PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1987 - APRIL
DIARY 35: April-August 1987
7 April 1987
Putting pen to paper at last, three weeks to the day that I’m back for good in this country of mine. On the record player Sandy Shaw sings - the second record I ever bought - is it 20 years ago? In the garden, the bergenia flowers abundantly, the yellow flowers of the mahonia are almost at an end. A few daffodils emerge - but somewhere hidden in the shed must be a collection of bulbs sadly missing a season or two. The clematis and the ivies are flourishing, and I expect the chaenomoles buds to open soon. Virginia, the virginia creeper, on the front of the house, continues to grow slowly but refuses to attach itself properly to the brickwork - in four years a decent grower would have given a good covering by now. Parked up the street a little way sits HMS, a ten year old Honda Civic that I bought last week. She is brown, automatic (whatever possessed me to buy an automatic? - perhaps the hope that Barbara might learn to drive in an automatic with less fuss) four-door with a hatchback. Her body’s halfway to heaven on the rust road but the engine seems trouble-free for the time being.
I sit in the sitting room, still a mess as I’ve not given it any attention; Julian’s possessions are piled up here waiting for his newly-purchased flat to be ready. To my right, Philly, the philodendron I rescued from the garden, where it had mistakenly been planted as a fatsia, is so grateful for having been brought in out of the cold that she continues to give forth giant and shiny leaves on longer and longer, firmer and firmer stems, perhaps trying to turn the room into a Brazilian junglette.
Behind me, find an Amstrad video bought for a little over 300 nicker - I long promised myself a video on returning to the UK. I am muchly in love with British television. In the study, my Kaypro computer sits resignedly in the cold climate of England never having wanted to leave the tropics - and damn it, I’m not having any success selling the thing here either. I’ve bought another Tandy printer, though, and that’s all linked up OK. What else have I purchased? A jacket, a carpet for the breakfast room - maroon, Wilton, traditional pattern goes like a dream with my white, maroon and blue colour scheme inspired by Chico Rei Pouso in Ouro Preto. I’ve still to buy a colour telly, a squash racket - a new camera will have to wait.
For two weeks I did little more than decorate my rooms. I really couldn’t live in them - they were so grimy. The bedroom ceiling was badly stained while the wall was covered in marks. I painted the lot, dry-cleaned the curtains, and washed the carpet. Once the bedroom was done, I could shift most of the clothes piled up in the study. That allowed me to get some reasonable order to set up the computer and printer and write essential letters. Next, the breakfast room needed a complete overhaul. I am pleased to confess I’ve brought back the popular, striped, painted floorboards, only this time they are blue and white, and completely painted - not just where the carpet wasn’t. Although the decoration in the kitchen was not too bad, it was a horrible bright blue which froze the room so completely even the cooker couldn’t get warm. I painted it over in peach, and glossed the woodwork white. Even now I’ve not got order fully restored in there - where do the milk jugs go? and on which shelf should I store the peanut butter?
Thursday 9 April
So much to record - things of importance - but I am so unsettled that I find it difficult to concentrate on one thing. I have not yet made a serious attack on the job market, and I know that my wellbeing, my welfare, mental and physical, depends entirely on finding occupation. Next week, I suppose, I will start. This week has rather been taken up with the possibility of buying a house in Aldeburgh.
The story begins the first weekend of my return when Barbara and I motored up to Aldeburgh for the weekend - the intention being to stay in a B&B (the first time, in fact, since I’ve always stayed at friends before) and discuss all the important aspects of our future partnership in parenthood. Once there, I looked in estate agents’ windows, as I usually do, and put my name down for houses up £50,000 with Tuohy & son. This Monday past the first mailing from Tuohy arrived - three houses. One of them detailed a small two-bedroom cottage at £32,000, and almost immediately I became very excited. Somehow, all my doubts about what to do with the £30,000 saved in Brazil vanished, and I focused completely on the idea of using it to buy a holiday cottage. I called Tuohy to find out further details. 15 Leiston Road, he told me, was in fair condition, needed no major structural work, and had indeed only just come onto the market - one offer had already been made. In other words I would have to move quickly.
I paced around the house a little more, did some calculations over money, nipped out to the Halifax to ask about second mortgages, and rang up the Midland bank to ask them about mortgages too. The Halifax, or any other building society, don’t actually offer second mortgages, and the Midland said it would be tough since I didn’t have a job to assure them about repayments. Then, on Monday and Tuesday, I was thinking of borrowing about £15,000, but now I’m looking at only £5,000.
Next, on Monday, I went to see Mum, and discussed the whole idea with her as a check that I wasn’t being manic. She agreed to come, on Wednesday, with me to Aldeburgh to look at the house.
Any way here are the arguments as I see them. Firstly, there is a negative argument: I can’t just leave the money in the bank, and what else will I do with it. I’m not interested in stocks and shares. I have no pressing business idea, or any ambitious money-spending plans (except perhaps the restructuring of 13 Aldershot Road, but I’ve gone off that idea for the time being), and I’m not planning to remain unemployed for long. On the positive side, I love Aldeburgh more than any other single place. I love to be in the country, by the sea. London appears to me to be more and more choked; more and more the middle classes are looking for that breath of fresh air. Most importantly, though, such a house can be a place where both Barbara and I can be together with our child; and it will give Barbara somewhere else to go to be away from her small flat, somewhere more spacious, more healthy where she can stay for a week or more at a time with no cost and no compromise.
The more I thought about it, the more I discussed it with Mum, the more sound the idea became. Tuesday night I found it hard to sleep. Dad, who I had spoken to briefly, suggested I ought to get somewhere very nice for that sort of money; and Barbara also said I shouldn’t rush into buying the first place I saw. So, I lay awake, imagining a dark dank hole of a house with plaster falling off the walls, and worried about taking such a big step so quickly.
The day out to Aldeburgh with Mum proved a big success. The journey took two hours precisely; we arrived dead on 10:30am at the estate agent’s office, having left London around 8:30. Nicholas Tuohy, with a touch of Parkinsons, showed us around the terraced cottage. It is literally just round the corner from where Phillip Needham used to live and where, perhaps, his friend Andrew still lives. This relieved me a little for I had visions of the house being 15-20 minute from the high street, which would have been a bit of a nuisance. And inside, the house was delightful. Not at all in bad condition, just needing a coat of paint, little or no damp, no crooked walls, no plaster falling off. The garden stretched back 50-60ft, not very large as the width of the property is so little, but enough to grow veggies and a few flowers. Mum and I were really quite charmed by it.
Wondering around the village afterwards we discussed it. The major drawbacks for me, I felt, were the lack of room to put junk, and the lack of a place that could be a private study or even anywhere to put a desk. On the other hand the advantages are that it would cost nothing to make it habitable or upkeep, it is in Aldeburgh, it is two-bedroomed, and a whole house. It has a garden - would I prefer a garden or a study? Would I prefer a more sizeable place but not in Aldeburgh? Overall, I decided it was a good buy. Before leaving Aldeburgh, I returned to Tuohy, and gave him a verbal offer of £30,000. He mumbled, yes, they might accept that, and promised to call me the next day. But here I sit at 4:50 on the very next day, and not a call have I had.
Worrying rather early about the financial aspects of the scheme, I went to chat to the Nationwide about increasing the loan on this house from £25,000 to £30,000. Unfortunately, I would need to specify what the loan would be used for, then show bills afterwards. So that - the cheapest way of borrowing a fiver - is out the window. But now, at 4:55, and not having heard from Tuohy, I suspect the owners are holding out for an offer near £32,000. In any case, Tuohy told me there was a sale condition that the property will not be handed over until 1 July, and I clearly wouldn’t have to find the money until. So I worry without reason.
All day alone nothing much to do. A vague headache annoying me, ruining any little concentration I might have. What friends do I have in this great city - far too few, and those few I have I hardly see very often. I’ve seen Raoul and Caroline once for example. They’ve moved into a large semi-detached house opposite a dull part of Wandsworth Common. I went down to see them there once. Caroline was only two or three weeks perhaps out of hospital since having their second child - Sophie. Odd that they should call her Sophie, the same name as Rob and Judy’s girl.
R & I went to the pub for half an hour - it’s just on the corner, large and plush and quite comfortable. He told me he had resisted the great decoration - costing £5,000 - for a while but in the end couldn’t really see why he was objecting, and his wife really wanted it. I think it was Caroline’s decision to move to Wandsworth too, to buy a house for £220,000.
The following night I went to Andrew and Rosy’s. Tammy and Jason are now fully-fledged adolescents with lives more and more secret from their parents. Jason is tall, very handsome, calm and quiet with an attractive knowing smile. Tammy, on the other hand, is still a bit podgy but she makes up for it with a sharp wit and a quite charming personality. Jason shows intelligence at school, while Tammy seems good at drawing and design. Andrew kindly gives me a lift home. On the way he tells me that he and Rosy have started going to a marriage guidance counsellor. Andrew suggests the counsellor is beginning to side with him, and suggesting that Rosy’s profession is causing too much strain on the family.
Then there’s Judy and Rob. They have made their Stoke Newington home comfortable, tidy and even elegant. The atmosphere between them remains gentle and caring. Sophie is beautiful, with golden hair and shining blue eyes.
Yesterday, Thursday, a tall scruffy man haunted Aldershot Road. Every time I went out of the front door, he began to walk down from the top of the road or up from the bottom of the road. I went out to buy a paper, empty bins into the dustbin, get something from the car etc. He was there every time. And I remember I’d seen him before - it took me a while to recall that it was at Swiss Cottage Library. The man is clearly mad, for he talks to himself constantly. In the afternoon, I watched him for a while from my large window. I saw him sit on the wall at the corner of the garage, get up, walk down a few paces, urinate in a corner by the entrance to the evangelical church, return to his seat, get up, walk down the street, turn round etc. He must have been doing it all day. I could not get inside his head, could not understand what he was doing, or what he thought he was doing.
I should write something about Barbara and the growth of our babe. As agreed we tried to talk about future in Aldeburgh that first w/e. Where did I think friction might arise in our discussions? I suppose on food - that’s the obvious area, given how vegetarian Barbara is, but that was cleared up straight away because she said she would want the child’s menu to include fish, and in return I said I wouldn’t mind if red meat was excluded. Not a bargain just a natural compromise. I thought Barbara might be over-possessive and not agree to let me look after the baby, say, twice a week, but I misjudged her of course. She wants what’s best for the child, and, in her mind, that is for me to be as involved as possible.
It is some weeks ago now, and I have trouble recalling the full extent of our talks. We talked a lot about when and how much she should work. Barbara intends not to work for at least a year, and would like not to work for two. But I felt, there might be a temptation to then be satisfied with any old job - i.e. the child will have become such a central objective in her life that her job or career would pale into comparison. She already admitted to feeling that. Her attendance at night classes for an a-level - which she would need to get into university - has dropped right off. It will be important that she does not sacrifice any career progress for the sake of the child (postpone it yes but cancel no) because, although the child can be all consuming for a number of years, life is long. Thus both for her and for the child, it seems to me better if she goes back to work/study as soon as possible.
Perhaps Barbara’s main preoccupation has been about money, but we cleared that up as fast as food. I told her that I could see no reason why she shouldn’t be able to maintain the same standard of living that she’s been used to, and that I would open an account for her and pay a regular amount into it - probably a bit more than she will need, so that monies can accrue for when larger items are needed. I said she would have to think of the money as hers and not as a gift. I say all this believing myself to be speaking the truth, and I can’t see that I won’t do as a I say. We must both make enquiries to find out how best to organise the legal and official aspects. I wonder about my rights as a father, for example, and whether they will be improved if the child has a surname which includes both Collecott and Lyons for example. We must make provision of what to do if Barbara were to die so that I, rather than her parents, get custody of the child. These things are important.
Luke is well - a smile beaming as ever. He seems to be moving into the world of directing. He has been invited to direct a 10 week season of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Aberystwyth, and will go straight from that to his summer project at Deal. He told me about the birth of his first child. At the time, he was not working while his wife Jo was. They therefore decided that when the child was born he would look after it, while Jo went back to work. Once the child was born, however, she didn’t want to go back at all, and Luke needed to find a job. That’s how he ended up working for the Phantom Captain! He rang yesterday to say he’s off to Portugal for a week. I asked what for. He said simply ‘sex’. The joys of sex on the Algarve. Sounds all right.
Tuohy tells me that my offer on 15 Leiston Road has been equalled and that I must now make a ‘best and final offer’ by Wednesday. I think he must have gone back to one of the other prospective buyers who then put their bid up to the same level as mine. I think this because when I mentioned £30,000 to Tuohy he muttered ‘yes, I think they’ll accept that’. I am plagued by the thought that if I’d bid £30,500 I might have been accepted, and now I have to raise my bid probably to £32,000. I shall seek Dad’s advice.
Financially speaking if I have a job by July then £32,000 will be as easy to raise as £30,000; and if I haven’t got a job then even £30,000 will be difficult.
Today I wrote a longer letter to Rosa, finding as ever the actual writing of Portuguese terribly difficult.
I clean the walls and doors and windows, well a few of them.
Names from the past ring me. Ann Hubbard, who hasn’t changed a bit, is looking for a man. Vonny, who is now married to Steve, a New Zealander - sets up a meeting. She has had problems with her ceramic studio partner, and their divorce is being settle by solicitors.
Well I’ve put an offer in to Tuohy of £32,000. Today is the deadline for offers, and Tuohy has promised to tell me one way or the other by tomorrow. I feel fairly confident that I will get the house, but not at all confident that I couldn’t have got it cheaper. Ah well, I can think of two advantages of being at the asking price: 1) that if I lose the house I will be sure that I didn’t offer too much! 2) when it comes to the survey I can be, perhaps, a little more aggressive.
For four or five days now I have done little other than think about Aldeburgh. I thought Saturday Barbara and I might go up to Wirksworth to have a look at what else is available for the money, but endless chattering about, endless imaginings all come to the same conclusion: a cottage in Aldeburgh would be most ideal. Perhaps I lose a bit of space for my money but I gain in location. The thought plagued me for a while that perhaps I shouldn’t buy this particular house, but then I couldn’t imagine a cheaper house coming on the market in Aldeburgh - there are just not many cottage-sized dwellings there.
I lie on the sun roof here at Aldershot Road. With the sun out, the air is quite warm today. The telephone reaches out here now that extension leads are available, and I’ve bought one for £7 - not that the telephone has rung all day. The roof looks a bit of a mess: the tar surrounds and cement flashings are in need of a proper repair, the pointing on the chimney is also shot.
At the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, I learn that a father of an illegitimate child has absolutely no legal rights, and it makes no difference whether he is registered as the father or not. However, where the parents are in agreement this lack of legal rights makes little practical difference, and if, later in the child’s life, a dispute occurs, then it will be up to the court to decide on custody and visiting rights, and this will depend on the relationship between the child and the father, and what the court judges will be best for the child. Raoul attacks me with the possibility of Barbara meeting a foreigner and running off to a faraway land. I say that is just as likely to happen to a married couple, and that I am absolutely convinced that Barbara feels that what is best for the child will always matter most, and a firm and constant relationship with his or her father will be best for the child.
Barbara and I went to see a newly-released film by David Lynch of ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘Elephant Man’ fame. The film - ‘Blue Velvet’ - tells of the dark and evil doings in a backwater American town. Lynch weaves a plot whereby the freshest and most innocent side of the town comes face to face and then deeply involved with the darkest and most evil side. I have to say that I found the film neither as surreal or as unusual as critics have been making out - perhaps for 20th Century Fox it is a bit different. I liked the contrast of the blonde blue-eyed cop’s daughter’s innocence shattered against the nastiness of the doings of the bad man, a brilliant portrayal by Dennis Hopper, whose character takes nitrous oxide every few minutes to enhance his sexual feelings or sadistic tendencies. But there was too much of the song ‘Blue Velvet’, too much of the wide-eyed hero walking up the fire escape steps because the elevator was broken, and not enough of the photographic contrasts that the film promised from the beginning.
Alone I went to the Haymarket Theatre to see ‘Breaking the Code’ [with Derek Jacobi] - a biographical play about Turing. I always find it interesting to see biographical plays and watch how the playwright weave plot and history together. This one did it quite well, taking key moments in Turing’s life and interweaving a collection of scenes from each. But the play was also interesting for being about a famous mathematician - the first to really get to grips with computers and their potential. I was delighted to see that the playwright did not flinch from trying to get across the mathematical advances initiated by Turing to the audience - quite a mammoth task - and indeed he did try to give a taste of the mind-brain problem. However, overall I felt the playwright was more in sympathy with Turing’s homosexuality than with his mathematical genius, and I think he failed to get across the great advances in mathematics and the importance of the mind-brain problem. Far far better, though, to have made a go of it, and to find plays about scientists in the West End. We must revive charisma of science.
With Judy I went to see ‘Yerma’ by Lorca at the Cottesloe. The play - new to me - is a powerful study of a barren woman in a 19th century Spanish village. Like ‘Blood Wedding’ it is a dramatic indictment of the rigid religious and social disciplines that ruled people’s behaviour - perhaps still did in Lorca’s time. What the play lack in substance, Juliet Stevenson made up for in her performance, acrobatic, athletic, moving. For me, the final tragic resolution of the play moved over into melodrama, although not for Judy. Overall, I felt the director (whom Judy knows vaguely) seemed to have no real feel for Spanish culture or character and so the production was neither truly Spanish, nor well relocated to Northern England.
15 Leiston Road is mine for the princely sum of £32,000, subject to survey and contract. All I have to do now is pay for it. I hope, at least, my money comes through from the US - it is really unfortunate that the dollar is so weak. I can barely get £6,500 for my $11,000 at present, but if the dollar were worth 0.75 of a pound instead of the current 0.61 then I would have the extra £2,000 I need just like that.
More people. Vonny comes for a couple of hours. We talk about Raoul, about Rosy and Andrew. She still feels for R but says she is really very happy married to Steve - happier than she’s ever been. Steve asked her to marry him after five weeks. She didn’t hesitate. Steve was a pop star in NZ but failed to make it in the UK, and has now returned to graphic design. The two of them are broke because they’ve bought a BMW worth £6,000 to ship over to NZ when they go next year - V says they sell over there for triple their value here. V’s ceramic work has been badly upset by a bitter argument with her partner in their Portobello Road workshop.
I met Mike Skapinka for lunch - he’s landed a job on the ‘Financial Times’ management page. He says he went through eight interviews, which sounds a bit excessive, nevertheless a good job to have. For the first three months, he found the work much more rigorous than at McGraw-Hill, much more serious editing. He has to produce two short articles and one long article every two weeks. It’s strange that I should like Mike, should want to meet up with him occasionally. I mean I don’t really want to do so with any other journalists. But I discover his mother was a Jewish refugee from Germany in 1939, she got to South Africa, now Mike has settled in London with his German (EEC) passport. We talk about being a foreign stringer, and about coming back to the UK, and what we love about London, about the Brits. We sit outside a wine bar - St Paul’s dominates the scene. The glass of orange juice costs £1, a salad £2.50. What price the City?
Assuming I get at least a 1.63 exchange rate, which is looking extremely doubtful, my $10,000 in the US will bring my monies in the UK up to little more than £29,500. So, if the exchange took place today on my little cottage, and I had a job today, I would still need to borrow £3,000. £3,000 over six years would cost me £67 a month. I am no longer playing with fivers in a Post Office savings account. In fact, I will need more, at least £5,000, which would push repayments up to a fairly significant level. My preoccupation with this deal shows through. Perhaps, after all, we really would have been better off with a cheaper cottage in Wirksworth. I could have paid for it outright, and had money to support us for months to come. I suppose really it all depends on me getting a job.
I often forget to write my crackpot theories down in the diary, even if I think they are important. This one concerns the evolutionary memory of flora. Man has a hundred or a hundred and fifty years of accurate weather data. It can input this data, and look for patterns, and make weather forecasts through probability studies. But, but there exists records of the weather going back not centuries but hundreds and thousands of centuries. Flora, and to a lesser extent, simpler fauna, react strongly to the weather conditions throughout the year, especially in temperate climates where the seasons are clearly defined. Stages in a flower’s or a tree’s annual development are largely marked by the weather, hence the grand profusion of leaf growth in the spring, after the last frosts. That’s the obvious one, but the time of flowering, the length of time flowering lasts, leaf dying, and many other subtler moments in a plant’s calendar are triggered by the weather. The very fact that a plant variety has survived - i.e. is alive - means that it has evolved when many others have fallen by the wayside, and thus, during its evolution, it has developed a near perfect response to the weather. Within its genetic structure it has millions of years of weather code, it has developed - by virtue of being extant - a response pattern to all the probable variations of the weather based on all the experience of its genes. This is not to say that a plant, therefore, knows what the weather will be like given the history up to that moment, BUT that it will have programmed within it a set of damn clever probabilities. Country people have long said that the future weather conditions can be predicted by the behaviour of certain species. I believe that such information is too unstable because weather follows no fixed patterns, however I do believe that by looking at the history of various species, the monitoring of when they leaf, when they flower etc., and then the relationship, the varying relationship between them, we can get a lot more precise information about what the weather might do, than our own simple charts of temperatures and rainfall can provide.
It is possible that the reaction of flora to the weather is extremely uncomplicated - a simple instant response to changed light conditions and temperature - but this is unlikely to be so since Barbara says that flowering times of plants are not always in proportion, are not staggered evenly each year. This would suggest that each plant is reacting in a different way to different conditions for different reasons. In order to tap all the information, it would be necessary to choose a set of flora with clearly defined stages and to record information as to how and why these stages changes alongside careful records of weather conditions.
Many things happen in the world. I am too lazy to record them. I must set down my thoughts on the arms deal that Gorbachev is seducing Reagan into. Reagan wants to go into the history books, Gorbachev wants to recharge the image of Russia in the west among peace-lovers to boost Green support which will ultimately weaken the west. This battle between communism and capitalism is still very young in historical terms. It could be that communism is destined to win over - for how long can we avoid it. Russia must see the west in decline, social disorder increasing, and do anything it can to promote it. I heard a NATO commander on the radio saying he believed that Gorbachev really did want a reduction in nuclear warheads, was genuinely concerned about peace. Yes, I’m sure it’s true but will the next leader and the next.
Tuesday 21 April
It seems to me that every other day a soldier is killed in Northern Ireland - abominable how chronic this business is. I wonder if the violence is being stepped up because of election fever. The newspapers are crammed with election stories. The first possible date passed by with a veritable screeching among journalists, but the saner among them advised that the Tories were likely to wait to see the results of the local elections taking place in May, which would then give the government an option of a June election. In June the government may be able to announce that unemployment has fallen below three million - a watershed that Labour will find difficult to damn. The Tories have manipulated the stats well - both on the counting methods and over half-baked schemes and registering methods. I don’t think Maggie will be scared of Labour any more. I wouldn’t be - they are a changed party, a group of amateurs overawed by radical politics. But she will be concerned about losing the extent of her majority, and giving power away to the Alliance in a hung parliament. I think it inevitable that the Alliance would move with the Tories rather than Labour.
On Sunday, I meet Les and Rosemary, Barbara’s parents. It surprised me to find them attractive, for both of them are good-looking - they are also well educated and able to chatter on a variety of subjects. Rosemary is interested in all things spiritual, trances, mediums, tea leaves. She laughs like a child, suddenly and loudly. Les is more interested in things practical, cars, how they work, repairs, etc. I stayed for a couple of hours, and the time was never strained or tense. B kept the tea and cakes flowing. After they went, she phoned to tell me they had liked me. Last night B and I went to Mum’s but I felt so quiet, so unlively.
An Easter full of films, the best of which was ‘A Man for All Seasons’ which I don’t remember seeing before.
I spend some days over Easter getting the garden/yard in order. Most of the top soil has been washed away during the last two years, leaving a layer of stones and rocks on the surface. I work my way through from the hydrangea at one end to the mahonia at the other, turning over the soil, cutting out the dead leaves and shoots, and generally tidying up. All the unhealthy plants have been attacked by woodlice at the base of their stems, they have done damage to the hydrangea, ruined the bergamot, and destroyed the tubers that gave a constant flourish of clover like leaves and pink flowers. But all the main shrubs are enjoying a healthy adolescence. The hebe and chaenomoles rub shoulders, the chaenomoles is currently in full flower and looks resplendent with its gorgeous orange covering. Both the lavender and rosemary have bushed out across the path, and I’ve strung them back a bit but will probably have to give them a haircut after flowering. The clematis montana and the ivy have spread well over the wall year by year, but there are now big gaps at the sunny end, since the passion flowers burnt themselves out. The mahonia has turned into a miniature tree and blocks the view of the rest of the garden from the French windows in the bedroom. So I am trying to pin it back closer to the wall. The lavender, that got moved to the darker, damper end of the flowerbed, has not done as well as the other, while the Cotoneaster horizontalis spreads its layers slowly across the bases of the ivies. A vinca struggles against the bigger and stronger plants that surround it.
Barbara gives me back some plants: a wisteria that is smaller than when she bought it for me several years ago, a rose - either Schoolgirl or Paul’s Scarlet - that looks sicker than a deader parrot, a Berberis darwinii, badly damaged by frosts, and my old honeysuckle that still hasn’t flowered after four years. These - and a prunus that hasn’t gained an inch in height in three or four years - have I planted in the bed to see if solid ground suits better than pots. By the back door I have a Gypsy Queen clematis bought for £5. I hope it was worth it, and a honeysuckle cutting from B’s plant that has flourished magnificently in her garden.
I read an article in the ‘UK Press Gazette’ about a 30 year old roadie who bought a local free paper and is now running it as a one-man show. On the one hand, I really feel I should be doing something brave and risky now, but on the other I have snookered myself by buying this house in Aldeburgh which will leave me without spare cash for a couple of years.
And how is the job hunting going? The Monday before Easter I started in earnest. James Ball at ‘International Gas Report’ [Financial Times Business Information] offered me two weeks work at the end of June, and said maybe ‘International Coal Report’ could use someone temporary too. I wrote off for jobs to the ‘Oilman’, the BBC (a contract producer - fat chance), some freelance work about EEC regulations, and something else even more minor. I have also written spec letters to ‘The Daily Telegraph’, ‘The Times’, Time Life books, ‘The Independent’ and ‘The Observer’. I run along to the library regularly to check the newspapers and magazines. I sent off ‘Sparky’ stories to PAN and will send ‘Veronica’ to a couple of magazines - stupid, but the cost of photocopying has delayed me. It is a nuisance I haven’t got any part-time work at McGraw-Hill. Surely, my old boss could have found me something. So, I actually run out of things to do. I feel I should be doing more to find a job but can’t think what. And as for any fresh writing, that’s out the window altogether. Perhaps I ought to do some freelance journalism, but I have no idea where to start.
Sunday 26 April
For more than a week now we have had magnificent weather, the sky has been blue and the sun hot - the weathermen were predicting 20 degrees for today. I sit in the yard drinking my morning coffee and reading ‘The Observer’. Three yards away an early morning party is in progress, the black family next door talk and laugh loudly, their music has to be that much louder to compensate. I am mildly irritated by the noise, but feel a certain nostalgia for Brazil where nobody worries about making too much noise, witness the bars, the cinema, the beach. I do think, however, that it would be fine to own a proper garden and be isolated enough to have peace and quiet. My little yard does give me so much pleasure. I go out several times a day to examine the newly embedded plants, to see if they’ve taken and begun growing yet.
Reading ‘The Observer’ I see Maggie has implied we will have an election soon, but she refuses to tell us when - all the polls give her a clear majority. I fear we are in for a thorough bleaching - I mean we the people have been cleaned of socialism but a third Tory term will mean the full works - everything privatised, the social services brought to their knees, the government retreating from social responsibility more than it has done for many decades. Blame Labour for allowing its rank and file to get out of line.
The read though a short story by Martin Amis from his new book of shorts to be published this week. It is called ‘The Immortals’, and is written in the first person by an immortal who talks about centuries as though they were moods he had or had felt. In fact, I found the style quite similar to my own ‘Blue Darlings’, and that there was nothing very exceptional about it (considering its front page Observer status, and Amis’s status). There’s hope for me yet.
Barbara and I spend most of the weekends together. Yesterday, we travelled out towards Enfield to find cheaper nurseries and garden centres. Now with the M25 - the London Orbital - we can get to Crews Hill, where there’s a profusion of them, in 20 minutes. It took us that long just to get to the garden centre at Alexandra Palace which was expensive. In fact neither of us wanted to buy that much or had a clear idea of what we wanted. Barbara was after some chrysanthemums that could withstand the winter, and I bought a salix because I liked the silvery catkins.
We tripped around looking for a jumble sale. One in Cuffley didn’t start for an hour, and while looking at the map I realised how near we were to Hoddesdon, and was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to see the places of my adolescence. I can’t remember the last time I went to the area, perhaps not for seven or eight years. I have new eyes, I notice gardens, old houses, the presence of countryside, woods. Driving through the Broxbourne woods, I recognised places through which we used to run cross-country from the school. We arrived into Baas Hill, my old school, Broxbourne School remains largely unchanged. I recalled the accident Colin had in the Standard 10, Samantha, and the building of the swimming pool. I remembered a short story I wrote about six or seven years ago called ‘Martha Cramer Lets Off Steam’. It starts with a teacher boarding a bus with hoards of schoolchildren. I realised that, in writing the story, I had imagined the bus stop outside Broxbourne Grammar (as it then was) - it seemed more real in my story than there on the A10 with its own layby.
I drove the back way to West Hill Road, Hoddesdon, the same way I used to ride my bicycle to school, a way full of hills (whereas the main road, the direct route, was flat and easy). There - on the back way - I found the windy and mysterious Cock Lane, with its ford, and the park with lake and island. West Hill Road and College Road are, to this day, unmade up, even though there are mini housing estates still being built all around. I couldn’t recognise Hutchings’ house because the conservatory where Mark had beaten me so consistently at table-tennis is gone. I told Barbara about the small wood on College Road (still there) where, once upon a time, we found wild strawberries, and how I used to play on the building site of the houses behind West Hill Road. I forgot to mention the tree swing the Hill family installed in the orchards, and how I fell off once badly banging my head.
There are certain memories that recur time and time again in the normal course of one’s life, but returning to a familiar place after many years absence it’s as though one reads off the very landscape or townscape forgotten memories. Just recalling street names and house shapes somehow transports one into the period again, in contrast to the oft-repeated memories which have left behind their scenery, their clothing of the time, becoming stale and faded.
The centre of Hoddesdon is now uglier than ever - the Tower Centre was bad enough but now there’s more modern boxes around it. The flea pit is used for bingo instead of cinema, but I’m glad to report that the fish and chip shop around the corner still exists, and still sells those giant gherkins. Soon after leaving the fish and chip shop, the car gave up. This was the first time I’d taken this Honda Civic on a longish run, and I had been thinking what a good buy it was. I could find nothing wrong with the engine, and, after getting my hands dirty without effect, we resolved to go and look for a mechanic. In fact, we found one, Robin Winfield, right next to the fish and chip shop. We could not have asked for a nicer guy. He came immediately solved the problem in less than 20 minutes (he diagnosed a cracked coil and insulated the ends to avoid the short circuiting that had caused the problem). He charged us only £3. In the entrance to his garage a massively beat up old banger signalled his main hobby - stock car racing, or, as we joked, adult dodgems.
A letter from Rosa arrives this morning. The dance group has taken over where I left off. It seems she needs a single love of the moment. Before me it was running, and now, after me, its the dancing classes. She and others performed to much applause at Circo Voador. The university teachers are still on strike, and so, Rosa says, the whole term may be written off. I am annoyed for I forgot her birthday on 15 April. Too preoccupied with self.
This morning there were no letters offering me massive salaries, nor any exciting job opportunities in the newspaper. Two did catch my eye - a government information officer, energy, with a maximum salary of £13,000 but only after some years. Then, there was a film company specialising in science and natural history looking for two persons with secretarial skills - I am tempted. Nor did the telephone ring at all.
The ITV gave us a two-hour version of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’, but it failed to be funny. Interesting to see the stereotyping of foreign journalists. Denholm Elliot and Donald Pleasance a treat to watch. Another TV goody this w/e was ‘1900’ - all six hours of it. I have always been a fan of long films and plays, marathons. I feel us culture consumers should give directors a chance to develop themes and characters that need longer than 90 minutes. I think Bertolucci controls his version of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ on an Italian farm very well indeed. We are treated to the lives of two men, born at the turn of the century, one to a landowner’s family and one to peasant’s family, and how they become brothers upon whom time and history play their tricks. The film studies the emergence of fascism and communism out of an essentially apolitical, if feudal, land-exploiting system. Bertolucci sticks to the personal, the intimate, while the changing times are portrayed through the two men and their relationships with each other and with their families and friends and lovers. All in all a very satisfying movie.
I am reading ‘Ever Since Darwin’ by Stephen Jay Gould. This is an earlier collection of his essays than the ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ which I have also read. I have to confess I think him brilliant. He is no slave to traditional thinking, and manages to combine an erudition of his areas - evolution, palaeontology, biology - with a general knowledge of culture, and, most surprising of all, a fat dose of common sense. I took issue with him on some things - he does have his hobby horses; I think, if anything, he is a little too traditionalist behind Darwin, treats him like the creationists treat the bible. Nevertheless he’s a radical in the sense that he makes us see how little Darwin, and the consequences of Darwinian thinking, are really understood today.
Sunday afternoon was taken up with repotting almost every pot plant in the house - around 12 - and starting anew the tradescantia.
John Kalish calls. I was actually about to ring him because I’d read in the paper that Dilson Funaro [Brazilian finance minister] had resigned. I thought we could chat about that for old time’s sake. He seems to have got into the freelance way full-time, perhaps out of failing to get a job - he’s been back in the UK since August. He says he’s renting a corner office in Chiswick, but declines to be specific about what he’s actually doing. I suspect working mostly for ‘Printing World’. We talk about Funaro. He actually found out Sunday night, because he was on the plane to Brazil, and tried to sell the hot news to the ‘Guardian’, but the night editor was distinctly uninterested. I don’t suppose you can expect a night editor to understand the significance of a finance minister’s resignation when it’s half way round the world. I did, however, see that Mac got a piece in this morning’s ‘Times’.
I do silly things - apply for a job as a government press officer; write to an adult education institute asking them if they want to let me run a course on evolution; send my story ‘Veronica’ to ‘Cosmopolitan’.
Last night I sat glued to the BBC2 screen. ‘Life Story’ was a dramatisation of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It featured the dynamic duo of Crick and Watson (Christ - Watson was still in his early 20s and knew relatively little about the subject) and the antipathetic couple of Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.
Paul K Lyons
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