8 August 1999

The weather has broken and we have streaming incessant rain this Sunday morning. The rain is very good for the garden, which had begun to wilt (semi-metaphorically speaking) - there are dried out patches on the lawn, where the grass has died; and one or two heathers have copped it also. As I write, here by the garden window, I see the sky is brightening, and the rain is easing. There may be a chance that my washing on the line dries off later in the day.

Why aren’t children taught applied logic at school? Simple, straightforward logic is taught in maths, I suppose, but what is not taught is how to apply that logic to one’s every day life and decisions. Perhaps it is too dangerous a subject, for it could lead easily to the obvious conclusion that god does not exist.

My mental life is not very dynamic at the moment. I haven’t read any evolution/brain mechanism books for a long time (although there are one or two half read still on my reading table), and I haven’t really developed any interesting ideas at all of late. It’s not that I’ve failed to write any of them down, it’s simply that I haven’t had any. It is true that I discuss politics, popular films, culture and sport quite a lot with Theo (ranting and raving sometimes about various pet hates) and that Adam provokes a lot of discussion about all sorts of things, but, nevertheless, I appear to have lost my intellectual buzz. It’s as though I am deliberately dubbing myself down, deliberately allowing myself to get old and staid, because there is no motive - no outlet - for any intellectual progression.

Interestingly, I left the writing of Adam’s birthday story very late, and had to complete it the day before. I was writing furiously all evening, and didn’t finish until about one in the morning. I only had time for one proof-read through, and there are bits that could do with a rewrite, for tidiness, if nothing else. Nevertheless, the story - ‘Switch’ - is fun, and I had fun writing it. What amazes me, though, is that there such potential in me to work that hard, to be that creative - if only I had a reason, a motive. But for 99.9% of my life, I don’t, so I don’t bother.

My story for Ads, though, has to compete with a fine load of other entertainments we bought for his birthday on Wednesday. There were three twin cassette sets of radio comedy: the ‘Goons’, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, and ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’; there was the top selling latest Harry Potter book; and several other books, including one on radio comedy; his new hi fi system; a new harmonica, and a book of Sonny Terry licks. I spent most of Tuesday sorting out his birthday, one way or another (i.e. shopping in the morning, writing the story in the afternoon/evening/night), and then B and I spent all day with him on his birthday. Unlike last year, we didn’t do a major trip, but just went the other side of Guildford to do a four mile walk and picnic on to the North Downs, and around Shere. It was pleasant enough (the deep chalk-lined silent pool is a bit special, if too near the main road to be actually silent) but there wasn’t much special to admire - it also got very hot when the sun came out. Still Ads enjoyed himself. Mid-afternoon we returned back to Compton for tea and cakes, before taking another walk along the river at Godalming - a path we hadn’t explored before. I was hoping to have a swim in the river, but there wasn’t anywhere as inviting as rope swing place beyond Westbrook, and where we’ve been almost every day this week, for a swing and a swim (indeed, we went not long after returning home that afternoon). And then, in the evening, we drove over to Aldershot for a Pizza Hut meal, and a film - ‘Star Wars’.

How could anyone manage to resist the hype. ‘The Guardian’ gave ‘Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace’ a very bad review, one star out of five, and summarised its view with this two word epithet: ‘Extraordinarily objectionable’. Having sat through more than two hours of it, I tend to agree. All three of us, Ads included, found it tiring and tiresome. The film is utterly derivative, there wasn’t one good new idea in it; the script is hopeless, the plot is too simple and yet encumbered with artificial complexity; the background music is incessant and always in the way of one’s hearing, adding very little to the emotional development; the character development is negligible. Even the special effects are not very good, overworked, and always strike one as unnecessary, not driven by a good plot but by the simple need to fill the screen with effects. As a whole, the film was far more like a poor and unoriginal cartoon than a ground-breaking and thrilling sci-fi.

This week also saw Theo give in his notice. He has been offered a job by Swiss Radio’s English service, and will start in early November, and expects to nearly double his salary. I will be sorry to lose him, but, on the other hand, it is time for me to move on. Someone new could make or break me. I’ve tried advertising in the ‘Farnham Herald’, but that advert only got me four useless replies. I’ll have to go for a ‘Guardian’ ad again - and maybe look to employ two new people at the same time.

We’re off to the West Country to see the eclipse - along with a million others. I expect we’ll hit traffic jams everywhere we go, but that’s life.

Friday 13 August

Today I broke the pot in which the orange tree has lived for the length of Adam’s life. This is the plant that was given to B when she left the RHS to have Adam, and the plant that never found a suitably light place in her houses, and so has been housed by me all these years. In Aldershot Road, it sat in the upstairs lounge on the table in the bay window, and here in Elstead it sits in the window opposite my bedroom door. It flowers most years, and almost always has miniature oranges hanging down from its branches. A most attractive plant. I thought it was bad luck to break the pot, being as it’s a Friday the 13th, but the breakage showed me that the roots were clearly undernourished, having crowded out most of the soil, and that, therefore, it need a root prune and repotting.

Nor can I construe Theo’s resignation as bad luck associated with Friday the 13th, because I knew about it already last week. Only today, he’s confirmed his leaving on 1 November, which gives me very little time to get a replacement up and running. I will advertise next week, but I really should be thinking about where to go to next - I don’t want to go on running this two-bit operation without any prospect of expansion. I should face up to the truth that I simply haven’t managed to make the business a truly profitable concern. Some entrepreneurs make their fortunes after five years of starting a business. This one is a snail going round in circles. It is a good move for Theo, and I am pleased he has found himself a challenge worthy of his abilities - a desk presenter for Swiss state radio’s English service, and that he hasn’t found his time with me a hindrance (apparently no hindrance at all since he’s been offered three of the four jobs he’s applied for in the last nine months). He was well manic today, with all the details having come through in the mail, and the new exciting world opening out in front of him.

By contrast, my world is closing in on me all the time.

22 August 1999

I’ve just finished my self-assessment tax form for the last tax year. For this I needed to finalise my accounts for my last accounting year, which ran to October 1998. My net profit - i.e. my take home pay - has fallen for the fourth year in a row and is just below £29,000. I had two good years in which I made about £40,000 each year. Then I employed Theo and started EC Inform-Transport. My earnings plummeted by £10,000. This is not to say I have been losing £10,000 on the transport newsletter (although it’s clear I’m not really making any profit) - the energy newsletter has been in slow but steady decline. The figure to Oct 1998 was adversely affected by the poor return on the energy policy book. Also it looks like my turnover will drop in the year to Oct 1999, for the first time, to around £82,000 or £83,000 having peaked last year at around £90,000. My expenses will probably be something in the region £50,000, so my earnings might have gone up slightly, but, if so, it will be at the expense of not doing much marketing.

These figures are depressing, for my business has now been running quite a long time, and it is going nowhere. Why this soul searching, why this depression now? Simple. Theo’s departure opens up choices for me. I could go ahead with my original plan and try and take on two new people, one to take over from Theo and the other to help start the health newsletter. Assuming I can find two people who might be able to take on these jobs, it will still be immensely hard work for me, and the chances of finding people as accommodating as Theo are rather small.

I could decide not to employ anyone and do both newsletters myself. I could probably earn £50,000 a year for a couple of years and add another £50,000 to my savings, but then what? They would surely decline, and my daily working life, would be much more of the same. Alternatively, I could try and get a job; though at close to 50 I might find it difficult.

23 August 1999

Ads and I with Colin and Elizabeth travelled down to Devon earlier in the month for the eclipse. We stayed the first night, camping in Julian’s garden (near Barnstable). The following morning, I had insisted on getting up and rolling by 5am. In fact, I woke around 4am and heard Colin moving in his tent too, so we decided to leave earlier than planned. It was still well dark, and damp with dew, but at least it wasn’t raining. It didn’t take long to pack and leave. By the time we got to the M5 - after 5 I think it was, there was already considerable traffic, but not so much as to worry us. After much debate with myself (and some with Colin) over how far south to go, whether to go to the coast or not, whether to head for the crowds or find somewhere entirely secluded, I had decided to head for Salcombe, one of the southern most points in Devon, and just within the zone which would give a full two minute total eclipse. I had chosen a route off the infamous A38, behind Kingsbridge and through to Salcombe by the back door. There was a most gorgeous sunrise as we headed south through the country lanes and very little traffic. But, as we approached Salcombe, every layby was full of cars with sleeping or waking bodies in them. Before I knew it we were in the narrow streets of Salcombe with masses of people already sitting on walls and strolling around. I turned round, and drove back up into the back hills to find a parking place, neatly by some fields gates but not in their way. From there we walked down to the coast road, and then round to the town itself. This was before 7am, and it would be no exaggeration to say there were hundreds of people hanging around. One man even had his camera and tripod set up already. It was further to the town than I thought, but we had so much time, it didn’t seem to matter. We were all hoping for a nice greasy fry up breakfast, but the one place open had a huge queue, so we decided to sit second in the queue to a place that wasn’t due to open for 45 minutes. At least I had a newspaper, and it was mildly interesting to watch everyone going about no business at all. Despite the fact that there were three or four staff in the cafe an hour before it opened, and the fact that the queue was stretching down the road half an hour before the official opening time, they did not open early. They kept us waiting to the minute. And then, was the wait worth the while? No, it was not. All we could get was some fancy egg and ham dish, which was over £4, and gooey pancakes, which were not very nice. Still, I did a get a cup of tea.

Next, we walked back the way we had come, intent on getting high up on the cliffs for a vantage point. I had thought to walk to Bolt Head, but, by the time we got to Start Point, Colin and Lizzie didn’t want to go any further. We were not alone. Thousands of people had also trekked up the hills, and populated every rocky outcrop with a view of the sea. Colin, Lizzie and Adam wanted to do the same. So I left them to it, and carried on walking. I really could not understand why everyone was sitting around waiting for the eclipse as though they were at the cinema - I had seen people carrying chairs. I was also amazed to see dozens of people swarming across the fields (from various access roads I suppose) towards the path and the rocky cliffs. It was all quite pagan.

Between Start Point and Bold Head there is a small cove. The footpath, which drops substantially from one head to the other, takes one down nearly to sea level, a short path then leads to the cove. As the tide was out and low, two small sandy beaches were revealed, so I went in for a swim. It was delicious. I would have swum naked but for a couple of girls mooching around on the rocks, and the few boats moored not far out at sea. However, later Adam and Colin told me I was well visible from the rocks above where they were sat, and that was without binoculars - many of the thousands had binoculars, and I would have been a right spectacle for them all while they waited impatiently for the real spectacle that was never to come. I so loved it down there that I wanted to stay. It occurred to me that I should be in the water, not on the cliffs, for the eclipse - after all it is a lunar event, and the tides and sea are lunar in character. But I knew Adam would be expecting me at the top in time for the eclipse totality and he would worry if I hadn’t returned. So I duly dressed, and climbed back up the hill, regretting having to leave my special lunar place, and return to all those people.

I arrived back with about five minutes to spare. But the sky was fully cloudy, and had been for hours. No one in our area had glimpsed any part of the partial eclipse during its hour of growth (although it had got noticeably darker, as though it were about to rain), and no one saw the total eclipse, nor the partial during its retreat. We did all experience the two minutes of darkness, the mass of camera flashlights that went off all along the coast and out to sea, and the applause when it was over. Applause to who? There was lots of conversation all around, self-justifying kind of conversation, about how remarkable it was, and what an amazing experience, but a sense of disappointment - like a thick fog - had descended over the crowds long before the minutes of totality, and was only partially lifted by the unnatural and brief period of darkness. Intellectually, I was well disappointed too, although my expectations had not been very high (there was too much information about the weather prospects in the papers and on TV). Emotionally, though, I was with the sea, and my frustration stemmed from not having been able to experience this one unique (for me) moving moment swimming naked in the sea.

We strolled back to the car, and ate the remnants of the food which I had packed at Russet House. I had planned to stay around Salcombe for the rest of the day, and do more walking, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking Colin and Lizzie to do that. So we piled into the car and slowly made our way back north towards Dartmoor. We stopped a couple of times, once to have a cup of tea at a new age fete that we happened on, and once to look at an historic site with strong evidence of two forts, one large one dating from the iron age and the other a medieval one.

In South Brent, we found a nice little teahouse, and refuelled on tea and cake, before heading up for a river walk and a taste of Dartmoor. Like the iron age fort, I also guessed the walk from the map. In fact, there was a large car park, full of cars, and a tarmac path all the way up the river to the large dam and reservoir. However, most people were on their way back down, so after an hour or so of walking up, there was no one around. I chose to explore the river on my own, and found a place to bathe naturally; I couldn’t actually swim, but it was, nevertheless, very refreshing. At the top, we had the reservoir to ourselves. Although all the surrounding hills were shallow and rolling Dartmoor-like covered with bracken, none of them had the typical Dartmoor rocky tors; moreover, the artificial reservoir gave the whole scene an eerie and non-Dartmoor feel. Ads and Lizzie had fun throwing in stones; and then we walked back down the hill again.

Then we had to face the problem of where to sleep. There were lovely grassy banks by the river, but since this was the Dartmoor national park I was loathe to break the rules and put up the tents. So, instead, I found a camping site (again thanks to the map), and we were charged a tenner each to pitch our tent (eclipse prices - the owner admitted as much) on a small stony site around a permanent caravan. By this time it was raining which made putting up the tent a bit of a nightmare. Ads helped enormously by deciding to find a large rock to bang the tent pegs in - I had been using an iron bar which was far from satisfactory. We later went into South Brent again for fish and chips, and to a pub where we played dominoes. Lizzie enjoyed this, although she cheated every game, by making sure she knew where the double-six was during the muddle-up of the turned-down pieces and picking it with her initial six pieces. When we found out, she got quite cute about this and continued trying to do it, without any shame, and a wicked laugh. I developed an ostentatious way of saying ‘excellent’ at every move, which has now entered into our folklore.

24 August 1999

Still trying to catch up on the Devon trip. After a big breakfast at the good cafe in South Brent and packing up our tents, we made our way eastwards. I had thought to make for Weymouth, but, in the end we went to Lyme Regis, which was a reasonable choice. We stopped a couple of times, because I spotted signs - once it was only a castle entrance, and once to visit the market town of Axminister to gawp at a cattle market - actually Lizzie and Ads quite enjoyed it. We did country lanes which were fun before finding a place above Lyme Regis to park. We walked down to the beach and Ads and I swam a bit, then we took lunch in a bakery, and later we walked across the sands to Charmouth, and back over the top of the hills. It was a really enjoyable walk with long views across the flat sands, with the tide slowly coming in, and Charmouth in the distance, and views along the coast from the cliff tops. Back in Lyme Regis we took tea in the Town Mill art gallery before climbing back up the hill to the car. Unfortunately, when we tried to drive out of the area we found the main road chocabloc and so decided to hole out in Charmouth for an hour or two until early evening. This gave the children a chance to swim again (and this time, for the first time) Lizzie went in - and thoroughly enjoyed it, and Ads and I also tried cracking open some rocks in search of fossils, for this is a famous fossil beach. When we tried the main road again it was clear, and, driving fairly fast, we were back at Russet House by about 10. Colin decided to stay for the night. Adam went straight to bed but I had to unload all the wet clothes and tents to give them air.

25 August 1999

The strangest weather - since about 4pm this afternoon, there has a been a very light mist, a tropical wet mist hanging in the air.

Colin Jackson has just won probably our only gold medal of the World Athletics Championships in Seville. Jonathan Edwards only managed a bronze in the triple jump, and Dean Macey won a surprising silver in the decathlon. I really cannot stand the commentators at the athletics. They don’t confine themselves with describing the state of a race, but they fill up the airwaves with definitive insider knowledge of what every athlete is thinking about. In cricket we failed miserably against the New Zealanders, who were cockahoop (em, how do you spell that cock-a-hoop?) at winning the test series. They had bright young confident cricketers, we had hopelessly unconfident, ageing and sometimes incompetent cricketers, especially batsmen. England is now the worst test team. And what I hate about cricket commentators (although they are better than some sports) is the way every wicket, every over, every batsman’s innings is the ‘critical’ one. Is our failure at sport simply a reflection of the fact that we don’t care that much, because we have better things to do with our lives than push our bodies to extraordinary and unnatural limits?

A first batch of applications has arrived from my ‘Guardian’ advert. Unfortunately, not one of them stands out as a likely possible. I will really be in a fix if, this time next week, I haven’t received any decent applications.

I’ve just finished the last of the lettuces from my garden; there are a few more cherry tomatoes still ripening; but I’ve loads more runner beans to go. I can see the sweetcorn are not going to make it this year, and the two aubergine plants I bought never flowered, or at least they were never fertilised. A poor season all round. Clearly, I need to put more effort in, if I’m to get more out of it.

The most dreadful earthquake has happened in Turkey. News programmes were putting out bulletins about 50 people having died and then 100, and then the next day it was 200 and then 500. The tone of the presenters was almost like that of the football results service; there was an extra ring in their voice because the total had gone up, and the news was thus fresh and real. Then, the figure went into the thousands, and then, finally, after three or four days we were being told that the death toll might be as high as 40,000. What the fuck were those journalists talking about on those first few days. Just because it was Turkey, the foreign correspondents believe they are all knowing, so that they simply report the sum of their knowledge without taking proper soundings. How irresponsible is that, for the BBC to be reporting that 50 people have died when in fact the devastation is massive and 40,000 people might be dead? For about six days, there were reports of survivors being pulled out of the rubble, but then the international health organisation started saying it was more important to concentrate efforts on the survivors, with hundreds of thousands of people now truly homeless. It makes me, once again, so thankful to have been born and brought up in this safest and most benign of countries.

29 August 1999

We are in the small garden of a terrace house. There is a public footpath running along the back of the terrace’s yards. I watch as two teenagers approach along the path. They are carrying javelins. They stop to look over the wall, and look threatening. I run off shouting that I will call the police (somehow I manage to run through the yards without worrying about walls or fences). First one javelin is thrown after me, it goes wide, and then another, which only just misses me. I collect the two javelins and return to where the boys are standing. I say I will give the javelins back if they never come and threaten us again. Otherwise, I will call the police. One of them starts coming close to me, so I start running. The back door of the first house I choose is locked, the next one is OK. I must get through to the front of the houses, where there will be other people and a telephone box. I am racing through the house when suddenly I am faced with a locked door.

The summer is now over for me. Tomorrow at the crack of dawn, I head for Heathrow Airport and three days in Brussels, and then a week of solid writing, editing and production. I am not good at summers. The last one was wiped out by a truly horrible cold. And this one, by, well a lack of any real determination to do anything different. It is true that I have worked on the transport book quite a lot, and have nearly arrived at a situation where drafts of every chapter do now exist. But it is still going to be a huge amount of work to get through - and I’ve only got about two more Theo weeks on the book (as he will be taking holiday between now and the end of October when he leaves).

This is a gorgeous sunny Sunday. Andrew has rung to invite me along to the Proms this evening, because Eva has invited him - Eva being the pretty woman I had noticed at his house a few months ago.

How honest am I with myself in these diaries, really? Honest with myself? Yes, I think I am, fairly. But I do leave stuff out, mostly because I am afraid of the judgement of others, should anyone ever read this. Perhaps I boast less in my diary than I do in my head, or at least I add self-mockery, or self-depreciation to balance the account. In my head, there are occasional flights of fancy, which have no basis in reality, and I know it, but sometimes I can’t stop them, and there is constant flow of criticism about the people and world around me, which I also try to stem, and dispense with as unreal. Of course, my mind’s initial reaction to all kinds of events and developments around me, is to put me in the centre of them, but my conscious self very soon chucks out the thought as absurd, because it knows that every other person on the planet has themselves at the centre of their own world. Moreover, I have to remind myself constantly that it makes no difference to anything at all what any stranger thinks or does not think about me.

The World Athletics Championships finish this evening. the UK has done poorly again, with only one gold medal. There was a great moment for the Spanish last night when a Spaniard won the marathon - the Seville stadium was full and bursting with national pride.

September 1999

Paul K Lyons


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