Saturday 1 August 1998

It’s gardening all weekend, but the rain has started - thunder is beginning to crack all around - so I’ve come in for a while. I’ve made a start in digging up the front area, and I even planted a mallow in the middle, between the rhododendrons, to provide a bit of colour in the summer, poking up above the other bushes. My only doubt is that there might not be quite enough sun for a mallow in that position. Time will tell - I tried a Clematis montana a while back, hoping it would grow up over the rhododendrons, but it failed miserably. I’ve also planted a few of the geraniums I grew from seed, and a few heathers in the back corner patch around the fire area.

I pulled my trousers away to find a jumble of tubing full of blue liquid attached, or growing out of my side, just about where my hip is. I was terribly shocked by this and went to the doctor. There was a queue and I waited patiently, but then the doctor was called away to an emergency, and another doctor, a woman, took me into a cubicle and examined the tubes. She put them in her mouth and sucked them, then they fell off, and I was left with a ridged hole in my side. I kept asking her what it was, what kind of illness could it be, but she wouldn’t answer. I wanted to know if it was fatal, or curable, and what would happen to me.

The night I came back from Ireland, I drove up to Barnes for a meal with Raoul and Andrew. We spent 15-20 minutes talking about my trip, and then the rest of the evening about Andrew’s two month trip around the world, and related subjects - since he saw several people whom Raoul and I knew, the conversation went off at tangents occasionally. Most of the people he visited seemed to be in the middle of some crisis or other. In Los Angeles, he missed his cousin Angela Lansbury, from whom he was hoping to win substantial funds for his Papua New Guinea venture (although he still expects to get something sometime), and in Australia he didn’t get as much information from his uncle as he had hoped. In PNG, he got a dreadful infection in his leg, and was helicoptered out to a Chevron base for 10 days. Raoul, meanwhile, had little to contribute - he’s away in Wales for two weeks, and then in Portugal for two weeks with the kids (where they’ve hired two cars!). At the end of the evening, the conversation slipped back round to my social life, obliquely at first, and then more personally. But the problem is deep set, and either permanent, or likely to take years to resolve. Raoul insisted that the problem was connected with living in Elstead, and I said that was irrelevant, because I had exactly the same problems in Kilburn (and in Brazil, in fact, where I was lonely some of the time).

On this latter matter, I have still not made any profit from my membership of Sirius. The 40+ profiles continue to roll in, and I continue to reject them. Meanwhile, I receive a new edition of the company’s magazine, but with it came news that members now have to use an 0890 number to listen to other member profiles - well, at 50p minute, it’s too expensive. I really object to the exploitative nature of this company. My tally to date: three telephone numbers; two telephone conversations, and one meet.

England won a test match, against South Africa to level the series with one match still to play. Stewart seems to be bringing a grittier element to the captaincy, and Atherton has re-found his Boycott abilities.

I see that I have failed to mention my birthday. This was not really an eventful event. In the morning, I made rolls for breakfast, and then Ads and I went on a cycle tour around Witley, Hambledon, Chiddingfold (where we lunched) and Dunsfold. B was in Edinburgh. On the Sunday, though, I drove the three of us up to my mother’s for lunch. And so life moves on, inexorably towards nowhere.

Saturday 8 August 1998

I’m sitting at a newly painted table, in the recently decorated bedroom/office upstairs, typing away at my new Mac Powerbook. I have been thinking about buying a new portable for ages, mostly because the Tosh became unusable - not only is it a Dos-based machine which means I’ve always got conversion hassles, not only do I always have battery problems, but now the transformer seems to have died on me. I have considered giving the machine to Adam or B, or even Theo who expressed an interest in it, but I honestly believe the machine is defunct. If it could operate without a battery, then it wouldn’t matter so much, but that was always a flaw with the first generation of really light portable Toshiba laptops. I remember the joy of the machine when I first bought it - the portability was a true delight. But that was a good many years ago, and I feel I’ve had reasonable service from it. Because it cost such a lot, equivalent to a second hand car, for example, it feels very difficult to throw it away. I did have it in the dustbin, but I chickened out just before putting the bin out for collection. Now the thing is sitting in a bag in the garage and I don’t know what to do with it. The point is, though, that I’ve bought a replacement, a Powerbook. I’ve coveted one since they first were on show at an Applemac exhibition in Olympia - and now, I’ve got one. This model, a 1400c/166, is no longer being made. Apple have discontinued this line in favour of the faster G3 series. About a week ago, apparently, Apple crashed the prices on this model so that they were around half price - only a few months ago they were selling at £1,600 or more, and yesterday I bought this for £890. I might have got it £50 cheaper if I’d been quicker of the mark, but, when I finally got round to ringing mail order companies, they had almost all sold out - so I had to snatch this up at £890, when I found it. I really don’t need anything faster and this will do me fine, so long as I get used to the trackpad.

The sun has arrived. We have several days of glorious hot weather, so hot in fact that it has been uncomfortable working in the garden. Yesterday, for example, I set about getting the chain saw (borrowed from Theo’s mother) working. I dressed up in long trousers, wellies, sweat shirt and goggles, and before very long I was baking. In fact, I spent most of the afternoon trying to get the thing working. I’d had to buy chain oil, oil for a two stroke, and petrol, and a can; and I’d had to read the instructions to get the thing started. Once I’d got it started, I couldn’t get the chain to go round. So I took the thing to pieces, cleaned out chunks of dried oil, and it still wouldn’t work. After a couple of hours I worked out that the chain break had been on the whole time. The instructions were hopeless, I have to say in my defence, but I still should have worked it all out earlier. Me and machines just don’t go together - I hate them. They treat me with respect unless I try and tinker with them, and then they always get the better of me, for a while any way.

By the time I’d got the chain saw working, I was too hot and bothered to actually do any chain sawing. I’ll save the job for Monday, not least because I don’t like making masses of noise at the weekend. Why have I borrowed a chain saw? Oh, didn’t I say. I’ve decided to try and cut myself wood blocks from fallen trees in the holly wood, to use as steps in the front garden. I can buy them from Homebase for £3 each, but I might need 30 or 40, and so I thought it would be cheaper to cut them myself.

Theo has worked hard over the last couple of weeks so as to be ready for his four-week trip to Chile on Monday. He’s prepared more than half of the transport book - though I’ve hardly looked over any of it, so I imagine there is a fair amount of revision and editing to do; and, because he’s not returning until production week, he’s written up a chunk of the next EC Inform-Transport issue. Inspired by his forthcoming trip, I went to search out the diary from my Chile period - I was surprised how much information there was there. I’ve never typed up that diary, nor have I read it in recent years. There are a lot of stories and poems, and wails for love, but, between those, there is a decent amount of information about my movements. Perhaps I should type up that diary next.

I should report that somehow or other I wasted much of the last week. Tuesday was entirely devoted to Adam’s birthday. We left around 9am to drive to Midhurst, where we ate an English breakfast at the polo cafe - although I must remind myself never to have fried bread there again because the fat they use is foul. I thought the prices were a bit excessive too. From there we drove non-stop to Cuckmere Haven, beyond Brighton and Seaford. Ads had expressed a desire to walk on cliffs, so I took him to the Seven Sisters. The day was a roaster, though, which I hadn’t expected, and we were caught on the cliff tops without any wind but with a beating sun. It wasn’t a problem at first, only by the middle of the day when we slightly lost our way, and couldn’t find any shade for our picnic. We did eventually find a place back from the cliff tops yet still with a splendid view of the sea and the downs. After that we wandered down through East Dean, a picturesque little village which I don’t remember having seen before, and then through woodland to West Dean. Once back at the car, we drove through to Brighton, and strolled through North Laine, discussing which shops were new and which had survived the few years since B sold her house in Tidy Street. Ads and I had a swim on the beach which was a real delight after the heat of the day. The water was calm and relatively warm. We ate and drank a little in Food for Friends, B’s favourite place in Brighton, waltzed down the pier and back, and settled into the ABC cinema to watch Adam’s choice of film ‘Lost in Space’ with William Hurt, an action-packed adventure based on the TV series.

So that was Tuesday. It’s hard to distinguish what else I did this week and on what day. I know that I did more digging, trimming the rhododendrons, and pulling up weeds. I went to Homebase looking for bark chips for the back garden but they’d sold out, and didn’t know when new stock would be arriving (because it comes from Ireland, they said). I took cuttings of the heathers. I spent part of one day renovating this table that I now sit at. It’s one of those classic oak tables with leaves at both ends - only this one was a mess because parts of the veneer had been pulled off, and because it had been sitting in the garage for months and become covered in mould. I cleaned it, I tried to cover the veneer holes with wood filler, and I painted it with primer and eggshell cream paint, the same used on the woodwork in this room. I also finally got round to hanging a few pictures around the house, and I’m still doing that today. Also, occasionally, I strolled into the office, and went through paperwork, and talked to Theo about what he was doing. On Thursday, I took Ads swimming at Spectrum. We spent about 10 minutes practising dives, and finally he seemed to get the hang of tensing his muscles properly before diving. I have resorted to watching the occasional ‘Eastenders’ episode, although I am not watching any other television, other than the cricket (the last test match with South Africa is under way and it is a close fought contest) and ‘Superman’ with Adam in the morning (we’ve watched all these episodes but they are good enough to watch again).

Oh yes, also I trawled through my list of publishers/agents and sent off both ‘Love Uncovered’ and ‘TomSpin’ to, as yet, untried ones. ‘Love Uncovered’ came back within a few days, but, for the first time ever, included a personal comment, hand written to the side of a standard letter. The agent said she thought I wrote ‘very well’ and that the stories ‘held’ her ‘interest’.

Friday 14 August 1998

Wiped out by a vicious virus on Monday morning. I woke with such a pain in my throat it was like someone was using a cheese grater in there. By the end of the day my nose was streaming like a leaky mains, and I felt as rotten as a landfill site. Tuesday too I was so ill, I couldn’t do anything from morning till night, my whole head got blocked up, and my breathing was as heavy as a bucket of concrete. That night I barely slept a wink, my heart seemed to be forever racing, so that my body couldn’t relax enough to fall asleep. I wonder if my sinuses were so blocked that my body wanted to stay alert in case they blocked up completely. By Wednesday I was a complete wreck - although I had decided on Tuesday that I needed to get on with something despite my illness, and therefore elected to bring forward my schedule for doing accounts. So, I spent Wednesday and Thursday doing my quarterly VAT returns and my self-assessment form, so at least I’ve got something done. By Thursday I was feeling considerably better in myself, although I was spewing up green chewing gum first thing in the morning; and today, Friday, I feel very heavy in my lung area (I’m still coughing up vast quantities of phlegm) and I wouldn’t dream of swimming or going for a long walk (I have also put off the chain-sawing until next week), but at least I feel well enough to get on with some brain power work.

Last night I read an article by Fred Pearce (a prolific environmental reporter who really does get out and around, and occasionally over-sensationalises stories, but not in this case) in the ‘Guardian’ about a forthcoming report on the Bhopal disaster. I believe there has been a dreadful imbalance in the world’s attention to this disaster as compared to that towards Chernobyl. Pearce talked to the author of an official report due out later this year. It will chronicle a terrifying catalogue of deaths and illnesses since the Bhopal explosion, and ongoing genetic defects in those born since the disaster. There were 2,000 dead immediately after the accident, and since then another 5,000-6,000 seemed to have died as a consequence of the explosion; moreover, up to 500,000 suffered to some degree and 10,000s still suffer 14 years later. I talk to Adam about this.

Adam is working on two projects this summer, though I fear he is not making as much progress as he could have done with more application. One is to prepare a half hour show of jokes, magic, harmonica etc; and the other is to prepare a country profile on the computer.

I should report that England won a very exciting test match on Monday against South Africa, and the win gave the team its first series win in 12 years. The commentators did not judge the stewardship of Stewart (who replaced Atherton after the West Indies tour) as particularly important, but I do. In fact, England has been close to doing well in recent years, and with a different set of circumstances might have done better; moreover, with the recent series win, it could so easily have gone the other way. What I’m saying is that the difference between then and now, is rather little, but that difference may well stem from a factor as difficult to quantify as morale or determination or sheer wanton need to win. I got the feeling that Stewart’s captaincy had a much more earthy, determined feel to it, than Atherton’s, and that Atherton may never have cared that much, or shown he cared that much to influence the players. Stewart’s more emotional, simple, hard-working approach may have made the essential difference, one that brought a capable but vulnerable team, past a threshold of confidence and belief needed to win a major series.

Saturday 22 August 1998

Unfortunately, a cold has wiped out two weeks of the summer holiday. These were the two weeks I had set aside for writing and doing things with Adam, and for continuing work in the garden. Yesterday, I finally went to the doctor, who gave me a course of antibiotics. The virus knocked me out for six for two days, Monday and Tuesday, and then on the Wednesday (ten days ago) I was already feeling better. Since then, though, I’ve remained the same, neither very ill, nor well, at half-mast. I cough up green gunge, and my nose runs sometimes during the day. How long am I supposed to wait before going to the doctor for antibiotics? If I’d gone last week, I might have saved myself a week of fudging. I hate myself when I’m not well - I take every excuse to laze around, to watch TV, to go to bed early, to avoid doing any thinking at all. I had planned for this summer at home to be a crisp time, no tv, lots of exercise, lots of going out, lots of hard work on the novel etc. Blah, blah, blah.

In one week’s time I have to return to EC Inform work, and I’ve achieved absolutely nothing this summer - except to watch and listen to lots of sport on TV and radio.

I am still working my way through three science books (no fiction at the moment): the worst of them is ‘Climbing Mount Improbable’ by Richard Dawkins. I have never liked Dawkins since his first and most famous book ‘The Selfish Gene’, which I always felt was wrong, his whole hypothesis was over-argued, over-justified, and flawed, and yet he has become one of Britain’s best known scientists. (At the end of ‘Figments of Reality’, another book I’m reading, the authors give pithy critiques of other books - of ‘The Selfish Gene’ they say ‘superb, well worth reading, but don’t believe it’.) As for ‘Mount Improbable’, it is simply a book that tries to explain how evolution has given rise to some of the more difficult-to-explain features of animals - such as flying. Mount Improbable is a metaphor: if you look up the vertical craggy rocks, of course it looks impossible to climb, but if you look round the back of the mountain, you can find a gentle slope to walk up to the peak. Stunning! Why did I buy the book, I don’t know, I thought I ought to read it if only to criticise it.

’Figments of Reality’ is a much better, much more interesting book. I remember nearly not buying it because of the horrible hype surrounding it, and because neither of the authors - Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen - were well known to me as scientists working in the area of human evolution or the mind. There are some very irritating bits in the book, such as the fictional dialogues, styled on those used by Hofstader in ‘Godel Esher Bach’, and an over-use of their own invented terminology such as ‘ant country’ and ‘figments’; and to start with I was ready to be utterly scornful. However, the book has grown on me, especially their independence of thought. I love it, for example, that they more or less rubbish Dawkins as well Penrose (‘The Emperor’s New Mind’) another feted scientist who is completely wrong to my mind; and I like the fact that they talk at length about their being no language with which to discuss how the mind and consciousness work - for this is what I have been saying (albeit only to myself, for who else can I talk to about these things) for years. But, most importantly, the authors have made a brave attempt to link up the relevant science (explaining why they dismiss some levels of science) to an individual’s personal subjective experience of what thinking, and consciousness are. Other writers/scientists simply stick to their science to explain the mind, consciousness, but do not relate to everyone’s everyday experience of what it is to have a mind. One of the key points Stewart/Cohen make, and demonstrate, is that many of the decisions made my individuals are made first and then consciously acknowledged afterwards. Thus we do not decide to pick up the cup of the tea and drink, we simply do it and then our conscious self, some milliseconds behind, registers the action. But I do not think they have quite got there - their discussion of free will and the decisions made by individuals does not appear to recognise, for example, that there are different types of decisions, and thought processes. I can pick up the cup and drink while I’m thinking about what to write next, or I can look at the empty cup and think, ‘mm I think I’ll go and make another cup of tea’. Since having bought this book some months ago, I have been noticing Stewart - a mathematician by profession - everywhere; he’s on the radio, on TV (last night telling the presenter of ‘Country Tracks’ about mathematical patterns in nature), in magazines. I am considering writing to the authors - I’d have to reread the critical passages - because this book ‘Figments’ has got closer than anyone to nailing down consciousness.

The third book, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, explains how and why civilisation developed in certain regions of the world and not others, and how and why agricultural practices spread in the patterns they did. The key premise of the book is that bio-geography is responsible for the different stages of racial development around the world, not differences in the races themselves; at least I think that’s the message. I think my friend Andrew knows the author, Jared Diamond - presumably through the Papua New Guinea connection.

Also in these two weeks, I have been through my half-written mediocre novel and made substantial corrections. I have re-befriended the characters and I have a slightly clearer idea of where the plot might go. I have put aside next week to work hard on it. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, I have devoted, am devoting, to finishing a first draft of ‘Trapped Again’. Ads wrote his version - a single line spaced 10 page version - ages ago and I am trying to use parts of the dialogue and plot. The narrator, Ally (I’m pissed off that a cult series on Channel 4 has recently started with the name/title ‘Ally Mcbeal’), is older now and using more adult words, albeit somewhat hesitantly. This time Ally and Nick get into trouble at a funfair.

Wednesday 26 August 1998

Dave Richards came into a dream the other night, he was a stout, bespectacled chap from Cardiff with whom I used to go drinking in London after we had finished university.

Fed up with my continuing poor state of health, I went to the doctor last Friday. He gave me Amoxycillin and told me I would be better by Tuesday otherwise to come back. Well, its Wednesday, and I’m not better, in fact, I don’t think the Amoxycillin made the slightest bit of difference, I am still coughing up green phlegm, and coughing dryly. The night before last I had the rapid breathing again which stops me sleeping. Also, the wretched fungus has returned behind my right shoulder, under my armpit. It seems to come back every couple of months now.

Before I forget, I must report the following news item on the radio this morning (I hope there’s more in the papers when I get them later this morning): scientists have discovered a new species of mosquito on the London Underground. They believe it originated from a species that fed on birds which entered the Underground when first built over a century ago, and that it has mutated to feed on rats. The scientists have now found that the mosquito is unwilling to mate with its fellows above ground, a speciation event which usually takes thousands of years rather than decades. This is perfect material for my story ‘The Rats’. What a shame decades are slipping by without me doing anything about it.

In the last few days, I’ve spent a few hours rewriting a story - ‘Finnigan Flame’ - for Genny. The other day she showed me a mock-up book, story and pictures, which she must have put together some years ago. She had sent it to a couple of publishers, and then had paid to have it critically reviewed. The review said the drawings were fine, but the text was a waste of time. Recently, though, so someone at Oxford University Press had asked Genny why she didn’t submit her children’s drawings with a story to so and so in another department at OUP. Consequently, I said I would look at the text and redo the story for her, and perhaps she could illustrate one of my stories (I have dug up and given her ‘The Pet Shop’ and ‘The Frying Pan’ - both of which were simple stories told to Adam when he was younger). Her Finnigan text proved to be a real mix-up of ideas and characters, but I managed to keep the general line of the story, and rewrite most of the text to fit the pictures. It’s up to Genny now, if she wants to send it off.

Today and tomorrow, Ads is taking part in a football course at Spectrum. He’s never done a football course before, although they are offered all over the place every holiday. I tried to stress that a course is an opportunity to learn, not to show off, to watch and listen, not to mess about. But he resents me telling him these things.

Saturday 28 August 1998

I am in a house with some people at night, two bad guys arrive and attack somebody. I wake up and realise no one has called an ambulance. I go to an injured person and find him alive, and then look for a telephone, but it has been cut off. I go outside and to my house at 13 Aldershot Road which is very nearby. I go in and find it empty and the lights not working.

I went back to the doctor yesterday, after the antibiotic course had finished. He listened to my chest, front and back, and said he couldn’t detect anything (although there had been something last week) and suggested I come back next Wednesday if I’m still troubled. I tried to explain about my bad experience 15 years ago, but he wasn’t listening, and twice I tried to indicate my concern about the antibiotics finishing, but, as far as he was concerned, he’d given me the recommended course and that was that. As I sit here on Saturday morning, my cough has not gone, I still have phlegm in the mornings (although this IS no longer green), and I have a thick feeling in my larynx. There are 101 things that need doing in the garden, and around the house, and I do none of them for want of a feeling of well-being. My summer has been wrecked by this wretched infection.

I will spend one more day - today - on the nameless novel and tomorrow I will start EC Inform work. Ads is with B today and tomorrow, so it makes more sense to work on Sunday and spend a bit of time with him on Monday.

Yesterday, Friday was a hopelessly wasted day. I went with Adam into Guildford to go to the local studies library only to find it closed and in the process of being transferred to Woking. I had wanted to look again at the pamphlet on Elstead’s history, to see who had written it, and perhaps to photocopy it. My idea is to suggest to the Elstead Parish Council that this booklet be republished for the millennium with EC Inform as a sponsor. Possibly, I could help re-edit, or update it also. My companion idea for the millennium is to write a collection of Elstead tales - perhaps one from each century of the millennium - but I doubt this is feasible. Also in Guildford, I failed to buy Ads any decent shoes for the start of the school term. Clarks had run out of standard shoes and was only selling the more fashionable Bootleg trade mark - disgraceful.

I had planned to go into Guildford centre on the Thursday after taking Adam to Spectrum for his football course. However, having dropped him off there, I suddenly realised I did not have my bag. I had left it lying on the back of the car! I raced back to Elstead as fast as possible. Not only did I have all my bank cards (and cheque books) in the bag but I had a new bank card for my business account with its new pin number. I hoped that the bag had fallen off in the drive, and so was worried not to see it there on the ground. However, when I opened the front door, it was there. I suppose the postman had found it, and posted it. In fact, I got a call from Midland Bank later telling me that a Mr Organe had found it halfway along Milford Road! I wrote him a thank you note on an Elstead postcard and hand delivered it during the day.

On the news I hear that 20 million - 20 million - people are homeless in Bangladesh because of terrible floods. How can an individual like me deal with this kind of news, this tragedy. On the news, also, I hear that the Russian people are devastated by a crash in the value of the Rouble and their life savings, but of most concern is how the crash will affect the Western markets.

Adam is not easy at the moment. He has not settled down this summer holiday as he usually does. He has not recovered fully from the waste of the last terms at St James. He is restless within himself, and will not focus on things probably. He has lost his creative and constructive energy and I find it impossible to motivate him. He has played a lot with his Scalectrix, and he has progressed slowly, but not imaginatively or enthusiastically, with the projects I gave him. Otherwise, he goes out into the woods to climb trees. He climbs trees because that is what James and the twins do when he meets up with them. Peer pressure. I do so hope he finds some intelligent, imaginative and honest friends at Rodborough who encourage him to develop more interesting talents.

September 1998

Paul K Lyons


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