Sunday 4 November

The weather has turned very cold. Last night returning from the Chiddingfold fireworks and bonfire on the motorbike I was an arctic explorer in search of his lost base. The temperature had dropped below zero, my digits were chilled to the marrow, and because I had to drive with the visor up (its inside was too covered in moisture) frost was forming on my beard. At times the mist was so dense, I could barely see the lights of the car in front. I kept thinking about how surprising it was that even somewhere as safe as Surrey, one can so quickly find oneself in trying conditions; and then I thought about the people in Afghanistan and the freezing cold winters there.

The fireworks were fun; but the bonfire was a bit of a failure, in that only one side caught light. It was a roaring furnace to the south and a dead pile of wood to the north. I was struck, firstly, by how many people had turned out for the event, and, secondly, by how unusual it was for so many people to be out on the streets all at the same time. How strange that 5 November is the only regular annual event that brings so many people out together at the same time. Some of the fairs and fetes gather large crowds, but nothing like this event. I also thought that, given the large crowds, it was rather uncommercialised: there could be many more stalls (we didn’t buy any hamburgers, for example, because the queues were far too long). This year, red-flashing antennae were IN. I wonder if they have more to do with Harry Potter than Guy Fawkes.

I have finished ‘The Blind Assassin’. It was good, it was a very good book. Yes. And a reasonable Booker winner. But, I can’t say I was very interested in all the detail about upper class Canada life between the wars.

I’m also reading another Minette Walters. I read one of her books once, years ago, and was much disappointed. Then a story of hers got made into a successful TV drama, and she’s become even more well-known. But this book, ‘The Snake’ something or other, is a very run-of-the mill who-dunnit. It’s somehow the worst of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell rolled into one, without any saving graces. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, and therefore, because she takes her story into places she shouldn’t, her dialogue and her psychological explanations are all vapid, and no matter how many stereotyped corners she tries to shave off her characters, she doesn’t succeed. By contrast (which I mention due to timing - I’m finishing both this w/e - not because Walters can, in any way, be compared Atwood, what we are talking here is Archer versus Le Carre, or chipboard to oak, or aspumante to champagne), Atwood says of Richard, the narrator’s husband on page 585 of the 640 page book:

‘I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense. He remains a cardboard cutout. I know that. I can’t truly describe him, I can’t get a precise focus: he’s blurred, like the face in some wet discarded newspaper. Even at the time he appeared to me smaller than life, although larger than life as well. It came from his having too much money, too much presence in the world - you were tempted to expect more from him than was there, and so what was average in him seemed like a deficiency. He was ruthless, but not like a lion; more like a sort of large rodent. He tunnelled underground; he killed many things by chewing off their roots. He had the wherewithal for grand gestures, for acts of significant generosity, but he made none. He had become like a statue of himself: huge, public, imposing, hollow. It wasn’t that he was too big for his boots: he wasn’t big enough for them. That’s it in a nutshell.’

Atwood’s cardboard cutouts, make Walter’s characters no more dimensional than the square root of minus one.

Saturday 10 November

A hard frost last night. There was even snow in London the day before; and yet the trees are still furnished fully with leaves. Autumn is late this year, or so it seems.

One of my cacti failed on me. I found it the other day lying horizontal, having broken at the base and hanging on by unbroken sinewy flesh on one side. It was all wet and gooey, indicating it may have died of overwatering. It was surprisingly difficult, though, to remove the fallen spike - I had thought it would just lift away, yet one side of the base was still attached. It was all sinewy, as I’ve said, and I had to cut it free with scissors. I don’t understand what happened. For two months or more, I’ve watered all the cacti rather sparingly. I thought they were doing well this year. And I was particularly proud of this one, which had grown tall and fat on my care; and, unlike other taller cacti, it had no leaning tendencies which might have given cause for anxiety. It was in a pot with two other cacti, and so I can still see (I am typing in my reading chair right next to the cacti) the black gnarled stump of the dead one. It’s the first cacti I’ve lost.

I’ve spent a fair amount of mental energy this week ‘worrying’ about volleyball. It’s an amusing worry, however; an entertainment. Did I say that I volunteered to organise the Storm team matches this season jointly with Steve? I don’t know. Well, I did. Someone else was going to do it, but they were away for the first couple of matches, and I took the opportunity to step in. I suggested to Steve we take on the role jointly, and he agreed. So he did a couple of matches, and now I’ve done a couple of matches. In theory, all this job requires is sending out an email to the team members with the match details, and collating the responses to ensure we have a full team. In practice, it’s much more fun. For one of Steve’s matches, for example, there was a huge hullabaloo (scores and scores of emails flying around between club members) one Friday because another club member had imposed on our team players some officiating duties in a different place and on a different day from our own match (normally officiating duties are organised so the people involved can perform them either before or after one of their own matches). Steve complained, and I backed him up, and others chipped in, and their replies were circulated, and the replies to the replies were circulated. Then, on Thursday this week, when I should have been concentrating on proof reading EC Inform-Transport issue 54, one of our team members set off a hull-e-baloo (this is a new word, I’ve just invented for Kip Fenn, it describes perfectly a short-lived flurry of emails about a particular issue) by emailing Ian (the club fixtures secretary) directly asking if he could re-arrange the next match. He did this because he can’t make the next match, and because he knew one or two others couldn’t. But I had already told him, I can’t ask Ian to rearrange the match until I know for sure we can’t get a team - so that involved a number of extra emails - I think I logged 20 or so emails (in and out) that day - and that was even before I had one confirmed player.

The next match is, in fact, a biggie, because we are playing the other Guildford club team in our league. Unfortunately, we have been losing all our matches this season, basically, in my opinion (no one else will say so openly) because we have two/three poor players. Last season, we managed to win because we never had more than one poor player on court at a time, and because some matches were played with a full and good squad. But this year, we always seem to end up with at least two poor players on court; plus we are in a higher league. By poor players, I mean players who cannot be relied on not to make a mistake when dealing with an ordinary/easy ball.

I wonder if Kip Fenn is keen on 18th Century photography, and victorian erotica.

An interesting insight - I may have spotted it before, written about it before (in fact I know I have, perhaps in a slightly different way): I have a two week free period now, and not much else to do with it but work on Kip Fenn. Last month, I found that it was very helpful to start reading over KF material on the Friday immediately after production, so that my head was already thinking about KF over the weekend, which would then make it easier to get into it straight away on the Monday. So, I thought perhaps I would do the same this time - but I found resistance in my head. There were two forces involved. Firstly, I had not made a definite decision to read any KF material on Friday - if I make a decision, then I invariably stick to it, but I felt I hadn’t on this occasion. But why the resistance?, It was something to do with being afraid to find the writing wanting, afraid to find the material not very good, afraid of not being able to produce any more. I think that was it, though to be honest, the feeling was so ephemeral, so far away, so foggy, it is hard to pin it down, describe it, or be sure what I mean.

The sky is blue, the sun is shining. The Common is calling me - but I doubt I shall go today, maybe tomorrow.

I took a trip to London yesterday. It was one of those ‘I really must do something, get out of the house, see some culture’ kind of initiatives. I read Gould’s ‘The Lying Stones of Marrakesh’ on the trains there and back; I visited the Photographer’s Gallery where there was an exhibition of Atget’s photos of turn-of-the-century Paris. Somewhat arrogantly, I thought, a contemporary photographer called Wentworth with photographs of London’s underbelly had been set up the latter as a contemporary Atget. But, whereas Atget’s photographs are of a documentary nature, with mild implied commentary (perhaps exaggerated by the choice of photographs displayed) about the state of the city and its people; Wentworth’s photographs are all commentary, he is too busy demonstrating his ability to spot irony or ugliness in London’s streets. Just because Atget’s photos NOW look interesting to us, many of them would have been very ordinary pictures at the time, only made extraordinary by the fact that photography was still in its artistic infancy. Wentworth eschews the ordinary, simple photos of buildings for example, or entrances, or streetscapes; most of his photos are closer taken, of litter or stray objects in the street; people are there because Wentworth has found something odd or unusual about them, not because they represent London here and now and today. The Photographer’s Gallery should know better than to try and foist this kind of pretension on us.

Then I walked back to the South Bank. I had been intending to trip along the river to the Tate Modern, but I found an interesting event in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Radio Three was broadcasting its ‘In Tune’ programme live, to launch the London Jazz Festival. A number of different bands were playing, and key musicians were being interviewed by the presenter Sean Rafferty. The space was quite poorly organised, giving excellent views to people with seats and tables, but leaving a lot of people standing around at the back, trying to see round billboards. I sat down comfortably on the floor at the side, and read my book inbetween takes. For my record, I saw: Steve Lodder (organ) and Mark Ramsden (sax); Huw Warren (piano); Annie Whitehead (trombone); the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers (a capella singers from South Africa); the Tin Hat Trio from the US; Gary Crosby (bass); Luke Daniels (accordion).

15 November 2001

Steve Waterman plays his mellow trumpet sounds on my new cd/minidisk player. (I don’t know why I bought a system with a minidisk, which is at least £100 more expensive than the equivalent system without, I suppose I was just being extravagant - I have a new video recorder too, although I really needed that since the old one had stopped working properly).

I am typing up my early Brazil diaries. I’ve completed the first one, and now I’m on the second, about four months into my sojourn there. I’ve just typed up the story about how I bought the painting on the wall (above the new audio system), and I find that, unlike many tales about my past which tend to get embellished in the telling and retelling, the one I tell about the painting is not as good as the reality written into the diary. I had thought that the only interesting thing about the painting was that I bought it in an auction at which it was the only painting I liked, and one of the only paintings which no one else liked and which therefore went for a knock down price. That is true, but I’d forgotten the best bit of the story. Firstly, I spotted the painting on the walls of the auction room when I arrived before the start, and it was the only one visible that I liked. When I looked through the catalogue, there was only one painting that stood out: Igreja a Sabara. And this was because I had recently spent a marvellous day in the historic town of Sabara, on returning from a science fair in Belo Horizonte. This was lot 44. Although I disliked all the paintings I could see (except for the one I’d spotted earlier), and I was bored, I decided to wait for lot 44. Imagine my surprise then, when Igreja a Sabara was the very same painting I’d spotted on arriving and the only one I liked. I wrote about this touch of synchronicity with great glee at the time. And then, to my amazement, no one else bid for it, and I got it at the base price of 200,000 cruzeiros (I’m not sure how much that was), even though other paintings were going for up to 5 million.

And here’s some more up-to-date synchronicity (it’s rather weak but then my life doesn’t exactly provide much opportunity for synchronous happenings). When I was raiding my diaries from the early-mid 1990s for Kip Fenn, I found a reference to the singer I used to go and see at the Black Lion on Monday nights in the Kilburn High Road - she inspired one of the ‘Love Uncovered’ short stories - ‘Loving Alex’. I could never understand what such a talented singer was doing in an empty Kilburn pub on Monday nights. In my diary I found her name, which I’d forgotten, Holly Penfield. I immediately went to Google and did a websearch and found her own personal website. She’s obviously come a long way since Kilburn. But here’s the synchronous bit - the one forthcoming gig mentioned on the site is at the Pizza on the Park venue on 4 December. Guess who’s playing at the same venue on 5 December - Mike Westbrook!

The weather has turned very cold again, and quite bitter. Although this afternoon, there was glorious sunshine. I took advantage and went for a long walk on the Common. I had finished (well, first draft) the first chapter of Kip Fenn in the morning, and knew I couldn’t even consider starting the next chapter without some serious thinking. So I took a notebook and a pen with me, and sat down here and there in the sun to make notes. I did manage a fair amount of thinking, and decided on important elements for the chapter. I’m starting to think seriously, for example, about the character of Hilary (Kip’s first wife), and about Kip’s time in Brussels. Am I pleased with the first chapter? Not too displeased. But I haven’t yet faced any real factual difficulties, but I will in chapter two.

The Taliban are on the run. They’ve given up Kabul, and will probably give up Kandahar too in the next few days. But they’ll take their committed followers, and their weapons and their vehicles into the hills, and then wage guerrilla war against whoever takes over - at the moment it is the Northern Alliance in Kabul and other chiefs in the west and south. The US and allies are a bit flummuxed as to what to do now - why should the Northern Alliance give over any control of Kabul and the northern territories to anyone else now they are back in charge. Will the West have to start to bombing them too - not straight away perhaps, but maybe in time, when they start usurping their power and refusing Western support for a coalition government to take charge of the whole country. Why was a regime as tough and dark as the Taliban in charge of the country (or most of it, because the Northern Alliance controlled certain territories before 11 September). Quite simply because the country was not governable by anyone else - time and history had proved that - nothing has changed now. The same people, the same tribes with the same chiefs and same loyalties are still there in the country - the West will not be able to unite a people that do not want to be united. We’ll have to try now, but by lordy it’ll be messy.

25 November 2001

My two weeks on Kip Fenn has come to an end. I spent the first week finishing chapter one and thinking about chapter two, and the second week writing the first half of chapter two. I’ve now written over 30,000 words, which is as much as one part of BLR’s three parts. But I expect Kip Fenn to be twice as long as BLR, with around 20,000 words for each of 10 chapters - although I may be deluding myself about what I’ll be able to write for the later chapters.

In terms of my writing schedule, I managed around 2,000 words a day, although I feel sure that if I were to really push myself (if I had a real deadline for example) I could do 3,000 words. In general, though, I think I need the best part of three clear weeks to write a 20,000 word chapter, including two or three days of thinking and preparation, and the odd half days here and there for research. If I used all my spare time over the next year, I would only have four-six chapters written by the end of EC Inform. This would, though, give me something to get my teeth into during the first half of 2003.

I spent most of yesterday at Spectrum watching a friendly volleyball competition between a few of the country’s top clubs, including Aquila, Malory, Portsmouth and England Juniors. Some bright spark in the Prince’s Trust had organised a ‘Balls to the Music’ event to publicise the work of the Trust and to bring in money. Apart from volleyball, there were motivation seminars, pop music by local up-and-coming bands, a few stalls and an appearance by Josh and Elizabeth (from Big Brother 2) - I think they played volleyball in the house if I remember right. Josh proved a reasonable player and was recruited by the Portsmouth Team - Elizabeth acted as second ref for one match, which meant Matt was relegated to scorer and I was relegated to not doing anything. I did score several matches, though, which was useful, because otherwise some of the stuff I’d learnt on that course would have been lost. I also spent time watching the ref and his signals, to reinforce my recent learning. Apart from that, there was excellent volleyball to watch. In the music intervals, I went once for a walk across the park into Guildford (where I saw an interesting exchange between a security guard and an old busker - they looked as though they had been in conflict for decades, and I saw a short story); and one for a walk through the nearby woods - autumn has come suddenly, and the trees are full of beautiful colour.

26 November

It is frighteningly near the end of another year. I am just biding time towards old age. On Eurostar, but with a difference, Ads is with me this time. He has an inset day on Wednesday, and since this odd day off coincided with my relaxed trip to Brussels I thought I would take him with me. He hasn’t been to Brussels for a couple of years, and the last time he came, I didn’t really show him around any of the institutions - we were too busy moving things from the old flat to the new one.

I have been reading a book about the history of the internet - ‘The history of the future’ by John Naughton. I bought it because I thought it might give me insight into what I should give Kip Fenn to do. Although a huge chunk of the book is about the early origins of the various aspects that underpinned the internet development, there are a few pointers towards the future and a short discussion of regulatory issues - which is where Kip will get involved. Naughton also discusses, fairly briefly, the issue of pornography and provided an interesting lead to a psychology academic, R. M. Young, who publishes on the web and has written interestingly about society (including sex) and the internet. I am starting to develop my ideas on this for Kip, but I’ve yet to start writing about the issues proper. There may be a danger that I touch on a long list of subjects without ever really going into any of them at all deeply. I notice, for example, that, when it came to volleyball, I opted out of giving Kip a role to play at the top level of the sport - it didn’t seem to fit in with his story very well - and so I’ve not communicated anything much about the volleyball world.

Tidbit to do with Kip Fenn. While waiting in the Eurostar lounge, I opened a new Rankin thriller - on page 2, I found him introducing a character called Phillipa, universally known as Flip! And I thought I invented the name.

I spent a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday evenings watching Channel Four’s top 100 films, as chosen by a large selection of the public. It was disappointing to find ‘Star Wars’ at No 1, ‘Shawshank Redemption’ at No 3, and true classics such as ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Citizen Kane’ way down the least in the teens. Even ‘The Godfather’ at No 2 is a bit excessive; and as for ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in the top 10 . . . I feel sure such lists are unhelpfully biased towards movies which are either recent or have been shown on TV a lot.

The rout of Afghanistan continues. The Taliban are on their last legs. Interested parties are due to meet in Bonn to try and work out how a future government might operate, and who would be party to it. The big question, though, is whether the US will be able to capture bin Laden as they close in on the last Taliban territories around Kandahar. I would guess he will not be taken alive, which may lead to his partial deification - not a good thing.

December 2001

Paul K Lyons


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INTRO to diaries