DIARY 60: January - June 1999

Saturday 9 January 1999

A dark wet horrible day. I have been working on the newsletters most of the day, and so has Theo who is making up for some extra time he took off over Christmas. I have raised his salary a bit and offered him a £2,000 bonus if he stays a further year. I would like to offer him more, but I don’t think the business can stand it yet. I hardly make any money as it is.

I see that I have not made a full report of events over Christmas. I have forgotten, for example, to record Adam’s minor success in taking a runner’s up prize in the Waterstones/Ham & High story competition. Although I did put of effort into his story, he impressed me by maintaining his own motivation and willingness to put in the necessary work. It was not very convenient but I decided to take him to Hampstead to the prize-giving ceremony - I thought the sight of seeing others win something might provoke him to do better next time. In fact, I received a call the day before telling me he had won a prize. I didn’t tell him of course. I took him out of school at lunchtime, and we drove up to Mum’s house. We were there early enough to trip down to Euston to see the new British Library, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. It is an impressive looking building, inside as well. My old British Library ticket still works so I was able to look around the reading rooms, but we spent most of our time in the exhibition areas, where they had old books with commentaries and automatic slide shows. Although the light was a bit dim for my ageing eyes, both Ads and I gave it the thumbs up.

We tubed back up the Northern line to Hampstead and met Mum in the bookshop. There were a good number of children and parents there, milling around the children’s book sale area. When the prize giving started, I stood at the back rather disinterested with Adam all agog at the front. There were two sections, nine and under, I think, and 12 and under. In each section, there was a winner, three runners up and three ‘highly commended’s. Well, Ads got a runners up prize - a £30 Dorling Kindersely encyclopaedia. He was thrilled. And so was I. If ever he becomes a writer, he’ll be able to trace it back to when he was 11 and won his first story-writing prize.

For most of the holidays, I have been pressing on with the novel. The current working title is ‘Begotten-Lost-Recovery’, each part of the title corresponding to a part of the book. The first two parts are written in the past, and the third part ‘Recovery’ is written in the present. I have resolved most of the plot lines, and arrived with a page or two of the very end. I had planned to finish it by the end of the year, and I could have forced the ending, but I decided that I needed to go through the whole thing again, especially looking at the characters’ dialogue, and enriching it where necessary, before writing the final scene, which will depend on dialogue. It’s close to 90,000 words, and I’ve no idea if it’s a load of old rubbish or whether it has any merit at all. Nevertheless, I am impressed that I’ve managed to nearly finish the draft and that I am now in sight of completing my first ever (and last?) novel.

Ads and I went on a bike ride which turned out to be a splendid outing. The sun was shining, the air warm, and the sky blue. We stopped first of all by the river and took photos, then cycled on past Tilford (regretting that Genny no longer lived there). We soon found ourselves on a bridleway we’d never been along before. After half a mile or so, I spotted what looked like a small dead elephant lying among some trees. My eyes are such these days that I cannot focus very well in medium and long distance, and I couldn’t even be sure if it was an animal or a tree trunk. Adam confirmed it was an animal, but it was huge, much bigger than an ordinary pig or boar, but what else could it be. And was it alive or dead? Fortunately, a middle-aged couple were walking behind us and were able to confirm it was a pig and that they had seen them a few weeks ago, burrowing around for roots. Then, as we were watching it, it did stir ever so slightly. We are so used to the image of the pink farmyard pig, that we can no longer recognise one which does not conform to that picture. We soon passed by Little Frensham pond, and then to avoid the road, I chose a short route across the Wey and through a farm. However, we had to traverse a rather large estate with a number of buildings with ‘Private’ notices everywhere. This turned out to be a big Christian centre, but fortunately no one was around to tell us off for our sin. We ate a tasty lunch in a small pub in Millbridge before returning home along roads, stopping by the Wey again in Tilford to tell a story.

Sunday 10 January 1999

I woke in the middle of the night with the flavour of a delicious dream still fresh on the taste buds of my mind. This is all I can remember. It is New Year’s Eve. I am alone sitting at a small table in a bar. A beautiful woman, alone, comes to sit at the next table. At first we do not talk, but after a while we gently start up a conversation. It seems like I fall in love with this woman. But then, just before the dream ends, I am at the same table surrounded by four or five gorgeous women; and we are all having a whale of a time.

As usual I sent out quite a number of messages over Christmas, some of them by email, some by card. Of my more distant or disappearing friends, the following confirmed an ongoing connection of sorts: Mayco, Claudia, Maja, Gail, Phil, and Rolf; but no news from Manu, Harvey or Roser this Christmas.

In Brussels, I went to see a film called ‘Snake Eyes’ by Brian de Palma. I like de Palma’s movies, they often have an erotic content which I enjoy, they are always cinematic, and there is usually a good story too. ‘Snake Eyes’ is set almost entirely in a huge stadium and in and around a boxing event. Nicholas Cage plays a corrupt cop who comes good. The plot is not quite in real time, but not far off: the whole film takes place in the few minutes before a fight and during a couple of hours after it. I think this film might become a classic.

This morning over breakfast, I tell Ads the plot of a film I saw on TV the other day - ‘White Men Can’t Jump’. It is a film largely about black culture in and around the game of basketball. I tell him this because I find, increasingly, he has a tendency to reveal inane facts, and if he is not divulging such facts, he is asking inane questions. There is a key character in the film who spends her entire time researching the useless answers to questions for a quiz show.

Last night, I watched most of a film called ‘Dirty Pals’ with Caine, but I found it a bit slow. Earlier Ads and I had been watching ‘Casualty’ but we found ourselves continually drawn to turning to ITV where Chris Tarrant’s ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ - now a nightly show - was on. Two contestants got up to £125,000. There is an irksomeness about Tarrant which is irksome, but the programme does have a lurid fascination. Interestingly, it is on the right side of some line (which I can’t be bothered to think about defining at the moment), across which a recent Cilla Black programme (offering families huge prizes if one member could learn to do a particular skill in a week) went too far. In Tarrant’s show the contestants are in control and can choose to avoid a humiliating loss of a large amount of money (for instance, both contestants last night had the opportunity to double their money to £250,000 but, because they were not certain of the answer to a question, chose to stick with their winnings). In Black’s programme, the ones I watched, the contestants were too often left humiliated for having come really close to achieving the task, but then had failed by a small amount, leaving them with nothing. I found this painful, embarrassing even, to watch.

The world’s eyes are on the start of the Clinton trial in the States. What a ludicrous event. History will never be able to understand properly, how a great nation can try a man for high crimes and misdemeanours when all he did was cover up a sordid little affair. For me events in Brussels are far more interesting. Next Thursday, the European Parliament could sack the entire Commission. I think it is unlikely to happen, but not impossible. Very simply . . . no, what I mean is very simplified, the story is as follows. The Parliament was due to approve the Community’s 1999 budget last December, but it was faced with disturbing allegations about fraud. A Commission audit official, fed up with the lack of action from the fraud squad, sent a detailed report to the Parliament on a number of ongoing fraud investigations. The official in question was suspended and put on half pay because he had breached Commission procedures. Meanwhile, one of the people most suspected of fraud was suspended on full pay because, until proved guilty, he had done nothing wrong. I mention this because the media got very upset about the fact that a whistleblower is being punished more than the criminal, apparently. Any how, the Parliament decided to delay approval of the budget; and has called on various Commissioners to provide much explanation. The Treaty provides no mechanism for the Commission to receive a vote of confidence, nor does it give the Parliament a way of rebuking an individual Commissioner (because the Commission is supposed to act as a college). The Socialists, therefore, decided to put forward a motion to censure the Commission, which, if defeated, would act as a vote of confidence. However, with a two-thirds majority, a censure motion would mean the end of the current Commission. The Member States would then need to appoint a new Commission (but only for the rest of 1999 since the Commission’s current mandate expires at the end of the year). However, I expect the States would appoint most of the same Commissioners again, with one or two or more exceptions. As this new group would need the authorisation of the Parliament, the States would have to take on board Parliament’s concerns.

According to press reports, the Parliament has drawn up a hit list of two to six Commissioners - Edith Cresson and Manuel Marin top the list, but Christos Papoutsis (energy) is also there. I was there last Wednesday when the Commission President Jacques Santer faced the press and explained that the Commission had to follow certain rules, and would wait the outcome of the censure motion. Even if a majority of MEPs voted against the Commission (i.e. but not two-thirds), it would continue, Santer said, as per the Treaty rules.

However, there is clearly more subtlety in this than meets the eye. If the Commission holds firm, and there are no resignations prior to the censure motion, then those MEPs most concerned about the fraud situation may well find they can gather a two-thirds majority (last week the majority group, the Socialists, were reportedly moving in favour of censure) - and this would, as I noted above, lead to the certain removal of Commissioners, but with all the fuss and adverse publicity of having to appoint a new Commission. However, if one, two or more Commissioners were to resign before the censure motion, than enough MEPs could be persuaded to vote against it, thus avoiding the two-thirds majority. But how many Commissioners would need to resign? This is the high politics that all politicians love, all the back room wheeling and dealing, conversations and discussions, bargains and deals being struck. We are used to it in the Houses of Parliament, but not normally at this level in Brussels.

My own small contribution is an interesting one, and not to be dismissed lightly. I have still not decided what to do about it for the next issue, this coming week. I wrote about the start of it a while back, on 11 October. When I got the information from Alevantis, which, in effect, alleged fraud within DGXVII, I emailed it to contacts in the European Parliament, and I talked to Andrew Warren. My contact in the EP passed the information on, and some time later got back to me to say the Commission’s fraud squad was looking into the matter, and would I mind if he gave them my name. I said I wouldn’t mind at all, but that I would not be able to give them any further information, or the name of my source. Meantime, Andrew Warren had persuaded an MEP to put down a written question (why would he do this? because he has an interest in undermining DGXVII - he wants its responsibilities passed over to the environment DG). The question asked how DGXVII spent its Ecu4-5m budget for information and what role two named companies played. The point of the question was not to get an answer but to indicate suspicion concerning the named companies. Well, I happen to know quite well the DGXVII person whose job it is to liaise with the Parliament, and who therefore coordinates the replies to MEP questions. He told me the information budget was nowhere near as high as suggested in the question (perhaps a few hundred thousand, not millions), but that the second part might be a little more tricky to answer.

I didn’t think any more about this story until last week when I discovered that Papoutsis was on the list of targeted MEPs. I understand Papoutsis is on the list because of alleged fraud in the tourism area (also his responsibility), but the possible fraud I have uncovered in DGXVII starts to look potentially more explosive. I have called Alevantis back a couple of times. He has not yet been approached by the fraud squad, nor have I, but Alevantis has suggested a private meeting next time I am in Brussels.

Ads has started a new hobby. He is making a collection of comedy programmes by taping them from the radio or other tapes. I have advised him to use some quality control so that he doesn’t overload his collection too quickly. He is very keen on some of the old classics, like the ‘Goon Show’, ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’, and a recent show called ‘Milton Jones’.

First I am in the Commission building, along the corridor where the press spokesmen are, but the organisation of all the offices has changed and there is a central open area with filing cabinets. I can’t find my way around. Someone offers me a job in the US. Next, I am in a room off a courtyard. The phone rings, and it is one of the spokesmen telling me that the very fact of me being offered a job in the US has put me in danger. It is an undercover job seeking out truckers acting illegally. (I also read a job advert concerning nuclear cracks.) There is a hiss on the phone line, and suddenly I notice through the large windows or glass walls, lots of people, including security, starting to come towards me. I suppose they have detected the use of a secure line and are coming to get me.

I am cycling down, down the hill behind Fitzjohns Avenue where I used to live. The cyclometer has reached 30mph. I am not going to stop when I come to the cross-roads, so that I can carry on down the hill and break my speed record..

February 1999

Paul K Lyons


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