Friday 13 October 1995, London

Struck down by a cold during this Indian summer. It hit me on Monday night - in the middle of the night I was woken by a burr in my throat, it was very localised, as though I could feel the wretched virus gripping on to the skin of my throat and boring its way into my blood stream, or wherever it goes. On Tuesday I had masses of writing to do, as well as all the production - and I sneezed non-stop, with my nose streaming like a waterfall. On Wednesday, I did not feel too bad and managed to get the newsletter finished and delivered. But yesterday and today, the virus has moved down into my chest and I am crippled with the usual weakness incurred more by the symptoms and body’s defence mechanisms than by the virus itself. I am supposed to fly to Thessaloniki at the crack of dawn on Sunday, but I am far from sure I should go. I will need all my strength for next week.

For, next week, on Thursday afternoon I take possession of El Rosco. My life in 1996 and beyond, will be based in Elstead, Surrey. Nothing about my life at the moment, today, tomorrow, would lead anyone to believe that this major event is happening next week. There are no boxes in Aldershot Road, there has been no packing. I have, it is true, made a few enquiries about builders and so on, and I have a few brochures about beds and carpets, but little else.

I have been a bit stuck on the name. I had thought I would be able to change it to a number instead of El Rosco, but, according to Waverley Council, I cannot. I can change the name and this will not take too long; but to what? I had never realised how difficult it would be to find a suitable name. I think I must certainly plump for something House, but what should that something be, and Something House will not sit that readily with Red House Lane. I have scoured the Thesaurus, the dictionary, local maps, telephone books. I have searched for foreign words or places from my past; I have searched for something of meaning or note about my life, and I can find nothing. I can find no form of letters which pleases me or which would be a suitable cross between a home and business address. I have had to use El Rosco twice already and I am always asked how to spell it. The lady at Waverley Council said they are slowly working to give every street in the region a number base, but where one does not exist, they must take a ballot of the residents and 75% must be in favour. I said I don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest in the road just after arriving and she said nobody would know!

The bill came in from Beckman & Beckman: purchase price - 180,000; local search fee - 80; Commons Registration search fee - 6; stamp duty - 1,800; land registry fee - 265; bankruptcy search fee - 1; Beckman & Beckman legal fees (inc VAT) - 615. Also spent so far: survey - 423; survey (building society) - 250. Total - 183,440. Of this, £45,000 is coming from First Direct, and £50,000 from Sasha. Until I sell Aldershot Road, I will be left with about £10,000 to keep me going and pay for work on El Rosco.

16 October 1995, Thessaloniki

My cold has not gone, there are black bags drooping under my eyes. I get a chance to examine them every time I go up or down in the lift at this mediocre hotel. I am on a rage against mediocrity - yet is there anyone so mediocre as myself (perhaps I should rename El Rosco, Mediocre Mansion - we have had so many discussions over recent days about the name). This hotel is a 10-storey rectangular block - one side faces the polluted bay which may be a serene view but sure as a modern flush it smells like a latrine; the other side of the hotel, this side that I am on, faces a six lane highway that is never still. With the window tightly closed I hear the traffic all the time; with the windows open on to the balcony, there is a noise so loud and almost incessant I cannot hear the radio. The plug holes in the bathroom drain away as slowly as the maids move along the corridor and the shower (this is unforgivable) alters temperature when someone in another room starts up their taps.

The real focus of my wrath at moderation is aimed at Arturo-Perez-Reverte - a Spanish writer born in 1951, journalist and TV reporter and author of several books which have been made into films. I had not heard of him until my visit on Saturday to Blackwells in Brighton. I was desperate for reading fodder on the plane and opted for a book called ‘The Flanders Panel’ written by the said Perez-Reverte. It reminds me of the period when I was devoted to the mental teasing of Borges, Escher, Hofstader’s ‘Godel Escher Bach’, all of these are used throughout the book, or rather I should say they are flaunted throughout the book in the way I might have flaunted them if I had written a novel a decade ago. The characters were entirely subservient to a complicated but poorly constructed plot based on a chess game.

Wednesday 25 October 1995, London

How long before I use the dateline Russet House. For the time being I am still here in Aldershot Road. This morning I am debilitated with a cluster headache behind my right eye. This is now the fourth or fifth day in a row I’ve had this ache, only this night, having gone to bed around nine, I was woken at one by a headache, and it took about half an hour to lose it and get back to sleep; and now I have another one which woke me at quarter past five. I have just done a word search through all my computerised diary entries and I am cross not to have found any reference to cluster headaches. I must had a series of them three or four times in my life by now, although it was only on the last occasion, I think, that I identified what they were. The medical book says they last for an hour or two, come in the night usually, and are thought to result from a change in blood circulation. Stress is given as one of the possible causes and that could certainly be the case with me now. But I also wonder whether they might be triggered by a cold - something connected with the sinuses or one consistently blocked nose passage. Certainly this time, for the record, the headaches started after the worst of a cold was over but when my nose was still blocked up each day with hard gunge, so that breathing through the left nostril in the mornings is always easier than through the right.

To stay on matters medical, I have an appointment at the doctor this morning. One of the small moles round my neck has suddenly inflamed, although I don’t think it is anything, I thought I should go to the doctor. I will also ask her about the lump on my finger, about fungus on my feet and whether I should have a tetanus jab. My head is very scaly at the moment too, I suppose that could be stress related.

Yes, there is a lot of stress around at the moment. Barbara has the worst of it. Her job remains very challenging (difficult), nothing is yet resolved about Tidy Street (although I am going there tomorrow so the damp people can finally see what is under the floorboards - I’ve only just recently understood that they are looking for dry rot, of course, and if they find it, we are in trouble); and, probably, worst of all, for her, is that she had to drive her car and she finds this very difficult.

Russet House is now mine. A quick word about the name. I could not live with El Rosco, nor is it the house’s original name (The Rough). So, after much consideration, and many comical suggestions, I have opted for Russet House, which was Barbara’s idea. I need the suffix ‘House’ to make the address have a semblance of businessness. I have written to the post office to check the name will not cause confusion, and then I will write to Waverley Borough to get the name changed formally. I have also asked Royal Mail if I can use the simple address: Russet House, Elstead, Surrey GU8 6DR, but Barbara thinks it will make me use not only Red House Lane on the address but Godalming as well.

I took possession of Russet House last Thursday on 19 October. Barbara, Adam and I drove down in the afternoon, stopping at Wisley to pick up spare sheets and the brown sofa-bed that we inherited in Aldeburgh, then at Godalming to pick up the keys. It seems a long time ago now, my mind has been full of so many different things. I cannot even remember what we did first. Barbara had only seen the house once before and, because of the awful decorations, she had dismissed it in her mind and forgotten it.

As we wandered around the various empty rooms, we discovered everything in much better order than I had expected. The hideous carpets, curtains and wallpaper/paint were still there but without the furniture, the rooms looked larger and lighter than I had remembered. B discovered two positive things quickly: most of the doors, which we had thought horrible, are covered in panels which hide original classic-style doors; and, that the dining room is covered in carpet tiles which come up easily and reveal standard but attractive quarry tiles in near perfect condition. I ripped up the carpet from the lounge and from the front hall, while A and B pulled up all the carpet tiles from the dining room. I also took down the curtains and stuffed them in the wheelie bin.

Adam raced off discovering all the different cupboards and choosing the largest to store his toys and to make a cubbyhole to sit and read in. He kept pestering us, of course, wanting me to make decisions on which cupboards and rooms would be his; but I couldn’t do that. He was very excited, the young man. So were we, so were we.

We placed the mattress in the lounge by the large window (Adam chose his sleeping place upstairs) and went to bed quite early, all of us being both tired from our colds and from excitement, I suppose. There is a beautiful clear silence, the large oak in the centre at the back of the garden, dark filling the sky, and stars that fizzle far away.

There is so much to do and we spend much of Friday in a complete muddle - things everywhere, our minds skipping from one thing that needs to be thought about to another thing, from one room to another, from one part of the garden to another.

In the morning, Ken Warren came and checked out the damp patches - Warren woodworm had done some work on the house before, and my surveyor Sweetnam had recommended him. He diagnosed the main fault and suggested some work that would cost around £500. However, I decided that the problem was not sufficient to warrant such expenditure, and he kindly advised me how to deal with it myself.

Afterwards we went into Godalming: shopping at Texas for tools, brushes etc; a visit to the auction house to see whether there was anything interesting, but our heads were too unfocused really to know what we might want and, in the end, we did not even go the auction; a visit to Dyas ironmongers for more bits and pieces. I also bought Adam a brand new bike with gears, just as I had promised him. I thought it would be a good idea for him to associate moving to Russet house with the pleasure of a new bike. And does he love it. He has ridden it for hours and hours at a time, up and down Red House Lane.

During the day, I discover a newsagents and post office round the corner from Russet House. I couldn’t believe such a shop was so close (I had thought the nearest shop was the Poodle Parlour, and the nearest useful shop was on the green). As well as being a PO, it sells a few groceries and household items. And although milk might be 40p for example, we only have to go down to the Spar at the Green to get milk for 31p.

And so, as the day went on, we found ourselves increasingly positive about the house and the area. Elstead, it appears, is a real lively working village. It may not be as pretty as some, but it has a very active population and enough shops to provide a truly practical base.

In the afternoon, a builder came round and, later, gave me quotes for a couple of jobs; but like Warren, I don’t think I will be using him either. I tried too hard to get people round quickly on the first Friday, but it did not prove successful because I was not fully ready for them. I asked him to quote for clearing the roof, for example, and removing the fireplace, but his quotes were too high and I thought I would be better off getting a specialist in for each job, rather than using a general builder who’s really after larger jobs.

In the evening, I took Adam to the local cubs pack (yes Elstead even has its own Cubs - wonderful) which is also just round the corner, well, a five minute walk. That took from 6:15 to 7:45 and we drove straight back to London after picking him up.

31 October 1995, Brussels

It does not feel much like Halloween today, except that my week here in Brussels is seriously curtailed by All Souls Day tomorrow which is an excuse for a two-day holiday in the EU institutions. Consequently, I have only come for Monday and Tuesday. The weather is crisp and bright, but my health is still not back to normal. I am plagued by the combination of a few residual symptoms of the cold and by a busted nose! The nose is not exactly busted, at least I don’t think so, but it is very sore; and especially sore if, because breathing through a blocked up nose is difficult, I try and clean it out. Huge chunks of concealed blood emerge, I feel better for being able to breathe, but the nose feels horribly sore. How did I do this thing?

Ever since purchasing Russet House, I have been not exactly manic, but scatty perhaps, scatty in thought, with my mind racing round so many different things to do with the new house, and scatty of action, as my mind can’t direct my physical responses in an efficient and cool-headed way. It was last Friday; Adam was quietly reading upstairs, and I had made a trip beyond the ditch at the back of the garden for the first time. I adventured deeper into the wood, which I discovered was almost entirely holly and quite difficult to penetrate. I thought I would be able to get to the fields on the other side, but I couldn’t even sight them. I was not really dressed correctly and the holly was pressing in on me, so I turned back and made my way more swiftly than necessary back towards the garden. Between the garden and the ditch that separates my property from the holly wood, there is a narrow passage between the bushes and brambles and it was there that I tripped as I tried to avoid the upturned rusty wheelbarrow. I tripped and the full force of my body weight was broken by my nose landing on a metal pole, one that I had put across the passage in a casual, forlorn and stupid attempt to deter any deer from entering into my garden and nibbling at the russet apple tree that we planted last Sunday. Blood streamed down, and my nose went entirely numb, I was in shock for a minute or so and stumbled back towards the house, my head full of thoughts of having to go to hospital, of not being able to go to Brussels, of not being able to do any work on the house etc. I sat on the grass for a few minutes trying to recover, and then went in to clean myself up with cold water. I could feel all my nose and it was still in shape, so I concluded that I could avoid a trip to casualty. But, for the weekend long, my left nostril especially was plugged with dense clotted blood. I felt the clot was acting like a brace and holding the nose in place while it mended itself. But a point came when I had to pick it all out and then the nose started feeling sore, and has done since then. I’m hoping there is no permanent damage.

Back to the holly wood for a moment. I was very pleased to discover how impenetrable the back really is, because this makes it so much safer against robbery. Moreover, the wood itself is an immense attraction, dense and difficult, it is nevertheless attractive, with a few interspersed birches (I think) and oaks, and leaves much to be explored.

Here in Brussels, I have not achieved much in my two days (I go back this evening) apart from picking up a lot of papers. I went out to DGXVII yesterday afternoon on spec. I very rarely go without any appointment, although when I am there I usually chat to quite a number of people with whom I have not made appointments. On this occasion, I completely and utterly wasted my time. Almost every person I had planned to ‘pop in’ on was out - presumably because of the short week. Nevertheless, yesterday was an unusually enjoyable day. I had lunch with two people from Eurelectric; we discussed public procurement, the subject of a European Parliament hearing today, to which I shall go to later, as well as several topics of gossip. In the evening, I met up with Andrew Warren for a cheap Greek meal near the Grand Place. I always enjoy a good natter with Andrew, and he seems to enjoy my conversation even though he moves in far higher and far more interesting circles than I. We talk and debate all the usual subjects: the IRP Directive, the CO2/energy tax, liberalisation, etc, interspersed with some details from his UK campaigning and some details about my business. On the way back from WarrensWorld and the Grand Place I am just in time to catch a late show at de Brouckere cinema. I choose Waterworld, intrigued I suppose by all the publicity about the expense of the film, and the special effects. I discover it is very little more nor less than Mad Max at sea. The general thesis is the same, the world has been destroyed, more or less, and certain individuals are striving to survive with very limited resources. In Mad Max, the scenario of oil being the most sought after commodity in the desert was more convincing than the need for soil in Waterworld where the sea has risen so high there is no land left, or is there? Kostner plays a loner who defeats all the baddies on the high seas, and some of the scenes are spectacular.

One of the reasons I chose to go to the cinema was to avoid sleeping too early. It seems that I am more prone to getting my daily cluster headache at four or five in the morning if I go to bed at nine or ten. Indeed, I went through the night without a headache.

The Tidy Street saga continues. For several months we have had a buyer - Rob Love - for Barbara’s house, but we have been unable to proceed to exchange of contracts because of survey problems. The building society’s surveyor said it was essential for the buyer to have a damp survey. The damp surveyor, Trevor Ford, did his job but said he needed to look at the floorboards near the top of the stairs but he couldn’t pull the carpet up. Nearly a month of confusion followed, as we didn’t know exactly what he wanted, and as Alliance & Leicester did not communicate the problem to us properly nor did they advise us well. A couple of weekends ago, B pulled up the carpet and discovered layers and layers of hardboard and chipboard and rotten underlay. Still, Trevor couldn’t get to the parts he wanted to investigate and, in the end, I agreed to go down last Thursday and meet him at 9:00am; I also told the estate agent to invite Rob Love so we could sort out the problems once and for all - but that was a mistake. Adam and I drove down on Wednesday night and early on Thursday I attempted to get through the carpet, hardboard, chipboard to get to the floorboards and eventually managed to pull up one floorboard. At the same time, I wanted to guard against the real mess of the floor under the carpet being on display to Rob Love if he came, and that took some doing. In the end, the surveyor came but Love didn’t. B and I had been afraid of dry rot but, in fact, Trevor found a rotten structural beam but no dry rot. Unfortunately, the position of the beam is such that it will involve considerable work to make it secure. I talked at some length to Trevor and he did his best to reassure me. At the same time, I tried to suggest that if his report was too bad, Love would pull out and we would take the house to another agent (so Trevor would get no work out of it), and that we had limited resources. My aim was to encourage Trevor to make a report that would not frighten Love off and allow the sale to go through on the basis of a price reduction. Nevertheless, I thought, and I told B so, that Love would pull out, and we would have to start again. A message on the London answerphone this morning from Alliance & Leicester seems to give slightly more hope that Love may ask for a price reduction to continue the purchase.

November 1995

Paul K Lyons


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