Wednesday 6 November 1996

EC Inform-Energy 43 to bed. I had hoped to have an interview with the Energy Commissioner Christos Papoutsis in this issue. I submitted my questions several weeks ago, and when I was in DGXVII last week I found several of my regular contacts among the officials had copies on their desk with the specific questions they had to provide an answer for ticked off. When I rang one of them (Hans Van Steen) today (to check on a meeting yesterday) I told him I still hadn’t got the answers. He was genuinely disappointed because, he said, they had put hard work into them, and delivered them to the spokesman within his deadline last week. Now I won’t be able to publish them until December and after the Energy Council.

I decided to employ Theo Leggett from Hindhead. He will start at 9:30 on Monday. I’ll pay him in cash for a trial period until the end of the year, and then regularise the arrangement from 1 January. After interviewing the six candidates, I only wanted to employ two of them. The other was an interesting and likeable girl from Wokingham - Geraldine - who spoke fluent French and Spanish and who had done some work in the European Parliament. I didn’t think I would be interested in her at first, as she had a head-girl kind of background, but she was very convincing at interview and I liked her a lot. Fortunately, she rang to say she’d taken another job, so I was left without a choice. Theo came in to work with me on Friday and he got through the day without doing any thing wrong or rubbing me up the wrong way. He has fluent French, a first class honours degree in English, he can get to grips with technical subjects, and, best of all, he lives nearby and is very happy to stay living in the area.

I realise that I have not finished writing about our short holiday on Dartmoor. We ended up spending the night in a very average B&B in Okehampton The town, too, was very average, we couldn’t even find a half-ways decent pub or meal. The only saving grace was that our room had a television and so I was able to watch ‘Prime Suspect 523’. Helen Mirren was good, but the film was awful. I was raging at it the following night during the second part. The first two or three in the series, written by La Plante, were excellent, but they deteriorated steadily since La Plante lost control of the vehicle. It really is amazing how important the writer is - I mean everything about ‘Prime Suspect 523’ was wrong - the dialogue, the plot, the direction - whereas almost everything was right in the first few of the series.

Even worse is a new four-part series called ‘Sharman’ in which ex-Chancer has become a no-hope private detective - first episode last night. At least ‘Prime Suspect’ could boast Mirren’s acting skills but Clive Owen has no more acting skills than I have in my left eyebrow. The plot was utterly derivative, the director didn’t know if he was making a comedy or a thriller, and spent all his money on what looked like neo-fifties film sets, and the photographer thought he was the Michelangelo of 90’s TV film-making but had little more talent than a stills picture taker for a dog food advertisement agency.

But back to Dartmoor. Well not back to Dartmoor to be exact. We drove from Okehampton straight to deposit Barbara at Rosemoor for her half day’s work. Having explored Great Torrington last summer, Ads and I drove on towards the sea. Although I’d left all my guide books at Mary and Roger’s, I did have maps. On the map, I found a castle marked and we spent ages driving through the narrowest of Devon lanes only to find that it was a private dwelling and that there was no sign of a castle anywhere except in the name plate. Then we drove on to the coast, midway between the awful Clovelly and Westward Ho, which was the furthest point west along the coast that we ventured last Summer.

We chanced on a lovely walk down to Buck’s Mill. It was quite a steep descent from the cliff top, but a pleasant one. The village, like Clovelly, also drops steeply down to the beach, but unlike Clovelly the access road is too difficult for coaches and, consequently, Buck’s Mill is a haven of tranquillity. Above the beach, there is a huge old lime kiln which looks like it could have been part of castle; and above the lime kiln is a small cottage, stuck on the side of the road and overhanging the beach, which, according to a plaque, was owned for half the century by two moderately well-known lady artists. The beach was special too, not only did it have a smattering of fishing boats but there was an excellent waterfall crashing down onto the pebbles. The cafe owner in the village told me later that there really was a mill at Buck’s Mill (utilising the same water flow that ends up on the beach) despite the impractical gradients all around, and that it ground the wheat for Lundy Island. The kiln also made the lime for Lundy. In fact, in the past, all the goods, in and out, came via the sea and there wasn’t even a road down into village until modern times.

We played for longer than we expected on the beach and, consequently, there was no chance for us to be back at the appointed time to meet B. Fortunately, when we rang, she told us she had plenty to do. We eventually got back to Rosemoor after one; had some lunch and then hit the road. We stopped in Tiverton briefly (as last Summer) to buy flowers for Peter and Tony and to take some tea. We arrived at Crewkerne not long after five. Peter cooked us a chicken dinner, and Tony told us about his travails on the local Council. Both were in good health and in good form.

Friday 8 November 1996

Adam has gone off for a Cubs’ sleep-in at the village hall. B and I are thinking of going to the cinema. We will need to leave in the next 15 minutes if we do. B is finally buying a house. It is in Peperharrow Road, one of her favourite locations in Godalming, although she would prefer to live in Elstead. It has three bedrooms, is in reasonable nick and is costing £105,000 - of which I will be contributing £15,000. I’ve yet to see the house, but hope to this weekend.

I am to Amsterdam next week for a night and a day to speak at a dinner debate! I don’t quite understand how the thing will work, but why not.

Slick Willy, as the Republicans call him, has won a second term as US President. It was a foregone; he has led the polls throughout the hustings with his impressive charm and reasonable economic performance. It is quite amazing that, even though Americans can be so moralistic, Clinton has managed to survive.

Surely our own Clean Wally - Tony Blair - can now emulate what has been shown to be possible in the US, and bring some social responsibility to British politics. Dear God please rid us of Howard and Mawhinney and Major and Portillo and Gummer - for ever.

Further tragedies unfold in Zaire and Rwanda with civil wars everywhere and refugees dying of hunger. After French claims it could be the worst disaster ever, the Europeans begin to gather momentum for a UN humanitarian mission.

Benazir Bhutto is sacked as prime minister in Pakistan and accused of corruption. Imran Khan announces he will stand for prime minister in any forthcoming elections.

In ‘Eastenders’, Cindy has finally left the series, again, and David has moved on to another wife. The biggest mystery is how the scriptwriters have managed to get away with making Grant all sweet and lovely when he was so horrible just a few seasons ago. (Yes, I managed to write more about ‘EastEnders’ than genocide in Africa.)

I borrowed books from the library about Surrey’s history. My main purpose was to see if any information exists on how old the Common heath land around here is, and whether it was ever forest. I had planned to try and write about the Mossheads etc. using the Common but at a time in the past when it was more forested. But then I found I wanted to be more precise and discover how, why and when the forest might have turned into heath land. But such information does not really exist. In one book, I did discover that around the 11th century, the great Windsor Forest still covered large tracts of land, but parts of it were being taken over for grazing. Much interpretation is adduced from place names. The idea that parts of the Greensand, the geological make-up of this area, were not forested because of evidence of religious activity is discarded by one book because, it said, the incoming Germanic religious orders preferred isolated and forested areas. Thus, perhaps, the best bet is that it was mostly forest until the 1100s and from then, the area was slowly cleared. This doesn’t help me much and, anyway, I’ve decided against writing that story, I think.

Sunday 17 November 1996

A miserable wet cold Sunday. Adam has chicken pox so we are unlikely to go out any where. B has gone to Wisley for a few hours. I have just finished writing a letter to the head teacher and Adam’s school. In general, we are building up an unfavourable opinion of the school. But, because, Adam has moved schools so often already, things would have to get quite a bit worse before I would consider moving him.

I have been playing, on the CD player, a collection of six CDs by Loreena McKennitt sent to me by Tim and Niema. McKennitt is a folk singer with an international reputation who regularly goes on long tours. Tim works for her full time and Niema also does when they go on tour. I’ve heard them, Andrew and Raoul, talk about her for years, but it was only the other day that I saw her for the first time, at Niema’s book launch. The music is easy on the ear, and some of the more folky songs I really like. However, the oeuvre, if I can call it that, does seem repetitive and there is no intellectual content in the lyrics. They are all airy-fairy subjects on love and death and roses, sometimes veering off into semi-pagan stuff, but nothing much changes throughout the six CDs and I can’t really relate to any of the lyrics. The best of them are the traditional songs, and the worst are the ones she has written herself.

From the CD covers, I gather that Loreena McKennit seems very self-sufficient - her name appears endlessly with every song and with every little bit of every song she does, and yet on some of the CDs the other musicians are not even mentioned. In a few places, she explains the inspiration behind the songs and these reveal a sort of combination of pretentious simplicity and condescension. Here’s an example: ‘As a child, my most vivid impression of music for the winter season came from songs and carols recorded in churches or great halls, rich with their own unique ambience and tradition. In that spirit I have ventured into several similar locations that I have come to cherish in my travels.’

I notice also from the covers that she publishes the CDs herself through her company called Quinlan Road, registered here and in Canada. Two or three years ago she turned it into a limited company. Tim says she has about 15 full time staff and many more when they go on tour. Tim is involved with the marketing side.

She sang briefly at a party for Niema’s new book the other day, acapella and it was very nice. Niema was very grateful to her, and I found out later that Niema had paid for her book to be printed and that Loreena had put up the money. At the party, I bought both of Niema’s books - I don’t know why I never bought her first one although I did go to that book launch too.

Interestingly, there is a connection, for me at least, between the two events. The only thing I remember about the first one, which was held somewhere around Covent Garden I think, was that I had a long talk to a man called Jamal about publishing newsletters. He said he was interested in starting a new title on African affairs. We talked about the business side of it, rather than the subject matter. He was with a rather grey woman, called Joyce Edling, who, since then, I have seen many times since at Rosy and Andrew’s house. I do talk to her, but I’ve always found her rather oppressive somehow, and I heard that she had separated from Jamal a couple of years ago.

Any way, at the recent party, there were two books being launched. Niema’s book about her travels in Morocco and a book by Joyce called ‘My Dear Jamal’. This book is being sponsored by Amnesty International, a representative of which spoke at the launch. Apparently, and I didn’t know this until the party, the Jamal and Joyce story is quite famous and was almost made into a film. Jamal was a prisoner of conscience in Morocco, and Joyce was his Amnesty International casework. When he was finally released, they fell in love, and the letters and their story spread around fast in a world where there are few happy endings. The irony, of course, which I felt strongly at the time, was that a book was being published about a man who wasn’t even there. We do not even know if he sanctioned the book. I had a nasty feeling that there had been a good deal of exploitation of Jamal and his story. There also appeared to be some suggestion that the relationship had lasted as long as it did simply because there was a possibility of a film being made. Jamal is now in the US.

And so back to Niema’s book. I have since read it from cover to cover. The writing is not bad; it does tend towards the self-indulgent, but she does recount a good story. The stories are reasonably well-organised, and she has no problem with distorting time-scales or the sequence of events to make for a better read. One chapter is taken up with Rosy and Andrew, and Rosy informed me that there was considerable licence taken with the facts as well. Because I know Niema and her daughter Roneet, and some of the other characters in the book, and I’ve heard of many others, I did enjoy it. My main bone of contention is that there was nothing really special about Niema’s experiences, many or most travellers could tell tales of equal and greater interest; and could provide a more interesting geographical or cultural or historical context as well. The only aspect that lifts the stories out of the ordinary is Niema’s relationship with one or two famous people. She was friends, for example, with Leonard Cohen, but she only managed to make this connection relevant by writing several chapters about her life in Canada prior to the visits to Morocco, when she was bringing up Roneet. Actually her book is called ‘Travels with my daughter - Montreal to Marrakesh’ but is mostly about Morocco. She also, apparently, had a one night stand with Bob Dylan and makes the most of that throughout the book. There is one character, Irving Layton, Canada’s most famous poet, who does appear regularly through the book.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, though, is one that Niema would not want to recognise. Several times she describes how she put herself and her 14-15 year old daughter in danger. Well, I put myself into danger several times in Asia and South America, but I find it very disturbing to discover the cavalier fashion in which Niema dabbled with drugs and disregarded the potential damage to Roneet’s life that imprisonment could have caused.

My first week with Theo has finished. He worked well and hard, and remains keen. He is sharp and took instructions admirably. I am sure he will do well.

Sunday 24 November 1996

Frozen frosty days. So early in the winter. I hate the winter, I hate the cold. I am also worried about the icy conditions because tomorrow work will start on my back garden. After months of prevaricating over various bids, I finally chose Shackleford Turf because they were the cheapest (£2,500 compared with other bids well beyond a £1,000 more expensive) and because I felt the builders did know what they were talking about. But, I am worried that the turf cannot be laid properly in these conditions, and that the mortar for the terrace and paths will crumble. I did some clearance work out there yesterday when the weather was fine and sunny, and I was planning to do more preparation today but the ground is probably rock hard and the temperature shows no sign of improving during the day.

Adam is doing his homework, B is doing some washing and preparing to journey into Wisley to check on her volunteers, and I sit at our old computer which I’ve set up here at the garden end of the lounge. It is pleasant place to work, looking out over the frosty, leaf-strewn grass or moss I should say and my funny (ha ha and peculiar) white pebble garden and the old oak which has yet to shed most of its leaves. At the weekend, too, it is more sensible to work here where it is warm than in the study where there is no heating unless I put on the gas fire.

The survey of B’s new house has come through from Mr Sweetnam. He supports the recommendation by First Direct’s surveyor to have several specialists - electrical, timber, and something to do with a wall cavity. I’m not sure how serious the problems are, I can’t gauge them from the survey, I would need to talk to him directly, but hopefully they won’t prove insurmountable obstacles.

I am running down a long alleyway which is full of people walking in the opposite direction. I am singing the refrain of a song over and over again, something like, Why are they leaving? or Why can’t I do it? The crowd, which is moving down the alley three or four people wide, leave a free corridor on the right which I run down.

Ads is back to full health again, after being struck down with chicken pox. We kept him off school for a week, during most of which he was quite poorly.

Adam is currently obsessed with a card game called UNO. He wants to play it every day. We usually give in. It’s a good natured game and we have a few laughs.

Theo and I are making progress. I have decided to publish EC Inform-Transport at the end of the same week in which I do EC Inform-Energy. I did think of publishing in a different week of the four week cycle but then I ran into difficulty. If, for example, I publish in the week either side of energy, then either I or Theo would have to be away in the week that the other publication was going to press. And, if I published it in the second week after energy, as I originally thought, then I run into the problem of it being right at the end of the month. I figured, after some thought, that for the first year, it would be better if I could gather all time-sensitive stuff for energy and transport at the same time. For the first issue, I’ll give myself a week’s breathing space - it will go to press on Friday 17 January, thereafter it will go to press on the Friday after the Tuesday/Wednesday when energy is finished.

Theo has been to the City Business Library and photocopied database addresses, and I’ve been to the Institute of Transport library to mull through magazines. I also spent time yesterday trawling the internet for interesting or useful web pages.

December 1996

Paul K Lyons


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