every year (well once before) but I must go out earlier in December!
An interesting evening with Michele and Julian last Wednesday. I had phoned Michele a couple of weeks ago because I felt I ought to, having not spoken to her since before the summer. She mentioned some photos and I suggested that Julian and I could come round one evening before Christmas to look through them. I mentioned it to Julian and he fixed it up for last Wednesday. It was one hell of schlep to drive up to Maida Vale, but I made it by about 8:15. Michele had opened a bottle of champagne and was a bit nervous as ever. Julian arrived 20 minutes later, and we started on the photos. There are splendid ones of Mummi and Mutti and a few of Julian and Melanie when younger (but only one of me). We agreed that Julian should take them and that we should then meet up with Melanie to share them out. The three of us then retired to the Italian restaurant over the road, run by Tony, who Michele considers a friend. The food was expensive but reasonable. We had a couple of bottles of wine, and all became a little drunk. Julian quizzed Michele over the early days of her relationship with Sasha.
Later, with some drink inside me, I quizzed Michele about Sasha’s money. Most children would expect a wealthy father to leave them some dosh. Most parents work hard through their life so they can leave their children something, but Sasha hasn’t left us a penny. It was difficult to look at Michele (and I noticed that when I did I had both my hands covering my face, one over my mouth and one around my eyes - I opened myself when I noticed, but it was hard). Michele hesitated. Then she more or less cracked up and began sobbing. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was along the lines of, I am much younger than him, and I couldn’t go out to work, what could I do, become a cleaner? Her sobbing made it impossible to dig deeper. I would have liked to have said that nobody is suggesting it was all or nothing, but surely he could have left his children something and left a substantial arrangement for you as well. She did, though, reveal that she had an arrangement with Sasha that she would leave us something in her own will. Again, I would have liked to point out that she might live longer than me, and that, after 20 or 30 years, without any contact with us and in the light of new relationships of her own, she might not feel the need to honour her promise to Sasha, or to honour it in only the smallest of ways.
In any case, at least it settled in my own mind, that she does not intend to give us anything at all. I think an intelligent, clear-sighted kind of person would certainly have ensured a distribution of some of Sasha’s wealth. She gave us each a bottle of champagne and chocolates and cheque for £40 for the children.
Tuesday 23 December 1997
Christmas shopping. It’s one of those activities that must rank alongside cleaning out grease-choked drains, or hand washing soiled baby nappies or waiting in an M25 traffic jam for five hours on your way to the only party of the year you’ve been invited to, or needing to go to the toilet while stuck on a coach or in the middle of a row in the front of the stalls for a long symphony. No, its worse than any of those, because not only is there the unpleasantness of the activity itself, but it’s necessary to pay as well. I’ve been out this morning just to buy food - and I’m only entertaining five people on Boxing Day, and B is doing some of the work and the cooking, and I’ve still spent nearly a hundred pounds.
Last night B came over and we wrapped up all of Adam’s presents. I’ve bought, by direct mail, a £30 magic coin. Earlier in the year, Adam wanted to buy it himself and I wouldn’t let him. It’s a pound coin through which a cigarette or pen can be pushed (it’s engineered so it opens up from one side and it’s very difficult to see how it opens). I suspect it’s a real waste of money - Adam will probably bust it in a day or two.
It’s difficult to get down to any serious work. Adam is at home, working on still more Christmas cards. Theo is doing database stuff, and will be away until after New Year, and I am taking a few minutes to write up my journal.
This morning I finished a book called ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks. Julian passed this on to me, and it seems to be much talked about. It is both a love story and a grim reminder of the horrors of the first world war. It was reasonably, probably very, well done, but it did not inspire me in any way, and I found myself skipping much of the detail about the men in the trenches.
With Adam I watched the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, with its complex hero played by Alec Guinness. I could not remember the plot, although I’m sure I must have seen it before. The climax is spoilt by the preposterous coincidence of Guinness falling on the plunger which detonates the explosives on the bridge. I found myself almost laughing at the comedy of it - surely not the intention of David Lean, the director. There were so many possible ways to end the film, it seemed unnecessary to use that one. I suppose, it’s possible he wanted to create an ending which allowed multiple interpretations of what Guinness’s character intended to do; or perhaps Lean was simply after the maximum degree of irony. I thought it was going to be an action movie, but in fact it was really quite slow and full of psychology.
The Labour Party has taken a hammering over its intentions for the welfare state. Blair and Harriet Harman have pushed through unpopular measures on benefit to single mothers, and justified it through the use of resources to set up after school clubs, to allow single women to work. At the same time, a leaked memo about benefits to the disabled has also caused alarm bells to ring, and Labour politicians refuse to rule out any cuts. They say the welfare system is not working and needs major reform, and therefore they cannot rule anything out. The point is, I think, that the system has, over the years, sucked in a lot of spongers and the government is determined to target the welfare payments to those who really need them. I do not understand why the likes of John Humphreys and McNaughtie have to be so persistent in their interrogations. Their urgency and tone is really quite distasteful, it is as though they think they are still in an election period; they seem to use the same tactics and the same density of weaponry as they did during the Major period; and yet the war is not the same. Major’s government was corrupt; it was destitute; and the politicians fought with every trick in the book; the journalists, then, should have been vicious in response; this is not the case with the new Labour government. The BBC seems unable to gauge the difference.
I also continue to get furious at the ‘Today’ programme’s elevation of domestic political infighting above every other kind of news story. A report on a science advance, for example, inevitably ends with a joke or two between the presenters at the expense of the science under consideration. Similarly, an interview with a foreign politician is conducted as though the interviewee were of negligible importance, and any respect shown to the interviewee is given grudgingly. An interview with a government minister, or shadow spokesman, however, is treated like the holy grail.
Deep mid-winter. The garden looks a mess; only the winter jasmine is in flower. The vegetable plots are bare, except for a few Brussel-sprouts which I’ve left for show (certainly not for the sprouts which have never grown properly and look horrible). I’ve not been out for a walk for weeks, because of my cold.
Saturday 27 December 1997
Barbara’s birthday. She comes over for breakfast and opens her many presents, there are presents from me, from Adam, from my mother, and some Christmas presents from the rest of my family. She gets a bumper collection of pots, radios, secateurs, vases, a book on pebbles, marmalades, a bottle of walnut liqueur; and so on. Adam has drawn her a lovely birthday card.
Adam has been a treat. He spent weeks and weeks working on his Christmas cards. For B he did an eight-page newsletter packed with writing and drawings and quizzes, and for me a massive and intricate Father Christmas maze. I am so impressed at his application and effort. And, for the first time really, he made an effort to buy us real presents with his own money (i.e. not just picking up a jar of jam while one of us is in Secretts). And he’s so responsive to his own presents, its a real delight to buy things for him.
Christmas Day at Mum’s went off, as usual. The turkey and all the food was delicious, the children nagged, the new baby cried only occasionally. Each of the children did a little show. Adam did magic tricks, Phoebe sung a song, and Rebecca and Naomi danced; but the atmosphere was lazy post-lunch. I had wanted to do a couple of scenes from ‘King Top-of-the-World’ which Adam and I had rehearsed, but there was no interest from the assembled company at all. I find it so frustrating to reflect for even a moment that my childhood was spent in the shallow kind of environment, of which every Christmas day is an echo. Maybe that’s an unnecessary, possibly even an untrue, comment to make. I don’t know quite what I’m comparing it too. I do know, though that the time Adam and I spend together is rich and full, varied and fun, and that my childhood was not so - I did not grow up knowing about politics or music or drama or literature or geography or history or nature. There was never any of that during my upbringing, just as there is none on Christmas Day. I was reading my earliest diary entry for Christmas, 1971 and 1972 (that was already after I had started in Cardiff), both the handwriting and the language are less mature, less grown-up if you like than Adam is at 10!!!. Of course, a lot can be undone during the teenage years, and without any proper memory of my childhood I cannot be sure about anything.
I enjoyed Boxing Day much more actually. Barbara and I combined efforts to cook lunch for my mother and her father. We cooked a fresh tasty meal - watercress soup, spinach pancakes with cheese sauce, mange touts, salad, ratatouille, rice, and, for afters, fruit salad, banana/mango icecream and Christmas pudding. It all went down very well, Les even had second helpings of the pudding. Afterwards we played a number of games, there was Uno (although Melanie’s electronic set was a bit hectic for the oldies) and Scrabble. I also gave Mum and Les a tour around the Encarta CD-ROM. Les stayed longer than B thought he would, because not only is he still quite fragile after Rosemary’s death but he’s also not very well at the moment. In the evening I chatted to Mum about financial planning. Adam sat quietly stroking Georgie the whole time. Mum rang in the morning to say how much she enjoyed the day.
Now to Westbrook. I spent 30 minutes just now looking through the back issues of ‘Smith’s Academy Informer’ - a newsletter I have subscribed to since 1990 which gives details on all of Westbrook’s musical activities - to find out the date when I saw Westbrook at the Albert Hall. I was sure it was last year, and if not last year, then certainly the year before that. I couldn’t find anything in the newsletter about it, neither in the gig guide nor a report on the show afterwards, I went back as far as 1993, and was astonished I couldn’t find anything - and yet I was sure I could remember reading about it in the newsletter. I’ve just done a word search on my diary files and discovered that it was five years ago - in 1992 - that Westbrook played the first ever jazz set at the Albert Hall Proms. It’s as though these five years in which I’ve been running my own business have been concertina-ed into a few months.
Last Sunday I made the effort to go to Blackheath where, every year, Westbrook does a Christmas concert. I originally intended to go with Adam and Barbara and perhaps Andrew as well. But, in the end, I went on my own. The journey was not too bad - train to Waterloo and another 15 minute train to Blackheath. I got there well early because the ‘Informer’ had invited its subscribers for mulled wine and mince pies to celebrate its 50th issue. I did get my mulled wine but it was in the general bar, and it wasn’t easy to talk to anyone. The concert was grand, mostly songs from ‘Bar Utopia’, which I’d never heard - I now have the CD. Unfortunately, I had to leave at 10:30 to ensure catching the last train from Waterloo, which was 30 minutes earlier than a Saturday or weekday, and the concert was only a bit into the second half. I talked briefly to a couple from Bury St Edmunds who have been following Westbrook for 20 years. I don’t remember when I first came across Westbrook - but the first entry on the computer, i.e. from a diary that has been typed up, is in 1983, when I took B to see him in Hammersmith. I was still working at ‘European Chemical News’, and Raoul was still with Vonny.
Tuesday 30 December 1997
That was fun. I cycled down to the island pond (I forget our name for it - it’s the one past the silver birches, past double U, and at the end of the avenue) with Adam and James, a boy who lives at the other end of Red House Lane. We took Adam’s new radio-controlled boat and the old sailing boat, the bright red and yellow one, bought in Aldeburgh, and which I love so much. At the weekend, Ads and I had taken both down to the Moat and the sailing boat managed to get right across, although we had to use the motor boat to nudge it in to land. Today, I was afraid to launch the sailing boat, because that particular pond has an island in the middle of it. The boys played happily with the motor boat, but I couldn’t resist launching the sailing boat. It headed straight for the island. A family came and stood by and were bemused by the situation and couldn’t understand how we might get the boat back. So, of course, we used the motor boat to nudge the sailing boat round. Sure enough it picked up speed and headed back towards our bank. But there were other dangers, a pack of Alsations, jumping around and controlling the launching area, making it difficult to approach (not only is there the fear of the dogs themselves, but also of the sudden shivering movement, so beloved of dogs, which acts as an effective water gun spraying water in every direction). Then there was the smaller dog, which chewed up Adam’s stick, and threatened to chew up one of the boats, though the kids managed to reverse them out of reach just in time. Then there were the marshes; the sailing boat drifted into the bank all right, but a marshy bank which made it difficult to retrieve. Sending the rescue boat in was fraught with dangers because of the sodden leaves and muck just waiting to foul up the small fragile propeller. In the end, though, with the aid of a very long stick, we came home with both boats in tact, having had some ‘jolly good fun’.
While on the subject of boats, I should mention a dream I had the night before last. I was in a large flattish bottomed rowing boat, with a dozen or more people. The boat was crossing or floating on an estuary, and there was a guide-come-dancing instructor. Barbara was with me, and we were due to start some kind of folk dancing. Barbara seemed to know exactly the kind of dance she wanted the instructor to do for us (but there was no source of music in my dream - there never is).
I rang up two introduction agencies - Sirius and Dancing Down the Moon - on Sunday for details. It was part of my plan last summer to get on with this. I suspect that I am never going to make any real progress with a social life down here without actively trying, and, the truth is, the most important thing for my life is not actually a social life, but a new partner with whom to have one or two more children. That’s what I want. A social life comes second to that. As I’ve said many times before, I do not hold out much hope, but I must, at least, try.
Sirius has already answered. Such speed and efficiency. They tell me they have 9,000 members; for around £400 (a knock down price) they promise that I will get at the very least 12 introductions over the year, and probably a lot more. They sent me details of 20 women in my area - I haven’t looked at them in detail but I can’t say that any appeal to me. Every single one of them describes themselves as right wing, only about three have been to university, and there is no indication of their age, despite masses of other information.
I’m supposed to have started work on a new chapter of the Energy 2000 book. Well, I have started, but it’s a slow start and once this week is over, I won’t have any further time to work on it until after the next round of newsletter issues. I spend too much time messing about with Adam - bike rides, playing ‘Riven’, watching the Christmas Royal Institution lectures or some classic film.
I also listen to a lot of radio and watch a lot of TV. A recent British film called ‘Shallow Grave’, a dark fable about money being the root of all evil; a TV adaptation of ‘Woman in White’ with Tara Fitzgerald; and a new production of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ on Radio 3.
Paul K Lyons
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