PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 2001 - OCTOBER
1 October 2001
The beginning of the last quarter of the year. A strong wind in the night, and the first fall of wet birch leaves.
Lousy session at volleyball last night. Too many people, and I was incapable of playing well. Am discussing with Steve about whether we should take over coordination of the third Guildford team. Discovered yesterday we have our first match on Saturday and no one’s been told.
I saw L on Friday, and found her as lovely as I can ever remember, less severe a person than in the past - as though motherhood has rounded her, made her softer, warmer. We had that short term affair some years ago, but I’ve never liked her as much as I did on Friday.
2 October 2001, on Eurostar (again)
An extraordinary thing just happened. I had started writing an entry here, and suddenly the computer went dead, instantly; no warning about running out of battery power, or going into sleep mode, just an immediate cut out. It’s never happened before. I started up again, and there was clearly enough juice in the battery for a full boot, but then, in a minute or two, it went dead a second time. I didn’t try again. I wonder if it was being affected by electrical interference from outside or from the train itself.
3 October 2001, not on Eurostar
Vladimir Putin was in Brussels today (and yesterday) for a Russia-EU summit. I watched him (on a screen video link) answer questions from the press. He looks so young to be in charge of such a huge country with so many problems. Early on his microphone wasn’t working, and the person next to him leaned over to press a button. Putin stretched out an arm to pat the person on the back. ‘Prodi’s in charge of who talks’, he joked, only it wasn’t Prodi it was Javier Solana next to him! Energy remains a key component of the partnership, and I have a working paper describing the state of the talks. Usefully, because I’m short of energy stories, this should provide a feature. Interestingly, Putin also seemed to soften his stance against the expansion of Nato.
I am still very much in winding down mode. This is evident on the marketing side, because I haven’t done any at all for a year or more. But it’s also true on the editorial side. I don’t make any effort to make new contacts, or even to sustain old ones unless I really need them. I do a kind of minimum for each issue now, which is little more than a tight editing of a paper trail.
THE BLIND ASSASSIN
I am reading a novel, my first ever, by Margaret Atwood - ‘The Blind Assassin’. I’m reading it because it won the Booker Prize last year, and because I found it on Amazon for £3 or so. The narrator is an old woman, so we (that’s we as in we all, her readers) get quite a lot of ephemeral, but well-written, material about her day-to-day life inbetween the main plot of the book which concerns her sister Laura, and which is being told through sporadic memories of their childhood, so far, and presumably their later lives as I go on through the book. I don’t have much to say about it for the moment, but for one or two incidental things. Firstly, there was a moment when I was suddenly, but strongly, reminded by the writing style (not the content) of Robertson Davies (and I haven’t been reminded otherwise of any writers as I read the book). Why is this interesting: because they are both Canadian.
Secondly, on Monday, before I had started to read the book, but after I had already decided it would be my book for this Brussels trip, I checked into the Trace website. I have been dipping into the Trace chatroom for a year or two, especially looking at the weekly Sparks exercise where a writing teacher posts an exercise in order to encourage short creative responses. But I’ve never posted anything, I’ve not even tried to write something for it. Recently, though, I decided I would try and monitor the exercises as soon as they are posted with a view to writing and posting something. I checked on Monday evening to find this week’s task was based on an idea stemming from Margaret Atwood’s short stories. I found myself mulling it over, and then writing something (taking a key paragraph from my diary), and eventually posting it a couple of hours later. (I shall check back at the end of the week to see if there are any comments - Barry and other Trace staff usually offer encouraging words, especially when it’s a first time poster.) But the coincidence is an even richer one, because I found, once I started reading ‘The Blind Assassin’, that the style of my little story, could have been taken from Atwood herself, especially in the way I used an old family photograph as a catalyst for remembrance.
ME YOU THEM
On Friday, as I’ve said, I met L, and we chanced on a Brazilian film called ‘Me, You, Them’ showing at the Richmond Filmhouse, which had had a good write up in ‘Time Out’. And a deserved one too. On the face of it, this was a simple film about a peasant woman who has four children, all of them by different men. She already has a baby when the film opens, and she is heading for the city. Three years later she returns, with her growing child, to the rural village, and eventually accepts an offer of marriage (a home and stability) from a much older man. Her second child is darker than she, and we the audience are led to believe the father is a young black boy who works in the fields, but whom we never see again. The husband, who has become very lazy by now allowing his wife to do all the work, doesn’t question her about the child, although his sister makes a point of the colour. As time goes by the woman gets bored and runs away with her two children. She doesn’t get very far, the oldest child is taken away by an unknown person (later referred to as ‘the colonel’), and then the husband brings her back. The husband’s cousin joins the household (he needs somewhere to live) and the husband is able to boss both of them around. But they soon start a warm and friendly affair, doing things for each other, and enjoying each other’s company. When she gets pregnant again, she tells the cousin it is his, and this makes him very happy. The husband starts to get a little suspicious and becomes more involved in their activities. When a young handsome man arrives, looking for lodging, the woman makes eyes at him, but the cousin wants to get rid of him, fearing he might take her away from him. The husband, however, who owns and runs the house, sees an advantage in using the young man to break the relationship between his wife and cousin, and so invites the young man to live with them. The woman begins a passionate affair with the young man, and eventually falls pregnant. The young man wants to go away, so the woman persuades the cousin to persuade her husband to build an extra room on the house for the young man. When the fourth child is born, the husband’s sister, who acts as a midwife and who has commented obliquely on the paternity of the previous children, calls her brother ‘a cuckold’. The husband (who has fathered none of the children) starts to think about things more deeply than he has ever done before. He sees the happiness of the young man, with his baby in his arms, and the cousin playing with his child, and decides on action. When all are asleep he wakes the three children and hustles them into the cart and drives them away. The mother and fathers, when they wake, are horrified. But the husband soon comes back with the children - he has been to the registry in the town to legally register them all as his own, his very own children.
This film, which was beautifully photographed, was also seeped in gorgeous Gilberto Gil music. The performances were simply perfect, and the slow careful direction made every scene count. Of course, it was a metaphor for the development and evolution of the Brazilian people. The woman WAS Brazil, and the men represented the different generations: the first father represented the Portuguese colonists (with the child being returned to Portugal I suppose); the husband represented the first generation of colonists who stayed, who exploited Brazil and lived off the fat of the land, but never gave anything back; the cousin represented perhaps the first generation of Brazilians who really loved their country, who tried to work for it, make it into something, but who then became too comfortable and represented a threat to the old generation; and the young man represented the new generation, passionately in love with their own country wanting to do their own thing, not caring about what went before. And, of course, the black boy father represented the genetic input of the slaves.
The last time I was here in Brussels, last week, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a loud police car alarm. When I looked out of my window (which faces onto a short side street connecting two much larger streets), I saw two armed policeman running along the road past my window, and a police car turning into this road behind them. The men and the car travelled the length of the road, turned the corner and disappeared.
I had a chat with Adam the other day about one night stands. I think it came about partly as a result of me telling him about the story I’d written for the Trace site (and the fact that even today it is quite unusual to sleep with someone within a few days of meeting them, never mind in the 50s as my mother did with my father), and partly because I had mentioned the Bhagwan Rajneesh religion in the 70s and 80s (because of another conversation about Mormons and more recent religious sects). He asked me how many one night stands I’d had in my life, and then how many women I’d slept with. This was really out of the blue. Of course, I fudged on both. I said I’d only ever had one or two one night stands, one of which was the first time I’d ever slept with a girl, something I’ve already told him about. I emphasised how big a thing it is to make love with someone and that it should evolve out of a friendship. One night stands are certainly not usual, I said, and usually only result out of stupid drunkenness. But what I found so amusing was Adam’s attitude to this kind of conversation. Where only a year or so ago, he wouldn’t have engaged in such a topic, now he’s full of genuine interest, and cocky comments - so when I tell him that part of the attraction of the Bhagwan sect was freedom from rules, and liberal attitudes to sex, he sits up sharply with a big smile, and says ‘that sounds good!’. And when I suggest that the norm might be two or three partners before marriage, he seems to scorn the idea of such abstinence. But he does it in a jokey way which is as much designed to wind me up, as it is to demonstrate his teenage credentials, I suppose.
I have just listened to a debate on globalisation on Radio 4. I’ve also recently read a number of articles in ‘The Economist’ on the same subject. I’m interested because this is going to be a theme that I must tackle in Kip Fenn, and the more believable I can do it, the better the book will be. George Monbiot, a writer in ‘The Guardian’, was one of the people giving evidence in the programme. His main point was to promote a world parliament, but that is so naive. Interestingly, there does not seem to be much evidence about whether the inequality in the world is growing or not, and what impact globalisation might be having on inequality. If I remember right, I have already planned that at some point in the 2020s or 2030s a key report is published which demonstrates how much of the wealth of the previous 50 years say has been sucked into the first world, and this, extraordinarily starts off a chain of events which eventually leads to ICCO. I haven’t given much thought to it, but I know already that ICCO is not a world government - I haven’t considered such a thing in the whole of the 21st century. But one speaker did argue how impossible it would be for a central worldwide organisation to decided on the divisions of money, for example, between a village in Chile, for example, or a town in Africa. He argued, there needs to be far more local (and in his view voluntary) involvement in deciding how development monies should be shared out. Sometimes, a couple of times a week maybe, I get such an urge, such an itch to sink into Kip Fenn, and get going with my ideas, but I simply can’t go in and out of it on a daily or even a weekly basis. I will try now, through until Christmas, to use my spare weeks. But so far, I’ve failed to get going.
Ray Charles plays his groovy blues on Jazz Record Requests (on Radio Three). England has just drawn with Greece at Old Trafford, and because Germany only drew with Finland, we have now qualified as leaders of our group for next year’s World Cup. We only drew by the skin of our teeth because Beckham scored an almost perfect free kick goal in the 93rd minute.
More mundanely, we, the Guildford Storm team, have won our first match in Surrey League Division 2. I fully expected we would lose since our team, the one that won Division 3 last year, has had its best players put into Guildford’s higher Surrey League team but which is also still playing in Division Two. We played rather raggedly, I have to say, but we won quite easily. The other team, Teddington Carpet Flyers, lost a player within a minute or two. He crumpled his ankle in the same way I did earlier this year.
This evening I’m taking Adam to the Yvonne Arnaud to see Shared Experience do Angela Carter’s ‘The Magic Shop’. We’ll see Judy and Rob there, although not their children.
It is early Friday evening. I have Westbrook’s orchestra playing through the house, and I’ve decided to spend the next hour or so journal writing. Then I’ll probably cook something to eat and watch ‘Eastenders’ (yes, it’s on Friday now too. Last week, with Tony Jordan back in the writer’s chair, the soap exceeded itself, with the revelation that Zoe is Cat’s daughter by her uncle Harry who raped her when she was 13 - it was all very well done).
It has been a very warm day. I was out on the motorbike doing errands this morning, and rode with only a sweater on, and felt good. And while mowing the lawn, I was sweating. But the leaves are turning nevertheless - the amelenchiers are bare already, and the birches are going.
Right now, I have to write about my week in hell.
A WEEK IN HELL
My week in hell started last Sunday evening. Boringly, I’d worked all day, and was looking forward to volleyball in the evening. Because there had been a storm, I decided to leave a little early and drive slowly, and because the air attacks on Afghanistan had just started I was listening to Radio Five. It was dusk. As I was driving along the Shackleford Road, my brain detected a problem in front, but my eyes couldn’t actually see a problem. My eyes are at their very worst in low dusk-like light. Then, suddenly I saw that a tree was down, and that a car had parked horizontally across the road on the other side of the tree. I slammed on the breaks, pulled into the side, rather than going straight, to avoid the car, and hit the fallen tree trunk which was hidden by light branches and leaves. I got out of the car in some kind of semi-shock and marched around the fallen tree thinking I might be able to move it, but it was too big. I then dragged a small branch back the way I had come, and placed it across the road, to hinder anyone else making the same mistake I had. I was thinking I would drive on to volleyball, and realised that I could in fact drive through the middle of the fallen tree, seeing as how it had left an archway. But, I couldn’t do so because of the car in the way. By the time I’d returned from placing my warning branch, the woman owner of the car was talking to another person, and I left. At first, when the car started, I thought I’d escaped any serious damage, but then, when I had a look, I saw the whole corner had been smashed up. I decided I shouldn’t be driving it, and went home. On the way, I tried to remember the sequence of events, and slowly it dawned on me that my accident had not been caused by the tree as such, but by the car parked across the road. Without that car there, I could have driven through the gap, and suffered only scratches, if that. Also, because the car was there, when I pulled sharply to a stop, my instinctive aim was to avoid hitting that car, and I was less worried about what else I hit.
On Monday, I took the car to two body repair garages, one in Milford and one in Aldershot. Both gave me a quote for parts of exactly £495 - quite astonishing that - but the quote for labour differed by £100 or more. The car is going in on Monday, and will cost £1200 or more to repair. I’m fairly reconciled about it - I’ve never had comprehensive insurance, so I’ve saved thousands and thousands of pounds over the years, and I’m still in the black by my reckoning. It’s just one of those things, I suppose. How can I truly get worked up about it, when I think of all the friends and relations of the 7,000 people who died in the US, and all the hungry/homeless/dying people in Afghanistan.
That was, I suppose, the worst of the week, but it was only money. It was my production week, and, unusually, there was a mountain of important transport news due out on Wednesday, which made my life difficult. This is not only a practical difficulty, having to write and organise so much material at the last minute, but it’s a psychological torture that hangs over the whole week - it’s the not knowing how much there’s going to be, when it’s going to come, and whether I’m going to get the original texts or not. The Commission was due to (and did) adopt three major initiatives: the single European sky, aviation security, and aviation aid. All three of them linked in one way or another to the terrorist attacks. I had some partial information about some of them beforehand, but, in the end, I was so short of time and approved texts that I ran with the press releases in most cases. Also on Wednesday, though, the Parliament’s transport committee was voting on four or five important texts, two of them with hundreds of amendments. I marshalled Ton to send me his summaries as soon as possible, but again I didn’t know when they would come, and how much I’d be able to write. In fact, the final EP material didn’t get to me until midday yesterday. It was a 24 page issue, which is always tough proof reading. At least, I no longer have to do the email summaries, having abandoned them. I started work at 7:00, and finished about 7:30.
To make matters worse, on Thursday morning, I had scheduled an hour of root canal treatment. Luvly jubbly. In fact, since that awful trip to Richard 10 days ago, my tooth has been fine, much better, in fact, than it has ever been since I chipped it. But Richard had only put in a temporary filling, and he needed to fill the roots and seal off the hole properly and permanently. There was lots of drilling and filing, but it was all not too bad. By lunchtime on Thursday, the anaesthetic had worn off, and my 18 month tooth problem had finally been resolved. The bill was the worst of it - £285.
Then, finally to round off my week in hell, I managed to spill a full glass of red wine across the table in the lounge, splashing it all over the carpet, my trousers and the sofa - just as I was sitting down to relax with my meal, having finally completed my work. It wasn’t simply the spillage that got to me, it was that it meant I had to engage my brain and move swiftly and work hard for another 30-45 minutes to clean up and try and ensure that nothing would become stained. I threw my trousers in a full sink, I cleared away the broken glass, and then, in essence, I flooded the carpet, wiping and rubbing, wiping and rubbing until I could see no more spots. It’s all still wet 24 hours later, so I still don’t know if I managed to get all the wine out.
The bombing of Afghanistan has stopped today, for the first time since Sunday, because, we are told, it is a holy day for Muslims. But also there is an increasing clamour for the bombing to halt for a longer period, for the NGOs to be given time to offer humanitarian aid inside the country. The severe cold of winter is not far off, and food in many parts of the country has virtually run out. Many people are also starting to question what is the point of the bombing; if it is to get rid of the Taliban, then who or what could replace it - not the opposition northern guerrillas, by all accounts, they are no better.
I continue to be astonished by the skills of Mr Blair. He is proving himself both an excellent statesman, as he travels the world seeking to reassure arab leaders that this is not an attack on the Muslim faith and seeking alliances and deals wherever he can; and, one suspects, attempting to get the Arab-Israel peace process back on track, which would help underpin any end to this current war on terrorism. But also, he has become a great communicator. He wears emotion well, he uses language carefully to explain and reassure, and he is believable. We trust him. Amazing.
Saturday 20 October
It’s been exceptionally mild this week. This was fortunate for me since my car was in the bodyshop, and I was obliged to use Kiwi for errands and to go to volleyball. The Mondeo’s back now - looking spick and span, having been washed and polished, something I never do - and I am £1,200 worse off.
I’ve been working on Kip Fenn all week. I wrote about 9,000 words, more than doubling its length. But this is the first week, I suppose, in which I have really got to grips with writing the novel. Until now, I had been prevaricating. I wrote every day, not as much or as concentratedly as I would have liked - but still every day. I am in sight of the end of the first draft of the first chapter. This first part of the book is probably the easiest to write, because it’s set in the small world of Kip’s childhood, which is in the very near future. For later chapters, I am going to have to invent and predict much more. I have already begun to realise there are severe limitations to the novel’s structure. There can be no plot as such, which may severely undermine its publishability. And there are limited ways in which one voice can keep linking ideas and anecdotes to sustain the narrative.
Atwood’s novel ‘The Blind Assassin’ is narrated by an old woman reflecting back over her life. She interweaves two stories each inside two other stories, which is quite clever really; and on top of that, peppers the text with cuttings from newspapers. There are chapters in which the narrator reflects back over her young life and ekes out information which will lead us eventually to understand why her sister killed herself; each of these chapters usually begins with a reflection on her current life as an old woman, and the things that preoccupy her. In the parallel chapters, a sequence of illicit liaisons is described, between a female, presumably the narrator of the other chapters in her youth, and a male who is a wanted fellow moving from apartment to apartment. He tells her a continuous fairy tale - about a blind assassin - whenever they meet. It is beautifully written, full of insight, and intriguing. I do, though, find some of the links between the present and past over-contrived, and find the description - especially of upper class society - over-wrought, and I remain relatively uninterested in the plot.
But how am I, without all these devices, going to keep people interested in Kip Fenn?
22 October 2001
Shamefacedly I am watching my third film in three nights. Last night I watched almost three hours of ‘Jackie Brown’. I’d seen this in the cinema I think (but I cannot find a record of it my journal) in Brussels (Quentin Tarantino, written up from a Elmore Leonard story I think). But even though most of it was familiar, the performances and the plot kept me watching to the end. The night before, though, Clint Eastwood and the ‘Line of Fire’, which I had also seen before, lost me half an hour before the end. Tonight, though, I am enjoying a film I don’t remember seeing before: ‘Goldeneye’. Pierce Brosnan’s first outing, as they say, as Bond; Judie Dench as Q, or is it M. The opening is as preposterous as the ending of ‘Mission Impossible’.
And in the world, what has been happening. The news is still utterly dominated by the bombing of Afghanistan, although the Israel/Palestine conflict appears to be spiralling out of control as a consequence of the political/diplomatic fall-out from 11 September. The US has been bombing Afghanistan for a couple of weeks; the Taliban remain defiant, and Osama bin Laden remains, we suppose, well hidden and armed. With the US now in charge of the airspace, having bombed to destruction all of the Taliban/bin Laden aircraft and anti-aircraft guns, ground troops are now certainly inside the country, stalking the leader.
But in the US, a new menace has taken hold. Two or three people have died from anthrax infection, and a score more have been contaminated with anthrax spores. The US has been in something of a panic over this for a couple of weeks now, and the news is full of stories about biological weapons. It seems the anthrax has been distributed by post, a white powder inside ordinary looking envelopes. Confusing signals keep emerging from the US administration. Early on we were told that there was a link between one of the victims and a flat rented by one of the 11 September hijackers but then we were told the police had no idea at all as to who was responsible, and whether this was connected to bin Laden. Links with Iraq were suggested, and the idea was floated of bombing Saddam Hussein - the US would dearly love an excuse to move on that front. But almost immediately this was suggested, there was a wave of protest from Western and Middle East leaders, and suddenly the Iraq connection no longer seemed so certain.
Contrary to what ‘The Economist’ thinks - and I have been finding repeatedly that the magazine’s intelligence is stunted by its own inability to recognise how good the Blair government really is simply because of its traditional bias against a Labour government - I think Blair has not been playing a PR role for the US. Rather, I think he has played an extraordinarily clever hand in keeping the US and Europe onside together, but rallying the EU to back the US, and persuading the US against taking too drastic action. He is the only leader, so far as I know, to have made repeated trips to Asian and Middle East countries in the 11 September aftermath, in an attempt to ensure solid backing for the global coalition against terrorism. At home, he has barely put a foot wrong. He recalled Parliament several times, he formed a war cabinet (bravely including Clare Short, a left wing radical not beyond criticising her own government, who manages the overseas development portfolio).
Despite my initial concerns about an invasion of Afghanistan, I am still in support of this war, and the way it has been waged. My mind has been turned mostly as a result of assuming more intelligence about the extent of bin Laden’s network, and the inter-dependence of Al Qaida and the Taliban. But it has also helped to have clear and logical explanations of our government’s policy, and to approve of the way Blair is handling the whole issue (as above).
There has been a funny little spat in papers over an email sent by one of Stephen Byers political assistants. Within one hour of the 11 September attacks, she had sent out an email saying it would be a good time to put out bad news. What a stupid woman! The papers and the opposition had a field day, and have continued to have several field days. Byers didn’t sack her - I suppose because she did no more than tell the truth. Of course governments manage their news output and seek to bury bad news, and if he had sacked her, she might have been able to demonstrate how her own actions were only a reflection of the general culture within her department - stemming, no doubt, from Byers himself. However, it has re-armed those critics of the government who believe there is too much spin (a criticism I always find bizarre, its like saying you’re too clever).
23 October 2001, on Eurostar
Why am I found so often writing in this journal while on Eurostar? Because, a) I now take my portable on every trip; and b) often when I’m travelling out to Brussels, I don’t have any work to do as such.
The train has stopped - which is bad news. We have been told this is because of an incident on the train in front - this is very bad news. We are not even out of England yet. My quiet typing, normally drowned out by the persistent noises of the train, is echoing throughout this mini-carriage. More news, the train in front is waiting for the police to arrive - very very bad news. Now it is going again - we are 40 minutes behind schedule, which means I shall have to walk from Merode to Montgomery, assuming I’m in time to get the last metro to Merode.
Kip Fenn keeps crossing my mind - which is good - but I expect he’ll vanish over the next couple of days as energy and transport take over my mental space. I thought today, for example, (and I need to note this here or else I’ll forget it), that I should intersperse email dialogues throughout the book in order to help break up Kip’s voice, and to allow me, the author, a wider scope. In chapter one, it occurred to me that I could use an email correspondence between Kip’s mother and her brother to allow more discussion about his mother’s teaching methods, and how she brought Kip up. Equally, Jonathan, his uncle, could enthuse about his first important posting overseas. Kip could explain that he ‘inherited’ the correspondence from Jonathan. There could be at least one email correspondence in every chapter, perhaps. Also today in ‘The Economist’ I read about the new portable video phones that correspondents have been using to send TV reports from Afghanistan. It is fairly clear that within 20 years or so we’ll be using video phones as standard, in our houses, and on the move. And then (that’s a kind of rhetorical conjunction ‘then’, not a chronological ‘then’ - obviously), yesterday or even the day before yesterday, I saw Billy Connolly on the Parkinson show. He had dyed his goatee beard purple. I can’t ever recall seeing someone with a dyed beard - that’s straight out of my preliminary ideas for Chapter 4 or 5 of Kip Fenn.
Mum came down for a visit on Saturday. We went shopping at Secretts, then had a high tea lunch with lots of cheeses (B joined us). In the afternoon, I regaled her to talk about my future one more time. Her advice, such as it was, was twofold: a) to make whatever change I planned sooner rather than later; b) to be prepared for the worst of the downside possibilities. However she followed the full extent of my logic, about needing to give EC Inform up completely, and that there was no point in half measures, and she understood why I wanted to give up a comfortable and stable life. She pointed out that this big move would be different from when I went to Brazil, in that I had a definite plan then, this time I don’t, not at all. So, whereas she would trust me to apply myself hard, and probably successfully, to any new task I set myself, without a task, a plan, the outcome is far less clear.
Part of the reason for wanting to talk to Mum of course was to help me try and rationalise my own arguments, to hear myself talk and reason. In my head now, I have a definite cut off date - my last issues would be December 2002 - issue 110 for energy, and 66 for transport. This means that when I send out my renewals for February-January (most subscriptions start in February) - normally early in January - I would have to invoice for 10 issues only, not eleven. So a decision has to be made by New Year at the latest.
What am I thinking about the decision so far? I have to admit that I am not swaying. I intend to go through with it - closing down EC Inform. I think the real nail in the coffin of EC Inform is the thought that if I don’t shut it down, nothing will change about my life from here to infinity. I want different things to happen to me. I’m quieter now, and I’m sure I have less deep-down unrealistic ambitions for myself, and could settle for a more ordinary life with ordinary people in an ordinary way - perhaps, if I found the right person to do it with. Perhaps not. But unless I try I won’t know. I need to jump in the rain-filled quarry pit, struggle for breath a bit, taste some dirty water, and see what happens. If I end up a postman, watching TV at night and grumpily emailing media websites and writing self-righteous letters to local newspapers at the weekend, will I regret this decision? Maybe.
I am so often let down. Last night I went to see a film with Jack Nicholson playing a retired cop. ‘The Pledge’, directed by Sean Penn. I’d read good things about the film, and it sounded like it had a decent cop mystery at the heart of it. Nicholson was good - not brilliant - but the story was painstakingly told, the writing was poor, the direction was all over the place. One scene with Helen Mirren is embarrassingly awful and completely unnecessary. Another scene with Vanessa Redgrave is much better, but also still almost completely incidental to the movie. To have the baddie die in a car crash when he should have been arriving at the climax of the movie and doing more bad deeds, may have been a brave anti-convention thing to do, but one is left with a huge so-what feeling. Why is this movie? what is it about? and why have the last scene of Nicholson drunk and loony - it made no psychological sense at all.
And then there’s ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan which did not win the Booker Prize last week, thank goodness. Everyone has praised this book as his best ever. I am a third of the way through it, and am close to pronouncing it a load of pretentious twaddle. So far the book is about the lives of two sisters and a brother in a privileged pre-war household. McEwan writes about the inner worlds of the two girls in such detail, that I find myself constantly thinking it ostentatious and over-wrought, and skipping on a page or two. Some of the writing is good, brilliant even, but he goes too far, and imposes on his characters such complex calculated mental worlds that they are simply unbelievable. Also, why do we have to have so much intricate petty detail about their lives, half as much would be more than enough to set the scene, the atmosphere - the rest is just padding, baggage, showing off. In addition, some key events appear manufactured and imposed on the characters even though we have so much character/scene formation. The scene where Cecilia and Robbie break the antique vase would never have happened because Cecilia would have grown up knowing its worth; it would have been second nature to her not to use it any way that might lead to danger. If she had such a cavalier attitude to it then, why not before, in which case it would have been damaged sometime else in her childhood. It didn’t ring true. It is noticeable that McEwan has to make an effort to explain why such an antique vase is on display at all. Even worse, though, is Robbie. There are so many things wrong with this, 1) I don’t believe a young man of 21 would write or think in any way that would lead him to write the first of these two sentences: ‘In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts, I make love to you all day long.’ The second yes, but not the first which, to my mind, is the kind of thinking and language that emerges from either considerable experience of sex, or the use of pornography in the post-war period. 2) He could not and would not have mistaken the two letters: one was hand-written and the other was type-written, and besides the language of his pornographic postscript would be so strongly etched in his momentary thoughts, he wouldn’t be able not to check he had got the right letter. There are other things wrong too which I find really galling - no, it’s not that they are wrong that is galling, it is that the book and he are so feted that I find galling.
Yes, I’m on Eurostar going back home. It seems to be on time so far, so hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to Elstead in good time, have a sandwich, say hello to Charlie and Raoul, assuming they have arrived, and to Adam, check my emails, and head off to Sheen for our volleyball match against the Slayers.
I had a chat this morning to three fresh-faced French academics who are writing a report on energy policy for the French government. They had seen my 1994 book, and were keen to ask me questions about the energy policy process in Brussels. I got a look of horror out of them when I suggested they should argue for the revision of the Euratom Treaty, but I made them laugh too, and they seemed to take in my views. Otherwise it was a fairly standard short trip.
29 October 2001, on Eurostar - again
When I reread this journal in a dozen years time or more, I’m going to think I spent my life on Eurostar. It’s not only that I get the time to write when I’m on the train (without distractions), but writing is also a good way to pass the time.
I spent most of the weekend in the large and well-equipped sports centre at Durrington High School in Worthing taking part in a volleyball refereeing course run by Stewart Dunne on behalf of the English Volleyball Association. I had decided some while ago that, since I’m now playing in a team regularly, I should do a ref’s course so I can give something back to the club. Somewhat naively I had thought that I only needed to do this course, and I would be able to referee a match. Of course, it’s not that simple - there’s a lot of skill involved in running a match, and like anything else it takes experience. The course ran from about 9 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday, so I had to drive down from Elstead. There were a dozen others on the course, some very young, and a couple of oldies like me. But they were all from Sussex (naturally).
Dunne, who is not yet 40 but looks 45, is a heavy man with a huge paunch. You would never have guessed that he must have been one of the UK’s top volley athletes. Now, he is a professional international volleyball referee - although at his weight I wonder how long he’ll survive. He didn’t do much else all weekend except walk us through the volleyball rulebook (the international rules agreed by the FIVC) with a peppering of stories from his own reffing career (these stories got longer and more long-winded as the weekend dragged on). He explained and answered questions as he went, and he put the rules in perspective which would have been difficult simply reading them dry. He was quite amusing at times too. He had a number of stock phrases: whenever he approved of a rule, or had explained its usefulness simply and effectively he would say, ‘Which is nice’. Sometimes he would corrupt this to use it about something that had happened to him - ‘Which was nice’. Whenever he wanted us to take special attention, he would say ‘You need to know that - trust me’. On Sunday morning we did a ‘scorers’ module’ and a short test on whether we had understood the rules for scorers. I got the lowest mark: nine out of ten, everyone else got nine and a half or ten. On Sunday afternoon we took our exam (of which the scorers’ module had been but a part). It was more awkward than I expected, and I know for a fact I got several questions wrong - you need 80 out of 100 to pass, I think.
Once each day we played a little volleyball (against junior teams both days) and practiced reffing for a few minutes each. It was hard. I had been promised lots of volleyball by both Steve and Ian - but this was far from the case, and the volley we did play was worse than the worst training session at Guildford. On Sunday, I spent half an hour or so on the beach at Worthing - which was nice. Although my attempts to find a good cooked english breakfast failed miserably and I ended up at McDonalds, the only place open before nine.
The Thursday before, Guildford Storm (horrible name that) had its second match - in East Sheen against the Slayers, the team we beat in an enthralling five-setter last year, and again in the final. It was a horrible game. We played badly, and deservedly lost 3-0. There was no organisation in the team, Ian came late and coached badly, and we all made mistake after mistake. The third match was lost on Saturday (although I wasn’t playing), and we have our fourth match next Sunday. Our main aim is to hold on to second division status - though, with three players (Toby, Nick and Paul) who move heavily around the court, never cover, and can fluff ordinary passes, we may have a job on our hands. However, I’m having a bit of fun helping to organise the team this year, which gives Steve (the other organiser) and I a chance to chinwag quite a lot.
Raoul and Charlie came down for a couple of nights last week/end. We took them for a walk in the rain along the river, and then, in the evening, we played poker dice in the Woolpack. Charlie had Nasser Hussein’s luck in reverse.
On Eurostar - coming home - reasonably on time so far - I’ve written a couple of stories, and sorted my papers. Because, the EU institutions are on holiday for the next couple of days, and I’m back at my desk a day earlier than usual, I should be well on top of the workload for the November issues.
I have been contemplating on the banality, boringness, tediousness of my diaries recently. Why? That’s a good question. When I turned on my portable during the journey out to Brussels, I found a spurious file called ‘coooool poems for paul’. I realised that Raoul had used this computer, probably on Saturday morning after I’d raced off to Worthing. This was quite a rude thing to do, in fact, because I wouldn’t dream of opening his personal computer without asking first. In the same folder where he had saved ‘coooool poems for paul’ I found several of my diary files for October, the ones I’d written on last week’s trip to Brussels. This sparked a mild panic in me, as I feared what I might have written in those files, and what he might have read. But, on reading what I had written, I found myself bored! There was nothing there to raise an eyebrow, just a catalogue of the boring events of my life.
And this is true. This is what I do now. I simply write down what I’ve done, or what I’m thinking I don’t try to write clever, in the way I do, for example, in some of my email correspondences. But it takes effort and time to write interestingly, and when I sit down to write my journal, I’m more interested in recording events and feelings than in colourful writing - after all no one is going to read it. My emails, on the other hand, are composed for other people to read.
Paul K Lyons
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