JOURNAL - 2003 - MAY

5 May

Roast beef and potatoes, with leaf spinach for lunch. No afters or pudding (we rarely have either with a substantial main meal - I don’t know how other people manage to stuff so much food away).

Satie’s gentle early piano works play. I tell Adam my life is a bit like this music, quiet, gentle, unassuming. And it is. This is a real soft, stressless moment in my life, and the only pity is that I can’t enjoy it more, both psychologically (by just relaxing and not wanting more) and practically (by having some kind of social life to profit from). And when I think about Kip Fenn, I realise it’s probably the most exciting pure writing project of my life, which only reinforces the enviable position I am in.

I was thinking these kind of thoughts when in London on Friday, having a culture time out. I walked from Waterloo to the Photographer’s Gallery (trying to work out if there was less traffic than before the Congestion Charge) enthralled by the variety of people (just as I had been enthralled - as I always am - by the variety of architecture viewed from the train as it crawled into Waterloo). I took a tea and cake in the Gallery (as I always do), and examined the depressing photographs of war-torn one-day-to-be Palestine - mostly I didn’t find anything photographically special in them. From there, I walked through crowded Covent Garden, across Waterloo Bridge (in driving rain) to the National Theatre. I contemplated trying for a theatre ticket that night, but I didn’t feel enthusiastic enough about any of the shows, before moving on to the Royal Festival Hall to listen to the early evening jazz - an Afro-blues kind of band which was surprisingly good. They drew a large audience, and much applause. While at the RFH, I also went around the photo exhibition of the world’s annual press awards. There were many war photos here too, but, on the whole, I thought the standard was far higher than at the Photographer’s Gallery: when I looked at the winning photographs I could see their artistic value, their quality; but I found too many of the photos in the Photographer’s Gallery of mediocre standard.

I’m typing up diary 6 at the moment. I’m not sure when I last read this diary if ever. It covers my early days at MORI and my living with Mayco in Chelsea. I’m also proof-reading my diary from 1992, the year I decided to leave the FT and start up EC Inform. Both diaries demonstrate how busy and active I was, and yet how much I complained about not being active enough, about not having satisfying work, or a satisfying social life.

7 May 2003

9:30 on this sunny spring morning, it’s just occurred to me that this is the still point of my life, the still point of my turning world.

10 May 2003

Dull and overcast today. I’m not sure why seeds I planted several weeks ago have not sprouted. The two rows of lettuce have started, but not the runner beans or peppers.

I’ve been walking for a couple of days in the Cotswolds. I had planned to go walking, along the Offa’s Dyke route, during Adam’s half term, but I put it off because my knee did not feel 100%. And when I was in the library last week picking up a couple of extra books about Offa’s Dyke, I also took one on Cotswold walks. After much prevarication, I decided against Wales (too long stretches and too difficult, and the difficulties of getting back to the car after walking in a straight line) in favour of the circular walks in the Cotswolds. I always tell myself it’ll be the same as walking from somewhere to somewhere in a straight line, but it never is - it’s a different experience all together.

I did a fair amount of reading and map-perusing before deciding I would aim to stay in a place called Bourton-on-the-Water on the Thursday night, so as to do a walk from there on Friday (thereby not needing to touch the car), and do a walk slightly further West near Cheltenham on the Thursday itself. I thought I might stay over until Saturday, but wasn’t sure.

I left before 6:00am on Thursday morning, and the traffic was fine. Bypassing Oxford there was a lot of traffic going into the city, but very little going my way. By Burford (what a pretty high street, reminding me a bit of Midhurst) I was ready for breakfast, but could I find any? No. Only a Little Chef on the A40. I looked at the prices (£1.69 for a pot of tea, and £6 or so for a breakfast) and the solitary besuited people inside, and decided to give it a miss. I pressed on, via back roads, towards Bourton-on-the-Water, but didn’t want to spoil it for myself by visiting before the evening, so drove north up to Stow-on-the-Wold, where I was sure I’d find somewhere to eat breakfast. But no, only another Little (bloody) Chef. I gave in, and had a £1.69 pot of tea and a £3.50 egg and bacon bap. The bacon was viciously salty. The taste stayed with me for hours. Never again. I felt so aggrieved by the standard of the food and prices that I seriously considered writing to the company, For goodness sake, they have a monopoly at that time of the morning, their restaurants could be thrivingly busy if they served reasonable food at reasonable prices.

I’d chosen a place to park at the eastern perimeter of a walk on Cleeve Hill, and zig-zagged my way through the lanes to get there. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally as it turned out) the country lane I had planned to park on was closed for some kind of works. I refused to let my plans be undone so easily so I wiggled the car through the road block barriers and drove several miles until I came across a mass of machinery filling the road. I parked, got out and went to talk to the workmen. It transpired that I was on the wrong road, and that if I hadn’t been so quick to assume the coincidence (i.e. sod’s law that the road I wanted was the one that was closed - an egocentric universe) then I would have realised, with a quick look at the map, that I should have driven on further to the next turning to find my chosen lane.

The very first stretch of the walk took me across the fields stretching downhill from Corndean Hall. It was though I had just stepped into countryside paradise, so many trees in flower, the fields all lush and green, sheep grazing peacefully nearby - it was the most pleasant stretch of the day (so much so I was tempted to retrace my steps at the end, but I didn’t). Corndean farm a little further on was far less attractive, and Postlip Mills, its buildings filling up a narrow stream valley, was loud and ugly, although it had made a special effort to signpost the right of way through its property. Another pretty stretch took me nearby Postlip Hall (glimpseable only through a hole in a gate) and up onto Cleeve Common. According to my guide book this is the largest area of unenclosed ‘high wold’; but it looks a little scruffy I have to say, with very little vegetation, and many tracks across its hillocks. Further round, beyond the golf course, the Common becomes more attractive as it’s broken up with gorse (currently in flower) and spectacular views across to Cheltenham, the Severn Valley and the Malvern Hills in the distance. Unfortunately, the highest point of the Cotswolds (barely 1,000 ft) has nothing to commend it but a batch of ugly masts. Thereafter, I went a little wrong, and found myself walking two long sides of a triangle to get back onto my circular route. This last one-fifth of the eight mile walk was made surprisingly unpleasant by a plague of black insects that swarmed the whole way; they looked like a cross between a fly and a wasp. There was so many at times, I had to keep waving my hands in front of my face to stop them going in my eyes or mouth. Towards the end of the walk, I stopped for a few minutes at Belas Knapp, a reconstructed Neolithic long barrow, over 50 metres long and dating from 2,500-3,000 BC. When excavated in the 19th century four chambers were found with the remains of over 30 human beings. My book says the long barrow construction might suggest that dry stone walling techniques have remained largely unchanged for 5,000 years.

It was only lunch-ish time when I got back to the car, and I decided to go through Winchcombe and see what was what at Sudely Castle, a place on my map. But I got stuck in traffic in Winchcombe, so I ditched the car, walked through the village, and followed the signs for a BBC Grand Sale, which was also the direction of Sudely Castle. Below Winchcombe, the River Isbourne flows roughly parallel to the main road; one plain Cotswold stone bridge takes you across the river, but then once on Sudely Castle land, a much more elaborate stone bridge takes the track over a small pond (an old fish pond perhaps). This bridge is a pleasant spot, but round the next corner I suddenly found where all the cars (the ones that had, presumably, caused the traffic jam in the village high street, and which had passed me all going one way up to the castle) had gone: to a giant car park. Large marquees were set up some distance from the castle, and hundreds of people were milling round. Inquisitive as ever I nosed around. Somehow I found myself inside the marquees: and yes, it was exactly what it said it was - a grand sale. And a very crowded one too; almost all the crowd was made up of highly-perfumed, exceedingly well-dressed, over-jewelled middle-aged women, and all the stores were connected with home decor in some way: dried flowers, furniture, fabrics, ornaments, pots, antiques and not-so-antiques. There was a whiff, no a stink I should say, of Liberty’s or Laura Ashley in excelsis. My mother would have been perfectly at home. I was not. I desperately made for the way out - not easy to find - before I suffocated. I got out the main entrance only to realise that I should have paid! Hah!

But still I hadn’t caught sight of Sudely Castle, so I carried on nosying around. This time I made my way past a sign that said ticket holders only, but I didn’t see it, honest guv. Round one hedge, and then another, and I was in a magical place (to think the marquees are only a 100 metres away) - gardens around massive walls of an old tithe barn, just to the side of a pond with ancient carp (and a collection of water-colorists somewhat disturbing the scene). The castle (or more accurately a manor house) was built in the 15th century, fell to ruin in the 17th century, and was rebuilt in the 19th century. I could have bought a ticket and had a closer look at the rest of the gardens and the ‘impressive banqueting hall’, but the tithe barn garden was so delightful I felt I’d had my money’s worth.

I took tea and fruit cake in a Winchcombe tearoom, before heading back east to Bourton-on-the-Water. I had no idea it was such a popular place; it was heaving with tourists; and the tourist office didn’t know of any B&Bs in the village with a single room left. I was feeling tired by this time (five-ish) and so drove around, until I found a place. At £30 I thought it was a bit steep, and it was devoid of all character. I had a splendid view out towards a petrol station, a squeaky ceiling, and not even a chest of drawers or cupboard. My en suite bathroom was across the corridor, and was almost as big as the bedroom. The bath was shaped a bit like a 90 degree cake slice and was uncomfortable to lie in. For a couple of hours I went out to stroll around the oh so pretty town/village with the Windrush River and grassy banks, and its dozens of teashops and tourist shops. I thought I might eat fish and chips, but bought some eats in the local store instead, and ate a picnic by the river. I watched TV, read the thriller I’d brought (‘One Step Behind’ by Henning Mankell) and went to sleep.

The last time I went walking I felt I did too much on the first day (14-16 miles) so I decided to do less the first day this time (an eight mile walk, plus two or three extra miles here and there), and a slightly longer walk on the second day. The planned walk from Bourton was 10 miles. After a sizeable breakfast (and a brief chat with a couple that had emigrated to Perth 30 years ago but who returned to UK every two years for their holidays), I ended up getting in the car. I suppose I did this because I didn’t want to feel guilty about leaving the car in the B&B car park (if it had been a pleasant B&B and £20 not £30 I would have planned to stay a second night), and then I had several troubles. The first was securing a place to park, and then I found that half a pint of milk in my bag had spilt all over the bag’s contents. What a mess that was; I think the camera was OK, but in trying to sort out the mess, I ended up leaving the camera behind. Once on my way, and out of Bourton-in-the-Water, though, things improved quickly. First stop Lower Slaughter, a really pretty village, much nicer than Bourton in fact, but without the shops and other attractions. Here I would have taken my first picture of the day. Then came the short stretch, partly along the River Eye and partly through meadows to Upper Slaughter, which was simply delightful. I had to stop for a while and lie in the field, watching the trees, two magnificent horse chestnuts loaded down with new leaf and spike flowers, and an elm I think, and the sheep and lambs sheltering in the dark enclosures created by the lowest branches and the much-trampled earth beneath them. Upper Slaughter too is beautiful, quiet, very quiet and beautiful, again with the soft waters of the Eye running past grassy banks in front of impossibly cute Cotswold cottages. There’s a small wood on the way out of Upper Slaughter which was, on my way through, full of crows having a discordant choir practice. On the track north above the west bank of the little river, I began reading out loud Eliot’s Burnt Norton. I never seem to tire of his poetry, which somehow manages to fuse a love of the English countryside with a Zen-kind of belief in enjoying the here and now, in being.

11 May 2003

Half way through the Friday walk, I was tired already, and was hoping for a cafe in Naunton. There wasn’t one, but I did find a convenient step by the Windrush where I could sit and take off my shoes and socks and bathe my feet in the cold waters; and eat the food I’d brought; and read a little more of my thriller. From the map, the return trip, staying closing to the Windrush, looked interesting, but it was rather dull, a bit like the second part of my walk on the previous day, with only a little highlight at the end through parts of Bourton-on-the-Water I hadn’t been to before. At one point I passed a field with two beautifully white horses frolicking around, and, for some reason, I wondered if they were horses kept to hire out for films. A little further on, in a quiet field above the river, I stopped to read, and two horses trotted by. Because I have this prejudice against horse-riders, I kept my head down in my book intending not to acknowledge their passing, but they called out to me, asking me who I was. I responded tersely and they trotted on, and only after they had gone did I realise how friendly they were being, and I chastised myself for not having tried to engage them in a little conversation. Encounters with people, however short of whatever type, always add some colour to my walks; and, on the whole, I never have enough of them.

I ate tea and a flapjack in Bourton, and again lazed on the green reading and watching the people. A group of schoolchildren dressed in yellow were being conducted in maypole-like dances (without a maypole) a little further along, and others were eating picnics or feeding the ducks.

As I said, I decided against staying for a third day. I’m not sure my knee could have withstood a further full day of walking. And I must confess to being very disappointed with it. (Later, in Oxford, I was sitting in the car watching students hurry by along the pavement, and I kept feeling a profound sense of loss that I would never be able to race around so freely again.) There was hardly a moment during the two days when I was not aware of my knee. It felt thick and swollen before I started, and it felt even more thick and swollen at the end - it still does now. And yet it never actually stopped me walking or became so uncomfortable (it’s never painful) that I couldn’t go on; I was just constantly aware of it, reducing the fluidity of my movement, reducing the pace at which I might naturally walk (at the end of the first day, for example, when I was strolling around Bourton, I found it much easier, more comfortable to walk very slowly). Yesterday, Saturday, I went out for a quick two mile hike to see if I could (the Short Circuit, I walked quite smartly), and I could, but I still felt the thick knee all the way. I really don’t understand what’s going on. It’s clear that the knee joint itself is fine (and it’s been fine for a long time now), but the problem is the back of the knee and the swelling that occurs there. Is this a weakness in the lining of the knee that would fully recover its strength IF I gave it ENOUGH time (i.e. without doing any excess exercise, like running, or 10 mile walks)? And once recovered would this thick-knee feeling not reoccur. Or, is it, instead, a question of my nervous system (nerves and brain) getting accustomed to the feeling of thickness (new, unnatural) parameters for how far the knee lining stretches when the joint creates extra fluid to cope with extra pressures? I waited a long time until last autumn before I started going on walks again, and I started slowly, building them up. And I’m sure my knee was fine (no thick-knee feeling) for some months. But then I went on the Dorset walk and played those two games of volleyball, and since then I’ve never quite lost the thick-knee feeling. Am I not giving it enough time to recover, and, by continuing with these excesses, am I making it even more unlikely that the lining will ever recover its proper strength in its proper shape?

From Bourton I headed east with the idea of a minor stop along the way, and a major stop in Oxford. I drove slowly through the Rissingtons and the Barringtons (all of them littles and greats begging me to stop and look around), and Burford to Minster Lovell. My guide book has a short walk around Minster Lovell, again by the Windrush. I did not have enough energy or knee power to consider doing the four miles, but I parked the car, and walked through the churchyard to seek out the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. These proved to be spectacular, with high walls, turrets, gateways and windows all extant, and situated on the banks of the Windrush next to the church and graveyard. Like Sudely Castle, this Hall too was built in the 15th century, and it looks like a castle with its turrets and four/fives storey thick walls. It fell into disuse in the 18th century, but unlike Sudely Castle, was never revived. It now makes a most beautiful and romantic setting, all the more so for being accessed through the churchyard, and for being freely accessible. I wandered around a little trying for some photos, and then lazed on the grass bank by the river watching the tiny baby ducks bob around in the water with their mother - they could have been bright yellow and in a bath.

I planned to stop in Oxford long enough so as not to be caught in any difficult traffic getting out of Oxford or back to Elstead. But I didn’t do much when I was there. I thought I might go to the cinema, or even the theatre, but when I’d bought the paper, and looked through all the what’s on stuff, there wasn’t a single film I wanted to see (it was hardly better than Guildford) or any theatre. So I dawdled in a large book shop, admired a few of the city’s buildings (my knee not wanting to walk very far), and read a while in the car. I arrived home around 8:30pm. Tired and a bit bedraggled.

I’ve got fed up with writing to Sue. This has come on me quite quickly and I’m not quite sure why. I spent some time thinking about her during my walks, and, I suppose, what I found surprising was that I had been writing to her for so long, not that I was getting tired of her now. She lives almost completely in the past: all her learning is from her youth (as when she said in one letter, in exasperation at not being able to discuss something about politics, that she couldn’t remember what her politics tutor had said on some point - I responded that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in her opinions 25 years ago); she is interested in antiques, in art; and, despite her avowed interest in reading/writing, she only reads old stuff. I don’t think she’s read anything modern at all (and all her literature learning is from university, a long time ago). She doesn’t have a TV or radio, so doesn’t keep abreast of politics or international affairs, or modern culture. It was not entirely an innocent question when, some time ago, I asked if she had aristocracy in her genes. She does. But all the money, all the position went generations ago. Sue lives in a council flat. She is faded aristocracy, fading away, and she doesn’t know it, doesn’t even sense how trapped she is in the past. She has shown considerable interest in my writing, and yet she has no real interest in the kind of things I write; so her interest is personal, not real. Because I’ve had little to write about in my letters, I’ve talked about Kip Fenn quite a lot, and she asked, at one point, if I would let her read it when it was finished. I said I was sure I would. But recently, she’s mentioned at least twice how much she’s looking forward to reading it, and I felt she was being a bit pushy, a bit possessive almost, and so I needed to tell her that I wasn’t so sure about how and when I would let people see the completed manuscript. I did so in the nicest possible way; but she flipped a bit, and got uppity, which I didn’t like. OK, she apologised in her next email (before I wrote back), but this must be the third or fourth time she’s written something which indicates (demonstrates) a less than straightforward approach to our dialogue, our virtual friendship. She’s quite good at hiding it, I’m beginning to realise, but there’s a horrible cloyingness about her: she’ll reel out her line very far, and then as soon as she’s got a bite, she starts reeling in. She’s become very comfortable in our virtual conversation. Some while ago she called us pen pals, and I realised, this week, that I don’t want a pen pal: my diary is my pen pal. She wants to offload onto me her daily trials and successes (hence the happy moments she likes to share with me).

Adam finishes school this week. He will only go back into Rodborough to take exams. In September, he goes to Godalming Sixth Form College. Exactly what he’ll take when he gets there is still in doubt. Officially, he’s down for English Literature, English Language, Politics and Philosophy, but he has accepted now that he will take maths instead of either literature or philosophy; and I’m still hoping he might drop the other of those two to do something more practical like geography.

No movement at all on the house. The estate agent has signally failed to give it much attention. They’ve only advertised it once; only two people have come to see it. Should I be prepared to sell it for under £500,000? It’s looking its very best at the moment, and so I feel aggrieved that I’ve not even had an offer. I wish I could be clearer in my own head about whether I should be selling now at whatever price, simply because all prices are definitely going to go down, or whether I should be sticking here until my own plans become a little more certain.

Books by Michael Connelly I’ve read: ‘A Darkness More than Night’; ‘Concrete Blonde’; ‘Last Coyote’; ‘Trunk Music’; ‘The Poet’; ‘Void Moon’; ‘Blood Work’.

24 May

Adam has already taken two of his GCSEs, drama and English literature. For some reason they were scheduled almost two weeks earlier than the bulk of his exams, which start Monday week, and are crammed into a two week period. Although he has worked harder and longer than he did for his mocks, I don’t feel Ads has taken a disciplined enough approach to his revision. He fidgets and fudges a lot, and finds ways and means to waste time, and then gets very irritated when I try and point out that he has not worked the amount of time he thinks he has; sometimes, he thinks he’s worked three hours, when in fact it’s nearer one hour. The other day, he went to Barbara’s on Saturday afternoon, and Barbara reported that he hardly worked at all, but Adam said he had worked all afternoon. He does the same here, too, only less so, because I clock watch for him. He has a revision timetable which I helped him prepare (based on how many hours a day he wanted to work, etc), and he has stuck to it at times, but the last few days, he’s just whittled away the hours. Most of the time, I keep right out of his face, I work in a different room, and I pay no attention to what he’s doing. Then he often comes in and engages me in conversation, about his work, or about his schedule, and I find myself drawn into pointing out inaccuracies in his self-assessment; he then riles up, like a cat arching his back, and tells me to ‘back off’ or ‘chill out’. And when after several days in which it’s clear he’s not keeping to his schedule, but thinks he is, I tell him so, and suggest he revise his schedule - if he doesn’t want to work seven hours a day, then he needs to be clear about that. Apart from helping him devise the timetable, and trying to encourage him to stick to it, I did also ask for half an hour of his time each day: 10 minutes for a run, and 20 minutes for writing practice so I could correct his spelling and punctuation. Although he agreed (well I did impose them on him, but he could have put his foot down and said no, and he didn’t) I still have to make sure he does them, and if I don’t (like yesterday when he was going out to the cinema), he doesn’t.

It’s a really hard line to draw, between providing the disciplined framework which encourages Adam to work the maximum amount; and being over-demanding. Perversely, the more clever and more devious (consciously and subconsciously) a child is the more difficult it is to provide the necessary discipline in an undisciplined way. I know Adam wants and even appreciates a certain amount of my disciplining, but he’s so strong and argumentative that it’s really hard for me to provide, and, of course, he can’t see how hard a time he gives me.

It is Saturday morning; intermittent sunshine. England are playing Zimbabwe at Lords. I think Mum and Julian are there today. I’ve Channel Four on with the sound down; and Shostakovitch’s tenth symphony plays over the top.

I’ve all but finished chapter nine of Kip Fenn (just a few emails to write for the annex). Because I’m concerned about the style having changed so much from the early chapters. And, because I’ve got so many notes on style, continuity issues, new ideas, I’m increasingly anxious to start work on the second draft stage. But I’ve decided I’ll finish the first draft to the end first, and so I must now set to work on chapter 10, which will take Kip from the age of 86, when he finally retires from all work, to the present. I’ve slacked a bit on my planned schedule, but so long as I’ve completed the first draft by the time Adam and I go to Portugal, I won’t be too worried. In fact, I should finish a week or two earlier, which may give me time to work on a few additions, the chapter heading quotes for example.

I’m working a couple of hours a day in the garden at the moment, mostly pruning and clearing and bonfiring. The yellow azaleas are out, contrasting vividly with the purple rhododendrons. I’ve a couple of newish red azaleas too, but the plants are still small (much smaller than the mature yellow azaleas) and the flowers do not last very long. I’ve potatoes doing well in the vegetable plot; there are a couple of rows of lettuce, some bought-in seedlings of cucumber, tomato and sweet corn; but the bean plants seem to be growing a bit slowly (I’m worried that I planted them too soon after putting lime and bonemeal on the soil).

Sunday 25 May

Last night I took Adam to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre to see another Shared Experience production devised and written by Polly Teale. ‘After Mrs Rochester’ is about Jean Rhys the author of a book called ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’, published in 1966. The book is a prequel to Jane Eyre and tells the story of Mrs Rochester, who, like Jean Rhys, originated in the West Indies - although, as Polly Teale tells us in her play, Jane Eyre never went to the West Indies and her brief descriptions of the place were taken from travel advertisements. As in ‘Mill on the Floss’, Teale uses several actors to play one character, and thus show us more of her psychological make-up. I thought she achieved this really well, in particular the way she demonstrated that Rhys’s upbringing in the West Indies and her exposure to West Indian culture gave rise to a growing conflict with the prim English ways of her parents. As always with Shared Experience most of the actors played several characters, and they did so exceptionally well.

June 2003

Paul K Lyons


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