JOURNAL - 1988 - MAY

1 May

I must die, and decide to slice my arms not at the wrists but at the biceps. I use a shop knife and cut through my clothes to make deep incisions across both biceps. But as soon as I’ve done so I regret making such a mess because blood pours down through the pullovers I’m wearing - including the one recently knitted by Mum. I am in a house which has lots of ponds. For example, there is one in the lounge, and the inhabitants of the house watch television across the pond. I find myself in this pond, and blood is filling the water with red. Then I wake up.

I tell the dream to B who thinks it must be related to the electric shock I had last night. I was trying to fix a lamp, and I got so involved in what I was doing that I didn’t unplug it. The shock caused me to scream out loud, and it raced through my body only finding a place to ground somewhere in my right lung!

I didn’t see or feel much of Finland, arriving late on Tuesday afternoon and leaving late on Thursday afternoon. Having flicked through a tourist brochure on the plane, I decided on an immediate visit to the Russian cemetery. We had about two hours before being obliged to go to dinner with our hosts. I must have left the hotel a bit before five, and I walked a mile through the city near-centre. It astonished me to see so little activity - all Finnish workers had upped and left. The rush hour, I later learned, happens at 4pm. The Russian cemetery, unfortunately, was closed. But I could see over the wall, and it didn’t look so interesting. Instead, I wandered alone through the main cemetery, absorbed in thinking how cemeteries reflect the architecture of the society they serve. I noticed, for example, how both city architecture and cemetery tombstones lacked any ornateness (ornature?). The undulating, attractive burial ground was filled with black and grey slabs, very few displaying more than a few carved words - no angels, no crosses, no stone flowers. And the city’s houses and office blocks are the same, utterly functional concrete blocks, with windows inserted at minimal disturbance to the flat and characterless walls. Both city and cemetery had a bleak charm thanks to the snow that had fallen a few days earlier, and which had settled thickly. I took a few photographs of tombstones in snow, trying to capture some of the essence of Finland - rather an arrogant thing to do since I’d only been in the country two hours!

Walking back through marginally busier streets, I chanced on a small cafe. I ordered a coffee with milk. The small square room had a touch of Alice in Wonderland about it. The walls were mirrors; old film equipment was displayed imaginatively in a window; interesting-looking people huddled at the three other tables. The waitress brought my coffee - I was very cold and in need of this refreshment - but the cafe had run out of milk. The cafe was about to close, she said, but never mind, ‘You don’t pay’.

We ate three or four meals with our hosts. For the first, they took us to a downtown restaurant with a view over the bay and across to the majestic quasi-oriental Russian church. I ate salmon tartar. Should I say something about it? Bit like a podgy fish cake made of lumps of fish rather than mashed fish and grilled quickly on the outside, leaving the innards fresh and uncooked. Tasty - less flavour than smoked salmon but more than I could have expected. For my main meal, I took a dish called willow grouse (breast of) with lingen berry noodles. Oddly the grouse breast tasted similar to liver, a very dense fine-grained meat without fat. Lingen berry noodles turned out to be noodles purpled by some reddy-blue berries! The desert of Lappish cheese with cloud berry sauce was more noteworthy for its appearance - the cook clearly went to art school, rather than chef college - the sauce fanned out across the plate filled by lines of cream, and the cheese tasted like Angel Delight. Very pretty. These nouvelle cuisine meals never really fill the stomach, even if they do postpone the need to visit a gallery. All very Lappish. After this meal, everything became Lappish: for anything odd or unknown or different, we just commented, ‘Lappish’, and laughed. £50 a head that meal cost.

At a Russian restaurant the following evening, I ate a salmon blini:slightly-cured salmon on a very greasy saucer-sized flat pancake. Horrible. There was something particularly Russian about the beef main course, but I can’t remember what. The desert was fine: tea with quark cake. Maybe quark is a kind of cheese, for the cake itself was a cheesecake of exquisite quality. At another meal, John ordered Baltic herring. It looked great like a large grey ring doughnut, but was just a couple of roll-mops wrapped around mash. At the Porvoo refinery, we were exposed to the great Scandinavian open sandwich. On one thin slice of square white bread sat (were displayed) the following: a Baltic herring in aspic jelly, a huge slice of ham, three slices of salami, and bits of lettuce and tomato. The bread just didn’t have the body to handle it all I’m afraid.

We were treated to a concert at Finlandia Hall, designed by son of Finland, Alvar Aalto. Inside, it is reminiscent of of the Royal Festival Hall (it was was built a decade or so later) with an unusual spaciousness in the foyers and acute angled-boxes layered down the sides of the auditorium. The concert included ‘William Tell Overture’ by Rossinni, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 3, Shosty Symphony 15, but NO Sibelius.

The best bit of the trip was seeing the broken Finnish coastline on my way back to London. Such an astonishing picture, a thousand thousand islands dotted across the blue sea. At first, near the mainland, if it can be called such consisting of so many lakes, the islands are close-packed. As though trying to solve a maze, I trace the winding connections of land to see which bits are mainland and which islands. As we head west, so the land beneath breaks up further, and the thousand thousand islands become more isolated. The larger islands almost always have signs of life, but the smaller ones, increasingly less so. Some of the small islands look barely a few yards wide. This view of Finland gave me perfect satisfaction, for it is the country’s astonishing geography, as visible on a map, that has always called me to visit. By land, of course, one cannot get this feeling of a thousand thousand lakes or a thousand thousand islands.

Adam’s been at these pages, slobbering over the cover and crinkling the paper. Ah, but he’s a joy, such a joy. In a day or two he reaches nine months. Milestones become few and far between as the skills of life becoming increasingly complex, and the learning of them more subtle and less incremental. Perhaps, perhaps he took his first steps today, though it’s hard to tell. He is extremely mobile standing up, and moving around furniture without hesitation, but he is too careful to venture forth without holding onto something, usually a chair, a sofa or my knees.

He is sleeping through from 6:30 or 7:00 to 6:00 or 6:30. Moreover, he sleeps for an hour twice during the day. And, so long as his teeth are not worrying him nor his nappy soiled, and so long as he isn’t hungry or thirsty, he is a right charmer. Smiling merrily, happy to play alone with the few toys around him. I cannot explain why certain objects fascinate him more than others. The dial on the gas fire amuses him, we have to pull him away and tell him ‘no’, even if he doesn’t yet understand. A metal biscuit tin occupies him more than any real toy, though he doesn’t stick with one object for very long - this morning he played with his yellow plastic bib for about 10 minutes.

Over the last couple of weeks his teeth have troubled him badly. He has two lower incisors and one upper showing, while two others up top are on their way. One night they hurt him so bad he wouldn’t stop crying, I took him in my arms and rocked him back forth for ages, and while I rocked him I sang a refrain - I often sing to him: such a terrible pain; and Daddy knows all about it. This went on almost long enough to send me into a trance. In this trance, I kept on asking myself if it was fair to tell Adam that I knew all about his pain when I had no knowledge of teething pain. And, as I sung, I thought of my own psychological pain in the past. After a while, I began to cry, to sob, no to weep as I thought more intently of this. There were no deliberate thoughts, indeed it shocked me to find I had likened Adam’s teething pain to my own mental anguish - that I had thought of it as pain at all.

Adam and I are here in Aldeburgh, but back to Finland: I had a remarkable escape from yet another meal with the press people at Neste. The earliest I had managed, in advance, to wangle out of the trip was Friday morning (the rest of the crew were due back late Friday). Yet, I had wanted to get back Thursday, not to spend a day at the office but to go to Aldeburgh. I had tried to get an interview with the energy ministry, but all the Neste PR people could manage was a meeting with the chairman of the Finnish energy users committee at 3:00pm on Thursday. This meant an early return from the Porvoo refinery (thank god, for it was boring, and I was learning nothing). There are two ways out of Helsinki to London in the late afternoon, via Frankfurt leaving at 6pm, or direct leaving at 5pm. As I didn’t think I stood a Lappish chance in the desert of catching the direct plane, I rebooked for the 6pm flight. The interview with the energy guy went very well and quickly, and I managed to get away at 4pm. I caught a taxi immediately, arrived at the airport at 4:45, and BA allowed me on the direct 5pm flight. I rushed through passport control, spent 10 minutes persuading the x-ray machine manager there wasn’t a revolver hidden in my Tandy computer, and ran to the gate. The aircraft doors closed behind me. I ate a good meal, wrote 1,000 words on Finnish gas, and watched the superb coastline drift by. Arriving in London, I was first off the plane. A tube train came immediately as did a connecting tube train. I was even able to jump on a number eight bus to ride the few hundred yards from the tube station to my road, saving my tired feet. An amazingly smooth journey.

As B’s phone was still out of order, I drove straight round. Barbara had decided not to go to Aldeburgh until Saturday, so Adam and I came up that very evening, but I was oh so tired.

We arrived here about 12:30. I put Adam to bed first, and me, very quickly, second. But would Adam sleep? No. He cried vigorously. So we played an awful nightmare game for almost two hours. I stood by his cot rubbing his back, talking to him, until I felt I had a chance of him going to sleep, then I’d slip away to bed my body cold, aching for warmth and sleep. Just I had snuggled down beneath the duvet, he would begin to scream. Twice I took him into my bed. At 3:30 he finally went to sleep, only to wake again at 5:30. We had an awful day, he moaning, me with a headache.

The rest of the weekend he’s been fine. He loves to go to the playground over the road.

Saturday 7 May

We’ve come to Aldeburgh for the second weekend in a row, partly because the weather promised so good, partly because we left all sorts of things here last weekend - not least of which was this diary. I’d like to report that during the last five days my life has been so busy, so full of rich and rewarding experiences that I have had no time to record them all. Unfortunately, I have only the banal to report upon. I know had not finished writing last weekend but now I’ve forgotten what else I meant to write about.

Sunday 8 May

Feel exhausted this morning, perhaps from carrying Adam around all day yesterday. For the last five consecutive days, I have woken up at 5:30 in the morning with a sharp, extremely uncomfortable pain just behind my right eye. I get up, go to the toilet, perhaps take a drink of water, and go back to bed, desperate in my mind to return to sleep, knowing that if I do the pain will go away, but also frightened that I won’t be able to sleep. The fear tends to feed the pain and make falling asleep that much more difficult. I have no idea from where the pain comes.

B is well, fit and healthy. I must have mentioned her return to fitness of mind. I think the significant moment was when she began to sleep through the night. Now, for example, we are not arguing at all, there are no moments of ill feeling or raised voices or heightened tensions. They have just disappeared. I ask B why this might be, she, jokingly, replies that I am behaving better. This is a great relief to me. Two months ago or so, perhaps less, I had lost all cool. I talked about our problems with great intensity to Julian, to Judy/Rob, to Mum. Perhaps I exaggerated them, like I did Adam’s movement problems earlier in his life. Other people’s issues must be so much more difficult than ours - and largely unspoken, unconscious. I voice and express my concerns quickly, openly, I do not sink them in the slime of unwanted memories.

B is now much more active. She takes a positive role in the renovation of the house and the redesign of the garden. In London, she starts to think seriously about her future. The prospect of an interview at Brighton Polytechnic excites her, as does the possibility of going to Northeast London Poly to study. She has another idea up her sleeve - a secret. Good, good. Anything concrete will help her re-establish herself, her pride, her place. The most important move though will be a geographic one. She needs to find another flat to live in, but clearly cannot proceed to look for one until she knows better what she will be doing from the autumn.

It seems increasingly likely that we may have to sell this house. It will be a shame, for having this refuge away from the madding crowd so near to the sea and to fields is a soul-saving asset. A weekend spent in London is a weekend mis-spent.

Yesterday we went to Nottcutts in Woodbridge and bought the last wave of plants for our front blue garden. Ceanothus thrysiflorus repens, a low growing ceanothus will be the centrepiece of the small square. Nepeta or catmint. Iris unguicularis which flowers in winter. Eryginum, two types - variiflorum, olivierforum - both sea holly. Echinops rito to go with the other three echinops. Rosemary officinalis, Miss Jessop’s variety to replace one of the rosemaries that died. A quick list of the other plants in the ‘blue garden’. Vinca major variegata, Vinca major, Ceanothus dendatus, Veronica gentianiodes, Veronica incana, Clematis jackmanii, Hebe (unknown), Buddleia davidii, Aquiliga alpina, Anenome blanda, Gentiana sept. lagodochouna, Scilla siberica, Scabiosca caucasica, Jasione perennis, Lavandula spica vera, Geranium (blue), Borage or similar, forget-me-not, Endymion, non-scriptus (bluebell). All this in a plot two yards by three yards.

Late April early May is definitely the time to visit Leiston Abbey. We’ve never been there before even though we’ve passed it dozens of times. We’d been to dump at Leiston, a stone’s throw from Sizewell Power Station, and on the spur of the moment decided to liven up the trip. At this time of year, the abbey looks resplendent with a backdrop of brilliantly-coloured rape fields. So strong is the colour that it reflects on, and enriches, the abbey walls - even though the fields are some way off.

I am always disappointed by Woodbridge. It’s a messy town trying hard to be tidy.

The brakes on the Marina, on Whisky, have gone horribly soft, so that’s put an end to any more tripping this weekend. We’ll be lucky to get home intact. No garage round here could do anything for me on Saturday. She probably needs a new master cylinder.

World events pass us by like a petal of cherry blossom in the wind. President Mitterrand is re-elected. His victory over Chirac is being called a landslide. Only a day or two ago, Chirac pulled a practical stunt, though it may have worked against him: three French hostages in Lebanon were released after three years in captivity, and Chirac was given the news by his aids whilst speaking at a campaign meeting - too stage managed, too tacky for the sophisticated French voting community. And what has France done to get these hostages back? Some deal that the British don’t like. International policy to take the sting out of hostage terrorism can only work if no government gives way, no one pays. Chirac has also sought cheap publicity by allowing one of the secret service employees who helped blow up the Greenpeace boat in New Zealand to return to France despite a UN agreement between France and NZ that specifically prohibited this. France, watch out you’ll win the wrong sort of friends.

The UK’s SAS shoots down three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. This has only fuelled the debate over the alleged shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland some year’s back. Several media reports have suggested the terrorists put their hands up and surrendered, and should, therefore, not have been shot. The SAS is said to be claiming the terrorists could have had a remote control detonator to a bomb. There has also been much to do about an eyewitness report. David Alton’s bill to reduce the legal age limit for a foetus abortion to 18 weeks has been talked down in Parliament, thus failing to get a reading. Barbara and I agree fundamentally on this issue: the need to consider the mother’s situation is certainly as important as the foetus. Those getting upset about abortions are emotionally-motivated; they are religious people clinging to old values and traditional philosophies. They are not rationalists, they are not objective. The world is full of ugliness, deformity, poverty, unhappiness, mental and physical disease; hundreds and thousands of humans die from starvation, from famine, from disease. Humans are not gods, we are not special creatures, we have evolved like all the other animals.

Adam hasn’t eaten for some time and has become very small. I pick him up in one hand, he is smaller than a finger. I am convinced that as soon as he drinks his milk bottle he will inflate again to a normal size. I show him to B who accidentally touches his head which knocks it off his body. The shock of having killed Adam wakes me up.

Saturday 21 May

I sit in the blue garden. There are at least eight different plants flowering around me. Blue, like yellow, is a natural colour for flowers because both are present in green, and, as flowers are but highly specialised and evolved leaves, it is hardly surprising to find these two colours in the wild. Often plants with red flowers will show the presence of the pigment in the leaves or stem. I am a young, healthy, attractive, intelligent man, it doesn’t seem right that I enjoy gardening, but I do.

I have left A & B in London. Neither has been well, and B thought I should come alone. I have done just that. I might stay until Tuesday, depends how I feel.

This morning the weather was glorious with the sun beating down. I thinned out the vegetable rows, including spring onions, the packet of which specifically said Do Not Thin. The lettuces and spinach appear to be growing well. One of the broccoli plants that survived the winter had sprouted, in fact, had flowered. I ate for the lunch the bits I could rescue. It was delicious. This afternoon I will go for a ramble around Minsmere, and then early evening to an auction at Darsham Village Hall which I cannot resist, even though I know I will be wasting my time. The main purpose of being here alone is so that I can try and write another chapter of my dire novel. The novel has so little action that putting a draught copy into a lower drawer seems exciting. If I don’t get into some more developments soon the word processor will fall into an eternal sleep; it is, already, yawning.

So that’s where I am. Here I am.

Now what has been happening in the last two weeks, since last I was here in Aldeburgh and since last I was here in these pages?

First work. FTBI. For several months now I have been under a certain amount of pressure on the EPA front but - after much hassle - my life at work has now become easier and less stressful because I now have a full time production assistant who is both intelligent and willing to work. The circulation, which plummeted to below 490 early in the year, is now building back to 520. Every subscribers counts when I’m on 5% profit over budget.

Second people. Every time I pause for breath in my life, I notice the absence of people. I spent a weekend in London and visited Judy Rob Sophie James on Saturday, and Raoul Caroline Jack Sophie on Sunday. And there are other people to mention. I ring Annabel to talk about Brighton Polytechnic for B who is about to go for an interview. She tells me Julek has gone to Borneo for three years. He gave her three days notice! Annabel tells me she is angry at him and yet understands. He is a man of action, a man of adventure. He was not going to be happy for long as a truck mechanic, or running the art gallery under the arches. Annabel is unsure how she will manage now, for she was hoping to start a three year university course in September. With some support at home, it might have been feasible, but without it, life looks tough, both practically and financially.

I saw ‘The Good Father’ on TV, with Anthony Hopkins. There is a lot about the consequences of feminism for both males and females in this film, and I was glad to see feminism in some sort of context without pandering to stereotypes of either sex, or underestimating the complexity of relationships. But what most struck home was that Hopkins had left his wife and child because he felt suffocated by the child not his wife. He had lavished too much love, energy, time on the boy, and he felt he was being drained dry. I had not understood this point before, but of course it makes sense. In the past, men kept themselves distanced from too much emotion, too much display of feeling, too much giving in to those feelings. While women, in general, can handle this depth of feeling, men find it difficult.

Sunday evening here in Aldeburgh. The sun has shined all weekend but a cold east wind has kept the temperature down. Early morning I went for a walk and a run along the beach; in the afternoon I cycled through the fields west of Leiston Road and round to the Aldeburgh Road. Such stillness and quietness. And in the evening, I cycled down to the sea again, but the wind was too strong for me and I hurried home.

Yesterday I drove to East Bridge, a quite idyllic little hamlet. From there I walked across flat land to the beach, just north of Sizewell, to a signposted attraction called the Sluice. A sluice indeed controls water into, or more likely out of, several wide irrigation channels. At the sluice, suddenly, masses of people appeared, walking along the coast apparently. I joined them to discover they were all were wearing binoculars. I had strayed into Minsmere, a major bird watching area. I walked further along the coast, past several hides, and then through the swampy lands to find myself at a park full of cars and an RSPB shop.

I am trying to get on with my novel. Two weeks ago, I managed to finish another chapter. This non-production week I want to write another one. I know this is rubbish but I think it is important to exercise the creative muscles of my mind before they sink into complete disuse. My mind finds it so hard to cope with invention, with drawing together material, with finding experiences from memory to fit a current writing need. I must keep practicing.

The Russians begin to move out of Afghanistan. The final figures are far less dramatic than Vietnam; besides, Moscow had a better geographical claim to Kabul. Kinnock scores a minor victory in Parliament by reopening the differences between Thatcher and Lawson over monetary policy, but the PM closes ranks and gives way to Lawson, showing once again political astute she is. This is why she has lasted so long. The new Belgian government voices its anti-nuclear policy. My new Brussels correspondent, Brooks Tigner, serves me well on his first assignment. France votes overwhelmingly for Mitterand, who, not getting his own way immediately, calls an elections. ‘The Sunday Times’ reports firm evidence that three British hostages in Lebanon are alive. But I doubt they are looking as well as their front page photos suggest. The doomed poll tax goes to the Lords. This is heading for real trouble. The government keeps putting more and more weight behind the measure, yet the public are moving strongly against it. It is not British, it is not fair. It is Thatcherism taken too far. England win the first two one day matches against the West Indies. Wimbledon won the FA Cup.

Martin went to Helsinki and drove a car to Moscow. Caroline has gone for three weeks to her sister in Hong Kong, my house has been very quiet.

I have finished reading Richard Dawkins ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. Dawkins is not so high up on my list of scientists. ‘The Selfish Gene’ was certainly stimulating and well written but I did not believe it. And I have the same problem with the new book. Dawkins is out to simplify evolution, to bring it down to fundamental laws, as in physics. He is a sociobiologist. But, whereas he is often right in his analysis of aspects of evolution, he is wrong in others.

‘The Selfish Gene’ - The principle that Darwinistic selection affects the fundamental unit of life, the gene, is undoubtedly correct. Darwinistic selection effects everything. BUT surely selection is affected by a variety of organisms at very different levels, and at these different levels it works in varying strengths. I believe selection works on the survival of genes, on the survival of individual animals, and on the survival of individual groups. If a group structure works well together, then it will tend to be repeated in subsequent generations. Hence the family. I don’t think ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ contains many new Dawkinsisms.

28 May 1988

Birthday. Oh dear I am not much good at birthdays. B gives me tea towels and a paperback (‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ which I’ve already read). She promises to buy me an acer, but needs me to transport it from a garden centre to my yard. Mum and Julian and Sarah and two dogs arrive at our house in Aldeburgh mid-morning. Mum has bought me a blue shirt, while Julian and Sarah have me a book token. We went, all five of us adults and Adam and the two dogs, to Orford to lunch at the Oysterage. Most of the entertainment comes from Adam who habitually grabs everything in reach including wine glasses, teacups, dinner plates. In fact, sitting on my lap, he causes havoc. All the enjoyment, surely, came from the delicious food - smoked salmon, herring, cod’s roe, shrimps, salmon. We drove back from Orford, and went to the beach, where Julian flew his kite. I walked with Mum to the antique shops. We came back to the house, drank tea, ate cakes, read the newspapers. They all went home. We ate supper, vegetables with cheese sauce. B lies asleep. I write inane chronologies. B has been strong and generous today. Has made great efforts to make the day, my birthday, pass by in the nicest possible way for me.

I spend time thinking about Belinda, but so often draw the conclusion that I do not have the skill to write something long and complex. I don’t have the range of knowledge of basics, like descriptions of people, or techniques to involve action.

Adam has been a pain at nights again, and we have lost much sleep. This leaves us exhausted by day. I don’t know how women can give up so much. Sometimes, I find the days I spend with Adam so draining, personally draining.

June 1988

Paul K Lyons


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