DIARY 55: April - December 1996

Thursday 25 April, Russet House

Spring surrounds us. The daffodils are already dying, but every day, hundreds of dandelions burst into flower, ready for me to pick them. Yesterday, I beheaded 200! There is a forsythia blooming in the garden, between the daffodils; bluebells and whitebells are flowering in the front borders and around the oak tree in the back garden. There is a ribes (a flowering current) with red flowers along the drive and a brilliant yellow mahonia next to it. A clematis I planted is flowering well along the side of the house, although neither of the montanas I bought are showing the vigorous growth I require of them. Trees are bursting into growth everywhere. Goat willows, with their yellow-grey sheen, are common at the back, and in the very front of my garden there is a row of trees with small white flowers bursting through - I have not yet worked out what they are.

There is much else to say about the garden. But, for the moment, I need to fill in a few gaps. This is the first journal entry for seven weeks. Five of those seven weeks were taken up with finalising ‘EU Energy Policies of the Mid-1990s’ (and, in the middle, writing and producing EC Inform-Energy 36). The really intensive work period climaxed over Easter with four solid days of proof reading. This was really horrible. The writing is hard enough, but proof reading at the final stages is no fun at all. Barbara was a real brick and worked solidly with me reading and checking the pages. On the Tuesday after Easter Monday, I took the 150-odd pages into Biddles printers in Guildford, and two weeks later, last Friday, I picked up the 200 copies. Although it was a relief to have finished the book, the pleasure was tempered by a sense that it was, at the final count, not a very good book, and by the knowledge that I had masses of work to do for the marketing and to catch up with normal business. In fact the brochure was printed last week, and the first wave of mailings (about 4,000) went out on Tuesday, and I sit here today, hoping and waiting, for the first fresh order.

Monday 29 April

I spent the entire day yesterday in the garden. The first full day of gardening I have been able to do since before the book. I am not a methodical gardener. One job always leads to another, and before I finish one job, I start another, and then another. As the day progresses, there are more and more jobs half done, needing finishing - like a Russian doll with its heads lying all over the place. Then, as the afternoon turned into the evening, almost like magic, I started completing every job, and tidying up the huge mess of pots, bags of manure, watering cans, plants, seed trays, piles of earth, weeds. And heh presto, the Russian dolls were back together again. Jobs yesterday included a major tidy-up of the garage, further lawn mowing (I bought a hover mower on Friday and did half the lawn then), planting a home-grown berberis at the front, a home-grown keria along the front of the house, and a row of old spinach seeds to see if any of them would sprout. I dug up a bed by the garage, I cleared a large amount of debris from around the oak tree at the back, I repotted a number of house plants and outdoor potted plants, and I put all the gourd seedlings into their own pots. And, before coming in, I lit a bonfire, which was still burning in the morning.

The garden is a mammoth responsibility; and I really wonder whether I will have the stamina.

House update. By the end of May we may be shot of both our houses. I have an offer at £130,000 on 13 Aldershot Road. After changing estate agent (to Paul Greene in West Hampstead), I got three offers, all of them at the £127-128,000 level, but Greene managed to push one of them to £130,000 and I accepted. This is only a week old and, as far as I know, the buyers have not yet carried out a survey. They do, though, have a buyer for their own flat and are close to exchanging contracts.

Barbara too has a buyer. She changed estate agents, and one buyer came in at the asking price of £69,000 but pulled out after the survey. A second buyer came in behind, B agreed a price at £67,000, and then after several surveys asked for another £2,000 off, again B accepted, and they are aiming to complete by the middle of May. What a process. We went down to Brighton early on Saturday morning so B could pick up her post. A and I had a swim in the sea. The water was frozen. It took me all of 20 minutes to acclimatise myself but I did it in the end and swam properly for a full few minutes. B talked for a few minutes to Alice over the road (who reported that Dan’s eyesight has nearly gone), but she retains such a cheerful countenance and matter-of-factness about life and getting old. B also talked to Audrey, who has severe problems with her eyes, but for Audrey every moment is a trial, every event a hurdle and an excuse for complaint and moaning. We returned to Elsteat at lunchtime with a car load of stuff.

B has been looking quite diligently at houses in Godalming and surrounding areas. Her favourite house, to date, is one just round the corner. Originally, I told B I did not think it was a good idea for her to be in Elstead too, but then I relaxed and said she should just look to see what came up. Now she’s found this house in Copse Edge, nearer the school even than here.

There has been another horrific random shooting incident. But, because it was across the other side of the world, in Tasmania, I have barely thought about it. Apparently, a schizophrenic ran amuck and killed over thirty people in a seaside resort. By contrast, the Dunblane tragedy in Scotland in mid-March affected me about as deeply as any news item has for many years. I nearly cried during one news bulletin, and it was constantly on my mind for days. I suppose the fact of a gunman shooting a roomful of primary schoolchildren was particularly disturbing. What is so worrying is that the very news of one such tragedy might be the spur or spark for the next one. The mass media coverage of one shooting perhaps opens a window of an idea in the minds of other potential killers. We certainly had saturation coverage here of the Dunblane tragedy. The murders appear, though, to have been committed in a far more deliberate and evil manner than those in Tasmania. The Dunblane murderer was well known as an odd, and perhaps, dangerous man. He knew what he was doing and then shot himself. The Australian murderer is reported to be a schizophrenic, without any criminal record, and who may just have lost his mind temporarily. Unfortunately for him, he is still alive.

12:00pm Tuesday 30 April 1996, Russet House

I am beginning to get back on top of my work. All the papers I used for the book are now all filed away in coloured folders, the office is relatively tidy, and I can see a finite amount of work for the next few weeks. I have an issue to do this week and next, then I have a week of database work, and then I should have my first clear week for four or five months.

Of course, that is not to say that there is a shortage of things to do. I have not done anything to the house since before Christmas, and I must get on with the upstairs bedrooms, and the downstairs kitchen and bathroom. Then there’s the garden . . .

I went to Bratislava for three days in mid-April. I was invited by the Synergy Programme (European Commission) for a seminar on gas interconnections. The timing was excellent, just after my book and brochure were complete, and before I had to buckle down to the next issue of the newsletter. I chose to fly out on Saturday night, partly because sightseeing tours were arranged for Sunday and partly because the price of the flight would have been double if I’d not stayed a Saturday night - and the organisers had said they would only pay for an Apex fare.

There were organisational problems because B had to work in her new reading room at Wisley on the Sunday, so we asked my mother down on Saturday for lunch and she stayed over for the night and then looked after Adam until about lunchtime. She then drove into Wisley, where B bought her lunch. My mother then went home, and B put Adam in a taxi to Spectrum where Rob had organised a football birthday party. After her reading room closed, B then picked A up from Spectrum.

I drove to Heathrow about 5pm on Saturday, my flight left at 7:30pm, I arrived in Vienna at 10:30pm. A driver was waiting for me, and drove me to Hotel Danube in downtown Bratislava - a 45 minute journey or so (I had never realised how close the two cities were; in fact, to be honest, I had been strangely oblivious to Bratislava’s existence). I was in bed by midnight.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning, I felt extraordinarily depressed. I could not make up my mind whether to go on the sightseeing tour, and, in the end, decided against it. I couldn’t face all that human contact. Instead I walked quietly along the Danube, which is rather wider here than in Vienna, Budapest or Prague. I found myself crying, but I could not distinguish a reason for my tears. I felt very flat and deflated, and extremely unconfident. I think I was stripping off some of the wear and tear of the last three months.

Using an old map I found my way to the botanic gardens, though I had no idea whether they were open, or whether they even still existed. At the entrance, there was a small kiosk which sold tickets for 25p as well as two postcards, and a small pamphlet about the garden. I bought them all - the text was in Slovak, and the pictures were not very good, but Barbara has trained me to buy whatever I can get hold of.

The gardens themselves were ordinary. Many of the shrubs and trees were labelled but weeds were making up most of the ground cover. I liked the rock garden made of large chunks of slate. There was one treat, though - the hothouse. The actual buildings, as most of the botanic garden, were old and decrepit, but the plants inside were clearly much cared for. They were all well labelled, well pruned, well trained. A magnificent clerodendrum, with small white petals and brilliant crimson stamens filled one side of the glass houses. Many of the plants looked as though they had been around for a long time, as though they had been planted in a different age, perhaps even when the greenhouses were built.

There were a few other visitors but they seemed more interested in the parrots than the plants. I, though, was fascinated by two or three glass houses which contained a magnificent collection of succulents and cacti. Some of these, too, seemed as old as the buildings themselves, but at the same time there was a dynamic collection of smaller plants in every corner, sometimes in pots, sometimes crammed together in the gravel.

The botanic gardens cheered me up. I made my way back to the hotel, via a series of buses, took lunch in the hotel, and then, in the afternoon, joined a guided walking party around Bratislava. This was a fairly sedate affair. Our guide was not long out of tourist school, and simply did a competent job walking us around the old town, and showing us the various sites. Very little stands out in the memory. Bratislava is not one of Eastern Europe’s more interesting places. The cathedral is among the most boring I have ever seen, with the exception of a fabulous sculpture by Georg Raphael Donner from the 1730s of St Martin. He is wearing Hungarian costume and sitting astride a horse which is rearing up at the figure of a beggar. At the same time St Martin is cutting off part of the blanket he wears to give a wrapping to the beggar. The castle too, up on the hill above the Danube, is also a grave disappointment. Until the early 1960s, when the massive bridge across the Danube was built, there was a residential slum area but this was cleared to make way for progress.

During the walk, I got talking to a young fellow by the name of Ben Hollins from Wood McKenzie, a firm of analysts in Edinburgh. Although one step removed from journalism, he’s really in the same business as me, that of providing information. Only he charges his subscribers £4,000 a year or more. Ben was to prove one of the few people I talked to during the three days. In the evening, there was a cocktail and dinner in the hotel. I met up with Ian Brown, Patrick Lambert, and a few others.

On Monday, the workshop began. As usual, I found the speeches by the East Europeans as dreary as ditchwater, not least because the translation was less than fluent. Some of the subject matter was interesting and, overall, the conference proved a useful revision course for what’s going on out there in the real world of gas supply and transportation. In the afternoon I skipped out for a stroll through the city. At the main post office, I annoyed the clerk by asking for one each of all the stamps in her book (for Adam). I looked around the stores for things to buy but couldn’t find much.

In the evening, there was the inevitable gala dinner. It was served in the nearby casino buildings (previously the symphony orchestra halls). The food was atrocious. I talked to David Tudball most of the evening. I am always pleased to meet people from the FT to catch up on their news and the machinations inside the FT engine. He confirmed that rumour and counter-rumour continue to be dominant gossip in the corridors - will the FT sell its newsletters, will they won’t they. When will the arch-villain John McLachlan retire? or die? David tells me Henry Evans has taken over on ‘EC Energy Monthly’ for a spell!

On Tuesday, I took a trip into the countryside. I noticed from the free mini-guide to Bratislava that a small place called Rusovce, only 10 miles or so from the capital, boasted two different tourist attractions, some Roman ruins and a palace with gardens and exotic trees. I took a bus from very near the hotel, which drove over the long bridge and then plodded past a huge depressing estate of skyscrapers (and not much else) where a quarter of Bratislava’s population live. After 20 minutes or so, the bus left the city environs and passed through a couple of poor villages before I spotted the name Rusovce on the bus stop. The village was uninteresting and largely deserted. I wondered along the main road, checking the times of the bus back to Bratislava at the bus stop, and wandered whether I had got off the bus too early or too late.

After a while, I found a church, a mini-museum, and, yes, the small-scale Roman remains (which I could actually see through the fencing), but they were all closed up for the winter. I found the palace a few minutes later - a monstrous confection - but this was covered in scaffolding and surrounded in blue corrugated iron fencing. I walked around the grounds for a while, enjoying the near-summer weather, and then headed back to the city and the conference.

In the afternoon, I had to dash out to the shops to spend £10-12. I had changed £20 into Slovak crowns on Sunday at the hotel, but they would not change them back into Western currency. It was not easy to find something I wanted, so was prepared simply to buy camera film. But, then, I found a glassware shop and bought half a dozen sparkling wine glasses and half a dozen tumblers with my money.

A taxi carried me back to Vienna airport with a Danish consultant and a Gaz de France man seconded to UNECE. At the airport, I drank a beer with David Tudball (who had left his glasses at the hotel and had to phone and arrange for them to be couriered to London), and with a Norwegian correspondent of the main business daily newspaper.

The flight was on time and unmemorable. Most of the time I read ‘Enigma’ by Robert Harris. A fictional account of events at Bletchley during the Second World War. On the bus back to the long-term car park, I sat opposite a couple of young Italian men. One of them was speaking with the loudest voice as though the whole world would be interested in his mundane conversation. I sat there gritting my teeth for the whole 20 minutes. Then, when it came my turn to get off the bus, I forgot my briefcase, and it was the loud-mouth who chased after me to give it back. I was home by 10pm or so.


I am having a lazyish day today, and I may go out and do some gardening later. I’ve just got off the phone with Louis Alsop. She rang me some months ago to ask my advice about buying a newsletter. She appears to have taken none of it, for, yesterday, she finalised a deal with the FT to buy the title on infrastructure in Asia which she has been editing for the last two years. The FT decided a while ago to terminate the title and Louis’s contract, so she bought it. I told her it would be very difficult to run such a newsletter - there would be huge telephone and stringer costs, there would be massive mailing costs, and enormous difficulties in getting people to buy it without the FT name. All these difficulties would be compounded by living far away from London in Devon. Louis appears to have come through a whole series of negotiations and possibilities, and finally sealed the deal yesterday for £1. She also won some concessions over equipment and access to FT database names for a year or so. I do believe, though, she is going to have to work very hard to keep the subscription database up at the 200 level. It could work, though, and I wished her luck.

May 1996

Paul K Lyons


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