JOURNAL - 1995 - SEPTEMBER
Saturday 2 September 1995, Brussels
Three days in Brussels with Adam. We came over on Eurostar on Thursday morning. It was an uneventful trip. Adam read his comic most of the way, and ran up and down the corridor whenever he got bored. I read a paper and my book - ‘Virtual Light’ by William Gibson - I’ll reserve judgement on it until I’ve finished.
We came to rue du Canal first, then I took Adam into the EU buildings and made him sit around while I collected papers and made photocopies. Unfortunately, the archives had not yet tackled the backlog of Commission documents that had come in during the summer so I was unable to get most of the ones I was looking for. Back at the flat, Adam was obliged to read and write and play with his yo-yo while I made telephone calls, sorted through papers and worked on some stories. About 8pm, I made us some pasta and we played a couple of games.
Friday was also little fun for Adam at least through until 7pm. I worked and made calls until 10:30, then I went into the Council, only to find the press office closed. At the Commission, I got a couple more documents and then there was half an hour before the midday briefing, so I decided to head out to DGXVII. This was a fortunate move, because I managed to get a couple of important documents. I left Adam in the reception area reading his book. I talked for a while to Hans, about energy policy, then he introduced me to Ann Aguardo, who is handling the energy legislation dossier; and then, although Roger Busby was away, I found someone else who gave me the final Euratom-US agreement and told me where the new bits were.
At home, we ate sandwiches, and played a game or read a story, then Adam was on his own until 6:30pm, while I made more calls. Really, he was very good, he would disturb me with questions or comments about what he was doing as long as I didn’t stop him but when I did stop him, I got a good degree of silence. He has practised with his yo-yo a lot and also with a pack of cards.
Early evening, we head for the cinemas at De Brouckere. I get a couple of tickets (almost £10 for the two of us). We just have time to go to a burger bar and then, on the way back, to buy a tin of lemonade, which we take into the cinema. I have chosen a film called ‘First Knight’ in preference to ‘Caspar’, partly because it is playing nearer, and partly because I thought I would enjoy it more. ‘First Knight’ is a King Arthur/Lancelot tale with Sean Connery and Richard Gere. And good fun it is too. Adam was bowled over by it. I didn’t realise until afterwards but it was the first non-cartoon film, he’d seen in the cinema, and it was a nice wide screen too. In fact, I have only ever taken him to see one film - ‘The Lion King’ - before. He loved the action bits, the fights, and the escape, but, as is his custom at the moment, he hid his head whenever Lancelot and Guinevere looked as though they might be about to kiss. I whisper to him that loving is much more common in our world than fighting (but I resist the temptation to explain to him that people do fight a lot but not with swords and knives). Afterwards, we talk a lot about the film, about Lancelot’s behaviour and how he tried to put his love of Camelot above his love for Guinevere, and why the king set up such a public trial of his wife and Lancelot. Ads had a restless night after that film, and when I asked him in the middle of the night, why he couldn’t get to sleep and whether he was having nightmares, he said no, he was making up stories beyond what happened in the film.
Today, Saturday, we have spent largely in the company of Brooks and his two children Rowan and Camille. We met at the large museums in Parc Cinquentenaire and visited the Second World War exhibition. Brooks said it had had rave reviews from across Europe. Indeed, it was an excellent exhibition, with full-scale reconstructions of Hitler’s bunker, a bombed building, a London Underground station used as a bomb shelter, lots of video screens with original material, hundreds of exhibits of uniforms, or original documents, photographs, artefacts. The exhibition moved from the rise of Nazism, through the early annexations, the expansion across Europe, the Battle of Britain, D-Day, the war in the Atlantic, Japan, Mediterranean. There was just enough visual interest to keep the children interested, although there was no interactive material. I think both Adam and Rowan came out of it with a little more knowledge of the horrors of war.
Then we stayed with Brooks during a shopping trip to Makro, which is a huge cash and carry for those with companies and VAT numbers. I couldn’t understand why such people should be privileged to buy everything from potatoes and sugar to swimwear and hosepipes free of VAT. Brooks bought nearly £200 worth of drinks, vegetables, groceries, cleaning stuff, etc. You have to buy in big packets, but it does seem to be cheap. I too bought a few packs of sardine tins, biscuits and the like, to stock up; and Brooks brought me and my goods home in his car. We must have spent 90 minutes in the supermarket, but the three children had been left in the mandatory creche - the kids are not allowed in the shop - where they could play with lego, or watch a video.
Tuesday 12 September 1995, London
I am rarely up after midnight but tonight seems to be an exception. I had a very lazy day and slept for half an hour after lunch. I might have gone to sleep earlier but for the noise Amanda and her boyfriend were making going up and down the stairs, in and out the bathroom. The cold water tank in the attic makes such a racket when it is filling up, and echoes right down into the bedroom.
We dropped Ads off at my mother’s this evening so that we could take one of our infrequent trips to the cinema. I chose a film by Tony Scott called ‘Usual Suspects’, because it was reviewed as an excellent film, a stylish thriller. In fact, it was not all bad, but it belongs to the current and fashionable genre of gangster movies, not dissimilar from ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs’, for example. Until this evening, I don’t think I had realised how strongly this genre, this fashion has overtaken the movie world - they will, one day, be very identifiable as of the 90s. The gangsters and police inhabit a claustrophobic world, where nothing is very distinct, where language is vulgar and real, where characters are sometimes indistinct or confused, and where the plot too is unable to take a clearcut, simple direction because the world of gangsters and the police never does. This is a world where the word ‘fuck’ is used in every sentence, where life is cheap and people die without any ceremony or grace. The photography is never graceful or even colourful, it picks up on the grey and ordinary detail, and the sets are low-down, ill-lit, and anonymous. The ‘Usual Suspects’ concerns a group of five criminals who are brought together, seemingly by chance for a line-up, and decide to engage in a few activities together. However, all is not so simple since it transpires that someone is pulling the strings of both the police and the criminals. It is a long time since I was surprised in the cinema by the very last line, so to speak, the very last 30 seconds. Right until the end, it was not clear who had been pulling the strings, and when the manipulator was revealed as the narrator, a cripple, and the only survivor of the five, I realised that I had been so well duped that never once had I even suspected him.
Adam is back at school since last Wednesday. Jane Oliver, his teacher last year, is now head for a term, and she has placed Adam and his friend Marcin, into the top class (years five and six). Adam told me first and explained it all quite clearly, and then Jane rang on the following day. There is a shortage of space in Class Three, where Adam should be, but also the head believes Adam and Marcin need to be challenged. This was great news for Adam since his favourite teacher, Andy Page, has moved to take over that class. Adam has, however, found the work hard so far, with lots of writing and homework. But it is so pleasing to see him trying hard.
I have spent three days filtering through my slide collection. It is one of those jobs I have been meaning to do for years but never got round to; and, once things get moving on El Rosco I am unlikely to bother with such a triviality. However, I thought I would like some nicely framed pictures ready to use in El Rosco, and the best place to get some of my photos framed is in Brighton. So, I started on Friday and took till late Sunday evening to go through and choose a couple of dozen. I took the slides for processing this morning - they will cost over £150 I estimate. The frames will cost £500 or more.
It was so difficult to do the choosing, but in the end I decided on the following: a set of three pictures of tree landscapes (including the two sheep which is part of my animal pairs set) for Barbara; the sheep picture for Julian for Christmas; as set of three pictures taken at Cliveden many years ago of statues and greenery; one of the Cliveden pictures for Melanie for Christmas; a Prague silver and gold set: one of snow-covered building yard with a fire in the centre, and the other of a sun drenched wall with central stone plaque; a landscape set: clouds at sunset, treetops in blue sky, a beach with birds; a Brazil carnival set of four; a Brazil beach set of four; one large picture of white barrels and a white bicycle.
All these years I’ve framed my own pictures, so this is a new phase: paying to have proper pictures made up.
The business is as quiet as a hedgehog in hibernation; there’s been almost no money coming in for the last couple of weeks.
On the other hand, the purchase of El Rosco is proceeding apace; contracts may be exchanged later this week or early next week. I managed to get the price knocked down to £180,000 after receiving the results of the survey. I felt Henry the estate agent was unwilling to ask me for a compromise between 180 and 185 thousand and I didn’t offer one; and he managed to persuade the seller to drop down. I will need the money though, to replace the windows, sort out some better damp proofing, to carpet and decorate the house. Not to mention all the appliances I need to buy.
My mortgage is also sorted out: I am taking a £25,000 interest-only mortgage for 13 years, this will be covered by my current endowment policy; and a £20,000 interest-only mortgage connected to a pension fund. I had a First Direct salesman come round last week and sort through the figures with me. In essence, I have to pay £128 a month for the next 22 years in order to ensure (using the government method for predicting growth) that there will a pension fund of £80,000 by the year when I’m 65. I can then use 25% of that to pay off my mortgage debt, and the rest would be used to purchase an annuity to give me a monthly pension. My payments attract full tax relief and so are particularly efficient if I am paying any tax at the 40% rate.
This whole business of pensions is a minefield. What astonished me was that over the lifetime of the pension payments - i.e. 22 years, I would be paying in the region of £5,000 in charges. I had never realised it cost so much. After getting the full quote and details on a Midland pension from the First Direct guy, I talked at length on the phone to a man from Equitable Life. Equitable Life is billed by Which as the best pension system at the moment. The main difference I could gather between the two is that the charges incurred by Equitable Life accumulate more fairly through the life of the policy, while the Midland Life charges start heavily at the beginning and there is a loyalty payback at the end. This means that it is less expensive (£3,000 pounds less expensive) if you wish to pull out of the Equitable Life pension. In the end I decided to go with the Midlands pension.
I am thinking of trying to sell 13 Aldershot Road myself and thus not incur any estate agency costs. I read a book from the library but there was nothing much in there which I hadn’t already worked out for myself. The main tasks are to prepare details and photographs of the house, to advertise it, and to show people round. There is very little else. The estate agent comes into his own when there is a chain or an empty property or complications of one sort or another.
Thursday 14 September 1995, London
The week after production is always a slow week; but everything seems extra slow now. I am impatient for action on the houses, have been all summer. I have had all this free time, during the summer and a five week gap now to the next issue, and still nothing to do on the houses. For the rest of the year, I will be more pressed on the houses, and more pressed on my business. Such is the way the cookie crumbles (I had to explain that expression to Adam the other day). I have managed to get myself back to ‘TomSpin’. I’ve written one chapter this week, and I hope to finish the last chapter - ‘The City’ - this week or next. At least, then, I can look back on the summer of 1995 and tell myself I wrote a children’s novel.
Adam is in bed, Barbara is in Wisley. I have her car here, because the brakes were not too clever. I took them to the garage and it cost £200 to have new pads, cylinders, shoes - the whole works. Amanda is in her room. She still hasn’t paid her rent this month. Unfortunately, I have taken a dislike to her. She doesn’t really get in my way at all (except the other night she made a lot of noise with her boyfriend, up and down the stairs); it’s just I find it annoying to have a stranger in my house, someone who I cannot relate to. She never seems to do any cleaning; and her kitchen is always in a mess.
A new documentary series has started on BBC - ‘The People’s Century’. I watched the first episode with Adam. It matches up original film coverage of important events with interviews with people who remember being involved in the events in some way. The first episode covers the period to the 1st World War: the first flight across the Atlantic, the suffragettes, the start of the independence movement in India, the Titanic, and so on. A criticism might be that it is a little shallow and has to link up rather disparate events, nevertheless it’s very useful to watch with Adam. The ‘Radio Times’ tells me that, at 26 episodes, ‘The People’s Century’ is the longest documentary series made by the BBC.
An old and dear friend of my mother died recently in Spain. Yan was Mum’s only close male friend. He was often tiresome and somewhat rude to her, but was also a good friend and often amusing. I only met him at Christmas when he would join us for lunch, or afterwards. In past years, two of his children Emma and Marek, now adult, would also come. Yan was on holiday with a younger friend of his in Spain and was due to come back the next day. The friend and Yan stopped off at a beach somewhere and went for a swim, and Yan got caught by a current, the friend ran for help but was too late, and Yan drowned. Tragic, really. And terrible for the friend, who had to deal with the whole situation. Yan’s children went out to Spain, and a cremation was carried out there. At least, Mum says, Yan was on better terms with his children in recent months than he had been for many years. I always thought he must have been a terrible father - so disorganised, so arrogant about his understanding of art, and rather self-important without any reason to be so.
Tuesday 19 September 1995, London
Later this morning I will sign the papers to purchase El Rosco. Last night I read over the survey report again trying to plan what work I will have to do and in what order. But, of course, without being there, I cannot really plan in detail. My heart flutters every time I think about it. Also, adverts will go in the Ham & High on Friday to sell this house.
Thursday 21 September 1995, London
A cycle of Britten songs plays on Radio Three. It is 8:15pm and completely dark outside. Adam is in bed and sleeping. Barbara is in Wisley. As usual, I will watch TV later on, but for an hour or so now, I will write and read.
Tomorrow, I must get down to working on a speech I am due to give in two weeks time on a platform with a Commission director Michel Ayral and with an MEP. All the key Brussels people involved with energy will be there and, thus, it should provide me with the best platform I’ve yet had. I must endeavour to be on top of the issues but also controversial; I must eschew trying to be too academic but neither must I be too light or too passé. I had intended to leave tomorrow for working on ‘TomSpin’, yet I could not settle today and took on a variety of admin tasks - not least, taking my huge monitor to Computers Unlimited for repair. I had thought it might be done in a day or two and cost just £40, but it will cost £200 and take two weeks. I have managed to fix up a 12in RGB screen with the Mac IIsi by removing the NuBus card from inside. So, at least I can work using the IISi which holds all my files. But it will be very difficult to produce the newsletters if I don’t get the large monitor back in time for the October issues.
I went into Beckman and Beckman and have signed all the papers necessary. I am still waiting to hear about whether the vendors can manage 11 October for completion. That day would suit me very well because I could then get into the house on the Thursday after my Wednesday production, and start to organise what building works I need. This would give me the maximum amount of time before the next newsletter production cycle.
Today, I thought about the phone lines and decided I would need three lines into the new house - two for EC Inform and one for the house. I can’t mix them up any more. I found out that BT has a call diversion facility, which means that I can programme this phone to ring on any other number. I can’t, however, do that with the fax machine. So I think I will buy a new fax machine, a plain paper fax, and install that in El Rosco, and keep this one here until the last moment; then I can sell it when this house is sold. As soon as I have the phones, an answering machine and faxes installed, I can start advertising the changed numbers, regardless of where I am working or what state the house is in. I’ve yet to think through what computers I will need in future. Perhaps I can make do with what I have until I decide about employing someone.
I have been told by my bank First Direct that I will not be eligible for Miras tax relief on my mortgage without making a special application, because I am self-employed and work at home. Unfortunately, I have just sacked Nyman Libson Paul and I need an accountant’s advice on how to fill out the form.
Adam is getting lots of homework now. Almost every day, he has something to do. His writing is improving daily, but, unless he’s concentrating, it still comes out scruffy. We still tell stories on our way to school. When we get back in the afternoon we usually have a ‘snacky whacky’ together, unless he’s forgotten to brush his teeth after breakfast in which case he doesn’t get a snack. He watches some school programmes, does his homework (which we often discuss), reads a bit. The time goes by quite swiftly. Sometimes we have a game of chess.
The best chance for peace in Bosnia is upon us. Will the warring parties give in their ambitions. The UN has been forceful over the last week; one does wonder why they could not have used the same muscle a year or two ago.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party engage in a Conference season dance around each other, desperately trying to prove their differences but at the same time offering some kind of limited partnership for the next elections.
Monday 25 September 1995
This incessant waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. Still we have not sorted out what is happening on Tidy Street, still I am waiting for a completion date El Rosco. Waiting, waiting, waiting and so much to be done soon.
The post arrives and there is nothing of interest there. What a depressing start to the morning. I don’t even know what I want to come in the post.
I should not be able to afford the time to sit around writing my diary, in the middle of a working day, in the middle of a working week. But I am sorely in need of solace, in need of talking to someone, anyone, even you dear dear Diary.
My depression was heightened this morning when my short story collection ‘Love Uncovered’ was returned from yet another publisher. I think this is the third or fourth time it has been rejected. Each one, politely says they are not publishing short stories at the moment. They have had the stories for nearly six weeks I don’t know why it takes them so long to tell me they are not considering short stories at the present.
This morning, after finding the returned envelope on the mat, I found myself thinking that my ‘creative writing’ (ghastly description) is like an escape hatch from my trapped life; if only I could get published my life would open out in some miraculous way. Intellectually, I know that is rubbish, but I can’t help the thoughts that come to my head. What did Elliot say: One must live without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Something like that; hope is forlorn. Either one gets what is hoped for and has the pleasure of getting it anyway; or else one does not get what is hoped for and one is vastly disappointed.
So this morning, I was even more depressed than yesterday. Yesterday was a bad day. Yesterday, I found out, finally, that one party or other cannot meet my completion date on El Rosco of 11 October. I tried to find out why, but there seem to be complications down the chain. Any delay for me is likely to mean a four week delay because of my work cycle, and that will mean, almost certainly that we cannot move in proper until the end of the year. Both B and I so want to move Adam as soon as possible to his new school because, firstly, B is down there all the time now and is reluctant to come back in the evenings because of the transport difficulties; and, secondly, because we are already a whole year late in moving, and an extra term cuts in to the now less than three years he has left until he has to move school again.
Also, the complications on Tidy Street got more convoluted yesterday with the damp survey people wanting to pull up carpets but not willing to take responsibility for putting them back. There was a circle of four people - Alliance & Leicester (AL), the damp firm (D), Barbara (B) at Wisley and me (Me) - trying desperately to get in touch with each other, but my phone decided to play up. Following a number of calls on previous days, I called AL to find out why D hadn’t called me. Later in the day I get a fax from B saying my phone is not answering. I call B, she tells me that AL and D have been trying to reach me, and I should call D, but she cannot find D’s number. I call AL to get D’s number, and then ring D. D is not there. I go out, when I come back there is a message from him on the answering machine (the phone is now working). I call D again, and this time we speak. I tell him I am worried about the carpet being ruined, and he says he will talk to AL. Nothing, absolutely nothing achieved.
Moreover, I felt tired and weak all day long, and did not do a stroke of work.
Last night, I had the pleasure of giving dinner to Raoul, Andy and Rosy. I had arranged to meet Raoul, but then found out B would be in Wisley already, so I invited him round, expecting him not to bother. Then I found out Rosy and Andrew were back from Spain the night before; so they came too, as usual, I would have preferred just Andy to come, but it is impossible to invite Andy without extending the invite to Rosy as well.
Both Andy and Rosy had adventures to tell; and most of the evening was spent listening to them. I cooked a fresh meal of sweetcorn; salmon, boiled potatoes, mangetout and salad; melon and grapes, we spent the evening around the parlour table. Andy has an anthropologist friend call Buck who has been studying a tribe in Papua New Guinea for the last 30 years or so. The tribe is now threatened by Chinese developers, and Buck asked Andy if he wanted to come out and visit and see if there was any kind of entrepreneurial plan he could devise to protect them. Andy did some research on the tribe and how to get there, and travelled out there on his own a few weeks ago. I’m not sure whether Andy really thought he might be able to help, but it seems Buck had set him up with the rather simple villagers to believe that he could help. On arrival at the village, he was taken straight into meetings and expected to talk about how he might be able to help. He stayed a week or so, I believe, and lived in the hut with Buck and his wife, and talked a lot to the villagers about their needs. Afterwards he visited Australia and Los Angeles on his way home.
Rosy meanwhile has been in Qatar at the invitation of the British Council. Much seems to have gone wrong on her trip (as it did on a recent trip to Greece), starting with the fact that she only had a standby ticket and the flight she was expecting to take was full. She got a last place though, and then had super-hassle at Qatar airport because she had no visa and an Irish passport requires a visa. She did four shows with large Arab audiences - but had only been expecting Europeans. She also told a story about how she was upset at not being entertained at all by the British Council, so she found a contact for the scuba diving club and persuaded someone to take her out. But the excursion almost turned into a tragedy because Rosy had no pressure gauge, and nearly ran out of air.
Otherwise, I talked about houses and Barbara’s work, a little about Adam. Raoul said very little.
Paul K Lyons
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