JOURNAL - 1992 - MAY

Tuesday 4 May 1992, Brussels

A bright sunny day. The trees in St Catherine square are fully in leaf and the pools are filled with water. A shame I’ve had to work on this Bank Holiday for those in UK.

The small Global Village Teleport modem I bought some weeks ago works a treat. Because of all the problems I’ve had with the telephone system here I was convinced the modem was not going to work; but it does. It sends and receives faxes, very smoothly and works as a conventional modem. I’ve used it in all three modes today with barely a hitch. I never thought it would be so simple to get my computer hooked up here.

On the metro this afternoon, I noticed a tall bearded man reading the latest issue of Macuser. I felt he was a friend and was on the verge of making a comment. Afterwards, I wondered why the only magazine I read regularly is Macuser, not one about cars or clothes or gardening. But the answer is quite simple. The computer and its software is the tool of my trade. A car gets me from one place to another, and I only use it two or three times a week. But a computer I use every day and in lots of different ways. I do not read Macuser from cover to cover, I only scan articles which are of interest to the needs of my work, (or the occasional game). The Global Village Teleport was a case in point since it was in Macuser I saw it reviewed.

My fortieth birthday begins to weigh very heavily on mind. Not, I repeat, because it is my fortieth birthday but because I must create some movement in my life and now is a suitable time. Yet after months of trying to contemplate my future, I am nowhere near any resolution; no solutions present themselves. I see an immense vacuum in front of me - can fill it three ways: try and set up my own business; carry on as at present; or do something completely different like writing fiction. Only the latter of those possibilities interests me even a little, and yet I know deeply, very deeply it is not the path for me. Even in my wildest imaginings I can barely conjure up a life that excites me.

I met up with Raoul and Andrew in the week. Raoul’s fourth child - a son to be called Cosmo - was due to pop the next day and Andy’s father is about to die, at the age of 84 he’s found to be riddled with cancer. Raoul diagnosed me as depressed, and we spent about a third of the evening talking about it. But I do not think this is a normal depression. I am too conscious of it; too keen to find catalysers (like my birthday); any doctor would laugh me out of his surgery. I want too much and that’s my only problem. But that is a problem.

Barbara finishes her course in a matter of weeks. Her course has been a prop to me for three years. What will she do next, where will she live? Because of Adam and the logistics of him being at school, our lives must of necessity be interlinked, but until I know what I am doing, how can I know where we should go. If a reasonable job comes her way, then that could dictate events for us. But I have allowed her course to be a prop to my movements for these three years, and now I ought to make a move towards my own fulfilment.

The last weekend passed in a fervour of writing activity but as with everything at the moment any pleasure or enjoyment is undermined by a growing sense of emptiness. Friday saw the opening of the Brighton festival with a splendid procession of children and their school-made dragons. For the whole of Saturday, I’d signed up for a ‘Brighton Rock’ workshop but I had little idea what it would be like. I dutifully arrived on the Palace Pier a little before 10 and took a couple of photos - the light was astonishingly bright and clear, and the pier furbishings were looking as spanking new and clean as I’ve seen them; they must have had a coat of paint within the last few weeks, and the glass in the windows must have been spotlessly cleaned. The photos were similar to those I took ten years ago.

At 10 exactly, I approached the tiny group of people in the centre of the pavement at the entrance to the pier. The literature event organiser was there holding a wad of tickets; there was a large well-built man of around 50, introduced as Tony Masters. I didn’t know his from Adam. Otherwise there were two other punters like me: Jake, a dead ringer in character and pretensions for my old flatmate Andy, and Bob. Masters, who turned out to be quite a well known and prolific writer, never really recovered from the fact that so few people had signed up. I don’t know how many he was expecting - originally they had planned on a dozen or so but then thought a group of 4-6 would be OK.

We removed to a banquet suite in the Albion Hotel where Tony talked a while about his working methods, about ‘Brighton Rock’ (he had known Graham Greene) and about what we were going to do during the day - i.e. a walk in the morning and a writing session in the afternoon. It turned out that Bob had never read the book ‘Brighton Rock’ (he hadn’t even made an effort - I’ve been devouring it in the last few days, even though I read it a year ago) and had never penned a word of fiction in his life; while Jake who found it almost impossible to stop talking, never strayed from his favourite subject of films. However deprecatingly I might talk about these characters, there is no doubt in my mind that they added as much if not more to the day than I did.

I suppose I too was disappointed that the turnout was so small and that I was down on the level of an unemployed fantasist student and a computer programmer giving air to a slight whim. The walk was certainly a disappointment - we walked up and down the pier, passed the Forte’s cafe on the corner directly opposite the pier which was the setting for Snow’s. Tony insisted it would have been more sleazy in the time Greene researched the book but I thought otherwise - Rose says she couldn’t get another job as good and I suspect it was quite posh then, even more so than now. Tony said the same thing about the pier and the Albion hotel (where Greene stayed when in Brighton) but again I would have thought the pier would have been quite rich in those days given the number of visitors it used to get. Our resident writer seemed determined to impose a sense of sleaze and squalidness - i.e. that exudes out of the whole book - on all the locations. We then walked up to Nelson Place which is where Pinkie grew up and where Rose’s parents lived. This is not a stone’s throw from where Kenny and Liz live, and very near where B used to live in Washington Street. Tony seemed to insist he could really feel “a sense of place” (the title of the workshop) in this location but I didn’t get anything from it all.

For a while we sat in the pub, Dr Brighton’s, which in the book (and formerly) was the Star and Garter where Ida was often found. I suppose I knew Brighton too well already. There are dozens of locations around the city which have real character and feeling but, the pier apart, we didn’t go near any of them. After a short break for lunch we retired to the same room in the hotel. It became clear that Tony has much experience of such workshops - he has worked a lot in schools it seems and written a lot for children - and was determined to maintain a highly positive attitude and to wring something out of us. We had five minutes to write down the bone of an idea based on any inspiration we had had on the walk; then we were given a bit less than an hour to write up the idea.

Three pictures on the pier had struck me: the sight of a lanky youth, standing silent and motionless staring at video machine; a small boy who refused to walk over the slats of the pier because he could see water below and chose instead to walk along the boards laid down for pushchairs; and the colour of the sea - a translucent turquoise which seemed to have a light source of its own - as spotted between the slats when walking through a covered part of the pier. Pressed into creating a story line and taking my cue from a simple example put forward by Tony himself, I turned the youth into a rather lonely character yet to leave home, addicted to the video machines, his only pleasure, and on the edge of making an important decision in his life. I have him watching the small boy choose the safe path over the boards, and then seeing himself. A group of lively youngsters enter the amusement arcade and stand near the youth. He starts thinking about how he has never met people like this and so on. I was surprised how much I actually wrote in the short space of time but I suppose that’s my experience as a journalist showing through.

Although Tony insisted that one should not enclose one’s characters into a finished plot and allow them room, I had sewn up my plot before I began writing. Tony said all one needs is to be able to see four or five scenes ahead (have a narrative thrust) and then one can write. Well, I couldn’t do this, I had already found the end to my story viz: the group of lively youngsters tease the youth and eventually nag him to come along with them for a bit. The first thing they do is go up the helter skelter. The youth, tied up in the imaginary world of the video games, has never actually been on any of the fairground rides and he is frightened sick of going to the top of the helter skelter and sliding down round, virtually over the sea. Moreover, he has to spend his last coin of the day. The story finishes as he begins his slide down - a symbol really that he must begin his real life.

Pretty crass eh! Well, what can one do in 45 minutes. Jake wrote three sentences in Tom Wolfe style about a film star (Cher-like) who has come to Brighton to film a few scenes but falls over on the pier and is going to have an affair with a young street-wise lad. Bob also wrote just a few words about a tailor’s shop he’d seen. They were highly descriptive and emotive even, and promised well.

We talked for an hour or so about these attempts. Jake found my writing Kafkaesque, Bob liked it and Tony explained that I wrote rather economically without much description, that I didn’t waste words. He said from Bob’s contribution he could touch the scene, but with mine he got a strong visual sense. I don’t think he made any judgement as to whether it was any good or not, nor can I think of anything he said that might actually help me write the story better. Oh yes, he said I was very observant.

The cost of the workshop also includes the chance to send in a story (max 3,000 words) to the organisers who will then award a £50 price as well as provide some constructive criticism. I shall certainly take advantage of that offer. If just three people turn up at the second of the two workshops and ever participant sends in a story, I would still have a 15% chance of winning the prize!

I liked Tony and found myself very much on his wavelength - I could tell in advance what pictures he might point out (at one point he was saying that one was unlikely to meet a Pinkie character these days but just at that moment two punks passed us in the street and we both acknowledged the irony of that) - and I could agree with much of what he said about other writers and films (in response to Jake). At over 50, he has been a writer for thirty years he said, and is clearly much in demand, for films and television, and also pushes out a lot of books. I suppose if I were ever to be a writer, I would want to have as varied a portfolio as this man.

Otherwise my weekend was almost wholly taken up with editing Barbara’s dissertation on teleworking. I have read through and advised on the bulk of it already, but the abstract, introduction and conclusions all needed considerable attention. Barbara, to her credit, trusts me implicitly and works hard at incorporating my changes and advice. I try and explain why I am changing something and hope that the overall experience will help her next time she has to do such a large piece of work.

The irony of the fact that I was, on the one hand, taking a writing workshop and, on the other, giving one all weekend to B, was not lost on either of us.

On Sunday evening, I slipped off to another literary event - a reading by Michele Roberts and Alice Fell. I’d never heard of the latter but I have read one book by Roberts. These two writers were the complete reverse of Masters in that they have two parallel if somewhat divergent aims - firstly to write for the feminist cause and secondly to write literature. Where Masters is a hard-working professional with a well-honed craft and some art, Roberts and Fell are dilettantes, pretentious in their aims, and feted simply because of their cause rather than their writing. Well, that’s my judgement any way. The 40-strong audience was made up of women with two exceptions - both the other men, apart from me, had been dragged along by their partners. The two women read extracts from their own writing and by other female writers in two compendiums of short stories called ‘Saints and Sinners’, I think. I was neither stunned by the writing nor by the women themselves. Oddly, I was shocked by the fact that they both looked liked suburban housewives with hairdos and well tailored clothes.

Clearly, the novel of Roberts I have read - ‘The Wild Girl’ - has been her most important, as well as her first. I discovered there was some controversy about its content - perhaps the mix of sex and religion, I forget now - which catapulted the book into the realms of best seller. At the end of the story reading session, we were allowed to questions. Fell is the sharper of the two women, more aggressive and political.

20 29, Monday 11 May 1992, London

The big four 0 looms ever nearer and I have no way to mark or celebrate the event. Life just drifts by in a haze of work deadlines and gentler periods with Adam and Barbara. The future is so uncertain and yet offers no promise of surprise or experiences comparable with those of my twenties and early thirties.

I have written about this already, but most recently, in the last two or three weeks, my life outside of the office has been a juxtaposition of working on Barbara’s dissertation, which must be handed in on Friday, and the Brighton festival. This last weekend, the combination was made more lethal by the visit of my Mum for two days. Adam and I had a busy programme of events, all of which would have been fine with Mum if it had been fine, but it wasn’t. And silly old Mum, she didn’t bring anything warm to wear which meant we couldn’t hang around long at the outdoor spectacles. I’d looked forward to this weekend, but it all just disappeared in a smudge of trying to keep everyone happy all the time. Adam was fractious which is not surprising since B was as tense as a high voltage pylon and I was as grumpy as a hippo in a desert.

With Mum I watched a smashing modern dance performance called ‘No Respite’ by Yolande Snaith. I’d never heard of her but she turned out to be a real find. Even Mum liked the performance. Mum and Adam went to a so-called Book Bank where an author and illustrator attempted to communicate something of their art to a large crowd of children and then told a few stories. Mum reported that it was a little boring in parts - perhaps the book-creators should stick to creating books. A and B went to a barn dance put on by the nursery. A had a wild time with a half a dozen of his old cronies to play with. B reports that he stood on a chair and played bar football with some eight and nine year olds.

On Sunday we drove to Stanmer park and walked around the International Horse Driving Trials. Mum reminded me that my great grandfather was a saddler, and that the shop he operated from is still extant in Ripon. Lots of well-groomed horses pulling carriages around a course and a couple of arenas where dogs were jumping through hoops and racing through tunnels. Most amusing was watching the dog owners race round the course directing the dogs. After that, we drove on around Glynde and then to Firle - literally a dead end of a village - where we lunched in the unpretentious 17th century Ram Inn - a well known venue for English lunches.

In the afternoon, we visited the family fun day in Queen’s Park but didn’t stay long because of the weather. After Mum had gone, I took Adam to Preston Park to see IOU theatre (which I remember well from my theatre festival visiting days) but it was nearly over by the time we arrived. This was a shame because it looked like an interesting show. We talked for a while to Toby and his Dad Noel, and saw Adrian (a lodger in Rosy and Andrew’s house when they lived in Brighton and who recognised me at the station the other day) for the fourth time in ten days.

Interesting developments at my office. My boss Dennis Kiley is taking early retirement. His boss John McLachlan has not decided how to replace him and will spend more time in Tower House consorting with the editors. I worry a lot about the diminishing editorial voice in the hierarchy of, what we must learn to call, Financial Time Business Enterprises Ltd. Strong rumours have been circulating that I am a candidate for Dennis’ job but I believe these have been invented since, in a conversation with John he gave no indication at all of such a possibility - so where could the idea have originated? However, that said, if an internal candidate is being considered, I must surely be near the top of any list. My four and half year record at the company is a good one, with skills demonstrated in a whole number of areas: marketing, computers, proposing and launching newsletters, training a small and happy team of journalists, running profitable newsletters, and writing profitable management reports.

The unconfirmed rumours also suggest John himself might be on the way out and that his boss, Will Gibson, a much younger man, may want to install his own man as managing editor in readiness for John’s departure. Of course, for me the critical question is would I want such a job. What about the idea of buying my own newsletters; and how would it be received if I made my move now, the moment there is a promotion prospect. The uncertainties only multiply.


7 24, Wednesday 13 May 1992, London

A heat wave approaches, the weather man tells me - 20 degrees today and maybe 27 tomorrow. In my garden the Clematis montana dominates with its brilliant white flowers covering the wall and side of the house; the honeysuckle is doing better than in previous years with a few blooms and plenty of leaf growth. In other people’s gardens, I see lilac and keria.

Before I forget all about it, I need to mention my part in the death of a London commuter last week. I was sitting minding my own business on the Kilburn-Charing Cross run reading an issue of ‘Granta’ about parents. I had just settled into a biographical account of Gary Gilmore, who was executed for murder in the US some years ago. The writer, Gary’s brother, was explaining how their mother had been dragged to public executions as a child and how subsequently she had made her children write to state governors in an attempt to stop executions. At this point, the train, which had just come into a station, stopped abruptly and all the lights went out. After five minutes of silence (no one in my carriage was talking), the driver came on the intercom to inform us that ‘there’s somebody under the train’. The driver was in such a state, tearful and barely able to say the words. He informed us that the doors would be opened soon and we would be escorted out. The train had stopped half into the station, and our exit lay a little in front of the end of the train. I desperately wanted to have a look, to see whether the person was a man or woman, young or old; whether he/she had been squashed into pieces or just electrocuted on the track in front of the train. Of course, I was too correct to even try and take a peep. I was rather stunned by this event; the fragility of life and all that.

I have written an 800 word piece for the ‘Financial Times’. On Monday, there is a special column entitled ‘The European Market’. David Buchan advised that it might be my best bet to get a plug in about my EC Energy Policy management report. I beavered away at trying to get hold of the deputy foreign editor, David Marsh, and he did agree to take a piece. The next major hurdle will be to see whether he uses it. A note at the end about the management report could do wonders for sales.

Tonight I must go down to Brighton to help finalise Barbara’s dissertation. I do believe I will be more glad than even she is when the wretched thing is handed in.

‘Edge of Darkness’ on TV. I remember when I first came back from Brazil, David next door lent me a video of this series, which he said was special, but the video didn’t work. I am glad to be catching up on it now. A British political thriller. Lovely.

Also on TV, Angus Wilson’s ‘Anglo Saxon Attitudes’ has begun a three part series. On the showing of the first part, it looks to be well made suffering only from using the same sort of flashbacks and several of the same actors as two other series: Barbara Vine’s ‘Fatal Inversion’ showing at present, and the recently screened and also excellent ‘Camomile Lawn’ by Mary Wesley.

June 1992

Paul K Lyons


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