Monday 1 June 1998

E-mail to Barbara: ‘7 June 1979 (repeat 1979) is the entry in my diary of my being at the house in Downton and of you - that was a Thursday. If you think Jean-Christoph and I arrived at the house on a Monday then we would have actually met on 4 June 1979.’

Thursday 4 June 1998, Brussels

A warm bright evening. Westbrook’s ‘Blake’ plays on the tape. Earlier I had the dulcet tones of test ball on bat at Edgbaston where Atherton scored his first test hundred for ages, and Stewart glowed with pride as his first go at captaining the England side got off to a cracking start. In a few minutes I’ll make my way over to De Brouckere to catch a film at the cinema there. I don’t know which one yet.

It’s been a day of running around the institutions. As usual, there are lots of papers to get, but it is the quick snatched conversations with various officials, as I pass by their rooms, that provide me with insight and depth for the newsletter. This afternoon, for example, I made a round of Parliamentary committee administrators - transport, environment and energy; and I got something useful from them all, even though the conversations were barely 10 minutes long. Also, it is amazing how much useful information can be extracted from the spokesmens’ assistants in the Commission. Dina gave me the actual Decision on Spanish coal aid, which was adopted yesterday - I’ve never been able to get the text of Decisions until they’re published in the OJ, but then I’ve never thought to ask Dina before. The version she gave me had ‘confidential’ painted across every page. And then, in a chat to Patricia, I discover that there is a timetable for the negotiations with the applicant CEEC, with dates for when energy and transport issues are to be discussed.

As for the politics, there’s lots. There’s deep politics in the Spanish coal Decision, especially with the UK threatening to take the Commission to Court. There’s deep politics over the budget for the Fifth Framework Programme. The Research Committee has agreed, on second reading, to reduce its demands to Ecu16.3bn, from Ecu16.7bn, but the Council has agreed to allocate only Ecu14bn - so there’s a little matter of Ecu2bn to negotiate. There’s the auto-oil programme, and conciliation on fuels and vehicle standards. Then there’s the nuclear safety issue in Eastern Europe raising its beastly head again - EBRD funds for Chernobyl; the start-up of Mochovce.

Thursday 18 June 1998

6:00am. I haven’t been able to sleep since 4:30, so I’ve finally got up. I spent half an hour finishing off Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’, which I bought as a hard back - an act I now regret. I am far from satisfied with the book, and I think I have confirmed my opinion that McEwan is far from a major writer. ‘Enduring Love’ is about a man who is stalked after a chance encounter during which he and the stalker-to-be are involved in trying to rescue someone from a ballooning accident. The story tells of the stalker’s growing obsession with the narrator and the narrator’s failure to convince anyone around him that the stalker is dangerous. The climax is a scene in which the narrator shoots (having purchased an illegal gun) the stalker. The entire book seems to me to be an exercise, as though McEwan had read about such a ballooning accident in the newspaper, and about the particular medical condition that leads to the behaviour of the stalker, and has fabricated a naturalistic, but yet lifeless, and often irritating, story. The narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend, for example, is all too perfect, and then it is unbelievable when relatively minor actions lead to its break down. His girlfriend has 11 godchildren and he has got to know them all well over the years. How unrealistic is that. McEwan uses his narrator’s profession as a science writer to pepper the story with half-related or spurious scientific facts about evolution or medicine. But he creates an idealised professional life for this science writer, where every story he writes is scientifically fascinating, and where flying to Miami just to research a story is an every day occurrence. (Does part of my irritation with this novel stem from the fact that the narrator of my own half-written novel is also a science writer, but that McEwan is an infinitely better wordsmith, well I mean writer I suppose, than I, so that the character before me in his novel is crafted much more finely than my own. Incidentally, a key theme in an earlier novel by McEwan, ‘A Child in Time’, was a missing child, and that too is a key theme of my half-written novel. Perhaps, I don’t like McEwan because he has the same kind of brain as me, with the same preoccupations, and I resent him being a better writer and successful. Who knows.)

I am equally unconvinced by a new writer - Tim Pears - I picked out from the library to accompany me on my weekend jaunt to Paris (more about this below). The name stood out because, at first, I thought it was Tim Parks, who I think IS an interesting writer. But then, when I realised it was not him, I was held by the reviews which plastered the back and inside pages, and promised a kind of meaningful and entertaining non-putdownable family saga covering the second half of the 20th century. I was finally sold on the book (having been searching already for a few minutes and not wanting to spend long in the library) when I opened the first page and saw 1952. Unfortunately, the book proved all too-putdownable. I’ve managed about a third - so I’ve given it a fair chance - and it reads as though the author is still setting the scene. He describes the marriage of an ambitious industrialist to a poetry-loving girl and the childhood and adolescence of their four children. But I keep waiting for the story to begin. Pears’ style, which veers almost uncontrollably from character to character describing their motive, reads like an introduction - it seems to say to the reader the story will really begin when these four children are adults, but at least a third of the book is taken up with their childhood life at home. So, often, I found myself reading a comment about one of the characters and thinking to myself, but this is only so because you the author chose to impose that characteristic/action/behaviour on the character. Moreover, however much he tells about the children and their activities, they do not seem to come alive. Quite how the ‘Time Out’ reviewer can say ‘Impossible to resist’, I’ll never know.

Sunday 21 June 1998

Nothing seems to be growing well in the garden this year. The beans and sweet peas took ages to sprout (most of the sweet peas did not even germinate), and are now growing too slowly. I have not yet had one decent lettuce, because the leaves are brown spotted and tough - I do not really understand why. And the potatoes are a real disappointment. The plants have stopped growing, they are not flowering, and there are a maximum of four small potatoes to each one. In the last two years, with the same variety, I’ve had a dozen or more sweet tubers from every plant. The weeds are more voracious this year than in previous years also; and the deer were in last weekend, chomping their way through my hardy geraniums, roses, a row of spinach, and my new cornus alba.

What a day yesterday. The Elstead Paper Boat Race 1998. I’ve worked all week on the boat, gluing scraps of cardboard together, gluing the joints over with newspaper, priming and painting it. At the beginning of the week, I thought I would never manage, but B brought home some magnificent cardboard from Wisley with which I was able to bolster up earlier feeble efforts. On Saturday morning, Ads and I were still doing the final decorations, red crosses for the England flag, putting black spots on the two mock footballs made of paper, and pasting the printed nameplates on the sides.

There was a magnificent turnout at the Moat, with a dozen or so boats for the junior race and almost as many for the adult race. I was there early, at 1am, to help with the setting up and organisation. The other organisers, Norman, Sue and Richard, arrived soon after. There was a small platform to erect, for Norman to sit on so that he could see the race and commentate on the events; there was a small marquee thing to set up, the loudspeakers had to be connected and placed; and I had to write out the names of the entrants on the certificates I’d prepared. (I only had 20, but it wasn’t enough and I had to race home in the middle of the senior race to get more, and then of course there was nowhere to park when I got back, so I had to run half way down the Thursley Road).

The first boats started arriving at about 2pm - I couldn’t believe how neat and tidy and big they all were; some looked like perfect boats; they had no ragged edges, and the inside was as sealed and perfect as the outside. They were all painted as though by an internal decorator. Later, a few less perfect ones did arrive; on the whole, though, there was a fantastic range of styles and names, and themes. Norman took control of proceedings from his control tower, and there was a huge hubbub around the boat area before the first race, for the under 14s, got off.

Rob and I carried HMS ‘England-for-the-cup’ to the water’s edge, Adam got in first, and Rob decided that the boat wouldn’t take James as well, so Adam launched off on his own. He had three painted cardboard paddles, but these soon let him down and he was left stranded before even completing one lap with only his hands to propel him along. Rob and I had talked about whether the boys should take the canoe paddles with them, but I had thought they would be too big and get in the way, but that was on the basis of two of them going in. We waited for Adam to come near and then pushed one of the paddles out to him. As soon as he got used to it, he made good time but the others were too far ahead, and so he didn’t win one of the two little cups for the junior race that Sue had supplied. There were lots of flour and wet flour bombs being lobbed around from shore to boats and from boat to boat, and boats did sink. I’m pleased to report, though, that HMS ‘England-for-the-cup’ survived the full 15 minutes and lots of messing around with both children aboard. Eventually, the kids broke it up and we filled four refuse sacks with the wet remains. By all reports the adult race was also fun - I think the tree surgeon Cruickshank won again (he won last year) even though I thought his boat looked decidedly ungainly.

I helped with the clearing up, but had to race off soon because Barbara and Les (who didn’t have their car), and Rob, Judy and family (Rob’s parents were with them) were waiting outside Russet House. All in all, though, I think it was a great event. Rob’s parents stayed for tea and cake and a stroll round the garden before heading for Brighton. We all played cricket in the garden (Sophie had a friend with her, a very self-assured girl called Rachel), and then had supper outside (the kids watched ‘City Central’ after gulping down their crisps and salad). A very pleasant evening.

Monday 22 June 1998

My weekend in Paris was a delight. This was the best freebie I’ve every had as a journalist. Having dropped Ads at Mum’s and breakfasted there, I took the tube to Waterloo to catch an 8:50 train. First class was relatively empty so I moved to a four seat area with a table, and spread myself out. I read the papers, read a book, slept a little, and arrived in Paris about half an hour late; a group of journalists from Brussels had arrived a little earlier. We were five journalists in all, Neil Buckley from the FT, Chris Johnstone from ‘European Voice’, Candida Somebody or Other from ‘European Report’, and a Belgian magazine journalist I didn’t know, as well as Mariell Eichwald, the EdF PR person who had invited us. We were taken in a smart new People Carrier, with VIP World Cup stamped on the side, to a restaurant, where we were fed with excellent food and wine for a couple of hours. I got to know Neil, and we chatted about other FT people and some of the energy issues. There was quite a bit of gossip, with Chris and Candida, about the spokesmen and, especially, the new head of the spokespersons’ service at the Commission. It was also a chance to get to know Chris a bit better; I talk to him regularly in Brussels when I run into him in the corridor, usually about work, because he covers energy and transport issues for the ‘Voice’; he has a slightly awkward personality, but is pleasant enough. Candida, by contrast, is as bubbly as a bottle of sparkling mineral water, and not much more potent. At first I thought she was going to talk endlessly, but in fact she was able to contain herself over dinner, with only the occasional effervescences into the conversation. In terms of gossip, she was queen; and, I learnt later, she’s also the queen of freebies. ‘European Report’ is a stingy organisation and pays for nothing; but since every organisation in Brussels can expect the newsletter to carry its material without critique or question, they are all prepared to fund the reporters attending their events. In the last few weeks, and apart from this EdF trip, the European Parliament had taken her to Mauritius, and DGXVII had taken her to Lisbon.

I told Candida that I had bumped into a character called Chris Boothby, who also works for ‘European Report’, in Sarah Lambert’s office, that he had quizzed me about energy issues, and promised to do a review of my new book. Candida’s face lit up in understanding - ‘Oh you’re the guy,’ she said. Chris was going on about how well he knew you, and about how brilliant the book was. I told her I had never met him before. Boothby told me at the time that he was getting interested in energy, but wouldn’t tell me why. Chris Johnstone, however, said he thought he had applied for a job at Eurelectric. And so it transpired. I spoke to him yesterday (because he’d left a message on my answering machine in Brussels wanting to chat about his ‘hard-hitting report’ review - but it was already published by the time we spoke). He told me he had got the job, and apologised for being so secretive. I wished him luck. Unfortunately, although I chatted at length to Nick Ketting, the president of Eurelectric, and to Ailleret, the vice-president of EdF, over dinner, I was not introduced to Paul Bulteel, the secretary general of Eurelectric, he who replaced Angelika, and who sacked Hughes for illicitly using Eurelectric’s name to woo EdF’s Lionel Taccoen to support a nuclear emergency seminar event or something similar. (Incidentally, I just got a sweet little booklet from Hughes, in French, describing the birth of his second son!).

After the restaurant, we were driven to EdF’s electricity dispatching depot, not far away, and given a short tour and a two hour talk. It was surprisingly interesting. In the control room, there was a huge map of France on the wall with all the major power plants and transmission lines displayed with various coloured lights. Two controllers sat at desks surrounded by a number of different computers. They were responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the entire network. I was dying to go to the loo the whole time.

Next stop - Stade de France. It took about half an hour to drive out to St Denis. Neither the driver nor our hosts knew exactly where to park or where to go with our hospitality area tickets. Although we were more than two hours early, there was tremendous activity outside the stadium, dominated by the orange colour that Dutch supporters wear. We eventually found our way through the crowds to the extensive hospitality band that runs round the middle of the Stade de France, and then we were shown into a small dining room with three rows of tables, a bar, and huge French windows overlooking the pitch. I could see many Dutch supporters already in place, but most of the seating was still unoccupied. We were given a drink, and I gravitated towards Nick Ketting (replaced as of last Friday by Rolf Bierhoff, who’s son is a star of the German football team), because he was the one person I knew, outside of the journalist’s group.

After a while, I went to look outside. I couldn’t believe the noise when I opened the door. The double glazing had effectively shut out all the atmosphere. There was music blaring from the loudspeakers, the Dutch fans were in fine voice, and there were all the sounds of a stadium filling up with activity. I took a few pictures with my snap camera, although I doubt the photos will do justice to the grand stadium. It was built for the World Cup and holds 80,000 when full, more than Wembley since its terraces were replaced with all seating. Huge, vast, impressive. There is a kind of parapet roof which covers much of the audience but not the pitch, although when the driving rain started during the match, the wind blew it onto us. While we dined, youth teams played two mini-matches width-ways across the pitch. There was excitement when the players came out for a warm up, and then, at 9pm, the game began.

Oh what a boring game it was. It was just our hard luck. I had thought that with Holland playing it would be an exciting game; but Belgium played for a draw from the beginning and the weather conditions were atrocious. The game was a 0-0 draw. Nevertheless, it was exciting to be there and to watch the game. I sat next to Ketting, and I pretended to support Belgium so we were able to rib each other through the match. The Belgium players come over towards us - the Belgium contingent were below - to acknowledge their support. We left fairly quickly after the game was over, although we got caught in the inevitable traffic jam, and were ferried back to the hotel. No one opted to go out on the town, so I watched replays on the TV in my £250 hotel room, took a bath, and crashed out. In the morning we left for the station at about 8.

I was scheduled to go back on the 9am train but I changed the ticket so as to spend the morning with Colin around Montmartre. He is still recovering from the excess of work and stress that took him over during the last period at his job, and now he’s more relaxed. My journey home on Eurostar was uneventful.

Thursday 25 June 1998

Theo is in Brussels. I am not doing much, a little bit of admin and subs work, a little bit of reading (I’ve started Boyd’s ‘Armadillo’ and am enjoying it), a little bit of gardening, lots of football watching etc. In a moment, I shall listen to a radio programme on puzzles. Two weeks ago, I went to sleep solving the listeners’ puzzle. During the next episode, the presenter said that no one had come up with a suitable solution and he would leave the puzzle open for another week. So I immediately e-mailed him the solution. I’m interested to see whether I’ll get a mention for my solution. After my terrible failure to win the FT holiday safari, I’m badly in need of some reassurance that I exist.

Monday 29 June 1998

Ads has gone off to Swanage with the school for five days. He was in such high spirits this morning, hardly able to wait for the moment when he could race off to school to join the others and catch the coach. B had packed up his clothes over the weekend, and I oversaw the rest of his paraphernalia, the books, the radio, the pens, the torch and so on. It amazes me how much he is looking forward to the trip when he hates the two teachers going, and he doesn’t much like the other children. I don’t like them either. Ads just falls back to the lowest common denominator. God, I hope he has the intelligence and confidence to choose more sensible friends at secondary school where he’ll get a wider choice.

The football is all going to form. There have been a number of near misses. How nice it would have been if Paraguay had knocked out France, or Mexico had done for Germany today; but somehow the top teams continue to scrape through - which is all a bit boring at the end of the day. Tomorrow, it’s England against Argentina. Everyone is predicting a tough game for England, but I think the odds are in our favour. It is our turn for the hand of god to be upon us.

I go to Brussels later this week, although I hope to have a fairly relaxed time of it. Unusually, I’ve two professional visitors coming to Russet House in the next couple of weeks. I cannot remember the last time anyone came here in connection with EC Inform. Unfortunately, neither visit promises to be to my advantage. Tomorrow Cameron, the director from Artigraf, is dropping in. He can only want to put up his prices, or restrict the way I do business with him. And then, a week or so later, I have my first ever VAT inspection. Lovely.

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections are over and there is a fair sprinkling of representatives, with the Ulster Unionists the leading party, followed by Hume’s SDLP, the anti-peace agreement Unionists, and Sinn Fein, plus a number of other parties. In the immediate future, the marching season threatens to disturb the peace in Northern Ireland, but I remain immensely impressed at the success so far of the whole business. This has to be the best chance of the century for a lasting peace. Give the die-hards time to die off and then allow the youngsters to give in to peace, and unification with Ireland in 20 years or so.

July 1998

Paul K Lyons


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