JOURNAL - 1997 - FEBRUARY
1 February 1997
That’s January over already. And a dry cold one it’s been. Apart from one trawl of leaves and a fire, I’ve done nothing yet in the garden.
I’ve just finished watching ‘Casualty’. I tend to watch it every Saturday now - well it’s rare that I’m out anywhere. It’s such good television, and it’s so warm-hearted and good-natured; families suddenly solve their life-long problems (this evening, two gangs on a housing estate buried the hatchet after a rumpus in which several of them were injured); sometimes families expose deeply-hidden problems which have been making them unhappy for years and open up the possibility for change in the future. Adam watched it this evening too - all the morals are good, and it shows off some of the more bizarre sides of life, alongside the dedicated work of medial staff.
Other television: A gritty adaptation of Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’. I think it’s excellent although the ‘Guardian’ panned it. ‘Eastenders’ is vacant without David Wickes; Phil’s alcoholism seems to be the number one story line, which, after many months if not years of preparation, is now reaching a climax.
EC Inform-Transport is launched, on schedule. Well, almost on schedule. It was finished by 6pm on Friday evening, although I had hoped to finish a little earlier. Artigraf received it by modem and faxed me back the print-outs that evening and I confirmed they were fine. About 4pm on Monday, I got a call from Terry to tell me they couldn’t get the issues out in the post that evening and it would be a day late. I accepted the situation but faxed the boss, Cameron, saying I needed to know what deadlines I should work to in the future. He seemed quite shocked that the job wasn’t on time and explained to me that one of the binding machines had broken down. I let it go at that.
The next day copies arrive at about 3pm, they look smart. The new title is not so different from EC Inform-Energy, except that it’s on green paper, but the front is slightly different and I’m using a much finer screen on the grey shaded boxes throughout. I was really quite pleased with the way it looked, until I saw that some of the pages had been bound in upside down. I went ape-shit as they say. I rang Artigraf immediately and just got Cameron on the phone as he was leaving. He could hardly believe it. There was also another problem, which, on its own, I probably would not have done anything about. The shading on the charts had been printed wrongly and the mistake was definitely with Artigraf because the copies they faxed to me were fine.
Cameron called back a little later and told me they had decided to reprint the whole job from scratch and that it would be posted on Wednesday. Unbelievable. Artigraf did the same to me with the launch of EC Inform-Energy, when they sent the newsletter out without a mailing letter, they had to reprint and resend the whole job. Only this time, Cameron didn’t have to pay for the postage as the job was stopped in the nick of time just prior to being sent out. So I lost two days on it being mailed out, and I had to reprint all the labels and courier them to Ealing. I was furious.
They arrived on UK desks on Thursday and some continental desks on Friday. We had our first order, from Eurocontrol, on the Friday. That was really sweet having that one order before the weekend. Another week has passed and we’ve got another seven orders! I can’t exactly remember, but I think it’s a quicker response than with the energy title. But it’s still far too early to tell if the thing will fly.
Theo has been working hard on inputting new names for the next mailing. We went together to Brussels last week for the first time. Theo followed me around but, because he has no journalistic card, we had some trouble getting him in to the various buildings. We’ve applied for a press card for him, and we’ll know on Tuesday whether we’ve managed it or not. If they approve it, I’ll have to send him over for the day or so on Wednesday just to pick up the papers. I’ve to go that week too.
I had thought one of us should sleep in a hotel (there being only one bedroom in the flat) but, in the end, it seemed unnecessary and I slept on the floor. I didn’t sleep as well as I’d hoped because of the traffic noise, the heat of the apartment and the lack of cushioning under my bed. Theo proved a capable companion, accepting of his role, neither pushing for excess responsibility nor worrying too much about the difficulties his presence was making for me (over the press card and the like).
On the Wednesday evening, we strolled through the city to Place Central and then took a couple of beers in Falstaff. We got on well. We talk about the news a lot, just as I did at the FT with Kenny and John.
I have received a note from my accountant saying that I will have to pay about £2,500 in tax this month, the same amount in July, and then over £10,000 next January!!! But then, I do seem to have paid very little tax since starting EC Inform.
Today, Adam and I are driving to Golders Green for lunch with the family.
The deer have lunched my laurel hedge near to death.
Having tried ‘The Tyrespinners’ with several agents without success, I sent into Transworld but it’s been returned, and I don’t think it has even been read. I’m sending it off now to Random House. As for my story collection, ‘Love Uncovered’, I think I’ll have to assign that to the pile of forgotten manuscripts. I’ve tried every opening I can find through the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’, and not even come near to a flicker of interest from anyone. None of the stories would be easy to land separately in a magazine because they are too long or offbeat. There’s a ‘Guardian’ short story competition which might be the right home for one of them but, unfortunately, the maximum word length is only 2,500 words and the shortest of my stories (also the least strong) is 50% too long.
Domestic politics has turned into a street market brawl already, even though the date for the election hasn’t yet been announced. The Conservatives continue to insist it will be on 1 May, the last possible day - how they can be so arrogant as to push it so long with no mandate - but I cannot believe it will be 1 May, which is Labour day, because it will be such a gift to the headline writers. But then, I thought again, because, in fact, some clever clever bod in the Tory party planning department may have worked out that the association with Labour Day will remind people of strikes and unions and so nudge floating voters away from the Socialists. So, now I’m not sure. But I haven’t seen a single article in any newspaper looking at the implications of the suggested date.
Barbara is moving ahead with the purchase of a house, just two or three hundred metres away, in Moors Lane. The price of the house was £100,000 and, initially, she offered £98,000. The owner wanted to continue to try and get the asking price, so B raised her offer while I was in Brussels, and this was accepted. The house has three bedrooms, a garden and is very near by.
Thursday 6 February 1997, Brussels
I am here for the second time in two weeks. I came last week to show Theo around and I’m here now to trawl for material for both ECI-E 46 and ECI-T 2 next week. In fact, Theo came over again today, just for the day, to collect his press pass. From a time even long before I had employed Theo, I was worrying about how I would get a press card for any assistant I employed - and I never stopped worrying about it since taking him on. I wrote a very careful letter which he signed, to go with his application, and heh presto the committee met on Tuesday and approved his application. I thought it would be politic for him to show his face immediately rather than wait two weeks to pick up the form from the person in charge - a rather nice, sharp old bird with cross eyes called Laura Gangemi. So he came today and we met at the press briefing and then, because I’d planned to meet the Foratom press woman, Linda, who’s been chasing me for ages (and proved to be the kind of American woman I really dislike), we went to see her. After that, Theo went to get his press card done and then spent a couple of hours at an air transport conference, which I had visited in the morning, before heading back to London.
I’ve been through my notes and sorted my papers. I’m just debating what to do with the rest of the evening. I could go to the cinema again. I went last night straight from the airport to see a film called ‘Ransom’ - a poor thriller. I really hate this habit thrillers have these days, maybe always, of setting up large scale set pieces, with hundreds of cops etc around and then at the climax, suddenly for convenience, switching to a one-one confrontation between hero and villain, as though absolutely nothing else is going on anywhere. I hated ‘Ransom’ also because the plot was horribly false and, at every scene change, reality was victim to the set pieces.
Another possibility is to read for a bit longer - although ‘Kenilworth’ is not the most exciting of reads and I have nothing else with me - and to go to bed early. If I stay up as late as 10:30 I could listen to the test match for a bit. England are pathetic at the moment; they failed miserably in South Africa, then they managed to clutch a draw from the jaws of victory in their first test against New Zealand. Now they’ve got the Kiwis on the run again, with six wickets down for a shockingly low number, but I bet they’ll muck it up again. It occurred to me that part of the problem, apart from the legendary management difficulties, is that Atherton is too phlegmatic for a captain. A team needs a leader who can fire on all cylinders and fire up the team also. Never mind the character clashes, the occasional run-ins with the formality, but a team is never going to do really well, unless it has a leader with flare, driven by something burning on the inside. I don’t know Atherton well, I’ve never had lunch with him nor met him in the supermarket, but I have built up an impression of him over the years from interviews, and I don’t like him much. There’s a spoilt child in there somewhere, very little humility, and usually only a calculated one put on for the media; there’s a lot of the nothing-touches-me public schoolboy there too. He may be a great bloke, as I say I don’t know, but he lacks even the faintest trace of, and I must use a shorthand word now, genius, and without genius no team is ever going to get to the top and stay there long.
Wednesday 26 February 1997
The wind has been howling for the last few days. The gardens are littered with broken branches. But spring is round the corner; there are white and purple crocuses coming up all over the place, and the daffodils are showing their leaves. I must get out there this weekend and start working. There is so much to do. I have to dig and prepare the vegetable plots, I must sort out the bed edges on the west side, I must do something with the seed surplus sent me by the RHS (each year it distributes for free to members all the seed they collect from their gardens; I’ve got geranium, sedum, veronica, scilla, papaver and others). I must also sort out what to do about my new brick path, much of the sand has been washed away from between the bricks.
Last night, I saw a harrowing film based on a true story about the abuse of a young girl. The film showed, without graphic detail, how the girl, aged about 9-10, was made to do all the cleaning in the house and how she was beaten and locked in a cupboard if her mother found a spec of dust; how, when her father left home, she was obliged to perform fellatio on her mother; how her stepfather raped her; how her father prostituted her; how she moved to a home where a carer raped her and a pimp used her as a prostitute. The film was made in such a plain ordinary way and yet it documented the most extraordinary abuse. Finally, the girl found a safe home. At the end of the film, we were told that the girl is now at university and that no one has ever been prosecuted for the abuses,
It must be a very difficult decision to show films like this on TV. On the one hand, it is important to raise issues and provoke attention, outrage even, at the kind of things that do go on in our society; yet, on the other, I wonder about the wisdom of illustrating to a large audience of adults, less restrained by moral codes than ever before, potential aspects of behaviour they may not have considered and the fact that there are no serious consequences for such patterns of abuse. Not only were the abusers in the film not legally punished, but neither did we see them punished in any other ways.
I gorged on TV since coming back from France. B recorded several series for me. The last of the ‘Ivanhoe’ episodes (a thoroughly enjoyable series); the last of the ‘Nostromo’ serial, which although billed as one of the major BBC drama series of the winter, has been highly irritating. The director had a huge budget but the film was all too wooden, too formulaic, the scenes too obviously composed, the action too contrived. Only Albert Finney stood out; Colin Firth and the actor playing ‘Nostromo’ (who for some reason is mostly dubbed) lack any special talent to have justified their star parts. I also watched the last part of another series called ‘McCallum’ which was too preposterous for words; as well as catching up on ‘Superman’, which I still think is the best Superman ever made for TV or cinema.
Friday 28 February 1997
My knee is still uncomfortable. Yes, I was one of those unfortunates who take a skiing holiday and damage a limb. I think I must have done it on the second or third day, although I have no idea how or when I did it. But, to start at the beginning.
Ever since I noticed that Adam’s half term coincided exactly with a post-production week in my work cycle, I had planned to do something with Adam. However, for lack of any concrete plan, I never got round to organising anything, until, that is, the day between production on ECI-E 46 and ECI-T 2. On the Thursday afternoon, I slipped off to Godalming and visited a high street travel agent - Lunn Poly. I can never remember doing such a thing before. A very helpful guy started tapping in codes into his machine and offering various package ski deals. As fast as he was coming up with them, I was flicking through the brochures, trying to get some idea of what I might be committing myself too. One very helpful brochure included good and bad points about each of the ski resorts. I rejected several offers, because they were too expensive, because the resorts were too small, or didn’t have sufficient facilities for beginners, or through prejudice of some sort. I didn’t want to go to Bulgaria for example. I was just about to give up, when a chalet holiday came up at Les Deux Alpes, France. The resort was large with excellent facilities for all levels; and I remembered that Theo said he had been there. What convinced me, however, that I must be getting a good deal was the price: the brochure carried a per person price of £450 for the holiday but it was on offer for £250. I decided to snap it up. Despite this bargain basement price, the holiday was no snip - by the time we got home after the week, I counted up the costs as over £1,000.
I was a bit dazed my decision, especially as I still had to put EC Inform-Transport to bed on the Friday, and we would have to leave home at 4:00am on Saturday morning. Still, everything went more or less to plan. I failed to find any ski clothes for Adam, despite finishing the newsletter early on Friday afternoon and racing off with him to Godalming and Farnham. One shop told me that they had sold of out of children’s ski clothes ages ago - how ridiculous to be out of stock in the middle of the season. Am I only the person that doesn’t plan his holidays six months in advance.
In fact, I was somewhat glad I hadn’t bought any clothes for Adam because, if I had, I would surely have bought a jacket and, later that evening, I found an old jacket of his which served perfectly well. I, myself, already had a good skiing jacket. I spent Friday evening packing a bag for me and a small rucksack for Adam. I managed to keep all the gear into two bags. It is many years since I’ve actually checked a bag in at an airport. When we got to the airport, at 5:00am, after a trouble free drive round the motorways, we discovered hundreds and hundreds of people checking in for their charter flights to ski holidays, and everyone of them had huge bags, and many of them had skis or snowboards as well. Despite the queues for checking in, the process went relatively smoothly and a full flight left not long after its scheduled 6:15am slot. Adam and I had a row to ourselves at the back of the aeroplane which was comfortable and quiet. Although several charter flights were arriving at roughly the same time and there were hoards of coaches outside waiting to ferry them to the ski fields, there were only four people on our coach not including the First Choice rep and the driver. So, the trip through Geneva and up into the French alps was relaxed and enjoyable. We didn’t sleep because there was much to talk about with the rep and with the other two on the coach - a father and six-year old son, Malcolm and Duncan. Malcolm is a petroleum engineer with Amerada Hess I think and lives in Hambledon, and is separated from his wife and two children who live in Norfolk. I liked him and we talked at length. It was a shame his son wasn’t a bit older because we might have sustained our friendship into the holiday and beyond. As it is we didn’t meet again until the coach trip back and then (having got up at 4:00am again) we were all too knackered for conversation.
We arrived at our chalet Lauzieres in Les Deux Alpes by lunchtime. Our resident hosts, Andy the chef and Kim the assistant and cleaner, were still tidying up after the previous guests, some of whom were still waiting to leave. There were drinks and cake waiting for us, though our room was not yet ready.
We spent much of the Saturday trying to arrange ski classes for Adam. Although, I had bought First Choice’s ski/boot hire and lift passes from the rep on the coach (neither of which proved wholly satisfactory), I had declined the ski lessons for Adam because they were in the afternoon. The town proved quite large and spread out with many ski wear and connected shops. We found several places offering ski classes but the dominant provider was the Ecole Ski de Francais, and, indeed, the First Choice school used the ESF teachers. I booked Ads for a series of three hour lessons in the morning and had to un-book his lift pass with First Choice because ESF offered a much better deal for lift pass and ski class combined. I’m quite convinced this was a First Choice rip off, and it took quite a bit of unravelling. Then, in the evening, we had another problem. Dinner was not being served until 8:30-9:00 and we were told to have a ski fit at 10:00. This was very late for Adam, and for me, since we’d been up since 4:00am; but First Choice didn’t seem to care too much about that. By 9:45 we were so tired we walked up to the ski fit place and because there was no one there we simply went home to bed. In fact, because booking up the ski hire with First Choice was so relaxed and easy on the coach, I was seduced into thinking that the actual process of collecting and fitting the skis and boots would be equally relaxed. In fact, the reverse was true, as the so-called techies are over-stretched and have to fit hundreds of people at a time. We would have been better off using a local shop. Our equipment was reasonable though and neither Adam nor I had any complaint about our boots all week (which is quite important). I did, though, change my skis on the third day for a longer pair. Perhaps, if I had had the right skis to start with I would never have damaged my knee.
Our chalet room was small and serviceable with two beds and a bunk, where Adam slept, a wash basin and a single sky light. The toilet and bathrooms were just outside. The chalet consisted of about eight bedrooms and one large lounge and dining area with a kitchen attached. I had thought we would never get to sleep at night for the noise of people moving around all the time, but no noise penetrated from the lounge and the others went to bed so long after us that we were sound away. The beds were comfy and the chalet warm, too warm mostly, although our particular room improved substantially when the heater failed to work about half way through the week.
All the 16 other guests proved as unremarkable as we were ourselves. There were three groups: Ken and his two sons Russell and Ryan, in their late teens. Their conversation was very much centred on the holiday as it was happening, the quality of the skiing, where they had been, the weather etc. Two couples with two boys about Adam’s age and two girls each. I barely talked to the parents, as they sat on a different dinner table, but Adam got on really well with their boys and was always looking to play with them apres-ski. All the five children sat together to eat in the evenings, and Adam well enjoyed that.
My table was by far the liveliest. There were four guests, two elderly women (60s I think), Joy and Elizabeth who have been life time friends, Elizabeth’s husband Wally, and Joy’s daughter Helen. Also eating with us every night was Helen’s sister Nicky who works for First Choice as a chalet manager. This was a lively group (although Wally didn’t say much), with the conversation often reverting to family history of one sort of another, previous holidays, for example, or anecdotes from when Nicky and Helen were small. But they laughed a lot and never took themselves too seriously. I liked their company and joined in with their fun. All of them, except Nicky, had been, or still were, science or maths teachers. Also Andy sat on our table when he could take a moment to eat his own food.
At only 24, Andy had a touch of genius about him. He talked a lot, often manic balderdash, but often also displaying quite a sharp knowledge of the world. He exhibited a natural and instinctive skill at cooking. Although restricted to £3.80 per head a day, he managed to feed us with excellent three course meals in the evenings, a cooked breakfast and a high tea with cake, bread and cheeses. The wine he served was hopeless, and on two occasions - salmon and lamb chops - the quality of the protein left something to be desired. His kitchen was as basic as could be, with an oven and four electric hobs, three or four pans and a couple of casserole dishes. This summer he will spend five-six months cooped up on a millionaire’s yacht on call 24 hours a day and needing to be dressed in his starch whites even to serve coffee at 5:00am in the morning. For that he will earn £2,500 a month. He will save the money and open his own chalet in Chamonix, he says. In the winter, he works for a pittance so he can snowboard mad. Mid-week, he crashed into a tree and cut his face up and bruised his spine. The doctor made him leave his snowboard behind at the surgery to be sure he wouldn’t go straight back on the slopes.
Les Deux Alpes is a top notch ski resort, and apart from a couple of short periods of wet misty snowy weather, which was needed to replenish the slopes, and one very windy day, we had glorious sunny weather and blue skies. Indeed, I had to make sure both Adam and I had sun block on our faces and that we wore sunglasses all the time. One day I forgot to put on the sunblock, and my face was burning for days.
Although there was a drag lift near to the chalet which gave one enough height to ski down to the central resort area where the cable car and ski classes were, it wasn’t possible to use it with Adam, so we had to catch a local free bus to get to the centre. Once or twice this took no more than 10-15 minutes but most days it took nearer 35 minutes. Adam’s class began at 9:15 so we had leave at about 8:30, even earlier on the first couple of days when we still needed to purchase equipment, glasses, salopets, gloves, all for Adam, and all expensive.
Unfortunately, I did not have one good day’s skiing. On day one, I was too uptight with getting everything sorted out, and by the time I’d gone up in the cable car and skied a couple of blue runs, I was worrying about to how to get back to Adam. Les Deux Alpes is unusual in that most of the skiing is done higher up the mountains, and to get back to the resort there is a steep section of slope which is mostly black runs, or one long narrow green run.
On day two, the weather was bad, I found my way around much better but was still short of time. And when I collected Adam, his instructor told me that she had had a lot of trouble with him, he wouldn’t listen, and she had had to tell him things over and over again! Unfortunately, I had already warned him carefully that if he wanted to have fun with me in the afternoon, he would have to pay careful attention in his ski lessons. Two things I had told him were important, keeping himself warm by always remembering to move his toes and fingers around, and listening carefully to the instruction. So, I was furious, and gave him a verbal hiding. I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to rescue the holiday. But the next day, things got better, slowly. Adam paid better attention in his class. We went down in the cable car to Venosco, a small supposedly typical village in the valley. But it was all shut up for the winter. The trip was pleasant enough. My own skiing, though, I was troubled by a bad knee. I only fell down once or twice on each day, and my skis never came off once in the whole week, so I’m not sure when I injured myself.
Another irritating problem was the queues for the lifts. On occasions these were bad enough to confine me to the lower slopes. On the whole, I skied all the blue routes throughout the mountains and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Two main lifts take one up to near the top and then an underground train carries one to the top of a gentle glacier at over 3,000 metres. It was cold up there, bitter sometimes, but the skiing was excellent and the views absolutely superb. From the top of the glacier you have 350 degree view of snow-capped mountain peaks, including Mont Blanc.
Paul K Lyons
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