Saturday 4 December 1993, London

Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Brussels, Brent, Brighton, Brent, Brussels. Back in London again after an horrible journey back from Brussels. The train to the airport was crowded, the airport was crowded, the aeroplane was crowded (and late), the Piccadilly tube was crowded, the Jubilee tube was crowded; I was exhausted by the time I got home. And I got home to find both Adam and Barbara sick from the flu and tired and grumpy. Adam’s not been to school all week. All the world and his brother seem to be down with the flu; my mother’s in bed too, flat on her back. No doubt I’ll be there too next.

I spent all day yesterday with John Gummer. In the morning I woke up to listen to him being interviewed on the radio, then an hour or two later I watched him in the Council of Ministers during a debate on the Commission’s green paper on environmental liability. Since the debacle over Denmark’s failure to ratify the Maastricht referendum first time round, the Council has made vague moves in the direction of transparency by opening certain debates to public cameras - environment liability was the first I’ve watched. (Oddly, after five years of tripping to Brussels, I also watched my first European Parliament plenary session - the new juke box building has been opened in Brussels and the EP has begun holding special sessions there.) And then, in the evening, I kept bumping into Gummer in the airport and on my plane. He was given a special lounge to wait in while I had to sit with the rabble. But we both experienced the same delays, I’m glad to say, even though he was at the front of Club Class, and I was at the back of steerage class. By the by, I hear that the Pope is making it particularly easy for disenchanted Protestant clergy and other dignitaries, those that cannot live with women priests, to join the Roman Catholic throng. I think the Church of England will be well rid of Gummer and his cronies, let the Catholics have ‘em.

I should be in Brussels next week. Not only is there the Energy Council on Friday, but the full results of the Environment Council will only be available on Monday, and there is a Research Council on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the Commission is set to adopt a whole package of energy dossiers; I’ve got some of them, but I’ll really have to scrabble around on the phone to get the rest in a hurry.

And so back to Prague for one last visit. My memory is fading fast: the senses’ senses defragment day by day.

I reserved the Palace and main cathedral for my last morning, along with a dozen or so photos of my film. After three days of glorious sunshine, how lucky I was, photographically speaking, to have Prague covered in a blanket of snow on the Sunday morning. In fact, I left the main tourist trail to my last day; this starts at the Staro Mesto square with its collection of historic buildings, crosses the river over the famous Charles Bridge, and then winds its way up to the Palace in Hradcany. Apart from a few keen street salesmen setting up their stalls, the snow-covered Staro Mesto square was quiet and deserted. I took a number of pictures of the church with its towers strutting high above the smaller houses lining the square, and of the town hall with its Baroque facade. In one corner, an old clock provides an attraction on the hour every hour. As the chimes strike, a gate opens and inside one can see a series of characters which revolve round for a few minutes. Even at 9am on a cold wintry Sunday morning there were a score or more people standing around waiting for the minor spectacle.

All the guide books carry pages of explanation about the sculptures that line the Charles Bridge or Karluv Most. It is an old bridge and, as the only river crossing for many centuries, has much history attached to it. Looking from the new town side to the old town along the bridge, I was struck by the picaresque almost medieval nature of the scene, with the cluster of rooves and churches and spires and the snow-filled mist hiding the background, and the snow an’ all. I trekked on up the hill to the palace. I looked around the magnificent cathedral, which was already crowded with tours and loud-speaking tour guides, and the palace itself with its variety of architecture but the rooms are little used and contain no furnishings to speak of. I enjoyed the whole place far more on my first visit, when all the doors were closed and all the people were absent. Majestic as it is by day, by night the area is full of atmosphere and the vastness of the building enclosures leave one with a sense of awe and mystery which are lacking during the day. I would have liked to see the palace gardens but these were closed.

As a finale, so to speak, I walked through the nearby Mala Strana park, trekking through un-charted snow falls, to the top of the short funicular that runs from the river-side up the hill to Prague’s very own Eiffel Tower. The short ride down gave me a last misty snow-veiled impression of this beautiful city.

19 December 1993, London

Here we are two weeks since my last journal entry. The weather has been dark and dank, and I have been working like a dog. The December issue was a real pain in the neck. I seemed to be working on it solidly for two and half weeks, and at weekends. And once I’d put it to bed, last Tuesday, there was no time to idle around since I’ve a list as long my arm of things to do; not least the index and quarterly need to be prepared so they are ready straight after the New Year. Even today, Sunday, I’ve been working. And then time not spent on the business is completely absorbed by the absurdity that is Christmas.

So now I am here, what should I say. Well, as work is usually uppermost in mind, I’ll start there. Editorially speaking, the last few weeks have been quite exciting. I had already notified my readers that the December issue would be published a week late to take account of the Energy Council on 10 December. As it turns out, this was a fortunate decision because the Commission published its revised internal energy market paper on 8 December and I would have missed this. Moreover, the Jacques Delors White Paper came out on 8 December and this contained some interesting energy aspects. But getting all this information was not easy and it was quite stressful sitting here in London and knowing that so much was going on without easy access to the information. Take the White Paper for instance, I couldn’t possibly have asked anyone in Brussels to fax the whole thing to me; but, in the end, I managed to get the essential pages out of the Commission’s London office. Take the internal energy market paper, I got the explanatory memorandum of this on 8 December in French but couldn’t decipher the important details. It was only by a chance call at 6pm on Friday afternoon that I got the paper in time to work on it at the weekend. Then there was the Friday Energy Council. I had talked to the Council press guy, Ramon, before leaving Brussels and he had told me he would not be around on the Monday because he had two other Councils to attend to, and my best bet was to hope the Energy meeting finished early and to call on Friday afternoon. It did not finish early, and I could not get hold of him. But, on the off chance, I phoned him at about 8pm his time and got straight through. Half an hour later he called me back, talked me through the meeting and then sent me the press releases and texts I needed.

Even so, I still missed important details. For example. A meeting of environment ministers, earlier in December, had failed to solve the linkage between progress on the energy tax and the final Decision to ratify the UN Convention on Climate Change: the Council had said it would approve the Decision by the end of the year, but six States had also said that they would only agree to the Decision if some progress were made on the energy tax. The UK has resolutely held out against the tax, which needs unanimous approval. The Belgian Presidency scheduled another meeting of the environment ministers for Monday 13 December. I was hoping to finalise my pages on Monday to get the proofs to the printer early on Tuesday, nevertheless I felt I should do my utmost to get the results of the meeting; yet I knew Ramon would be difficult to get hold of and I just couldn’t get hold of the Member State counsellors. Late on Monday I discovered the meeting had been postponed until Wednesday, so I let it go. On Thursday I found out that the Decision had been approved, which means, in effect, there is no more steam behind the energy tax.

Another example. Although I got interesting details on the Delors paper, published on 8 December, I did not get the details of the summit which discussed the paper and took place on 10 and 11 December. The summit Conclusions are important and I should really have been able to tell my readers what was in them, but I could not find sufficient detail in the newspapers and I could find no way of getting them in London (summit Conclusions can be 50 or more pages long).

I did get the main points of the Energy Council and that was most important. It surprised me that the ‘Financial Times’ newspaper did not report either of the important decisions by the Council, or the amended Commission paper on liberalisation. Its reporters were too busy covering the summit and the paper was too full of GATT stuff. It just goes to show how newspaper coverage can be so random.

Yes, well, the GATT deal is important. There was a deadline set for last Wednesday and at several points in the days preceding, it looked as though the whole intricate Uruguay round, which has been negotiated now for seven years, might unravel. At least, that is what politicians kept telling us. I doubt if there was any serious chance that it would happen, I suspect it was all a show of intense brinkmanship, largely by the Community (and some of the interests within the Community) and the US. For weeks and months, we have been told ceaselessly by the media that French agricultural concerns were holding a GATT deal up, and there has been a crescendo of meetings between the US and the Community all year. Yet before the final days, the agriculture question was solved (although several media didn’t seem to know this) and a thorny problem about Community subsidies (largely in France) to the cinema industry was at the centre of all the friction. But where had this problem been all the while that agriculture was centre-stage? And then, in the end, the cinema (or it may have been the video and film industry) appear to have been left out of the GATT deal all together. The simple point I want to make is that the GATT negotiations, between over 100 countries, and covering probably thousands of products, were so immense and international, that no national media really had the resources to cover the issue properly. All we ever got, was what the politicians and negotiators wanted to tell us. I was dying to know more about the actual negotiating process, to get some insight into some of the issues that the politicians had not found necessary to tell us about.

By contrast, I don’t think the summit was very important. The Jacques Delors White Paper was interesting and raised a whole spectrum of new ideas. Only one of them really got into the news - Union Bonds for raising finance for networks - and that was because a UK politician, Kenneth Clarke, decided to oppose it and was happy to talk to camera as to why. The summit conclusions did not, in the end, reject the idea of the Union Bonds but left it for Ecofin ministers to discuss further. Clarke was a little less bullish after the summit, probably because Major had NOT knocked it off the agenda all together.

As for business, the orders have tailed off with the end of the year, and I am only just over the 100 mark of fully paid up subs. I did get a bonus on Friday - from the VATman! My bank statement arrived with a VAT credit precisely that for which I had asked - some £1,500. It was such a hassle getting the VAT figures together, and my accountant had warned me the VAT people might want to visit and go through all my books. Instead, it was the reverse, they did not even notify me of the payment, I just found it there on my bank statement.

22 December 1993

Adam has finished school for the year, and will be at home for about two and a half weeks. I have given him the topic of ‘trees’ and asked him to do a project on the subject throughout the holiday. We’ve talked through the different kinds of activities he could do for the project and I’ve written them down so he can refer to them. I’ve told him we won’t do it with him, that it must be his project, but that we will help with specific questions and specific tasks if necessary. Let’s see what he makes of it.

Adam and I met up with Raoul and his children in the park on Sunday, but Adam did not have a good time. Adam may have a lot of charm with grown-ups but I do worry about him not having any chums. We are reading Nesbit’s ‘Treasure Seekers’, and Adam adores it. This is a glorious gentle book, dating from 100 years ago, about five children who have lost their mother and whose father is so close to poverty that he cannot afford to send the children to school. The youngest child is eight and the oldest in her teens. The children spend all day together playing games and sometimes getting into trouble but always protecting each other and trying to be good. Adam finds in the book the society that he misses; he is ready for the same sort of role playing and games, for the friendships, but B and I have failed to relate to any other parents at the school. When I was his age, I was already playing in the large garden at the back of 21 Fitzjohn’s Avenue with Nicky and Sherry and Stashu and Bibi from down the road. As a family we were much poorer than we are now, but I had the richness of the play every day in that huge back garden. Adam only has B and I, and we cannot give him the childish play he needs. I am very pleased with his writing, which has come a long a treat in the last term. He gets almost all his letters the right way round now and even joins them up sometimes. We are grateful to his teacher Mrs Adams who has been very careful to try and encourage his writing. Unfortunately, she is pregnant and has left the school. Adam will have a Mr Page next term.

Really, I do not like Christmas. I hate shopping. I hate all the people in the shops, the crowds, the chaos, the bustle, the anarchic way in which we all spend money.

This morning I had an accident in my car. It is the first one I can remember in years and years. A huge white Mercedes was trying to do a three-point turn in a back road. He was almost at 90 degrees and had backed to the curb and stopped. There was plenty of room for me to get through, and I was certain he would not pull out until I was passed. But he did, and I slid straight into his corner. The damage is not great but annoying and will cost £100-200 to repair. I got out to have a relatively friendly chat with the man, a slight, soft-spoken old Indian, with long grey hair. But when he tried to say the accident was my fault, I got cross and was only interested in taking down the accident details. We were on our way to Brent Cross, so the accident was bad enough but then having to endure Brent Cross as well. Hell.

Sunday 26 December 1993, Brighton

The very best thing about spending Christmas Day in Brighton is that I can go for a skinny dip before breakfast and wake myself up truly and properly to the day. We drove down to Madeira Drive at about 8:30. Apart from one group of teenagers and a man with a dog on the beach, the town was deserted. I raced onto the beach stripping off my clothes as I went, like they do in the movies in summer, and raced into the icy cold water. Since it took just a few minutes to get from my warm bed to the sea, I was protected by an aura of heat for about 90 seconds, then my toes started to ice up, and the soles of my feet went into deep pain. I had had the forethought to bring my flip-flops, because I always suffer most in the feet, however, the undertow/tow grabbed one of them and it floated so far out to sea, I thought I had better let the other one join it. Because of the pain in my feet I didn’t get right in, but I did wet myself all over and scream a little bit as the physical stress hit me. Meanwhile, B went for a run along the promenade, and Adam ran up and down the stones, jumping down the big drops. As I had neither towel nor spare clothes, he took great pleasure in running off with my only jumper, which I was trying to use for warmth and to dry myself. Although the entire length of the beach was empty, the man with the dog managed to find himself on our bit; but, fortunately, I had already put my clothes back on. An early morning dip on Christmas day - wonderful.

The days preceding Christmas were rather strained. I had two accidents in my car, the first for many years, and B and I had a major barney that threatened to ruin the planned week’s holiday here in Brighton.

Tuesday 28 December 1993, Brighton

A and B are off to the cinema to see ‘Aladdin’. I shall get a couple of hours of peace. Much of the last four days has disappeared in a haze of joking and inconsequential chatter. However, they have been pleasant days. Following our quarrel, B came down by train on the morning of Christmas Eve (we had all planned to come by car at dawn) and arrived in time to buy foods, and flowers, and a somewhat spindly Christmas tree. Adam and I drove down arriving just on midnight. The traffic was a little more heavy than I expected but we still managed the journey in 90 minutes. The car was as stuffed as a goose, and I cannot see how we would have managed if B had travelled with us. Considering we brought neither the telly, nor the computer, nor the large pot I had bought for Melanie, I find it hard to understand why the car was so full. I suppose half or more of the volume was presents - the presents B and I were to give each other, and to Adam, and all our presents (excluding the pot) that we were going to give to our respective families. We are expecting Julian et al plus Mum on Thursday and B’s parents on Friday.

On my arrival at Tidy Street I finished the tree decoration, which B had begun, by putting up lights. We arranged all the presents in a pile, and I set up a small sock for Adam at the end of his bed with few knick-knacks in. I suppose we retired about 1am.

It is odd to think about it, but I cannot remember, I cannot call up any memories, of Christmases in the past, not from my childhood, not from my early adulthood and hardly even from recent years. Yet B has full memories, detailed memories of many Christmases going back to before she was seven. I cannot summon up a memory of opening a single present, of sitting at table and eating, of playing with new toys; there is nothing at all in my memory cells.

A and B were up long before me, but managed to let me lie until about 8. Then I insisted we all race down to the beach before breakfast. It was not until 10 that we settled down in the lounge by the Christmas tree to open our presents. The main present for Adam was a kid’s keyboard, and other presents included a box of basic lego bricks, because he is so short of ordinary pieces, a Dahl book, a car sticker book, some fluorescent coloured pencils, and lime marmalade (he wanted his own special jam for the breakfast table and chose lime marmalade without ever having tasted it). B bought me a number of books, most of them connected with old photographs, but also Nigel Lawson’s autobiography of his period in office, and a Barbara Vine novel. The one I like best is a forty year old photographic encyclopaedia. When I was in the airport waiting to catch my plane to Prague I asked B by phone to look up in my main photo reference book for the names of any Czech photographers, so that I might be able to look out for them during my short trip. The book contained no geographical reference at all (although it is very good on the historical development of photography). This failing led B to look for a book that might list photography names by country. And this old book she bought me, unlike any modern book in print, does just that. Not in any great detail, but some detail is better than none. It is also has entries on photo subjects and is excellent on the techniques of photograph taking and developing.

My own presents to B focused on the colours green and terracotta, although this theme did not become fully apparent until her birthday on Monday the 27th: a bedspread, cushions, some green drinking glasses, three glossy horticulture books, simple garden pots with green glazing on the rims, various incarnations of chocolate of course, and a jumper.

As it was well past mid-day by the time we finished opening presents, B proceeded to make lunch while A and I cleared up. It makes a nice change not to have turkey and stuffing, but I didn’t get away from the brussels sprouts which we had with our salmon and boiled potatoes. Several glasses of Chablis. The evenings here in Brighton have been largely spent watching television or reading. Adam has watched one film or so a day. He usually goes to bed about 9 and we usually retire well before midnight. Boxing day evaporated. Adam and I went to the beach in the morning before lunch and B went for a walk on her own in the afternoon.

By contrast, Monday, B’s birthday was special. The weather started grey and cold and I feared that we would not enjoy the walk, that B had asked for, very much. She opened her presents in bed, then after breakfast we set off for Cuckmere Valley. As luck would have it, the weather cleared leaving a wonderful blue sky. We parked the car on a hill-side across the valley from Alfriston and climbed up on to the South Downs ridge. We weren’t in sight of the sea but had a glorious view across the flat valley and along the curves of the hills eastwards. B wanted to stay on the windy ridge top but my walk took us down onto the northside of the hills in order to seek an inn for lunchtime refreshment.

We’d scoffed some peanuts and crisps and warmed ourselves up with a Murphy but I was still hoping to find a pleasant place to lunch on B’s birthday. Then we rounded a corner to find the Sussex Ox. A wonderful pub in the middle of nowhere, well in Milton Street to be exact, all its rooms were crowded, there was a playground in the garden, and everyone was eating. We sat in the garden with a wonderful view of the hills before us, drinking port, and enjoying the sunshine. The food when it came was excellent (B enthused over the carrot and parsnip soup, which very rarely happens). From Alfriston we walked across the footbridge and within a few minutes were walking back up the hill, just keeping at a height to observe the setting sun. By the time we reached the car, the sun had dropped behind the horizon but behind us we found a huge full moon above the horizon to replace it.

Over Christmas, the worst floods this century were being recorded all across Europe, in Belgium, in Berlin, in the Netherlands. BBC Radio Four did not even mention them; I only heard about the flooding from the BBC World Service.

To return to my pre-Christmas difficulties. These included a hat-trick of car misdemeanours: I got caught for speeding a few weeks ago, returning from Brighton to London - I was doing 60mph on a dual carriageway with a temporary 40mph limit. Last Wednesday I drove into the Mercedes; and on Christmas Eve, having made another run to Swiss Cottage, a black MG hit me in the rear when I stopped to make way for a car reversing into a parking spot. Both accidents have damaged body parts and lights on my Escort and I will have to get repair quotes and make insurance claims.

We have had little society this Christmas, but on Christmas Day, we did make one short call, across the road to see Alice and Dan. It was their 60th wedding anniversary - they married on Christmas day in 1933 at St Peters Church, down the road. And they have lived in that house opposite almost all that time. I do find it quite amazing. Dan has not been well, but the two of them were perky and holding court to many friends in the street who were popping in to see the telegram they had received from the Queen. Oh they were so proud.

Friday 31 December 1993, Brighton

New Year’s Eve. Mum and Julian’s family came down for the day yesterday; today Barbara’s parents will visit. Tomorrow in London we will visit Sasha at lunchtime and Mum in the evening. And tonight we shall go to Annabel’s for a small New Year’s Eve party.

The week has passed rather quietly and smoothly. After B’s birthday on Monday, I worked half a day both on Tuesday and Wednesday, proof reading the annual index for ‘EC Inform-Energy’, writing a few short pieces for the next issue and doing some preparatory work for the Thermie annual report. Adam has been working on his tree project, reading, and playing with his mini-synthesiser and other Christmas gifts. We’ve been out to the shops and to the sales a few times; B has bought clothes but I avoided making any purchases.

On Wednesday, I took A to see ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ at the Gardner Centre. We once saw a wonderful Christmas presentation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ there, and ever since, I’ve thought that it puts on the best Christmas shows. I was however deceived for ‘Mr Fox’ was an abominable production. The book by Dahl is excellent and the simple story well sustained but on stage the production lacked just about everything. In the first place, the script could have been written by a ten year old; it simply translated the basic elements of the plot into a linear and uninteresting story, there was no allowance for an adult audience, there was no invention in the language or action. A number of songs were used over and over again to no good effect other than to make the show over-long. The direction lacked pace, invention, wit, or intelligence. A lot of work went into the set, but again it was a set which could have been produced by a drama club; it solved the obvious problems of presenting a drama that unfolds underground in about the most obvious way possible, and never for a moment relied on the action or the invention of actors and directors to make one believe. Finally, the acting was about as pedestrian as you can get, and, in the case of two of the farmers was incompetent, at least to this observer. How do people get away with it? Well, the theatre was full. All the local freebie newspapers had given it a rave review.

Barbara and her mother are shopping at Hanningtons, Les has gone to the garage to collect his car. The clutch cable went just after leaving home in Catford, this morning, and he drove down to Brighton without a clutch. Modern drivers, like myself, wouldn’t even dream of doing this. But if Les had driven to the nearest garage, he might have but stuck there all day and created a lot of inconvenience for himself, Rosemary and maybe us too if we’d had to drive to Croydon to pick him up. This way, he has put the car into a garage, barely 100 metres from here, and will have had it fixed before the end of the day. Adam is as quiet as a mouse reading his new Asterix books in his room. The night draws in around us already. The year comes to an end in a few hours.

Paul K Lyons


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