JOURNAL - 1993 - MAY

Tuesday 4 May 1993, Brussels

Well, as usual at this point in the cycle of my Brussels visit, I am looking forward greatly to going home. I begin to wonder about moving from this flat; it would suit me best if I could rent two or three rooms in a large house or flat owned or rented by someone else. But the owner of the house would have to be quite sympathetic, and I would need to be sure that there would be no problems with getting a telephone line installed. I must think through my development plan more carefully before embarking on changes either here or in London which will affect the business.

B reports that during last week only about two orders came through. That’s disappointing when I consider that I mailed out over 1,000 copies of ECI-E 4 along with the brand new quarterly; I really thought the quarterly would encourage subscriptions. Still I’m now focused on ECI-E 5 which will carry some reasonable articles including one on Belgian priorities for its Presidency and another on DGXVII plans for networks.

The weather was so fine at the weekend, like summer, that I went out to the Bois de Cambre to stroll around the lake there and contemplate on my entry to ‘The Independent’s’ children’s story competition. I had already decided my story would be about The Books and that it would contain two parts. Well, I’d more or less made up the first part and told it to Adam, but during my walk I just couldn’t pull the plot of the second part together. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the first part and found that I only had about 600 words left for the second part and I was no further forward in composing it. I’ve had to leave it now until next weekend, which gives me very little time to finish the first draft and then to polish it.

In the evening, I went with Fiona to have another look at the Royal Greenhouses; on my first visit I had gone during the day. Fortunately, we were expecting the long queues - it must have taken us nearly an hour to enter the first greenhouse - because otherwise it would have been absolute torture. Even so I was quite disgruntled at the wait and then having to pay BFr1,000, there was no notice outside that we had to pay and last time we went there was no charge. Also, once inside, I was cross that the lighting was not as good as it should have been so that we couldn’t always see the plants properly. And, to add to my catalogue of criticisms, there were no names attached to any of the plants so one could only admire and not learn. The greenhouse gardeners seem to go for the biggest and brightest blooms on the geraniums, fuschia, hydrangea, and azaleas which make up the biggest proportion of the flowers by far. Personally, I prefer the ferns.

On Sunday, and this is no lie, I worked, on ECI-E stories, through from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, stopping only for meals and drinks and for one longish radio play break. What a life eh! However I got some satisfaction from having reduced, in its fullest rather one-dimensional sense, a huge clutter of disordered papers into a single neat pile. This was achieved by writing up papers, throwing others away, combining many of them together with paperclips, and putting the rest into a single pile of material still to be worked upon.

Darkness descends. I see it is nearly 9:30, I must do yoga and have something to eat. I don’t think I shall have time to go to the cinema.

Saturday 15 May 1993, London

A less calm day than usual. Raoul and all four of his children have come visiting; between them they make a lot of noise and mess. Today, Adam’s computer game Spelunx and the Lego train set kept Adam, Sophie and Jack quite happy for an hour or so each. Matilda wandered around, and Charlie, a year old now, has begun to walk which means that he needs almost constant attention. They arrived at 9:30 as I’d asked and we trooped off to Lauderdale House. Later, Raoul tried to put Charlie down for a sleep but we only got about half-an-hour’s peace during which time we lunched on a simple pizza I’d prepared. At least the weather has been pleasant today. There was a blustery wind but bright sunlight most of the time, punctuated by a few showers of light warm rain - it was one of those days when you expect to see a rainbow.

I have not had a pleasant week. Orders did not flow in from my April mailing as I’d hoped they would, indeed that mailing (the one with the new quarterly) appears to have been a complete flop. I had a lot of work to do finalising the May issue (No 5) but I never felt my articles this month were really going to set readers reaching for their credit cards.

There was one positive element to the week. I did, against all my own expectations, meet the 15 May deadline for ‘The Independent’s’ children’s story competition. I read about the competition before leaving for the Devon holiday and I was glad to have some project to think about while away. But, as it happened, I didn’t have much time to write in Dartmouth. I did, though, on one of our trips come across some rock-stacks in the sea called The Books and I thought the name would be an interesting catalyst for writing the 1,500-2,500 word story. My first thoughts for the story, which I’ve stuck to fairly closely, involved both how the rocks got the name The Books and how the rocks came to be there in the first place. The very essence of the story would be that it had two parts - one a mystery, and one an adventure in the time of the dinosaurs. The first part of the story I composed fairly freely while still in Devon. Having thought about it a little beforehand, I ad libbed most of it to Adam during a walk. (When on holiday with Adam I always like to pick up something from the holiday - a location, a piece of history, an animal - and invent a story for Adam that is told like a serial. I usually tell it when we’re on a walk or waiting around for something.) I tried to make up the second part of the story for Adam but I just couldn’t do it. I tried to think about it again in Brussels. I spent most of my Saturday there on the project but I only succeeded in fine tuning the first story and writing down a first draft. After that and until last Thursday, 13 May, I devoted all my time to ‘EC Inform-Energy’. Thursday morning came round, B went to work that day, I took A to school and then returned to my study determined to get to grips with part two of the story. But could I make progress? could I hell. The morning passed abysmally, with virtually no progress other than a revision of the first part. But then somehow, and I still don’t quite know how, I managed to write a sensible and complete draft during the afternoon. The whole story, as I finished writing, was only 200-300 words over and I felt confident I could trim back without losing any of the elements in the text. So I trimmed and trimmed, trimmed and trimmed; and, when I’d completed a second draft, I read it to Adam, who listened avidly. His one or two questions prompted me to make a couple of changes, and then, in the evening, I read it to Barbara, who prompted a good number of other changes. By mid-morning on Friday (I felt I needed to post the envelope by noon to be sure of it arriving the following day) I had re-edited the text and trimmed it back to just over 2,500 words. I then had to go through and cut out just a few more words and I got it down to 2,503 including the six-word title. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it.

I then took down, from the wall, the newspaper cutting which contained the competition details. As I read the details I let out the most almighty scream, I really did, I yelled like I never ever yell. I read that the story length was limited to 1,500-2,000 words not the 2,500 words I had thought. I was mortified, all that work I had put in to pairing down the text, to squeeze it into the 2,500 limit was wasted. A period of confusion followed in which I hunted, unsuccessfully, for a second cutting about the competition - there were several articles about it in ‘The Independent’ and I cut several. I wanted to check that it really was 2,000 words. I just couldn’t find it. Meanwhile, because I’d involved B in the final process of editing and cutting back the story, B was suffering terribly for me, more than I was myself. Before attempting the impossible - cutting 500 words out of my carefully crafted double story - I decided to ring the publishing company that was sharing the competition with ‘The Independent’. Lo and behold, I was right, and the limit was 2,500 so the details in the cutting must have been wrong. B and I proofed the thing once more (B’s help was invaluable in pointing out that I had written ‘scalded’ when I meant ‘scolded’, and in suggesting that I give one of my characters the name Wart, which was quite an inspired idea), printed it out and rushed it into the post before anything else could interfere with my peace of my mind.

On Friday afternoon I took a few moments to organise a week’s sailing. Initially I had thought to do a week’s yachting course but the only date that really suited me was fully booked and, during my chat with someone at the Chichester sailing centre, I decided I should probably do some dinghy sailing first. Thus, I’ve booked up for a five day course, and rather than staying on a boat, I’ll stay at a guest house in the town for the duration. If I like the place and the people I can then go for a sailing holiday later in the year or next year. That still leaves me with all of August and nothing specific to do. I thought I might go to Germany, and then again I wonder if I shouldn’t just spend the time relaxing in Brighton, it probably will be our very last summer with the Tidy Street house.

Monday 17 May 1993, London

I am very pleased with Adam’s educational progress. He really does have an exceptionally bright mind. Today for example he picked up my calculator from the desk and started playing with it. I’ve talked to him about calculators before but today he was competently performing addition and multiplication on his own and testing me (what is 99 and 99 Daddy, what is 7 times 6) on the results. He also practised using the memory and now understands how it works. I’ve bought him a national curriculum book of maths exercises. It contains the work for three levels - two of which he will be tested on at seven. I’m sure with a bit of coaching, Adam could understand all he needed for the whole book within a few weeks. He’s managed the first three tests without a mistake. I’ve been very careful to teach him to read the questions carefully and to double check his answers before writing them down. With such habits, which are quite simple to teach at this age, he’ll manage tests and exams that much better for the rest of his life.

His comprehension of words, ideas and concepts is also very advanced. His conversation and sense of humour are always a delight. His reading is coming along in leaps and bounds. He loves to read and devours school reading books. More often than not he can make intelligent guesses at new words. But it is still his writing ability which holds back his overall development - he still gets numbers and letters the wrong way round, and finds it very difficult to write several numbers or letters in a straight line. We work together in the mornings before school on his writing, his maths and his reading.

Of late, he has become quite obsessed with comics, and I have been encouraging him to try Tintin books - the narrative structure is richer and more interesting; the humour too is less slapstick and there a sense of the joy of language in the text despite being translated. Also the drawings are more skilfully done and a non-reader can gather a lot of the story without needing to read all the words.

Saturday 22 May 1993, Brighton

We’ve come down to B’s house for a long weekend, taking in Friday.

Two weeks ago on the first Sunday in May, I had a theatre binge. The Tricycle had bravely put on a trilogy of plays under the title ‘Love Song for Ulster’. Mostly they were showing on successive nights but on Sunday they showed all in a sequence from two to ten pm with an hour in between each. The trilogy had been very well reviewed in the papers, and, any way, I’m a sucker for theatre marathons - I enjoy the involvement and the sense of being present at an event. Focusing on a single family, the plays began in the 1921-23 period when Ireland became independent and Northern Ireland was created, and carried through to the present day. The plays were really well performed and directed, and held the attention like a soap opera. The only thing I learned from the plays was about the insidious role played by Ian Paisley. The writer places a fair degree of blame on Paisley for never allowing the protestants to mellow and accept the presence of the Catholics in the region. In particular, Paisley has, over the years, pushed and bullied the Protestants to donate their land to the church, especially where there was no son in a family. By this means, he accumulated a power that could not be easily dismissed by the political situation.

During one of the play’s intervals I went for a walk along several dingy Kilburn High Road alleyways, and thus discovered a whole new smart office complex of the type usually found in Camden Town or Islington. It gave me a renewed confidence in the area. And then, in the other interval, I discovered that the cinema round the corner from Aldershot Road (the annex to the State Gaumont) is being turned into an art movie house. I found this out in the following way. Walking back to my house I happened to notice a notice on the door of the closed building. I read about an application for a licence to run a cinema during the week and for a late licence at the weekends. I thought this was another attempt to get a night club running, following the earlier attempt that was blocked by local protest at the planning stage. When I read that the deadline for comments to the Council had passed, I was beginning to stroll away when a grimy fair-haired young man came up to me, and asked if I was going to object. He had the most nicotine-stained fingers I can ever remember seeing, and his ears were full of dirt. He carried a worn out bag, and his clothes were barely different from those of a tramp. He spoke rather nervously and somewhat shiftily. I explained my fears about late night noise, to which he responded that the late shows would only be for films. He explained that he was going to be the manager of the new cinema, and told me that he had dreamt all his life of running an art movie house. Before long, he was spewing out all sorts of information somehow desperate to tell his story. His name was Olly, and the cinema was going to be called The Sentinel, he said. It would be opening in June or July - a 25-year lease has already been signed by his boss with Rank or Metro or whoever owns the State Gaumont. His boss, he told me, already runs a cinema in Bexhill, and they had met when trainee cinema managers for one of the large distribution chains.

As I watched him talk, I realised that he must have been standing by the cinema all day, or every day for all I know, just to talk to people who might read the notice. I found him quite extraordinary and utterly obsessive. He volunteered that his mother had gone into labour in a cinema, and that from an early age he had collected tickets at his local cinema. His knowledge of films and cinemas was encyclopaedic. He talked at length about a chandelier (did he say the largest in Europe) which was taken from the State Gaumont to Birmingham and then brought back again. When I tried to establish his credentials for running a cinema, Olly reeled off the names of dozens of cinemas he had managed when working for the Rank organisation, because, he said, they always moved people around. After only 10 minutes or so, Olly had got into fourth gear and it was difficult to stop him. I stopped asking questions, and then sidled away. Walking home, I thought how nice it would be to have an independent cinema on the doorstep, but I also wondered what sort of chance it would have if it were managed by someone so ill-kempt and so obsessed.

Laburnum and hawthorn are alight everywhere at this time, roses are beginning to bloom in the gardens, and the countryside is flooded with the green growth of a wet warm spring.

Some weeks back there were a series of local elections and one by-election. The Conservatives were well and truly trounced losing their Parliament seat and many Councils across the country. In response to criticism from all sides, the Tory Party promised change, but only change in ensuring that it gets a message across better. Thus we are all being told that the only mistake the Tories think they have made is a public relation ones, the policies are sound and best for the people, but they need to be explained better. What do they take us for - idiots? Yes, we are idiots, we voted them back into power last year after they screwed us something rotten for years. The Tories are tearing apart the fabric of this society - the Major government has simply extrapolated from where Thatcher left off - there is not one iota of new thinking.

Sunday 23 May 1993, Brighton

What a disappointment the English cricket team is. I’ve listened to the three one day internationals against Australia (Wednesday, Friday, and today) and in each match, England has fine-tuned its performance to be just slightly less good than Australia. When Australia got a high score in the first game, we failed to reach it by just a few runs; when we got a high score in the second game, Australia just reached it with a few balls to spare; and in today’s game, which has not yet finished as I write, we managed to contain Australia from getting a large score and we started well which made it seem we would win easily. But, somehow our batsmen just stalled and to me, at least, seemed to be playing to lose - the way they set to with defensive strokes even before the bowler had let loose the ball. As I write, we are 70 runs short of the low Australia total and we have lost our sixth wicket; it is too painful to listen any further. The only uplifting part of the three games was Smith’s magnificent 167, the highest one day international score by an English player.

It has been a rather unproductive weekend all round. I’ve read a little (‘Ulverton’ by Adam Thorpe and I’m still ambling through the biography of Beaverbrook) and played around with Adam quite a lot. On Saturday I took us for a drive around the Midhurst area. Quite early in the morning we explored the villages that lie along the northern umbra of the South Downs there. We spent mid-morning at Midhurst, and early afternoon walking across Petworth park. Nothing quite went right during the journey - it rained to start with, none of several fetes were within range of our itinerary, and we didn’t chance on a pub that served us well with food. I liked Midhurst though with its busy streets and strong affinity for the game of polo which is played in nearby Cowdray Park. We walked through the park and to the spectacular ruins of Cowdray castle. A game of cricket was being played in the vicinity. We walked on past a river and through a copse to find ourselves at the site of an even earlier castle. This was a peaceful place, no more than a high grass-covered mound with several noble trees growing in its midst and several large stumps where once noble trees had stood. The ruins had been given a modern brick wall about a foot high so one could see the shape of the castle rooms.

I looked in a few estate agents’ windows trying to gauge what one could get for one’s money in the area. I have calculated, technically, that this region, stretching along the Downs from Petworth to Petersfield might be ideal, if I am to set up shop outside London. But, as ever, I am completely confused as to what sort of property I might buy, a weekend cottage, an exchange for Aldershot Road, or a place that could front as an office as well as a home.

Our walk across Petworth park was fine. We parked some miles away from the House itself and walked across the plain park, past the lake, into the town and then back again. I didn’t take to Petworth in the way I did to Midhurst - both the House and the grounds are attractive, but rather austere and plain. The town is ruined by traffic and an un-deserved vanity, stemming, I suppose, from the House.

Monday 31 May 1993, Brussels

Because it was my birthday last Friday I chose to cut out the weekend from my normal 7-8 day trip to Brussels, leaving me just 4 days. However, I made a slip in not realising today was a Bank Holiday in Brussels as well as in London. I have been in Brussels so often on the day of a British holiday that I’ve automatically assumed they never have holidays on the same day. I have just been up to the Commission building but unfortunately I cannot even get in to look at the press releases, so I may as well have stayed in London for another 24 hours. Now, I shall have less than three working days here and I’ve got very little prepared - issue six of ‘EC Inform-Energy’ could be the first turkey.

Meanwhile, I am trying to grapple with the question of where to live for the next few years of my life. This question is rather complex because of, firstly, the logistic problems involved with living separately from Barbara; secondly, because of Adam’s schooling; and, thirdly, because of my nascent business. But one of the main constituents of the problem is having too much choice and too few clear-cut restrictions. Most people, by my age, have got themselves enmeshed in such a network of responsibilities that each move is largely dictated by prevailing circumstances or, at least, by an over-riding desire to do something or be somewhere different. My problems always stem from a lack of commitment and strong desire. And when I look at my accommodation history I realise how little I have really made positive decisions on where to live.

When I returned from my travels I lived at home in Maida Vale. From there I moved with Mayco to a bedsit in Chelsea for three months. In December 1977, I took over Peter and Tony’s flat in Fordwych Road, which, in retrospect, was the decisive move which brought me to Kilburn. I lasted about a year in that flat until I was booted out. Harold et al found the horrible little flat in Leyton during 1979 which I refused to move to at first. December/January 79 I spent in Corsica and then, on my return, I had nowhere to go but that flat. In the summer of 80, my application for a housing association place came through and I moved to Iverson Road. Early in 1981, I got my first job as a journalist at ‘European Chemical News’, and early in 1983 I moved to McGraw-Hill. At the same time, I bought 13 Aldershot Road, so I have now been there ten years. Early in 1985, I moved to Brazil and I came back early in 1987. That same year, the year of Adam’s birth, I bought the Aldeburgh house, and I started work at Financial Times Business Information. For nearly six years now I have lived in the same place, but, I suppose with three years of going to Aldeburgh and with three years of Brussels and Brighton I have had my sense of home and place well dissipated.

I write all this because it helps me be precise about the situation and clarify my thoughts. Adam is probably the most impelling reason for change - I need to be able to ensure he finds a good school from the age of seven. But it is not only the quality of the school, it is the quality of the life he can have around that school and around his home. I feel he has grown past the point where home activities and playing with us, his parents, is sufficient to ensure a stable and rich development. He does have a lot of social activity at school, but the playground is an artificial environment. Thus, I realise now, perhaps a little late, that for the next period, say from seven to eleven, he really ought to have a home and a school somewhere better than Kilburn.

Adam’s social life reflects, to some extent, my own. And there is another part of the problem and another reason for moving. I have enjoyed the anonymity of Kilburn (and its facilities) but now, with Adam, I find the lack of any social relationships in my vicinity very frustrating. Perhaps I am more aware of this problem since setting up shop at home and since I no longer have the daily contact I was used to at the FT. I barely needed a social life when I worked at the FT, since I felt I was interacting everyday with people I enjoyed and liked. Any decision to move though is complicated in the extreme. Where on earth do I move to? With whom does Adam live? What happens to my business. My mind just goes berserk when I contemplate it.

June 1993

Paul K Lyons


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