Friday 1 April 1988

Heightened tension in Northern Ireland and Palestine. One candidate bows out of the US primaries, another one attracts more votes than necessary. A left-winger makes a bid for the leadership of the Labour Party, a prime minister uses statistics endlessly to defend her position in Parliament. This man is in his own little world. For seven days, he has worked very hard. I wonder if I have ever spent such a productive seven days.

I did hesitate last Saturday morning, before tripping to Tring. I had to assure myself that there were a number of things I needed - a sofa for here, a wardrobe for Martin’s room, a dressing table for Cathy’s room. But even before I left, I had started on the bathroom. It happened like this. On Friday night, a potential lodger called Caroline Heming came to view Cathy’s old room. As I showed her around, I noted that the bathroom was due for decoration at the weekend. Having said it, I had to do it. The Saturday morning then, with Martin standing in the corridor talking to me, I began to strip the insulation off the boiler - an essential first step to decorating the room. And then I found myself stripping the mouldy plastic seal from round the bath without really being aware of my own actions, thus cleverly trapping myself into finally decorating the shoddy room.

The trip to Tring turned out to be a dandy. I missed two lots I had earmarked for purchase: the first because the auctioneer didn’t see me, and the second because a sizeable number of lots were withdrawn meaning that the timing of the later lots was brought forward significantly. Significantly, because your dear Dad was still walking around Tring High Street. As it happens, it was quite a profitable walk - although at the time he did not know it. In the window of a car spares shop he saw an advertisement for a Marina. Something in the ad appealed to him, though he had no idea where to find the car, Weston Turville. He looked in all the maps in Smiths, and finally asked someone. Storing the directions in the back of his mind, he returned to the auction where he bought - on a hunch - some carpet oddments for £18 and a screen for £14. This latter item he thought might help in separating out B’s flat, half for her, half for you. Leaving the auction, I remembered the advertised car. I was tempted not to bother trying to find it, but then did make the effort. (All too often in life, I believe, a mood, an apathy dictates one to take an easy or easier course, but I believe making the extra effort can make a big difference.)

I drove to Weston Turville, found the house, and saw the gleaming sparkling orange Marina and its owner talking to a neighbour. The Dear of Him, as your mother and mother’s mother would say. He’d had the car for ten years, kept a complete record of every service, every oil change; he had kept the car in a garage all these years, and he’d looked after it better, I might add, than we look after you. What a find. I was ready to buy it on the spot - £550 - but felt I ought to go through the motions of asking questions and requesting a test drive. The man, Mr Rawlinson, was a mechanic, and would have been happy to talk about the car until the MOT ran out in February 1989. We agreed the deal, and I drove back to London in the glow of being pleased with myself.

Caroline Heming turned out to be the only suitable applicant for Cathy’s room, so I decided, on Saturday afternoon, to let her have it. I called the number she gave me afternoon, evening and Sunday morning without reply, and began to think I might lose her. I suppose I should have offered her the room on the spot, and I can’t quite understand why I didn’t. I lost a potentially good lodger once by hesitating and not making up my mind instantly. Perhaps, I felt, she knew she’d won me over, and that I would invite her in, so to speak (she was very keen), but I wanted to prove my independence of mind, or some form of internal democratic decision-making. Caroline is a dancer with a small classical company. She seems completely dedicated to dance, to the exclusion of much else in her life - she has a few books already on a bookshelf, perhaps six, and one is the story of Isadora Duncan. I liked her simple dress, lack of make-up, and relaxed manner. I always expect dancers, as actors, to be neurotic and unstable, but I couldn’t spot trouble in Caroline - though instinct tells me she might be trouble, I can’t glean what sort it might be.

All day Saturday, I cleaned and scraped and sanded the bathroom. I think I probably began cleaning out Cathy’s room too, the carpet and curtains were filthy (not cleaned in my five-years). All day Sunday, except when I was doing other things, I painted the bathroom white, the whole kaboodle white. I did try and think up a more imaginative colour scheme, but with an orange bath, a green sink and a red insulation cover, what am I to do? Martin helped me part of the day, and also cleaned out the kitchen - how grimy can kitchen shelves be before the structure of language forces us into saying shelvy grime, because the width of the grime is greater than that of the shelf.

Sunday morning I went with Julian and Sarah to the Enfield garden centres. They wanted to find plants to cheer up their rubble-filled garden - they bought a rhododendron, fennel, roses, and planted them all in a row. I bought a brown fennel, its featherlike leaves and bronze colour are so attractive, and two indoor plants. In the evening, I joined J and S and Melanie and Julian at Mum’s for a dinner of stuffed veal and orange whip to celebrate Julian’s birthday.

At work the busy-ness continued. I had a short week of three days to produce EER (including editing a long refinery piece from Sara in Germany), a country profile, and the index (which I’d promised Reg to send down Tuesday). Also, I had a trip to Belgium and Luxembourg to organise, appointments to arrange . . .

On Monday evening, Julian drove me out to Weston Turville, following his cricket nets, to collect the orange Marina. Julian too was moved by the simplicity of Mr and Mrs Rawlinson and understood my feelings of guilt for buying such a nice and nicely-cared for car (when I won’t look after it at all). On the way back we stopped at The Swan in Berkhamstead and spied on provincial yuppies. On Tuesday, I tried to tell the sell the Ital with an ad in the Standard, and spent the entire afternoon at home waiting for the telephone to ring. Not one call came - not even a wrong number. On Wednesday, I put the Marina - she’s called Whiskey because of her number plate JBW - into a garage for the child’s seat to be installed.

Saturday morning

How about some news about you. At this moment in time you are crawling up the big cushion, having just crawled into and out of the carry cot placed as a barrier to where the tools lie. You may not yet be able to walk, but you move around so well. You get up and down holding onto anything - the cot, the table, a chair, the sofa - and you no longer fall over. You are alert and curious about everything, poking into every corner in search of new interesting things to play with or put in your mouth.

The most wonderful development of all - you sleep through the night regularly now, 7-7. What a relief for your mother - and she is healthier for it too. Altogether you seemed to have settled down. You are much less manic and twitchy, more regular in sleeping during the day, and in your food and drinking requirements. You cry very little, and generally assume a happy and contented nature. A top tooth is coming through which occasionally gives you trouble but not often. At meal times, you eat bread and cheese, scrambled egg, fresh milk and other good healthy non-baby produce. You haven’t learned to say Mama yet, and still repeat endlessly Dada much to my pleasure.

We have been so lucky for the Easter weekend - three sunny days. Here in Aldeburgh, ae are working hard on both the upstairs master bedroom and the gardens. By the end of the day exhaustion takes us over. How can there be so much to do in such a little place. I have owned this cottage nearly nine months, and we’ve still only decorated the one room. So much has to be done in each room. The floorboards have to be treated against woodworm, the ceiling and walls have to be striped, the plaster has to be mended, made good. All the surfaces have to be rubbed down with sandpaper, and then washed; and then the room must be cleaned of all the filthy dust that comes from the stripping and sanding. Any how, the room upstairs is now ready for decoration. Tomorrow we will hang lining paper. We’ve decided on a dark green carpet, one of the two I bought at Tring. This will help us in choosing wallpaper for the ceiling, and the paint colours.

In the front garden, we plant a variety of blue-flowering plants. My rather corny idea is to have a blue garden. B sussed out all the best plants, and on Thursday we bought a good lot of them from garden centres around Lowestoft. Most are small alpines or perennials, and we have squeezed them inbetween the mass of daffodils without digging up any more lawn. There’s aquilegias and anenomes, echinops (though I can’t spell it), Scabiosa caucasica and Jasione perennis. Right at the front, we’ve planted some older rosemary shrubs to make a hedge, but, as B points out, rosemary will grow too big for that position - ah well a problem for the next owners. In the corner we planted a buddleia - there are not so many shrubs with blue flowers - hoping it will detract from the tweeness of all the alpines (and the pansies I chose) as well as to give something for the clematis to hang onto.

Just now I walked down to the sea front past the back of the cottage hospital, dearest Angel Heart, you never heard such a clammer of bird song. It was as though a grand convention of orchestras was in progress up there in the trees, and all the musicians were anxiously tuning their instruments. I could hear the crowd of singers but see none of them. Then, this noise like a shot rang out, and thousands of birds squawked high into the dark blue sky, frustrated and disturbed. At first I thought they were bats, but they were too bird-like and they didn’t move like bats. Maybe they were pigeons for they were quite large. T’was odd to hear so much bird noise, so near dark.

Easter barely impinges on me. The double bank holiday makes for a longer break, Easter eggs are on sale everywhere. My Mum gave me some chocolates before heading north to see her stepmum and brother. An Easter card arrives here in Aldeburgh for B, more church services than usual are advertised, and crowds daytrip to Aldeburgh. But what a splendid weekend it has been - near-summer weather every day.

Dearest Angel Heart, I plan to finish this journal-book tomorrow when you are eight months. The next one will not be written to you, but I suspect you will play a large part in its contents. To think, when I started this book you were a sleepy foetus thrust into the world rudely without any choice in the matter. Now you are eight months old - a crawler, a smiler, a food gobbler and a milk sucker. You have been so well behaved these few days, and given me pure joy. Sometimes I watch you, and can barely keep from tears. Sometimes you sit on my lap when I read the paper and you try to eat the bits I haven’t read. Sometimes you dash along the floor in a four-minute crawl to get close to me if I’m also lying on the floor. Sometimes, when I’m standing, you grab at my trousers and climb up to my knees. You feel very insecure, but I’m careful and move very slowly so you can take hesitant steps in time with my knees.


DIARY 37: April-October 1988

A grey pen for a grey book.

Walking in the centre of Brussels I remembered a tea room I discovered once and liked. I sit waiting for my thé au lait and my gateaux. Rows of stylish women in their fifties and sixties guzzle quietly. This small one cake that I savour looks just like a typical English bread shop iced cake (usually square), but look again. Atop the icing cover is not just another blob of icing, oh no, but a thin wavy line of chocolate, carefully crafted in place, and at opposite corners there’s a small orange drop, an exquisite and highly-flavoured jelly. Then comes the first bite. This is no ordinary sugar-full skin of icing, it tastes of butter, is smooth to the tongue, with fresh cream hidden inside between layers of delicate sponge. A little gem, no tuppenny-ha’penny factory product, but an example of the finest art.

Leuven. I have come to Leuven for no specific purpose just to see, as usual. It’s an old university town near Brussels - it took just 20 minutes on the train. The Blue Guide 1977 edition ‘Belgium and Luxembourg’ from Camden libraries talks about a mass of gothic architecture, and a famous history. It calls Leuven a bastion of Flemish Catholicism. The written history goes back to the 9th century, but local traditions trace the town’s origin to Julius Caesar.

I ring B from the station platform with a few spare coins. I must tell her I have come to this place full of gothic architecture. She likes gothic architecture at present. She feigns jealousy, and doesn’t want to hear about the tall lean spires, the myriad of turrets in the roofs, and all those acute angles. Instead, I tell her about the bubble gum I bought for BFr5 from an old-fashioned bubble gum dispenser. I couldn’t resist that upturned glass jar of bright coloured marbles. She tells me Adam is well. He has had a hearing check and a general check-up. I do not hear further details as my loose change runs out. Her voice sounded bright and cheerful.

I liked Leuven, the grand, magnificent churches and the stadhuis, a classic example of the flamboyant gothic. The town centre is shaped like a wheel: most roads of any size radiate as spokes and the stadhuis sits at the hub. It seemed to me that all the churches were closed down, for building works with scaffolding. The central church, covered in scaffolding, is quite enormous, and has no space around it at all, dwarf-seeming houses cram in on every side. The rebuilt university library with its tall tower overpowers one large square - campanologists were busy so I slowed my walk to more of a dawdle.

The Flemishness - if I can use such a word - of Belgium has come as a shock to me this visit. I’ve always thought of Belgium as a French country with a few Flemish-speaking parts. In Brussels nothing disturbs this view. But in Leuven all posters, signs, names, advertisement are in Flemish, and only Flemish, as is all language spoken in shops. I note also that the Belgian government has collapsed over language problems.

Sunday 24 April 1988

One of those rare days when I have nothing pressing to do, but have a thousand and one things that could be done. I potter without much drive or inspiration. Beer at lunchtime doesn’t help, or rather it does help me to sleep most of the afternoon away. In these less energetic hours of my life, when the mundane pressures and instant stimulations are stripped away, I often find myself returning to Brazil. For half an hour, I slung the hammock up on the sun roof. I thought of the view over the Baia Guanabara. Now I sit in the quiet of the evening listening to a record given me by Shell do Brazil of a modern classical composer Guerra Peixe.

Everyone is away this weekend. Martin has gone to Coventry to play in a backgammon competition, and Caroline has gone home. B & A are down in Salisbury for the day.

What should I report? What should I record? Nearly two weeks since my last entry. I had hoped for more inspiration from my trip to Brussels and Luxembourg, but in all it was a bit of a bore. I spent much of my spare time in the evenings and afternoons, and indeed on trains and in Luxembourg airport, writing up my notes on the portable Tandy computer. Back in the office on Friday, I discovered to my horror that the memory bank had been wiped clean by the x-ray machine at the airport. It took me several hours to calm down. Margie, who instructed me how to use the machine, should have warned me. She did apologise. I had about 2,000 words written.

Another disaster - with two aspects. Due to my Belgium trip B & I had but Friday to organise wallpaper and paint for the front bedroom before we drove to Aldeburgh on the Friday evening. We met at John Lewis and agreed on Morris poppy paper. That left the paint to choose, and I’m afraid we did it in a hurry at the nearby Wallpaper Warehouse. We had decided on orange or peach tones but couldn’t agree on which shade (a difficulty not helped by Dulux’s instant electronic mixer). My mother arrived at the shop, having come for tea, and we finally made our choice. B & A and my mother went back to Aldershot Road, leaving me to pay. Unfortunately, I dropped the gloss can on the floor, and the bright, shocking colour seeped across the floor. One aspect of the disaster was, thus, the paint on the floor; the other was a sudden concern about the brightness of the colour. It was only at the weekend, once we’d finished decorating the room, that we realised the colour we’d chosen was too flesh-like, too strong (despite having diluted it with white). I fear we will have to repaint, even though carpet is now laid.

While on the subject of disasters let me mention another more recent tragedy. (I need so badly to get these events out of my system, out of my memory; they leave such a bad tasting trace otherwise.) By 9:30 on Saturday morning I had lost £25 (I only left the house at 8:55.) I first filled up with petrol, calculating that I would arrive at Boots (I had promised to get some provisions for B) just on opening time. The Kilburn High Road seemed already busy, but I found a parking place. I debated whether I should leave Adam in his seat (would a traffic warden have given me a ticket had he seen Adam?) but decided against as I would be 4-5 minutes rather than one or two. As I walked down the road, I saw the wardens making their way towards my car. I calculated I just had time. With Adam in my arms I raced round the store, but I was held in the checkout queue. So £12 the worse off - or maybe more because I might not pay the instant fee - I drove off in a rage to Finchley Road, to the Tandy store to be exact. I’d bought a cable on Friday, to connect my new Amstrad to the printer, but it didn’t work. I had called and been told I needed a different cable. The shop made no fuss about the ripped package I returned but the new cable cost £13 more than the old one. How to lose £25 before breakfast.

I meet Dad for a drink at lunchtime. It must be a very long time since just the two of us met. He tells me that he is planning to have a bypass operation. A couple of his arteries are all clogged up, and the surgeon will take a clean tube from his leg to bypass them. They must cut his chest open. Dad has always been a fatalist, accepting life for what it brings. He resigns himself to the seriousness of his condition. For a number of months he’s been getting angina after a little exertion. He is still trying to decide whether to have the operation sooner or later, but in the pub he admitted he was thinking of going into hospital already next week. Well, it should give him a new lease of life.

He tells me that both Julian and Michele have come to him concerned about would happen to the company if he should - well if something should happen to him! He says this with a smile. Julian was worried about having to work for a company owned by Michele, and Michele was worried about a company she owned losing Julian and his sales team. He solves the problem by writing a letter in which he leaves half his company shares to Julian and half to Michele. ‘Let them fight it out between them,’ he says. However it is unlikely anything serious will occur. These bypass operations are fairly mundane these days, even ten years ago that was not the case. Within several years he is going to retire anyway. He plans to do so with Michele, for he hates to be alone. But how much fun will Michele have spending endless days of leisure with Dad, nearly 20 years his senior.

27 April, Helsinki

Despite all the work piled up on my desk at the office, I have come to Helsinki with less than a day’s notice. Neste press office has organised . . .

30 April, Aldeburgh

Well it turned out to be a whirlwind tour, the press officers barely left me enough seconds of free time to think an independent thought.

How exciting to go to Finland. Until this trip it remained one of the few West European countries I had not managed to visit. On Monday afternoon, Andy came into my office, while I was chatting to Nicky my newly-assigned production assistant (EPA) - more of whom anon - and said: ‘This is not a joke, do you want to go to Finland?’ Well, of course, I want to go to Finland. I had planned to visit later in the year, but to ‘do’ Denmark, Sweden and Finland all in one go would have been tiring and confusing. The catch, Andy said, was that I had to leave early the next morning. With a mass of notes from Belgium and Luxembourg still waiting to be written up, and a further mass of administration buried under months of EPA problems, I had much to do in my ‘off’ week. Nevertheless, the allure of Finland was too great. But an exciting trip it was not.

Public relations people, of necessity I suppose, live in a material, superficial world. They are obliged to play a role, to live in a predetermined haze of concern about timetables, politeness, and formalities. The Neste functionaries were so. And there were enough of them. We had contact with about ten, since each division, each department had its own relatively un-informed PR woman, for there was only one PR man - their boss. Unfortunately, the woman with responsibility for the overall programme, Eva, turned out to be particularly dull and clinging. Perhaps because she was unmarried, she took great satisfaction in organising a busy and full programme. This often involved sitting around an expensive, characterless table in an expensive, characterless restaurant talking about the weather in London and Helsinki, or the attributes of the Finnish sauna. Irene, who works in London for Neste, organised our travel out to Finland, and then accompanied us on our visits. She had a bit more life in her.

I should make brief mention of the other three journalists. Strange but true: none of the three had any connection with each others, but I had a connection with all three (and yet I always think of myself as so unconnected). Firstly, there was Natasha Cox with whom I worked for two years at European Chemical News. She’s a strange woman of Russian descent, and has a journo’s way of sniffing for news, a kind of desperate need to find a story. On occasions, a smile slips across her plumpish, ageless, yellow-grey face, but there is not much humour within her. She and her husband Tony Cox must be one of the oddest couples I’ve known. She’s persistently curious, and blunt in asking questions. I tell her about Adam and Barbara, and about my hedonistic life in Brazil. I also give her enough information to guess at my relatively high salary. Tony has been working at ICI as science spokesman and will now move to a job at a stockbrokers. Two other ex-ECN people, Mike Stone and Jackie Ashurst, are also at stockbrokers, reportedly earning as much as £40,000 a year. What do people who work at stockbrokers go on to do with the rest of their lives. What comes next? What comes next for any of us?

Then there was a South African, tall and bearded, perhaps 40, who works for ‘Gas World’. John Seccombe. He had seen my name on the programme but had not made the connection with the Paul Lyons who filed to him from Brazil. Ke kicked himself, metaphorically speaking, when he realised. He said he’d subbed more of my copy than he’d written himself - and very good copy it was too. I am still surprised to this day that editors liked my copy. John and I turned ourselves into the lads of the trip - which of course we were without trying. By the second day we were starting to laugh a lot, making asides across the dinner or interview table. Only this rapport made the trip bearable, made the long PR-filled days bearable. John showed his true colours when we visited the site of a new gas pipeline under construction. There, in the middle of a forest, a couple of Russian workmen with Cossack hats were welding a two foot wide pipeline section, while a couple of other workmen were preparing the trench through which the pipeline would run. This was a small rather unremarkable pipeline project, but John went berserk. He stormed off up the trench, wading through the mud, barely waiting for any PR people. I felt he was supremely happy here at the muddy pipeline site - whether because he was actually getting some story details to make the trip worthwhile, journalistically, or whether because he really enjoyed finding out the pure details of such projects by communicating with actual workmen, I don’t know. If I were to guess, I would say he had been in the business long enough for the two to have fused (welded even) together.

The fourth member of the party, Isabel Gorst, was perhaps the most interesting for me. My connection with her is twofold. She lives round the corner from me, in Tennyson Road, and she was once offered the editorship of ‘EER’. Now she works for ‘Petroleum Economist’ as the only full-time journalist apart from the editor. She looks ever so quirky, almost like a circus performer, just on the edge of being a sane human being. First, she is very short; second, her hair is cut flat just around the ears, perhaps it’s an old cut but it looks messy; third, she wears such bright lipstick, in the way fading performers do when their faces start to grow old; fourth, she was wearing a black suit, the jacket of which was too large. Privately and professionally she seems to concentrate on the big unknowns, Russia and China, choosing them for the occasional big trips she can wangle. Like Natasha, she also speaks Russian, but it is self-taught. Some of the time my playfulness amused her, but other times she felt I went too far, and so she sympathised, empathised even with the PR woman.

But what about Finland? Finlandia, sauna, salmon, islands, Russian church.

May 1988

Paul K Lyons


Copyright © PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG

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