Sunday 6 December 1998

Horribly cold outside, and the first heavy frosts of the winter are descending. All the trees have dropped their leaves now, except the grand oak. All its leaves are solid brown, and some have begun to fall, but I expect the lawn will need a major raking job by next weekend.

It’s 15 minutes before I leave for volleyball. I’ve been working most of the day on the newsletters. I should report that Theo was offered a job last week, but turned it down.

I got mildly excited this week about the thought of going to Jerusalem for New Year. Harold sent me an invitation to his wedding there on 31 December, and I thought it would be a good excuse for making a trip to a place I’d never been. The thought of taking Adam out of Europe for the first time really appealed to me also. But I’ve spent hours on the internet searching for flights, and I’ve made calls, but there are no flights left over the holiday season. So I’ve had to scotch that idea. It looks likely to be a highly boring, unfestive season for our minuscule little family. This year, even Mum won’t be around because she’s going to Devon, to Julian’s mansion for the holidays.

The annual volleyball party. This was held last Friday night at the Guildford and Godalming Rugby Club, and we were all invited to wear fancy dress with a tropical theme. I was reluctant to even consider actual fancy dress, although I did go in bright colours. Many of the characters from volleyball, those I have learnt to love and hate, were there. The music was a varied selection, some of which I had actually heard before; the food was pretty terrible; and the drink was straightforward stuff to be bought from the bar. The place was freezing; somebody had decided to economise and failed to put on the heating. I talked a little to most people I knew even slightly, but I was often to be found hugging the log fire on my own, or listening to the conversations of others. For a short period in the middle of the evening, I got a little animated in flirting with two 19 year olds, both of whom had joined the club recently. Malin, from Sweden, was drunk but very physical, but an Austrian called Barbara was altogether more interesting.

Wednesday 16 December 1998

The December newsletter editions are over and done with, and the Christmas break is heading this way. We will do some preparation for the January issues - the indexes, the document watch, a few articles - but we should be able to take it fairly easy. Indeed, I hope to get on with the novel from today. I had promised myself to complete a first draft by the end of the year, that, though, now looks highly unlikely.

The garden is a mess - it seems to have done little other than rain for the last couple of months. The temperature has been mild this week, but I think it will fall again by the weekend. I raked up five bags of oak leaves at the weekend for composting.

The cat and mouse game with Iraq is again lurching towards air strikes. Last time a compromise was reached it took many months before a breakdown, on that occasion, Saddam threw the inspectors out of Iraq; then, on the eve of air strikes, he gave in to all the West’s demands and they went back. Now, a few weeks later, he’s again refusing permission to enter certain buildings, and the inspectors are leaving the country. The West has already told its public it will attack next time without warning or negotiation. Robin Cook, our foreign secretary, more or less confirmed that we would see action soon.

Peace talks, meanwhile, break down in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland. President Clinton has been to Palestine, for an historic first visit, while back home the US continues to pore over his infidelities. In Northern Ireland, the IRA has revealed what everyone always suspected, that they have no intention of handing over their weapons, peace or no peace. A good number of IRA prisoners have already been released on the understanding that weapons would be handed over eventually. I can’t see where things go from here. It is absolutely fundamental for the Unionists that the IRA’s weapons are seen to be neutralised; the process has been egged along as far as it could be without a solution on the arms, but there has to be a point when the Unionists stop giving way. I think the giving of the Nobel peace prize to Hume and Trimble was an excellent decision. For Hume it is a reward for astonishing perseverance and determination, and for Trimble it is a prize he still must earn - in other words, having been the recipient of such an internationally-important prize, he will have to hesitate longer than otherwise before taking decisions which might cause the peace to crack.

I’ve done well with the Christmas shopping this year, and have most presents in order. Ads is getting a brand new bike, which I’ll pick up on New Year’s Eve; B is getting a variety of things - plates, knives, old books; a suitcase for my Mum; gardening stuff for Julian; and a George Michael tape for Melanie. Mum is heading down to Devon for Christmas proper, so we shall see her this weekend instead. Christmas day and the holidays here will be rather quiet.

Last week, I drove up to Raoul’s house for a small shindig, apropos of what I know not. All the usual suspects were there - Niema, Tim, Rachel, Andrew, Richard, plus Richard (Raoul’s brother-in-law), a couple of couples I’d never seen before, who didn’t seem to stay long, a few other, half recognised, and Loreena (McKennit), who happened to be in town from Canada to celebrate Christmas with her troops in London. I actually had a really good time, I don’t think I stopped talking the whole night long (I didn’t leave until around 1:30). I talked to Richard about hobbies, to Andrew about his mammoth efforts going through all of Rosy’s stuff, to Caroline about her book club, to Loreena about corporal punishment, and to Niema about my trip to Ireland.

Wednesday 23 December 1998

Christmas is upon us. I seem to spend 50% of every day shopping. In both Sainsburys and Secretts, I do two shops - I collect, pay for and transport to the car one load, and then do another one. Why do I do so much shopping? There are no extra people coming here over the holiday period, and B will also be buying extra shopping, and there will only be four of us. I suppose four is better than one, and I should be very happy to have such a wonderful son and such a good friend; but oh I do hanker after a bit more excitement, a bit more variety, a bit more society. The TV is my excitement, my variety, my society!

I made a half-hearted attempt to go away for a week after Christmas, but Going Places had no good deals on offer, and, although I found a flight to Tel Aviv, it would have cost over £500 for little more than four days, and that is without accommodation. So I’ve decided to stay here in the wet and cold and miserable. I’ve booked Ads for a diving course, and I will spend a week working on the novel. I had planned to finish a first draft by the end of the year, but I need a good solid week free before I can really engage with the material; and I simply don’t get one very often. I will though schedule my mind on to the subject for next week.

B’s car broke down this evening in the pouring rain. I went out to rescue her on the Shackleford Road. The engine was overheating something dreadful, so she had refused to drive any further. But I persuaded her to drive back to Elstead rather than leave the car out there all night and have it towed in the morning. She just pulled in to the garage before they were closing up, and hopefully they’ll be able to have a look at it in the morning before shutting up shop for Christmas. It might be the head gasket though, and that would be bad. Poor old B, she was distraught when I got her back here. She’s just spent over £300 on repairs to the car, and she was cold and wet, and she had planned to use the car all day tomorrow, to collect her Dad, to do her shopping etc.

There’s been some political excitement today. Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson have both resigned from the government. Yesterday, the ‘Guardian’ ran with a scoop about Mandelson having borrowed £350,000 from Robinson to buy a house in London, prior to the General Election, and prior to them both being ministers.

Christmas Eve 24 December 1998

What a beautiful morning. The sky cleared in the night and temperatures fell well below zero so there was a heavy frost and ice everywhere. I couldn’t resist taking my bike on to the Common to look for photo pictures. In parts, the warmth of the sun was evaporating water from the puddles and frost creating trailing curls of smoke reaching up into the sunlight; in others, the brilliance of the light lit up the dried grasses as though they were light sources in themselves. The waters of the bogs were partly iced over and the non-iced parts were as the ice, reflecting the grasses and trees and skies in their dark mirror depths. Hardly anyone was about. I suppose they were all busy with their last minute Christmas preparations, but even if they had ventured out, all the main paths were swamped over and difficult to cross, even with wellingtons. But oh! it was so picturesque, in a rough and wild way, so beautiful. How can it be so little visited.

Branson’s balloon sweeps across the Pacific. He, and his two copilots, have managed to avoid being caught up in the Iraq conflict, have steered a safe course through Chinese diplomacy, and are now facing the vagaries of the weather over the ocean. One can but admire Branson’s tenacity - this must be his third or fourth attempt at the world record, and it is no easy target. Another intrepid adventurer died earlier this year attempting the same feat. If Branson comes down in the Pacific on Christmas day or Christmas eve, it could be serious trouble for him.

Apart from Branson, the government resignations are keeping the news programmes in business. BBC2 was so confident there would be no news just before Christmas that it did not schedule an edition of ‘Newsnight’ yesterday or the day before and had to air a special to report on the Mandelson affair. How do the media manage to make such a meal of something that seems relatively straightforward - the papers have pages and pages of material. Although yesterday morning it looked like Mandelson was going to try and tough it out, he had resigned by lunchtime, and Robinson followed in the afternoon. Mandelson said that, although he had done nothing wrong over the loan from Robinson, he should have been more open about the loan; he should have informed the permanent secretary and his colleagues in order to protect himself against the appearance of a conflict of interest. The key point appears to be over a clause in his mortgage form which requires him to tell the mortgage company whether he has any other loans linked to the house. It appears Mandelson did not inform the company of his friend’s contribution. I know about this because I had the same situation with regard to the short-term loan from Sasha when I bought this house.

30 December 1998, Spectrum Swimming Pool

I have decided to bring the laptop computer to the swimming pool because Adam is taking part in a 90 minute diving lesson. It is too short a time to consider returning home, and it is too long a time just to read the newspaper. The course is over four days, and, originally, I had thought that B would transport Ads one or two of the days, and on the other two I would busy myself in the city centre and do shopping. However, B’s car had a breakdown on Christmas Eve and her garage (mine too) is closed until 4 January. So B is without her car - a major inconvenience because she had been planning to work these days between Christmas and New Year. Any how, it means I have to negotiate four of these 90 minute sessions. Tomorrow, if my cold is better, I may swim myself, and, on Monday, I may go in to Guildford. For today, though, I decided I would write.

As I look down across the pool from my position here at the entrance/cafe level, I can see a line of learner divers standing at the edge of the pool about to fall in to the water using a predetermined stance. Some pop music plays in the background, and all kinds of voices filter through from other parts of the complex. On average, I come here about twice a week, once for swimming with Ads and once for volleyball. It is a pleasant place, and well managed.

Yesterday, I went into Guildford. My main aim was to buy books, but I didn’t find any I wanted. I have been reading very little recently, perhaps its because the TV is better in the winter. What have I watched over the last week or so? An Indiana Jones movie, a Cadfael drama, a Minette Walters drama (with Clive Owen trying to take on a hack’s seediness, but being little other than Clive Owen - there’s a touch of the Michael Caine about him perhaps, in that his character is so strong it can overshadow any acting superimposed on top of it); ‘Babe’ (not my kind of movie at all, but I enjoyed it nevertheless); and so on.

On B’s birthday, we all went to the Odeon in Guildford to see ‘The Mask of Zorro’. Ads gave it 9 out of 10. It was pure good fun, not dissimilar from the Indiana movies in that it does not take itself too seriously. B’s presents included some old gardening books which I’d picked up in a sale, Denby dinner plates, earrings (these from Adam), whisky, a poker and stand.

England won an amazing test match in Melbourne yesterday. It looked as though we were heading for a third rout, Australia having outplayed us throughout. The first day was entirely washed out, and by the afternoon of the fourth day Australia needed only 170 to win. It seemed as though they would get there before the close of play, thus humiliating England again by finishing a test a day or more early. But, this time, Australia must have been overconfident because their wickets started tumbling. The umpires decided to extend the play by half an hour because a result seemed likely, which meant the England players had been on the field for four hours - which later turned out to be the longest session ever played in test cricket. In fact Stewart complained to the umpires. But, somehow, England’s bowlers were fired up, Headley took six for 50, and Gough cleaned up the last two, so that England won by 12 runs. Suddenly the cricket team is in the radio news and on the front pages of the newspapers - an England win is so unusual.


Paul K Lyons


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