JOURNAL - 1998 - March

Sunday 1 March 1998

A dull weekend. Dull weather, dull activity. Most of the weekend I spent trawling my diaries to send a new batch of selections to Martin Weitz Ass. in Bristol. A pleasant girl rang up during the week and said that, after a period of inactivity (I must have sent them material over six months ago), the BBC had suddenly come back to them and asked for draft programmes. They have been commissioned to make five half-hour programmes, each one about a separate diarist. The lady I spoke too said she was quite interested in my relationships with Frederic and with Adam, but otherwise she wouldn’t give me any more clues. Last time, they asked for three or four extracts and I sent them four full pages, crammed with extracts. This time, they’ve asked for 20, and I’ve sent them about eight pages of stuff. I am mildly excited about the idea of having a programme made about my diaries. If I were making the programme I would focus on the three relationships - with Barbara, Adam and Frederic; and I have given them enough material to make that interesting. I’ve had to self-censor a bit because I didn’t like some my very bitter comments on Fred. I found, in the five-year diary covering my school years, that I recorded major arguments in the house with both Mum and Sasha. Also what’s interesting about that first diary is that it starts on 1 January 1963, when I am about 10 and seven months; Adam’s age now. I notice that most of my friends were girls and that we spent a lot of time watching TV together or playing games. Ads is not friendly with a single girl, not at school or out of school.

Last night I watched the final episodes of ‘Casualty’ and ‘Jonathan Creek’ with Adam but, during ‘Casualty’, we got into a distressing conversation about Cubs.

3 March 1998

Not a very useful day. A fairly smooth flight over from Heathrow, straight to a press conference on the subject of ports, near Place Louis. Kinnock was supposed to be speaking but I arrived just minutes after 11 and he was marching out the front door already with his attractive assistant (she whom Theo has noticed on more than one occasion). I thought then to come straight to the flat, but decided instead to go to the Commission, largely because I needed to eat. I half looked out for Brooks but couldn’t see him. For once the Plat du Jour in Breydel was substantial and tasty. I was just finishing when Brooks arrived. He had a plate of chips, another plate with two piles of tomato sauce and mayonnaise, and a third plate with just lettuce. He sat down and we talked about how grotesquely fat people are in the States, especially in New Orleans for some reason.

We were just about to get up to go when I asked him how his newsletter was doing - he started it about the same time as I launched my company. He told me he and his partner had stopped it in December and were now looking at ways for formally shutting up shop. My ears picked up immediately, and before he’d answered very many of my questions, I was telling him I might be interested in taking it over. It’s a fortnightly called ‘The European Times’, previously ‘EC Times’, and covers financial services, largely from a Brussels point of view. Unfortunately, Brooks does not know much about the financial or admin side and his partner is away for the time being. Nevertheless, I’m going to see him again tomorrow. I’ll need to act damn quickly, because its two months since the last newsletter went out. I could conceivably put one out during March, but I couldn’t afford to do so until I’d contractually taken ownership of the title name and subscriptions - and I’ve no idea how long that might take. I would immediately turn it into a monthly, and refocus it entirely towards Brussels. If I cut the costs of the stringers, and reduced the printing costs (he seems to have been paying over the odds for that), I might be able to turn it round.

5 March 1998

The view from my desk here in Brussels is not so pleasant as that from my desk in Elstead. Through the grimy, dusty window there is a small concrete apartment block just a few metres across the road, it has a few windows, several ugly satellite dishes, and a tile roof. But what I want to talk about today is the giant yellow crane, that must stand several hundred metres behind the block, but fills the sky behind the roof and satellite dishes. There’s a horizontal section with a large metal sign - S I N T R A - on a yellow background. It swings in the wind, and, as it does so, it catches the sun and transforms into a rectangular sun of its own shining directly through the window (catching all the grime and dust as it does so) and blinding me as I sit here trying to work. It’s 4pm and I must tidy up and make tracks for the airport at 4:55pm, why am I sitting here writing in my journal when I should be working? Why is the sun glinting off SINTRA and disturbing my concentration?

Sunday 22 March 1998

I am almost tongue-tied. I don’t quite know what to say. My diaries have been the centre of some attention, and I find myself a little embarrassed - embarrassed by the content of the diary, its omissions and its repetitions, and by my own relationship with the diary, as though it is a friend, or a substitute for a friend, because on closer examination, on reflection, this seems to me like a weakness, the word pathetic comes to my mind, though not absolutely appropriate, it is not entirely inappropriate either. The reason for all this is that it now looks almost certain that the BBC will run a half hour programme about my diaries in May or June. The producer, a 25-year old woman called Susan Breen, contracted by Weitz, has now visited me twice - once the Friday before last, and once last Friday. Outside of my immediate family, and B, there can be no one who knows quite so much about me, and I doubt I shall ever see her again.

On her first visit, she spent most of the day simply quizzing me about the people and events in my life, particularly about Fred and Barbara, taking copious notes. By then I had provided her with four lots of extensive extracts, and now she has five or six. I found it really disappointing that so many key points in my life were not properly recorded, or not recorded in a useful way. Several times, I resorted to sending the producer letters - the letter to Gail about Fred’s papers and photos, the letter to B’s parents about the decision to have a child. Why? Because, I had thought out what I wanted to say more carefully, with someone else’s listening in mind. My diaries are not written to be read by an outsider, they’re meant to be read by an insider who knows all the people and what all the references mean, and who can put everything into context in an instant without tedious explanation. There was, for example, no satisfactory report on the break up with Fred, nor on my meeting Barbara, not even on why I keep a diary. Why do I keep a diary?

Then, this Friday, she came back again with her tape recorder and taped an interview with me for more than two hours. I found this really quite stressful. She covered most of the personal events of my life, particularly the difficult year in 1980, but hardly touched on my professional life or achievements. Once or twice, I had to decline to talk about a subject - Harold, Mayco wanting to get married, and the feminine side of my nature (which I had mentioned to her previously simply to explain something). I never really relaxed with the microphone on, I found myself composing and sometimes inventing answers, I even had to stop myself once or twice.

After the interview, Susan showed me some of the extracts she was going to use. I was astonished to see they were all long extracts, and yet I had gone out of my way to provide short extracts for so many of the topics. If I’d known they would only use longer extracts, it would have helped me a lot in the choosing process. I did, after all, spend quite a long time going through all the material, several times for different purposes. What I fear now is that Susan will have the stories of my life - Fred’s treatment of me, the romantic but strange relationship with B, and my overwhelming joy of being a father - take over the programme. My initial interest in having my diaries used was because I thought they might be interesting in themselves. But, in the three weeks since Susan first contacted me, the interest in and focus on these personal elements has escalated. And all the time, Susan has been as honest and straightforward as possible, and she’s promised me time and time again, that she will not use anything I don’t want used. It’s as though I’ve led myself into my own trap. The diaries have trapped me.

I ring Colin. After years of working for a vegetarian food wholesale company, he has finally been made redundant - not through any failure on his part, simply because the company went into liquidation, and had been on its last legs for years. Colin drove the firm’s van, but in recent years also took over the accounts and wrote various computer programmes. He’s now trying to teach himself a programming language; and also he’s following through with the French state retraining programme. He sounds fairly chirpy. I tell him about the diary programme.


I’ve spent the day, Sunday, working on the 2000 energy report. I’ve written first rough drafts of every chapter except the introduction, and now I’m moving into the next phase where I work on a chapter at a time, trying to fill in all the gaps, proof reading, finding tables, writing the end assessment sections etc. And today, I managed to finish one chapter - albeit a short one. However, I’ve just remembered that one of the tasks for this stage is to get the document listings in order, and I’ve forgotten that.

I’ve been out in the garden for a few minutes. I planted a row of lettuce. Yesterday, I prepared two of my vegetable plots and planted two rows of early potatoes - the seed potatoes have been chitting well in the sitting room! So few of the daffodils have flowered this year, I don’t know why, perhaps it’s the waterlogging. It’s about mid-season for the daffs now, the crocuses have long gone - they never hold up well against the weather. The old ribes and new Berberis darwinii are flowering, as is the forsythia. The amelanchiers’ leaves are about to burst out, and I noticed today the goat willow catkins are filling out on the trees around the ditch. One of the small rose bushes in the front bed was covered in greenfly already - the moment there’s a touch of mild weather they’re in like a shot multiplying like, like greenfly and being milked into excessive reproduction by the ants. What else about the garden - the lawn needs another mow, I’ve done it once already this year. The perennials are starting to show new leaf, the lupins, the poppy and so on.

I must go to volleyball now. But first I promised myself to mention Club Sirius. I received 12 profiles in the first few batches and they were all my age. I wrote a letter complaining, in as nice a tone as I could, and, since then, I’ve received three who are not in their 40s. I’ve said YES to two of them. It’s a very abrupt kind of business. You tap in the other member’s profile number and then choose 7 for YES and 9 for NO. I’ve said NO lots. But just now, and for the first time, I said YES to two numbers, both of them a Liz. The computer told me that one LIZ had also said YES and it gave me her phone number. The other Liz had not yet responded! So now all I have to do is ring Liz - she’s reasonably close I suppose because its a 01483 number. So, finally, more than two months after I signed up, I’m off on the Club Sirius experience.

Saturday 28 March 1998

A lovely day, the sun glinting through the clouds for extended periods, giving more than a hint of spring. Easter is only a couple of weeks away, and then spring will be here proper - at last. I have planted four rows of potatoes, Home Guard, the same as I used the last two winters, two rows last weekend, and two rows this weekend. I have also put in a first row of lettuce. Next weekend or the weekend after, I shall need to start up some seed trays, for the less hardy vegetables and annuals.

I was devastated yesterday to discover that my neighbours in Curlew Cottage, the ones I have never met, are planning to cut their plot in two and build a new detached house hard on to my boundary fence. They were very helpful at the Council offices, and gave me an idea of the procedure for a planning application, the names of all the members of the planning committee, and the name of the planning officer whose job it is to make a recommendation to the committee. I was told I could ring up the planning officer and ask her to visit my site. I decided to write to her instead. I also rang the parish clerk, and he told me I had no opportunity to influence the Parish Council’s decision on the planning application because I wouldn’t be allowed to speak until the meeting was over, and the decision would have been made. So, I decided to write to Mr Terry, who is the representative of Elstead on the planning committee, and is also its vice-chairman. I suppose, but don’t know, that he must also sit on the Parish Council. There’s a meeting on Monday, and I was afraid that the matter might be dealt with perfunctorily and so I wrote a very careful letter to Mr Terry. I particularly asked him to consider the character of the three houses in a row - Russet House, Curlew Cottage and Waveny. I used a sentence from the Elstead Design Statement to support my submission that account should be taken of the surrounding buildings. I’ve no idea whether the proposal has a chance of succeeding, or whether I have any real grounds for opposing it, but I clearly cannot sit back and do nothing. I really really don’t want this development crowding in on me.

The two bedrooms upstairs are now ready and waiting for some furniture. They’ve been decorated, carpeted, and the lovely curtains that Francie made for me are even now up - although it is a pain and a half fixing curtain rails, and spiking the curtains with the necessary hooks. Unfortunately, the smart wardrobe and chest of drawers I’ve been saving for the big room don’t fit in it very well, and so I only have a double mattress and no bed. B says a sofa-bed would be much better - perhaps I could get a futon-type sofa-bed, but that would mean dumping the mattress.

April 1998

Paul K Lyons


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INTRO to diaries