JOURNAL - 2001 - MAY

2 May 2001

Brussels. It was spring warm this afternoon and I didn’t feel so pressed with work, so I went out around 5pm - usually, I don’t even think of stopping work until 7 or so. I took the metro down town and spent half an hour in the English bookshop browsing through old and new paperbacks. Waterstones here always has a more literate selection on show, and sometimes US titles too. I bought an American thriller, but I also mentally stored a couple of titles to order from Amazon when I get home - that much feted novel ‘Underworld’, for example, an Elmore Leonard in paperback I haven’t read, etc. I was also interested in Norman Mailer’s ‘History of Europe’ - which I may buy. I nipped into Inno to look at the clothes, and got very excited when I saw some colourful espadrilles for only £2 each, until I discovered that, because they were on display in the women’s section, they only went up to size 41, and there were none in the men’s department.

Then I went to the cinema, and saw a competent, if somewhat formulaic, thriller with Meg Ryan about a kidnap in Columbia and the role of an expert negotiator (who falls in love with the kidnapped person’s wife - of course). But the dialogue was good, and the plot held together - I only yawned in the scenes where helicopters were to be seen flying above incredibly picturesque thickly forested deep river gullies with glorious waterfalls below - I mean terrorists are always going to pick pretty spots to hang out in, aren’t they. Meg Ryan played the wife, and played it well. I know she’s a big star, but until a few days ago, I couldn’t have put a face to her, and didn’t know anything about her. I watched a film on TV last week - it was called ‘D.O.A.’ (dead on arrival) - in which, some years ago now, she played a scatty girl student.

Last week, when I was here, I saw a more subtle film - ‘The Luzhin Defence’, based on a story by Nabokov. It told the simple love story of a mad chess genius and a society girl looking for something a bit different. It was beautifully filmed, and acted - especially by Emily Watson - though I could have done without Geraldine James, I’ve never liked her, or her acting.

While on entertainment, I should mention a rather fine play I listened to last week (while travelling on Eurostar - I’d recorded it on Radio 3 some days earlier). It was called ‘Experiment with an Air Pump’ (shame on me, I can’t recall the author) and starred Lindsay Duncan and Tim Piggot-Smith. (Both Geraldine James and Tim Piggot-Smith, of course, became well-known at the same time for their parts in ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, one of TV’s top 20 drama serials, I would say.) And Lindsay Duncan, well I’ll never tire of reminding myself that she smiled at me once in a restaurant - give me five minutes with Lindsay Duncan rather than a week with Geraldine James. Why else am I mentioning ‘Experiment with an Air Pump’? I don’t usually bother to mention radio plays. I liked the way it linked the past (the eve of the 18th century) and the present, without any sense of panic in the script. It took its time, allowed the characters to develop. And I liked how it moved from the personal/emotional to scientific debates. I’m not sure it was entirely successful, or ended up providing any particular insights, but it certainly made a change from the crass, cliched stuff to be found on weekday afternoons. But why else am I mentioning it? Oh yes. Some weeks ago, I was in the National Gallery, and on my way through one of the rooms, I stopped to watch a crowd of teenagers sitting on the floor all staring at a painting and listening to a guide bring it alive for them. It was a painting entitled ‘Experiment with an Air Pump’, the very one which had inspired the playwright. It shows a family standing around watching as a bird is placed in a bell jar attached to a pump. It is clear that the experiment is to see what will happen to the bird when the air is extracted. The guide was discussing what the various people in the painting might be thinking about, and the kids were paying solid attention. I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but now I have a much stronger picture of those people, painted by the radio playwright!

What a horrible morning I had of it. In order to circumvent the Nazi security guard in the Commission building at rue de Mot 24 who will not let me in without an appointment, I tried by email to entice Cleutinx into fixing a meeting with me. He did reply, and suggested Thursday morning. Fine, I emailed back saying I would be there at 9:15. At 9:15, the guard telephoned to his office, but something was wrong. I waited a few minutes, he rang again, and still I couldn’t go up. I waited in the lounge area until 9:30 and then insisted he ring again. This time, he said, Cleutinx would come down. I remonstrated against the stupidity of having to bring a busy man down to collect me. (Did I mention my previous battle with this man or not, I can’t remember, without it, this probably doesn’t make sense.) Anyhow Cleutinx came down, and, on the way up, he told me he was in a meeting, and I should pop back later, but, in the meantime, now that I was ‘in’ I could see some other people. But life in DG Tren is not how it used to be in the old Energy Directorate-General. People are busier, they have more urgent business, many and most of my old contacts have moved on to different jobs (ones I do know are still in another building), also, I couldn’t get through to rue de Mot 28 (I thought there was a connection between the two buildings) where the transport people are, and where I might have been able to fix up a chat or two. There wasn’t anybody I could find to pop in to see. Effectively, I kept hiding in the stairwell whenever I got too embarrassed to walk around the corridor anymore. Half an hour later, I went back to Cleutinx’s office, and he wasn’t there, and his secretary, who I know well, didn’t want me to wait in his office. I felt awful, like being at a party where you get increasingly embarrassed because you can’t find anyone to talk to and you’re always standing alone. I thought to myself that this is it, I’m done for, I’ll never be strolling in and out of people’s offices, the way I have done for 10 years, again. It made me feel that my time doing this job is coming to an end.

I had an interesting conversation with Adam on Monday night. We were sitting on the sofa after ‘Eastenders’ and he asked me, rather jokingly I thought, what period of life was the most difficult. I told him it was impossible to say, because every age has it difficulties, and I summarised some of them. But I began to get the feeling he wanted to hear that being a teenager was the most difficult of the lot. I kept trying to ask him why he wanted to know, what was behind the question. If I knew, I said, I might be able to answer it better. Somehow, we moved through to the kitchen, and he found himself sitting on the sideboard (as he does regularly) and admitting that he did have problems. But he didn’t want to talk about them directly, and so I chatted for a while about why it can be useful, as a teenager, to talk about problems with someone else - parents can be very useful in this respect, I suggested. I used the metaphor of a magnifying glass, explaining that sometimes, when one is young, problems can be seen through a magnifying glass, and although a parent cannot help to solve the problem, they can, maybe, put it into perspective, and help the teenager reduce the magnification a bit. I tried to give some examples from my own life, where it would have been useful to have someone with whom I could talk about my feelings, and how it might have helped. I didn’t expect my chattering to have any immediate effect, not least because it seemed too obvious an attempt to persuade him to talk about whatever difficulties he was having. But, suddenly, he launched into something about not liking being so small. So flippant and casual are our conversations, that I didn’t actually realise for a moment that he had, in fact, opened up a little bit to me.

I reflected afterwards that it might not be so unusual that Adam opens up, but that, because of the casual manner in which he does it, I might not notice. No, that’s not precisely what I mean - even though it was me writing the words. I mean that - probably - Adam says things, about his feelings, or thinking, or what’s going on at school, and, because it is jumbled up with the hundreds of things he says every day, without much distinction in tone or delivery, I don’t perceive it as any more important than anything else he says. I only reflected on this because I remember feeling surprised at realising that, having pressed Adam to talk about any problems he was having (and then launching into a lecture about the advantages of sharing etc), that he was in fact doing just that - but he didn’t stop and say ‘Dad, I have this problem, can we talk about it seriously’, no, it just emerged, probably with a smile on his face, and half muddled up with arguing about the last thing I had said.

So, having recognised that, for the first time, he was owning up to emotional concerns about his height, I talked to him about it as best I could. But I didn’t have much comfort to give him. I couldn’t help but remind him that he is never going to be tall, and that his difficulties in this area are going to get worse before they get better (because of the compounded problem that he is both one of the youngest in his year and a late developer). What he finds difficult at the moment, is the fact that sometimes, and not deliberately, he gets treated with less respect by teachers and other pupils - in other words, he gets talked down to. But he is strong, I told him, and intelligent and very stable, and he will be able to minimise the problem in a way that a less stable and intelligent kid would manage. And I gave my own example, of how I had become very cocky in order to try and cover over my feelings of inadequacy.

13 May 2001

Here’s a thing. A week ago, at volleyball, I asked Billy where he was from. When he told me Turkey, I realised that I must have already asked him before. But that didn’t stop me saying, to give my question some context, that I had been meaning to ask him for ages. Then, two days ago, I asked this friend of Raoul’s (I was out for an evening in London, more anon perhaps), where her parents lived. When she said Hertfordshire, I probed to know whereabouts. When she tried to deflect the question, I insisted. And only then, when she said Much Hadham, did I realise that I must have asked her the same thing the first time we met (at Richard’s party in February).

As usual, I seem unable to live any kind of normal life during my two production weeks. It should have been less pressed this time, for the May issues, and it was early on, but I ended up working most of last weekend, and filling up the gaps, not with useful productive stuff, but with listening to the radio or playing computer chess or bridge.

But I have been more productive since I went to press on Thursday, especially in the garden. It was a state out there, and I had lost all interest in it. But, we’ve had a mini heat wave this weekend, which has pulled me off the sofa, and out into the garden. In just a couple of days, I have got the vegetable beds back in some kind of order, and tidied up the lawn and some of the flowerbeds. Of course, there will be no potatoes this year - the second year in a row. Last year, it was more disappointing because I did actually plant the seed potatoes, and they rotted all away. This winter, though, it has been so wet, I didn’t even contemplate any planting in March/April. Nor did I start up any seeding in the house either. But, as I say, I’ve bought some young peppers, aubergine, tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers to plant, and, of course, I’ve got my bean poles up, and some beans planted. I’ve set a few parsley and coriander seeds around the place. For the first time, also, I have a small bay plant, which I’ve put in a too-large pot, hoping the bay will grow up quickly.

The garden does look handsome at this time of year - only a few weeks ago, it looked so ragged an unkempt - with the new leaf growth still compact and tidy, and the blossom on the apple trees (at last they have settled down and appear content with life), and the flowers on the quince contrasting with the pink apple blossom on the tree next door, and the flowers of the keria in the distance. The blue (and white) bells are in abundance everywhere, but I particularly like them in a row along the front of the porch, and the forget-me-nots have won a battle against the dandelions and grass and taken over a large patch to the side of the porch and in front of the rhododendrons. A delightful hopeful blue. That’s not to forget the clematis which has framed my kitchen window with a dense mass of pinky white flowers, and the two yellow azalea bushes which have been so excited by the heat this weekend, that they’ve decided to open a few early buds. And, I’m very excited by my Paul’s Scarlet, which looks like it will be flowering for the first time this year.

14 May 2001

After two weeks of not writing anything in the journal, it builds up. Not the series of exciting events I’ve been to which need describing, nor the list of famous people I’ve met who need to be mentioned to ensure the inflation of my self-esteem, but the bits and pieces of my life, mostly a few passing thoughts about what the rest of the world is doing, not me. These bits and pieces accumulate in a ragged corner of my mind, slowing expanding outwards creating a mild kind of psychological pressure - that of an ant pushing against a fortress gate not the battering ram of internal forces of hunger or sex - which requires an outlet. So here I am, again, recording the detritus of my life - letting a few little puffs of mental steam out, so to speak, to relieve the tickling pressure.

For instance, I should mention that a General Election has been called for 7 June. I don’t think there is the slightest chance that Blair will lose it. I saw Peter Kellner on the box yesterday, still talking opinion poll figures. (It was over 20 years ago, I recall, when I was at Mori that he used to come into the office, a fresh faced Oxbridge graduate, to pore over the political polls with Worcester.) He was explaining how, when one looked at the undecided voters, the Tories, currently on 31%, could only increase their share to 33%, but that the Liberal Democrats, currently on 17% could increase their votes to 31-33%. This is very bad news for Hague, he was saying. But I think Hague is very bad news for Hague. It has been obvious, for a long time, that he is hopeless. He has continually appealed to the right wing of the party, to the people who will vote Tory come hell or high water. The Conservatives are still sinking in the trough created by John Major’s appalling government. I would dearly love to see the Liberal Democrats replace the Conservatives as the official Opposition.

I don’t yet even feel sorry for the Tories, and the reason is that Hague has been unable to emerge out of the playground - the rhetoric he and most of his cronies use, inherited from Major, is meaningless. They gabble, speaking endlessly in general about how Blair has absolutely failed to deliver on all his promises, how he has achieved absolutely nothing. Yes, the Tories will talk and argue specifics when required to, but all too often they simply revert to slagging the government off in general terms. I remember too when the Conservatives were in government, they talked down to the population, there was always a sense that, if they were providing some information, it was because they were being forced to. But with Blair and the New Labour government, one got the feeling, right from the beginning, that they were trying hard to be honest and straightforward with the public and the media. I’ve suddenly got it - the Conservatives are still colonials!

Oh, but I do hate the media. I don’t know if my escalating ire (can ire go up escalators?) is to do with me getting older, crankier, or whether the media is getting worse, it’s probably both. Mostly I listen to Radio 4, so my criticism must be directly mostly at the BBC news. All of them, every journalist/presenter on every news programme is the same, they are like babies suddenly given the power to order as many sweets as they like without restriction. You can hear it in their voices, the excitement of the sweet hunt, the restrained panting as their sugar hunger is about to be relieved. The General Election (should those two words have caps or not caps? . . .

The General Election should not be an opportunity for journalists to turn into wild wolves, hungry lions, or gnawing jackals - desperate to prove themselves the wildest, hungriest, gnawiest animal in the media pack - but should be an opportunity for informed debate. When a politician has answered one of his gnashing questions in an eloquent and explanatory way, John Humphries, for example, routinely says, in a grudging kind of voice, ‘all right then’ - as though he expects the politician to say ‘John that is such a perceptive question, and, of course, you’re right our actions have been imperfect, and we did put up taxes everywhere, and such a lot, and yes, of course the NHS waiting lists have got longer, we wanted that to happen, and it has.’ There has been much talk of voter apathy in this election already, and I have heard lots of debate about this, and it has all been rubbish, not one person - not one - has managed to give the two good reasons for any voter apathy that might exist.

Firstly, things are going well, the country is being managed well, reasonably well, and ordinary folk are reasonably content. This is absolutely natural. An empty hall at a school annual general meeting is, usually (not always, but usually) a sign that the school is being run effectively. If the country was riddled with strikes, or the inflation rate was destroying people’s savings, or we were approaching a war with some foreign power then there would be more reason to get uptight. But, when a people see a boss doing a good job they don’t bother to comment or complain.

The second reason for voter apathy is not the politicians or their policies, as some politicians and the media keep reiterating, but the bloody media itself. The politicians themselves move around their constituencies, and the country knocking on doors, giving speeches, speaking to local television and radio, and giving interviews to local papers. But, if they are invited onto national radio/TV they can’t refuse - the audience is too big, the effectiveness of time spent is too great, so they have to accept. But the media could slow down a bit, it could cover the election a bit less - it seems to think it is the great and powerful guardian of the truth. Well the truth is that we get fed up of the grilling gruelling attacking interviews that we hear on the big programmes. We want to hear politicians tell us in their own words what their policies are, not to spend their whole time on the defensive, trying to dodge tricky and biased questions. Of course, we want the politicians to be asked hard questions, but we don’t want the interview set up and steered from hard question to hard question. It is the media itself, the journalists and presenters, that makes me turn the radio off, not what the politicians are saying.

I’ve just had a visit from Simon Cordon, our local Liberal Democrat candidate - I shall probably vote for him - at the last election, he had 40% of the vote compared to Bottomley’s 45% with Labour taking only 9%.

What other detritus is there in my life.

Volleyball last night. The character of the Sunday night sessions changes enormously. Often I arrive and I think it is going to be a hopeless evening, and it turns out fine; and vice versa. It was fine last night, although for some reason I lost my digs even worse than usual. But I wanted to mention a small Spanish girl that was there last night, I forget her name even though she’s been coming for a while. Dag brings her from Farnham in his car, but she first started coming because of Billy who she works with at a hotel at Frensham. I’ve said hello before, and smiled, but, for some reason, last night we had a stronger connection. It reminded me of the link I made with the Austrian girl, Barbara, some years ago. Several times during the evening, I held her eyes and she stayed smiling - a much more common thing with Mediterranean women I should say. Afterwards we talked in the bar, or rather she talked, because she was much better at talking about herself than asking questions. But the reason I mention her, is because she is Catalan and comes from Barcelona, and she so reminded me of Roser, the way she spoke English, her smile, her face even, her soft uncomplicatedness. And I found myself talking to her about Roser a little, and regretting my age, and the fact that I couldn’t even begin to contemplate thinking about making a pass, let alone contemplate thinking about making a pass, let alone thinking about making a pass, let alone making a pass . . . If I’d had a child at the same age my father had me, he/she would be her age. I know Dag, who gives her a lift to volleyball, is keen on her, but I don’t think he’s been too successful - and who will give her a lift to volleyball after Dag goes back to Sweden?

On Friday last, I met up with Raoul and his Greek girlfriend Tata, and her friend Jenny. Raoul has been seeing Tata now for five or six months. When he rings to arrange the evening, he tells me that Jenny has suggested we all go out together. I met Jenny and Tata for the first and only time (until Friday obviously) at Richard’s party on Valentine’s Day (have I seen Raoul since then? I don’t think I have). I remember that I was not terribly impressed with Tata and nor was I interested in Jenny, but, as Raoul’s relationship with Tata seems to be getting more serious, I thought I was duty bound to have dinner with them - but I was also happy to be heading to London on a Friday night with the prospect of some company. I had been planning to go by train, but there was a strike, so I drove, to Notting Hill to a club place (pretentiously called Harry’s Social Club), which Raoul is a member of. We sat outside, the weather was so warm, and chatted to strangers who were high on something or other. An old girlfriend of Raoul’s was there too for a while - she was oddly proprietorial, boasting about how long she had known Raoul, even before I had sat down.

We stayed for ages there, and then Raoul drove us around looking for a restaurant. He took us to a crowded fish restaurant called Livebait, where I had fish and chips costing around £10, one glass of wine, and paid £40, because Raoul suggested we share the bill. Jenny offered me £10 (stupidly I didn’t look at the bill - since Raoul was dealing with it) but I declined the offer. Quite how £10 and £10 added up to £40 I don’t know. Oddly, the fish and chips option offered cod and chips and sole and chips, but the cod and chips was £3-4 more expensive than the sole and chips. How odd, for my whole life long, cod has been the work-a-day fish, the cheapest of the lot, and sole has been a treat of a dish.

I would like to report that we had elevating discussions about something, but we didn’t. At one point I started talking about the EU, but a wave of boredom flowed across the table in less time than it takes to break up a sandcastle. Earlier, at Harry’s, I started to get into a conversation with Tata about Raoul, but he broke it up just as it was getting interesting. After Livebait, there was debate about going to a club. I expressed no preference, and so Raoul and Tata investigated a couple in Notting HIll, but when Jenny confided in me that she wasn’t interested, I said no club. Raoul took us back to his parent’s flat for a cup of coffee, and we sat around talking about next to nothing. I’d drunk quite a bit, I suppose, and wasn’t too concerned about anything, allowing Raoul to do all the leading. Eventually, he drove Jenny and I back to our cars near Harry’s, and I drove home. It was a fun evening, if a bit vacuous.

Arsenal lost the FA Cup on Saturday to two super goals by Liverpool’s Michael Owen.

I’m still enthralled with the ‘West Wing’, and the antics of the White House staff. Also, last week, a new three-part drama - ‘Perfect Strangers’ - by Stephen Poliakoff started. It’s glorious, with Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan, Timothy Spall, and others. About a large-scale family reunion, seen through the eyes of a young surveyor, and lots of family skeletons in the cupboards, many of them told through, or sparked by, old photographs. Old photographs, of course, were the subject of his last beautiful drama, ‘Shooting the Past’.

15 May 2001

My fingers and hands are all scraped and dry, and full of splinters, and the cuticles are coming apart, hence the two plasters. It always happens as soon as I start gardening every year. Particularly bad is the skin around the end of my thumb nails, which dries and splits and can be very painful when it catches it on something.

How’s this for timing. This morning, I wrote and posted a letter to Sue with some draft entry forms for the paper boat race this year; this afternoon, she phoned. I haven’t spoken to her in a year.

Which reminds me I must go to Richard the dentist (who is also on the paper boat committee) and get this rogue tooth fixed. It’s been bothering me since I chipped a bit off a filling while eating a nut or something, and two trips, costing £100 each probably, have so far failed to leave my teeth in good order.

I was updating my finance database - wow, have my investments nosedived with the recent downturn in the stock markets, especially the technology stocks. In general, I am quite sanguine about the downturn, and am not prone to worrying about them, or checking them every day. But I am really mad with myself over one particular investment. Last year, when the technology stocks were flying so high, and I realised that some of my investments had doubled in value in a short time, I knew, I really knew that this could not be real. I knew they would have to fall one day (although I was probably naive about how far they could actually fall). And then came a lot of media attention to the fact that technology stocks were overpriced and would have to take a plunge. I thought that the best strategy would be to sell up, put the money in a building society, and then reinvest after the market dived. One problem with this strategy was that most of the money (but not all) is in tax shelters (PEPs, ISAs) which cannot be closed without losing the long-term tax-free status. But, at the time, I probably had about £40,000 in unit trusts without a tax shelter. I did decide to cash in one stock, which had done very well, in order to take advantage of my year’s capital gains allowance. I should have put it in my bank, but I didn’t. I was caught in the bubble, and there were some people still saying tech stocks could still go up. I decided to put £20,000 back into a tech unit trust (a recently launched Jupiter trust named Global Technology). Now, one year later, it is worth £7,000. Spectacular. The other problem with the strategy was that I simply did not trust my instincts, after all I don’t have too much experience in this area.

Berlusconi, the crook, has become prime minister of Italy. The ‘Economist’ did a huge expose of him, and accused him of all sorts of illicit dealings. If a British politician had just 1% of Berlusconi’s smoke, he’d have trouble holding on to his MP status, let alone be given a position of governmental responsibility. How can the Italian people have voted for him in such huge numbers? It’s Italy.

16 May 2001

Here I am, half way through the first of two free weeks. After two days of admin, and garden, and tidying up, by default, I was going to have another look at Kip Fenn (who I’ve not thought about since I came up with the name) today, but I haven’t got round to it yet. Instead, I’ve been having another look at my future. With various things bubbling around in my head, I’ve been keen to do this for a while now. But, I can report, I have not got very far. I keep making lists, and more lists, and writing down apparently useful questions, and summary answers, and not making any headway. So I thought I might just ramble a bit in the diary, and see where that leads me - sometimes I have ideas inside me which I don’t know are there, and they only come out when I am writing. This is a bit like when writers say that a character takes on a life of its own - sometimes the I in me seems to take on a life of its own. There’s a thought, for a start, I didn’t know I owned.

There are various different factors feeding into my thoughts about the future. One of them, of course, is Adam. He has two more years at Rodborough, and then two years at a sixth form college, then who knows. Until this morning, I had thought maybe there might be an opportunity/need to move when Adam leads Rodborough. I had thought that Godalming Sixth Form College, the natural place for Ads to go, might not be the best place to send him. But, I’ve taken a cursory look at the prospectus, and it seems to have a high reputation, and excellent facilities, so there will, probably, be no need to look further afield. So, maybe (and this could be a fraction of progress), I’m clearer now that I need to stay here, in Elstead, until at least 2004-05, Adam’s last year before university. I could then move back to London, or to Guildford, or somewhere entirely different. From that point on, Adam is unlikely to live at home unless one of his parents happens to be well situated for his studies/work.

But then, what about my wish to have a lodger again; or to have a house in which I can coexist happily with a lodger or two. I would need a house capable of housing two kitchens, and one which was located better for lodgers. So perhaps I should move sooner, to Guildford perhaps or even Godalming itself. But would I really want to be back in an urban sprawl, surrounded by neighbours, and roads and traffic? I suppose if I found exactly the right kind of property then I might be tempted to move, but I look through the papers regularly without seeing anything remotely characterful. And it’s hard to look when I don’t know the value of this house. I could get a valuation, but that imposes on me a more serious intent than I feel at the moment.

Moving on swiftly. What about EC Inform. I thought I might have made a breakthrough by considering the possibility of closing down EC Inform-Transport in January. Doing both newsletters is very wearing, taxing, and I go into numb mode for at least two out of every four weeks. I calculated that, if I made the decision now, it would only cost about £3,000 if I ceased publication in January - i.e. paying back pro rata all the unfinished subscriptions. Then, I would be left with two to three weeks out of every four in which I could get on with something, that something else yet to be defined. But, at least, I would have the time and space to actually get on and do that something else. I felt quite interested in that option. But then I decided to work out how much money I would take in, if I carried on with my current plan to keep the newsletter alive to January 2003 - £25-30,000 net. Can I really afford to throw that away? I ask myself. And the answer is no. Does this mean I am condemned to doing both newsletters for another 18 months? Having embraced the idea of unshackling myself from the drudge of doing both, it is tough to reconsider not unshackling myself. Then I found myself thinking about marketing and stuff, but had to stop myself since marketing newsletters is only really cost-efficient when you hold on to the subscriptions for a few years.

What about my total and utter failure to make any progress with regard to finding a partner. Some days, especially in the car with certain types of music on (and occasionally when looking at a picture of a beautiful girl) I long so deeply for intimacy and partnership again. But, I’ve got nowhere this last year. Looking doesn’t work. Not looking doesn’t work. I’m destitute in that department. I won’t lower my sights, or put on blinkers, so I’ll remain alone - and time marches on and on and on.

And yes then, what shall I do, if and when I dump EC Inform. Apart from Kip Fenn which remains an ambitious dream project, not yet even on the drawing board really, let alone entering the stage of a real feasibility study, I am devoid of serious ideas, and terribly terribly scared that I no longer have the social resources (ability to make a fool of myself, energy to put up with stupid or obstructive people, the willingness to beg and plead favours off people etc) to undertake any kind interesting research which could fill a book. Would I, could I, should I try and make something of my diaries? That would be a last resort perhaps. Should I, could I, would I publish anything myself?

How about money. I’ve got £100,000 or so readyish cash. I could live on this quite happily for three or four years. Or should I be using it to buy me a new house - which takes me back to one of the paragraphs above. And so round and round I go gazing at my navel, gazing at my navel.

18 May 2001

Why do I find creative writing so very difficult. It is now 10:40am, and I haven’t yet started to think about Kip Fenn. Admittedly, I went to bed late (about 1:30 after watching a recorded edition of ‘West Wing’), and therefore I lazed around in bed until 8:30 or so listening to the radio, then I listened to the radio a bit more until 9:00, then I read a novel for 45 minutes or so, then I played a bridge computer game for another 40 minutes, then I took a walk around the garden which I do several times a day, then I made another cup of tea, and now I’m writing up my diary. It’s a deep deep feeling in me, that I recognise well, but which I’ve never been fully able to understand or control. It may well be linked to another feeling, I recognise but don’t understand, which I get when I have done some creative writing for a couple of hours, which virtually obliges me to stop. I have never, for example, been able to work long hours uninterrupted on writing in same way that I can on accounts for example, or production, or resolving a computer problem. There is a kind of energy or mental or physical cut out which stops me simply getting on with it. During the run-up to a newsletter production, I can be at my computer by 7:30 and working away; sometimes, I can work 10-11 hours on routine newsletter stories, but I cannot do that for creative stuff - and certainly not in the early stage of a project as now. I’ve wondered if this kind of empty feeling, of not being able to get on with it, is connected with a fear of not being able to do the job, not being able to come up with anything, of not being able to produce the goods, or, if I’ve produced some goods, a fear of drying up and not being able to produce any more. Are these feelings linked to what many writers might call writer’s block. Perhaps they are.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on myself. I mean it is difficult, very difficult, in the early stages of a new project, especially one which starts from absolutely nothing - as does Kip Fenn. I don’t really know how to start, where to start, I don’t even know how to begin to start, or to begin to begin to start, or to begin to start the beginning of the planning . . . I’ve been here before in the last few days . . . about something else. Already, I must have tried three or four very broad chapter headings to provide a framework for my thinking, but each one is just a few lines of notes. I may have decided that I need to tell Fenn’s story roughly chronologically, and so I spent time yesterday starting to work on his background etc. Thus, I have another page of scrawled notes that bear little relation to other pages, and which may lead to a line or two of text in the novel. When I mention this to Adam - how wise he is already - he tells me, without hesitation, that’s it’s not wasted time, because one needs to build up a picture of the character. Of course, I know that, but what underlies my grumbling is the fear that I can’t do it. This is a very ambitious novel, and I should not be undertaking it in the odd week around my main job. This is preposterous, and yet I’ve spent most of this week, simply coming to the default decision that I need to use my few spare weeks over the next 18 months to work on Kip Fenn. I should really be choosing a less demanding project for this period, and leave Fenn until I’ve dumped EC Inform.

Oh isn’t easier to have these circular arguments with myself than to get on with Fenn. And this is the fun part, the creative imagining part, wait until I have to sit down and start actually writing - my ability to prevaricate will then multiply xfold.

Ads and I went up to Clapham yesterday evening, the Battersea Arts Centre, to an event at an annual modern opera/music festival they put on. I’d chosen something from the brochure to fit in with our timings - Adam’s exams finished on Wednesday, and B is away in Brussels this week. The Gogmagogs is a string septet who combine physical theatre with modern classical music playing. It was a strangely moving performance, with the players’ instruments being used for music and as a physical objects in friendly and aggressive encounters with each other. Since dialogue was kept to a minimum, and the physical movements were quite stylised, the director had sensibly minimised the need for acting ability - these were musicians not actors or dancers, although they were called on to act and dance. Ads was attentive and found it interesting, I think. He certainly wasn’t enraptured by it, but then nor was I. I never thought we would be, but I like seeing different kinds of performances, and if Ads ends up in any kind of creative business, then I feel sure that these many and varied experiences he is having as a child will be a useful background store for his own imagination. There was one quite extraordinary scene in the show towards the end, which, although it seemed out of character with everything that had gone before, did provide a rather colourful and rich climax to the ideas presented previously. It was a ritualistic mating dance. There were two characters who, having left their instruments offstage, came on with huge masks, like Greek gods or something similar. The man had an erect curved phallus two feet long. As he danced around the stage, and the woman danced in front of him, hitching one leg over the phallus so it stuck in front of her, Adam kept glancing over at me. I asked him why, but he wouldn’t say. Later, after the show, he asked me if that scene had been a bit ‘risque’!

Two other new things for him yesterday: a Donner kebab, and ‘Private Eye’. He’s wanted to try a Donner kebab for ages, but the one we had last night was not a good example, and the fat left us with a nasty taste in the back of our throats. I thought he might be ready for ‘Private Eye’, and I wasn’t wrong. He loves it, and is already talking about buying it every fortnight (at £1.20 and such small type, it’s not bad value).

22 May 2001

The Tuesday of my second free week. Things are going slowly, very slowly. I potter around the house, not doing too much. It is nearly 11am now, and all I’ve done is a little reading: a chapter of Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’, a chapter of Martin Amis’ ‘Experience’ (in which, oddly, ‘Underworld’ is briefly referred to), and the last chapter in Michael Heseltine’s autobiography. I was only reading the latter because I decided to tidy up my reading table in the lounge. There must have been 20 books on it, some I’d finished, some I’d got bored with, some reference books, some waiting to be read, and some I am still reading. I thought I had finished Heseltine’s long book, but there was still a bookmark before the last chapter about his role as Deputy Prime Minister and the run-up to the last election. It is difficult to see the Conservative Party ever nurturing the likes of a Heseltine again - it is doing nothing and saying nothing in this current election campaign to prove it is worthy of the people’s trust, and nothing to attract bright clever people who will, one day, appeal to the centreground of British politics, something which the Labour Party is doing so well at the moment. But I didn’t mean to get sidetracked on to politics. I have Jan Garbarek’s ‘Rites’ playing in the background. Outside, there is glorious sunshine, and the sweet smell of the Japanese azaleas fills the garden. I walk out, and around the garden several times during the day, to check on my pot plants, and my vegetables, and to enjoy the trees, now in full spring growth mode. I counted the number of trees in my garden the other day, and it gave me great pleasure to realise that I had so many different typically British trees: apple, hawthorne, holly, oak, rowan, yew, amalenchier, silver birch, Scot’s pine, and goat willow. I noticed this morning that my rowans were flowering - not that their creamy flowers are particularly noteworthy.

I’ve booked flights for Ads and I to go Amsterdam for a few days in June. We’ll stay at David’s flat, although I’m not sure whether he’ll be there or not.

I had thought to go away walking this week - possibly to the Peak District - but I decided there would still be too many foot-and-mouth restrictions in place and I would only find it frustrating and difficult not to be able to access any of the wilder moors. So I’ve stayed at home, pottering around. But, bit by bit, I am trying to think about Kip Fenn.

My big news is that our volleyball team won the Surrey third division league on Sunday. Although we had won all our games during the season, there was a play-off between the top four sides, two of which were to be promoted, and one of which, obviously, was to be the champion. One side didn’t turn up at Chessington Community College, the agreed venue, so, rather than a semi-final and final, it became a round robin in which all three sides played each other. Our side had eight players - no Monica, no Toby thank goodness. But two players who had not been with the team during the season muscled their way in, John (a setter) and Billy (a hitter). I was unsure how this would affect my position in the team, and I was afraid that I would be pushed out somehow, and particularly that I would not get to play as a setter. I was even more worried by this when it transpired that we would have a coach, Matt, who would effectively decide who was on court and who was off. Fortunately, two of the older and more experienced members of the team (by that I mean they’ve been with the club a long time, and played at a higher level) advised Matt that Steve and I should set (i.e. not John or Gary someone else in the team who likes to set). And Matt started off well, by saying that those people who’ve played during the season should obviously have precedence in the team. So Steve and I were played on court.

Our first match was against the Wimbledon Wolves, the weakest side of the three. We fairly mangled them in the first set, and then, half way through the second set, the Wolves started to collect a few points, and, at a time out, Matt pulled me off, and put John on in my place. I didn’t feel very good about this, but I accepted it. John is a better setter than me, but there was no chance of us losing. For the third set, I was brought back on, and Steve was taken off. One of the hitters (Brian) was also taken off to allow Billy a game. We won the match easily, without losing a set.

It was then the turn of the Slayers to play the Wolves, so we had to sit around for the best part of two hours. The Slayers won by three sets to one, and as soon as they did, our promotion up a league was assured. It was then our turn to play for first and second places. Matt put me into play, but left Steve out, i.e. of a second set - I queried this decision (I wasn’t - and I’m still not - clear on the etiquette of challenging a coach’s decision), and said that all season we had rotated players. Steve intervened directly to say that it was OK and he would be playing later. Yes, I knew that, but I felt that each one of us should only be missing out on one game each. I’ve looked at the figures, and it turns out that Steve and Gary missed two games each, I missed one and a half, Brian missed one, Dag and Barry missed none. The two ‘ringers’ Billy and John missed two and a half and three games each. Only by the skin of his teeth did Matt manage to make sure that the regular team played more games that the ringers. Since we only played six games in all, our team of six would have been easily sufficient to win. Moreover, even if we had been taken to four or five sets in one or other games, it would not have mattered since we had such a long break between games. As it was, Steve and I ended up playing less games than we would have done in one full five-set match.


But I mustn’t complain - it was great to win all season, and with such a friendly team. We played simple but effective volleyball. I think my own volleyball has improved a lot, and I’m beginning to think I am becoming quite an effective setter. I make very few mistakes, I chase down a lot of balls which otherwise might be lost; and, although, I may not give perfect sets all the time when I receive a good ball, I give moderately good sets regularly even if I receive a bad ball. I think I choose well where to set the ball (except that I have not yet progressed to choosing where I set by assessing the opposition, I still only set by choosing the best position on our side), and I am capable of winning a few points by careful placement. Even when I’m at the back and receiving, I usually can get every served ball up in the air well enough to ensure a reasonable attack back. And, oh yes, I nearly forgot, I’ve got a crafty little serve. I don’t have much strength in it, but I’m quite good at placing it, and dropping it low over the net. As setter, I never (or very rarely) have to hit the ball, which I’m useless at, and neither do I have to do too much digging, which is also a weakness. All round, I’m very happy setting, and I think I do a reasonable job. Unfortunately, I fear for my place next season. Even if I get selected for the team, who knows, I might turn up and get left out all the time, in which case, I’ll not bother.

After the games, we all went to the Monkey Puzzle for a drink. I’d given Steve a lift, and we ended up going to Leatherhead for a take-away before heading back to Spectrum for the evening training session. But I should not have gone, because I was actually rather tired. It wasn’t only the games, but there was 10 minutes of warming up and half an hour tough practice before each game as well. I was too casual in warm-up and bent a finger badly, that repaired itself fairly quickly, but then I strained a muscle in one calf, which left me limping for the rest of the session. I didn’t want to stop, because we were playing a fine game, with Steve and I setting again, and winning almost every point. By the time I got home I was well knackered, so much so that I couldn’t sleep properly, nor the next night. It’s Tuesday evening now, and I’m still stiff all over, and my calf is still at odds with me.

24 May 2001

The brilliant summer weather has continued all week. If anything, it is too hot to work in the garden during the day, and in the evening, the combination of hot air and standing water in the ditch at the back of the garden brings a flurry of mosquitoes out to play. I am tidying up the heather garden at the moment, removing plants defeated by the waterlogging in the winter, and reinvigorating the soil around the base of the surviving plants with peat mulches.

Yesterday, a paving contractor came round to give me a quote on gravelling my front garden. He was maddeningly imprecise, and kept trying out his winning marketing skills on me. ‘I knew you must be from London, London people like a bit of a chat. Yeah, I can do I really nice job for you.’

Theo dropped round for a cup of tea yesterday, all decked out in his leathers. He’s about to go by motorbike with 15 others to France for a holiday. He and his friends have hired a large villa in a small village - but I pity the village’s inhabitants when they first hear the 15 motorbikes roar in for the week. He recounts various stories of working at Bush House, not least one about how, on two occasions, his editorial team (World Service business news) decided not to run a story on the ‘Economist’s’ editorial decrying of Berlusconi - he is, apparently, suing the ‘Economist’, and the BBC didn’t want to engage, so to speak.

I continue to struggle with my imagination over Kip Fenn. I’ve sketched out, very roughly, the main themes for a little more than half the book. Tomorrow, I shall try and type it all up into sensible notes (rather than rough hand-written notes, covered in squiggles, boxes, arrows) so that, when I eventually get round to returning to it (one month, one year, two years . . .), I’ll be able to re-engage with my ideas. I talked to Ads last evening about some of the ideas. He thought I was trying to squeeze too much into one book, but I explained my idea about ‘Reflections’ being a term coined, in the late 2080s, for autobiographical books which skim on the detail, and how any real autobiography would have to be full of endless detail, with names and places, which, when not real, would be boring to invent, and even more boring to read.

28 May 2001

For a change, I am at home on my birthday, and it is a bank holiday to boot, so I’ve been able to relax more than usual, and pretend I’m not really 49, or seven sevens - too often in recent years, I seem to recall, I’ve been in Brussels on my birthday. I’ve just looked in my diary, next year, my 50th birthday falls on a Tuesday, but the day before, 27 May is also a bank holiday, and so I shall have my birthday party on that day - I shall invite everyone from far and wide, if most of them come, it should be good.

Yesterday, we tripped up to see my mother, who cooked a splendid meal of roulardes (as usual). Julian’s family were there too (but not Melanie). Julian and co are now living with Sarah’s mother (having finally sold the Devon house) and are desperately casting around for a suitable property in the Amersham/Tring area. They may have found one near Great Missenden, they both seem to like it, so now they need to make sure they don’t lose it in the bidding. It was lovely to see my two nieces and nephew again - I’ve seen them so little since Julian moved to Devon. All three of them drew/painted lovely cards for me. Mum was in good form, and in bright cheer. I seemed to make everybody laugh.

29 May 2001

Travelling on Eurostar, at 9:14pm UK time now, soon to be approaching Lille, and twilight outside, another hour or so to Brussels. I’ve eaten the most horrible tuna and cucumber sandwich which I bought at a Waterloo station shop. I was going to buy one at Boots, which makes reasonable sarnies, but was caught by a snack shop which seemed to have a good range, and was busy with people buying. How on earth can it survive - now I’ve bought one sandwich there I shall never buy another one; and there must be a lot of people like me passing regularly through the station. Still, I had an excellent lunch: some roulardes I brought back from Mum’s, and fried up mashed potato, with a green salad. At last, the time of year has arrived when the salad vegetables start to have real flavour. And last night, we had a pleasant pizza meal at Olivo’s in Guildford - B’s treat. It was all very pleasant except for the olives which had a cardboard flavour and texture about them, and it stayed in the back of my throat for too long.

Both Roser and Mayco sent me emails on my birthday. (Mayco sent me a package of bits of paper, which she does now and then: a card, some photos, a bookmark or paper cutting, all with words written on them.) They are such different people, it is strange I should be so in touch with both of them after all these years.

I was also given a card and a Gershwin CD by Judy and Rob. Judy rang on the Bank Holiday Monday morning to see if we wanted to go for a walk, and I confessed it was my birthday. As it happens, I had planned to invite them to join us for a walk on Monday. We met at Shalford Church, and walked along the river, and ended up at the Seahorse for expensive drinks. What did we talk about? Judy and I always start off talking together, leaving Rob and B to catch up. Judy told me about her stalled editing project (a book on osteopathy), her lecture course, their trip to Venice, and their forthcoming houseswap with a family in Spain. Later, Rob and I swapped news on roofs, and canoe/volley clubs, and the state of our businesses. Adam and James scrambled up the sandy hill to the ruin near the railway line (while we huffed and puffed up), but they must have run out of talk because they descended into mock fighting most of the time at the pub (Sophie had stayed at home). It seems that Rob and James fight and tease each other as much as Adam and I.

As I sit here - after Lille - I can’t think of much to write about.

31 May

On the way back from Brussels, after an unremarkable two days. Last night I spent the evening at Fiona’s house in Watermael. She, Mark and their two children Freddie and Elliot decamped from London last year back to Brussels. Mark works at Nato, and Fiona was put in charge of AP’s office. I thought it was a good job for her to get, and that she was enjoying it. But she tells me that she’s handed in her notice. She wants to do an MBA now. She says it’s because she wants to get a job at NATO, and that she hasn’t managed to get one so far because she needs something like an MBA. The children are sweet. I played with them quite a lot, teasing and joking and making them laugh, and when Elliot was crying his head off in his cot, it only took me five minutes to quieten him down - all I did was talk to him. Fiona cooked a pleasant pasta dish, and Mark opened a bottle of pink champagne. A Kenyan au pair (the daughter of a policewoman and boarding school educated) ate with us. After some discussion of science fiction - Mark has a mass of novels - we chatted about the European Union ideal, as we have done in the past. Mark is a bit of a sceptic and able to throw out a few challenging questions.

I’ve just moved carriages because a couple with two children, all similarly aged to Fiona et al, joined the train at Lille (presumably having been to DisneyLand) and took the seats next to me. I cannot believe how insensitive they are. Since the moment they arrived, the two children have not stopped chattering, and their parents have not stopped watching and responding to their every movement and chatter with loud words of encouragement or chastisement or banal conversation. This one family’s chatter filled up the carriage for over an hour, presumably disturbing, to one extent or another, everyone there. Not once did the parents tell either child to stop making such a noise, or to talk more quietly, nor did they, in any way, encourage them to engage in a quiet activity such as reading or drawing. I was trying to work, but the noise and my resentment at their impoverished parenting just kept going round and round in my head. What a power trip some parents embark on when they have children - they can get away with it when the children are tiny, but it’s no wonder they get paid back in kind later on in their lives. Fortunately, one whole carriage emptied at Ashford and I was able to find some peace and quiet. The train is running half an hour late now because some poor person suffered a medical emergency at Ashford and we had to wait for an ambulance.

The second test match against Pakistan started today, so instead of listening to the news at odd moments during the day, I’ve had the pleasure of following England’s progress at Old Trafford (on Radio Four LW which is all I can get in Brussels). By mid-afternoon, Pakistan was reasserting itself (England having creamed off four wickets for less than 100).

I have an unusually busy day tomorrow. Adam is at home because it’s half term; I have to take my car in for a service; I should be going into Godalming for shopping and post; I have a paper boat meeting at 6; and an evening in the pub with Dag and Steve (Dag is leaving England and returning to Sweden for ever on Saturday). In-between all that, I should be writing up a range of material I’ve collected these last two days, to leave myself time to do some gardening at the weekend. On Saturday evening, we will go to Spectrum to watch the England-Romania volleyball international.

June 2001

Paul K Lyons


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