DIARY 68: April - August 2001

3 April 2001

On Eurostar heading for Brussels - the second of my two trips for the April issue. I was only a few minutes away from missing the 19:27: the train into Waterloo was stuck at a points failure for about half an hour. I was getting very edgy as the train was stuttering towards the terminus. I made it with about five minutes to spare, but then I found a couple had sprawled themselves all across my table seat, and it seemed churlish to force them to move, so I made a rude comment and sat somewhere else.

Talking about rudeness, it would be fair to mention Louise one more time. We were due to meet on Sunday, finally, but at the last minute I decided not to go. Having already given way on having the meeting at all, and on meeting on this Sunday, and on going up to London, Louise then tried to reel in more advantages on the Sunday morning, and in particular made it seem as though she was doing me a favour by us meeting. I probably would still have gone, except for the fact that I discovered the trains were all screwed up. Not only were they taking nearly half an hour longer, but the schedule meant I would either have to be 20 minutes or so late, or 40 minutes early. So I decided to cancel. Only, apparently, Louise didn’t get my email before she left, and so, basically, I stood her up. After several fairly obnoxious emails, I apologised briefly, but that only sparked a further flurry of vitriolic messages. So I then composed a full justification of my actions - which released a further angry email, and then an apology, and then two further emails trying to back track from the apology. I’ve written a draft reply - but I think it might be too much, too horrible. She really does ask for it. She seems to thrive on conflict, but I don’t believe it can be doing her any good, and she is clearly unstable.

What a wonderful volleyball match last night, my most exciting to date. Steve picked me up from Russet House, and we drove up the A3 to East Sheen Sports Centre, just round the corner from Roehampton, and not so far from where I meet up with Andy and Raoul in Barnes. We were only six for the team this time (every other time, I’ve played a match there have been seven, and I’ve had to sit out a game). The other players were Ian, Barry, Monica and Gary. The Slayers were certainly our strongest opponents to date. They had about 10 players in the gym, all of them stronger than our weakest player, I would say, and they had one hitter who was more deadly then any of ours. Although we had a team of four setters, it was decided that Ian and I would set. This was fine for Steve, because he’s so easy going, and he quite likes a hit. I’m not so sure about Gary, who has tended to be the other setter with Ian in previous matches. But, in fact, there was no move to change any positions throughout the match - and so Ian and I set for five games. I think this is a real advantage for it allows people to settle in, and learn how to work with their neighbours, so to speak - too often a couple of mistakes can lead to an over-hasty reorganisation of positions, and roles, which in turn leads to unsettlement. We won the first game comfortably, with lots of shouting and joking and bustling between us, and the second game not quite so comfortably. But, in the third game, the Slayers finally started to get in their stride, to keep their shots in, and to block our hitters effectively at the net. They won quite closely. Because of the first two games, we were still confident of winning the fourth, but it didn’t happen. We were tiring and making mistakes, they were really hitting top form, and finding our weaknesses consistently. Their top hitter served three aces in a row directly to Monica, for example, before Ian felt threatened enough to step back and cover for her. But they had built up a strong momentum. Ian made good use of our time-outs, though, to break their runs, but not enough to stop them winning the fourth game easily. As we prepared for the last and short fifth set (15 points rather than 25), I was fairly sure we would lose - they had stronger players, they were still fresh, and they were on a winning streak. I said as much - and there were one or two critical murmurs (not very serious, but noticeable). Why did I say so? Because I wanted to express my feeling that I thought we had played really well as a team, and it had been a great match, and it wouldn’t matter if we lost. I like this team, and the players in it, it works well without competitive pressure, and I prefer to put the stress on the friendly and supportive banter. I actually think it works better than placing too much stress on what one has been doing wrong. Nevertheless, Ian and Barry gave us a little pep talk. Within a couple of minutes we were four or five points down. Their momentum from the previous game was still with them. But then, amazingly (and I don’t know why or how), we pulled level, and raced ahead to win 15 to 11 or something like that. It was a great victory, and a very rewarding, if tiring, match to have played.

As to my own effort, I played a reasonable game, but I made some horrible mistakes: I screamed ‘out’ to Gary for him to leave a high ball coming down to him, he pulled out of the way, and it was a foot in! I missed a couple of dumps, I should definitely have got, and I tried one setter’s dump too many to be caught fairly and squarely by the blockers who had started to look out for such shots. But, the fact that I wasn’t replaced as setter throughout the five sets made me feel good. The highlight, for me, though, was a shot I made from the setter’s position - the Slayers had won four or five points in a row (I think it was the second game, and the Slayers were threatening to move into the lead for the first time) and I was setting. I had spotted a large gap between the front and back player on the side opposite me. I was given a bad first ball, and instead of trying to dig it over to the middle for a poor set, I dug a short looping shot over the net. The back player dived for it, but failed to lift it high enough. We won the point, regained the momentum and the set.

5 April

On Eurostar going home. If the train is not delayed, and I get the 7:00pm from Waterloo, and that train isn’t delayed, and if the Shackleford road isn’t blocked by some slow coaches, I might just get back to Russet House in time to find out who shot Phil Mitchell. Ads and I have discussed this question, which some newspapers have likened to the media frenzy over who shot JR, several times. (It’s not of course a touch on the JR story, not least because Phil isn’t dead, or even half dead.) All the discussion I have heard or seen, however, has tried to analyse the characters of the main suspects for clues as to who would have, could have, should have done it. But I think that’s an invalid kind of analysis. Unlike in the case of ‘Dallas’, which was a time-limited series, ‘Eastenders’ is a non-stop soap and the only way to keep the plots lively is to muck around with the characters, so they soften and sharpen, become violent and less violent, become tolerant and less tolerant, up and down they yo-yo. Two of the prime suspects are Dan and Mark, but neither of these characters were originally capable of murder. Nevertheless, for plot reasons, their characters have been hardened up so it becomes feasible for them to have committed murder. No, my reasoning was based on the logic of the scriptwriter. I argued that Dan was the only suspect whose disappearance from the programme (in jail) would not matter very much, and would not create a major police/prison plot line - which Eastenders does not do well, and of which there have been too many of late. However, writing about it now, I realise that my original argument was based on the belief that Phil was going to be killed, and that, therefore, proper legal retribution would have to be written into the script, in the short or long term. However, the fact that he’ll be out of hospital shortly means he’ll be able to carry out his own retribution, and so my argument about the police is not so strong. But there is also another interesting fact that can be used to analyse the situation. The producer has, apparently (this is all hearsay from Adam), filmed several endings, and so only very few people actually know the truth - this to avoid leaks in the press. But, if anyone other than Dan did the shooting, then the intricate entanglement of the lives of all the other main suspects would mean that surely the future scripts, and filming schedules, and wardrobe/prop requirements etc would require lots of people to know (or at least to allow them to work out) who had done the deed. I still believe we should move to a Brazilian system of soaps with a limited time duration - a huge bang of an opening, a very long middle (about six months), and an even bigger bang of an ending.

The Transport Council is taking place today in Luxembourg - I thought the lunchtime press conference might be relayed live to the press room in Brussels, but it wasn’t. I’ve booked a phone chat with Gilles tomorrow, and I’ll track Lauri down in the afternoon too. At least most of the press releases are being published in English first during the Swedish Presidency, so I won’t have the added complications of French texts, which dogged me all the way through the French Presidency. Gilles has become very relaxed with me these days, and almost always talks off the record now. I was complaining about being stopped by security guards at one of the Commission buildings, and asking him if he knew what the rules were about journalists’ entry, and immediately he said, ‘to be frank Paul, it’s the Kinnock reforms, they’re affecting everyone, and no one knows what’s going on’. A number of officials have complained to me before about the extra and bureaucratic workload being imposed on them by the Kinnock reforms, but I had never heard such criticism within the spokespersons group - the reforms are now adding to its workload too. I didn’t think it was entirely relevant to my problem with the security guards at rue de Mot, but I was happy to listen to him complain. And then he showed me a lovely story in the ‘Times’ in which a journalist talked about a big fight at the Transport Council between the UK and Germany over extra-long buses. I’ve been writing about this for some years. The Commission and most Member States have finally sided with Germany in wanting international access for longer buses (thereby reducing the number of buses on the roads), but obviously the UK is holding out against the measure. (I remember the Parliament, in its Opinion, got its knickers in a twist over the depth of so-called ski-boxes on the back of these buses!) Gilles said that, of all the items on the Transport Council agenda, this was the last one he thought he would need to brief himself about. The ‘Times’ writer talked about little old ladies being mowed down on street corners by the extra long buses which would be unable to negotiate the UK’s narrow streets (or something like that). Gilles was busy, he told me, because he had to call his granny in Spain to check she wasn’t being mowed down by such buses.

I notice that, even though the meeting of Transport and Telecommunications ministers is now supposed to take place as one Council, the two sets of ministers are meeting on different days, and the Council put out a press release after the first day with the title Telecommunications Council.

Last night I saw a Hollywood pic, made by Robert Redford, called ‘Bagger Vance’. It’s a simple story about a young black guru-type caddie, who helps a young golfer with psychological baggage revive his playing ability and beat the best. Apart from the awful lighting in the film, and the rather charming performance by the narrator as a young boy through whose eyes the film is basically told, I have nothing much to say about it.

Today is the end of the tax year, and also the date on which previous pension relief still available from previous years is abolished. I only wised up to this a few weeks ago. My first problem was to find out exactly how much pension relief I had available. I called the Inland Revenue, who said they would help, but I waited and waited. I called them two more times, before finally they faxed through the figures. In fact, I had used more than I thought, and there was only around £3,000 left, but with an income of £70,000 or more in this tax year finishing, I also had another £17,000 or so available just from this year. I’ve used about £11,500 already, so that left about £8,000. Since I’ll be paying 40% tax this year, investing that £8,000 in a pension fund before 5 April would save/make me over £3,000. Not an opportunity to be missed. But nearly miss it, I did. My second problem was where to invest the money. I didn’t want to put any more in the Equitable pension pot, after all its problems, and I don’t think the funds have done too well either. Nor did I want to put any more into the Scottish Mutual because I wasn’t sure whether the Pension Shop, which originally organised that for me, would benefit from any additional units I bought. So, I went back to the Pension Shop to ask for some advice on a new pension. The day I rang, coincidentally, it was closing down, but a woman advised me that she would be taking my account with her to another outfit. She took my details and promised to provide me with some information. It finally came on Saturday. She proposed a Norwich Union pension called the Optimiser. But I wasn’t impressed: there was too little information on the plan, and she offered no discount at all. I thought, although I didn’t bother to check, that the Pension Shop had given me a discount on the original policy I bought through them.

Given the amount of advertising that has gone into attracting people to buy ISAs before the end of the tax year, so they don’t lose their entitlement, I’m amazed there hasn’t been a similar amount of advertising about the loss of pension relief. I looked in vain for some attractive advertisements for pension funds, and I considered racing into Godalming to buy a magazine. But when I looked at an old copy of one I already had, I realised it wasn’t really going to give me much help. Choosing which fund to invest in was proving my next big problem. I tried various sites on the internet without getting much in the way of advice. I thought of choosing the same fund that the Pension Shop woman had proposed but I was very slightly worried that I might be accused of using their advice without paying for it (indirectly through the commission they would get). I decided to ring my discount investment house Elson, but I couldn’t do this until Monday. I was told they offer 4% on most pensions, so I asked them to send me a Norwich Union form, and one other. Fortunately, it came through in the post on Tuesday morning, and fortunately, it was not the Optimiser scheme, but a newer one, designed to dovetail with the new stakeholder pension plans which are being introduced tomorrow, the first day of the new tax year. I filled out the form, wrote a covering note, and just managed to tuck it into the first post. I hoped I had done everything exactly since I was leaving for Brussels later the same day, and there would be no room for manoeuvre with the Thursday deadline.

On Wednesday, I rang my business answerphone several times during the day to see whether there was any message. I would have rung the domestic line as well, but I had left the instructions for retrieving messages from it at home. By chance, and because I wasn’t overly busy with any appointments or anything else, and because I was intrigued to see if any more hectoring emails had come in from Louise over night, I went to the EP library to check my emails this morning (5 April) (usually I only do this on the first day I’m in Brussels, when I need to use the library for information purposes mostly). An email from Elson was waiting for me (I must have put my email address on the Norwich Union form - because I’ve never used email with Elson before). It noted first that a message had been left on my answering machine at home (!) to which I obviously hadn’t responded. It also stated that they could not offer me a 4% discount because all the pension houses, including Norwich Union, had reduced their charges and their incentives to brokers as a result of the government’s stakeholder changes. It said they could not proceed with investing my money (remember £3,000 is at stake here) unless I call or email them by midday, when a Norwich Union rep would be coming to the office to pick up any last minute applications. I raced home and tried to ring the number I’d been given. All I got was an answering machine. Damn. I rang my mother, to ask her if she had another number for Elson (I know she gets their mailings too), but she didn’t. I waited half an hour, and then called again. This time I got through. I moaned for a second or two about the fact that I had been told on Monday I would get a 4% discount, and this wouldn’t have happened if I had been given accurate details, and then I gave authority to go ahead. Phew.

26 April 2001

I’ve an hour or so to kill, and I don’t seem to have too much work pressing. I’ve sorted out the various cuttings I collected yesterday at the European Parliament, and I have my questions prepared for asking Dina/Gilles later. It’s my first of two trips to Brussels for the May issues, and the first trip is always slower and more fragmented than the second one - even more so this time, because very little has happened since my last trip because of Easter. If I’d remembered to bring my Green Week pass, I would probably have used this time to visit the conference/exhibition - a new initiative of the Commission designed to demonstrate the Sixth Environment Action Programme to the public. Guided walk and bicycle trips were on the agenda for Saturday, and I did consider staying over. Also, next week, the Belgian Presidency invited me (and presumably other journalists) for a special visit to the Royal Greenhouses. I would have loved to do that, since I’ve only been once to the greenhouses about 10 years ago. But, the trip is on Monday, and Tuesday is a bank holiday, so I’d need to come on Monday and stay through to Thursday - I decided not to. Both Green Week and the Belgian Presidency invitation came by mail to this address at Brand Whitlock - I get so little mail here, that I was quite excited by both invitations. As it is, I’ve profited from neither.

So I’ve an hour to kill, and I’m whingeing on and on. I’m still hand-writing up our trip to Spain in a red journal, but I’m not much enjoying it. Since the whole holiday was blighted by my cold, which I still have, I’ve not got much interesting to say. And now with time passing, I’m even forgetting any little fun incidents we might have had, so the journal’s just becoming a dull record of what we did and when we did it. By the time we got back home, I think I’d written about 12 pages, and I was faced with the dilemma of whether to finish it on the computer, or in the book. The former would have meant I needed to type up the 12 pages, which would not have been so bad, and the latter would have meant that, in future, I couldn’t search on the computer for stuff we’d done during the trip (not without typing the whole thing up at some future stage). I think I decided on the latter, partly for a negative reason - that the actual book would be wasted otherwise, and partly because I like having real books in my diary collection.

On my mind a lot is the fact that, although my year of no projects and free weeks is fast coming to an end. Every time I think of what I would actually do when EC Inform is over, a big blank hits me. Would I, for example, give myself a full year to write fiction, and then, assuming failure, try very hard to get a non-fiction commission, or try to get a job or what? It is clear, though, to me, that I am slowly losing confidence in myself - this is such a drip-drip process that it is impossible to quantify or to stem; I think I’ve done quite a lot of damage to myself already over the last years in Elstead particularly, and nothing will stop that if I carry on with EC Inform. But, this might have nothing to do with EC Inform, and it might even accelerate if I didn’t have the business to keep me busy; I might get worse more quickly without real work and responsibilities. It’s hard to tell, and I don’t think there is anyone in the world who can advise me.

In the same area, another problem keeps popping into my head: when and if I give up EC Inform, where should I live? I mean once Adam reaches 16 or so, and changes school, my presence or absence becomes far less necessary - but also so does Barbara’s. If I moved, should I? would I? could I? encourage Adam to go to a sixth form college near where I am - or would he naturally stay with Barbara and go to Godalming college. And when he goes to college, would he want to live alone/with friends or with me, if I was nearby? Or should I go abroad again. I find the thought of such decision-making daunting - a sign of my diminishing self-confidence!

However I look at it, I will need to make some big and lonely decisions very soon. Starting EC Inform and moving to Elstead were decisions made with B by my side. It is more than half my adult life ago that I made such big decisions all alone - and I was still young and hopeful, attractive and lively then. I am none of those things now. And, yes, if I were honest, I am getting scared, very scared about the future.

By the skin of its teeth, the Labour government appears to be pulling the country out of the foot and mouth epidemic with public opinion still overwhelmingly in its favour. So close to a general election - which everyone assumes will be on 7 June - the Tories are still tearing themselves apart. Hague’s resignation on 8 June is all but assured I would say unless the Tories decide among themselves they need longer to find a replacement. But I don’t think Portillo can be stopped now. He’s not what they need, but he’s a right winger who has understood the need to don middle ground clothes. Unfortunately for the Tories, I don’t think the country will ever believe his middle-groundness, and he’ll not win the election after next - I’d put money on it now. Labour has not managed the F&M crisis perfectly, but given its complexity, and the forcefulness of the various interests megaphoned through the media, I think it has done well. Blair’s decision to postpone the local elections (and by extension the general election) has proved itself (or will prove itself) to have been the right political decision; and the more complex decision - not to start vaccinating - will also prove to have been correct.

On the news today is a story about Labour proposing to give £500, in some sort of trust, to every new born baby so that the child can have a windfall when it reaches 18 to pay for university or whatever. This is a dreadful idea - politically ‘nice’, but practically flawed. Apart from all the difficulties of how to shield the money from parents for 18 years, and how and who would decide what kind of investment umbrella would be used, there is the more serious problem that, at 18 or 21, youths are not best capable of deciding wisely on how to spend the money. Here are some things which they might spend the money on (and who could stop them?): travelling (instead of going to uni); a motorbike; drugs; parties; sex or an expensive boyfriend/girlfriend; clothes; a fancier flat than would otherwise be able to afford (high rent). In other words, this money would be spent on leisure/luxuries/entertainment, not on anything useful. If the government believes 18 year olds are going to use the investment to start a business, or pay for university fees, it is forgetting what it is like to be young. This initiative will backfire, mark my words.

But, otherwise, I remain far more impressed with this government than I ever thought I could be with a Labour administration, and more impressed than I can ever remember being with any administration. If I were to make a list of all the Labour ministers and shadow ministers in the order of which I like/respect/trust them, there would be a dozen or more Labour people before the first Tory - that in itself says a lot.

May 2001

Paul K Lyons


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