6 February 1999

Jan Garbarek’s ‘Rites’ plays on the new CD player I’ve installed upstairs in the large bedroom/personal office. Adam bought this for me for Christmas, and already I adore it. It’s easier listening than ‘Simon Boccanegro’, which is being relayed live from the Met in New York on Radio Three. I listened to the first part, but, as I’m going out shortly, and the first interval is 25 minutes, there’s little point in sticking with it. Another CD I listen to a lot while working is the early piano works of Satie played by Reinbert de Leeuw.

I’ve been in Brussels this week, and it was a fairly run-of-the-mill visit. I had a good trip into DGXVII, and talked to many of my regulars. I hear there’s a growing dispute between Papoutsis and Benavides. The Commissioner will be forced to defend the Director-General at the Parliament’s plenary session next week, even though they are at loggerheads, or so I understand. I got hold of a report on the future of DGXVII which recommends a complete restructuring. I also discovered that important negotiations are under way between Ukraine and EBRD and the Commission for the completion of the K2-R4 reactors. This has been an ongoing story for some years, but it is highly sensitive politically. It will cause a rumpus in the Council and the Parliament when the Commission tells them it is ready to sign a Euratom loan for the two reactors. Interestingly, the Commission has recently asked the Council for a mandate to negotiate a nuclear agreement ahead of ones with other NIS - I’m sure, although no one has said so, that this is part of the West’s package of favours to ensure Chernobyl does get closed in 2000.

All the administrators at the EP’s energy committee have changed in the last year or so, and it had got to the point where I didn’t know a single one of them. This trip, therefore, I dropped in to see Lena Savarente; Finnish? Swedish?, blonde quite attractive, very scatty.

I did have an appointment with Alevantis to follow up on the fraud business, but, after a talk with Rex, I decided not to bother. It would have meant a trip out to Beaulieu, with no story in prospect at the end of the day. Rex told me that the two companies (cited in an MEP question because of the information I passed on to Andrew Warren) which had won two contracts (one from Thermie, as described in Papoutsis’s answer to the question) belonged to the wife of a Commission official, recently retired from the Thermie programme. That sounds a very uncomfortable relationship to me, and I will point it out in my newsletter this month; but I won’t go any further with it.

At the cinema, I went to see ‘Enemy of the State’, but it was plot-thin, and relied too much on chase scenes and unbelievable computer capabilities. I liked the earlier and similar film with Gene Hackman playing the same off-beat communications wizard. Another Rankin novel kept me occupied on the plane journeys.

The corridors in rue du Canal have been redecorated finally, so it no longer feels like a squat or run-down housing block, but I am still keeping my eyes open for a new place. Since we only use the flat three or four nights a month, it works out at around £100 a night.

All my spare time - including time I usually would write up this journal - has been spent on BLR. I had hoped to complete the corrections and finish off the ending before the February newsletter work took over. I nearly got there, but not quite. Unfortunately, I cannot help being somewhat excited by it; and my mind runs off to imagine it might be published. I try to stop it, but sometimes it’s too late; I do make sure, however, that I take everything I find myself thinking with a pinch of salt! The end is coming together reasonably well. I’ve written all the important encounters - the novel ends a bit like a play - except for the final one with Susan. There are only two themes I have to expose in this meeting and then the novel is done - completely. I’m that close, a few paragraphs, two pages at most. The one theme is that Susan carries on as before without any trace in her behaviour as to what has happened, no acknowledgement of her part in the great drama. The second and related theme is that Bill, the narrator, realises he has no choice but to carry on, with Susan and his daughter.

Once I’ve finished and tidied it up, B has promised to read it for glaring errors or inconsistencies. I will then give it one more read before sending it off, probably to the agent that Raoul knows well - by some ghastly, horrible coincidence she is also Ian McEwan’s agent. Have I mentioned this before in my journal, I probably have, but BLR is a novel about a missing child, just like McEwan’s ‘A Child in Time’ and has a science writer as a narrator, just like McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ - but these two aspects of BLR were already engaged before either of those books appeared. It is ten years since I started BLR, although it wasn’t called BLR then. I know this because when I go back to my diaries to find out how a nine-month old child behaves, I find the diary full of entries about working on a chapter of the novel. Do you think that any similarity with McEwan’s work would ride against me with his agent, or for me? Who am I asking?

The two ‘Trapped’ stories appear to have got lost at one publisher - I sent them out three months ago - so I’ll send off a new letter on that shortly. What else is there to do but keep trying.

And so to public affairs. There was great excitement this last week over Graham Hoddle. The media went into a frenzy of excitement because Hoddle had been quoted in a ‘Times’ interview as saying that disabled people were paying for sins in a previous lifetime. Although he had said similar things before, this time he was crucified, by almost everyone. Even the Prime Minister couldn’t resist a go at him. There was a long meeting at the beleaguered Football Association all day on Tuesday and finally both the FA and Hoddle made a statement to the effect that Hoddle had made a mistake, had apologised, and was resigning. Every tom, dick and harry in the media had a comment to make about this. Theo, too, was taking a strong stance in favour of free speech, although as a Christian he deplored Hoddle’s bastardisation of the christian faith. Where so much of the discussion went wrong, however, was to focus on the need for free speech. This was not a question of free speech and should never have been confused with it. Hoddle was appointed as a football coach, as one of the best managers in the business. His appointment has absolutely nothing to do with religion. He is entitled to his religion, whatever that may be; and this country is one of the most tolerant in the world. But, he is not entitled to use his public position, gained as a result of his football skills, to proselytise a faith especially one that could cause offence to a large number of people. The public gave him the benefit of the doubt when he brought a faith healer into the camp of England’s world cup squad, and they have allowed him to talk about reincarnation. But to start explaining and preaching the details of that faith was abusing his position. The proper stance, for anyone in a position where he is constantly interviewed about some other aspect of his personal life (because it is unusual or disturbing or whatever), is to state clearly, every time he is asked, that he does not want to talk about the subject.

7 February 1999

A beautiful bright sunny day. We were forewarned of very cold weather this weekend, but it has not transpired. I even have washing out on the line. And more, I was thinking of mowing the lawn this afternoon if it dries off sufficiently.

Mum is coming for a visit later this morning. Adam is working on the last stages of his Pompeii project. I have been cleaning up around the house.

On the radio, I listen to a science programme about epigenetics - latterday Lamarckism - even Steve Jones gives it some credence. The reporter, Peter Evans, does a reasonable job with the subject, but inevitably invests it with an overdose of media hype. The general thesis appears to be that there is a mechanism, called epigenetics, by which an environmental influence in one generation can affect the genetic make-up of subsequent generations. Several examples were presented and used as evidence that something important beyond Darwinian natural selection and survival of the fittest is going on. However, to my mind all the examples given were extremes in some way. This led me on to think again about thresholds - so much of our biology and science in general can be made more understandable through a theory of thresholds. Indeed, I realised there is probably a very important book to be written on the subject - just like chaos theory entered our culture as a powerful explanation, I believe the idea of thresholds could also be a powerful tool for individuals in moderating and understanding their own behaviour. Perhaps the theory could be combined with my other major idea about normality, and how everything we do is affected by norms.

Thursday 18 February 1999

A very slack week. Post-production malaise. Extra malaise this week because a) Ads is at home for half-term, and b) I’ve finished the novel - Barbara has it now and is reading it for inconsistencies, character defects, plot holes etc. She’s spotted one biggy already - there’s a chapter called ‘Miscarriage’, but in fact it is about a stillbirth not a miscarriage! So far, she says, she is enthusiastic about it, but she’s only on page 20 or so.

I had planned for us to go to Spain this half term, to Andrew’s house, but I botched the idea good and proper. About ten days before half term, I found tickets to Malaga for about £100 each, but there appeared to be no problem with availability so I didn’t book them, partly, I suppose, in the hope I might be able to find cheaper ones. Then I found the teletext adverts which I had never chanced on before - hundreds of pages of tour company adverts, offering late deals for ski holidays and flights. Because Granada is not a major ski resort, I thought perhaps we should go for a full skiing holiday - like the one to Les Deux Alpes two years ago. Although that holiday was at exactly the same time of year - i.e half term - and I booked it only 36 hours before going, this year there was absolutely no availability at all. My mistake was to keep on trying, hoping for a week’s skiing holiday. I kept blowing hot and cold about Granada, and by the time I decided we should cut our losses and do Granada, the cheapest tickets I could get were £180. I went as far as booking the tickets and the car hire - this was last Friday, after production was over, and two days before we would leave - and then, almost immediately, within seconds of putting the phone down, I called the agent back and cancelled the whole thing. It was partly the price, I think. The total came to almost what I would have paid for a cheap chalet deal (if one had been available) including flight, but also I had this strong sense of it not being right. It was as though we were not meant to go. No deal had fallen into place, and I had kept changing my mind; it was all so messy in my mind - completely the reverse of the quick instant decision I had made two years. So I cancelled it. Then, on Saturday morning Adam broke his toe and couldn’t walk for two days!

My ideal solution to the problem - one I hit on quite early in all this indecision - was to go for a week’s chalet holiday outside of half term. Because Ads has two extra days off (Monday and Tuesday), next week would have been the best time - and there are good deals available for that week. But, unfortunately, the first interviews with the school teachers are taking place on the Wednesday and I am particularly keen to make a good impression, and to ask why Ads has scored lower marks than we expected in his first half year at Rodborough. We can’t go the week after that because that’s when I’m in Brussels (which itself is only a few days from publication). There is a week in March we could do but that is right smack bang in the middle of term. Maybe we’ll go at Easter instead.

Yesterday afternoon, I retrieved a folder from one of my cupboards and found myself reading Ads a few of my ‘Just So’ and ‘Sparky’ stories. He really liked them and I found myself, once again, wondering how I had to managed to write so much over the years without ever getting any of it published. I try to explain an answer to Ads: there are exceptionally few openings in a very competitive world and most of them are filled by good writers who have good connections; a complete stranger can only expect to be plucked from the crowd if he is either exceptionally lucky or exceptionally talented. I am not the latter so I can only hope that if I persevere luck will come my way. However, even if I do get one thing published it will probably frustrate me even more then that the rest of the stuff remains untouched.

Several new projects are teeming in my mind. Firstly, and this is the only one that might come to fruition, is the millennium history of Elstead. Last year I wrote to the Elstead Parish Council suggesting it might be an interesting idea to encourage Gillian Drew to republish her history of Elstead. I got a very non-committal letter back and then didn’t hear another thing. Then, a week or so ago, Gillian rang me and said she was thinking of republishing the history (as though it were her idea) and that I might be able to help with printing. I went round to see her on Monday night. Apart from the history of Elstead, which was little more than a photocopy publication, she has also published a history of Wanborough. This was done for her by someone from the Surrey Archaeological Society. He lent her the money for the printing. There are a number of hurdles. She only has a typewritten manuscript (not on diskette); she is also keen to see the Elstead book published in a similar way to the Wanborough one. I explained to her my interest would be to give the book away to Elstead residents - but she didn’t take to the idea immediately, although I still hope to bring her round. Before talking with her, I wasn’t very clear about how our arrangement could be organised but it became clearer the next day, when I was telling Adam about it. So I wrote her a letter making the ideas a bit clearer; as follows:

‘Dear Gillian, It was very nice to meet you yesterday and discuss your book. I have been giving the project some consideration this morning, and I thought I would put down a few ideas on paper, perhaps just to clarify my thinking.

Firstly, I have talked to a close friend of mine who has a good quality scanning and text recognition equipment at work, and she is prepared to try out a couple of pages from your manuscript. The text will, I am sure, need going over for numerous glitches, but I suspect it will still be a lot quicker than retyping it. Secondly, I will be asking my printer for a quote for various print volumes with a colour or black card cover. Thirdly, and this is the main reason I wanted to send you this short note immediately, I was thinking about the distribution. I agree with you that the Elstead Village News might not be an appropriate vehicle. However, it also occurred to me that it would be easier than I thought to give one copy free to every household in Elstead - there may be 3,000 people, but there must be less than 1,000 houses. Even my son and I could probably manage this over a weekend.

The book - priced at £5-7 - could then carry a message to the following effect: ‘One copy free to Elstead householders as part of the Elstead Millennium celebrations. Project funded by . . ..’ I believe this would attract good local publicity for your book and for Elstead. Finally, I thought of a clearer way of looking at the financing, assuming the costs are not too great. It should be divided into three parts. 1) A donation by my company ECI; 2) A donation by the parish council; 3) An amount of finance by ECI to bridge the gap between the donations and the cost. The Paris Council could be invited to help fund the printing of free copies for Elstead householders. Then, any income derived from the book could be used to meet the following in order: A) the amount of the ECI finance (i.e. not the donation); B) an income for yourself, up to an agreed amount; C) repayment of donations, if appropriate, or payment to an Elstead related cause.

If, because of the free distribution in Elstead or the fact that the donations were substantially lower than the printing costs, the income never arrived at meeting the amount of finance under A) then my company would carry the loss. In other words, there would be no financial risk for yourself. I stress these are just some ideas. I’ll get in touch again, probably next week, when I have a better idea of the costs involved.’

Project two would be to rewrite ‘Scarlett’s Magic Computer’ and send it off to the BBC again. While talking to Theo about the radio play, I realised that 6-7 years ago when I wrote it, the idea of desktop computers talking was not feasible, but it is today. Moreover, I realise I could dispense with the idea of copying the structure of ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’, and that would leave me free to dispense with the dream aspect of the story. If it doesn’t take too much work, I might have a go at a new draft.

Project three - and this really is fantasy, and the most concrete it will ever get is these few words in the diary - is to write a history of TV drama. When you consider how many books are written about the cinema, and then compare it to how much is written about TV drama, there is an astonishing, a staggering mismatch. I can’t remember reading about a single book on TV drama - I certainly do not have one nor have I ever seen one in a bookshop - and yet it is the single most important entertainment medium of my life. Yes, more important than books probably, certainly in this period of my life. The idea would be to start building up a database of dramas I watch, and then, to start trying to beg steal or borrow famous dramas from the past, then to start, interviewing directors and producers.

Project four - less ambitious perhaps, less true graft perhaps, but equally unlikely ever to get off the ground - is to write a personal philosophical type of book, a kind of quack science book, based on my ideas of how our culture is based on utter pretension, and how our behaviour is based on thresholds and normality.

Should I close down EC Inform and fly away into the magical world of the writer?

23 February 1999

I had a long lovely dream the other night about Madonna. I dreamt that I met her in a large covered area full of clubs and coffee bars and we chatted for ages. In another dream, I was seated in a kind of cinema, but the entertainment on offer was in an arena to be filled with water, thus the people at the front would be covered first, and those at the back later. One or two people decided to leave immediately, but I sat by and waited for the water to rise. However, as it was about to engulf me, I thought this was a truly stupid idea. When I tried to leave, it appeared as though I couldn’t. I tried a strange elevator, that went from the top back, down through the water, but there were people after me.

A horse lady calls me ‘Grumpy old sod’ because I refuse to acknowledge her apologies when her horse gets in the way of our bicycles. Worse. I try to give helpful advice to one of the newer volleyball players, and Monica (the poorest of all the volleyball players, and the one most likely to tell you what you’ve done wrong when you miss the ball) overhears and says ‘blaming it on somebody else are we’. I won’t even look at her. I ignore her, she makes me so cross. Worse. Most terrible. Barbara tells me she hates Bill in my novel. He’s so unsympathetic, she says. Is he really. Oh god, I hadn’t realised. How dour and unrelenting BLR probably is.

I am upset by an article in ‘The Guardian’ which details the success and luck of a young writer, who has earned close on a million for a first novel, not yet published. Previously, she had not written as much as 20 pages. The first 100 words or so of the novel are reprinted. They sound remarkably similar in tone to one of my Sparky shorts. There was no apparent privilege in her success. She appears to have simply written on spec to a couple of agents, one of whom took her on board and held a publishers’ auction for the work.

I have found echoes of my ideas in those who are successful several times in my life, and this is not simply me imitating those who have found success. The plot and narrator for BLR were invented prior to McEwan’s books even being published; my play on Alistair Crowley all those years ago, was written and sent to theatres long before Snoo Wilson’s play appeared at the Bush - there are others but I can’t recall them just now. Sometimes, I can’t believe that I have failed to make a name for myself as a writer - I look at the range of the material I have written, and the number of good ideas I have had - then I look at each individual piece, and I wonder if it really is any good. When I examine published books in bookshops I can’t believe I will ever do anything as good. I truly thought ‘Love Uncovered’ and ‘TomSpin’ would attract some plucky publisher or agent, but I didn’t get a whiff of interest from anywhere. Were they simply not interesting enough for publication, or did I fail to find the right connection?

A new CD arrives from Westbrook - ‘The Orchestra of Smith’s Academy’ - and another one - ‘Platterback’ - should be coming in a week or so. Also this morning, I might buy a new CD by Joni Mitchell. I listened to an hour long programme about her on Radio Two last Saturday. Although I sort of stopped listening to Joni for a decade or more - I restarted a year or two ago after transposing her records to tape and buying a latest CD - ‘Turbulent Indigo’. I was surprised to discover, though, that there was only one album mentioned on the programme which I did not have. I suppose I’ll have to buy it too.

Yesterday, Adam and I cycled over to Bourne wood near Tilford for a second time to watch the filming of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiators’, but, although we had been told 1,000 extras would be on site, we didn’t get to see any action. The security guards kept us back in the woods, and we couldn’t see much for trees.

Friday 26 February 1999

I am mooching badly this week. Nothing to get my teeth into, other than a new Le Carré novel (‘Single & Single’), and no society at all to fill the evenings. The most exciting event of the week is probably Adam’s hurricane project. His geography teacher asked him to do a report-type project on one kind of weather, and to do a newspaper report on a particular weather event. He chose Cyclone Tracy, without any prompting from me, but knowing that I had been there and there there was a first hand account in my diaries of the night of the cyclone. He decided to do the two projects on the computer - and I have been encouraging him to take such a leap - but this is not so easy. We have had some difficulties with software - mostly because I decided Ads should use Clarisworks, but I don’t know how to use it myself and so we kept getting stuck as to how to put material together. In the end, in exasperation, I decided to put the newspaper project together for Adam in Quark. We (I say we because Ads needs teaching about how to use software) will stick with Clarisworks for the other project, though, and that will be done on Sunday. It is worth noting, though, that I find it extremely difficult to let Adam complete a piece of work which is not of a reasonable production standard - but what standards am I applying, my professional newsletter editing standards?

Interestingly, we searched the internet for information, and found, without much difficulty, a Cyclone Tracy site hosted by Australia’s Northern Territory Library. I thought there would be more pictures and newspaper reports, but, in the end, we decided the material was rather thin. Neither could I find any other reports of Cyclone Tracy anywhere else on the internet - presumably because it was 25 years ago and news organisations, for example, do not have the resources or the interest in making available historical data. There was no difficulty in finding information on Hurricane Mitch. For his other, and more general, project, we found an extensive site based in Miami with lots of excellent information and visuals on hurricanes.

I’ve been at the TV this week. Two new drama series have caught my eye - although to my shame I have not noted who the writers or directors are. The first, ‘Queer as Folk’, is billed as TV’s first mainstream drama series about gay people. These are not the angst-ridden, desperately responsible caring people you find in modern soap operas, but gays enjoying, or apparently enjoying (for I’ve only seen the first episode), a promiscuous lifestyle in Manchester. The well-drawn characters, with excellent acting, are driving the drama; and the direction is slick and entertaining.

Drama two is called ‘Births, Marriages, Deaths’, or something very similar. This is an off-beat drama. In one, relatively short, episode it promised hugely, but did not quite deliver. Zany direction and photography did not cover up a rather conventional plot. Three guys on a stag night get drunk, visit a massage parlour, and then their old and hated schoolmaster, who dies of a heart attack in shock as a result of their outrageous behaviour. They decide to cover their tracks and call social services anonymously. We follow the three men and their very different family relationships through the immediate consequences of the visit to the massage parlour, and presumably (for I have only seen the first episode, as above!), the longer term consequences of the darker secret.

What a cock-up. The Stephen Lawrence report was published on Wednesday - a huge massive thing - and was reported at length and in depth. The government was ready with a string of proposals, apparently to wipe out racism in the police and other public services. The report itself was an indictment of the police - stating that institutional racism was infecting it from top to bottom. The Met chief, however, Paul Condon has so far held on to his job, although I don’t understand how, when he’s been in charge throughout the recent period of dreadful failures. And what of the Conservative politicians that allowed this climate to prevail through their recent rein? But what a cock-up because, not many hours after publication, it was discovered that the annexes contained the names and addresses of all the people who had come forward with information about the suspected murderers, and those who had housed surveillance cameras. The five white lads, who are believed to have murdered Lawrence, are at liberty and may be tempted to threaten such witnesses. The author of the report, a rather weak-faced member of the high and mighty, accepted responsibility in a formal way, but tried to spread the load among his team and among as many other parties as possible. ‘Newsnight’ did a full report, and it was cringing to listen to everyone pass the buck.

On Wednesday evening, we all - Ads, B and I - went along to Rodborough for our first parent-teacher interviews. I’ve seen these portrayed on TV, but this was my first experience of the crowded dining hall, the queues for each teacher, and the mind-crushed teachers themselves. Ads had arranged the interviews with his most important teachers, and we were anxious to find out why he had only managed average in most of his subjects. Grades are awarded out of three for achievement (1-3), and out of five for effort (A-E) - Ads got only one 1 (for history) and a couple of As. This did not seem to match our monitoring of his progress, especially since his best mate, Vince, got 6 A1s. In the two most important subjects, English and Maths, both teachers recanted a bit on his 2 grade, and said he was definitely on the border line: the maths teacher said he was in the top four of five of the set; and the English teacher said Adam had a very individual style and perhaps she hadn’t started to recognise his skill in the subject until after she had done the grades. The French teacher, who gave Ads a 3, said he was disruptive in class. He argues with her, other children laugh, and this wastes time, she told us. We told Ads, that he must put a brake on this argumentative behaviour (which is very common at home and has caused some friction of late). Although only this one teacher (who Adam hates) actually saw this as a problem, I explained to Ads that as he gets older and more confident, he could find himself being alienated by other, better teachers if he didn’t learn to control his behaviour better. In other words, the situation with the French teacher was a possible portent of situations that could arise down the line with other teachers.

I was pleased to discover that there is a difference between the top four classes, in that A1 and 1A are slightly better than 1B and B1. And his marks are relative to the set he is in. So, when the maths teacher says he is in the top four or five of his set, that must mean he is near the top of the year. And I really could not expect him to be doing better than that just now, especially when I consider that he comes with the disadvantage of the lousy St James school.

Although I did give him a bit of a hard time, over getting so many average marks (‘average is poor’ I drum into him), I am very content with the way he has adapted to the much harder work regime at Rodborough. Perhaps, it helped that I did give him a lot of extra work while he was at St James. Now, by contrast, I never give him any work at all.

March 1999

Paul K Lyons


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