PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 2000 - SEPTEMBER
7 September 2000
Brussels. A new term feeling, probably not as sharp as Ads will have experienced today during his first day of Year Nine, but certainly identifiable. The journalists are taking that extra bit of time over their coffees as they retell their August adventures, and, in the Council press room, the officers are lazing around reading the newspapers in what is certainly a short lull before a three month storm of Council meetings under the French Presidency. In fact, though, behind the scenes, officials have begun work in earnest: the Parliament is in full session already this week in Strasbourg; and the Council working groups have started up; and the Commission is trying to gear itself up to begin cranking out a stream of proposals that got left behind from before the summer.
Although it is late for me to be in Brussels - I won’t be going back until Friday afternoon, with EC Inform-Energy scheduled to be completed by the following Tuesday, and Transport by Thursday - I am not under any extra pressure because I came over in late July and collected a bunch of material then, which I have already written up. That’s not to say, I won’t have a lot of writing to do this weekend.
Most interesting item of the day was Chris Patten’s press conference. He’s shorter than I imagined, but otherwise little different from his TV presence. He talked about reinvigorating the Euro-Med Partnership, which was a bit dull. He expressed what I suppose could be called cautious enthusiasm for a settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict, and teasingly refused to deny completely that Libya was moving hesitatingly towards joining the Euro-Med process. I sat through half an hour of questions in the hope he might say something about nuclear safety (as well as the paper on Euro-Med, he had also put out a Communication on nuclear safety in Eastern Europe), but no one asked any questions on that subject. Why didn’t I ask a question then? I simply don’t ask questions at press conferences - I suppose I feel too small, too insignificant, perhaps I’m shy, or perhaps I think my question will sound stupid. Who cares what the reason. I always prefer to ask my questions in private. In this particular case, I would really have liked to ask him about whether there was any progress on the Euratom loans for K2 and R4 (with an EU-Ukraine summit coming up next week), but I never even got round to thinking I might ask such a question, so sure was I that someone else would do so.
I am intrigued by all the debate on drug testing in advance of the Olympics in Sydney. The Olympics committee recently decided to introduce, for the first time, a test for an endurance drug called EPO. Athletes will be disqualified only if they fail both the blood test, which can detect drug use over time, and a urine test which can only detect its use in the last few days. Soon after the committee announced EPO would be tested in Sydney, China withdraw 30 or 40 of their squad, many of them from endurance sports. This news has inspired a number of related discussions about drug testing in general and the persistent battle between drug-taking and drug-testing. Experts fear, for example, a future in which genetic engineering will give rise to athletes in whom increased hormone production remains genuinely natural. There are huge hypocrisies underlying this discussion. Firstly, it is likely that many athletes do use drugs in one way or another - human growth hormone for example is still undetectable - but are clever enough to ensure it cannot be detected. Is it right that a clever athlete, or one with a crafty trainer, should win through, while a less intelligent athlete, from a poorer country perhaps with less sophisticated information and equipment, taking the same drug route, should be caught and disqualified. Secondly, some athletes have probably used drugs while still maturing and developing, in which case they have already manipulated themselves biologically in a way that no one will ever detect. Thirdly, there appears to be a general acceptance that what athletes do to themselves in training to be the best in the world is a natural activity, and that what they do is sporty and healthy. This is patently rubbish, since athletes put themselves through all kinds of pain and endurance extremes which are beyond the normal thresholds for healthy living and surely affect their future well-being. Someone should study the average length of life of all athletic champions and compare them with the average length of life in their racial/national classes.
Am I advocating a free-for-all freak show? No, I don’t think so. Of course, it’s right to try and keep a kind of lid on the situation. But, I also think there should be more understanding that the kind of training top athletes put themselves through is not natural either.
8 September 2000
What an awful day - with almost nothing to redeem it. I began it without any breakfast. I marched up to the old DG17 building only to discover that almost everyone has moved out (finally). Then I went down to the Breydel building a bit earlier than planned, only to find that neither of the two people I needed to see were in today, but not before I’d hung around for an hour. I did manage one or two phone calls, but little else. I had planned to lunch at the Commission but ended up returning back to the flat for ryvita and peanut butter. I wrote for an hour or so, and then made my way to the airport. Of course, because I was in good time, the plane was delayed. First it was delayed before we even got on, then it was delayed for 90 minutes or so, once we were on board. And the plane was packed to the gills, over-hot and stuffy, and I was seated in the middle of two gloomy men with whom I had not the slightest interest in talking to. Then, to cap it all, it was muggy and drizzly when I got back, which made my motorbike return journey awkward (although fortunately I didn’t actually get wet). God I hate flying more than any other type of transport.
Shostakovitch’s ‘Leningrad Symphony’ on the proms was a treat, though. Last night’s prom was ‘Mahogany’ but I can’t get Radio 3 in Brussels - I’m hoping to catch it on the repeat next week (if there is one), even if it is sung in German.
Apropos of German, I was talking to Ads the other night about languages. He studies both French and German at school and is hopeless at both. I told him to not to worry about the German, but to concentrate on the French, which he will have to take to GCSE level. German is such an ugly language, and French will help him with Spanish and Italian.
9 September 2000
A child is asleep in the spare room. He wears a nappy. I take the nappy off and find a bottle of whisky! Has he been drinking alcohol. I am unsure.
Two other things in the night. First, there was a huge bang (in my head) that woke me up in a fright. It occurred at the twitching point where one moves from Turiya say to unconscious sleep. Secondly, I had a massive cramp (a real one) in my right calf sometime in the night, and shot out of bed hopping around the bedroom, until it subsided. It was very very painful, and this morning, I can still feel its echo in the muscle.
I have a confession which must be recorded before I let it slip from my memory. The other night, under much pressure from friends, I found myself embracing, kissing, petting a woman for the first time in two, three or four years, I cannot remember. How sad is that. We might well have ended up in bed, but for the fact that I didn’t fancy her physically - which is not to say that I couldn’t have enjoyed being with her. Her name was Jill, an American, working at a big broking company I think.
First, I should record my journey up to London by car, for there were the most glorious rainbows in the sky, some even with a footprint in front of the car on the motorway. When I arrived at Hammersmith Bridge, which should have been just five minutes away from our South Ken restaurant meeting place, I found the bridge closed again. I decided to park and walk and bus. The walk was slightly longer than I anticipated, but it was cheered up immensely by the views from the bridge across the river, with a rainbow brightening up the cityscape behind. Then there was a long wait for a bus, so long in fact that I gave up and caught a taxi.
I thought there were to be more people at dinner, but there was just my two friends, Jill and I. I have absolutely no idea what we talked about at dinner. We drank a lot, the girls especially, and then we went back to Jill’s expensive flat (which, she confided, she shared with two Swedish lap dancers! but they weren’t around. An interesting idea occurs - can one, in the way that one asks friends skilled at something to demonstrate that skill sometimes at a dinner party, ask a lap dancer to perform for one’s flatmate’s friends!) The drinking carried on quite heavily - although by this time, I was on stall, thinking about my drive home. The atmosphere was jovial and warm. Susie had already whispered to me that Jill was attracted to me, and the general ambience of the evening was designed (very much by Susie) to encourage Jill and I to get together. Slowly, we found ourselves sitting next to each other, touching and generally paying each other a lot of attention. Something or other distressed Jill and we all focussed on making her feel better. I found myself holding and cuddling her. I had been signalling to my friends that I wanted to go (and that I was not very interested in this girl), but after the crisis hit, it didn’t seem very manly to leave her on her own, when she clearly wanted me to stay. My friends left.
Jill was lying across the sofa with her head in my lap - across my crotch in fact. I was hoping we could fall asleep like that, but she was still awake enough to ask for a kiss. So I kissed her. And we kissed quite a lot. She wouldn’t move her body at all so I was confined in one position. With my one free hand, I stroked her, and aroused her. Although I couldn’t remove the top half of her dress, she was wearing very flimsy panties - I may even have given her an orgasm I’m not sure - but I didn’t even get an erection. If she had got up and led me to her bedroom and her bed, I have no doubt that I would have made love with her. As it is, we hardly moved and she fell asleep eventually. After a while, I shifted myself out from under her and slept on the other sofa. But let’s be absolutely clear here, I had no interest in this woman, and I certainly didn’t want to have to see her again. She was pleasant enough, and cute; and, for an American, not at all irritating. But she was rather vacuous, and the stories and anecdotes she told, all smacked of respect for riches and fame, gold and glamour; she seemed to have no line at all to the real treasures of life, to the true world under the widespread shell of pretension.
In the morning, when I tried to use the kitchen to wash up and make tea, I was stumped. The kitchen looked good, but it was totally impractical; and I couldn’t find a kettle or any tea. This girl is living in a world so far removed from mine, I thought, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with her. She had to leave quite early in the morning, fortunately, so I was able to leave her to get ready. I felt a great sense of freedom to get out into the fresh air. But, even though I had behaved well, I felt, I also felt guilty in case she was expecting/hoping to see me again.
My friends rang on Sunday. I tried to explain, but it wasn’t easy, until one of them (they were both listening) short-circuited my verbal dancing around, by suggesting that I wasn’t attracted to her. No, I wasn’t. Shame. I am so desperate (no, desperate is not the right word, longing perhaps is better) for a sexual relationship - and I cannot see one ever coming my way again. If it has been three years, or so, what is likely to change in the future - nothing.
The Olympics in Sydney have begun. Much of the action is taking place while we Europeans are tucked up in bed, but the evening events happen during our morning, so, for example, this morning, now in fact at 10am, I am watching events that are taking place during Sydney’s evening. Each morning, though, the BBC is providing a round-up of events that have taken place so far during the day. The Australians are sweeping up in the swimming events, with world records falling in almost every final, and in some heats. Ian Thorpe, age 17 with size 17 feet, is the real hero of the hour for the Aussies, but with flipper feet should he be allowed to compete? Might his success not lead to some enthusiastic swimmers with big feet ensuring they only marry partners with big feet? Should the IOC crack down on this now, before it goes too far. In the velodrome, Great Britain scored a first and unexpected gold in the 1km time trials, but one of our best gold hopes, in the new triathalon event, failed miserably. Although there may have been some beach volleyball on during the night, I haven’t managed to catch any yet - but I would actually prefer to see the proper volleyball. I’m sure it would be more interesting to watch than the swimming.
Fortunately (for I do enjoy involving myself in the Olympics), the next two weeks are the slackest in my four week work cycle, so I shall be able to indulge.
The September issues of EC Inform-Energy and EC Inform-Transport stretched me a bit. They were a mixture of old news from July, which I had gathered during my end-July trip to Brussels, and the news from the first week back in September. But for transport, for example, I should have done a full preview of the 2 October Council, but it was simply too soon after the holidays to start ringing round. Fortunately, I had managed to wheedle draft Conclusions out of the Council press guy, which gave me a basis for a rough preview.
But the most important story, without a doubt, for both newsletters, was the oil and transport crisis sweeping across the Community countries. This was really awkward for me to write about. In the UK, the whole country has been starved of petrol, as a result, apparently of refinery blockades, with 90% of petrol stations closed, and the National Health Service even on red alert - it was quite a revelation to realise just how much of the NHS relied so extensively on regular deliveries: from ambulances to pharmaceutical deliveries, to the fuel in doctors and midwives own cars. The fuel crisis here was also having a knock-on effect in shops with panic buying of bread and milk. Unbelievable really. Similar blockades were taking place in other places: in Brussels the whole Schumann area was closed off to traffic by protesting lorry drivers. But, at the EU level, there was not much happening.
As the oil market has strengthened in recent months (partly I read because of Venezuela’s new government’s lets-strengthen-the-Opec-cartel policy, combined with strong downstream demand and recent destocking) the Energy and Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio has published various notes stressing the damage that high oil prices can inflict on the rest of the world, especially the developing world. She published a more detailed note the first week of the new term, so to speak, so that gave me one angle to use in both newsletters. Interestingly, she was very clear about the need to do something about ongoing discrepancies in the downstream markets of EU countries, which must be caused by some kind of monopoly behaviour. The EU’s finance and foreign ministers also made a number of short statements, aimed at persuading Opec to increase production - which they did in fact last weekend, but perhaps not yet enough.
But that was just oil prices, what about the transport chaos. The only available instrument to the Commission is the Strawberry Regulation - the rapid intervention Regulation. This allows the Commission to demand that a Member State undertake certain actions to ensure the free movement of goods - but it can only demand information from a State that it is doing its best to keep transport lines open for international freight, and that it is distributing information adequately on how it is doing this. But, should a State fail to fulfil its obligations under the Regulation, it would take the Commission years to prosecute a case through the Court of Justice.
Fortunately, I discovered, just by chance (during one of my last phone calls), that the French Presidency had called a special Transport Council on the 20th September - well I thought it was the 20th, and that’s what I published. But the ‘Economist’ said it had been called for the 21st. I’m still not clear which is the right day. I had mentioned the date of the 20th in two different emails (one to the Council and one to the Commission), and both of them had been responded to by email or phone, and in neither case was my date corrected. I was very pleased to see that ‘European Voice’, which had a big feature about the Commission planning to do something about downstream oil markets, had failed to twig about the special Transport Council.
Volleyball. Unfortunately, Paul is back training the beginners’ group. He’s the worst of the people who take training; he always tries to correct every mistake he sees. Tonight he wasn’t as bad as he has been. On the whole, I still enjoy it a lot; and, although I can’t hit the ball very hard, or dig it very accurately, I am, even at 48, very agile around the court and get balls many younger players wouldn’t even try for.
Coming home on Kiwi tonight in the dark, the temperature was cool. I kept thinking how much I like riding the motorbike, especially along the country lanes with no traffic at all, and how strange I always find it that despite speeds of 60 or 70 mph, the wind never seems to be a problem. This is partly because the head is enclosed inside the capsule of the helmet, obviously, but I never get the same kind of sensation that I might get when opening a car window, or sticking one’s head out of a train window, even at much lower speeds. The other day, when I motorbiked to the airport at 6 in the morning, I stupidly forgot to take gloves; and it was far chillier than I expected. Halfway to Farnham, I thought I would have to return home to collect them. However, amazingly my hands managed to cope with chill biting air. Only later did I work out that, in fact, my hands sit in wind shadows (what should I call them?) created by the wing mirrors. Not long ago, I was thinking I should get rid of the bike - it costs me £300 a year I suppose or more with depreciation on the £2,000 cost - but I love it too much, especially when the temperature is not too cool.
I’m still struggling a bit to get Ads to do his diary regularly, but most of the time he does. I’ve just started a new scheme with him. Every couple of weeks or so, I’m going to give him a theme to focus on in about half the space for each day. So, this week, I’ve asked him to report on school playground conversations every day. My aim is mainly to ensure that he widens out the kind of things he writes in his diary, but also it might make it a bit easier for him when, otherwise, he’s faced with the same old schooldays, day in day out without much, apparently, to write.
Today, we trained up to Waterloo. So used have I become to the route through Woking, that it was quite a shock to find the train taking a different route altogether through Surbiton. It took slightly longer, but I looked out the window the whole way. Ads read ‘Time’ magazine. I had simply planned to walk along the river and enjoy the day’s festival, called Thames 2000. There were plenty of people, and stalls set up along the bankside. A band was installed on a boat in the middle of the river. But we ended walking right along the river to Tate Modern, which has been built up inside the old Bankside Power Station. This is one imposing building. A huge rectangular structure with a tall central chimney right opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. The place was very crowded, and we took time to orientate ourselves in the huge building. I dictated that we should only do one gallery, because otherwise it would be too much. Of the five galleries on offer, Ads wanted to see the one called ‘Between Cinema and a Hard Place’, which was a special exhibition on the middle floor. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t know any of the artists’ names listed on the brochure. So, I said, we’d both be able learn something.
The exhibition proved to be about 20 ‘installations’, one to each room, by artists who decline to be pigeon-holed as painters or sculptors or film-makers, and set about trying to challenge, more often than not, visual perceptions, with a bit of intellectual jiggery-pokery here and there. The guide book that came with the ticket explained that many of the artists were interested in challenging the very concept of ‘visitor walks round gallery looking at exhibits’ by playing with the exhibition space, and with the relationship between the art and the space. Indeed, I found about a third of the exhibits could legitimately be said to interplay with the space in some way. However, interestingly, the individual personal discussions in the brochure about each installation ignored this aspect entirely, and focused exclusively on the installation in isolation of where it was placed. I felt so strongly about this, I even considered writing to Tate Modern about the brochure.
Let me give, briefly, one or two examples. In Juan Munoz’s installation, ‘Towards the Corner’, which features on the advertising posters, some grey, near-life figures are seated on a two-tier bench. When you enter the room by one corner, the bench is placed across the width of the diagonal of the room, facing the other corner. People congregate in that other corner so they can see the front of the grey people. But, in so doing, they will also see all the live, living people moving backwards and forwards behind the bench, as they make their way from one gallery to another. But the notes give no sense that this is deliberate, and certainly no one I saw was looking at the bench as a whole with the movement of the people behind, instead they were examining the individual grey figures as though they were sculptures and not an installation. So how do I know I’m not indulging in a little bit of exegesis? Simple, if the artist/gallery had not wanted the visual/actual interaction of living people with the seated grey figures they could have placed the bench exactly the other way round. Everyone coming into the room would have been able to see the bench with white backdrop of the walls, without anyone behind - because no one would have any reason to go behind.
Another example. In Douglas Gordon’s installation ‘10ms1’ the room space simply contains a projector with a loop of grainy grey and white film showing a First World War soldier, dressed only in pants, and clearly not well, trying to get up onto his feet. But it was very difficult to pass through this room, this installation, without casting one’s shadow on top of the poor soldier, and thus ‘interfering’ with the image that other people in the room were watching. In Rebecca Horn’s installation ‘Ballet of the Woodpeckers’, the interaction with spectators was far more obvious since it consisted largely of full length mirrors, some placed in opposition to each other to create the, somewhat cliched, image of endless rooms.
I’ve asked Ads to write about his two favourites in his diary, so I could hardly do less. My two favourites were probably Ilya Kabakov’s ‘Labyrinth, my mother’s album’, and Tatsuo Miyajima’s ‘Lattice, by the side of Circle’. For the first, the gallery room had been completely transformed into a maze of corridors along which pictures and text told the story from the Russian artist’s mother’s album I suppose - I didn’t stop to read the extracts. At the centre, there was a dusty little work cupboard, with muffled singing playing out. According to the notes, it ironically juxtaposes the promise of utopia with disillusionment, the frustrations of enforced communality with the pleasures of fellowship. It gets my award simply for employing narrative and for creating an appealing link between narrative and space/time/journey. The second, by the Japanese artist, was a much simpler concept: the use of hundreds of red (a few green too) LED lights, constantly counting and therefore subtly moving. In ‘Circle’, they were arranged in a large circle, and in ‘Lattice’ they were arranged like four rows of huge keyboard back or forward slashes. Because these were in a carefully darkened room, one is confronted with the large horizontal illuminated red circle, and the large illuminated red and green vertically-oriented lattice figure on the wall, both seeming to be alive with the jittery movement of the figures, counting, forever counting, and turning over from 99 to 00. Here too, I spotted an interesting use of the space. Because the room was so dark, it was very difficult to see other people. So, if I was still some metres away from the circle or lattice, the actual parts of both that I could see appeared to be changing all the time - because there were people between me and the installation, but all I could perceive of them, were the parts of the illuminated display being blocked out.
A gorgeous and wonderful sexual dream last night. It left me daydreaming about such a relationship for most of the morning. I can’t remember much about it now, but there was a beautiful teenage girl madly in love with me, even though her very rich parents had demanded she not see me. We escaped together from her rich mansion. She is lying naked on a bed, and I am stroking her when something wakens me. Desperately, oh so desperately, I try to fall asleep again.
19 September 2000
I got the date of the Special Transport Council right. Thank goodness - because this is the first week in which I’ve bought advertising space in ‘European Voice’, in which I promote the accuracy of EC Inform newsletters. The advert is aimed at directing readers to the website, where the Editor’s Choice mentions the 20 September special Council in the first sentence. It would have been bad news, if I’d got it wrong. Yah boo sucks to the ‘Economist’.
I’ve just ordered £2,500 of new computer equipment. I have spent ages trying to work out what to buy and how to ensure it works well with my existing PowerMac and printer. In essence I’m buying a new G4, a colour printer and a scanner. But I won’t be able to connect the scanner and printer to both machines at the same time. I decided it would be a good idea to give Ads a good system to work from, and he really needs a colour printer and scanner. And, because both computers will be networked, it will be easy enough to send files from one to the other. I suppose I’ll also be able to switch the cables around. In addition, I’m getting a zip drive so that I can store files quickly and easily and remove them. Although I shall be well guarded against a crash (by having two good machines able to work on Quark files - not the case at the moment - I also have to guard against the possibility of theft. It’s a slim risk that someone will steal all my machines, but I cannot afford to lose all my work at any given time - I’m sure a zip drive will make my life easier in that respect.) I should also be able to get rid of all my floppy disks. Unfortunately, I’ve dallied a bit long over making the order, and the stuff won’t arrive until Monday or Tuesday, when I shall already be starting work on the next issue.
Also this week, I think I will book myself a 10 day trip to Egypt. I fear finding myself stuck with 10 dull people, but, as I’ve said, I need to get out and about a bit more this year, if I have no interim projects. I also fear being stuck on buses and needing a pee too often, and only being able to use facilities with other people, and not being able to go! A lifelong affliction which I have learned to live with by avoiding the need to pee with others. But I think I’ll do it.
I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympics so far - the coverage is dominated by swimming, although there have been gymnastics, beach volleyball, badminton, rowing and cycling. I am now ready, even though it is only the third day, to explain how the BBC’s coverage should be much improved.
Firstly, the commentators need to be far less repetitive, they need to speculate on what the athletes/crowd are feeling and thinking MUCH LESS (not at all would be best); and instead they need to explain, here and there, more about the rules of the sport, especially in the less mainstream sports. After watching 30 minutes or so of judo, for example, and hearing the word ippon about 50 times, I still don’t understand what it involves. After watching a similar amount of canoeing, I’m confused about the movement through the hanging gates, and what constitutes a fault. After watching quite a lot of rowing, I don’t understand how the commentators know the rate of strokes, and what difference the stroke rate makes. After watching the badminton, I don’t understand why servers so often serve such short low serves, and why a server would ever fault by lowering his wrist too far. In the four main cycling events, I don’t know exactly why one man peels off from the lead every lap - is it a rule, or is it because this is the most effective way to keep up the pace? I wouldn’t mind if some of this information was repeated every couple of days; but I do mind being told over and over again that this is a key moment, a crucial point; that the athlete ‘knows’ he must push the pace now; that he ‘must’ keep up with leaders; that this is what the audience has come to see . . .
Secondly, I am not very interested in features about our own athletes - often they are not terribly interesting beyond their sport, because, of necessity, their whole life revolves around the sport. Yes, short pieces here and there. But it would be much more interesting to learn about how other teams from other countries are approaching the olympics, how their training is going, what special characteristics they might have; how their own media are covering the Olympics and so on.
Thirdly, and less importantly, the BBC should provide an index of the sports it intends to cover, and the dates and times when they can be found. So, for example, if I’m interested in Basketball (which I’m not) I could look it up and find when it was being shown, rather than having to read through every day’s listing in search of it.
After two late nights, I might give it a miss this night, and watch the round up in the morning instead. It’s the one time I could do with a TV in my bedroom.
20 September 2000
I arrive at a shopping centre and my briefcase is heavy because it contains a portable computer. When I come to leave the centre I realise I don’t have my case. I panic looking for the cafe where I think I left it, but cannot find it - all the corridors appear the same. I look in shops but don’t recognise any of them. I am led to some lost property but it is only a pair of black leather gloves. The shops are starting to shut up. I ask a man cleaning up in a corner cafe if he’s seen a briefcase left anywhere. He asks if it has a laptop computer in. I say, yes. He leads me through a mall to a larger cafe, which I recognise, and there lying by the legs of a table is my bag. Incredibly, it is still there and no one has touched it. I thank the man, and he walks off. But then I catch him up to give him £10. He seems to be expecting it.
I have to go to the dentist this morning for a filling. Yuk.
A new two-part episode of ‘The Cops’ last night. Excellent gritty TV, there’s nothing to touch it at the moment in my book.
All week I’ve been wondering how Elstead’s Spar shop on the green lost half its front window at the weekend. One of Ads’ friends said it had been ram raided, and the recently-installed cash machine had been dragged out by a car. The front page of today’s ‘Farnham Herald’ confirms the story. The robbers seem to have been utterly brazen. There were eye witnesses apparently (why do it on Saturday night/Sunday morning, the one night of the week when there might be people up late), and the robbers left a trail of evidence behind them. Normally, life seems so tranquil round here, as though nothing ever happens! Yet now we’ve had our Spar ram raided, and an armed robbery on our post office.
I’m still trying to catch up on a number of bits and pieces in my life (that’s all there really is in my life) from the last few weeks. There was the day, towards the end of Adam’s holiday, when we cycled from here to the sea at Shoreham on the south coast. It was quite a trek, but worth it all the same. For most of the way we followed the (fairly boring) Downs Link path, which links the North Downs Way with the South Downs Way. But, because the Downs Link slants southeastwards from Guildford and I didn’t really want to go north to meet it, we found ourselves cycling quite a long way on an angled path dovetailing into it somewhere near Cranleigh. The Downs Link actually follows a disused single track railway line, which means that it’s fairly flat for most of the journey. We set off very early, and didn’t stop for refreshments until a place called Southwater where we found a little shopping centre, conveniently located just by the pathway.
I’m racking my brains to recall what interesting sites we saw on the way. Not many. There was one station which had been privately done up to the hilt, and was a picture that couldn’t be touched (private signs everywhere), and a huge medical hospital - Christ’s Hospital School - with impressive buildings, which I’d never heard of, and a tunnel we couldn’t go through (having to climb a hill instead) because of bat protection efforts, and there were quite a few fields.
At Henfield, Ads caught a puncture. Now this was quite an interesting event - of the type that Pirsig might have written about in his ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ - so forgive me if I go into some detail. Perhaps you could help sort out why I should be so keen on such forensic detail; am I after meaning, cause, blame, or just plain comedy. You decide.
Wise me had packed into our lightweight rucksack, a puncture repair kit, a pump (which worked on only three of the valves in the four tyres) and tyre levers. On a patch of green by the roadside on the outskirts of Henfield, which looked like a village on the map, I set up the radio (so as to listen to the final day of the final test match of the series against West Indies) and proceeded to take the wheel off Adam’s bike, remove the inner tube, and find the hole. At this point, I wasn’t worrying about not having any water to locate the hole (by pumping and looking for the bubbles) - there was a pub opposite which seemed determined not to open despite the (lunch) hour. In fact, I found the large hole quite easily, but it was on a ridge section of the inner tube. Still, I had a large patch, and I thought I would try and mend it. If it didn’t work, I imagined I would have to hitch down to the coast to find a bike shop, and return the same way, taking hours perhaps.
The second blow (the first being the hole location between the ridges) was to discover there was no glue in the glue tube. It had all dried up long ago. (I can reveal here, because the fact has no further bearing on the story, that I had also packed several self-adhesive patches, but I didn’t remember I had them.)
At this point good fortune struck in the form of a family of three unhitching their cycles from a car parked in a lay-by 50 metres away. How we had managed to have this puncture where the path crossed a road was luck enough in itself, but to have this family arrive at this point at this time seemed like more than simple fate. It’s not as if there were many other people around, perhaps 10 cars an hour and the same number of pedestrians. Our luck went further. The husband/father had a spare tube of glue (he had everything in fact - I carry spare inner tubes, he said, and so don’t normally need a repair outfit, but I might have one - he had two!). With the man’s glue, I repaired the inner tube, using the biggest patch I had.
The next stroke of luck, as it turned out, was yet bigger. As they began their cycle tour, the three of them decided to ride past us, and I said something which led the man to stop for a moment. In that moment, he told us that there was, in very fact, a cycle shop in the village. As I said to Adam, if I couldn’t have repaired the inner tube, I don’t think I would have asked anyone where the nearest cycle shop was, because I wouldn’t have expected anyone to know. I think I would simply have tried to hitch south, leaving Ads with the bikes. (In point of fact, I may have had to hitch through the village, in which case, I would probably have spotted it was not a village-sized village, but a town-sized village with a full complement of high street shops.) In order to be on the safe side, once the bike was repaired, I decided to send Ads off to the shop to buy a spare inner tube while I rested and listened to the cricket.
The forensic detail is nearly over. Ads took quite a while to return, and I was starting to worry and make my way slowly towards where the village centre was supposed to be. He reported that the person in front of him in the shop was buying a bike and had taken her time.
Suffice it to say that, within about 10 minutes and a couple of miles, Ads inner tube went flat again. Somewhat irritated, but smug in my wise decision to purchase a spare inner tube before setting off, I set to removing the wheel once again. To my great dismay, however, I was unable to pump up the new inner tube - it was of the same type as the one in the other wheel of Adam’s bike, i.e. the one of the four which the pump would not work on.
I left Adam there and cycled all the way back to the Henfield village centre, and to the shop (thanking fate once again that it was not early closing day, and that the shop didn’t close for lunch since by now it was after 1pm). I explained my problem. The easiest way to resolve it was simply to buy a new pump. I raced back (stopping only to buy two ginormous sticky Belgian buns - which I mistakenly called Chelsea buns) and soon we were on our way again.
The most interesting section of the route was from the end of the Downs Link through to Shoreham, which has a busy picturesque estuary, plus the country’s oldest continuously operating airport, an active little town centre, and a long beach. On our way, though, we took a little diversion up a hill to see a large church structure which is plainly visible from the main east-west roads and which has intrigued me for years. Because of the way, the main road is cut off from the side country roads, I had never actually driven up to see what it was. Our bike route took us right by the base of the hill, and so we rode up to have a look. The building turned out to be the chapel of a large private boarding school - Lancing College - which has extensive grounds and buildings. Although signs everywhere warned us of security and private land, the chapel itself was open to the public. Built around 100 years ago, it was reasonably interesting on the inside. One of its three organs was being tested, and it made a racket. Ads did a count of the number of different causes for which voluntary donations were begged. Looking around, I didn’t really feel that the school and its grounds needed my money.
After checking out the train times, and enjoying a tea and cake, we headed to the beach for a quick swim. Somehow, the time went too quickly, and we had to cut the swim short, and race back, over the no-cycling estuary bridge, through the town centre the wrong way, and to the railway station ticket office, where we hurriedly bought our tickets with a minute to spare - well half-an-hour to spare, because the train was late. Very late. We missed several connections at Havant, and then took a fast train to Haslemere, where we changed again to a local train to Milford. From Milford we cycled home, arriving around 6:30, having ridden a total of 55 miles. A thoroughly enjoyable, action-packed day. Excellent.
I probably haven’t mentioned the weekend Andy and Susie came down. As usually, Susie was as bubbly and giddy as ever. This time, I took them to the Golden Fleece to eat, but it’s not a touch on the Woolpack really. I won’t go there again. Susie was outrageous, which worried me slightly, because Ads was there for a while, and the mother of his best friend lives and serves in that pub. They announced that they had got engaged, were about to try for a baby, and would be buying a house together shortly. Wow. Susie’s trip to the US, and the possibility she might marry some other dude, appears to have been too much for Andy, and he sent out epistles via her friends telling her to come home. Good luck to Andy - more than anything, he needs a woman to look after, and to love (in both senses) I think. I just hope he doesn’t find the cost (in both senses) too great.
I have spent most of the week watching the Olympics. The swimming is about to end. The US and Australia have dominated in the pool. The athletics is about to begin. The UK has done well in the cycling and shooting, and we’ve won our first medal at badminton. The mixed pairs proved surprisingly exciting to watch. There has been a fair amount of beach volleyball, but no proper volleyball on the TV, which really annoys me. I find myself thinking about the nation basis upon which the whole Olympics contest is based. It really is about identification with one’s nations athletes that makes the Olympics so interesting - I can’t help that. I don’t feel any more support for a French athlete than I do for a Chinese one, in fact I might feel less. How can one unbundle that positive sport link with the nation status from the more negative and anti-Europe feeling that is so strong in this country. Could a European identity be built up, and if so would it be a positive thing, or could rivalry between Europe, Asia and the US turn into a terrible thing one day?
25 September 2000
The sport is exciting, I think we have six gold medals now - we’re doing so much better than at Atlanta. Is it because of lottery money, or because Brits are always going to feel more at home in Australia than in central-southern United States? Smiling Denise Lewis has won the heptathalon, Jonathan Edwards has won the triple jump; the coxless fours and the eights won golds in the rowing, and there were shooting and cycling golds. The Sydney games seem to be going like a dream: everything is working well, very few athletes have tested positive for drugs; the weather has been almost perfect; there have been no visible demonstrations. The dream Olympics so far - except for the vast majority of competitors who haven’t won anything, who were dreaming and dreaming and dreaming, until failure hit them in the face. Tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll get proper volleyball.
The weekend was dominated by the visit of Julian and his family. He looks a bit paunchy at the moment, and seems more and more like Sasha every time I see him. Sarah was looking well, as were Rebecca and Naomi. Toby, too, who has been severely ill, was chirpy and full of laughter. They came late morning, stayed for lunch, and then Julian and Sarah drove off to a wedding in Ewhurst, not returning until 11pm. They all left about midday on Sunday.
Toby has been in hospital for a week, I think, with an infection, which was eventually traced to his liver. And he’s not fully recovered. In the garden, I batted a ball with him, and he was able to bat one back to me if I timed it right. Without prompting, he got the hang of bringing the ball back to me, either by hand or by kicking it, so that I could give him another throw. Inside, I scared him with a large newspaper picture of a spider. I would pretend I was just reading the paper, and he would come back towards me slowly, and then suddenly I would open it out so he could see the picture, and he would run screaming with giggles out of the room. We did this several times, but he was always playing - a little while later I saw him holding the paper, looking at the picture without any qualms, and then, when I took hold of the paper, ruffled it a bit, pressing the picture towards him, and making scary sounds, he ran off once again in a cloud of ecstatic giggles.
Rebecca was much quieter than I’ve known her in the past, and is clearly maturing fast. She was good natured the whole weekend, and was quite considerate towards Naomi. She liked to play on the computers, and took charge when I set them a cake to make. Naomi is quite creative and imaginative. She loved our walk on the common, looking for mushrooms, and insisted on taking a bag to bring some back. Later she made little people out of acorns. At one point, I kept them happy with the Tiddlywinks Olympics; and when Naomi was feeling left out of a computer game session between Ads and Rebecca, I played dominoes with her. She said she’d never played before, but she caught on really quickly.
On Sunday morning, we lazed around watching the Olympics, although I raced off with Rebecca and Naomi to the swing on the river - both of them had remembered it from last time and wanted to try it again. For a while, I discussed with Julian his relocation problems. Having found a buyer for their house in Devon, they now need to find somewhere to live in the home counties.
Mum has returned from her 10 day river cruise in the Italian lakes. Very mixed, was her overall assessment of the holiday. The food on the boat was not good, she said, and the organisation was very poor; but they did get to see some wonderful scenery. We shall see her at the weekend.
Did I mention that ‘Big Brother’ finished with something of an anticlimax. The last three remaining contestants were all too nice to each other, and the working class dyslexic Craig, who couldn’t even speak proper grammar, won the public vote. The programme was a commercial success, with the final episode topping the Channel 4 ratings all week - some 7m callers voting on the final election of who was to win the £70,000. I felt, however, that it became psychologically and socially rather boring after the excitement of Nick’s expulsion. Other Big Brother productions in Spain, Germany and the US appear to have been more spicy, with rebellion, sex and politics, respectively, providing voyeur interest. On the whole, I was well impressed with the management of the whole production. Hopefully, there’ll be a follow-up programme sometime soon telling us how all the contestants are getting on in their new lives as celebrities.
On Friday, I went to London to try and buy a handheld computer, a small one that would weigh only 1kg or so and with a battery life of eight hours. There are a few on the market for around £600-800 which have a full size keyboard, a reasonable screen, and cutdown versions of software. The only one I could find in the shops around Tottenham Court Road, though, was the Psion Series 7 which had neither email nor a possible direct link to a Mac computer. Very disappointing. I also picked up a copy of the City Lit evening classes prospectus and delivered it with a card to Jill in South Kensington. This entailed quite a bit of effort on my part: going to the City Lit, tubing to Gloucester Road, buying an envelope, composing a card, and, most difficult of all, finding where she lived. I knew it was house 20, but I didn’t know which road it was. I had a vague picture of a tall white Edwardian terraced house, and the knowledge that, from very near that road, I had walked up Gloucester Road and caught a bus back to Hammersmith (where I had parked my car the previous evening). It took me about half an hour, but I did eventually find the house. Why did I do this? These are good questions I ask myself. As far as I know, I did it because I had spent a long and enjoyable evening in her company, we had become sexually intimate (although this was rather one sided), and we had parted rather rapidly in the morning, with the understanding that we would be in touch within a day or two. However, the next day I told Andrew and Susie that I really shouldn’t have stayed overnight, and that I certainly did not want to take things any further with her. I felt rather bad about how I handled the situation, and, I suppose, I was keen to ‘close’ the episode. I wanted to make her feel good about our encounter, but also to explain/confirm that it was a one off, and that nothing further should ensue. Also I had vaguely promised to provide her with information on writing classes. Unfortunately, my action appears to have backfired, and the message appears to have been misread. The following day - this is some three weeks after the evening in question - Jill called me (having got my card and then my number from Susie - I had deliberately not put any coordinates on my card) to invite me out on Saturday evening. As I had Julian here then, I was able to decline convincingly, but I did suggest I would call her in the future.
Autumn is starting to set in. Some leaves are starting to fall already, the days can be cold when there is no sun, and evenings are drawing in and in and in. Winter awaits.
26 September 2000
I’ve taken a few practical decisions in the last week or so. On money, I’ve decided to pay off one of my mortgages, leaving me with just a £25,000 mortgage on this house, which is less than 10%. I’ve also switched two of my early PEPs, which I placed in safe unit trusts, to more adventurous trusts. I realised, somewhat belatedly, that it makes sense to use the annual PEP and ISA tax havens in the most high risk funds you can. This is because the tax avoidance gains are greatest. Thirdly, I’ve invested £25,000 in a medical discovery unit trust. This is a big sum to invest all at once, but I wanted to have a direct measure against which I could compare the interest earned, against the interest paid on my remaining £25,000 mortgage. If, say, after a couple of years, I find that I am netting no more or less on that unit trust than I am paying on the mortgage then I’ll pay off that mortgage too. I’ve also booked a 10 day holiday in Egypt in November.
Tonight I head off to Brussels again on Eurostar for a couple of days.
26 September 2000 (still)
On Eurostar, heading for Brussels. I’ve written up one short news story, but at this stage, so early in the editorial cycle, there’s very little writing I can do.
This afternoon Andrew Warren faxed me through some notes he’d made of a presentation given by Loyola de Palacio to the EP’s industry/energy committee and a copy of a front page story in the ‘Independent’. Both these concerned an item he had called me about a couple of weeks ago, just after I went to press.
Back in July, or possibly July, the Commission, on the initiative of Neil Kinnock who is now in charge of reforming the Commission, put out a document arguing that it did not have sufficient resources to carry out its duties and without any further funds, it would have to cut staff and activities across the board. In a benign-seeming annex, it listed a number of programmes which would fall by the wayside if it didn’t receive additional funds. DG Tren’s potential contribution would be to cut Altener and SAVE (renewables and energy saving). Someone in the DTI had faxed the relevant pages to Andrew, and Andrew had got steamed up over the possibility that these programmes might be axed. At the time of his first call, I remember expressing a certain amount of scepticism about his scaremongering interpretation, and I suggested that this must simply be a blackmail exercise. Subsequently, I emailed Rex Bailey about it, and he confirmed my spontaneous interpretation; although he did also suggest there was some vague possibility that the two programmes might eventually be subsumed into the Sixth Framework Programme (although I personally doubt this very much).
So, to Andrew’s call today (he doesn’t usually call me a second time in so short a space of time) - I think he was still trying to sell me this story. He told me the ‘Independent’ had carried it as a big lead story and he faxed me a copy. It was such an awful story, so badly written, so poorly researched - laughable really. Firstly, the author (dare I use the term!), the environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean I think, based his story on ‘confidential papers obtained by the Independent’. Ha ha ha. This was a Commission Communication dating from before the summer. Secondly, he failed to put the idea of Altener and SAVE into any kind of context - i.e. that the idea of axing them was only part of a much wider initiative to squeeze more funds out of the Council. Abysmal journalism - but brilliant lobbying by Andrew. It had to be the ‘Independent’ or the ‘FT’, Andrew told me, because these were the only UK newspapers that the Commission’s services looked at! As a result of the story, Andrew was able to get some MEPs to raise the issue with de Palacio at the EP committee meeting - hence his notes, also faxed to me, on her responses to the questions. He seemed quite concerned by the fact that she declined to deny the possibility that they might be axed. But I said to him, on the phone, that, put on the spot, she couldn’t possibly deny it outright since the idea of axing them was quite clearly part of Kinnock’s strategy, but, the strategy is only a contingency plan, a threat in effect, and not a fact; and that if the Council does not come up with the required money, the Commission would still find a way to maintain the programmes. Indeed, I suggested to him, he should be supporting the Kinnock strategy since he had long argued that the programmes were under-staffed. That made him think for a moment or two.
I shall probably do a short piece on it for the October issue - but I won’t make a big song and dance about it, not even for Andrew.
The fuel and transport crisis will continue to be a big topic for both the energy and transport newsletters this month. The transport ministers met earlier this week in a special session called by the French Presidency, but it failed to achieve anything. More interestingly, there is a suggestion that the finance ministers might agree to release some of the EC’s strategic oil reserves. The US has already agreed to release a small amount of its reserves, on the very thin excuse that supply of heating oil in the winter might be affected without the release. But, of course, everyone knows, the US was simply trying to affect the market prices - something it should not be doing. The EU, too, now seems to be thinking about using the same quasi-psychological tactic to influence the market - although many times in the past it has always stressed that the oil reserves are for supply crises and not for influencing market prices. In any case, such a policy might well backfire. The other interesting aspect of this business, at least from the EU point of view, is that the Commission is now going to take a much more proactive approach towards ensuring full competition in the downstream oil products markets. One more thing, the ‘Economist’ has just revealed to me (I certainly don’t usually look to the ‘Economist’ for story leads), the Commission has written to several Member States asking them for details of their proposed tax concessions - i.e. the ones given in response to the fuel blockades.
I am making Adam’s sandwiches this morning, cutting the rind off a chunk of Port Salut. Adam comes up to me, looks at what I’m doing, puts an arm around me, and says ‘You’re a lovely Dad.’ These days, in fact, he says it quite a lot, at odd moments. In the past, when I’ve kissed him on the cheek, apropos of nothing, and said, ‘That’s a kiss because I love you,’ he has always moved very quickly to kiss me back, and repeat my words. Often I would say you don’t need to say it to me back. Now that he’s a little more mature, he doesn’t; but instead he finds his own time and way to communicate his love.
At last some volleyball from Sydney on the gogglebox. But it’s a very short session: only the last few points of the third and final quarter-final game between Brazil and Germany are shown. But there is more to come. I watched it with Adam, and found myself commentating with a degree of expertise beyond that of the real commentator. Earlier, we watched springboard diving together. Ads said he would love to be able to dive like that. Oh but how many trillions of hours of practice does it take.
I watched parts of Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference this afternoon, probably because there was boxing on the Olympics, and it’s one sport I really cannot stand. I still find the man amazing. He really does get my vote. I think history will judge this Labour term as incredibly successful. A new government yes, making mistakes, but one with brio, with guts, with imagination, and with an honesty and a clarity of vision. What makes me so mad is that there is simply no comparison with John Major’s government, which was rotten, void of ideas, and incompetent, and yet the media continually seek to compare the relatively minor, and usually rather genuine, mistakes of this government as though they were of the same ilk as those of Major. The general media - which relies on conflict, shame and failure for its pennies - seems utterly incapable of distinguishing between levels of conflict, shame and failure, and needs to put them all in the same glaring headlights. Consequently, the general public end up with the same distorted, and un-level-headed views.
Paul K Lyons
Copyright © PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG