JOURNAL - 1998 - OCTOBER
11 October 1998
Shostakovitch’s string quartet 13 bounces through the house like a pogo stick, and rolls on its side every now and then. I am far and away from recognising the individual quartets still, although 12 is very distinctive. Part of the difficulty of course is that I never sit down just to listen to music, and so my mind is occupied by other things, and there are usually three quartets on a CD so they merge into one another without me noticing. I read the helpful sleeve notes occasionally which help pin the music to a moment in Shosty’s life or Russia’s turbulent history.
Another monthly cycle of the newsletters out of the way - the 20th issue of EC Inform -Transport, and the 64th issue of EC Inform-Energy (it will be a long time before I hit a cube number again on energy). It was a bit of a messy process this last week because there was so little information for energy, I had to really dig around; and, we had too much for transport, largely because we had both two Council meetings (one formal and one informal) to report on in the issue. The schedule for the Transport Councils and the Energy Council was squeezed this semester because both forums were required to send reports to the European summit in Vienna on the integration of the environment into transport and energy policies. The Amsterdam Treaty (still yet to be ratified fully by all the Member States) requires the integration of the environment into other European policies, and the Cardiff summit last June asked for reports from the Environment and Transport Councils. Because the summer break always curtails the second Presidency of the year, the Austrians had to fit the two Transport Councils and the informal into a three month period. The Energy Council, which had been scheduled for the middle of December, was rescheduled for the middle of November, unusually early for an Energy Council.
I had organised a mailing for each of the newsletters this month so I was also anxious to find some good quality material. Unfortunately, for energy, I was unable to get anything on market liberalisation, which has been the key policy issue of the decade for my subscribers. I did, though, write a juicy little article on DGXVII’s information policy. I doubt my readers will be very interested, but DGXVII will be. Having noticed that DGXVII’s website had not been updated since March, and that there had been no issue of its publication ‘Energy in Europe’, I asked Rex what was going on. He said he had been replaced, as information officer, a year ago by a Greek called Alevantis, who had quit the job back in May. I put these facts together and wrote - in the newsletter - an open letter to the Commission asking what had happened to DGXVII’s information policy. I also emailed the article to Rex on the day of publication. Within hours I got a phone call (I was eating lunch) from Alevantis, now at DGXI, more or less congratulating me on the article, and wanting to explain why he had left, i.e. because he had not been given the resources to do the job properly. He also told me that DGXVII had an information budget of Ecu4.5m in 1998 and that a bulk of it was going to two consultancies, which he named, which were owned by the wife of a Commission official! These two companies were, he said, taking so much out of DGXVII’s information budget that he couldn’t do his job properly. Later, I also got an email from Rex saying he had onsent the article to loads of people, and that several other people had sent copies to the Energy Commissioner’s cabinet! Nice to get a reaction.
The biggest story on the transport side was probably Malpensa. In order to ensure adequate use of their new international airport outside Milan, due to open on 25 October, the Italian authorities passed a decree which, in effect, would oblige all airlines, except Alitalia, to use Malpensa. The airlines complained claiming that the road and rail links were not yet adequate and that, therefore, Milan’s travellers would tend to choose Alitalia simply because it is a lot easier to get to Linate, the existing airport, than to Malpensa. The heroic Neil Kinnock intervened and declared the Italian decree illegal. There followed intensive discussions between Brussels and Rome over terms of a new decree, and, on Thursday, the day before we went to press, I was given to understand that no progress had been made. The story was written, and organised on the page, and all was ready for sending to the printer when the news came through from Brussels that Kinnock and the Italian authorities HAD reached a preliminary agreement. So we had to rewrite the headline, the beginning of the story, and the end - although not, thankfully, the middle.
Our new printers in Oxford are trying hard, but they did made a mistake on the first issue. Nevertheless, I feel they are very much on my side. Cameron has even found a way of saving me some money on the postage.
All in all, I’ve had about 100 replies from my ‘Guardian’ advert. The vast bulk of them are from recently graduated students. I wrote back to about dozen, half male and half female, with my detailed ‘true grit’ kind of letter, giving them the facts. I am not in the business of seducing people into my organisation - they need to be sufficiently mature to see the pluses and minuses and still want to proceed. Unlike last time, I asked them to write back rather than simply phoning. Unfortunately, only two have replied. Unlike Theo, none of them are in striking distance, and all of them would have to move. I’ll have to decide this week whether I want to ask the two guys to come for an interview.
How I proceed with the business is inextricably intertwined with my own mental health. No, health is too strong a word, well-being is a better word. For example, it occurs to me, when I think about these things, which is quite often, that if I let the business simply roll on when Theo goes, and do all the work myself, and almost no marketing, I might be able to make 60,000 next year, 45,000 the year after, and 30,000 the year after that, working little more than half time. Of that, I could probably save about 75,000, which would be enough to live on for a further three years. I could then work full time on my fiction stuff and get it out of my system finally.
You see, I am slowly - no not slowly, but faster now - sinking; sinking into a whirlpool of loneliness and depression. My self, my life, my personality has no framework in which it fits; my friends are so few and far between, I can go several weeks without a single social engagement of any sort. But that is not the worst, it is worse to realise that nothing will ever get any better; there is no turning ahead of me which leads to a richer better fuller life, no turning at all, such a straight road onwards through a desert of social isolation. Over a year ago, I made a determined effort to do something about this impending crisis - I joined the dating agency (yuk), I started going to volleyball club, I joined the friends of the National Theatre so that I would get up to London more often, I vaguely tried to get involved in village affairs (the paper boat race). Nothing has worked. Not only do I never seem to meet anybody at all on my wavelength, but there seems to be no prospect ever in the future that I can see, of meeting people, let alone eligible women. I’ve got to the point where I cannot imagine ever having a girlfriend again. Tears fill in my eyes as I write this. Sometimes I think I should seek professional advice (sometimes, many times over my life I’ve thought this, but I cannot imagine how it might do any good).
Yesterday, on the morning news there was an interview with a mental health expert and with a man who had had a breakdown and become manic depressive for some years. It was mental health day I think, and so Radio Four was doing its bit. I thought one point was interesting: how people who are mentally ill, are not mentally ill all day long, or every day. They can talk and act perfectly normally a lot of the time, but that they break down in stops and starts. That’s what happened to me, all those years ago in Leyton, and is starting to happen again. I can tell, just by the way my own failures start to preoccupy me, and by the way the slightest thing can set me off into a thought trail of despair. The next minute or hour (and at present still most of the time ) I can be as light and jokey as ever. But I can feel the doom start to creep up on me. It is only Adam that keeps it at bay, for the moment.
We went on a lovely walk yesterday. The weather was murky, chilly and damp, so I preferred a walk to a cycle. I chose a seven mile circular route from the Ordnance Survey book I use quite often. It started quite close to us in Hambledon, at the church with the beautiful yew trees. We walked across Hydon’s Ball, funny name that, to a clearing at the top where a stone bench had been erected in memory of Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust. I started a game whereby we could award points to each other for every new type of mushroom or unusual bit of wildlife. Adam soon raced ahead, because his sharp eyes could spot mushrooms much easier than my blurry optical instruments. We got a bit lost in the wood and among the coppiced chestnuts, but eventually found our way on to a road and back lanes towards Hascombe. I then started another prong to our contest, sequential story telling. I set out the parameters that it was about a schoolboy, who had a big secret and it had to have humour in it and a happy ending. We told a sentence each, and awarded a point whenever we thought a sentence had a good plot twist or description. This story, about a boy named Tom who escaped from Prison School with a variety of explosive devices (!), lasted us right through to the end of the walk. However, we took a break from story telling when we arrived at Hascombe church and pond. Such a pretty place, off the main road, and perfect for our picnic lunch. Ducks ducked and dived into the water and even waddled up to us at one point in search of tidbits; ornamental trees, bursting with colourful fruit, were scattered around the lawns; and the sun shone, as if just for us. The way back was a bit dull, through more woods, in which we got completely lost - eventually I headed for the sun, because I knew we needed to go West, and we did eventually find our way back to Hambledon church, by around 4pm.
Last weekend, I worked mostly. I’d gone to Brussels a day late, for various reasons, which meant that Saturday arrived with hardly any of the energy issue written. I’m back into TV now that the autumn schedules are here. There’s a new US import based on Elmore Leonard and characters called ‘Maximum Bob’, its well done and funny - a cross between ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘LA Law’. We (us the general public) were treated to a new and splendid adaptation - an ITV special - of ‘Hornblower’. Theo, who has read the Hornblower novels over many times, says the plot strayed from Forester’s originals quite seriously at times, but was nevertheless fairly accurate with regard to the characters and the main story. It was on too late for Adam but I taped it for him. ‘Eastenders’ is boring at the moment. Last night I watched a film I had recorded ages ago - ‘The Designated Mourner’. Three characters sit around a table oblivious to each other but talking about themselves and each other. It was quite hypnotic in its own way and seemed to be about the snobbery of culture. Literature wise, I’ve read an American police thriller called ‘The Cimarron Rose’, which was quite good and Marlowesque in a modern Elmore Leonard sort of way (that’s twice I’ve mentioned him now); and I’ve started on a fantasy based on H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Machine’.
I ring Fiona, who seems well. She has been promoted to be in charge of 25 people at AP Dow Jones. It’s much more an administrative job than an editorial one, but I’m sure it suits her. Freddy spends time in Belgium at Mark’s parents, but otherwise goes to a nursery five days a week. I ring Lucy, who seems less satisfied with things at the BBC. There are a lot of changes to the news side of things, and she is caught up in them a bit. She finds it tiring doing a full five days 9-6 for previously she was on shift work and had longer breaks. Eliza goes to a nursery three days a week, and a friend looks after her the other two days.
I had a huge rash of spots, on the back of my knees, on my side, under my arms. I didn’t know if it was a disease or bites, or what. They really itched, and when I walked the ones on the back of my knees hurt. I am back to swimming, volleyball, hiking, and gardening again - thank goodness. Occasionally, my knee gives way, and I know that it is not right, that there is a ligament problem that will never go away now without surgery. I just hope it does not affect me badly the next time I go skiing - it certainly does not interfere with walking or swimming.
14 October 1998
We had a good time in the pool. I do 20 lengths, A does 10, then we do some diving practice and have fun for 20 minutes. We usually stay in about 45 minutes altogether. The drive home is a bit of a bind because of traffic on the A3. It can take up to half an hour, but it’s a 10 minute journey usually.
I’ve had a hard time getting down to work on the novel. I’ve been feeling badly depressed. Nothing is going well. And my motivation for working on the novel is as weak as water. Even on a reasonably good day, like today, I finally got down to doing some writing at about 9, and worked for the best part of two hours I suppose. Then I gravitated to doing EC Inform work, then lunch, then reading, then, at about 2, I started up again, and wrote until 3:15, which is the time I leave to collect Ads and go swimming. So the whole day has gone by and I’ve managed to write for three hours. It’s pathetic.
Have I mentioned Adam’s merit points. The new school seems to be really good for him; he is working hard, and is well motivated in many of his subjects. The teachers give merit points for very good work (I think they are quite liberal with them at first) and these are then listed on a board in the form room. Of the boys in his form, Ads has the most, but some of the girls are well ahead of him. As of today, Ads says he has 11, but a girl called Henrietta has 19! I have a system with Adam whereby he has to do his homework again for me if I don’t think he’s done it well enough. He still has to give in the poorly done homework, but he has to do it much better for me. If, however, he gets a 1A or merit point for a piece of work that I had judged poor, then he gets a life, which he can use the next time I would make him do a piece of work again. This seems to be working quite well. My main aim is try and get him to think about his work before he starts, to plan it a little, then to execute carefully, and to check it over. Of late, his writing has become rather sloppy and full of mistakes. He does several clubs - drama after school, and maths and archaeology during lunchtimes.
I went to the annual general meeting at the school the day before my last trip to Brussels. I was expecting scores of people, a hundred or more, but there were barely thirty, the same number as turned up to St James School with a population 10 times smaller. It was my first experience of Mr Latham, the head who has won so many plaudits, and who appears to have brought success to the school. He is likeable, but in the way that an oily salesman good at his job is likeable. He didn’t repeat the facts and figures in the governors’ report, but spoke more personally about the school and how things were going very well. There was a report from the treasurer who pleaded for financial help from the parents.
Sunday 18 October
I have Adam from 3pm Saturday to 3pm Sunday, because it suits B and I have no reason not to go along with it. But I am cross with Ads almost immediately he arrives. We chat for half an hour about yo-yos, he’s just bought a new one and wants to buy three more. I say that is a bit excessive, and make the same argument that I have countless times before with regard to his magic tricks. What makes the difference is how well you learn to do the tricks, whether magic or yo-yo, and not how expensive or sophisticated the equipment is. Anybody can buy the equipment but few people can master it. I point out that one of the main reasons he likes yo-yos is because it is a fashion of the moment and that he wants to impress friends with how many yo-yos he has. He agrees that this is partly true, and so I explain to him that what really impresses other people is skill not possession. But we don’t argue that. I say, rather lightly, that I intend to hold back from returning two of his yo-yos (which have been confiscated) until he’s got his diary up to date. Then he starts to moan about it being so unfair, and that I am making him not like his diary any more, and so on. He’s learning all the tricks to get under my skin. So I’ve had enough. I have tried so hard with his diary, and I came to the end of my tether - I’ve tried completely leaving him to his own devices (for three months, with a reward for every day completed), and he didn’t do once, except for the very first day. I’ve tried reminding him regularly (but I am getting very fed up of that), and yesterday I tried a little bit of stick. Then I just got so fed up and cross, although I knew it would be so counter-productive. I just took it away from him. Then he argued it wasn’t mine to take away. I said it was mine, since he had never ever done it without me reminding him to. And I can’t bear to see it sitting on his desk every day never being used.
Then he went into a long silent mope, as though not making any noise or saying anything would appease me (naturally, he’s learnt his defence mechanisms from Barbara regardless of whether they are good ones and work!). Later I went into his room. I thought at least he might have been getting on with proof-reading ‘Trapped Again’. I’ve been asking him to do it for weeks and weeks. He hasn’t had much time, I know, and it was only last weekend that he got down to it, which was fine. But he didn’t finish. I reminded him again this weekend. But there he was having done nothing constructive for hours, so I took ‘Trapped Again’ away from him too.
As I was preparing supper, I made a mental list of all the activities I’ve tried to do with him, or help him with in the last few weeks, over which he has given me grief. The diary, and ‘Trapped Again’, joining gym club at school, a simple French phrase I tried to encourage him with last week, a technique for shading, entering the Godalming music competition (there are speech and drama sections too), diving lessons. It has become a real battle to get him to listen to anything I have to say. I suppose this is normal pre-teen stuff, and probably particularly potent in my case, because I have always stuffed teaching down his throat.
I have tried to get on with the novel this weekend - I consider 2,000 words a reasonable haul for a day, although if I worked say just six hours I should be able to do nearer 3,000-4,000. The fact is that I find it so hard to settle down to write, and take any excuse to be disturbed. I rarely come to this portable computer, upstairs in the blue and yellow room, without first having a quick game of chess. And today, for example, the TV caught me, first with the match play golf final at Wentworth, and then with a Roger Moore film called ‘Gold’ (the mine flood scenes reminded me of ‘The Stars Look Down’). I have calculated that if I could write 2,000 words a day, on average for 15 days (that’s only two weeks), I could stoke up the novel to about 200 paperback pages. I’ve decided it could be called ‘Begetting - Loss - Recovery’ and be split into three such sections. The first, ‘Begetting’, takes the story through to the narrator’s return from New York and the discovery of Belinda’s disappearance, then ‘Loss’ takes the story through to the moment that the narrator hears that his wife has linked a person called Shirley with losing Belinda, and then ‘Recovery’, the section I have not yet begun, is about finding Belinda.
I have finished a novel called ‘A Scientific Romance’ by Ronal Wright. It has won something called the David Higham prize for fiction, and there are rave reviews from a number of highbrow papers. What can I say? I think I live in a world of my own. I do not understand how this book can be rated. It has erudition, yes, it has the makings of a reasonable plot, yes, it has fluent language, yes; but there are just too many flaws. Essentially, it’s about a man, possibly dying of CJD, who chances on a time machine, first developed and used during H.G. Wells’ time (Wells is the inspiration for the novel). He uses it to go 500 years into the future, perhaps to find a cure for his disease. He keeps a journal of this adventure and, as he does so, he reveals details of his relationships with two people from his past. But guess what, 500 years into the future, there is no civilisation left but an isolated primitive Community in Scotland which has preserved a few artefacts from the late 20th century and early part of the 21st century. Indeed, he eventually finds out that civilisation simply pegs out by about 2040 because of global warming, disease and the penetration of ultraviolet light. His world of 500 years hence, though, is so poorly invented to my mind - he manages to navigate everywhere with easy reference to how they were when he left in 1999. Conveniently, a genetically modified grass has grown on the motorways and keeps all other flora at bay because of its particular genetic properties. These grass covered motorways allow him to find his way to Scotland - and he spots exotic wildlife all the way. It also got my goat that when he first lands in this strange place, his diary (i.e. what we are reading) is full of history about his friends. We, the readers, are not interested in his past relationships when he has just arrived 500 years into the future, nor would he be. And the fact that he manages to carry a portable computer with him, through semi-tropical jungle, and never has a problem settling down to sleep or type up his notes in this utterly hostile environment strikes me as just plain ludicrous. I ended up skimming most of the novel, though I did want to know if he got out of the future alive; but he fudges the end: I think the idea is that he doesn’t make it back to the present because that’s impossible (after all he might meet himself) but his notes do, which is how we can be reading them in the year 1998. And the fact that just one group of humans, some 1000 or so, survive in one glen in Scotland is preposterous. If man survived any kind of holocaust in 2050, then by 2500, he would be well on his way to recolonising.
We three men of our time, Andrew, Raoul and me, met at Raoul’s on Wednesday evening. I was pissed off about driving to his house, but, in fact, it’s as quick to get there as almost anywhere else once I have to go as far up the A3 as Roehampton. It was a pleasant enough evening. Jack was morosely watching England play Luxembourg; Sophie helped her Dad prepare the supper (some of her school books were lying on the bench next to me and I was staggered at how neat and advanced they were). We stay until after midnight when Caroline comes home from a Book Circle meeting.
Pinochet has been arrested and the British authorities may allow him to be extradited to Spain where the government wants him for questioning with regard to missing Spanish citizens. There will be many artistic Chileans across the world who are cheering at the news. So many were killed, so many others became refugees to escape the fascist regime. I hope he rots in a Spanish prison until his death. Allende may have been a disaster and Pinochet may have rescued the country from economic chaos, but I was deeply affected by my experiences there - the night-time curfew still in operation three years after the coup, the fear of my friends when stopped by the police, and the stories of the many disappeared, as in Argentina.
23 October 1998
Autumn weather is well and truly settling in with gales and intermittent rain. Most of the amelanchier leaves have blown off, with the exception of the ones on the largest tree. These are lovely shades of reds and pale oranges but no doubt they will be gone within a day or two. Many of the silver birch leaves have turned yellow and speckle the lawns, pathways and flowerbeds. They pile up against the walls and round the flower pots, and even find their way into the kitchen. The odd yellow leaf hangs alone, caught in a spider’s web across my bedroom window, perilously vibrating in the wind. The two azaleas have just started to turn a delightful mix of autumn colours, but the oak, of course, and the goat willow have yet to feel the cold.
Adam arrives at his first half term break from Rodborough, without any difficulties. He has been streamed in the top classes for English, Science and Maths, although we are not yet clear as to how real the streaming is. He has worked hard, joined clubs, made a few new friends, and avoided getting any detentions. A big thumbs up from Dad.
The Guildford book festival has caught me this year. Rob rang, unexpectedly, and invited me to go with him to see Richard Dawkins. I had seen his ‘gig’ advertised but decided most definitely not to go. I dislike his science intensely and it annoys me immensely that he is so highly rated and feted around the country. I have heard/seen him on the media but not live (as I have Stephen Jay Gould), so it seems only fair to give him a chance. No, the only reason I am going is because Rob invited me, which turns it into a social occasion. Also, though, I have booked up for two musical events in the programme, a Jazz poetry superjam, to which I am taking both A and B, and an evening of folk song/stories with Bob Copper, to which I am taking Adam (this latter may prove rather tepid).
Saturday 24 October 1998
Such gales and storms today. It didn’t stop us going out for a walk though, along through Westbrook to the river. Adam and I chatted most of the way there, mostly about Dawkins, because I’d been to see him read from his new book last night (Ads can show very sophisticated understanding when I talk to him about science - I can tell by his questions - even if he doesn’t reproduce his level of understanding in his school science work), and all the way back about the difference between Nike and Cica trainers. Ads is exceptionally keen on having Nike trainers for his next pair, and I am equally determined to persuade him not to be won over by advertising. The water was high on the river, and we forged a path along the bank, something we’ve not done before - more often than not we’re on bikes and so stick to the main route.
For supper, this evening we started with roasted parsnips before moving on to spaghetti bolognese and salad. We munched on a banana as we shifted through the lounge to watch ‘Casualty’. We played a quick game of chess.
It was a pleasant enough evening last night with Rob. Dawkins was a real failure. He simply confirmed all my prejudices about him. During the question session, I asked him if, scientifically speaking, he was still happy with the selfish gene theory and whether he was happy with the way the term had entered the common currency. He didn’t give me much of an answer. He said, yes, he did feel the selfish gene theory held up, it didn’t explain everything, but nevertheless it was still a good explanation. He didn’t answer the second part of my question. I can hardly remember much of his talk, so ephemeral was it, other than that he was asking for better links between science and poetry, and that science deserved more awe from the general public than it generally got. He suggested we should go out on a moonless night, lie on the grass, and look up at the stars, in order to experience the wonder of nature (yawn, yawn, yawn).
I have taken a day off from the novel, although I fully intend to spend tomorrow on it. Bill is about to head off to Cornwall with Trevor in search of Shirley. But I don’t think they’ll find her on this first foray. Increasingly, I begin to worry about the imbalances in the writing style between the first chapters of this work written 10 years ago, and the latter chapters I’ve written in the last couple of months.
Paul K Lyons
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