1 February 2004

The year spinning by already. Having moaned and groaned and consciously idled my way through the latter half of 2003, because I had nothing to get my teeth into (I failed miserably to really focus my time on the short stories - I’m still working on them, but at a slower pace), it doesn’t make sense to moan and groan now that I do have something to get my teeth into. My slow and tortuous decision-making procedure did finally get somewhere, and now time is zipping by because I’m involved in my tasks.

The degree course is OK, it’s not as bad as I feared, and probably as good as I hoped. I can’t cope with some of the people there, but it’s the same whenever I go out into the world and come across other human beings. I keep fairly quiet in class (in both dark ages archaeology and plants and people) there are others who know more than I and can answer the teachers questions fairly readily, but I do make the occasional joke or wisecrack, and I try to be involved. There’s been no socialising yet, but I might get to know some of the others on the day trips that are coming up. I am particularly pleased at the fact that information I’m gathering on these courses is feeding in to, and thereby helping, my London Cross project - which is something I did not expect.

The London Cross project is taking up most of my time. I’ve now completed the third session/section, and the pattern has been the same for each. I do a little preparatory work before hand (using the internet to research places and streets on the walk), I do the walk on a Thursday, and then it takes me three days to write it up. Thus I finished this afternoon, having written nearly 7,000 words in three days - most of them in two days in fact. I’ve had no difficulty at all in getting down to work early in the morning, and working hard all day - it’s been much more like my routine on EC Inform-Energy than on Kip Fenn, although it’s more pleasurable work than for either EC Inform-Energy or Kip Fenn, the former being boring and the latter being hard. There’s no point in trying to describe the stuff I’ve been writing, since it’s all there in the project itself. I thought this last section was going to be dull compared to the previous two, but, in fact, it was fascinating, through from the Carew Great Hall and Dovecote to the history of the Wandle river and its mills to the Beddington Sewage Farm, the gypsy George and his horse in Beddington Cross, a peppermint oil distillery, a unique process for manufacturing foams, a celtic fort, and Leslie Crowther’s appearances at a local school in the 1960s. And that’s only a small selection of the walk from the Plough in Beddington to West Norbury.

The Hutton report and its aftermath have filled the news broadcasts and papers for the week. The BBC’s immediate response to Hutton, Tony Blair’s speech to the House of Commons, and Alastair Campbell’s demand for resignations was typically arrogant. First of all, no one in the corporation was prepared to answer any media enquires. Then Greg Dyke put out a pre-recorded statement, which was unexpectedly bullish in tone, he also insisted no one else would say anything until the Board of Governors met the next day. But then, Andrew Marr (with his impeccable contacts - I mean if the BBC’s chief political reporter can’t find out what’s going on inside in his own organisation, it doesn’t say much for his abilities) announced that he believed Gavin Davies would be resigning. Sure enough, by the evening (when the governors met for supper in advance of their formal meeting) he had resigned and made a short statement. The tone of his statement was also less than confessional - he managed to suggest that he was only going because it was the right thing to do, not because there had been any real mistake. So, contrary to Greg Dyke’s statement, there had been more comment. And then, the following day, Greg Dyke too resigned, having been, effectively, pushed out by the board. But he’s not gone quietly, he’s publicly challenged the findings of the Hutton report, and threatens to make a more formal response.

Interestingly, the media and the public have not fully accepted Hutton’s findings. The ‘Independent’ has led a kind of protest against the reports black-and-whiteness in favour of the government by calling it a whitewash, and everyone who has an axe to grind against the government (Tories, left-wing Tony-haters, peaceniks, and media commentators who can’t accept they were so wrong in the way they discussed the issue before Hutton delivered his findings) is managing to uncover some way to undermine the clarity of Hutton’s judgement. Unfortunately, most of the presenters and journalists who interview these people on the media aren’t clued enough to trap them in their hypocrisies and half truths, which leaves the public able to believe there is some right in their arguments. Many of them, for example, have stressed that the enquiry’s remit was, in fact, drawn very narrowly, and drawn up by the Prime Minister himself. They do this, firstly to diminish Hutton’s rulings and judgements, and secondly to infer that the only really important question is about whether the UK should have gone to war, and not whether the BBC made one little mistake in a broadcast. But the enquiry’s remit has been in the public domain for months, and all of these commentators and pundits and politicians have rubbed their hands in glee (metaphorically speaking) at the expectation of Hutton finding the government guilty. The time to complain about the scope of the enquiry is at the start, not at the end. No one in their right mind should ever have expected Hutton to consider whether the government should have gone to war on the available evidence at the time - he wasn’t asked to consider that, nor did that decision have anything to do with the government’s original complaint or Kelly’s death.

Secondly, these government critics seek to suggest that Hutton might have made mistakes, that his judgement might have been at fault, or that he didn’t consider certain realities of broadcasting. They suggest these ideas because, in their opinions, Hutton’s ruling must be wrong because it is so one-sided, and, after all, the original mistake was a slight mistake, made during an early morning broadcast. But this is to deny several important aspects: one that the BBC did not correct the mistake, it did not investigate it properly, and it did not even pay attention to some internal correspondence which indicated there might be problems with Gilligan’s reporting. At every level, Hutton found, the BBC had failed in its duties. This much is sometimes put to the critics by the interviewers who then wriggle a bit, and say, yes but. But I say but this is not all, because what actually happened is that, although Gilligan did not make the same mistake directly again, many of the BBC interviewers, and especially those on the ‘Today’ programme, conducted many interviews over the days and weeks to come, up until Kelly’s death, which sought to defend the position of the BBC and Gilligan on this point. In other words, the BBC, without repeating the exact same allegation, kept the story alive by discussing it endlessly with the assumption that it had not been wrong to broadcast it in the first place.

And then, of course, although one or two interviewers have mentioned this, not many tasked their interviewees with Hutton’s very specific finding that the BBC’s allegations were very grave, partly because it has such influence around the world. And, as Blair said to Parliament, the damn story - and a questionmark over the prime minister’s honesty - has now dominated British politics for seven or eight months.

Greg Dyke seems to have a specific complaint that Hutton, in his ruling on this one complaint about Gilligan, did not take into account the general level of government complaints to the BBC about its coverage of the war. He’s almost admitted that the BBC failed to take it very seriously because it didn’t see any difference between this one and others. But this cannot be true, because I for one understood very early on that this complaint was of a different order altogether - hence the first of my four or five emails on the subject, sent long before Kelly committed suicide. Moreover, it could well be true - I don’t know if it is - that other government complaints against the BBC might have been valid (but not admitted or dealt with because they weren’t serious enough for the government to take them any further). The assumption of Greg Dyke’s claim is that all the complaints were groundless.

It seems to me clear as daylight that there is no need for the BBC to be so intent on finding and breaking news; I don’t mind if it does, but where there is any doubt over a story it MUST err on the side of caution, because its main function for me (and I believe the main function it should hold) is to provide information.

I find it very upsetting that there appears to be so much anti-Blair feeling among the general public (for which I blame the media) - I really believe this is the consequence of a decadent age, where journalists simply oppose authority for the sake of it, without being able to judge any more between good and bad.

10 February 2004

Not a good day. It was freezing this morning. On Tuesdays when I go into Guildford University, I can’t leave at 9:40 as I would do if I wanted to arrive at the lecture just on time at 10:00 because the large car park would be full by the time I arrived. I arrive early, at 9:30 to ensure a parking place, but I’ve nothing to do for half an hour because the library isn’t open. So I sit in the coffee bar and read ‘The Economist’. Tea costs 70p, but it’s a paltry cup. Then the lecture, the fourth one in the Dark Ages Archaeology course, is rubbish. Caroline Jones is so insecure as a teacher that she races through her material, reading it all; and today she just read through a whole series of dates connected with the Viking raids and conquests, as if the dates really mattered, when what I wanted to hear about was why and how the Anglo-Saxons managed to get on top of the Vikings. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression she thinks about her subject much or puts much effort into her lectures - I mean she writes a lot of material for us, but it’s all culled and cobbled together. Just because there happen to be a lot of dates available for the Viking period, because Bede wrote them all down, we’re given a blow-by-blow account; yet, for the earlier period, after the Romans left, we were discussing in lots of detail why and how the Angles and Saxons came to England, and we weren’t submerged in dates, because very few are known. Also, almost everything she raced through today had nothing to do with archaeology - perhaps we’ll hear more about Viking archaeology on Saturday, when we have an all-day school. She’s given us a list of essay topics, and I’m thinking about doing one on castles.

Then I spent a couple of hours in the library, where I had to queue for the photocopying machines. I found a few more useful references for building/architectural terms, and I’ve borrowed Pevsner’s book on London buildings which should help me on my walks through central London. I left at 2:30, nipped into Homebase to buy a new ceiling light switch, and then swam for half an hour at Spectrum. There was a long queue to get onto the bypass (because a car had broken down just beyond where the slip road joins), and a long queue in Tesco’s to pay, and then a long queue to get back on to the bypass because yet another car had broken down just beyond this slip road as well. And then, to cap it all, when I got home and fixed up the new lighting switch, it didn’t work - well I don’t know why it’s not working. I can’t believe it’s the switch itself, so there must be something else wrong, but I’m damned if I know what.

And then Adam comes in, moaning about the cold as he did this morning several times. I ask him again, for the hundredth time, why he doesn’t wear a coat (he’s left his main coat - which is far too small for him, and looks silly on him - at B’s house), but he can’t answer, he just says it doesn’t matter that much. Now that both the US and the UK have launched enquiries into the failure of their intelligence services to give them accurate information about Iraq prior to the US/UK invasion, the media does seem to have calmed down a bit. There was another flurry of hyper-activity over Tony Blair’s admission that he had not known that, when the 45 minute claim was made, it only referred to battlefield weapons rather than strategic weapons. Michael Howard - who looks more and more like an over-aged playground bully who can’t quite get his own way against the head prefect who remains in charge and in control - called on Blair to resign, because he should have known. And all the same people on the left came out of the woodwork (especially Robin Cook and Clare Short), i.e. those who opposed the war, to use Howard’s attack to try and stab Tony a few more times, to cut him up; but it seems to have died down now.

What so annoys me about all this is that: a) we elect a government to take these decisions for us, so, in effect, they have already acted as the biggest and best enquiry we could possibly have; unless we have really good evidence to the contrary, why can’t we trust that our politicians have looked at all the evidence as well as any Hutton or Butler can, and have made the decisions, and taken the action that needed to be taken. We - I mean the public, stoked up by the media - seem utterly intent on arguing every little aspect of government policy, as though we know better than the government, and in such a way that seems to imply that for and against arguments are always of equal weight. This tendency is only reinforced by the recent culture of public participation with phone-ins and emails and texts, and the well-known fact that people are much more likely to take communicative action to complain rather than to praise.

And b) that Jacques Chirac, who is a deeply corrupt politician, implicated in frauds that go back decades, and who even has an illegitimate child somewhere, is more respected in France, than squeaky clean Tony Blair is in this country. I really don’t understand what Blair has done wrong - I continue to believe he’s a great man, leading a great government - or why the public appear to be so determined to whip him. I suspect - and I hope this is proved right at the next election - that the mood the media is reflecting is not in fact accurate.

11 February 2004

Tonight is Wednesday night, which means I head off for Guildford University at about 7:10 to my People and Plants course. On Saturday I joined the other dozen or so participants at Kew Garden for the first ‘field trip’. Our teacher Lalagy Grundy had made the administrative effort to get us in free (which was definitely worthwhile since the cost is now £8.50, not 1p any more). She took us first to a semi-permanent exhibition also titled Plants and People, although she claims her course title came first. I bought a catalogue, which is probably too bitty to be of any long-term use. The exhibits were divided up into a score of types of uses, from transport to medicines and from hats to food. I particularly liked a wood-inlaid blow-pipe and tea block stamped with a design. For the most part, the exhibits tried to demonstrate a general principle with an unusual or interesting example. Of course, it was all too much to take in, and none of it has stayed in my head. From there, we went to the Evolution House, a small greenhouse set up to provide a kind of introduction to how plants evolved, but it’s a bit tacky. The Temperate House, though, is a treat. We lunch in its south porch, while a huge grey cloud makes it way across an otherwise blue sky. I don’t really know the names of any of the others yet, but I talked to a few of them during the day. In the Palm House, I particularly noticed the Cycads, including one that is said to be the oldest pot plant in the world (but has only produced one cone in a 100 years), and another which, astonishingly, is fruiting, and the cones of which are the largest. The Cycads are important because . . .

18 February 2004

Half term for Adam, reading week for me. Spring is not far round the corner. The daffodils at the bottom of my lawn have more buds than ever before, but I’m not sure why that should be. Many of the plants, like the laurel, have been more decimated by the deer this winter than ever before. They seem to be sneaking in regularly when I’m not here to scare them off. And the lawns, both back and front, have been taken over by moss, and, in the back especially, the lawn is full of holes created by the green woodpecker that lives in the oak. The yellow flowers of the mahonia, that rests by the back window in the lounge, has started to show; otherwise it’s only buds and the beginnings of green growth that signal spring.

I’ve been working solidly for three days on my fifth London Cross walk - but this one took me into central London, past Vauxhall, the Tate Gallery, and through Westminster, and there has been so much to write that I’m up to 9,000 words, and I haven’t got to Westminster Abbey, or along Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. I suppose it was inevitable really, but I also wonder whether I’m getting more proficient at seeking information out, which also stretches the text. The next walk will take me across Holborn to the British Library, so that will be fairly intensive also. But the chapters don’t have to be the same length, nor do they have to cover the same amount of territory, so I can have long and short chapters, or I can have chapters of roughly the same length but covering different geographical distances. The problem is in my head, since for the first four walks I managed to keep to a strict schedule of one walk a week, with each walk covering one page of the map book, and of spending 2-3 days writing it up. If it takes me three walks rather than two to get through central London, and 20,000 words rather than 12,000, then surely it doesn’t matter too much.

I’ve been starting to give some thought to what I could write in a letter to prospective publishers. I probably need to take a week out of my schedule - once I’ve cleared central London I think - to prepare a letter and some text to go with it. It would help a lot to get a publisher on board early so that an editor could give me directions on the writing (more or less expansive, more or less personal for example). But what chance do I have of finding a publisher for London Cross? Probably no better than BLR or Kip Fenn, but at least I’ll be writing to a different type of publisher.

London Cross is dominating my time. When I’m not writing I’m on the internet searching out stuff about the streets and buildings to come on my next walk. Sometimes I cut and paste four or five items about one name, one building or place, and then end up synthesising it all down to two or three sentences. Because there’s so much history in central London, there’s been a surfeit of stuff to write. I think I preferred writing about the outlying areas, where I struggled sometimes to find anything to say.

Politics has gone a little quiet of late. Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, has gone down in my estimation. He gave a major speech on Monday about Tory tax plans. He promised to increase spending on health and education, but, by attacking waste and inefficiency, the Tories would always aim to cut taxes. This is so crude; the Tories are running scared, they’re going backwards now, not even standing still as they did under Hague and IDS. I say it’s crude because the politics is so transparent: these aren’t policies that have come from a careful analysis of how best to manage the country, they’ve been designed blatantly to try and appeal to the public in the old-fashioned Tory way. Blair’s government, by contrast, is so much more sophisticated. The very fact that it has taken on difficult issues, and tried to reform, often against entrenched interests, shows its commitment and belief in something rather than power for its own sake, and that it hasn’t taken the easy populist road - not at any point in its life - which, with such a majority, it could so easily have done.

March 2004

Paul K Lyons


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