2 October 1996, Brussels

‘Dear A, What a fine day it has been here. Cold but bright and sunny, definitely a touch of autumn in the air, I think. My trip on the train yesterday was slightly fraught. Usually I travel with at least two books, so if I get fed up with, or finish, one, I’ve always got another; but I didn’t have any yesterday, until I bought one in Waterloo. Unfortunately, when I settled down on the train, I couldn’t find it anywhere, I must have left it behind in the shop or somewhere. I was furious because I knew there was no way that one newspaper was going to last me three and half hours; and there is nothing I hate more than travelling on a train without any reading material (except of course having a meteorite fall on my house, and running out of petrol on the motorway, and my computer crashing, and the deer eating our vegetables, and it raining when I want to go out on my motorbike, and you stamping down the stairs . . . . . .)

Fortunately, as I was nearing the end of the ‘Guardian’, and the journey was still only half way through someone I knew came up to me and we talked business for the rest of the journey.

Today, I have been racing around as usual. A frenzy of papers are now fanned across the floor of my flat; and, with magic, all of them must be turned into stories on my computer to end up as one small light-blue newsletter called EC Inform-Energy.

If Mummy’s back in time could you ask her to call me before 8:40 this evening. Thanks young man, and why aren’t you in bed???????????? Lots of love, as ever, Dad.’

Saturday 12 October 1996

I am finding life quite difficult at the moment; not in a practical sense, but in a psychological sense. Increasingly I am aware of my normal adult confidence leaching away. This is not a permanent sensation, I’m not deeply depressed all the time, but the time span between bouts of mental incontinence is decreasing. Weeks go by and I only talk to A and B or maybe my mother on the phone. It is four years, I have been working alone at home. My isolation is taking its toll and I seem unable to stop the decline.

I am unable to make a decision over taking on a new person. I have advertised again but all the replies are from college-leavers, there is hardly anyone with any real experience, and no one with experience of energy or transport writing. I don’t know whether I am prevaricating because I’m scared of hard work in the near future with the new title and losing lots of money. All for what, it’s not as if my work will become any different or more interesting, it’s just more of the same.

Last night I went to bed at 8:30, fed up with my life, fed up with my inability to get on with anything with anything serious, fed up with my inability to make friends, fed up with the poverty of my position in society. Put no effort in, get nothing out. I’m treading out on the ice and it’s getting thinner and thinner, I’m about to fall through, the only question is how will my fall materialise itself.

I listen to the radio far too much. It fills up all the spaces in the day, when there are no people to talk to, or urgent things to do. I watch the television far too much, it fills up the evening, when I’m too lazy to read or write or do something constructive.

It has been the party conference season and a rehearsal for the general election that must come by next spring. Tony Blair did well at his, Paddy Ashdown did well at his, and John Major did well at his. Of course they did, that general election is far too close for comfort.

The Tories are badly split on Europe and the ghastly Euro-sceptics are preying, poisoning a gullible public. For some reason, the Euro-sceptics, who are not worried about their future within the Tory party, are always invited into the TV/radio studios and the only balance to their views is Kenneth Clarke, Ted Heath and Douglas Hurd, but they’re all too serious and heavyweight to be brought out to balance the views of the radicals. I don’t understand why there are not a few younger backbench Tories willing to try and stop the rot. But even the Euro-sceptics will pull back from the brink and tow the line when it really is time; and then if, god forbid, the Tories win again, they’ll be jumping out of the cupboard screaming. Clarke will be out of a job and the referendum on the single currency will be a sure thing.

The lady in the paper shop tells me that there was a camp of Polish refugees near Hankley Common during the war. Many of them stayed and there is a still a Community of second generation Poles. They all know the best places for picking mushrooms but keep them top secret.

Mum rang in the week to tell me that her mother had rung to say she had spotted in the paper a horse race at York on Thursday called the Sasha Lyons Birthday Stakes or something like that! His birthday is actually today. I remembered to send him a card.

Wednesday 16 October 1996

A young man named Theo Leggett came to see me this morning. At present he lives in Hindhead with his mother, but he did his degree in London and an MA in Canterbury. He has a first in English, is fluent in French, and is clearly keen on getting into serious journalism. He has no experience of written journalism or technical/industrial writing, and yet I believe he could pick it all up quickly. More importantly, I could see myself working with Theo, whereas I could not see myself employing Darren or Sean. I gave him a very straightforward account of the job, and sent him away with a newsletter and a book and told him to ring me if was still interested. I thought, maybe, I could pay him to work with me for a few days during my next issue.

Apart from that, the day has been wasted. I went out briefly at lunchtime to the Common, because the sun was shining. There were police everywhere. A boy erecting a fence on the property opposite told me the sub-post office round the corner had been robbed. I hope the girls who work there are all right. A police car was driving around the Common and stopped me at one point, and later a policewoman came to the house because she saw me cycling down Red House Lane wearing a mustard-coloured shirt and with something strapped around my body (a camera) - as if the criminal would be nonchalantly riding around here hours after the event! There was also a helicopter circling around above for most of the day.

‘Eastenders’ has gripped the nation. Cindy Beale put out a contract on her husband Ian Beale (is it really as easy as that - get a number from a friend, meet the person in a pub, hand over some money, and a few days later the man you want dead is shot in the street?). But the police suspect and are now closing in on Cindy. They appear to believe that her lover David Wickes had nothing to do with it. He didn’t, we know that, but he did give her money. His mother by contrast has disowned him for betraying Ian by having an affair with Cindy at all. We know she’s leaving the series, but will she leave in a taxi like so many stars before her, the ‘Radio Times’ asks, or will the scriptwriters find a more dramatic ending. Above this mini curtain-raiser, there is a picture of David Wickes, Cindy and one of her children at an airport!

A builder has bought the small bungalow opposite and is awaiting planning permission for a two-story house. It looks nice from his drawing, which, he says, was partly modelled on this house. He’s not sure yet whether he himself will move in or whether he’ll sell it on next March when he’s finished.

Thursday 17 October 1996

This messing and lazing about has got to stop. I thought that after I moved, I would naturally become more productive. I thought the better air, the more space, the quieter atmosphere, the more pleasant surroundings would all encourage me to focus better on constructive past-times. But this has not come to pass. I am doing nothing at the moment. It is 1.26pm. I spent one hour compiling the index this morning, and the rest of the time has been spent reading the paper, listening to the radio, having cups of tea, etc. I have no project I can get my teeth into, and when I have no project, I can’t be bothered to do little things here and there, because it is as though, by doing them, I am trying to escape from the emptiness of not having anything to do. Tortuous, I know.

An opportunity has arisen. A secret competition, a secret race has presented itself. I am tempted to enter, and if I do, I will be the only person racing, indeed I will be the sole person to know about the race. Will I have the stamina, the determination?

This morning, I talked to the builder who has bought the house opposite. He told me the police had caught the post office robber. On leaving the PO (he had no car!) he had run into the woods between here and school and made his way through the holly trees and bushes towards Red House Farm. Apparently, he dropped his replica gun somewhere at the back behind this house, and then holed out in bushes up near the farm. The police tracked him down with sniffer dogs.

But what about the race, the contest? The builder, whose name I don’t yet know, showed me his plans to turn the bungalow opposite into a two-storey house - the Waverley Planning Committee meets tomorrow to decided whether to give him permission. I asked him how long it would take, and he said he wanted to finish it by March. In the last two days, he’s put up a brick foundation and wooden fence all the way round the property - what can I say I’ve done in the last two days? Zilch. In the next six months, he plans to build a new house. What will I do in the next six months, the winter months? Write a novel. That’s what I must do. I must have something to show that will equal the new house to be built in front of my very eyes.

31 March 1997 is a Monday. My novel, a first presentable draft, must be ready. But what will it be about. I have, in the last few days, started looking very cursorily at the possibility of a children’s novel about the Common with mossheads, stickwigs, fronds, and all the various other characters Adam and I have invented over the years. But I find I’m running into deep blockages in my head before I even start. I cannot remember the stories I told in the Black Forest (where these ideas originated) and I can’t imagine how these characters are really going to live and do things. I made them come alive in the forest while we were walking, but I can’t see myself doing it on the page.

Then there are the two unfinished novels sitting on my hard disk: the rats, and the novel. It would be particularly appropriate to work on one of these because this would create a parallel with the builder using the existing structure of the bungalow to create his new house. On the other hand, I am unsure whether, firstly, either has got any potential and, secondly, they are projects which could be completed within the competition period.

Tuesday 22 October 1996

What a dense weekend. We left Russet House at about 8am on Saturday morning. It took only an hour to drive to Salisbury. I thought we were a bit early to go straight to Mary and Roger’s so we parked in the centre and tried to buy Ads some trainers in Clarks, but they didn’t have his size. At 34 Wyndham Road, we gossiped for most of the morning, about my mother, about Martin, about Roger’s sculptures, and the rest. Ads found Daniel’s room and his old comic annuals, so that kept him happy for hours. I suppose their main news was that Roger is planning an exhibition of his work in conjunction with three other stone masons working on Salisbury Cathedral who do private sculptures as well. He said he was amazed how much work it takes to organise such a venture. I said for an artist an exhibition was of the same order of importance as publishing a novel is for a writer; and that entails a huge amount of work. They’ve done quite a lot of work on their house which is looking very handsomely decorated.

After Salisbury, I had no fixed destination. I’d brought a number of books and maps for the North Devon/Cornwall coast as I thought, because we were not going to stay at Julian’s cottage, we could focus on the coastal area south of Great Torrington. (Unfortunately, I left all my books and my camera and the binoculars at Mary’s house.)

About half an hour out of Salisbury I started looking for a place, off the A303 to picnic, and found myself turning off towards Stourhead. B and I first to went to Stourhead more than 15 years ago, when she was still living near Salisbury. We hitched there I think, and climbed in through a hole in the fence. It was so romantic. Now, of course, we’re way past romance but more interested in gardens. There were loads more features at Stourhead than I remembered, the grotto, for example, and the Pantheon. I made up a story for Ads about Old Stourhead who created the garden but had to build a giant wall to stop strangers coming to ogle at it. There wasn’t much in flower, but some of the trees and the views across the lake are truly magnificent. For £48, B signed up for family membership to the National Trust so that we didn’t have to climb in through the hedges.

From Stourhead we raced along the A303 to Exeter. I decided to stop there for tea and to try for Ads’ shoes again. This was an unmemorable pit-stop, but it had a side-effect. For B, Exeter is the gateway to Dartmoor. Whereas, we had been heading to Bude, for want of any better destination, our stop in Exeter inspired B to ask that we dip into Dartmoor. So we did. I thought we might stay the night in a Youth Hostel, of which there are two in the North of Dartmoor, so we stopped near the first at Steps Bridge, but when I looked through the glass door and saw a dozen teenagers all eating at a table and no sign of any reception facilities, I went off the idea. Instead we drove on to Doccombe, where we took in the last daylight on a short walk, and from there to Moretonhampstead. It took an hour of wandering around the town to find a B&B, but we did find a good one in the end. An older lady with a younger companion in Long House, Ford Road. She prepared what she called the Upstairs Flat for us, which had its own kitchen and bathroom, and was very comfy. Ads fell in love with her alsation, Leah. After another tour around town looking for somewhere to eat, we chose the main inn for our evening drink and meal. In the morning, we took an hour-long stroll along the roads before returning for an excellent breakfast. So, then, did we leave Dartmoor? Not a bit of it.

In the B&B I had found an old (1960s) book called Worth’s Dartmoor (later I found more modern printings of the same book on sale in the information centre). This was a reproduction of an earlier book which had been out of print for many years and much sought after. There was much analysis of the impressive archeological remains across the moor but the only chapter I looked at in some detail was that on the ancient woodlands. Worth describes three areas of oak woods on Dartmoor which, he said, were acknowledged as being unique in Britain if not the world because the trees were so small. Worth had gone to the trouble of documenting the sizes of the trees, the shape of the leaves and various other attributes. I have always been vaguely interested in ancient woodland and, as it happens, I had been reading about the subject just days previously in a book B brought me from Wisley.

So, we went to Two Bridges, which is about as central Dartmoor as you can get, in search of Wistman’s Wood. I was disappointed, though, to find a signpost to the Wood, a well worn track, and a number of other people heading in the same direction. Neither was it the best weather: there was incessant rain and fog.

Friday 25 October 1996

By the time we arrived at the wood, we were well soaked - despite wearing rainproof tops, the rain was draining off them down our trousers and into our wellies. But it wasn’t cold and we were all in good spirits. The wood was beautiful. The oaks were indeed small, old, decrepit and covered in moss and lichens some of which was hanging down and reminded me of the Longfellow poem ‘Evangeline’. The clinging mist and rain added to the atmosphere making it seem, if anything, that much more of an ancient place. We clambered around the moss-covered boulders through which the trees had been growing for so many years and, for 20 minutes or so, inspected the different trees, admiring the patterns of the gnarled and partly dead branches and the various flora they supported, not least good strong ferns growing among the lichen and moss. It was only later, when we were on the other side of the slim valley and the mist had cleared, that we saw the forest as a whole. It was not very large, barely 100-200 metres wide and 500 metres long (and never dense), clinging to the side of the valley which otherwise is just boulders, heather and bracken.

We should have gone back the way we came for there was no other short path to lead us round in a circle, but I had ascertained from the map (which I’d left behind on account of the rain) that if we crossed the river and made our way up the other side of the valley we would cross another track that would take us back to Two Bridges. Crossing the interestingly-named West Dart River was no mean feat. There was quite a strong flow. I could walk across the boulders in several places without even jumping, but to get Barbara across was another story. Anyhow, we climbed up the hillside, past so many mushrooms, and found the track which ran alongside the Devonport Leat. It was a magnificent leat, about three foot wide and two deep, with sides made of boulders carefully positioned. Astonishingly, the fast and deep flow appeared to run uphill! We all agreed this, and it was not just a one position illusion; as we walked along the leat, down river, so to speak, and we looked back it continued to look as though it was coming from down the hill behind us, not higher up. Adam loved this. I was completely confused. It wasn’t as if it looked slightly wrong, it looked definitely wrong. I thought about this for ages, especially as Adam continued to quiz me as to why it couldn’t be running uphill, and it was only after some minutes that I did finally conclude that it had to be, absolutely had to be, an optical illusion, probably caused by the mist.

We followed the leat into a dark and spooky pine forest, then through more fields, where the leat appeared to be on a more even run, then along some tracks. As I couldn’t remember the map very well, I was beginning to worry where we were headed, especially as we were all very wet, a bit cold and getting very tired. Finally, we met up with another river - Cowsic (sic - ha!) river and followed that down to the two bridges which give Two Bridges its name.

Without any shelter other than the car, changing into dry clothes was a nightmare; and we only had one other set of clothes so this precluded us doing anything outside for the rest of the day. We drove on to Princetown where we spent a couple of hours drinking tea and looking round an informative exhibition in the information centre. I learnt that the Dartmoor ponies are all owned by farmers and rounded up once a year, when the farmers are allowed to take some for selling.

Dartmoor is definitely growing me.

At B’s suggestion we moved on to the National Trust property at Buckland Abbey. This was originally an abbey but was then confiscated by the King and given to I can’t remember who, then Sir Francis Drake bought it and it stayed in his family until the mid-1990s. There is a huge stone barn (the Pugin barn at Oxenford is quite similar) which is empty and the 17th century converted abbey now serves as a museum about itself, and about Sir Francis Drake. As usual in such places, I gave Adam a task to find out some things about Drake.

There is a huge spider up on the ceiling; spiders seem to come into the house when the weather is about to deteriorate.

A glass of Lagavulin takes away a horrible aftertaste from the evening’s meal that I cooked.

After a mild week, a mild half-term week in which Ads has been able to play outside on his bike a lot, the weather has now turned, and driving rain has come upon us. Earlier this evening I saw a full moon but the sky is dark, cloud-covered and rainful.

I have now interviewed six candidates for my assistant’s job: three from the first ad, and three from the second; two men and one woman from each. The symmetry was not deliberate just the way it happened. From the first lot, I rejected the one girl and kept the two guys on hold. I have now decided to give Theo Leggett and Geraldine Rijs a closer look by inviting them here during a production day next Friday and Monday. It’s funny that I’ve opted for two people who have no experience of journalism or of energy/transport. In both cases I am choosing potential intelligence and likability over and above experience.

Sunday 27 October 1996

The sun shone yesterday and I was out in the garden from morning till dusk. Most of the work was clearing and cleaning, but I also attempted to replant two rhododendrons on the front border. I managed to get a substantial mound of earth with one of them, the less mature one and I think that might well grow on. I’m not so sure about the other which is larger and for which I only managed to a get a few roots. Rhodies have mat-like roots which stay close to the surface and it is not easy to tell in my garden where the rhodie roots start and finish because there are so many other roots systems. I also cleared up a lot of leaves and acorns and burnt them before the weather changed. Today it is blowing a gale and raining constantly. Adam and I are going down the Woolpack later to meet up with Rosy and Andrew - it will be their first visit here.

I am feeling below par this morning. I don’t know if it is because of the garden work yesterday or because I have a sore throat which could mean I have a slight cold.

Recently, I have not been sleeping too well. Last night for instance I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep for a while. I almost always turn the radio on to catch the World Service but, whereas the sound of the radio would always send to me sleep in the past, it now keeps me awake. In other words, I have a troubled mind.

I don’t know how I got on to this train of thought but I had an amazing idea for using my diaries in a theatre show. I thought I could hire a theatre for a week or two and put on a show where I sat in a comfy chair with all my diaries next to me. The audience would be invited to pick any day from the last 20 years and I would read them out an entry. That would be the whole show, nothing else, just me reading. I think the idea would be so unusual that publicity would be no problem. There would be boring, very badly written and embarrassing passages all of which I would want to edit out as I read - which wouldn’t be easy. And then there would be the problem of using real people’s names, would I be able to change them and remain consistent. At the time, in the night, I was so excited by the idea that I wanted to try a few random passages but I was too lazy. I did try this morning, though, and I chanced on pages of rather depressing and self-analytical writing (of which I fear there is a surfeit throughout the diaries). I couldn’t see how it would make much entertainment. I think I would have to type and edit them all on the computer before I engage such thoughts again.

I gave Adam two half term projects: one was to make a collage from the front covers of old ‘New Scientist’ magazines. He did that without much flare. The other was to write a story called ‘Lost on Dartmoor’, and use the experiences he had gained last weekend. I gave him no other help on it. The 4-5 page story is excellent. Although it could be much better on grammar and spelling, the story itself is really good, it actually tells a story and has a beginning, a middle and an end. As a plus, the writing on the first and only draft is really neat. I’ve put it into my collection.

November 1996

Paul K Lyons


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INTRO to diaries